Thursday, December 31, 2009

Zombie Elephants

Next up in Mad World: rampaging elephants.

Frequently, evidence of the madness that our sped-up entropy unleashes on the world is most clearly seen in the animal kingdom. Animals are a collective canary in the coal mine. Their delicate ecologies are highly susceptible, and vulnerable, to the outputs of our high-energy societies. The costs and consequences (unintended or otherwise) of our energy consumption are typically passed down the food chain to the furthest reaches possible, to where the animals live. Most of us do not see the effects because we live in communities that have long ago been beaten back the wilds. Still, there are boarder lands. And in much of the developing world, the wilds are always close and constantly encroaching.

Case in point: have you heard all the reports about elephant rampages in India and Africa in the last couple years? In the northern state of Assam, where there are 5,500 wild elephants, 500 humans have been trampled to death in the 1990s; in all of India, between 150 and 200 humans were killed by elephants. In this decade, these stories are growing even more common. Scientists had to invent a statistical category to continue to monitor the problem: Human-Elephant-Conflict, or H.E.C. (

There are competing theories as to why there has been an increase in rogue packs of rampaging elephants. The ecologists say that a shrinking habitat, matched with a rise in elephant population has caused their deranged behavior. Local people in India claim that elephants have discovered a liking for rice beer called “laopani.” Indeed, last year a pack of elephants broke into a distillery, drank the beer and started a drunken rampage that tragically ended in an electricity plant, where all the animals were electrocuted.

Animal behaviorists have another theory. Elephants live in highly socialized, matriarchal societies. The females are the leaders and the teachers:

Poaching kills many of the elder mothers and matriarchs of the herds, leaving young elephant mothers without direction, help, or guidance. Many young elephants witness their mothers being shot, and this causes them much distress, just as it would a human. These young elephants must somehow mature without their mothers, and thus the male elephants, already prone to violent outbursts and general instability, grow uncontrollable and go on rampages. As the social structure of the elephants grows weaker and weaker, they will become more unstable and violent (

Here is a list of causes for annual elephant deaths in India:

120 poaching for ivory or meat
25 poisoned
20 cattle born disease
16 electrocution
10 hit by trains
10 miscellaneous


Sped-up entropy, unsustainable energy use, passing the costs to others and other life forms instead of equalizing energy costs—all of these factors contribute to the rending of not just physical and ecological fabrics, but also the intricate social tapestries that rise out of them.

It is instructive to relate to the elephant’s plight on your own level. Imagine the most dire, chaotic disaster movie plot you’ve ever seen, where the order of society has completely collapsed, and the townspeople become crazed, insane, homicidal maniacs. That’s what it must feel like for these elephants—except there is now hero unaffected by the insanity. There is no hope.

It is a mad world out there.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mark 13:1-8

It seems to me that entropy law has profound religious implications, which I have neither the intelligence nor the time to fully explore. As I become more faith-ful or faith-like these themes are creeping into my novel. In these “faith” entries I will do my best to treat these themes thoughtfully.

Today in church, St. Mathew’s Lutheran Church in Jersey City, which I attend with my boyfriend, pastor’s sermon was about Mark 13:1-8.

1As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!"

2"Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

3As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4"Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?"

5Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you. 6Many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

The first comment I have is that it is extremely humbling to know that all of our superstructures must and will fall one day. These structures are imbued with the aura of power, permanence, the inevitability of the whims and dictates that come out of them. We never built pyramids or mounds to burry the dead. We do not build skyscrapers for the office space. We build them to announce that our offices are superior, that the work that happens in those offices is important and necessary and majestic. This is also what makes these buildings targets.

But to entropy everything is a target. Eventually the superstructure—be it a building or a dam or a space station—will become too unstable to sustain our massive energy inputs meant to sustain it, or it will lose its usefulness for us to the point that we withhold those energy inputs, forcing it to fall.

My second comment is that sacred places where we go to ‘meet God’, be they manmade or of the natural world, are not impervious to entropic decay. As pastor pointed out, Jesus’ favorite place in Jerusalem, amid the ‘magnificent buildings’, was the temple. The Romans destroyed this temple forty years after Jesus’ death. All the mountain tops will eventually crumble away. So, pastor told us, what is necessary is to meet God not (merely) in the physical, sacred spot of your choice, but to carry that spot with you everywhere in the symbol of the cross. Meet God everywhere you are. The cross is incorruptible. It does not corrode. Entropy cannot touch it.

Faith in the infinite is the antithesis of entropy. Because entropy has always preoccupied mankind, and has been acted out in front of our faces on a daily basis, faith may have been conceived of as an answer or antidote to the knowledge that the physical world and the universe will die. Entropists call this ‘heat death.’ Jesus says that this death “is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” What could he have meant? Maybe he was telling his disciples that once the physical world is truly at an end, there is something… more.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Grandfather

My Papa turns 91 in one month. Everyone describes their grandfather as "the oak". When I was in junior high I wrote a short story about him called "Bringing down the oak", which I think I lifted from a Wall Flowers title.
He is not the most loving or the most important or the most wise member of the family. He is not the pillar or the tent pole. Nothing will collapse with him. But he is the oldest. He is the link to history. I feel that link strongly. He was born in 1918, not one month after WWI ended. He was raised by his grandparents. He was told stores about his great-grandfather Daniel Boone Stover, who was captured by the Confederates, and who escaped. It was a great story that he was told and made to live through by the telling of the story. And he told the story to me and made me live it also.
Papa is not dying. But he is loosing himself. My stepmother calls it phase I dementia. In this state, you still recognize your relatives. You still are aware of what is going on. You are aware that you are looseing your mind. You have a breif window to come to terms with that. Phase II is not so nice. Legally, it is also the point beyond which a relative can do anything to acquire legal status over finances, bank accounts, wills, etc.--if that stuff has not already been taken care of.
I talked with him recently. He said he has been having bad dreams. I kept talking about the fact that he was bothered by bad creams. I asked him what happened in these dreams. He said that there are people who he does not know, and he is traveling places he does not want to go. That's all the detail I got out of him. This from the man who doesn't leave his house to visit relatives on Christmas, who has never flown in an airplane. If I believed in the spirit world I might have gotten chills as he described this to me.
The brain unravels. Entropy dictates that is must. Thought, self, memory, imagination, soul--it cannot last forever in its solid, recognizable state anymore than than any form of energy can. I concede God may exist, but an afterlife. Entropy seems to forbid it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What does age measure?

When I frist heard about these "real age" tests I thought it was just another Internet hoax to get you to visit a webpage.

I was home last week for by dad's birthday. He is 67. He recently took one of those online "real age" questionares, and was thrilled to learn that he is actually 47 and 1/2 years old. Over the summer he had to go to the hospital for a kidney stone and when the nurse asked for his age he replied 47 and 1/2 years old. To my dad's great pride, the nurse believed him said the chart needed correction. Fortunately his wife was there to pop his bubble.

My dad has always prided himself on his health. He still skis and sails as actively as he ever did. In West Virginia, people tend to age hard due to obesity, smoking, drinking, hard labor jobs, probably some mine polution in the mix as well. So he tells everyone about his new, younger age.

Just before his birthday, he bumped into a high school buddy who walked with a cane and wore a pace maker. The guy complimented my dad on how good he looks. My dad told him about the "real age" results. The guy looked at him and said, "I took the same test. It said I was 88."

Entropy Law applies as much to our bodies as to any physical thing. I havent researched any scientific studies that have measured entropy's effects on the body, but we see the precepts in action in everyone: the more we push our bodies to do greater quantities of work, at greater speeds, with less rest, the sooner the body will no longer be functional as a conduit for energy, i.e. death. Stress is a little understood bodily function, but it must be the telltale sign of sped-up entropy in our bodies.

The other lesson entropy has for our health is that there is only so much medicine and technology can accomplish to prolong a vital life, or life in any capacity. The body will break down--reversed or stopped aging is impossible if entropy means anything. Will more advanced technology be able to slow aging down significanlty? I doubt this as much as I doubt advanced technology will permit our society's energy expenditures to remain as high as they are now without polution or other negative effects. There is no free lunch.

The trick to a vital life into the 100s is to start slowing entropy's passage through your body as early as possible. There is no magic to this: eat well, excercise, avoid wear-and-tear on the body, avoid drugs (which must act as entropy speeding agents).

What does our age tell us then, other than how long we've been around? Not much. The guy with the pace maker is 67, just like my dad, but what good it that when he is living the life of my grandfather? Maybe these "real age" tests are on to something.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How crazy can it get?

This is the first of the "Mad World" entries. The idea behind these types of posts is to discuss and analyze how the increased "flow-through" of energy, from ordered and usable to chaotic and polluting, in our current industrialized, global system may tend to create insane, obscene, destructive observable phenomena in the natural world and human behavior.

The essay below, quoted in its entirety form The New York Times Book Review, depicts a vision of a not-too-distant America. The author projects the end game for some of our current hyper-productive behaviors, such as women holding off on pregnancy until their sixties, and an chemically-induced end to sleep so we can work more. The essay is purely speculative, similar to the trend in sci-fi. But I can't help sense some bitterness in the author's tone, almost like he is scolding us to be careful what we wish for--also similar to that current sci-fi trend.

For myself, I can't get too worked up because I think entropy law prohibits our current path of development from getting too much crazier that it already is. A planet or society--like a body--simply cannot be kept alive on pills alone.

Here is William Saletan's "You:the Updated Owner's Manual"

The Eight Precepts

P1: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed (otherwise know as the 1st law of thermodynamics).

The key verb for our purposes is "created". Lots of budget problems--family, governmental--become greatly simplified if we factor in plans for some management tool or technology to produce energy from thin air. It is not to be. All usable energy must come from a physical source, to be borrowed, bought, cajoled, siphoned, stolen, bartered or begged into service of work.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

P2: Fresh, unused energy is concentrated, potent, powerful, primed and ready to perform work. The process of work does not destroy energy, but transforms it into energy that is dispersed, weak and much less work-capable (otherwise known as the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

Think of water moving down hill. At the top of the hill, it holds the potential to produce a lot of wattage on its way down. But once it hits bottom, wattage must be applied to get it to work again.

“It takes energy to make energy.”

P3: Usable energy is finite. All systems will eventually break down according to three scenarios:

* System will run out of usable energy

* System will loose the ability to process outside energy

* Outside energy will become depleted

Using our hydroelectric example from P2:

* Stored energy in the feeder lake will run out if the lake empties

* Turbine system will break down, or the system responsible for diverting new sources of water to the dam will bread down

* Snowmelt that feeds into the lake will not build up adequate amounts in the winter.

“Things fall apart.”

P4: Efficiencies that allow the system to perform more work at greater speeds, will necessarily quicken the transfer of energy to a unusable state in that system

Say the town underneath our hydroelectric dam builds a golf course. They need more power from the turbines and more water from the lake, so they open the spigot wider. When the lake level drops, they cut a water channel in the mountain that directly drains the snowmelt, causing the snowmelt to drain much faster over the course of the summer. The turbines are worked harder and require more maintenance.

“The superhighway to hell is paved with good intentions.”

P5: Efficient energy-channeling systems can only conceal, postpone or redistribute the consequences of speeding up the energy transfer. These are simple-interface systems for the individual or group, but require complex management systems that have a complexity that is inversely proportional to the appearance of simplicity.

These systems feed off of their own energy in a less sustainable way.

“There is not such thing as a free lunch, even if the costs are hidden from you.”

P7: Systems that do not force energy to do more work at faster rates necessarily slow the transfer of energy to work-incapable states.

A farm that limits its output to what can be produced using solar and animal energy does not create very much unavailable energy.

“Photosynthesis is as close to a free lunch as we are going to get.”

P8: These are complex-interface systems for the individual or group because they require dealing with all energy costs and byproducts upfront in the local environment. However, management requirements in these systems range from simple to unnecessary because the system is run according to the limitations of entropy.

These systems feed off of their own energy at a slower, more sustainable rate.

The solar farm is a complex poly-culture of grass, forest, water, many different crops and animals, but the farmer does not have to worry about the disorder wrought by entropic pollutants like manure lagoons, e. coli and Monsanto.

“Slow and steady wins the race—for now.”