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Carrie Swiggum

Meet the Sole Employee of the U.S. Metric Program

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Carrie Swiggum

The U.S. Metric Program may be the loneliest office in Washington. Located about 30 minutes from the White House, its headquarters is in the much larger—and better funded—“measurement standards laboratory” at NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology).

For years, Ken Butcher was the sole employee working for the Metric Program (there are now two employees). Charged with guiding the whole country through the gargantuan task of metric system conversion decades earlier, he admits progress can be measured in centimeters.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law. It made metric the “preferred” system, though using it was strictly voluntary. But if Russians could forgo the arshine (28 inches), surely Americans could learn to forget the gallon. Global trade demanded a standard and although late, the U.S. would not be left behind.

The Rise and Immediate Fall of Metric Gas Stations

As a young metric converter in the mid-1970s, Butcher was assigned to update West Virginia to the new system. He said almost as soon as the first metric gas station opened in West Virginia, his office—the one trying to help people swap gallons for liters—had to shut the station down.

When a retailer charged 35 cents for a liter of gas versus $1.40 per gallon, cars lined up around the block, causing other store owners to complain.

“They were losing so much business. Then they realized the guy at the metric gas station wasn’t pricing his gas the same way they were”—consumers were paying more and not realizing it. “They complained and pressured the state government to stop the metric system,” he said.

As the years went on, the Metric system wasn't only derided as confusing. It was a communist conspiracy! If the Americans converted under a multi-million dollar price tag, it was prime time for the Soviets to invade our weakened economy, according to the author of the 1981 book Metric Madness: Over 150 Reasons for NOT Converting to the Metric System.

Government downsized under Reagan and cut the U.S. Metric Board in 1982. Butcher was the only person left.

The Metric Movement Today

To be clear, Butcher said, the Metric Program doesn’t promote the adoption of the metric system. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have the resources. Many people over the years have offered to promote the metric system for $20 to $30 million of government money. He laughs.

Armed with a scant budget, Butcher said the extent of the government’s metric campaign is arranging workshops at Rotary Clubs and schools. Part of his job is educating skeptics that they do in fact use the metric system every day. He sometimes gets caught up in conversations where people learn where he works and then vow their loyalty to the inch-pound system. “Don’t need it, don’t want it,” a lady at Costco once said to him. But she was buying tires in metric sizes and didn’t realize it.

“My point is, we’re going to use it—we’re going to be using more and more of it,” he said.

So why make the switch? Safety, for one. Butcher said that there are an increasing number of truck drivers on the roads in the U.S. who grew up in Mexico, or Europeans who migrate to the UK. They are the ones who get stuck under bridges more often than others because they can’t convert 12’ 6” in their head before they hit the overpass.

He said the biggest reason why people haven’t switched is not the millions of dollars it would cost. "If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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