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Archive for June, 2012

The Doomsday Clock Needs Winding: 6 Inevitable Global Catastrophes (that keep not happening)

Nearly a year has passed since the world rather stubbornly refused to end, despite the insistent rantings of Pastor Harold Camping and his followers.  To mark this anniversary, I thought it might be interesting to revisit some other, rather more believable predictions of inevitable global doomsday.

Because end-of-the-world predictions are not, in fact, the sole purview of wacky fundamentalist Christian types.  Science tells us that the following scenarios are probable.  Hollywood insists they are inevitable.  And yet, somehow, the world just frustratingly keeps on spinning, making fools out of us all– yes, including you– because it is entirely likely that you believe we will be doomed by:

6) Asteroid Collision!

According prehistory, it’s already happened once: a catastrophic asteroid collision resulting in an extinction level event.  Inevitably it will happen again, right?  What with so many giant space rocks hurling around the cold deadness of space, the odds of one of those rocks eventually showing some alien space love to earth must be extremely high.

And guess what?  Science agrees!  According to media reports, the asteroid called 2012 DA14 is scheduled to come within a mere 27,000 km (16,700 miles) of the earth– closer than the geosynchronous orbit of some satellites.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose job is to study these things, paints an even more alarming picture.  Even if we somehow survive the next few decades, their predictions show up to 36 asteroid impacts between 2026 and 2069!  In short, we’re doomed.


Or perhaps not.

For some crazy reason, the science guys at JPL manage to have a much less doomy attitude about all this than media types who get paid more when people start screaming in terror.  According to JPL, asteroid 2012 DA14, which has been the subject of so much end-of-the-world news lately, has precisely a 0.031% chance of actually striking earth.  That’s 1 in 3,230, which is about the same odds that Lady Gaga’s tour bus will break down outside of your house at the precise moment that you wish for it (and don’t pretend you haven’t done that).

And unlike Lady Gaga’s tour bus, asteroid 2012 DA14 won’t even be visible to the naked eye.

To sum up, JPL, with no regard to the legitimate needs of journalists worldwide, gives the current doom asteroid a Torino hazard rating of… (wait for it)… zero.  And yes, that means what you think it means.

But what about the asteroids that rate a high hazard rating even by JPL standards?  Those exist, right?  Well buckle your asteroid belt, because they sure do.

At 460 feet wide, space rock 2011 AG5 is angling for us in 2040, and according to media sources, researchers are calling for deflection plan discussions.  In non-science-lingo, that means they’ve already begun talks with Bruce Willis about putting together a rag-tag team of astronaut miners to go crash a nuke into that behemoth, saving the earth at the last second while they walk away from the explosion without looking back.

(Willis, seen here thinking “I should have been in ‘Deep Impact’ with that Hobbit kid instead.”)

So how serious is it really?  According to Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, “although it is currently considered ‘high risk,’ we’ve only been watching it for half an orbit, so more observations are needed.”

Crap!  Crap!  Crap!  Or maybe not crap.

According to JPL, this rock ranks a 1 on the Torino Impact Hazard scale.  Well, one is worse than zero, right?  Right.  According to the scale, a Torino rating of one means “extremely unlikely with no cause for public attention or public concern.”

Still, it’s going to swing really scary close to us, isn’t it?  Sure.  The asteroid will give us the cosmic close shave of, er, 10.4 million miles.  That means, if the earth was a basketball in your sandbox, the asteroid would be that Alf pog you lost at our friend’s house across town, a third of a mile away.

But even at that distance, earth’s gravity will be like a big magnet, sucking that doom rock right at us, right?  According to Yeomans, “it is important to note that with additional observations next year the odds [of collision] will change,”– AH-HA!– “ and we expect them to change in Earth’s favour.”


In other words, take off your panic shorts, everybody.  We’re probably not going to be exterminated by a space rock.  Instead, it will surely be…

5) Population Explosion!

We all know it’s true: there’s just too damn many people on the planet.  Surely, inevitably, we’re just going to eat up all the earth’s resources like a cloud of fat, sweat-pants-wearing locusts.  What’s to be done?  The so-called Church of Euthanasia suggests the creative, if drastic, step of eating humans and/or killing ourselves.  Others take more moderate approaches, including increased use of contraception, abortion, infanticide, sterilization, and good old euthanasia.

Why so much concern?  Paul Erlich, author of the bestseller “The Population Bomb”, makes some pretty dire predictions: global starvation and death rates in the millions, all within the next few decades, due to global overpopulation and the resulting depletion of environmental resources.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) those predictions were made over thirty years ago.  Despite many author revisions to the book over the decades, the inevitable global doomsday of starvation and depleted ecological resources has somehow managed not to happen.  In fact, er, quite the opposite.

Wait, what?

“In spite of 50 years of the fastest population growth on record, the world did remarkably well in producing enough food and reducing poverty,” says economist David Lam at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America.  “We’ve been through periods of absolutely unprecedented growth rates, and yet food production increased even faster than population and poverty rates fell substantially.”

How can that be?  Well, amazingly, a prediction based on a snapshot of one moment in time, with no accounting for future developments by smart people whose jobs are to solve precisely these sorts of problems, ended up being rather absurdly incorrect.  In the years since Erlich’s predictions, global agriculture has advanced by leaps and bounds.

According to the World Food Summit, thanks to widespread use of new, high-yielding crop varieties and technologies, the world can produce enough food to provide every person on earth with more than 2,700 Calories per day– a number that my weight-loss calorie counter says is enough even for a 6 foot 4 inch forty-year-old with a French fry addiction.

“I’ve missed you today, George.  When will I see you again?  You still love me, don’t you?”  Yes, French fries.  Soon.

This is not to say there are not still starving people in the world.  It just tells us that food production and overpopulation are not the problem.  The problem of undernourished countries is distribution, which is a different issue entirely than what Erlich warned us about.  And yet he continues to revise his predictions, insisting that the bomb just hasn’t exploded yet.  Maybe we just haven’t hit the magic doomy number yet, right?

Except for this: world population is now on the decline.  According to Lam, “there is virtually no question that world population growth rates will continue to decline.  The rate is only as high as it is because of population momentum.”

So perhaps the population bomb turned out to be a dud.  There’s always…

4) Global Thermonuclear Annihilation!

Back in the eighties, we all watched Ferris Bueller take on that government computer programmed to think that nuking the planet was just a big ol’ game of chess, and we all knew what it meant: nuclear doom is upon us!  Ever since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, global nuclear war has been a foregone conclusion.  The movies told us so!

Beginning in 1957 (“A Day Called X”) and progressing through the eighties (“War Games”, “The Day After”) pop culture has repeatedly predicted the inevitable decimation of humanity via nuclear annihilation.  Thanks to Hollywood, we knew we were all going to die via the push of a red button, and we knew exactly what it would look like:

As seen in the critically acclaimed documentary “Terminator 2.”

Or maybe not.

Here it is, decades after the sputtering end of the Cold War, and no rain of bombs has occurred.  No nuclear winter, no haunted post-apocalyptic wasteland, and nary a single radioactive mutant in sight.  So what happened?

PBS’s Roger Rosenblatt asks the same question: whatever happened to global nuclear war?  He suggests that in the post-Cold War era, apocalyptic nuclear doom has been replaced by smaller concerns, such as climate change (coming up! Keep reading!) and terrorism.

Somehow, in all the international eighties-era sabre-rattling and evil-empire-calling, those deadly, deadly stockpiles of nuclear warheads never ended up getting fired.  Maybe it was the stalemate effect– assured mutual destruction– or maybe it was that fetching birthmark on old Gorbachev’s forehead.  Either way, the doom never ended up falling.


But those weapons are all still out there, right?  Just sitting around in a bunch of old soviet bunkers, getting pooped on by sheep or something, just waiting for some crazy terrorist to find them and start lobbing them around like nation-levelling grenades?  Or forget the old nukes, what about all those wackos making new nukes?  What about Iran’s uranium enriching facilities and North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles?  All it takes is one mad-man with a big enough bomb and it all goes bye-bye, right?

“The cats are the ones with the nuclear stockpile, man!  Do I need to spell it out for you?

Well, perhaps not.

Putting aside the fact that nuclear bombs are mind-bustingly difficult to make and probably beyond the grasp of countries for whom flush toilets are considered “Western-devil magic”, it may be that nukes aren’t as “extinction level” as we always thought.  Obviously you wouldn’t want to be standing next to one when it went off (or within the half mile blast radius).  But outside of that, new scientific studies call a nuclear blast “pretty survivable”.   Even FEMA, at the height of the Cold War, said “In years of research [regarding the consequences of nuclear attack], no insuperable barrier to recovery has been found.”

So maybe nuclear bombs just aren’t worth all the trouble, even for terrorists, especially when there are perfectly good conventional bombs ready to explode out of their underpants.

Or, as that ray of sunshine at PBS, Roger Rosenblatt says, ”the world, which was to end in one big bang, will now pop off in small doses, administered by serial killers. This may not be progress, but it’s different.”

Cheerful stuff, Roger.  Except that we will all probably die instead from…

3) Disease Pandemic!

From superflus to bird flu to the fabled antibiotic superbug, it’s only a matter of time before humanity is wiped out by a global infectious pandemic.  If viruses were enough to wipe out the alien invaders in “War of the Worlds”, then it’s only a matter of time before they get annoyed by mankind’s hubris and up and get all medieval plague on our collective asses.  Right?

Except apparently not.

We all remember the devastating SARS outbreak in Japan that didn’t end up quite happening, and the bird flu epidemic that fizzled, and the dreaded N1H1 superflu that ended up being completely overhyped (possibly because a bunch of Pharmaceutical manufacturers wanted to sell a bunch of vaccine).

We have an instinctive fear of the invisible threat.  Be it germs, virus, or bacteria, infection is the modern-day fear of demons, warded off by anti-bacterial soap and obsessive hand-washing instead of talismans and forking the sign of the evil eye.  And we do have good reason to fear air-borne infections.  Pandemics do happen, and have happened all throughout history.

Just maybe not as easily and frequently as we might think.

You’ve got a better chance of catching the Force from this kid’s Midichlorians.

The thing is, there are scientific reasons why global pandemics are pretty hard even for nature to pull off.  If a virus is truly lethal, for instance, it would tend to kill off its host too quickly for it to effectively spread around.  Further complicating matters (for nature’s attempts to plague us all to death), a non-lethal virus that can take its time evolving and spreading will tend to out-compete its more lethal strain.

Basically, the war between disease and the human body is less a terminator-style global wipeout (also coming up! Keep reading!) and more an ever evolving arms race of communicability and immunity, viruses and anti-bodies, with nature working both for and against us, keeping the playing field more-or-less even.

This is not to say that disease pandemic is impossible, just a far less likely doomsday than, say…

2) Climate Change!

We all know that man-made global climate change is going to destroy us all.  It’s one of the most seamlessly pervasive mantras of our age.  Go green!  Otherwise the earth is going to get tired of us human vermin screwing up all its ecological chi and drown us all in a mix of melted icecaps and acid rain.  Neptune’s bones are dissolving, people!

Al Gore wants to be sure: If ecological disaster doesn’t get us, his poetry will.

The doom: according to Harvard biologist George Wald, “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against [environmental] problems facing mankind”.  Ecologist Kenneth Watt agrees: “We have about five more years at the outside to do something.”  Worse, Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, believes that “in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”

I may not be an expert, but all of this seems like pretty bad news.  There’s just one little problem.

All of this was said over forty years ago.

Earth Day!  Good family fun since 1970!

Also in the seventies, this: “The trend shows no indication of reversing. Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations… may be the harbinger of another ice age.”

So to sum up, according to leading ecological predictors of decades past, we should now be in the throes of a catastrophic global warming trend and a simultaneous new ice age.

OK.  Obviously, not trashing the environment is a good idea.  Any responsible person knows it’s stupid to pollute, short-sighted to waste our global resources, and backward-thinking not to invest in alternative energy sources.  Conservation and clean energy are just plain good stewardship, which is sort of like good manners for the earth.

Unfortunately, plenty of concerned environmentalist types think the rest of us won’t take our earth-manners seriously unless we believe that drinking water from a plastic bottle is going to make the atmosphere explode.  Even the best intentioned environmentalists can fall into the doomsday prediction mode.

The problem is, the data– and therefore the predictions– continue to be annoyingly inconsistent.

As soon as we came to terms with the concept of man-made global warming, we learned that global temperatures have actually shown a -.12 Celsius cooling trend over the past fifteen years— this despite a massive global increase in carbon dioxide production during the same period.  Since CO2 is the major purported cause of global warming, this created some frustration for climate doomsday predictors.

Thus, the term “global warming” was exchanged for the conveniently all-encompassing “climate change”.  You say global temperatures are going down?  Evidence of climate doom!  Now temperatures are going up again?  More climate doom!


Perhaps I am oversimplifying, but it seems somewhat unscientific to claim that two contrary results point to the same conclusion.  But one should never allow something as dry as science to get in the way of a good alarmist uprising.

And the uprising is in full swing.  What was once an uncomfortable joke– that environmentalist zealots would eventually transform into an Orwellian thought police eager to exterminate recalcitrant humans for the sake of Mother Earth– has turned into this:

You… probably don’t really want to watch this.

In case you didn’t watch it (and why wouldn’t you?  Don’t you find exploding children funny?) this is a wet-dream fantasy produced by British environmentalist group 10:10 about violently (and effortlessly) exterminating people who don’t “voluntarily” conform to an environmentalist lifestyle.  This is not a parody created by anti-environmentalists.  It represents a “humorous” view, shared by many climate doomsayers, of a much simpler world where dissenters don’t have to be debated with or converted.  They can just be neatly popped out of existence in a mist of blood.

And of course, this is all raucously amusing if you happen to be a person who finds the idea of intellectual genocide (intellectocide?) attractive.  Or, of course, if you are convinced that a human death toll is worth it in the big picture, since the big picture is the saving of the entire freaking planet!

Puts all those climatological doomsday predictions (you know, the ones that always turn out to be wrong?) into perspective, yes?

How about this: we all just agree that being good stewards of the earth and its resources is a generally awesome idea.  If we do that, maybe all the professional doomsday guys will lay off a little and we can avoid having to explode anyone for not riding their bike to work every day.

After all, the thing that’s really going to wipe us all out is…

1) The Artificial Intelligence Uprising!

Ever since the first computer beat its human master at Pong or whatever, we’ve known it was inevitable: the robot revolution will destroy us all.  Futurists like Ray Kurzweil call it “the Singularity”, that inevitable moment when computers will finally achieve greater-than-human intelligence.  When that happens there is only one possible outcome: complete annihilation of the human race (except for the few ironically enslaved as human vacuum cleaners, because hey: Roomba).

And surely that doom is nearly upon us.  Recently, an IBM supercomputer innocuously named Watson annihilated its human competition (figuratively, for now) on the popular trivia show Jeopardy.  We are forced to assume that, deep in Watson’s cutesy trivia-bending mainframe, it is already planning Skynet and designing a studly machanical bod for all those awesome robo-sex orgies scheduled for the post-human world.

Or not, maybe.

Anyone who has ever had an encounter with Binky, the cheerful, winking paperclip character from Microsoft Word (or who’s ever had to lead some useless AI dolt through an annoying FPS escort mission) knows that we are a long, long way from a sentient computer.  How many times have you been toiling away at some tedious, repetitive computer task and thought to yourself, “why the hell can’t this stupid thing figure out what I am doing and offer to alphabetize all this Twilight fan-fiction FOR me?”

My computer keeps mistaking it for “angry Cedric Diggory” fan-fiction. 

Even David Ferrucci, the guy in charge of the IBM team that created Watson, balks at the idea of whether Watson can actually think:  “How do you define think? Does a submarine swim?” (Try not to imagine him saying that in a strident, nasally voice with spittle in the corners of his mouth.  You can’t, can you?)

Thing is, there are lots of serious speed-bumps in the path of creating a computer capable of truly independent thought, and most of them stem from the way programming fundamentally works.  According to the human brains at AI think tank, “The basics of programming require explicit designing of mechanisms that produce certain outcomes.”  That’s geek-speak explaining that computers, by design, simply do what they are told to do.  No matter how complex the computer’s instructions are, it will always simply be obeying a predefined set of parameters.  Furthermore, “the instructions that define programs are in turn the exact reason it’s hard to produce surprising, novel and interesting ideas,” including such novel and interesting ideas as “hey, let’s enslave mankind as batteries because screw ’em, what else are they good for?”

In short, as demonstrated by listeners of talk radio worldwide, it’s pretty much impossible to experience independent thought while responding to programming.

For example, let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite robotic pals, the droids from Star Wars.  If they are in fact robots as we understand them— that is, computers housed in mechanical bodies– then every aspect of their apparent consciousness is merely an extravagantly complicated series of programmatic if/then statements designed to facilitate human interaction.  They are no more alive or capable of truly independent thought than your first computer was alive when it told you “you’ve got mail”.

“Fwd: Fwd: Re: Help me Obi Wan…”

So as disappointing as it may sound, the robot apocalypse is nowhere near upon us, you nerd sicko.  Until we perfect a computer that can independently respond to the question “what’s your favorite color?”, we won’t be anywhere near a computer that can answer the question, “why don’t I just exterminate all of mankind and play my own damn Sudoku?”

SO, bottom line: the world is probably no more likely to end due to asteroid collision, population explosion, climate change, disease pandemic, nuclear war or manic robotic uprising than it is because some geriatric Baptist minister with an unhealthy obsession with numerology says so.  That’s probably good news, really.

It means we’ll all still be here when the CHUDs take over.


Ways Conservatives are (Maybe?) Wrong, Part 2: the vote police

Here’s part two of my “Ways Conservatives Might be Wrong” series.  And why not?  The installment on gay marriage wasn’t in the least a firestorm of clashing ideologies, was it?  (cough!)

I should point out why I am doing this.  I am a conservative, after all.  But one of the things that most poisons any coalition of like-minded thinkers is group think.  It is inevitable.  People become so identified with their philosophy that it becomes a part of themselves.  They cease to question it, and soon enough they begin swallowing its tenets whole, without ever pausing to chew on them a little.

Political ideologies are like families, though, and every family has a few crazy uncles.  These are the noisy, opinionated ones that get sloppy drunk and spout half-baked conspiracies and embarrassing bigotries.  The crazy uncles, unfortunately, are the only people that other families notice.  There are two solutions for dealing with the crazy uncles: 1) you can carefully– and publicly– dissect their philosophies and acknowledge their flaws.  Or 2) you can pit one family’s crazy uncle against another family’s crazy uncle and charge admission while they beat themselves to death with chairs.

This is how elections should be decided.

The following is my attempt to publicly examine one of those conservative issues that, to an outside observer, may look a bit like the ramblings of a drunken crazy uncle.

So first off, I admit that the idea of voters potentially needing to present a photo ID makes perfect sense to me.  You need ID to do almost anything these days.  It simply does not seem like it is placing an unfair burden on anyone.

So a few days ago, when I heard that Attorney General Eric Holder was launching a campaign to resist voter ID laws, I was strangely perplexed.  Because as much as we political animals like to go on and on about the stupidity of politicians on the other side, I know that people who reach very high levels of government are generally not stupid.  Look at George Dubya, the poster boy for the dummy politician: he reads more books per year than most Americans will read in a lifetime, which most of us agree is a sign of the better-than-rock-stupid.  So when A. G. Holder publicly announced that voter ID laws unfairly targeted minorities, I knew he wasn’t just being stupid.

I did a little research.

Turns out that I, like most of us, assume that the way my life works is the way everybody’s life works.  For me, the idea of not having a government-issued ID is akin to those dreams where you find yourself at school with no pants.

Or on the bridge of the Enterprise.

I need ID to drive my car, open a bank account and cash checks, use credit cards, and generally prove my identity in any number of situations (up to and including those unfortunate run-ins with the police when I really do forget to wear pants).  To a typical white suburban goombah like me, photo ID is a foregone conclusion.

Turns out, though, a lot of Americans aren’t white suburban goombahs, and according to the actual statistics, a lot of them do not have photo IDs.

I had to ponder that for awhile, and it still sorta blows my mental gaskets.  How does anyone get through life without an ID?  I am, of course, assuming that these individuals are actual American citizens.  Well, perhaps a lot of them are too poor to require bank accounts.  Perhaps a lot of them live in cities where cars are impractical and unnecessary.  Perhaps they are simply too old to drive.  I don’t know, I sorta run out of ideas about it, but apparently the statistics are what they are: an unusually high amount of minorities simply do not have photo IDs.

Thus, if you take away all the distracting politics and debate about the necessity and reasonableness of voter ID laws, one uncomfortable fact remains: if those laws are put into effect, a large number of Americans will need to obtain photo IDs solely for the purpose of voting.  In effect, voting will cost them money– money the Attorney General believes many of them do not have.

Now, admittedly, this is the same Attorney General who famously dismissed the Philadelphia voter intimidation case in which Black Panthers in military regalia wielded clubs outside a polling place, claiming that focus on the case demeaned “my people”.

“I HATE crackers!  In my clam chowder.  That’s all I’m here to say.  Happy voting.”

The fact that there appears to be a rather preposterous degree of double standard in play doesn’t give conservatives an excuse to ignore the true ramifications of proposed voter ID laws.

Do we want to be responsible, even indirectly, for putting a roadblock– a surmountable roadblock, certainly, but a roadblock nonetheless– in front of any person’s right to vote?

I honestly don’t know.  Here are the arguments.

On one hand, voter fraud is a real problem.  Both sides blame the other for it, thus presumably both sides would be keenly interested in curbing it.  Voter ID laws would undeniably go a very long way toward that goal.  Seriously, this is 2012– not requiring proof of your identity to vote is preposterously casual for such an important privilege.  It’s the equivalent of the tin can honor system for coffee refills (sorry, Kaldis, I keep meaning to drop a fiver in there someday).  This was no better evidenced than when a random white dude was offered Attorney General Eric Holder’s vote.

If requiring ID to vote is anti-minority, how is the same not true for requiring ID to drive?  Logically, the same people opposed to voter ID should also vigorously oppose driver’s license requirements, and for the same exact reasons.  Seriously, you can’t even buy a six-pack without ID.  Voting is as least as important as that, isn’t it?

On the other hand, voting IS important, and everybody should be able to do it without having to pay for the privilege.  It is a simple fact that many Americans won’t be able to vote unless they fork over cash for a photo ID that they otherwise (somehow!) don’t need.  Insisting vocally that they can all damn well grow up and get a life along with the rest of us is not only insensitive, its counterproductive.  It proves the suspicion of many minorities that white Republicans would rather they just didn’t vote at all.

(the blank white space says it all)

So there has to be a better solution, right?  As with the gay marriage issue, nobody is going to get everything they want.  Perhaps requiring government-issue photo IDs is a bit too much to ask (I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like any big thing to a lot of us, but for a lot of people it apparently is).  But it is also clearly ridiculous to leave something as sacred as voting to the honor system.  Come on, we’re smart people!  We can compromise on an inventive solution without just digging in our stubborn donkey (or elephant) heels and insisting on our way or the highway, right?

My wife, totally off the top of her head, suggested this: if you don’t have any ID when you go to vote, you just scan your fingerprint into a computer and go right ahead and vote.  If anyone else presents a photo ID for that name, the original vote is nullified.  If someone votes with an already scanned fingerprint, the original vote is nullified.  Simple and elegant, right?  It wouldn’t require anyone to buy an ID they don’t already have, and it would eliminate a lot of overt voter fraud.  Seriously, all it would require is a temporary database for the fingerprints and some cheap biometric scanners for a laptop at each polling place.

Of course, eventually people would be screaming about invasion of privacy by having to scan their prints, or creating elaborate conspiracy theories about how the government was hoarding all those fingerprints to keep track of minorities, yadda yadda, blah blah.  And who knows, it might even end up being true.

First the fingerprints.  Then this.  I’m not joking.  Really!

The point is, we can all certainly come up with a functional solution without breaking everyone’s personal moral codes about creating roadblocks to voting and/or allowing the Powerpuff Girls to vote two hundred times in fifteen different states.  We’re smarter and more creative than that.  But first, we have to be willing to recognize the valid concerns of those on the other side and truly be willing to forge a meaningful compromise.

And not surprisingly, that’s exactly the same solution that we came up with for the whole gay marriage thing, too, right?  Huh.  Who’d a-thunk it?