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Metrication matters - Number 72 - 2009-05-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for you:

  • if you are actively involved in a metrication upgrade,
  • if you are planning a metrication upgrade, or
  • if you have a general interst in the metrication process.

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You can read all previous issues at http://www.metricationmatters.com/newsletter when you scroll to the bottom of the page. You will also find useful resources for your inevitable metrication upgrade from the Metrication matters web page at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm


1 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 2 Editorial 3 Oddities - measurements from around the world 4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier. 5 Signs of the times 6 Quotations 7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers 8 Rule of thumb 9 History 10 Hidden metric

1 Feedback

Mike Joy, a long time reader of Metrication matters wrote from Western Australia (WA).

Hi Pat,
Nice to see that snails can travel so fast - 1 metre per minute you say, in today's Metrication matters?
Well, they must be Victorian snails because at that rate it would take a snail only 20 minutes to go from my front door to next door's front door. You must feed them on rocket fuel.
Over here, in Western Australia (WA), they are considerably slower - especially at Easter and Christmas, when they've obviously been drinking something potent.
A letter posted at 18:01 on Thursday April 9 to my neighbour will get there on Tuesday 14 at 11:00, i.e. 112.95 hours later (6779 min), meaning the snails contracted by Australia Post travel at a whopping 2.95 mm per minute.
Just thought you'd like to know what 'WA' really stands for - Wait Awhile.
Regards, Mike

Mike is right. I made a decimal point error. Snails, here in Geelong, travel at about 100 millimetres per minute. World record snail athletes go a bit quicker than this; see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/558515.stm for details of competitive snail racing. After you smarten up the figures in the article to millimetres, you will find that the world sprint snail champion, Archie covers the 330 millimetre distance in 2 minutes and 20 seconds at a rate of 140 millimetres per minute. My mistake was in not following my own advice and doing all the calculations in whole numbers; see http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/WholeNumberRule.pdf

Jean Maggion wrote from France about the web page, 'Who invented the metric system?' See http://www.metricationmatters.com/who-invented-the-metric-system.html

Monsieur NAUGHTIN,
Permettez-moi de vous féliciter pour votre petite histoire du systéme métrique décimal où en peut de mot vous avez su indiquer tous les points fondamentaux de cette magnifique histoire.
J’ai apprécié en particulier d’avoir mis à la disposition des lecteurs les pages de l’œuvre de John Wilkins que je n’avais pu trouver.
Ma connaissance de la langue anglaise est trop fragile pou que je vous écrive autrement qu’en français, et je vous prie de me le pardonner.
En vous remerciant infiniment pour votre travail, je vous prie, Monsieur Naughtin, d’agéer mes respectueuses salutations.
Jean Maggion

I replied (in my very best French – ahem!):

Cher Monsieur Maggion,
Je vous remercie sincerement de m'avoir communique votre interet.
J' apprecie beaucoup vos salutations si gracieuses et genereuses apropos mes efforts concernant la promotion du systeme metrique. Elles m' encouragent a continuer mes efforts dans les regions du monde ou le systeme metrique n'est pas encore si bien connu qu'en France.
Agreez, Monsieur, d'accepter mes propres salutations amicales.
Pat Naughtin, de Geelong, en Australie.

2 Editorial

You might recall that some time ago I reported on the secret collusion against the adoption of the metric system for the USA between (Republican) Frank Mankiewicz and (Democrat) Lyn Nofziger that was reported in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/28/AR2006032802142.html

Fortunately, their underhanded activities seems to have been to no avail. The progress of metrication in the USA (although slow) has proved to be inevitable, even without much overt government support.

It is now impossible for people in the USA to avoid the metric system in any part of their daily lives.

To support this somewhat controversial statement I challenge anyone in the USA to completely avoid the metric system for a single day. You might start with the article, 'Don't use metric!' to get ideas of the things to avoid. You can download this article from http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/DontUseMetric.pdf and I would be pleased to know how successful you are in avoiding the metric system for a day. You might even challenge your friends and acquaintances to avoid the metric system for a day; you could send them a reference to the 'Don't use metric!' article to get them started.

3 Oddities

Astronomers are planning to build the world's largest telescope. Called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the new telescope will be based in either Australia or South Africa. It will use fibre optic technology to link thousands of telescopes to form an integrated system roughly fifty times more powerful than any existing telescope. An article about the technology involved in this type of telescope can be read at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7828174.stm

4 Tips – pointers and methods to make your measurements easier.

Bill Hooper (who has a body mass of 73 kilograms) wrote to suggest improvements to the list I gave for millions, billions, and trillions in an attempt to understand these terms that are applied to economic news on a daily basis. This upgraded list includes Bill's new suggestions and it now reads:

  • A thousand seconds (1 kilosecond) is 17 minutes
  • A million seconds (1 megasecond) is 12 days.
  • A billion seconds (1 gigasecond) is 31 years.
  • A trillion seconds (1 terasecond) is 32 centuries.

These are all approximate values and I had to add the SI units (ks, Ms, Gs, and Ts) because there is still some debate about the definitions of millions, billions, and trillions. José Luis Barajas suggests that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_and_short_scales is a useful resource on this topic.

Yes, but is it metric? Is it SI?

The General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) considered, but did not adopt, the idea of standardising on the long forms of these numbers (where a billion is a million million) in 1948. When the 11th CGPM adopted the International System of Units (SI) in 1960, with its full set of numeric prefixes, SI became independent of whether the short or the long form of the number scale for billions and trillions was being used. SI also notes the language-dependence of some larger number names and advises against using other ambiguous terms such as parts per billion and parts per trillion. See http://www.bipm.org/en/si/si_brochure/chapter5/5-3-7.html

5 Signs of the times

Harry Wyeth wrote to the United States Metric Association (USMA) with a horse story. Harry wrote:

Some horse owners opt not to shoe their horses, and instead ride them barefoot (works with some hard-footed horses) or with slip/strap-on boots (good when the ground is rocky). One popular boot brand is Easy Boot, and they have a new type of boot that they say fits so well that very careful hoof measurement is critical. So they require owners to measure their horses' feet in millimeters. See: http://www.easycareinc.com/Our_Boots/Easyboot_Glove/easyboot-glove_sizing.aspx
The other companies that make competing boots have not, to my knowledge, recognized the advantages of measuring in millimeters.

If you look up the EasyBoot comapany web site, they say:

We have found that measurements are more accurate and easier to take using the metric system.

And this brings me to a very sad horse story.

It appears that this was another decimal point error, where an accident happened when mixing vitamins and minerals for 21 polo ponies. It seems there was a pharmacy error in compounding the stuff that was given to the horses that died. The consensus seems to be that something like a handwritten .5 mg was read as 5 mg giving the horses 10 times more than was required. See: http://www.smh.com.au/news/sport/horseracing/ponies-vitamins-were-mixed-up/2009/04/26/1240684338062.html for details. You, like me, were probably taught that you should write 0.5 mg and not .5 mg without a zero before the decimal point — clearly this can be dangerous — and not only to horses. I have heard that a number written as .5 instead of 0.5 has a 'naked decimal' that can sometimes get lost.

6 Quotation

New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.
John Locke, English philosopher (1632/1704)

7 Q&A

Question (from a reader in the UK):

The metric system is wrong because we have never had a referendum on its use. We should be consulted about our measuring methods. Why don't we have a referendum to decide on whether or not we use the metric system?


What you say is simply not true. A perfectly democratic vote is taking place every day in the UK and in all other nations in the world. Whenever someone in the UK chooses to buy 500 grams of butter or a 2 litre bottle of soft drink, they are freely and democratically voting for metric units. Whenever someone in the USA chooses to drive, or ride in, an all-metric car, they are voting for the safety and efficiency of metric units.

8 Rule of thumb

Planet Earth rules of thumb:

  • Distance from either the North or South Pole to the equator: 10 000 kilometres
  • Distance around the world via both North and South poles: 40 000 kilometres
  • Distance around the world travelling along the equator: 40 000 kilometres

9 History

This is an extract from: http://www.iec.ch/zone/si/si_intro.htm the web site of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC):

In October 1901, a very successful Italian scientist and engineer Giovanni Giorgi showed at the congress of the Associazione Elettrotecnica Italiana (A.E.I.) in Rome that a coherent system of units could be achieved by adding an electric unit to the three mechanical units (centimetre, gram, second) of the existing CGS system. The event can be considered as the birth of what is now known as the International System of Units, or SI.

The IEC prepares and publishes international standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies.

10 Hidden metric

I know that in the UK the engineers design the roads in millimetres for such things as stone size and asphalt thicknesses, metres for road widths, and lengths are measured with small discrete blue pegs every 100 metres along each road. Of course, since Margaret Thatcher 'saved the mile and the pint for Britain' by making it illegal to refer to metric measures for roads, only miles and feet can legally be used on public roads. However, a small rumor has come my way that the road engineers are placing the mile signs at the 1600 metre mark where the little blue peg is placed. It appears that even the good old UK is now fully metric — the road signs are still in miles — but the miles are metric at exactly 1600 metres.


Pat Naughtin

Geelong Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and has edited and published many others. For example, Pat has written a chapter of a chemical engineering Encyclopedia, and recently he edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers'. Pat has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.

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