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.