The Metrics of Wasted Time

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The late Pat Naughtin argued that it costs each person in the US about $16.00 per day because we don’t have the metric system. At first this seemed hard to believe, but as I’ve observed, it might actually be a bit low. My reasons for believing this are mostly anecdotal, which is always fertile soil for confirmation bias, but I end up hearing so many examples. For instance here is one I was told recently.

“My mom has a great Metric system story for you. She had the oven looked at over the weekend and when we she went to preheat  the oven to 350 F, it wouldn’t get hotter than 290. She opened it to see if it was heating at all and was knocked over by a wall of heat. Suspecting something was very wrong she went to get my dad and a thermometer and found it to be around a raging 550 degrees! I guess reading your post might’ve helped her out a bit here. After my dad took a look at it he found the guy  who fixed it turned it onto Celsius instead.”

The vast majority of temperatures around the world are measured in Celsius, only in the US do we waste effort by using Fahrenheit. But we waste more than effort. My father has told me tales of how the lack of metric has cost money and time at his shop. One that I found interesting was about belts on a bindery machine. Bindery machines are used to create books from groups of printed pages generally called signatures. They have belts which convey the books along. I’ve not been in printing for many, many years. As I recall, most belts have a set of metal staple-like fasteners to join their two ends. This type of belt splice has been phased out long ago apparently and now high tech adhesives are used instead. The adhesive is placed at the splice and then an electrical hot-iron like tool is used to heat and set the adhesive.

It was found that the splices would last from about 6 months to one year, despite the fact the manufacturer claimed they should last for five years. This failure rate was not so excessive that it raised ire, but it did cost more time and resources than advertised. The maintenance person began reading the users manual and it stated that the iron should be set to 100 degrees. An infrared thermometer was used to measure the iron. It was 100 F. The temperature was not specified as C or F. They began to wonder if it might possibly be in Celsius. The entire world, other than the US, would assume temperature in Celsius, but here in the US, Fahrenheit is the default thought. Indeed further research indicated the adhesive needed to be cured at 100 C. The iron was set to 212 F, which is, of course, 100 C. When this temperature was used to cure the adhesive, the belts have remained spliced without failure, with a length of duration as long as the manufacturer claimed.

My father also works on many types of machines used in a print shop. One day a machine which ties bundles of printed fliers failed. He looked at the side of the machine, saw it was made in the US, and assumed it was designed with US Olde English Units. He retrieved the US tools and hauled them across the shop. It was only as he began using the wrenches that he realized the machine was metric. He put all the tools back, and then went to get his metric tools. Of course in the US we have the “advantage” that we get to purchase two sets of tools rather than one, doubling our tooling costs.

An opposite situation happened to me many years ago. My father was on vacation when the latch on the copy-board of the process camera failed. A process camera was used to make negatives for printing plates, today it is no longer needed. The problem was simple, after years of latching and unlatching, the threaded fasteners holding the latch had “stripped out.”  The hole left in the metal was too large to hold a machine screw of the design size. Myself and the camera person took the fastener to a  hardware store. The person there looked at the screw, went over to a cabinet and offered a tap which was “the next size up.” We went back, tapped both holes and the new machine screws fit perfectly. The latch was repaired and I thought all was well.

That belief was shattered when, after he returned from vacation, we told my father about replacing the fasteners. My father asked what size fastener we used. I don’t recall what it was, perhaps a 6-32 or so. When he heard this, my father went ballistic. We were both stunned and asked what the problem was. “This entire camera is metric and you put American fasteners on it, I try to keep all metric equipment metric and all American equipment American. I have no idea if he did anything about it, but clearly if we had become a metric country in 1905, this would probably never been an issue in the latter decades of the 20th century, it would have been assumed at the hardware store, that the fastener was metric. I was very young then. Today I would have measured the fastener myself by determining its size with a screw thread checker, and known better. If we had converted to metric, my only question now would be coarse or fine thread, but alas because we have metric or US Ye Olde English fasteners it is still a toss-up.

The battery on my significant others’ car appeared to have problems one evening. She was across town. It is a Japanese car of mid 2000’s vintage. I brought my metric tools as I have been assured car design is all metric. Well it’s 99.9% metric. In order to preserve the illusion that barleycorn inches from the 14th century are still relevant, the bolts on the battery clamps of cars are US Olde English dimensions. I was very agitated but had the good sense to throw in a crescent (expandable) wrench and was able to get the clamps off and clean the battery posts.

Two or three years later, the car battery finally gave out at an airport. Fortunately, she had AAA. I waited with her as the service truck arrived. The technician pulled out a new battery and laid it on the ground. I saw him pull one wrench out of his pocket and remove the strap which held down the battery. He then put it back into his pocket, he retrieved another and took off the battery post clamps. I asked him “is one of those wrenches metric and the other non-metric?” He smiled back at me and said “yes.” The battery clamps bolts are non-metric and the strap bolts are metric. He pointed out that because they were different types, non-metric and metric, he could not get a single wrench with both sizes on it, so he had to always carry two wrenches.

Metric only tap set with “English” and metric labeling. This is of course impossible — click to enlarge

In my own engineering work, I see small amounts of wasted time constantly. Here is a typical version of the typical story. I receive some dimensions in inches on a sketch drawing to begin a design. I always tell my customers up front I only use metric (only later are some of them shocked when they realize I meant it). I immediately convert the dimensions on the sketch or paper drawing over to metric, and then realize that many are integers, such as 80mm,  150 mm, 225 mm and so on. I wonder if this is a coincidence. I work on the design, and as I confer with my customer about the details I mention that when its converted to metric there are a lot of integer dimensions. I’m then told “oh yeah, this is for a [Fill in the blank with a European, Asian or South American Country] and they sent their designs to us in metric.” I constantly see this happening. It hides the fact that these designs are actually metric, and our US meddling creates pigfish. It wastes time and introduces opportunities for error.

These are US engineering companies with which I work, and they often balk at metric. I have even worked with a medical company which has an engineer who takes umbrage at my use of metric in the designs I’ve presented to them! Medical equipment is supposed to be metric.

Recently I realized that I should buy an actual set of metric taps, rather than the piecemeal way I’ve been purchasing them. When I received the metric-only tap set, it was marked in both English and Metric. This is of course impossible. I had to use my less than optimal eyes with a magnifying glass to insure the taps were indeed all metric. I then covered over the meaningless “English” label so only the metric label was exposed. This just wastes effort.  It’s long past time for this dissonance to have been settled by statute or executive order in the US. It just wastes time and money, among other things.

Voltaire once said that “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Americans are oblivious to the wastes of time created by non-metrication, and without seeing these snowflakes of waste, cannot even conceive there might be an avalanche. There may be eight million stories in the Naked City, but it is hard to estimate how many wasteful stories there are in this Non-Metric Country, but these have been some of them.

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A Kilotonne is How Much in Metric?

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I was in college, I studied Electrical Engineering. I was told many times that one was no longer to use concatenations of metric prefixes, this was considered very bad practice. What this meant was that one should not use two metric prefixes concurrently to designate values. At that time there were capacitors which were marked micro-micro Farad (μμF). Micro is 10-6 so two of them together would 10-6 *10-6 or 10-12. There is a perfectly good metric prefix called pico to describe this small amount of capacitance. The slang term is puff. So these μμF capacitors should be described as picofarad pF capacitors. This made perfect sense to me. I was surprised that such an ad hoc nomenclature would make it into engineering or be tolerated. When I took my first job, we used a device called a directional coupler to calibrate the power level of measurements. The coupling factor for the directional coupler was shown on a graph which was on an attached metal plate. The coupling was different at different frequencies and the graph was used for correction. The frequency axis of the graph said KiloMegaCycles. I knew this designation was from a long time back as cycles per second had been called Hertz for decades. I found this antique item to be a source of humor for me.  Who on earth would write a frequency in Gigahertz (GHz) [109] as (KMHz) [103 *106 = 109]. How on earth did that make sense? What I didn’t realize was that the US “do your own thing” anarchy of weights and measures allows, and seemingly promotes this type of designation.

Imperial and US Olde English unit usage have been retained in the metric system, and have never been purged as they should have been. I’ve spent considerable time expressing my views about the centimeter as a pseudo-inch, (and have condemned the entire prefix cluster around unity), but there is a much more sinister and in-your-face Imperial/US Olde English holdout in the metric system. It is the tonne. The fact that there is an extra n and e should make one think Ye Olde English metric. The designation tonne is actually an approved usage!  The tonne is properly called the Megagram or 1,000,000 grams, but when used in a completely feral manner they are known as metric tons—no extra n or e, just pigfish. So what is a metric ton? Well it’s 1000 kilograms, or 1 kilokilogram (KKg). It turns out that 1 kilokilogram is close to a short ton (0.907 kilokilograms). A ton is probably derived from a tun which was the weight of a barrel of wine. So why was it so important to taint the metric system with an unnecessary non-metric-metric unit? Had someone been drinking? Worse yet the metric ton is just another way of writing kilokilogram and pretending it isn’t poor usage. If I wrote something has a mass of 97 kilokilograms I’ll bet most pro-metric people would wrinkle their nose and pitch a small fit, but If I said 97 tonnes or even 97 metric tons, well, only the tinkling of ice in glasses around the metric table would be audible. How about K2g for metric ton?—I’ll bet that wouldn’t go over well either. So why is tonne or metric ton acceptable in polite company?

This blog was originally to be about Naughtin’s Laws and the press. I was curious about how “professional”  people talk about large quantities. Well, it turns out that there are many varied and mangled ways that this is done by journalistic denizens of the only country which embraces US Olde English Units. I was curious about the amount of metals produced world-wide, and found a slide presentation with this table:

When my mind encountered the word kilotonnes, it seized up for a moment and I experienced metric vertigo. Kilotonnes!!!  So in other words the amount of metal is being described is in terms of kilokilokilograms or KKKg! That sounds rather ominous—perhaps K3g would be better? Let’s see what would that be in non-pig-Latin metric? Oh, it would be simply Gigagrams. This is not to be confused with Gt which is proper pig-Latin metric for Gigatonne or in improper pig-Latin metric is K5g . The source of this table will remain anonymous. There is no need to single out this person, he never chose to be in the spotlight. But news items which are written by “Journalists” for the public, well, I’m less inclined to invoke a Metric Maven Client privilege. Lest you think this usage is uncommon, the article Great Balls of Fire in New Scientist on 2013-06-29 (page 42) describes the explosive impact of meteors in megatonnes and kilotonnes.  Here are some values in terms of metric tons I randomly found on the web using a google search:

  • Mining operations in Amapa, where Anglo American produced 6.1 million metric tons of iron ore in 2012
  • According to Philips estimates, using the LED replacement could also eliminate 11 million metric tons of carbon emissions annually, or the equivalent of removing over 2 million cars from the road.
  • This clean solar generation plant will displace the equivalent of approximately 54,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, which is equal to the amount that roughly 2.2 million trees would displace annually
  • “The ground fish fleet is a huge contributor to local port economies,” he said. “In my district alone, on any given year, you will have a dozen trawlers that contribute 10,000 metric tons of fish and that represents about $20 million worth of product,” he said.
  • The Wikipedia article referenced below indicates that the Earth has around 40,000 Gt of carbon in the hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere
  • More than 2,000 farmers in six communities in the Northern Region will benefit from a 500 metric ton certified warehouse for grain storage at Datoyili, in Tamale.
  • From July-February 2012-13 about 5,590,775 metric tons of cement worth US$ 376.85 million exported as compared to 5,589,372 metric tons valuing US$ 303.71 million of corresponding period of last year.

Do you really have any idea of the comparative magnitudes offered in these news stories? I would bet not. Let’s try to get a handle on these values using Naughtin’s Laws (mostly) and Metric Prefixes.


Article Value

Metric Value

Iron Ore

6.1 million metric tons

6.1 Teragrams (1012)


11.0 million metric tons

11.0 Teragrams (1012)


54,000 metric tons

54.0 Gigagrams (109)


10,000 metric tons

10.0 Gigagrams (109)

Total Carbon  (Eco System)

40,000 Gigatonnes

40.0 Exagrams (1018)

Grain Storage

500 Metric tons

500 Megagrams (106)


5,589,372 Metric tons

5.6 Teragrams (1012)

There is no excuse for Americans not to have an idea of the relative magnitudes of Mega, Giga and Tera. Computer disk drives were in Megabytes, then as they became larger they came in Gigabytes, and now one can buy external hard drives of 1-2 Terabytes without a problem. Peta–well, that’s way big, but one can look it up online without a problem if needed.

The presentation of quantities using metric tons only obfuscates a person’s ability to immediately compare them. It also in many cases can serve to obscure the decimal nature of metric values and money. For instance here is the pricing of copper in one article:

  • Benchmark copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) hit a session low of $7,439 a metric ton (1.1023 tons), its weakest since August 21, and closed at $7,465 a metric ton…

We note that the price is given in metric tons, and then they provide a conversion factor for US Olde English short tons. Let’s see, copper costs $7,439 per metric ton; how could we possibly compute the price of other quantities?  I have an idea, perhaps actually using the metric system might help?  How about $7,439 per/megagram, or $7.43 per kilogram, or 74 cents per gram. Look ma!—no calculator! The metric ton designation really screws up the simplicity of decimals, which is one of the reasons metric was adopted internationally in the first place. Seriously, the metric ton is just a tonne of problems, it should have never been accepted as a legitimate usage in the metric system. It only serves to obscure, and that means that for unscrupulous persons, it’s used for dishonest purposes. It’s not a metric ton, it’s a Megagram! Members of the press—learn to count!—by using the metric system!

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.

Correction 2013-12-20 Total carbon corrected to Exagrams.

Related essay:

The Olde English Prefix Modifiers