I recently received news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a major conversion error relating to the metric system. The upshot is that it greatly underestimated the risk of formaldehyde in laminate flooring. The underlying mistake: it failed to convert between meters and feet initially reporting the estimated risk at one-third of what it should have been.
The organization did not come out and say lack of metric adoption was the cause of the error:
The CDC/ATSDR indoor air model used an incorrect value for ceiling height. As a result, the health risks were calculated using airborne concentration estimates about 3 times lower than they should have been.
However, others were more than happy to point out the real root of the problem:
CDC fixes major error in flooring risk report: Not converting to metric – Retraction watch
CDC Revises Health Risk Assessment Of Flooring After Math Error: CDC recently announced that laminate floors are safe, only to realize that they forgot to convert from feet to meters—and that the cancer risk is three-fold higher – Vocative.com
There are some who believe that conversions are easy to make and therefore, living with two measurement systems shouldn’t be a problem.
In fact, in his book, Whatever happened to the metric system: How America kept its feet, John Bemelmans Marciano (Kindle location 2020 for both quotes), states:
Conversion is now as easy as speaking “seven ounces to grams” into your smartphone and immediately receiving the answer 198.446662g.
Marciano later goes on to say:
Why would Americans go metric when computers have done the job for them and they don’t even have to know about it?
How about a three times greater risk for potential negative health effects due to human unit-confusion error?
Luckily, the CDC was able to quickly make a correction but who knows how many other errors haven’t been caught and continue to put us at risk in one way or another?
The idea that technology will save us from conversion errors is flawed because it assumes that the human element won’t impose the error.
Surely the CDC has access to computers and other high-tech gadgets at least as good, if not better, than what I have access to in my smartphone and yet, the mistake was still made.
Again, it’s not a technology issue, it’s a human issue that will always occur even if the frequency of such mistakes is not currently well known.
Aside from outright errors, there’s the time it takes to make a conversion in the first place. Add up the time it takes to whip out the cell phone, ask the question, wait for the answer and read it. Then one needs to multiply that by how many people in this country need to do that in a year. All wasted time. One set of measures eliminates the entire issue.
I’ve previously pointed out people are already at risk every time their pharmacist converts a prescription written in milliliters (as they all are) into teaspoons and tablespoons. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Conversion errors are inevitable
While I so far have been unable to find any statistics on how often conversion errors occur, everyone seems to recognize they do happen and research seeks interfaces that try to minimize them. One paper I reviewed, Reducing number entry errors: solving a widespread, serious problem by Thimbleby and Cairns indicates:
Ironically, the more skilled a user, the less attention they will pay to what ought to be routine outcomes, so the more likely these types of error will go unnoticed until they have untoward consequences. The reason is, as users become skilled, they automate actions, so their attention can be used more selectively; thus as they become more skilled, they pay less attention to the display, whose routine behaviour they have learnt to expect (Wickens & Hollands 2000).
Still, we can learn from our past. One of the things I’ve heard from people regarding our last attempt at metric adoption in the 1970s (I was a bit young at the time to remember) was students were taught difficult and confusing conversion formulas.
Next time, just have people start using the new, metric system measures and convert only those things that are absolutely necessary. Fewer conversions means fewer errors.
Thanks for reading.
More next month.
First, I’m not implying that the metric system has been around forever—it hasn’t been, more like since around 1790—rather, I’ve been investigating where measurement standards might have come from prior to the development of writing. No one can say for sure when measurements started, all researchers can do is infer information based on archeological evidence.
Most of the sources I’ve come across gloss over the prehistory of measures by pointing to the standards found in Mesopotamia and then move forward from there. Me, I’m more curious than that and thought it might be interesting to cover some ground that others might not have.
So here’s where I’m currently coming from: I believe there is an intersection between agriculture, the development of cities, architecture, astronomy and even the division of labor that related to the development of measures. I’ll go into these points in more detail in future posts while I continue to work on my metric system history book during my off hours from my day job.
Standards needed for permanent buildings
One of the oldest cities that has been documented is Uruk (from around the fourth millennium BCE.)
However, this site is very complex and it is unlikely it was the first attempt at a city but older, smaller, less-complex examples either no longer exist or have yet to be discovered. I posit that before these multi-people, multi-year building projects could begin, everyone had to agree what the standard measure was to be used, such as the much better-known cubit that was used in Egypt from around 3,000 BCE.
But let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back to around 9,000 BCE.
I’m starting from this date because it appears this was about the time that the last ice age ended and agriculture began. (The farther you go back in time, the sketchier the dates become so you might come across a source that differs from this. I had to start somewhere and I’m not in a position to argue with scholars who have spent much more time on these issues than I have.)
Back then, people were hunter/gatherers and if they settled anywhere, it wasn’t for very long and permanent structures were not needed. Some research I’ve come across indicates that people may have already domesticated some animals and they might have, for instance, moved sheep or other animals around with them.
I’ve also come across other information that the earliest agriculture may have been less planting of things in rows, as we currently think of such practices today, and more cultivation of helpful things.
Okay, so, it’s 8,500 BCE and near our settlement (likely near a water source) we come across some blueberry bushes. On either side of these food-bearing plants are some other plants that are less helpful since they flower but don’t provide sustenance.
It’s likely we figure out that by cutting back, or eliminating, the plants that weren’t so helpful and tending to the blueberry bush by watering, and possibly fertilizing, it a richer harvest results make the efforts worth our while.
Over time, it likely made sense that people started to transplant the beneficial plants closer to each other for efficiency. (There’s a reason you don’t keep kitchen equipment scattered around the house.)
Once the investment has been made in cultivating plants, it’s reasonable to expect that people kept closer tabs on their efforts and spent more time in one place, they’d want a home that would last more than a couple of seasons.
That got me thinking about how long buildings typically last. Once site I came across indicates that modern buildings can last more than 50 years. But, what about more “primitive” ones?
I found YouTube videos that show how to build circular dwellings from saplings and primitive tools in one case, and another video on how to build a wattle and daub hut, with the roof of the second building showing signs of rot only four months after construction.
Interestingly, in the first case, the builder needed to measure equidistant sides for the hut from a center post. In essence, he created a standard made from a sapling that might only be used for that one hut, but he did need a standard unit to make even a primitive building.
Had two people worked on the sapling hut, they would have both needed to use that same measure for the hut to have properly turned out.
Perhaps, in this case, as Protagoras of Abdera indicated thousands of years ago, man is the measure of all things…
I’ll write more next month and in the meantime, I’ll slog through more research on the ancient world and possibly confuse myself.
In September, I got a much-needed getaway. During that time, I made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit friends.
While there, I took advantage of my proximity to visit my contact at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (or NIST and the keepers of the metric system in the United States).
The NIST Museum
I was at NIST three years ago when I was just a few weeks into this project. Needless to say, my experience at its museum was radically different now that I had some context for the things that I saw. (Note: the museum is open only to official visitors. Still, there is a lot of information on the organization’s website.)
I also got a chance to meet with Elizabeth Gentry, my NIST contact there, and our country’s finest Metric Coordinator. While I’ve been keeping her up-to-date on the project, I’d yet to meet her in person.
Convert between systems only when necessary
I’m not sure how or why, but the friend I was staying with had some old U.S.-to-metric conversion slide rules imprinted with the Detroit Teachers Credit Union logo and a copyright of 1973.
One of the complaints that I’ve heard while on this project has been that our last attempt to convert to the metric system back in the mid-1970s spent too much time trying to teach people conversion formulas. Transitioning this way is actually quite complicated because there are so many formulas to memorize because we use so many different units (feet, pounds, ounces, gallons, ounces, etc.). The image to the right only captures part of the problem.
Any future plans to adopt the metric system would benefit from just straight measurement using the metric system, rather than trying to teach very complex and lengthy sets of conversion factors. (Only convert when absolutely necessary, like your grandma’s favorite recipes.)
For example: Do you have a space that needs a table? Just measure using the metric side of the ruler and do the same when shopping. I know I’m oversimplifying but it’s a start.
We were early decimal adopters—our coins
Needless to say, now that I’m involved with the metric system, I see its relevance almost everywhere.
I did end up coming across a coin display at the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian museum complex) called “Legendary Coins & Currency.” It reinforced some of my previous research that one of the reasons that the United States ended up with decimalized currency came from the fact that when we landed on this continent, we were not allowed to mint our own money while still part of England.
Note this quote from the History of Colonial Money that I found on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston site:
By 1652, the problem resulting from a shortage of coins had become extreme. England had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ plea for specie [gold and silver coin. ed], and the colonial leaders did not believe that the people should have to continue using the mixture of foreign coins, wampum, bullets, and barter objects any longer. In an effort to provide more good coin to further trade and commerce, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established an illegal mint in Boston in 1652.
That meant that we had a total mishmash of currencies, not only from our home country but with all the other countries with which we were trading. And there were many. It made for a difficult time. Thomas Jefferson was more than well aware of the problem as one source notes:
…one of Jefferson’s most troublesome legal clients finally paid him in a motley mixture of silver and gold — half joes and moidores from Portugal, doubloons and pistoles from Spain, and 308 English half crowns.
As a result, our fabulous founding father:
…had the rational idea to create a decimal-based currency system. Meaning that money should be based on the number ten. The word for one hundred in Latin is cent, so Jefferson suggested that the word for a 1/100th of a dollar be “cent.” The Latin word for “one tenth” is dime; so again, Jefferson suggested that as the name for the 1/10th of a dollar coin. The five-cent coin would become known as the half dime and then later, the nickel.
Thus, he was able to move us as a nation to the decimalized currency we still use in the U.S. today.
Jefferson was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimalized currency. He gave it, in 1784, its most articulate and persuasive expression in his “Notes on Coinage.” Congress, convinced by these arguments, adopted the new coin units with little dissent.
Unfortunately, he has more problems passing a decimalized system for our lenghts. But that’s another post.
[Please note: I am now starting a book on the subject of metric system adoption in the United States. I will post to this blog on occasion but the bulk of work on this project (when not at my full-time job) will focus on writing the book. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, the best thing will be to follow my Twitter feed and Facebook page. I’m finding those easier to keep up with. I now hope to post here once a month.)
Working at a demanding full-time job as well as on this project finally caught up with me after three years and I ran myself a bit past empty.
I found I needed to back off from this work for awhile so I could recharge my batteries.
Fear not, I’ve not given up but did need to take some time off.
I’m going away later this week for a true break.
I’m hoping that after this my energy to work on this will be renewed.
I don’t plan to blog quite as often since my next efforts will be to write a book on this subject with everything I’ve learned. The whole story is quite extraordinary.
I have some other very positive news to share soon but in the meantime, here’s a picture from this past weekend.
Almost every year I “process” (peel and freeze) some quantity of green chile. I thought you might find the bag interesting as I can’t remember the last time I bought a “bushel” of anything. I don’t think it’s used much outside of the agricultural world.
And, a couple of days ago, I was listening to an old Burns and Allen radio show where they were making fun of Gregory Peck’s name but most people probably don’t even know or remember what a “peck” is (apparently around two gallons, dry volume).
Measures are around us and we use them more than we realize.
Speaking of which, on September 3 this blog had more than 600 pageviews. It’s now at almost 120,000 since I began. That’s promising.
Thanks for your patience.
The good news: I’m back on track and making progress toward some goals. As some of you know, I recently held a new logo design contest that will tie into work I have planned for the future. The whole project took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated so I had to retool a bit. More on that in a later post.
New, recent presentation
Okay, not brand-spanking new but I recently made a presentation on the 140th anniversary (May 20) of the United States as one of the original signatory countries on the Treaty of the Meter. It gave the International Bureau of Weights and Measures the authority to set metric standards (or SI as it is known elsewhere) for the rest of the world. It’s still active on various fronts including efforts to define the kilogram scientifically (currently the kilogram is defined by a piece of metal that resides in its care with several other mass “standards” residing around the world).
The presentation wasn’t completely new as I gave it to a smattering (okay, smatterin’ is being generous…) of people last spring.
My audience this time was a group of doctors and health-care workers at our county hospital. It has a lecture series every Tuesday and I offered myself up. As our lack of metric adoption has health implications every single day (see this previous blog), I could really see a future where health-care professionals could help propel the issue forward. I was paid the compliment afterward of being told “It was like watching something on the history channel.” I took that as a compliment.
Metric system in the news
Many days I get an alert from Google if “metric system” pops up on the web somewhere. Granted, sometimes it references “bio-metric systems” or goes a little off track in some ways, but it does capture most everything I want to see (except for lines in comic strips, since it can’t read those words).
Here are a few recent media pieces regarding the metric system:
[Note: The Chaffee presidential campaign news just broke last night. Expect more from me on his metric system adoption position shortly. In the meantime…]
Child Medications Should Be Dosed In Metric Units–Not Spoonfuls (Forbes, March 30)
Pediatricians prescribe metric measures for doling out meds (Newsworks, April 7)
Parents Warned To Use Metric System When Giving Medicine To Kids (CBS Boston, March 30)
This is the tip of a growing iceberg.
Interestingly, it also found a trivia quiz from Macleans.ca, that included a second question based on metric system knowledge.
Capturing the kids’ attention
I recently received some cards aimed at helping children here in the U.S. learn basic metric units. The bottom line as far as I’m concerned, is the more children are familiar with the concepts of metric measures, the more likely they’ll be to accept and use them.
Interestingly, the temperature unit used on the cards is Kelvin rather than Celsius. This hit me as odd since I’ve taught myself Celsius as my primary temperature reference. Meanwhile, Kelvin is an absolute measure where 0 is the temperature at which atomic motion stops (I’m glossing over the details here) or −273.15 °C. According to my research both temperature Kelvin (or K) and Celsius are often reported together for scientific purposes.
In fact, according the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pages state:
The unit of Celsius temperature is the degree Celsius, symbol °C, which is by definition equal in magnitude to the kelvin. A difference or interval of temperature may be expressed in kelvins or in degrees Celsius (13th CGPM*, 1967).
To be honest, some of the associated information is way over my head such as its reference to the “triple point of water.” I’m sure I can look it up if it turns out that I need to know that particular tidbit of information.
If you’d like more information on the superhero cards pictured above, go to the NIST kid’s pages that also include videos with the associated superheroes.
I want to acknowledge how wonderful all the TED Active attendees and staff were. Given the TED philosophy of “Ideas worth spreading,” it’s not surprising that everyone I talked to about metric system adoption in the U.S. were either sympathetic (if not from the U.S.) or interested (if they were Americans). I met a lot of friendly and interesting people and hope to keep in touch with many of them.
Metric system observations in Canada
I hadn’t been to Canada for a long time (though I used to live across river from it when I grew up in Detroit) so I was curious what I’d see in person with my metric system radar on. My understanding was that Canada (like the U.K.) was a “soft adoption” county.
In this case, soft adoption refers to countries that use solely metric units in some instances but both Imperial and metric units for other applications. It’s one of the reasons that the “Turn the UK Fully Metric Now” exists in Great Britan. Sure enough, on the bus ride up to Whistler, B.C. from Vancouver, B.C. I saw nothing but kilometer signs on the roads. However, I did make it a point to visit the little store near my hotel and snapped a couple of shots on my cell phone to confirm my suspicions about the use of both units. Yes, some food products had only metric mentions (or SI as it is known to the rest of the world for “Système International d’Unités ) but many items had dual labeling (plus French, of course).
According to a Canadian history site:
Metric units steadily became normal for most products and services. However, certain areas of business did hold out against conversion, such as real estate.
As I related in a previous blog, when I had a phone interview with the head of the U.K. Metric Association, and I asked him why Britain wasn’t fully metric, his reply was along the lines of “Because you’re not.” That comment prompted my piece on how our country sets a bad international example.
Successes and failures
I found out a few weeks ago that I wasn’t accepted for the Women’s Salon for the TEDxABQ event but that didn’t stop me from applying for the big TEDxABQ event that will be held this fall. If I can get in, that would be great because it has an audience of about 2,000 people. I’ve had quite a few successes recently. Getting turned down for one presentation doesn’t faze me much these days.
Thanks for staying tuned!
As I wrote previously, TED Active certainly was. In fact, it was exhausting. With about 50 different talks during the week (starting as early as 8:15 a.m. and running through 7 p.m.) it was difficult to keep up. I’m fairly sure not everyone managed to catch every talk. A few days I ago I received a link to the unedited talks so I can watch the ones I missed.
On Tuesday (3/17) there was an opportunity to sign up for a fifteen-minute salon* on Thursday to either give a talk or curate* one. I really hadn’t intended on presenting anything myself but I went ahead and signed up. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but I’ve given talks on our metric system problems before—just not to an international audience—and would need a different take on what message I wanted them to leave the presentation with.
Those who had signed up for the salons (there were five of us in all) received an email late Wednesday that if we wanted to have visuals, we needed to get them to the coordinator by 6 p.m. that evening. By the time I got back to my hotel room, I had about an hour to pull something together.
I was able to grab images I’d used for previous presentations, so I hurriedly pulled together nine slides including a cover slide titled: The United States and Metric System Adoption: What’s the Deal? I managed to submit them with 20 minutes to spare.
From then on, I skipped TED activities so I could rehearse for Thursday afternoon. (More than once I considered I must be nuts to present to people who been watching professionally-coached talks all week.) I had decided I’d talk for 10 minutes and then open it up to questions and comments. I really wanted to hear what people from other countries would have to say on the subject. I didn’t think I’d get a large audience since there were concurrent events taking place, however, I’d have a chance to answer a question I’d had for myself: “What could I say about why the United States wasn’t using the metric system?”
I’d designed the slides before I’d really had a chance to think about what I was going to say so I tried to pull together a cohesive message to go with the visuals. I knew I didn’t have time to get the presentation perfect but I decided to treat it like an audition for a TED talk so I kept at it. I knew the salon talks would be recorded and I might be able to leverage that if there weren’t any restrictions on use. (Oh, and as long as I did a halfway decent job.)
I was the first person to talk during the session and the audience had grown to about 30 people by the time I finished. My final slide was a call to action: If you’re American, please be aware of our situation and help us move toward metric adoption. If you’re not, please stop enabling us. If you are really worried about us “not getting” a weight or measure, don’t include our measures. Instead, use the metric measure and then tell us it’s “about the height of the Eiffel Tower,” or “about the weight of three medium apples,” and take away our crutch so we better realize we’re out of step. When I’d finished, the reception was quite warm.
At the end of my presentation I did have time for questions. The first one I got was “How long did you think it would take to convert?” My answer, based on various things I’d seen over the years, was that five years was a reasonable time frame.
Another person mentioned the fact that we destroyed a Mars orbiter back in 1999 due to the confusion of two teams using both metric and U.S. customary measures. It literally crashed into the surface of the planet. I’ve updated the full costs associated with the mission and it comes close to a $1 billion dollar loss.
A news release from the time noted:
The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit.
I did specifically ask for feedback from someone who was in the audience for my whole talk. He told me he’d coached people for TEDx talks and the only thing he’d change was the visuals.
Hey, it was the best I could do in less than a hour.
* TED terminology
I recently spent almost a week at TED Active and it was pretty amazing. Not just the talks but also the people who attended. If you’re not familiar with the TED format, visit TED.com or check your Netflix listings. In essence, they are short talks (mostly under 18 minutes) that emphasize communicating directly with the audience with the use of minimal “slides.” The subjects can be almost anything, but “ideas worth spreading” is the main thrust. The new and innovative are the order of the day for attendee/presenters like Bill Gates and other leaders.
I was able to go to TEDActive as a previous TEDx (an independently licensed TED) event organizer. As such, myself and a couple of hundred TEDx-ers arrived on Saturday, went to workshops on Sunday and were then transported from Vancouver (where the main TED event was slated to begin the next day) up to Whistler, B.C. Canada for our parallel activities.
During our Sunday in Vancouver, Chris Anderson (the curator of TED) gave us a presentation on various aspects of TEDx in the auditorium where the TED event would kick off the next day. He had asked for feedback on the venue and I had an observation I was going to email him. Then, lo and behold, I saw him a meter away from me so I stopped to share my comment in person (the observation itself had to do with the side screens behind the speakers). I then introduced myself and gave him the More Than a Mile Behind business card, saying that I was working on a history of the metric system in the United States. “Does it have a history?” or words to that effect, was his response. I started to give my Thomas Jefferson line about our dimes and pennies, but some other people came up and his attention went elsewhere.
TEDActive had its own venue in the conference center, complete with giveaways, food and a live stream of the talks from Vancouver with periodic shout outs by Anderson.
Activities were scheduled every day from break of dawn to 10-11 p.m. with the talks starting around 8 a.m. While I was there, I met people from all over the planet.
Later in the week, there were presentations about potentially great things on the horizon but that might eventually lead to our doom. He asked the audience to respond.
Just for the heck of it, I went ahead and sent in an email. I figured the chance of mine seeing the light of day was slim since, in total, there were about 1,000 people watching at that moment. How wrong I was! Right before the break for lunch he read three emails, and mine was one of them along with the mention of my name. My response:
Subject: Change is neither all good or bad
Every time there is change on the horizon there is talk of the doom it will bring.
This has been going on for centuries.
As in the past, progress will bring the negative with it but overall it will be for the good.
I wouldn’t want to go back prior to the industrial revolution (for one example).
There’s more but it will need to wait until next week.
Last month I spoke for a second year at the MidSchoolMath Conference in Santa Fe. The intent of the conference is to help teachers avoid the drop in scores in math that typically occur once students enter middle school. It’s an admirable effort, which is why I’ve spoken there the last two years. I’m huge supporters of the folks behind these efforts and hope you will too. For more information about the work of the organizers visit the Imagine Education site.
I made a different presentation this year than I did last time, so it required some more preparation, particularly in light of some new research that came into my hands on just how much of our students’ time that might be wasted in the classroom. I’ll write more about that research at a later date.
I had a smaller session than last year, probably because there were more concurrent sessions during my time slot this year, and bad weather stopped a lot of people from attending the conference. As a result, I only had 17 people in my session this time (compared with almost 50 last year). Still, they were an attentive audience, backing up my assertions and answering questions I couldn’t (I don’t teach mid-school math, after all).
A few people filled out the feedback forms and entered comments along the lines of “Keep up the good fight” and some signed up to be on the distribution list for my project’s email list. I really appreciate the feedback and support.
Hopefully, I’ll be invited back again next year. I’m always happy to present to any audience I can get to without costing me large sums of money.
Next weekend I’m flying to Vancouver, BC, Canada to attend TED. (For those of you not familiar with the TED talk format, I strongly encourage you to check out their offerings. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of them? Check out the top 20 most popular talks here.)
If you know what TED is, this is a big deal. Even if you have the funds to go, TED gets to invite who it wants to attend. I had an edge since I organized a corporate TEDx event for my employer last year. (A TEDx talk is a licensed, independently organized TED talk.)
Since I’m going on my own dime (and not on behalf of my employer), I’ll be in a position to promote the pro-metric work I’m engaged in, including the documentary. TED is no run-of-the-mill conference, and with the motto of “Ideas worth spreading,” I can’t think of a more open group of people with whom to share the vision of a fully metric America and all the advantages it confers.
I’ve already identified some of the folks I’m hoping to reach out to from organizations like Target, Google and Cisco, among others. My hope is that large, U.S. companies with a stake in our future workforce will be both keenly interested in what the metric system has to offer as well as receptive to learning how we’ve hampered ourselves through our lack of its adoption.
Speaking of TED, I applied to give a talk related to metric system adoption at the TEDxABQ Women’s salon in May. I should find out later this month if I’ve been selected. I also plan to apply for the big TEDxABQ event scheduled for this fall. If I’m selected for either of these, it would provide me with the opportunity to reach hundreds of people who are looking to change the way we look at the world.
Please keep your fingers crossed for me.
There are more developments on the horizon, so stay tuned and join my mailing list if you want the latest information. Just send an email to email@example.com with the subject “Subscribe.”
Thanks to all of you who care about this important topic.