Tag Archives: Cactus

Chaos, Entropy, and Stuff

Got Milk?


Through the 1990s I was frequently told that I looked like Cal Ripkin, Jr, the Baltimore Orioles super ironman who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007.  In fact, from California, to Florida – to even Scotland – I’ve been mistaken for Cal. As a matter of fact I was asked for my autograph so many times it got embarrassing. I was addressed as “Mr Ripkin” more times than I could count.

I was always kind and patient, asking folks where they are from, how old are their kids, etc.; I then explained I’m not Cal: he’s 6 foot-4 inches tall and I’m stretching to get over 5-10.  Sometimes they insisted on an autograph.  I declined, saying I’d be happy, however, to sign my own name.

In fact, it’s the other way around: Cal Ripkin Jr looks like me, since I’m a few years older.


Cal Ripkin, Jr — 1998 “Got Milk?” promotional advert

The frequency of this sheepish embarrassment seemed to hit its peak around the time this “Got Milk?” advertisement came out.  But with that “milk-stache”, we shouldn’t look alike at all. Or would we?

Ripkin is probably most noted for defying age and setting a baseball record that will likely never be broken.  He played in over 2,600 consecutive games.  That’s over 16 years. Almost all of the games were played at shortstop, the most physically demanding position in baseball, besides catcher.

This achievement stands as not just one of sports’ most remarkable of all time, but it is outstanding for its long-running defiance of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

This Law is Nature’s way of saying: “You can’t win, and you can’t break even.  In the end, I win.”  As time progresses there will always be more net chaos and disorder than there is order.  In the big picture, eventually, the entire universe will be totally without structure or order of any recognizable form.

To explain this, I’ll start with the more familiar 1st Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can be  neither created nor destroyed.  It can only change form. [1]  

For example, the solar panels on my roof do not “create energy”; they merely change solar energy into electrical energy.  In a very short period of time, nearly all of this energy is converted to heat energy (mostly via friction and electrical resistance); this heat energy then slowly diffuses out to the universe.

This leads to the essence of the 2nd Law.  Energy and order are inevitable losers; energy is lost (to unusable forms) and order becomes chaos.

The highly ordered and structured energy of the sun is irreversibly “lost” (but not destroyed) to a very unordered and unstructured heating of the universe.

In fact, it’s even worse than that.  A great deal of energy is “consumed” (i.e. changed from one form to other less useful forms) in order to mine, refine, and manufacture the many common and obscure elements required for the solar panels to do their job.  Each and every time energy changes its form, part of the process contains a fraction of energy transfer that is irreversible; hence from ordered to disordered energy … and the universe takes another tiny step toward ultimate chaos and disorder.

This is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Every time energy that is converted from one form to another, the net disorder (referred to as “Entropy”) in the universe must increase.

As humans we observe this most through the process of aging.  The order and structure in our bodies and in our lives breaks down as time progresses.  It is a fundamental truth that as energy is transformed over any period of time, the net disorder must increase.  Or: We fall apart.

We consume food (energy stored in chemical bonds) and convert it to kinetic energy to move our limbs, to pump blood, to breathe.  As we do so, most or all of the kinetic energy is converted to heat … which leaks away.  The ordered energy (chemical bonds in plant and meat molecules) is converted to disordered energy (heat), which leaks away.

In our lives we’ve observed organizations that micro-manage their projects and personnel. This never ends well, and, even when the project turns out well, the lives of the individuals on the team are heavily disrupted. Chaos wins.  Disorder wins.  Entropy wins.

Eventually, Cal’s streak came to an end. [As is Venezuela’s centrally controlled economy]. Entropy defeats everything.

Personally, as I approach age 60, my streak of living in a high maintenance house is coming to an end.  The energy and time I expend to maintain the house is not worth the degradation on my mind and body. I call this “entropy management.”

So it’s time to simplify, downsize, and sell the house.  In fact, we had an Open House this past Saturday.


Prickly Pear in bloom at the Girard Hacienda

A few days before the Open House, as I was policing the yard, looking for anything out of order (like the odd weed), I was distracted by the gorgeous patch of prickly pear cactus that had burst into bloom in a xeriscape area alongside our driveway … just in time to boost our house’s curb appeal.  Yay nature!

The blossoms reminded me of my lifelong struggle with allergies.  Pollens and molds are my worst allergy enemies, but I have reactions to all sorts of things.  This year, so far, my allergy symptoms have been unusually mild, especially considering that we’ve had a wet spring.  Mostly I just get itchy eyes, and that’s usually in the mornings. (In defiance of allergies, we often sleep with windows open).

Oh, those lovely prickly pear cacti.  Bees buzzed and flitted about the blossoms.  I could see, with gleeful expectation, that in a few days, dozens more buds would bloom. The bees would be happy.  Possible house buyers would be happy.  I would be even happier.

Then I detected a minor flaw in the picture.  Some grass had somehow sprouted up and dared to take root among the cacti; the blades were climbing high to seek the sun, which exposed them to my ever-observant eye.  Somewhere deep inside my ADD riddled brain – deep in that part of my heart that dared to take on entropy and its brutal law – I decided to remove those blades of grass.

The cactus needles (or spikes) were plain enough to see.  Surely I could avoid them. Even without gloves. I’m such a daredevil.

Carefully I reached along the ears of several cacti, and – clear of the spikes – I clutched and tugged at all the grass, freeing even their roots.  Success!! I looked at the cactus patch with pride: it was pristine.

It took about 10 seconds to realize something was wrong.  I looked closely at my left hand, which I’d used to pull out the grass.  Nothing.

I looked closer.  Closer.  Closer.

There!  I saw them. Dozens. No! Hundreds of the tiniest little stingers you can imagine.  Where they were clumped together I could see them best, although not easily.

Now it’s time for a new science lesson. A lesson with unpleasant and severe consequences and as undeniable as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics that I have learned since this little grass-and-cactus adventure. A few cacti, and all dozen or so of the Prickly Pear type in the Opuntia genus, have a second and much more insidious type of needle.  The evil glochid. This picture accompanies an article by Steve Schwarzman on the topic, which informs….

Look at all those tiny glochids

Look at all those tiny glochids


“Just about everyone is aware that many cacti protect themselves with long, sharp spines. That’s true of the prickly pear… the lower portions of its large spines can turn yellowish or even reddish-orange, as shown here. Less well known, and much more insidious, are the short and very slender spines that you see surrounding the base of the large ones. Known as glochids, these tiny spines pull out of the cactus very easily, find their way into your skin just as easily, and don’t come out of that invaded skin at all easily. Once glochided, twice shy, we might say, if we’re willing to customize—cactusize—a familiar proverb.” [2]  

And, according to gardeningknowhow.com …

“Cactus glochids are not a feature with which to fool. Glochids in skin are irritating, difficult to remove and stay in for a long time.

“Glochids occur in tufts, often around a main spine. They … have backwards pulling barbs that resist removal. Glochid spines dislodge with even the gentlest touch. They are so fine and tiny that removal is almost impossible. You can barely see them but you can sure feel glochids in skin.” [3]  

At the time I realized the fingers on my left hand itched like hell … well, I had no idea of any of this. Glochids!!! Who knew?? Not me, even after 32 years in the arid west.

I could pull out a few that I could see which were clumped together.  But there were others scattered all over my hand.

I’m sure I appeared quite the fool to anyone watching.  Just standing there in my front yard … What a fool, staring at his hand and trying to pick out immovable and invisible nits. That was nothing (in the way of appearing foolish) compared to what was to come.

Finally, in desperation, I instinctively resorted to suction.  I put a sore finger spot to my mouth and sucked as hard as I could.

Well, … I wasn’t really thinking, was I?  Now I had another problem.  My lip hurt almost the same as my fingers.  “What!?!” you say. It’s spelled D-U-M-B-A-S-S.

As I walked briskly into the house I thought of something I’d heard once.  Sticky things work. Put tape on your fingers and rip it off.  Or cover your hand with cheap white school glue (think Elmer’s ® Glue).  Let it cure and peel it off.

Fortunately my wife keeps our house pretty well organized. After all these years I still have to ask her where many things are stored, even in our well organized house.  She wasn’t around, but – again fortunately – I knew where the tape and adhesives were stored.

It takes time for the glue to set, so I went to the tape shelves first.

Repeatedly I wrapped my fingers and hand in clear packing tape.  And ripped it off. Over and over again. Then I put the tape up against my mouth.  Then I ripped it all off.

After several such iterations I realized the tape was not going to work.

Over to the glue cabinet.  I found the bottle of cheap generic white school glue.

I twisted the lid and tried to squeeze out enough to cover my hand.  But the glue was old and the tip was clogged with old, hard, cured glue. Should I delay and fetch a toothpick or fork tine to poke out the old glue? No! The time to act is now.

So I just unscrewed the whole lid and started dumping white glue on my hand.  It smelled just like I remembered from – what? – 6th grade?

Before the glue could set, it started to run onto the kitchen counter.  How long would this take?

Oh crap! My lip.  Ouch.

OK, for this next 5-minute stretch I did in fact look like Cal Ripkin, Jr in the “Got Milk” poster.  Yes, I poured white school glue onto my lower lip.

I had enough dignity remaining to NOT look in the mirror to see how I looked (super goofy, no doubt) … or take a selfie … but the image from the closing scene of the movie short with Gene Wilder in “What is Sodomy” from Woody Allen’s movie medley “Everything You wanted to know about Sex* (but were afraid to ask)” came to mind. [4]  

Used wads of tape on the counter.  School glue on my hand and drooling from my mouth. Perfect. That’s when my wife came unannounced in through the door.  I don’t think she noticed the glue (not Woolite ®) on my lip, but she could tell immediately I was up to something.  My body language of “shame on me; oh woe is me” justified a reasonable assumption of guilt.  Experience is usually a pretty good teacher.  Especially a bad experience. I’ve found it best to just confess everything.

About 10 minutes later I’m peeling the glue off my hand and lip.  That worked for about 80% of the little devils.

Upon Dr Wife’s suggestion, I then soaked my hand and lip for about another 10 minutes in hot soapy water and, thereafter, I almost felt normal.

The rest of the evening was annoying but tolerable. Several itchy spots on my left hand, mostly on my fingers, which could suddenly hurt intensely when touched the wrong way. Close inspection of most spots revealed … nothing. Plus a blotchy red spot on my lower lip.

I resolved to let nature take its course.  I resolved to simply live with it until it passed, which in all likelihood, it eventually would. Let it be a lesson Joe; suffer the consequences. This bad experience will be a good teacher.

After a lovely night’s sleep I awoke refreshed.  Upon rising, as usual, the first things I noticed were (1) the ringing in my ears, (2) the stiffness in my shoulders and knee, (3) a mild headache, and (4) a great joy to be alive – almost all of these attributable to the consequences of the car crash, now over two years ago.

Then I noticed that my allergies had again manifested in itchy eyes.  Instinctively I reached up to give them a “good morning” greeting with a gentle rub.

Oh Good Lord. I could feel those little bastard glochid needles touch my eyes.  Didn’t I just say that experience is a teacher?

I blinked and then flushed my eyes.  Whew. No harm done.  Just a scare.

By the end of the next day I was free of those despicable and invisible glochids. I was lucky.  Those bastards can cause all kinds of problems – even progressing to death – if you are stupid enough to take them lightly. And especially if you did what I did and ingest them, or touch your face, eyes, etc.[5]  

So here are some takeaways:

  • After your cactus encounter: never, ever put your hands anywhere near your face.

  • Putting tape and glue all over your fingers and lips might be cool in middle school, but not when you’re standing there, looking guilty in the kitchen, and your wife suddenly walks in the door

  • Yes, cheap white school glue smells and tastes just like it did when you were young.

  • If you want to look cool like Cal Ripkin, Jr, pouring white school glue on your lips is probably not the way.

  • Chaos wins. Entropy wins. By trying to enforce a bit more order in our xeriscape garden I released a dam’s gate through which there poured a Pandora’s Box world of disorder.

    Corollary: – It’s okay to accept a little disorder in life.  It’s not without some good reason that it’s said “A neat desk is a sign of a sick mind.”


With that, I wish you all an acceptable and tolerable level of chaos and disorder.  Because, believe me and thermodynamics, they will be with you always.


Peace and be careful out there.


Joe Girard © 2016



Afterward: By the way the cholla cactus (also called the “jumping cholla”) has a similar dastardly secondary needle, although in the US these are usually only found in the harsher deserts of Arizona and California).

The dangerous Southwest Cholla

The dangerous Southwest Cholla


At right: Jumpin’ Cholla







[1] With thanks to Albert Einstein, for noting that matter is, effectively, energy.

[2] https://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/a-soft-view-of-a-sharp-subject/     by Steve Schwartzman

[3] http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/cacti-succulents/scgen/what-are-glochids.htm

[4] Explanation of the Gene Wilder reference.  The 1972 Woody Allen movie “Everything you wanted to know about sex* (but were afraid to ask)” is a collection of movie shorts, each maybe 5-10 minutes long.  In “What is Sodomy”, Gene Wilder plays a psychiatrist who falls in love with a sheep. He is discovered, loses everything and appears in the final scene as a homeless person, disheveled and holding onto a bottle of Woolite®, the contents of which appear to be dribbling out of his mouth.

[5] Short essay by Chris Clark for Social Wanderer.  Dangers of and removing cactus needles. https://www.kcet.org/socal-wanderer/how-to-remove-cactus-spines-from-your-perforated-body