Boiling the ocean

From the LabLit short story series

Prakash Jha 5 April 2019

Of course, I think small. I do not evaluate my luck in casino or lottery terms. It is for others to win and I have made peace with that

It must have been my lucky day. I did not have to wait for the veterinarian. The cable guy arrived on time and completed his fixes within fifteen minutes. It got even better—I was not charged for the cable services.

Typically, cable companies give a four-hour window of 9AM-1PM or 1PM-5PM during which the technician will arrive. Owing to customer complaints and business pressures, some cable companies are reducing the window from four to two hours with mixed success. It is amazing how this window tricks most of us. If I have a window of 9AM-1PM and I stay home, the cable guy will arrive closer to 1PM. However, if I step out to run an errand, the guy will be knocking on the door at 9 AM. Statisticians might be calling it paradoxical but I term it “asynchronous synchrony” for fun. I am sure others have also coined a similar if not identical term for this bizarre correlation.

I was initially told that no charges accrued because I was a faithful customer, one that stayed with the cable company for 10+ years. In this day and age, that kind of commitment is worth rewarding. However, the actual reason for there being no service charge was because I was paying a $2.99/month maintenance fee. In 10+ years, the cable company had already collected more than $350 from me as a maintenance fee that easily absorbed the $50 service fee this time around.

It may sound strange, but no additional charge is often a win-win situation for the customers and the cable company because of the way it works. All imaginable and many incomprehensible fees are tacked onto the cable bill. So, for a cable service fee of $50, I could have actually paid nearly double because of the taxes and surcharge for Federal Trade Commission communication, emergency 911 call fee, Amber Alert fee, wild-life donation fee and many others. All of these services are important and the State has to get it from somewhere, in spite of charging a state tax. They are just not related to cable. I know I am not entirely off the hook. My $2.99 monthly maintenance fee is actually $5 per month due to these taxes and service fees.

As soon I reached the subway station or metro, as some prefer to call it, the train arrived and I headed for work. I felt really lucky. At least 9 out of 10 times, the train comes on the “other” side first, no matter where, when and why I am going. I understand the statistics that chance of any event is 50-50 (train on your side first vs. on other side) and you have to have a sizable number for the statistics to work for that event. In case of transport by train (and bus), it could take a million times to achieve the elusive 50-50 target. As I am not going to live to reach the million-time milestone for the train’s arrival, I will go with my belief that the train almost always comes on the other side first. You may not agree with me but I still go with my theory of “asynchronous synchrony” to explain it.

By the time I had reached my destination, I realized yet another lucky turn of events. Not only had I got a seat after four stops but my fellow passengers, especially those sitting next to me, also got off at various stops along the way. This observation is subtle and often ignored in daily hustle-bustle of life by many but not by me. Often, the entire car empties out, or a series of commuters have sat on all available seats and left, except those sitting in my range. On the flip side, there have been days when all passengers have exited the car except the two sitting on either side of me. And they are physically strong, crushing me to the core.

By now, I had begun smiling on my lady luck. I was looking forward to what was going to be in my way next. Of course, I think small. I do not evaluate my luck in casino or lottery terms. It is for others to win and I have made peace with that. The earlier one does make that peace, the better it is for happiness. Both casinos and lotteries proudly display huge billboards saying something like this:

“This year we gave away $6 billion in winnings.”

Your average person gets excited reading this.

What those billboards don’t mention is this:

“This year we took $10 billion from you losers.”

I was sensing that something was going wrong as I entered the elevator for my 10th floor office. How can only one fellow worker be with me in the elevator and get off on the same floor that I did? My quota of daily good luck was being stretched far beyond its boundaries. In a usual day, seven other riders would be in elevator with me, each getting off on separate floors. Only on rare occasions I have seen two people getting off on the same floor!

As I swiped my badge and entered the glass doors of my secure work zone, I saw fellow worker Bob discussing something of interest with one of my bosses – let’s call her the Leader. I was more than happy with the turn of events of the day and I approached them before I even dropped off my stuff in my cubicle. I was not expecting any juicy gossip. I sincerely thought something exciting was happening that I might miss if I did not act immediately.

“Hi, good to see you,” the Leader said, looking at me. “You seem to be very happy. Good commute?”

“Yes, fabulous for a change,” I said.

“Where do you come from?” The Leader continued with the small talk as is the norm in the work setting.

“North Shore,” I said.

The Leader also asked Bob the same question, perhaps to keep the conversation going.

“Where do you come from, Bob?”

“I come from my mother,” Bob said.

At this point, there was a pin-drop silence. The Leader and I exchanged glances. What can you say to that? Bob was right.

Bob’s laughter broke the silence.

“Gotcha!” Bob said, beaming with victory of sorts. “It works every time.”

We all dispersed to attend meetings. Bob and I happened to be in the same one. Several house-keeping items were discussed and then one new major initiative was brought up.

“It is not as if we are boiling the ocean, but considerable effort would be needed for this initiative,” the meeting lead said.

Everyone else moved on to the next agenda item but Bob and I could not. Both of us had what I’ll call a “analysis paralysis” habit. If we hear something for the first time, we have to get to the bottom of it. Both of us were physically still in the meeting, but mentally we were deciphering the boiling the ocean concept, literally. If we were to boil an ocean, how we would do it, and which ocean we would pick? Bob and I reached an unspoken agreement to focus on the current meeting, and discuss boiling the ocean offline.

Soon after the meeting was over we were at a white board.

We went for the smallest ocean to boil first because of the logistics. It turned out to be a difficult choice because the Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the world's five oceans but it is the coldest. I let Bob work with other four oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian,, and the recently delimited Southern Ocean. However, we soon dropped the Southern Ocean from our list because neither of us and billion of others ever knew this ocean existed.

We also debated using a “proof of concept” first and narrowed it down to the Red Sea. Granted, it is not one of the world’s five oceans but it is a seawater inlet of the Indian Ocean. The Red Sea also connects to the ocean without any rivers coming in or out of it. Hence, it is the best “pure” candidate for an ocean. As the Red Sea is the saltiest sea, we also thought it will be easier to boil it. My vote for the Red Sea came from my strong botany background. One of the hypotheses about the origins of the Red Sea's name is that it contains a blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), scientifically known as Trichodesmium erythraeum, seasonal bloom of which turns its blue-green water reddish-brown. So imagine if the Red Sea would be boiled – it would have a totally red, authentic lava-like appearance!

It is not really important what approaches we decided for the actual boiling of the Red Sea. Our knowledge of physics is rudimentary. We approached the idea of using “anti-matter” powered turbines and furnaces, harnessing solar energy in a yet unknown way to beam the energy into the ocean, as well as routing volcano energy to the sea using a Hollywood approach. The main thing was that we had fun and stretched our imaginations.

The same Leader met us as we stepped out from our brainstorming session on boiling the ocean. Bob gave her a synopsis of our discussion.

She smiled and said, “This must have been an intellectually satisfying day for both of you.”

We were actually lucky that she’d considered our discussion some sort of team-building effort.

On my way back, I went to see the veterinarian. My puppy’s operation had been successful. Even though it had cost me $800, I was not at all worried. Puppy was safe and when the vet handed him over to me, he jumped into my lap with no regard for his pain. He frantically licked me as if I were the only one he knew in this universe. This unconditional love is what separates dogs from other animals.

“I just had the luckiest day ever,” I told my puppy.

For him, the surgery was nothing less miraculous than boiling the ocean.