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

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

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?



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.

Will the United States REALLY Be the Last Country to Adopt the Metric System (SI)?

It came to my attention recently that of the three countries in the world that don’t currently use the metric system on a routine basis: the United States, Burma and Liberia, it appears Burma has now announced its intention to switch over.

(Don’t let the Myanmar reference throw you, I’ve been using “Burma” in my writing and discussion because our government via the CIA Factbook classifies it as Burma.)

From the CIA Factbook

From the CIA Factbook

Anyway, this was sent out as a news story, ironically during our county’s National Metric Week and dated 10/10 no less:

Myanmar is preparing to adopt the metric system or the International System of Units (SI System) as the country’s official system of measurement, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

The reason given:

 …to streamline the weight measuring process in exporting agricultural products such as rice, beans and maize for which various measurement systems have been widely applied, according to Dr. Pwint San, Deputy Minister for Commerce.

Interestingly, I tried to confirm this from another news source but was unable to do so. I was only able to find the exact same story posted on a couple of other sites. Granted, one of them was on page 90 of a pdf titled: Myanmar Investment & Industry Information for Oct-5-11, 2013 and that cited Myanmar Time[s], October 6, 2013. Couldn’t locate the original story even after I switched to the English version of the Times. I also tried to confirm the information on the Myanmar government’s site, and while there I did discover it had a trade conference that week (which would make sense in terms of timing) but only the headlines were viewable in English so I couldn’t find anything more official.

Additional research led me to the following story from last year (July 26, 2012) that cited something from previous year that with the headline and subhead:

Myanmar is converting to the metric system
It’s certainly going to cause a lot of controversy and resistance within the country, but let’s see. 

The article’s lead went on to say:

THE basket, viss, tin and tical would largely disappear from Myanmar if the Ministry of Commerce gets its way.

At a meeting on the development of wholesale centres held in Magwe last month, participants agreed in principle to the government’s proposal to adopt the kilogram as the basic unit for commodities trade in all townships.

If implemented, the kilogram would replace traditional, non-metric measurements that are used widely in domestic trade. The government is pushing the change to make foreign trade, which is conducted exclusively in metric measurements, simpler and bring the country into line with its trade partners.

That would seem to confirm that the intention of the government so maybe it was able to make progress

My contact with the National Institute for Standards and Technology wasn’t able to shed any additional light on this subject but sent me some new references.

So, will Myanmar leave us in the dust regarding metric system adoption? It remains to be seen since I haven’t been able to locate information outside of what’s cited above (such as a proposed adoption date) so I’m willing to sit back for a while and see what else transpires on this front.

Still, if it does comes to pass, it will be the latest country the U.S. Metric Association will recognize as moving toward metric adoption since Jamaica in 1998. That’s not a typo, the fourth to the last country to switch to the metric system did so during the LAST century in 1998.

We are a member in the international organization that supports metric system measures around the globe

We are a member in the international organization that supports metric system measures around the globe

And just to be clear, every country in the world has “officially” adopted the metric system, including the United States. In fact, the United States signed the Convention of the Meter in Paris back in May 1875 and to this day is a member of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.  (World Metrology Day is on May 20 each year to commemorate the signing.)

Do we really want to come in second to last in this important race? Or even last, as is looking more likely?

It’s time to gain some momentum on this front and I plan to write about that more next weekend, stay tuned.

Thanks for your interest,


National Metric Week is Coming: Can You Help?

The logo for this year's National Metric Week

The logo for this year’s National Metric Week

Believe it or not, we actually have a National Metric Week in this country. It’s always the week in which October 10th falls (As in 10/10). This year it’s the week of October 6-12. The annual recognition of the importance of the metric system in the United States is promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

From the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Part of its formal position on the subject of metric system adoption reads in part:

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics supports efforts by the U.S. government to make a transition to the metric system (SI) as the nation’s primary measurement system and to reestablish the U.S. Metric Board to support and encourage the use of the metric system. However, the Council recognizes the leadership responsibility of schools to ensure that all students have experiences that enable them to measure in both the metric and the customary systems as well as to solve problems related to measurement in either system.

The second part of that statement wouldn’t be necessary if we had converted to the metric system during one of our several attempts in the past 200+ years. (And yes, there was more than the one in 1975.)

If the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics think it’s important for our children to covert to the metric system (how I read the above statement) then it must be pretty important because these are the folks who teach our children math!

As if that wasn’t enough, I located the following in of the 2013 version of the National Education Association Handbook under its “Resolutions” section:

B-57. Metric System
The National Education Association believes in the adoption of the International System of Units (SI metric system). The Association advocates that the SI system be taught at all educational levels. Page 238.

And here’s what the National Science Teachers Association has to say to say on the subject (in part):

The efficiency and effectiveness of the metric system has long been evident to scientists, engineers, and educators. Because the metric system is used in all industrial nations except the United States, it is the position of the National Science Teachers Association that the International System of Units (SI) and its language be incorporated as an integral part of the education of children at all levels of their schooling.

Metric system conversion is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) issue

As I’ve pondered our metric system history issues for more than a year, I’ve come to the conclusion that conversion to the metric system is fundamentally an education/STEM issue. For those of you not familiar with the STEM acronym STEM, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

It’s a concept I’m very familiar with since I’ve been writing about regional STEM issues for the national laboratory where I work for many years.

Students well-grounded in STEM fields are critical to our country’s future

As if the above wasn’t enough, here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about STEM education in our country:

The United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators. Yet today, that position is threatened as comparatively few American students pursue expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—and by an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects. President Obama has set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital fields.

Further down on the same page it states:

Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.

Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. The United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. In our competitive global economy, this situation is unacceptable.

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

This is a pitiful situation as far as I’m concerned.

Plus, STEM Careers Pay Well

The U.S. Census reports the “Per capita money income in the past 12 months (2011 dollars” is $27,915 in our nation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, here are the pay ranges for some STEM careers and many of them only include those for people with bachelors or masters degrees.

Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations                      $32,760 to $107,420
Architecture and Engineering Occupations                              $37,900 to $114,080
Computer and Information Technology Occupations               $46,260 to $100,660
Math Occupations                                                                     $70,960 to $99,380
Physicians and Surgeons                                                         $189,402 to $407,292

The bottom line: Resources spent learning U.S. customary units in our schools is a waste of time and our children need to be well versed in the metric system to get high-paying careers in science and medicine.

I urge you to take advantage of national metric week this year to acquaint yourself with the metric system (if you’re not already familiar with it) and set a good example for those around you. Measure using those “other” marks on your rulers for a change and take a look at the milliliter side of your clear class measuring vessels the next time to pour in your ounces and cups.

It’s really not that difficult and, in fact, no country that has converted to the metric system has wanted to go back to its old way of doing things…something to think about.

For additional Metric Week resources, visit the U.S. Metric Association’s pages and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


Top 10 Reasons to Switch to the Metric System Revisited

As I mentioned last week, some recent media coverage on our lack of metric system use by Discovery News and Scientific American has resulted in a lot of traffic to this site. Of particular interest is my post from last September on the Top 10 Reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (or SI).

I’ve included some of my statistics for illustration.

All the traffic to this blog

All the traffic to this blog

Thought it might be a good idea to dust this off and post it up front. I made a couple of tweaks (I’m a writer, I can’t help myself) and have added a pdf to make it easier to pass around if people so choose. I only ask that the information’s source not be removed since down the road I’ll need to fundraise and I’d like to be tied to this work in people’s minds.

My page stats for the past week

My page stats for the past week

I’ll be back next week with fresh content and, since I’m beginning a new phase of this project, with more “behind the scenes” information that I’m hoping you’ll find interesting.

Top 10 Reasons the United States Should Use the Metric System (or SI)

1) It’s the system 95 percent of the world uses
(It’s not standard in the U.S.,  Burma and Liberia)
2) It’s easier to make conversions
(You just move the decimal point right and left)
3) Teaching two measurement systems to children is confusing
4 ) It’s the language of science
5) It’s the language of medicine
6) Conversion errors by the humans using them are inevitable
(We lost a Mars orbiter that way and pharmacy mistakes are common)
7) It’s the language of international commerce
8) Many hobbies and sports use the metric system
9) Its use is necessary for travel outside of the United States
10) So we look less foolish and ignorant to the rest of the world

And a few more for good “measure..”

11) Less clutter since you don’t need liquid and dry measuring cups and teaspoons and
tablespoons (Just a scale and liquid measuring cups)
12)  It’s much easier to conceptualize 1 gram versus 1/28th of an ounce or 1 milliliter
verses 1/29 of a liquid ounce (rounded measures)
13) There are fewer measures to learn. Most people will use meters, liters, and grams
verses more than 10 for liquid and dry U.S. customary measures alone
14) It was designed to be easy to learn and use
(In 1790s Europe the literacy rate was around 60 percent)
15) It makes us a friendlier international tourist destination.

To_10_Reasons_Metric (pdf)

Shortchanging American Children with Our Measurement System

While over the past year I’ve looked at metric adoption from a number of angles, the thing I keep coming back to again and again is how we’re shortchanging our children. Granted, my own daughter is almost 25 years old now so my own progeny concerns me less than our children as a whole and the generations that will follow them.

Students in the Lab with metric beaker

Metric units are used internationally for science

We are doing them a huge disservice every year that we continue to use U.S. customary units (for those new to this blog, we imported imperial units and then futzed with them so they no longer align with any other country in the world) in our education system. Metric units were designed to work together in very logical ways rather than the hodgepodge of units that make up our current measures.

Right now we teach our children both U.S. customary and metric units and under the new Common Core Standards (talked about this in a previous blog) measurement standards are dropped from the curriculum once students hit sixth grade. Still, every minute our customary units are taught in school is a minute wasted and that time would be better spent on other subjects. And every minute that metric units get second billing to U.S. customary units means that we’re ill preparing our children for careers in science, medicine and any activity that will take them out of the country or deal with others internationally.

Increasingly our children will study abroad—but they won’t know the measures used almost everywhere else in the world.

In fact, our children are less likely to stay within our borders during their education than at any point in our history and, according to the U.S. Department of Education,

Over 80,000 Americans study abroad at the college or university level each academic year. The number of U.S. students going abroad has increased by about two percent annually over recent years, and this type of study opportunity is now an established part of American academic life.

Of course, the minute most of our students hit the ground in another country they face an additional hurdle beyond language and culture: lack of familiarity with the metric system that almost everyone else uses. Luckily, the metric system is easy to learn but why make our children have to learn one more thing on the fly when they shouldn’t have to.

In fact, within the first month on this project I was flying to Washington, D.C. to visit friends and begin my research when I happened to sit next to a middle-school math teacher (one of many coincidences I’ve encountered on this project but that’s another blog).

She basically said that her students didn’t think it was a good use of their time to learn the metric system because they’d never use it again. She also said her counterargument was that it was like learning a second language and it might come in handy since other people use it.

Even as early as I was in this project, I offered her the following counterargument to use instead…

Sure, you don’t need to learn the metric system if you:

  • Never plan to leave the country;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in science or technology;
  • Don’t plan on a well-paying job in medicine;
  • Don’t plan on doing anything associated with international trade (including manufacturing and distribution).

Students arriving here will have difficulty learning our illogical measurement system

Not only does our metric adoption hang up our students leaving the country, it also hangs up students coming to our country to study here and they mean big economic business:

(July 13, 2013) Association of International Educators released new economic data today showing that the 764,495 international students studying across the United States supported nearly 300,000 jobs and contributed $21.8 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2011-2012 academic year. Further analysis shows that for every 7 enrolled international students, 3 U.S. jobs are created or supported by spending in the following sectors: higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications, and health insurance. 

International students must start scratching their heads almost the minute they arrive here because they’ve never encountered a system as messed up as ours. “Wait,” I imagine them saying to themselves, “I thought this country was advanced.”

While I’m not suggesting that students wouldn’t come here to study because we don’t use the metric system, it just makes it more difficult for them than it needs to be. International tourism is also one of the reasons Hawaii has considered adoption of the metric system to make it easier for travelers to get around once they arrive. To me, that just adds one more reason to change over to the metric system.

Those with our children’s interests at the forefront will assist with metric adoption

As this movement progresses, it will very important to let parents, grandparents, guardians, etc. know the disservice we’re doing to our current and future generations by clinging to our outmoded ways. Riled parents would probably be one of the most effective ways to give this movement some momentum—but they need to understand the issue first—something I’m hoping to help with.

Let’s give our kids a break and provide them with the best system available and help prepare them for today’s world—it’s the least they deserve from us even if the switchover will take a bit of effort on our part.


American Culture and the Metric System: Part II

Last week I just wanted to report on what I discovered through my poll on American culture and metric system adoption without mucking it up with my observations and opinions. I certainly didn’t want to express any of that prior to launching the poll. That didn’t seem sporting.

My observations thus far

Based on the things I’ve read and people I’ve spoken with regarding this subject, I get a few different reactions:

  1. Wow, I had no idea we’d gotten so far behind.
  2. A negative knee-jerk response to being asked to change something an offer of a quickly-grabbed-at reason why we shouldn’t change (heritage is the one caught most often).
  3. We’re the greatest country in the world and we don’t have to change.

Someone did write-in “arrogance” in the metric system poll a couple of weeks ago and I know it’s something I’ve heard directly from people myself (see number three above).

Let’s take a moment to explore that. By definition, arrogance means “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” Is that the boat we’ve gotten ourselves into? Certainly some folks seem to be paddling in that direction.

We’re no longer at the top of some of the good lists

Unfortunately, we’re rapidly losing any claim we might have to being “the best” in a number of critical areas as I’ve mentioned before in this blog:

As I was writing this, I got curious about where we are in terms of patents (certainly a case could be made whether this is an appropriate measure) but I thought it would be an interesting data point.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry (the World Intellectual Property Organization page has the information spread out a lot more) in 2011 we ranked third in number of patent applications behind Japan and China (no surprise there) and second in patents granted (behind Japan).

An interesting data point listed for 2007 (the only year for which this is listed on the page) indicates “Resident filings per million population” also has us ranked third after Japan and South Korea.


We are at the top of this obesity list

For those of you who are saddened that we are no longer first in the above categories, we do apparently excel in a different area: obesity. A recent article by PBS illustrates the sorry story of our self-reported weight problems.

A world-traveling author speaks

Moving away from statistics and back to the culture issue I started with, I did manage to locate someone who has some insight on American culture. Lance Johnson has produced a book for non-U.S. folks about what they can expect upon hitting our soil. Titled What Foreigners Need to Know About America from A to Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More. (And, yes, the book is as comprehensive as its title.)

Johnson, who has visited 81 different countries, had to include an entire chapter on measurement which, in part, begins:

As you probably know, Americans can be stubborn about some things. The way he measure things is a good example. Nations began to adopt the metric system in the 1840s, and by 1900 most commercially advanced countries of the world had adopted it…The U.S. has never fully converted to it, even with nudging by government and business.

While the above quote relates specifically to the metric system, he points out in other sections of his book some of our other propensities:

At the opposite extreme, 80 percent of Americans emphasized the importance of personal freedom and individual rights compared to just 30 percent of Asians.

He also points out:

About half believe it is very important to know about the cultures and customs of others in order to successfully compete in a global economy, yet from my experience Americans are quite lacking in this area.

He seems to have hit that nail on the head.

Not doomed by our past

However, I don’t think we’re doomed by our past and we now have to constantly adapt to a rapidly-changing environment. Within that context, the metric system would be a fairly easy adjustment since it’s based on logic. At that point we can finally properly communicate with the rest of the world. (The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System)

In coming months I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic as new information comes my way.


And the Winner Is: Results of the American Culture/Metric System Poll

I could write almost endlessly about how to interpret the results of the metric system and our American culture poll but while I’m not a woman of few words, I do like to cut to the chase. To be clear, I knew going in that the results of the poll would be unscientific. However, I did ask questions that could reveal information that might be useful to me moving forward with the project.

I thank all of you who took time to respond and help get the word out on the poll. I greatly appreciate what you had to say.

1) Most of the people who responded to the poll already use the metric system. (66 percent)

Current use

This did not surprise me. Most people in this country have totally lost sight of the metric system so a poll on a subject would most likely interest those who already use it. And, as I’ve observed in the past, this blog has a large international following so that was reflected in the responses. What was heartening to see was that of those who don’t currently use the metric system, a majority thought it would be easy to learn. And right they are—if one is open to learning it. I applaud their adaptability, it’s a quality much needed in today’s world.

This leads the second thing I learned/confirmed with the poll…

2) By a 2 to 1 margin, it was thought resistance to the metric system was more laziness than due to potential problems conversion itself might cause. (26 percent versus 13 percent)

Why don't we use the metric system?

Okay, I’ll admit that the word choice for the most popular suggestion was somewhat loaded. I could have phrased it more gently but I think it somewhat gets to the heart of the matter. (I’m certainly lazy in some ways.)  Plus, if people didn’t like any of the answers I supplied, they were free to write in their own through the “other” category I included with all of the questions. And, in the interest of full disclosure, since it appears readers can’t view the write-ins (first time I’ve used this poll tool), all of them are at the bottom of this post for your inspection.

The answer to the other question in the poll is somewhat more problematic.

3) Almost half who responded to the poll indicated metric adoption would need to be forced, either through federal mandate (24 percent) or removal of U.S. customary units from products sold in this country (23 percent).

What it would take to adopt

Here’s what’s problematic about this: federal mandate is a viable, real-world option but I’m not sure how the second selection could be adopted as a practical matter. Sure, the federal government could require the removal of customary units (but that would be the equivalent of federal mandate) but short of that, removal of non-metric units would have to be voluntary. Some companies would like to go in that direction—but others would likely need to be forced by consumers—to get to the 100 percent mark.  Since the second option excludes government requirement that would take quite a forceful groundswell. Could happen, but unlikely—too much work. Still, I wanted to get a sense of whether people thought that approach could work, and they think it has potential.

Those are the surface findings. You are free to consider the data yourself and comment on it. After you look at the write-ins below (and look at the full responses in my previous post), you’ll have access to all the same information I do.

Speaking of write-ins, I want to highlight one of them that shows what this movement is up against. This is verbatim except for the quotation marks:

why to change it if the old one worked good so far?

I can only hope that was a joke.



Question on why Americans don’t use the metric system
– American exceptionalism
– Misguided legislative priorities
– It would be really expensive to change it. (Ie. Signs, teaching, books.)
– The advantages aren’t worth upfront cost, in money and inconvenience, to switch
– Fear of change.
– It was promised that we’d be using SI within a decade, but Govt did nothing
– The change is not Something that us required to improve
– non-metric habits
– republicans
– Structure of American Government
– It hasn’t been forced on us
– All of the above
– it works- we have always done it this way.
– There is no “burning platform” to change
– Fear
– US Congress would not agree, because of big business influance and pressure.
– why to change it if the old one worked good so far?
– Arrogance!
– Lack of strong leadership that understands the implications of not changing
– Lack of metric education in the schools, Americans don’t understand it is easy.
– Education was too stuck on teaching conversion factors , not how to use metric.

Question on what it would take for Americans to adopt the metric system
– Complete decimation of the economy at the same time the metric world is growing.
– Repeal all regulations relating to units of measure
– get rid of republicans
– It has to be necassary
– It’s already happening; just look at the selection at Home Depot. No rush!
– nothing I can think ot
– Stop teaching STEM classes in English units
– Economic incentives
– Heavier teaching in grade school
– Convert American football to metric

Question on current use or difficulty to learn
– I already use it (i’m a scientist)
– I’m a physicist. I use it every day. But 14,000′ peaks are better that way.
– I know it well, but it would take a while to feel comfortable.
– I use the metric system at work

My Take on the White House Petition for Metric System Adoption—and its Failure

We The People

When I first heard about the petition for metric adoption on the White House’s “We the People” site at the end of last year, I was dismayed.

Yes I’m pro metric, as this page clearly shows, but now was not the time for such a petition and I knew it would fail to elicit any real political movement. Here’s my take on the situation:

• Not enough people are aware how out of step we have gotten with the rest of the world on this issue so there was no way in hell enough people were going to sign the petition for there to be a critical mass to get our government to take action. (I’m hoping to change that with my project but it’s not there yet.)

So let’s take a look at the number of people who signed the petition by the time the clock had run out on it (a petition has 30 days to meet the minimum threshold for signatures): 49,914 (I’ll round it up to 50,000 for the sake of convenience);

and the current population of the United States: 311 million (also rounding).

That means that as far as the White House is concerned, only .021 percent of voting Americans care about this issue. Frankly, a petition to reincorporate the hogshead measurement into our units would have been viewed with the same political imperative given the response rate.

White House

And I while I applaud the fact that the originator of the petition wanted to bring attention to this situation at the highest levels of our government, there may be a couple of adverse outcomes to this effort.

• The current administration has been forced to take an anti-metric-adoption position—formally.

Since there wasn’t enough political interest for the current administration to gain anything by taking up this gauntlet (I probably wouldn’t be writing this if millions of people had signed the petition) it was going to have to develop a reason not to respond positively—and it did. Interestingly, it evoked one of the same reasons that the anti-metric-adoption groups have used throughout most of our country’s history: the Metric Act of 1866.

The law (now almost 150 years old) makes it illegal to refuse to trade in the metric system.

The White House’s official response cites it this way:

Right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation that made it “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.”

Thus, the argument becomes, “You’re free to use it, so go ahead. We already have a law on the books so no more is needed.”

The petition’s official response was: “So choose to live your life in metric if you want, and thank you for signing on.”

I would have preferred to get the administration to form a positive initial stance on metric adoption rather than try to get it to reverse the position it’s now formally taken but it’s not impossible to do so.

• The 50,000 people who signed the petition may take its “defeat” as a sign that things won’t change and get discouraged; I don’t want that to happen because I don’t believe it’s true.

As it is, our history with metric adoption is already as discouraging as it needs to be. As I’ve run through the storytelling in my head, and the fits and starts we’ve had with metric adoption, a case could almost be made that we—as a county—were “ordained” not to use it. I don’t believe that’s true but I hate to see more fuel thrown on that fire.

• It provides encouragement to anti-metric forces that will grow stronger in step with pro-metric forces.

I believe it’s time for us as a country to join with most of the rest of the world in metric adoption and as we see forward momentum in this area (the intent of the petition), an increase in the “pro” position will be met by those with the “con” stance. (I also think the pros will eventually greatly outweigh the cons this time around.) While I believe the cons have a right to be heard, I also would like to see the transition take place as smoothly as possible. This, I think, throws a bump in that road by supplying the opposition with ammunition.

• I must say I find the “bilingual” assertion made in the administration’s official  reply laughable.

The response asserts:

At the same time, if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.

To me that’s the equivalent of endorsing idioglossia.

The linguistic definition of idioglossia is a private language that is used by a small group of people and is not understood outside of that group—it’s what some people might recognize as “twin speak,” or the “language” that some twins develop that only they know.

Within the world stage, only one country uses U.S. customary units (we subverted the “imperial system” many years ago) so we have in a sense, our own private language that 95 percent of the Earth’s population doesn’t understand that we use to talk to ourselves. Sounds like idioglossia to me.

One source I found (a book titled The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids by Jenn Berman) indicates that, in the case of idioglossia, “Most twins outgrow it by the age of four.”

So, as I read it, the government is endorsing the continuation of a private language (U.S. customary units) when most of the rest of world (except Burma and Liberia) have grown up and for the common good (medicine, science, international trade, general communication) have adopted the adult language of the metric system while we stubbornly cling to our “baby talk.”

I have more to say on this topic but that’s enough for this round.


The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System

A brochure from the 1970s. The last time we tried to switch to the metric system.

A brochure from the 1970s. The last time we tried to switch to the metric system.

1) More people in the United States are familiar with the metric system than at any period in our history.
The metric system was last introduced into the United States in the 1970s so baby boomers and every generation since have been taught the metric system even if they don’t use it every day. Only those in the “Silent” (1925-1945) and previous generations were not introduced to it as children. Folks 65 and older only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population so it’s safe to assume that 87 percent of U.S. citizens were taught the metric system at some point.1 More familiarity with it  by the vast majority of our population should make metric adoption easier.2

2) The United States continues to be far from first in math and science compared to the rest of the world. The easier to learn and use metric system could be of benefit.
According to 2011 data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study3, the United States rankings in math and science:

4th grade students = 11th (
8th grade students = 9th (

4th grade students = 7th (
8th grade students = 10th  (

Countries seriously kicking us in the butt include Singapore, China, Korea and Japan (to name a few).

3) Lack of metric adoption presents a trade barrier in a world where China is perceived as the next economic superpower. We don’t want to fall more behind.
This has two parts:
a) For many years the European Union has threatened to stop the import of products with dual (U.S. customary and metric units) labels. While that doesn’t look imminent, any market closed to U.S. products due to a lack of metric units is a mistake. (See more on this topic, see this recent blog post.)

b) The rest of the world is shifting its sights away from the U.S. and toward China as the next economic superpower according to the nonpartisian Pew Research Center. In its report, aptly titled “China Perceived to be Overtaking U.S. as Leading Superpower”4 from last year states:

In 15 of 22 nations surveyed in a Pew Research study, pluralities or majorities of these publics believe that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

This idea that we can make the world go along with our outdated measurement system because we’re such an economic superpower is fading fast. We need to pull our heads out of our collective hubris hole.

4) Many Americans are already using the use metric system in everyday life. Switching over the rest of the way shouldn’t be that difficult.
– If you buy 1.5 liter bottle of your favorite soda, 750 ml of distilled spirits, or read the labels on many medical and food products, you’re already using liters and grams.
– If you travel outside of the country, you’ll encounter metric units since that’s what 95 percent of the world uses.
– Many hobbies entail using the metric system as well.
– Then there’s scientists, doctors and anything that deals with international trade—all metric.

It’s just stupid to continue to support two systems. Switchover problems? Too many other countries have managed it just fine so that’s a moot argument.

5) It’s time to stop handicapping our children.
First, we currently teach our students two systems: U.S. customary and metric. That’s classroom time wasted. Second, they’re taught units that do not logically relate to each other as metric units do. More classroom time wasted. Third, they grow up trying to remember that there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 2 pints in a quart (and so on). Trying to multiply and divide these awkward units means part of their lives are wasted.

What’s one third of a liter?
What’s one third of a quart?
(Which measure should you even use? Cups? Tablespoons? Ounces? Ridiculous.)

6) At best, we’ll come in third to last in the metric race. Do we really want to trail so far behind?
The only other two countries that have not integrated the metric system into daily life are Burma and Liberia. For a country that prides itself on leading the way, we’ve sure gotten into the slow lane on this one. How sad would it be if one of these other countries managed to beat us out at metric adoption?

7) The strongest anti-metric organization in our history no longer exists.
For more than six decades5, the American Institute of Weights and Measures existed solely to halt metric adoption in this country. Not sure when it disappeared exactly but I hold in my hand an anti-metric book that it copyrighted as recently as 1981. Can’t find any current mention of it on the Internet. Good.

8) The current generation is more liberal and, therefore, more open to new ideas—including the metric system and a government that should make life better.
The millennials are more international than any previous generation. They routinely interact with people around the world on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, among others. They buy their illegal drugs in metric units and are much more likely to study abroad and travel out of the country. They don’t bat an eye at change. It’s part of their everyday lives.

In considering the role of the younger vote in the recent presidential election, the Pew Research Center also noted that:

Young voters continue to identify with the Democratic Party at relatively high levels and express more liberal attitudes on a range of issues – from gay marriage to the role of the federal government – than do older voters. In fact, voters under 30 were as likely to identify as Democrats in the 2012 exit poll as they had been in 2008 (44% now, 45% then). And they are the only age group in which a majority said that the government should do more to solve problems.6

9) There is already an undercurrent in metric system awareness in this country and people are actively seeking out information on the topic on their own.
It’s been more than 30 years since the United States disbanded the U.S. Metric Board, thereby officially dropping metric adoption. For whatever reason, it’s starting to occur to people that something is wrong and they’re actively trying to find out what’s happened. I anticipate that this interest will increase and we’ll reach “critical political mass.”

10) Social media is available to help propel metric system adoption forward.
Never before in our history has it been easier propagate ideas and information without buy in from the mainstream media. We can leverage social media to propel the idea of metric system adoption forward and connect with those who are likeminded to band together so that government becomes responsive to our needs. We are the future of the metric system.

One last thought…

Globalization is our reality and we need to be able to be able to communication with, and understand, each other. Common languages are the basis for such communication. We already have two examples of that: chess, and notation (scientific and musical). Let’s add one more language to the international stage: the metric system. For this last concept I give credit to my collaborator and project supporter: Robert Kwasny.

2) This references constructivism learning theory. For more information, go to

Will Hawaii Be the First All-Metric State?

A bill was introduced by state Representative Karl Rhoads of Hawaii earlier this year that seeks to make the metric system mandatory within his state. Called “Relating to the Metric System,” H.B. 36 states in part:

The legislature finds that very strong economic and scientific reasons exist for states to switch to the metric system. Other than Burma and Liberia, the United States is the only country that has not switched to the metric system. The cost of not switching to the metric system is quickly increasing with the trend towards globalization. Failing to switch could result in the United States losing its competitive edge in science and technology, as well as continuing to create bilateral trade impediments with other countries.

The cost of switching to a metric system could be quickly outweighed by the economic benefits of global interoperability. This is particularly important as the dominance of United States companies is being challenged in the competitive atmosphere of globalization. Switching to the metric system would likely result in the creation of many jobs, and enable the current and future workforce of the United States to be more prepared to work in the international marketplace.

It also stipulates that the law would go into effect on January 1, 2018. (

There has been some traffic on the U.S. Metric Association’s listserve (which anyone can join for free) on this topic and some concerns were raised regarding the potential legality of such a law since it might run counter to federal laws regarding labeling.

I do know that “The act to authorize the use of the metric system of weights and measures” from 1866 states:

It shall be lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system; and no contract or dealing, or pleading in any court, shall be deemed invalid or liable to objection because the weights or measures expressed or referred to therein are weights or measures of the metric system.


I don’t have the legal background or financial resources to address this issue right now but I do know that states’ rights issues are relevant in this matter. (As I’ve said before, we’re less the UNITED States of America than we are the United STATES of America. Full metric implementation could be difficult without states’ cooperation.) I had also hypothesized that perhaps it was Hawaii’s shorter exposure to our metric-adoption struggles that helped it along this path but after speaking with Representative Rhoades, there was another, more practical reason (in addition to those listed in H.B. 36 above): tourism.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority:

Hawaii’s visitor industry continues to be the largest generator of jobs among the major industry sectors in the state, providing 152,864 jobs in 2010…Tourism is also the largest source of private capital into the Hawaiian Islands, contributing $11.4 billion in visitor spending and $1 billion in tax revenue last year.


As the Representative pointed out to me, visitors go to Hawaii from all over the world. (And why wouldn’t they? I know I’d like to visit.) Increasingly, people from other countries travel to Hawaii and are tripped up by our illogical measurement system on everything from road signs to fuel to groceries (my words, not his).

A lovely beach in Hawaii

A lovely beach in Hawaii

He hopes that a change to the metric system will not only make it easier for international visitors but that such a transition won’t cause problems for the rest of the country since Hawaii is physically isolated. (Of course, there’s still all the practical reasons listed above why we should all move over to metric.)

I applaud Representative Rhoads for his efforts and while his bill will need reintroduction next year, there is something we can do to help this work along. If you can vote in Hawaii, write to your representatives urging them to support this legislation. Know someone who lives in Hawaii? Clue them in to what’s going on so they can light a fire under those who influence the state’s government. For a complete list of Hawaii state legislators, go to for the House and for the Senate.

While such efforts might not seem to be seminal, by getting forward movement in enough different places, it just might be enough to change the world…oh wait…the rest of the world has changed, it’s us who are lagging behind.

The time to get with the rest of the world is now.


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