Author: Cornish, Rick

Entropy
 

Before addressing the topic I’ve chosen for today, a brief update on Sarafina, our llama who I reported last week in my Welcome column was ill. She’d started losing her appetite a month ago and for the past couple weeks had stopped eating altogether. On Friday I reported that the day before Lynn and I had taken Sara out of the pasture and invited her to eat any thing she fancied in our landscaped yard. And she ate. It was like a little miracle. Well, I’m sorry to say that Sarafina was put down Saturday. Her binge on Thursday was too little too late. The carcass removal guy, Ernie Gore, (I kid you not), came on Sunday morning and hauled poor Sara off. Yes, we’ll get a new llama to keep our little herd at four….but there’ll never be another Sarafina.

So, on to my topic, entropy. A couple weeks ago, George Martin wrote a nifty little Welcome column on list making. A few people chimed in on the Message Board sharing their list making MO’s, but I opted not to. My proclivity for making lists, particularly lists of things to do, borders on the obsessive. Okay, it doesn’t border, it’s definitely out there in obsessive land. There are four primary areas of activity in my life: my day job running an Internet development business; my involvement on the CBA’s leadership team; my work as the web master for the CBA’s Internet site; and my duties related to home ownership. Sure, there are activities in which I’m engaged that don’t fit any of these four categories, but day job, CBA leader, web site and the old homestead are the biggies.

So where the lists come in is that, even though I can categorize my major areas of endeavors, (see, I even managed to make a list of those) and keep them separate, the ideas I have about the four slosh around in my brain in a very random way. I can be in my office in Stockton and remember that the latch to the pasture needs replacing…..I’ll be sitting in a board meeting when it occurs to me that I forgot to return a call to the client….etc., etc. So, what I’ve done for close to twenty years now is carry with me at all times a device with which I can leave myself reminders. Used to be a little digital recorder the size of a package of gum; now I use an application on my I-Phone. Each day, before I do anything else, even get dressed, I sit down at my computer and transcribe my recorded to-do’s onto my To Do list, which happens to be an ongoing, updated-daily email to myself. I maintain the list in email form because it allows me to check it anytime anywhere. Oh, and I don’t delete items on my list. Rather, I just marked them completed and move them to the bottom of the list.

As you can imagine, my To Do list, containing both items needing doing and items done, is a long one. In a sense, it’s sort of a diary in bulleted form….an accounting of how I spend my time. So yesterday, for no particular reason, I sat down and read through my To Do list compiled over the past six or eight months. And what I found was a little shocking, at least at first. Four in five of the items on the list were things that needed fixing or, more generally, problems that needed solving. For every ‘build a picture frame for Lynn’ or other new project or initiative there were four ‘replace the washer in the laundry room hot water faucet’. I way ‘a little shocking at first’ because once I thought about what I’d found in my To Do review it made perfect sense. The same way the laws of thermodynamics make perfect sense. In fact, what I’d discovered was a simple, straightforward and utterly practical proof of the second law:

“The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the universal principle of decay observable in nature. It is measured and expressed in terms of a property called entropy, stating that the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium; and that the entropy change dS of a system undergoing any infinitesimal reversible process is given by dq / T, where dq is the heat supplied to the system and T is the absolute temperature of the system. In classical thermodynamics, the second law is a basic postulate applicable to any system involving measurable heat energy transfer, while in statistical thermodynamics, the second law is a consequence of the assumed randomness of molecular chaos, see fundamental postulate.” (From our good friends at Wikipedia.)

It’s the second context described above, that of statistical thermodynamics, about which I speak. That is, the assumed randomness of molecular chaos. Everything….and I mean EVERYTHING…..is marching relentlessly toward chaos. Every ordered system is bound and determined to become disorderly. Every pipe on planet earth is just itching to spring a leak and, given enough time, will. Every computer program ever coded has a bug that will eventually nibble its way into daylight. Let me give you an example.

My wife Lynn painted a picture of a Golden Retriever for a dog rescue fundraiser up here in Sonora. She decided she didn’t want to dash down to Modesto to buy a frame (that’s right, when Walmart moves into a community, if you don’t like their simulated wood picture frames you drive across county lines) so I was recruited to build a frame for the retriever. And naturally ‘build retriever frame’ went on my to do list. So the dogs and I head up to my shop in the barn and once there I flip on the florescent light only to find it’s burned out. Entropy. I go into the storage room to grab a bulb only to discover that my stock of extras is depleted. Entropy. I head down to my car for a run to Orchard Supply, get in with Eddy, who loves riding along to OSH with me, only to find that my wallet is in the house. Entropy. I leave Eddy in the car alone, go up to the house to grab my wallet, and return to the car to find that Eddy has locked himself in. With, of course, the car keys. Entropy. My first thought is to get the spare key from Lynn but quickly realize that she’s not at home. Entropy. Eddy’s barking now because he wants out and I reassure him that I’m doing what I can which, in this case, is to call Triple A. I try for the thirty minutes I wait for the AAA guy to come to get Eddy to unlock the car…..all he’s got to do is lightly touch the unlock button with his nose (the same way tapped the lock button)…..but, although he’s the most obliging dog you’d ever want to meet, he just doesn’t get what I want him to do. Instead he licks the window. Entropy.

Oh, I hear you saying, ‘he’s talking about Murphy’s Law’. I guess I am. But I’d always thought of M’s Law as being a reflection of simple bad luck. There’s absolutely no luck, no uncertainty in the second law of entropy. Systems break down, light bulbs burn out, car windows get licked, plans go astray. Look at your own list. Eighty percent of your do’s are either directly or indirectly aimed at slowing the decay of order in the universe, an objective that’s as futile as trying to get a Labrador Retriever to unlock a car door with his nose.

Postscript—Yesterday Lynn and I went to our big-animal vet’s llama ranch and picked out a rescue animal for our herd. It’s a cross between a llama and an alpaca. We’ll name her Nancy if I have anything to say about it.

Postpostscript—Just got an email from Mark Varner, Welcomer for first Mondays, asking me to switch days with him. Entropy.

 
Posted:  8/2/2010



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