Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brave New World

Gliese 581 g as it faces its red dwarf sun

Just this week, astronomers have released news that they have found an Earth-sized, extra-solar planet. More importantly, the planet is orbiting its start within the so-called "Goldilock's Zone," - an orbit that is not too close, nor too far from the star. The temperatures there range from 160 degrees Fahrenheit to 25 below. Neither extreme is unfamiliar to life as we know it. In fact, consider the tubeworms of the Pacific Ocean that thrive (along with dozens of other species) next to super-hot thermal vents spewing sulpher into the surrounding water. According to one scientist, if there is water on this new planet, the chances of life are "100 percent."

The planet is 20 light years away, meaning that even communicating at light speed with the critters on the planet would take decades.

It is frustrating living in 2010. Meaningful space exploration beyond our neighborhood will not be a possibility for generations. Or at least it looks that way. The moon and Mars and the local asteroids will consume our attention for the next 100 years. Solar slings, fission drives, quarter-light speed engines are just science fiction at this point. It would be nice if our new neighbors in Gliese 581g would send power up their warp drives, take on a two year mission and get their assuredly quadrupedal butts to Sol a deliver a Care package to get us caught up. Naturally, if they are that advanced, they probably know a thing or two about us already. We are no threat to them, but we are also nowhere near being ready for first contact.

Do you ever wonder what that day will be like? When we first get "the call," the unambiguous signal from that far out somewhere just beyond the tail of Scorpio saying, "yes, we are here and your are there. We share the same universe"

Riots in the street? Break down of civilization? Or, to be optimistic, a wholesale conversion to humanism and an end to all religion and superstition.

Both outcomes seem unlikely. I think we all know what will happen:

- The news will be sensationalized
- Scientists will say they need to study the signal more
- One or many conspiracy theories will develop,followed by an equal number of conspiracy theorists and devotees
- Religious zealots will see this as science's final attempt to quash their belief by making the greeting correspond somehow to a passage in Revelation
- UFO nuts will see this as confirmation of ALL of their ideas - from flying saucers to "Grays" to abductions
- Political leaders will make uninspired, ho-hum announcements, none of which will really capture the magnitude of the moment
- The Pope will say something along the lines of the opportunity to declare "The Good News" to a whole new group of pagans (as IF!)

But the discovery will fall out of the news cycle. Lady Gaga will wear something weird. An American Idol judge will say something stupid A drunk Southerner will ride a John Deer into doughnut shop and steal a dozen glazed Cruellers. The new iPhone App will allow you to send pictures of yourself doing things you haven't done yet. The Sex and the City sequel will be dislodged by The Jersey Shore movie.

Seriously, haven't the aliens been watching our sci-fi films? We need dozens of mile-long ships hovering over Washington DC for days on end. We need mind control and menacing silver robots. We need a spectacle, not a candy-gram.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sympathy for the Bully: Two recent studies

Why do bullies bully? It is an evergreen question that has age old assumptions to go along with them:

- Bullies are from broken homes
- Bullies are exposed to booze
- Bullies have a low self-esteem

A recent article on LiveScience reports on a study conducted in the UK which seems conclude that the assumptions about the motivations of bullies are actually pretty much spot on. The study shoes that bullies tended to be from single, or no parent homes, had been exposed to alcohol "in the last seven days," and tended to have a low self opinion.

The study was a modest one. Just 666 students at 14 schools. Not nearly as robust as the one reported in July by Science Daily. SD reported on a meta-study of 153 separate studies conducted over the course of the last 30 years. Similar conclusions resonate with the British study and also seem to chime the bells of conventional wisdom. Bullies are more likely to be boys than girls, and bullies tend to have very poor problem solving skills, and will have low academic performance.

An interesting divergence between the British and American studies concerns who actually gets bullied. In the British study, kids who perform poorly in sports and in academics are libel to fall into the cross hairs of the bully. The classic bullied-victim, at least in the American conception, is the high performing male student, the "nerd." However, many of the American studies in the meta-report included both American and European students, so it may be the relatively small sample size of the British report that accounts for this rather specific bully-bette noir.

The American study further teased out details about a sub-population of bullies known as the bully-victim.
The typical bully-victim ... also has negative attitudes and beliefs about himself or herself and others... . He or she has trouble with social interaction, does not have good social problem-solving skills, performs poorly academically and is not only rejected and isolated by peers but is also negatively influenced by the peers with whom he or she interacts,

The article doesn't speculate about this profile beyond this assertion, but it is easy to imagine a "pack" of rough kids with an alpha leader and a cadre of betas and omegas. Being among the "in-group" of bullies requires adhering to a hierarchy. The one above steps on the one below, with the lowest order getting the worst of the abuse.

Fictional examples of the bullied-bully are numerous. In Grease, Danny Zuko and Kenickie compete for the alpha-dog position within the T-birds. Danny is clearly alpha at the beginning of the story, but as he attempts to win the love of Sandy by trying out for the cross-country team (a violation of the anti-establishment posture of the T-birds), Kenickie seems ready to graduate from beta status at the moment of the big car race. A subsequent injury in Kenickie re-establishes Danny's position in the clique. Meanwhile, the three remaining T-Birds, Doodie, Sonny, and Putzie, remain un-reconstructed omegas through the duration of the story, paring up sexually only with their counterpart omega-femmes in The Pink Ladies.

Similarly, in the animated world of The Simpsons, the alpha Nelson has, from time to time, crossed swords with Jimbo for control of the alpha position, while perennial omegas Kearney and Dolph must satisfy their angst by picking on the "nerds" of Springfield Elementary. Nelson is often seen keeping his "boys" in line with punches to the stomach and other acts of brutality. Acts which then filter down to the omegas and, eventually, into the society of victims ranging from Bart Simpson to Milhouse and beyond.


What do bullies do? Do they serve some sort of social function? Presumably, we'd all be a lot better off if we got along and were tolerant of each other. Maybe even the bully would agree, if he thought that "model" was a worthwhile one to follow. It seems that Nelson, et al have little faith in the "program." Already let down by parental units, given academic opportunities which he assumes set him up for failure, and then positioned within a hierarchy that rewards violence with respect (or fear), the bully settles into his role a kind of soft enforcer of social conservatism. The bully punishes the fat boy, the too effeminate kid, the “butch” girl, and the brainy “nerd,” all of whom are also loathed passively by the society at large. The bully concretizes this resentment with his jibes and his closed fists. We punish the bully, yet on some level must recognize that he is only manifesting the intolerance that becomes reflected in the culture through skinny teen models, uber-masculine “dudes,” endless heterosexual porn imagery, and a complacent culture of rampant anti-intellectualism.

The bully is society’s Mr. Hyde, its dark reflection. His pig-honesty sees the hypocrisy in our denunciations of him. His perpetual detentions and demerits only serve to underscore an ugly truth about society’s true feelings about itself.