Household math

PEOPLE studying science, physics, and math, I am told, learn various laws concerning energy, motion, and probability. But ordinary people, the kind who live in houses, apartments, or condos, learn there are laws for household matters as well. You may not find these in any textbook, but you can find a laboratory demonstration of them in houses all around you -- even your own -- almost any day of the week. The first law holds that certain objects in every household multiply. Take the following examples:

Coat hangers. Put a single coat hanger in a hall closet, close the door, and within a week you'll have dozens. Extract one hanger from the mass, move it to another closet, and the same phenomenon will occur.

Newspapers, magazines, and catalogs. These multiply best on the floor of a living room or den. Newspapers, in particular, take on a life of their own once you take the sections apart. Drop one beside your couch, and within a few days you'll have enough paper to keep a pet store's cages supplied for a year.

Batteries. It's never clear whether radios and calculators stop working because they are broken or because their batteries are weak. Most people are reluctant to believe it's the battery, since it still looks as bright and shiny as when it came from the package. So you put the battery in a drawer and resolve to test it later. When you next open the drawer, you'll find that it's multiplied -- there are now six or seven more batteries, each looking like the original one. Probably they are all dead, but yo u keep them anyway.

Twist-ties for plastic bags. You are given enough for the number of bags in the package. You use one for each bag. So how come you have a million extra ones clogging up a kitchen drawer?

Keys. Every household seems to have a box of keys fitting everything from roller skates to the Cadillac, and no matter what you do, eventually you'll have three more keys in the box than you thought you had.

They may look identical to the ones you are using, but they won't fit the lock of any object on the premises.

Bills. Of course.

A second household law states that other objects get smaller or disappear altogether. This is undoubtedly what economists mean by the law of diminishing returns. These items include:

Socks. Every day the people in my family wear two socks each, and at night they put them all in the hamper. (They swear they do.) But every wash turns up socks that have no mate. Apparently the socks dissolve on contact with water. What is interesting is that these unmatched socks will now multiply; soon there are a host waiting on the dryer for a mate that will never appear.

Scissors and tape. Put a pair of scissors in a drawer, go away for 15 minutes, and they will be gone when you return. In fact, ``Who's got the scissors?'' is the household question most frequently asked after ``What's for dinner?'' Stamps and tape also disappear. I once bought six rolls of tape on sale at the drugstore, brought them home, and distributed them around the house in strategic places. By nightfall all but one roll had vanished.

Things you need. This is a catchall category covering all the items you reach for but aren't there -- the pen that should be by the phone, the screwdriver you left in your toolbox, the shopping list you put in your purse, the cookies for tonight's dessert. You can easily recognize when an item belongs in this category by the sound of someone muttering, ``But I had it right here a minute ago.''

Money. Except pennies. Of course.

These laws have just enough quirks to be truly scientific. Chocolate chip cookies disappear, but the leftover casserole your family hates multiplies. Pens that work disappear, but pens that are out of ink multiply. So do jumbo cereal boxes with less than three spoonfuls of cereal left in them. The list could go on and on.

Clearly an energy force is at work in our households. I think the scientists should hurry right over and investigate. We may be onto something really big.

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