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Metrication matters - Number 87 - 2010-08-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters.

You can read all previous issues at http://www.metricationmatters.com/newsletter if you scroll own to the bottom of the page. The recently revised Metrication matters web page is at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm

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1 Editorial 2 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 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 Editorial

One of the deeply underlying principles of many (perhaps most) modern societies is the idea of 'freedom of choice'. But is 'freedom of choice' relevant when it comes to measurement?

We know that when we ask for a kilogram of a product we do not want the merchant to have 'freedom of choice' in deciding the size of the kilogram. When we ask for a metre of cloth we do not want the fabric seller to have 'freedom of choice' in deciding the length of the metre.

I have pointed out this idea before when I referred to the idea of 'decision paralysis' as described by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Along similar lines on the http://www.ted.com site they say:

Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz's estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralysed, not happier but more dissatisfied. You can see Barry Schwartz, speak on the paradox of choice at: http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

2 Feedback

Thank you to everyone who emailed to tell me about their reaction to the YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lshRAPvPZY

My favorite was the response that said, 'I didn't know that the metric system could be so funny!'

3 Oddities

In ancient Greece boat builders collected the timbers they needed to build a whole boat before they began construction. As they gradually collected the timber, each piece was measured and placed on a heap. When all the measured timbers were assembled the heap was labelled with a shortened reference to the words, Όλα τα καλά (Ola ta kala in English letters), which means 'All these are good'. The shortened form of the Greek words was 'OK'. We still use this abbreviation today, with few people knowing that we are copying the practice of boat builders in ancient Greece.

4 Tips – pointers and methods to make your measurements easier

When you want to teach about area in square metres, go to a carpet showroom and ask if they have any off-cuts. When I have done this I was invariably directed to a waste bin where I could find pieces of carpet that I could cut into square metres; I’ve always been told to take as many as I like for free. My favourite use for these is to investigate how many students can stand on a square metre. This soon becomes competitive and is a great deal of fun. You can also devise more serious uses for your square metres (and they roll up for convenient storage).

5 Signs of the times

My wife and I were recently watching some early editions of the television program 'West Wing' when we heard this interchange between C.J. the media coordinator and the President, Jed Bartlet; she was coaching the president on how to handle a question and answer session with a live broadcast to 60 000 children.

BARTLET (reading from video screen)
Katie, sixth grade, Green Oaks Junior High School, Austin, Texas, asks, "How old is the planet Mars?" That's a great question, Katie. The planet Mars is 4.6 billion years old.

What did I just say?

I knew that one.

Nobody likes a know-it-all!

Yes, God forbid, that while talking to 60,000 public school students, the President should appear smart!

That's fine. Just don't show off.

I don't show off. (reads again) Stevie, fourth grader, PS 31, Manhattan, asks, "What is the temperature on Mars?" Well, Stevie, if one of our expert panellists were here, they would tell you the average temperature ranges from 15 degrees to minus 140.

(looking through her papers) That happens to be wrong. It ranges from 60 to minus 225.

I converted it to Celsius in my head.

Thank you.

Wendy and I were individually struck with the idea that a writer of a major television production in 1999 could quite casually write the metric system unit, degrees Celsius, as words that the president of the USA might use!

6 Quotation

Now why did I think of the current measurement mess in both the UK and in the USA when I read this quotation from an essay by George Orwell called, 'England Your England':

One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency.
See http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lion/english/e_eye to view this quote in context.

7 Q&A


Does the road sign law in the UK apply to all roads.


Yes, I understand that it is true that UK law applies to all roads; but the law goes even further. In 2005, the council of the City of York placed 30 signs along a walking path using kilometre (km) distance markings. Later they removed them having learned that the UK roads law did not authorise kilometre signs even on walking paths.

8 Rule of thumb

The number of people occupying a house in a preindustrial culture can be estimated at one person for every ten square meters of enclosed dwelling space. Thomas W. Neumann, anthropological archaeologist, wildlife ecologist, and field crew crisis manager

9 History

In 1970, the UK House of Commons debated the compulsory introduction of the metric system. Here are two profound samples from the debate:

Carol Mather, MP
I am led to the conclusion that comprehensive universal metrication is a bit of a nonsense ... the kilo is too heavy for the housewife to carry ...

Henry Kerby, MP
... this metric madness, this alien academic nonsense, introduced secretly through the back door by a bunch of cranks and the big business tycoons ... and put into clandestine operation.

10 Hidden metric

Often buildings around the world are described in old pre-metric measures despite the fact that most of the more modern ones are designed and built using metric the system units: millimetres and metres. This dramatic (and fun) diagram designed by James Raymond shows the real situation: http://skyscraperpage.com/diagrams/?memberID=1574


Pat Naughtin

Geelong Australia

P.S. Thanks to everyone who bought, and is using, the 'Metrication Leaders Guide' through the web page at: http://metricationmatters.com/MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html We have been very pleased by the feedback about the positive and rapid metrication results achieved by our readers.

Here is an example from St. Lucia in the Caribean:

Dear Pat

First let me congratulate you on the wonderful wealth of information in “Metrication Leaders Guide”. I have been able to find valuable information on metrication in it. My country SAINT LUCIA in the West Indies, is going metric and I am the Coordinator of the St. Lucia Metrication Secretariat. ...

Thank you for sharing that wealth of information that you gathered over your years of experience dealing with metrication. Your book is invaluable!

Judy Rene

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.

Pat is the author of the e-book, Metrication Leaders Guide, that you can obtain from http://metricationmatters.com/MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html

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