Connect with us

Technology

It’s been 230 years since pirates stopped metric in the US • The Register

Avatar

Published

on

Feature In 1793, French scientist Joseph Dombey sailed for the newly formed United States at the request of Thomas Jefferson carrying two objects that could have changed America. He never made it, and now the US is stuck with a retro version of measurement that is unique in the modern world.

The first, a metal cylinder, was exactly one kilogram in mass. The second was a copper rod the length of a newly proposed distance measurement, the meter.

Jefferson was keen on the rationality of the metric system in the US and a keen Francophile. But Dombey’s ship was blown off course, captured by English privateers (pirates with government sanction), and the scientist died on the island of Montserrat while waiting to be ransomed.

And so America is one of a handful of countries that maintains its own unique forms of weights and measures.

The reason for this history lesson? Over the last holiday period this hack has been cooking and is sick of this pounds/ounces/odd pints business – and don’t even get me started on using cups as a unit of measurement.

It’s time for America to get out of the Stone Age and get on board with the International System of Units (SI), as the metric system used to be known.

There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy here – I’m British and we still cling to our pints, miles per hour, and I’m told drug dealers still deal in eighths and ‘teenths in the land of my birth. But the American system is bonkers, has cost the country many millions of dollars, an increasing amount of influence, and needs to be changed.

Brits and Americans…

The cylinder and rod Dombey was carrying, the former now owned by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, was requested by Jefferson because the British system in place was utterly irrational.

When the UK settled in the Americas they brought with them a bastardized version of weights, measures and currencies. A Scottish pint, for example, was almost double the size of an English equivalent until 1824, which speaks volumes about the drinking culture north of the border.

British measurements were initially standardized in the UK’s colonies, but it was a curious system, taking in Roman, Frankish, and frankly bizarre additions. Until 1971, in the UK a pound consisted of 240 pence, with 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound.

To make things even more confusing, individual settlements adopted their own local weights and measures. From 1700, Pennsylvania took control of its own measurements and other areas soon followed. But this mishmash of coins, distances and weights held the country back and Jefferson scored his first success in the foundation of a decimal system for the dollar.

“I question if a common measure of more convenient size than the Dollar could be proposed. The value of 100, 1,000, 10,000 dollars is well estimated by the mind; so is that of a tenth or hundredth of a dollar. Few transactions are above or below these limits,” he said [PDF].

jefferson

So of course he’s on the least popular note

Jefferson wanted something new, more rational, and he was not alone. In the first ever State of the Union address in 1790, George Washington observed: “Uniformity in the Currency, Weights and Measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.”

America was a new country, and owed a large part of the success of the Revolutionary War to France, in particular the French navy. The two countries were close, and the metric system appealed to Jefferson’s mindset, and to many in the new nation.

And this desire for change wasn’t just limited to weights and measures. Also in 1793, Alexander Hamilton hired Noah Webster, who as a lexicographer and ardent revolutionary wanted America to cast off the remnants of the old colonial power. Webster wrote a dictionary, current versions of which can be found in almost every classroom in the US, which includes, color, center, aluminum and other new versions of old words.

And then politics and Napoleon happened

Jefferson asked the French for other samples including a copper meter and a copy of the kilogram, which was sent in 1775, but by then things had changed somewhat since he was no longer running the show. On January 2, 1794, he was replaced as US Secretary of State by fellow Founding Father Edmund Randolph, who was much less keen on the government getting involved in such things.

To make matters worse, relations between America and France were deteriorating sharply. The French government felt that the newly formed nation wasn’t being supportive enough in helping Gallic forces fight the British in the largely European War of the First Coalition. In something of a hissy fit, the French government declined to invite representatives from the US to the international gathering at Paris in 1798-99 that set the initial standards for the metric system.

Jefferson’s plans were kicked into committee and while a form of standardization based on pounds and ounces was approved by the House, the Senate declined to rule on the matter.

Not that it mattered much longer. In 1812, Napoleon effectively abolished the enforcement of the metric system in France. Napoleon was known as Le Petit Caporal, with multiple reports he was five foot two. This was a possibly deliberate misunderstanding since the French inch was then shorter than the British standard and Napoleon was around average height for the time.

After the French dictator was defeated, the case for the metric system in France sank into near-limbo at first, as it did in the US. But it gradually spread across Europe because you can’t keep a good idea down and science and industrialization were demanding it.

Welcome to the rational world

What has kept the metric system going is its inherent rationality. Rather than use a hodgepodge of local systems, why not build one based on measurements everyone could agree on configured around the number 10, which neatly matches the number of digits on most people’s hands?

Above all it’s universal, a gram means a gram in any culture. Meanwhile, buy a pint in the UK and you’ll get 20oz of beer, do the same in America and pints are only 16oz – a fact that still shocks British drinkers. The differences are also there with tons, and the odd concept of stones as a weight measurement.

Metric is by no means perfect. For example, in the initial French system, a gram, or grave as it was initially known, was the mass of one cubic centimeter of water. A meter was a 10 millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator – although the French weren’t exactly sure how far that was at the time.

metre

The original metre carved into the Place Vendôme in Paris, some adjustment required

Since then the system has been revised a lot with discoveries of more natural constants. For example, a meter is now 1/299,792,458 of the distance light travels at during a second. As of 1967, the second itself has been defined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom,” but better measurement by atomic clocks may change this.

The chief adherents to the metric system initially were scientists who desperately needed universal sources of measurement to compare notes and replicate experiments without the errors common when converting from one measuring system to another.

This is down to convoluted systems like 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, 1,760 yards in a mile, compared to 100 centimeters in a meter and 1,000 meters to a kilometer. A US pound is 0.453592 kilograms, to six figures at least, these are the kind of numbers that cause mistakes to be made.

Most famously in recent memory was the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999. The $125 million space probe broke up in the Martian atmosphere after engineers at Lockheed Martin, who built the instrument, used the US Customary System of measurement rather than metric measurements. The probe descended too close to the surface and was lost.

A more down-to-earth example came in 1983 with the Air Canada “Gimli Glider” incident, where pilots of a Boeing 767 underestimated the amount of fuel they needed because the navigational computer was measuring fuel in kilograms rather than points. With roughly 2.2 pounds to the kilogram, the aircraft took on less than half the fuel is needed and the engines failed at 41,000 feet (12,500m).

The two pilots were forced to glide the aircraft, containing 69 souls, to an old air force base in Gimli that luckily one of the pilots had served at. It was now being used as a drag strip but thankfully there were only a few minor injuries. 

And don’t even get me started on Celsius and Fahrenheit. With Celsius water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 at ground level, compared to 32 and 212 for Fahrenheit. It’s a nonsensical system and the US is now the only nation in the world to use Fahrenheit to measure regular temperatures.

The slow and winding road

Back in 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams reported to Congress on the measurements issue. In his seminal study on the topic he concluded that while a metric system based on natural constants was preferable, the amount of kerfuffle needed to change from the current regime would be highly disruptive and he wasn’t sure Congress had the right to overrule the systems used by individual states.

The disruption would have been large. The vast majority of America’s high value trade was with the UK and Canada, neither of which were metric.

In addition, American and British manufacturers rather liked the old ways. With the existing system, companies manufactured parts to their own specifications, meaning if you wanted spares you had to go buy them from the original manufacturer. This proved highly lucrative.

By the middle of the 19th century, things were changing… slightly. The US government scientists did start using some metric measurements for things like mapping out territory, even though its domestic system was more common for day-to-day use. The Civil War also spurred a push towards standardization, with some states like Utah briefly mandating the system.

Two big changes came around in the 20th century following two World Wars. Interchangeability of parts, particularly bolt threading, seriously hampered the Allied forces. In 1947, America joined the International Organization for Standardization and bolt threads went metric. Today the US Army uses metric to better integrate with NATO allies.

This has continued ever since American manufacturers realized they would have to accommodate the new systems if it wanted to sell more kit abroad. Today there are technically US measurement parts still being manufactured, particularly in some industries, but there is at least a standardized system for converting these to metric measurements.

In the 1960s, metric was renamed as the Le Système international d’unités (International System of Units) or SI and things started moving again in America. After Congressional study, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975, setting a plan for America to finally go metric as “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.”

But it suffered some drawbacks. Firstly, the system was voluntary, which massively slowed down adoption. Secondly, a year later, the new US president Jimmy Carter was a strong proponent of the system, and this caused the opposition in Congress to largely oppose the plan.

President Reagan closed most of the moves to metric in 1982, but his successor, Bush, revived some of the plans in 1991, ordering US government departments to move over to metric as far as possible. The issue has been kicked down the road ever since.

Different cultures, different customs

These days the arguments over metric versus American measurements are more fraught, becoming a political issue between left and right. Witness Tucker Carlson’s cringe-worthy rant in which he describes metric as “the yoke of tyranny,” hilariously mispronouncing “kailograms.”

Given that trust-fund kid Carlson was educated in a Swiss boarding school, he knows how it’s pronounced, but never let the facts get in the way of invective.

As such, it seems unlikely that we’ll see anything change soon. But that day is coming – America is no longer the manufacturing giant it was and China is perfectly happy with the metric system, although it maintains other measurement for domestic societal use like Britain does with pints and miles.

There’s really no logical reason to not go metric – it’s a simple, universal system used by every nation in the world except for the US, Liberia and Myanmar. That’s hardly august company for the Land of the Free.

It will be a long, slow process. No country has managed a full shift to metric in less than a generation,mith most it took two or more, and the UK seems to be going backwards. Former prime minister Boris Johnson suggested Britain should go it alone with the old UK Imperial measurements, which make the current American system look positively rational.

It may take generations before the issue is resolved in the UK, and longer still for the US. It may, in fact, never happen in America, but the SI system makes sense, is logically sound, and will remain the language of science, medicine and engineering for the vast majority of the world.

If the US doesn’t want to play catch-up with the rest of the world it will have to take rational measurements seriously. But that day isn’t coming soon, so in the meantime this hack will have to remain using old cookbooks and we’ll face more measurement mistakes together. ®

 



Source link

Technology

Singapore pulls plug on COVID tracking program • The Register

Avatar

Published

on

Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Thursday that it was finally pulling the plug on its COVID tracking program.

On February 13, the city-state’s TraceTogether (TT) program, which uses the Bluetooth radios in mobile phones to track movements, and its business check-in system SafeEntry (SE) will come to a halt.

According to the ministry’s announcement, the government had already begun stepping down TT and SE, and would no longer require infected persons to submit TraceTogether data.

“SE data is no longer being collected, and MOH has deleted all identifiable TT and SE data from its servers and databases,” said the department.

The exception is data that was controversially used off-label in a murder investigation.

The systems will remain intact – as well as registration details including name, business registration, and mobile phone number – in case there is a need for reactivation. One example given is if a more dangerous COVID-19 variant were to spread. Apps will also remain available.

The ministry told members of the public, who haven’t been required to have them since last year, that they may “uninstall their TT App, and enterprises may do the same for the SE (Business) App.”

Furthermore, those with a physical TT token, which came in handy for the non-tech savvy as a device that exchanges anonymized identifiers, were asked to return the dongle for recycling.

Singapore began developing the open source TraceTogether at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The app constantly sought out other Bluetooth-enabled devices that ran the app and logged when they were in close proximity. The country required users to register and inform authorities if they contracted COVID-19 and used the app to draw up lists of contacts who were then isolated.

Other countries, including Australia, based their apps on the technology. While many nations seemed to flop at COVID tracking, Singapore fared somewhat better, even with similar technology. That success has been attributed to a culture willing to comply, combined with a government that modified behavior through other strict rules to keep the virus from spreading.

One example of the additional measures was tracking devices issued to travelers during a required one-week isolation after arriving.

In April, TT and SE became largely superfluous as their use was no longer mandatory except for select events. The efficacy of such systems relied on mass compliance so if some people weren’t using them, they were less effective anyway.

However, job postings for positions related to the program near that time sparked speculation that the system would remain in some form in the island nation, unlike in most other countries. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) told The Register in late March 2022 the job listings were merely for replacing existing employees.

Australia quit its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan followed in September, and China discontinued use of its tracking app in December. ®

Source link

Continue Reading

Technology

Irish biotech Ovagen raises €1.1m for germ-free egg production

Avatar

Published

on

Based in Co Mayo, Ovagen now plans to add 65 jobs over the next five years and hopes to see its revenue reach €42m by the end of 2027.

Irish biotech start-up Ovagen has raised €1.1m in an oversubscribed funding round led by the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN) for its germ-free egg production business.

Ovagen, based in Ballina, Co Mayo, is a biotech company that has developed a process of producing germ-free chicken eggs intended for use in the pharmaceutical industry for products such as vaccines.

According to Ovagen, up to 20pc – or one in five – egg-based vaccine batches are destroyed because of contamination.

Overall, more than 1bn eggs are used every year as ‘bio reactors’ to develop vaccines. Viruses are injected into the eggs to propagate the virus, which vaccine manufacturers can then use to develop vaccines for diseases including the flu, yellow fever, mumps and measles.

Dr Catherine Caulfield, CEO and co-founder of Ovagen, said that current vaccines are developed using specific pathogen free eggs, which are free of many bacteria and viruses, but they are not germ-free and a significant portion become contaminated.

“Our funders have been instrumental in supporting us on our long journey to make a concept a reality,” she said.

“At critical stages in our development, our angel investors have not only provided us with their financial backing, but they have also introduced us to other potential investors, as well as their highly influential industry contacts.”

Ovagen now aims to go to market with the “world’s first germ-free egg” in what is potentially a multimillion euro industry.

“The global potential of the company’s technology is vast and that is why this is the second time HBAN syndicates have backed Ovagen,” said Declan MacFadden, an HBAN spokesperson.

“Ovagen is now in prime position to launch its product and we are excited to see the impact that this ground-breaking development has in a highly lucrative global market.”

Following the latest investment, in which the Western Development Commission and an existing shareholder also participated, the company expects to add 65 jobs (it currently has 12 staff) over the next five years, with revenues reaching €42m by the end of 2027.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Source link

Continue Reading

Technology

Republicans grill ex-Twitter executives over handling of Hunter Biden story | House of Representatives

Avatar

Published

on

US lawmakers held a combative hearing on Wednesday with former senior staffers at Twitter over the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

The proceedings set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to hone in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.

The House oversight committee called for questioning recently departed Twitter employees including Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.

The hearing centered on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020, the month before the US presidential election. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the opportunity to interrogate moderation practices at Twitter and other tech firms.

“The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech,” said Republican committee chairman James Comer, hammering the former employees for censoring the Post story.

people sit at table in congressional chamber
James Baker, former deputy general counsel at Twitter; Vijaya Gadde; former chief legal officer at Twitter; Yoel Roth, former global head of trust and safety; and the former employee Anika Collier Navaroli attend the hearing. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

In that report, the Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report containing potentially hacked materials.

In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy, and the then CEO, Jack Dorsey, later called the company’s communications about the Post article “not great”.

Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said on Wednesday that Twitter acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.

“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”

men in congressional chamber
Yoel Roth prepares to testify. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records, known as the Twitter Files, showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing concerns from the Biden campaign, among other factors.

Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.

“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.

“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”

Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.

Republican lawmakers seem to have found an ally in Musk, and repeatedly praised him during Wednesday’s proceedings. The rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene used her time on the floor to personally attack the former Twitter employees and complain about her own account, which was suspended for violating the platform’s policies on coronavirus misinformation.

“I’m so glad you’ve lost your jobs,” she said. “I am so glad Elon Musk bought Twitter.”

man in front of image of new york post with headline 'biden secret emails'
The oversight committee chairman, James Comer, a Republican, makes opening remarks. Photograph: Jemal Countess/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

But Democrats on Wednesday used their time in the House to explore how the Trump administration engaged with Twitter, revealing that the former president himself tried to interfere with content decisions.

In response to questioning from the new representative Maxwell Frost of Florida, the former Twitter content moderation executive Navaroli confirmed that in 2019 Trump tried to have an insulting tweet from internet personality Chrissy Teigen removed from the platform. In the tweet, which was read for the record, Teigen referred to Trump as a “pussy ass bitch”. Twitter denied the White House’s request, and it remains online today.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further sought to disprove bias against conservative speech on Twitter when she asked about an instance in 2019, when a tweet from Trump including hate speech was kept online despite violating platform policies.

The former president told Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to their countries, a clear violation of Twitter’s policies regarding abuse against immigrants, but was not penalized, Navaroli confirmed, and the rules were changed.

“So Twitter changed their own policy after Trump violated it to accommodate his tweets?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So much for bias against the rightwing on Twitter.”

The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.

In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.

“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting



Source link

Continue Reading

Trending

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates 
directly on your inbox.

You have Successfully Subscribed!