Back to School for the Metric System

One of the supporters of my documentary project is Nicholas Seet and as a result of my contact with him, I started a class a month ago called “Financing the Entrepreneurial Enterprise.”

During the first class we did briefs on the various projects we wanted to launch. The reaction to this documentary by the class members was very positive. In fact, one of the other students told me she’d worked in international trade and conversions had caused problems because sometimes people got them wrong and the company received less money than they should have.

Dual labeling can cause mistakes for employees at the register

Dual labeling can cause mistakes for employees at the register

In another case, a local business owner told how dual labeling was causing her problems. She owns a pet accessories store and sometimes employees in a hurry charge the kilogram price rather than the pound price. Thus, they’re charging less than half of what they should and she loses money every time that happens.

Back to class

One of the big pushes of the class is to raise a small amount of money ($2,000 or less) to help finance our projects (or small parts of them). For the class, we’re working through something called Main Street Crowd that focuses on community-based fundraising efforts. Within this context, it’s to give us successful crowdfunding experience to help prepare some of us to finance larger amounts through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

My project ask will be $1,500 and will be earmarked for my travel and time in Washington D.C. where I plan to have a number of on-camera interviews. Some of the folks I hope to meet with include the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian Institution, Center for Science in the Public Interest and others since they’re all based in the D.C. area.

I'll use Main  Street Crowd to raise money within my class

I’ll use Main Street Crowd to raise money within my class

I’ve already drafted and gotten feedback on my campaign content for the project’s Main Street Crowd page and yesterday we were supposed to have draft scripts ready. In addition to my script, I showed a Prezi presentation while I read the script as kind of a storyboard. Since Prezi allows you to animate your content (kind of like PowerPoint on steroids) it had a pretty good flow.

I received a couple of comments for improvement but the instructor said I could basically record that presentation, add the narration, begin with some live video of myself and I’d have a pretty compelling video for the campaign. What I was planning for was much more time consuming so that came as a welcome relief. I still need to clean it up since it was intended to just give the class an idea of what the images would look like. Once it’s ready, it will be part of my Main Street Crowd page and you can take a look. I know I have a larger number of international readers of this blog and, yes, you can contribute if you’d like.

In other news

– Because of my presentation at the MidSchool Math Conference earlier this year (the conference is already slated for next year) I was approached to take part in a career fair later this month in Taos, about 80 km from where I live. I need to pull together a 45-minute presentation for middle school students that I’ll repeat five times during the sessions. Will probably lose my voice by the end of the day but the more I can get the word out on this project, the better. Not sure if I’ll present at the conference next year. I have an application in.

– Last month was my busiest month of all time. Thanks for helping this happen!

The highest bar represents almost 9,000 pageviews for September

The highest bar represents almost 9,000 pageviews for September. The dark blue bar is for unique pageviews. Most visitors click on two of my pages.

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.

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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Guest Blog from the UK Metric Association on Trade with the United States

A few weeks ago the chairman of the United Kingdom Metric Association (UKMA) asked me if I’d be willing to write a blog post on U.S.-U.K. trade. I would have been happy to—if I had more than a superficial understanding of the details. So instead (and since I figured he knew far more about the situation than I do) I asked him if he’d be willing to share his thoughts through my blog. He consented and what appears below are his words. This has also been posted on the Metric Views site at I thank him for sharing his thoughts with us. To visit the UK Metric Association, go to

Please note: “Notice to stakeholders: public session of the EU-US High Level Regulatory Cooperation Forum in Washington, D.C. – 10-11 April 2013.”  If interested and in the area, you might want to attend since it relates to this blog. For more information, go to

Will EU-US trade agreement bring in metric-only labelling in the US?

 A key point of President Obama’s State of the Union address on 13 February was the proposed EU – US trade agreement, which has been under preliminary discussion for the past year . (See -of-the -union -free -trade – europe). As this agreement is supposed to remove regulatory barriers to trade, there should now be a serious opportunity to remove the US ban on metric-only labelling of most packages.

The problem is that the EU and the US have conflicting labelling requirements.

The EU’s Units of Measurement Directive requires metric labelling of packages, but following lobbying from both American and European exporters, an amendment in 2009 permitted a “supplementary indication” in non – metric units, provided that the supplementary indication was no more prominent than the legal, metric indication. Thus, the metric quantity is mandatory, but the non – metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK).

However, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the US requires that goods that are regulated at the federal level (i.e. most foodstuffs and some household goods) must be labelled with both metric and US Customary measurement units. (US Customary is similar to British “imperial” for mass (weight) and length, but differs for volume). Individual States may allow metric-only labelling for the minority of goods regulated at the State level, and all except Alabama and New York have done so.

The one-sided result is that, as far as measurement units are concerned, US packaging and labelling is accepted in the EU, but EU packaging and labelling may not be accepted in the US. Consequently, any European exporter is faced with the choice of either (a) establishing a separate production line for export goods or (b) dual labelling all goods so that they can be distributed to either the home or the US market.

The reasoning behind the 2009 amendment to the EU Directive was that, if the amendment had not been agreed, exporters would have had to produce separate packaging for the two separate markets. It was claimed that this would be a significant additional business cost and hence a non-tariff  barrier to trade, which would be illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.  Rather than insisting on an immediate reciprocal concession from the US, the European Commission decided, as a gesture of good will, to concede the point in the hope that the US Congress would relent and allow labelling that was legal in the EU to be imported into the US. So far, however, this has not happened as it is opposed by powerful industrial interests that are influential in Congress.  The ostensible  – and illogical – basis for their opposition, is that if metric-only labelling were allowed, manufacturers would have to change their package sizes to rounded metric quantities – e.g. 500 g rather than 1 pound (454 g), and this would entail major investment in packaging machinery. Since there would obviously be no such requirement, one can only conclude that the real basis of the opposition is protectionist.

The significance of all this for metric advocates on both sides of the Atlantic is this.  If metric-only labelling were permitted in the US, then it would be possible for European manufacturers to dispense with supplementary indications completely.  This would be particularly beneficial in the UK, where the ubiquitous presence of imperial units is a constant drag on adapting to metric units, as well as being a reminder that the process of metrication – begun 48 years ago – is still far from completion.  In the US the increasing presence of metric-only labelling would provide an incentive for American consumers to visualise and familiarise themselves with the metric units that they may have touched on at school but have long forgotten.

There are of course many other aspects of package labelling (such as specifying chemical contents and nutritional information) that may need to be resolved in the forthcoming talks, but metric-only labelling would be an easy win that it should be possible for the parties to agree.

© 2013  UK Metric Association