Math, the pandemic, and the metric system

Masks and social distancing are the current way of the world. Photo source: Pixabay.

Schools are back in session—both in person and remotely (due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary social distancing). And while the long-term effects of what this will do to our elementary-children’s education is still up in the air, there is a way to make math education easier: stop teaching U.S. customary and metric units in favor of the metric system alone.

Common Core Standards Revisited

Common Core Standards were an attempt to get some uniform education goals implemented across the country for Language Arts and Mathematics. Problematically, states are allowed to teach whatever subjects they want whenever they want to teach them. To make my point in an exaggerated way—one state could teach pre-calculus in kindergarten while another could opt to only teach the alphabet all the way through high school. While it’s not that bad, there really were/are not unified standards. Common core attempted to remedy that at a grassroots level. (More from me here.) Of course, while several states refused to adopt the Common Core, a majority of states and territories continue to use them. Here is the current situation today from the Common Core website.

States that do and don’t use Common Core standards.

Common Core and math

Common Core math standards calls for teaching U.S. customary and metric units side by side in grades 2, 3, 4, and, 5 under the category of “Measurement & Data.”

For instance, in grade 2, the standards state:

Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.2.MD.A.1)

For grade 5, they include:

Convert among different-sized standard measurement units within a given measurement system (e.g., convert 5 cm to 0.05 m), and use these conversions in solving multi-step, real world problems. (CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.5.MD.A.1)

Why teach everything in the graphic below when we could only need to teach the units on the right? It’s the “right” way to go.

We should teach only the easy half of this diagram. And these are just volume measures. Lengths are a whole other graphic.

By teaching the two sets of units at the same time, we are not doing our children any favors. Given the math and science test scores in this country, wasting time teaching an efficient set of units plus our clumsy, complicated ones is, at best a disservice, and during times like these, a potential travesty.

Our most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores

The PISA scores are a worldwide measure of areas of learning across the globe, which include math and science. The most recent PISA scores were released in December 2019. The news regarding mathematical progress for U.S. students is not promising.

The data was collected from about 600,000 students in 79 countries and economies and is administered by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. The bottom line for the U.S.? I think the accompanying title of an early 2020 USA Today article pretty well sums it up:

To be fair, this article says we stress teaching process ahead of logic but it could just as easily be about teaching two measurement systems at once.

Our PISA scores

Overall, the mean score was 492 for math across all countries, while the U.S. scored 485. So, not only did the U.S. score near the middle of pack, it scored less than the mean.

In contrast, Japanese boys scored 532, and Korea’s scored 528 so the U.S. scored around 50 points less than those countries!

This image shows just how underperforming we are.

(Data released December 2019) I added the highlight to show just how far behind we are. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

Why are faltering math scores a big deal?

One issue is income. The highest paying jobs all require proficiency at numbers, whether they are for doctors or CEOs. Math skills are a must. And according to Investopedia, the highest paying occupations in the U.S. for 2019 were predominately centered around healthcare jobs—such jobs all requires not only math but fluency with the metric system.

As I’ve pointed out before (2013 post), it not so much that our country’s math scores are getting worse, it’s that other countries are surpassing us.

Our flat scores in the area of math are, in fact, putting us behind.

We can do something about this. Advocate teaching only metric units in our schools.

You can start that ball rolling by responding to the following. To make easier, I’ve put together a draft that you can cut and paste or modify as works for you, but please help. I’ve referenced sources to keep everything transparent.

Action: Notice of Request for Information on STEM Education

On behalf of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) and in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF) requests input related to the implementation of the Federal STEM Education Strategic Plan, “Charting a Course For Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education.”

DATES: Interested persons are invited to submit comments on or before 11:59 p.m. ET, October 19, 2020.

ADDRESSES:
Comments submitted in response to this notice may be submitted online to: CoSTEM@nsf.gov. Email submissions should be machine-readable [PDF, Word] and not copy-protected. Submissions in the subject line of the email message should include “Individual/Organization Name: STEM RFI Response” (e.g., Johnson High School: STEM RFI Response).

You can view the notice here: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/09/04/2020-19681/notice-of-request-for-information-on-stem-education

Here is a draft response to get you started on a comment. Feel free to adapt.

THANKS!

My radio interview on the metric system

A few months I had an interview about the metric system with a local public radio station KSFR in Santa Fe.

The interview was performed by Carly Newfeld as part of her program “The Last Word.” It runs about 23 minutes and you can listen to it here: http://traffic.libsyn.com/thelastword/lw022020.mp3?dest-id=351241

Apparently, it’s still being played so I don’t think this notice is too out of date.

Sorry, this post is long but there was a lot to share.

As usual, your comments are noticed and appreciated.

Linda

(P.S. Happy birthday Peter G.)

Historical cooking measures and the metric system

 

Sifter welcome page

“The Sifter” welcome page.

I recently came across an article in Atlas Obscura that highlighted a new site, called The Sifter which, according to the article:

 

 

 

 …is a catalogue of more than a thousand years of European and U.S. cookbooks, from the medieval Latin De Re Culinaria, published in 800, to The Romance of Candy, a 1938 treatise on British sweets.

This got me thinking about how we take precise measures for granted in our current cookbooks. If we look back, specific amounts of ingredients are a more recent development.

Based on my preliminary research, even by 1796 recipes had some measurement references. However, when I started looking at older recipes, the “amount” gaps became apparent. For instance, from The Commonplace Book of Countess Katherine Seymour Hertford (1567), you get things like:

Take a quantitie of barlei well rubbed & clensed wth a faire cloth from all dust & boile the same o[n] the fyar wth a good quantitie of faire water in a new earthen pot lettinge it seath till the barlei…


But even in this 1567 reference, there is mention of pint and gallon units:

Distel a pint of the water of everie of these by them selves and put to them a gallon and a pynt of good malmesei… [Note]

 

Back when ingredient lists were sequential and basic

While I didn’t research exhaustively enough to find the exact dates of when measures were routinely included, I can tell you one of earliest sources (1340) referenced on medievalcookery.com, has ingredients, sans units, listed succinctly as:

Almond milk, rice flour, capon meat, sifted ginger, white sugar, white wine; each one in part to be boiled in a clean pot, and then put in the vessel in which it will be done, a little light powder; pomegranates planted thereon.

How much of each? Who knows? According to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, cookbooks from the 1400 and 1500s were more memory aids for chefs in the world of the royals, rather than “how-tos” for common folk so measures weren’t missed.

Out of curiosity, I started poking around in The Sifter database for some recipes and when I typed in “measures,” I came across, for instance, Seventy-five Recipes for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats from 1832. Clearly, measures needed some definition at even this late.

Snapshot of cookbook

From the above-mentioned cookbook.

That’s old-fashioned cooking for you.

What does this have to do with the metric system?

I dare you to try to sell a cookbook today without including measures. People would go crazy.

The trouble is 95 percent of the world doesn’t know what our U.S. customary units are. Therefore, drawback number one: Our cookbooks will only sell overseas to people willing to take the time to convert units to the metric system. (A poor strategy from an international distribution standpoint for any printed versions.)

3 column cookbook

From a sausage cookbook.

Some cookbooks try to get around this by printing ingredients down a center column with quantities to the left and right. While that works, why do it at all?

If everyone was using the same units (metric) it would make it our lives much easier and people wouldn’t have to worry about the current differences between the U.S. and U.K ounce units, for instance. (See photo below.)

Baby bottle with metric units and U.S. customary and U.K. ounces

Note the difference in volume between the U.S customary and U.K. ounces. Ours is bigger!

Drawback number two: Scaling recipes up and down becomes MUCH more difficult with our three teaspoons to a tablespoon and eight ounces to a cup business. Since the metric system is based on tens, scaling up and down is much easier.

Drawback number three (of those that immediately jump to mind): We use volumetric measures in this country, with our teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, and so on, and these can cause all kinds of problems as I cite in an earlier post. With the metric system, you use a liquid measure for liters (and fractions thereof) and a scale for mass in kilograms and its fractions. That’s it.

Let’s consider just how difficult we’re making things for ourselves and pick a more sane path moving foward.

More exciting posts are in the works. Please stay tuned.

Linda

Note: While I couldn’t find a definition for “malmesei,” it turns out “malmsey” is a sweet, fortified wine. That would make sense in this context with a liquid measure cited. I’ll leave it to you to look up the other confusing ingredients.

Things That Set Us Apart and the Metric System

tape-measure-3859795_640

Image from Pixabay

As you might expect, I use Google to do a daily search for new “metric system” items to ensure I don’t miss anything relevant to my research. And while I do get some searches that don’t quite hit the mark (“metrics” also refer to other kinds of measures as in “My sales metrics went up again last month”), most of them are right on topic.

A recent piece in an online publication called “The Travel” had an article called “25 Things About America We All Can’t Stand (Even The Locals). What was the number one “annoyance”? Our measurements:

Most of the world abides by the metric system when it comes to measurements, however, believe it or not, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that does not use the metric system as its predominant system of measurement, says Britannica.

Ironically, the publisher of this list is an organization that had its address listed in Quebec, Canada. In case you are not aware, Canada is a “soft adoption” country that uses both Imperial and metric system units on many things, so this is somewhat of a situation of “the pot calling the kettle black.”

This got me looking for other articles that might mention our lack of metric system adoption as an American inconsistency. Of course, I found some.

American “quirks”

Another recent article, dated from November 15 of last year was called “24 things that are considered ‘normal’ in the US but the rest of the world finds weird.”

One of those items is “Using the imperial system of measurement instead of the metric system.”*

The United States is one of only three countries that still use the imperial system of measurement, and everyone out there thinks we’re strange for doing so.

A piece from Redbook dated June 25, 2018, was called “37 Things Americans Do That Confuse the Rest of the World: There’s the American way…and then there’s everybody else.

Number 25 of the 37 lists “Measure in miles, feet, and inches:

This is an obvious one, and, yet, it’s still a constant source of bewilderment for most of the world. Instead of following the metric system, America is one of just three countries to follow the imperial system of measurement. (The others are Liberia and Myanmar.)

So, aside from our lack of metric system adoption, what do others find strange about us? A smattering:

  • Take-out boxes and drink refills
  • Huge portion sizes (which probably leads to the take-out boxes)
  • Walking around with large cups of coffee
  • Using ice in everything

Just in case you think them all food-related, also included are:

  • Working too much
  • Baby showers
  • Talking to strangers
  • Being too sensitive (as well as too insensitive to others)
  • Having flags everywhere
  • Not enough privacy in public bathroom stalls
  • We’re loud and smile too much
  • Tipping
  • Sales tax

This last one is likely because some 140 countries have a Value Added Tax (known as VAT) that is seen on the item itself. However, in the United States, sales tax is not known until you’re at the sales register. And that’s because sales tax can differ from state to state and even region to region. As an example, the sales tax in Los Alamos, NM (where I live) is 7.3125% but the sales tax in Santa Fe, NM is 8.44% (that’s just 54 km or 44 minutes away).

United states?

And that goes back to one of my arguments that one of the reasons we’ve found metric system adoption difficult in this country is because we are less the UNITED States of American than the United STATES of America (As in states’ rights). Still, it’s written into the Constitution that Congress can set weights and measures for our country so at least that’s one less hurdle to overcome.

Let’s get with the global program and switch to the metric system (or S.I. as it is known in the rest of the world.)

Thanks for tuning in.

Linda

Action Requested Regarding the Metric System (by October 30 [Wednesday])

Eliminate2

The federal government is about to take a step backward regarding labeling with the metric system. Comments are needed by October 30.

It seems the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)—which is part of the Department of the Treasury—has proposed adding U.S. customary measures in addition to metric system measures on some booze. This would be a regressive action as most alcohol volumes are currently listed with only metric measures, as in 750 mL and 1.75 liters of wine and distilled spirits.

composite

Most current alcohol labels only include metric system units. The government is trying to change that to include U.S. customary units. Please make your voice heard.

The only exception I’ve found by personal observation is beer. (Maybe because we don’t export much beer to countries that require metric units—which is most of them.)

Of course, trying to coax this “bottom-line” information out of the rulemaking documents is almost impossible unless you know what you’re looking for. I certainly struggled.

I read the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) so you don’t have to

The relevant documents are:

27 CFR Part 4: Elimination of Certain Standard of Fill for Wine

(If you really want to get twisted around, also see this entry called “Labeling and Advertising of Wine.”)

Yikes.

And…

27 CFR Parts 5, 7, 26, and 27: Elimination of Certain Standards of Fill for Distilled Spirits; Amendment of Malt Beverage Net Contents Labeling Regulation

Both documents were incredibly difficult for me to decipher, but it looks like it comes down to this (from the webpage for the “Fill of Wine” information):

TTB is also proposing to amend the labeling regulations for distilled spirits and malt beverages to specifically provide that distilled spirits may be labeled with the equivalent standard United States (U.S.) measure in addition to the mandatory metric measure, and that malt beverages may be labeled with the equivalent metric measure in addition to the mandatory U.S. measure. Such labeling is currently allowed, but that is not explicitly stated in current regulations. This revision will align the distilled spirits and malt beverage labeling regulations with current policy and also with the wine labeling regulations. The wine labeling regulations state that wine may be labeled with the equivalent standard U.S. measure in addition to the mandatory metric measure. (Emphasis mine.)

While the proposed rule for both were made on July 1, 2019, with a deadline for comments by August 30, 2019, the deadline was extended to Wednesday, October 30.

big-revisedThe extension document for the revised October 30 document deadline (left)

(Why they didn’t update the new comment date on the actual documents, I don’t know. A revision issue?)

The bottom line?

Right now, most liquor has just metric measures but these proposed changes apparently want to add U.S. customary units. In addition, neither proposed rulemaking mentions which units would be listed first and second on labels. This makes a huge difference in what gets people’s attention. I consider this a big step backward in metric system adoption regardless of the order eventually listed.

 

 

 

 

Please weigh in on this issue

To comment, go to the respective pages below and hit the “Submit a formal comment” button on the top of the page.

submit-comment

Note that the page says:

You are filing a document into an official docket. Any personal information included in your comment text and/or uploaded attachment(s) may be publicly viewable on the web.

Thus, be careful about what you include in your text if you don’t want it to be public.

I encourage you to IMMEDIATELY comment on these proposed changes in the comment sections and make your voice heard.

Will it make a difference?

I can’t promise it will, but at least we can let “the powers that be” know that people care about this issue and we don’t want to backslide.

Why did I wait so long to post this? Let’s face it, most of us wait until a deadline looms before we respond. The deadline looms. Please take a couple of minutes and respond.

It could make all the difference in the world. Only history will tell.

Thanks for your attention.

Linda

Boxes of butter and the metric system

Box of Kroger butter

How much butter in a “box” according to the Department of Agriculture? More than you might think. Keep reading.

It’s fall again here in sunny New Mexico. It’s also time for the annual selling of massive amounts of green chile for which my state is famous. I wrote back in 2015 about the fact that you can still buy green chile by the bushel here.

Apparently, it’s not the only agriculturally based measure still used within the farming community when it goes almost directly to the consumer without repackaging. Not long ago I stopped at the local farmer’s market and bought some peaches. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw the paper bag contained the produce quantity that was labeled as ½ peck.

1/2 Peck on a bag

Notation on a bag of recently purchased peaches at a farmer’s market.

Had I not been able to see for myself how many peaches I was buying at the time, I would have had no idea what the volume of a peck could have been. A few days later I realized that the large boxes of chiles the grocery store were selling was also only listed by the bushel. (For the record, a “general” bushel is equivalent to 64 U.S. pints while a peck is the equivalent of 8 U.S. quarts. Ironically, the source I got this information from, Leico.com [which is a new collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press], doesn’t even use the same base measurements so you also have to know that there are two pints in a quart so there are 64 pints in a bushel and 16 pints in a peck…) Confusing.

When I go to the grocery store, I normally only buy produce by the item, ounce, or pound. Bushels and pecks aren’t volumetric measures I normally use at Kroger or elsewhere.

pamphletThat got me curious about other agricultural products that I might not normally use. After a bit of research, I came across a publication put out by the Department of Agriculture called “Weights, Measures, and Conversion Factors for Agricultural Commodities and Their Products.” (Agricultural Handbook Number 697). The 71-page document is dated 1992, but it was the most recent one I could find, so I used it for this post.

The document numerous lists of units described in all their gory detail. Sure, some are familiar to most of us, but it also includes long tons (1.016 947 metric tons) and short tons (0.907 185 metric tons).

But it gets even more fun since bushels are different sizes depending on the commodities measured.

  • Wheat, white potatoes, and soybeans use a 60-pound bushel;
  • Shelled corn, rye, sorghum grain, and flaxseed use a 56-pound bushel;
  • Barley, buckwheat, and apples use a 48-pound bushel.

Not only that but for some reason, there are both 32- and 38-pounds bushels of oats!

oats

Huh? Two different bushels of oats?

Plus, once you wrap your head around that there is also a carton of artichokes (23 pounds/10.4 kg), the sack of topped beets (25 pounds/11.3 kg)—unless you’re talking about a sack of beans, which then contains 100 pounds or 45.4 kg.

Broomcorn (and it notes there are 6 bales per ton) is 333 pounds per bale or 151 kg. However, don’t get this confused with Broomcorn seed which is sold by the bushel and can be anywhere from 44-50 pounds (20-22.7 kg) according to the brochure. I love precision, don’t you?

Let’s not forget butter, which is sold by the box, of 68 pounds or 30.9 kg.

Gallons aren’t treated much better. A gallon of castor oil is 8 pounds (3.6 kg), but a gallon of corn syrup is 11.72 pounds (5.3 kg).

Then there is the lug, which for Western grapes 28 pounds or 12.7 kg, but if you are measuring avocados, that lug is 12-15 pounds or 5.4-6.8 kg.

There are more complications, of course, like the 7/10-bushel carton of Texas oranges (40 pounds), while Florida oranges are sold by the 4/5-bushel carton (40 pounds). But the California and Arizona oranges are sold by the carton of 38 pounds.

I can only imagine the politics of how this came to be.

Hopefully, I’ve now made my point which is: our current system of gallons, bales, bushels, pecks, boxes, cartons, and lugs, plus our ounces, pounds, cups, quartsteaspoons, tablespoons, and pints, (and I didn’t even get to the bag, barrel, pocket/bag, hogshead, case, crate, and bin) is just crazy and the fact that some argue our current system is easier can only be offered by someone who is unaware of our current, deeply flawed units.

That said, just made sure if you send someone to the store for a box of butter, the person won’t return with 30.9 kg (69 pounds) of it.

See you next month when I’ll have a call to action regarding our government and the metric system. Maybe you can help.

Thanks for staying tuned.

Linda

The ‘Argument of Twelves’ and the Metric System

The fact that we have 12 inches in a foot isn’t a good reason to reject the metric system. Image from arielrobin on Pixabay.

(Sorry for the long lag between posts. I had some things going on in my life that required my full attention. Things are pretty much back on track. Thanks for your patience.)

Awhile back I was fulfilling my role as a scientist ambassador at the Bradbury Science Museum here in Los Alamos, NM. (This mostly consists of setting up various measurement activities and chatting with visitors about the advantages of the metric system for a couple of hours on the occasional Saturday.)

One day I realized that a man was starting to pace back and forth in front of me. Even though I wasn’t yet done prepping and I sensed this gentleman was about to go on the attack, I went ahead and said, “People are dying in this country because we don’t use the metric system in this country.”

“I don’t believe you,” he replied.

Even the Centers for Disease Control recommends strict use of metric units for liquids. (Pills are measured in grams, or a fraction thereof, already.)

I then handed him the 2016 Top Ten Patient Safety Concerns for Healthcare Organizations report put out by ECRI [Emergency Care Research Institute]. Number seven on the list: “Medication Errors Related to Pounds and Kilograms.” It advocates for only using metric system units (i.e. kilograms for weight) to reduce dosing errors since most medications use weight to determine the correct dose. It’s reason is simple: There are about two pounds in a kilogram. Doctors and nurses are schooled in the metric system but have to bounce back and forth between metric and U.S. customary units to communicate with their American patients. If they mix up the two, they might give the patients half the dose they need (potentially rendering it ineffective) or twice the amount (read overdose).

Using metric system units for medicine has also been recommended by multiple health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control. (See the above image)

The gentleman reviewed the report and since—I assume—he could no longer argue on that particular point, he launched into what I’ve now dubbed “The argument of twelves.”

The Argument of Twelves

The argument goes something like this: If you are working with a group/set of 12s, then your factors are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12; but if you are working in the metric system, your factors are only 1, 2, 5, and 10.

I consider this to be a specious argument since (and please, but nicely correct me if I’m wrong) we don’t really measure a lot of things by twelves. Sure, a foot has twelve inches and there are twelve months in a year. (Apparently eggs are sold by the dozen—according to the New York Times—because eggs were a penny each and there are 12 pennies in a shilling. Selling eggs by the dozen meant, as a vendor, you didn’t have to make change.) However, there isn’t much else I can think of that comes in twelves except a gross of 144 items (which is 12 multiplied by 12). You can’t really cite time because military/Zulu time uses a 24-hour clock.

If we actually had 12 ounces in a cup and 12 cups to a gallon and 12 ounces in a pound and 12 yards to a mile, then I would understand that counter argument. (In reality, there are 8 ounces in a cup, 16 cups and 128 ounces in gallon, 16 ounces in a pound, and 1,760 yards in a mile…plus 36 inches or 3 feet in a yard and so on.)

But, when it comes to everyday measurement, we really only divide up inches, months, and eggs into twelves. I don’t think that’s enough reason to reject using the metric system.

However, I’ve found after seven years on this project (the anniversary of which was the day before yesterday), if people are threatened by the idea of changing to the metric system—for any number of reasons—they will latch onto whatever immediately comes to mind to reject it.

Around the time that the man was winding down his argument of twelves, some other—more open-minded people—approached me and I turned my attention to them.

I’ve said many times that, when it comes to this issue, there are probably 10-20 percent of people who already love the metric system and there’s about another 10-20 percent who are completely opposed to it.

It’s my plan to focus my attention on the 60 to 80 percent who don’t realize we have a problem in this country and are open to learning about it. Maybe action will eventually occur. That’s my hope. If you want to become more involved, let me know at milebehind@gmail.com.

In a closing note: I realize that some people ascribe a historical and religious meaning to the number 12, but we don’t have to limit the number of members on a jury or the number of apostles due to the metric system so let’s not shoehorn that number into our measurement system unnecessarily.

Plan for another post in September.

Thanks for getting this far,

Linda

Medicine and the Metric System, Part 2

boy-brother-child-35188

According to WebMD “Based on calls made to poison control centers in 2010, pain relievers — both prescription and over-the-counter — accounted for 31% of fatal poisonings in children age 5 and under.”

(A previous post I wrote on the metric system and medicine is here. Hence, this is Part 2.)

When I was interviewed by Vox News for a podcast last month, I mentioned a recent recall involving confused unit dosing. I’d like to explore that issue in more depth this month.

August 2018 recall of children’s liquid medicine

A news release issued by the Pfizer Inc. on August 27, 2018, began with the following sentence:

Pfizer Consumer Healthcare, a division of Pfizer Inc., is voluntarily recalling one lot of Children’s Advil® Suspension Bubble Gum Flavored 4 FL OZ Bottle because of customer complaints that the dosage cup provided is marked in teaspoons and the instructions on the label are described in milliliters (mL).

Let’s take a closer look that. What that means is that if someone was paying attention to the number of units and not the units themselves (teaspoons vs. milliliters) — and why wouldn’t everyone expect consistency between the two? —that person could have given their child a significant overdose all the while thinking that they were following the directions.

As the Food and Drug Administration noted:

Pfizer concluded that the use of the product with an unmatched dosage cup marked in teaspoons rather than milliliters has a chance of being associated with potential overdose.

That is putting it mildly. Since there are roughly 5 mL in a teaspoon, giving the smallest dose in teaspoons could result in administering a whopping 20 mL more than prescribed. For a 72-95 pound 11-year-old child, the error compounds to an overdose of 60 mL when only a 15 mL dose was intended!

While not necessarily deadly, the recalls note that “The most common symptoms associated with ibuprofen overdose include nausea, vomiting, headache, drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness.”

I’m not a doctor, but I image the reactions could be worse for a small child whose health was compromised before the overdose was innocently administered by a caregiver.

We’re just not moving quickly enough to remove such errors from our medical system. As noted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in 2015:

While progress is being made in hospitals in regards to prescribing liquids in mL, many hospitals still use dosing devices that have household measures (e.g., teaspoonful, dessertspoonful, tablespoonful) and, as above, even drams and ounces. This sets healthcare professionals up to fail because the dosage scales on embossed cups are difficult to read, have dangerous abbreviations that are easily confused (e.g., TBS and TSP), and measures that are no longer used (e.g., drams). .

It’s easy enough to make mistakes moving between U.S. customary and metric units without having organizations responsible for our over-the-counter medicines layering on their own errors that might be difficult to immediately perceive.

But changing to the metric system will cost money, I hear some cry

One of the pushbacks I’ve gotten over the years is that it would cost money to switch to the metric system. Let’s take a second and consider the cost of a recall such as the one cited here.

According to Investopedia:

Though insurance may cover a minimal amount to replace defective products, a majority of product recalls result in lawsuits. Between lost sales, replacement costs, government sanctions, and lawsuits, a significant recall can become a multi-billion dollar ordeal. For multi-billion dollar companies, an expensive short-term loss can be easily overcome, but when shareholders and customers lose confidence, there may be greater long-term effects such as plummeting stock prices.

The bottom line: This recall of children’s medicine could have been completely avoided if we weren’t constantly juggling multiple measurement systems in this country.

I’m not saying that using one set of units would solve all problems. After all, it’s still possible a company could put out dosing instruction that contained a typo (or a host of other problems), but let’s do what we can to try to remove easily avoidable errors from the system.

Cost of a recall?

Based on some research I did, it sounds like an average recall cost is over $10 million dollars in direct costs (pulling product off the shelves, etc), while indirect costs (lawsuits, fines, and customer avoidance, stock price, harm to reputation) can mount for years after the recall.

That’s something to highlight when talking about using consistent measures and the cost to implement them.

Thanks for getting this far!

Linda

Some resources on the cost of recalls:

https://roadscholar.com/blog/how-much-do-product-recalls-really-cost
https://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/junejuly-2018/the-costs-of-foodborne-illness-product-recalls-make-the-case-for-food-safety-investments/

 

 

Big news and the metric system

Kilogram replica

This replica of a kilogram is on  display at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of Department of Commerce. The domes are to protect it from environments that might alter it.

First, the kilogram vote passed on Friday! We now have a scientifically defined kilogram. Second, I was interviewed by Vox News for their daily podcast on Friday, November 16, 2018. I’m in the second half of the interview.

The metric system (or SI as it is known around the world) was first implemented in France back in 1795. Since then, almost every country in the world has adopted this set of measures with the United States being one of the few holdouts from full adoption. (The others are Liberia and Burma/Myanmar.)

Back In 1799 the meter was defined by a prototype meter bar. Later, a scientific standard for the meter was defined in 1960, and was redefined in 1983. It is currently the length of the path that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

If you have the precision equipment to make that measurement, all those “meters” around the world are exactly the same.

In contrast

To this day, the definition of the kilogram is a carefully protected platinum-iridium prototype that is the kilogram. It is held by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (or the Bureau International Poids et Mesures) outside of Paris. Should anything happen to that physical standard it could theoretically change what the kilogram is around the world.

Having a physical standard/prototype has inherent problems. There are additional physical standards or “artifacts” that are stored around the world which are periodically compared to the one in France to make sure they all have the same mass. However, over time, the duplicate kilograms have “drifted” away from that the one in France. (Several of these prototypes are held by our own National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.) That’s a problem when things like oils from people’s skin or even dust could impact its mass if it is not perfectly protected. And perfect, in this sense, is impossible.

As a result, a scientifically defined standard has been sought—until recently—without success. Much of this quandary was captured in Robert P. Crease’s book, World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, which was published in 2012.

Crease relates that two different technologies were being applied to solve the problem of creating the kilogram in the laboratory. One was the “Avogadro method” that “…realizes the mass unit using a certain number of atoms…”

(I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because I’ve yet to understand it myself.)

Crease also relates…

The “watt balance” approach, on the other hand, ties the mass unit to the Planck constant, via a special device that exploits the equality of SI units of mechanical and electrical power. p. 255

(Again, very complicated.)

You can read a Vox News story that explores more of the science here.

Today, on November 16, the International Bureau (of which the U.S. is a member) will vote to determine if the scientific standard for the kilogram will be based on the “watt balance” method.

Should that occur (and it is expected to pass) the new standard, will go into effect on May 20, 2019.

Why May 20 next year? Because May 20 is the 144th anniversary of the signing of the 1875 Treaty of the Meter. That document gave the General Conference on Weights and Measures “…the international authority that ensures wide dissemination of the SI and modifies the SI as necessary to reflect the latest advances in science and technology.”

This is a developing story so stay tuned to this page for further developments.

Linda

A liquid measuring cup and the metric system

measuring-cups

This was really difficult to photograph since the units (cups and ounces on one side and milliliters on the other) are only embossed. Most measuring cups use ink for contrast. Hopefully, the visual complexity of one side compared with the other still comes across.

Every once in a while I come across something that really lives up to the cliché of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I thought I’d share the images above with you since it relates directly to our lack of metric system adoption.

Most glass measuring cups are fairly cleanly designed to show U.S. customary units on one side (no, we don’t use the Imperial units we originally brought over with us from the U.K) and those of the metric system on the other side.

However, the one I recently bought really puts our awkward system into full light.

Interestingly, when I pointed my find out to the person at the cash register, she indicated that she wanted one as well. Alas, as I was shopping in a discount store, I had to inform her that I was buying the only one I saw. (Frankly, I was pleased that someone else wanted something that I considered a fairly unusual item.)

Keep in mind that the whole point of having liquid measuring cups is to avoid spilling whatever one wishes to measure. In theory, the volume-based measure of, say a cup that can be leveled off at the top containing dry ingredients, should be exactly the same as for a liquid measure. The only reason for a liquid measure is to prevent spilling once the measurement is made.

dryvswet

Americans have both “dry” and “wet” measuring cups is so, if you need a full cup of a liquid, you don’t spill it. A liquid measuring cup provides “slosh” margin above the full-cup measure. Also, liquids tend to level themselves. “Dry” cups makes it easy to push off any excess material and make it level. That’s why you don’t normally see half and quarter cup measures listed within dry measuring cups—you couldn’t level them. [Note the ml printed on the dry measuring cup.]

Once I decided to write a blog post about the measuring cup posted at the top of the page,  I tried to do some more research to find out why the designer veered off toward visual complexity for something that is usually designed with simplicity in mind. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out much more from the paper price tag on the bottom of the cup, but it indicated that its origin was Turkey (even though, according to the U.S. Metric Association, Turkey adopted the metric system [or SI as it is known by most of the world] back in 1930. So apparently the cup was intended only for the U.S. market.

There was no identifiable marker’s mark other than something that looked to me like almost a ying and yang mark. A mystery to me, but if someone else can shed light on the maker so I can get some more background—preferably in English—I’d be happy to hear it.

Thanks for reading,

Linda Anderman

Scientific equations and the metric system

Fancy images with cosines and fractions.

A formula with fractions. Can we just decimalize everything?

I’ve been told (as in second-hand information) that many countries that have switched to the metric system don’t really need to teach fractions anymore because pretty much every fraction can be decimalized. Additionally, I’ve had first-hand conversations with middle school teachers and students who find teaching and learning fractions is a nightmare. Do we really need fractions or, once we switch to the metric system, can we just lay them aside? Over time, I’ve come to question that and here’s my current thinking…

Ultimately, a fraction is part of a thing

We will always need the concept of a less than a full measurement unit. Just as a pound cake was known for its ease because it was based on the ratio of a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, it was pretty crude in terms its result. Whether we only need part of a measure of fabric or a piece of wood that is less than a meter long, it is important that children learn (and adults understand) the notion of something that is less than “one” of something.

A fraction has a built-in “math problem”

Maybe some of the resistance to fractions is the inherent idea that it is, as its heart, a “math problem.” (Would we think about things differently if they were called “math challenges” rather than “math problems”? Let’s see…) A fraction is a division “quest.” It can ask a practical question, as in “If I have a half a cup of flour left in this bag and I need a whole cup for my recipe, how much more do I need to borrow from my neighbor to get the full amount needed?” It is a division “question” that needs to be solved if we pair it with anything else (as in add, subtract, divide…).

Consider the following two math “dares”:

combined

A traditional math “problem” on the left that includes fractions with uncommon denominators. On the right is the same math problem decimalized. The top number in the decimalized addition has only been carried two places to the decimal point, otherwise, it would go on forever.

When I hold up “flash cards” side by side with both types of problems shown above during my metric system demonstrations, almost invariably, people choose the one that has been decimalized because it eliminates the issue of uncommon denominators that are such a stumbling block for both children and adults. It also eliminates the steps to get to common denominators because all decimals already have common denominators in the form of 10s, 100s, 1,000s etc.

For the decimalized addition, just add up the columns as you would any math “action,” just making sure you keep track of where the decimal point goes in the final result. Pretty easy if the original equation is properly aligned as above.

In answer to the question “Can we get rid of fractions altogether?”

No. While most things will work just fine if you even go two or three numbers to the right of the decimal point, for some things it just won’t work since many decimals are frequently “rounded” and don’t fully express a numerical concept. While I am not a scientist, I do work with quite a few and when I posed the question of just decimals, “No” was the answer that came back to me. That’s because many fractions just don’t work as decimals for scientific formulas. Consider the fraction in the second math image. If you try to convert it to a decimal you have a problem because, technically, it trails on forever as in .3333333333333333333….

Scientists and mathematicians can’t work like that and need the compactness of fractions to visualize and express their work. (See the graphic at the top of this page for equation fractions.)

That said, let’s keep them where we really need them and stop needlessly torturing students, teachers and our population in general.

Even U.S. stock markets no longer report losses and gains with fractions down to the 16th. It changed a few years ago when the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered that all stock reports convert to the decimal system prior to April 9, 2001.

Why did it use fractions of quarters, eighths, halves, and sixteenths? According to the article from Investopedia, it dates back to the “pieces of eight” that Spain used some 400 years ago when it decided to exclude the thumbs for the purposes of counting…

Thanks for reading,

Linda