By The Metric Maven
I’m not a fan of “reality shows,” but I have been unable to resist one guilty pleasure—Ice Road Truckers. This program is on the History Channel. I can’t help it, I have to watch it each week to observe what new cinematography methods will be employed in an attempt to eschew metric (SI) units from the program. How will the producers innovate to obscure the fact that Canada and the rest of the world is metric. The female member of the household looks at me with disdain, comments at her disbelief and dissappointment, shakes her head, and retires to another room.
The first time I watched the program, I realized that it featured two Canadian truckers Hugh “The Polar Bear” Rowland and Alex Debogorski, who were driving in Canada. What’s more important than distance, mass (weight), temperature, and volume to truckers? Clearly, if they are in Canada, then the roads would all have distances in Kilometers, the weight of their cargoes would be in Kilograms, liquid loads would be in Liters, and the temperature would be in Celsius. Is this a program where Americans will finally be forced to confront metric units?—not exactly. The Canadian truckers were in Canada, but you couldn’t tell it from the measurements. Early on in its run (no pun intended—really), the program showed a quick cut to a Canadian “Interstate” exit sign. It happened so quickly I could not make out what it said. When I went back frame for frame, it was clear, the exit had km on it. When discussed on the program, temperatures were in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, and weights in pounds. Of course when the program would cut back to Alaska, there was no need for obfuscation and conversion.
Now and then some SI units would get through, but not very often. I recall Hugh Rowland delivering 40,000 liters of something in one program. It was a metric bust for me when during one season the Canadian truckers were imported into Alaska. The apparent success of the program led to the Ice Road Trucker (IRT) producers persuading some of the truckers to drive trucks in India. Whoa!–that’s a metric country, I had to see how that went. Again the producers did their best to obscure metric units. Bags of cement and other dry goods were generally in 50 kilogram burlap sacks, immediately they became 100 lbs or so. The next year the IRT “summer vacation” was in South America, still metric there. It was then that the producers finally allowed a discussion between Rick Yemm and Lisa Kelly concerning how many kilometers more they needed to go to drop off a load. Now and then the metric world outside of the US was not obscured.
This season has produced some of the most hilarious and surreal viewing so far (at least for The Metric Maven). Hugh, Alex and Rick are all trucking in Canada this season (2012).
What occurred in a recent Ice Road Truckers episode put me in mind of the absurdity found in the Monty Python sketch Buying A Bed. In this sketch, one bedding salesman always multiplies the actual number meant by ten, and the other salesman divides the actual value by three. Neither use the actual values. As you can imagine, this causes considerable confusion on the part of the couple purchasing the bed, as they attempt to figure out the actual dimensions and prices involved.
In the Ice Road Truckers episode aired on 2012-07-15 this dialog occurs:
Dispatcher: You’re going to take an excavator to Iklavic. The load is only good for 30,000 and you’re going to be really close to 30 with the excavator.
Alex: Very good.
Dispatcher: So once you’re loaded, make sure you go to the scale.
Alex: I will, thank you, very good.
Alex then heads over to the scales to weigh his truck with the load. The readout of the scale is shown, which reads 15,500 kg. Two indicator lights are below, with GR and Kg lighted. So I assume we are talking kilograms. GR probably means gross weight, which should be the total weight with the load and driver. Alex then tells the audience: “I’m 15,000 pounds overweight which means I may be too heavy to go down the road, which means we won’t be able to go.” No, no, I protest, I just saw a readout for kilograms on the scale, what’s with Alex stating the value in pounds? Alex obtains a permit which allows him to drive overweight at his own risk. Alex heads out of town with his overloaded vehicle.
We then see a sign which clearly reads: “WINTER ICE ROAD, MAXIMUM WEIGHT 30 000 kg” and Alex repeats what the sign states, but offers no units.
Alex then continues: “Since our weight is over the limit, I’ve gotta be careful about coming on the ice and coming off the ice.” We then see a sign giving the weigh limits on two ice roads.
The Tuktoyaktuk Ice Rod is open with a maximum weight of 35,000. I’m assuming Kilograms from the second entry on the sign. Considering these are ice roads, one might expect them to be more explicit. Wouldn’t weight be a paramount number on which to have a handle? Falling through the ice in a truck is generally fatal.
Alex then instructs us: “Because the loads this heavy I have to stick to the center of the road and drive with more caution.” But how heavy is the load? I saw a scale with 15,500 kilograms. Alex says he’s 15,000 pounds overweight. The ice roads indicate they can handle 30,000 kg. Who’s on first? I have no idea what’s going on.
The narrator then interjects: “Stopping on the ice increases a drivers chance of breaking through, and with this overweight excavator, Alex has 15,000 extra reasons to keep moving.” But, but! Mr. Narrator is it kilograms or pounds!? Metric Mavens want to know! If it’s Canada, shouldn’t it be kilograms?! I’m completely certain that 15,000 kg does not equal 15,000 lbs. As Alex drives across the ice, the Narrator informs us: “He’s driving an overweight truck over thin ice, with a load that’s 15,000 pounds over the safe limit. It is?—what is the total weight?–I’m confused. Alex finally delivers his road—and I will never have any idea what the mass values are. Is this American television production at its best or what. I’m voting for the what.
Throughout the program I watch for metric Easter eggs. A quick flash of a map occurs in a Canada sequence. When I freeze it, indeed the values on the map are in kilometers.
The map is shown so quickly, I’m sure there’s little chance an American would notice the values, and would probably assume miles.
During another sequence, Rick Yemm is smoking a cigarette outside of a clinic and we are bravely shown a reminder that it is Canada. The sign indicates one should not smoke within eight meters of the entrance.
For the convenience of Americans, it has 25 feet in parenthesis. The Alaska segments have no problem showing lengthy shots of the road signs with miles on them. Just make sure to only show metric signs quickly most of the time when in Canada.
IRT appears to be the only program where metric units intrude upon Americans at all. The producers do their best to turn the program into Imperial Road Truckers, but clearly they are wearing down a bit it seems. More and more metric seems to be slipping through. It is interesting to hear warnings of 100 kilometer per hour winds along with the few other metric intrusions each week on an American television program. I wish the producers could just accept metric and use it exclusively in the Canadian parts of the program. I’ll keep watching, with more hope than good sense, and wonder just how many more years of a non-metric The United States we will have. Too many for my lifetime is what concerns me, and should concern more Americans.
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 not of direct importance to metric education. It 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.