Child’s Play

ChuckyBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Recently I was visiting Albuquerque New Mexico. While there, I went to the National Museum of Nuclear Science. It was an interesting enough experience, but it was the gift store that made the largest impact. On the back wall was a number of educational laminated exercise sheets. They are about 440 mm x 305 mm in size. The first to catch my attention was a sheet intended to “educate” young people about U.S. weights and measures. The U.S. weights and measures sheet seemed very simplified, and is reproduced below:


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The typeface is large and legible, about 10 mm or so in height. There is plenty of space between the lines of text and the graphic design is very open and accessible.

When I found the metric version of this “educational resource” I was aghast. The typeface is reduced to about 5 millimeters in height, and the graphic design is cluttered. Clearly when one looks at this metric presentation, and compares it with the U.S. version, the metric version is just so complicated that only a Nobel Prize winner could understand it. The message is clear, U.S. Ye Olde English is simple, the metric system is complicated. The metric version is reproduced below for comparison:


(click to enlarge)

The U.S. version has no metric equivalents on it. The metric version has Ye Old English equivalents on it. This is the first source of clutter. The second source of clutter is the prefix cluster around unity. The length section has millimeters, centimeters, decimeters, dekameters, hectometers and Kilometers. The same set of prefixes is used for the liter and the gram, with Ye Olde English equivalents added.

In my essay Naughtin and 1929, I wrote about a newspaper that was introducing the metric system that year and made it appear much more complex than needed. What was done there seems like a peccadillo compared with this group of Mormons making coffee. We are treated to a history lesson  that explains: “The Metric System was first proposed in France in 1670 by Gabriel Mouton. It is a system based on mathematics and not the size of a king’s body part.” No, the system part of the metric system was proposed by John Wilkins in 1668. It relies on scientific phenomena as a basis, and simplicity in expression. It is pointed out that the U.S. is “the only major country in the world not to adopt it.”

This product is called a Painless Learning Placemat, and has a 2014 copyright, so it is not a relic from the 1970s, it is contemporary obfuscation. At the bottom of each placemat is “Made in U.S.A.” The Ye Olde English measures placemat does not have the center section taken up with a history of measurement, and the SI prefixes with the prefix cluster around unity added. It does have SI Punctuation Rules. Rule #2 is not to use plurals on the unit symbols, so it’s: “hg not hgs.” One would not want to get their hectograms in a bunch. Rule #3 is there are no periods after units, it’s: “cg not cg.”, so make sure you have your centigrams without periods, as you will also be using lots of centigrams in your new fantasy metric world.

I will give the author(s) some credit for the other rules—mostly. Rule #1 is to leave a space between a numerical value and its metric symbol. They have 5 g not 5g. Rule #4 is to use a space instead of a comma for large numbers. However, the space they use in their example is so small that a young person (or the instructor) might be confused that a space exists. The kerning is awful:

Rule-4Perhaps 10 000 and 10,000 might have been a better example?

Rule #5 advocates a leading zero on decimals. Their example is 0.6 mm not .6 mm. This is good, but when possible in a list of presented values, whole numbers are most expressive. 600 μm is succinct and this possible choice should be explained.

The reverse side of this placemat has “metric exercises” for the young person. They mostly involve the prefix cluster around unity, and therefore are for “practical” everyday use:

Know-Your-Prefix-ClusterThere are many more exercises in futility on the back side of the placemat. One is to “Draw a line from the prefix  to its correct numerical value.” These include mm, cm, dm, dk, hm, km with 10, 0.01, 0.1, 100, 0.001, 1000. One is then to take the prefix symbols and match them with the full prefix cluster. This includes mg, kg, dg, dkg, cg, hg, with dekagram, hectogram, milligram, kilogram, decigram and centigram. Those of you that are metric pedants will immediately notice that rather than using da for deca, this placemat has dk instead. It seems apparent to me, that when confronted with dkg, it’s possible for a young person to see it as a decikilogram. Well over 75-80% of the area of the backside of the metric placemat is taken up with the important task of understanding hecto, deca (sorry….deka), deci and centi. Metric is not better by 1000 on this placemat, it’s ten times worse. This “educational tool” is an unintentional argument for eliminating the prefix cluster around unity.

What young person would choose metric over Ye Olde English when they see nothing but complexity staring at them? The idea that more prefixes exist, such as Mega, Giga, micro, nano and so on, would certainly produce loathing for this complicated system, and budding American exceptionalism could possibly follow. The back side of the Ye Olde English placemat is far less dense, and tells you what you don’t have to remember:

Olde-Ye-Olde-EnglishThe placemat does not mention Troy versus Avoirdupois pounds, even though silver and gold are weighed with Troy, and that seems fairly important. If a child understood the actual simplicity of the metric system, without the prefix cluster around unity, and was not conditioned with this misleading pre-metric placemat to see the U.S. weights and measures as simpler, they would revolt when they came across this set of exercises on the back side of the Ye Olde English placemat:

Ye-Olde-ClusterThe metric placemat is so padded with worthless and pointless exercises, that it would probably convince the poor child that the Ye Olde English reverse side is easier than the back of the metric placemat. Considering the convoluted and misleading metric backside, it might actually be just about as bad—but of course it’s only typical of ignorance in action.

The U.S. placemat does not bother to relate any of the U.S. measurement units to metric units, but the metric placemat does—when it should not. In an actual adoption of the metric system, one changes to metric exclusively, and never looks back. The U.S. placemat has a small box explaining how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius. On the U.S. back side, one is to parrot back this simple algorithm. The metric place mat has extensive exercises to convert a list of Celsius values to Fahrenheit and vice-versa.

What young person would not be repelled by the metric system when it’s presented in such an overly and artificially complicated manner? I’m glad I was never exposed to a “learning accessory” like this one when I was a child. It would have brought out my inner Chucky if I was faced with the choice. Whether I approach “science communicators” on The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, High School teachers, scientists, engineers, or other educators, there is a virtual eye roll, and a sanctimonious dismissal tinged with “I already know all about the metric system” or worse, the assertion that “it doesn’t matter what system of measure one uses.” I would like to think that most educators are interested in teaching and not simply parroting, but at this point it looks like “Polly want’s a hectometer.”

4 thoughts on “Child’s Play

  1. Oh, Maven, if only we were on this same trip together! What fun together doing the post-mortem on this dead duck afer personally euthanizing the bird. Your analysis is right on.

    My PR for metric is always to display simplicity. Everyday use of metric IS simple. Extensive study of the SI is for students, but they, like the general US public, should first be sold on its broad advantages.

  2. You should forward your review to Painful Learning.

    The dk is inexcusable for deka-, the proper symbol has been da at least since the formal origin of the SI in 1960. So their center section is not about the SI, but Painful Learning’s bastard system of measure. Although I feel the same way about your K for kilo-; once somebody breaks ranks from the SI Brochure, everyone feels entitled to.

    I don’t completely agree on the four unloved prefixes; however, they don’t all need to be on this placement. They can be taught to older kids in a more formal course (they remain part of the SI). It may be necessary to teach the centimeter due to US rulers and also allowed units on consumer commodities under FPLA and UPLR. Those strictly allow only prefixes that obey the Rule of 1000 except for exceptions on length. The centimeter is permitted (for values <100 cm) and also cm² and cm³. The decimeter is not permitted as a length, bu dm² and dm³ are allowed for area and volume (mostly to keep numeric values between 1-1000). The four unloved prefixes are NOT permitted for contents in mass or volume. I recommend deletion from those sections. In length, I'm not sure the decimeter needs to be taught to young kids. 1 L = 1 dm³ = 1kg cold water is important, but the cubic decimeter could be taught instead as a cube 100 mm, 10 cm or 0.1 m on a side.

    The SI specifies a "thin space" as thousands separator but doesn't define how thin. That's mighty thin.

  3. Did it ever occur to you that the producers of the mats deliberately wanted to make metric look complex and USC look simple? Never let a metric hater design a metric teaching guide.

    In addition, the US educational system does not teach the metric system as a stand alone system but as individual units that when encountered must be converted back to ye good old USC. With the blind leading the blind, it is no wonder the US industry is dying and sooner than you think, it will be the Germans and the Chinese who will be the masters of the world. The sooner the better.

  4. In our networked era, the so-called educational system (schools, etc. etc.) is probably irrelevant, and also more than obsolete, too: thus, the metric system – and also many other good things – should rather be leaned directly, from everyday life and experience.

    Sadly, in a society lacking any real will to (re)modernize itself (from mostly ‘too much minding their own business” politicians and bureaucrats “above” to mostly indifferent, etc. etc. “people” “below”), metric sadly tends to become “YACS” – yet another customary system.

    What to do, then? Who knows, who knows…

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