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.

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.

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

Measures and mistakes due to our lack of the metric system

triptick

The scene when the Spinal Tap’s manager discovers the prop is MUCH smaller than he expected.

In a scene in Rob Reiner’s mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, the rock group’s manager (played by Tony Hendra) goes to pick up a piece of scenery that is meant to evoke Stonehenge in connections with one of the group’s songs. He indicates that he’s quite pleased with the model with which he’s been presented with until he finds out that it is the finished piece and not a model. He expected something 18 feet high, not 18 inches high.

The designer (played by Anjelica Huston) seeks to defend herself and pulls out the napkin she’d been given to work from to show that the specifications indicated 18″ by 18″. She’d done exactly as instructed.

Closeup of napkin with specifications

A zoom in on the napkin held in the character’s hand reveals the specifications she was given was, in fact, not 18 feet but 18 inches.

Within our measurement system, the difference between (“) and (‘)* is huge. In fact, the difference is 279.4 mm or 11 inches!

“Well,” defenders of our current measures might say, “that was done for comic effect and bears no relationship to the real world.”

I beg to differ by way of an example supplied to me by a coworker.

Her husband needed a metal bar fabricated and specified on the order “3/4″ x 3/4” x 1/2′ Long.” However, instead of getting a bar that was three-quarters of an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch thick and six inches long, he instead received a small block since the (1/2’), or a half foot, direction was read instead as part of an inch rather than part of a foot.

Shows the instructions

The instructions as provided to the fabricators.

Photo of small aluminum block.

Instead of a six-inch-long bar, he ended up with a block slightly smaller than an inch in all dimensions.

As if that isn’t confusing enough, the (“) and (‘) symbols can denote both lengths and durations. Thus, 5’ 4” could mean either five feet and four inches or five minutes and four seconds if there were no context indicating which measure was intended.

So, along with the many stumbling blocks of education and medicine, and other errors related to commerce, this particular vendor had to record the original order as a loss and make and send an item that actually conformed to what the customer had originally specified.

Such errors would be greatly reduced if orders were written in “mm” for the measures rather than in the easily mistaken (“) and (‘) units.

Thus, the order could have been written: “19.05 mm x 19.05 mm x 152.4 mm.”

A lot less ambiguous.

I wasn’t able to find any information on how frequently such errors are made, but if I only had to look to the office next to mine to find an example, can they be very far away from any of us in this country?

Close up of ruler with metric and customary units.

U.S. rulers often contain a confusing mix of whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth units. Metric system rulers usually just mark on the whole (10) and half (5) counts.

In conducting research for this piece, I also came across information related to “how to read a ruler/tape measure.” One source went into detail about how to distinguish between the half- and quarter-inch marks on such tools. In contrast, metric system-based rules only have differing marks to help count the “fives” and “tens.”

As I continue to look, the more examples I find of how we’re making our lives more difficult since we don’t use the metric system exclusively in this country.

Have an example of confusion/problems you’ve encountered due to our lack of metric system adoption you’d like to share? Feel free to comment on this page or send an email to me at milebehind@gmail.com.

Stay tuned. Right now I’m researching our very early history with the metric system in this country. Luckily, prior to the last metric system push in the mid-1970s, our government put out a 200+ page document that goes into just such history. I’m now rereading it within the context of the book I’m writing.

Thanks for getting all the way down here.

Linda

* Note: Marks for feet and inches should always be indicated by straight lines, rather than by using quotation marks, which are usually curved. Did I have to look up how to make the straight lines to indicate feet and inches to write this article? Yes, yes I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiatus and the Metric System

Figures with numbers and lines

I’m now working on book with the title “America’s biggest miscalculation.”

It was almost five years ago that I began down this road of working to bring awareness of the harm we are doing to ourselves through our lack of metric system adoption. The plan has been to do it via a documentary on the subject. (I thought it was only four until I looked it up!)

During that time I put quite a few things in my life on hold while I devoted considerable time and resources (including my own money) toward making metric system awareness a reality. I recently took some time off as a greatly needed it for multiple reasons.

That said, I am far from giving up. This is the first time that I’m saying this publicly but I’ve had discussions with a couple of different producers over the years but the funding to make the documentary has yet to materialize. As a result, I’ve decided to take a different tack.

Part of the reason I started this blog in the first place was to give you some “behind the scenes” looks at the process as it evolves. So here’s what I’m thinking…I need money to produce the documentary and, ultimately, the onus to do that falls on my shoulders.

I had originally thought that I would reach more people through a documentary than through a book but now I’m thinking I need the book to raise the money to make the documentary. I had always thought about writing a book but expected it would be more of a companion piece than the catalyst.

The additional research it will take to write the book will be considerable. For instance, something that I could gloss over in a script like, “When early man began to settle down for agriculture, measurement tools became increasing important” now needs a whole chapter that I have to back up with references and notes. At least if I want it to be any good—and I do.

I have already begun work on the book. I even took some time off to do additional work on it a couple of months ago then came down with pneumonia, which put some kinks in that plan. Still, I think (with the help of my boss, Linda Deck), we came up with what I think is the perfect book title. I needed something that would catch people’s attention, be as unique as I could get it but also not mislead anyone.

Its main title will be America’s biggest miscalculation. Not only does it perfectly describe the situation but I was unable to find another item with that exact title. I did find things named America’s biggest mistake and other such titles but the use of “miscalculation” appears to be unique. I’ve already purchased the domain names.

I am writing the book to fit that title. At my daughter’s suggestion, I purchased Scrivener software and am at almost 20,000 words into the book’s contents. Given that the average non-fiction book is around 70,000 words, I still have a ways to go but there is much more subject material to cover.

Given that I’m writing and project managing full time AND writing a major book on the metric system AND still have to do things like laundry, food prep, cleaning and organizing (where I got really far behind—I hate cleaning), etc., I plan in future to only post once a month. But I do plan to continue posting.

Just the make sure I keep my promise, I plan to write a couple more posts today so I have them ready while I work on the book.

If you want to write to me at milebehind@gmail.com to suggest topics for columns, I can’t promise I can immediately address them, but I will consider all comers.

See you in June and thanks for your patience.

Linda