Fool’s Gold

Pierre has yet again pointed me to a television program that has prompted a metric essay. This one is called Gold Rush: Freddy Dodge’s Mine Rescue. Freddy and his work partner Juan, show up for a week at gold mines, assess the design of their sluice boxes, and improve them, so that the owners have a fighting chance to make a profit, and carve out a livelihood. Some of these mines are “hobby mines.” The very concept of a hobby mine seemed a bit questionable, as much as “hobby farm.” I grew-up in the Midwest and West. There was nothing but labor involved in farming and ranching, I could not see how that would be a fun “hobby.”

When I watched the first episode, I saw Freddy and Juan show up at a mining site, run the current sluice box design, weigh the amount of gold, and then institute their re-design.
The new design would be run for the same amount of time, and then the extracted gold was weighted, and compared with the original design output, in ounces. When I saw them measuring in ounces, my mind went back to my Nerd Nite talk many solar orbits back. I had a question for the crowd, “which weights more?—-a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?” Screams came from the audience saying they were the same. No, they are not. If you took a pound of feathers and put it on one side of a balance, and a pound of gold was placed on the other side of the balance, it would become clear, the feathers have more mass. So a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.

The next question for the audience was “which weights more? An ounce of feathers—or an ounce of gold?” The audience again screamed they were the same, but no, I had to tell them that in this case an ounce of gold weights more than an ounce of feathers.

How could this be? Well, because our Ye Olde English measures for weight, which are often both thought to be from France, one of these is the avoirdupois pound, which is commonly used in the US. There is an argument that it may have originated in Italy, but either way, not English. The other unit is the Troy pound, which is named after a location in France, but is argued to have originated in England. Both pounds are based on the grain, there are 7000 grains in an avoirdupois pound and 5760 grains in a troy pound, so an avoirdupois pound is heavier than a troy pound. Traditionally, gold is measured in troy pounds and common materials are measured with avoirdupois. So a pound of feathers would weigh more than a pound of gold. But, what about the ounces? Well, there are 12 ounces in a troy pound, and 16 in a avoirdupois pound, so the troy ounce weighs more than an avoirdupois ounce. Therefore an ounce of gold weighs more than an ounce of feathers. I first ran across this as a boy when reading a paperback book of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

As I watched Freddy and Juan measure the gold before and after their upgrades, they kept calling it simply ounces. I was sure the ounces had to be troy, but never was this mentioned. Finally, I saw a close-up of the scale and it said Ozt for ounces troy. I would love to purchase gold in troy ounces and sell it in avoirdupois ounces for the same price. That would be a simple money making scheme. The two would sometimes talk in fractions of an ounce, and other times in a decimal manner. What was clear to me was it would all be a lot simpler if they used grams.

In the episode “The Gold Thief,” Freddy and Juan are at a mine near Helena Montana, where I lived at one time. The state motto of Montana is “Oro Y Plata” which is Gold and Silver in Spanish. They measure 0.1 Ozt before their remake of the mine operation. Afterward, it was 0.47 Ozt, or over four times the amount of gold the previous method had produced. At a mine in Colorado they measured 0.65 Ozt before their fixes, and 1.05 Ozt after their fix. In Alaska they measure 0.27 Ozt over a 12 hour shift. Afterward it was 0.61 ounces troy. I never hear anyone say: “how much is that? I don’t have a feel for that.” As long as it says ounces everyone is comfortable. I recall a story in a foreign country where a driver was asked how far a drive around 200 Km was. They asked, is that about 200 miles? The driver would always say yes, and the the Americans would be perfectly happy after that point. At a bush location in Alaska, where they had to fly-in what was needed for the mine improvements, Freddy and Juan measured 2.25 Ozt, and afterward, 4.13 Ozt. Of course it makes perfect sense to me, and also to Pierre that this should all be massed in grams.

So lets see how the data looks using grams (Gold is about $60 per gram):

Before After Before After
1) 0.1 Ozt 0.47 Ozt 3.11 grams 14.61 grams
2) 0.65 Ozt 1.05 Ozt 20.21 grams 32.65 grams
3) 0.27 Ozt 0.61 Ozt 8.40 grams 18.97 grams
4) 2.25 Ozt 4.13 Ozt 69.98 grams 228.46 grams
I’ve been unable to get this table to correctly space. My apologies.

There is no confusion about which ounce is used, as grams are a universal unit. In the case of 4) above, I could not see an indication they were measuring in troy.

The shows were all rather straightforward, showing Freddy and Juan using inches, and Freddy trying to recall how to give fractions in Spanish, which was painful to watch. Then Freddy and Juan went to the Yukon Territory, which is of course, Canada. They measured 1.40 Ozt initially, and using a very interesting slotted plate design, afterward measured more. But before the end of the show, there is always a short interlude bump between commercials. In this one we have:

Freddy: “25.4 millimeters in an inch.”

Derek: “Hey, that’s right, right on the money. That’s right, that’s good.”

Narrator: “Working in Canada, Freddy has to constantly switch measurements.”

Father: “Derek just goes like this.”

Derek is shown measuring with his thumb and forefinger, about 100 mm or so at a time.

Derek: “six fingers” (which is about 600 mm)

Freddy: “So if you ever need a — if you’ve got US currency.” (Freddy pulls out a US one-dollar bill)

Derek: “What the hell?”

Freddy: “It’s exactly 6 inches. So if you don’t have a tape measure, the US dollar is exactly six. So six to twelve (going end for end) you can divide it and get 3. You can keep on dividing your money down and get an inch or whatever you want.

Derek: “Is that real?”

Freddy: “Yep”

Father: “They thought about everything eh.”

Ammonite fossil which has been fossilized with iron pyrite.

I measured a random one dollar bill an it’s 6 1/8 inch, which is pretty close—not exact. It’s not a bad estimate. References online claim it’s: “6.14 inches, and the width is 2.61 inches.” What really hurts is that a Canadian bill, according to Wikipedia, is 6.00 inches by 2.75 inches, so it could be said that it’s more “American” than Freddy’s American dollar bill. E tu Canada?—that hurts. It’s clear that Freddy had not thought about everything. He does not mention using millimeters for construction, he only pops out a US dollar to show an ad hoc measurement estimate like a low budget magic trick. Derek was almost certainly showing the wonders of 100 mm modules to Freddy, and in the case of 600 mm, that can be divided easily and exactly by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, 24, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 120, 150, 200, 300 and 600. Freddy essentially gets the last word, without the Canadians getting the first on the program. It’s sad to see a “practical guy” like Freddy so ignorant of the advantage of millimeters in construction. But then “practical people” have been using familiar but inefficient methods of measurement, for well over 100 years after they should have known better.

After the interlude, and some commercials, they get to weighing the gold with the new design:

Freddy: “Well, that’s the gold from the new bottom sluice. 0.17”

Father: “Whoa”

Freddy: “So 5 1/2 grams”

Derek: “5 1/2 grams?”

Freddy: “That’s troy ounces.”

Freddy and Juan know a lot about sluice box design, but like so many academics, they are so specialized they can’t see they are using the fool’s gold of measurements, rather than the gold nugget that is metric.

Fading Away

By Randy Bancroft

10 years ago on Pi Day, the Metric Maven website posted its first essay, The Invisible Infrastructure. My advisor and long-time friend Sven predicted I might have a 6 month run before running out of subjects to discuss. I thought he might be right, but decided to do my best to research the metric system. Now it has been 10 years and over 250 essays. I wrote a history of the metric system in the United States, Death by 1000 Cuts. I also wrote a book exploring the use of the metric system that includes all the current metric prefixes, titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I approached literary agents for years without any ability to engage their interest. I self-published Dimensions of the Cosmos, which proved to be a disaster. Despite this, I wrote a second edition of The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I finally decided that it would be best to offer both books online for anyone who is interested. I’m planning on continuing to offer chapters from The Dimensions of the Cosmos on this website until the entire monograph has been published, and then post the book as a single complete file.

What has become painfully clear over the last ten years is that the political system in the United States has no ability to reform itself, and I will not see another discussion of metric conversion in my lifetime. It has become painfully obvious, that at best, I’ve been writing for posterity. At this point, I feel I’m an American stranded on a small non-metric island, with one bottle into which I can put a note, and throw it into the sea, hoping that posterity takes an interest.

In the US, there is an overwhelming belief in the efficacy of technical Darwinism. That a better mouse trap will lead the world to your door. This statement is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he never used the word mousetrap. The need for a government metric mandate to implement the metric system in the US proves to the followers of this mythology, that the metric system is clearly inferior to the farrago of units produced by “market Darwinism.”

Years before the pandemic, I read Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it, by Gina Kolata and The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. I was quite concerned about a possible new pandemic, but furtively hoped it would never happen in my lifetime. In 1918, no one knew what a virus was, and only its size could be determined using filters. These became known as filterable viruses. There was nothing medical science could offer, other than masks, and there was uncertainty as to their efficacy in those days.

When the Covid19 pandemic arrived, viruses were scientifically understood, but developing a vaccine would be difficult, and take time. To my astonishment, researchers were able to fast-track a new method of vaccination, with 10 years of groundwork, using messenger RNA. I was gobsmacked, it was a scientific miracle. The researchers had set a goal of 50% effectiveness, and instead, it was north of 90%. The vaccine did not need to be grown in eggs, it could be quickly manufactured using PCR. Talk about a better mouse-trap!

Despite this amazing development, a large number of people simply refused to be vaccinated. Considering the death rate of SARS Cov-2 is as bad or worse than that of the 1918 flu, one would think the rational reaction would be for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Even after numerous anti-vax proponents perished, their followers continued to endanger themselves and the community by remaining susceptible. For them, seeking the vaccine remained anathema. In 2020, Alabama had more deaths than births. This has never happened before. Finally, there was government action to mandate vaccinations. A visceral and violent reaction followed. I recall the first assumption made in my university class on economics was that people are rational. I’ve seen little evidence of this. My essay Zombie Metric Reform illustrates the fallacy of the rational consumer. The most fictional part of the pre-pandemic movie Contagion, was that after a vaccine was found, everyone would get it.

It struck me, that the reaction against vaccine mandates, is the same general type of excuse trotted out over and over in the US. Any call for a metric system mandate is met with red-faced invective. The Metric Maven post that generated the most comments ever, 94, was The Metric Philosophers, which called for a metric mandate, and questioned those who have waited 150 years for technical Darwinism to bring the metric system to us. It appears this view upset some readers so much, they never returned. I don’t believe the US political system has the ability to govern in a way that promotes the general welfare, only specific welfare, and so I don’t expect the metric system to ever be adopted in the US.

Offering my books and essays online for free, was offering free vaccine to those who would not take it no matter what. One day on LinkedIn I replied to a person arguing against the metric system for use with printed circuit boards. An engineer I had known for ten years, replied to my rebuttal, by insinuating I was a commie, or maybe just a pinko?–for the temerity to promote the metric system in the US. Wow. I offered some metric essays for him to ponder, but as Thomas Paine said:

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead ….

When I think of the use of medieval measurement units in the US, I cannot help but think of this quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

The metric note in a bottle I offer to throw into the cyber-sea, is a collection of what I believe are the most important essays I’ve written for the general public, and posted over the years. I have given this collection of essays the title: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It has the subtitle Essential Essays by the Metric Maven. You may download it below, or in the metric resources section of this website.

After 10 years, I plan on stepping back from posting essays on the metric system in the future. I may still post every month, if a subject appears, or I may not post again if there is nothing of interest to discuss in the future.

I want to thank all those that made this effort possible: Pat Naughtin, Peter Goodyear, Mike Joy, Amy Young, Sven, and to others I’ve probably overlooked, I apologize.