Barrel of Wine; Barrel of Sewage

Last time, I wrote about irony and the perverse universe. This time I want to write about something just as fundamental. It has the technical name, entropy, and there is a very technical definition that goes along with that name.

I’ll return to that later, but for now consider this simple truth: If you have a barrel of fine wine, and you add a teaspoon of sewage, now you have a barrel of sewage. On the other hand, if you have a barrel of sewage, and you add a teaspoon of wine, you do not have a barrel of wine.

You still have a barrel of sewage!

Programmers and mathematicians may like this bumper sticker version:

1 POT T == 1 POT P
1 POT P != 1 POT T

For those without the necessary background, I’ll just mention that “==” means “equals” and that “!=” means “does not equal”.  You’ll have to work out the rest on your own.

Another way to visualize this is to consider how hard it is to balance on the tip of a mountain compared to how easy it is to stand on a level surface.

There is just the one mountain tip, but lots and lots of level surface.

What this shows when it comes to something like wine is that perfection is easy to ruin. The slightest imperfection and it’s not perfect any more.

Total crap — on the other hand — is hard to ruin.

This is a basic principle of the universe: perfection is a small mountain top; chaos is a vast plain.

Physicists call this the Law of Thermodynamics. It basically says, not only can you never win, you can never even break even. You will always lose. This is an inescapable aspect of reality.  (Don’t despair; there’s always chocolate. And sex.)

As a life lesson, one can accept never breaking even and that life isn’t a barrel of wine. But it’s is a little hard to accept life as a barrel of sewage.

So we can mix this up by changing out the sewage for stew. If you add a teaspoon of stew to your wine (a soupçon of stew?), the wine is ruined (at least for most of us; your tastes may differ).

But adding wine to stew just makes it better. Life is best as a stew; a mixture of ingredients blended together, always a little different each time you make it. (That is, each person’s stew is a little different.) And a dash of perfection, when you can manage it, just improves the flavor.

If you try to make life perfect all the time (like a fine wine), you will either spend a great deal of energy and time, or you will be frequently disappointed. More likely both. If you see life as a rich, surprising stew, you may find it easier to enjoy.

Personally, I like stew a lot. And I prefer beer, both as a liquid in stew and as a liquid to get stewed. On the other hand, a good spaghetti sauce deserves a good bottle of hearty red wine (again, both in cooking and drinking with the cooking). Different problems call for different solutions!  But stew, beer, spaghetti and wine are topics for another time.


I mentioned entropy, a term you may have encountered. Roughly speaking, it’s the measure of disorder in a system. (Don’t be put off by the word, “system.” It’s just a high-tech way of saying, “thing.” Well, sort of, anyway.) Your living space, house, apartment, condo, room, whatever, becomes messy.

That’s entropy. Hot food gets cold; cold food gets warm. That’s entropy. And the Law of Thermodynamics. It’s sort of the same thing.

That’s a rather stew-like definition of entropy. Let’s try to be precise, which is to be more perfect, and sometimes we can and do strive to be perfect. We may not reach it, but it’s still a good goal.

The first step on the way from stew to wine is the idea that entropy actually applies only to closed systems. If you supply energy from the outside, you can fight entropy.

Hot food stays hot if you keep it hot; cold food stays cold if you keep it cold. And your house stays neat if you constantly clean up after yourself.

But without that outside source of energy, heat, refrigeration, cleaning, you end up with cold pizza, melted ice cubes and socks everywhere.

Okay, ready for the wine label on the entropy bottle? It reads, Entropy is a measure of the indistinguishable states of a system. That may sound intimidating, but it’s actually fairly easy to understand.

Let’s say that you’re old-fashioned and you still have a CD collection. (If you’re really old-fashioned, you have a record collection. Or maybe clay cylinders.) And let’s say you sort your CDs by Artist, Title & Date. You also have rules for determining exactly what Artist, Title or Date means in case of any ambiguity.

What this means is that there is only one correct order for your CD collection. You would immediately spot any CD that is in the wrong place.

If your CD collection is in the state of being perfectly sorted and nothing is out of place, the entropy of your collection is zero.

You are standing on the mountain’s peak. There is just one distinguishable perfectly sorted state.

If your friend borrows one and puts it back in the wrong spot, they have introduced a degree of entropy into the collection.

However the number of possible places a single CD can be placed out of order is limited (it is based on how many CDs you have). Entropy is still low.

Consider the difference if an earthquake knocks all the CDs off the shelf into a random pile on the floor. One random pile of CDs is pretty much like any other random pile of CDs.

It would be impossible to notice any difference if someone re-arranged several CDs. In fact, it would probably be difficult to see much difference if someone completely re-arranged the entire pile.

One random pile looks much like another.

Now the entropy of your CD collection is very high. To reduce the entropy you will have to expend the time and energy to sort them back into a low-entropy state. Or you could just start using iTunes and avoid the whole business.

But indistinguishable macro states aside, the point is that we do well to view life as a rich stew, sometimes fortified with what perfect wine we can muster. Life should be tasty and surprising.

And don’t be afraid to experiment with the recipe sometimes!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “Barrel of Wine; Barrel of Sewage

  • Tim

    Hmmm. One could say that the level of entropy is also a function of the accuracy of your measuring system. For example, to the casual observer my desk may seem to have a high entropy, but it is actually a system that works for me so my measure of entropy would be a fair amount lower. Which I suppose takes us back to the conversation of facts and truth….

    If a reasonable definition of “perverse” is “contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice,” then whether something (such as a universe) is perverse turns on who gets to accept or expect the standard of practice. My take is that we ‘mere men’ have not learned the lesson that our vision is shorter than our pride. How many examples do we need (Columbus, Copernicus, Eistein, etc.) to prove that we can never not live on faith because there is no end to our lack of understanding. It seems we put a stake in the ground and call it factual because we are unable for whatever reason to see above/below/beyond/within it. And yet it invariably proves to be, rather than ‘the answer’, just another treasure chest (pandora’s box?) of questions that sooner or later someone will come along and figure out how to release.

    Which (somehow) brings us back to the original post – stew. I actually like the image of stone soup. That is the story where the soldiers came to town and asked for food but no one would share and so the soldiers started boiling a big pot of water and when people asked what they were doing they were told ‘its stone soup, but we think it needs something more to make it a little better’ and the people would say ‘well I have a little of this or that I can throw in.’ They didn’t know exactly what they were making and so they didn’t have many constraints on what went into it. They just had a vision of a general end state (being fed) and trusted that whatever was being put in would in the end contribute to that end state.

    So it is with life. You can ‘it is x’ and things that happen are ingredients that add or subtract from ‘x’. Or you can say ‘I believe it can be y’ and trust that things that happen are all components that together will end up producing y. Like determining entropy (you like the way I bring that back in?), its a matter of what perspective you choose.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Wow, very thoughtful and very interesting!

      Seems you’re seeing a difference between perceived entropy and actual entropy. In fact, like temperature, it is a physical measurement of a system, and messy desks and rooms are a bit of a metaphor. Still, if your desk is in a state where you would notice the slightest change (say I sneak in and rearrange something), then your desk actually does have low entropy even if it does look “messy” to someone else. If we’re going to be accurate, we would say that the person who claims your desk has high entropy is incorrect. They lack sufficient knowledge of the system in question to make a valid assessment.

      When I say the universe is perverse I’m not referring to standards, but to irony. The word, perverse, literally means “thoroughly turned,” and I use it in the less common sense of “intractable,” “vexing” or “contrary.” But semantics aside, your point is that our knowledge constantly evolves, which is certainly true. I do think science builds upon previous knowledge. Einstein didn’t invalidate Newton so much as expand him, for instance. And you do have to be, at least a little, wary of faith. It was faith that steadfastly believed the earth must be the center of the universe despite measured facts. Or more recently, faith for some demands that the universe must be no older than 10,000 years when this also defies the facts. Belief, just like science, is a very sharp two-edged sword.

      That said, I believe (ahem, I have faith) that faith and science are not required to be mutually exclusive. I think they address different aspects of our experience. One is Yin; the other is Yang. We can match the iniquities of faith with the iniquities of science, just as we can match the good things both provide. I would not care to live in a world without both.

      I’ve always liked the Stone Soup parable. I’ve taken it to be about sharing and community, but the nice thing those stories is you can use them in new ways! To make it very personal, I’ve lived my life seeing how the soup turned out. One lesson I took very much to heart was the business about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. On some levels that’s worked out extremely well for me. In others it’s worked out very, very poorly. Would it have been better had I been less trusting in the future and more motivated to change my present? Hard to say. The world is filled with well-meaning, hard-working failures. For every “Just do it” success story, there are a dozen who did the same and failed. Luck has a lot to do with life. There are uncountable numbers of good who’ve suffered and evil who’ve prospered.

      And while, in the most accurate sense, entropy is not a matter of perspective, life in general definitely is!

  • Lady from Manila

    My mind is not big on scientific terms and the minutest details of science (can’t comprehend Chemistry and much of Physics yet) but I remember quite well how I cherished the textbook “Modern Earth Science” from my high school era. The book got me highly fascinated with the mysteries of the universe and its heavenly bodies I ended up treasuring any reading materials about our solar system and the different stars and galaxies.

    What I adore about this post is you were able to explain the Law of Entropy in layman’s language. Your illustrations and examples have been clear and precise. As to the state of my mind at this point in my life, please let me believe it’s under the classification of low-degree entropy. 🙂

    You beautifully put its verity as well through this: “As a life lesson, one can accept never breaking even and that life isn’t a barrel of wine. But it’s a little hard to accept life as a barrel of sewage.”

    The concept actually first caught my attention and interest after I read a dark comment from an anonymous Yahoo reader and commenter who stated: “I’ve already accepted the Law of Entropy. All things come to an end. I don’t believe in Heaven or hell. Those things are what we live on earth. All religions are lies made by men to control us. The institution of Marriage is crumbling with the rest of society. Failed marriages equal failed children equaled failed financial states. There is no such thing as ‘rights.’ The only truth is entropy.”
    A downer, for sure – although he makes sense in some ways. But we need not despair heavily because as you remarked in a previous comment, “There’s always chocolate and sex.” 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You are a marvelous illustration of why teaching science to children is so important: some minds are captivated by one part of it or another and life-long careers and pursuits are the result. How wonderful that you’ve had the joy of astronomy all these years! I took to it all like a duck to water, although in my case I think there was some sort of predisposition for it. As a small child I made “wires” out of clay and “networked” my wooden blocks together. Geek from day one, apparently.

      Physics has always fascinated me (love quantum physics and relativity), but chemistry is a much weaker subject for me, too. (That shit’s really complicated! :)) I’m even weaker when it comes to biology, but I’ve dabbled in all the sciences as an avid onlooker. I subscribed to various magazines for decades; now I read science blogs (which are really cool, because they’re written by working scientists and are really current).

      I’m delighted you got something out of this post. It’s actually a cornerstone post that, once I really get rolling (so far I feel I’ve only dabbled in blogging, too) I’ll have other posts that will build on these “Basics” posts. The concept of entropy is fundamental to reality, so it’s an important concept to understand.

      As for that Yahoo comment, one of the great interesting questions about reality is, “How deterministic is reality?” If the answer is, “Fully!” then the universe is a machine, and the future is actually no more uncertain than it is for the gears on a clock or balls on a billiard table. If this view is correct, then an entropic end (a “heat death”) is one possibility. As it turns out, something we call “Dark Energy” (and have no clue what it is) will actually cause the universe to end in “The Big Rip” (torn to pieces even at the atomic level).

      Quantum physics opens the door to some very bizarre possibilities. In particular it allows reality, and therefore the future, to be “fuzzy” (undetermined). It’s unclear to what degree quantum effects actually affect the larger reality we live in. Regardless, reality is complicated enough to seem undetermined, and whatever reality may be we still have to live in the here and now. We can make that as pleasant, or as unpleasant, as we choose.

      And while religions may be made up, spirituality may not be. The door is still open to the possibility of something that transcends mere reality. All cultures on Earth seem to perceive… something. One can’t help but wonder why and how real it might be.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And, absolutely! There’s always chocolate. And sex. And baseball. And music. And good books. And…

      • Lady from Manila

        …And Wyrd Smythe’s “Logos Con Carne” blog!

        Thank you for your brilliant reply to my comment. I’ll be back, though. Meanwhile, gotta sleep now (it’s 12 midnight here) as I need to wake up early tomorrow morning to go to work. I gather you won’t be working on Monday. Lucky you. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Nope! No more Monday Mornings for me!!

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Somehow you’ve managed to take a topic that would normally bore me and you’ve made it entertaining. Kudos!

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