Imperial Road Truckers

By The Metric Maven
Bulldog Edition

I’m not a fan of “reality shows,” but I have been unable to resist one guilty pleasure—Ice Road Truckers. This program is on the History Channel. I can’t help it, I have to watch it each week to observe what new cinematography methods will be employed  in an attempt to eschew metric (SI) units from the program. How will the producers innovate to obscure the fact that Canada and the rest of the world is metric. The female member of the household looks at me with disdain, comments at her disbelief and dissappointment, shakes her head, and retires to another room.

The first time I watched the program, I realized that it featured two Canadian truckers Hugh “The Polar Bear” Rowland and Alex Debogorski, who were driving in Canada. What’s more important than distance, mass (weight), temperature, and volume to truckers? Clearly, if they are in Canada, then the roads would all have distances in Kilometers, the weight of their cargoes would be in Kilograms, liquid loads would be in Liters, and the temperature would be in Celsius. Is this a program where Americans will finally be forced to confront metric units?—not exactly. The Canadian truckers were in Canada, but you couldn’t tell it from the measurements. Early on in its run (no pun intended—really), the program showed a quick cut to a Canadian “Interstate” exit sign. It happened so quickly I could not make out what it said. When I went back frame for frame, it was clear, the exit had km on it. When discussed on the program, temperatures were in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, and weights in pounds. Of course when the program would cut back to Alaska, there was no need for obfuscation and conversion.

Now and then some SI units would get through, but not very often. I recall Hugh Rowland delivering 40,000 liters of something in one program. It was a metric bust for me when during one season the Canadian truckers were imported into Alaska. The apparent success of the program led to the Ice Road Trucker (IRT) producers persuading some of the truckers to drive trucks in India. Whoa!–that’s a metric country, I had to see how that went. Again the producers did their best to obscure metric units.  Bags of cement and other dry goods were generally in 50 kilogram burlap sacks, immediately they became 100 lbs or so. The next year the IRT “summer vacation” was in South America, still metric there. It was then that the producers finally allowed a discussion between Rick Yemm and Lisa Kelly concerning how many kilometers more they needed to go to drop off a load. Now and then the metric world outside of the US was not obscured.

This season has produced some of the most hilarious and surreal viewing so far (at least for The Metric Maven). Hugh, Alex and Rick are all trucking in Canada this season (2012).

What occurred in a recent Ice Road Truckers episode put me in mind of the absurdity found in the Monty Python sketch Buying A Bed. In this sketch, one bedding salesman always multiplies the actual number meant by ten, and the other salesman divides the actual value by three. Neither use the actual values. As you can imagine, this causes considerable confusion on the part of the couple purchasing the bed, as they attempt  to figure out the actual dimensions and prices involved.

In the Ice Road Truckers episode aired on 2012-07-15 this dialog occurs:

Dispatcher:  You’re going to take an excavator to Iklavic. The load is only good for 30,000 and you’re going to be really close to 30 with the excavator.

Alex: Very good.

Dispatcher: So once you’re loaded, make sure you go to the scale.

Alex: I will, thank you, very good.

Is this gross weight in kg or lbs or just gross?
Reading on Canadian Truck Scale (click to enlarge)

Alex then heads over to the scales to weigh his truck with the load. The readout of the scale is shown, which reads 15,500 kg. Two indicator lights are below, with GR and Kg lighted. So I assume we are talking kilograms. GR probably means gross weight, which should be the total weight with the load and driver. Alex then tells the audience: “I’m 15,000 pounds overweight which means I may be too heavy to go down the road, which means we won’t be able to go.” No, no, I protest, I just saw a readout for kilograms on the scale, what’s with Alex stating the value in pounds? Alex obtains a permit which allows him to drive overweight at his own risk. Alex heads out of town with his overloaded vehicle.

We then see a sign which clearly reads: “WINTER ICE ROAD, MAXIMUM WEIGHT 30 000 kg” and Alex repeats what the sign states, but offers no units.

Looks like kg to me
Winter Ice Road Sign with 30,000 kg Limit

Alex  then continues: “Since our weight is over the limit, I’ve gotta be careful about coming on the ice and coming off the ice.”  We then see a sign giving the weigh limits on two ice roads.

Second Sign, I'm sure they're both kilograms
Second Ice Road Sign 35,000 kg

The Tuktoyaktuk Ice Rod is open with a maximum weight of 35,000. I’m assuming Kilograms from the second entry on the sign. Considering these are ice roads, one might expect them to be more explicit. Wouldn’t weight be a paramount number on which to have a handle? Falling through the ice in a truck is generally fatal.

Alex then instructs us: “Because the loads this heavy I have to stick to the center of the road and drive with more caution.” But how heavy is the load?  I saw a scale with 15,500 kilograms. Alex says he’s 15,000 pounds overweight. The ice roads indicate they can handle 30,000 kg. Who’s on first? I have no idea what’s going on.

The narrator then interjects: “Stopping on the ice increases a drivers chance of breaking through, and with this overweight excavator, Alex has 15,000 extra reasons to keep moving.” But, but! Mr. Narrator is it kilograms or pounds!? Metric Mavens want to know! If it’s Canada, shouldn’t it be kilograms?! I’m completely certain that 15,000 kg does not equal 15,000 lbs. As Alex drives across the ice, the Narrator informs us: “He’s driving an overweight truck over thin ice, with a load that’s 15,000 pounds over the safe limit. It is?—what is the total weight?–I’m confused. Alex finally delivers his road—and I will never have any idea what the mass values are. Is this American television production at its best or what. I’m voting for the what.

Throughout the program I watch for metric Easter eggs. A quick flash of a map occurs in a Canada sequence. When I freeze it, indeed the values on the map are in kilometers.

Quick! Nothing Here To See!–except kilometers (click to enlarge)

The map is shown so quickly, I’m sure there’s little chance an American would notice the values, and would probably assume miles.

During another sequence, Rick Yemm is smoking a cigarette outside of a clinic and we are bravely shown a reminder that it is Canada. The sign indicates one should not smoke within eight meters of the entrance.

For the convenience of Americans, it has 25 feet in parenthesis. The Alaska segments have no problem showing lengthy shots of the road signs with miles on them. Just make sure to only show metric signs quickly most of the time when in Canada.

IRT appears to be the only program where metric units intrude upon Americans at all. The producers do their best to turn the program into Imperial Road Truckers, but clearly they are wearing down a bit it seems. More and more metric seems to be slipping through. It is interesting to hear warnings of 100 kilometer per hour winds along with the few other metric intrusions each week on an American television program. I wish the producers could just accept metric and use it exclusively in the Canadian parts of the program. I’ll keep watching, with more hope than good sense, and wonder just how many more years of a non-metric The United States we will have. Too many for my lifetime is what concerns me, and should concern more Americans.

The Metric Printing Mystery

The Metric Maven operating a Royal Zenith Offset Printing Press -- Sometime in the past

By The Metric Maven

The first job I had which required employing technical expertise was operating an offset printing press. We all know that oil and water don’t mix. This is the simple principle behind offset printing. But when putting this property into practice, and printing images onto paper, the devil is in the details. There is a knob which controls the amount of water which is fed to the water rollers, and another knob which controls the amount of ink fed to the ink rollers. The first time I tried to run a press, like many rookies, I ended up with water in my ink rollers, and no acceptable image. The balance between water and ink is important to master.

Offset Printing Schematic
Figure 1 Basic outline of an offset printing press

Offset printing plates at that time were aluminum sheets with image areas made of lacquer. The aluminum areas of the plate are able to take up water, with the help of a mixture of chemicals, which are acidic and slowly etch the aluminum. The areas of the plate which readily take on ink become the printed image. In Figure 1 the basic parts of a printing press are shown. The ink rollers and water rollers contact the plate cylinder and produce an inked image. The plate cylinder then transfers this image to the blanket on the offset cylinder. This reverses the image to be printed. Paper then passes between the offset and impression cylinder. The image on the offset (blanket) cylinder then is transferred, or offset, to the paper and reversed back to the original image on the plate.

The situation is actually a more complex than Figure 1 shows. The offset cylinder has a sheet of rubber material wrapped around it which is called a blanket.

Press Cylinders
Figure 2 Cylinders with blanket attached to the offset cylinder

Figure 2 shows the image as seen on the plate and its reversal when transferred to the rubber blanket on the offset cylinder. The image image is again reversed as it is printed by the blanket onto the sheet of paper passing between the blanket and the impression cylinder. This all appears straightforward, but it turns out the accuracy of the pressure required to accomplish this is very, very, important to creating a quality image. The plate has plastic sheets behind it known as plate packing. The blanket also has packing behind it. The amount of packing behind the blanket controls how much pressure the blanket will press down on the paper with the impression cylinder behind it. The plate packing and the blanket packing control how much pressure is between the printing plate and the blanket on the offset cylinder.

The Graphic Arts Technical Foundation refers to Offset Press Cylinder Packing as “one of the most exacting operations required of the press operator.” If one over-packs the plate, it can “smash” the blanket on the offset cylinder. The blanket is compressed enough that the pressure between the blanket and the impression cylinder is reduced. If the blanket is “smashed,” the paper passing between the blanket and impression cylinder does not have enough pressure to produce an image. Taking the thickness of the paper into account is also critical. The balance of packing the plate and blanket is absolutely critical to obtaining a quality printed image. The range of packing which will produce a quality image is about 10-30 μm. Yes, 10 to 30 micrometers!

Press with Blanket and Plate
Offset press with plate and blanket (blue) shown

One evening I accompanied my father to a printing company run by a friend of his. The owner of the printing company had never operated an offset printing press before. He had always used a letterpress with hot metal type. With letterpress, the relationship is simple, more pressure—darker image. The offset press was printing blotchy ugly images on the paper. The owner of the small company had been working all day trying to get a better image, without improvement. My father inquired what the thickness of the blanket packing was. It seemed about right. He then asked what the plate packing thickness was. The owner was uncertain, so a measurement was made. My father indicated a couple of sheets of packing should be removed. One could see an immediate improvement in the image, and surprise on the face of the owner. Eventually the packing was adjusted so the image was of high quality, and the job was printed.

A number of years passed. I went on to become an Engineer and only thought about offset printing when I spoke with my father. Then, unexpectedly I spoke with a fellow by the name of Jon. As we talked I was mostly mentioning the lack of the metric system in the US, but then he inquired—seemingly out of the blue: “did you used to run an offset printing press?” I was thunderstruck, something I said apparently revealed this part of my background. Slightly stunned I said “Yes–yes I did, a long time ago. I ran a Royal Zenith, and a Davidson 500.” Jon said “I have a metric story for you.”

Printer's DevilJon told me that he had been visiting another printer who had recently purchased a Japanese 5 color press. A press of this type is essentially five offset presses all put together so a single sheet of paper can be printed with five colors in one shot. This allows for four color process printing of color photographs. The printer asked Jon if he wanted to purchase the press–at a considerable discount. Jon asked why, and the printer said “I can’t get it to print a good image.” Jon then explained to me that Japanese [and German] presses are considered the best available—by far these days. He related surprising innovations of which I had never heard before. Jon said it stood to reason that the press was well designed. Clearly there must be a way to fix the image problem.

Jon purchased the Japanese five color offset press, had it moved, and then set it up with standard test patterns. He encountered the same low quality images as the previous owner, but was sure the press had to work. He contacted the Japanese manufacturer for technical help. No matter what he did the test images were unacceptable. Jon was completely frustrated, and after numerous discussions, the Japanese technical representative cryptically said: “we think you should look into metric.”

Jon thought about it, and contacted his graphic arts supplier. He asked if it was possible to obtain blankets with a metric thickness, along with metric packing sheets and plates. The supplier indicated no one had asked for metric before, but maybe he could find some supplies in Europe and obtain them from there. The supplier eventually found metric blankets, packing sheets and a metric packing gauge. There are many other important settings on a press that I have not mentioned—Jon obtained every tool he needed for implementing and verifying these press settings in  metric. Jon told me that the first thing which struck him was how much easier using the metric tools and gauges was, when compared with common imperial ones. The tools also allowed him to use the metric values presented in the manual for the printing press directly, without any need for conversion.

I asked if it helped. Jon smiled with satisfaction, and said the images were just beautiful perhaps the best he’d ever seen. He could see why the Japanese presses were considered the best available. I slowly realized I was standing there slack-jawed with amazement–almost unable to speak. I knew how important plate and blanket packing are, and of course all the other press settings should be adjusted to meet the design requirements for the press. For me it was an incredible story. I realized that the available packing sheets and blanket thicknesses, made in the US—in inches, could possibly keep one from finding a combination which would actually work with a metric printing press. The use of inch gauges for settings could preclude ever obtaining the required metric values. Converting from metric to imperial would introduce opportunities for error and inaccuracies. Yet, US distributors only carried inch based products. Because we have not changed to metric in this country, all of the press supplies in the US are in inches, yet German and Japanese offset printing presses are all designed with metric specifications and parts.

The real punchline to this story is that there is no US manufacturer of offset printing presses any longer. In other words no more inch based printing presses are being manufactured—period. The US graphic arts suppliers still offer only inch based blankets, packing sheets and gauges for inch based printing presses which are no longer manufactured—at all. Only the legacy presses which had been manufactured in the US remain. When people challenge the estimate that it costs each person in the US $16 per day because we have not switched to metric, it is stories like this one, that convince me the estimate is probably low.