Scientific equations and the metric system

Fancy images with cosines and fractions.

A formula with fractions. Can we just decimalize everything?

I’ve been told (as in second-hand information) that many countries that have switched to the metric system don’t really need to teach fractions anymore because pretty much every fraction can be decimalized. Additionally, I’ve had first-hand conversations with middle school teachers and students who find teaching and learning fractions is a nightmare. Do we really need fractions or, once we switch to the metric system, can we just lay them aside? Over time, I’ve come to question that and here’s my current thinking…

Ultimately, a fraction is part of a thing

We will always need the concept of a less than a full measurement unit. Just as a pound cake was known for its ease because it was based on the ratio of a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, it was pretty crude in terms its result. Whether we only need part of a measure of fabric or a piece of wood that is less than a meter long, it is important that children learn (and adults understand) the notion of something that is less than “one” of something.

A fraction has a built-in “math problem”

Maybe some of the resistance to fractions is the inherent idea that it is, as its heart, a “math problem.” (Would we think about things differently if they were called “math challenges” rather than “math problems”? Let’s see…) A fraction is a division “quest.” It can ask a practical question, as in “If I have a half a cup of flour left in this bag and I need a whole cup for my recipe, how much more do I need to borrow from my neighbor to get the full amount needed?” It is a division “question” that needs to be solved if we pair it with anything else (as in add, subtract, divide…).

Consider the following two math “dares”:

combined

A traditional math “problem” on the left that includes fractions with uncommon denominators. On the right is the same math problem decimalized. The top number in the decimalized addition has only been carried two places to the decimal point, otherwise, it would go on forever.

When I hold up “flash cards” side by side with both types of problems shown above during my metric system demonstrations, almost invariably, people choose the one that has been decimalized because it eliminates the issue of uncommon denominators that are such a stumbling block for both children and adults. It also eliminates the steps to get to common denominators because all decimals already have common denominators in the form of 10s, 100s, 1,000s etc.

For the decimalized addition, just add up the columns as you would any math “action,” just making sure you keep track of where the decimal point goes in the final result. Pretty easy if the original equation is properly aligned as above.

In answer to the question “Can we get rid of fractions altogether?”

No. While most things will work just fine if you even go two or three numbers to the right of the decimal point, for some things it just won’t work since many decimals are frequently “rounded” and don’t fully express a numerical concept. While I am not a scientist, I do work with quite a few and when I posed the question of just decimals, “No” was the answer that came back to me. That’s because many fractions just don’t work as decimals for scientific formulas. Consider the fraction in the second math image. If you try to convert it to a decimal you have a problem because, technically, it trails on forever as in .3333333333333333333….

Scientists and mathematicians can’t work like that and need the compactness of fractions to visualize and express their work. (See the graphic at the top of this page for equation fractions.)

That said, let’s keep them where we really need them and stop needlessly torturing students, teachers and our population in general.

Even U.S. stock markets no longer report losses and gains with fractions down to the 16th. It changed a few years ago when the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered that all stock reports convert to the decimal system prior to April 9, 2001.

Why did it use fractions of quarters, eighths, halves, and sixteenths? According to the article from Investopedia, it dates back to the “pieces of eight” that Spain used some 400 years ago when it decided to exclude the thumbs for the purposes of counting…

Thanks for reading,

Linda

Time wasted without the metric system

When I talk to people about a future where we switch over to the metric system, many  bemoan how difficult the change would be. The problem with that perspective is that most people have no idea how much of our time is wasted due to our using U.S. customary units. I’m highly confident that after a few months of using just metric units, our response would be: “What were we thinking? Why didn’t we do this ages ago?”

Image from linked infographic

Ounces made it into two top 10 questions for recent Google searches.

Just last week I came across an infographic titled “10 Most Asked Questions on Google.” It included queries searched for during a previous six-month period and was global in nature. The graphic belies the assertion that Americans understand their current system (“So why go from something we know to something we don’t know?” they ask me). Bottom line:  Because questions eight and 10 are about how many ounces there are in a cup and a pound (respectively) so we really don’t know our units, despite what we say. (Money amounts refer to the cost of ads on the answer landing pages.)

Between the two of them, they accounted for 900,000 questions in that six month time frame. So how does that play out? Let’s say you’re working in the kitchen and you decide you want to scale a recipe up or down and need that “How many ounces in a …?” question answered. The first thing I’d do is search my memory bank to see if that was something I already knew. Then, if I didn’t know, or was less than confident in my answer, I’d need to either whip out my phone or mosey over to my computer to get the answer.

While the actual Google search might seem almost instantaneous, the process of getting to enter the question is not. Let’s say that it takes about 90 seconds before you get to the Google search part (I have nothing to back this assertion up but it is probably conservative). If so, that means we (and by “we” I mean either Americans or the poor souls who find themselves confronted with our crazy units here or elsewhere in the world) spend 45,000 hours each year searching for this information. Put another way, every year we spend more than five years of our time reminding ourselves how many ounces there are in things.

This amount of time, of course, doesn’t include all the time spent looking such information up in a cookbook only to discover (in most cases) that conversions between metric units are sometimes included but not how many ounces, for instance, there are in things.

Most cookbooks include units between U.S. customary and metric system, not within customary units.

I can’t confidently promise that we’d likely spend any saved time on something productive but at least we’d have the opportunity to spend it on something less wasteful.

Confusion in the kitchen

How to half ingredients using U.S. customary units

Our units make scaling ingredients very difficult

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I also recently came across the cheat sheet on the right.

It’s just nuts that we put ourselves through these machinations when using the metric system is so easy. Unless you’re really slow, you wouldn’t even need such a chart.

1/4 liter    =     250 mL
1/3 liter    =     333 mL
1/2 liter    =     500 mL
2/3 liter    =     666 mL
3/4 liter   =      750 mL

Given that we already use decimalized currency, most everyone could immediately tell you that half a dollar is 50 cents and a quarter of a dollar is 25 cents without a calculator or a Google search. It’s the same with metric system mesures.

While it might take some thought and effort to switch over to the metric system initially, once there, our lives become a whole lot simpler.

If only more people knew. Help spread the word please.

Thanks,

Linda

Hiatus and the Metric System

Figures with numbers and lines

I’m now working on book with the title “America’s biggest miscalculation.”

It was almost five years ago that I began down this road of working to bring awareness of the harm we are doing to ourselves through our lack of metric system adoption. The plan has been to do it via a documentary on the subject. (I thought it was only four until I looked it up!)

During that time I put quite a few things in my life on hold while I devoted considerable time and resources (including my own money) toward making metric system awareness a reality. I recently took some time off as a greatly needed it for multiple reasons.

That said, I am far from giving up. This is the first time that I’m saying this publicly but I’ve had discussions with a couple of different producers over the years but the funding to make the documentary has yet to materialize. As a result, I’ve decided to take a different tack.

Part of the reason I started this blog in the first place was to give you some “behind the scenes” looks at the process as it evolves. So here’s what I’m thinking…I need money to produce the documentary and, ultimately, the onus to do that falls on my shoulders.

I had originally thought that I would reach more people through a documentary than through a book but now I’m thinking I need the book to raise the money to make the documentary. I had always thought about writing a book but expected it would be more of a companion piece than the catalyst.

The additional research it will take to write the book will be considerable. For instance, something that I could gloss over in a script like, “When early man began to settle down for agriculture, measurement tools became increasing important” now needs a whole chapter that I have to back up with references and notes. At least if I want it to be any good—and I do.

I have already begun work on the book. I even took some time off to do additional work on it a couple of months ago then came down with pneumonia, which put some kinks in that plan. Still, I think (with the help of my boss, Linda Deck), we came up with what I think is the perfect book title. I needed something that would catch people’s attention, be as unique as I could get it but also not mislead anyone.

Its main title will be America’s biggest miscalculation. Not only does it perfectly describe the situation but I was unable to find another item with that exact title. I did find things named America’s biggest mistake and other such titles but the use of “miscalculation” appears to be unique. I’ve already purchased the domain names.

I am writing the book to fit that title. At my daughter’s suggestion, I purchased Scrivener software and am at almost 20,000 words into the book’s contents. Given that the average non-fiction book is around 70,000 words, I still have a ways to go but there is much more subject material to cover.

Given that I’m writing and project managing full time AND writing a major book on the metric system AND still have to do things like laundry, food prep, cleaning and organizing (where I got really far behind—I hate cleaning), etc., I plan in future to only post once a month. But I do plan to continue posting.

Just the make sure I keep my promise, I plan to write a couple more posts today so I have them ready while I work on the book.

If you want to write to me at milebehind@gmail.com to suggest topics for columns, I can’t promise I can immediately address them, but I will consider all comers.

See you in June and thanks for your patience.

Linda

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.

Thanks!

Linda

Powell’s Books and the Metric System

 

 

Powell's_Books

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A book lovers paradise.

Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon for my daughter’s wedding. I’m happy to say that everything went wonderfully—even the weather—and I am more than pleased with my new son-in-law and his family. I welcome them with open arms.

 

Of course, while in Portland I had to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books being the media freak I am. My first day in town, I met with my sister and brother -in-law (also in town for the wedding) and we allotted a short period of time there before heading out for dinner.

It wasn’t enough time so I went back the next day as it was only a few blocks from my hotel.

By the end of the second trip, I had accumulated quite a few books, all of which related to this project and the early history of humankind so I could continue my research regarding our history with measures. I was bemoaning how heavy everything was going to be in my luggage when the cashier pointed out that for a flat rate (about $14, as I recall) Powell’s would ship everything to my house. That was the last thing I needed to hear (too tempting) so during my third trip there in as many days, I hauled back the books I’d already bought and acquired a few more. (Hey, great selection and a lot of used books—a bargain in my “book.”)

I had everything shipped to the house (it all arrived two days ago) with the exception of one book that I decided to take with me despite its heft (at around 1.63 kg or around 3.5 pounds).

 

new-book_001

This book will provide my ancient history dates since they vary greatly depending on the source

That book was The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan.

 

Why am I telling you this? Uncovering that history of our measures has been quite challenging. I already had a book called The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (along with countless other books for my research) but it didn’t contain the information I needed.

The farther you go back in time you go, the sketchier the dates get, which has been causing me problems.

I’ve been working under the hypothesis that routine measures likely arose once people transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and it made sense to erect permanent or semipermanent buildings. I’ve already illustrated, even one person building a small, grass-type hut immediately needed a measure to make a perfectly round circle for the outer wall. It then stands to reason that multiple people, building a more permanent structure over days, weeks, months or years, would have to have had some agreed upon length or, surely, uneven walls would not have withstood anything very well.

Old_place.png

Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dates to 10,000 BCE

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg

 

The trouble is, the earliest cities of which we’re aware (Jericho in Palestine at around 9,000 BCE and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey at about 10,000 BCE) were already quite complex (see photo).

Smaller settlements prior to those were likely built near rivers and lakes for access to both water and the foodstuffs living in the water (fish, etc.). However, as the last ice age ended, water levels around the world rose by roughly 100 meters (300 feet) and those locations would likely be made of more perishable materials (wood vs. stone) and are under water if any evidence of them still exists at all.

Thus, my dilemma reconstructing our measurement history for the book I’m writing to go with the documentary.

Given that early dates for various things are all over the place, depending on the source, I’ve decided that based the vast number of contributors and how the book is laid out; Seventy Great Inventions will form the basis of my historical dates as I lay out that part of the story.

In future, if someone wants to take exception with my hypotheses, they can argue with me (though I’ll likely have evidence to back up my assertions) but if they want to argue dates, they can argue with the book’s authors.

I’ll continue to do research through other sources, of course, but Seventy Great Inventions will be my “go to” for dates.

Or at least that’s what I envision for right now.

Projects this large and complex can test one’s resources but so far, so good.

Thanks for reading this far!

Linda

 

 

 

 

New book: “The Dimensions of the Cosmos”

Comos

This book is now available from Amazon for $19.95

As well as myself, another staunch supporter of metric system adoption in the United States is Randy Bancroft, who writes a blog as “The Metric Maven.” He has a new book available called The Dimensions of the Cosmos: Tales From Sixteen Metric Worlds. It sells through Amazon for $19.95.

In the preface, the author states his intent as:

This books exists to address a problem most people don’t recognize: understanding the magnitudes of the world around us. This problem is almost invisible in countries which have used the metric system from the earliest days of its earliest days of inception. (p. iii)

He then goes on to point out that our lack of metric system adoption has left us with a mishmash (my word) of measures that make it difficult to gauge their comparative sizes between one unit and another. I couldn’t agree more.

The book itself includes a section on the metric system, and it includes references to both microscopes (and really small things) and astronomy (and really, really large things) and talks about the units themselves before starting to break down the relative sizes of the measures.

They run from the section Uniworld:

Uniworld is where we define the size of the metric units which are used as a basis. These basic units will be magnified or reduced to describe the Cosmos.  (p.22)

to Yoctoworld:

Protons and neutrons, which make up the nuclei of atoms, are near one yoctogram in mass. (p.177)

He covers the metric units in all their various sizes.

For instance, in Uniworld, he points out that the section:

…is about the world from 1 meter to 1000 meters but by using human dimensions as a lower end reference, we end up comparing values which are often less than one meter for context. (p.23)

He also includes a number of examples to try to help the reader grasp the various units such as:

The largest known meteorite is the Hoba meteorite in Nambia [sic] in southwestern Africa…The meteorite remains where it fell because of its large mass, 60 Megagrams. (p. 57)

and

The Baobab tree stores up to 100 Kiloliters of water in its trunk, which it uses to survive droughts. The volume of water stored is about four times the displacement of the diesel engine. (p. 57)

baobab-1222166_640

A Baobab tree

Ultimately, I’m not sure how helpful some of these references are since I doubt many people can immediately imagine what a Baobab tree looks like so the liter citation has a context.

He also uses the opportunity of the book to make a case for working only in millimeters.

 

 

 

The reason for this retreat from centimeters, is that for most practical everyday purposes, millimeters allow people to use integers without the need for any decimal arithmetic. (p.13)

 

The upper and lower casing of the metric units is not convention.

The upper and lower casing of the metric units used in the book is not convention.

Throughout the book he also begins “larger” metric units with uppercase letters and “smaller” units begin with lowercase letters (see image). The only problem with that is IT IS NOT the current naming convention. I worry that readers less familiar with the metric system might be misled into thinking that his use is accepted but it is not. I’d hate for anyone to get led down the wrong path unknowingly.

In any case, if you have any interest in the subject matter, I encourage you to purchase the book in an effort to support another person who has devoted considerable time helping our country figure out the error of our ways.

Thanks,

Linda

A compromise between the metric system and U.S. customary units? A modest proposal

This April Fools’ post was supplied by Peter Goodyear, a staunch help to yours truly, Reddit metric system moderator and Australian supporter of our leaving our foolish measurement ways behind us. LA
astronomy_001

Peter advocates for the adoption of centimeter-gramme-second  (cgs) system since it “combines the least advantageous features of both metric and US Customary measures, so both sides will have an equality of dissatisfaction with its introduction.” Apparently it’s used in the astronomical sciences.

 

 

Friday MMXVI-IV-I

Introduction
Some Americans are concerned that their measurement system (still in use from when America was a collection of British colonies,) is unnecessarily complicated. They argue that it is difficult to learn and to use, and in these modern times it is difficult to programme into computer applications. (It is also used only by Americans, however this is seen as an expression of American Exceptionalism™ and is therefore not regarded as a disadvantage.)
Radically progressive Americans believe that adopting the French, or metric, system of measurements would solve the problems caused by learning and using measurements inherited from Colonial times. Opposing them, American Traditionalists claim that what was good enough for their forefathers is obviously good enough for everyone today.
No American since Thomas Jefferson has proposed a logical and simple system of measurements, thus the available choices are either to retain a British system which is slowly being abandoned, even by the British themselves, or to adopt a French system which has, in recent years, gained a modicum of acceptance in several corners of the globe.
To satisfy both American Traditionalists, who want to retain long-established British weights and measures, and Metric Radicals who want them swept away and replaced with SI† metric units, I propose a compromise: the centimetre-gram-second system.*
The centimeter-gramme-second system (cgs) combines the least advantageous features of both metric and US Customary measures, so both sides will have an equality of dissatisfaction with its introduction.
(*As this is a British measurement system I will use the British, or proper, spelling of “meter”, to wit: ’metre’.)
Discussion
The features of the CGS system:
1) It’s metric. Obviously.
The centimetre-gram-second system is obviously based on metric units, the centimeter, the gramme and the second. Supporters of traditional units will claim that this is a massive strike against it, but this is balanced by several other features which will be welcomed by American supporters of traditional British units, namely:
B) It’s a traditional British system.
Cgs was developed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (usually abbreviated to BA,) and introduced in 1874. Undeniably British.
At more than 140 years old, it’s older than a lot of American traditions such as the Super Bowl, (first Super Bowl was in 1967,) Veterans Day, (started11/11/19, American style, or 11/11/19 in the world-wide dating system,) the Oscars (first awarded in 1929) or Mother’s Day (dating from Mother’s Day 1914).
iii) It’s difficult to use.
Conversion factors between cgs and SI units are awkward because there are 100 centimetres in a meter and 1000 grams in a kilogramme, which promises the possibility of introducing order-of-magnitude errors everywhere. In addition, there are odd conversion factors between some of the units in the electrostatic, electrodynamic and Gaussian systems of CGS. (Didn’t I mention that there are three different systems of cgs? I know you Americans just love to have a choice!)
Whilst the CGS system is useful for fine measurements such as one finds in atomic physics or engineering, it is difficult to use with the extremely large order-of-magnitude quantities encountered in engineering or astrophysics.
Fifthly) Nobody else uses it.
The BIPM‡ recommended using the SI system, a refinement of the Metre-Kilogram-Second system, in 1960, and since then SI has supplanted the cgs. This allows for the perpetuation of American Exceptionalism™ in employing a measurement system no-one else uses, or would want to use.
Bonus: In addition to the CGS units there is an obsolete BA metric screw thread which could be introduced (with some inconvenience, no doubt,) to replace SAE fasteners.
Conclusion
I am confident that both metric advocates and adherents of US traditional standards will have equal measures of support for this proposition. Your comments are welcome and I will give them the attention they deserve.
Stop Press: Last-minute research has shown that cgs units are still used in the astronomical sciences. This will no doubt make CGS adoption easier due to the massive influence that astronomy has in everyday life through astrology, the calendar, tides, etc.
Thank you,
Peter Goodyear
Notes
SI – International System of Weights and Measures
BIPM – International Bureau of Weights and Measures

Conversion errors and the metric system

headline

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 – Vocative.com

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.

Linda

Prehistory and the metric system       

 

First, I’m not implying that the metric system has been around forever—it hasn’t been, more like since around 1790—rather, I’ve been investigating where measurement standards might have come from prior to the development of writing. No one can say for sure when measurements started, all researchers can do is infer information based on archeological evidence.

Uruk

A general view of the Uruk archeological site at Warka in Iraq. Image from the UK government

Most of the sources I’ve come across gloss over the prehistory of measures by pointing to the standards found in Mesopotamia and then move forward from there. Me, I’m more curious than that and thought it might be interesting to cover some ground that others might not have.

So here’s where I’m currently coming from: I believe there is an intersection between agriculture, the development of cities, architecture, astronomy and even the division of labor that related to the development of measures. I’ll go into these points in more detail in future posts while I continue to work on my metric system history book during my off hours from my day job.

Standards needed for permanent buildings

One of the oldest cities that has been documented is Uruk (from around the fourth millennium BCE.)

However, this site is very complex and it is unlikely it was the first attempt at a city but older, smaller, less-complex examples either no longer exist or have yet to be discovered. I posit that before these multi-people, multi-year building projects could begin, everyone had to agree what the standard measure was to be used, such as the much better-known cubit that was used in Egypt from around 3,000 BCE.

But let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back to around 9,000 BCE.

I’m starting from this date because it appears this was about the time that the last ice age ended and agriculture began. (The farther you go back in time, the sketchier the dates become so you might come across a source that differs from this. I had to start somewhere and I’m not in a position to argue with scholars who have spent much more time on these issues than I have.)

Back then, people were hunter/gatherers and if they settled anywhere, it wasn’t for very long and permanent structures were not needed. Some research I’ve come across indicates that people may have already domesticated some animals and they might have, for instance, moved sheep or other animals around with them.

I’ve also come across other information that the earliest agriculture may have been less planting of things in rows, as we currently think of such practices today, and more cultivation of helpful things.

Okay, so, it’s 8,500 BCE and near our settlement (likely near a water source) we come across some blueberry bushes. On either side of these food-bearing plants are some other plants that are less helpful since they flower but don’t provide sustenance.

It’s likely we figure out that by cutting back, or eliminating, the plants that weren’t so helpful and tending to the blueberry bush by watering, and possibly fertilizing, it a richer harvest results make the efforts worth our while.

Over time, it likely made sense that people started to transplant the beneficial plants closer to each other for efficiency. (There’s a reason you don’t keep kitchen equipment scattered around the house.)

Once the investment has been made in cultivating plants, it’s reasonable to expect that people kept closer tabs on their efforts and spent more time in one place, they’d want a home that would last more than a couple of seasons.

That got me thinking about how long buildings typically last. Once site I came across indicates that modern buildings can last more than 50 years. But, what about more “primitive” ones?

Modern, but primitive, hut

You too can build a primitive hut with minimal tools but lots of effort.

I found YouTube videos that show how to build circular dwellings from saplings and primitive tools in one case, and another video on how to build a wattle and daub hut, with the roof of the second building showing signs of rot only four months after construction.

Interestingly, in the first case, the builder needed to measure equidistant sides for the hut from a center post. In essence, he created a standard made from a sapling that might only be used for that one hut, but he did need a standard unit to make even a primitive building.

Had two people worked on the sapling hut, they would have both needed to use that same measure for the hut to have properly turned out.

Perhaps, in this case, as Protagoras of Abdera indicated thousands of years ago, man is the measure of all things…

I’ll write more next month and in the meantime, I’ll slog through more research on the ancient world and possibly confuse myself.

Linda

 

 

The Smithsonian and the Metric System

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

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

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

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

The NIST Museum

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

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

Convert between systems only when necessary

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

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

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

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

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

We were early decimal adopters—our coins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a result, our fabulous founding father:

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!

Linda