Baby Formula, the Pandemic, and the Metric System

I recently got pushback from a media outlet because it recorded a podcast five years ago about the metric system, and it didn’t want to go over old territory. Brother.

U.S. ounces and U.K. ounces
are not the same size! As you can see from the “9,” U.S. ounces are bigger.

Not only is our metric system landscape constantly changing, but it impacts us in ways we don’t even see coming at us. When you heard about our shortage of infant formula in the United States, did you consider that our lack of metric system adoption added at least two new hurdles to our babies (and others) getting safe food? Well, it did.

From our unthinking perspective: Why just solve a dozen different urgent, life-saving problems when you can add two more due to our lack of metric system adoption in the United States? I think it is safe to say that the U.S.’s continued isolation in our measurement system does not bode well for the world in general. (My blog. My opinion.) However, it is a correctable problem. I think we all deserve more information about this measurement problem (see my request for a Congressional hearing with the House Subcommittee on Science, Space, & Technology) on our 200+ year measurement car wreck. But there are resources on this subject in the short term: National Institute of Standards and Technology.

We added at least two obstacles into our American baby formula crisis through our lack of international measurement standards

The Federal Trade Commission administers the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). The law itself directs the agency to put into place:

….additional regulations where necessary to prevent consumer deception (or to facilitate value comparisons) with respect to descriptions of ingredients, slack fill of packages, use of “cents-off” or lower price labeling, or characterization of package sizes.

https://www.ftc.gov/legal-library/browse/statutes/fair-packaging-labeling-act

Let’s face it, a global pandemic is horrible, and we’ve been going through it for almost three years. Just trying to keep everyone safe from invisible, evolving viruses is an emergency on its own.

Then, we created a situation we fundamentally shouldn’t have. Because of the COVID pandemic, supply chains broke down in many unanticipated ways. All over the place. One place parents really felt it was a loss of infant formula and mixes. While the problem had multiple factors, I only want to address a couple of the metric-system-adoption failures here.

Problem #1: Lack of dual labeling at a minimum as required by current law for product importation (U.S. customary and metric system [SI] units). At the minimum. Other laws are also at play here. I can’t possibly cite all of them. But, I’m sure that others in the government could produce this information if called upon to do so.

Problem #2: Potential conversions errors when mixing unfamiliar units associated with the metric system and U.S. customary units. Getting that information out to parents may, or may not, have been a successful/unsuccessful campaign. I have no idea, but what’s below should, to me, have been completely unnecessary.

Try to convince me this isn’t stupid and dangerous for everyone in this country.

As I understand it, the original problem started with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration missing contamination at an infant formula manufacturing site in the United States. This created a national supply-chain crisis. The manufacturer, Abbott was also to blame. It’s a huge outfit with more than 100,000 employees. The White House recognized this issue’s importance immediately and started working on it from various angles as children/infants (and others) suddenly couldn’t get the food they needed to live.

The Biden Administration went so far as to fly formula from other countries to the United States. Called “Operation Fly Formula,” A statement dated June 22, 2022, says:

In May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the agency is exercising enforcement discretion so that Nestlé can export additional infant formula into the U.S. Nestlé will import both standard and specialty infant formulas, including…

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/22/president-biden-announces-ninth-operation-fly-formula-mission/

Let’s look at the phrase “… the agency is exercising enforcement discretion…”

Since the FPLA is meant to avoid deception directed at consumers, and crooks have used units of measure since time immemorial*, so all commodities must state their contents in the prevailing units (be they metric, U.S. customary, or both), including for infant food. It’s a health a safety and a commerce issue.

Dual labing

One problem we have is that packages in our country need to be “dual labeled” where there is enough room to do so, (see National Institute of Standards and Technology labeling site). This also involves the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation.

Of those packages examined, 17% declared the net quantity of contents in only metric units. Almost 57.5% of those metric packages were found to be noncompliant with current FPLA dual labeling requirements. [Emphasis mine.]

https://www.nist.gov/pml/owm/laws-and-regulations/packaging-and-labeling

So, under the law, you have to dual-labeled products for distribution in the United States. Of course, infant formula never meant for export to the United States would only have metric system units on them. That was never a problem until we tried to import infant formula during a pandemic. Then, suddenly, it became part of a much larger problem. Completely unnecessary and avoidable.

As indicated by the FDA Guidance Document: “Guidance for Industry: Infant Formula Enforcement Discretion Policy, dated May 2022“:

FDA intends to temporarily exercise enforcement discretion concerning specific requirements for infant formulas that may not comply with certain statutory and regulatory requirements and is seeking information from manufacturers regarding their products’ safety and nutritional adequacy. 

Well, that solved one problem…

Conversion errors

So, the Administration did lots of things to supply our babies with food, and other countries tried to help us in an emergency. The White House lifted the dual labeling requirement for the time being. Of course, that leads to problems shifting from an import problem to a “consumer use” problem and the potential of conversion errors while mixing formulas. Such a problem would be Impossible in a solely SI world.

Here is my problem with writing about conversion errors. I couldn’t find any fundamental, accessible research on error rates. I found LOTS of things that said conversion errors are bad, but I could never get a good enough answer about what rates of conversion errors there are. But errors are made. Everyday. I assure you. We can’t stop all conversion errors, but we can stop the stupid ones like constantly trying to use two incompatible measurement systems side by side for 200+ years in this country.

So, what happens when Americans suddenly end up with only metric system units on hand? Easy. They get confused, so the federal government must then get the word out about using these mostly unfamiliar measurement units, so their kids don’t get sick and die from malnutrition. Whatever path led us here could not possibly be a good one. How much did it cost to whip up the poster above, and how much time and effort went into getting that conversion guidance into the right hands? If the efforts were successful, then lots and lots of resources, from the federal government right down to the doctors’ offices. Those are steep taxpayer dollars, my friend.

If we only used metric system units, both of these problems would disappear. Once and for all.

Please help get the word out.

Thanks,

Linda

My 10-year/$25,000 Report to the House Subcommittee on Science, Space, & Technology on Metric System Adoption in Honor of National Metric Week, dated October, 10, 2022

Well, the first/last(?) More Than 1.6 Kilometer Ahead awards are out.

Then, on Monday, October 10, 2022, I sent a concern to the House Subcommittee on Science, Space, & Technology regarding our lack of metric system adoption. I requested a Congressional hearing and tried to lay out my case for why this issue is vital to our country.

The first page of my 10-page concern. Know the goals of your audience.

Will I get a response? I have no idea, but I am also attempting to interest the media looking for support/coverage.

Trying to put 10 years of research into a 10-page document was no easy feat, and I didn’t have an opportunity to run the document past people, so I own all my mistakes in it. Still, I did my best with what I had (including Grammarly). I’ve already started to find typos, but I can hope its substance means more to people than some surface blemishes.

Using my (at best) meager layout skills, I tried to build my case based on my knowledge of the subject. I must have “touched” more than 200 documents as I pulled my “case for the metric system” for the Subcommittee.

I had to look up old information, confirm dates, leverage old graphics, find new ones, and generally worked to make the most “rock solid” explanation possible for serious federal consideration. I only get one shot at this, and people’s lives are at stake due to dosing errors alone.

Produced in three sections, the first section centered on the stated goals of the House Subcommittee’s “Congressional Oversight Plan.” I did everything I could to point to the intersections of the Subcommittee’s Plan and the metric system project.

Section 2 contains what I call my “Initial Documentation.”

I started with the New York Times article dated August 18, 2020, by Alanna Mitchell:

My biggest question: Why are we still redefining our feet (our new “survey foot” goes into place on January 1, 2023) when the metric started in about 1790?

Second 3 contains my request for a Congressional hearing on the topic of the metric system.

I’m trying to make this issue about multiple costs

I tried to work into the document the concept of “our costs” for not adopting the metric system. In lives lost or derailed due to dosing errors, in time wasted looking up conversions, and (let’s face it) our country looks ignorant to the rest of the world. (I have a theory about why so many people from other countries look at my blog. Think “car wreck.”)

What put me on this path?

My contact at the National Institute of Standards and Technology sent me a link to a hearing that took place back in March of this year, and it got me thinking and digging.

After clicking around on the site, I came across this icon.

That icon led me to this page https://science.house.gov/contact/whistleblower

And that page led me to this sentence in the second paragraph:

If you have information to share regarding concerns about federally-funded science, research or technology-related programs, please contact us.

https://science.house.gov/contact/whistleblower

And I do have grave concerns about our lack of metric system adoption. So I pulled together my document and sent it in in honor of National Metric Week.

Either I can make a compelling case, or I can’t. It is now up to others to decide.

Here are a few quotes in my lame attempt to get you to read the entire, ~1,700-word report, but it does have a lot of graphics.

The experiment that John Quincy Adams worried about in 1821 ended very long ago, and the metric system won. Almost every place but here.

Linda Anderman, Page 1 of the report

How much will it continue to cost us in health, safety, education, commerce, and international scientific standing within the world to coninue on our current trajectory?

Linda Anderman, page 2 of the report

Dosing mistakes can be lift-threatening! Avoid if possible. The metric system will help us get this right.

linda Anderman, page 6 of the report

I closed the report with the quote I wrote many years ago, but still holds true.

When you think about all the problems in the world (war, illness, environmental disasters), once we fix our metric system problem, we never have to fix it again. No country that has switched to the metric system as switched back.

linda anderman, page 10 of the report.

Please try to overlook any typos or poor layout of this document, but feel free to share.

It’s a public record now. Let’s see if we can get this discussion back on the table after a 40-year lapse in attention.

Thanks for sticking with me.

Linda

The First (and Last?) “More Than 1.6 Kilometers Ahead*” Awards go to: “The Simpsons” and Stephen Colbert/”The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”

The first/last 1.6 Kilometer Ahead awards are in the mail to the respective shows.

Almost exactly 40 years ago, the U.S. Metric Board’s funding was pulled under the Reagan Administration. The failure of our last attempt stemmed from weakness in the 1975 metric system legislation and a later Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that said basically (but truthfully), “Nope, United States, you don’t have to do this; it’s VOLUNTARY.” (See below.)

From the Government Accountability Office “Disclaimer.” Yikes!

Guess what happened next…people moved on from this “lost cause” with little need to predict what would ensue during the next four decades.

Today, while most Americans have lost sight of the metric system—except for looking up unit conversions on Google—the National Institute of Standards and Technology (part of the Department of Commerce) did not, and it continues to implement various standards for such things as the Fair Labeling and Packaging Act (enacted in 1967) as commerce, education, and public needs continue to evolve.

I’ve got 10 years and $25,000+ of my own money invested in this project and I am prepared to walk away, but first…a couple of metric system standouts get recognition on my watch.

The two television shows I’ve identified have brought attention to our metric system plight for more than my short decade; these shows helped ensure that the metric system got noticed by including references to them within a humorous context for multiple decades.
And the first (but hopefully not the last) More Than 1.6 Kilometers Ahead awards go to:

#1: The Simpsons

To be clear, I put The Simpsons first due to seniority, not comparable quality or relative relevance. Both shows are incredibly funny and have made vast impacts on American society—although not necessarily in this particular area.

The Simpsons has run for more than 30 years! During that time, there have been countless metric system references: from Bart’s judge-issued restraining order given in meters to the We Do (Stonecutter’s Song) From Season 6, Episode 12: “Homer the Great” at roughly 12 minutes into the episode.

Who can forget such memorable lyrics as:

Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
We do, we do
Who keeps Atlantis off the maps?
Who keeps the Martians under wraps?
We do, we do…

If that weren’t enough, there is the scene that people particularly remember: Grandpa’s rant at the public meeting (From Season 6, episode #18, “A Star is Burns” at about 3:15 minutes in:***)

Marge Simpson: Now, I know you haven’t liked some of my past suggestions like switching to the metric system…

Grandpa Simpson interrupts: The metric system is the tool of the devil. My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.

We Do/Stonecutters’ song

[Sorry to those out of the country. I’m not sure the clips will play for either of these.]

#2: Stephen Colbert/The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (LSSC)

I feel like I need to incorporate Mr. Colbert—from both his Comedy Central days (see the clip below)—and his current work with the fine folks at LSSC.

Stephen Colbert illustrates the really old way to determine a yard in King Henry’s day. https://www.cc.com/video/l00qbc/the-colbert-report-the-metric-system


Excerpt from the above clip:

Now the English makes total sense. A pound is a pound. A hogshead is a hogshead. A yard is the distance between King Henry’s nose to his finger and a gallon is the amount of rain you can catch in a buffalo’s skull. Rock solid

Stephen Colbert, The colbert report, 2007

 I’ve noticed that the LSSC scripts hold wonderful references to not only the metric system but with my Los Alamos National Laboratory background (as a communications specialist, not a scientist), I always perk up when he touches on science stories (because I know the research staff know how to work their “reference magic”), and I know it’s because Mr. Colbert is drawn to it**. What draws him to the metric system? I have no guess. Fingers crossed, maybe I’ll get to ask him someday.

The reason I conceived these awards was due to a recent kilometer reference on LSSC, and I realized that, if I want to acknowledge the metric system contributions of these two television shows, this might be my only opportunity since—if I can’t move the needle on this—if American’s don’t care about this incredibly important topic (based on my decade of research)—it’s time for me to “close up shop” and go home.

I do have an “exit strategy,” but I hope I don’t have to use it.

At least these awards will go out one time.****

Thanks for reading this far.

Stay tuned; more on the horizon very soon.

Linda 

(*) Note: The award’s title is based on the “opposite” of the project’s title. As in More Than a Milebehind/More Than 1.6 Kilometers Ahead.

(**)  I know the history that his deceased father, James William Colbert Jr., was a physician who once worked for the National Institutes of Health.

(***) Thanks to long-time project collaborator, Peter Goodyear, for ensuring I included this non-singing, but very popular reference from The Simpsons.

Because this is where we are, my receipt for the dimensions of the plaques is in inches…sigh

(****) Thanks to Chad at Ortiz Printing in Santa Fe, NM for helping me pull the plaques together.

Update, Book Reviews, and the Metric System

I realize I have yet to post this year, but worry not, as I’ve been working on things “behind the scenes.” Let’s chalk much of this year up to “technical difficulties” on multiple levels + COVID log jams—almost everywhere—from medical care to retailer printer availability. Rest assured, I just keep working to refine my approaches to this material. I’m feeling pretty good about my plans. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to several, recent books on how we humans approach numbers and a little problem called “math anxiety,” which many of us have. (Without numbers, and their concepts, who needs the metric system? And since we need numbers, let’s make them as easy to use as possible.)

Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, Chip Heath & Karla Starr, (2022)

Chip Heath is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This work (along with other books written with his brother, Dan) highlights basic information about how numbers tend to trip us up. (Or why we have difficulty conceptualizing numbers once there are more than a few of them.)

From the book’s introduction:

We’ve come to believe, after working with these principles for years, that almost every gnarly number has something—an analogy, a comparison, another dimension—that will allow us to translate it into something we can remember, use, and discuss with others.

Page XVI

Bravo. And then, the book backs these words up with example after example to illustrate how we can improve upon communicating “numbers.”

It takes real work/research/creativity to avoid just throwing out numbers that—to most people—are profoundly alienating.

Plus, don’t miss the appendix of this less-than-200-page book. It lays out the simple rules such as:

Rule #1: Round with Enthusiasm

…When we heave a nonuser-friendly number across the room to our audience, we are dumping extra work on them. (Page 138).

And that’s why YOU have to do the work for your audience. Of course you don’t have to, but then don’t be surprised when all eyes glaze over.

Rule #2: Concrete is Better
Use whole numbers
, not too many. Preferably small. (Page 140)

And while I’ve espoused the mostly unnecessary evil of fractions (algebra and scientific notation acknowledged), we need to remember we scare small children with this stuff.

Fractions are generally awful because the complexity takes you out of the flow of things. Quick, how would you like 6/19 of that pie…Converting a fraction to a decimal eliminates some of the math—no more weird denominators—but still isn’t intuitive. “Would you like .316 pies?”

Page 140

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters, Deborah Stone (2020)

The index lists only six sections:

1) There’s No Such Thing as a Raw Number
2) How a Number Comes to Be
3) How We Know What a Number Means
4) How Numbers Get Their Clout
5) How Counting Changes Hearts and Minds
6) The Ethics of Counting

Under “How We Know What a Number Means,” it states:

If you want to decipher accurate meanings of numbers, channel your inner sociologist…
Ready for a quiz? Don’t be fooled. It looks like arithmetic, but it’s really about social anatomy
.

Does 3 X 20 equal 2 X 30? (Page 65)

The short, somewhat confusing answer is: “Sixty minutes aren’t always 60 minutes if you understand how people use time.” (You’ll need to borrow [support your local libraries] or buy the book to learn the rest of the answer.)

The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilization, Michael Brooks, (2021)

Again, I refer to the book’s introduction that relates to just how much trouble we tend to have with numbers as human beings:

In school, we are assured that maths is an essential skill; a passport for success; something that we have to pick up. And so we obediently, though often reluctantly, gather the tools of maths and do our best to learn how to use them. Some enjoy it; most don’t. And then, at some point, almost every one of us gives up.

Page 3

Brooks comes at this material in a way I found interesting by talking about the passions and interests that drove various individuals and countries to push mathematical frontiers.

It is part of my assertion that the Enlightenment helped foster the development of the metric system (or SI as it’s known in the rest of the world) and Brooks makes a great connection that resonates with me:

When transferred onto a set of wooden sticks known as the slide rule, logarithms powered centuries of science and engineering. The slide rule facilitated the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear age and the space race.

Page 153

As you might guess, I have many more books on math (or “maths” as they say across the pond) that I’ve collected during the past decade of work on this project.

If nothing else, I hope I’ve pointed out that we humans and numbers don’t always get along well. However, there are those exceptional folks who find math easy. Me, I flunked algebra in high school, but found statistics in college interesting. So many of us are better at some kinds of numbers than others.

Thanks for reading this far.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? That’s what the comment section is for and I approve all comments that are “on subject” and respectful of others.

Note: I posted my first blog almost exactly 10 years ago on July 24th. I currently have almost 420,000 pageviews. Thanks everyone!

Keep in mind that the 1866 Law on the metric system was adopted on July 28, 1866. Happy anniversaries!

Hiatus, the Book, and the Metric System

Image from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Earlier this year I indicated that I planned to have a draft of the book (America’s Biggest Miscalculation) done by the end of the year.

In July I was able to sit down and generate a pretty solid outline. I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

Now, my dear friends, is the time to act and I need to put a number of other things on hold to meet my deadline of a draft manuscript by December 31.

Part of that is stepping away from my blog to concentrate on writing the book.

However, I plan to continue to monitor and sometimes (maybe) respond to comments on the blog until such time as I can reengage with you in a different way.

Just some of my reading material. I have stacks of reference sources.

I know this will hurt the blog’s “stats” for the coming book proposal, but it’s what I need to do right now to ensure this work is ready by my self-imposed deadline of the end of the year.

I will respond to emails as I can, but if you don’t hear back from me, at least you’ll know why.

The best way to reach me during the next four months is to comment on the blog.

See you in January 2022.

My best until then,

Linda

Hot Dogs, Buns, and the Metric System

I’m dropping everything I’m doing right now to highlight something that I think is important.

Hot dogs and buns. No, seriously: hot dogs and buns.

I found out yesterday that Heinz (part of the Kraft-Heinz Corporation [KHC]) has started a campaign called the “Heinz Hot Dog Pact” to get manufacturers (apparently including themselves) to package both hot dogs and buns in counts of 10 each. (Ten each! This is just icing on the cake. Yeah, I make puns.) It’s hoping to clean up the mess made by having these mismatched, but usually paired items made equal—finally—and in sets of 10. Even better.

The Kraft-Heinz organization is robust, international, and a huge player in the food and beverage sector.

Why I think this is important

This extremely large organization is calling on others in the “production” end of things to make a change for the better for consumers. Isn’t that what every organization should attempt when it makes sense to do so?

Please also understand that it was revealed to me that one of the problems or “catch points” during our last metric system adoption attempt in the 1970s was grocers who didn’t want to be “on the front lines” if all the labels (and other things) in the stores suddenly changed to metric because consumers might yell at THEM about it. They did not want to put themselves in that position and I don’t blame them.

People visit my blog from all over the world. Chime in folks. (The actual top of my list of visiting countries and Spain has more than 550 views.)

Let’s face it, Heinz could just make the change itself (within its own production lines) but instead, it wants to address and fix the underlying problem: A mismatch of usually paired items.

BRAVO to Heinz for taking such a proactive stand to fix a ridiculous problem that should have been solved decades ago. In my mind, this echoes what needs to be done with the metric system. That’s why I bring this subject up now.

According an Adweek story, the idea originated with a Canadian ad agency

Packages should have 10 buns and 10 wieners, says cheeky campaign from Canadian agency Rethink.

Does “American Heinz” get credit for a campaign that originated with our Northern neighbors? In my opinion, having a great idea is important but only if it is recognized as a great idea once presented. It takes courage and foresight for companies to see a great idea and run with it. Frankly, in my opinion, most of them just F them up. I’ve witnessed the smoldering of good ideas ground down by company “liaisons” during my entire career.


It takes even more courage for a company to stick its neck out and try to change things in a meaningful way FOR A WHOLE BUSINESS SECTOR (food and beverage). I consider this exceptional work toward a good cause and KHC deserves all the good publicity that gets heaped upon it. (Any side issues, notwithstanding.)

What does this mean for this project? I have some thoughts. I need to mull them carefully before I will act. Part of it will be to try to follow the events of this campaign and it’s success rate.

However, this issue prompts new section of the blog:

Cheers and Jeers

Cheers to Heinz, Kraft Heinz and, if you like, you can join the dog/buns campaign on the https://www.change.org/ platform on this issue. Feel free to comment and include the words (hopefully in a smart way) “metric system.” Yes, I’m inciting people to “rise and comment.”

A cropped version of an image for the “Heinz Hot Dog Pact.”

HOWEVER, please don’t start a petition on this site for metric adoption now. It will fail. I can almost guarantee it. I’m asking for a bit of patience while I try to “ramp things up.”

Cheers to Tim Kaine, a democratic Senator and member of the Armed Services Committee. Within the last couple of weeks, he had an interview with Rachael Maddow, (on MSNBC) when he unabashedly used the phrase “square centimeters” without apology or translation. The more people who think and talk using the metric system only, the better for everyone toward metric system adoption. Let Senator Kaine know that you care about this issue (politely please) even if he “doesn’t belong to you” as a Senator. In a way, all elected officials belong to us within a democracy. https://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact.

Oh, and this might be an “American problem.” My wonderful contact in Australia did a quick “scout” for me and relayed that there, buns and hot dogs come in equal numbers. Not a surprise to me.

What about your country? Do your packages of dogs and buns match in number? Hey, that’s what the comments section is for.

Thanks for reading to the end.

Linda

Note: This blog has been archived by the Library of Congress since 2013. The access page for it is here: https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwaN0009077/. It is housed within the Library’s “Science Blogs Web Archive

The Science Blogs Web Archive provides resources for scholars and others conducting research on science writing, research, teaching and communication, as well as scientific discourse in the United States. Science blogs are online journals or diaries and thus enhance the Library’s analog collection of science periodicals and manuscripts by providing content that reflects observations and understanding of science in the 21st century. The archive was created to ensure the preservation and collection of digital materials which produce original thought and observations in all major scientific disciplines (earth sciences, physical sciences, and life sciences) for all audience levels.

The Nonfiction Writers Association and the metric system: Part II

I’m collecting information and writing reports (and lots of other things)

In the works:

  • A communications plan to support my proof of concept (POC)* recapped below
  • A nonfiction book proposal
  • List of reasons people use to reject adoption of the metric system.
  • A situation analysis
  • I’m building out this webpage so I can include additional resources and information

    They are all interrelated.

The importance of the proof of concept

My idea of a proof of concept in this situation is bigger than the book proposal (however, I will need to a book proposal to “sell” the metric system idea to agents/publishers).

My idea of proof of concept is based, in part, on the idea that all good ideas should begin with:

“Don’t tell me, show me.”

In the case of this project, the “tell” is “The United States should switch to the metric system.” The “show me” rests with the potential and demonstrative improvements to our medical and education systems, time and productivity savings, and even things like environment impacts. And then, of course, I have to spell out why these “shows” are important and that the concepts are connected. These ideas will have a substantive place in my book America’s Biggest Miscalculation.

If there is no good “why” behind why an idea/concept is important and relevant, it’s unlikely to move very far forward in a legitimate way.

Is that why, as children, we were invited to “Show and tell” and not just to “Tell” or “Show”? Did we not learn nothing from that early experience? Context matters, history matters, good sources matter.

Science works on proof of concept

Within the science-based environment from which I came (Los Alamos National Laboratory), these concepts could be earth shatteringly important, cost millions or billions of dollars and add to our fundamental understanding of how the universe works. And for the really big stuff (think high-energy physics sorts of things where you have unbelievably expensive and complex custom equipment) it takes more resources, partnerships (national and international), and some of the smartest and most dedicated scientists in the world to pursue their work.

Large Hadron Collider

In my experience, an awful lot of science takes place within custom equipment that’s about a photogenic as an old trash can. For instance, there are only so many ways you can photograph a supercomputer…and then there’s the classic “people talking in front of computer screens.” Ugh.
In this photo we have both things: drab equipment (but well-lit!) AND someone working on a computer. And that, my friends, is the reality of coming up with images for much of science.
Photo: Anna Patelia/CERN

Luckily, my bar is FAR lower than that, but I will still need to compete for funding and attention from agents and publisher to get this work done, and if these folks pick the metric system work, they’re likely passing on other opportunities. To be successful, I have to convince people that this work is important, could contribute to the health and education within our society, but it has be be able to sell copies of the book. That’s last but not least.

Situation analysis

With some new concepts and ideas in mind (from the Nonfiction Authors Association conference, see previous post), I’ve realized just how much the situation analysis feeds into my needs for the book. The better I understand this issue, and from every possible angle I can think of, the better off I will ultimately be.

The purpose of my situation analysis is to coalesce my ideas and observations into a “bite-sized” report that presents the current lay of the land.

Recall, our last real attempt at metric system adoption was in the mid-1970s. The federal government generated thousands and thousands of pages of reports on why switching to the metric system was a good idea or rather “A decision whose time has come [PDF].” (Caution: It’s one of the 1970s documents and it’s 191 pages.) Then came failure—not complete, but in many, many ways.

Fast forward almost 40 years and here we are, but where is that exactly?

That’s what I propose to put on paper in a rudimentary way. I want to illustrate MY understanding of the current environment and how the book project fits into that environment. I need to demonstrate that people (you specifically) care about this issue enough to support it through a book purchase.

Of primary importance for this report is: “Who are the current players and what roles do they fulfill?

It’s all about barriers, opportunities, resources, and the need to make course corrections by monitoring the environment and responding quickly and appropriately.

I’ll also include a “gap analysis” in some form. The point of a gap analysis is to strongly consider where an “entity is” with relation to resources (in any form, human or financial capital, for instance) and a desired end-state. What needs to fill the “gap” between current resources and the goal? Where could those resources come from? Are there assets not being properly leveraged? What are all the interrelations between other organizations in the environment (usually business competitors) and the entity? You get the idea.

I can tell you this now. There is more federal legislation in place than you think there is and I think that’s really, really important to metric system adoption.

This project’s biggest asset is you, dear reader

Me, I’m no one. I’m just someone who happened to realize (because I’m old enough) that we are constantly making our lives more complicated in the United States since we don’t routinely use the metric system for our measurement units. Let’s make things easier for our medical community and our students AND EVERYONE. I think it’s the least we can do.

Thanks for reading down this far.

Linda

The proof of concept I laid out last week:

* “I hope to demonstrate there is enough interest in the United States’ lack of metric system adoption (or there will be once people actually “see” our current mess) to buy a copy of America’s Biggest Miscalculation and make it commercially and financially viable enough for an agent/publisher to favor of THIS project when allocating resources.”

The Nonfiction Authors Association and the metric system

While I have been a professional writer for more than 40 years (including at General Motors Corp. and for more than 25 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory) on hundreds of nonfiction topics, I have never attempted to publish a nonfiction book before.

So, I have approached this situation as I have other professional endeavors in my life: to research the hell out of it. (It’s been my way and it does pay dividends.)

The logo of the Nonfiction Authors Association

I had considered the Nonfiction Authors Association (NFAA) in the past but was a bit hesitant due to the cost of membership. It does have a limited, free membership—but it is limited.

Why I decided to take the NFAA leap now

Book publishing has changed rapidly during the last several decades (and within my lifetime). The market for eBooks and what was once considered vanity publishing is now mainstream, and the “ask” on authors is much greater than it once was. For instance, agents and publishers want to know what YOU are willing to do to promote your books and you have to spell it out in your book proposal. (No marketing background? Good luck. You better be a quick study and knowing your nonfiction subject itself won’t help you.) Plus, the competition for the attention of agents and publishers is fierce (as it probably should be). And let’s not forget timing. Many an idea has tanked because the timing wasn’t right.

Given that I’m ramping up for the book America’s Biggest Miscalculation (as promised), I decided to take the plunge and join NFAA at a higher level than free to see what it had to offer—including accessing an online writers’ conference (for not much more than the yearly membership fee) that took place during three days in May.

[Since I’m now paying for all of these efforts out of my retirement pocket, I’ve have had to allocate my funds carefully. (Just so you know. I spend $100/year alone so you don’t have to see advertisements on this blog. I respect you and don’t want to waste your time with ads popping up in ways I can’t control.)]

NFAA has lots to offer. I will also say that Stephanie and her staff are outstanding. [For the record: I paid my money just like anybody else (no quid pro quo), but I am happy to promote people and organizations that I’ve found helpful with no strings attached.]

A metric system podcast?

A subject that came up several times throughout May via NFAA was podcasts. I’ve done lots of interviews so potentially recording one isn’t that big of an issue (I also have a professional AV background, so I know it’s lots and lots of work on the “production” end to do it seamlessly and well) but given the metric system project’s unique footprint, I question the ROI (return on investment) of such an endeavor.

Moving forward, I think my better bet is to try to get interviews on preexisting podcasts and see if I can get away with not having to hire someone to place me in those venues. (But it’s good to know those services are out there.)

One potential podcast that comes to mind is 99% Invisible. I don’t know if it’s considered a “gold standard,” but it sure is fascinating and I might be able to get my foot in the door.

Dear readers: Can you help identify appropriate podcasts for me to reach out to?

Are you aware of other podcasts I should engage with that are based on science or care about “breakthroughs” (even though we stare at this problem every day without seeing it)? If so, please send your ideas to milebehind@gmail.com and help me by telling me why you think it might be a good fit for the project. (I can’t promise I’ll respond individually, but I’ll consider every submission.)

Lots of ideas flowed from the Conference

Frankly, I found talking to folks in the field during NFAA’s “Ask A Professional,” with one-on-one conversations, almost priceless.

Speaking with Jenn T. Grace was amazingly helpful. It’s important that you understand that these conversations don’t necessary lead to sales for the professionals involved (though some will pitch their services—be advised) so they are primarily volunteering to help new book authors and/or make sure they don’t miss a stellar opportunity that might present itself. I consider that a fair exchange.

Not only did Jenn offer insights during our, 15-minute-limited call, but she was kind enough to brainstorm with me for an additional 30+ minutes after the conference was over.
Big kudos to her.

These discussions prompted an astounding number of of ideas for me to mentally absorb, brainstorm about, and then try figure out how to leverage them to further the book project. If I want to do it right (and not piss my time or money away—or yours) I have to think about a lot of things in the right way.

Proof of concept

The thing that dawned on me is that I have to develop a “proof of concept” for the project. Frankly, that should be true for ANYTHING that’s big/important and you want others to buy into.

The problem I’m confronting is: Just how do I get buy in for a concept that basically shut down in this country back in 1982 when the federally appointed U.S. Metric Board dissolved after its funding was pulled under Reagan?

So, this is how I encapsulate my proof of concept for this project at this time*:

“I hope to demonstrate there is enough interest in the United States’ lack of metric system adoption (or there will be once people actually “see” our current mess) to buy a copy of America’s Biggest Miscalculation and make it commercially and financially viable enough for an agent/publisher to favor of THIS project when allocating resources.

Linda Anderman

I’m competing for resources (time, money, attention) so that’s what I need to do—but with your help. None of this works without your help.

Part II of this entry (that I’ll post next week) will include how I view my work on the project’s proof of concept and why I think “Show me, don’t tell me,” is so vital to understanding, well, pretty much anything legitimate, and how important it is to base your work on substantive, verifiable, and external/independent sources.

I hope you’ll sign up for notices of new posts and share this information as you feel appropriate.

The more interest I can show in this subject, the easier it will be to “sell” to the publishing gatekeepers and you can help me in that way, right now. Thanks!

Linda

* 6/12/21 Note: Based on a comment I received after posting, I wanted to better explain what I mean by a “proof of concept” for this project at this phase. (See the big quote above.) I am not questioning the use of the metric system as viable for the U.S. Just whether there might be a large enough, receptive audience to get to the stage mentioned above. This is an initial, but massive step forward.

Project Titles and the Metric System

I love it when people ask me relevant questions
and make comments.

After my post last month, someone wrote to me via the comments section of this blog to ask about my having two different titles for two different parts of my metric-system-awareness work. First, I thank him for taking the time to ask the question. I’m pretty sure other people had the same question. So, let me say this: I LOVE questions (so long as they are civil) because it lets me know what you are thinking.

Allow me to share I answer I gave to him (already in the comments section of the blog) with just a couple of minor tweaks to try to make my writing clearer:

In reply to: “Good work Linda! I look forward to following your progress. I am curious about the book’s main title. Why not use “More Than A Mile Behind” to match the name of this blog and (I assume) the documentary title?”

My answer

Here’s the primary reason: I like the title of the book as a title for a book and I like the title of the documentary as a title for a documentary.

Four years into the project (once I realized that the two different producers weren’t going to “produce,” for lack of better words), I recognized that the best path to gain attention for our metric system plight was within a book. A very time-consuming, but relatively inexpensive path to go down.

So, did I want to carry the documentary title forward as a title for a book or was there a better path?

After many thought exercises, I decided that, while I like the name for the documentary, a book would appeal to a different audience, need to take a more scholarly approach, and face much fiercer competition (There are 600,000 to 1 million books published each year compared with far, far fewer documentaries.) and, therefore, a book needed a stronger, more controversial title.

If I picked a new title for a book version, would the documentary be left behind? Nope. Nothing about writing the book would keep the documentary from being made with or without the same title. If the book is successful, it could carry the title to the documentary like most—if not all— print to “film” projects.

And, unlike the documentary title, while some people countered that the title should be “More Than a METER Behind.” (I rejected that since Americans would immediately assume something with “meter” in the title wasn’t meant for them. So, I stuck with the word “mile.”)

On the other hand, the overwhelming response (maybe 100 percent) to the book’s working title America’s Biggest Miscalculation is along the lines of “Nice,” “Perfect,” and “Great title.”

I think I made the right decision. And this was the short answer!

Request for assistance coming soon

Valued reader: In preparation for some of the content for the book, I’m compiling a list of every possible reason people have given to me (or that I can get my hands on) to reject/not adopt the metric system.

No matter how many different reasons I’ve heard for rejecting the metric system, I’m sure there are more out there.

I ask that you not send me anything just yet, but start to think about some responses you may have mentally collected over the years that you’d like to share.

Allow me to print as complete a list as I can compile (without rebuttal at this point). And then, if you can add to the list with things I’ve missed, please feel free to make your voice heard. Not only is this work important for the book but it could also start to form the basis for a metric system advocates’ handbook. (Let’s face it, you can’t be ready for opposition if you don’t understand the arguments they extend.) And granted, there isn’t much opposition right now, but if we get traction, I can guarantee the naysayers will push back…HARD. History says so.

From the book’s back cover.
Just substitute “U.S. Customary Units” for “the metric system” to help illustrate the pointlessness of this argument.

Other than direct experience from research and face-to-face interactions, right now I’m going back through a book from 1981 (roughly the end of our last metric push in this country. (Recall the 1975 metrication act) called Metric Madness: Over 150 Reasons for NOT Converting to the Metric System by James William Batchelder.

To me, one of the amazing things about this book is the illustration on the back of it. A book’s back cover is “prime real estate” for messaging. You would think the author would make an important and hopefully irrefutable argument against the metric system there. However, instead, it presents what I think is one of the least effective counterarguments: Blame the tools and not the users.

I was speaking to a friend the other day and I mentioned that one of the reasons given to oppose the metric system in this country is that “The metric system units are too small.”

She burst out laughing.

May that attitude spread. You can help. Please contribute your thoughts and observations. Milebehind@gmail.com.

Let’s face it, if most of the rest of the world can get this thing done, we can too.

More soon.

Linda

2021, My Book, and the Metric System

Well folks, it’s 2021 and I have an announcement to make: Before the end of the year, I plan to have a draft of my book on the metric system done. Main title: America’s Biggest Miscalculation.

That means a couple of things for this blog:

A visual refresh of the website to show the work’s new direction. It should be up by the next blog post in a couple of weeks;
– A change in the content on these pages. I will still write about the metric system, but I’ll also write about the journey of working on the book and getting it into the right hands. In fact, my next post will talk about what I’m doing now to prepare to construct the book’s pitch proposal;
– However, I do have blogs in the cue on subjects such as the fact that we’re losing a foot in this country starting this year [Which one? In what direction? You’ll have to check back.] and the unbelievable number of references to the metric system and measurement in The Simpsons in its more than 30 years on the air and;
– Posts will be shorter, but I’ll post more often.

I had to buy a new bookcase just to store all of my research materials.

To all my faithful readers, I wanted you to be the first to know of the new direction the project is taking. In the eight-plus years since I started working on this metric system project I’ve had two different producers, but neither came up with the (then projected) $300,000 needed for the documentary.

Since writing a book is much less expensive (but—alternately—extremely labor intensive at the front end), it’s my hope that the book will drum up the interest needed to finance the documentary. If the book gets enough interest to ignite a real discussion toward metric system adoption [which has always been my goal], then we’ll have take it from there given that implementation is a whole different issue and beyond my scope of work…for right now.

This also means I’m going to become slightly more urgent about getting traction on this blog and other social media. It’s really important because the more views, comments, and subscribers the subject garners, the easier it will be to pitch agents and publishers. [I’ll talk more about this shortly.]

I think most authors want to see their books in print…not just electronically.

Consider that I’m already pushing a rock uphill since I’ve got to convince agents and publishers that there is the need for a book on a subject that has been mostly ignored for ~30-40 years in this country.

So, the more you can help bring attention to these efforts, the easier it will be to get to publication.

It’s going to take a huge awareness campaign so the American public knows just how much our lack of metric system adoption is hurting us—every…single…day. I’m trying to do my part with the book and now and I thank those folks who encourage me on. You are much appreciated.

You’ll hear more soon.

Linda

To those few, but wonderful people who donated to my MainStreet campaign several years ago: I paid the taxes on the money out of my pocket so I could deposit the full amount into a savings account where it will reside until such time as I make the documentary. My hope is that you will eventually get a special copy of both the book AND the documentary when the times come. Thanks for your patience.