Staying the “Coursera” with the Metric System

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by big-name institutions.

Coursera offers free online classes on lots of topics by major educational institutions

Being the masochist I am (at least if you ask some people) by working at a demanding full-time job, spending my “spare time” on this documentary project and  finishing up a class on funding entrepreneurial ventures, I also recently took on another obligation.

A couple of Sundays ago, I was having a cup of tea at about 11 a.m. and glanced at one of my email accounts noticing that Coursera had a new class called How to Change the World. Glancing at the course’s contents, it looked interesting and included a section titled “Women, Education and Social Change.” Hey, I’m a woman, I consider our teaching two measurement system to our children a real waste of time in schools and it’s all about social change for me—even if I’m not trying to change the whole world—just one thing in my country.

What the heck is Coursera?

I had loaded the Coursera app on my phone several months ago (don’t remember how I first came across it) and, while it looked interesting, I wasn’t sure how I’d find the time for anything else right now. It must have looked interesting enough for me to install the app though.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Coursera says of itself:

Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

That’s pretty high-minded and admirable. It’s also a nonprofit organization.

The course in question was being given by the president of Wesleyan University no less. Impressive.

“Okay,” I decided, “I’ll bite.” It was difficult to know exactly how it might help with the project but it was worth a try as far as I was concerned. I immediately realized that I was behind since the course had started several days earlier. For the rest of the day I hunkered down, finished the considerable amount of reading, watched almost three hours of video lectures and prepared my first 500-word paper that I had to submit before I went to bed as the deadline was 8 a.m. the following morning. As a professional writer, I figured I had a slight advantage with writing the essay and could generate it pretty quickly. At least I had that going for me.

Took a survey about my interests. This question really got my attention. Hope some people were kidding.

Took a survey about my Coursera interests. This question near the end really got my attention. Hope 37% of people were kidding and good to know the Coursera folks have a sense of humor.

Coursera correction

I had realized that the essays would be graded by my peers, and I’d need to review some as well, but for some reason I thought I’d get an email letting me know when they were available. Wrong. By the time I figured out I hadn’t been notified I had “papers to grade,” I’d missed the deadline and lost 20% from my score for that week. Drats. I’m being much more careful about all the deadlines now.

Not only am I writing about this since you might be interested in this resource but I noticed something in the course itself that bothered me a bit since it relates to the metric system.

In viewing the videos on climate change, in one instance Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s president, mentioned the predicted range of increased global temperature in Celsius with no mention of Fahrenheit. That made immediate sense to me since he had said previously that more than 30,000 people worldwide were taking the course. Most of them would use the metric measure for heat, after all. I myself had graded papers from people who wouldn’t use the Fahrenheit scale, as they had mentioned they were from Croatia and India.

That pleasure turned to disappointment when, during the next video, he mentioned how much sea level was predicted to rise in feet with no mention of metric measures.

He’s probably never thought about which units he should use consistently but I’d prefer he use SI units (how the rest of the world refers to the metric system) exclusively.

Maybe if Americans are exposed to metric units enough (with no translation) and have to go “Huh, what does that mean?” they’ll realize that it’s time to join with the rest of the world.

A girl can hope…

I need to go finish this week’s homework now.

Linda

Taos Middle School and the Metric System

Taos Middle School where I paid a recent visit

Taos Middle School where I paid a recent visit

(PLEASE NOTE: I ONLY HAVE A COUPLE OF MORE DAYS TO REACH MY MODEST INITIAL FUNDRAISING GOAL. PLEASE ASSIST IF YOU CAN. IT WOULD REALLY HELP IF I KNEW YOU SUPPORT THESE EFFORTS. THANKS!)

Awhile back I was invited to speak at Taos Middle School as a result of my presentation at the MidSchool Math Conference earlier this year. The teacher, James Spevacek, had been in my session and thought my story was one his students should hear.

I tried to think back to when my daughter was in middle school and her comprehension level to try to figure out what might be of interest to his students. I took two of my previous presentations, selected the parts I thought they might find interesting and added some additional slides just for them. Since I was there as part of Career Day, I also included a slide on jobs in metrology. I also reached out to my contact at the National Institute of Standards, Elizabeth Gentry, for some more metric-only rulers to make sure I had one for each pupil. I gave a lot of them to participants during my recent event at the Los Alamos Science Fest.

The day came and I took the beautiful drive from Los Alamos to Taos (about an hour and a half drive or 100 kilometers, and no, I won’t convert that) arriving there pretty much right on time. The instructor had wonderfully prepped the students so they already had some information on the metric units.

During the course of the day I gave my 45-minute presentation five times and ended each session with the hands-on demonstration with the scales and various materials in volumetric cups compared to the accuracy of the mass measures, much as I had done at the Science Fest.

For the most part, the students were reasonably engaged with the older classes a bit more attentive. I had hoped to spark a little more discussion about our current lack of metric adoption and why we are in the situation in which we find ourselves. I got a comment here and there but there wasn’t really the level of interaction I had hoped for. (It must have been their age, the setting or I didn’t properly set the stage.)

Was it a good use of a vacation day?

Absolutely. While not my main demographic from a lobbying perspective, it was a chance to engage with an audience with which I’d had little interaction previously. I welcomed the opportunity to hear their comments and questions.

I had never had to give the same presentation over and over, and I learned I was a bit inconsistent with my timing: some of the sessions were a little short and one ran a little long and I had to cut it. There was also a class that adjourned for lunch and I had to figure where to break in the presentation so that it made sense so I could pick it back up again.

After a very nice lunch provided by the teachers, we headed back to the classroom for a couple more sessions to finish out the day. For me, the highlight of the experience was when I was introduced at the next afternoon session and one of the students said, “They were talking about this at lunch.” Was this a success or had they been complaining about the woman who had droned on and on about the metric system? I had to know for sure. “In a good way?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Thank goodness. I didn’t ask about the specifics, I was just happy it was positive.

Mr. Spevacek, was a great help and offered some of his perspectives throughout the day as well as helped fill in as my voice started to strain later in the day.

In retrospect, I could have done better in connecting with the younger age groups and probably should have tailored the presentations to each age level. Still, all I can do is move forward and learn for the next time. Lifelong learning should hopefully be the goal of us all.

I thank Mr. Spevacek and his students for the opportunity to meet with them and for warm reception I received.

On another positive note, I’ve been selected to present at the MidSchool Math Conference again next year. More on that later.

Linda

Help with my metric system documentary fundraising?

Metric system/customary unit relationships

People say our customary units are easier…they’re wrong. They’re just more familiar.

In my last post I wrote about the class I’m taking to help learn how to raise capital for businesses. As part of the homework, some of us are trying to raise funds for our various projects. In a few cases, the full amount of money people are looking for is less than $2,000. In other cases, such as mine, it’s kind of a crash course in crowdfunding.

While my current estimated budget for the entire documentary is more than $200,000, for the class project I’m just asking for funding to help with my travel to Washington D.C. where the bulk of my interviews will take place. I’ve set up a separate bank account where the money will go (providing I at least meet my goal; it’s an all or nothing situation) once overhead and taxes are paid.

What my classmates are working on

While I’m putting my project first on the list, if my work doesn’t interest you, please feel free to take a look at the work of my fellow students. (It’s really a nice group of people, I must say. They could all use your support though the local ones would probably be of less interest.)

National projects

Mine (includes a two-minute background video on what I’m trying to do).

A DIY preamp kit.

A new, handy interlocking USB cable.

Gag gifts for dads

Short film for heathcare workers (and others) to support adopting families

Learn Chinese through “coldswitching”

In New Mexico and Los Alamos

Help learn about DNA and biodiversity in New Mexico

A cool, new athletic training facility

Local, indoor playground

Help local babies get a good start

If you look around, you’ll notice that the preamp kit has already met its goal. (Go Jason!)

If you could pledge a few dollars or just help spread the word of what we’re trying to do, that would be greatly appreciated!

More soon, I promise. Lots of interesting stuff in the near future.

Thanks for your assistance.

Linda

Back to School for the Metric System

One of the supporters of my documentary project is Nicholas Seet and as a result of my contact with him, I started a class a month ago called “Financing the Entrepreneurial Enterprise.”

During the first class we did briefs on the various projects we wanted to launch. The reaction to this documentary by the class members was very positive. In fact, one of the other students told me she’d worked in international trade and conversions had caused problems because sometimes people got them wrong and the company received less money than they should have.

Dual labeling can cause mistakes for employees at the register

Dual labeling can cause mistakes for employees at the register

In another case, a local business owner told how dual labeling was causing her problems. She owns a pet accessories store and sometimes employees in a hurry charge the kilogram price rather than the pound price. Thus, they’re charging less than half of what they should and she loses money every time that happens.

Back to class

One of the big pushes of the class is to raise a small amount of money ($2,000 or less) to help finance our projects (or small parts of them). For the class, we’re working through something called Main Street Crowd that focuses on community-based fundraising efforts. Within this context, it’s to give us successful crowdfunding experience to help prepare some of us to finance larger amounts through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

My project ask will be $1,500 and will be earmarked for my travel and time in Washington D.C. where I plan to have a number of on-camera interviews. Some of the folks I hope to meet with include the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian Institution, Center for Science in the Public Interest and others since they’re all based in the D.C. area.

I'll use Main  Street Crowd to raise money within my class

I’ll use Main Street Crowd to raise money within my class

I’ve already drafted and gotten feedback on my campaign content for the project’s Main Street Crowd page and yesterday we were supposed to have draft scripts ready. In addition to my script, I showed a Prezi presentation while I read the script as kind of a storyboard. Since Prezi allows you to animate your content (kind of like PowerPoint on steroids) it had a pretty good flow.

I received a couple of comments for improvement but the instructor said I could basically record that presentation, add the narration, begin with some live video of myself and I’d have a pretty compelling video for the campaign. What I was planning for was much more time consuming so that came as a welcome relief. I still need to clean it up since it was intended to just give the class an idea of what the images would look like. Once it’s ready, it will be part of my Main Street Crowd page and you can take a look. I know I have a larger number of international readers of this blog and, yes, you can contribute if you’d like.

In other news

- Because of my presentation at the MidSchool Math Conference earlier this year (the conference is already slated for next year) I was approached to take part in a career fair later this month in Taos, about 80 km from where I live. I need to pull together a 45-minute presentation for middle school students that I’ll repeat five times during the sessions. Will probably lose my voice by the end of the day but the more I can get the word out on this project, the better. Not sure if I’ll present at the conference next year. I have an application in.

- Last month was my busiest month of all time. Thanks for helping this happen!

The highest bar represents almost 9,000 pageviews for September

The highest bar represents almost 9,000 pageviews for September. The dark blue bar is for unique pageviews. Most visitors click on two of my pages.

My Metric System Demo at the Los Alamos Science Fest

Los Alamos Science Fest was Saturday

Los Alamos Science Fest was Saturday

On Saturday I spent four hours talking up the metric system at the Science Festival here in Los Alamos. Specifically, I was trying to help people understand how much easier the metric system is to use in the kitchen. Rather than having all those volumetric cups (and a half, and third and quarter) and tablespoons and teaspoons (and all those fractions down to an eighth) you really just need two things: a liquid measuring cup and a scale that measures in grams (most electronic ones can convert between different units).

Not only is a scale a more precise and consistent measure in the kitchen, it’s also easier than what we’re used to in this country. Since we don’t use the metric system here, most people have no idea how handy a scale can be in the kitchen. I wanted to show them.

Here’s what I did:

I asked if people were willing to take a metric challenge. (There were a lot of children there and almost all of them were game to give it a try.)

Toy coins worked well for the demo since they don't fit neatly into the cup

Toy coins worked well for the demo since they don’t fit neatly into the cup

I then gave two participants each a one-cup measuring cup and had them measure a cup of toy coins (I wanted objects that would not fit neatly within its area). When they were done, we put the cups on scales to how closely they measured in grams. In some cases, even when the cups looked like they had the same amount in them, the mass varied usually by around 5-7 grams but throughout the day I saw measures all the way from 30 grams up to more than 100. That’s quite a difference!

While the they were measuring, I told the adults, or other observers, some of my points about wasting our kids’ time in schools by teaching them a complicated system that no one else uses. I also pointed out only needing two things to measure with saves space and hassle in the kitchen.

Using the metric system, all you need is something to measure wet and dry ingredients (left) instead of the stuff we have to keep track of now (right)

Using the metric system, all you need is something to measure wet and dry ingredients (left) instead of the stuff we have to keep track of now (right)

Once that was done, I showed the parents how easy it is to measure ingredients right into the bowl and bypass dirtying all those other measuring cups and tablespoons we currently have to deal with.

I also talked about something that happened to me not too long ago when I had a recipe that called for a cup and a half of brown sugar. Not only do you have to pack the brown sugar to get the right amount, I also debated whether I wanted to wash a spoon (to dish out the sugar) and two measuring cups or a spoon and one measuring cup but have to pack it three times. In the end I decided I didn’t want to do either and looked up how much brown sugar that would be in grams. Then I put the bowl I was using on my scale, zeroed it out using the tare function, and then measured that amount directly into the bowl. In the end I only had to wash a single spoon.

In addition to the demo, I had a primer (Cooking in a metric kitchen (pdf)) on using scales in the kitchen. While many sites don’t include metric measures, several do including the wonderful allrecipes.com (though it takes an extra click to make the conversion). I also had a hard copy of the Metric Maven’s metric cookbook along with its link and the source for a metric chocolate chip cookie recipe from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. If you have additional sites or references to assist with metric cooking, send them to me at milebehind@gmail.com and I’ll share as appropriate.

Also had an opportunity to reconnect with Dave Schwellenbach who had the booth next to me with his Kraz-E-Science demo. You can check out his website here.

More blogs are in the works. Thanks for checking in.

Linda

The Metric System and Our English Roots

When I mention converting to the metric system in this country, aside from its immediate rejection by some because it represents change and change is almost automatically considered bad for our survival (see my previous post on “The Metric System as Predator”), one of the reasons brought up to reject it is our English past.

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011 (White House.gov)

As Americans we tend to identify strongly with our British history even though we wouldn’t be a country today unless we’d fought so hard against English rule. We like our association with our Anglo-Saxon roots but we tend to like them on our own terms. It’s one of the reasons we follow the royal family’s every move in the tabloids even while we hold a love/hate relationship in everything from British music to international politics.(There’s contrasting dislike of the French but I’ll save that for another column.)

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: the Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens sums it up as:

The odd combination of rivalry and alliance, collusion and suspicion, was to be the pattern of Anglo-American relations for many years—until the entente of 1898 in fact—and in some reminiscent forms even after that.1

(Yeah, I admit it, I had to look up entente.)

It wasn’t that long ago that President Obama also spoke of our strong kinship while addressing the British Parliament (4:27 into clip):

I’ve come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known. It’s long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom share a special relationship.

Ironically, it was that break with our royal past that opened the door for us to become the first country in the world with decimalized currency (Thank Thomas Jefferson for our 10 dimes and 100 pennies) even while we still struggle to integrate the rest of a measurement system that no other country would think to give up. (No country that switched to the metric system has ever switched back.)

When people raise this idea of embracing our imperial past two things immediately jump into my mind.

  • The metric system was officially adopted in the U.K. in 1965 but its adoption remains “soft” and there are some imperial units still in use. When I asked the head of the U.K. Metric Association about this state of affairs, Robin Pace responded “Because you don’t use it. ”So, Britain is more metric than we are and it’s reasonable to say that we’re holding back both England and Canada from full adoption. That prompted my column on our bad international example for both the U.K. and Canada.
  • If people want to argue that giving up our current units is somehow abandoning our legacy, then I say let’s embrace it all the way and recover our lost measurement history and bring back the hogshead, chaldron, scruple, minim and perch to name a few. If we want to be ridiculous let’s be ridiculously ridiculous.

This grasping at our history seems somewhat ironic to me since we no longer use the “Imperial” units in this country we originally brought over; we currently use “U.S. Customary” units. Thus, our units don’t perfectly align with any other country in the world. The Imperial liquid ounce is 28.4131 mL, while the U.S. fluid ounce is 29.5735 mL.

It doesn’t initially sound like a lot but with large amounts it can really add up, particularly if we’re talking about prescriptions.

Came out earlier this month

Came out earlier this month

By the way, just got a copy of John Marciano’s new book: Whatever happened to the metric system. I’ve just started it but it’s getting some attention in the media. Based on previous communication with the author, I knew it wasn’t going to be pro-metric but frankly, anything that gets the discussion back on the table after 30 years works for me.

Thanks,

Linda

Notes: 1Location 1798 on my Kindle.

My Current Metric System Adoption Efforts

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

I apologize for the information blackout but I’ve been terribly busy with the day job for the past couple of months pulling together a corporate TEDx talk (and I think that’s all I should say since it’s internal-only, per our license). It’s the first time we’ve done this sort of thing and certainly the first time that I’ve headed up something like it. That said, the event went well and I’m now wrapping things up. Now that I’ve taken a few moments to rest, I should have more energy to devote to this documentary project again.

Even with that, I was still working on things behind the scenes. Here’s a short list of what’s in progress:

  1. I’m building a website that will have all kinds of information on everything to do with the project including a bibliography, links to information for the media and other educational information. I’m still working on it and will announce once things are further along. If there’s information you’d like to see on it, I’ll do my best to provide it.
  2. I’m building a timeline on history as it relates to measurement and the metric system in this country. It’s coming along well but once I launch it I’ll have to pay extra money on a monthly basis. (So far, everything for this project has come out of my pocket but I’m hoping to change that at some point.)
  3. I’m about to buy my first high-definition video camera. I hope to eventually have two cameras. Right now, I need a “starter” camera to get things going and hope to get a higher-end camera after my fundraising is complete. A lighting kit arrived a couple of weeks ago but haven’t even been able to play with it yet.

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

  4. I’ll have a booth at the upcoming Los Alamos Science Festival in September. I don’t see my activity listed yet but I’m going to demonstrate the superiority of the metric system over customary units in the kitchen with materials and scales. We don’t really use scales in the kitchen in this country since we don’t use the metric system. I think this is a hurdle we’re going to have to overcome and have felt that way ever since I chatted with the a retired, female scientist who told me she never used the metric system when she cooks though she used it every working day of her life.
  5. In conjunction with the above, I plan to make my first videos with it on how to use the metric system in the kitchen. This will help segue me back into video production. I’m hoping to make them fun and interesting and should be able to leverage them for my eventual fundraising video if not for other things.
  6. Contacts, contacts, contacts. This project is never going to get off the ground without the right people involved. Fortunately, more and more people are interested and want to help so it’s more about finding the time to do those sorts of things in the right way.
  7. Speaking of contacts, I’ve meant to pull together a mailing list for some time but haven’t gotten around to it. I think I’ll move that toward the top of my list of things to do since its size will eventually help me determine whether I’ve gotten critical mass to do some fundraising. The mailing list folks will get shorter, behind-the-scenes news about the project. If interested in joining,  subscribe by sending an email to milebehind@gmail.com.
  8. Other musings…I’ve thought about holding a metric adoption conference call or even meeting (no idea when the last time such a thing happened in this country…Roughly 30 years ago?) That’s going to take some planning to figure out how to best make such a thing happen but it will need to be done at some point. If you are interested in this type of activity, shoot me an email.

I did take three days of vacation in June and went to see my daughter while Jamie Cullum was playing in town. We had a great time!

More on the above shortly. The next column will be about our clinging to our units as some strange nod to our British history.

Thanks for staying tuned,

Linda

The Metric System in the Media

Vox.com's logo

Vox.com’s logo

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a science reporter from Vox.com. Frankly, I wasn’t familiar with this site but the reporter sent me a link to a New York Times article regarding its launch in April. Masterminding the enterprise is a former editor of the Washington Post. After I received the notice, I immediately went to check out the Vox.com site to see what kind of reporting I could expect. (Reporting styles can vary from balanced to hatchet jobs and I wanted to see what alley I might be turning into.) I was pleasantly surprised by the Vox.com site itself. A tagline is “Vox Explains: Everything you need to know, in two minutes.”And it turns out she was a former editor of Popular Science magazine. Impressive.

Our interview lasted about 10 minutes and we talked about how I began working on the documentary and various other issues, some of which apparently appeared in the piece. How can I not be sure? Well, she interviewed at least two other people and I have no idea what transpired during those conversations. Frankly, it was laudable that she worked to get at least three interviews. Some reporters don’t like to put that kind of time in when they’re under deadline, as she was.

I was very happy to see that the title of the piece was “It’s time for the US to use the metric system.” I could talk more about what’s in it but I’d recommend that you read it for yourself. While I wasn’t directly quoted, there was a link to this blog at the bottom of the story. I was even MORE happy to see that (as of this writing) there were more than 3,900 Facebook shares and more than 1,100 tweets of the story. The Vox pages don’t allow comments but the reporter’s contact information is on the page. I wrote her a follow-up email inquiring what kind of feedback she’d gotten and she said “Lots of passionate responses from readers from both sides of the aisle.” As of today, there were almost 260 click-throughs to this blog page. Not a huge amount but any publicity on this subject is fine by me.

Metric system undercurrents

I’ve said it before, but there seems to be an undercurrent of interest in the metric system that is on the rise. Not only did this article come out of nowhere (may ask her what prompted her to research this topic) but the number of articles is starting to pick up.

As brought to my attention by the Metric Maven, just recently the Journal of the American Association ran a story called “Group Urges Going Metric to head Off Dosing Mistakes.” A guest blogger and HUGE help to this project, Peter Goodyear wrote about this issue in March of last year.

I plan to write more about this medical turn of events in future but let me point out a few other mentions that have come up lately.

National Public Radio (NPR) “How did the meter get its length?” (June 26, 2014)

Metric system switch is long overdue, as illustrated in Trexlertown” (June 26, 2014)

Coming Soon: The Metric System, Global Cooling, And Soccer Domination” (June 14, 2014)

At 44, metrification still a mess” (June 14, 201)

Update: What If The Common Core Required The Metric System? In Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education” (June 6, 2014)

UK Myth: The Metric System” (June 5, 2014) [Points out that the UK is not metric. When I asked the head of the UK Metric Association some time ago why not, he said “Because you don’t use it…]

NFL Ditches Roman Numerals for Super Bowl 50, But Won’t Switch from Using Yards in Favor of Metric System” (June 4, 2014) [While the article doesn’t really talk about the metric system, just a mention in the headline is remarkable—this is the Slate!]

Also UK: “Give me a centimetre and I’m lost” (June 2, 2014)

Canada: “Metric mixup plays role in Lake Cowichan crash” (June 1, 2014)

Canada: “Parents can keep dignity under questioning” (May 30, 2014)

It’s time for the US to use the metric system” (May 30)

The Metric System, Traffic Circles, and Us” (No direct date but I got the notice on May 31)

The Vox.com story on something called “Real Clear Science.” May 30, 2014

The Vox.com story got picked up by Hacker News and someone expanded on the story’s content. (May 31, 2014)

The accompanying image

The accompanying image

Australia uses the metric system, so this is what I have to think of when someone uses feet and inches” (No date and some of the comments are 11 months old but I was just notified.)

It included this image [Has gotten more than 344 comments so far]

UK: “Great miscalculations: The French railway error and 10 others” (May 22, 2014) [Includes a number (ha) of measurement errors.]

Having working on this project for two years, (anniversary of its conception was June 15 BTW), that’s quite a bit of media coverage in a short period of time. If my predictions are correct, it’s going to pick up from here.

We’ll have to see where it leads us.

Linda

[Note: I’m moving to a new phase of this project and will likely post to this blog less often, however, if you wants short snippets of what’s going on behind the scenes, send me your email (to milebehind@gmail.com) as I’m now planning to employ a mailing list to keep people up to date. Do what works for you. I know I am since I have lots of other aspects to this work that need to move higher on my list to keep everything moving forward.]

My Recent Metric System History Presentation

Low turnout, poor messaging?

Interior of Mesa Public Library

Interior of Mesa Public Library, Los Alamos, NM

Despite my full session on using the metric system a couple of months ago at the MidSchool Math conference and decent publicity for my talk, my turnout on Wednesday at Mesa Public Library was eight people, five of whom know me.

This somewhat surprised me since this is both a “science” and “history” town. Plus, I had a fair amount of interest when I participated in a science event here a couple of years ago and most people I talk to express some level of interest.

Thus, I find myself disappointed at this particular turn of events but not discouraged.

Still, the three people I didn’t know asked lots of questions and were quite engaged. So there’s that. One of them wanted to know if there was a form letter he could send to his elected representatives. I love that he was willing to take action. (I plan to have a website down the road that will contain that information along with many other resources but I haven’t gotten there yet.)

Was it a bad day (right before a long weekend)? A bad day of the week (someone mentioned other clubs meet on Wednesdays)? Or just general apathy from a county that might take the metric system for granted due to our high percent of scientists who use it every day for work?

It could be a bit of any of those things but it’s made me think I need to do more to get my messaging right. I think what I’ve been doing is good and I’ve got the right points but they need to “pop” more if I want to break through all the communications noise out there in the world.

Honing my story

If nothing else my 40+ hours of work on the presentation forced me to construct the entire timeline for the documentary. It also forced me to go in depth in some areas I really hadn’t before (see upcoming blogs on some of the Americans who worked to block metric adoption, for instance) and raised some additional questions that I’ll need to look into. Of course, now that I’m not under an immediate deadline, I need to pare the information down (though I came in at a respectable 55 minutes).

It brings to mind a quotation loved by so many writers:

Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short
Henry David Thoreau*

Of course, a timeline with some interesting information does not a compelling story make. I still need to think a lot more about my “plot” and how the story needs to unfold to keep my audience engaged and prepared to take action as the credits roll.

Can there be a happy ending? I’m sure counting on it

Over time I’ve come to realize that one of issues I’ve got is I’ve got a kind of negative story due to our lack of metric adoption in this country. Americans as a group don’t like to be told they’re behind in things, even if they are. I have to worry about a potential immediate turnoff because I need to make people look into a mirror and see an image that’s not very flattering. It makes a more difficult story than one with a “happy ending” but not insurmountable.

On the positive side, while our metric system history has been pretty dismal up until this point, all is not over and there exists the potential for positive change. That’s why I’m putting in all this work on top of my full-time job.

Learning from TED

For those of you unfamiliar with TED talks (if so, that’s a shame, I encourage you to change that), they’ve become world famous for their format: 20 minutes or less, minimal overheads and compelling storytelling. I’ve been charged with pulling together some TED-type talks for work so it’s given me time to learn more about their construction. I plan to takes the lessons I can glean from them and apply some to the project, including developing a catchphrase. I’ve been hoping I’d be inspired with one but that hasn’t happened so far so I’m just going to have to sit down and brainstorm.

In future, I’ll probably share my ideas with you to get your input on a possible favorite.

In the meantime, allow me to share one of my favorite TED talks. It bears no relation to the project with the possible exception of showing that one person’s efforts can influence many others: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life. Please enjoy.

Linda

Note:
* Apparently that quote has seen many variations over the years. If you want to learn more, go to The Quotation Investigator.

How I’m Promoting My Metric System History Talk This Week (Or publicity 101)

You need a news hook

To get the media’s attention, first you need a “news hook” as in: “Why should I care about The news releasethis now?” This is a concept some people have trouble grasping and I’ve had various conversations where people think the media will pick up things without a hook. As a totally made up example: “Oh, little Sally has gotten really good with her hula hoop. That would make a good news story.”

No, no it wouldn’t. Now, if little Sally just got an award for her hula hooping, or she was about to break a record for longest consecutive time swinging that circle around or the youngest person ever to try to break a record, then you’ve got a news hook.

You need a strong lead

The first paragraph or two is/are the lead of the story. The “who, what, when, where, why and how” (the five Ws) need to be there along with some, hopefully, compelling language or storytelling. It should contain the most important part of your story. Failure to do so is called “burying your lead.”

In particular, newspapers want stories told in an “inverted pyramid” style. Let’s say you sprinkle your Ws throughout the story and the editor needs a shorter piece–you could end up with some vital facts in the trash. By front loading all the important pieces of information and then elaborating on them in later paragraphs, editors can run the entire piece or just those first couple of paragraphs without having to rewrite the article, (some of them hate doing the extra work) and can trim it to what fits their needs.

Proximity also matters, with local outlets more likely to pick up a story than one further away, depending an a story’s importance, of course. A case in point, I had an interview with our local radio station on Monday (see below)  and I may have another one in Santa Fe on Tuesday. The LA Daily Post has run the story but I’m not sure if the Los Alamos Monitor will.

Will an Albuquerque outlet pick up the story? Less likely but you never know when a slow news day will hit (if there’s less to chose from on a particular day, they’ll run with things they’d normally pass over) so I sent it to them as well. You never know.

Advertising vs publicity

Advertising and publicity are two very different animals. Something might appear in the same outlet, say, a newspaper, so they might look like the same thing to those on the outside but there is a different dynamic at work on the inside.

Advertising is a contractual agreement with the media outlet where money changes hands and the advertiser has control over the content, how big or small that content is, how many times it’s run and (usually for additional money) where the ad is placed. (Full, back-page ads on magazines are more expensive than most internal full-page ads for reasons of visibility, for instance.)

Publicity, on the other hand, is completely voluntary on part of the media outlet, they can run or not, edit it down to the lead or run the whole thing–and sometimes more. It’s up to them. Publicity is “free” that is, I don’t pay to get my article printed, but I lose all control over it.

You can view the news release here: PR5_16_14Metric pdf.

I’ve got to continue refining my presentation for Wednesday, so I’m going to go work on that now.

Stay tuned.

You can hear my radio interview from Monday. It's about 18 minutes

You can hear my radio interview from Monday. It’s about 18 minutes long.