Metric System Presentation at March 2014 National Math Conference

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

The conference hopes to reverse the trend of declining math score in mid school

Next month (March 28 to be exact) I’m making a presentation on the metric system at a national conference in Santa Fe called MidSchool Math thanks to project supporters with Imagine Education. The theme of the entire conference is Stop the Drop and refers to international testing standards that show in 4th grade, American kids are slightly above their cohorts in other countries in math but by 8th grade, they score slightly below. It’s the hope of the conference’s organizers to start to reverse this trend. During the three-day conference, sessions will cover a variety of topics from Mathematical Icebreakers to a keynote session on How to Make Kids Hate Math. My session: Math the Metric System: Using What’s Easy. So far, eight people have registered but there’s more than a month to go.

The cost of the conference is $475 or $525 (that whole early bird thing) and if you’re a teacher in New Mexico, you could be eligible for a stipend of up to $1,000 to cover the conference and its associated costs. Check it out or spread the word.

Having written on the subject of education and the metric system, I have a place to start to build my presentation content, particularly on the subject of Common Core State Standards for math as they relate to the metric system. My session will be an hour and fifteen minutes long so I’ll have time to cover lots of material and, with the assistance of our federal government in the form of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (thanks Elizabeth!), I’ll be able to supply attendees with some modest metric supplies and games to take back to their classrooms.

Total side note: I was just looking for meter sticks on Amazon and came across “One Meter (39-1/2″) Wood Stick Ruler.” Really? You’d think if you were looking for a meter stick (and not a yardstick), you wouldn’t need to have the inches spelled out for you. How much time is wasted in this country having to continually include both metric and U.S. customary numbers? Then I found this in a description: “Meterstick is lightweight and ideal for the classroom. It measures 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick.” Pathetic. Let’s please get our metric act together.

I plan to devote quite a bit of time to developing the presentation. When people walk out the door, I want them to say “Wow” but in a good way. That will take time, research, rehearsal and matching my subject matter to my audience. I realize that public speaking frightens a lot of people (some studies rate it as the number one human fear!) but I don’t currently have that problem. I say currently because at one point in my career I wasn’t making a lot of presentations but once I needed to again, I was able to relax pretty quickly. My largest audience to date: more than 500 people. The only caveat to my being relaxed is I have to know my subject matter. That shouldn’t be a problem in this case.

Luckily, I also have some teaching background and found that I’m pretty accurate about being able to estimate how much material I can cover within a particular time period. Of course, it’s always a good idea to have a little extra, so in case you find yourself running short, you can continue a little longer if needed. As the saying goes, “Always leave them wanting more,” but you also want to make sure people walk away feeling like their time was well spent.

I’m also hoping there will be a method for people to feedback on how I did. I find constructive criticism very helpful. While it’s unlikely that I’ll give this exact talk again, who knows what parts of it could come in handy as the project progresses.

It will be nice to get out and interact with the attendees and the other presenters. I’m sure I’ll learn things that will benefit the documentary in ways that won’t seem obvious watching the end product but if you follow this blog, you may see how they ultimately inform me.

I’ll be sure to share what I find out that’s interesting and fun…stay tuned.


A U.S. Student’s Year in Japan and the Metric System

[My daughter spent her junior year in Japan during college. I asked her write to about her metric system experiences. She kindly did so.]

A zen pond

Photo credit, Laura Anderman

When I moved to Japan for a year in 2008, I knew I was going to have to change languages, diet, currency, and assumptions. The metric system was just one facet of that experience, and admittedly it was one area I hadn’t really thought about before I set foot in Japan. I figured it would be easy. I considered myself fairly internationally-minded; I had used the metric system in chemistry class at school and tried to cross-check my driving speed in kilometers per hour just to make myself feel well-rounded.

Measurement in Japan ended up being more of an adventure than I had expected.

Some of the changes were good. A typical Japanese vending machine carried soft drinks in 500 milliliter sizes for around ¥100 (around $1 USD at the time), larger than American 12 ounce cans but smaller than American 20 ounce bottles. Cooking was a bit simpler too, since it’s easier to double or halve quantities written in milliliters and grams.

Japan converted to the metric system in 1957

Japan converted to the metric system in 1957

Some were changes were bad though, at least in my mind. I could never quite wrap my head around hearing the weather in Celsius, especially since Fahrenheit seemed a lot more descriptive. Walking outside and remarking, “Wow, what a hot day, it must be 35 degrees out here!” never seemed to really emphasize the heat in the same way 95 degrees Fahrenheit did. Plus there was the inconvenience of relearning distance measurements; when you grow up with miles, it’s harder to instinctively understand how far you need to go when the directions say to turn in one kilometer.

With a little bit of time and practice with metric units, things started to get easier. After muddling through for a few months, I finally started to feel I understood it. That was when my measurement adventures got much more complicated.

It turns out Japan has a sneaky series of customary units which sometimes pop up in daily life with no warning. It began when a friend casually mentioned her 6-tatami apartment in Shinjuku, I simply nodded and made a noncommittal comment because I had no earthly clue how big that was. Should I comment sympathetically about her glorified broom closet or marvel at her spacious abode? In my attempt to seem savvy, I was too proud to ask for an approximation. [See note]

Nor was tatami the only Japanese customary measurement I encountered. Tsubo and jou also relate to the size of rooms/houses. Japanese liquor (especially sake) is sometimes measured in units called shaku, gou, and shou. TV screens are measured on the diagonal in gata. And heaven forbid you start talking about jewelry, or you might be asked to describe your pearls in monme.

I developed a new appreciation for people who come to America without a firm grounding in our bizarre system of measurement. Language and etiquette changes are difficult enough to cope with, but then trying to relearn basic concepts – size, shape, distance, temperature – is frustrating, humiliating, and isolating.

Like Japan, America wields its measurements as a kind of cultural shorthand that differentiates natives from tourists. Those distinctions are faring poorly in the information age, though, and ultimately they stand as an obstacle between international  communication and cooperation. As physical boundaries become less meaningful, we’ve spend time and energy reinforcing intangible dividing lines between “us” and “them.” Isn’t it time to reverse the trend and start doing whatever we can to bridge the gap?

[Note] In Tokyo, each tatami mat measures roughly 5.9 feet by 2.9 feet (1.8 meters by 0.9 meters), making a typical 6-tatami apartment around 9 feet by 12 feet (2.7 meters by 3.6 meters). Tatami size also varies by area, making this more of an art than a science. Either way, in a trendy, high rent area like Shinjuku, a 6-tatami apartment is considered respectably roomy.

Words on a Word

[Note: I haven’t reposted my blogs before but I really like this one and it feeds nicely into one I have planned for later on. My apologizes to the four people who read it originally…]

And the word is: mumpsimus.dictionary

That’s right, mumpsimus. If you are pro-metric, you REALLY need to learn this word. You’ll find a few slightly different definitions on the Web, but the one I like best is the one in the wikitionary:

Mumpsimus: A person who obstinately adheres to old ways in spite of clear evidence that they are wrong; an ignorant and bigoted opponent of reform.

( Includes a pronunciation aid.)

I just came across this word for the first time (I think) earlier this week since I subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Day.” It arrived Wednesday. Should have had a pretty bow on it.

As soon as I saw what it meant I was thrilled. A perfect word to describe those who understand the metric system and still don’t believe we should adopt it as a country.

Granted, there are lots of folks who don’t really understand what happened to the metric system in the United States and why the impact of our getting behind the curve on this issue is so egregious. I don’t blame them. You don’t know what you don’t know. I’m also relatively sure that once they realize what’s happened, they’ll want to do something about it.

It’s the people who understand that they are holding themselves and others back and don’t care (or actually like being obstinate) who deserve the word mumpsimus.

Mumpsimus.  Mumpsimus. Mumpsimus.

(I’ll readily admit that I had to practice to get it right…Totally worth it.)

Another thing I really love about it is that since it is mostly unknown, it could be disarming under the right circumstances.

Witness the following dialogue that is taking place in my head:

Anti-metric individual: “There’s no reason we should abandon a measurement system that’s served us for more than 200 years.” (Or feel free to insert the anti-metric reference of your choice.)

You: “So, I take it you’re a mumpsimus?” (I’ve seen it listed variously as both a noun and a verb.)

Anti-metric individual: (You should at least get a moment of stunned silence.)

Here’s why: odds of knowing the word—almost nil. If the person has any intelligence he or she will be hesitant to either agree or disagree with your supposition since it’s an unknown. And even any if individuals on the other side of the argument know what the word means, I conjecture that rare is the person who would want to admit to being “ignorant and bigoted.”

Of course, the REALLY ignorant and bigoted people will most likely continue with their anti-metric rant since they weren’t really listening to you anyway: that’s how they got ignorant and bigoted in the first place.

I really think the pro-metric movement should embrace this word. It’s perfect for our cause.

It even comes in a giant economy size for your larger anti-metric-type gatherings: mumpsimuses.

Happy wording,


And the Winner Is: Results of the American Culture/Metric System Poll

I could write almost endlessly about how to interpret the results of the metric system and our American culture poll but while I’m not a woman of few words, I do like to cut to the chase. To be clear, I knew going in that the results of the poll would be unscientific. However, I did ask questions that could reveal information that might be useful to me moving forward with the project.

I thank all of you who took time to respond and help get the word out on the poll. I greatly appreciate what you had to say.

1) Most of the people who responded to the poll already use the metric system. (66 percent)

Current use

This did not surprise me. Most people in this country have totally lost sight of the metric system so a poll on a subject would most likely interest those who already use it. And, as I’ve observed in the past, this blog has a large international following so that was reflected in the responses. What was heartening to see was that of those who don’t currently use the metric system, a majority thought it would be easy to learn. And right they are—if one is open to learning it. I applaud their adaptability, it’s a quality much needed in today’s world.

This leads the second thing I learned/confirmed with the poll…

2) By a 2 to 1 margin, it was thought resistance to the metric system was more laziness than due to potential problems conversion itself might cause. (26 percent versus 13 percent)

Why don't we use the metric system?

Okay, I’ll admit that the word choice for the most popular suggestion was somewhat loaded. I could have phrased it more gently but I think it somewhat gets to the heart of the matter. (I’m certainly lazy in some ways.)  Plus, if people didn’t like any of the answers I supplied, they were free to write in their own through the “other” category I included with all of the questions. And, in the interest of full disclosure, since it appears readers can’t view the write-ins (first time I’ve used this poll tool), all of them are at the bottom of this post for your inspection.

The answer to the other question in the poll is somewhat more problematic.

3) Almost half who responded to the poll indicated metric adoption would need to be forced, either through federal mandate (24 percent) or removal of U.S. customary units from products sold in this country (23 percent).

What it would take to adopt

Here’s what’s problematic about this: federal mandate is a viable, real-world option but I’m not sure how the second selection could be adopted as a practical matter. Sure, the federal government could require the removal of customary units (but that would be the equivalent of federal mandate) but short of that, removal of non-metric units would have to be voluntary. Some companies would like to go in that direction—but others would likely need to be forced by consumers—to get to the 100 percent mark.  Since the second option excludes government requirement that would take quite a forceful groundswell. Could happen, but unlikely—too much work. Still, I wanted to get a sense of whether people thought that approach could work, and they think it has potential.

Those are the surface findings. You are free to consider the data yourself and comment on it. After you look at the write-ins below (and look at the full responses in my previous post), you’ll have access to all the same information I do.

Speaking of write-ins, I want to highlight one of them that shows what this movement is up against. This is verbatim except for the quotation marks:

why to change it if the old one worked good so far?

I can only hope that was a joke.



Question on why Americans don’t use the metric system
– American exceptionalism
– Misguided legislative priorities
– It would be really expensive to change it. (Ie. Signs, teaching, books.)
– The advantages aren’t worth upfront cost, in money and inconvenience, to switch
– Fear of change.
– It was promised that we’d be using SI within a decade, but Govt did nothing
– The change is not Something that us required to improve
– non-metric habits
– republicans
– Structure of American Government
– It hasn’t been forced on us
– All of the above
– it works- we have always done it this way.
– There is no “burning platform” to change
– Fear
– US Congress would not agree, because of big business influance and pressure.
– why to change it if the old one worked good so far?
– Arrogance!
– Lack of strong leadership that understands the implications of not changing
– Lack of metric education in the schools, Americans don’t understand it is easy.
– Education was too stuck on teaching conversion factors , not how to use metric.

Question on what it would take for Americans to adopt the metric system
– Complete decimation of the economy at the same time the metric world is growing.
– Repeal all regulations relating to units of measure
– get rid of republicans
– It has to be necassary
– It’s already happening; just look at the selection at Home Depot. No rush!
– nothing I can think ot
– Stop teaching STEM classes in English units
– Economic incentives
– Heavier teaching in grade school
– Convert American football to metric

Question on current use or difficulty to learn
– I already use it (i’m a scientist)
– I’m a physicist. I use it every day. But 14,000′ peaks are better that way.
– I know it well, but it would take a while to feel comfortable.
– I use the metric system at work

Will Hawaii Be the First All-Metric State?

A bill was introduced by state Representative Karl Rhoads of Hawaii earlier this year that seeks to make the metric system mandatory within his state. Called “Relating to the Metric System,” H.B. 36 states in part:

The legislature finds that very strong economic and scientific reasons exist for states to switch to the metric system. Other than Burma and Liberia, the United States is the only country that has not switched to the metric system. The cost of not switching to the metric system is quickly increasing with the trend towards globalization. Failing to switch could result in the United States losing its competitive edge in science and technology, as well as continuing to create bilateral trade impediments with other countries.

The cost of switching to a metric system could be quickly outweighed by the economic benefits of global interoperability. This is particularly important as the dominance of United States companies is being challenged in the competitive atmosphere of globalization. Switching to the metric system would likely result in the creation of many jobs, and enable the current and future workforce of the United States to be more prepared to work in the international marketplace.

It also stipulates that the law would go into effect on January 1, 2018. (

There has been some traffic on the U.S. Metric Association’s listserve (which anyone can join for free) on this topic and some concerns were raised regarding the potential legality of such a law since it might run counter to federal laws regarding labeling.

I do know that “The act to authorize the use of the metric system of weights and measures” from 1866 states:

It shall be lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system; and no contract or dealing, or pleading in any court, shall be deemed invalid or liable to objection because the weights or measures expressed or referred to therein are weights or measures of the metric system.


I don’t have the legal background or financial resources to address this issue right now but I do know that states’ rights issues are relevant in this matter. (As I’ve said before, we’re less the UNITED States of America than we are the United STATES of America. Full metric implementation could be difficult without states’ cooperation.) I had also hypothesized that perhaps it was Hawaii’s shorter exposure to our metric-adoption struggles that helped it along this path but after speaking with Representative Rhoades, there was another, more practical reason (in addition to those listed in H.B. 36 above): tourism.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority:

Hawaii’s visitor industry continues to be the largest generator of jobs among the major industry sectors in the state, providing 152,864 jobs in 2010…Tourism is also the largest source of private capital into the Hawaiian Islands, contributing $11.4 billion in visitor spending and $1 billion in tax revenue last year.


As the Representative pointed out to me, visitors go to Hawaii from all over the world. (And why wouldn’t they? I know I’d like to visit.) Increasingly, people from other countries travel to Hawaii and are tripped up by our illogical measurement system on everything from road signs to fuel to groceries (my words, not his).

A lovely beach in Hawaii

A lovely beach in Hawaii

He hopes that a change to the metric system will not only make it easier for international visitors but that such a transition won’t cause problems for the rest of the country since Hawaii is physically isolated. (Of course, there’s still all the practical reasons listed above why we should all move over to metric.)

I applaud Representative Rhoads for his efforts and while his bill will need reintroduction next year, there is something we can do to help this work along. If you can vote in Hawaii, write to your representatives urging them to support this legislation. Know someone who lives in Hawaii? Clue them in to what’s going on so they can light a fire under those who influence the state’s government. For a complete list of Hawaii state legislators, go to for the House and for the Senate.

While such efforts might not seem to be seminal, by getting forward movement in enough different places, it just might be enough to change the world…oh wait…the rest of the world has changed, it’s us who are lagging behind.

The time to get with the rest of the world is now.


Join my mailing list by sending an email to! Exciting stuff is coming soon and you’ll be the first to know.

Lack of U.S. Metric Adoption and International Interest

When I first learned about the historic multiple failures of U.S. metric adoption, I believed only Americans would care about the story. I came to realize that nothing is further from the truth. I suspect that some of that external interest comes from the same reason that people slow down when they pass a car accident: morbid curiosity.

I don’t say that to be mean but I think it’s a human trait that when you see something that you really can’t explain and seems really peculiar you start to wonder what’s going on. That’s pretty much us with regard to metric adoption. People in other countries who realize how far behind we are here must be scratching their heads as to why we still can’t get our act together and go metric like almost every other country has.

The U.K. Connection
One of my early clues that this story was of international interest was when I started my Twitter account and folks from the U.K. and Canada started following me. As I started to think about it, that kind of made sense. After all, the U.S. and U.K have ties that date back more than 200 years. But, it turns out, not only are folks in the U.K. interested in this topic but top visitors to this blog are all former British colonies. That fact becomes visually striking when you look below and notice that in the case of New Zealand and Australia the U.K. flag is still embedded in their current “colors.” That’s less true of Canada, but then their currency is emblazoned with Her Majesty the Queen, so that takes any ambiguity out of the equation.20dollar

I tend to think of U.K. and these other top followers as our brothers and sisters because of these joint ties.

I’m also not the only American to notice that we tend to demonstrate our affinity to our U.K. roots in odd ways. Take, for instance, a New York Times article from late last year that mused over our bemusing tendency to incorporate Britishisms into our American speech. Titled “Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms” it says, in part:

Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere. Call it Anglocreep. Call it annoying. Snippets of British vernacular — “cheers” as a thank you, “brilliant” as an affirmative, “loo” as a bathroom — that were until recently as rare as steak and kidney pie on these shores are cropping up in the daily speech of Americans (particularly, New Yorkers) of the taste-making set who often have no more direct tie to Britain than an affinity for “Downton Abbey.


Some of this carryover must work both ways since our sibling countries are apparently wondering what the heck we are doing that we’re still behind the curve when it comes to metric adoption. Are the folks in Canada and New Zealand thinking something akin to “If we figured out how to grow up decades ago, what’s going on in the U.S.?”

The French Connection
Interestingly, while I was looking over my statistics for this blog on Friday I saw an unusual number of hits had come from France. A little investigation revealed that a woman writing on American topics, including this week our measurement system, had this to say about this project (translated from French):

If you are passionate about the subject, go to this American blog, A mile behind, denouncing the non-use of the metric system in the United States from all angles (the States are one of the only three countries in the world – with Burma and Liberia to not have standardized the metric system).


As this project progresses I’ll have more of a chance to talk to people around the globe. Then I’ll get a much better feel for this interest and not only how we are perceived by those countries to which we have these extended ties but others around the rest of the world.

Want to join my mailing list?
I’m now starting a mailing list so if you would like to be added to learn more about this project outside of this blog, please feel free to send me your email address. I promise that I won’t sell or lend it. If you want to learn more about this project, that’s the least I can do.

Just send an email to to be added to the distribution.

I also welcome any thoughts or comments you might want to share in the email. I’ll assume that if you wanted them to be public, you’d comment on this post. Therefore, if I decide to share any of your thoughts in any way, I’ll do so in a way that keeps you anonymous. So, if you don’t want me to share at all, probably best not to send comments to me.

Thanks for your interest and I’ll keep moving this project forward.


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