Calculating the value of pie.

Of all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

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A mess of gooey, gluey, goodness.

I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.

Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.

All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark.

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An insane pronouncement

Let’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

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Something In the Dark

In light of all the recent revelations about government agencies spying on American citizens — and more importantly, all the government’s prevarications and half-truths about the level of detail and the purposes to which that information is being put — I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a reasonably surveillance-proof browser on my computer.

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Message in a Bottle.

Not good for the environment, but possibly an interesting way to meet people.

Some time ago I heard about a couple of guys who were going to use helium balloons to send up disposable cameras with instructions for whoever finds the cameras to use them to take pictures of themselves and their lives and then send the cameras back.

Then, as now, I thought the idea was a singularly bad one, mainly for environmental reasons: the balloons were almost certainly going to end up choking a sea turtle or an albatross when they blew out to sea and came to rest somewhere in the Atlantic.

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Sing, Baby, Sing

“A man named Nasruddin was sentenced to die (for a crime we don’t have to go into here). Hauled up before the king, he was asked: ‘Is there any reason at all why I shouldn’t have your head off right now?’ To which he replied: ‘Oh, King! I am the greatest teacher in your kingdom, and it would surely be a waste to kill such a great teacher. My skills are so great that I could even teach your favorite horse to sing, if I had but a year to try.’ The king was amused, and said: ‘Very well then, you have one year, and if the horse isn’t singing a year from now, you will wish you had died today.'”

I’ve been hearing otherwise perfectly intelligent friends complaining about gas prices a lot lately; many of them are blaming the current president and his energy policies for the spike, echoing the comments of a number of conservative lawmakers. The consensus seems to be that regulation of the petroleum industry is the source of the problem: with fewer controls, and the freedom to drill wherever the oil may be found, the industry could meet our needs and keep prices down.

According to a neat little Power-Point presentation by the American Petroleum Institute, “…We have enough oil and natural gas resources to power 65 million cars for 60 years.”1

This certainly sound like something that should be taken into consideration when making policy decisions, since Americans are not going to be switching over to bicycles any time soon. “65 million cars for 60 years.” That’s a lot of cars, for a lot longer than I’ll be around. In 60 years, I’ll be dead, and probably most of the people I know will either be dead or no longer driving. A lot can happen in 60 years.

But there’s a problem: there are currently 250 million cars on the road in the US, not 65 million, almost four times as many as in the API statistic. Do the math, and that means we’re talking about not 60 years, but 15.

There’s something surreal about much of the discussion currently going on about fuel prices. Republicans seems to be convinced that making it easier and faster to move Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico and onto tankers to ship to China and India is somehow good for America.

Gasoline prices in parts of the Midwest have been artificially low for years because of a glut of oil at the Cushing, Oklahoma, transshipment point2, a situation which will never occur again if the Keystone Pipeline moves the oil directly from point to point.

What’s more, the idea that a company selling a product for $4 per gallon would voluntarily sell it for half that, especially when they can control supply simply by producing more or less oil, as they see fit, is just ridiculous. The US attempted to force prices down in the 1970s with artificial price controls, and we ended up waiting in lines at the pump — or doing without entirely — as producers simply cut back the amount of oil they were refining until the price went back up.

Fifteen years, and the gas would be gone. I fully expect to still be up and about in fifteen years. I have friends whose kids won’t even be out of college by then. Fifteen years, and then what?

One of the things the API objects to is the imposition of fuel taxes to fund the exploration and development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal generators. So let’s say we do what they suggest: no taxes, no fees, so support for alternatives, no limits to drilling.

Fifteen years from now, we will have finished off the domestic oil, and we will have no alternative energy sources in the pipeline. Will Exxon-Mobil then donate the money to build electric trains? Will BP be providing us with new raw materials for pharmaceuticals and plastics that are made from petroleum products? Will Shell take over the burden of guaranteeing oil supplies from places like Nigeria and Iran? It seems unlikely.

Am I having a problem with paying $4.00 per gallon at the pump? Sure. But I’d rather be paying four dollars now, than making my grocery trips to Fayetteville on foot when I’m 68.

High fuel prices encourage conservation, which extends the lifetime of the supply. High fuel taxes fund the research that will help us survive after the oil is gone. Limits on drilling not only protect ecosystems, but also ensure that some reserves will be just that: reserves, untapped until needed.

“Drill, baby, drill”. Isn’t that the mantra? But then what? What happens to our children and grandchildren then, when all that’s left behind is the hole? Maybe we’re just buying a little more time, but isn’t that worth something? Back to Nasruddin:

When he returned to his cell, a fellow prisoner remonstrated with him: What will you do now? You know you can’t teach that horse to sing, no matter how long you try.’ Nasruddin’s response: ‘I have a year now that I didn’t have before. A lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.

‘And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.‘”

— From a Sufi parable,  as told by Idries Shah

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When Destiny Calls…

Today, March 10, is the anniversary of an achievement about which I have always had very mixed feelings: One hundred thirty-six years ago today, Alexander Graham Bell called his assistant, Thomas Watson, into his office by transmitting his voice through a pair of wires, and the telephone was born.

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