Baby Formula, the Pandemic, and the Metric System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dual labeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that solved one problem…

Conversion errors

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

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

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

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

Please help get the word out.

Thanks,

Linda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m trying to make this issue about multiple costs

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

What put me on this path?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Anderman, Page 1 of the report

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

Linda Anderman, page 2 of the report

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

linda Anderman, page 6 of the report

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

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

linda anderman, page 10 of the report.

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

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

Thanks for sticking with me.

Linda

Update, Book Reviews, and the Metric System

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

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

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

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

From the book’s introduction:

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

Page XVI

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

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

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

Rule #1: Round with Enthusiasm

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

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

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

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

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

Page 140

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

The index lists only six sections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 3

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

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

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

Page 153

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

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

Thanks for reading this far.

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

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

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

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.

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’s 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 ago 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.)

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

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

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