Sunday, 20 January 2019

What's wrong with the metric system

What’s wrong with the metric system? This year marks the 54th anniversary of the decision, taken by Harold Wilson’s government in 1965, that Britain was to go metric. Wilson, it turns out in retrospect, was obsessed with the idea that Britain should have a positive balance of visible trade with the rest of the world, despite the fact (as was pointed out at the time) that Britain had never had a positive balance of visible trade since mediaeval times and had a negligible prospect of achieving one.

Did you get swept up in the jubilant celebrations four years ago, in which millions of once gruesomely oppressed carpenters, map makers, printers, pub landlords, coal miners and tailors drank themselves senseless as they recalled casting off the shackles of feet, inches, miles, foolscaps, pints and hundredweights and replacing them with things whose names began with centi and kilo and mega? You didn’t? Neither did I.

In 1668, an English bishop, John Wilkins (1614-1672), published a book with a plan for a ‘universal measure’. You might think that a logically organised system of weights and measures would be so appealing to the man on the Clapham omnibus that all who heard of the metric system would immediately hurl their Imperial tape measures and scales and beer glasses into the nearest deep water harbour as they liberated the depths in fathoms by painting them over with metres. Not a bit of it. Mr Wilkins’s suggestion was more or less ignored until the mad French dictator Napoleon imposed the metric system on traders in his country by force, sending a special metric police force into the marketplaces to smash any eighteenth century French pounds and ounces they came across and then beat the trader using them to a pulp, just to show him who was boss.

Anyone who wants to learn just how barmy Napoleon’s metric system really was needs only to take a look at the French decimal time and decimal calendar, forced onto the French public in 1793. Decimal time lasted all of eighteen Gregorian months before being ignominiously abolished, while the decimal calendar was kept going until XIV, or 1805 as everyone else called it.

In a curious echo of the way Napoleon dealt with market traders who shunned his new-fangled measurements (see picture, below), British Consumer Protection jobsworths suppressed dissent by prosecuting Mr Steve Thoburn in 2001 for daring to sell a pound of bananas to a customer who asked for a pound of bananas, contrary to the Weights and Measures Act 1985, and so petty were they that they confiscated his Imperial scales.

Why should the metric system have aroused indifference on such a massive scale despite, allegedly, being a spectacularly good idea? Everywhere you look in the metric system, ten of something makes one of something else. Isn’t that idea simple and elegant enough to guarantee the metric system fame, fortune and a place in every grocer’s shop in all the length and breadth of Bonny Scotland for the rest of eternity?

Well, no, it isn’t.

It is true that throughout the metric system, the answer to any question about how many of these makes one of those is always ‘Ten.’ In the Imperial system the answer could be eight, twelve, thirty six, eighty, one hundred and forty four or even five thousand, two hundred and eighty. But although this ubiquity of tens may be an attractive feature of the metric system, it isn’t actually a useful one. In other words, if the answer’s ten, you are asking the wrong question.

Obviously, if a collection of weights and measures created for a myriad different purposes over a period of more than a thousand years and related to each other by so many different ratios that schoolchildren used to have tables of the best known ones printed on the back covers of their exercise books, it never mattered much to anyone that the ratios appeared to be as random as lottery numbers. If the apparent randomness had been a problem, the Imperial units would have been rationalised centuries ago.

Ask not how many of these make one of those. Ask instead, ‘What weighs one kilogram?’

The only thing I can think of, apart from a certain piece of platinum which is slowly wearing out in a museum in Paris, is a pack of sugar, and I guess that is because before they metricated it, sugar was packed in 2 lb bags. Even the abbreviation lb for pound is a nod to the antiquity and lineage of the Imperial unit: it comes from Latin. The pound itself was first defined in around 1300, and so was the yard, while the pint and the gallon have a confused history, started life in antiquity and were standardised in 1824. (Well, that’s really only true for small values of standardised. The United States pint is sixteen fluid ounces; the British pint is twenty.)

But ask the same question of Imperial measures and you can't throw a stone (a unit which, incidentally, originated in Roman times) without hitting an answer.

What weighs one pound? A pound of meat is enough to feed your family. What has a volume of one pint? A pint is the amount of beer you want to drink. What has an area of one acre? An acre is the area that you can plough in a day with two oxen. What weighs one hundredweight? Anything in a sack, because a hundredweight is the weight that a man can lift.

That is the conceit that keeps Napoleon's metric system going: that all lengths, all weights, all volumes can be measured by what are, when you look closely enough, three basic units, and one size of each of them fits all.

One of the unsung glories of the Imperial System was that every trade used units of measurement which it found appropriate. Tailors, for one example, measured their customers in feet and inches but cut their cloth in ells, which were handier than feet and inches for the purpose of cutting clothes. Farriers measured horses in hands and racecourses in furlongs, both of which turn out to be easier to use for their purposes than feet and inches, let alone metres. Surveyors and railwaymen measured lengths of track in miles and chains, perhaps because feet and inches gave a spurious appearance of immense accuracy. Ships’ crew navigated in nautical miles and knots rather than in ordinary miles and miles per hour, because of the relationship between the nautical mile, the radius of the earth, the degree of latitude or longitude and the angle between the sun and the horizon. Over and above all these many specialised units, the remarkable British currency of pounds, shillings and pence also served all trades. The currency even felt more like money than decimal currency does. Sums of pounds, shillings and pence clinked and weighed heavy and had dates on the coins that went back to the early nineteenth century. Pounds, shillings and pence could be divided by two, three, four, five, six, eight, ten and twelve, as well as seven if you converted the sum into guineas. The same people who struggle to divide a decimalised pound by eight knew without thinking that there were eight half crowns in a pound. That’s the thing that advocates of metric have not realised, or have realised but won’t admit. Everyone could do it. There is, therefore, no advantage at all in every measurement being ten of another one.

At least, we who lived with it could do it. Even if they wore a bowler hat, carried a furled umbrella on a sunny day and suppressed the urge to goose-step along the main road, hold one arm horizontally and cry, Sieg Heil, German spies were usually rumbled when a newsagent realised they did not know how many half crowns there were in a pound.

A thousand years of evolution had created a system of measurements and currency that anyone could use and met all the needs of trade and industry after just half an hour’s daily instruction for seven years at junior school.

Of course, Wilson was right. Different countries use different ‘customary measurements,’ but so little use has been made of the metric system that it has not split up into dialects. Therefore, metric is ideal for international trade. Everybody agrees on what a tonne of steel or a metre of fabric is.

Secondly, metric is good for scientific measurements. It is easier to coin new units using metric measurements as a basis, and easier to calculate ratios if all the measurements involved are based on the same units. This doesn’t always work. For instance, there are two units for the energy content of food, kilocalories and kilojoules, and there are several units for very long distances including parsecs, light years and Astronomical Units.

And that's it. The metric system is no use for anything else, and there's no point in pretending that it is. No wonder you hear a sort of rumble of thunder in your head any time a BBC journalist reports that he is standing half a kílometre from the front line (invariably with the stress on the i) or a patient in hospital is fifty kilograms overweight. Nobody in Britain ever uses metric measurements in such contexts, unless they have a gun held to their head. May we never start.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

A good word for British Railways

A good word for British Railways Twice recently in discussions of the privatised railway, once on a comments section in the Daily Mail and once in a discussion of something completely unrelated organised by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, one of the rare supporters of privatisation has contributed the same sentence. It is a statement, not a question, made with the intention of terminating all discussion of the issue. It is, “You don’t want British Railways back,” spoken in a tone of voice, or written in a tone of print, that implies that only a certifiable lunatic would want British Railways back. Rachel Johnson (no relation) said it again on Any Questions, on 18 May 2018. You can listen to the programme at, the question is at 38 min 44 sec, and Ms Johnson gives her opinion at 40 min 21 sec, ‘I don’t remember the days of British Rail with huge fondness.’

British Railways, aka British Rail, was the organisation that ran the nationalised railway in the UK from nationalisation in 1948 until privatisation between 1994 and 1997.

Well, no, I didn’t like everything about British Railways, but as Shakespeare said, the evil that nationalised industries do lives after them, the good is oft interrèd with their bones. For Ms Johnson, the worst thing about British Railways was the smell of the seat cushions — this in an era when polyurethane foam cushions were dangerously flammable and burned at high temperatures.

Here, therefore, is my cut-out-and-keep guide to what to say when you are in a meeting and somebody says “You don’t want British Railways back.”

In 1948, British Railways operated about 6,685 stations and about 15,000 route miles. In contrast, Network Rail now operates 2,563 stations and the franchisees operate 10,072 route miles (so say and Wikipedia.) The number of passenger services has fallen by about one third since 1948, although I can’t find the exact figure anywhere.

Fares were lower. You arrived at the station, bought your ticket and went onto the platform to catch the train. It was as simple as that. The fare structure was far simpler than the structure in use today and everybody understood it. These days neither the railways’ own staff nor their ticket vending machines know all the dozens of different fares for the same journey on the same train. It is often possible to save money, sometimes a lot of money, by booking two tickets for different halves of the journey or by getting off one train half way to your destination and completing your journey on the next one. I don’t recall any British Railways ticket which had to be booked several weeks in advance. Between 1995 and 2013 the single fare from London to Edinburgh rose by 134% and the single fare from London to Manchester rose by 208% (BBC News report) while inflation over the same period was 66%.

As an example of how insane the fares structure has become, I mention Prof. Martyn Evans, who held a first class ticket from Birmingham to Durham and left the train early, at Darlington, and was charged a £155 excess fare. (BBC News report.)

British Railways and its successor British Rail trained their drivers to drive all the locomotives that they were likely to encounter on all the railway lines they were likely to drive along. In contrast, the privatised companies train their drivers to drive the trains that they operate along the routes that they serve. This sounds like a small quibble, but it isn’t. When a line is blocked, for whatever reason, in British Railways days the train usually took an alternative route and carried on to the same destination, causing minimum inconvenience to the passengers. Now, when operator A’s line is blocked, and operator B serves a line which might have served as a diversion, the driver from operator A does not know operator B’s line. (‘Knowing the road’ is vital on the railway: the driver has to know where all the platforms, level crossings, speed limits, engineering works etc. are.) But there is no point asking Operator B to provide a driver, because operator B’s driver does not know how to drive Operator A’s train. Every driver has to be trained on every type of locomotive that he (she) drives. Passengers are therefore ordered out of Operator A’s train and into buses, causing long delays, serious inconvenience and late arrival.

British Railways used to deal with late arrival by holding connections. Although they did not always delay an outward train until the inward connecting service had arrived and passengers had time to change trains, they did schedule guaranteed connections at principal stations. Private operators try instead to recover from delays by allowing trains to go through scheduled stations without stopping. I think that British Railways never did that. Skipping stops, as has been pointed out, reduces the ‘fines’ charged to the operator, while being staggeringly inconsiderate to passengers. Guaranteed connections, in contrast, reduced the inconvenience to the passenger.

Passengers boarding a privatised train are now used to jam-packed carriages offering standing room only. British Railways suffered this problem too, but less often, because British Railways ran longer trains. The service from Edinburgh to the west coast, for example, consisted of a locomotive and ten or twelve coaches. These days, Cross Country operates a railcar with four or five coaches. British Railways coaches were more comfortable and better designed than the coaches of privatised trains. The toilets worked. The seats lined up with the windows. The Mark 2B carriages, built in Britain by British Rail Engineering, were probably the most comfortable coaches ever operated on British tracks. And even if you were a second class passenger you could use the restaurant car. Virgin Trains, operators of the London to Edinburgh service, withdrew restaurant service from second class passengers. It is difficult to see why a restaurateur would want to exclude potential customers in that way. Later, Virgin Trains withdrew restaurant cars altogether.

As well as withdrawing restaurant cars, the privatised operators have also withdrawn Motorail services as well as most overnight sleeping car services. The sleeping cars are due to be upgraded, which the franchisees will use as a pretext for a huge fare increase.

On the subject of first class carriages, British Railways usually allowed holders of second class tickets to sit in first class carriages when overcrowding required it. The private operators never offer this simple courtesy. If you hold a second class ticket, you’re a second class passenger, and you stay with your own kind.

A few random thoughts conclude this article.

  • British Railways cost the taxpayer less than the privatised railway does. Subsidy to the railway has increased threefold since privatisation. The cost of running the railway has more than doubled in real terms since 1995. (Action for Rail.)

  • British Railways ran a long term electrification programme, giving faster and more reliable journeys, particularly on short distance commuter runs. The franchisees have not continued it. The Ministry of Transport recently cancelled electrification of the Great Western main line west of Maidenhead.

  • British Railways negotiated one of the first minimum wage agreements with the unions of the day. The minimum wage for a week’s work was £4 4s. In contrast, in an age of gruesome unemployment and poverty, the franchisees are plagued with staff shortages.

  • British Railways gave names to the crack expresses. The Flying Scotsman is probably the best known train on Earth. Virgin Trains reduced it to a one way service leaving Edinburgh at 05.30. Recently they appear to have abolished it. A search for Flying Scotsman on National Rail's web site finds no hits.

  • At a handful of stations on the main line, British Railways left the equipment which steam locomotives need in order to re-fuel en route. In a staggeringly mean gesture which surely cost more than it saved, Network Rail has removed it, affecting the steam hauled services which enthusiasts run.

  • Lastly, but not leastly, British Railways chose the elegant, simple Gill Sans typeface for its notices and painted its main line passenger coaches in a simple, dignified maroon livery with the beautiful British Railways wheel, lion and crown roundel, in contrast with the artless daubs which adorn the franchisees’ vehicles.
  • Do I want British Railways back?

    Yes. Chances are, so do you. The Government, knowing that three-quarters of the electors who expressed an opinion favour the re-nationalisation of the railway (You Gov,) does nothing about it. Democracy, it appears, is a wonderful thing — when it suits the suits.

    If I am right and British Railways provided a better service in 1948 than the franchisees do now (not a faster service, but a better service,) there is in my view every justification for calling a halt to the gravy train and re-nationalising the railways without compensation. If someone smashes your bicycle, you don't pay them for the smashed-up wreckage. Bring back British Railways.

    28 April 2018: And another thing. After the Beeching Report, a procedure was instituted whereby British Railways had to conduct a public inquiry before closing a passenger service. The privatised operators have found a way to circumvent the process. When they want to close a station, they simply tell the trains not to stop there, except for an occasional train once a month or so. This is legal and means that stations can be closed without any consultative process. The occasional trains have become known as the ‘parliamentary’ trains. For example, Teesside Airport station is at present served by one train a month, in one direction.

    19 May 2018: And one more other thing. British Railways developed the Advanced Passenger Train. National Rail has, so far as I am aware, no project aimed at developing faster or technically advanced vehicles.

    8 June 2018: Curly Sandwiches. Someone on Question Time started the customary paragraph about you wouldn't want British Railways back, this time because British Railways served stale and curly sandwiches. It is easy to forget that modern sandwich packaging was invented by Marks and Spencer in 1980, three years after British Railways was sold off.

    Monday, 8 January 2018

    Jacob Rees Mogg nails his colours to the mast

    I see that Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg has advised Theresa May and Philip Hammond, the leaders of the Conservative Party, to “bury their differences and get the Government back on track.” He said the new Cabinet should focus on delivering core Tory values. (Read all about it at Rees Mogg warns May and Hammond to bury their differences, Daily Mail, 7 January 2018.)

    How right Mr Rees-Mogg is. We need a man who will champion the traditional Tory values: massive unemployment, low wages, high immigration, the worst schools in the world unless your parents are rich, rocketing train fares and stratospheric energy costs, unaffordable housing, a derelict Health Service, the end of industry, the abolition of old age pensions and no tax on the toffs.

    We’re all looking forward to it, Mr Rees-Mogg. When can you start?

    A happy New Year to any readers I may have.

    Monday, 25 December 2017

    On the main line

    When I was at school, it never occurred to me that in my old age I would see public buildings transformed into soup kitchens in order to feed the starving.

    If you won’t believe it until you see the MP4 video proving that it happened at Euston Station, one of the big London termini, click this link.

    I am both revolted and very sad that we have an elected government which simply does not care about the misery in which some people are living. Asked about this sort of outrage, the Tory mantra is “We don’t have a magic money tree.” That just shows the power of a false analogy: it does not take a magic money tree to make the poor better off, it takes common sense and an understanding of economics and, perhaps, sociology. Oh, and it also takes money, which the Tories have in unfeasibly huge amounts. In truth all three political parties have collaborated in reducing us to the awful state in which we now find ourselves. All three have had the chance to make the dramatic changes that are now vital. It isn’t just the Tories’ fault, although they happen to be holding the hot potato this week.

    In other news, Ms Kate Middleton, a member of the Royal Family who does so far as I know no work of any kind, went to church today wearing a coat that, I am assured by the newspaper, cost £3,000. I don’t understand why she needs it. She doesn’t need a coat as costly as that unless, unknown to anybody, she spends her nights lying on a park bench and unable to sleep.

    Tuesday, 10 October 2017

    A letter to the Taxpayers' Alliance

    The Taxpayers' Alliance is a right-wing group with whom, most of the time, I disagree politically, but I do find their tales of woe and waste highly amusing. I don't donate to them. Today I received a letter from them telling me that they have a new campaign manager, Mr Harry Fone, and he wants me to write and tell him which campaigns I think the Taxpayers' Alliance ought to conduct. Here is my reply.

    Thanks for writing.

    Thank you for inviting me to suggest campaigns which the Taxpayers' Alliance should become involved in. There are many such campaigns, as Britain is in a desperate state thanks to completely incompetent management, but the most urgent ones I can think of are

    (a) Double the old age pension, all social security benefits and the income-tax-free allowance. Make the bosses live on the average full time wage paid to their workers. This will at a stroke (remember that?) end the recession, which is caused by government meanness and a greedy and selfish toff class, and has nothing to do with debts or productivity.

    (b) Ban all imports from China. Quite apart from deliberately collaborating with a foreign government that is trying to destroy the British economy by exporting goods below cost price, this will more or less eliminate the imports of the products of child labour, forced labour, convict labour and slave labour. No Chinese goods work properly and all of them fall to bits after a couple of weeks of normal use. A ban on Chinese imports would also stimulate the manufacture of British goods of quality.

    (c) Requisition all unoccupied houses, second and subsequent homes, investment properties, buy to lets and illegal sub-lets and sell them to homeless families for £10.

    (d) Re-nationalise the railways without compensation, slash fares to one tenth of their present levels, abolish second class, fix the toilets, bring back the restaurant cars and line the seats up with the windows.

    (e) Hang criminal motorists if they kill or endanger life. If they were drunk at the time, hang them twice.

    (f) Abolish the Royal Family except for one monarch, one monarch's consort, and one heir and trainee. Move homeless families into the Royal Family's mansions and palaces except for one palace in London and one in Scotland. All the rest of the sponging toffs should either get a job or claim the standard rate of social security like everybody else has to.

    (g) Bring back the full student grant sufficient to pay tuition charges, accommodation, books, equipment, food and fares, as it was not all that long ago. Do away with the (imaginary or actual) need for billions of foreign speaking immigrants who have skills that British kids can't afford to learn any more.

    (h) Abolish the Conservative Party. They do no good of any kind so why should we put up with them? Abolish the Labour Party as well because it's the same as the Conservative Party.

    (i) Abolish the European Union. The Europeans should learn English and then apply, and pay a huge fee, to join the British Empire. (I owe this obvious idea to David Frost and Anthony Jay.)

    Best wishes and thank you again for giving me this opportunity. I hope to see you making the case for all the above within the next week or two.

    Sincerely, Ken Johnson

    Sunday, 17 September 2017

    A place of beauty

    A place of beauty Thank you to the gardeners of Edinburgh District Council Parks Department who have planted a small patch of land with meadow flowers, in between the children's swing park and the football pitch. The result is beautiful, and it reminds me of the way I think the countryside ought to be. For a few yards, the walk along the footpath from Kilncroft Side to Inglis Green Road is in bloom. Do walk it.

    1 May 2018. At nearby Hailes Quarry park, the rough grass has been enhanced by several — about five — large beds of daffodils. The result is beautiful. I can walk past these beds on my way to catch bus number 30.

    Friday, 8 September 2017

    What Duracell and Ever Ready don’t want you to know

    Following the appearance of this short article in the Daily Mail dated 7 September 2017 on how to recharge your mobile phone when there is no electric power, How to charge your phone if the power goes out, I feel entitled to publish the following short article on the same subject from the little known Journal of Physics and Mobile Communication.

    Four engineering students from the university of Tempinbol, in the little known east European country of Tiurma, have discovered a replacement for conventional mobile phone batteries.

    Cut a slice 1½″ × 2″ of British potato. Soak it in a mixture of vinegar, honey and cold tea for three months. Prick holes in both sides of it with a pin. Wrap it in a clean British cabbage leaf and put it in the hole where the phone battery used to be.

    Once in place it will power your phone for up to 100 years and what’s more every call you make with it will be free.