Return from TED (Part 3): Networking, Canada and the Metric System

American product, metric-only label

American product in Canadian  market, metric-only label

I want to acknowledge how wonderful all the TED Active attendees and staff were. Given the TED philosophy of “Ideas worth spreading,” it’s not surprising that everyone I talked to about metric system adoption in the U.S. were either sympathetic (if not from the U.S.) or interested (if they were Americans). I met a lot of friendly and interesting people and hope to keep in touch with many of them.

Metric system observations in Canada

I hadn’t been to Canada for a long time (though I used to live across river from it when I grew up in Detroit) so I was curious what I’d see in person with my metric system radar on. My understanding was that Canada (like the U.K.) was a “soft adoption” county.

American company, dual labeling and use of French

American company and dual labeling  Don’t know that I’ve ever seen “liq” before. I’m told that it’s the French “onces liquides’ or fluid ounces.

In this case, soft adoption refers to countries that use solely metric units in some instances but both Imperial and metric units for other applications. It’s one of the reasons that the “Turn the UK Fully Metric Now” exists in Great Britan. Sure enough, on the bus ride up to Whistler, B.C. from Vancouver, B.C. I saw nothing but kilometer signs on the roads. However, I did make it a point to visit the little store near my hotel and snapped a couple of shots on my cell phone to confirm my suspicions about the use of both units. Yes, some food products had only metric mentions (or SI as it is known to the rest of the world for “Système International d’Unités ) but many items had dual labeling (plus French, of course).

Another American product with metric-only labeling

Another American product with metric-only labeling

According to a Canadian history site:

Metric units steadily became normal for most products and services. However, certain areas of business did hold out against conversion, such as real estate.

As I related in a previous blog, when I had a phone interview with the head of the U.K. Metric Association, and I asked him why Britain wasn’t fully metric, his reply was along the lines of “Because you’re not.” That comment prompted my piece on how our country sets a bad international example.

Successes and failures

I found out a few weeks ago that I wasn’t accepted for the Women’s Salon for the TEDxABQ event but that didn’t stop me from applying for the big TEDxABQ event that will be held this fall. If I can get in, that would be great because it has an audience of about 2,000 people. I’ve had quite a few successes recently. Getting turned down for one presentation doesn’t faze me much these days.

Thanks for staying tuned!

Linda

Medicine and the Metric System

Allow me to present my main point upfront: we are endangering our health by not adopting the metric system in this country.

Prescriptions are written in metric units. Conversions (and possible errors) are made at the pharmacy.

Doctors write prescriptions in metric units. Conversions (and potential errors) are made at the pharmacy.

Let me offer up a couple of examples that hopefully makes this clear. It’s important to understand that the medical field depends on metric units (as does most of science, for that matter). If healthcare workers talk in metric units and the public at large rely on U.S. customary units there is bound to be confusion and misunderstandings. That’s best avoided where your heath is concerned since the consequences could be dire.

Metric unit dosing is more precise

Last year Pediatrics (Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) published an article called “Unit of Measurement Used and Parent Medication Dosing Errors.”1 One of the article’s bottom lines:

Parents who used milliliter-only unit made fewer dosing errors than those who used teaspoon or tablespoon units. Moving to a milliliter-only standard could reduce confusion and decrease medication errors, especially for parents with low health literacy and non-English speakers.

While a minor mistake (whether too much or too little medication) might not make a huge difference for an otherwise healthy adult, these errors can be magnified for babies or those whose health is already compromised.

Most of our teaspoons and tablespoons are meant for eating, not dosing

No on should use "silverware" as substitutes for measuring teaspoons and tablespoons for medicine to avoid dosing errors.

No on should use “silverware” as substitutes for measuring teaspoons and tablespoons for medicine if they want to avoid dosing errors.

Another issue brought up in the piece was that the use of teaspoon and tablespoon employed for liquid medicines “may endorse kitchen spoon use.” I don’t know about you, but I have three sets of measuring spoons and many more spoons that I use for eating commonly referred to as “teaspoons” and “tablespoons.” The problem is, it’s the eating spoons that are often used to measure medicines. (Yes, I used to do that too, without even thinking about it.) If you have a dosing cup with only milliliters, the potential for confusion is greatly reduced.

As if that’s not bad enough

Even your actual measuring spoons aren’t as precise as you think they are. At one point I came across information indicating that up to a 20 percent variance is allowed. Again, that 20 percent could cause dosing errors. In researching this article I came across a page called “Cooking for Engineers” with the post:

I’ve got three sets of measuring spoons, and their measurements differ from each other, up to 1/4 teaspoon! Is there a way to know which (if any), are accurate?

The suggestions that followed involved scales and the temperature at which one should measure the water used to determine volume. Too bad no one suggested going metric.

Additional endorsement of the metric system for health reasons

I also have a document from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) called 2014-15 Targeted Medication Safety Best Practices for Hospitals2 . Two of its best practices mention sole use of metric system units.

Best Practice 3: Measure and express patient weights in metric units only.

The rationale:

Significant medication errors have occurred when the patients’ weight is documented in non-metric units of measure (e.g., pounds) and it has been confused with kilograms (or grams). Numerous mistakes have been reported when practitioners convert weights from one measurement system to another, or weigh a patient in pounds but accidently document the value as kilograms in the medical record, resulting in more than a two-fold error.

Best Practice 5: Purchase oral liquid dosing devices (oral syringes/cups/droppers) that only display the metric scale.

ISMP has received more than 50 reports of mix-ups between milliliter (mL) and household measures such as drops and teaspoonfuls, some leading to injuries requiring hospitalization.

Beware teaspoon and tablespoon instructions on prescriptions

Almost uniformly, prescriptions are written in metric units. However, if you pick up a liquid prescription and the dose on the bottle is not metric (and in reads teaspoon and tablespoons), the pharmacy has had to make a conversion. Where there are conversions, there is the potential for mistakes.

In addition, one of the top six recommendations in the 15th annual report of the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention3 includes a “Statement of support for use of the metric system to dose medications.”

Advocate for the metric system and help make the country a healthy place!

Thanks,

Linda

Notes: The article itself requires a subscription http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/2/e354.full.pdf. However, a summary is located here: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Reducing-Medication-Dosing-Errors-by-Ditching-Teaspoons-and-Tablespoons.aspx.
2 http://www.ismp.org/tools/bestpractices/TMSBP-for-Hospitals.pdf
3  
http://www.nccmerp.org/sites/default/files/fifteen_year_report.pdf

Metric System Temperature in Celsius and Rhyme

[Note: There is a poll at the end of this blog. Please participate!]

To me, the most difficult part of the using the metric system day-to-day is getting used to the Celsius measure of temperature.

I changed the weather app on my phone more than a year ago so it’s much easier for me to use Celsius now, especially when you consider that 0° C is freezing. I know what freezing is, regardless of what system is employed. At the other end, 100° C is boiling instead of our 212° Fahrenheit. Since it’s slightly imprecise (compared to what we use now), some countries compensate by using decimal measures for temperature so it’s sometimes reported as 18.3° C, for example. (In Fahrenheit, 18° C could be anywhere between 64.4° to 66°. Okay granted, now that I look at that it looks pretty silly–the middle 60s are still the middle 60s. The decimal point doesn’t really help me decide how many clothes I should wear when I go outside…)

During my research for this documentary I found several rhymes to help people adjust to the “new” (at the time) metric measures. I used one of them during my previous presentation at the MidSchool Math conference last year but had to apologize since it hit me as a little clunky. I told my audience that I hadn’t had time to write something better.

Given that I’m presenting next month at the same conference (slightly different topic than last year) I decided I needed to do what I said I’d do and try to come with something I thought worked a little bit better.

The poem I presented last year:

I thought this poem to learn degrees Celsius a little awkward

This bothered me a little since the construction is not parallel…that third line throws me off and seems out of sync (not written by a poetry major perhaps?)

On the U.S. Metric Association pages:

USMA

A bit better but I thought I’d take a stab at it as well. Here’s what I came up with (original to the best of my knowledge):

At 30 it’s hot
At 20 it’s pleasing
At 10 it’s cold
And 0 it’s freezing

I think it works because “pleasing” and “freezing” rhymes, “hot” and “cold” in the second and third lines shows a decreasing sense of temperature (as do the rest of the rhymes I came across).

Hey, you tell me. When the U.S. decides to convert to the metric system, which poem is the easiest to remember for you? I’ll leave the poll open a couple of weeks and will use the most popular version as I move forward with my project.

Thanks for your participation!

Linda

Let’s vote:

The Metric System and Our English Roots

When I mention converting to the metric system in this country, aside from its immediate rejection by some because it represents change and change is almost automatically considered bad for our survival (see my previous post on “The Metric System as Predator”), one of the reasons brought up to reject it is our English past.

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011 (White House.gov)

As Americans we tend to identify strongly with our British history even though we wouldn’t be a country today unless we’d fought so hard against English rule. We like our association with our Anglo-Saxon roots but we tend to like them on our own terms. It’s one of the reasons we follow the royal family’s every move in the tabloids even while we hold a love/hate relationship in everything from British music to international politics.(There’s contrasting dislike of the French but I’ll save that for another column.)

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: the Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens sums it up as:

The odd combination of rivalry and alliance, collusion and suspicion, was to be the pattern of Anglo-American relations for many years—until the entente of 1898 in fact—and in some reminiscent forms even after that.1

(Yeah, I admit it, I had to look up entente.)

It wasn’t that long ago that President Obama also spoke of our strong kinship while addressing the British Parliament (4:27 into clip):

I’ve come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known. It’s long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom share a special relationship.

Ironically, it was that break with our royal past that opened the door for us to become the first country in the world with decimalized currency (Thank Thomas Jefferson for our 10 dimes and 100 pennies) even while we still struggle to integrate the rest of a measurement system that no other country would think to give up. (No country that switched to the metric system has ever switched back.)

When people raise this idea of embracing our imperial past two things immediately jump into my mind.

  • The metric system was officially adopted in the U.K. in 1965 but its adoption remains “soft” and there are some imperial units still in use. When I asked the head of the U.K. Metric Association about this state of affairs, Robin Pace responded “Because you don’t use it. ”So, Britain is more metric than we are and it’s reasonable to say that we’re holding back both England and Canada from full adoption. That prompted my column on our bad international example for both the U.K. and Canada.
  • If people want to argue that giving up our current units is somehow abandoning our legacy, then I say let’s embrace it all the way and recover our lost measurement history and bring back the hogshead, chaldron, scruple, minim and perch to name a few. If we want to be ridiculous let’s be ridiculously ridiculous.

This grasping at our history seems somewhat ironic to me since we no longer use the “Imperial” units in this country we originally brought over; we currently use “U.S. Customary” units. Thus, our units don’t perfectly align with any other country in the world. The Imperial liquid ounce is 28.4131 mL, while the U.S. fluid ounce is 29.5735 mL.

It doesn’t initially sound like a lot but with large amounts it can really add up, particularly if we’re talking about prescriptions.

Came out earlier this month

Came out earlier this month

By the way, just got a copy of John Marciano’s new book: Whatever happened to the metric system. I’ve just started it but it’s getting some attention in the media. Based on previous communication with the author, I knew it wasn’t going to be pro-metric but frankly, anything that gets the discussion back on the table after 30 years works for me.

Thanks,

Linda

Notes: 1Location 1798 on my Kindle.

My Current Metric System Adoption Efforts

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

TEDx talks are regional versions of TED talks

I apologize for the information blackout but I’ve been terribly busy with the day job for the past couple of months pulling together a corporate TEDx talk (and I think that’s all I should say since it’s internal-only, per our license). It’s the first time we’ve done this sort of thing and certainly the first time that I’ve headed up something like it. That said, the event went well and I’m now wrapping things up. Now that I’ve taken a few moments to rest, I should have more energy to devote to this documentary project again.

Even with that, I was still working on things behind the scenes. Here’s a short list of what’s in progress:

  1. I’m building a website that will have all kinds of information on everything to do with the project including a bibliography, links to information for the media and other educational information. I’m still working on it and will announce once things are further along. If there’s information you’d like to see on it, I’ll do my best to provide it.
  2. I’m building a timeline on history as it relates to measurement and the metric system in this country. It’s coming along well but once I launch it I’ll have to pay extra money on a monthly basis. (So far, everything for this project has come out of my pocket but I’m hoping to change that at some point.)
  3. I’m about to buy my first high-definition video camera. I hope to eventually have two cameras. Right now, I need a “starter” camera to get things going and hope to get a higher-end camera after my fundraising is complete. A lighting kit arrived a couple of weeks ago but haven’t even been able to play with it yet.

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

    Los Alamos Science Fest is coming is September

  4. I’ll have a booth at the upcoming Los Alamos Science Festival in September. I don’t see my activity listed yet but I’m going to demonstrate the superiority of the metric system over customary units in the kitchen with materials and scales. We don’t really use scales in the kitchen in this country since we don’t use the metric system. I think this is a hurdle we’re going to have to overcome and have felt that way ever since I chatted with the a retired, female scientist who told me she never used the metric system when she cooks though she used it every working day of her life.
  5. In conjunction with the above, I plan to make my first videos with it on how to use the metric system in the kitchen. This will help segue me back into video production. I’m hoping to make them fun and interesting and should be able to leverage them for my eventual fundraising video if not for other things.
  6. Contacts, contacts, contacts. This project is never going to get off the ground without the right people involved. Fortunately, more and more people are interested and want to help so it’s more about finding the time to do those sorts of things in the right way.
  7. Speaking of contacts, I’ve meant to pull together a mailing list for some time but haven’t gotten around to it. I think I’ll move that toward the top of my list of things to do since its size will eventually help me determine whether I’ve gotten critical mass to do some fundraising. The mailing list folks will get shorter, behind-the-scenes news about the project. If interested in joining,  subscribe by sending an email to milebehind@gmail.com.
  8. Other musings…I’ve thought about holding a metric adoption conference call or even meeting (no idea when the last time such a thing happened in this country…Roughly 30 years ago?) That’s going to take some planning to figure out how to best make such a thing happen but it will need to be done at some point. If you are interested in this type of activity, shoot me an email.

I did take three days of vacation in June and went to see my daughter while Jamie Cullum was playing in town. We had a great time!

More on the above shortly. The next column will be about our clinging to our units as some strange nod to our British history.

Thanks for staying tuned,

Linda

American Metric System Hypocrisy?

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

May 20 will be the 139th anniversary of the United States as one of the original signatory nations of the Convention of the Meter also known as the Treaty of the Meter. On that day the world took a leap forward and officially recognized the need to protect and improve the metric system (or SI as it is known on the rest of the planet), through the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). It is an intergovernmental organization that comes under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). On that day in Paris there was agreement on how the organization would be financed and managed, with member governments acting in common accord on all matters.

Ahem, then there’s the United States saying one thing and doing another

Despite:

yet, I’m still buying my hamburger by the pound, gasoline by the gallon and fabric by the yard. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty and that’s why I’ve been researching his topic for almost two years. I trust the documentary I plan to make will raise awareness of how far behind the rest of the world we’ve gotten and we’ll want to do something about it.

To commemorate this 139th anniversary, also known as World Metrology Day, I’ll give a talk at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 21 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. I’ll try to be both informative and entertaining.

Just so you know, the theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements and the global energy challenge” and is sponsored by the BIPM and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (BIML).

According to Stephen Patoray, the current director of the BIML:

While measurements are central to most basic decisions on energy usage, there are many other aspects of the global energy challenge which are much more complex:

  • global population growth;
  • emerging economies;
  • complex technologies;
  • increasing consumer demands;
  • higher quality of life;
  • etc.

According to the site’s press release:

World Metrology Day is an annual event during which more than 80 countries celebrate the impact of measurement on our daily lives.

Feel free to join in to spread the word about all the advantages the metric system has versus our cumbersome U.S. customary units.

While not new, I found an interview where Rachel Maddow celebrated World Metrology Day back in 2010. You can view the seven minute clip here.

I hadn’t come across this before and was surprised to learn that several scientists with the National Institute of Standards were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work with time and temperatures during the past few years including: David J. Wineland (2012), John (Jan) L. Hall (2005) and William D. Phillips (1997) (More on them here.)

It’s not too early to start planning for next year

I don’t know that we’ll be in a better position to participate in World Metrology Day by the 140th anniversary (2015) but hopefully we will by the 150th anniversary, or sooner, if enough people in this country decide to do something about it.

Thanks,

Linda

The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

My presentation on Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy at the MidSchool Math conference went very well. The session had 50 people registered and while not everyone showed up, most folks did. Since the attendees were mostly math teachers I felt I had an opportunity to get them thinking about the metric system in new ways that they could take back their classrooms and hopefully their lives. The group was receptive and had lots of questions for me. They were also able to interact and ask each other questions about their metric classroom experiences.

Hands-on opportunities

I had scheduled some hands-on exercises using length and mass to help them get used to applying metric units. While length didn’t present much of a problem, only a couple of people used scales in the kitchen. This gave them a chance to play with some of the equipment I brought. (Let’s face it, pretty much every ruler and tape measure today has both U.S. customary and metric units on them but most people are so familiar with measuring cups that it doesn’t occur to them to use a scale in the kitchen though it’s far easier.)

I also brought some metric-only rulers supplied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (centimeters on one side, millimeters on the other) and they cleaned me out of those—which I consider a good sign.

Avoid conversions!!!

A couple of folks on the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) listserve who communicated with me prior to my talk wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage conversions during my presentation. Not only was that explicit in my presentation—twice no less—but I also pointed out that I’d gotten that feedback from USMA to try to drive the point home. I think it worked.

After all, the metric system was introduced at a time of widespread illiteracy and even unschooled french farmers and tradesmen learned it easily enough. It should be a cinch for today’s high-tech Americans.

One attendee told me she thought it was the best presentation she’d seen so far (I was in the afternoon on the second day) but I have to say that the keynote speaker on the first day, Dan Meyer, was extremely good. He stressed the need to engage kids studying math in the classroom in three acts and bring them along for a story where they really want to figure out what happens. Let’s face it, everyone gets more interested if there’s a good story involved. I think the audience heard him.

Testing my story structure

For my part, I got a chance to try out part of my story structure for the documentary on an audience, hear questions and find out what parts of the narration were of the most interest by their level of attention. There’s just nothing better than trying out your material on a real audience. I’m very pleased with the results but I will continue to refine and expand.

Since I did attend a couple of sessions other than my own, I also had a chance to engage with additional teachers and all seemed very interested in what I’m trying to do. It was only one of the other presenters who gave me pause when he suggested that the next generation would take care of metric conversion in the United States. (Only other time I’ve heard that before [good idea but not now] was in John Quincy Adams’ report to Congress back in 1821—haunts us every time we get serious about metric adoption by the way…) I quickly realized that there was no point in arguing the issue with him but would have loved to point out that in the 30 years since the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded no “next  generation” has come along so far and perhaps he’s part of the “next generation” that should do something. Ah well, I tried to be as persuasive as possible under the circumstances.

As should always be the case, the teacher and learner roles got reversed during my session and I walked away with some additional things to think about and research.

For instance:

  • I’ve been told the military uniformly uses the metric system but others have told me that’s not true. True status will take some digging.
  • When converting from miles to kilometers, what happens to the mile markers since they’re currently used to help drivers know how many miles to their next exit?
  • What’s the best way to convert existing recipes into metric?

The cost of conversion

Of course, the biggest unanswerable question I get asked is how much would it cost to convert to the metric system in this country. I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on that since it’s been so long since the question was seriously considered.

Aside from the cost of conversion errors, and time savings in schools and elsewhere on an individual basis, imagine how much time it takes to design things for multiple countries with dual labeling—including the use of more ink to print both sets.

Converting to the metric system will have a mostly one-time cost while failure to convert to the metric system continues to cost us, and cost us and cost us…

Linda

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 2: The More Things Change…

Beware the endcap in the supermarket

Beware the endcap in the supermarket—no unit pricing.

Can we expect resistance to metric adoption from the food/supermarket lobbies?

Based on what I’ve come across so far, the answer would be “Yes.” Early on I had someone “in the know” tell me that grocery stores had been against metric adoption during our last push in the 1970s because they would get caught between metric units and consumers, as in “I can’t buy a kilogram of hamburger. What the heck is a kilogram?” But I think it goes deeper than that.

Uniform measures make it more difficult to deceive customers

Food manufacturers and supermarkets will continue to play games with us as along as it benefits them. In the 1967 copyrighted, The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray, (In chapter 3, “The Package as Salesman”), he points out that after World War II, the dynamic between the food retailer and consumers shifted as the public stopped going to local “markets” and started shopping in “supermarkets.” Without the human interface and a large array of products within a category (cereal again comes to mind), and with the generally high quality of most of the offerings…

Packaging is no longer merely a method of holding or containing the product for storing and shipping. It is now a major element in the advertising and promotional campaign. It is a full-fledged salesman. p.13

The author then includes a quote from a sales promotion manager:

Some food processors are actually in the packaging business rather than the food business. p.13

Fast forward almost 50 years and things really haven’t changed that much.

I started poking around in food retailing publications and came across this quote:

In the wake of multiple lawsuits around the use of the term “natural” (against Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, Goya Foods and others), it could be time for food companies to reconsider using it on labels and focus instead on new product design and more creative language.

Thus, food manufacturers are still under fire for misleading claims, promises and labeling. The article, “The Natural Debate: Your Consumer Is Your Regulator” was dated March 4, 2014 and was linked to from Supermarketnews.com.

Obviously, we’re still the target of manipulators as manufacturers try to get us to buy their products and stores try to sell us items with the highest profit margins.

Making easy cost comparisons when buying food—how prevalent?

I remember a time when I had trouble figuring out which food was the least expensive since the “unit price” amount didn’t always use the same base (as in “cost per ounce” for coffee versus “cost per pound”). A recent trip to my grocery store (Smith’s) revealed no such problem with the labels on the shelf. All were clearly marked and easy to compare. However, a little more digging revealed that application of unit pricing regulations is not uniform within our country. While my state does not necessarily adhere to unit pricing, apparently my supermarket chain does.

However, I was able to find examples of mixed unit pricing to show you on Amazon.com.

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Flour2Note the two weights on flour sold in its site. In one the “cost per” is pound and other one lists ounce. Frankly, I can’t do that math in my head to figure out which is the best deal without a calculator.

How the metric system could help in the supermarket

If we were using the metric system for these things comparisons would become easier since larger and smaller amounts relate to each other by multiples of 10, 100, or 0.1, 0.001, so you’d just move a decimal point in one direction or the other and not have to deal with the crazy 16 ounces in a pound we use now.

I’m not saying we couldn’t get deceived when we’re buying food or other items once we’ve converted to the metric system but it should make our lives (and those of our children…) a little easier. Isn’t that worth a little hassle in the short term?

Thanks,

Linda

Note: My title references the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Originally from French (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), it means that things don’t really change all that much.

The Metric System in the Supermarket — Part 1: A Little History

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Proposed new nutritional labeling

Last Thursday (February 27, 2014) the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new nutritional labeling standards for packaging in the United States. The original law, called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, was put in place in 1990 in an effort:

  1. To clear up consumer’s confusion about food labels
  2. To encourage consumers in making health food choices, and
  3. To encourage product innovation so that manufacturers are given an incentive to improve the quality of the food and make more healthy food choices available to consumers.
                                            Virginia Wilkening
                                            Food and Drug Administration

It was probably less effective on the last point than the first two but let’s examine a little history.

Measurement and trade

Since people have traded with one another, sellers have tried to cheat their customers to their own ends. That’s one of the reasons why throughout history there has been resistance to setting measurement standards (the metric system included). The new  regulations adjust serving sizes (mostly upward) but also highlight the nutritional information on the labels.

Serving sizes

While researching this project, my contact at National Institute of Standards and Technology recommended a book called The Thumb on the Scale or the Supermarket Shell Game by A. Q. Mowbray. With a copyright date of 1967, it relates that after World War II, consumers (quaintly referred to as “housewives” throughout the book) were getting up in arms because, as they purchased more convenience foods, they started having problems figuring out how much product to buy because the serving sizes were not standard. Each company made isolated decisions regarding what an “average” serving size constituted.

To one manufacturer, a serving of peaches might be two halves; to his competitor, it might be one half or three halves. It is like buying by the hat—and using the seller’s hat as a measure. p. 92.

In case the problem with having non-standard serving sizes for food isn’t readily apparent, let’s apply that logic to something we deal differently with today: gasoline.

The scenario goes like this: You need some more fuel and there are two gas stations across the street from each other that have determined their own “serving sizes.” Lo and behold, the price of one of the serving sizes is less expensive than the other. Is it really a better deal or just a smaller serving size? Without further investigation, there is no way for the consumer to know and that’s exactly what was going on in the grocery stores. A glance at two, say, cereal boxes next to each other might seem like the one with more serving sizes for the same price is to be a better deal. But would that impression be accurate? At the time, the answer was “No.” Enter the federal government.

While the serving sizes have been fixed by the federal government since the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 (metric units were added to labels in 1992), there was plenty of resistance from the food industry according to the book since deception would become more difficult via that method.

And manufacturers still play games with us

Don’t worry about the food industry. They’re still finding way to take advantage of us today. You don’t have to read many issues of Consumer Reports to see an example where a reader has bought a usual item only to get home and realize the new box or bag contains less than when it was last purchased. Just because the manufacturer has adjusted the weight or volume in print (according to regulations) doesn’t mean they’re not trying to hide something. (When was the last time you saw a box emblazoned with “Now, less for the same price!”?) Yet it downsizes product contents all the time.

Let me tie in the metric system more closely: the labels will continue to be a mishmash of metric and U.S. customary measures (for new readers of the column, we don’t use Imperial units in the country, but our units are derived from them). In the example, the serving size is expressed in both customary and metric units but the nutritional content is only in metric units and thank goodness. If they were in fraction of ounces, you wouldn’t know if they were weight or volume (metric units only express mass—which relate to the gravity of the planet you’re on) or some other incomprehensible subunit. For instance:

Protein = 3 grams = 0.10582oz

If I tell you that a gram is roughly the same mass as a standard (that word again) paperclip, that’s fairly easy to imagine. Now, try to imagine a unit of 0.1 of an ounce. A bit tougher for most people I’d guess.

This post has run as long, or longer, than it should. Stay tuned. There’s more to learn.

Linda

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.

Linda