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Friday, I mentioned the baker with six fingers on one hand and seven on the other. I had presumed that this extra finger accounted for the ‘baker’s dozen’ 13th brioche that sometimes gets thrown in. Well, it turns out, that 13th scone, that 13th pumpernickel, was thrown in as a precaution against punishment for accidentally selling underweight bread. (Whereas, Wikipedia tells us, a banker’s dozen is one less than a dozen. Which could either be a comment on bankerly ethics or a way of describing the practice of deducting the interest at the outset of the loan – you borrow $1,200, say, but are handed only $1,100.)

This got me thinking.

Seriously: why 12? Why is ‘a dozen’ such a common unit of commerce. Do hens come 12 to a brood, naturally laying a dozen eggs a day?

(Actually, our friends Sara, the art teacher, and Pierce, the ferry boat captain, do have 12 hens, one named Andrew and one named Charles – go figure – with a rooster nearby named ‘Little Jerry’ who is separated by barbed wire to keep them chaste but laying – and Charles [the boyfriend, not the hen] did recently make an amazing gruyere soufflé with their day’s output, but none of this, however tasty, could explain the origin of the ‘dozen.’)

I do understand there are twelve months, and that is based in nature. But – hang on – the moon takes not even 28 days to orbit the earth (I used to think it took 30 or 31 but sped up in February), and so makes more than 13 orbits a year . . . and wouldn’t fingers or toes have been a lot more immediate to the ancient mathematician than the moon?

I know about counting in ‘base 7’ or ‘base 12’ – a way to show that you are smarter than the other kids, or that your eighth-grade math teacher is left-leaning* – but c’mon. How can there not be a common synonym for ten of something (‘Oh – and oranges. I’ll take a decade of them.’) as there is for twelve?

Twelve inches in a foot? What are we – crazy? ‘I’ll call the length of my enormous foot ‘a foot,” said the king – that much I can easily imagine – ‘and subdivide that measure into 12 inches.’ For God’s sake, man, look at your toes!

I know one of you will point me to an essay explaining the derivation of all this. (And that a dozen others will tell me the story of how the width of the US railway gauge derives from the width of a Roman horse’s ass – which, as it happens, is only partially true, at best.) But I couldn’t find it. Someone had twelve fingers, I feel sure of it.

*Mine went on to lead SNCC and then the Algebra Project.

GREAT DOCTORAL DISSERTATION TOPIC

Then again – who cares? A dozen? A decade? Kings with toes? That’s ‘ancient history,’ as it were. What’s important, in the few decades we have left to learn how to live sustainably on this planet, are the critical forward-looking questions. And I have one for your son or daughter the graduate student. (Or the incredibly precocious high school student.)

It is this: All things considered, which is the better system in a public restroom (‘Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work’) – paper towels or a hot-air hand-dryer?

Section One of the Dissertation would be relatively easy. You calculate the cost to the restaurant or movie theater owner of: the dispensers and dryers, their installation, the paper towels, the electricity, estimated usage, life of the hand-dryer, emptying the paper-towel trash bins before they overflow. Over time, and allowing a sensible cost of capital for the differential in the cost of the hand dryer, which system costs less?

But that allows nothing for the ‘externalities’ not currently priced into the costs. (And what about the extra time it takes from our lives to stand in front of the hand dryer?)

Section Two would examine the environmental and national security and worker safety costs of producing the energy to make and run the hand dryers . . . and to make the paper and transport it to and from the restroom.

If somehow all these things were ‘priced in,’ through things like a carbon tax, then ‘the invisible hand’ could be counted on to make the right calculations for this and trillions of other little decisions. The movie theater owner (and everyone else) would just act in his own calculated self-interest to maximize profit, and that would serve us all.

Section Three – all of one sentence – would conclude what this excellent Slate analysis did: Far better than either paper towels or electric hand dryers is to shake out your hands and then rub them against your pants.

Truthfully, it’s about more than hand-drying. It’s about everything.

Tomorrow: the President’s Remarks on Small Business

 

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