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Sunday, December 07, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ask the Expert / Darrell Hay
Avid metric lovers weigh in, carefully measuring their words

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I have been absolutely deluged with mail from readers since writing (tongue-in-cheek) Nov. 2 about two unintended and emotionally disturbing experiences with the metric system. Judging from the outpouring of demonstrative responses, an outsider might have thought I had written about Naked Sushi, low-flow toilets or even Tim Eyman. But no, it was only a system of measurement.

Those of you in the silent majority, pound for pound, were a lot less vociferous. So we'll skip your comments and get right to the kilopascals of 50 C. mixed gas from the metric adherents (that means a lot of hot air). I'll try to keep an open mind. You unabashed lovers of the metric system, the floor is yours:

Q: I contacted Norm Abrams, suggesting that he show people how to use the metric system on his shows. He would have nothing to do with it. Why can't we change in this area?

A: Can't speak for Norm, but maybe he sees this as the same politically correct inanity I do — going out of your way to use metric in a building built, supplied and remodeled using English system parts, plans and methods. Or maybe he wants good ratings for his show? I can see the promo now: "Next week, tune in to see how to convert building code into metric equivalents." Oh, yawn, where's the clicker?

Q: The rest of the world isn't wrong; the metric system works better. You are a perfect example of the typical American with your head so far up your (bad word), you only see what's in your pitiful brain.

A: Dude, it's only a system of measurement; no one insulted your mother. Use the metric system — it's been perfectly legal to use here since 1866. We use it for scientific endeavors, cars and Pepsi bottles with aplomb. Unquestionably superior Apple computers and Sony Beta videotape machines are legal, too. Just don't try to send a document to a friend, rent a movie or expect to get that piece of 10 mm plywood to match up to the wall built in 1954.

Q: Metric really shines in laying out stairs because it is much easier to divide rises and runs.

A: Very true! Good point. In a stand-alone situation like that, you need only convert the building code and the thicknesses of the English-sized lumber you are using to metric to make it work. But then, I can easily find the common denominator in 3/16 and 1/8 more easily than converting from English to metric and back when I add another piece of 1½-inch-thick wood.

Q: Fortunately, I have a sense of humour (as do most Canadians), so when I read that you had chosen to blame Canada for your recent "encounters with the bizarre," I nearly burst out laughing. Given that the USA is the only significant country in the world to refuse to use the metric system, I hardly feel it is fair to blame Canada.

In a survey a few years ago, Liberia and Myanmar (maybe known to you as Burma) are the only two other countries not to have officially adopted the metric system. I think if the U.S. is going to choose to remain with the all-but-abandoned Imperial system (rather funny when you consider the origin of your country — remember the Boston Tea Party), you can hardly blame your neighbours for adopting the system used by the rest of the world.

So Liberia and Myanmar are insignificant, eh? Much as I love our neighbours (spelling checked!) in Canada, the centre (spelling checked!) of my vacationing world, here in the U.S. we generally drop useless vowels and have failed to embrace the metric system fully.

Speaking of Canada and its smooth transition to metric, remember the "Gimli Glider" back in 1983? This Air Canada 767 was mistakenly loaded with 22,300 pounds of fuel instead of the 22,300 kilograms necessary for the flight. After it ran out of fuel at 26,000 feet near Winnipeg, the pilots, fortunately, were able to glide it to an emergency landing at an abandoned airfield with no serious injuries. English is the universal language of aviation.

Q: I was very disappointed to read your column. The metric system is rational, easy to use and understand and in use by the whole world except by us backwards Americans.

When a person, reputed to be an "expert," publicly advocates continuation of an irrational, archaic system that has been abandoned by the rest of the world, I seriously question their reputation as an "expert." I'm afraid that you have not helped a problem; rather, you are a part of the problem. I know, the metric system wasn't invented in the U.S., but the English system that you prefer wasn't invented in the U.S., either.

A: I agree, metric is rational and easy to use. That's why I object to the "irrational, archaic system" of timekeeping we now are saddled with. Sixty seconds in a minute; 60 minutes in an hour; 24 hours in a day — a.m. and p.m. for added confusion; seven days in a week; 28, 30 or 31 days in a month; 12 months in a year. I don't even work in an office, and I still look at the clock more often than any other kind of measurement.

To make things "rational, easy to use and understand," I hereby propose "Metric Time":

• We will alter the Earth's orbit, so a year will equal 10 months.

• Each month will be 10 days long.

• Each day is composed of 10 hours.

• Each hour is 10 minutes.

• Each minute is 10 seconds.

Wait, you say — we already have systems and customs in place that rely on the existing way of measuring things. This would cause massive confusion and disruption, you say. Tough, I say, if anyone else is willing to embrace it, we should be, too.

Q: I was somewhat awestruck at your xenophobic tirade over the metric system, especially in this era of global shrinkage and world markets. You probably like trying to figure out how many times one-eighth of an inch will go into 3 feet, 5 inches and 5/16ths of an inch.

As long as the arrogance and the Imperial mind-set of the United States encourages dragging its collective feet and refuses to join the rest of the world, people like yourself will be frustrated at not being able to see the larger picture of the educational benefits and the economic advantages of standardizing weights and measurements.

A: "Xenophobic tirade" was a great piece of writing. But you were wrong. It was a jingoistic vituperation.

Thanks, everyone, for writing. Despite my flippant attitude, I do appreciate your feedback.

Stay tuned, because during the next metric month I'll talk to Canadian contractors about their experiences with metricification. And maybe even Norm Abrams.

Darrell Hay answers readers' questions. Call 206-464-8514 to record your question, or e-mail Sorry, no personal replies. More columns at

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