Thursday, October 4, 2018

Flashback 2000: Near-disaster of biblical proportions

     Facebook isn't the font of fascination it once sorta was. Too many ads. But I glance at it anyway, just to see what's going on, though most of my friends seem to be either expressing outrage—can you BELIEVE what they've done now?—or nostalgia: do you remember caramel bullseyes? (Or a combination of the two, condemning the modern world because kids can't play with Jarts anymore). 
     Others like to put big block memes asking unusual questions. I typically ignore those. But a few days ago I noticed this query on a friend's page, and instantly thought, "Yes! Yes I have!" As outlined in the column below.

     There is no punctuation in the Bible. The Hebrew original, that is. No vowels, either.
     It leads to, umm, flexibility when it comes to interpretation, and scholars have happily frittered away the centuries debating the meaning of this or that particular passage.
     The line that best illustrates this process is from Genesis 22. God, in an antic mood, tells Abraham to go sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Abraham leads the boy to the mountaintop to do the bloody deed. Isaac, who is no fool, can't help but notice that something is amiss.
     "Behold the fire and the wood," he says. "But where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"
    Abraham answers: "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
    Only that comma, of course, isn't in the original text. So he might have been telling Isaac that his doom is near: "God will provide himself the lamb. For a burnt offering: my son."
      Sure, it's a stretch. But if you spend enough time thinking a certain way, especially when you're young, it makes a lingering impact on your mind, creating a certain perversity of outlook.
     For instance: A current radio ad for an eyeglass store has this tagline: "For people who can't see paying a lot for glasses." The moment I heard it, I smiled, thinking they were slyly communicating that their business overcharges people with bad vision: "For people who can't see, paying a lot for glasses."
     This trait is not always benign. In fact, this week it very nearly cost me hundreds of dollars, not to mention depositing tons of unwanted dirt in the backyard of my new home.
     The previous owners had an above-ground pool. Before I could picture myself lounging by the cool waters, my wife, the lawyer, announced that the pool was a big circular drowning pit, inviting our children and the children in the neighborhood to a watery doom. So out went the pool.
     Leaving behind a hole, 20 feet across and about 6 inches deep. The hole needed to be filled. I saw, at long last, after a quarter-century of neglect, a chance to put all those years of geometry to use. The equation for the area of a circle is branded on my brain: area = 
π r2.
     I'm tempted to go into all the math, but as this is a family newspaper, I'll skip over the complexities and cut to the chase: by multiplying pi and the radius first—perhaps influenced by my youthful biblical bickering—and then squaring them, instead of squaring the radius first, and then multiplying by pi, I managed to get about 900 square feet. A figure three times as large as it should have been.
     Not an abstract, point-off-the-quiz mistake. But a truck-dumping-three-times-as-much-dirt-as-I-need mistake.
     Luckily, I caught it in time, through my natural need to check and recheck things. I realized I was wrong by imagining a square the same size—20 feet across. The area of that, of course, would be easy: 20 x 20, or 400 square feet.
     So how is it, I wondered, stepping back from the brink, that a circle of the same size would have more than twice the area?
     Finally figuring it out, I called the dirt store, which is an experience for a city kid. One phone call, and a big dump truck shows up at your house, the back filled with seven cubic yards of topsoil, which cost $170 and weigh 14,000 pounds.
     The truck dumped it in a pile 4 feet high, in the center of the hole left by the pool.
     And then it began to rain.
     "Better get that dirt spread," the driver said, climbing into his cab. "Because once it gets wet, it turns to muck."
     Which is where we shall leave the author, amateur biblical scholar and math whiz, frantically shoveling this pile of moistening dirt in the driving rain. A humbling experience and, believe it or not, a tonic for a guy who works with his brain all day, and not always successfully at that.

            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 22, 2000


  1. I'm not usually a quibbler (I hope), but wouldn't that be geometry, not algebra?

  2. Upon further reflection, it's probably both.

    1. Just so. The circle is geometry. The equation to figure out its area is algebra, simply because "r" is a variable: it can represent any number that is the radius of a circle.

  3. Love it.

    Just like the recently deceased physicist, who had a penchant for explaining complex issues to us simpletons. English grammar, the Torah and arithmetic -- another trifecta for Neil!


  4. I'm guessing that the people who supply the dirt also do the extra step to ascertain the volume of dirt needed.

    Just came to me that Neil missed the opportunity to use the phrase " the whole nine yards" more or less literally.



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