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15 July 2010
Don’t Send a Robot to Do a Cephalopod’s Work

People are too stupid to save themselves—let’s ask Paul the Octopus!

What a surprise. BP’s latest attempt to fix the hole in the Gulf has hit a snag.

The Coast Guard is delaying the shutting of valves on the new device that was supposed to capture all the oil. Ominously, there may be “an unstable area around the wellbore.” It’s all very vague but this sounds like what pessimistic engineers have been warning us about for some time: It may not be possible simply to cap the well from the top, because the sides of the hole may be weak enough that sealing the top will just cause a rupture further down. The almost worst case scenario is that the well may be unpluggable. (The actual worst case scenario, that methane from the hole could destroy the earth, seems to be a paranoid fantasy. Even I’m not gloomy enough to buy that one.)

I’m disappointed in Hollywood. With all their disaster-movie ideas, nobody thought of having an oil leak destroy one of America’s largest bodies of water. Perhaps the product-placement opportunities weren’t there. BP, or another oil giant, would hardly have wanted its brand tarred (sorry) by plastering its logo all over a drilling rig that causes untold destruction. Still, the oil-spill disaster movie should have been a no-brainer.

Speaking of no-brainers, it’s becoming clear that humans are too stupid and inept to solve this problem. What can you say about a corporation that overrules the results of tests showing a possible equipment failure as noise in the data? If the head of one of the biggest companies on the planet, a highly skilled drilling engineer, thinks the Gulf is an “ocean,” what hope is there for humankind? Maybe Blue Öyster Cult put it best: “History shows again and again / How nature points out the folly of men.”

So perhaps we need to turn to nature for help.

One of this year’s big media stars has been Paul the Octopus, a cephalopod psychic who’s gone 8-for-8 in predicting World Cup winners. As thanks for his brilliance, German nationalists have beseeched his captors to have him served as seafood, since he correctly predicted Deutschland would go down.

Wait, we have an undersea creature with eight flexible arms who’s clearly smarter than humans, and we want to eat him? Maybe Paul the Octopus could be sent down to Davy Jones’ locker to seal the oil leak instead!

I know it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but so does the whole leak scenario. It seems like a good deal for the octopus: He gets the freedom of the high seas, we get to save what’s left of the Gulf of Mexico.

Just don’t let him know his alternative is becoming sushi, or he could decide the best course is to let off that methane explosion.

Turn over another new leaf:
26 February 2010
The Birther

Steve Miller meets the Tea Party

25 November 2009
The Princess, the Frog, and the J.P.

Disney’s setting its animated feature in Louisiana means the interracial prince-and-princess couple may have to live in sin

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