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

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

American product, metric-only label

American product in Canadian  market, metric-only label

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

Metric system observations in Canada

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

American company, dual labeling and use of French

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

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

Another American product with metric-only labeling

Another American product with metric-only labeling

According to a Canadian history site:

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

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

Successes and failures

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

Thanks for staying tuned!

Linda

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.

Thanks,

Linda

* 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!

Thanks,

Linda

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

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.

Linda

My Metric System Demo at the Los Alamos Science Fest

Los Alamos Science Fest was Saturday

Los Alamos Science Fest was Saturday

On Saturday I spent four hours talking up the metric system at the Science Festival here in Los Alamos. Specifically, I was trying to help people understand how much easier the metric system is to use in the kitchen. Rather than having all those volumetric cups (and a half, and third and quarter) and tablespoons and teaspoons (and all those fractions down to an eighth) you really just need two things: a liquid measuring cup and a scale that measures in grams (most electronic ones can convert between different units).

Not only is a scale a more precise and consistent measure in the kitchen, it’s also easier than what we’re used to in this country. Since we don’t use the metric system here, most people have no idea how handy a scale can be in the kitchen. I wanted to show them.

Here’s what I did:

I asked if people were willing to take a metric challenge. (There were a lot of children there and almost all of them were game to give it a try.)

Toy coins worked well for the demo since they don't fit neatly into the cup

Toy coins worked well for the demo since they don’t fit neatly into the cup

I then gave two participants each a one-cup measuring cup and had them measure a cup of toy coins (I wanted objects that would not fit neatly within its area). When they were done, we put the cups on scales to how closely they measured in grams. In some cases, even when the cups looked like they had the same amount in them, the mass varied usually by around 5-7 grams but throughout the day I saw measures all the way from 30 grams up to more than 100. That’s quite a difference!

While the they were measuring, I told the adults, or other observers, some of my points about wasting our kids’ time in schools by teaching them a complicated system that no one else uses. I also pointed out only needing two things to measure with saves space and hassle in the kitchen.

Using the metric system, all you need is something to measure wet and dry ingredients (left) instead of the stuff we have to keep track of now (right)

Using the metric system, all you need is something to measure wet and dry ingredients (left) instead of the stuff we have to keep track of now (right)

Once that was done, I showed the parents how easy it is to measure ingredients right into the bowl and bypass dirtying all those other measuring cups and tablespoons we currently have to deal with.

I also talked about something that happened to me not too long ago when I had a recipe that called for a cup and a half of brown sugar. Not only do you have to pack the brown sugar to get the right amount, I also debated whether I wanted to wash a spoon (to dish out the sugar) and two measuring cups or a spoon and one measuring cup but have to pack it three times. In the end I decided I didn’t want to do either and looked up how much brown sugar that would be in grams. Then I put the bowl I was using on my scale, zeroed it out using the tare function, and then measured that amount directly into the bowl. In the end I only had to wash a single spoon.

In addition to the demo, I had a primer (Cooking in a metric kitchen (pdf)) on using scales in the kitchen. While many sites don’t include metric measures, several do including the wonderful allrecipes.com (though it takes an extra click to make the conversion). I also had a hard copy of the Metric Maven’s metric cookbook along with its link and the source for a metric chocolate chip cookie recipe from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. If you have additional sites or references to assist with metric cooking, send them to me at milebehind@gmail.com and I’ll share as appropriate.

Also had an opportunity to reconnect with Dave Schwellenbach who had the booth next to me with his Kraz-E-Science demo. You can check out his website here.

More blogs are in the works. Thanks for checking in.

Linda

The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

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

Hands-on opportunities

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

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

Avoid conversions!!!

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

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

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

Testing my story structure

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

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

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

For instance:

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

The cost of conversion

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

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

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

Linda

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

Beware the endcap in the supermarket

Beware the endcap in the supermarket—no unit pricing.

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

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

Uniform measures make it more difficult to deceive customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making easy cost comparisons when buying food—how prevalent?

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

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

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

Apples and oranges or is that ounces and pounds?

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

How the metric system could help in the supermarket

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

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

Thanks,

Linda

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

Someone’s in the Kitchen with the Metric System

I’ve written before about what it would take for us to integrate the metric system into our daily lives but one of the areas where it would really need to take hold is in the kitchen and grocery store. This week I’m addressing the kitchen issue.

What would need to change in YOUR American kitchen

Once the switchover occurs, you’ll be able to hold on to your liquid measuring cups (unless they’re so old they don’t have metric units on them—that would make them pretty old—time for measuring cups 2.0 me thinks.).

Kitchen scale

A sleek way to move toward metric kitchen measurement.

But you will have to give up your “dry” measuring cups (Hopefully you haven’t been using them interchangeably over the years as I once did.)

Why? Because the metric system measures mass not weight. (Be careful you don’t confuse the two. They’re not the same thing. An object’s weight can change since it’s dependent on gravity but an object’s mass doesn’t change no matter what planet it might be on. Here’s an accessible site in case you want to learn more.)

Using mass instead of volume should improve your cooking, and your baking in particular, since baking tends to be a bit more persnickety when it comes to measurements.

In fact, the King Arthur Flour website goes into quite a bit of detail about the implications of measures and includes:

Although in 1959 English-speaking scientists agreed to use the metric system for scientific and technological purposes, that’s been of little use to bakers.

Needless to say, I hope that will change (Not the right year by a long shot but at least they’ve put the two thoughts together…).

Still, I was surprised that that the company included information that apparently in this country our measuring cups can legally vary by up to 12%!   Add to that that how hard one scoops into a container of flour can also vary how much it holds—by quite a bit.

There can be a variance in how much of a dry ingredient, such as flour, is actually in a measuring device. This is affected by the manner in which it is added to the measuring cup and by how much the ingredient is compacted. Humidity is also a factor in the weight of the dry ingredient. (Recipietips.com)

Talk about a recipe for disaster!

Archimedes scale

Archimedes scale. Cool but you’d need access to water and has no tare function.

Once we transition, we’re all going to need kitchen scales. I highly recommend a digital version for a couple of reasons: most have a “tare” functions and most can switch back and forth between grams and U.S. Customary units (could be helpful until all our cookbooks are in metric units).

The tare function is really handy because let’s say you want to measure several dry ingredients measured in grams.

First, put your container on the scale and hit the tare button. The number will zero-out so you don’t have to subtract its mass before adding anything else.

Then, let’s say you need 2 grams of salt, 40 grams of butter and 13 grams of baking powder.

You could add the two grams of salt, and then add the butter until you reached 42 grams and baking soda until you reached 53 grams.

Or, much easier, just zero-out the scale with the tare button after each ingredient and put in the exact amounts specified in the recipe.

A truly logical system

One thing that struck me while I was doing research at the Library of Congress a few months ago was the consistency of some of the ingredients in both “weight” and volume measures. Upon reflection, however, it makes perfect sense since the kilogram was designed to have equal volume and mass at the same time.

In the early metric system there were several fundamental or base units, the grad or grade for angles, the metre for length, the gram for weight and the litre for capacity. These were derived from each other via the properties of natural objects, mainly water: 1 litre of water weighs 1 kg and measures 1 cubic decimetre (dm³).  

Where recipes might start to “break down” would be for ingredients that would be much or less dense than water. (See the image below.)

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

From a metric cookbook that included both mass and volume measures. Note the similarities.

There is another caveat here: depending on how precise your scale is, it might have trouble with small amounts of something. I have seen some metric recipes that measure these small amounts in milliliters rather than mass.

Cutting board with built-in scale.

Cutting board with built-in scale. (Hopefully doesn’t dull your knives.)

Unless you have serious concerns about your scales I’d advocate for their use. For those folks who just couldn’t stand the idea of measuring ingredients without spoons, we’d want to trade in our current tablespoon, teaspoon, half and quarter teaspoons for metric units, and while you can buy them here, the measures equate to our current measures so they don’t make a lot of sense: .6 mL and 1.2 mL, etc. Much more logical would be: 1 mL, 2 mL, 5 mL etc. (Maybe when we get our act together we can get them in this country.)

Still, I will say that I have a precision scale that measures down to 1mg and when I used the 10 gram calibration weight on both of my kitchen scales (and not expensive ones, mind you), they were both spot on. So now you know.

A spoon and digital scale in one!

A spoon and digital scale in one!

It’s not too soon to start playing around with digital scales and the holidays are just around the corner. Add one to your wish list and help bring others along with you! I’ve includes some really cool ones in this post for you to consider.

And here’s a handy idea of what you can do with your old measuring cups once you no longer need them (reduce, reuse, recycle after all). More on this topic later but I’m keeping a previous promise.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric.

One idea of what to do with old measuring cups once we go metric: an organizer!

I’ll have another post in a week, I promise.

Till then, have fun,

Linda

Notes: Scale images from: http://www.crookedbrains.net/2012/04/creative-and-cool-kitchen-scale-designs.html

Why measurement systems (including the metric system) are important

Let’s, for a moment, set aside how important it is to get medication doses correct and ask the more basic question “Why does it really matter what measurement system we use?”

My answer to that question might shock you: Fundamentally, it doesn’t.

What really matters is that people working together use the same one. What the metric system has going for it is that it was designed for all of the units logically interrelate to each other. That last point is a big deal.

Metric measuring tape

Metric measuring tape

Back before the world was so integrated it was less of a problem if each little hamlet developed and used its own measures.

The way I like to put it is: “So how tall is it?” one peasant asks another.

“Why, it’s as tall as Larry’s door,” answers the friend. They’ve both been to Larry’s house and can use that as a point of reference.

To say that’s Larry’s door could now become the standard of length/height for that community really isn’t that far off.

Under this scenario, the only people for whom that would really cause a problem would be for the traders who’d have to learn multiple units to deal with multiple localities as they sold their wares. It was also a way of keeping outsiders out since their lack of familiarity with the regional units would immediately make them stand out.

For reasons that I’ll explore in my documentary, we continue to isolate ourselves, and handicap our children, through our lack of metric adoption.

The units we currently use in this country are not only a mishmash of almost totally unrelated units that were cobbled together but we’ve put ourselves totally out of step with the rest of the industrial world.

Metric units are streamlined and basic. Easy to learn and apply. That’s why almost everyone else in the world has adopted them.

While I have enlisted an American culture expert to interview to help address why we’ve been so resistant to such a change, I suspect that there are multiple reasons for our behavior on this issue in the past. The poll that ran on this topic previously to helped identify them.

Recycling our past

As we move toward metric adoption, we’ll find ourselves with items we no longer need. Mostly what comes to my mind are the measuring cups we use for dry ingredients in the kitchen (in a metric world, grams are the necessary and superior way to go). It’s also possible that people might still have liquid measuring cups without milliliters but they’d probably have to be pretty old or rulers (or tape measures) that don’t have metric measures on them. (Not sure what the cutoff date for such items might have been…the 1970s when we had our last metric push? Might need to investigate this some more.) Items like wrenches in U.S. customary units also come to mind.

Great idea to recycle tape measures--hopefully nonmetric ones.

Great idea to recycle tape measures–hopefully nonmetric ones.

Earlier this week I came across the above image of a clutch made from measuring tapes and got to thinking about what we could do with non-metric items we’d longer need. (I know I currently have a tape measure with inches on one side. It looks like the item above uses both metric and nonmetric.)

In the meantime, feel free to share your ideas of what other items we’ll need to try to recycle into something useful or interesting (maybe even beautiful) once we’ve adopted the metric system in this country and even your ideas of how to do it.

I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself and I have an idea for something to do with my dry measuring cups that just came to me so I’ll try to get that put together up for my next post.

Want to share your ideas of what other things we’ll not need in a fully metric world? Feel free to add them to the comments section.

Want to share an image of possible way to use old, nonmetric items using one of many reputable filesharing sites? (I’d recommend  Imgur http://imgur.com/ or Photobucket http://photobucket.com/ feel free.* Or even post to my twitter account: https://twitter.com/milebehind. Who knows, maybe I’ll add your ideas to my “Hall of Fame.”

I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks,

Linda (milebehind@gmailcom)

Notes:
* Just please don’t send me image files. I won’t open them for security reasons.

The clutch image from http://www.perpetualkid.com/tape-measure-zippered-bag.aspx

Metric tape measure photo: Simon A. Eugster