Costs of supporting dual measures

Ronnie Cohen provides us with an example from his work of the additional costs that businesses face as a result of having to provide for dual measures. Imagine how much better off we might be if all such costs in the UK economy and throughout the world could be avoided.

I work as a software developer for a small business that provides energy software solutions to gas and electricity companies. In that business, I noticed a number of features have been developed to support dual measurements. Over 50 extra lines of code have been written to support the use of Fahrenheit, in addition to Celsius, including conversions between Fahrenheit and Celsius in both directions. Over 50 extra lines of code have been written to include non-metric units and conversions, mostly between metric and non-metric units and almost 100 lines for supported conversions between metric and imperial units for imported data. A setting has been provided for users to express whether data is in Celsius or Fahrenheit in a couple of different places. Comments around the code are included in these figures but not the various locations in the code where extra parameters are included to support the use of dual units.

All this does not include discussions, technical and design specification documents, end-user documentation for these features and testing to support dual measurements. All this would be unnecessary if we just used one system and abandoned other units. As they say, time is money and all the time spent on these software features costs money. I have just described the costs incurred by one small business for the continued use of dual measurements. Imagine how much extra work has gone into supporting dual measurements in software systems that involve measurements across the whole of the software industry.

This phenomenon can also be found in common software products such as OpenOffice. I have found that they support both metric and imperial units in their software. I opened the Options window in OpenOffice and found that users can configure their software to use metric, USC/Imperial and other software-specific units (i.e. points and picas). Here are the images that show these settings:

(Click on the images above to see them in full size.)

This does not include the length-dependent settings where users can set the number of centimetres or inches, based on their preferred measurement units. There are several of those settings too. No doubt, all the functionality that use these different measurement units also had to be implemented, not just coded, but planned, designed, documented and tested. And these are just some of the hidden costs of maintaining dual measures.

27 thoughts on “Costs of supporting dual measures”

  1. Many years ago, I developed some software, initially for the structural steel industry in Canada, then the UK, that automated the costing and scheduling (programming) of virtually any building you liked (beyond single family dwellings), using a relatively simple input process setting out the type of building (offices, hospital, etc), how many storeys (above and below ground), what type of construction (steel, concrete), type of design of the structural frame, type of cladding and so on. It was of course heavily measurement focussed, especially as the output consisted of nearly 100 (maximum) construction processes, from initial site clearance to final handover, with each process involving a quantity and a unit rate. Each of those processes was then automatically programmed into a bar chart with all dependencies logged. This output could be exported into Microsoft Project. The costing database ran to over 500 different unit rates.

    After producing a metric version for Canada, followed by a further metric version for the UK, I was then asked by the American steel trade association to produce an imperial/USC for the US market. It cost me months of time to convert everything, and I actually underestimated just how long it would take. Hundreds of extra lines of code had to be inserted to account for all the weird conversion factors and calculations inherent in using non-metric measures (converting, for example, a cubic measurement consisting of linear feet and linear inches into cubic feet then into cubic yards). At the end of all this, I found that I made a bit of a loss, in terms of the amount of what would otherwise have been billable time.

    If the US trade association had been able to use the metric version, it would have taken far less time – and cost far less money. I would even have made a profit!


  2. And now the government can introduce a new one pound coin but cannot manage to metricate road signs. How very sad!


  3. @John Frewen-Lord

    I would have either turned down their request or charged them an astronomical rate that they would definitely not want me to do it. Of course you could have done a sloppy job and made it error prone.

    As long as others are willing to accommodate USC, there will never be a reason for the US to metricate. Making it costly for them either in material use or errors would either force them to metricate or force them out of business. Either way the use of USC would dwindle.


  4. In the 2nd photo, the road in the lower left shows the metric scale is about right and the foot scale off by around 10X. I think we can all be pleased that they screwed up the feet, not the meters.

    However, any oblique view like that has a perspective problem where scale isn’t very meaningful across the view.


  5. To be fair to OS, they don’t use imperial, on that basis they would probably have no idea.
    We should be praising them for not knowing, I could have looked at that all day and it would have meant nothing to me (to be honest, it still don’t), I don’t know, don’t want to know and don’t much care.
    Good for OS, just leave the conversion bar in the bin.


  6. Credit where credit is due.
    Our local Tesco store is now displaying TV sizes in both cm (first) and inches. Both so small I need to put my reading glasses on to see them. Forty years late, but it has happened.
    Further to a post of mine recently, Tesco have also changed the labels on their loose vegetables. All are now consistently (instead of sometime yes, sometimes not) dual priced in both kg and lb, but the kg is prominently on top and highlighted, and the imperial is about half the height and below. Although I find the dual objectionable there is now very little chance of confusion.


  7. It turns out the the cost of not having a single source of international measurement is even worse in Burma (Myanmar) than it is in the UK:

    This is a reposting of an article that first appeared late February of 2014 (see end of article).

    The article does make excellent points about how multiple categories of issues and multiple stakeholders must be coordinated and committed to effectively and efficiently convert to metric. This is not being done yet in Burma (apparently) nor is it being done in the UK to finally complete metrication (re: road signs and the elimination of Fahrenheit and dual units in the media).

    I hope someone can find updated information about how metrication is proceeding in Burma and if the government there is finally committed to actually implement the changeover throughout the country. Everyone will certainly benefit once they have done so!

    I also found it interesting that Germany has been helping Burma in some ways to convert. Too bad the UK did not see fit to assist their former colony!


  8. More credit where credit is due, local Tesco Extra ditches dual measures on loose fruit and vegetables!
    I often wondered and commented about why Tesco sold a number of items at “£1 a lb £2.20 kg” and what the price would be if they did not use the “street market” value of “£1 a lb”.
    Well, the two specific items I purchase every week have been £2.20/kg for at least 18 months on my till receipts. Two weeks ago they stopped this practice of dual pricing and now marked in kg only.
    The new is £1.79/kg, even 3 years ago they were £2.00/kg. The new market strategy is the £2.20 neatly crossed out, with the £1.79 big and bold underneath. Now I do not cringe every time I buy them!
    As I work it out that is about £0.82 a week for at least 100 weeks = £82 for my one person contribution to dual measures on just two items over two years.


  9. Brian,

    Good to see they dropped the price but I have to wonder if they artificially inflated the price previously in an effort to link it to a pound. In addition, the cost of dual advertising and accommodation of Ludditism was killing profits. Get rid of the nonsense and the prices come down.


  10. I made a rare visit to a garden centre in Kent recently, an area I would have expected to be a home of ‘Ludditism’. The centre accommodated (strangely enough for a garden centre!) a butcher’s shop. Lo and behold, everything was priced in metric only, not a pre-metric unit in sight. The only pre-metric units I saw was on the artificial Christmas trees (yes, in September!), which were marked in metric followed by something ‘feet’. Slowly but surely, the tide is turning.


  11. @Jake:

    This is wonderfully good news! Many kilometers beyond the Metric Martyr days, apparently.

    What this bit of information tells me is what I have suspected for some time (even from over on this side of The Pond), namely, that converting road signs to metric will seal the deal when it comes to fully converting the UK to metric.

    The experience of both Canada and Ireland bear this out beautifully.

    Distance signs can of course be converted very quickly. In the meantime DfT can basically steal the plans used by Ireland to work out the mechanisms for converting speed limit signs over a weekend (or even long holiday weekend) after suitable enabling legislation has been passed.

    Too bad Labour is not well placed to win the next general election. But if they form a minority government with a confidence and supply agreement with, say, the Lib Dems, maybe that will be the time to see road sign conversion finally happen. One hopes, at any rate! 🙂


  12. Ezra:

    The UK is in such a mess at the moment with Brexit, I don’t think the conversion of road signs features anywhere in any party’s manifesto, sadly, election or no election. But when we emerge from this valley of tears, richer or poorer, perhaps the attention will be deflected from ‘Brussels’ and those holding out against completion of our changeover will realise that we are only damaging ourselves by not having a complete, proper system of measurement that everyone learns at school and uses. One thing that has been on my mind recently, and perhaps a reader can explain this to me, is why is the ‘mile’ considered to be sacrosanct? I get it about the ‘pint’ of beer – it’s an emotional thing: you go ‘out for a pint’. But what’s the big deal with the old Roman unit of the ‘mile’? The only explanation I can think of is that the Americans still have it, so that makes us like them. Is that it? As we all know, metres and ‘yards’ are virtually the same thing and distances signposted in ‘yards’ are actually metres. But I suppose it is the ‘mile’ that is holding us back from using metres on signs, the idea that you cannot mix ‘imperial’ and metric on the roads, despite the fact that they are mixed up everywhere else in British life, starting in public houses where beer is sold in imperial units while spirits and wine are in metric servings. I find ‘miles’ too big: you never get to your destination! Or at least it feels that way. Why do people cling to them? Or don’t they, and it is just inertia that means we still have them on the roads?


  13. Jake,

    You are probably right about the mile linking the UK with the US. But, wouldn’t it be better if the UK were to link itself with its Commonwealth countries. After all, the US rebelled against the mother country and told the English to get lost. Whereas the Commonwealth stuck with the motherland even to this very day. Can it be that the English Luddites feel that rebellion of the US for political reasons is nothing compared to the rebellion of the Commonwealth countries to the Motherland’s historical units?

    Or is it possible that keeping miles on the roads gives hope to the Luddites that some day the entire Motherland will revert back fully to imperial? Once the roads change to kilometres that hope is lost forever.


  14. @Jake.
    Given the infantile issue of the colour of our passports, the mile could have its fan base purely on ‘how nice it sounds’ in catch phrases like ‘going the extra mile’ and ‘miles better’. It can surely not be for the love of the Roman Empire.

    An interesting contrast between non-metrication in UK v USA seems to be that in USA the government seems in favour, but the states will not accept it. In UK it is the local towns, cities and county councils in favour of full and final metrication, but the government and media that seems to resist.


  15. I suspect the anti-EU folks have seized upon the “mile” because the planned conversion of road signs never happened, resulting in a very visible reminder of Imperial that was left in place which they could seize upon.

    It is now for them like a rebel flag, a symbol of their “defiance”.

    Just heard yet another sign of the horribly bad influence of Imperial road signs, which keep the mile on life support. I watched a short clip from BBC4 on the Turkish invasion of Syria. The BBC reporter gave a translation of the speech the leader of Turkey gave (in Turkish, of course) to his parliament (with video of Erdogan speaking to his adoring MPs).

    I was shocked when the reporter’s translation of Erdogan’s remarks included this: “Turkey will not stop until we have created a 20 mile buffer zone inside Syria.” Of course, Erdogan used “kilometres” as he was speaking. How daft it was for the BBC4 reporter to change what Erdogan said into miles!

    Very sad commentary on the current state of the British media and … once again … the unfortunate consequences of the UK not having converted road signs back in the day when it would have been no big deal. 😦


  16. Jake
    You’re refer to the UK being in a mess with Brexit.
    I’m wondering why the SNP do not see full metrication of road signs as a way of enhancing Scotland’s independence from the UK.
    I’ve looked at the SNP website and cannot find any reference to metrication, does anyone know what their policy is?


  17. Quick update: Just watched same news story on Sky News. There the reporter faithfully translated Erdogan’s comments using “kilometres”.

    Metric muddle, anyone? 😉


  18. @Ezra

    And on Channel 4 news, Sun 13th,12 mins into the news we had a Fox News clip of US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper giving the buffer zone as 20 km!!
    Now we have 20 km = 20 miles, they are not even bothering to convert, just use miles instead of km.
    Tonight , as you said, they translated Erdogans speech word for word as it was spoken, with the buffer zone being “18 to 20 miles deep”. BBC and ITV TV news also give the figure as 20 miles.
    A BBC on line news article gives “a 32km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” running for 480km (300 miles)”.
    So take your pick, my guess is they have back translated 20 km given as 20 miles, into 32 km!!


  19. If you look at this map:

    You can see the extent of the buffer zone. If this is truly the buffer zone for this particular military action. This map is from 2019-09.

    Assuming it is, if you use Google Earth and the measuring ruler and measure a straight line distance from the border between Turkey and Syria near the towns of Akçakale and Tell Abiad to just North of Ain Issa, it measures out to 32 km.

    In order to know for sure what Erodgan actually said, one will have to replay his speech. Even to those who don’t speak Turkish, it won’t be hard to here the word kilometre coming from his mouth, but some one who can understand Turkish will be needed to decipher what number he said or someone can learn the pronunciation of the numbers 20 and 32 in Turkish and see which number he used.

    But for tight now, it seems 32 km is the correct distance.


  20. In his speech in the video on this news page:

    Erdogan said the buffer zone would be 30 to 35 km according to the American translator and subtitles. It wasn’t a single distance but a range of two round metric values, 30 and 35. In the video he only says the buffer runs from Manbij to the Iraqi border, which if measured straight line is only 300 km.

    This image shows the zone is 30 km deep and running 480 km:

    In none of these instances is miles used, only kilometres.


  21. Rob:

    I believe I’m right in saying (correct me, somebody, if I’m not) that the shape and colour of road signs in the non-English parts of the UK is a devolved matter, but the units on the signs are not. That is a matter reserved for Westminster to decide. So there would be no point in the SNP pushing for metrication of Scottish road signs as a mark of independence from the UK. Of course, it would ‘not’ constitute independence anyway, just another difference, and there are plenty of those already, starting with banknotes. Indeed, this would be a further ‘politicisation’ of the use of metric units. Having a sensible system of weights and measure is not a political issue. It is an issue of common sense. My heart sinks every time I see photos of those awful signs on roads leading into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland telling drivers that ‘speed limits are in miles per hour’. Those signs assume that you know what ‘miles per hour’ actually means. I’m sure plenty of tourists from around the world who hire a car at Dublin airport and drive into Northern Ireland have no idea what a ‘mile’ is. A British friend of mine told me he had hired such a car recently and driven up into the North and, even as a metric-educated Brit with a knowledge of miles on UK roads, he had had difficulty in making the mental leap of realising that 100 in Ireland and 60 in Northern Ireland are supposed to be (more or less) the same speed. And you have to figure that out while driving the car and being attentive to all kinds of other distractions on the road so that you don’t slam on the brakes. It would have made far more sense for the whole of Ireland to be a unitary area with metric signage, but I suppose just about everything is ‘politicised’ in Northern Ireland, including road signs if they were to make the North look more like the Republic. How did a sane country like the UK ever end up like this?


  22. I’ve hired a car in Belfast which had Irish plates and metric-only speedometer, so you don’t even need to be driving up from the south to have a confused situation!


  23. @tonyw

    Metric-only speedometer? Wow!
    That really takes the cake when it comes to the mayhem manufactured by the monstrous metric muddle!

    (All of this brought to you by the letter “M”, of course. Thank you, Sesame Street! 🙂


  24. Tonyw:

    So the island of Ireland operates as a single area as far as car hire is concerned? Just how is the driver expected to reconcile the metric speedo to the non-metric road signs?


  25. I don’t know whether that’s common or not, I was certainly very surprised! Luckily I’m familiar with both but it really highlighted how important it is to get out of this measurement mess once and for all, there are major road safety implications. As the government is finding with Brexit, the status of NI is such that it really needs alignment with both UK and IRL to function well – which isn’t possible when we have very different systems! And the onus is on us (the UK) to get into step with our neighbours not the other way around


  26. The comment about hiring a car in Belfast with a fully metric instrument panel makes me wonder how many people in Northern Ireland purchase fully metric cars for use in Northern Ireland.


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