Category: entropy

Appointment in Samarra

The speaker is Death: There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.



Among my crowd of ex-pat friends here in Chiang Mai there has been a rash of heart attacks and strokes. We who are too old for medical insurance have to pay our hospital bills out of pocket. Several of my friends have created Crowd Funding sites on the Internet. Another guy languishes in the public hospital where there is no air conditioning and there are ten beds to a room. The lone Norwegian in my group was told by his country he could fly home on his choice of airline and would be met at the gate by a wheelchair and taken by ambulance to the hospital. Guess it pays not to be from a third-world country.


Asleep at the Wheel



It might be impossible to determine how many major forces are out there. Forces for good that insure things will get better often seem overwhelmed by negative forces that are hell-bent on destruction. Of course, our attitude matters a great deal, but probably not as much as these powerful forces that are at work even when we’re not aware of them.

They never sleep, never get bored, and never take a vacation.

We, on the other hand, are fickle attendants at the cosmic opera. One moment we might be all excited about global warming, the next we are lusting after a new electronic gadget. We find it hard to steer a steady course. It’s good that’s not our job. Whose job it is is open to debate, but almost everyone feels that the Captain is asleep at the wheel.

As the passengers on the Titanic found out the hard way, arranging the deck chairs doesn’t mean much in the long run if we’re all going to end up on the bottom sooner or later. An engraved invitation to dine at the Captain’s table is just a piece of paper if the Captain has already abandoned ship.

Face It



Admit it, when you were twelve you thought you’d have that stuff by now. You thought you were going to be some kind of damn celebrity, or at least live like one. You assumed it was your birthright. Sure, there were a few complications that had to be solved, setbacks to be endured, but by the last commercial break it was going to be smooth sailing all the way. 

But then the job you thought was yours was given to someone else, the girl you figured would be happy to marry you had other ideas, the swingers who were your friends seemed more and more like unemployable parasites. 

Now you’re sitting at home wondering what to do with yourself. Your days are filled with meaningless errands. There’s never a time to kick back and relax after a hard day because it’s been so long since you’ve actually accomplished anything you can’t remember what that feels like.

Social media is a complete waste of time. So is online shopping. These activities do not constitute a rich life, well-lived. You’ll have to find a way to raise the bar to get any excitement or meaning back into your life, but you can’t find the bar and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to lift it. 

How do other people swing this? Are they just better at faking it, or do they really have more substantive lives? Maybe they’re just more easily satisfied with less. For them, buying presents for grandchildren is enough. Or maybe it isn’t, but they hide their ennui and disappointment. They put on a brave face for the sake of others.

Grandma and Grandpa are just waiting to die. Don’t mind them. They’ve got their TV, their comfy chairs, and the remote. Everything in their house is over-stuffed. Grandpa has his model ships, and Grandma her porcelain figurines. Limited edition china plates featuring sentimental scenes. Lawrence Welk died twenty years ago, but some cable channel still plays the reruns of his show.

Look, there goes Grandpa to the hospital. Thank God for Medicare and the AARP supplemental policy he had the foresight to purchase. He’ll only be in hospice a little over a week before the angel’s trumpet sounds and he’s called to his eternal reward. We’ll give the model ships to Goodwill, because the kids don’t want them. That quilt Grandma is working on will lie on the bed in the guest room. We don’t use that room much, because nobody wants to come here if they have vacation time. They want to go somewhere more fun. The pictures they post on social media will arouse envy in their friends and neighbors. If they took pictures around here, it would just make people sad.


What Does the “Check Engine” Light Really Mean?



Nothing is as it seems. Everything is full of secret innuendo. Even the warning lights on your dashboard are full of hidden import.

That little pitcher has nothing to do with water or oil. It’s an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that refers to the Sun God Ra. It’s suggesting as overtly as it can (hampered by Department of Transportation regulations) that you perform a sacrifice to Ra as soon as possible. The thing that looks like a lamp emitting rays is about the different forms of radiation that might confuse you while driving. Gamma rays can make you seek out the nearest pancake house, alpha rays will sexually arouse you and cause you to find the “bad part of town,” where ladies who do that sort of thing might be found.

Likewise, your fuel gauge and odometer are using symbolism to make their point. They have no idea how far you’ve come, where you’re going, or whether you’ll make it to your destination before you die. It’s literary fiction more than it is science or engineering.



What happens, happens. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we’re in control, but we’re not. Not even close. Things will work out the way they’re going to. We could assume, the way they’re supposed to, but that implies there’s somebody else in charge who knows what’s best.

Recent evidence suggests that’s probably not the case.

The catastrophic and sudden collapse of our government took everyone by surprise, even those who hastened its demise. Trump never expected to win, and when he did, it shocked everyone, even Trump. Well, that shock was nothing compared to the sudden realization that we had lost every bit of democracy and benevolent rule we once enjoyed. Thugs were now fully in charge, and they seemed to enjoy their thuggery.

It was like watching Clockwork Orange, only it was real, and instead of England, it was America. Now there were no longer simple hints of anti-intellectualism, but a full-blown assault on intelligence and reasoning. Truth was an outdated concept. There was only belief and submission to the state. What Mussolini had hinted at, Trump had accomplished.

People had to pretend to be stupid in order to escape being targeted. Suddenly we became a nation of good old boys, Stepford Wives, grinning hayseeds. Rumors of lynchings spread, but none were reported by Fox News. The official face of America, at least the one you could see on TV, looked like the Mormons were in charge. You simply couldn’t be too white.

Homosexuals, intellectuals, people of color, and immigrants all kept their heads down. Better to blend in than to attract attention. Maybe this was just a phase we were going through. Maybe this would soon blow over. Somebody pointed out that’s how the rich Jews felt when they didn’t abandon their homes in Poland, Belgium and France. When they didn’t get out while the going was good.

The startling fact was that no one was making this happen. This wasn’t a conspiracy, a plot by the Deep State, this was simply mob rule. The Madness of Crowds. When 330,000,000 people decide to swerve, it’s a change with momentum behind it. Maybe unstoppable momentum.

The fact that the friendly neighborhood policeman had been replaced by a hormone-hopped hulk dressed in camouflage and body armor hadn’t really caused alarm until now. Now there were unmarked buses with blacked out windows moving about, taking somebody somewhere. Rumors spread that the FEMA camps were filling.

Popular entertainment and broadcast journalism simply ignored the phenomena. Movies starring superheros continued to be made and distributed. Sometimes that’s all you could find at your local cinema. Nobody complained, at least not out loud. Studios and cinema owners were happy because audiences kept coming. Not just teenagers, even adults thronged to view empty spectacle.

The last symphony orchestras and dance companies folded quickly and quietly. Universities shut down programs that didn’t attract grant funding. Since most jobs had already been sent abroad, there wasn’t much for most young people to do. Almost half of the people under thirty were in drug treatment or prison.

And this was just the beginning.

It got worse.

It wasn’t just America that was in crisis. Europe was roiling with social unrest. Huge numbers of immigrants were no longer even the least bit welcome in their host countries, and yet they had nowhere to go. You can’t very well send someone back to Kenya or Nigeria who spent his life savings traveling across Niger and Libya to board a rubber raft to take his chances crossing the Mediterranean to get to Sicily and then up to France where he hoped to hop across the English channel and take his seat on a cardboard box next to the homeless in London. You can’t simply send them home. There are too many of them, and besides, they’d just return.

All of a sudden, any progress mankind seemed to have made or have been making disappeared. We were heading down, straight down, swirling down some sort of cosmic drain, and the process seemed to be accelerating. Some people offered solutions, but nothing stuck. Some people claimed to know who was at fault, but a strange lethargy took over, and no meaningful actions were taken.

Then the plague started. It moved with lightening speed, killing half the population of China in a week. India and Africa were next. No one was certain how many had died, because the scope and scale were unheard of. The first peaceful use of nuclear weapons was to incinerate huge mounds of bodies. Burial was unthinkable. Disposal at sea unacceptable.

With so many dead, the support structures of these countries collapsed as well, leading to waves of subsequent deaths to to famine and cholera. All borders were closed. Air travel ceased.

For some reason, only the United States and Western Europe seemed to have been spared, but then their turn came. Fatality rates of eighty percent. Much higher than Ebola.

By now the rich and powerful had long ago disappeared into hidden bunkers. Since they were hiding they weren’t communicating with anyone, so no one was sure they had survived.

Someone who still managed to reach an audience compared the collapse of civilization to a motor that had been allowed to fall into disrepair. At first it wobbled, groaned, screeched, and finally ground to a halt. No amount of kicking or prodding got it running again.

The collapse of the power grid, food distribution, water treatment, and transportation continued. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

Capitalism still functioned to provide for people who could pay for goods and services, even though the prices were sky high and selection severely limited.

By now, the only restaurants were owned a a conglomerate of Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Bayer, Pepsico, and Nestle. Their favorite locations were the food courts of shopping malls, where they could have ten or fifteen various outlets with different names and themes, but all basically serving the same food under different labels.

Most of it was pizza or bread of some kind holding a meat of dubious origin. The drinks were artificially sweetened and mildly radioactive. Each featured several large-screen televisions which also served as surveillance cameras.

Finally, Donald Trump surfaced. He or someone resembling him appeared on the only television channel still working, Fox and Friends. He blamed Obama and Hillary Clinton for what had happened, and claimed that if people had only trusted and respected him, we would by now have been enjoying the great future he had planned for us.

Then the picture went dark and food court patrons who had been watching continued to stare at the dark screen for a very long time because they had no where else to go.

Progress is Our Most Important Product



Nothing much stands still for very long. Constant care must be taken to slow the effects of entropy, the gradual decline that is built into all structures. Even then, the good often become overwhelmed by the bad. Corruption rears its ugly head. For example, the laptop on which I am typing this essay has developed a problem with the letter “h” which now sticks and requires extra effort. Sometimes, the cursor randomly hops around the page while I write. Four years ago this was a high-end laptop. In four more years it will be sitting in landfill.

Even rarer is when things get actually better. Progress is an elusive butterfly, and rare because there are illusions of progress which when examined closely and over time prove not to be progress at all. False progress is even worse than entropy!

In Saint Louis, Missouri, the city fathers had come up with what they thought was a progressive idea. They tore down miles of old Victorian brick homes lived in by poor people and built a complex of eleven-story apartment towers to house those displaced by Progress. The Japanese architect who also designed the World Trade Center in New York City designed this complex, which was named Pruitt-Igoe. Despite the architect’s drawings, which showed happy families relaxing on the common lawns, it rapidly became a war zone of sorts.

Gangs occupied the elevators, extorting money and sex from occupants who could not easily use the stairs to reach their homes on the upper floors. Drug dealing went on night and day. Within a decade those city fathers had to admit defeat and the entire complex was razed through the same sort of controlled demolition that brought down the World Trade Center thirty years later.

How did they get it so wrong? This debacle was a terribly expensive boondoggle, a black eye in urban renewal that proved myriad experts to be dead wrong every step of the way. At one point the United States army had secretly installed blowers on the roofs of the Pruitt-Igoe towers to disperse radioactive zinc cadmium sulphide into the air in order to test rates of possible mass poisoning by an enemy. The inhabitants of this failed social experiment must have felt like laboratory rats in more ways that one.

Rarely do we get things so wrong on such a grand scale. But when we do, we do it with great verve. The Vietnam war lasted for a more than a decade, as did our secret invasions of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, seventeen years after invading those countries. Looking back, it’s hard to remember why anyone thought these military actions were a good idea. But someone did, and the rest of us are still paying for it.

Compared to amount of our planet’s surface taken up by oceans and deserts, there really isn’t that much fertile land on the planet, but the Russians managed to remove millions of acres of some of the best of it when they contaminated Chernobyl. In ten thousand years or so it may be useful again. Meanwhile, Fukushima continues to pour radioactivity into the ocean at a steadily increasing rate.

When you’re headed down the wrong trail, there comes a time when you have to stop and admit to yourself that this is the wrong path. You’re not getting any closer to where you wanted to go. With each step, you’re making it harder to fix this problem. Walking faster won’t help. Wishful thinking won’t make it magically become the right trail. You’ll have to retrace your steps and start over again. This is a painful choice, but the only choice that has any chance of success.

Nobody said finding Progress would be easy, but it does help to remember that there are good choices as well as bad, that sometimes Entropy can be forestalled, that things can get better and stay that way for a considerable amount of time. Becoming teachable and staying flexible are more important than saving face and defending yourself against criticism.


Sometimes it’s time to try a new line of work.