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Yet more little things

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Yet more little things. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, July:4–6.

Congratulations! You've now managed to sit through two of these essays. (If not, why are you reading this introduction?) By now, you've begun to notice that "there are more things under heaven than are dreamt of in your philosophy", to misquote a certain famous Dane. Indeed, the more I look around, the more little things there are to report. This month's list ranges from ecological tidbits to philosophical musings on the self and the nature of perception. So, without further delay...

If you've been reading the papers, watching the news, or doing much of anything else lately, which is to say, if you haven't been stranded on a desert island, you've probably come across some mention of the greenhouse effect. To simplify absurdly, this is an effect in which certain gases such as carbon dioxide prevent heat emitted by the earth's surface from being radiated out into space; the result is that the earth grows warmer. There's been much talk about burning of fossil fuels and rain forests being responsible, but what of human life itself? An average human breathes some 10 times per minute, 600 times per hour, or 14,400 times per day. If we assume that each breath contains one liter of air (an underestimation, but let's keep the math simple), then each human inhales some 14,400 liters of air per day. Air is composed of about 16% oxygen, of which about half (again, a simplification) is exchanged for carbon dioxide during each breath. Then this means an average exhalation of some 14,400 × 8% = 1150 liters of carbon dioxide per person per day. Multiply this by 5 billion humans per planet at last count, and we have 5750 billion liters of carbon dioxide produced per day just by humans! Obviously, the scientists have neglected this important component of global warming. As I find this summer already uncomfortably warm, I'll thank the rest of you to stop breathing for a while until things cool down again.

Then there are the other "anthropogenic" sources of greenhouse gases. The average North American is said to drink at least 0.3 liters of soda pop per day, another underestimation, but a revolting figure nonetheless. [This figure has variously been reported to exceed 1.0 liters as of 2004.—GH] If we include all other carbonated beverages, such as beer, mineral water, champagne, etc., this figure could safely be raised to 0.5 liters. If each liter of carbonated drink contains 0.1 liter of dissolved gases, this means the average mortal releases an additional 0.05 liters per day of carbonation into the air. Going through the same mathematics as in the previous paragraph, this brings us to a total of 75 million liters per day just in North America. (As this newsletter has a reputation for "good taste" to uphold, I'll wholly omit my analysis of just how this carbonation escapes during and after drinking. For similar reasons, I won't even begin to describe the emissions resulting from consumption of leguminous products.) No question, we humans are the prime cause of the greenhouse effect.

Have you ever stopped to think what things you own that you would like to improve on or upgrade? But how much of their present capabilities do you really use and do you really need more? This paragraph bore the subconscious title "the parable of the laser printer" when I came up with the idea, and the story goes a bit like this. A young writer, fed up with waiting 1–2 minutes per page for his printer at home to spit out his writings, began to seek another solution. As said writer had been spoiled by access to an 8 page per minute laser printer at work, the obvious solution was to obtain a laser printer by hook or by crook. (Actually, the phrase "hook or crook" is misleading, as the writer didn't know anyone he could convince to steal the equipment for him.) In the end, confronted by a price tag of at least $2000, and unable to justify this expenditure, the idea had to be abandoned. Not being a government, deficit financing was not a viable alternative. If the government builds a huge debt load "to be repaid in the indefinite future" by taking out more loans to pay for the previous ones, it's called sound public policy; if a citizen does this, it's called "loan kiting", and is punished by an all expenses-paid stay in a plush penitentiary. After the fact, the much wiser writer realized that he probably didn't really need the laser printer after all, but needed patience instead, to wit: turn on the printer and go watch the National [a nightly Canadian news show] for an hour while the faithful little device churns nobly away at his latest epic. The writer still feels the lure of the "buy the newest and hottest printer or other technological toy of the month"-club, but has learned that although one can always have more, the real trick is to be content with less. I suspect that there are a few other areas in which this this parable applies, but these should be left to the individual to discover.

More Scary Numbers From Adding Up Little Things: Remember the last time your picnic was ruined by mosquitoes? Let's say you were being bothered by—say—the thousand or so mosquitoes in the square kilometre around your picnic site. There's probably about ten times that number of insects of all species in that same area, and certainly more mosquitoes, but let's use 1000 as a nice round number. (How they found you in the first place isn't the issue here; say it along with me: "That's another essay"!) How many square kilometres of forested land are there in Ontario? From the 1986 Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources statistics book, there are some 500,000 square kilometres of agreement forest alone, and this is close enough for the numerical games that I'm playing. This means that there are something like 500 million mosquitos in Ontario alone, and this is an exceptionally conservative estimate. In Canada, there are 4.5 million square kilometres of forested land of various sorts according to FORSTATS [a federal government forestry statistics program]. This means 4.5 billion mosquitos, or about one for every human being in the world. Maybe we should export the cute little suckers as pets? If each person fed one mosquito, who would even notice? I for one would gladly take upon myself the responsibility of caring for that one mosquito, secure in the knowledge that no other mosquito would ever tap me for a quick donation. Of course, there are one or two problems with this neat solution. For one thing, most other countries have their own mosquitos (or their equivalents) that are every bit as bad. Then there's the fact that I underestimated the number of mosquitoes quite horribly. (Case in point: if there's only one mosquito per 10 square metres, which is not too unreasonable, that means 100,000 per square kilometre. This translates to 50 billion mosquitos in Ontario and 450 billion in Canada. I think 100 mosquitos per person is starting to get a bit much.) Back to the old drawing board!

On the topic of insects, did you know that there is a safe and pleasant remedy for black flies? Several years ago, just before going to work in the jack pine cutovers near Gogama, I heard a rumor that a certain bath oil was a wonderful defence against blackflies, and just for the heck of it, I tried it. This marvellous little lotion, called "Skin So Soft", is marketed by Avon, and works beautifully against the little pests. It is even said to work against mosquitos, though not in my experience. In any event, it certainly beats the many other remedies that I have heard proclaimed: these range from distillate of elk urine—would you bite anyone coated in this stuff?—to the dread DEET, available in most commercial remedies but known to crack plastic (what does it do to flesh?). Of course, as with all solutions, Skin So Soft does have one teensy little problem. If you use it, you end up smelling like a flower shop, which might just get you into a bit of trouble in that truck stop in Gogama, where men are men... and smell like it. [Looking back from 2005: Although the Avon bath oil does work wonders against blackflies, the protective effect seems to last only as long as you remain covered with oil: it's the taste of the oil, not the smell, that keeps the blackflies from biting. As for DEET, epidemiological evidence suggests that it may be the safest pesticide ever invented—but I still don't like or trust it.—GH]

Have you ever listened to a recording of your own voice? If not, you should do so as soon as you come across a recorder. For years, I had only heard my own voice in the earphone of a telephone, or in daily conversation. After nearly thirty years of this, I figured that I had a pretty good idea of what I sounded like, but all this changed when I was presented with a tape recording of my own voice and found that I was unable to recognize myself. I'm not really sure why this is, but it shook me up a bit. The lesson I drew from it was the really interesting thing, however. I had a very strong "vision" (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor) of what I sounded like to others, and I discovered that this self-image was quite wrong. The question I asked myself (and continue to ask myself, with interesting results) is what other false perceptions I have about myself. I remember coming across an anonymous quote that read "challenge authority", and I adopted this as a motto of my radical youth. Maturity (be kind to me!) makes me suspect that the more useful motto is "challenge your assumptions". You might be surprised at what you'll learn.

What do you see when you look in the mirror? With the exception of those of us who are vampires (which lack souls and thus lack reflections according to traditional lore), there might also be something interesting in the reflection. In my case, I paused briefly to take a close look a few years ago and I saw a fairly disreputable looking chap. I like to wear my hair long and my beard fairly shaggy, but glancing at myself every day tended to make me forget just how shaggy I had become. Of course I rushed right out to be shorn, something I do whenever I get too shaggy for even my own taste, but the experience was eye-opening (pardon the choice of words). Again, the experience led me to ask myself, "What else do I look at every day yet fail to really see?" This leads to some interesting discoveries, some of which find their ways into my essays, the present one being just the latest example.

What else, I wonder, lies hidden close at hand? It has been said that the measure of a man lies in his friends; presumably, the same applies to women. As an interesting exercise in determining how accurate your self image is, try the following exercise. As it is notoriously difficult to criticize oneself, my mirror example notwithstanding, try instead to criticize your friends. (Not verbally—this is a thought exercise, not an opportunity for masochism.) What is it that you like about them? What do you dislike? Now turn this around: what do these characteristics say about you? Go one step further and ask yourself what your friends like and dislike about you. Interesting, isn't it?

Consider the seemingly trivial exercise of saving one second of wasted time every day for the next 50 years. At an average of 365 days per year, that only amounts to about 6.1 minutes in a year; over 50 years, however, that becomes 5.1 hours, enough time to read that book you swore you didn't have time to read. Save up that time now, and you can read the book when you retire! Now let's say you could save one wasted second for each of the several hundred things you do each day (say 200 individual tasks in all, from brushing your teeth to tying your shoes): this now totals 1020 hours, or about 50 days. Time enough for a good long vacation. If we now assume you could save 30 seconds per activity, a large but reasonable savings, the total is nearer to 1500 days, or just under 5 years. Funny how those little things add up, isn't it? (Of course, there's a small problem with this logic. To paraphrase one of my physics teachers, "proof left to student".)


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