The Lock—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

A major hit song of the 1960s, in fact, now considered to be a classic, is Roger Miller’s 1966 rendition of “King of the Road,” lauding the freedom of being a drifter, working only when necessary, and constantly moving on. Everything leads the listener to believe the singer is an honest person with minimal wants and needs. However, at one point he informs us:

I know every engineer on every train
All of the children and all of their names
Every handout in every town
Every lock that ain't locked when no one's around.

The last line appears quite ambiguous. I have never quite understood how to interpret it because it seems so out of character with the rest of the song. I would really like to know.

However, what is certainly not ambiguous or open to question is the important roles the lock has played in defining and shaping human society. Indeed, for some, it is virtually the quintessential dividing line between city folks, i.e. those who lock their doors, often with multiply locks, for fear of unwanted intrusions, and country folk, i.e. those who don’t lock their doors because they feel there is no need to. “Everyone knows everyone, so we are certain no one is going to do anyone any harm.”

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The Collatz Mystery

A Simple Conjecture

The Collatz conjecture is an unsolved mathematical riddle posed by German mathematician Lothar Collatz in 1937. It remains a mystery to this day. Why has it temped so many mathematicians over so many years and yet remained unsolved? It is especially exasperating because it is so simple. The question is, “Is it even computable?” If not, then mathematicians and computer scientists should stop trying.

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The Doughnut—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I once described the image of a typical young American child as holding a balloon in one hand and a melting ice cream cone in the other. Instead of a young child, the picture could also show (and probably more accurately) an adult holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a doughnut in the other.

Iconically American (like the French croissant), the doughnut today is known and appreciated around the world (also like the croissant). As with many iconic things, the doughnut is the subject of considerable controversy, not the least of which is: Should the correct spelling of the name be “doughnut” or “donut”?  More fundamentally, when is a doughnut truly a doughnut and when is it something else?

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Zipper—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

For a long time, I have been intrigued by the zipper. It is everywhere: on clothes, backpacks, shoes, sporting goods, suitcases, camping equipment, etc. But look at one closely and try to imagine how it works.

The basic principle is quite simple; two parallel chains of projections (teeth) lock and unlock to form a quick, easy, reliable means of opening and closing things. The chains of teeth are part of a truly ingeniously designed and engineered piece of precision equipment.

Given its ubiquity and generally flawless performance in so many everyday tasks, I believe the zipper truly deserves a place of honor on my list of what I like to call “extraordinary ordinary things.”

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