Thursday, January 21, 2021

European Standards?

Our European friends like to run us down for using "Imperial" measurements, old-fashioned 12-hour clocks, and an archaic way of writing dates.  But for informal measurements, often people overseas revert to our bad old American ways.

I wrote about the metric system before.  As an Engineer, of course, it makes perfect sense.  One cubic centimetre of water weighs (OK, masses) one gram.  One liter of water weighs one kilo.  It isn't hard to do conversions - everything is a factor of ten, as opposed to quarts, pints, cups, and gallons - which have no relation to cubic feet, which in turn use the "foot" as an arbitrary measurement, as well as the mile, which is 5280 feet for some reason.  Imperial measurements make no freaking sense at all!

But a funny thing.  Whenever we watch television shows or movies made in Europe, particularly the UK, it seems people tend to slip into Imperial measurements when it is convenient for them.  For example, in a car show, they talk about "0-60" times in terms of zero to sixty miles per hour.  Engines are rated in horsepower, and gas "mileage" is often talked about in miles per gallon and not the more trendy(and useful) liters-per-hundred-kilometers.

We watch a show about trains, and they talk about how many feet long a coach is, and how many miles away the next station is, or how many horsepower an old steam locomotive has.  An historic railway has restored ten miles of track - not kilometers!  Why the switch?

Go to the lumber yard in Norway and you'll see the lumber sold as "2x4" or "2x8" or whatever - even though the lumber isn't 2" x 4" over there - or over here for that matter.  Buy a flat-screen television, and it is measured in diagonal inches and not millimetres.  The "English" or "Imperial" system isn't quite dead yet, even in metric countries.

When it comes to colloquial measurements, it seems that people revert to Imperial units when it is convenient.  Temperature in Centigrade or Celsius or Kelvin may be more scientifically accurate and useful, but the spread in temperature in the human comfort zone in Fahrenheit provides a better "feel" for temperature differences, without the need for decimal points.   If it's 100 degrees in the shade, I know it's hot.  The difference between 65 and 70 degrees gives you nice five degree spread.  But the metric equivalent, 18.3 to 21.1 seems just to be confusing.  Either there is only a three degree difference (too little) or 30-step increments (in tenths a degree) which is far too much.

But it goes beyond temperature, volume, and distance.  In terms of time, many of our overseas pals love to use what we call "military time" or the 24 hour clock.  Unless you served in the military, you have to do a little math in your head to figure out whether 17:00 hours is time for dinner or time to go to bed.  Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet never sang about "It's 17:00 Hours Somewhere!"   Again, military time may be more efficient and clearer (hence why the military uses it, so battles plans are not off by 12 hours!) but when it comes down to colloquial, human-scale measurement, many revert to the old 12 hour format.   Big Ben isn't a 24-hour clock, now, is it?  Or did they fix that with the recent renovations?

Of course, time itself if non-metric - 24 hours, 60 minutes, 60 seconds!  How archaic!  Some folks propose one version or another of "Metric Time" with 10 hours in a day, or some such nonsense.  Apparently, some idiots have actually done this.  Hey - that's one way to enact the $15-an-hour minimum wage - just make every hour 2.4 hours long!  Happy now, Socialists?

It is like the idea of metrifying the compass.  360 degrees?  That should be 100 degrees, or maybe PI or something!  No more sloppy dividing by sixty!

Dates are also an issue.  I literally get complaints from overseas friends who say our archaic way of writing dates is confusing.  But the Declaration of Independence was written on July 4, 1776, and not "04-07-1776" as some prefer to use.  The stated reasoning behind the latter format is that it increments by relative time size - date, month, year.  Of course, if you are going to go that route, why not have ten months of 36.5 days each?   And why date things from Jesus' birth?   It gets messy, this revisionist stuff.

When I search a Patent or Trademark database, it does get confusing, particularly for overseas databases such as WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) where "03-12-1999" could be read as March 12th or December 3rd of 1999, unless you are careful.

At first, it seems the regimented day/month/year makes more sense, as the numbers go from left to right in increasing ordinate.  Of course, with regular numbers, we do the opposite - the highest ordinate comes first.  So ten-thousand is written as 10,000 not 00,001.  Oh, geez, now another thing - the commas.

Yes, we still use commas after every three digits because it is so much freaking easier to read.  My European friends either use a period - which is confusing as fuck, because the period denotes a decimal fraction.  So ten-thousand becomes either 10000 - where you have to count the zeros with a pencil if you are dyslexic like I am, or 10.000 which sounds like ten to three decimal places.  For decimals, they often use a space which also causes confusion, as ten-thousand, five-hundred and sixty-five dollars and 50 cents isn't written as "$10,565.50" but "USD 10.565 50" or something like that.

UPDATE:  This is more of an Asian thing, which I have seen on invoices from overseas attorneys.  Not only is the decimal used as a comma, but many use the comma as a decimal!  So "$10,565.50" might appear as "USD 10.565,50" or "USD 10 565,50" or something like that.  Not hard to figure out, but must be a bitch for people coding banking sites internationally.

But getting back to dates, the reason why our ancestors - on both sides of the Atlantic - used the "old fashioned" method was that when you were looking at a document, the month was probably the most important thing you were interested in - is this a recent document, or from days gone by?  And in an era where communications took weeks or months - particularly to cross oceans and vast empires, the numerical date was more a matter of curiosity than the month and year.

When we sent the Declaration of Independence to King George, he wasn't confused by the date: "What is this?  April 7th, 1776?  I know the mail is slow, but this took over three months to get here!" No, they were on the same page as us.  For some reason, Europe seems more inclined to adopt "metrified" time and date recitations and the US is stuck in its pre-revolutionary ways.

Some say the reason the US is so "backward" is that we had a chance to adopt modern standards back in the day, but that the standard meter and kilo and other measurement tools were lost at sea.  It makes for a good story, but doesn't explain why we didn't switch later on.  I suspect the French adapted early on to the Metric system as a means of renouncing "Imperialism" after the French Revolution.  After all, when the basic measurement of distance is based on the length of the King', foot .... it all depends on who is King, right?

But wait, it gets worse.  The British, had what they called "Imperial" measurements, and back when I was a kid, when you went to Canada, you didn't buy gas by the liter, but by the "Imperial Gallon" which was slightly larger than the US gallon.  Overseas, they now sell gas by the liter, but we still pump oil by the barrel which is an arbitrary measurement standard. The Brits also had a set of tools called "Whitworth" and why is anyone's guess.  Anyone who has owned an old British car has no doubt cussed out Mr. Whitworth, whoever he was.

We also have something called "gauge" which is used for wires and drill bits.  I believe they still use this archaic system in Europe.  The weird thing about gauge is that the larger the number the smaller the diameter.  So 12 gauge wire is smaller than 10 gauge wire and can handle less current.  The obvious problem with this scheme is that you quickly run out of numbers as your wires get bigger and bigger.  Eventually you are down to 1, then zero ("ought" or "aught") and then double-ought, triple-ought, and what-nought.

Speaking of "ought" which is an archaic way of saying "zero" - some folks overseas still use that term, instead of zero.  So while Elvis Costello may sing about "Less Than Zero" his countrymen might be thinking "Less Than Ought."

And by the way, the word "Zero" begins with the letter "Z" which is pronounced "Zee" not "Zed".  Zed is someone's name.

This is not to say that the old "Imperial" measurements are better than Metric.  They aren't.  Airplanes have run out of fuel and satellites have been lost when people made the wrong "conversion" between  "English" and metric units.  Clearly, mission-critical applications should use the metric system, or at the very least, use only one system, and not multiple versions.

In aviation, for example, we still use knots (even weirder than miles per hour), nautical miles, and measured altitude in thousands of feet.  Only Russia and China use the metric system - damn Commies!  Speaking of which, in Russia, the "artificial horizon" is reversed - the horizon stays the same and the little plane indicator moves.  When transitioning to Western aircraft, this can cause confusion, and is suspected as the cause of at least one airplane crash.  A simple thing, really.

In maritime applications, nautical miles and knots are still in use in much of the world.  I suppose both aviation and maritime applications are areas where metrification would make sense - but switching over most of the world overnight to one system or the other would be difficult, to say the least - with the potential for even more disasters.

But as I noted in my earlier posting, that pretty much is becoming the case.  It is hard to find "English" nuts and bolts anymore on an "American" car, although they are available at the hardware store (don't get me started on thread pitch!).   Science and Industry has already made the switch to metric.  Whether or not we need to do this to tell the time of day, how much flour to put in your cake (although one reader recommends doing this by weight rather than volume, which makes sense) or how much gas to put in your car, is another question.  Eventually, I suspect these too, will change, but it will take a lot longer as the compelling need for such change really doesn't exist.

UPDATE:  A reader writes:

I thought you might be interested to know that organ pipes all over the world are classified according to their Imperial length - 8 feet (pitch), 4 ' (octave higher), 2 ' (2 octaves higher), 1 ' (3), 16' (octave lower), 32' (2) and very occasionally 64 ' (3). The measurement is that of the lowest in the range (C is the lowest note). This classification is absolutely irrespective of nationality - German 'acht Fuss', French 'huit pieds' etc. The measure persists because, of course,  it reflects real life - sound waves at C divide in that way.
Don't get me started on Western musical notation - something that as a tone-deaf person, I was never able to figure out.  "That's a middle C!" some musical person would exclaim to me, "Can't you tell?"  I dunno - can you express that in frequency (262 Hz)?   Not all of the human family uses the seven-note "Doe-a-Deer" system that Julie Andrews immortalized.  And let's not even talk about sharps and flats!
And also, BTW, in German markets you can buy loose stuff (cheese, apples, etc.) by the 'Pfund'. 'Ein Pfund' is half a kilo (so actually not exactly an Imperial pound, but just called that).
And oddly enough, in the USA, the liter is now a pretty standard unit of measurement for larger soda bottles, which come in liter and two-liter sizes.  For smaller sizes, though, we still talk about 8, 12, and 16 ounces.  For "fountain" drinks, the ounce rules - often up to 44 ounces for the "super big gulp" - known also as the diabetes special.
The 'English' for 'zero' is actually 'Nought', not 'ought' - in dialect this is 'nowt', a contraction of 'nothing'. So it's not illogical, tho' different. (And 'Zed' may be someone's name in the US - but we DO have different names - I remember the first time I heard someone called 'Randy' with a straight face. This is not something an English person would be happy to be called. The American equivalent is 'horny'!)
Naught, Nought, Ought, and Aught seem to be different spellings for the same or similar concepts, some of which are archaic spellings.  For wiring, I have seen "ought" and "aught" used to describe zero-gauge wire.  It has all come to Naught, but we Ought to do something about it.

My Scottish friends howled with laughter at the idea of "Fanny Farmer Candies" as they told me that "Fanny" was Scottish slang for "Vagina".  Oddly enough, they told me that in their country (leaving the UK soon!)  "Cunt" means a stupid person and has nothing to do with genitalia, whereas in America it is seen as misogynist slur against woman.

Two countries separated by a common language.   I just find it funny when you see a British car show and talk about the "BMW Zed-3" when everyone knows it is the ZEE- THREE which not only rhymes, sounds so much more awesome - which is why so many car makers us the moniker "Z" in car names.  ZED?  It rhymes with "Jed" and Mr. Clampett didn't drive sports cars.
Many 'Imperial' (I think this name was coined when we had an empire and were trying to standardise measures across the globe!) measures are, like the above-mentioned foot, 'natural' ones - a 'foot' is the length of a man's foot, and the origins of the others can be found here.
In addition to driving on the wrong side of the road, you spelled "standardize" wrong (along with "color" and a host of other words).  And a "Controversy" is a CON-TROW-VERSY not a "CON-TRAV-A-SEA" - but I digress.  And don't get me started on Aluminum! The word "Tesco" is correctly pronounced "Wal-mart".   "Cling-film"?  Saran-wrap!

And a Billion is a thousand-million, not a million-million!  This last item causes a lot of confusion sometimes, as some British tabloids have used this discrepancy to make it seem like we have a lot more money than we do.  Still, a billion dollars ain't nothing to sneeze at.  That's the jackpot for the Mega-millions tonight - too much freaking money, in my mind.  My UK friends tell me the jackpots there are smaller and more numerous - which I think makes more sense.  Nice to win a million and retire early. Not so so nice to win a Billion, spend the rest of your life fighting lawsuits and hiring bodyguards to prevent your children from being kidnapped.  There is such a thing as too much money.  You think Jeff Bezos can travel in anything other than an armored limousine?

That is the one nice thing about "English" measurements (as we refer to them here, as "Imperial" has the connotations of older Canadian measurements, such as the Imperial gallon) is that being human-based, you can use body parts to measure things.  Having size 13 feet (and not some Communist metric shoes!) I can pace off a number of feet by going heel-to-toe, pretty accurately.  And since a yard is a pace, I can pace off 100 yards within a few feet - although I suppose the "meter" is about the same, and come to think of it, its name probably originates from the pacing of a person's walk.  An inch?  About the length of the last joint on your pointer finger.  That's how these things developed.  The Centimeter is fine and all, just harder to visualize.

Damn.  Spell check tells me that "Centimeter" should be --Centimetre-- which just sounds too damn French.  Turns out to be yet another spelling discrepancy between "English" speaking nations.

I think metric measurements will slowly infiltrate the US, as evidenced by the use of liters and kilos more and more in packaging.  It is a shame that the last time we tried to convert - in the Carter era - we used dual signage for road signs, which just made things worse.  But with the press of a button, my speedometer switches from MPH to KPH and the navigation system does as well - which is handy, as when you travel to Canada, it can get confusing to try to convert in your head.   You end up missing exits as a result.

But like I said, in industry and technology, the metric system is already predominate - metric fasteners are now the norm in "American" cars and have been so, for many years.  Colloquial measurements will likely be the last to convert, as it really makes no difference, and they are just too damn handy.

UPDATE:  A Canadian reader reminds me that there is a metric compass (Grads) and of course we have Radians (based on PI), the latter having many applications in Electrical Engineering.   I learned that all a long time ago - and then promptly forgot.   In everyday use, we still talk about 90 degree angles.

They also brought up the point of nonsense Metric/English sizes.  Butter is sold by the pound in both America and Canada, but is called "454 grams" up there.   In the States, many metric sizes are ounced.  A 1/3 liter of beer (common in Europe) is sold here as 11.2 ounces.

Nonsense conversions accomplish nothing.  It is like taking a blueprint and then just converting the numbers, not realizing that there is no such thing as a 12.7mm wrench (but there is a 1/2" bolt). 

Car engines in the States are all denoted in liters now.  Ford, back in the 1960's, thought they would try to sound European by calling one of their 2,000 kilogram two-door coupes, the "7 Liter" - an engine size that is obscene by European standards of the time (or indeed, even today).  It just confused people and Ford dropped the name (but not the engine) after a year.  Jay Leno had one, and removed the ultra-rare 427 side-oiler for the more reliable 428.  Not sure that was a smart move, Jay!

It is easy to convert engine sizes in your head, if you realize that 5.0 liters is about 300 cubic inches.  Although five liters is today considered a pretty huge displacement engine.

So long as the worlds largest (or second-largest) consumer market remains mired in the "English" system, I think we will have this nonsense of dual size ratings and nonsense conversions.   I suspect that, over time, though, metric will seep into American life.  Liter water and soda bottles seem to have been accepted - for decades now - without any hue and cry from the John Birch Society that a Communist Coup is imminent.