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

To join my mailing list, send a request to milebehind@gmail.com.

The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

My presentation on Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy at the MidSchool Math conference went very well. The session had 50 people registered and while not everyone showed up, most folks did. Since the attendees were mostly math teachers I felt I had an opportunity to get them thinking about the metric system in new ways that they could take back their classrooms and hopefully their lives. The group was receptive and had lots of questions for me. They were also able to interact and ask each other questions about their metric classroom experiences.

Hands-on opportunities

I had scheduled some hands-on exercises using length and mass to help them get used to applying metric units. While length didn’t present much of a problem, only a couple of people used scales in the kitchen. This gave them a chance to play with some of the equipment I brought. (Let’s face it, pretty much every ruler and tape measure today has both U.S. customary and metric units on them but most people are so familiar with measuring cups that it doesn’t occur to them to use a scale in the kitchen though it’s far easier.)

I also brought some metric-only rulers supplied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (centimeters on one side, millimeters on the other) and they cleaned me out of those—which I consider a good sign.

Avoid conversions!!!

A couple of folks on the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) listserve who communicated with me prior to my talk wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage conversions during my presentation. Not only was that explicit in my presentation—twice no less—but I also pointed out that I’d gotten that feedback from USMA to try to drive the point home. I think it worked.

After all, the metric system was introduced at a time of widespread illiteracy and even unschooled french farmers and tradesmen learned it easily enough. It should be a cinch for today’s high-tech Americans.

One attendee told me she thought it was the best presentation she’d seen so far (I was in the afternoon on the second day) but I have to say that the keynote speaker on the first day, Dan Meyer, was extremely good. He stressed the need to engage kids studying math in the classroom in three acts and bring them along for a story where they really want to figure out what happens. Let’s face it, everyone gets more interested if there’s a good story involved. I think the audience heard him.

Testing my story structure

For my part, I got a chance to try out part of my story structure for the documentary on an audience, hear questions and find out what parts of the narration were of the most interest by their level of attention. There’s just nothing better than trying out your material on a real audience. I’m very pleased with the results but I will continue to refine and expand.

Since I did attend a couple of sessions other than my own, I also had a chance to engage with additional teachers and all seemed very interested in what I’m trying to do. It was only one of the other presenters who gave me pause when he suggested that the next generation would take care of metric conversion in the United States. (Only other time I’ve heard that before [good idea but not now] was in John Quincy Adams’ report to Congress back in 1821—haunts us every time we get serious about metric adoption by the way…) I quickly realized that there was no point in arguing the issue with him but would have loved to point out that in the 30 years since the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded no “next  generation” has come along so far and perhaps he’s part of the “next generation” that should do something. Ah well, I tried to be as persuasive as possible under the circumstances.

As should always be the case, the teacher and learner roles got reversed during my session and I walked away with some additional things to think about and research.

For instance:

  • I’ve been told the military uniformly uses the metric system but others have told me that’s not true. True status will take some digging.
  • When converting from miles to kilometers, what happens to the mile markers since they’re currently used to help drivers know how many miles to their next exit?
  • What’s the best way to convert existing recipes into metric?

The cost of conversion

Of course, the biggest unanswerable question I get asked is how much would it cost to convert to the metric system in this country. I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on that since it’s been so long since the question was seriously considered.

Aside from the cost of conversion errors, and time savings in schools and elsewhere on an individual basis, imagine how much time it takes to design things for multiple countries with dual labeling—including the use of more ink to print both sets.

Converting to the metric system will have a mostly one-time cost while failure to convert to the metric system continues to cost us, and cost us and cost us…

Linda

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 2: The More Things Change…

Beware the endcap in the supermarket

Beware the endcap in the supermarket—no unit pricing.

Can we expect resistance to metric adoption from the food/supermarket lobbies?

Based on what I’ve come across so far, the answer would be “Yes.” Early on I had someone “in the know” tell me that grocery stores had been against metric adoption during our last push in the 1970s because they would get caught between metric units and consumers, as in “I can’t buy a kilogram of hamburger. What the heck is a kilogram?” But I think it goes deeper than that.

Uniform measures make it more difficult to deceive customers

Food manufacturers and supermarkets will continue to play games with us as along as it benefits them. In the 1967 copyrighted, The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray, (In chapter 3, “The Package as Salesman”), he points out that after World War II, the dynamic between the food retailer and consumers shifted as the public stopped going to local “markets” and started shopping in “supermarkets.” Without the human interface and a large array of products within a category (cereal again comes to mind), and with the generally high quality of most of the offerings…

Packaging is no longer merely a method of holding or containing the product for storing and shipping. It is now a major element in the advertising and promotional campaign. It is a full-fledged salesman. p.13

The author then includes a quote from a sales promotion manager:

Some food processors are actually in the packaging business rather than the food business. p.13

Fast forward almost 50 years and things really haven’t changed that much.

I started poking around in food retailing publications and came across this quote:

In the wake of multiple lawsuits around the use of the term “natural” (against Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, Goya Foods and others), it could be time for food companies to reconsider using it on labels and focus instead on new product design and more creative language.

Thus, food manufacturers are still under fire for misleading claims, promises and labeling. The article, “The Natural Debate: Your Consumer Is Your Regulator” was dated March 4, 2014 and was linked to from Supermarketnews.com.

Obviously, we’re still the target of manipulators as manufacturers try to get us to buy their products and stores try to sell us items with the highest profit margins.

Making easy cost comparisons when buying food—how prevalent?

I remember a time when I had trouble figuring out which food was the least expensive since the “unit price” amount didn’t always use the same base (as in “cost per ounce” for coffee versus “cost per pound”). A recent trip to my grocery store (Smith’s) revealed no such problem with the labels on the shelf. All were clearly marked and easy to compare. However, a little more digging revealed that application of unit pricing regulations is not uniform within our country. While my state does not necessarily adhere to unit pricing, apparently my supermarket chain does.

However, I was able to find examples of mixed unit pricing to show you on Amazon.com.

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Flour2Note the two weights on flour sold in its site. In one the “cost per” is pound and other one lists ounce. Frankly, I can’t do that math in my head to figure out which is the best deal without a calculator.

How the metric system could help in the supermarket

If we were using the metric system for these things comparisons would become easier since larger and smaller amounts relate to each other by multiples of 10, 100, or 0.1, 0.001, so you’d just move a decimal point in one direction or the other and not have to deal with the crazy 16 ounces in a pound we use now.

I’m not saying we couldn’t get deceived when we’re buying food or other items once we’ve converted to the metric system but it should make our lives (and those of our children…) a little easier. Isn’t that worth a little hassle in the short term?

Thanks,

Linda

Note: My title references the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Originally from French (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it means that things don’t really change all that much.

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 1: A Little History

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Last Thursday (February 27, 2014) the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new nutritional labeling standards for packaging in the United States. The original law, called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, was put in place in 1990 in an effort:

  1. To clear up consumer’s confusion about food labels
  2. To encourage consumers in making health food choices, and
  3. To encourage product innovation so that manufacturers are given an incentive to improve the quality of the food and make more healthy food choices available to consumers.
                                            Virginia Wilkening
                                            Food and Drug Administration

It was probably less effective on the last point than the first two but let’s examine a little history.

Measurement and trade

Since people have traded with one another, sellers have tried to cheat their customers to their own ends. That’s one of the reasons why throughout history there has been resistance to setting measurement standards (the metric system included). The new  regulations adjust serving sizes (mostly upward) but also highlight the nutritional information on the labels.

Serving sizes

While researching this project, my contact at National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended a book called The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray. With a copyright date of 1967, it relates that after World War II, consumers (quaintly referred to as “housewives” throughout the book) were getting up in arms because, as they purchased more convenience foods, they started having problems figuring out how much product to buy because the serving sizes were not standard. Each company made isolated decisions regarding what an “average” serving size constituted.

To one manufacturer, a serving of peaches might be two halves; to his competitor, it might be one half or three halves. It is like buying by the hat—and using the seller’s hat as a measure. p. 92.

In case the problem with having non-standard serving sizes for food isn’t readily apparent, let’s apply that logic to something we deal differently with today: gasoline.

The scenario goes like this: You need some more fuel and there are two gas stations across the street from each other that have determined their own “serving sizes.” Lo and behold, the price of one of the serving sizes is less expensive than the other. Is it really a better deal or just a smaller serving size? Without further investigation, there is no way for the consumer to know and that’s exactly what was going on in the grocery stores. A glance at two, say, cereal boxes next to each other might seem like the one with more serving sizes for the same price is to be a better deal. But would that impression be accurate? At the time, the answer was “No.” Enter the federal government.

While the serving sizes have been fixed by the federal government since the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 (metric units were added to labels in 1992), there was plenty of resistance from the food industry according to the book since deception would become more difficult via that method.

And manufacturers still play games with us

Don’t worry about the food industry. They’re still finding way to take advantage of us today. You don’t have to read many issues of Consumer Reports to see an example where a reader has bought a usual item only to get home and realize the new box or bag contains less than when it was last purchased. Just because the manufacturer has adjusted the weight or volume in print (according to regulations) doesn’t mean they’re not trying to hide something. (When was the last time you saw a box emblazoned with “Now, less for the same price!”?) Yet it downsizes product contents all the time.

Let me tie in the metric system more closely: the labels will continue to be a mishmash of metric and U.S. customary measures (for new readers of the column, we don’t use Imperial units in the country, but our units are derived from them). In the example, the serving size is expressed in both customary and metric units but the nutritional content is only in metric units and thank goodness. If they were in fraction of ounces, you wouldn’t know if they were weight or volume (metric units only express mass—which relate to the gravity of the planet you’re on) or some other incomprehensible subunit. For instance:

Protein = 3 grams = 0.10582oz

If I tell you that a gram is roughly the same mass as a standard (that word again) paperclip, that’s fairly easy to imagine. Now, try to imagine a unit of 0.1 of an ounce. A bit tougher for most people I’d guess.

This post has run as long, or longer, than it should. Stay tuned. There’s more to learn.

Linda

Metric System Presentation at March 2014 National Math Conference

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

Next month (March 28 to be exact) I’m making a presentation on the metric system at a national conference in Santa Fe called MidSchool Math thanks to project supporters with Imagine Education. The theme of the entire conference is Stop the Drop and refers to international testing standards that show in 4th grade, American kids are slightly above their cohorts in other countries in math but by 8th grade, they score slightly below. It’s the hope of the conference’s organizers to start to reverse this trend. During the three-day conference, sessions will cover a variety of topics from Mathematical Icebreakers to a keynote session on How to Make Kids Hate Math. My session: Math the Metric System: Using What’s Easy. So far, eight people have registered but there’s more than a month to go.

The cost of the conference is $475 or $525 (that whole early bird thing) and if you’re a teacher in New Mexico, you could be eligible for a stipend of up to $1,000 to cover the conference and its associated costs. Check it out or spread the word.

Having written on the subject of education and the metric system, I have a place to start to build my presentation content, particularly on the subject of Common Core State Standards for math as they relate to the metric system. My session will be an hour and fifteen minutes long so I’ll have time to cover lots of material and, with the assistance of our federal government in the form of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (thanks Elizabeth!), I’ll be able to supply attendees with some modest metric supplies and games to take back to their classrooms.

Total side note: I was just looking for meter sticks on Amazon and came across “One Meter (39-1/2″) Wood Stick Ruler.” Really? You’d think if you were looking for a meter stick (and not a yardstick), you wouldn’t need to have the inches spelled out for you. How much time is wasted in this country having to continually include both metric and U.S. customary numbers? Then I found this in a description: “Meterstick is lightweight and ideal for the classroom. It measures 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick.” Pathetic. Let’s please get our metric act together.

I plan to devote quite a bit of time to developing the presentation. When people walk out the door, I want them to say “Wow” but in a good way. That will take time, research, rehearsal and matching my subject matter to my audience. I realize that public speaking frightens a lot of people (some studies rate it as the number one human fear!) but I don’t currently have that problem. I say currently because at one point in my career I wasn’t making a lot of presentations but once I needed to again, I was able to relax pretty quickly. My largest audience to date: more than 500 people. The only caveat to my being relaxed is I have to know my subject matter. That shouldn’t be a problem in this case.

Luckily, I also have some teaching background and found that I’m pretty accurate about being able to estimate how much material I can cover within a particular time period. Of course, it’s always a good idea to have a little extra, so in case you find yourself running short, you can continue a little longer if needed. As the saying goes, “Always leave them wanting more,” but you also want to make sure people walk away feeling like their time was well spent.

I’m also hoping there will be a method for people to feedback on how I did. I find constructive criticism very helpful. While it’s unlikely that I’ll give this exact talk again, who knows what parts of it could come in handy as the project progresses.

It will be nice to get out and interact with the attendees and the other presenters. I’m sure I’ll learn things that will benefit the documentary in ways that won’t seem obvious watching the end product but if you follow this blog, you may see how they ultimately inform me.

I’ll be sure to share what I find out that’s interesting and fun…stay tuned.

Linda