Every Little Bit Hurts

By The Metric Maven

I generally don’t watch “reality shows,” but one night I simply could not find the enthusiasm to change the channel. The show was one of those that follow commercial fishermen in the open ocean catching seafood. The work was clearly dangerous. A young new member of the crew was taking a hazing from his fellow employees for making many mistakes. Some of these mistakes were downright dangerous, and I found it disturbing to watch. In the US there is an attitude that job training is for wussies, “book learnin’ is frowned upon, and the need for explanation is an admission of weakness. Real Americans “learn with their hands.”

The boat docked, and was set to unload the bounty of seafood they caught. The youngest guy was tasked with supervising the unloading of the catch, while the others left to get some sleep. One person held a clipboard, and as each portion of the catch was weighed, wrote down the value. The young fellow sat passively by watching one person stack fish on the scale, and another write down the weight. Finally the people purchasing the seafood announced a total, and then the amount they would pay. The new member of the crew signed the form on the clipboard.

Later the head of the boat asked him if he had checked each of the values they read-off against what was on the scale (it was not a digital scale as I recall—which struck me as odd). The newbie’s countenance froze with fear. The chief then asked if he had checked the accuracy of the scale. He had not. A large amount of profanity followed belittling the greenhorn for his stupidity.

What struck me at the time was the incompetence of the chief. It was crazy to leave an inexperienced person with such an important job. But when I thought about it, Americans have an almost instinctive dismissal of the importance of weights and measures. It is almost thought trivial in the US to check to see if the amount of a product matches the price per the amount. The concern centers around price, and not a check of the amount. It may also be that reality shows need an injection of unreality to produce enough conflict for people to watch them.

The shortchanging of customers has a long history, and as has been said before, the history of weights and measures is concurrent with a history of measurement fraud. Those who control large capital and commodities can shave a small amount of product using fraudulent measurements, and by stealing a small amount at a time over large numbers, reap large amounts of ill-gotten gain. This has been so often practiced in the oil patch it has a name: “cheating measurements.”

William Koch (the other brother who had a falling out with the more famous pair) described his brothers use of cheating measurements:

“What Koch was doing was taking all these measurements and then falsifying them on the run sheets,” said Bill Koch. “If the dipstick measured five feet 10 inches and one half inch, they would write down five feet nine and one half inches.”

That may not sound like much, but Bill Koch said it added up. “Well, that was the beauty of the scheme. Because if they’re buying oil from 50,000 different people, and they’re stealing two barrels from each person. What does that add up to? One year, their data showed they stole a million and a half barrels of oil.

I thought about these incidents when I heard a journalist describe a movie that he found laughable: Great Guy. The 1936 film Great Guy stars James Cagney as a member of The Bureau of Weights and measures, fighting against fraudulent measurement in the economy. He is an ex-boxer who does his best to control his temper. Movies of that era have an over-the-top quality, but the ridicule by the journalist seemed beyond that reserved for movies of that era. The very premise seemed obtuse to him.

Apparently it never occurred to the journalist to ask if the amount of gasoline he pumped into his car, or the mass of hamburger, or for that matter, the drugs he might need to take for an illness, were actually consistent with the values on the label, or as advertised. I sometimes wonder if this is a vestigial expression of the pride in mathematical ignorance my fellow Americans love to flaunt with such alacrity. I’m sure the journalist was too busy with actual “investigative journalism” to be bothered with such trivialities.

The credits of the film state that it is based on several Saturday Evening Post articles on the subject from 1933 and 1934, written by James Edward Grant. Cagney’s character demonstrates a scale with a moving front that makes a smaller amount of matter appear to weigh more than it does. He discovers sugar packages that are underweight, chickens that have temporary lead weights placed in them as they are weighed that are then removed before purchase. The proprietor probes to see if he could pay a bribe. Cagney checks a gas station that has been caught previously shorting customers, and the operator tries to bribe him after it’s discovered the practice has returned. In the film Cagney points out how people rationalize this manner of crime:

He knew what it meant to cheat the housewife. Of course it doesn’t sound like much, cheating just a few ounces of meat on the pound or a few potatoes out of the sack. Look understand this, 40 percent of the American income is spent on food and if people are only cheated out of 5 percent in one year that adds up to more than the war debt.

His character runs into corrupt politicians and businessmen on the take from measurement fraud, who show they can frame him whenever they like. Cagney finally loses his composure when he discovers half-shipments of food have been arriving at an orphanage, that charged full-price. The movie is online and may be viewed here.

Another source of measurement fraud can be incompetence.

I will now relate the most epic Sven story I know to illustrate:

Sven has been in his current apartment for about 10 years.  After he had been at his current apartment for a couple of years, he became accustomed to the approximate amount he would expect for a gas bill. Sven understood how much he would expect to be billed in January or July.

One year he got a gas bill he could not explain—it was huge.  What is going on here? Sven thought. The arrival of large bills continued.  Sven kept asking, “why have my bills suddenly jumped like crazy?” It was a very strange situation because all of a sudden Sven was paying more money for gas in July and August than he had in December and January previously. He began to wonder about measurement. His bill is supposedly derived from a reading of his meter by a gas man each month. Could the meter be going crazy? Sven’s history of gas usage in ccf (hundred cubic feet) was checked. There was a sudden increase in gas usage. It made no sense.

First Sven  used his cell phone camera to take photos of all the gas meters on his apartment building. All of the meters are labeled according to apartment numbers. His was in a row of six meters, with six oval brass tags.

Gas meters are are made cheap as possible, and every other dial runs clockwise and the other counter-clockwise to save the cost of a single gear.

Typical US gas meter face. Adjacent dials are numbered (and rotate) in opposite directions. This may reduce the cost of the gear mechanism slightly, but does nothing for what engineers call Human Factors.

Sven collected images of a lot of meter faces. He concluded that if he believed the tag number above the meter, it was logging the same amount of ccfs that were appearing on his monthly bill. How could he be using all those ccfs?

Sven would wait until he heard his water heater start, then he would quickly throw on some old ski cloths, run outside, and see if the meter was turning. Even though his water heater was on, his meter WAS NOT TURNING. That was interesting. Then he got the idea  that when he heard his water heater shut off, he also rushed out to check his meter. Sven did this and took photos over and over. There was no statistical correlation between the operation of his water heater, and the turning of the meter.

This seemed odd. The water heater is the only gas appliance that Sven had in his apartment. He has a gas log, but he had shut it off, and also its pilot light. So he only had one gas appropriator.

Next Sven went to his apartment manager and said “hey this is weird, there are times when my water heater is on and my gas meter is not turning, and other times when my water heater is off, and my gas meter is turning.” Her response was “that’s interesting, but I don’t see why it’s my problem.” You really should talk to the gas company. The meters belong to them, and not the apartment complex.

Sven called Xcel Energy, and told them he had concerns about the gas meter. It took 2-3 phone calls to convince the woman at the end of the phone, that he was talking about his gas meter. There was confusion that it was his electric meter, as Xcel does both. Finally, he told her he is an engineer, and he knows the difference between a gas meter, and electric meter.  They had dropped by and checked the electric meter, which was not not what he requested.

There clearly was no correlation between when his gas meter was on, and when his water heater was on. Xcel pointed at the Apartment Manager, and the Apartment Manager said that it’s your gas bill, you need to talk to Xcel.

This round-robin  went on for around a year. Eventually, by making a pest of himself, Sven persuaded his apartment manager that Xcel said they can’t deal with Sven because he does not own the building.

The apartment manager agreed to send two maintenance men, with walkie-talkies. One would be in the apartment and run water until the water heater turned on. He would then contact the other maintenance guy and ask which meter is turning. They had to do this a couple of times. There were occasions when multiple meters were turning.

Sven finally got them to say: “wait a minute the meter for your apartment number is not turning.” After that experiment, the Apartment Manager would talk to Xcel and work on resolving the issue. It turned out that the numerical apartment number labels marking which apartment  belonged with  which meter were wrong. The apartments had been around 20 years, so for 20 years, someone else has been paying the bill for the apartment Sven now resided in.

At this point Sven had the interest of his apartment manager. She started to be on his side. Why did Sven’s bill go sky-high?–and why then? A new tenant had moved in below Sven. Sven lives on the second floor. This lady was a hot house plant. She was using more gas in July and August than Sven used in January and December, and that was the reason for the jump. Profligate in gas usage, she was using more heat than Hercule Poirot. A check of the move-in date correlated exactly with the jump in gas usage.

Indeed, it was now determined that Sven’s meter was in fact mislabeled. The Apartment Manger thought they should run this experiment on the other apartments. What they discovered, by using the simple experiment of water heater and meter with walkie-talkies, were that all six gas meters were crossed up. No apartment was paying their own gas bill for the last 20 years. The upshot was that Sven was credited for all the gas he had not purchased, by doing a cross-calculation against the apartment below. Sven got a credit on his gas bill—of $500.00 plus—for two years of gas bills. They could only go back two years. Sven did not pay utility bills for about 6-8 months.

One day came a knock on door. It was a lady who lived on the upper floor. She inquired:

“Are you the one who made so much of a kerfuffle about the  gas meter bills?”  It turned out the original builder of the apartments had run the gas lines wrong and labeled them wrong. The woman had a received a credit and was thankful. She gave Sven a $10.00 Starbucks Card. He thanked her for it. Sven, in case you didn’t know it is a Great Guy.

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Mythbusters Jr. & Metric Blindness

By The Metric Maven

Split Bulldog Edition

Adam Savage has returned with a new version of Mythbusters, titled Mythbusters Jr. Adam hosts a number of wunderkind who address a number of myths—-for science! In 2012, when asked about why the Mythbusters did not use the metric system in their show, the answer was:

“We try, we do both sometimes. But we’re both fully inculcated with the English system, sad to say. That’s how we think.”

Adam has now taken on the responsibility to educate a new generation in the adventures of myth-busting. During his sabbatical did he muse on measurements?—-and try to inform himself about them?—well, I’m sure this won’t be much of a spoiler—but no…. not at all it appears. Worse, it’s clear he is passing on American measurement prejudice and hubris that decreases our scientific literacy.

In a segment titled Space Scream, the team examines, if in space: “no one can hear you scream.” To investigate this assertion, they build a vacuum chamber, and then use a pump to pull a vacuum. A gauge is shown which has KPa, and also inches Hg. One of the impressionable students reads out “five inches of mercury.” Adam Savage then states: “Now the numbers you’re hearing are inches of mercury. Ten inches of mercury! They’re a standard unit of measurement for atmospheric pressure—and it goes back to one of the earliest tests on vacuum which is how far up a tube can you draw liquid mercury. Eighteen inches of mercury—and it turns out 29.92 inches is as far as you’ll ever get. That is as close to a perfect vacuum as you can get here on Earth.”

What might have been useful is explaining the other scale, the Kilopascal scale. That a pascal is a newton of force per square meter, or a force that exists over an area, like pounds per square inch, but metric. But this is a quibble compared to their metric blindness in a segment called Spider Silk vs Steel. The segment starts out astonishingly metric, but with introduced confusion about micron versus micrometer. Dr Todd Blackledge, a professor at the University of Akron, when asked how thick the spider silk is, stated it is about 3 microns. Once again, academic metric ossification in the US concerning the metric system is still on display.

The myth they examine is whether spider silk is stronger than steel. The spider thread used is estimated at 3 microns in thickness. I cringed, and thought the word micrometer clearly and unambiguously expresses the value of length. Then Mythbuster Jr. Allie makes me proud: “We got our hands on some pretty thin steal thread. It’s about 30 micrometers thick. We looked at our spider silk underneath a microscope, and it was about 3 micrometers thick.” The voice over narrator then quashes my metric hope, by re-introducing microns, and equating them with micrometers. Overall, still not bad for a US television program. They even show the computations! This is not kid stuff! It might have been useful for Mythbusters Jr. to have pointed out that a human hair is about 100 micrometers thick for comparison. The steel thread is about three times smaller than a human hair and the spider silk is about 30 times smaller than a human hair. Measurement expression and clarity, is clearly not Adam’s thing. He’s too inculcated in the “English System” to change.

First, a steel thread is connected between a pair of posts on upright columns. A wire hook is placed at the center. One-by-one, washers and paperclips are added to the bottom hook of the double hook, which slowly stretches the steel thread. The added mass in grams is called out. Adam spoils the metric mood by pointing out the stretch of the filament is about four inches. The total mass added when the steel fiber fails is 39.305 grams. One might question the youthful readout to 5 micrograms. That’s quite a scale. The voice-over narrator continues to use microns.

Next, 500 threads of spider silk is connected between the two connection points, and the process repeated. The amount of paper clips and washers was 83 grams when the spider silk failed. The spider silk clearly was stronger than the steel thread.

Coarsely labeled container used to stress the steel wire and spider silk

To check this result, 25 000 strands of spider silk will be placed across the two posts. Adam tells us it’s 9.5 miles of silk, or 15.2 Kilometers for refined people. The test fixture is modified by connecting a graduated container at the bottom of the test hook. This container will be filled with water until the thread under test fails. They will then have the weight in water which caused thread failure. The container is coarsely graduated in both liters and quarts.

They use a 28 gauge steel wire for the initial test, but never indicate what its diameter is, as if 28 gauge means something. They use 40 pounds of water in the reservoir and allow gravity to slowly convey it to the rectangular container stressing the steel wire. The group then weighs the water to find out what mass of water precipitated the failure. It’s 12.5 pounds. They switched to pounds?—of course they did.

The 25 000 strands of spider silk is then prepared, and water allowed to flow. They helpfully show that the spider silk has passed the steel wire snap value, which occurred when a volume of 5.9 quarts, with a “mass” of 12.5 pounds, was in the container. The camera shows the water approaching the 8 quart mark. We next see it approach 10 liters, which is between 8 and 12 quart marks. Then failure occurs. Adam weights the water and measures 26 pounds.

Well, from a metric standpoint this is a serious cold mess. The first test with 500 spider silk threads was essentially metric, even if the long retired and meaningless micron was used. The second test used water. Adam looked at the value in quarts, and then weighted it, to determine the value in pounds. This is true metric blindness. If one has 500 mL of water it will weigh 500 grams. Each liter of water (i.e. 1000 mL) has a mass of 1 Kilogram (i.e 1000 grams). They could have used a container with mL, and read-off the value also as an estimated mass in grams. This would have been very, very educational for the youth participating in this experiment, but American metric blindness kept them from seeing this simplification. There is no instant equivalence between quarts and pounds of water like there is with liters and Kilograms. There is an expectation of complication and de-correlation of units for the “English System,” with which Adam is inculcated.

We could only see the 10 liter mark during the segment, which indicates 10 Kilograms or about 22 pounds at that point. The final value measured was 26 pounds which works back to 11.81 Kg, or 11.81 liters of water, or 11 810 mL, or 11 810 grams. Had some thought been put into the measurement involved, both experiments could have been expressed with the same metric units. In the first case, they had 39 grams for the steel and 83 grams for the spider silk. In the second experiment we have 5682 grams and 11 810 grams. It could have been all the same units.

An American audience could have learned the simplicity of using water to measure mass, and how its volume could be used as a check when weighed. 1000 mL is 1000 grams. The two values should ideally be equal, but Mythbusters Jr. has metric blindness. I have written this blog for over six years now, and written to the original Mythbusters program. What Mythbusters and Mythbusters Jr. seem to have proven to me is, that in Cyberspace, no one can hear your metric scream.