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

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

The Smithsonian and the Metric System

In September, I got a much-needed getaway. During that time, I made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit friends.

While there, I took advantage of my proximity to visit my contact at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (or NIST and the keepers of the metric system in the United States).

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

The NIST Museum

I was at NIST three years ago when I was just a few weeks into this project. Needless to say, my experience at its museum was radically different now that I had some context for the things that I saw. (Note: the museum is open only to official visitors. Still, there is a lot of information on the organization’s website.)

I also got a chance to meet with Elizabeth Gentry, my NIST contact there, and our country’s finest Metric Coordinator. While I’ve been keeping her up-to-date on the project, I’d yet to meet her in person.

Convert between systems only when necessary

I’m not sure how or why, but the friend I was staying with had some old U.S.-to-metric conversion slide rules imprinted with the Detroit Teachers Credit Union logo and a copyright of 1973.

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

One of the complaints that I’ve heard while on this project has been that our last attempt to convert to the metric system back in the mid-1970s spent too much time trying to teach people conversion formulas. Transitioning this way is actually quite complicated because there are so many formulas to memorize because we use so many different units (feet, pounds, ounces, gallons, ounces, etc.). The image to the right only captures part of the problem.

Any future plans to adopt the metric system would benefit from just straight measurement using the metric system, rather than trying to teach very complex and lengthy sets of conversion factors. (Only convert when absolutely necessary, like your grandma’s favorite recipes.)

For example: Do you have a space that needs a table? Just measure using the metric side of the ruler and do the same when shopping. I know I’m oversimplifying but it’s a start.

We were early decimal adopters—our coins

Needless to say, now that I’m involved with the metric system, I see its relevance almost everywhere.

Display depicting the different coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence.

A display depicting the different foreign coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence and establishment of our own mint.

I did end up coming across a coin display at the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian museum complex) called “Legendary Coins & Currency.” It reinforced some of my previous research that one of the reasons that the United States ended up with decimalized currency came from the fact that when we landed on this continent, we were not allowed to mint our own money while still part of England.

Note this quote from the History of Colonial Money that I found on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston site:

By 1652, the problem resulting from a shortage of coins had become extreme. England had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ plea for specie [gold and silver coin. ed], and the colonial leaders did not believe that the people should have to continue using the mixture of foreign coins, wampum, bullets, and barter objects any longer. In an effort to provide more good coin to further trade and commerce, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established an illegal mint in Boston in 1652.

That meant that we had a total mishmash of currencies, not only from our home country but with all the other countries with which we were trading. And there were many. It made for a difficult time. Thomas Jefferson was more than well aware of the problem as one source notes:

…one of Jefferson’s most troublesome legal clients finally paid him in a motley mixture of silver and gold — half joes and moidores from Portugal, doubloons and pistoles from Spain, and 308 English half crowns.

As a result, our fabulous founding father:

…had the rational idea to create a decimal-based currency system. Meaning that money should be based on the number ten. The word for one hundred in Latin is cent, so Jefferson suggested that the word for a 1/100th of a dollar be “cent.” The Latin word for “one tenth” is dime; so again, Jefferson suggested that as the name for the 1/10th of a dollar coin. The five-cent coin would become known as the half dime and then later, the nickel.

Thus, he was able to move us as a nation to the decimalized currency we still use in the U.S. today.

Jefferson was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimalized currency. He gave it, in 1784, its most articulate and persuasive expression in his “Notes on Coinage.” Congress, convinced by these arguments, adopted the new coin units with little dissent.

Unfortunately, he has more problems passing a decimalized system for our lenghts. But that’s another post.

[Please note: I am now starting a book on the subject of metric system adoption in the United States. I will post to this blog on occasion but the bulk of work on this project (when not at my full-time job) will focus on writing the book. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, the best thing will be to follow my Twitter feed and Facebook page. I’m finding those easier to keep up with. I now hope to post here once a month.)

Stay tuned!

Linda

 

Return from TED – (Part 2): I made a presentation, albeit to a small audience

As I wrote previously, TED Active certainly was. In fact, it was exhausting. With about 50 different talks during the week (starting as early as 8:15 a.m. and running through 7 p.m.) it was difficult to keep up. I’m fairly sure not everyone managed to catch every talk. A few days I ago I received a link to the unedited talks so I can watch the ones I missed.

Of course, the picture I could find of myself has me resting my eyes. (Really, I remember this talk.)

Of course, the only picture I could find of myself in the Flickr feed has me resting my eyes. (Really, I remember this talk on extending human senses.)

On Tuesday (3/17) there was an opportunity to sign up for a fifteen-minute salon* on Thursday to either give a talk or curate* one. I really hadn’t intended on presenting anything myself but I went ahead and signed up. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but I’ve given talks on our metric system problems before—just not to an international audience—and would need a different take on what message I wanted them to leave the presentation with.

Name badges (with photo) were scrupulously checked every time you entered

Name badges (with photo) were scrupulously checked every time you entered the venue. They included a sensor that was read electronically.

Those who had signed up for the salons (there were five of us in all) received an email late Wednesday that if we wanted to have visuals, we needed to get them to the coordinator by 6 p.m. that evening. By the time I got back to my hotel room, I had about an hour to pull something together.

I was able to grab images I’d used for previous presentations, so I hurriedly pulled together nine slides including a cover slide titled: The United States and Metric System Adoption: What’s the Deal? I managed to submit them with 20 minutes to spare.

From then on, I skipped TED activities so I could rehearse for Thursday afternoon. (More than once I considered I must be nuts to present to people who been watching professionally-coached talks all week.) I had decided I’d talk for 10 minutes and then open it up to questions and comments. I really wanted to hear what people from other countries would have to say on the subject. I didn’t think I’d get a large audience since there were concurrent events taking place, however, I’d have a chance to answer a question I’d had for myself: “What could I say about why the United States wasn’t using the metric system?”

I’d designed the slides before I’d really had a chance to think about what I was going to say so I tried to pull together a cohesive message to go with the visuals. I knew I didn’t have time to get the presentation perfect but I decided to treat it like an audition for a TED talk so I kept at it. I knew the salon talks would be recorded and I might be able to leverage that if there weren’t any restrictions on use. (Oh, and as long as I did a halfway decent job.)

I was the first person to talk during the session and the audience had grown to about 30 people by the time I finished. My final slide was a call to action: If you’re American, please be aware of our situation and help us move toward metric adoption. If you’re not, please stop enabling us. If you are really worried about us “not getting” a weight or measure, don’t include our measures. Instead, use the metric measure and then tell us it’s “about the height of the Eiffel Tower,” or “about the weight of three medium apples,” and take away our crutch so we better realize we’re out of step. When I’d finished, the reception was quite warm.

There were three zones, the auditorium (cell phones off) and area outside of the auditorium (where I spent most of my time) and the lobby where talking was allowed.

There were three zones to watch the streaming  TED talks, the auditorium (cell phones off) and area outside of the auditorium (where I spent most of my time) and the lobby where talking was allowed.

At the end of my presentation I did have time for questions. The first one I got was “How long did you think it would take to convert?” My answer, based on various things I’d seen over the years, was that five years was a reasonable time frame.

Another person mentioned the fact that we destroyed a Mars orbiter back in 1999 due to the confusion of two teams using both metric and U.S. customary measures. It literally crashed into the surface of the planet. I’ve updated the full costs associated with the mission and it comes close to a $1 billion dollar loss.

A news release from the time noted:

The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit.

I did specifically ask for feedback from someone who was in the audience for my whole talk. He told me he’d coached people for TEDx talks and the only thing he’d change was the visuals.

Hey, it was the best I could do in less than a hour.

Thanks,

Linda

* TED terminology