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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: May 2008

Oily Solution

One of the greatest mysteries of this Universe is how on Earth does the Congress of the United States prioritize its agenda.

Here is an example. Most of the Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction: our road to prosperity has been littered with financial IEDs, we have the most severe housing slump since the Great Depression, the credit crisis rocks the banking boat, Nature makes it painfully clear that global warming is more than a figment of Al Gore's imagination and our infrastructure is in need of a major overhaul - at least here in DC, where every little summer storm wreaks unimaginable havoc to our power grid. Yet with all these issues looming over them, our congressfolks think that spending taxpayers' money on probing the world of sports is pretty cool.

Senate wasted endless hours investigating the baseball steroid scandal and grilled Roger Clemens for hours to see what kind of stuff he injected into his body. The House didn't lag behind for too long and launched its own hearings into alleged signal spying of New England Patriots. Sure, it had be lots of fun to talk personally to Bill Belichick about his reconnaissance style, but is this issue really the hottest potato on the constituent's plate?

Last week the price of crude oil reached $135. The election day being less than half a year off, I thought: "Hey, what an opportunity for our elected representatives to stop dilly-dallying and get down to some real business". And there was no dearth of possibilities for a decisive course of action.

They could end subsidizing compulsive speculators on the Wall Street, whose well heeded calls for bail outs are greatly contributing to the sliding dollar. Paying other nations for an increasingly scarce commodity by a currency which is being constantly diluted is just forcing them to ask for more and more of the progressively worthless money. But if the Fed could find the balls to prop up the ailing dollar, the energy gamblers would soon learn that their crude casino is not as generous as they are becoming accustomed to.

They could stop the war in Iraq and significantly reduce our military presence overseas. The day I learned that Abrams Tank slurps about 4 gallons per mile was the day I understood why the US military is the largest oil consumer in the whole world. And then there is the secondary effect of our military maneuvers in the oil rich Middle East. If someone thinks that waging wars among oil derricks is going to bring the price down, they should think again.

They could also support manufacturers willing to produce more energy efficient cars, or even dust off the plans for the electric car, which disappeared under rather unexplained circumstances years ago. They could make a realistic analysis of the world's energy supplies and stop hiding behind ethanol fantasies, whose only real impact so far had been a side bubble in food commodities. They could focus on developing and supporting alternative energy sources and help to alleviate our suicidal dependence on foreign oil. Anything to take some burden off of fossil fuels would help.

Full of hopes I sank my eyes in Yahoo!News to see what line of attack would our legislative quarterbacks choose. And here it is straight from the horse's mouth: "The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on Tuesday allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC members for limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices, but the White House threatened to veto the measure."

Bravo! Way to go, boys and girls. Let's sue independent countries for not wanting to sell us THEIR oil for the price WE want. Is it no longer the case that every nation can use their finite natural resources as they see fit? And if all the OPEC countries want to extract exactly 1 barrel of oil per day and then sell it on eBay for exactly 1 million bucks, isn't it their right?

On the other hand, I have to commend the Congress for utilizing America's #1 natural resource: the endless legions of legal warriors. You may not find this in the UN Geological Survey Almanac, but the US has the world's largest proven reserves of lawyers. With their ranks fully mobilized, the future undoubtedly will be interesting. And so will the oil futures.


The Unsung Physics of Baseball

One thing that intrigues me about baseball is how the dimensions of its ballparks are optimized for suspense. Not only is the depth of an outfield just enough for a homer to arch over, but the separation of bases has been carefully chosen so as to make the hitter a fair game should the ball be stopped by the first line of defense. And the same goes for stealing. The catcher's ball and the speeding stealer usually arrive at the same time - just as it happened this Friday during the Card's game against the Pirates when the St Louis jack-of-all-trades Rick Ankiel dashed across the empty interbase space like a wild meteor and his looming contour so confused the Pirates' baseman that he didn't quite emotionally connect with the incoming ball and allowed Ankiel to continue to third and gain much more from this adventure than he had originally hoped for. If the Pirates ever move to retail, their enterprise should start off with the slogan: "steal one, get one free".

Almost all the plays in baseball are exercises in kinetics. But the players hardly ever turn to the high school physics. They use their experience instead. In the 7th inning, the 3rd baseman Troy Glaus caught a low-flying line drive and because of a runner already at first, he had to quickly solve the following problem: the hitter H1 moves from the plate to the first with the velocity v1. Simultaneously the previous hitter H2 moves from the first to the second with velocity v2. Do you shoot for the elusive double play or do you go for the bird in hand arriving shortly at the terminal 1? Well, Glaus chose wisely the latter and the Pirates, despite the ruckus in the 9th, went home empty handed.

Watching batters on the field betting on the outcomes of exercises from elementary physics textbooks is what makes baseball so attractive for the science crowd. Now if only we could agree on whether the players are burning calories or kilojoules while at it.

Cunningham Falls

In my little book of great outdoors, a very special place is reserved for waterfalls. But not the kind that stampede off the cliff into hundred meter abysses so that the sheer volume of their acoustic output makes you stand in a respectful distance, far from the several metric tons of mist that they churn into existence every second. Their photo may look great on a travel agent's coffee table, but you probably wouldn't want to take them to your Mom. I like the small community waterfalls that you can find in nearly every location if you just research the creeks of your local hills. The personable waterworks that usually spring from stumbling streams, the kind that you can wade into, jump over or sit right next to.

This Memorial Monday, we took a trip to Cunningham Falls in Catoctin Mountains, just north of Frederick, and about an hour drive from DC. We overpaid for parking near Hunting Creek Lake and took a short trail studded with stones, crooked roots and rookie chipmunks. After about 15 minutes we came to the foot of the waterfall and made it our base camp for the five mile hike to Hog Rock.

Cascading waterfalls are my favorite. Hopping barefoot from one boulder to another is a very invigorating experience and it always makes me feel as if I am being plugged into some secret underground source of life. I could sit for hours by the streaming waters and marvel at the never ending and almost frivolous display of motion. Day and night, rain or shine, it never turns off. Where does this Energizer Bunny hide its recharger?

And as I watched the endless packets of water rush effortlessly by I thought it was pretty silly that so many politicians down in DC still believed that burning some oily gunk that dinosaurs threw up eons ago was the coolest way to make energy.


Mexican Hat Dance

I haven't been on a dance floor for about 20 years. I think me and a dance have a long standing relationship of mutual mistrust. There is a species of sloth with statistically high incidence of paralysis that dances even worse than I do, but other than that my dancing torpor has no match among contemporary mammals. So I should have foreseen that I am stepping into a hornets nest when a friend of mine told me that a little Cinco de Mayo party we were heading for this Friday took place at a private dance studio. The kind with the floor ominously surrounded by mirrors.

As I half suspected all along, the party turned into one big festive dancing lesson. For a while, I was trying to look inconspicuous and non-committal, but after about 15 minutes I was temporarily abandoned by my friend and thus left exposed to various hopping elements, such as a dancing instructor named Katey, who found me hiding unsuccessfully behind a burrito platter. While she dragged me victoriously onto the parquet, I was informed that we are going to engage in Foxtrot, which immediately prompted a frenzied search in my memory whether Foxtrot is something I should have been inoculated against as a kid. As I was mentally paging through my medical history, Katey ostentatiously repositioned my hand roughly 10 vertebrae higher to the general area of her shoulder blade. I took a deep breath and briefly pondered whether I could act out an Acute Gastric Dilatation And Abdominal Compartment Syndrome and take an honorable exit via Ambulance Van. Realizing that my histrionic skills peaked several decades ago, I quickly rejected this possibility and hurled myself into the speeding vortex of rhythm. The state of my mind morphed seamlessly from a "deer caught in headlights" to a "kamikaze pilot".

After this episode ended, and I was pleasantly surprised that it did, I thought that the worst was over. But I wasn't even close. At the peak of the party, the host turned all the lights on, herded us on the floor and announced that in order to celebrate Cinco de Mayo properly, we will all learn the traditional Mexican Hat Dance.

As it transpired during the introductory lecture, in Mexico, males demonstrate their masculinity by throwing their head cover down into the dust and trampling it to death. The vigorous stomping of the initial phase is accompanied by clapping and by some other hand motions which I didn't quite understand, but I hazily recollect that they involved alternately clutching one's own elbows and bobbing one's head more or less correspondingly. How was that supposed to impress a young Mexican lady was left unexplained. That is until the music started playing and I realized that what seemed like a piece of cake at the leisurely pace of the slow instruction phase was a twisted exercise in hand to hand coordination at twice the speed. As I hit a processing bottleneck in my brain, my motions became increasingly uncoordinated, and I would have become very confused had I not been rescued by a "spin phase" whose true purpose must have been to test the tequila intake. During this segment, you lock your arm with your partner's and start swirling around at an increasingly unreasonable tempo. No wonder when the stomping part returned I took my frustration out on the imaginary Sombrero lying on the ground, which prompted some praising remarks from the Dance Master. At least I think they were praising.

I am not sure through what sort of black magic I survived that evening without any visible harm. I just hope the same can be said about all the big toes of the ladies that I danced with. Or should I say "danced against"?

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