Kirt's Cogitations™ #237
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
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
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
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 company.
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 try.
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
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 or liters?
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
The Jargon 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
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
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
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."
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