Stream of Metric Consciousness

By The Metric Maven

A coffee klatch denizen, NY Joe, kindly brought me a book titled The Macmillan Dictionary of Measurement. It has over 4250 entries and Joe was sure I’d find it interesting reading. He was right, there are many interesting aspects of the book that caught my attention, and some not in a good way. One entry took me by surprise and would have been a nice addition to my DBTC chapter Multiple Metric Systems and Metrology. There I point out the existence of the MKS (meter-kilogram-second), CGS (centimeter-gram-second) and MTS (meter-tonne-second) systems. I encountered an entry about the crinal in this dictionary, which I reproduce below:

Yes, the DKS decimeter-kilogram-second system!? I’ve encountered this system no where else in my research over the years. One might almost think it a joke, but then I’ve seen the seemingly unending historical pre-metric units, and many of them also appear to be jokes. My favorite reference has a crinal in it, and the first definition is 1 decinewton. Indeed, let’s just rid ourselves of the prefix cluster around unity. This is unit proliferation, pure and simple.

I also learned that base ten logarithms, like that used to define the decibel, are called Briggs logarithms after the early British mathematician Henry Briggs (1561-1631). In 1616 he drew up the first base ten logarithm tables. Who knew? For those who find British Thermal Units too straightforward, there is also the CHU or centigrade heat unit, equal to the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree celsius. That is a serious pigfish definition. It is also known as the pound-calorie. The international angstrom is a unit of length, but it is defined with a red line in the cadmium spectrum, at a temperature of 15 C and a pressure of 760 mm of mercury which is 6438.4696 international angstroms. “It is very nearly the same as an ANGSTROM UNIT (10-10 m).” What? very nearly the same? Why not call it “the horseshoe?” We also encounter a prefixed angstrom called a milliangstrom. We need a unit that is 10-13 m in length? There is also the kip, which is a: “Little-used unit of mass for measuring the load on a structure equal to 1,000 pounds avdp. (half a short ton). It was named after the first letters of kilo imperial pound.” This is serious pigfish on parade. Shoe sizes are defined, but mondopoint does not have an entry, or a single mention in the dictionary. I have written about mondopoint here and here.

The dictionary even relates a unit called the eric:

Eric [comparative values] In medieval Ireland, the blood money paid by a murderer or accidental killer (to his family) to the victim’s family in full and complete satisfaction for the death, so that no further punishment or obligation would be imposed or sought.

There is also “the finger.” As we know a hand is about 100 mm in width. Four fingers of width implies a finger would be about 20 mm (25 if the world made sense). Of course in old timey movies we see western characters order two or three fingers of alcohol, which is not exactly independent of the size of the glass.

This dictionary has very little use for milli. Millimeters and milliliters appear depreciated for centimeters and centiliters. When millimeters do appear it is often with mixed fractions.

The dictionary has the Kilotonne, which is a metric prefix applied to a Megagram which is actually a Gigagram as I point out in my essay A Kilotonne is how much in metric? The dictionary lists (with lower case of course) a megabar, megabit, megacurie, megadyne, megahertz, megajoule, megaparsec, megarad, megaton, megavar, megavolt, megawatt, and megaohm, but no Megagram! Clearly the authors of this reference, need to become a bit more acquainted with the metric system in my view. They proudly have listed tonne and kilotonne, but no megatonne, or gigatonne. Both of these nested concatenated prefix “units,” which are megamegagrams or gigamegagrams are seen constantly in reporting about global warming and elsewhere, rather than using Teragrams or Petagrams, which are properly expressed, and devoid of the archaic pre-metric “ton”, which only serves as a thumb to suck, or a skirt to hold are absent. Of course the dictionary also has metric ton and tonne

One day while using public transit to meet with me over brunch, Sven noted a fellow wearing a tee shirt like the one below:

Over the years, there has been a meme of sorts that indicates that spelling is somehow a measure of something that is intellectually indicative about a person. As I’ve pointed out, we have a number of Shakespeare’s signatures, and no two are spelled the same. The two people who wrote this book identify themselves on the dust jacket: “[one]….is a packager who produces popular dictionary and reference books in the fields of science, semantics and medicine” and “[the other]…is an editorial consultant who specializes in religion, foreign languages, place-names, and music.” They both spend an inordinate amount of time defining collective nouns, such as a murder of crows, murmuration of starlings, or a muster of peafowl. These are not exactly precisely defined units or values. The reference is indeed written like what one would expect from specialists in language, who I’m sure can spell, but have no metrology background.

Often people ask me to talk about old archaic pre-metric units, but I have no interest in doing so. There are so many “metric” and “pigfish” sub-optimal units to discuss, and then plead for people stop using; I want to concentrate on them. I encourage people to switch-over to pure efficient metric, without the tonne, micron, angstrom, or other “exceptions.” If you want to know about archaic or obsolete units that no one has ever heard of, consult John Quincy Adams. Relating numbers in the most meaningful manner possible begins with good streamlined metric usage.

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“American Reform”

By The Metric Maven

There are many oxymorons in this world. Some are awfully good, but we see a conspicuous absence of the term American reform in lists of oxymoron examples. It has been my experience that even when country after country has introduced significant reforms, the US only talks, and talks, and talks. It does not matter what the important issue is, no real change occurs in America that is not desired by the wealthy micronority. When any beneficial social change comes, it is at the most insignificant and glacial pace.

The 1918 flu was the last global pandemic comparable to the current one. In its aftermath, France launched it’s own system of health insurance in 1928.[1] The author of The Spanish Flu Epidemic and It’s Influence on History states:

Many of the privileges of good health we enjoy in Western Europe were founded, and then built upon, as a result of the impact of Spanish flu on a population who until that point had largely been responsible for accessing their own medical care. pg 37.

The pandemic — which killed nearly 700,000 Americans between spring 1918 and January 1919 — was largely characterized in the States by official inaction rather than action. pg 57

The pandemic of 1918 formed a platform for a swathe of reforms in New Zealand, the crowning jewel of which was the Health Act of 1920 which formed the foundations of the public health system New Zealanders enjoy today. Pg 93

New Zealand currently has probably the most effective response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. In the United States, it is simply a topic which can never be contemplated as political reform, by either official party. This remains true 100 years later, even in the midst of a pandemic as lethal as the 1918 flu, and during an election year. After all, the US Republic was perfected in 1776, and nothing needs to change.

People often contort their face and ask why I care about such an insignificant thing as adopting the metric system in the US? Others, who have talked with me for a long time, realize that the lack of metric reform is an indicator that we live in a Frozen Republic. We never get to metric reform, because we have no ability to reform anything no matter how small. For example:

In the US, some land surveyors use the US survey foot, others use the international foot. The survey foot is 0.999 998 of an international foot, according to Measure for Measure. The federal government has the survey foot as 0.999 999 8 of an international foot on its website. In 1959, a number of English speaking countries adopted the International yard, but in the US, the survey foot was allowed to continue “temporarily.” After 60 years, surveyors in 40 states currently use the international foot, and 10 use the survey foot, but now we are told it will be phased-out.

According to the notice:

It is also important to note that while the difference between the two definitions is 2 parts per million, this small discrepancy accumulates over large distances and can result in significant errors in surveying and civil engineering projects, regardless of the size of the project. For example, when a one-mile distance is surveyed, the difference is approximately 0.01 ft or 0.12 in. However, the impact becomes substantial when longer distance measurements or conversions are made, such as those involving rectangular plane coordinates of SPCS 83. …

Because of this situation, there has been a long history of misunderstandings and confusion over which definition of the foot was used to carry out a specific land survey or civil engineering project. There have been many instances where software or electronic surveying devices default to one or the other foot definitions, but users incorrectly assume the actual unit of measure in use. This ongoing ambiguity has resulted in professional liability by the inadvertent violation of State law, the introduction of systematic errors in surveying and engineering projects, misreported position and location, land sale and project delays, boundary disputes, additional costs associated with correcting unit mistakes, and other unintended consequences. Because State jurisdictions with different legal definitions of the foot share borders, mapping projects in these geographic zones may experience elevated error risks as a surveyor transitions between a State that uses the “U.S. survey foot” and a State that uses the “international foot.” This risk is exacerbated when professional surveyors and engineers are licensed to practice in multiple States that use different versions of the foot, and for large projects when the team participants come from different States and even different countries. In addition to the cost due to errors, there is the cost of inefficiency, since it is necessary to keep track of the foot version, which increases with the size, duration, and complexity of projects.

What the government indicates it is now doing is “depreciating the survey foot.” This is what is stated:

The deprecation process begins with a notice to users that a unit of measure is to be deprecated and that use of the unit is to be avoided after a specific date. The notice also prescribes the new unit of measurement that will be accepted for use. ….

The notice points out that the US Constitution gives congress the right to fix the weights and measures, but honestly, this looks to be little different from a current version of the Mendenhall Order. There appears to be no actual legislation compelling the states to change, other than the Federal Government will no longer support the US survey foot. No one seems to have coordinated this with the 10 states who have not changed. Is this just more “sound and whispers signifying nothing?” It sure looks like a “voluntary change,” like that which has not produced a metric system switch over in the US for over 150 years.

This “reform” has a bit more possibility for success, as it is a reform undertaken by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), National Ocean Service (NOS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They might just refuse data from the states that do no comply, or, they could run into the politics of “states rights.” A notice is not a reform. What is most illuminating is that we are arguing about 0.999 999 8 difference between foot definitions, and this is a reform that still has not occurred in 60 years. We cannot even legislate a reform which is a change of two parts per million?

According to Wikipedia, the British managed to implement reform long ago concerning the international foot and the survey foot: “The United Kingdom was unaffected by this problem, as the retriangulation of Great Britain (1936–62) had been done in meters.”

The AP story on this new “reform” quotes NOAA official Michael Dennis saying:

A contractor from a state that uses the U.S. foot planned a building in the glide path of a major airport in a state that uses the international foot. The confusion over the two different feet caused delays, extra cost and redesign of the building to be one floor shorter. (Dennis wouldn’t identify the airport.) “It’s embarrassing that we even had this going on for 60 years,” Dennis says. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”

Dennis knows some will squawk.

The U.S. foot “sounds very patriotic, very American,” he said in a webinar. “Then there’s the word ‘international foot,’ which sounds kind of new world order, U.N.-sanctioned, maybe with a whiff of socialism.”

There it is, measurement units unteathered from rational thought, and “chained” to American exceptionalism. But in the US this is not enough, the delusion that somehow we are really a metric nation without knowing it is asserted with a straight face:

Those who fear this is a slippery slope leading to the metric system are worrying a century too late, NIST metric coordinator Elizabeth Benham says. Since 1893, the official definition of a foot is based on the meter.

“We are metric,” Dennis says. “The foot is subservient to the meter. That’s the way it is.”

The issue is how the two different feet are defined.

So we are queried: “are you going to believe us about being metric or your lying eyes?” We are not a metric nation, the foot is not subservient to the meter, or we would, like the UK, BE USING THE METER FOR SURVEYING!

Engineer’s Tape Measure with feet divided into tenths and hundredths. But it is also dual scale in feet and inches with fractions

We use chains in the US construction industry, as I detail in my essay The Chain Gang. A link of a chain is one survey foot, and this is divided into tenths of a survey foot. This is known as the engineer’s chain. I recently purchased a US Engineer’s tape measure. It has an upper scale with divisions in feet, tenths of feet and hundredths of feet. The bottom is inches, survey inches?

When I was at college, an engineering professor indicated we were on our way to the metric system as we had already adopted tenths of a foot for road construction, and it was only a matter of time when we would just switch. That was decades ago, and we have not even reformed our measures into decimals. Try purchasing a ruler or tape measure which has decimal inches on it. It is possible, but not without considerable effort. I searched online for a decimal tape measure and the best I could find is this one which is called an engineer’s scale:

Engineer’s Scale tape measure with dual scale decimal inches and fractional inches

It has dual scales, both fractions and decimals. Both of these tape measures are conspicuously absent of a single scale. They are examples of Naughtin’s Law that dual scales are evil. They are also a counter example to the assertion that technical Darwinism is an actual thing. In the US, technical and other Darwinisms are used to explain away absurdities, that given a yocto-thought, are obviously absurdities. Why has the metric system not been adopted in the US? Technical Darwinism indicates that obviously the metric system has no merit and “cannot stand on its own.” There are only fractional tape measures in the US?—this proves the superiority of fractions over decimals! Technical Darwinism has spoken–end of discussion. Need more proof? Most rulers in the US are inches with fractions on one side, and decimal centimeters on the other, yet no one switches over to centimeters in the US. Technical Darwinism QED, decimals are inferior to fractions. The two tape measures using decimalized inches and feet are unpopular, and not purchased because clearly people would select for the best option, ignoring the reality of familiarity over simplicity in human psychology. Decimals are therefore a failure, you can’t argue with “science” like that.

Technical Darwinism argues that humans are rational actors, and make decisions based on careful evaluation of information. If this were the case, advertisers should stop advertising, and simply publish specifications of their products. Actual reform requires forethought and political leadership. It also requires a political system that allows it to reform public policies for the public good. The political system in the US is not suited to reform. Many people don’t believe public good even exists—but at the same time—might still believe we are already a metric country.

[1] Breitnaur, J., The Spanish Flu Epidemic and It’s Influence on History, Pen & Sword Books, 2019 page 36.

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


Roundabouts are another reform that is difficult to implement in the US: