The End of the World as We Know It

February 6, 2010

Sometimes in the slow evenings of my existence I think about the end of the world.

Now, granted, this usually occurs when I’m watching either the History Channel or Jersey Shore, either of which are exceptional candidates for finding out how, and hoping for, respectively, the end of the world. But in thinking about it I’ve realized we have quite a bit to worry about.

There’s never been a shortage of theories. The Long Count Calendar, an elaborate prediction made by the Maya civilization, advised everyone that the end of the world would happen on 2012, at around 10:30 in the morning, right after breakfast. The Mayans devised this calendar using incredibly advanced technology for the time, mostly due to the scientific efforts they did not invest in, say, the wheel, or not falling for the Spanish-Dude-is-a-god trick.

Or course, we could also die by natural catastrophe. We naturally see blips of this on occasion, when tsunamis and rock slides just outright destroy entire nations in mere minutes. At some point, the weather is going to get its act together and start coordinating this nonsense. Someday, we’re going to get earthquakes, tidal waves, solar flares, volcanoes, ice storms, and Brett Favre’s last throw in regulation in the 2009 NFC Conference Championship all at once, and–poof!–we’re done.

The prospect of an infinitely expanding outer space doesn’t help. For those of us worried that some day the aliens will come with plasma rays and titanium boots and start laying waste to our cities, we really should be worried about what could actually realistically happen, since that is much scarier. The magnetic poles in the earth could switch, causing electrical generators to self-destruct and digital watches to switch to military time. A gamma ray burst, what as far as I can tell is the stellar equivalent of a six year old’s explanation of an episode of Kim Possible along with a brick of C4, could devour the earth in a blink of an eye. An asteroid could demolish the world, even with the assistance of a frustrated Bruce Willis now that he’s not going home to Demi Moore.

Of course, we could be doing it to ourselves each time we tap away at our computers. The concept of singularity–humans develop a computer smarter than humans, so it takes over its own development in an infinite loop of e-nightmares and cyberterror–is frightening. Only more so since I think it’s supposed to be the plot of Tron, but Disney was too scared to awesomeify it into reality. The term “grey goo” sounds cute, but it’s a scenario in which self-replicating nanobots, created with the intention of helping medicine and industry, end up consuming everything in its path, including–amazingly–Hot Pockets. Granted, I may be biased in this particular regard, since I am fairly certain the copy machine at work is smarter than myself, and is at least no doubt better organized. (For the record, I am also scared of most vending machines.)

Not all end-of-the-world scenarios involve random nastiness. It could be deliberate acts of cranky. Iran has been given a green light to nuke Israel, in the sense that I suspect that Tehran’s weapon of choice will be a fully functional and peaceful nuclear power plant small enough to fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim Jong Il has been chucking Fat Men in the Pacific since Churchill was in diapers. Osama Bin Laden has been sitting in some cave in western Pakistan with an Erector Set, knocking over scale replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Opera House while he waits for the canister of sarin to get to him, once FedEx finds his street number.

Then again, the world’s most destructive terrorist isn’t a nutjob in a turban or a fisttwister in Beijing, but a pig. Or a bird. Or some other random animal who, for some reason, holds a grudge against their caretakers and occasional preheaters. Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and no doubt Pachyderm Flu has mutated across species and will some day doom us all. Our bodies are weak to resist such outbreaks–thanks to their newly-formed transmission methods, but also because doctors have been pumping our bodies full of antibiotics like peanut M&M’s for years–and at some point a global pandemic may leave the buildings empty across the globe.

Of course, worrying about all of this isn’t going to do us any good. Aside from getting on the Opus Dei mailing list and maybe buying some of that astronaut ice cream, there isn’t any practical way to prepare for the end of the world. Me, I’ll pop a bag of kettle corn and crack open a Mr. Pibb. No, it won’t save me, but I certainly hope and expect that it will be one hell of a show.

Who’s Your Daddy?

October 12, 2008

I think I may be slowly changing my mind on my position about how much I like sharks.

Okay, I “like” sharks in the sense that I like them swimming about on my television set, and then only briefly. They seem inherently menacing, like bears or Dennis Rodman, and so a little bit of them goes a long way. And any prolonged viewing of a shark on TV or at the zoo aquarium will reach the inevitable eventuality of them bloodily chomping down on something or someone, making a big show of raw flailing flesh about the water grinning from whatever it is sharks have instead of an ear to whatever it is sharks have instead of an ear. Kinda cool in the abstract, I guess, but not someone I’m inviting over for bridge anytime soon.

Reports out of Virginia are that a shark, with the unfortunate name of Tidbit (sharks, regardless of gender, should be named after evil Greek gods, belligerent generals, or rocks, not theoretical Fisher Price toy product lines) was pregnant, even though she had had no contact with a male of her species, ever. DNA tests proved she, indeed, carried the baby shark even though she was of the stay-home-on-prom-night-watching-Sixteen-Candles-and-weeping sort. This is the second such documented case of the asexual reproduction of a shark, the first being a few years ago in Omaha. There, when a lady shark gave birth to a baby shark which was—in what can only be described in medical terms as “awesome”—immediately chomped down by another larger, presumably male, shark, intent on keeping his child support payments to an absolute minimum. More proof, of course, that you couldn’t get any in Nebraska even if you tried.

I am constantly concerned that our animal brethren—everything from mammals and amphibians to fruit flies and South American hostel residents—are in a perpetual state of conspiracy against the eventual overthrow of the human race. Evidence for this isn’t hard to find, of course. Our pets are masters of manipulation, forcing us to purchase artificially-flavored bacon-style chunks and then reversing Pavlov, getting us to fork over the tasty nuggets on a regular basis for doing remarkably simple tasks such as not taking a dump on the good white couch in the den.

I trust very few animals, in fact. Cats, in particular, seem a manipulative breed, the entire attention-getting concept of nice-dinner-trumps-football-playoff-game mentality conceptualized in a living organism that coughs up its own hair as a form of passive-aggressive routine maintenance.
So when I hear about sharks cranking out babies asexually, it greatly concerns me on two very important fronts. First, it makes me think that sharks have more up their sleeves than simply crunching down jellyfish and looking for surfers to terrorize. While I’m all for that—I am unsure whether jellyfish or surfers rank higher on the list of things this world could conceivably be better off without, though “both” is an adequate answer—I’m also well aware that the same tactics to use against creepy ink-squirting sea critters and community college dropouts in southern California can also be used against major freight shipping lanes in the Pacific and oil tanker itineraries.

Besides operating in the grand conspiracy, it also worries me because of its message: Mother Nature is stating to the world that males are unnecessary. Sure, there have always been footnotes in our high school biology text books about the three or four known organism that can reproduce without a male, but these are normally strange, rare amphibious creatures that are useless outside of filler for Chinese school cafeteria meals. It’s not like cheetahs or elephants are stomping around cranking our calves and kittens indiscriminately about the Serengeti. (Just so you know, I know about as much about geography as biology, so cover your ears and hum if you don’t like my gross miscalculations of species taxonomy or temperate zones.) Now that the phenomenon has progressed to include animals that could, in theory, bite my head off with little to no repercussions amongst their contemporaries, I am much more gravely concerned than before.

There are several theories as to why these sharks are flushing out virgin births. Seafood has, traditionally, been a quite literal breeding ground for strange reproductive activities. Some blame it on the ocean’s quite unique biodiversity; others on the social instincts of the animals. My own personal theory is that the ocean is a large, almost unfathomably large place, and I could see it difficult to find a compatible mate. It’s probably hard to find another whale or dolphin that shares your own interests in catching tasty fish or watching Rushmore with the sound turned down. I could see at times that your options are to ride the current for four months or so from the Indian ocean to the Hudson Bay just to get some strange and not even get a two-star meal out of it—or unluckily become one. Or just putter around the house in curlers and learn how to do it on your own. I could see males doing the former—and probably have—but I can see the females just embracing the latter, a sort of proto-feminist movement within the marine animal community. Next they’ll be demanding equal plankton for equal work and a more fair distribution of lifeguard bits.

Of course, I’m sure many activists will point to this occurrence as proof that gender is unnecessary and may eventually disappear as a function difference between men and women. While it may be true, it also points towards a grim world in which all transportation seizes up from lack of oil changes, all businesses close from four to five so Oprah can be watched, and no decision is ever made about anything, ever, and even if it is, it is changed immediately after the original decision can no longer be reversed. Alas, this is scarily close to the world right now. At least we could do without those uppity sharks.

The End Is Near…Switzerland

July 2, 2008

You may not be fully aware of it, but come this fall, the world may end. And of all places, it’s going to happen in Switzerland. And here I thought they were neutral on the whole end of the world thing.

For those who, like everyone else in the world, including scientists, skip the “Science” part of your Sunday paper (otherwise known as the Science/Health/Grammar Column/Bridge Advice section), the Large Hadron Collider is a massive scientific apparatus that does…something. About something. So we can find out something important, such as how to increase government grants to large particle accelerators. To be honest, I’ve read the purpose of this machine about a thousand times (I’m using significant digits, there) and I still have only a vague notion of exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish. Granted this may be because of my experience in physics class in high school:

Teacher: Today, we’re going to learn about the Wankel Rotary Engine.
Me, Thinking To Myself: I wonder if that blonde chick in front of me thinks I’m cute.
Teacher: So when you are ready to turn in your assignments about Planck’s Constant let me know and I’ll give you’re your assignment on formulating inertia.
Me: I also wonder if that blonde chick is wearing anything under that shirt.
Teacher: The test on kinetic energy will be next Tuesday.
Me: I think I’ll go home and call her number, then hang up, then play Nintendo for five hours.

Granted, I took physics in college, too, though this time things were different. I had a Sony PlayStation by that point.

Anyway, after reading an article about the collider, the gist of what I came out with was the following:
1) There’s a chance this collider might kill us.
2) But it probably won’t.
3) We hope.

That’s right, when they flip that switch in Switzerland, there’s a remote chance the world will end. Exactly how this is going to happen, however, has so far been left to the imagination of the reader, and the more frightening the method the less knowledgeable of physics the supposer has. But it is kind of freakish to realize that scientists are pushing the button with one hand, crossing their fingers on the other.

The most common thought is that the collider will produce a series of black holes. Anyone who has gone through a rigorous scientific program of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation knows, black holes are nothing you want to screw around with. They eat babies, drain vital nutrients, lay asunder women and children, and watch Spike TV. And, alas, the super collider is not a Warner Brothers cartoon (oh, the wonder of THAT day!), so getting rid of the black holes isn’t as easy as simply hitting the reverse button.

Of course, that’s not the only theoretical danger. The collider could also produce magnetic monopoles, vacuum bubbles, and strangelets. No, I have no idea what these are, either. I assume that magnetic monopoles hurt about as much as they sound like they will, vacuum bubbles is actually the name of a porn star, and strangelets are some new form of delicious candy.

All this is enough to startle anyone, and it’s startled at least one person into (surprise!) legal action. A collection of individuals attempted to force an injunction to prevent the activation of this device. The suit, as was expected, was recently dismissed. Notably, however, were the reasons it was dismissed; not because there wasn’t a chance that the supercollider would cause the world to end, or that it would cause irreparable harm to the atmosphere, but that the six year statute of limitations had expired. Whew! Thank goodness that our courts will bring about the end of the world in an appreciatively judicious manner.

The construction of the project itself has not been without drama, either. At one point, a focusing quadrupole (or whatever) collapsed, the engineers apparently not taking gravity into account when building it. If that doesn’t inspire confidence in the program, I can’t imagine what will.

To be fair, a lot of this is probably nothing more than a lot of bluster. On the one hand, top scientists dismiss the safety claims, stating that this is something that has been done a million times before. On the other hand, if it has, then why build a huge underground cavern of dark, swirling, mysterious physics concepts in the first place? Ostensibly, the goal is to observe the creation of the Higgs boson, apparently a vital key in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. (Again, I read its purpose, and, as always, walked away with two ideas: 1) Scientists are significantly smarter than myself, or 2) scientists are really, really adept at making shit up.) Me, I’m convinced that the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe is at the bottom of a bottle of Gewürztraminer, but as of yet my methods have not persuaded the scientific community. They prefer scotch.

I Want To Believe

October 28, 2007

A recent study claims that nearly one third of Americans believe in ghosts, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries, which, among other things, certainly explains a lot about the inexplicable popularity of Will Farrell movies, Blackberries, and Whole Foods.

Hearing that one third of people in America believe in such things isn’t nearly as alarming at first glance, since they lump pretty much all of the paranormal in that figure. This include the standard ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, but also ESP, space aliens, spoon bending, parallel universes, kirilian photography, and OxiClean. Throw enough piss in the pool, and you’re bound to catch pretty much everyone under a certain threshold of awkward metaphors.

What you believe in, of course, is important because it can also tell you what kind of person you are. For instance:

Aliens: You wake up feeling like a freight train went the wrong way up your butt.
Telepathy: You honestly believe that you knew your wife was cheating on you before she did.
Spells: You weren’t all that shocked that Dumbledore was gay. I mean, c’mon. Hell-oooooo!
Vampires: You have too many The Cure CDs.
Psychics: You have a very tenuous grasp on the value of currency.
Zombies: You work at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Anthropomorphic Pumpkin That Travels By Night Harvesting Eyes With A Vice Grip: You, ah, you know what…never mind. We’ll come back to this later. Much later, when my therapist is available.
Killer Scarecrows: You either really, really like corn, or you really, really hate corn.
Bigfoot: You have very limited experience observing animals at the zoo.
Applied Kinesiology: You are a wayward Christian Scientist; or, you have no health insurance.

I can see how easy it is to believe—I mean, really believe—for most people. Many are simply looking for answers, but instead of researching issues, demystifying science, investing in a religion, or holding meaningful dialogue, most people will simply ascribe an uneven thump at three in the morning or a vaguely coincidental overexposed negative to a grand history of crimes, motives, and long lost loves, all because some penniless dope who lived in a barn on your property two centuries ago died of turpentine poisoning.

Color me skeptic. I’m not a big fan of the paranormal, at least in a swear-to-tell-nothing-but-the-truth scenario. It’s kind of a latent fun; listening to Coast to Coast AM, for instance, is a guilty pleasure I readily admit to and actively promote. It certainly makes me feel better about myself, anyway, the same arrogant feeling of superiority I feel when white trash hold up the line at the Dollar General proclaiming a violation of her civil rights because they won’t cash her money order because she doesn’t have any photo ID. Yeah, it wastes my time and it pisses me off, but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that of all the things that are wrong in my life at least I’m not her.

I feel the same way about ghosts. Or, rather the people who believe in ghosts. But it does alarm me a bit about the sheer industry of it all. There are psychics all over television, there are dramatic reenactments of possessions on every channel from Discovery down to Animal Planet (although the ones on Bravo tend towards the “What possessed you to wear fuchsia with horizontal stripes??” variety), and the scifi and horror genres are now full bore tilt with aliens and reincarnated evil. There is lots of money to be made by people who have both active imaginations, poor grasps of scientific principles, and, apparently, large sums of money to throw away.

However, for most so-called “paranormal” things…well, I’m just not buying it. People believe because they want to believe something is “out there,” a weaselly phrase that can only be made weasellier by inappropriately using quotes to emphasize it. To me, the “out there” is one part wind changing directions, one part basic scientific principles that were not fully observed, and about a thousand parts willful suspension of disbelief. Saying you saw a ghost in the back yard right above where Rover was buried a year ago today is a hell of a more exciting story to tell the ladies at church than your neighbor was parking the Lawn Boy and the headlights were reflecting off the garage door onto the basketball backboard. And telling everyone that the vaguely-shaped natural indention in the dried mud is a Sasquatch footprint is simply a clever application of misdirection to keep everyone from realizing you got poison ivy on your crotch when you went to go take a leak.

Although this is all probably unfair. There are degrees of belief, of course, and plenty of otherwise intelligent people are humble enough to believe that there are things in this world that simply can’t be explained. And I guess I have to respect that. Though in all honesty that’s the same type of respect I give washing machines, which I suppose is faint praise indeed. But as long as you leave your vice grips at home, I’m cool with it.

Everybody Walk the Dinosaur

October 17, 2007

A new dinosaur was recently found in the desert region of Argentina. This has been the latest fossilized remains found of anything in Patagonia in the last few years, assuming that we do not count those who “disappeared” during, oh, I don’t know, the years of 1974-1990.

This dinosaur, of which there is an almost complete skeleton, certainly more than has been found of Nicole Richie, is thought to be an entirely new species. Scientists describe it as having a “neck very large in diameter” and being “strong and huge” which, alas, pretty much describes every single dinosaur I’ve ever ran into, usually along with other vivid descriptors such as “large, forceful teeth that can easily snap you in half” and “could crush you mercilessly like a balsa wood diaphragm.”

The funniest thing about this entire discovery is the name of the new dinosaur, which is the appalling “Futalognkosaurus dukei.” (It’s certainly no “brontosaurus,” eh?) Its name is derived from a native language meaning “giant chief of lizards” (it makes it sound like he sat around at local council meetings debating property tax reform or something…though come to think of it last time I went to a local council meeting there were several dinosaurs on the board), and the second part is named for (wait for it) the corporation that funded the dig; namely, the Duke Energy Corporation. That’s right, he may be eighty million years old, but he’s got a commercial endorsement to his name. Brilliant.

Ever since I was a child, I held a unique fascination with dinosaurs that bordered on the kinda gay. Now lots of kids love dinosaurs, but these fascinations usually are limited to trying to work up enough excitement at the only cool part of the museum. For my part, I had all kinds of dinosaur stuff, such as stuffed animal dinosaurs, dinosaur cartoons, dinosaur lunch pails, dinosaur 401(k), everything. And this was pre-Jurassic Park, when a kid that was into dinosaurs meant they may have had a future career as a paleontologist, not that they went to a matinee and wanted to run around the yard in a set of velociraptor shoes made in China, where, I hasten to point out, few dinosaurs lived due to the unfavorable exchange rate at the time.

Of course, dinosaurs are much more popular now; thanks to big-budget movies and a Discovery Channel that has yet to make Shark Week every week, dinosaurs are a standard children’s theme, along with random NASCAR drivers and PSPs. And it’s not hard to come up with a reason why kids (and adults, for that matter) are fascinated by dinosaurs—they’re huge, colorful beings that emit equal parts authority and senseless violence. Much like many other children’s interests, such as train engines and Bobby Brown.

And that’s, I think, the mystique of the dinosaur: we’re fascinated by them because we have concrete evidence that these creatures were huge, sadistic, things, able to destroy the strongest and sturdiest buildings that 4,000 years of human progress has been able to design, yet they’ve all managed to find a truly amazing and mystifying way to take a powder.

The classification of this particular dinosaur is notable for three things. One is that they have him pegged as a plant eater, which I find amusing for some reason. It’s hard enough to make humans vegetarians; I just can’t fathom a dinosaur plodding around the mists of prehistory with a makeshift placard proclaiming that meat is, indeed, murder. I don’t care whether you’re a roid raged T-Rex or a docile stegosaurus, you’re going to be more Type-A than Enron. (Apt comparison, too, since Enron made their money buying and selling dinosaurs before they started making stuff up and then giving a painful birth to Sarbanes-Oxley. Thanks a lot, dinosaurs!)

The second is the insistence that the dinosaur is part of the “titanosaur.” I don’t know if it’s because of the sheer number of names required for all the species of dinosaurs, or the fact that paleontologists are just incredibly unimaginative, but it seems like a lot of these names were basically created by handing a five-year-old a photo of the dinosaur in question and then calling it a day. There are dinosaurs called the supersaurus, the megaraptor, and gigantosaurus, and I can only assume there is a awesomesaurus and a spongebobsaurus as well.

The third is the fact that the scientists made a point of stating that the dinosaur died of “unknown causes.” As if being embedded under several yards of dirt for several dozen million years wasn’t enough. Maybe they need to call in CSI: Bedrock.

Paleontology is one of the few last wonderfully useless trades in the world. Oh, sure, sure, scientists and guidance counselors will wax eloquent about the great finds that contribute to the culture and history of mankind, but we all know it’s just a bunch of grown men and women who should know better beg for cold cash from unsuspecting trust funds so they can hotfoot it to exotic places and shift around the dirt long enough in the hopes of finding a big ole dino bone akin to that huge rib Fred tries to cram in the Flintstonemobile. Anyone who tells you different is either a liar or a jealous ornithologist.

Ground Control to Al-Anon

August 5, 2007

Being an astronaut can’t be easy. The hours are tough—especially when there’s no such thing as hours where you’re going—the training brutal, and then when you take one or two or eight drinks before lift off, the whole world treats you like a terrorist pit bull fighter.

It’s almost tempting to not be surprised by the recent stories concerning astronauts being drunk when boarding spacecraft over the past few years. There are very few high-pressure jobs where drinking is not seen as an acceptable sweet release from the stressful forces of their workday, and occasionally the liquid relaxation and the duties of their career are bound to cross paths. If truck drivers, airline pilots, surgeons, and (apparently) young female movie stars get tipsy on the clock, we shouldn’t be ultimately surprised when NASA’s finest fail the breathalyzer.

Society is filled with individuals who find various means to escape their lives through stimulants and/or depressants, whether it be due to a demanding career, a painful divorce, or crafting a particularly eloquent argument about how the Jews start all of the wars. The most common, and cheapest, way to do so is through alcohol, so it shouldn’t be a large shock that professionals take their bottle to lunch once in a while. Astronauts may be intelligent and relatively stable, but they are susceptible to the same addictive frailties as, say, car mechanics and former governors of Texas.

And it’s not like boarding a spacecraft and getting behind the wheel of an Elantra are the same thing. I mean, yes, yes, yes, they’re apparently navigating a billion plus dollars of taxpayers’ money, and it would be a bitch on your insurance bill after wrapping the Voyager around a maple tree, but it’s not like they are dodging pedestrians or turning on a dime in the stratosphere. There’s no concept of last call in space, either; there aren’t any cougars or double baggers to count as an occupational hazard when you can see the entire Great Wall and pink elephants all at once.

Still, being an astronaut is no easy task. It involves someone who is willing to 1) be an aircraft pilot for what appears to amount to 100,000 years; 2) be willing to be enclosed in a small pressurized plastic box for several months where your oxygen intake and temperature control are designed, implemented, and built by the fellow engineers who were passed over for a promotion by you; and 3) realize that if you eat the condensed space burrito shaped like a pellet for space lunch and you think you just might try a silent poot, everyone in Ground Control is gonna know if you miscalculate.

I think a large part of this story is the guilty pleasure we all get in knowing that someone who is supposedly infinitely smarter and infinitely better paid has the same level of self-control as the average assistant manager of the local Blockbuster. I mean, yeah, occasionally you’ll have the crazy jilted girlfriend driving around in diapers armed with pepper spray, and, I guess, you’ll run into rocket scientists whose current success ratio with manned spacecraft actually touching ground without exploding and killing all those aboard is become precariously close to the single digits, but NASA astronauts have an otherwise sober reputation as fearless heroes able to convert science and daring into lucrative senatorial careers.

And c’mon. You think all those cosmonauts were sober as judges when they climbed on board the Russkie Space Special? Hell, the only thing that sobers up a Soviet is being sent to the front. Plus, their alphabet is already backwards, so there are few effective sobriety tests available for them. And they all seemed to make it back OK, although to be fair there wasn’t much of an incentive to come back.

A greater threat to the NASA program, however, are rumors of sabotage. The Linda Nowak debacle from a few months ago whipped the doors of NASA wide open, allowing us to see that astronauts were just as jealous and batshit crazy as the rest of us. And sure enough, there is evidence that computers destined for the International Space Station were tampered with by a subcontractor. There hasn’t been any details released about this yet, so one can only guess. My guesses will be that it involves, at the very least, disgruntled Air Force pilots, South Asian hackers, or the French.

Of course, all this bad news comes just as NASA was planning for another launch, this time to Mars. It was business as usual at NASA headquarters, which I can only assume involves Jell-O shots and a round of Beirut. The launch seemed to go without a hitch, though it did appear for a while there like they were going 5 mph with the headlights turned off.

Most likely, all this will blow over fairly soon. Most people realize that the actions of a half dozen astronauts aren’t necessarily an effective representation of the organization as a whole. But most astronauts now are going to have to watch themselves, since the appearance of impropriety may be an impediment to their only change to leave this world. Remember, in space, no one can take your keys.

To Bee or Not To Bee

June 15, 2007

Ha ha! So damn clever, I am, with that title. Unfortunately, the wily bee is not so clever. Bees are disappearing without reason, and it could spell trouble for the honey, nature documentary, and elaborately planned homicide industries.

It’s not all bees that are disappearing; it’s only the European honey bee, which, obviously, is mostly doing its disappearing in North America. They’re suffering from something called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” which sounds like something Hernan Cortez was diagnosed with when he pranced into Tenochtitlan, found that they considered him to be the Savior, and felt rather alarmingly uninitiated to contradict them. Bees by the thousands are simply disappearing, either dying in what is most likely a rather disgusting pile of insect corpses, or flying off to parts unknown never to return, perhaps to desolate places such as Siberia or a Cuban health clinic.

People tend to have a love-hate relationship with bees. Mostly, it’s hate, though. The only positive things that come about for bees are when they’re trying to sell us cereal or nasal decongestant. People hate bees because they build nests in inappropriate places, they hurt like the dickens when you step on them in cheap flip-flops, and they make your girlfriend squeal and jump around like a broken wind-up toy from a Happy Meal when even the mere suggestion that a bee is present is disclosed to her. Actually, that last one is a benefit, not a drawback, especially if she’s wearing a tank top, but you get the idea.

I remember when I was a child I was scared of the Killer Bees, a menace to America so fraught with portent that they must be capitalized. I received the awful news from the most trusted of sources—the network TV movie. One of the channels, in a fit of one part “educating the public” and six parts “we want to show something with bees in it” wrote, filmed, produced, and aired a particularly disturbing movie about how Killer Bees were going to invade America from Mexico (or perhaps Chile or Nepal—it doesn’t really matter) and KILL US ALL with their poison stingers and the lackadaisical attitude towards watching our cholesterol. This instilled in me a fear of bees in general, and I waited patiently for the Coming Storm when the skies would blacken from the wings of the Infinite Swarm, stinging me and my family to a painful and possibly fatal death. I even remember devoting an unfortunate amount of time of my childhood developing, with a mechanical pencil on graph paper stolen from school, the perfect anti-Killer Bee house with plenty of places to hide, somehow impenetrable from bees the size of dimes, and an elaborate schematic of pipes from which fountains of Ultra-Strength Raid could be dispensed to negate the oncoming slaughter. I should have been hooking up with that cute brunette who sat behind me in Study Hall, but instead I was making the world’s most elaborate Anti-Bee House.

I know better now, of course. The best way to get rid of bees is to pour gasoline in their hive and throw a match on it. By the way, any one of you can nominate me for the ASPCA Humanitarian Award any day now.

Lost in all this scary bee talk is that fact that bees help us. And they don’t just help us by getting us out of mowing the lawn. For one thing, they aid in the pollinating of flowers, which is required for…something. I don’t recall, because I spent most of my elementary school biology class designing a freakin’ Anti-Bee house. But I’m reliably informed that it is necessary in the diversification of a healthy biosphere, or some nonsense like that, but apparently what it boils down to is that if bees don’t pollinate, almonds will be about eight bucks an ounce. And that’s just tragic.

From my own personal observation, the main benefit of the bee shortage is the emergence of the humble bumblebee. (Yes, I had to use that adjective.) I love bumblebees; even though they’re just as painful to step on, or accidentally inhale when you yawn while riding the lawn mower you couldn’t get out of using, they’re just so comically friendly. Or, rather, they seem friendly; they hover about, the Koob of the colony, slowly lumbering about (yes, I had to use that verb) looking for a place to sit down and lick the flower bits they’ve collected off of their weird-looking knees. And, yes, those would be the bee’s knees.

Alas, all this talk of the great bee disappearance is probably bunk. Most beeologists assure everyone that sudden decreases in bee population are rather cyclical, probably because beekeepers’ sons aren’t a dutiful to the bee industry as their fathers were. (I’m assuming fathers, here, since I highly doubt too many women act as beekeepers, unless beekeeping involves jumping up and squealing most of the time.) And bees will rebound in no time, no doubt bringing the price of honey down to a more manageable level so the four or five people in the world who actually eat honey on a regular basis can sleep easy at night. At least they don’t have to worry about Killer Bees.

This Space For Rent

April 26, 2007

Recently, there’s been some startling news from the astronomy world. It’s been announced that a planet capable of sustaining life has been discovered outside of our own solar system. This, of course, opens up all kinds of incredibly important scientific and social opportunities, especially those involved with the real estate market.

Granted, of course, this news is part of the ongoing and never-ending battle between journalists eying up a juicy story and experts trying to do their best to cautiously downplay expectations. In this case, it’s the same story being reported as either “A probability has maybe arisen that a planet has perhaps been found that is likely to be able to possibly sustain some form of potential life, perchance, at some point in the undetermined future” or “Green men photographed landing in the Yucatan, enjoying box seats at Yankee Stadium.”

The first acknowledgment to be tagged a hospitable planet is the presence of water, since water is a signal of life, something proven by the cultural significance and population surrounding the Ganges river, but then equally excepted by Lake Erie. Other indicators of life include the presence of an adequately bright star to revolve around and at least one major media market. Such planets are difficult to come by, since most are bloated gaseous bodies that just stopped caring after they got married.

Though, of course, the scientists are trying their hardest to downplay any undue excitement. It’s not like we’ve gotten canceled postmarks from the place yet or anything. And many astronomers are at pains to point out that their definition of a hospitable planet includes Mars, a planet not known for being a predominantly welcoming place, what with the only people who would conceivably want to go there are those that want to have the universe’s best off-season travel expenses, followed by the universe’s quickest death by asphyxiation.

Most people tend to forget that these heavenly bodies have starkly different attributes than our own. This new planet, for instance, orbits its sun every 13 days, meaning that there would be 28 seasons of American Idol for every one season we have to put up with here. Its star is part of Libra, the least imaginative of the zodiac (“Hey, I’m a mighty hunter.” “Hey, I’m a ferocious lion.” “Hey, I am used to determine the heft of an object in accordance with a table of standard weights and measures and also am the abstract representation of justice.” “Uh…yeah. Hey, Sag, let’s go buy that virgin over there some Jaeger shots.”) And our weight would be much larger; the planet’s gravity is about one and a half times stronger, meaning that no woman would ever set foot on this planet at any time, ever, unless she is in a situation where she simultaneously gets married and also never has to interact with another female ever again.

Think of it, though! A planet full of teeming possibilities! A billion new customers without worry from protectionist interference by the United Auto Workers! Or, if there’s no one’s home, a placid meadow of economic growth and material wealth! It’s something that can be almost universally anticipated by everyone. The religious have new souls to convert and new heretical branches to found; the environmentalists have a whole new planet to cry themselves to sleep about; industrialists have a whole new set of mountain ranges to crack open and scoop the contents out of; scientists have a whole new set of funding to tap so they don’t have to beat the global warming horse around anymore; science fiction writers have an entirely new genre to flog to death and eventually discard in the dustbin of Millennium Falcons and appropriately hyphenated Middle-Earths; and politicians have an entirely new society to find new and inventively creative ways to take a symbolic (or perhaps not) massive dump all over.

The parallels to the Age of Exploration are hard to pass up mentioning. Like centuries ago, there’s a level of excitement that, after hundreds of years of armchair imagination, slow, occasional drips of unverifiable yet illuminating information, and the distant, lustful wishes of newfound wealth and fame, finally came to fruition. Advances in navigation made it less likely that ships would become unceremoniously lost or sailors would die horrible deaths by drowning, mutinous violence, scurvy, or, alas, most likely, gonorrhea, inventions such as the carrack, the lime, and Puritanism made long-term voyages possible. Today, satellites, stellar probes, high-powered telescopes, and the congressional delegation of Texas have all made space exploration more of a reality than one mediocre episode in a dated anthology.

The flip side of the celestial coin, of course, is if we can’t inhabit this new Earth—it’s already taken. The chance of extraterrestrial life this close to our house is pretty small—you’d think we would have heard a minor league hockey game on the wi-fi or something by this time—but there’s always that infinitesimally small chance that we might meet up with someone or something. Chances are, it will be some walking fish or furry rodent-thing, just another item on the Dollar Value Menu. But there’s also the chance they have gained sentience and progressed as a civilization, building a complex world of social contracts, scientific advances, and fantasy sports leagues. But somehow, I doubt it. A civilization such as ours that has developed to the point where there is an evolutionary need for a cheeseburger pizza, well…I suspect they’re going to get to us first.

The “Only Me” Generation

March 2, 2007

Occasionally, we are treated to a piece of news from the scientific community that makes us feel just ever so slightly better about ourselves, not because of our own betterment, but because it makes someone else look even worse than ourselves. A concept that is so obvious in its existence and acknowledged by society at large is validated by the highly anticipated scientific study, and experts from all sides fall over themselves to comment their enthusiastic agreement. In this case, experts are falling over themselves about people who fall all over themselves.

A new study finds that many college-age students have become increasingly narcissistic in their worldview, believing that much of the accomplishments in their life are due to their own innate abilities rather than the happy accident of mundane existence that most of us encounter with heady dissatisfaction. College-age people today apparently go through life as if beating your ten-year-old nephew at beer pong is the cultural equivalent of D-Day.

This can hardly be surprising. There is apparently something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (the developer of which no doubt is a pantsload of fun on blind dates) that tracks how important people feel they are. It has been on a meteoric rise lately, reflecting a general trend of self-centeredness. This, of course, is a great scientific finding, in that it displays a fundamental shift in psychological thinking about interpersonal relationships.

By which of course I mean there is no change at all. Having the oldest people in the room call everyone who has ever been young a bunch of self-centered jacklegs is not exactly the Bolivarian revolution or anything. Calling college punks egotistical is one a few steps away from having fourteen cats and complaining to pretty grocery store clerks about how they just keep on changing how money looks back and forth and you just don’t know what’s what anymore.

The survey that determines this ranking asks the recipients a series of questions that hopefully peg their level of conceitedness. It asks rather standard questions, from “Do you believe you deserve all the good fortune that comes to you?” to the more telling “If you controlled the world, would you make the production and airing of those Safe Auto commercials a crime?” and “Are you the father of Anna Nicole’s baby?”

Most researchers attribute it to the incredible increase of self-esteem programs in the past few decades, such as getting schoolchildren to chant in unison “I am different!” and making them sing songs of empowerment, such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb, But If She Was As Good As Me She Would Own The Entire Flock” and “The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round For Those Not As Rich As Me To Own A Lexus.” Even in high school, teachers are encouraged (presumably because parents cannot) to advise their students that everyone is special, a statistical impossibility that only exists within the confines of the guidance counselor’s office.

The cult of self-importance has its occasional anecdotal evidence everywhere. New York City has recently toyed with the idea of banning iPods, cell phones, and other distracting devices for pedestrians crossing the street. Apparently, it’s become an issue where people are so involved in their own little world that they fail to see a large yellow cab the size of most middle-aged bears moving roughly the speed of a Patriot missile come towards them. To me, it’s a case of to the victor goes the spoils, but there are a few bleeding hearts out there, mostly insurance actuaries, who object, so I guess I’ll have to take the untenable position of opposing hit-and-runs on selfish technophiles.

The meteoric rise in popularity of euphemistically detailed “social networking” sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, that allow users to create electronic shrines devoted to themselves. This should be a humbling pursuit for many, but it seems slightly creepy that most people tend to be proud to proclaim that the single greatest cultural achivement of Western culture in the last century is manifested in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.

What the really interesting part of all this is that most of the people involved in the study and the reporting of its findings are largely from the Baby Boomber generation. This is the generation that upon given the same things as the generation did before them (an economy waiting to explode, a universal culture waiting to be exploited, a war in southeast Asia) and managed to turn them into vanity projects of their own (A Social Security pyramid scheme, Wavy Gravy, and Platoon, respectively). They at least can blame most of this on their parents, who bought by truckloads a Scouting manual on child care written by one Dr. Spock, who imparted such parental guidelines as “Give your children everything they want, for any reason whatsoever” and “Never object to anything your child does that detracts from themselves in the slightest bit, including but not limited to most forms of manslaughter.” In response, many iconic members of the generation grew up with a misallocated sense of entitlement, engaging in a relatively libertine lifestyle, avoiding the consequences, and then reaping what they sowed by either becoming President or initiating a study as to how much worse the next generation is, both of which accomplish the task of engaging in self-indulgence while simultaneously deflecting blame onto others, either in the form of college-age freeloaders or Scooter Libby.

Still, you can’t really blame today’s young adults for feeling how they do. When the world comes crashing down and they’re the ones that have to deal with it, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And how could you ever be more important than that?

…One Giant Leap For Moonbat Crazy Women

February 6, 2007

Money. Sex. Love Betrayed. Extramarital affairs. Astronautical engineering.

The story of US Navy Captain Lisa Nowak is somewhat sad, though that certainly does not preclude us from laughing at her. A successful astronaut, Nowak has rapidly descended from well-respected scientist to accused attempted murderer, a public disgrace unmatched since every comment about every quarterback on every losing team for every Super Bowl game ever played.

Society expects those people who have attained a rather remarkable amount of specialized talent, such as physics, calculus, or TiVo, to also have a certain level of common sense. Occasional classroom massacres aside, those kids who broke the curve on that bear of a trig test in tenth grade tended to be quiet and not prone to second degree assault against imaginary rivals for their love interest, at least outside of the context of the latest EverQuest campaign. Yet when something like what happened to Nowak occurs, we begin to doubt our own selves…if a NASA scientist can go crazy on someone when she’s on the rag, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Nowak was charged a few days ago with attempted murder. She found out that a fellow trainee was pursuing a relationship with a NASA engineer, and, being the jealous type, decided to drive from Houston to Orlando to confront the other woman. Apparently, however, the logistics of love triangles aren’t in the NASA entrance exam, since by her own admission she had no type of relationship beyond professional with the man involved. This made the triangle a bit more like a straight line with an unwanted and uninvited dot somewhere on I-10. Though, really, I think it would be hard to tell. One can only imagine how NASA scientists hit on each other.

Engineer: Station, we seem to have some kind of interference. I can’t seem to get a clear signal from you.
Lab Assistant: Responding. What are your chances of success?
Engineer: There appears to be a 79% chance of me getting to first base with you tonight if I can grab a case of Kendall-Jackson. What’s your status?
Lab Assistant: Affirmative.

After assaulting the Kind Of But Not Really Other Woman, Nowak was found with an alarmingly varied set of tools. The police found a trench coat and black wig (the refuge of those whose only exposure to espionage is by watching old Pink Panther cartoons), a BB gun (apparently in case she needed to really, really cause a sharp, irritating pain to someone at the point of attack), a 4-inch buck knife she no doubt borrowed off of any 9-year-old boy from anywhere in the world, a brand new steel mallet, black gloves, rubber tubing, pepper spray, and (of course) a bag of diapers. Most people seem to have been puzzled by the diapers (when I find out that a woman has procured any item from the personal hygiene aisle, I immediately stop asking questions) but I, personally, am more puzzled by the steel mallet and rubber tubing. Was this some half-remembered dream from her glory days as a gold medal winner at the Olympics of the Mind? Is this some third-rate Apprentice task with no known goal? Is there some NASA fraternity we’re all better off not knowing about?

Physicist: OK, if you want to join, you have to find a way to assault your imaginary friend’s imaginary lover with nothing more than a steel mallet, rubber tubing, and one hunting accessory of your choice.
Nowak: Can I bring diapers?
Physicist: That’s it. You’re out.

Before this unfortunate incident, Nowak was a reasonably experienced astronaut. She has been in orbit, making one trip to the International Space Station in 2006. In retrospect, it should have been obvious then as it is now how foolishly insane she was when she demanded to make interstratospherical phone calls to her husband every three hours to “see who picks up”. (Several profiles seem to make a point that Nowak is the “first Italian-American to be in space,” apparently there being a heretofore untold story of discrimination against Italians in the space program. Otherwise, it seems a designation that is about as remarkable as, say, being the first Irish-American to do his taxes, or the first WASP to wear sneakers.)

Alas, for Nowak, the vagaries of the criminal justice system are not looking kindly towards her. She was originally charged simply with kidnapping, intended assault with random hardware store appliances apparently not a crime in the state of Florida (though, with the track record in Dade County and Palm Beach, there apparently aren’t many things that are classified as a crime in Florida). After finding the gun and establishing that she paid everything with cash, though, it was determined to be attempted murder, a much worse crime than kidnapping by any standards outside of Singapore.

Still if there is any redeeming value out of the entire sorry episode, it’s a small parable that we can find somewhat comforting: it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a crazy bitch.