I’m dropping everything I’m doing right now to highlight something that I think is important.
Hot dogs and buns. No, seriously: hot dogs and buns.
I found out yesterday that Heinz (part of the Kraft-Heinz Corporation [KHC]) has started a campaign called the “Heinz Hot Dog Pact” to get manufacturers (apparently including themselves) to package both hot dogs and buns in counts of 10 each. (Ten each! This is just icing on the cake. Yeah, I make puns.) It’s hoping to clean up the mess made by having these mismatched, but usually paired items made equal—finally—and in sets of 10. Even better.
Why I think this is important
This extremely large organization is calling on others in the “production” end of things to make a change for the better for consumers. Isn’t that what every organization should attempt when it makes sense to do so?
Please also understand that it was revealed to me that one of the problems or “catch points” during our last metric system adoption attempt in the 1970s was grocers who didn’t want to be “on the front lines” if all the labels (and other things) in the stores suddenly changed to metric because consumers might yell at THEM about it. They did not want to put themselves in that position and I don’t blame them.
Let’s face it, Heinz could just make the change itself (within its own production lines) but instead, it wants to address and fix the underlying problem: A mismatch of usually paired items.
BRAVO to Heinz for taking such a proactive stand to fix a ridiculous problem that should have been solved decades ago. In my mind, this echoes what needs to be done with the metric system. That’s why I bring this subject up now.
According an Adweek story, the idea originated with a Canadian ad agency
Does “American Heinz” get credit for a campaign that originated with our Northern neighbors? In my opinion, having a great idea is important but only if it is recognized as a great idea once presented. It takes courage and foresight for companies to see a great idea and run with it. Frankly, in my opinion, most of them just F them up. I’ve witnessed the smoldering of good ideas ground down by company “liaisons” during my entire career.
It takes even more courage for a company to stick its neck out and try to change things in a meaningful way FOR A WHOLE BUSINESS SECTOR (food and beverage). I consider this exceptional work toward a good cause and KHC deserves all the good publicity that gets heaped upon it. (Any side issues, notwithstanding.)
What does this mean for this project? I have some thoughts. I need to mull them carefully before I will act. Part of it will be to try to follow the events of this campaign and it’s success rate.
However, this issue prompts new section of the blog:
Cheers and Jeers
Cheers to Heinz, Kraft Heinz and, if you like, you can join the dog/buns campaign on the https://www.change.org/ platform on this issue. Feel free to comment and include the words (hopefully in a smart way) “metric system.” Yes, I’m inciting people to “rise and comment.”
HOWEVER, please don’t start a petition on this site for metric adoption now. It will fail. I can almost guarantee it. I’m asking for a bit of patience while I try to “ramp things up.”
Cheers to Tim Kaine, a democratic Senator and member of the Armed Services Committee. Within the last couple of weeks, he had an interview with Rachael Maddow, (on MSNBC) when he unabashedly used the phrase “square centimeters” without apology or translation. The more people who think and talk using the metric system only, the better for everyone toward metric system adoption. Let Senator Kaine know that you care about this issue (politely please) even if he “doesn’t belong to you” as a Senator. In a way, all elected officials belong to us within a democracy. https://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact.
Oh, and this might be an “American problem.” My wonderful contact in Australia did a quick “scout” for me and relayed that there, buns and hot dogs come in equal numbers. Not a surprise to me.
What about your country? Do your packages of dogs and buns match in number? Hey, that’s what the comments section is for.
The Science Blogs Web Archive provides resources for scholars and others conducting research on science writing, research, teaching and communication, as well as scientific discourse in the United States. Science blogs are online journals or diaries and thus enhance the Library’s analog collection of science periodicals and manuscripts by providing content that reflects observations and understanding of science in the 21st century. The archive was created to ensure the preservation and collection of digital materials which produce original thought and observations in all major scientific disciplines (earth sciences, physical sciences, and life sciences) for all audience levels.
I’m collecting information and writing reports (and lots of other things)
In the works:
A communications plan to support my proof of concept (POC)* recapped below
A nonfiction book proposal
List of reasons people use to reject adoption of the metric system.
A situation analysis
I’m building out this webpage so I can include additional resources and information
They are all interrelated.
The importance of the proof of concept
My idea of a proof of concept in this situation is bigger than the book proposal (however, I will need to a book proposal to “sell” the metric system idea to agents/publishers).
My idea of proof of concept is based, in part, on the idea that all good ideas should begin with:
“Don’t tell me, show me.”
In the case of this project, the “tell” is “The United States should switch to the metric system.” The “show me” rests with the potential and demonstrative improvements to our medical and education systems, time and productivity savings, and even things like environment impacts. And then, of course, I have to spell out why these “shows” are important and that the concepts are connected. These ideas will have a substantive place in my book America’s Biggest Miscalculation.
If there is no good “why” behind why an idea/concept is important and relevant, it’s unlikely to move very far forward in a legitimate way.
Is that why, as children, we were invited to “Show and tell” and not just to “Tell” or “Show”? Did we not learn nothing from that early experience? Context matters, history matters, good sources matter.
Science works on proof of concept
Within the science-based environment from which I came (Los Alamos National Laboratory), these concepts could be earth shatteringly important, cost millions or billions of dollars and add to our fundamental understanding of how the universe works. And for the really big stuff (think high-energy physics sorts of things where you have unbelievably expensive and complex custom equipment) it takes more resources, partnerships (national and international), and some of the smartest and most dedicated scientists in the world to pursue their work.
Luckily, my bar is FAR lower than that, but I will still need to compete for funding and attention from agents and publisher to get this work done, and if these folks pick the metric system work, they’re likely passing on other opportunities. To be successful, I have to convince people that this work is important, could contribute to the health and education within our society, but it has be be able to sell copies of the book. That’s last but not least.
With some new concepts and ideas in mind (from the Nonfiction Authors Association conference, see previous post), I’ve realized just how much the situation analysis feeds into my needs for the book. The better I understand this issue, and from every possible angle I can think of, the better off I will ultimately be.
The purpose of my situation analysis is to coalesce my ideas and observations into a “bite-sized” report that presents the current lay of the land.
Recall, our last real attempt at metric system adoption was in the mid-1970s. The federal government generated thousands and thousands of pages of reports on why switching to the metric system was a good idea or rather “A decision whose time has come [PDF].” (Caution: It’s one of the 1970s documents and it’s 191 pages.) Then came failure—not complete, but in many, many ways.
Fast forward almost 40 years and here we are, but where is that exactly?
That’s what I propose to put on paper in a rudimentary way. I want to illustrate MY understanding of the current environment and how the book project fits into that environment. I need to demonstrate that people (you specifically) care about this issue enough to support it through a book purchase.
Of primary importance for this report is: “Who are the current players and what roles do they fulfill?
It’s all about barriers, opportunities, resources, and the need to make course corrections by monitoring the environment and responding quickly and appropriately.
I’ll also include a “gap analysis” in some form. The point of a gap analysis is to strongly consider where an “entity is” with relation to resources (in any form, human or financial capital, for instance) and a desired end-state. What needs to fill the “gap” between current resources and the goal? Where could those resources come from? Are there assets not being properly leveraged? What are all the interrelations between other organizations in the environment (usually business competitors) and the entity? You get the idea.
I can tell you this now. There is more federal legislation in place than you think there is and I think that’s really, really important to metric system adoption.
This project’s biggest asset is you, dear reader
Me, I’m no one. I’m just someone who happened to realize (because I’m old enough) that we are constantly making our lives more complicated in the United States since we don’t routinely use the metric system for our measurement units. Let’s make things easier for our medical community and our students AND EVERYONE. I think it’s the least we can do.
Thanks for reading down this far.
The proof of concept I laid out last week:
* “I hope to demonstrate there is enough interest in the United States’ lack of metric system adoption (or there will be once people actually “see” our current mess) to buy a copy of America’s Biggest Miscalculation and make it commercially and financially viable enough for an agent/publisher to favor of THIS project when allocating resources.”
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”:
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…
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?”
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
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.
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)
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)
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)
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 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.
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
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.
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’.)
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.
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.
† SI – International System of Weights and Measures
‡ BIPM – International Bureau of Weights and Measures
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:
There are some who believe that conversions are easy to make and therefore, living with two measurement systems shouldn’t be a problem.
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?
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
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.
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 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
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.
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 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 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 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.
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.