Tuesday, February 10, 2009

1 million, 1 billion - What difference does it make?

I was reading God Gardened East by Louis Ruprecht the past few days.

In the opening chapter he tells a story about an experience he had, meeting with a Philosopher while he was in Athens, Greece.

The Greek Philosopher critiqued the American (Louis) for his failure to understand numbers.

"The problem with you Americans," he noted with a sad smile, "is that you don't know how to count."

Eyebrow arched, and a little defensive, Louis asked him what he meant.

"You lack patience," he explained. "You don't take the time to think what numbers mean."

The Greek Philosopher went on to note that, in his purview, most Americans do not understand the difference between a million and a billion.

Louis would quip to the Greek Philosopher that he did know the difference - "Three more zeroes."

The Greek Philosopher failed to laugh.

One million seconds, the philosopher patiently explained, is roughly ten days long.

Do you know how many days are in one billion seconds?

As I read the text, I must admit, I was surprised. Indeed, I was shocked.

Where one million seconds is roughly ten days, one billion seconds is roughly 32 years. It seems unbelievable.

One million seems not too far removed from one billion . . . doesn't it? I mean, honestly, it doesn't seem that one million can be that far removed from one billion. Nor, does it seem possible that one trillion (if I have my math facts correct) is some 32,000 years of seconds!

While I am *not* an economist who readily confesses my ignorance . . . I must also confess, I worry in deeply troubling ways for the future. If the facts regarding what I read are true, the U.S. government is considering another bail-out plan of roughly $800 billion (give or take a few billion, it's just a few zeroes after all.) That will be added to the more than $800 billion already promised with the ink barely dry on that legislation! This will make the U.S. Government bailout plans top more than 9.7 Trillion Dollars!

This can not be good. This can not be good.

I do not have an answer or answers.

But, I know I need to learn how to count.

And, I need to think seriously, very, very seriously about the grievous future I fear. I am not a nay-sayer. I want the best - the good for the all. But 9.7 trillion is millions and millions and millions and millions of seconds away! It is so far away in seconds, that it is removed by, vast millenia!

If we want the good for all, we must learn how to count better, to be more patient, and to be more frugal.

In times of my own fear and anxiety, I at least have the comfort of Wendell Berry's poetry:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

~ marty alan michelson, ph.d.

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