Archive | December 2012

In recognition of our survival of the end of the Mayan calendar

It’s 10 PM on a Friday night.  There’s faint chatter outside my window and traffic hums as people leave town to spend the holidays with family.  I’ll join them tomorrow.

But for now I wait.  Just two more hours and I survive the apocalypse.

What are we so worked up about?

Current estimates date the birth of the Mayan civilization back as far as 2600 years BC (around 1800 BCE is more well agreed upon).  While it is not exactly known when the Mayans began using a calendar, the oldest long count inscription found on an artifact, 7.16.3.2.13, corresponds with the Gregorian calendar date of December 6th, 36 BCE.

The Mayan long count calendar was created to, you guessed it, count long periods of time.  Deciphering this code that looks oddly similar to my IP address is actually rather simple.  By multiplying the first digit by 144,000, the second by 7,200, the third by 360, the fourth by 20 the fifth by 1 and then adding the products, you get the number of days since the date of creation of the fourth world (the “human world”) according to the Popol Vuh (the Mesoamerican equivalent to the bible).  This date of creation coincides with August 11, 3114 BCE and would be written as 13.0.0.0.0.

This is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification as each of these numbers has a name and meaning that I don’t find all that relevant at the time.  Having said that, it is important to note that yesterday, 12/20/12, was equivalent to 12.19.19.17.19 on the long count calendar.  This calendar uses near base-20 system (the next to last digit actually resets at 18) which makes today 13.0.0.0.0 and tomorrow, 12/22/12, 13.0.0.0.1 (or 0.0.0.0.1, depending on whether you want to start over).  Essentially, because the cycle preceding the fourth world (cleverly dubbed the “third world”) lasted for 13 b’ak’tuns (the first number in the IP address), something serious is supposed to go down.

But why the end of the world?

There are plenty of explanations for this, none of which actually involve any supernatural, geological or astronomical event.

Humans inherently fear death.  At least the smart ones do.  This is how we survive.  And any time that the thought of mass destruction enters our minds, we get a little silly.  Even I, the biggest cynic you may ever meet, could not shut the hell up about this.  It was the same old bullshit all day today.  “Have a nice holiday! – See you next week if the world doesn’t end!”  I understand that, for the most part, it’s all in fun, but come on.  We’re intelligent creatures.  We should know when the joke gets old.

And we’ve been through this before.  Not once, but TWICE in recent memory.  We should all recall, as the year 2000 approached, the mass chaos that transpired over our fears that somehow our computers would all malfunction, leading to nuclear war, earthquakes and a botched presidential election.  And how could we forget, more recently, the lovable Harold Camping and his end of the world calculations.  And when we was wrong, he tried and failed AGAIN before finally admitting that he was an imbecile and thus further damaged the credibility of all outspoken religious zealots (did they really need the help?).

But we just cannot help but eat this shit up.  People gave away their fortunes.  I recall that somebody even euthanized their poor dog!  People stood in the streets with costumes and signs while I sat in a bar that played that infamous REM song on repeat, drinking beers and wishing that I could apologize to all the intelligent extraterrestrial life that may be out there for our stupidity.

And frankly, I haven’t the slightest clue why we are so gullible.  The world is full of extraordinary beings that can design skyscrapers; create billion dollar enterprises; sequence genomes; and frankly do anything that we put our minds to.  We’ve sent a man to the moon, made bombs that can destroy entire cities and can communicate with one another across the globe.  Can’t we just get over this doomsday phase please?  I think we may be frightening the children.

So do we have anything to worry about?

Well yes, we do.  Beyond the inevitable nuclear warfare looming on the horizon, we have quite the interesting scenario approaching in our relatively near future.  In the year 2029 the 1,000 foot wide asteroid 99942 Apophis will pass is such close proximity to Earth that it will be visible in the night sky and fall inside of the orbit of most geosynchronous satellites.  There is no chance for collision at this time, but if the asteroid passes by Earth at a specific distance known as a gravitational “keyhole”, it will inevitably make impact on Friday, April 13th, 2036 when it returns from its orbit around the sun.   How ironic that our bullshit bad luck/play movies about serial killers day could inevitably yield such a catastrophe!  While this collision will not cause an extinction event (the impact will release the energy equivalent of 1,500 megatons of TNT, compared to the estimated 100,000,000 megatons of energy released in the Chicxulub impact), landfall in highly populated areas could cause millions of fatalities while a strike to one of our oceans would generate massive tsunamis.  Fortunately, the odds of collision are currently estimated at about 1:250,000, as the gravitational keyhole is only about a half mile wide.

But let’s just imagine for a moment that on that fateful day in 2029, 99942 Apophis does hit that keyhole.  Based off of the position of the Earth upon calculated impact seven years later, there is a sigmoidal line of possible landfall (sigmoidal in relation to a flat map of the world) that runs through Russia, across the Pacific, through central and northern South America before tailing off into the Atlantic Ocean.  A collision in densely populated regions of northern South America could cause upwards of 10 million fatalities while a Pacific impact would likely generate epic tsunamis on the east coast of Asia and west coast of the US.  I don’t even want to think about an impact in the Atlantic!  The good news is that we will have 7 years to come up with a plan!  And we’ve already been working on one.  Currently, the proposed mode of action does not involve an attempt to blow up the asteroid with nuclear weaponry, but instead the use of a spacecraft to “nudge” the asteroid away from the keyhole as it makes its initial approach.

I’d like to be optimistic and postulate that if this scenario unfolds, it could forge some much needed global unification of the human race.  Rather than sanctions and fighting over land, religion and our perceptions of human rights, maybe we can pull together to make something happen.  I know it may sound like a movie that we’ve all seen, but one day the fate of humanity may truly rest on our ability to work together in a time of peril.

Reflecting on Newtown: A brief discussion on the prevention of future tragedies

Conversation can be so difficult.

We all yearn to find those who we can share our sentiments with, but as we see on a regular basis, humans have a natural tendency to talk over listening and learning from others’ experiences.  Deep down, many of us suffer from a sort of illusory superiority complex, thus vastly overestimating our intellectual capabilities relative to our peers (we can probably thank our parents and grandparents for that).

Dunning and Kruger have shown that in a variety of tests, an inflated self-image tends to correlate with poor performance while those who score exceptionally high have more realistic and often overly modest expectations (Ehrlinger, Joyce, Kerri Johnson, et. al “Why the unskilled are unaware:  further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent).  Although as a caveat, conclusions obtained from meta-analyses such as those performed here are often subject to publication bias, it has been an accepted philosophy amongst intellectuals throughout history that, as in the words of Charles Darwin, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.  This theory may explain why the loudest voices in passionate debates are generally the least logically sound.

Through social media, we follow our idols, communicate our philosophies and publicly acknowledge those whom we agree or disagree with.  When powerful events hit the media, most recently the indescribably heinous shootings in Connecticut, these modes of communication become saturated with soapbox rants that are often polarizing, and to some, antagonizing.  We should not go as far as to condemn those who speak their mind but the dialogue in these discussions MUST improve for us to make changes for the betterment of man.  For this to occur, knowledge, patience, logic, and critical reasoning skills are paramount.

I will make it clear, early, that on the topic of gun control, I believe stricter legislation across the board is necessary.  This would include (but not be limited to) longer waiting periods, more serious punishment for misuse (even if not resulting in injury), stricter accountability measures on weapons registered to an individual, and eventually as the study of neuroscience progresses, more rigorous mental health screenings.  I understand the reality of the fact that we can never completely remove deadly weapons from existence (although Darwin would certainly appreciate that- survival of the truly fittest), but I find it absurd to believe that we can’t come together as a country, even globally, to work to minimize such violence that plagues society.  This effort also must include the acceptance of the physiological aspects of mental illness along with an elimination of the stigma that comes with seeking help.  Millennia of human ingenuity has brought mankind from cave dwelling hunter/gatherers to a technological society that is mind-blowingly advanced.  So why not take the next step?  Why not dedicate our efforts towards ensuring that every human being is given the opportunity to live a long, fulfilling life.  Evidence suggests that we get only one.

Here, I’d like to dissect some common arguments that I find detrimental to this ideology.  My goal is not so much to discredit those advocating gun rights as much as it is to provide discourse that counters common, overly-simplified arguments against strict firearm legislation.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

The spike in blood pressure that I experience when I see this statement on a bumper sticker, Facebook status or tweet may eventually become life-threatening, so please excuse me while I vent.  I get it; a firearm alone is harmless and requires the pull of the trigger to be destructive, but a gun is a machine specifically designed for killing with minimal risk for the shooter.  A powerful example of this point is the parallel between the Newtown, CT massacre, in which 26 people were killed, and the slashing of 22 children (and one adult) in a Chinese elementary school (and we should all aware of the strict gun control in China).  The result of the events in China: serious injuries but zero fatalities.

If we outlaw guns because they kill people, we should outlaw spoons because they are accessories to obesity.

This argument is difficult to comprehend and logically invalid.  First, most reasonable gun control advocates are not championing for a complete weapons ban.  Second, and even more absurd, is the connection between gun violence and overeating, one of which involves the infliction of serious injury to another living being while the other involves a personal choice to decrease one’s longevity due to overindulgence.  This is not a fair comparison.

If more citizens have guns, armed assailants will be able to inflict less damage before apprehension and/or criminal activity will be deterred.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t sufficient evidence to either substantiate or refute this claim.  I have yet to find a study on this subject that does not reek of liberal or conservative bias.  Mind you, however, I have a life and job that has nothing to do with the subject matter, and more research may yield better conclusions.

If somebody wants to go on a homicidal rampage, they will, regardless of gun access.

In a sense this is true, but the argument cannot be used alone to substantiate a position against gun control.  People harm others for various reasons and use different mechanisms based upon these reasons.  Timothy McVeigh was frustrated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ handling of the Waco siege, which led him to justify killing hundreds of civilians in the Oklahoma City bombing as a statement against the government.  The September 11th attack is another example of a deadly assault on US soil that did not involve firearms and was orchestrated to intimidate our leaders (mind you that neither of these attacks could have been prevented by armed civilians).

In contrast, I believe (and I must admit that I’m no expert in psychology) that the desire to embark on a shooting/stabbing rampage stems more so from a lust for blood, dominance and power; a mental disturbance that can be exacerbated by an alienation from one’s peers.  It seems that from the few details that we know, many of the recent assailants in these high profile shootings seem to fit into the aforementioned group.  The point here is that while strict regulation on guns may lead criminals to commit crimes in other ways, the mental state of a face-to-face murderer may be unique to the weapon of choice.  Hence, I do not believe that many of these perpetrators would have resorted to a less personal form of violence, such as an IED, if they had not had relatively easy access to guns.  And, lastly, we should all be able to agree that, logically, knives, bludgeoning devices, etc. are much less amenable than guns for mass killings.

The US constitution affords US citizens the right to bear arms.

That it does, but I argue that gun ownership should be viewed as more of a privilege than a right.  First let’s be clear on the fact that our constitution is not infallible.  It was written by our forefathers who couldn’t have imagined the landscape of their country 200+ years later:  Oh, and also, most of them have that little blip on their records; slave ownership.

In particular, the second amendment reads:  “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  Note the reference to a well-regulated militia. Clearly the intentions at the time were to keep the nation safe from invasion by arming the citizens.  But now, we have the largest military in the world!  If our armed forces that have cost us so much over the years cannot protect us from a ground invasion from a foreign nation, such that the right for any civilian to bear arms becomes a necessity for national security, then we have much bigger issues to worry about.  So while this generally well-written and thoughtful document has led to the formation of the most powerful nation in the world, let’s make sure we don’t forget its faults.

The war on drugs doesn’t work.  Why should a war on guns?

It is certainly true that America’s war on drugs has had its fair share of negative consequences including excessive imprisonment for generally victimless crimes and the inevitable development of the mafia, gangs, cartels, etc.  The prohibition of alcohol had the same effect.  Most left-leaning individuals will agree that the war on drugs has been counter-productive in this sense, but it is dangerous to make such a comparison.  The difference between drugs and firearms is that the damage done by drugs is self-inflicted whereas guns are often used to injure others (with the exception of suicide, which I find to be rather irrelevant in gun control conversations).  While prohibiting citizens from legally consuming what they desire, the government infringes on our right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Conversely, the threat of physical harm does the same.  Hence, it can be argued under this pretense, that those who campaign for the drug war and against regulation of weapons are hypocrites.

And as a note to all gun enthusiasts and hobbyists:   Anybody that can feel empathy should GLADLY  be willing to trade their video games, television shows, sports teams, sewing machines, etc. to promote an agenda to save innocent human lives.  It comes off as insensitive to prioritize your personal obsessions over the safety of your fellow Americans.

We need to bring god back into schools:

The politicizing of the Christian God by Mike Huckabee and others has gotten so ridiculously out of control that God himself should consider conjuring up a second flood.   Do Americans not realize that there is more than one religion in the world, and that our country consists of exceptional, law-abiding citizens that have never believed in a Christian God?  How offensive must it be as a non-Christian, somebody who grew indoctrinated into a completely different belief system, to hear a politician blame a horrific tragedy on a God that one may have never even heard of until later in life? Why is it that when four Americans died in Benghazi, it was due to executive incompetence, yet this tragedy can be blamed on an entity that we don’t all have faith in and have no concrete scientific evidence for.  This type of hypocrisy that emanates from the right-wing faction at times is reprehensible.

The blame game:

Schools aren’t doing enough to prevent bullying.  Parents need to raise their children better.  Violence in the media instigates mayhem.  While these each may be contributing factors to delinquency, to focus on only one is short sighted, as the issues run much deeper.  We live in a distraction laden society where relationships are minimized by technology and family life is much less influential due to working parents.  To this we must learn to adjust.  The violence in the media/games/etc. that our youth are immersed in may plant the seed of aggressive behavior, but cannot be proven as a causative agent of sociopathic tendencies.  As a matter of fact, it can alternatively be argued that living vicariously through violence in the media (movies, video games, music, etc.) can serve as a release to those struggling with compulsive thoughts.  Instead of “planting the seed”, infatuation with these sorts of violence may actually be the result of underlying antisocial issues caused by ostracization from family and peers (i.e. bullying at school).

So what do we do?

Despite the plethora of arguments against gun rights rhetoric, the answer to our nation’s violence problem remains unclear.  What is known, however, is that a 0.03-0.04% homicide rate in the most powerful nation in the world is unacceptable.  Of course, our situation could be MUCH worse (see most of South America and Africa), but it could also be substantially improved (see most of Europe, China, Japan, etc.).

I also think that it is important to note that strict gun regulation does not perfectly correlate with a reduction in homicide in other areas of the world.  The United States has by far the highest gun ownership in the world at 88 guns per 100 citizens (Yemen is a distant second at 55 per 100), but at least 28 countries have higher homicide rates than the US (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/22/gun-homicides-ownership-world-list).  Thus, it is important for our leaders to earnestly consider the pros and cons of tighter gun regulation before enacting legislation.  Since up to 50% of the world’s privately owned guns can be found in the United States, irresponsible gun control laws do have the potential to create a powerful black market that would do more harm than good.

I do believe, however, that one small step that we can take as a country is for each of us to make a genuine effort to respect one another a little bit more than we normally feel inclined to do, remaining conscious of those whom may be battling mental illness.  Take the time out of your day to talk to the colleague that you tend to blow off.  Apologize to friends and family that you have alienated.  Respect each others’ differences.  The human brain is an incredibly complex system of neurons and neurotransmitters that is constantly undergoing physiological changes, especially early in life.  I believe that instances of negative thinking (sadness, envy, anger, fear) can affect your natural cognitive processes and set the wheels in motion for long term illness.  Often times, those with the most serious issues appear perfectly normal.  Don’t contribute to setting a peer into the cataclysmic realms of despair.  Make an effort to do one good deed each day, something as small as an acknowledgment or a compliment or a favor, and you may wind up saving a life.

Welcome

It appears as though you have found your way to my blog and I’d like to thank you for your time! 

As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve become much more passionate about my moral code.  Unfortunately, I often find myself not being able to properly express myself in conversation, and thus I have a hard time conveying my opinions to others.  As a result, I’ve decided to create a blog as a medium to share my feelings with those of you who may be interested.  This way, I can tackle complicated issues meticulously and at my own leisure, rather than struggling with the quirks of group dynamics.  Knowing where I stand intellectually is important to me and I invite any one of you to challenge any of my stances.  As for the content, a flavor of the week style will be employed.  Perhaps I’ll dissect a relevant philosophical issue in one post and the next I’ll lighten it up by delving into the world of entertainment.  Nothing is off the table as this blog is intended to be my sanctuary, a place for my thoughts, and a spark for meaningful discussion.

I look forward to the learning experience.

M