Saturday, March 21, 2009

A billion is way bigger than a million.

Okay. Here's a little math for people who are livid about $165 million in "bonuses" to employees of the corporate carcass once known as American International Group.

AIG received $30 billion from the Federal Reserve to somehow rid itself of insane insurance policies on a sliced and diced mixture of below-prime-rate mortgages. Or, what we now call "toxic assets."

How galling is it for a Greenwich millionaire cum-crook to get a million or two or three dollars for sabotaging the company while becoming filthy rich, causing untold misery to everyone else?

Pretty high on the Gall Scale. Right up there near the top.

But people want the money back as recompense for the $30 billion. Let's consider the numbers 165 million and 30 billion.

One million is 1 followed by 6 zeroes One billion is 1 followed by 9 zeroes. Three additional zeroes, or you might say, three orders of magnitude. Now, think about it.

Since Earth's population is about 6 billion, then 30 billion would be the number of people on five Earths. By contrast, 165 million is about the populations of the 10 largest cities on Earth.

Or, to put it another way, 1 million seconds is 13 days. One billion seconds is 31 years. A million hours ago it was 1855. A billion hours ago humans did not exist.

One more. There are about 10,000 grains of rice in a cup. Sixteen cups equals 1 gallon of rice. So, 1 million grains of rice would be 6.5 gallons. One billion grains of rice would be 6,500 gallons.

Consequently, $165 million is about half of one percent of $30 billion. It's chump change.

Of course, $165 million would make us chumps pretty rich -- but paupers compared to a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet.

By the way, 1 trillion seconds ago Neanderthals were hunting mammoths and trying to stay warm.

Earmarks for dummies

Many trivial-sounding "earmarks" are criticized as a waste of money, usually by people who don't understand the value of basic research.

Earmarks have faded from the news, pushed into the background by enormous bail-outs that are orders of magnitude larger than the supposed pet projects in the proposed federal budget.

Here are a few projects revealed earlier this month by New York Time columnist Maureen Dowd:

+$2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York. There's nothing funny about this to the growing U.S. wine industry. There are roughly 600 varieties of grapes, 54 of which comprise the main ingredients in most wines around the world.

Genetics are very important to wine.

Phyllorexa, a plant louse that loves grape leaves, appeared in the 18th century, first in America and then in Europe. Ultimately, after some back and forth, America began to provide phyllorexa-proof roots to Europeans, who graft on local grape varieties.

The point is, resistance to rot, insects, fungus, nematodes, etc. lies in genes, and the more we understand about grape genes, the safer the wine industry. California's wine industry alone is worth about $20 billion a year. So $2 million to assure its safety seems like a n0-brainer.

+ $1.7 million for a honey bee factory in Texas. Bees are essential to pollinating many crops, and bees are mysteriously disappearing. If the factory helps figure out what's going on the money will be well-spent.

+ $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. Big joke, except that pig poop could be a source of biofuel, either by collecting the methane it gives off as it rots, or through some other biomass process. Do you want to live next to a pig fuel plant? No, because of the odor. So this grant has a serious purpose.

+ $2 million to develop and promote astronomy in Hawaii. Part of the reason that astronomy is conducted in Hawaii is because the mainland is wasting prodigious amounts of light, lighting up the night sky and obscuring stars, galaxies, and possibly even some planets. The skies over Kitt Peak (near Tuscon, Arizona) are way clearer than the skies over the East Coast. But Arizona cities are spreading like phyllorexa.

What's important about astronomy? Are you curious about the origin and future of the universe and the solar system; life on other planets; or the possibility of colonizing Mars or predicting asteroid collisons? That's astronomy.

There's more, but you get the idea.

A couple of centuries ago, how ridiculous it would have seemed to study why apples fall to the ground. That story about Isaac Newton may be apoccryphal, but you never know where a simple question will lead.