Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks" - or so goes the adage. I think the
actuality is that it's not teaching an old dog a new trick that is so hard - what
is hard is convincing the dog that the new trick is worth repeating on command.
That is an apt analogy for those of us that were raised on the system of English
units, and have been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of metric units.
People in the U.S. who came through the school system in the last 15 to 20 years
have been indoctrinated in SI units (Le Système International
d'unités) and do not have the problem (although far too many are not proficient
with either system of units).
Just as with gaining fluency in a foreign language, the trick is to not be always
in the habit of mentally translating between units of measurement; rather, one must
conceptualize the new units fundamentally just as familiarization with former units
was adopted. "Total emersion" is key. Admittedly, it took me a long time to accomplish
the aforementioned. At 49 years old, I have worked in the engineering environment
long enough that when I see a drawing call out for an M4 machine screw or a dimension
of 300 mm, there is no pause needed to perform the conversion to feet or inches.
Instead, now for 300 mm, I simply think of a meter stick length and estimate a little
less than a third of it. Similarly, just as I became very familiar with the sizes
of #2, #4, #6, #8, etc., bolts, M4, M5, M6, etc., sizes are automatically registered.
Did I mention it took a long time to do this?
Realizing that the majority of the rest of the civilized world had already adopted
or was in the process of adopting the metric system, the U.S. Government passed
no fewer than four laws in an attempt to force the populace to conform. The Metric
Conversion Act of 1975 (later amended by the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act
of 1988, the Savings in Construction Act of 1996, and the Department of Energy High-End
Computing Revitalization Act of 2004) designated the metric system as the preferred
system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce. It mandated that federal
agencies set an example by converting to the metric system. Contractors for the
government were "encouraged" to conform as well by requiring that proposals and
deliverable products be submitted using metric units. That is akin to the Fed not
being able to set highway speed limits, but threatening to withhold highway funds
if the states did not comply. "Resistance is futile," as Hal famously uttered.
When the first metric system bill was enacted in 1975, I was in my senior year
of high school. By then, a lot of my time had been spent drawing plans for model
airplanes, rockets, and houses (I originally started out in architectural engineering),
so a very deep-rooted bias had set into the gray matter. My neurons were distinctly
English, not SI. Change has been hard. Fortunately, all my experience with electricity
and motors has not suffered the same mental indignity because electrical units have
not changed much in my lifetime: amperes, volts, and Ohms have not changed.
Having not traveled much outside the U.S., there really never has been an occasion
where the world of SI units unavoidably imposed itself on me, as it would with a
trip to Europe. In most areas in Canada (a notable exception being Quebec), road
signs display distances and speeds in both English and SI units. Fittingly, the
incident that really drove home the reality that not everyone considered English
units as basic and metric as a second language was a business trip to Canada a few
years ago. I worked as an RF engineer for Agilent at the time, and our customer
was a well-known company that makes the world's most famous PDA that popularized
mashing tiny little QWERTY keypad buttons with fat thumbs at a high rate of speed.
We designed and installed the production RF test fixtures for their PDAs. Anyway,
while there I would listen to their engineers speak as naturally in units of meters
and liters as we here in America do of feet and quarts. What really drove the point
home was when one of the guys was waxing nostalgic of some antics he had pulled
in chemistry class that involved the use of a "meter stick." Now, I had never owned
a meter stick (and still do not) – all my "sticks" were a yard in length. I had
been drinking out of liter bottles of soda for quite a while so it was not so strange
to see them in the stores there, but a "meter stick?" The event was obviously significant
enough for me to recall and write about it here. Pathétique, n'est-ce pas? (in deference, here, to the Québécois in the audience).
So, even though I still speak English [units] around the house and at family
gatherings, I am very comfortable speaking and writing SI in public. Now, when my
unenlightened friends are with Melanie and me at a restaurant where the menu is
in SI units and the waiter speaks only in SI units, I can impress them by doing
the ordering for everyone.
Conversion to metric has certainly been met with varying degrees of enthusiasm
here, and has caused its share of problems – not the least of which was the total
loss of NASA's
Mars Climate Orbiter due to an oversight on the part of the programmers, who
neglected to do necessary units conversions from English to metric. We Americans
are not alone, however. I refer you to this paper released by the UK Metric Association
(UKMA) in 2004, called "A
Very British Mess," regarding the need to complete UK metrication. Misery loves
English units hard-liners have proposed an alternative to the millimeter called
the "decimal inch." The decimal inch divides the standard inch up into hundredths
of an in rather than the 1/2N fractions. They exploit the fact that the
human eye can only resolve distances down to around 1/100th of an inch, so most
people will never need to express distances to any greater precision. This facilitates
simpler mathematical operations without forcing the abandonment of the beloved inch.
It does nothing, however, to mitigate the inconvenience of a foot being a third
of a yard (being the length of a certain king's arm), and 1/5,280th of a mile. Nice
With all the progress that has been made, we here in America still buy gasoline
by the gallon, take medicine by the teaspoonful, drive at speeds of miles per hour,
and speak of putting on extra pounds at Christmas because of all the good food.
It is hard for a people who used good 'ole English units to put a man on the moon,
discover the cure for polio, create the first digital computers, pioneer powered
flight, and invent the telephone to be convinced there is any reason to change their
ways. Just because the rest of the world uses metric was not a good enough motivation
to change. Progress is steady, though, as we buy food products marked with ridiculous
quantities marked on the package. My cereal box says it contains 17.3 ounces in
order to retain the three significant digits when converting from 490 grams. My
soup can has 18.8 ounces (or 533 g) of chunky beef stuff. Cat food comes in 5.50
oz. (156 g) cans. An exponential domination of globalism - love it or hate it –
will probably be the force that obliges the total adoption. At the time of this
writing, the RF Café homepage poll indicates that there is a 2:1 preference for
SI units over English units. I suppose I am ready.
An Internet search will turn up a multitude of inane and outdated units systems,
most of which have been abandoned long ago. Some are worth mentioning just because
of their weirdness. Furlong/Firkin/Fortnight (FFF) system of units, for
example, contains units of length and time that are at least familiar to most of
us; who hasn't joked about giving the speed of something in units of furlongs (1/8
mile) per fortnight (2 weeks)? What the heck is a Firkin, though? Glad
you asked: It is a unit of mass equal to 8 imperial gallons of water. That all sounds
so nautical. A Warhol is equal to 15 minutes, as in
dictum, "everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes."
Not all units are exact. A city block, for example, can be anywhere
between 1/16 and 1/8 mile (0.1 and 0.2 km). The sydharb defines the volume
of water in the Sydney Harbour, which is around 500 gigalitres (400,000 acre-feet).
A dol measures pain – definitely subjective since it is where pain is first
noticeable. The noy is a unit of loudness in a specific frequency band;
if the sound exceeds a certain level, it is anNOYing.
Some units are so ambiguous as to be indefinable. How expensive is, for example,
"about the price of a cup of coffee," or how fast is, "the blink of an eye?" What
quantity of something is contained in a "boatload?" If you just took a "ration of
s***" from someone, exactly how much s*** did you just take in, say, units of kilograms
Our high tech era has brought about its own unique unit: the nanoacre.
A nanoacre is about 4 mm2 and is used to express surface area on integrated
circuits. According to
File, "The term gets its humor from the fact that VLSI nanoacres have costs
in the same range as real acres in Silicon Valley once one figures in design and
fabrication-setup costs." A shake is precisely 10 nanoseconds, and is used
in nuclear physics to define a very small unit of time. In computing, a jiffy is
the duration of one clock cycle. High energy physics types have set the jerk
equal to 1 gigajoule. A nibble is 1/2 byte (4 bits). The Gillette quantified
the strength of early rear earth (ruby) lasers, being the energy required to burn
through a Gillette razor blade.
You Simpsons fans might recall this exchange:
Marge: "Now, I know you haven't liked some of my past suggestions, like switching
to the metric system."
Abe: "The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the
hogshead and that's the way I likes it."
Here is a formerly ambiguous unit that I just now defined: Too Long.
"Too long" is a written work that is precisely one word less than the length of
this Kirt's Cogitation. That definitely makes this missive "too long."