On standards…

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since arriving in Australia so decided to put my thoughts all together in one place.

This will all come off, I’m sure, as totalitarian or something to that effect. And certainly implementing these suggestions may actually require global dictatorships, to the point that it all might come off as Orwellian. But I’ll make my case anyway. The overarching logic behind this suggestion is to ease international travel and trade, which can have numerous benefits – safety, economy, environment, etc.

We need to standardize. We need global standards for things. Not everything – laws, customs, etc still make sense to be local – but in a global society like ours certain international differences are making less and less sense. Now I will not say that everything should be North Americanized. I think we need to look at each of these things and figure out which approach will have the least short- and long-term impacts on people who have to convert, as well as the relative merits of the existing systems, before making any decisions. In many cases that may mean North America Europeanizing, Europe Asianizing, Aus/NZ North Americanizing, or any other combination thereof.

I’ll give some examples that have come to me over the last couple of weeks:

Driving – How it even came to be that parts of the world drive on the left and others drive on the right continues to puzzle me. The automobile was invented at a time that global communication was already pretty decent, and the invention would have started in America and spread from there. Actual changes to the design of the vehicle would have to have been made to accommodate left-side driving. The case for setting a global standard is simple – safety. With increasing rates of immigration, as well as affordable world travel, left-side drivers are spending time in right-side countries and vice-versa. Having to adjust to that, in addition to local driving laws and customs, reduces the driver’s awareness and can cause collisions. Even as a pedestrian it took me a good week or two to fully adjust to cars coming at me from the right when waiting to cross a street — thankfully there are often notices on the street reminding me.  The other advantage affects the production of vehicles — from private cars to buses and trams, the side of the street you drive on affects the build of the vehicle itself.  This means more time spent redesigning mirror images of vehicles and less spent making them more efficient.  Not to mention that, depending on where the vehicles are produced, the extra shipping costs of shipping from a manufacturer that produces the correct-side-drive are a huge waste of both financial and natural resources.

I really think we need to just pick the direction most countries go in (it appears to be the right side), and go with it.  The best part is it’s been done before – we’ve already agreed to keep driving uniform within a country, and plenty of countries have changed.

Electrical outlets – There are currently 15 different plug configurations around the world.  That doesn’t even take into account the variation in voltage levels from country to country.  The simple fact of having to convert from country to country makes things incredibly inconvenient for travelers.  It also leads to companies having to produce a number of different versions of the same product for international consumption – sometimes leading to some products being entirely unavailable in certain places.  Not to mention the amount of money and energy wasted in using transformers / converters to convert from one voltage / plug configuration to another.  Apple’s gotten smart and actually makes a “world travel adapter kit” for the iPhone/iPod/iPad charger – for AU$55 I got a plug that will charge my iPhone anywhere in the world by just replacing a small component. Over buying a transformer, this is a welcome improvement. Over keeping the North America-only plug I already had, it’s a huge waste of money and natural resources.  There’s also the safety factor – I have a few plug converters that just change the plug configuration.  I’ve been using them for things I don’t leave plugged in for long (as well as for things that have transformers built directly into the plug that are rated as high as 240V, which is surprisingly common), but with the Aus/NZ standard emitting 240V and North America 110V, devices and cables heat up quickly (that extra 130V needs to go somewhere) and could eventually start a fire.  I suspect most people don’t realize this when they travel, and wonder if there are any stats on it!

I wouldn’t even know where to start on determining which configuration and voltage level to use.  I would hope there would be some energy savings that could be gained by using one voltage or configuration over another – and we should also consider conversion costs from country to country and minimize them.  I can’t find the link now, but I’ve seen discussion online of places that have converted (or at least internally standardized) over time – it seems as easy as saying that all new plugs need to meet the new global standard, and retrofitting over time.  Heck, if we could combine this with implementing better electric grid systems globally it could be a huge energy saver, even after considering the effort in conversion.

Office paper – One thing that startled me when getting here, even though I actually knew about it, was the fact that everything here is printed on A4 paper.  Canada and the US are the only major countries in the world that don’t use the ISO standard.  Now I’m the first person to suggest that paper is long past its expiry date as a medium in general – but even technological alternatives imitate it.  PDF documents, for example, tend to be sized to fit on a standard piece of paper.  In North American, this means letter (8.5″ x 11″) size, but everywhere else this is A4 (8.3″ x 11.7″).  I can’t think of any good economic or environmental reasons to switch (other than making international trade ever so slightly simpler), but frankly the difference is so tiny that I see no good reason NOT to switch, just to avoid the hassle of printing something that ends up being stretched / skewed, or even just having extra options to deal with. For me it’s been a little irritating as virtually all the files on my computer are formatted to Letter size – but my printer and the paper I bought for it are standardized to A4.

I’m willing to beat North Americans would fight this change… but if it were to change, we’d all forget about it soon after.

Currency – This one is likely to be controversial. And until recently, I would have been strongly opposed to any sort of de-nationalization of currency.  But given the ‘rollercoaster’ we’ve since with international currencies lately, and given the relative success of the Euro as an international currency, I’m rethinking it.  At the moment, and for the last few weeks, the Australian, Canadian, and US dollars have all been roughly at par with one another.  While I’ve always, and likely will always, oppose(d) the idea of Canada adopting the US dollar, I’m much more supportive of a globalized currency.  It would certainly, in the long run, serve to eliminate silly inconsistencies like we’ve seen in the past with, for example, book prices that are drastically higher in one currency than another.  As an example, the Australia travel guide that I bought here was priced at US$26.99, CA$31.99, and AU$45.00 – when all three dollars were worth roughly the same.  There are obviously other reasons for these price variances (shipping and taxes being the most obvious), but they’re generally pretty illogical.  There’s also the added advantage of avoiding drastic changes in the cost of living based entirely on currency values – as well as preventing what Naomi Klein refers to as “sharks” who bet (enter into exchange contracts) on currencies in various countries around the world leading to artificial price changes.

Of course, there’s the big question as to which currency to adopt- my vote’s for the Euro, given its current predominance and the fact that it’s already been implemented in numerous places.  There’s also a huge risk with any conversion that countries can be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged on conversion, which should be minimized of course.

Debit/Credit cards – As much as I despise the idea of handing over the reins to global trading to Visa and Mastercard, I’m also really, really, sick of having credit cards and debit cards that are sometimes compatible, and sometimes not.  Australia has been using chip cards for much longer than North America, but has by no means switched over to exclusive use.  And then when you add the complexity of connecting to an international bank, I never know whether I’m going to enter my PIN, sign a receipt, or in some cases, both.  It seems to depend on the financial institution that owns the machine at whatever store I’m at – at most places the PIN will work, but often the PIN will be rejected but a signed receipt will be okay.  At rail stations one of my cards works in the ticket machines, and another doesn’t (I haven’t tried them all).  At some ticket machines I’ve been given the option of “Enter PIN or hit enter” — doing either will authorize the transaction and issue me a ticket.  Thankfully I have an account with one financial institution that has an exchange agreement with an Australian bank so making withdrawals costs me nothing – but using another financial institution costs me dearly.

I think we’re already headed in the right direction on this one – chip cards seem to work, for the most part – I just wish we’d get there already!

Mobile phones – wherever Apple got the idea to create a MicroSIM after we were already headed in the direction of having a global standard SIM card is beyond me.  I suppose it saves on that tiny bit of plastic, but given that virtually every SIM or MicroSIM comes embedded in a credit card-sized holder, even that wasn’t accomplished.  Either way, we’re definitely headed in the right direction here by having a mostly-global mostly-standard system.  We need to keep that up.  More importantly, we need to find ways for phone numbers in general to become internationalized.  The idea of “roaming” and having to sign up with a local phone company in every country in order to have a phone that’s even remotely affordable, in an age where most phone signals are being sent digitally seems outdated to me.  I understand the need to compensate for infrastructure – the signal needs to come from somewhere – but given that Australia has similar infrastructure challenges as Canada (large geographic area, densely populated areas with big rural gaps in between) and has infinitely cheaper mobile phone rates/packages, I question some of the pricing schemes involved.  There are a number of companies here that offer global SIM cards – you sign up for their service and get a local number wherever you travel, and pay consistent rates (which are fairly reasonable) everywhere you go.  I love the idea, and wish we could take it a step further and just keep the same number.  Given the direction the home phone is going, I’m seeing less and less logic in keeping the concept of long distance.

Street signs – this goes back to the safety issue, and is similar to the side-of-the-road discussion so I’ll be brief.  “One way” street signs here, as an example, actually say the words “one way” with an arrow pointing in the correct direction.  While this works in a unilingual country, it means that signs are different in every language around the world, and likely not the same style.  This is one case where I think the North American example works – having a standard arrow with a consistent design to clearly indicate the direction. Even when the words “one way” are written inside the white arrow, you could have this consistent image and know immediately what it means.  Think of the traffic accidents that could be avoided!  Think of the confusion of non-speakers of the country’s primary language!

There are already a number of global street sign standards – I really think they need to be investigated and compared to determine which ones most clearly convey what they’re trying to say, using the least amount of written language.  Obviously written words can’t be avoided altogether (and in many cases could be integrated into the sign’s design), but it would make things so much more straightforward!

DVD/Video/TV formats – in an era where most visual media is transmitted over the  Internet, and where DVDs make their way around the planet quickly, there’s no logic to keeping the PAL/NTSC differential.  I’m not sure if newer DVDs solve this problem, but for now there’s still variance in aspect ratios based on what part of the world you’re in.  Since most countries are switching to digital TV, it only makes sense to switch formatting along with it to whatever we decide is the new standard.  The idea of DVDs being unplayable in one place or another in the year 2010 just seems absurd.  And think of the simplification of production – there would be no need to switch production formats, or even use different factories, to produce DVDs anymore.

We’ve already gotten much of the way there – almost all SECAM technology will play PAL, almost all PAL technology will play NTSC, and a lot of NTSC technology will play PAL.  But we can go further – pick one and go with it. I don’t even care which!

Measurement systems and clothing sizes – As a Canadian, I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that I’ve arrived here in Australia, a country that converted to metric only four years before Canada, and I’m totally lost when it comes to measurement.  Perhaps it’s the American influence.  But I’ve been shocked to discover that I have no idea how to deal with apartments measured in square metres, an oven that measures heat in Celsius, cables at the computer store that are measured in metres, and people on the radio saying how many kilograms of weight they’ve lost.  I actually have no idea what these things even mean.  The measuring cup that came with my apartment is measured in decilitres, so I’ve taken to ballparking how much I need rather than trying to figure it out.  It’s embarrassing.  Here I was thinking I was all superior to Americans because I grew up using measurement systems that are clearly more logical, and more global, than theirs.  Turns out I have a long way to go.

At the same time, many clothes here are sold in inches just as they are in North America.  And Australian shoe sizes are, roughly, one size smaller than American ones.  And bear virtually no resemblance to European or British sizes.  I bought a pair of sandals shortly after arriving, which involved me converting my American shoe size into Australian shoe sizes, and then the clerk converting that into centimetres, because that’s how the company (Ecco, a Danish company) measures its shoes.  Absurd!!

It’s obvious that metric is the way to go.  Canada (along with the US, and the UK) needs to step up and just make the switch already.

“Release dates” – As I write this, many of my Canadian friends are watching, or have already watched, the new movie Burlesque. In Australia, the film is to be released on Boxing Day – a month from now.  In a global world, where most of the media industry makes its money through excessive internet hype, and where it claims that millions, or billions of dollars are lost to piracy, the idea of delaying release of any media is, to me, absurd.  One saving grace, besides the fact that I’m still connecting to the Canadian iTunes store so can download TV as soon as it’s available there anyway, is that some television shows like Glee are now aired on roughly the same day.  Australia airs Glee Wednesdays at 7:30, vs. the US’ Tuesdays at 8 – with the time difference this is less than 10 hours difference.  I rarely download any media that I don’t pay for anymore (or that isn’t officially made available for free), but when I do it’s usually because I’ve been prevented from viewing it where I am.  I get that international copyright laws vary — Canada is known for having more relaxed laws than the US so usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to almost any online media offerings – but preventing people from accessing media when they want it, and how they want it, will lead to them downloading it for free.  As an example, there were occasions when I was in Toronto and didn’t have access to MuchMusic to watch some sort of MTV awards show.  So I went in search of it online.  You could watch live on MTV.com, if you were in the US.  But had no option to watch online in Canada.  So, rather than watching on MTV’s site and giving them the ad revenues associated with higher online viewership, I watched on Justin.TV or one of those other sites that was streaming from somebody’s television somewhere.  Likewise, I’m more than willing, right now, to pay to go see Burlesque.  I don’t know what I’ll do if I find it available online, but the fact that I literally CAN’T watch it in a theatre here means I’m far more likely to watch it for free online than if I had the opportunity to watch it here… the same goes for release dates of CDs, which can often vary by over 6 weeks.  By the end of those 6 weeks, it’s highly likely that the people in those countries that don’t have it yet will have downloaded all of that music for free and may never buy the CD (or the iTunes download) – even if they were perfectly willing to pay for it before.

That last one was a longer rant than I intended – but the conversion in this instance would be pretty easy, it’s just a matter of getting the distribution systems in place to have things available on time. Again, given that a lot of media is transmitted electronically anyway, I doubt this would require any extra work at all.


I’d love to hear comments from readers on other things we should standardize.  While I totally respect and love the idea of cultural variation, I think that practical things such as these make so little sense to have variances on.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Great post Neal! A lot of the standards you suggest make a lot of sense, especially your points about digital media distribution. Producers and countries just need to get that worked out already.

    Regarding conversion of power systems, there’s more to the story than just voltage. As you probably know, in North America the standard outlet voltage is 120VAC (alternating current) at 60Hz. Starting at zero, voltage rises in a sine wave pattern to +120V, then drops to -120V, then goes back to zero again, 60 times every second. Not only that, but the cycle has to be synchronized across the transmission network, or one power plant might cancel out another. The same wave can also make 240V by changing the wiring (for stoves, dryers, etc) and these outlets have different shapes so that we can’t plug our 120V appliance into a 240V socket. In Europe, the standard is 230VAC at 50Hz. Almost all countries have adapted one of these standards, either 120V or 240V, and either 50Hz or 60Hz. Voltage can be stepped down by the transmission network, but the frequency is set at the power plant. Since every country in the world uses a standard close to 120V or 240V, many adapters and devices have a centre-tapped transformer with a switch to accept either of these two voltages. Some detect the line voltage and switch automatically. As for extra materials/waste, every DC adapter is a transformer; the voltage step-down is a matter of windings. The transformer in your iPhone adapter probably has a 12VAC secondary (the AC-DC conversion is electronic) – whether the step down is 20:1 or 10:1 is where the switch comes in, but either way power is maintained across a transformer (ideally).

    The different plug standards are more a matter of power ratings, polarization and grounding than supply voltage. Our North American standard outlet has three pins in a specific configuration that are rated to safely supply 120V at 15A. A device that draws more than 15A has a different plug so that you don’t plug it into that socket and start a fire. Your iPhone adapter uses far far less than 15A, so as long as you can get supply voltage to it, it will work, and that’s where the pin adapters come in. There is a global socket standard (IEC 60906) but it is not well implemented anywhere. Many electronic manufacturers are now making devices with IEC connectors, and supplying cords with IEC females with localized males (i.e. computer power supplies).


    • Thanks for the detail Greg! I should add that in many cases my devices were already rated appropriately – for example, my USB hub has a transformer built into the plug that is rated as high as 250V so all I needed was the plug configuration adapter and all is well and good. The materials waste is in needing the adapter in the first place (since there’s no real reason that plugs should be 45 degrees in Aus and parallel in North America), and in needing to replace cables/etc that aren’t rated as high. In many cases (as with my laptop charger) the step-down transformer is half-way down the cord, so I have a cord with a North American plug on it that is only rated to 110V which then plugs into a step-down transformer attached to a cord that my laptop can handle. Fortunately this only meant buying an Australian cord that’s rated to 240V that can plug into the transformer so I only needed to replace half of the plug (fortunately, the cheap half – they told me replacing the whole thing would be a couple hundred bucks). The point, though, still stands that there’s relatively little reason for there to have been two different sets of standards.

      Would love to learn more about the global socket standard – sounds like a good trend, even if slow to implement!


  2. Interestingly, some places in Australia DO have the universal white-on-black One Way sign. I found one in Darwin, NT: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetone/5253537083/in/set-72157625581440144/

    (for comparison: these are the Sydney One Way signs – http://flic.kr/p/91MRfT)


  3. Posted by traveleish on 2010/12/26 at 6:50 pm

    I like that the Aussie electrical plugs are 45 degree angles. It means that if you have a non-grounded plug (i.e. 2 instead of 3 prongs), you can’t attempt to plug it in the wrong way like you can with North American plugs.

    Most of the other differences come from a time when there was far less travel between countries. With mass travel and migration, a lot of the differences are impratical. I believe that countries that have British history tend to drive on the left. I think it’s something to do with horse riding and right handers and which side of the road your dominant hand was on… just looked, Wikipedia has something on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-_and_left-hand_traffic#History

    DVD/CD/TV/movie delays and differences mean that sellers can make more money. Many US-priced media items are WAY cheaper that the PAL/Aussie versions.


  4. @Traveleish – good point on the plugs! I think there’s a similar problem with European plugs so there could be a case for the Aus/NZ plugs as a standard.

    And that’s interesting about the horses, I never would have thought of any of those things. Conveniently, though, none of the reasons for one side or the other really apply anymore, other than perhaps national pride.

    And so true about media… though that could be true in general, since CDs here are MUCH more expensive than in North America — even the iTunes versions!


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  6. […] now.  I would also consider some earlier posts (namely ones on Internet Services, Development, and Standards) part of this series, though they weren’t explicitly so at the […]


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