Insignificant Encounters or Why the Petrol Always Clicks Over and Extra Penny

In recent weeks I’ve found that this blog is getting a little serious.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Look around.  Look at the world we live in.  Look at Egypt, where the military has taken over the country, and angry Islamists blow off steam by burning down a few churches.  Look at this country, where journalists can be detained without trial for nine hours under terrorism charges.  So let’s continue with the stuff that really matters.

People are always complaining to me about their petrol always clicking over an extra penny.

Now, there are a few reasons why this might happen.  Sometimes the person filling is just a heavy-handed twat.  Sometimes the pump goes berserk and decides to randomly tick over.  That happens.  But I’m not talking about that shit here.  I’m talking about when the price gauge jumps from £9.99 to £10.01.  That sort of thing perplexes people.  But when you think about it, the reason is obvious.

When Stephen Hawking (a very clever person whose work is a source of constant inspiration for this very clever blog) was writing ‘A Brief History of Time’, his publisher advised him that every equation he included in the book would halve his sales.  I can understand why this might be the case.  Maths is dull, especially if you can’t understand it.  The slightest mention of the subject is probably enough to tempt some of you into closing the browser, never to return.  Well, don’t fucking do that.  This shit is important.

Now, an admission:  I’m fucking terrible at maths.  I’m terrible with anything involving numbers at all.  So forgive me, maths nerds, if what follows is flawed; but I can only work with what I’ve got.

As we all know (without having to consult Google), a hundredth of a litre is called a centilitre.  This is the unit in which fuel is dispensed.  Now, since every centilitre costs slightly more than a penny, it follows that while the volume will increase in regular increments, the price will occasionally jump by two pence.  It’s all about the rounding, yo.  Do you get it?  What about if I put it like this:

Diesel @ £1.399 per litre.

Quantity (L) Price Rounded
0.01 1.399p 1p
0.02 2.798p 3p
0.03 4.197p 4p
0.04 5.596p 6p
0.05 6.995p 7p
0.06 8.394p 8p
0.07 9.793p 10p

Okay.  You get the idea.  Now let’s skip ahead a little:

Quantity (L) Price Rounded
14.28 £19.97772 £19.98
14.29 £19.99171 £19.99
14.30 £20.0057 £20.01
14.31 £20.01969 £20.02

Okay, you notice the absentee, here.  If the price of diesel is 1.399 per litre (as it is at the time of writing) then you are not going to be able to buy exactly twenty poundsworth of it.  No matter what crazy method you employ.

“Oh mighty Cthulhu!” you might shriek, while filling up. “I beseech you to at least temporarily allow that 14.3 times 1.399 no longer equal 20.0057, but some other, more roundly satisfying number!”

Thus far, all such prayers have gone unanswered.  Other methods are similarly effective.  Standing on one leg will not work.  Neither will cupping your lucky testicle with your free hand.  No matter what weird Lovecraftian incantation you perform, you are not going to be able to put exactly fucking twenty pounds worth of fuel in your car.  It is impossible.  You might as well ask that two plus two equal five, or that the interior angles of a triangle add to 181, or that Arsene Wenger buy some fucking players.

I know this, but I’m convinced that there must be at least some people who haven’t worked it out.  Because of the amount of time I spend watching people on the forecourt, squinting at the gauge while applying the same piddling amount of pressure that they apply to their toothpaste tube.  They are all hunched over, paralysed by their concentration.  They are concentrating so hard that it looks as though their eyes might burst.  It’s like a scene from ‘The Hurt Locker’ or something.

“Okay, this time I’m gonna do it.  This time.  Come on.  Seven…eight ….nine….FFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!”

I wish I could tell these people to stop worrying about it.  If anyone can think of any succinct way of conveying everything I’ve said up to now, I’d love to hear it.  I’m talking about a Plain English statement that can be uttered in the time it takes for a cash register to open.  Something that explains this phenomena without inviting further conversation (if a follow-up question might result, then it will turn into a thing.  I don’t want it to be a thing.)  I’m also eager to avoid condescension.  I don’t want to sound like a smartarse or – a hundred times worse – an idiot trying to pose as a smartarse.  This is difficult, since I am trying to educate, here.  I’m trying to free people’s minds.

I haven’t yet come up with a way of doing this.  Until I do, I fear I’ll be forced to just let it slide.

“Always go a penny over, I do!” an old man declares.

“Do you, now?” I reply, through gritted teeth.  “One of those things, I suppose.  Bye!”

And he departs.  He seems happy enough.  He’s come to terms with it.  Of course, his jovial demeanour might all be a façade, there to shield me from a deeply-entrenched melancholy.  But it seems somehow presumptuous to explain the deeper workings of petrol prices.  Maybe he’s dealt with it in his own way, and my explanations would just fuck that all up.  People come to terms with these things in different ways.

One way is to shift the blame.  Of course, sometimes it’s my fault.

“I only wanted twenty pounds!” a man says.  He looks like the man from the cover of ‘Monopoly’.

“Did you?” I ask him.

“I am only going to pay for twenty pounds!”

“Okay then.  A penny saved, and all that.”

“Alright then,” he says, after a moment’s hesitation.  He frowns at me suspiciously.  “Good!”  Then he walks off as though he’s just successfully negotiated a hostage release.

You can shift the blame elsewhere.  Some people cede responsibility for the extra penny by tasking a friend/spouse/significant other with filling the car up, while they go in and pay.  In a lot of cases, it’s clear that they’ve left quite specific instructions as to how much fuel they want in the car, and that this amount is always a round number.  They’ll sometimes come prepared with a penny, as though it’s fallen to them to compensate for their partner’s failure.  It’s as though they’re saying ‘it’s a good thing I’m here, with my penny, to make up for her failure to alter the nature of reality.’

“Gone a penny over again, has she?” says another old man.

“Well, no,” I reply.  “She didn’t go over.  The use of that pronoun implies blame.  She didn’t have a choice in the matter, because the price of fuel means that…”

“Shut up and take my penny.”

A woman is next.  She shakes her head when I tell her how much her fuel costs.  She stares accusingly out at her husband, who sits cowering in the passenger seat.  “He’s a twat,” she explains.

I smile at her.  I nod.  I suppose doing so endorses her point of view, though I know her husband isn’t really a twat (or at least, not for that reason.)  As she returns to the car, I can’t help but notice the way her husband shrinks from her.  It’s difficult to escape the impression that this minor slight is getting filed somewhere, alongside all the other grievances, so it can be used as ammunition in some future argument.  At some point a plate will be thrown against a kitchen wall, and the words “you always go over a fucking penny at the petrol station you useless bastard!” might be bellowed.  You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

Yeah, I always hated maths at school.  But at least the maths teacher didn’t place the same unreasonable demands that these people place on one another.  I am saying, right now, that enough is enough.  As a society we need to address this insanity.  Otherwise, what further madness might result?

“How many fives go into eleven?” the maths teacher of the future might say.

“Two, Sir,” some idiot child will reply (it will be difficult to hear him through the fat build up around his neck; I’m told the children of the future will be crippled by obesity.)

“And one left over?” says another.

“A remainder, eh?  Detention for the lot of you, you little motherfuckers!”

That’s not the sort of world that I want to live in.  Nor is it the sort of world I want for my robot grandchildren.  So, good citizens: spare ye no worry over that extra penny.

Unless you go two pennies over, in which case none of the above applies.  If you do that then you’re just a clumsy twat.

Until next week.

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2 thoughts on “Insignificant Encounters or Why the Petrol Always Clicks Over and Extra Penny

  1. In Esso garages they usually have a pot of free pennies for the people you are referring to. I suspect most people don’t really care and they are just trying to make a game out of getting to the round pound to alleviate the monotony of a mundane task. Like walking on the pavement without stepping on the cracks or carrying all the shopping bags in one go instead of making two trips.

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