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Protection

Thoughts brought on by Sheckley's Protection.

“…you must not lesnerize.”

This is of course, a well-known line from the Robert Sheckley short story, Protection, which first appeared in his 1957 anthology, Pilgrimage To Earth. It is a really good story, and has a surprise ending that is both humorous and a little chilling. If you haven’t read it, you should. You can find it online by doing a search for “lesnerize”. It will take you maybe five or ten minutes to read.

Go do it. NOW!

Don’t worry; I’ll still be here when you get back.

Welcome back! See, I TOLD you it was good.

But here’s the really fun part: Remember, in the middle, where he says if you have more protection, there are more dangers? He’s right, of course. It is hard to explain, and I’m not sure I understand it, but it has to do with entropy.

Now, I’m no philosophic physicist or mathematician, but those guys understand this stuff. I have a cousin who is one of those people. When he was a kid in high school, he had a leather sheath on his belt that held a pair of scissors and a pencil. Later, he dropped out of Cornell and went to work for some think tank organization, because he said Cornell was boring, and just wanted him to waste four years of his life, while giving them his money. If you politely ask him how he is doing, he will tell you, using proper scientific terminology. I mean, I’m a little geeky, but these dudes are serious NERDS! They’re, like, WAY over my head (and I’m nobody’s dummy, believe me). So I just listen to what they say, and try to behave myself and not open my mouth to reveal my ignorance. But, I digress …

So – about entropy. Well, everything that exists, or happens, is connected to a greater or lesser degree to everything else. What happens in your house has some effect on everyone in it. And what happens to your neighbors has a lesser effect on you, but there is some. If your next door neighbor decides to run the dishwasher, for example, that uses water. If you are on public water, their usage reduces the pressure in the main, and affects everyone else. If you’re both on wells, their usage reduces the available supply of groundwater. Oh, you don’t notice it; no one does. But suppose there was a fire, and the fire company opened the hydrant next door. Then you might not have any water pressure in your house at all. It’s the same thing. And if a meteor hits Mars, it adds a tiny bit to the weight of Mars, and changes the balance of weights relative to the other planets and to the sun, and so on. Now, obviously, we can’t MEASURE that change; it is too small. But it is there, nonetheless. So, what the theory of entropy says is that everything is changing all the time, and the effect of those changes is to make everything move closer to the norm. If you set a pan of boiling water inside a sink full of ice water, eventually, all the water will be the same temperature. If you put a drop of blue ink into a container of clear water, eventually it will all be slightly blue. (Now, I know this happens because of Brownian motion, or “pedesis” if you prefer, but the concept is the same.)

You can try that experiment at home kids. Not the fire hydrant; the ink. Put some water in a clear container, and set it on the counter to settle. After it is completely still, genty, without disturbing the water, put in a drop of ink or food coloring, and watch what happens. It's kinda cool, and fun to watch, especially if the color is really dark, like dark red or cobalt blue. Sorta reminds me of a lava lamp. Anyway, after it is all settled again, it's all the same color, isn't it? That is because the molecules of both the coloring and the water are constantly in motion, and that motion is random. So they mix throughout the container. It could be said that the color has achieved a state of entropy, within the confines of its space, but I wouldn’t say that. As I said before, those guys are WAY beyond me.

Where was I?

Oh yes, Sheckley. So he wrote that story in 1957. Well, it was published in 1957; who knows when he actually wrote it. It doesn’t matter. That was at the height of the so-called “Cold War”. The United States had approximately 300 atomic bombs in its arsenal at that time, and the Soviet Union had roughly the same number. Sheckley’s story was a warning. He was saying that the better your defenses, the greater the likelihood of attack by an enemy. I suppose it stands to reason that the opposite is also true; if you have no defenses at all, your enemy will be attracted to overrun you. The theory of entropy says those thiings are what will happen.

Seems to me, there should be a happy medium between attracting exterior force by having too many weapons (or defenses, if you prefer) and having too few. In other words, why don't we just help things along by doing things that move us toward the entropic state? Oops! That sounds like geek talk again. One way to approach the medium is to have fewer enemies. I suspect the way to do that is to have more friends. But using your friends by putting your defenses in their backyard is probably counter-productive. If I put, for example, a bunch of missile silos in Germany, so I can send them up to intercept missiles from Siberia, doesn’t that make Germany a target for the same Siberian missiles that might have been directed at me, personally? And If I am really being a friend to Germany, doesn’t that seem a bit unfriendly?

And it is all reason to ask, who says I need more defenses? Do they stand to gain if I have more fears? Do I really need to protect resources that are owned by someone else? I was thinking about oil in the Middle East, of course, but here’s an interesting fact: There is very little vanadium in North America. Vanadium is a necessary component of steel. At the height of the “Cold War” the United States was the world’s largest producer, by far, of steel. And the largest source of vanadium was (and is) in Siberia. At the height of the “Cold War”, while the United States and the Soviet Union were loudly proclaiming their status of enmity to the world, the United States was buying close to seventy percent of Siberian vanadium production. We were, in effect, financing our own enemy!

So, again I ask: Who says I need more defenses? Who stands to gain from my (or my country’s) fears?

Well, I don’t know any answers. I just barely know which questions to ask. But it is all food for thought. And that I thought it at all is Robert Sheckley’s fault. It is a good story, though.

“I'm going to catch a nap. I think I have a cold coming on. Now I have to sneez”

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