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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Metric System Hypocrisy?

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

May 20 will be the 139th anniversary of the United States as one of the original signatory nations of the Convention of the Meter also known as the Treaty of the Meter. On that day the world took a leap forward and officially recognized the need to protect and improve the metric system (or SI as it is known on the rest of the planet), through the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). It is an intergovernmental organization that comes under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). On that day in Paris there was agreement on how the organization would be financed and managed, with member governments acting in common accord on all matters.

Ahem, then there’s the United States saying one thing and doing another

Despite:

yet, I’m still buying my hamburger by the pound, gasoline by the gallon and fabric by the yard. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty and that’s why I’ve been researching his topic for almost two years. I trust the documentary I plan to make will raise awareness of how far behind the rest of the world we’ve gotten and we’ll want to do something about it.

To commemorate this 139th anniversary, also known as World Metrology Day, I’ll give a talk at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 21 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. I’ll try to be both informative and entertaining.

Just so you know, the theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements and the global energy challenge” and is sponsored by the BIPM and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (BIML).

According to Stephen Patoray, the current director of the BIML:

While measurements are central to most basic decisions on energy usage, there are many other aspects of the global energy challenge which are much more complex:

  • global population growth;
  • emerging economies;
  • complex technologies;
  • increasing consumer demands;
  • higher quality of life;
  • etc.

According to the site’s press release:

World Metrology Day is an annual event during which more than 80 countries celebrate the impact of measurement on our daily lives.

Feel free to join in to spread the word about all the advantages the metric system has versus our cumbersome U.S. customary units.

While not new, I found an interview where Rachel Maddow celebrated World Metrology Day back in 2010. You can view the seven minute clip here.

I hadn’t come across this before and was surprised to learn that several scientists with the National Institute of Standards were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work with time and temperatures during the past few years including: David J. Wineland (2012), John (Jan) L. Hall (2005) and William D. Phillips (1997) (More on them here.)

It’s not too early to start planning for next year

I don’t know that we’ll be in a better position to participate in World Metrology Day by the 140th anniversary (2015) but hopefully we will by the 150th anniversary, or sooner, if enough people in this country decide to do something about it.

Thanks,

Linda

The Metric System as Predator

Very interesting. I recommend it.

Very interesting. I recommend it.

I have experience in change management and communications but I’m reading a book that helps explain why some people have such a strong, negative reaction when the subject of metric adoption comes up.

Tame the Primitive Brain

The author of Tame the Primitive Brain: 28 Ways in 28 Days to Manage the Most Impulsive Behaviors at Work, Mark Bowden, asserts that our brains developed in a modular way. First, we needed the ability to control things like heartbeat and breathing, but not in a conscious way, and that is our reptilian brain. As the oldest part of our thinking systems its primary objective is survival of the organism in which it resides. Next, the limbic part of our brains helps regulate our emotions and memory—a little higher functioning. And finally, there is the latest addition to our thought house: the neocortex. This part of our brain provides consciousness and allows higher-level thinking like the use language and planning for the future. (I’m really glossing this over so see the book for more information.)

Because they’ve been with us the longest, the primitive parts of our brain make very rapid decisions about whether something is a threat or not so we (and many other creatures) can respond accordingly (that whole fight or flight thing). In terms of evolution, this rapid decision making was ideal for hunting down our food—or not becoming something else’s food.

It’s these same parts of our brains that cause us to pull a hand away from a flame without thinking about it but they also apparently make quite a few other decisions for us without involving that much slower moving (though much more sophisticated) neocortex.

How this processing effects adoption of new ideas—including metric adoption

Thus, our brains have evolved to respond to threats of all kinds automatically without much processing and that’s where we get into trouble when it comes to new ideas and the suggestion of change.

As long as we’re relatively comfortable, we tend to prefer everything stay the same. A change represents a potential threat and should be avoided. Change means risk and, to our primitive brain at least, risk is risky and should be avoided. Change is a predator that could mean something bad.

Should a change look like it’s coming (all else being equal) our default position is to be negative about it since it always appears to be the safest choice.

But what does our reptilian brain do if it does not detect anything either inside or outside of an environment that it can quickly identify as safe or unsafe? What if there is insufficient data, too much data, doubt or confusion? What happens then? (page 33, Kindle location 846)

The author goes on to says that when there is confusion, we assume the worst because, historically, that was the scenario that would most likely keep us alive. He gives the example of a cave dweller who hears a noise outside at night. Which person is more likely to survive, the person who automatically translates that sound as menacing and picks up a weapon just in case or the person who blithely rolls over and goes back to sleep? The former, of course, and our minds tend perceive the unknown as threats since it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”

Uncertainty and the metric system

To close my loop, metric adoption is something that most people have never given much (if any) thought to so their first instinct is to reject it instantly—the metric system conversion is processed just as we would respond to a predator —a threat. Believe me, I’ve seen it firsthand: the panic or concern on people’s faces is unmistakable. And people will come up with the pretty lame reasons to justify their instincts to reject but it’s not their fault, remember the fallback position is to view change as threatening.

Suggested response to immediate metric system adoption rejection

According to the author, we might want to follow the course of action:

So when you get what feels like a snappy, impulsive or ill-judged negative response from a colleague, customer, or client—anyone from whom you are really seeking a “yes”—try this approach: Just say okay, and upon leaving or finishing the call, ask the person to think about it. Then come back later with more information and see if you can change his or her mind. (Page 39, Kindle location 942)

The hope is that over time, and with more information, the neocortex will kick in and people will process the new information using the more developed part of their brains. Once that happens there is a greater possibility that a change might actually be viewed as beneficial—and in this case, deciding that perhaps metric system adoption might be the best course of action after all.

I do recommend you get more of the background on this topic and read the whole book. It really is quite interesting. And if it could improve your life, isn’t it worth the small investment?

Metric System Teaching/Learning Resources

Speaking at the MidSchool Math conference a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about how I first got involved with the metric system as an adult. It was two hobbies really: beading and working with essential oils. Both forced me to work with metric units: millimeters and milliliters, respectively.

How crazy is this? Bead sizes in mm and strand in inches.

How crazy is this? Bead sizes in mm and strand in inches. Image from Fire Mountain Gems

Beading wasn’t too bad since most bead sizes were expressed solely in millimeters but I had my daughter buy me a caliper so I could start to envision the various sizes. The oils were more difficult because some books and websites used metric units while others used customary units and that made price comparisons difficult.

Using what works beautifully

Of course, once I started mixing oils it became readily apparent that working with decimals was FAR easier for scaling up and down and I abandoned customary units for this work entirely. That left me primed for events that followed: I learned about our sorry history with the metric system and started to shoot video again at work. That intersection of events eventually led me to take on this documentary project.

I will say that while learning the metric system, you should avoid conversions as much as possible. The more you work in the metric system the easier it is. You most likely already have rulers and tape measures with metric units. Just get used to using them in place of those pesky customary units.

Metric system resources for teachers and others

There are lots of resources on the metric system out on the web. (As well as “metric system,” another search term is “International System of Units” [or “SI” as it is referred to by most of the world] or Le Système international d’unités” in French. The quotation marks tell the search engine to look for that exact term, BTW).

Here are a few handy sites to get you rolling:

National Institute for Standards and Technology. It has free resources specifically for teaching the metric system. Here are a couple of things my contact there sent me

Information on how to teach the metric system from the U.S. Metric Association

Don’t know this site (Math is Fun) very well but seems to have some good resources for teaching kids.

I came across this site while researching for this post. The “mystery canisters” further down on the page sounds like fun.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics position on teaching the metric system in schools.

Using the metric system in the kitchen

A question that came up during the session was how to convert U.S. customary unit recipes into metric units. Since few people currently use scales in their kitchen now (mandatory with the metric system since grams are used—not volume) it’s not surprising that issue came up.

I offered she could make the recipe the usual way making note of the millimeters and grams as she went along and it wouldn’t be any more variable than any other time she’s made it. (Grandma’s treasured layer cake, for instance.)

However, I found a site with easy-to-use conversion tables for converting your old recipes: “The Metric Kitchen.” I suggest this approach instead.

Need a new recipe? Just start out with it in metric units.

For instance, the wildly wonderful http://allrecipes.com/ site allows you to access ingredients in metric units from the get-go:

Side_by_side_001

To view metric versions of recipes on allrecipies.com, click on “Change servings” and choose metric

 

The Metric Maven also has a metric cookbook that I know he’d like to see get some more use.

“Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy”

I’ve had requests for the overheads from Math and the Metric System (pdf). I am willing to share them here but please understand that you’re missing the narration that goes along with them and I do reserve the rights to work that went into them. That said, I hope you find them informative.

I’ll have another post next week. I have several different subjects in mind but I can’t decide which one to write about next.

Of course, if you have a question, please send it to me (milbehind@gmail.com) and I’ll see what I can do about collecting them and providing answers in this blog.

Thanks,

Linda

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