Thursday, April 21, 2011

Q is for quandary

A quandary is the place where a river, flowing downstream, meets an obstacle and is divided into two parallel courses, never to be joined again. While the term is generally attributed to Archimedes, there has been, historically, a great deal of controversy in its usage. Most commonly, the term is used only to apply to rivers which never rejoin and continue independently to the sea, but a certain school, informed by Heraclitus, insists that any river, once divided, is a new river and, thus, all points of division in all rivers are properly described as quandaries. The non-Heracliteans argue that such a position stands wholly against cartography and navigation, for every river contains such a multitude of islands, diversions, and bits of debris that if each of these creates a new river at each occurrence that the proliferation of names required for these apparently independent bodies of water would be beyond human catalog and comprehensibility. Whatever the merits of their position, it must be acknowledged that the non-Heracliteans have provided the most useful observation that the sum of the force exerted by the water flowing in the two rivers resulting from a quandary is less than the total force exerted by the single river before the quandary. While most often applied to industry and agriculture, this law of quandary, abstracted and homologized, has also informed the stratagem known vulgarly as “divide and conquer.”

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