The Trouble with Units


There have already been a couple examples of what can go wrong when you mix up Metric and Imperial units on a Boeing 767 or a spacecraft to Mars. But it turns out that even nonstandard units can cause a little bit of trouble. By “nonstandard units”, I mean units such as spork and by “little bit of trouble” I mean an accounting error of $66,500,000. That’s a lot of cutlery.

The error is related to the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Back in 2005, a large number of house supplies (pots, pans, toilet paper, etc.) were donated or purchased for people who had lost their homes. The items were stored in a warehouse in Louisiana, and then in Texas, and then…nothing. They sat there in Forth Worth, and FEMA paid about a million dollars a year to keep them stored. And not long ago FEMA decided to give them away rather than continue to pay that storage (plus the warehouse was apparently going to be torn down). At this point the story became quite public, and Louisiana said that HEY they still needed those, because three years later there are still people who are recovering, and why have all these things been collecting dust anyway? And FEMA said, Well we offered them to you and you didn’t want them, so don’t blame us. Etc.  Etc. And during all this arguing, the reported value of the supplies was listed at $85 million.

But now it turns out that it wasn’t $85 million after all — it was more like $18.5 million. Because when they were counting things, they counted single items such as  one spork the same as entire cases, as in one case of sporks. As the General Services Administration explained last week, “The final adjustments reveal there was a significant overstatement in the total asset valuation.”

So on the one hand, this is good because that’s $66.5 million dollars that wasn’t wasted after all (indeed, it never existed). And on the other hand, the fact that there was such a large accounting error on top of the revelation that all this stuff was just sitting there doing nothing isn’t really making anyone feel very good.

(See CNN for more details.)

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One Response to “The Trouble with Units”

  1. How many grams in an ounce? | 360 Says:

    […] between units can be hard, as seen before (and before and before).  Fortunately, food containers often include both English units and Metric […]

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