Alton Brown and the Metric System

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

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

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

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

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

kitchen scale

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

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

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

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

A couple of words about kitchen scales

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

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

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

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

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



Conversion errors and the metric system


A recent headline on a metric system conversion error

I recently received news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a major conversion error relating to the metric system. The upshot is that it greatly underestimated the risk of formaldehyde in laminate flooring. The underlying mistake: it failed to convert between meters and feet initially reporting the estimated risk at one-third of what it should have been.

The organization did not come out and say lack of metric adoption was the cause of the error:

The CDC/ATSDR indoor air model used an incorrect value for ceiling height.  As a result, the health risks were calculated using airborne concentration estimates about 3 times lower than they should have been.

However, others were more than happy to point out the real root of the problem:

CDC fixes major error in flooring risk report: Not converting to metric – Retraction watch

CDC Revises Health Risk Assessment Of Flooring After Math ErrorCDC recently announced that laminate floors are safe, only to realize that they forgot to convert from feet to meters—and that the cancer risk is three-fold higher –

There are some who believe that conversions are easy to make and therefore, living with two measurement systems shouldn’t be a problem.

Marciano's book

Marciano’s book

In fact, in his book, Whatever happened to the metric system: How America kept its feet, John Bemelmans Marciano (Kindle location 2020 for both quotes), states:

Conversion is now as easy as speaking “seven ounces to grams” into your smartphone and immediately receiving the answer 198.446662g.

Marciano later goes on to say:

Why would Americans go metric when computers have done the job for them and they don’t even have to know about it?

How about a three times greater risk for potential negative health effects due to human unit-confusion error?

Luckily, the CDC was able to quickly make a correction but who knows how many other errors haven’t been caught and continue to put us at risk in one way or another?

The idea that technology will save us from conversion errors is flawed because it assumes that the human element won’t impose the error.

Surely the CDC has access to computers and other high-tech gadgets at least as good, if not better, than what I have access to in my smartphone and yet, the mistake was still made.

Again, it’s not a technology issue, it’s a human issue that will always occur even if the frequency of such mistakes is not currently well known.

Aside from outright errors, there’s the time it takes to make a conversion in the first place. Add up the time it takes to whip out the cell phone, ask the question, wait for the answer and read it. Then one needs to multiply that by how many people in this country need to do that in a year. All wasted time. One set of measures eliminates the entire issue.

I’ve previously pointed out people are already at risk every time their pharmacist converts a prescription written in milliliters (as they all are) into teaspoons and tablespoons. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

Conversion errors are inevitable  

While I so far have been unable to find any statistics on how often conversion errors occur, everyone seems to recognize they do happen and research seeks interfaces that try to minimize them. One paper I reviewed, Reducing number entry errors: solving a widespread, serious problem by Thimbleby and Cairns indicates:

Ironically, the more skilled a user, the less attention they will pay to what ought to be routine outcomes, so the more likely these types of error will go unnoticed until they have untoward consequences. The reason is, as users become skilled, they automate actions, so their attention can be used more selectively; thus as they become more skilled, they pay less attention to the display, whose routine behaviour they have learnt to expect (Wickens & Hollands 2000).

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

Still, we can learn from our past. One of the things I’ve heard from people regarding our last attempt at metric adoption in the 1970s (I was a bit young at the time to remember) was students were taught difficult and confusing conversion formulas.

Next time, just have people start using the new, metric system measures and convert only those things that are absolutely necessary. Fewer conversions means fewer errors.

Thanks for reading.

More next month.


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!


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.



* TED terminology

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!



Notes: The article itself requires a subscription However, a summary is located here:

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:


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!


Let’s vote:

Help with my metric system documentary fundraising?

Metric system/customary unit relationships

People say our customary units are easier…they’re wrong. They’re just more familiar.

In my last post I wrote about the class I’m taking to help learn how to raise capital for businesses. As part of the homework, some of us are trying to raise funds for our various projects. In a few cases, the full amount of money people are looking for is less than $2,000. In other cases, such as mine, it’s kind of a crash course in crowdfunding.

While my current estimated budget for the entire documentary is more than $200,000, for the class project I’m just asking for funding to help with my travel to Washington D.C. where the bulk of my interviews will take place. I’ve set up a separate bank account where the money will go (providing I at least meet my goal; it’s an all or nothing situation) once overhead and taxes are paid.

What my classmates are working on

While I’m putting my project first on the list, if my work doesn’t interest you, please feel free to take a look at the work of my fellow students. (It’s really a nice group of people, I must say. They could all use your support though the local ones would probably be of less interest.)

National projects

Mine (includes a two-minute background video on what I’m trying to do).

A DIY preamp kit.

A new, handy interlocking USB cable.

Gag gifts for dads

Short film for heathcare workers (and others) to support adopting families

Learn Chinese through “coldswitching”

In New Mexico and Los Alamos

Help learn about DNA and biodiversity in New Mexico

A cool, new athletic training facility

Local, indoor playground

Help local babies get a good start

If you look around, you’ll notice that the preamp kit has already met its goal. (Go Jason!)

If you could pledge a few dollars or just help spread the word of what we’re trying to do, that would be greatly appreciated!

More soon, I promise. Lots of interesting stuff in the near future.

Thanks for your assistance.


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
  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,


My Recent Metric System History Presentation

Low turnout, poor messaging?

Interior of Mesa Public Library

Interior of Mesa Public Library, Los Alamos, NM

Despite my full session on using the metric system a couple of months ago at the MidSchool Math conference and decent publicity for my talk, my turnout on Wednesday at Mesa Public Library was eight people, five of whom know me.

This somewhat surprised me since this is both a “science” and “history” town. Plus, I had a fair amount of interest when I participated in a science event here a couple of years ago and most people I talk to express some level of interest.

Thus, I find myself disappointed at this particular turn of events but not discouraged.

Still, the three people I didn’t know asked lots of questions and were quite engaged. So there’s that. One of them wanted to know if there was a form letter he could send to his elected representatives. I love that he was willing to take action. (I plan to have a website down the road that will contain that information along with many other resources but I haven’t gotten there yet.)

Was it a bad day (right before a long weekend)? A bad day of the week (someone mentioned other clubs meet on Wednesdays)? Or just general apathy from a county that might take the metric system for granted due to our high percent of scientists who use it every day for work?

It could be a bit of any of those things but it’s made me think I need to do more to get my messaging right. I think what I’ve been doing is good and I’ve got the right points but they need to “pop” more if I want to break through all the communications noise out there in the world.

Honing my story

If nothing else my 40+ hours of work on the presentation forced me to construct the entire timeline for the documentary. It also forced me to go in depth in some areas I really hadn’t before (see upcoming blogs on some of the Americans who worked to block metric adoption, for instance) and raised some additional questions that I’ll need to look into. Of course, now that I’m not under an immediate deadline, I need to pare the information down (though I came in at a respectable 55 minutes).

It brings to mind a quotation loved by so many writers:

Not that the story need be long,
but it will take a long while to make it short
Henry David Thoreau*

Of course, a timeline with some interesting information does not a compelling story make. I still need to think a lot more about my “plot” and how the story needs to unfold to keep my audience engaged and prepared to take action as the credits roll.

Can there be a happy ending? I’m sure counting on it

Over time I’ve come to realize that one of issues I’ve got is I’ve got a kind of negative story due to our lack of metric adoption in this country. Americans as a group don’t like to be told they’re behind in things, even if they are. I have to worry about a potential immediate turnoff because I need to make people look into a mirror and see an image that’s not very flattering. It makes a more difficult story than one with a “happy ending” but not insurmountable.

On the positive side, while our metric system history has been pretty dismal up until this point, all is not over and there exists the potential for positive change. That’s why I’m putting in all this work on top of my full-time job.

Learning from TED

For those of you unfamiliar with TED talks (if so, that’s a shame, I encourage you to change that), they’ve become world famous for their format: 20 minutes or less, minimal overheads and compelling storytelling. I’ve been charged with pulling together some TED-type talks for work so it’s given me time to learn more about their construction. I plan to takes the lessons I can glean from them and apply some to the project, including developing a catchphrase. I’ve been hoping I’d be inspired with one but that hasn’t happened so far so I’m just going to have to sit down and brainstorm.

In future, I’ll probably share my ideas with you to get your input on a possible favorite.

In the meantime, allow me to share one of my favorite TED talks. It bears no relation to the project with the possible exception of showing that one person’s efforts can influence many others: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life. Please enjoy.


* Apparently that quote has seen many variations over the years. If you want to learn more, go to The Quotation Investigator.

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


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.