Some Practical Consequences of Going Metric

My recent entry: President Obama, Give Us a Yard and We’ll Take a Meter has generated a fair amount of email (thank you, by the way). Among the comments were concerns about various aspects of doing the conversion, specifically about all that math to go from one system to another. Then there were comments about the realities of conversion. Let me try to address both of those items.

An Inch is 2.54 Centimeters Exactly

OK. Now I’ve scared some of you. This was exactly what you were afraid of: the math. I’m not going to blow smoke up your whatsis. You’ll probably have to pick up a few simple shortcut conversions to make things go easier. There aren’t that many, you’ll use them less than you think, and they are a lot easier than trying to remember that there are 5280 feet (or 1760 yards) in a mile.

  • An inch is about 2 1/2 centimeters (or, sometimes more conveniently, 25 millimeters)
  • A foot is about 30 centimeters.
  • Ten centimeters is about 4 inches.
  • A meter is a little longer than a yard (3 feet).
  • A kilogram is a bit more than 2 pounds (closer to 2.2 pounds)
  • There are about 28 grams to an ounce (I usually round up to 30 as it’s easier to remember).
  • A liter is a little more than a quart (but y’all already know this).
  • A cup is just under 240 milliliters ( about a fourth of a liter, just like a cup is a fourth of a quart).
  • A gallon is a bit less than 4 liters.
  • A mile is about 1,600 meters (just like at the Olympics: four laps around the track)
  • In your car, 50 mph is about 80 km/h; 100 km/h is a little faster than 60 mph.

I’m not going to kid you, Celsius might require a little bit of thought. I take this as solace: my brother leaves the country on vacation a couple of times a year, and he says that it only takes a couple of days to get used to Celsius without worrying about the mathematical conversion (which he doesn’t remember anyway). I’m going with that.

In all honesty, those shortcuts aren’t needed all that much. Let’s use some examples:

bluehand-216Without using a ruler, how long is your ring finger? For me, my guess was about 2 inches. I was wrong. The ruler said it was 2 3/4 inches. The ruler also said it was about 70 mm. The fact is that even though my hand is with me pretty much all of the time, I still was wrong by about 35%. I (get this) needed a ruler to tell me the correct length regardless of whether it was in inches or millimeters.

Let’s try something else:

steak-180Just looking at it, and from experience, I’d say that this hunk of meat was something over a pound and probably less than 1 1/2 pounds (or 1 lb 8 oz)— so, about 1 1/4 pounds (1 lb 4 oz) give or take 1/4 pound (4 oz). The thing is, until I look at the label, or put it on a scale, I have no idea what its actual weight is regardless of whether it’s in pounds, ounces, grams, or kilos. All I really know is that it’s about steak size.

60mph-180OK, this one’s easy. Let’s say you’re going 60 mph. But would you know this if you hadn’t looked so as to confirm your speed to what was posted on the road sign? In all likelihood, you just saw the “Speed Limit” and the big ol’ “60” under that. How fast is that, exactly? 54 feet a second? 132 feet per second? 10 feet per second? 88 feet per second? 106 feet per second? 39 feet per second?

If you knew the correct answer was the fourth one without having to do the math, then bravo to you (I had to whip out my calculator to double-check). If you did have to do the math or make a blind guess, then how would that be different if I’d had used km/h and meters per second as the units of measure?

I think those serve to demonstrate my point. For the most part, while we smugly think we dandelion-160grasp the physical realities of our world, we really don’t unless we use rulers and scales and gauges and other devices to tell us. Our frames of reference, it turns out, are just as tenuous as the seeds on a dandelion on a windy day.

Real-world Headaches

The thing is, no matter how we do it, there are going to be consequences large and small.

Paper Cuts

First-class postage would change from per-ounce. Though lowering it to 25 grams would give the USPS an effective rate hike, it would significantly effect how mail is sent. I know that I can stuff four (sometimes five) letter-sized sheets into a #10 envelope and still be covered by one first-class stamp. If we lower the effective postage rate by 3 grams, that’s going to have meaning for mailers who take it to the edge. Making the rate based on 30 grams would likely be fairer, but makes the math a little more difficult if your scale doesn’t do the calculations for you. Still easier adding in 30-gram increments than the pounds-ounces we’ve been doing (that drives me nuts, sometimes).

Speaking of mail, we’d likely want to shift our standard office paper size from letter (8 1/2″ x 11″) to A4 (210 mm x 297 mm). It’s a little narrower and a little longer than our current letter size, but much of the world has pretty much standardized on this. This is one of those things that doesn’t have to change quickly, but there should be no penalty for those companies that do make the shift.

Get a Room

The other likely common headache will be room-size conversions for figuring out stuff like amount of paint needed (square meters per liter vs square feet per gallon), carpet size, and roomsize-160so forth. As I mentioned above, for quick estimates, multiply the number of feet by 30 (for centimeters) or .3 (for meters) and you’ll be in the neighborhood. So, an estimated size for a 9′ x 12′ room would be 270 cm x 360 cm (or easier, 2.7 m x 3.6 m) and you’d have an area of 97,200 cm2 (or 9.72 m2). The actual computed value would be 10.03 m2, but for an estimate, a 3% difference isn’t bad.

This is one of those areas where people tend to always have to do the math in any case, but notice how direct it was converting from square centimeters to square meters. It just took shifting the decimal point. I have to ask if the conversion from 108 sq.ft. to 15,552 seems as obvious?

Pain and Tedium

I mentioned in the previous blog that industries revolving around construction will be particularly hard hit with the conversions and the need for different tools. I’m not going to belabor their difficulties here because they won’t be insignificant and will endure for at least a couple of generations, perhaps more than a century, until the constructions and infrastructure have been mostly replaced by metricated equivalents.

Cooking was also mentioned as something that would be hit, and I’d like to touch on that as it will have an effect on just about everyone’s daily lives to some degree.

While it’s obvious that conventional measures will have to slowly be converted in cookbooks and recipes (one of those few non-industrial areas where you will need to whip out a metric-conversion calculator), the mindset of many who cook will also have to be altered. Let me give an example.

In America, it’s standard practice to measure flour for a bread or cake recipe by volume (i.e. cups) instead of by mass. Though conscientious television cooks have tried to impart the wisdom of weighing flour instead of scooping out flour (weighing compensates for local humidity), not that many American households actually have a scale to weigh out food. As most metricated recipes use flour mass and not volume as standard, this means that cooks are going to have to hit the housewares section and pick up a decent scale.


Speaking of scales, perhaps the most widespread and obvious consequence of metrication will be those things that measure flow or rotation. Gas meters, water meters, electrical meters, odometers, etc. will all need to be altered to comply with the new standard of measurement. Fortunately there are many simple alterations that will take little time or money to effect on a per-unit basis. Digital meters will just need a firmware update that handles the conversion. Analog meters that use hands can be modified simply by afixing new scales. It’s the wheeled meters (e.g. odometers) that will be more of a problem.

Wheeled meters can be changed in two ways: by changing the design of the linkage that does the mechanical conversion (often just a gear or two), or by replacing the whole shebang. Since many meters were not made with any thought of modification, replacement odometer-240is likely to be the predominant method of choice. Given the hundred of millions of meters of this time in various applications, it’s going to be a long and slow process. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Think of all the people who will have to be employed to do the actual conversions. Makers of these sorts of meters will also have to ramp up production. Engineers will need to design conversion couplers that can make some of the change-out faster and easier.

Of course a major consumer of these meters will be cars and trucks. As with other devices, the digital versions should be little more than a firmware upgrade. The traditional odometers will be more problematic. I think the way to go is to add a new coupling in addition to rolling up the odometer to reflect the distance traveled in km instead of miles. When you figure that the average life of a car is 10-15 years, it shouldn’t take too long for the mileage odometers to age out of the supply line.

Writing on the Wall

The last area that will touch our everyday lives is extant literature. Look at all the current and archived books (fiction and non-fiction), magazines, newspapers, web sites, etc. published  in the United States. Almost all of them that are not science-specific are written in the current inch-pound system. Those bits of literature aren’t going away anytime soon, and the ones that aren’t current aren’t going to be edited to reflect our new measures. How big of a problem is this going to be?

I don’t think it will be very bad at all. Just about everyone under the age of dead when the metrication occurs will have no trouble understanding the measures. Over the next century as these people age out of the system, new metricated editions will replace the old. Just as the young often avoid black-and-white movies, so too will they effectively shun inch-pound-laden books in favor of the ones that use what they know. We will certainly adapt without much stumbling. Just as we can still read Shakespeare and muddle through Chaucer—all the while enduring measures such as barley-corns, drams, scruples, furlongs, leagues, and the like—so too will coming generations adapt and absorb our own quaint antiquated ways. It’s really not a big deal.

Finish Line

It’s inevitable that the United States will end up dometricated. Though it’s happening at a snail’s pace now, it is happening. Personally, I think the fell-swoop approach with have the country endure less pain and expense than the reliance on industry to do the right thing. Just as industry has pretty much mucked up the economy because they’ve shown that their interpretation of “the right thing” is “their own self-interest”, I don’t think letting industry set its own pace of metrication is the correct solution.

The laws are all pretty much in place. All that is needed is the will to change. As I’ve shown, the public is mostly just fearing fear (as it often does) instead of the reality of the situation. Certain industries have more to gripe about as they will have to bear a lot of the cost. Still, it’s not like they haven’t been given enough warning. In our global market economy, any industry that doesn’t already have some degree of metrication in place is amazingly short-sighted.

The time is now. The change won’t be as bad as so many fear. Everyone else has done it, and they all seem happy enough…except when they have to do business with us. I think it’s time that we finally bow to the better idea. It’s likely that we’ll be happy enough, too.

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