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Sunday, December 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ask the Expert / Darrell Hay
Surrey, B.C., Home Depot measures up to our way of thinking


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It is common knowledge that the United States is the only major country in the world to use the horribly antiquated English/Imperial measuring system utilizing feet, miles, pounds and the fractions thereof. But common knowledge is commonly wrong.

Most who call themselves progressive (sadly, I consider myself within that group) firmly believe that to be a true player in the international economy, we must convert to the metric system. Being progressive, Canada officially adopted the metric system in 1970, an entire generation ago. Just look at their road and gasoline signs and their colored money for proof.

In two previous columns, I described my displeasure about ongoing metricification efforts here (blaming Canada, of course) and decried how difficult it would be for remodeling contractors, plumbers, trades people and homeowners to deal with creeping socialism embodied in a tape measure. So, being morbidly curious about how those poor Canadians were adjusting to metric, I decided it was time for a ROAD TRIP!

(Before proceeding, let me here and now formally apologize to any and all Canadian citizens: My bad; I'm sorry.)

The new reality is that if you want to be a player in the world economy, you need to trade with the USA. (Note that Saddam Hussein was found in his hole carrying $750,000 in U.S. $100 bills. He was not carrying euros, Iraqi dinars or Monopoly money.) Further adding to this evidence of unwitting U.S. cultural imperialism, I discovered during my visit to the Home Depot South, Surrey, B.C., that Canadians buy Canadian manufactured plywood with Canadian dollars in fractions of inches, not millimeters.

They also buy Canadian paint in quarts, one- and five-gallon containers, not liters, and not the slightly larger, gone-but-not-forgotten "Imperial gallons." They don't even stock metric tape measures at the Home Depot South, Surrey, B.C.! (You could special-order one if you had to have it for a science project, I suppose. Heck, I unwittingly bought a half-metric tape measure at the Bothell Home Depot and haven't stopped gripin' since).

Surrey assistant store manager Kim Nicholas uses cups, teaspoons and Fahrenheit temperatures when she cooks. She showed me flooring sold by the square foot, 2-by-6s that were 12 feet long and carpet-cleaning formula made in Canada but sold in a 64-ounce bottle (exactly one-half U.S. gallon for those not familiar with the terminology).

Every single item in the store, except for one, was sold or identified using the English/Imperial measuring system. And this is how it should be, since all the houses in the area were built using English/Imperial measurements.

By law, everything in Canada is labeled in French and English, except in Quebec, where somehow the English gets dropped, but that's another day. One particular hood fan manufactured in Quebec caught my eye as it, of course, lacked any English printing except for the largest bold type on the package, proudly displaying the capacity of the fan as "1250 CFM." (CFM is a fan rating, "cubic feet per minute," common knowledge even in French.)

Public buildings in Canada, and U.S. federal highway projects, are planned and specified in metric to be politically correct, but bid by contractors buying paving materials on the free market by the cubic yard, lumber by the foot and carpet-cleaner by the half-gallon. These contractors first must convert every plan to usable and practical English/Imperial, increasing costs and increasing mistakes.

Land surveys and official government records based on the English/Imperial system create headaches of immense proportions for all who must deal with converting them to metric and applying that information correctly. Metric is great for stand-alone projects (take note, all you teachers and scientists), but a nightmare when thrust upon existing infrastructure and systems.

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Canadian citizens use the metric system only where there is no alternative (car speedometers are in kilometers per hour, fuel is sold in liters and weather forecasts are in Celsius). The one exception might be deli items sold by the gram, ostensibly so they will appear less expensive. That's pretty much it. The rest, in my view, has been a failure, rebelled against or become wholly impractical.

In 1985, the Metric Commission of Canada was disbanded and replaced by the Metric Information Division of Industry Canada. This office was disbanded in 1988. Canadian metrification efforts have officially stalled, just barely ahead of the U.S. (we buy sliced turkey by the ounce).

We pause now for this letter, sent by Jim Stacey, of Seattle:

DEAR READERS: I am Mr. Hay's attorney. Well, OK, I would be if I had finished law school. Anyway, the poor fellow has been brainwashed. All his life he has been indoctrinated by proponents of the English system: "a miss is as good as a mile, a pint's a pound the world around, etc." See, this system is built on perfectly good mnemonics. Where do you find those with the metric system, I ask you? What rhymes with meter? See. If insanity doesn't work, we will try the flag defense. Maybe the Canadian defense. They still ship us lumber by the foot. It's a conspiracy, and the gloves don't fit. By a centimeter or two.

— Sincerely, "Ben Hurt"

And now, back to the tirade ...

Australians also had the metric system imposed upon them by their government in 1970. Back in the day, the Australian government was educating people on the correct terminology to be used in everyday conversation: A pound of flesh. A kilogram of flesh (rewriting Shakespeare!).

Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile. Give them a gram, and they'll take a tonne. Or give them a millimeter, and they'll take a kilometer.

I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole. I wouldn't touch that with a 3-meter pole.

Six feet under. Two meters under.

Within an inch of death. Missed death by millimeters.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure.

Go the extra mile. Extra kilometer.

Yardstick. A meter measure.

Reach a milestone. Kilometer marker.

Coming up next week: Part 2 of Darrell's Great Canadian Road Trip; the one and only metric device sold at Home Depot South, Surrey, B.C.; and the struggle coming back across the border.

Darrell Hay answers readers' questions. Call 206-464-8514 to record your question, or e-mail dhay@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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