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Examples of Entropy

By Jack Hokikian, Ph.D.

 

Every process, event, happening—call it what you will; in a word,

 everything that is going on in Nature means an increase of the

entropy of the part of the world where it is going on. [1]

Erwin Schrödinger, Physics Nobel Laureate

 

A good way to learn about a subject is through examples. The Science of Disorder: Understanding the Complexity, Uncertainty, and Pollution in Our World has various examples of entropy generated by humankind. Human entropy production certainly did not stop after the book’s publication. If anything, it has picked up some momentum, more notably in the Internet arena. So I gathered a few new examples of entropy in different fields of human endeavor and here they are:

Internet Entropy

Bill Gates Drowning in E-mail and Spam

Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp. Chairman, “literally receives 4 million pieces of e-mail per day, most of it spam,” according to Steve Ballmer, the company’s chief executive. That’s about 46 messages a second around the clock. How does Bill Gates manage such an influx of information entropy? Microsoft has installed a technology just to filter spam specifically directed to Bill Gates. Moreover, a few employees are devoted to making sure that nothing unwanted reaches his inbox, thus increasing his entropy unnecessarily. “Literally,” says Ballmer, “there’s a whole department almost that takes care of it.” [2]

The Internet Zoo Keeps Knocking

Spam is not the only entropy on the Internet. There is a whole family of disorders much more consequential than spam, including viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, phishing and pharming, that are sucking up energy and time from Internet users while increasing their entropy—disorder. And no one is immune from this entropy, not even Bill Gates. Recently, he discovered spyware on his personal computer. [3] Security experts are warning us that more dangers and entropy are on the way via cell phones, instant messaging software, Internet-based phone systems and desktop search utilities. [4] Historians call this kind of entropy unintended consequences of technology. [5]

Computer and Technological Entropy

Computers’ Annoying Glitches

Recently, computer “glitches” have created such a noticeable level of entropy—disorder—that they have attracted the attention of Washington Post Technology Columnist, Leslie Walker. In an article entitled “Computers Mistakeover,” she reports that while doing her research, she came across a “mix of seriously annoying, darkly comical and horrific ‘glitches’ blamed on computers.”

Computer glitches—disorders—were blamed for an Indiana gas station selling gas for two-hundredths of a penny per gallon and the British government inadvertently setting free more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation. Walker ends her article with this observation: As eyebrow-raising as todays computer glitches are, I expect tomorrows to be more jarring. [6]

Technostress Appears

The rapid pace of technological change has brought about considerable stress and anxiety. Two decades ago, Silicon Valley psychotherapist Craig Brod coined the term “technostress” for the contemporary ailment caused by the pressures of living in a high-tech world. [7] Since then our technological world—thrust by the Internet, laptops, cell phones, Treos, BlackBerries, iPods—has become more complex, more pervasive and more intrusive on our lives and time. These high-tech wizardries are following us everywhere prompting us to do one thing or another. Some people believe they have become addicted to e-mail, checking for messages incessantly. [8] Experts are urging people to unplug occasionally to lower their entropy. [9]

The complexities and the number of options we have in today’s high-tech gadgets are overwhelming. People are definitely feeling the stress and the entropy of our technological environment. A quarter of century ago, the distinguished biologist Mary Eleanor Clark warned us that we have become technology’s “servants rather than its masters.” [10] Today, many people are realizing that they have become indeed servants of today’s high-tech gadgets and they are fighting back. They are voluntarily staying away from some technologies all or some of the time to lower their entropy and thus take some control over their lives. [11]

Some Facts in Environmental Entropy

Plastic Bags Everywhere

According to World Watch Institute, factories around the world churned out four to five trillion plastic shopping bags in 2002. But what happens to these bags after they are used? Unmistakably, they generate sizable environmental entropy, which environmentalists call pollution. Most of them go to landfills but others end up in just about anywhere. Because of their light weight, a good portion of these bags go airborne, creating all kinds of environmental entropy and trouble throughout the world; they get caught in fences, trees, and even in the throats of birds.

In China, the government got so tired of cleaning the plastic bags out of gutters, sewers and ancient temples that it encouraged people to tie knots in the bags to prevent them from flying away. The Irish have called them the “national flag” while South Africans dubbed them the “national flower.” On the positive side, plastic bags create less entropy than paper bags during production; they use 20-40 percent less energy and water, and generate less air pollution and solid waste. However, they more than make it up in the consumption stage. [12]

High Tech’s Environmental Entropy

High tech generates its own share of environmental entropy: Americans annually throw away more than 100 million cell phones. Each day, 10,000 TVs and PC monitors go dark. Electronic waste (entropy)—such as cell phones, computers and TV sets—contributes 70% of the nation’s hazardous waste. [13] This is in addition to the entropy generated during the production, distribution and consumption of these high-tech equipment.

Entropy of Fish Farming

In the area of factory-fish farming, it was found that in 2000, 26 different algicides, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical additives were used in farm-raised salmon ponds. The number was just 3 in 1989. [14] This is a considerable increase in environmental entropy, which in turn increases the biological entropy of the salmons and the humans who consume them. Bon appetite.

Chemical Entropy

Speaking of pesticides, the total weight of just six of the most dangerous pesticides at large in the global environment: 7,000,000 tons, an indication that we humans and other living organisms are living in a high entropy environment. [15]

Governmental Entropy

Governments collect taxes to pay for their activities. One such activity, a minor one, entails devising a tax code. Like our expanding universe, the U.S. tax code has increased considerably in size and complexity—entropy—with the passage of time. In 1940, the instructions to the Form 1040 were about four pages. Today, they encompass more than 100 pages. [16] The tax code itself has expanded to more than 45,000 pages, according to one estimate. Invariably, this much entropy thrown at people takes a big chunk of people’s energy and dissipates considerable time. Not surprisingly, Americans spend more than 6 billion hours each year filling out tax returns. [17]

In the last twenty years, the Internal Revenue Code has undergone more than 14,000 changes, each increasing the entropy of the tax code and in turn increasing taxpayers’ entropy. The tax code also contains some inconsistencies and fuzziness. For example, there are five separate definitions of a “child” with different expiration dates. And according to the IRS, “qualified higher education” has three different meanings. [18]

The tax code has reached such a high level of entropy—disorder—that many people including some policymakers are crying for serious simplification of the tax code, which in effect would dramatically reduce its entropy and thus suck much less energy from Americans. Stay tuned.

 

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References

[1] Quoted and referenced in Jack Hokikian, The Science of Disorder: Understanding the Complexity, Uncertainty, and Pollution in Our World (Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Feliz Publishing, 2002), p. 66.

[2] “Bill Gates Gets 4 Million E-Mails a Day,” Associated Press, November 18, 2004.

[3] Joseph Menn, “No More Internet for Them,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2005, pp. A1, A23.

[4] Anick Jesdanun, “Phishing, Spwyware, Others Plague Internet,” Associated Press, January 2, 2005; see also Don Oldenburg, “Phishers Sinking to New Lows,” Washington Post, August 28, 2005, p. F05; Brian Krebs, “Online Crime Rises Dramatically, Report Says,” Washington Post, September 20, 2005, p. D05.

[5] Hokikian, The Science of Disorder, pp. 184, 209, 240.

[6] Leslie Walker, Computers Mistakeover, Washington Post, May 25, 2006, p. D01.

[7] Hokikian, The Science of Disorder, p. 218.

[8] Verlyn Klinkenborg, “ ‘No Messages on This Server,’ and Other Lessons of Our Time,” New York Times, January 29, 2006.

[9] Martha Irvine, “Experts Urge People to Unplug Occasionally,” Associated Press, December 9, 2004; see also Menn, “No More Internet for Them.”

[10] Quoted and referenced in Hokikian, The Science of Disorder, p.105.

[11] Jose Antonio Vargas, “One Answer to Too Much Tech: Sorry, I’m Not Here,” Washington Post, January 16, 2006, p. C01.

[12] “The Ubiquitous Plastic Bag,” World Watch Magazine, January/February 2004.

[13] Alex Pham, “Deleting Hazardous Waste,” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2005, pp. A1, A28.

[14] “Matters of Scale,” World Watch Magazine, September/October 2003.

[15] “Matters of Scale,” World Watch Magazine, July/August 2003.

[16] Michael J. Graetz, “To the Point of No Returns,” New York Times, November 15, 2004.

[17] Nicholas Confessore, “Breaking the Code,” New York Times, January 16, 2005.

[18] Krysten Crawford, “Tax Simplification: Not So Simple,” CNN/Money, July 21, 2005.