01 December 2014

The importance of specifying units (and getting them right)

I came across theet of sign, which, although completely metric, bothered me ever so slightly. 

Firstly, the use of 'T' rather than 't' for tonnes. Something that needs to be corrected on UK weight limit signs in general. 

The lower sign, however, gives a figure of 4425, which we can only reasonable assume to be millimetres. (You can't be sure because the units aren't specified. Maybe it's just a random number?)

Such signs give an impression that metric units are complicated when, in fact,  they are much simpler than the alternative. 

But the use of the appropriate scale is paramount. 4.4 m would be a much more appropriate for this sign.

05 October 2014

Misuse of metric symbols: an international problem

Having spent considerable amounts of time in different countries and having visited four continents in the past few months, I've noticed that what many (including myself) consider to be a uniquely British or anglophone problem is in fact prevalent in a number of other countries - some of which have been metric for their entire existence.

I've posted images of signs in the UK using 'mtrs' for metres where 'm' should be used and I've discussed the nonsensicality of the use of kph instead of km/h in the British context, whilst lauding the metrication efforts of other anglophone countries in a similar metric limbo to the United Kingdom. Whilst I do stand by my argument that in the UK, we need to fully utilise our official system of measurements, and do so properly, I've come to realise that we're not the only country screwing this up.

The most common violation of the BIPM's accepted symbols for metric units is the (mis)use of 'mtr' to represent metre (and often its pluralisation to 'mtrs' for metres). The fact that this abbreviation is used in numerous countries does to some degree erode the validity of the argument for the universal symbol 'm', but not entirely.

Whilst it may be true that speakers of languages which use Latin characters may naturally guess that 'mtr' means metre, the whole purpose of having an internationally accepted symbol is so that everyone - regardless of whether their languages use Latin, Arabic, Oriental or Slavic characters will know 'm' is metre.

An additional point to note is that writing '100 m' is three characters less than writing '100 mtrs'. This yields some financial savings. The first is obvious. By using fewer letters, less time is used and fewer resources are employed. Even if the additional cost of the extra three letters is £0.00001, at an aggregate level, it could add up to a substantial amount of savings - this is common sense.

The second set of benefits from using international standard 'm' for metres (and only for metres) is the time savings and efficiency savings from misunderstanding. Mtr can mean any number of things (including being the name of the Hong Kong metro), whereas 'm' should only mean metres. I think it should be relatively simple to see why using the SI symbol makes sense - if only the real world worked like that.

The purpose of this post, is not to justify Britain's lax attitude to metrication, but to highlight an opportunity. When metric signs do become a norm (I have faith), we as a country can at least get it right and be an example to the world. We can ensure signs are posted in 'km' and not 'kms', 'km/h' and not 'kph', 'kg' and not 'KGs', etc. We just have to get to that stage first.

19 January 2014

Just How Metric is Britain?

With the average person giving their height in feet and inches, weighing their babies in pounds and ounces, quoting distances in miles, it is very easy to forget that the metric system is the official system of measurements throughout the United Kingdom. This begs the question: Why does the imperial system still dominate our speech?

To answer the sub question, I will focus primarily on road signs, the vast majority of which are in imperial measures (typically miles and yards). With these being the measurements which most people see on a day to day basis, it impacts the decision people make regarding measurements. Seeing miles and yards on the road is more likely to make an individual speak in miles and yards for distances - in spite of their education in metres and kilometres. This has the knock-on effect of using miles per gallon for fuel consumption (although you would struggle to find an imperial gallon anywhere around) and miles per hour for speed. This has wider impacts in the media too: for example, wind speeds being given in MPH, rural locations being quoted as x miles from the nearest town, etc. But I won't go off on a tangent.

The use of imperial road signs and speed limits is also rather illogical. Imperial warriors will claim that it is nonsensical to change speed limits and distances, however it is the maintenance of the use of imperial measures that is nonsensical. My reasoning for this statement is simple and will answer the question: Just how metric is Britain?

Roads in the United Kingdom are designed to metric specifications. Any road being built will have its length and breadth stated exclusively in metres or kilometres. If in doubt, you should be able to find the plans for most roads already built in the UK on the relevant local authority's website. Moreover, all roads have a design speed which is modelled and specified in kilometres per hour. (All widely-used traffic models in the UK use only km/h for speeds and km for distances). All of this information is then converted to miles and MPH for the signs which go on the road, reducing accuracy and quite frankly wasting resources.

So, just how metric is Britain?

More metric than most would like to think.

Our roads really are metric, despite what may would like to think - and just about everything else is too.