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/

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time wasted without the metric system

When I talk to people about a future where we switch over to the metric system, many  bemoan how difficult the change would be. The problem with that perspective is that most people have no idea how much of our time is wasted due to our using U.S. customary units. I’m highly confident that after a few months of using just metric units, our response would be: “What were we thinking? Why didn’t we do this ages ago?”

Image from linked infographic

Ounces made it into two top 10 questions for recent Google searches.

Just last week I came across an infographic titled “10 Most Asked Questions on Google.” It included queries searched for during a previous six-month period and was global in nature. The graphic belies the assertion that Americans understand their current system (“So why go from something we know to something we don’t know?” they ask me). Bottom line:  Because questions eight and 10 are about how many ounces there are in a cup and a pound (respectively) so we really don’t know our units, despite what we say. (Money amounts refer to the cost of ads on the answer landing pages.)

Between the two of them, they accounted for 900,000 questions in that six month time frame. So how does that play out? Let’s say you’re working in the kitchen and you decide you want to scale a recipe up or down and need that “How many ounces in a …?” question answered. The first thing I’d do is search my memory bank to see if that was something I already knew. Then, if I didn’t know, or was less than confident in my answer, I’d need to either whip out my phone or mosey over to my computer to get the answer.

While the actual Google search might seem almost instantaneous, the process of getting to enter the question is not. Let’s say that it takes about 90 seconds before you get to the Google search part (I have nothing to back this assertion up but it is probably conservative). If so, that means we (and by “we” I mean either Americans or the poor souls who find themselves confronted with our crazy units here or elsewhere in the world) spend 45,000 hours each year searching for this information. Put another way, every year we spend more than five years of our time reminding ourselves how many ounces there are in things.

This amount of time, of course, doesn’t include all the time spent looking such information up in a cookbook only to discover (in most cases) that conversions between metric units are sometimes included but not how many ounces, for instance, there are in things.

Most cookbooks include units between U.S. customary and metric system, not within customary units.

I can’t confidently promise that we’d likely spend any saved time on something productive but at least we’d have the opportunity to spend it on something less wasteful.

Confusion in the kitchen

How to half ingredients using U.S. customary units

Our units make scaling ingredients very difficult

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I also recently came across the cheat sheet on the right.

It’s just nuts that we put ourselves through these machinations when using the metric system is so easy. Unless you’re really slow, you wouldn’t even need such a chart.

1/4 liter    =     250 mL
1/3 liter    =     333 mL
1/2 liter    =     500 mL
2/3 liter    =     666 mL
3/4 liter   =      750 mL

Given that we already use decimalized currency, most everyone could immediately tell you that half a dollar is 50 cents and a quarter of a dollar is 25 cents without a calculator or a Google search. It’s the same with metric system mesures.

While it might take some thought and effort to switch over to the metric system initially, once there, our lives become a whole lot simpler.

If only more people knew. Help spread the word please.

Thanks,

Linda

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

Alton Brown and the Metric System

alton-brown-everydaycook-cookbook-coverI have previously written about how the Food Network’s popular chef Alton Brown has praised the ease of the metric system for kitchen use as far back as 2012 in my post called Not the End of the World:

It is impossible to measure these ingredients with consistent accuracy by avoir dupois—that is, volume. Heck, I’ve seen a cup of flour weigh anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces. If you want to measure flour, you have to do so by weight. End of story.
I’m Just Here For More Food, Alton Brown, p. 14.

But, bless his little Southern heart, in his latest book, Every Day Cook: This Time It’s Personal, he’s taken things a step further:

Despite the grumblings of my editor, I’ve decided to quantify these recipes the way I do in real life…For instance, I combine weights (metric no less) with standard volumetric measurements, that is, tablespoons, in the same recipe…However, when I do weigh, it’s always metric because…I hate fractions. I also hate working with decimal points, and that’s the nice thing about grams. No one ever says 18.4 grams unless they’re weighing out something that’s controlled either by local/state/federal laws or by international treaties. Now, I know that there of you who say food isn’t worth the trouble of purchasing a decent, multiformat digital scale with tare function (allows weights to be zeroed out), but you’d be flat-out wrong.

Of course, I could quibble with the fact that the metric system is based on mass rather than weight (weight varies by the gravity of the planet you happen to be on—mass is mass, regardless), but I suppose he could quibble back our scales actually go by a weight equivalent of mass—and I couldn’t prove him wrong.

kitchen scale

There are lots of scales on the market. Pick one that catches your fancy to start with.

But here’s the important bit: not only is he urging cooks of various persuasions to buy and use a scale in their kitchens (you can’t consistently use the metric system without one, and very few people have a proper kitchen scale), but he also includes recipes that are based on metric units!!!!!!!

For instance, his recipe for Always Perfect Oatmeal includes 120 grams of rolled oats, 25 grams of quinoa, 475 grams of water and 7 grams of kosher salt. Yes, he does provide a couple of those ingredients with U.S. customary equivalents but for the quinoa and salt, he does not, thus forcing the use of a scale or a conversion. Where there are conversions, there will be conversion errors so hopefully those with the mistakes will see the error of their ways.

I urge you to take advantage of the coming holiday season to 1) buy lots of copies of Alton’s book for those you love; 2) and buy them a scale to go with it to get folks familiar with weighing things in the kitchen. Then, when we do convert to the metric system, more people will be ready. Tell you what, if this post gets more than 2,000 views before the end of the year, I’ll make a short video showing just how easy a scale is to use for cooking.

A couple of words about kitchen scales

Three years ago I wrote a post called Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System where I extolled the benefits of using scales in the kitchen. While Alton said something about getting one for under $100 (yikes!), most of the ones I’ve bought for the kitchen and demos are between $10 and $15 each and—when I checked them against a calibration standard they do a respectable job all the way down to a gram.

In the post I put up a few years ago, I also pointed how there are some very cool scales you can get to present along with his book. Hardcover is currently $23.57 from Amazon. Throw in a scale for another $10 and you’re good to go. Buy a nifty scale like the one above and bump the package price up by an additional $20. Hey, do whatever best suits your gift-giving needs.

However, I do urge you to buy and use his book to support someone brave enough to include metric system units in an American-based cook book that also supports my work by getting people familiar with using scales in the kitchen. Every little bit helps and this is more than a little bit!

If I loved him before (and I did), I love him even more now.

Also, do let him (and his publishers) know that you support his use of metric system units through social media by using #EveryDayCook along with #USAgometric.

Thanks!

Linda

Powell’s Books and the Metric System

 

 

Powell's_Books

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A book lovers paradise.

Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon for my daughter’s wedding. I’m happy to say that everything went wonderfully—even the weather—and I am more than pleased with my new son-in-law and his family. I welcome them with open arms.

 

Of course, while in Portland I had to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books being the media freak I am. My first day in town, I met with my sister and brother -in-law (also in town for the wedding) and we allotted a short period of time there before heading out for dinner.

It wasn’t enough time so I went back the next day as it was only a few blocks from my hotel.

By the end of the second trip, I had accumulated quite a few books, all of which related to this project and the early history of humankind so I could continue my research regarding our history with measures. I was bemoaning how heavy everything was going to be in my luggage when the cashier pointed out that for a flat rate (about $14, as I recall) Powell’s would ship everything to my house. That was the last thing I needed to hear (too tempting) so during my third trip there in as many days, I hauled back the books I’d already bought and acquired a few more. (Hey, great selection and a lot of used books—a bargain in my “book.”)

I had everything shipped to the house (it all arrived two days ago) with the exception of one book that I decided to take with me despite its heft (at around 1.63 kg or around 3.5 pounds).

 

new-book_001

This book will provide my ancient history dates since they vary greatly depending on the source

That book was The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan.

 

Why am I telling you this? Uncovering that history of our measures has been quite challenging. I already had a book called The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (along with countless other books for my research) but it didn’t contain the information I needed.

The farther you go back in time you go, the sketchier the dates get, which has been causing me problems.

I’ve been working under the hypothesis that routine measures likely arose once people transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and it made sense to erect permanent or semipermanent buildings. I’ve already illustrated, even one person building a small, grass-type hut immediately needed a measure to make a perfectly round circle for the outer wall. It then stands to reason that multiple people, building a more permanent structure over days, weeks, months or years, would have to have had some agreed upon length or, surely, uneven walls would not have withstood anything very well.

Old_place.png

Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dates to 10,000 BCE

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg

 

The trouble is, the earliest cities of which we’re aware (Jericho in Palestine at around 9,000 BCE and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey at about 10,000 BCE) were already quite complex (see photo).

Smaller settlements prior to those were likely built near rivers and lakes for access to both water and the foodstuffs living in the water (fish, etc.). However, as the last ice age ended, water levels around the world rose by roughly 100 meters (300 feet) and those locations would likely be made of more perishable materials (wood vs. stone) and are under water if any evidence of them still exists at all.

Thus, my dilemma reconstructing our measurement history for the book I’m writing to go with the documentary.

Given that early dates for various things are all over the place, depending on the source, I’ve decided that based the vast number of contributors and how the book is laid out; Seventy Great Inventions will form the basis of my historical dates as I lay out that part of the story.

In future, if someone wants to take exception with my hypotheses, they can argue with me (though I’ll likely have evidence to back up my assertions) but if they want to argue dates, they can argue with the book’s authors.

I’ll continue to do research through other sources, of course, but Seventy Great Inventions will be my “go to” for dates.

Or at least that’s what I envision for right now.

Projects this large and complex can test one’s resources but so far, so good.

Thanks for reading this far!

Linda

 

 

 

 

Conversion errors and the metric system

headline

A recent headline on a metric system conversion error

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 ErrorCDC 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.

Marciano's book

Marciano’s book

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).

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

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.

Linda

Prehistory and the metric system       

 

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.

Uruk

A general view of the Uruk archeological site at Warka in Iraq. Image from the UK government

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?

Modern, but primitive, hut

You too can build a primitive hut with minimal tools but lots of effort.

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.

Linda

 

 

Sorry for the Delay in Posting on the Metric System

It's green chile season in New Mexico and I bought a bushel (64 U.S. quarts) roasted. Yum.

It’s green chile season in New Mexico and I bought a bushel (64 U.S. quarts) roasted. Yum.

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.

Linda