The Class Etiology: Beggars Can't Be Choosers

They both couldn't believe the idea hadn't occurred to them sooner. Scott and Mikey stood with red aprons on in the "Healthy-E Plus+" store, working an honest Satruday morning's wage. They'd both tried various other jobs before, and admittedly the pay on the other jobs was probably a little better, but both Mikey and Scott got an extra perk out of the job that they wouldn't give up for the world. For Mikey, it was a employee's 20% discount on all purchases in the store (invaluable given how much he bought from there each week) and for Scott it was the multitude of great looking, athletic girls who shopped for various protein shakes there, and were usually heart-broken because they could never find a man who understood their need for a healthy diet. He had so many dating prospects, he found he could reject girls for trivial reasons (being an inch too short, wearing ear-rings he didn't like, having a phone number that wasn't prime) and still have too many left over to date. Yes, it was Heaven.

Or Hell. Hell was the huge pile of oranges that confronted them each shift, like an undiscovered ziggurat of Vitamin C that hadn't been touched for untold centuries and contained more volume than they could either imagine.

Scott's job was to place the oranges into paper bags and stack them for later sale, Mikey's job was to put the oranges into a large square machine that spat the collected juice into bottles which were then stacked for later sale. And that was it. For 9 hours.

The job was so mindnumbingly dull, one's thoughts couldn't even properly wander because you had to keep a vague 'hand on the tiller', so to speak, a subliminal job conscientiousness that ensured you didn't screw up a simple task like 'not dropping oranges all over the floor' as the store manager had phrased it during training.

Mikey found it infinitely more agonizing than Scott did. Mikey wanted to jog, to study, to read, to listen to music, to eat an apple, to re-organize his schedule, to alphabetize his wardrobe... Mikey.. Mikey not only wanted to do a thousand other things, he wanted to do them all at the same time. As well as the oranges. Instead of the oranges. Both. Neither... Seven and a half hours to GO this shift? That can't be right, they must have already done at least half..

"Hey, how long to go on the shift?" Mikey asked.

Scott frowned and looked at the clock on the wall, wondering why he was being asked such an obvious question. "Uh, seven and a half hours".

Mikey tapped a half-full (or half-empty, depending on how you looked at it) bottle of "sparkling O-J" in frustration.

"What's the matter?" Scott asked. "Hoping there'd be less hours to go?"

"Fewer" Mikey said, quietly, staring at the second hand on the clock. He was sure it didn't just move then when it should have. He'd just been cheated of a second, he was sure.

"What?" Scott asked.

"Hours are things that can be traditionally counted, as are cars, oranges or bottles" Mikey said, matter-of-factly. "So when referring to a smaller quantity of them, you use the word 'fewer'. 'Lesser' is used for reductions of quantities that can't be traditionally counted, like juice or electricity"

"Hey, ladies!" Mr. Mahanagan, the health food store manager called from the front, "I don't hear juicing and bagging back there!"

Scott shot a surly glace at the empty doorway as Mikey continued his explanation.

"So, we're producing less juice and we're using fewer oranges, see? And likewise, I thought we had fewer hours left to our shift, not 'less hours'" Mikey finished quietly.

Work continued.

"How do you do it? You don't look as bored as me" Mikey finally blurted out.

"I" Scott said quietly, with a smirk.

"What?" Mikey asked, perplexed.

"The phrase is 'as bored as I', Mikey, not 'as bored as me'" Scott said, widening his smile. One all, Mikey. Just because I'm a Math major, it doesn't mean I can't speak the language.

"Okay, okay. So, how do you do it?" Mikey asked in a whisper.

"Have you ever heard of the Sphere Packing Inequality?" Scott asked, with a faint whimsical look in his eye.

"Uh. Don't think I have" Mikey said, confidant he never had.

"It's a mathematical problem. We mathematicians really never are fully bored, there's always some pattern or instance of nature that appeals directly to our curiousities, in that very warped part of our brains where we decided to become mathematicians in the first place" Scott explained, and left it at that.

"So.. what IS the Sphere Packing Inequality anyway?" Mikey asked, after a pause.

"Well, basically, it's how many oranges can I fit into a bag" Scott said, with a shrug. "There's a lot of different combinations for packing spheres into a, well, box, and you want the most efficient one possible, leaving the minimal empty space between all the spheres. Stacking them in columns isn't very efficient, and neither's pyramids for that matter".

"So what IS the most efficient?" Mikey asked, a faint trace of eagerness in his voice.

"Well, we don't know" Scott replied. "We've figured out an upper bound on the maximum amount of volume it could EVER be, but we don't know if a combination actually fits the most efficient one. All we do is come up with better and better ones continually approaching this upper bound, and in that, *the* most efficient way of packing spheres into a box".

Mikey let out an appreciative whistle.

"And it's not as easy to prove as it seems" Scott added. "In the case of the Four Colour Theorem (that any map requires a maximum of 4 colours to colour all the countries/areas in so no neighbouring areas have the same colour) it took centuries to prove, and only then using a computer that made such complicated jumps in logic and reasoning, it's beyond us to really understand, except to know it's right". He paused and allowed the possibly hallowing consequences of this concept to sink in.

"Wow" Mikey said. "No wonder you're not bored, you could spend a lifetime theorising and trying combinations". He looked at the bottle in his paw and then somewhat greedily at Scott's paper bag.

"Give me a go" Mikey entreated.

"What about the boss?" Scott asked.

"Hey, Mr. Mahanagan!" Mikey called out. "Can me and Scott .. I mean.. Scott and I.." he corrected himself with a sheepish glance at Scott, "swap jobs for a while?"

The manager poked his head through the doorway and shook his head sadly. "Sorry, boys. Mikey can do Scott's job, but Scott's not allowed to do Mikey's" he remarked.

"Why?" Mikey and Scott asked in half-pained, half-confused unison.

"Baggers can't be juicers" the manager stated, and went back to work.

nslashk // first posted 01-26-2002 07:43 PM PT