You tell me that it’s evolution (Well, you know)

Standard

evo2

Despite straying from a traditional Christian upbringing, I still enjoy commenting on religion. Because, no matter what you say, there’s no chance of ever offending someone. (Ha! Get it?)

(It’s funny because it’s not true)

I enjoy discussing religion because it fascinates me. In it’s purest form, it has been the guiding force of civilizations since the dawn of mankind. I respect faith in the sense that it is necessary for a functioning society. As well as the fact that many Americans take it for granted. It’s easy to become a non-believer in the U.S. due to the fact there are far less daily existential threats (disease, famine, war, etc.). But in places like the Middle East, Africa, and Texas, I believe people truly need spirituality as a crutch. That’s what faith is for. And that’s fine. But it’s not fine when religious beliefs nullify logic. It’s not fine when conclusions are made based on blind faith. Not when it infringes on the beliefs of others. Especially not in American politics.

In a recent Pew Research poll titled “Public Views on Human Evolution”, 64% of white American evangelical Protestants believe in creationism (the belief that “God” created man). Now, you’re probably asking, how is that related to policymakers in D.C.? Here’s another poll by the Pew Research Center, illustrating The Religious Composition of the 113th Congress. 57% of the House identifies as protestant, as well as 52% of the Senate. How does that relate to Republicans? According to the first poll, 48% of Republicans deny evolution (a 9% increase over 4 years) (astonishing). The majority of protestants in both the House and Senate are Republican. So, basically, there’s a chance that the majority of policymakers in D.C. believe science is a lie.

evo house evo senateIn America, policy decisions on a federal level are normally unaffected by the religious beliefs of policy makers. However, state and local governments are more vulnerable. In November 2013, the Texas Board of Education delayed approval of a widely used biology textbook because of concerns that it presents evolution as fact rather than theory. (For the record, a “theory” is defined as a collection of facts intended to explain something) (but that’s beside the point). According to the New York Times,  Ide P. Trotter, a chemical engineer and financial adviser, was a member of the review panel chosen to evaluate the textbook. He raised concerns, citing “[the book] gives a misleading impression that we have a fairly close understanding of how random processes could lead to us.” If you told me that same quote was from someone referring to the Bible, I would have believed it.

It sounds alarmist but it’s unnerving when the majority religion in Congress is also (overwhelming) the majority religion of evolution-deniers. Now, I doubt that the majority of Protestants in the House and Senate are creationists. Where they fall on the spectrum of conservative evangelical and mainline Protestant is unclear. But their faith (regardless of denomination) is still relevant.

evo religion

My generalization is that Protestants likely vote for fellow Protestants to represent them in congress. These congressmen and congresswomen probably have similar beliefs if they were able to convince their constituents to elect them in the first place. So, where do their beliefs align? The thought of someone in a position of power who denies evolution is concerning. Because to deny the theory of evolution is to deny truth. Denying truth is to embrace blind faith. And blind faith, as we know, can be dangerous.

The majority of my childhood was spent in Catholic school. I’ve not only read the “The Bible” but I’ve studied it. I’ve also studied “The Origin of Species”. One is a book of parables that can be loosely applied to someone’s life in order to better themselves. The other is a foundation of a theory supported by indisputable facts. That’s the difference between a creationist and myself: objectivity. I’ve seen both sides. As much as religion fascinates me, it equally frightens me. Because despite being responsible for so much good in the world, religion is equally responsible for so much evil. As long as organized religion exists, extremism will exist, and there will never be world peace. To believe otherwise is to assume the sentimentality of a child.

But is that not why people choose to have faith? To be childlike? To be a child is to shed responsibility. To have faith in god is to shed the burden of choice. When you have faith, you don’t need to make choices. Choices are made for you by others. There’s no reason to think critically. There’s no reason to question your existence. There’s no reason to do anything besides kneel when you’re told and stand when you’re told. Our childhood is easy in the sense that it is absent of free will. Life is simpler when our choices are predetermined.

We choose to believe in creationism for the same purpose. Because it’s easier to believe there is someone watching over us–someone who created us–a parent or guardian. It’s more comforting to believe that than to believe we’re responsible for every choice in our lives–while at the same time–our life is ultimately random. It’s easier to believe that than to believe we’re alone in the universe (and descended from apes). It’s easier because having faith in a greater purpose is inherently human. It is instinctual. Religion is instinct.

“The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason.”

-Charles Darwin

UPDATE: Texas charter schools teaching creationism (Slate)

Advertisements

America: Through the Eyes of Pop Culture

Standard

Some argue that the idea of American “culture” is nonexistent. Some say we are simply a disorganized homogenization with no true identity. I attempted to debunk this assertion through extensive online research, combing the daily minutia of the internet–specifically, entertainment news. What I discovered is that pop-culture illustrates more than just the over-glorification of celebrity. It also serves as a mind-numbing reflection of American values.

The following images represent a vignette of American culture–albeit a vignette of disappointment and embarrassment. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of culture indigenous to America. It begins on a holiday, on the night of Halloween, in the Hills of Beverly:hugh hefner miley cyrus On October 28th, 2013, Hugh Hefner tweeted this photo of himself with 27-year-old wife, Crystal Harris. Hugh Hefner is 87, by the way. He was 60 when she was born. I’ll let that sink-in…

Crystal was dressed as Miley Cyrus from her now-infamous VMA performance, while Hugh was dressed as…I don’t know. He looks like a Madam Tussauds wax sculpture of a death row inmate. No. Wait. Sorry. He’s supposed to be Robin Thicke. Now I see it.

First of all, let’s start with Hugh Hefner. Essentially, this man’s entire career justified what Miley Cyrus did on stage at the VMAs. He made promiscuity acceptable in society. He turned the Hollywood image of empowered women like Marilyn Munroe into sex objects. We’ve grown to celebrate this type of “freedom” in American culture. Some might call that “empowerment”. But I dare those same people to watch one episode of The Girls Next Door and try making an argument for feminism. I’m not saying women in this country should be wearing burqas but there has to be self-conscious limitations on freedom of expression.

While it’s true that “progressive” values have ushered much-needed social change throughout history, America’s idea of “progression” seems to be limitless in certain aspects. Because as far as we’ve progressed, we’ve also taken steps backwards in terms of cultivating intellectual culture. We have completely lost sight of our moral boundaries. We’re becoming culturally desensitized to what is right and wrong.

Even our childhood institutions are no longer sacred. Look at Disney. Look what they did to Miley.

And Vanessa Hudgens. And Selena Gomez.

And Britney Spears. And Christina Aguilera.

And Bambi’s mom! WHY?! I was just a child, Walt! You twisted, bastard!

Over the past decade, Disney went from this:

before

To this:disney gals 75

[Side note: It was Nickelodeon who discovered Emily Ratajkowski (below), who, coincidentally, was one of the topless models in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” video, which, subsequently, facilitated the controversial Miley Cyrus VMA performance, thus, culminating in the controversial aforementioned Halloween outfit of October 28th, 2013]

The circle of life:

emily r

The second image comes to us from Nashville, Tennessee. It’s Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood singing a scathing duet about Obamacare during the Country Music Awards: rednecks First of all, I don’t identify as a Democrat nor as a Republican. I’m not trying to defend the president here. But I bet 90% of people in attendance/watching the CMAs, couldn’t speak intelligently about America’s healthcare system for more than 5 seconds (and that’s being generous). So, why make the joke? Why involve topical political commentary? What’s the point? There is none.

That’s my point. Ask yourself, how many in attendance at the CMAs are likely Republican? Not to generalize but considering most country music comes from the south and most southerners are Republican, logic dictates that it’s probably a correct assumption. Let’s say a majority are Republican. Also ask yourself, how many people in attendance at the CMAs likely have health insurance? I would also guess, a majority. If you have the financial means to be a country music star, you probably have the means to be insured (e.g. millionaires like Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood).  Their motive is clear. They’re pandering to rich, white Republicans who already have healthcare and who already hate Obama because he’s a Democrat. For the producers, it’s a win-win. Everyone in the audience laughs while at the same time grasping the opportunity of a national stage to criticize the president.

However, from an outside perspective, an out-of-context parody about healthcare doesn’t appear tongue-in-cheek. Instead, it appears to be cheap banter for a like-minded audience, most of whom are probably hoping Obamacare fails, if for no other reason than out of spite. It’s pathetic how desperate the producers were to politicize an issue and turn it into entertainment in the name of petty dissonance.

I don’t recall Toby Keith ever getting on stage and singing a parody about the Iraq War during the Bush administration. Of course not. Because, according to country music, supporting your president for waging war is called being “patriotic”. But criticizing your president for trying to offer healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans? That’s worthy of cheap laughs and “Yee-haws!”.

Miley Cyrus “twerking” on stage while wearing a confederate flag bikini would have been more appropriate than singing a song about a failing healthcare system in a country whose government was recently shutdown because the people running it forgot how to be civil. There’s nothing funny about that. Accordingly, country music stars have no right to criticize something for being shitty. That’s hypocritical. After all, they’re country music stars.

The “joke” offers no alternative nor solution. There’s no productive discourse. It only contributes to an increasingly polarized public sphere, solely intent on being controversial for the purpose of ratings. The producers decided pandering to their predominately Republican viewership was opportunistic given their audience demographic. And they were right. Because, for the majority of attendees at the CMAs that evening, the reality of millions of uninsured Americans was nothing more than a laughable inconvenience, whose blame can be placed entirely on the people whose viewpoints they oppose. It’s too convenient for them not to laugh. It’s this same combination of stubborn ignorance and unashamed idealism that contributes to the ineffective bureaucracy in American politics. It’s the same thing that shutdown our government. Both sides must stop.

Last but not least, Miley Cyrus (who has somehow become the focal point of this essay) (dammit):

miley joints

After Miley’s provocative twerk-filled performance at the 2013 VMAs, it was presumable we could expect similar antics from her at the more liberal EMAs (European Music Awards). Because Europeans are floozies. That’s why our ancestors left and came to America in the first place.

The 2013 EMAs were held in Amsterdam. Which, as we all know, is famous for their scones (as well as prostitution and marijuana). Accordingly, when Miley Cyrus was accepting an award on stage (dressed as a prostitute), she pulled a joint from her purse and smoked it in front of everyone.

The fact that Ms. Cyrus smoked “drugs” on stage is irrelevant. If you’ve ever seen VH1’s Behind the Music with Motley Crue, you’ll understand that everything that Miley has ever done, only scratches the surface of inappropriate things musicians have done throughout American history. But that didn’t stop broadcasters from censoring the entire EMA pot-smoking incident from American viewers.

Seriously?

For weeks after Miley Cyrus’ controversial VMA performance, media outlets across the country shamelessly replayed images of her simulating sex onstage, barely wearing clothing. Yet, the image of her smoking a joint is too offensive for our delicate sensibilities? Our priorities are in need of serious reevaluation.

It has nothing to do with whether legalizing weed is right or wrong. It’s about how American society dictates what is right and wrong–with an unreasonable disregard for common sense. A new poll suggests 60% of Americans support legalization. Nearly half the states in the U.S. have legalized weed in some form or another. What purpose does censorship accomplish? What is it fulfilling besides accordance with arbitrary FCC laws? Nothing. It only intensifies the idiocy in American culture, surrounding the debate between what we deem moral and immoral.

I don’t know what the future of America holds. If our culture is any indication, it doesn’t look promising. We constantly bear witness to the loss of innocence, the loss of decency, and the loss of common sense. At times, it seems as though we’ve lost our minds. America is one of the most perverted, opinionated, self-righteous, and greatest countries in the world.

If only we were more self-aware.

Money Don’t Buy Happiness: Analysis of the Happy Planet Index

Standard

HPI

Since the beginning of our short-lived history, America has branded itself as the homeland of freedom. It began with the Puritans before the American Revolution (escaping religious persecution) and continues with immigration today. This constant influx has spawned the notion that America is a beacon for everything right in the world (despite how untrue that is). Like Galileo mistaking the Earth as the center of the universe, Americans are privy to egocentrism–the idea that the United States is the center of the world. Economically speaking, this may be true. However, money don’t buy happiness. Isn’t that the message of every country song ever written? Apparently it’s true. The U.S. accounts for the highest GDP in the world year after year. Yet, according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI), when it comes to our happiness, Americans don’t even break the top 10 list. In fact, we don’t even break the top 100. What can the Happy Planet Index tell us about our world and the definition of what it means to be happy?

HPI equation

The HPI is the leading global measure of sustainable well-being. It is much more than a superficial opinion poll on “happiness”. The index measures what matters in the context of being happy: the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives to the people who live in them. It accesses a countries performance based on a combination of factors concerning quality of life and environmental impact. We are products of our environment. Thus, it only makes sense  that our happiness is also a product of our environment.

The HPI utilizes three components to determine an overall score: experienced well-being, life expectancy, and ecological footprint. The scores are color coordinated based on a ‘stop-light’ system: green=happy, yellow=good days/bad days, red=miserable

First and foremost, experienced well-being was quantified based on answers given in response to a specific question on the Gallup World Poll–a global census. The question–“The ladder of life”–asked respondents to imagine a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, and report the step of the ladder they felt they currently stand on. It also serves as the main variable of the Happy Planet Index.

Unlike life expectancy and ecological footprint–both quantitative–experienced well-being is based on qualitative data–that is, subjective in nature. A common criticism of the HPI is that personal opinion leads to biased results. For instance, how does one quantify an emotion? (i.e., how can Iraq have a higher score on the HPI than the U.S.?) (It does) However, if we consider that emotion is subjective by nature, as is happiness, it makes sense to incorporate qualitative data with quantitative, in order to compensate for the ambiguity. The definition of happiness is not universal so how can we expect the data to be? “Happiness” in the United States is usually reflective of the “American dream” –wealth and status with a white picket fence. Relatively speaking, I doubt that’s the case in Iraq. Or Vanuatu (an island nation in the South Pacific with a population less than 225,000. Ranked #1 on the first HPI taken in 2006.).

HPI-exp well being

HPI “experienced well-being” by county

Life expectancy scores were calculated using data from the UN Human Development Index: a composite statistic involving life expectancy, education, and income.

HPI-life expectancy

HPI “life expectancy” by country

Lastly, the ecological footprint is a measure of a country’s resource consumption: per capita measure of the amount of land required to sustain a country’s consumption rate.

HPI-eco footprint

HPI “ecological footprint” by country

This is where America falters and is ultimately the reason why our country continuously ranks low. According to the HPI: “The USA’s HPI score reflects a high life expectancy and high levels of experienced well-being, but is brought down by an extremely high ecological footprint.”

HPI-u.s.a.

The U.S. accounts for some of the best quality of life in the world. In contrast, our ecological footprint is one of the worst. This can be partially attributed to having one of the largest populations in the world. Although, China and India both have populations in the billions and both significantly outscored the U.S on the HPI. In reality, the blame can be placed on free enterprise: America’s love affair with capitalism. Which leads us to the inquiry: how does money correlate with happiness?

The following are the world’s top 10 GDPs based on PPP (purchasing power parity)

  1. United States (HPI score: #105)
  2. China (HPI: #60)
  3. India (HPI: #32)
  4. Japan (HPI: #45)
  5. Germany (HPI: #46)
  6. Russia (HPI: #122)
  7. Brazil (HPI: #21)
  8. United Kingdom (HPI: #41)
  9. France (HPI: #50)
  10. Italy (HPI: #51)

Not one of the top 10 richest countries in the world finds itself within the top 10 happiest countries in the world, let alone the top 20.

In comparison, the following are the world’s top 10 happiest countries according to the 2012 HPI:

  1. Costa Rica (#1 in 2009 and #3 in 2006) (Michael Jordan of the HPI)
  2. Vietnam
  3. Columbia
  4. Belize
  5. El Salvador
  6. Jamaica
  7. Panama
  8. Nicaragua
  9. Venezuela
  10. Guatemala

Notice a pattern? Besides the fact that they are all mostly from Central America (and warm climates), the happiest countries tend to not be the richest. In fact, they tend to be relatively poor. Many countries that the average American would not expect to be “happier”, are in fact, much happier than the U.S. For example, Cuba is #12 in the world. Pakistan is #16. Iraq, with a GDP less than 10% of the U.S., records a HPI score of #36. Syria, with a GDP less than 1/10th of a percent of the U.S. and in the midst of a civil war, still edges half the countries with top 10 GDPs, with an HPI score of #47.  So is this all bullshit? Or are Americans actually miserable?

hpi sade keanu

Don’t be sad, Keanu.

The answer is yes and no. In other words, our happiness is up for interpretation. As mentioned previously, if you take the United States and base the HPI solely on “experienced well-being” and “life expectancy” then we would undoubtedly score higher on the list. In fact, if you take the HPI based only on those two factors, the top 10 lists are completely different.

Top 10 countries based on “experienced well-being”:

  1. Denmark
  2. Canada
  3. Norway
  4. Switzerland
  5. Sweden
  6. Netherlands
  7. Venezuela
  8. Australia
  9. Israel
  10. Finland

In contrast to the top 10 countries according to HPI (central American countries, warm climates) the top 10 according to well-being follow a geographic pattern of mainly northern hemisphere and cold (and in some cases, free healthcare). Venezuela is the only repeat.

Top 10 countries based on “life expectancy”:

  1. Japan
  2. Hong Kong
  3. Switzerland
  4. Italy
  5. Australia
  6. Iceland
  7. Israel
  8. France
  9. Spain
  10. Sweden

There’s no defined pattern as there was with “well-being”. However, we do find repeats between the two lists: Switzerland, Australia, Israel, and Sweden. Hypothetically speaking, without acknowledging “ecological footprint”, we might conclude that these four countries display both qualitative and quantitative evidence that they are the “happiest” countries in the world. However, this would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the HPI.

The purpose of the index is best conceived as a measure of the environmental efficiency of supporting well-being in a given country. The HPI is founded on utilitarian principles–the philosophical approach to happiness that suggests an action is right as long as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct (i.e. most people want to live long and fulfilling lives). The country which is doing the best is the one that allows its citizens to do so, without infringing on the opportunities of future generations and people in other countries to do the same. Hence the reason why the “ecological footprint” is relevant:

HPI-us eco footprint

The HPI is not suggesting that America is currently unhappy (nor that it’s less “happy” than Iraq or Syria or Vanuatu). It’s telling us that our consumption rate is way out of proportion with our population density and land mass. It’s telling us that we might be happy now (according to “well-being” and “life expectancy”) but in terms of conservation, America has the potential to become very unhappy in the near future. Our ecological footprint illustrates the possibility that our environment might dissipate if we continue down the same path of uncompromising consumption.

Tree-hugger, hippie, eco-warrior: I am none of the above. The purpose of this story isn’t to rally the troops into saving our planet (nor America). As I’ve said before, I’m a realist. I don’t deny global warming but I also don’t deny that humans will continue to harvest this planet for all it’s worth. In fact, I’ll be included as one of them. I’ll continue to fill my car with gasoline. I’ll continue to not recycle when I’m feeling lazy. The point is, consumption is inevitable and unstoppable in the grand scheme of humanity. Which is to say, the HPI might serve better as an indicator of what is to come.

The index illustrates a simplified, watered-down perspective on happiness in America: experienced well-being with a relatively high life expectancy, coupled with the blissful ignorance of what our country does to itself and other countries around the world. Perhaps the HPI is offering a personal message to America: most of you are happy, although, you probably shouldn’t be. 

HPI resource consumption

If money could buy happiness, the U.S. would be the happiest country in the world. In reality, happiness is defined as much more than wealth. It’s a subjective understanding of what is important in one’s life. The true meaning of “happiness” has been analyzed by philosophers since the dawn of recorded history. Their perspectives offer a poignant similarity in our understanding of what it means to be “happy”.

The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia (which literally translates to “human flourishing”). The concept of eudaimonia was central to Aristotle’s philosophy. He defined it as ‘the highest human good’–to consider and experience what that was and how it could be achieved. Aristotle was one of the first to describe “happiness” as subjective in nature:

“Verbally there is a very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [eudaimonia], and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what [eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honor…”

In Plato’s Definitions, eudaimonia is simplified:

“The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.”

What these old Greek dudes we’re trying to say is that the definition of “happiness” is ubiquitous. It cannot logistically be quantified using statistics and indexes. However, if we consider the simplest explanation for being happy, we might agree that the answer is actually quite simple:

“Living well”.

Close Encounters

Standard

2013 meteor

On February 15th, in a scene straight out of science-fiction, a meteor struck the Urals region of Western Russia causing thousands of injuries and widespread damage. Somewhere, Michael Bay is softly whispering to himself: “They didn’t listen…”

Thanks to rampant corruption in Russian law enforcement, many drivers equip their vehicles with dashboard cameras to refute charges. It’s a hardship that Russians must endure on a daily basis. Luckily for the rest of us, their dashboard cams provided a perfect viewfinder for experiencing the meteor firsthand. [See above]

NASA estimates the Russian meteor had a diameter of 50 ft. with a mass of 10,000 tons. It was travelling nearly 40,000 mph when it entered Earth’s atmosphere. The meteor penetrated the atmosphere above Russia at a shallow angle and lasted only 30 seconds before violently exploding over the city of Chelyabinsk. At 10-15 miles above the Earth’s surface, the airburst yielded a 500 kt blast. (In comparison, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki we’re 15-20 kt.)

It’s been nearly a century since an event like this has occurred. In 1908, in Tunguska–a remote location of the Siberian wilderness–an explosion  flattened 80 million trees in an area spanning 800 miles. Unanimous research and eyewitness accounts point to a meteor as the cause of impact. Based on damages, scientists estimate the Tunguska meteor was over 100 ft. in diameter, exploding above the surface with a force of 10-15 megatons (1000 times more powerful than Hiroshima/Nagasaki).

The one-hundred year lapse in historic meteor strikes has caused observers to feel mainly one of two reactions: either it proves such an occurrence is so rare that it doesn’t deserve our preoccupation or it reiterates the fact that we could all die on any given day at any given time. As an existentialist and quasi-nihilist, I’m inclined to embrace the latter. More so to the point, the 2013 Russian meteor’s entry was undetected by any radar on Earth.

I’m not privy to conspiracy theories nor am I a fear-monger. Nonetheless, the Russian meteor event leads me to questions: In our lifetime, how likely is it that Earth will be obliterated by an N-E-O? And is humanity prepared in the slightest?

arma

More importantly, will Bruce Willis be there to save us?

NEO is space jargon for ‘meteors and asteroids’. It stands for “near-earth object”. It’s a classification used to identify objects whose orbit is in close proximity to Earth. In the United States, NASA has a congressional mandate to categorize all NEOs with a diameter of at least 1 km (0.621371 miles in America) (stupid metrics). These particular NEOs are scrutinized due to their potentially devastating effects to Earth. As of February 2013, 862 “large NEOs” (1 km+) have been discovered. Which seems like a lot. Until you realize how many total NEOs have been discovered:

neo discovery

9,628

While the steady increase in NEO discoveries can be mainly attributed to advancements in technology, it doesn’t deny the fact that there are a shitload of objects roaming the universe waiting to pulverize Earth’s atmosphere. As previously mentioned–the 2013 Russian meteor was undetected by radar before entry. Which proves we  can’t logistically calculate a true total. Paul Chodas, a research scientist in the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains that NASA is focused on large asteroids, first and foremost:

“Although the smaller ones are easier to divert, they are very difficult to detect…” -Paul Chodas

Megan Donahue, professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University, tweeted this:

“A meteor about the size of the Russian meteor hits about once a year (just not in a crowded area). Brown et al. 2002.”

msu graph

I don’t understand this chart, either.

University of Michigan professor Edwin Bergin claims that an impact is even less likely: “The Earth is constantly bombarded by objects from space but mostly by much smaller rocks. Rocks that are this size (5-15 meters) statistically impact the Earth once every 5 – 30 years or so, depending on the size. But the Earth is mostly covered by ocean water so the events would not be noticed as often…”

Both Donahue and Bergin’s statements are in contrast to NASA’s calculations. According to Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, “These fireballs happen about once a day or so, but we just don’t see them because many of them fall over the ocean or in remote areas.”

Let’s get this straight. If we’re to believe NASA: 1.) This celestial occurrence is not yearly but daily, 2.) They’re nearly impossible to detect, and 3.)  The impact probability apparently ranges between everyday and 30 years. It seems the only factor keeping meteors from destroying random cities on Earth is pure luck. 

The modern method of categorizing the impact hazard associated with NEOs is called the Torino Scale. It utilizes color-coding to assess threat levels. It’s similar to the Bush administration’s “terror alert system”. The only difference is the Torino Scale is used for science while the terror alert system is used to justify war and unsanctioned torture.

I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, the Torino Scale. Check it out:

torino

The highest rated NEO in history is known formally as 99942 Apophis. Besides sounding like a Greek mailing address, Apophis is arguably the most threatening observable NEO in the galaxy. In December 2004, it received a Torino rating of 4 (the highest rating in recorded history) with an  impact date of 2029. A 4 on the Torino scale is classified as: “A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of regional devastation. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.”

Apophis has since been downgraded to a 1. However, it remains a “non-zero” on the Torino scale. Which is to say, it remains a threat. Apophis was originally downgraded due the fact that further research suggested a near-miss in 2029 instead of an impact event. But research has also suggested that due to a “gravitational keyhole”, (a small region of space where Earth’s gravity would alter the orbit of a passing asteroid) Apophis might collide with Earth on a given future orbital pass. Picture a boomerang. Same idea. In other words, the close approach in 2029 could substantially alter the object’s orbit, making predictions beyond 2029 uncertain.

As an atheist, I fully embrace the ethos of science. But I’m skeptical to place 100% of my rationale in the fact that Earth is safe, based on an abstract understanding of “gravitational keyholes” and predictions about the future based on trigonometry. I know it’s math but it’s not enough sufficient evidence to ease my mind. Fun fact: Apophis is named after the Egyptian god of darkness and chaos. How apropos-phis.

In all seriousness, depending on the size of Apophis during entry and the location of the impact, this event could potentially lead to millions of casualties. Current trajectory calculations have mapped a “path of risk”. [See below] Although, predicting where it will impact seems just as trivial as predicting if it will impact.

apophis path of risk

If there is a god, he obviously hates Russia.

“It’s kind of a wakeup call that this is a tangible threat that we have to be aware of…” -Geoff Chester, astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington

Humanity has minimal prevention contingencies for impact events besides early detection. But the risk of your house burning down is very small and yet you still insure it against fire, right? One of the most tangible concepts for mass-casualty prevention is called ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestial-impact Last Alert System). It’s a side project of the Pan-STARRS research center in Hawaii (Pan-STARRS is currently the most powerful land-based telescope in the world).  The Pan-STARRS field of vision is “deep but narrow”, needing months to patrol the whole sky. ATLAS will provide detection in a more pragmatic sense. Still, ATLAS is merely an improved contingency for early detection, not a savior of mankind.

ATLAS

ATLAS shrugged.

The plot of Michael Bay’s ‘Armageddon’ would suggest a separate plan altogether: train a group of ragtag oil-rig workers to become astronauts, fly them into outer space, land on the incoming asteroid, drill a hole to its core, drop a nuclear bomb down that sonofabitch and BOOM. Earth=saved. Dear world, you’re welcome. Sincerely, America

Unfortunately, this plan is infeasible–even based in reality. A controlled explosion would only break an asteroid into smaller pieces. Ask yourself, would you rather dodge a bullet or shrapnel?

“Fortunately, Apophis needs to be nudged only about a mile to avoid a gravitational “keyhole” in space–a region that would send the asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Otherwise, it would have to be diverted 5000 miles for it to miss our planet. This reduces the energy required to deflect Apophis by a factor of about 10,000–making it theoretically possible using current technology. A number of methods have been proposed to do the job.” (via Popular Mechanics)

how to off an asteroid

Only downside: doesn’t involve Bruce Willis.

To quote Geoff Chester, “This is a tangible threat.” Made more tangible by the fact that the 2013 Russian meteor strike is the first to affect a human population. Additionally, the impact site was only 70 miles from the Mayak nuclear storage and disposal facility in the city of Ozyorsk [See below], which holds literal tons of weapons-grade plutonium/uranium.

c2m

Hour and a half drive to nuclear weapons storage yet no Bed, Bath, and Beyond?

If the Russian meteor had detonated only 70 miles to the Northwest (inches in terms of astronomical units), it could have severely damaged a nuclear facility site that is previously responsible for the third largest nuclear meltdown in history. Even Chelyabinsk, the meteor’s impact site, was relatively lucky. The angle of the meteor’s approach was shallow. In terms of damage, it was the equivalent of a glancing blow. A slight differentiation in trajectory and the Russian meteor could have directly impacted Chelyabinsk–a city with a population close to one million. If that had happened, we wouldn’t be talking about thousands injured. Instead, headlines would read thousands dead. This conversation would no longer be hypothetical. Regardless, whether there is one casualty or one million, the conversation should be had and it should begin now.

 What is most frightening about an impact event is that it’s surrounded by too many “ifs”. If the meteor’s trajectory was different, an entire city might have been destroyed. If the meteor’s impact was a few miles to the left or right, a nuclear disaster might have occurred. If Apophis passes through a “gravitational keyhole” in 2029, it might potentially re-enter orbit and cause global catastrophe. But the chances are small. That’s not good enough for me. I have lost all faith in probability. Especially now, after witnessing an Arkansas couple on the news winning the lottery twice in the same day.???????????????????????????????

I hope you get hit by a meteor…

The chances of winning the lottery twice in one day is approximately 1 in 1 billion. The current impact probability of Apophis is 1 in 135,000. Which means there is a 99.99926000% chance the asteroid will miss Earth. But there’s still a chance it won’t. We’re not talking about winning the lottery. We’re talking about the safety of our entire planet–our entire being.

“People have a hard time reasoning with low-probability/high-consequence risks. Some people say, ‘Why bother, it’s not really going to happen.’ But others say that when the potential consequences are so serious, even a tiny risk is unacceptable.” -Michael DeKay of the Center for Risk Perception and Communication at Carnegie Mellon University (via Popular Mechanics)
 
If Stephen and Terri Weaver of Arkansas taught us anything, it’s that nothing is impossible…
 
In summary, a piece of commentary from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (one of the smartest dudes on the planet):
NDT

Implications of the Alabama Hostage Crisis

Standard

Law enforcement personnel walk away from the perimeter of the scene of a shooting and hostage taking in Midland City

“I want a television and camera down here and broadcast live on the news”.

Those were Jimmy Lee Dykes’ first demands, according to sources close to Michael Daly (The Daily Beast). Dykes, a 65-year-old Alabama man, captivated the media and the country during a weeklong hostage standoff beginning on January 29th, 2013. It all started when Dykes boarded a school bus in rural Alabama, demanding two young hostages. The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., heroically intervened and was shot dead. Dykes took only one hostage–a five-year-old boy named Ethan–and exited through the emergency door. Both would spend the next week barricaded within a homemade bomb shelter on Dyke’s property, while the entire country followed their every move. In the end, only one of them would emerge alive.

During persistent negotiations with federal agents, basic amenities were supplied to Ethan: snacks, crayons, and a coloring book. What federal agents were not able to supply was Dykes’ most pressing requisition: a television news camera broadcasting live. This would have required a camera operator, which, in turn, would betray the cardinal rule of hostage negotiations: never introduce a new hostage.

The agents remained faithful to protocol. Instead of offering a live broadcast, they agreed to supply Dykes with a camera to record his message intended for the media. Eventually Dykes would open the hatch of the bunker long enough for agents to throw stun grenades and fire the lethal rounds that would end the standoff as well as Dykes’ life. Ethan was safely rescued.

Jimmy Lee Dykes wanted to feel important. He wanted compensation for the failure he perceived in a lack of reciprocation to his online anti-government tirades. He thought his voice mattered and he wanted to be heard. He wanted America to know his name. With the help of the media, he accomplished that.

Our information-rich internet culture has culminated an emerging phenomenon. It has created a proclivity for self-expression, devoid of inhibition. It provides an unparalleled medium to indulge in our exhibitionist tendencies.

nbk

“The media made them superstars”

“Natural Born Killers” is an Oliver Stone film, written by Quentin Tarantino. The protagonists are a pair of lovers/mass murderers (Mickey and Mallory Knox) who–after finding themselves imprisoned and awaiting transfer to a mental institution–become the masterminds of a prison riot that eventually leads to their freedom. Initially–before they are caught–Mickey and Mallory receive celebrity-status through tales of their misguided love, glorified by gossip magazines and the American media. Each crime they commit expedites their cult following.

In the third act, Mickey Knox is giving a televised interview in prison with Wayne Gale (a gossip columnist). During the live taping, Knox seizes the opportunity to rile his fellow inmates and a prison riot ensues. As the upheaval spirals out of control, Knox takes Gale’s camera crew hostage and forces them to broadcast the event live to the entire country.

When they’re finally free from prison, only Mickey, Mallory, and Wayne Gale remain alive. For the moment, Gale is convinced that he’s safe (reassured by the fact that the Knox’s trademark is leaving one victim alive). But it’s soon revealed who the real survivor is. (Spoiler alert!) Gale is shot dead and the camera continues recording. WE are the survivors: the audience. We are the witnesses, left alive to tell their story.

It reaffirms our guilty conscience, made clear in our fascination with human conflict. It asks the audience:“Why are you still watching this? What the fuck is wrong with you?” Because a small part of us wants Mickey and Mallory to escape. Which begs the question: have we become so overexposed to “reality” that it has completely desensitized us?

hbb“Why are you still watching this? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Jimmy Lee Dykes’ allegedly claimed that he was inspired by the idea after what happened in Newtown, CT. He realized how much media attention was generated by the Sandy Hook massacre and subsequently followed the same equation: violence+schoolchildren=national news coverage. It was his blueprint for exploiting the media.

Did the media cover the Alabama hostage crisis for an entire week? Yes. Did America place Jimmy Lee Dykes under the spotlight? Yes. If you search his name on the internet–for the rest of eternity–will his name and photo be the first result that appears? Yes. And would any of us have known or cared who Jimmy Lee Dykes was if he had decided to kill himself alone in his underground bunker? Probably not.

Call it ‘post-modern gonzo journalism’. Instead of the writer becoming part of the story, the writer IS the story (“the writer”, in this case, being the criminal). It’s unnerving to consider how easily the media can be used as a pawn. It’s complicated by the fact that Americans view reality-TV as a staple of entertainment. Essentially, that’s what the Alabama hostage standoff was: reality-TV produced by a criminal. Jimmy Lee Dykes wanted to be important. For one week, he was the most important man in America. He was Mickey Knox.

We are all inclined to feel entitled to our ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. The question is: how far are we willing to go to embrace it? And if this becomes a growing trend in American culture, how will the media expect to control a story when the story is controlling them?

Obama Skeet Shooting Photo Released By White House

Standard

skeet

The New Republic: “Have you ever fired a gun?”

President Obama: “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”

In a recent interview with The New Republic, President Obama made brief remarks on his history of gun use. As the above transcript suggests, the President admitted to firing a weapon “all the time” at Camp David. Accordingly, the public sphere–fueled by the emphatic mainstream media–dissected this particular quote as a lie. Because “all the time” would suggest Obama is pro-gun, which in turn, would suggest he ISN’T actually a warlock who can disassemble an assault rifle simply by using black magic. If the President had only redacted the words “all the time” perhaps there wouldn’t have been an impending controversy. Alas, this is American politics. Taking things wildly out-of-context is the name of the game.

The fact that the White House thought it was strategically necessary to release this photo is demoralizing. It’s the same pandering that the White House obliged “birthers” with, when they released Obama’s long-form birth certificate. Will the Democrats ever learn that there is no satisfying their accusers? More importantly, will they ever learn to stop allowing radical ideologues from taking U.S. politics for ransom?

Strategically, the release of the photo coincides with a wave of fervent accusations that President Obama is strictly anti-gun, amidst talk in D.C. of expanding regulations on firearms in the U.S. Pro-gun supporters are convinced Obama is hell-bent on diminishing their 2nd amendment right–the right to bear arms. The truth is, they couldn’t be more off-base. But that’s besides the point. The fact is, the White House perceived this zeitgeist as posing a threat to the administration. Releasing this photo is essentially the equivalent of a surrender. Sure, they proved Obama actually fired a weapon before, but the White House was coaxed into the release. They were coaxed, not by a majority of rationally concerned citizens, but instead, by bigots and imbeciles. Not to mention, the White House has already released a photo of Obama carrying a gun during 2011, at his daughter Sasha’s birthday party:

water gun

If it can’t kill someone, it doesn’t count. Duh.

The ostensible figurehead of the pro-gun rallying cry is Wayne LaPierre. The executive V.P. of the NRA (National Rifle Association) is an advocate for 2nd amendment rights as well as a staunch opponent of the Obama administration (the NRA donated $15 million to Republican candidates in an effort to oust President Obama from office in 2012). LaPierre and his cohorts suggests that limiting the rights of citizens is an overreach of executive power. They would be correct, if that’s what the Obama administration was planning. However, in contrast to what the far-right believes, the anti-gun measurements would basically accomplish only two things: 1.) a stricter assault weapons ban (including high-capacity magazines), and 2.) universal background checks.

The purpose of universal background checks is to help restrict citizens with a history of mental health issues from purchasing a firearm. A reasonable statute, considering most perpetrators of mass shootings have a history of mental health issues in one form or another. However, the NRA has argued against this, stating the mental health lobby and federal laws have prevented the names of people with potentially dangerous mental health problems from being put into a federal database. A reasonable argument. The nature of the Hippocratic oath deems the possibility of a national database impractical. The argument is certainly justified.

What isn’t justified is the resistance to the assault weapons ban. Let’s break this down. First, list as many rationale purposes you can think of for owning a firearm in the U.S.: hunting, protection, law enforcement/military. Personally, I cannot rationalize any other purpose. Next, list as many purposes you can think of for owning an assault weapon: law enforcement/military. I think that’s it. I’m not convinced you need an automatic weapon for protection since there exists a plethora of semiautomatic weapons on the market that will do just that (protect you). And I’m certainly not convinced, in the United States, that one would ever require an automatic weapon to hunt for sport (unless it’s Bigfoot).

rambo

“Let’s kill some fuckin deer!”

Some Americans have trouble understanding the definition of freedom in the context of their guaranteed civil liberties. They don’t understand that freedom requires rules to realistically function in society. Freedom without limitation is anarchy. Yet, some remain feeling entitled to believe that “freedom” in this country is black and white: all or nothing. These same people will try and convince you that the exaggerated melodrama they propose is the hard truth. They will have you believe that a president, acting responsibly in the face of an epidemic in America, is a fascist. When in reality, the far-right pro-gun advocates are simply using the relevance of a national tragedy to advertise their polarized political viewpoints. It reveals an uncompromising selfishness in the administration’s opponents–that speaks volumes of their character.

The United States accounts for more annual firearm deaths than any other country in the entire world. There has never been a more appropriate time to realize that “freedom” in America is not boundless and requires concrete, longstanding limitations. Regulation cannot be nonexistent. It is a necessity in a democratic society–not a causation of our government devolving into a dictatorship, as some would like to believe:

nuge

Ted Nugent: pioneer of American freedom

In the end, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t justified. There is no amount of justification the Obama administration can muster that will appease their opponents. The administration enacted federal regulations in response to Sandy Hook, so the far-right called them anti-gun. Obama claimed he shoots skeet, so the far-right demanded photographic proof. The administration offers proof, so the far-right alleges the photo is fake because there doesn’t appear to be any ‘kick-back’ when the shot was fired, nor was there any eyewitness account (true story).

There is no winning this game. The functionality of our government is structured by a symbiosis of partisan bullshit. Still, we wonder why American politics rarely accomplishes anything besides incompetence anymore. Allow this to offer insight.

Buzkashi: Afghan’s National Pastime

Standard

buz2

The sport of football (REAL football, sorry England) remains a traditional building block of American culture. It combines every element of our shared values: teamwork, violence, corporate sponsorship, large-breasted women, and country music. While football remains our favorite pastime, it also remains relatively exclusive to the United States. In Australia there’s rugby, which is like football with no pads (or rules). There’s Canadian football, which is a much more polite version of American football. And then there’s Buzkashi.

Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan. It’s similar to polo, in the sense that both require horseback. However, in Buzkashi–instead of a ball–players vie over the disemboweled carcass of a dead goat. The carcass is thrown onto the field of play, where participants must then pitch it into designated scoring areas for points. It’s kind of like American football. Except there’s no ball. Or cheerleaders. Or end zone celebration dances. In fact, while were on the subject, no dancing allowed at all (gyrating is for infidels). Buzkashi players are also encouraged to whip the opposing team with riding crops as well as push them off their horses. A single match can last several days.

polo

Helmets are for pussies.

Besides possessing intrigue, Buzkashi also serves another purpose for Westerners. It illustrates the stark contrast that divides our worlds. This sport is considered normal in Afghanistan. I’m not attempting to pass judgement when I say that. It’s simply an observation. It’s fine that it’s considered normal. What I mean is, it’s considered normal compared to America’s definition of normal. Buzkashi transcends differing religious and socio-economic factors. It illustrates a nuanced perspective of the disparity between our two cultures.

America’s version of Buzkashi (“polo”) represents the bourgeois: uber-rich WASPs, immortalized by Ralph Lauren. It exemplifies the personification of American exceptionalism. In Afghanistan, Buzkashi represents traditionalist values. Consider the fact that the Afghan people have never once decided to use anything else besides a dead goat to play their favorite game and that should give you some perspective of their commitment to tradition. Afghans have historically resisted change. It’s a subtle inclination that Western ideology will not be embraced in Afghanistan anytime soon (if ever). Ultimately, the sport of Buzkashi serves as a microcosm of our divergence; a perpetual clash of societal norms.

It is undeniable that we’re all human and all living on the same planet. But we undeniably come from different worlds.

ralph

Although, this shirt would look fabulous draped in goat carcass…