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Tilting at Windmills

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May 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM....I have a gift today for my two or three conservative readers. It's a story of government regulation gone wild.

On Wednesday I went up to LA to visit the new and improved Griffith Observatory following its four-year, $93 million renovation. The first thing you see when you walk into the main hall is a Foucault Pendulum, and yesterday it was swinging away. You've probably seen one, but for those who haven't it's basically just a gigantic pendulum that demonstrates the rotation of the earth. As the pendulum swings freely and the earth rotates under it, the plane of the pendulum appears to move in a slow circle. (Nice cartoon explanation here.) At the latitude of Los Angeles it takes 42 hours to complete a circle, and it's traditional that at each hour mark you place a little wooden peg that gets knocked over when the pendulum hits it. It's fun for the whole family.

But yesterday, no pegs. What's the deal? The docent/explainer person explained: the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is down in a shallow pit. One day a health inspector came by and asked how the pegs got reset after they'd all been knocked down. So they told him: someone jumps down into the pit, stands up the pegs, and jumps out.

The health inspector was horrified. That's dangerous! You can't have a city employee leaping into a 5-foot pit and then resetting pegs while a giant pendulum is swinging! Shades of Edgar Allen Poe!

So they contracted with someone to build a peg-setter-upper that could manipulate the pegs from outside the pit. But during the remodeling, they lost the doohickey, and the guy who made it is retired (or dead; I forget which). So: no pegs. Sorry.

And that's your story of bureaucracy run wild. We will return shortly to normal blogging.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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Comments

The health inspector was horrified. That's dangerous! You can't have a city employee leaping into a 3-foot pit and then resetting pegs while a giant pendulum is swinging!

Oh noes! Someone might get bumped on their bottom!

Posted by: Old Hat on May 17, 2007 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure that for around 100 million$$ Halliburton would develop a peg-setter-upper-thingy.

Posted by: steve duncan on May 17, 2007 at 12:09 PM | PERMALINK

Well, stories of goverment waste don't surprise me in the least anymore. Of course the Foucault Pendulum itself is the most extravagant waste. Everyone knows the earth rotates. Why spend money "proving" it?

Posted by: Al on May 17, 2007 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

What if the laws of physics were suddenly disregarded in the Griffith Observatory and the Foucault Pendulum started swinging wildly and somehow hit a toddler? There could be a lawsuit! Shut it down, shut it down!

Posted by: Old Hat on May 17, 2007 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

Wolfie's new job?

Hey Al, stop with blasphemy already. The earth does not rotate, the will of God moves.

Posted by: Trypticon on May 17, 2007 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

biggest government waste story?> Iraq.

duh.

then, tax cuts for the rich, then corporate welfare.

Posted by: Trypticon on May 17, 2007 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Al: "Everyone knows the earth rotates."

Clearly, your support of the Bush administration is waning.

Posted by: Kenji on May 17, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

Someone could have reminded the inspector that not all of the the pegs need to reset at once. If you rest the pegs that are away from the plane of oscillation, there is no danger of being hit by the pendulum. The path of the pendulum is very predictable.

As for the purchase of the pendulum, it is a useful tool for teaching science to children and is probably a good use of money. There are even some adults who could learn from it. Apparently Al is aware of the earth's rotation, but the are many conservative neadrathals who still think the sun revolves around the earth.

Posted by: fostert on May 17, 2007 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

My suggestion for a peg-setter-upper-thingy: one of those gizmos (reach extender, whatever) that short people use to reach things on high shelves. Probably $10. Invented by B. Franklin, so you can throw that in as a history lesson.

No wait, this is a government job. As the old saying goes: an elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.

Posted by: alex on May 17, 2007 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone knows the earth rotates. Why spend money "proving" it?

Let me guess, Al thinks the jury is still out on such concepts as evolution and global warming?

Posted by: Old Hat on May 17, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Based solely on my examination fo the photos, the pendulum pit looks like a confined space, which have a technical definition under OSHA and may require state or federal registration to even enter. I suspect that the story is about a state employee being forbidden to enter the pit by virtue of being a state employee. Rather, the observatory likely doesn't have an employee on hand with the proper training or state/federal registration to enter the pit. Hence the contractor.

So, yes, the situation seems a little silly on its face. However, the underlying context--very strigent state and federal labor safety regulations on who may or may not enter a confined space--is a legacy of innumerable aphyxiations, falls, poisonings, explosions, and burials that characterized unsafe confined space entry in early industrialized America.

See? We can conjure regulatory wonkery from any topic.

Doesn't explain why the problem hasn't been corrected, however. If the pendulum is a popular attraction, spend the money to train an observatory employee to enter the pit safely, or hire a contractor with the requisite training and registration. Jeez.

Posted by: Andrew Wyatt on May 17, 2007 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

The more significant question is why man would think that he can predict the time period of the pendulum with such accuracy when it all depends on God's will.

No one should believen in the formulas of Physics which are the work of the Devil. It is the Devil's aim to lull man into believing that he can use fancy calculations to control God's creation on earth when it is in fact the God who is ultimate Controller and Decider and only Prayer to the Lord can help man have any influence over the conditions around him.

In summary, formulas are evil. Pray. Pray. Pray. For Man's salvation is in Prayer.

Posted by: gregor on May 17, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

That should be "...he story is NOT about a state employee..."

Posted by: Andrew Wyatt on May 17, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

It's a safety issue. If you leave some way for someone to be killed (like being hit on the head by a powered hundredweight pendulum while placing pegs on the floor) you can be absolutely sure somebody will be careless enough to manage it sooner or later. So if there is a cheap way to eliminate the possibility you do it.

Posted by: Tim on May 17, 2007 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, that "cartoon explanation" is one of those Caspar-the-friendly-ghost public information things that I remember from pamphlets all the way back in the 70s. That's great that they've survived all the way 'til now and even made it onto the Internet.

Posted by: HJA on May 17, 2007 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

Andrew: I think it would be a city employee, not state. The rest might be true, though it doesn't sound right to me. If training were all that was required (or the use of a properly certified contractor), that sure doesn't seem like a big deal.

But who knows? The docent didn't go into any more detail. Instead, we're waiting for someone to invent a new remote peg setter upper.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 17, 2007 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, this might be even sillier than it sounds. I wonder if the pendulum is even swinging when the pegs are reset? Probably not. Presumably they let the thing slow down and stop at night, and then reset the pegs in the morning and give it a push to start it back up. So the only danger is jumping into the pit.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on May 17, 2007 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Assignment for Kevin: Research and specify the agency/division responsible for this idiocy, including contact email/link, in an update to this post. Come on, unleash the rabid lambs of hell ...

Posted by: Another Kevin on May 17, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

As one of the guys tasked with resetting the pegs on the Foucault pendulum at Gates Planetarium in Denver many years ago, I can tell you that the danger is real. Even at the slow rate the pendulum swings, getting smashed in the back or in the head by 200 lbs of brass could be downright deadly, and it takes a quick and dexterous person to reset them without being clobbered.

Still, people do dangerous jobs all the time. And most people are positively bored with the silly pendulum, but they all gather 'round when one of the museum people jumps in the pit with the thing.

Posted by: Michael Ditto on May 17, 2007 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

What health inspector is this? Cities seldom have occupational health inspectors and the thought of an OSHA inspector visiting the site is laughable. Besides, show me the regulation that discusses pendula or pegs. It is not their job to ban things usually, rather to ensure safe practices.

This is so silly that it has the odor of urban myth.

Posted by: Mudge on May 17, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: It most likely runs all the time. The electromagnets that power those things are really touchy, and powering it on and off risks getting them out of calibration, and the pendulum starts getting "stuck" (i.e. the magnets keep the pendulum swinging in one spot in relation to the floor).

We stopped ours for cleaning by jumping in the pit, grabbing the cable, and wrangling it to a stop.

Posted by: Michael Ditto on May 17, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Actually, this might be even sillier than it sounds. I wonder if the pendulum is even swinging when the pegs are reset? Probably not. Presumably they let the thing slow down and stop at night, and then reset the pegs in the morning and give it a push to start it back up. So the only danger is jumping into the pit.
Actually I doubt you're right here. These pendula are set up in museums all over. My understanding is that they are designed with a motor that gives a periodic boost at the same frequency as the pendulum's swing. It would be fairly easy to add just as much energy each oscillation as is lost to friction and air drag. That way the length of the arc is the same throughout the day. Posted by: MSR on May 17, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Even at the slow rate the pendulum swings, getting smashed in the back or in the head by 200 lbs of brass could be downright deadly, and it takes a quick and dexterous person to reset them without being clobbered.

That's why you get high schoolers to do it -- they are quick, dexterous, and expendable.

Posted by: Disputo on May 17, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Don't know about this pendulum, but most museum Foucault pendulums have small electromagnets built into the center of the pit that give the pendulum a little kick every oscillation to compensate for air resistance and the momentum transfer necessary to knock over the pins. This allows the pendulum to run perpetually with near constant amplitude.

Posted by: fafner1 on May 17, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Michael Ditto: We stopped ours for cleaning by jumping in the pit, grabbing the cable, and wrangling it to a stop.

First I ever heard of a "pendulum cowboy".

Posted by: alex on May 17, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you should know better: Remember that lots of regulation (especially the worst sort!) is promoted and lobbied by conservative/business interests in order to preserve monopolies, big v. small, lock in certain product designs or practices, etc. Then they turn around and pretend the mess is all liberals' fault. They also hate honest genuine government minimalists like Ron Paul, who would take that away from them.

Posted by: Neil B. on May 17, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

The pins will fall down when and if God wants them to. That's the way he designed it. Isn't that obvious?

Posted by: Roger on May 17, 2007 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps they should have used bullets instead of wooden pegs. Just sayin'.

Posted by: parrot on May 17, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

While I think the Griffith Observatory is one of the wickedest looking structures on the planet -the remodel job they did, attempting to make it into a more 'family-friendly' science center (the Science Center her in St. Louis is MUCH better than the current state of Griffith) is dead on arrival. Many of the new displays do not work and upon leaving, realized that the building is the best part... ok, the Leonard Nimoy theater is pretty cool...

Posted by: brian on May 17, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

This is a really nice example of the "buried lede". The actual story here is that some asshole lost the doohickey. Fortunately for him, he knew that you can always distract any American's attention by yelling "the Guv'mint did it!". And so it proved. He probably got a promotion instead of the can.

Posted by: derek on May 17, 2007 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

The Los Angeles County Bureaucracy. Irritating the Left and the Right since incorporation.

Posted by: Shine on May 17, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

As a society we find it acceptable to have young people with deadly assault rifles and very sharp knives bounding high walls if paid by federal tax dollars, but find an unarmed young people jumping over a low wall to be a hazard if paid for by local funding.

By the way, I am sure the fine folks at E-Z Reacher (www.arcoa.com) could come up with something suitable and reasonably priced.

Posted by: Bell on May 17, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

As a society we find it acceptable to have young people with deadly assault rifles and very sharp knives bounding high walls if paid by federal tax dollars, but find an unarmed young people jumping over a low wall to be a hazard if paid for by local funding.

By the way, I am sure the fine folks at E-Z Reacher (www.arcoa.com) could come up with something suitable and reasonably priced.

Posted by: Bell on May 17, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

As a society we find it acceptable to have young people with deadly assault rifles and very sharp knives bounding high walls if paid by federal tax dollars, but find an unarmed young people jumping over a low wall to be a hazard if paid for by local funding.

By the way, I am sure the fine folks at E-Z Reacher (www.arcoa.com) could come up with something suitable and reasonably priced.

Posted by: Bell on May 17, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B.:

Amazing. I've seen a lot of spin efforts in my time, but blaming health and safety regulations on conservatives has to take the cake.

We all want Republicans to stay out of our bedrooms. Unfortunately, the Democrats seem to already be everyplace else.

Posted by: harry on May 17, 2007 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the cute post. Meanwhile, I'll turn to other blogs for the inside story on just how bad Democratic MayorTonyVillar is, and just how badly GriffithPark is being mismanaged.

There's a big story out there about government malfeasance vis-a-vis the MasterPlan, their response to the fire, etc. etc. But, I'll rely on someone else to ferret it out.

Posted by: TLB on May 17, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Let's not be stupid here guys. If there are electromagnets giving the thing a boost, who is to say they aren't imparting the rotational forces as well?

Tom Friedman told me the world is flat -- why would a pendulum rotate?

I think to be accurate they need to remove the electromagnets, but they won't, why is that?

As for a remote peg setter upper, that sounds to me like a science fair project for the local LA high schools.

Posted by: jerry on May 17, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Samuel Johnson said A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.

A similar comment applies to those who see foolish waste like this example, yet support adding more regulation by local, state and federal government, as well as by international organizations.

Posted by: ex-liberal on May 17, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

ex-liberal: A similar comment applies to those who see foolish waste like this example, yet support adding more regulation by local, state and federal government, as well as by international organizations.

Clearly one stupid overzealous application of a regulation means that all regulations with a proven track record of improving workplace safety, reducing pollution, and so forth, should be eliminated.

Posted by: alex on May 17, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

fafner1: Close, but the electromagnet is at the top of the cable. There's a big blob of iron clamped on the cable and then a coil mounted around the pivot point at the level of the iron.

Posted by: Michael Ditto on May 17, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

I'm available to do a comparative pendula study to devise a better method of setting up pegs. I think I saw one in Paris once and London probably has one, too.

I'll write the statement of work and serve as the tech rep, so long as I get to travel to each pendulum's location, along with the prime contractor.

Posted by: Trashhauler on May 17, 2007 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Did the peg resetter have to work a swing shift?

Posted by: daudi on May 17, 2007 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

I should let them all die! Not just the Gorillas! Everyone! Every living thing! Us, too! Look how it all ends! — It's time it was finished — finished!

— Taylor (Charlton Heston) Beneath the Planet of the Apes

I don't know; I'm not sure he wasn't right.

Posted by: Mike on May 17, 2007 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

This is not a regulatory issue. This is an issue of bad design. The architect designed the pedulum display to require an employee to jump in the pit. They did this because they thought the pit looked cool. There are dozens of pendulums around the country that are not in a pit. Or the architect could have made the pit large enough to have a safe walkway outside of the pendulum swing. Don't blame reasonable safety requirements when the issue is bad design.

Posted by: Engineer person on May 17, 2007 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

Having spent many happy hours of my 1940's childhood at the Griffith Observatory/Planetarium peering down into the pit to watch the Pendulum knock down pegs I have to wonder just how many accidents have ever happened on that site. My guess is none.

Posted by: fyreflye on May 17, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

"Engineer person" is an oxymoron. I know caws I R 1 (of the former).

Posted by: alex on May 17, 2007 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

Let's deconstruct this fable. We have (1) an imperfectly designed pendulum with its own pit, (2) that could expose the person resetting the pegs to being clobbered by a 200 lb. brass ball, (3) which means that the Observatory needs to use a mechanical arm or something like it to do the job safely, (4) but they lost the arm and can't figure out how to get another one. And the moral is: safety regulations are bad? Give me a break, Kevin--you're sounding like a local John Stossel here.

While business spokespersons love to drag out their favorite examples of "dumb regulations," this is not one of them. And while we're chuckling about this sort of "bureaucracy run wild," let's remember, as Jordan Barab, former editor at the aptly named Confined Space blog said when leaving blogging for government work:

[I]f the 12 deaths at Sago last year, or the 15 deaths at the BP Texas City refinery the year before had been the only workplace fatalities on those days, those would have been good days in the American workplace. More than 15 workers are killed every day on the job in this country and a worker becomes injured or ill on the job every 2.5 seconds.

http://spewingforth.blogspot.com/2007/01/goodbye-final-curtain-comes-down.html. Tony Mazzocchi used to make the same point about the eleven people killed in 1975 at LaGuardia by a terrorist's bomb: the same thing happens every day in U.S. workplaces and no one even seems to notice. But you tsk tsk at this.

Posted by: Henry on May 17, 2007 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

Tom Friedman told me the world is flat -- why would a pendulum rotate?

a flat disc could still rotate.

Posted by: Edo on May 17, 2007 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

What health inspector is this? Cities seldom have occupational health inspectors and the thought of an OSHA inspector visiting the site is laughable.

It was probably a Cal-OSHA inspector (yes, we have our own OSHA) who showed up after the Observatory re-opened. Griffith Observatory is a pretty big deal, so I'm not surprised in the least that they would have someone come out and do an inspection before it re-opens.

What do you think this is, Anaheim?

Posted by: Mnemosyne on May 17, 2007 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

("Anaheim" of course referencing the multiple times people have died at Disneyland with virtually no follow-up inspection.)

Posted by: Mnemosyne on May 17, 2007 at 5:52 PM | PERMALINK

My guess is it's all folklore. The observatory staff changes over, they don't really know why it is "not possible" to get in the pit, and they never really question it. They may have utilized the convenience of the device for some time and forgot that it wasn't absolutely necessary.

It's like sheep stepping over an obstacle that's been removed. Do they really do that?

Stop the damn pendulum. Set up the pegs. Give the pendulum a push.

Posted by: B on May 17, 2007 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

TLB,

Is this like your "big story" that the state of Hawaii is an island? Must be more gov't malfeasance, malfeasance so profound that even the state's Republican governor (GovernorLinLin?) can't clean it up.

I'll turn to other blogs for the inside story on just how bad Democratic MayorTonyVillar is.

There's a big story out there about government malfeasance vis-a-vis the MasterPlan, their response to the fire, etc. etc. But, I'll rely on someone else to ferret it out.
Posted by: TLB on May 17, 2007 at 2:06 PM |

Posted by: keith on May 17, 2007 at 7:34 PM | PERMALINK

Stories like these always sound absurd, but Kevin could also get an outraged post out of some idiot peg-setter getting conked by the pendulum and then suing the everloving shit out of the city.

Tort lawyers call this the Learned Hand formula: low probability that an accident will occur but very high harm if somebody gets hit by the thing. Are the pegs worth that much? Are they so goddamned important that risking serious injury, very serious liability, and devastating publicity justifies setting them up by hand every day?

We pay health inspectors and others to be our professional pessimists, because vanishingly unlikely catastrophes happen every single day. If one person calibrates one decision that is not to your liking, that hardly justifies pissing all over "the system."

Posted by: skeptic on May 18, 2007 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

One of my favorite parts of the book Contact that didn't make it into the movie was the scene with the pendulum. Ellie & Palmer were having a debate on science vs faith. She sets the pendulum up to her nose, releases it knowing in her mind that it would not hit her on the return swing, but should couldn't hold still.

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