By The Metric Maven
It has been brought to my attention that the Discovery Channel has a show called Gimme Shelter. It has a person called Mr Short Cut who apparently offers viewers advice on short cut methods for DIY work. In a video: “Mr Short Cut demonstrates the advantages of using the metric system for easy measurements.” Here is what he has to say:
Narrator: Here’s a man who gets eight hours of sleep in five hours. Mr Shortcut.
Mr Shortcut: Hey you remember a few years ago when the big craze the big push was to make everything go metric? Well I gotta tell ya when it comes to carpentry I think they might have been on the right track. Let me show you what I mean. I mean if you have to measure and add some distances with boards for example, just something simple I’ll show ya [Mr Shortcut holds a board and tape measure, he then starts to measure] here’s inches, seven and three-sixteenths and let’s add another distance here. How about eighteen and and an eighth. Ok, so you got your sixteenths you got your eighths you gotta change the denominator leave the numerator add two divide by six carry the one thirty days have September, tipi canoe and Tyler too—and I can’t do it—alright without an abacus and three calculators.
Well, here’s the way to do it, metric—because look here, the tapes you can buy now, come with inches on one side if you gotta do it the old way and centimeters—metric on the other side. So all you have to is put it in like this and you get your nineteen centimeters added to forty six centimeters—that’s easy sixty-five. You can do the math. Metric is cool.
My reaction to this was much like the aftermath I experience following the viewing of an Ed Wood movie—vertigo. Beyond the fact that I don’t recall any big push “a few years ago” for metric, what are the odds that one would always hit integer values when using centimeters for woodworking? I suspect it would be approximately zero. The size of the measured board example appears contrived, and unrealistic. The “metric” example offered by “Mr. Shortcut” has the appearance of how an American, who has never actually used or experienced the metric system, imagines how the metric system might work. Mr. Shortcut (MS), like many U.S. “metric promoters” has not bothered to research the subject.
Mr Shortcut proudly shows that one can purchase a tape measure with both inches and centimeters (aka pseudo-inches). Independent of anything, dual scale instruments are evil. They simply allow the person using them to ignore the metric scale, use the familiar side, and continue to hinder metric adoption. This point is enshrined as Naughtin’s First Law.
When a person actually attempts to use centimeters in construction, they will quickly discover the need to use decimals. This often leads the average US citizen to believe that metric is not necessary and only the introduction of tape measures with decimal inches on them is. The use of decimal centimeters is awkward and leads to unnecessary numerical complication, which in turn leads to errors and scrap. This problem is well-known to the Australian and UK construction industries, and Bangladesh, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Mauritius, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, but alas, in the US, we, and Mr Shortcut, are ignorant of their practices and our own U.S. metric construction code. The solution is, of course, to use only millimeters so the numbers measured are all whole numbers and eliminate the decimal point entirely. Decimals are great, they are the next best thing to whole numbers, but one should prefer expressions without decimals if possible. This is Naughtin’s Second Law: Prefer Measures Without Decimals.
Am I being a bit too hard on a person who is trying to promote the metric system? Possibly. His heart is in the right place, just not his tape measure. I spoke with my resident woodworking expert, Pierre, to get his view about the importance of measurement. He reminded me that a number of woodworkers completely eschew measurement of any type and build proportionally by eye. In Pierre’s words:
As we’ve discussed, plenty of woodworkers try not to use any measurement at all if they can help it. They know they can’t read a tape measure, that no two tape measures are identical, and they don’t want to do math, ever. But there’s probably a process here. First I convince them that math can be helpful, then you can show them that math can be easy.
I’m probably not qualified to convince any woodworker to use measures, so I’ll let Pierre work on that. But if they should happen to decide that measurement is useful, I can attempt to guide them away from centimeters and toward millimeters, which will make the math easy. That I do know.
We know change can be difficult. But, we are confident that if you can count money, then the conversion to the metric system will not only save you time and frustration, it will eliminate costly and time consuming mistakes. Imagine no more fraction math, only dealing with whole numbers and half numbers is much easier than working in fractions.
The assumed unit of measure is the millimeter. They even offer a nice side by side example of how easy using millimeters is compared with inch-fraction descriptions:
It appears to me that there are those who have actually used metric to construct physical items, and those, such as Mr. Shortcut, who imagine what it might be like to use the metric system to build something. It is quite possible to build with centimeters, and carry along decimals. The path of least intellectual resistance for Americans is to use centimeters as a decimalized pseudo-inch. Or, one can use millimeters, measure with a ubiquitous centimeter rule, and constantly move a decimal point in one’s head as I did to obtain millimeters. I engaged in this unnecessary arithmetic complication until enlightened Australians guffawed at my ignorance and sent me millimeter only rulers and tape measures. This bad practice is encouraged because of the ubiquity of centimeter marked rulers and tape measures in the US and the minimal availability of metric only millimeter only scales here. The invisible metric embargo makes it very difficult to find a millimeter only tape measure in the U.S.. The only known product available is for carpenters, and called the True 32 tape measure. It has a length of 5 meters, and is marked in millimeters. Obtain one and use it. After you have, I suspect you would no more go back to decimal centimeters than you would contemplate using Roman numerals.
Don’t imagine the metric system—use it!
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.