Metric Moments

By The Metric Maven

My friend Pierre had an interesting suggestion one evening. He thought that I should have a contest called Metric Moments. A metric moment is that point in one’s life that suddenly the simplicity of the metric system caused the Ye Olde English scales to  fall from one’s eyes. A sort of metric epiphany. He asked me what my metric moment had been, and in the moment I seemed unable to think of my metric epiphany. Pierre sent me his metric moment, which jogged my memory. I did have a metric moment in my life.

My mother owned a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. I had been learning about cars from my friends Rick and Ty. Rick had a 1968 383 (6.28 L) Roadrunner. As I watched him work on it, I began to “learn” the U.S. socket sizes he used. My current set of sockets has these “standard” values 5/32, 3/16, 1/4, 9/32, 3/8, 7/16, 1/2, 9/16, 5/8, 11/16, 3/4, 13/16. When I was asked for the next size up from 9/16 I would have to look at the missing wrenches in the cradle, or look at the labels, locate 9/16, and realize the next size up is 5/8.

In the era of muscle cars, like Rick’s 383 Roadrunner or Ty’s Camaro, I had a Volkswagen Beetle to work on. I would need a metric socket set. This was a time when there were still signs on auto repair garages that said “We don’t work on foreign cars.” It was a period where American Exceptionalism was at its zenith when applied to cars. This myth is still celebrated on television. The 1970s would not be kind to the reputation of American automobiles.

My mother brought home a small set of metric sockets, and I could not wait to look at them. It was hard to contain my shock. The values were 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18. They were all integers. It was easy to know that if an 8 mm socket was too small, try 9 mm. There was no intellectual effort involved whatsoever. I simply could not understand why we did not use the metric system. That summer I asked my father why we didn’t use the metric system. His response was “I don’t know why, it’s much simpler.” I believe that was my “metric moment” when it really hit me how absurd our Ye Olde English non-system of measures is. There was confident talk in the 1970s about our inevitable metric conversion, and I was very, very, ready for a switch-over. With respect to converting to metric in 1970s America: “It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

It would be decades before my metric jones would compel me to change over my engineering practice to metric. This allowed me to learn from those who had learned from other countries mistakes. I will be eternally grateful to Pat Naughtin, and others in Australia, who showed me the most elegant use of the metric system.

Pierre offered up Metric Moments entry #1 by email. As longtime readers know, Pierre is a master cook. Here is his metric moment:

The anxiety started when trying a new recipe authored by the well-esteemed America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) from their new book “Pressure Cooker Perfection.” The recipe is called “Easy Chicken and Rice.”

I read the list of ingredients, and figured that I had everything I needed in house to give this one a try. Plus, I needed to make some room in the freezer. When one buys chicken breasts from Sam’s Club, one takes home enough to feed a small army. …

Usually, ATK is known for well-tested, tasty recipes, so they are always good to look at for a decent dish. This recipe proved more challenging in an unusual way.

Perhaps I was over thinking, or too anal, but that’s the rule. When you first try a recipe, try to do it exactly the way the author says. …

The recipe asks for 4 bone-in, 12 oz each, chicken breasts…48 ounces of chicken? Easy, I’ll just use my digital scale to see what I’ve got. Except, it only counts ounces up to 15 and then the scale rolls over to 1 pound 1 ounce. There’s no option on the scale to count just in ounces.

To figure out what to use here, to make sure I had enough yummy chicken in this dish, I’d have to do math. 48 ounces รท 16 equals what, exactly? I stopped memorizing my times tables at 9 like every other American who attended a halfway decent public middle-school.

If the recipe said 1,360 grams of your hormone-infused, fast-twitch, myoglobin-free breast meat, it would have taken about a second to solve this little dilemma, and none of the psychic damage which I still live with today. I haven’t tried another recipe in the book.

Here’s that recipe:

As opposed to this more current (although ancient) recipe for “chicken in a pot” which makes the expectations more clear. From Modernist Cuisine, volume 3, p. 110.

Note, they have included scaling which comes our of baking formulas where everything is measured. One could easily put a bowl on the scale, add the first ingredient, then the second, entirely by weight, OR, by percentage of the main ingredient.

There are baking scales in which the cook adds the primary ingredient (100%) tare the scale to that, then using percentages only, tares the scale, and adds the remainder of ingredients one at a time.

As always, my psychic trauma is your metric grinder gristle. There’s probably a better metaphor here. Feel free to embellish where needed.

Simply put, the problem Pierre encountered was that the recipe called for 4 chicken breasts or 48 ounces of chicken. He had three chicken breasts instead of four, but realized that if they weighed 48 ounces he could make the recipe. His ‘merican scale would immediately “help” by switching to pounds and ounces after 15. This “helpful” parsing cannot be changed to ounces only so that he might find out the total amount in ounces without computation—directly from his scale. A quality metric scale can be set to grams only, and would read out 1360 grams immediately.

As I read Pierre’s tale, I realized that Americans design measurement scales, and have never heard of Naughtin’s Laws. While I was visiting my Step-Father in Seattle last year, he proudly showed me his digital food scale. When set to metric, it immediately had a readout with kg and g. There was no setting for grams alone. Although this is much less of a problem than pounds and ounces, it yet again shows the Ye Olde English instinct to use two measurement units where one is simpler. It is not unlike the dual decimal points with meters.centimeters.millimeters where millimeters are simple and integers—just like grams in everyday life.

If you have any metric moments you would like to share, please do in the comments section.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.