A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The Porch

One of the longstanding criticisms of social media is that there seems to be a dearth of critical thinking, both in the posts and and in the comments. I agree, and after wasting many hours browsing my Facebook news feed, I now understand why.

At the risk of sounding polarizing, I’ve noticed that most posts fall into one of two categories: they either appeal to our intellect, or to our emotions. Unfortunately, it’s not a 50/50 split – the vast majority of what I see is designed to elicit an emotional response, rather than convey information. Whether it’s tugging at our heartstrings, appealing to our nurturing instincts, or evoking a sense of nostalgia, when we are emotionally engaged, our critical thinking skills seem to fade away.

Here is a recent post from my Facebook news feed:

Front Porch

This is a lovely photo, with a heartfelt sentiment. For those of us of a certain age, it’s obvious that this photo takes a direct aim at our collective sense of nostalgia. In a society where everyone is staring incessantly at their phone, and few of us even know the names of our neighbours, who wouldn’t long for a return to a simpler time, free of these modern, inward-looking distractions? Neighbours walking down the street would see you sitting on your porch, and then stop by to chat, while you offer them a glass of lemonade. This is also a magnificent porch, large enough for a family and a few neighbours, in a serene, pastoral setting. This photo, to me, symbolizes Norman Rockwell’s America – a happier, stress-free time, when people understood the importance of forging relationships. However, before you are tempted to like or share this photo, let’s examine it with a critical eye.

First, let’s look at the obvious errors in the description. This isn’t a front porch, it’s a backyard porch. A front porch would have a walkway adjacent to it. In order to see your neighbours, it should be also visible from the road. This porch looks like it’s in someone’s backyard. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend walking onto someone’s property and suddenly appearing unannounced at their back porch… in fact, in some states, this might even get you shot!

Next, let’s examine the statement itself, which employs a Field Of Dreams sentiment “If you build it, they will come“. It’s a lovely intention, but building more porches will not change society. In fact, a little research will uncover the events that led to changes in residential architecture and the disappearance of porches.

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The Gradual Disappearance of the Front Porch

Cars: According to Renee Kahn, author of the book Preserving Porches, cars are to blame for the demise of front porches “The front porch was no longer an idyllic setting where one could relax and commune with nature” for the “exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy.

Air Conditioning: Danielle Keperling, in an article entitled Historic Porches: Their Evolution, History and Significance, suggests that the air conditioner was a catalyst of their decline, especially in the southern states, since one no longer needed to go outdoors in order to stay cool on a sweltering day.

Vintage Radio

Radio: The front porch used to be the focal point of the evening’s entertainment for many families. After the radio became commonplace, family members could entertain themselves indoors, listening to a wide variety of radio programmes.

Vintage Television-720

Television: The increasing popularity of television sealed the demise of the front porch, by shifting the entertainment indoors. According to the book Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture, Americans watch about 1,000 hours of television each year, and combined with air conditioning, the family’s evening entertainment is now firmly entrenched in the living room.

These technologies eventually influenced the architecture. After the entertainment moved indoors, people no longer needed a a house with a front porch, and fewer home builders were including them. Technology not only moved the family indoors, but also changed the way we interact from person-person to person-machine. House designs were merely a response to this technological and social change.

Home Theatre-720

Even if we could resurrect the front porch, it won’t change anything. In addition to television and radio, we now have DVDs, home theatres, video games and computers to keep us indoors and interacting with machines instead of people. During the past two generations, our neighbourhood networking has also deteriorated to the point where many of us aren’t well-acquainted (or in some cases, don’t even know) the people on our street, or even our our next-door neighbours. This makes serendipitous foot traffic highly unlikely.

The porch photo is still a lovely sentiment, but it’s just not going to happen. Technology has changed moved our entertainment indoors, changed the way we interact with our neighbours and ultimately, influenced house design. Unless we can rid ourselves of these distractions and spend more time interacting with people face-to-face, then the front porch will remain a wistful memory.

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The Coward of Broward? I’m Not Convinced.

As we are all acutely and painfully aware, on February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school in Parkland, Florida, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, and began a shooting rampage that ended with 17 people dead and 14 injured. This particular school shooting would be one of the worst in recent memory in the United States.

MSD High School

A few days later, news outlets reported that Scot Peterson, an armed school resource deputy assigned to the school, was outside the building when the shooting began, but didn’t go inside.

Like everyone else, I reacted initially with shock and disappointment when I heard this. I repeatedly wondered how many people might have been spared a horrific death, if he had simply done his job and ran into the building. I didn’t expect him to single-handedly take down the assailant and save the day (like a police drama protagonist on television) but I did expect him to do something. Law enforcement officers are supposed to protect us, and even put their lives on the line in the performance of their duty. It didn’t take long before he was labelled (at least on social media) “The Coward of Broward”.

Then I read an opposing point of view, from someone who is vastly more qualified than I to speak on such matters. Jim Diamond (a retired police officer, SWAT team member and demolitions expert, with 34 years of experience) argued that Peterson did the right thing, because it would have been unwise to run into that situation without backup. He added that it is unfair to blame the deaths of the 17 students on this one individual. Then he said something very interesting: “And one incident where he was possibly untrained or emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it, is going to mark him for life.

This is the avenue I’d like to explore: he may have been emotionally ill-equipped to handle this situation.

What does it take to engage yourself in an active shooting situation? I have no idea. I’ve never been a law enforcement officer or in the military, and I’ve never owned a gun, which relegates me to a mere armchair quarterback, judging silently from the sidelines.

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The Military Historian’s View

Gwynne Dyer is a military historian who joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve when he was 16. After receiving his Ph.D in military history, he became a journalist, and during the 1980s he was the host of the television documentary series War. In one episode of this series, Dyer proposes that humans are not wired to kill other people, and that being able to kill on command goes against our very nature.

Gwynne Dyer, Marching Soldiers

In the episode entitled Anybody’s Son Will Do, he explains: “All soldiers belong to the same profession, and it makes them different from everybody else. They have to be different, for their job is ultimately about killing and dying, and that doesn’t come naturally to any human being… The method for turning young men into soldiers – people who kill other people – is basic training… The secret of basic training is that it’s not really about teaching people about things at all. It’s about changing people, so that they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamt of otherwise. If you want to change people quickly and radically, what you do is put them in a place where the only right way to think and to behave is the way you want them to. You isolate them; and then you apply enormous physical and mental pressure… [These recruits are] entering a machine which turns out a very special and artificial product: soldiers.

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Dehumanizing the Enemy

Killing another human being goes against everything that’s hard-wired into us, and it takes years of specialized training and extreme physical and psychological conditioning to act against it. That’s why, in addition to basic training, soldiers are repeatedly exposed to material that dehumanizes the enemy.

In a 2007 report by Lt. Col. David Grossman entitled Hope On The Battlefield, he writes “There have been active efforts by the American military apparatus, since World War II, to overcome the basic resistance that human beings have towards killing other members of their own species. One of the most fundamental of these efforts has been to dehumanise the enemy.

Brian K. Price wrote the following in Quora “I would highly recommend the book “On Killing” by LTC Dave Grossman (USA-ret). He does a great job of explaining how hard it is for one person to kill another person (outside of a direct interest such as wrath, greed, jealousy, etc.) and how this has impacted the US military throughout our earlier wars. He then… discusses how training has been modified to overcome these inherent stoppages in killing others and what the implications may be for society as a whole.

In wartime, the enemy is often portrayed as a group of savages, living in a primitive, backwards land, who don’t share the same values as everyone else. Propaganda videos malign their culture and portray them as inferior.

There is, however, a price to pay. Success in getting a soldier to view the enemy as an object, an animal, or anything less than human, carries its own collateral damage. Medical Daily argues that this psychological conditioning affects soldiers long after they return from the battlefield, often manifesting itself as mental illness, depression and schizophrenia.

The television series The Outer Limits dealt with this subject, in the episode Hearts and Minds. [Spoiler alert] Soldiers fighting a battle on another planet, in order to protect a mineral claim there, are given regular injections of a hallucinatory drug. This drug makes the enemy appear to them as grotesque insect-like creatures, so that they will be easier to kill. The commanding officers, however, tell the soldiers that the drug is a vaccine that will inoculate them against alien parasites, and must be re-administered regularly. When one soldier misses his dose, the drug starts to wear off, and the enemies slowly transform back into humans, resulting in a moral quandary among the soldiers.

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Arming Teachers

You may have to make the decision to give up and die, or to make somebody else give up and die… and what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?” – James Burke

Donald Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting is a plan to arm 20% of schoolteachers. He is also offering them a monetary bonus if they agree to carry a gun in their classroom. As you can imagine, this idea is not being well received.

Arming Teachers Headline

I also think this is an exceedingly poor idea, and one that is not particularly well-thought-out.

As armchair quarterbacks, I think most of us, to varying degrees, subscribe to the following idealized version of events, gleaned from watching hundreds of hours of television: our hero runs boldly and conspicuously into a school, assesses the situation instantly, and then proceeds to take out the shooter with a single bullet, with 100% accuracy and no collateral damage. Our hero also survives unharmed, physically and psychologically.

The reality, of course, is vastly different. Let’s examine what’s at stake when a teacher is expected to use a firearm.

  • First, there is a question of accuracy. In this British television program called The Last Leg, the host (at 3:03 in the video) says “A study by the New York Police Department found that, in gun fights, their highly-trained officers had an 18% hit rate.
  • Teachers aren’t military soldiers or veterans. They haven’t endured basic training, or the intense physical and mental conditioning that trains soldiers to kill.
  • The person they must shoot isn’t someone whose humanity has been diminished through dehumanizing exercises, or distorted by propaganda videos.
  • This won’t be someone from a far-off land on the other side of the world, who looks different. The person they are expected to kill will likely be an American; someone who looks just like us.
  • On the battlefield, soldiers are shooting strangers. A school shooting is likely to be carried out by a student or a former student. There is a good chance that the teacher will know this person.
  • Not only will the teacher likely know the shooter, it is also likely that at least one of the teachers will have taught this person – the student whom they spent countless hours instructing and nurturing, and during that time, forging an emotional bond.
  • Finally, in war, soldiers are killing adults. In a school shooting, you will have to kill a child. Think about this for a moment…

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Jim Wright posted an insightful analysis on Quora, detailing the emotional reality of being asked to kill a child. Here is an edited version of that post (the full version is in the link, above):

‘Specially-trained.’ Who designs the training. On what criteria? To what standards?

This training would have to specially designed because you’re talking about non-professionals with guns in a building full of panicked children AND those “specially trained people” will be very likely facing a CHILD with a gun who is killing other children.

We don’t train soldiers for that. We don’t train cops for that. So we’re going to need special training, including not just the mechanics and theory of combat arms, but the psychology of killing a CHILD in an active shooter situation.

If you don’t understand why this is a problem, then you’re very likely unqualified to be in this conversation in the first place. It takes years of training to condition a soldier to kill another human being on command, let alone a child.

And when that killing occurs, it’s usually in a warzone, alongside your squadmates, and while that engagement is very, very often chaotic, it can’t be compared to the confusion and chaos of a building packed with screaming running children that you are supposed to be protecting. In a warzone, if your bullets hit a civilian, even a child, well, that’s collateral damage. It happens. It can’t NOT happen. That’s war. But a school? Full of American kids? You are essentially talking about turning teachers into soldiers and schools into war zones.

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A Failure To Engage

In December 2014, Scot Peterson was a recipient of the School Resource Officer of the Year Award by the Broward County Crime Commission (pages 10 and 20). Peterson has been the resource officer at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School since 2009 and during the past four years, I’m sure that he got to know many, if not most, of the current students in the school.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said in an interview that in the Deputy Peterson incident, there was a “failure to engage”. Some news reports also used that same phrase. I think this is a reasoned and non-judgmental way of expressing the situation. Despite all of his years on the force and all of his firearm training, Scot Peterson – for reasons known only to him – couldn’t bring himself to enter the school, and now I’m beginning to understand why this is possible.

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I must admit that I still lament Peterson’s decision not to enter the school that day, and I often think about what might have been if he had engaged the shooter, but now I’m trying my best to view him with some compassion. Because what prevented Scot Peterson from running into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 is, ultimately, what makes us all human.

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A Single, Detached Home in Manhattan?

A couple of years ago, I visited my brother and his family at their condo in midtown Manhattan. If you haven’t been to Manhattan, the density – while predictable – is nevertheless something to behold. Naturally, when you run out of land, you then start building up, and since Manhattan is an island, that land boundary was reached a long time ago. Look down any major street in downtown or midtown, and you’ll see one 50-storey building after another, both residential and commercial, almost as far as you can see. Cars and taxis fill the streets, the subways are crowded, even the sidewalks (which are extraordinarily wide) are crowded with people. As a child, I heard many television references to the dark alleys of New York City. When I was there, I didn’t notice any – the buildings were pressed right up against each other. Any alleyway would now be seen as prime real estate.

Manhattan Slyline

One evening, I asked my brother and his wife “Are there any single, detached homes in Manhattan? I’m sure there must have been a few just after WWII, but what about now? Could I find – somewhere in Manhattan – a typical suburban home – a detached, single-family house with a driveway, a garage, a front yard and a back yard? Of course, a white picket fence would be icing on the cake…

Manhattan Map v2

They didn’t think that there were any, given that the typical suburban home is one of the less efficient ways to house people on a given plot of land. In a city where a parking spot costs more than many people make per hour, a single family house with a front and back yard seemed unlikely.

Manhattan Parking Rates

Once I returned home, I decided to do a little online searching.

I started with Google Maps, switched to the satellite view, and started scanning Manhattan Island. This building, located in Inwood Hill Park near the north-west end of the island, seemed promising, although based in its shape, it looked more like a church than a private residence. As it turns out, this is the Payson Building, named after George Shipman Payson (1845-1923). It’s now a research centre with a small museum that’s open to the public.

Payson Building

Then I found the Dyckman Farmhouse, billed as the city’s only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse. It was built around 1764, and is now a museum.

Dyckman Farmhouse

Next, there was the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a stately home on a sprawling piece of land. Built in 1765, it has the distinction of being the oldest house in Manhattan. It, too, is a museum.

Morris-Jumel Mansion

After searching the web, I found an article that mentioned the Schinasi Mansion, located in the Upper West Side. It is described as Manhattan’s last freestanding mansion. However, after getting a close look at it from Google’s Street View, it’s not exactly the suburban home I had envisioned. For one thing, it has 18 rooms and spans 12,000 square feet, and includes a library, pool room and several great rooms. It also lacks a yard.

351 Riverside Drive

Finally, I found it. Nestled at the northern tip of the island was not just one, but a cluster of houses that, from the street, resemble a typical middle-class neighbourhood in any medium-size town. Here is the Google Street View, so you can see for yourself.

Single Detached Houses in Manhattan 1-1000

Single Detached Houses in Manhattan 2-1000

There is it, a driveway, a garage, a front yard, and (from what I could gather from the satellite view), a modest back yard. Considering that many people living a few kilometres south are paying over $20/hr for a parking spot, having one’s own garage seems like a luxury!

While Manhattan real estate agents are promoting multi-million dollar condos in midtown, no one can offer what these houses have. Just imagine that listing “Single, detached, single family Manhattan home, with your own driveway and private garage, on a quiet, tree-lined street. Escape the hustle and bustle of the city in your very own backyard.

Personally, I think this discovery is immensely satisfying – it’s the last little bit of suburbia on Manhattan Island. I wonder how long this quaint little neighbourhood will last?

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The Perpetually-Recycled TV/Movie Theme

If it seems like there is almost nothing original or even interesting on television these days, you’re probably right. Back in 1992, Bruce Springsteen released a song called 57 Channels and Nothin’ On. Personally, I think he was ahead of his time. Today we have over 1,000 cable channels, and it still seems like there’s rarely anything worth watching.

That’s because Hollywood writers have long ago discovered a story premise that’s so engaging, that they can keep recycling it year after year, and decade after decade. Even today, it hasn’t yet lost its appeal. That premise is: Stranger in a Strange Land.

This storytelling idea (also known as “A Fish out of Water”) is so powerful, that it has been repackaged and sold to us dozens (or even hundreds) of times. Not only will we never tire of it, we likely won’t even realize that we’re watching yet another variation of this theme.

Prince Pauper

Naturally, this idea didn’t originate with television. The earliest example of it that I could find is a book by Charles Dickens, called The Prince And The Pauper. As you know, it’s a story of a prince and a humble commoner, two boys of approximately the same age, who just happen to look identical. They meet by chance, and decide to switch places with each other. This switching places theme has been used in a number of movies:

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Prince & The Pauper Adaptations

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  • Freaky Friday: A teenage girl suddenly finds herself occupying her mother’s body, and vice versa.
  • Opposite Day: Kids and adults switch places after a little boy wishes that children ruled the world
  • Star Trek TOS – Mirror, Mirror: The Star Trek crew switch places with their less-evolved counterparts from a parallel universe.
  • Class Act: The school records of a straight-A student are inadvertently switched with a student with low grades.

The Prince & The Pauper can also be thought of as a simultaneous Rags To Riches / Riches To Rags story. In fact, The Prince & The Pauper was such a good story that television script writers can still create a successful movie or television series by using only half of its storyline.

One single-direction variation is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), whose movie adaption is My Fair Lady (1964). While not a monetary rags to riches tale, it is one in a cultural sense. British linguist Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, that he can take a random Cockney girl, and within six months, pass her off as royalty in British society.

 

Rags To Riches

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  • The Beverly Hillbillies: A family from the Ozarks discovers oil on their property, and then sell the land and mineral rights for $47 million. Their friends tell them to move to Beverly Hills, with all the other millionaires, which they promptly do.
  • Diff’rent Strokes: When a wealthy New York businessman’s Harlem housekeeper passes away, he welcomes her two children into his own family.
  • Fresh Prince Of Bel Air: A teenager living in a rough Philadelphia neighbourhood is sent by his mother to live with his wealthy uncle in Bel Air.
  • The Jeffersons: George Jefferson’s dry cleaning business is flourishing, and he now has enough money to move his family out of their Queen’s neighbourhood and into a luxury Manhattan apartment.

 

Riches To Rags

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  • Green Acres: a Manhattan lawyer with a passion for farming moves to a rural area with his high society wife, some one with no practical skills whatsoever.
  • Gilligan’s Island: Seven people go on a charter cruise and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island.
  • Survivor: Twenty people volunteer to live on an island for a month while participating in sadistic, soul-destroying games.
  • The Simple Life: Two Beverly Hills socialites live on a farm and try to adapt to a rural existence.

 

Stranger In A Strange Body

DVD-13

Just like Freaky Friday, these movies feature children who suddenly become adults, or adults who become children.

  • 13 Going On 30: A 13-year-old girl is transformed into an adult overnight.
  • 18 Again!: After a car accident, an 81-year-old George Burns discovers that he has somehow switched bodies with his 18-year-old grandson.
  • Big: A 12-year-old boy awakens one morning in the body of a 30-year-old man.
  • The Hot Chick: The most popular girl in school switches bodies with a con man.

 

Stranger In A Strange Time

DVD-BTTF

A strange land is often the same land at a different point in history.

  • Back To The Future / II / III: Marty McFly travels backwards and forwards in time in a time machine that resembles a Delorean.
  • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Bill and Ted use a time machine to meet various historical figures.
  • Black Knight: An amusement park employee suffers a concussion and wakes up in 14th century England.
  • Encino Man: A California teen discovers a caveman frozen in a block of ice, and decides to revive him.
  • Jurassic Park / The Lost World: Scientists use dinosaur DNA preserved in amber to reanimate the massive prehistoric creatures at an island theme park.
  • Sleeper: A health food store owner dies during surgery, and his family decides to have him cryogenically frozen. he awakens 200 years later.
  • Quantum Leap: A scientist’s experiment goes horribly wrong, and each week he finds himself in a different time period, inhabiting a different person’s body.

 

Stranger In A Strange Gender

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There are quite a few movies that rely on men impersonating women or vice versa.

  • Some Like It Hot: After witnessing a mob hit, two men try to escape from Chicago by disguising themselves as women.
  • Yentl: A Jewish girl disguises herself as a boy so that she can continue to study the Talmud.
  • Just One Of The Guys: A high school girl poses as a boy in order to win a writing contest.
  • She’s The Man: A girl poses as her twin brother and takes his place at a boarding school.
  • Mrs. Doubtfire: A divorced man dresses as an elderly woman in order to gain more access to his children.
  • Tootsie: An actor dresses as a woman in order to secure a role on a soap opera.
  • Victor Victoria: An out-of-work singer launches a new career as a male/female impersonator.
  • Big Momma’s House: A male FBI agent goes undercover as an authoritarian grandmother.
  • He’s A Woman, She’s A Man: A woman disguises herself as a man and enters a talent contest in order to meet her idol.
  • Nuns On The Run: Two small-time crooks try to escape with the spoils of their crime by dressing up as nuns.
  • Norbit: Eddie Murphy plays both a man and a woman in this film.

 

Stranger On A Strange Planet

There are two variations here: aliens visiting Earth, and humans visiting other worlds.

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  • E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial: An alien lands on Earth and is befriended by a young boy.
  • Mork and Mindy: An alien lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
  • Third Rock From The Sun: An alien family lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
  • Alf: An alien stuffed animal lands on earth and tries to lie among the people.
  • Superman: An alien lands on earth and tries to live among the people.
  • Alien Nation: Aliens crash-land on Earth and try to co-exist among the humans in Los Angeles.
  • Smallville: A adaptation of Superman – an alien from the planet Krypton lands on Earth and lives among the people.
  • My Favorite Martian: A Martian whose spaceship crashes near Los Angeles California. He is stuck and stranded here on Earth.
  • The Neighbours (2012-2014): An entire suburban neighbourhood is inhabited by aliens.

Then, of course, we travel to other worlds…

  • Star Trek: The Original Series
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • Star Trek: Voyager
  • Star Trek: Enterprise
  • Star Wars
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Space 1999
  • Doctor Who

 

Eddie Murphy Has Discovered the Secret Formula

DVD-EM

You’ve got to hand it to Eddie Murphy – he discovered this storytelling secret early in his career and has been using it over and over in his movies.

  • Trading Places: Two commodities brokers orchestrate a role reversal of a young executive and a street hustler.
  • Coming to America: A spoiled and pampered prince from a wealthy African kingdom arrives in America and tries to pass himself off as a regular guy.
  • Beverly Hills Cop / II / III: Detroit police detective Axel Foley visits Beverly Hills to try and solve a murder.
  • Meet Dave: Dave is an alien who has just landed in New York and is trying to adapt to his new environment.
  • The Distinguished Gentleman: A con-man with no political experience, relies on voter ignorance to get elected as a congressman.
  • The Nutty Professor: A good-natured professor drinks a potion that radically changes his physical appearance and personality.
  • Norbit: Mentioned above.

 

Stranger In A Strange Profession

The Distinguished Gentleman crosses over into the next variation: people with no political (or leadership) experience suddenly finding themselves wandering the corridors of power. Common men (and women) are suddenly thrust into powerful positions, for which they are not even remotely qualified.

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  • Politics – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: An inexperienced young man is appointed to the United States senate.
  • Politics – Dave: A body double for the American president must actually take on the role when the real president suffers an incapacitating stroke.
  • Politics – The Brady Bunch in the White House: After the president resigns in a scandal, Mike Brady is elected as the new president of the United States.
  • Royalty – King Ralph: After the entire British royal family is killed in a bizarre flash photography accident, the next person in line to the throne is a boorish Las Vegas lounge singer.
  • Royalty – The Princess Diaries: A San Francisco teenager discovers that she is a member of the ruling family of a small European principality and must be groomed to ascend the throne.
  • Technology – The Internship: Two technologically inept watch salesmen talk their way into a Google internship.

 

Closing Comments

TV Recycle LogoThis is just a smattering of movies and television shows that are using variations of this theme; I’m sure that there are many more I haven’t mentioned. If nothing else, you have to admire Hollywood’s continuing and committed effort at implementing a robust recycling program…

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Apu Nahasapeemapetilon – Don’t Go… Grow!

If you’re a regular viewer of The Simpsons, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Apu

Apu has been a part of The Simpsons since its first season (in 1990), making his debut appearance in an episode called The Telltale Head. Despite being animated, he is surprisingly well-rounded. Apu graduated at the top of his class at Caltech – the Calcutta Institute of Technology – and holds a Ph.D in Computer Science. His doctoral dissertation described an AI computer program that would play an unbeatable game of Tic-Tac-Toe. Apu took a job at the Kwik-E-Mart initially to help pay of his student loans. Apu’s last name, Nahasapeemapetilon, is a variation of Pahasadee Napetilon, a friend of one of The Simpsons’ writers. Apu is a vegan, an ardent cricket fan, and likes to design and build furniture. Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria.

As far as I know, everybody loves Apu. For almost 28 years, Apu has been (and still is) a beloved character in The Simpsons, but during the fall of 2017, there arose a torrent of negative articles about him. These articles stated that the character was racist, and by extension, The Simpsons itself was racist. Given the speed at which this change of heart occurred, I initially thought that we were experiencing what Malcolm Gladwell would call The Tipping Point.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed that the entire world was disgusted with Apu. There were articles in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Slate, The Guardian, and The Verge, to name a few. I had a difficult time grasping this sudden sanctimoniousness.

That is, until I took a closer look at these articles, and noticed a certain similarity…

Each of these sources quoted a comedian named Hari Kondabolu and mentioned his upcoming documentary, The Problem With Apu. After a while it became clear what was happening. Hari Kondabolu was using the media to promote his new film. He had something to sell, and was displaying a level of outrage and victimization that seemed well out of proportion as a response to an animated character. I suspect that he wanted to make the rest of us worked up enough to see his film. In my opinion, he was trying to create a scandal where none had existed before.

I decided to watch his movie’s trailer. Kondabolu had enlisted some of his Indian friends to join him in his outrage, so it would appear that he wasn’t alone in his ranting. When he started to say that he liked The Simpsons, his friend (whose hatred for Apu was so all-consuming that it made him despise the entire series) wouldn’t let Hari finish his thought. He interrupted Hari, and them proceeded to insert words into his mouth “[Because] you hate yourself“.

This was manufactured outrage, and I wasn’t buying it for a second. Judging by the vast majority of the people commenting on this YouTube video, neither was anyone else. In fact, the commenters made a number of good points:

  • Everyone gets lampooned in The Simpsons. That’s the point of the show.
  • Groundskeeper Willie is portrayed much more negatively as an ornery Scotsman. Mr. Burns possesses all of the negative qualities of an evil capitalist.
  • Are Americans actually blaming an animated character for what they perceive as limited opportunities in their lives?
  • I don’t care if he’s voiced by a non-Indian actor. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
  • Apu has been treated well by the show’s writers. He owns his own business, he married a nice woman and they are raising a family together. He’s a hard worker, he respects his culture and he is generally happy.

If Shakespeare were alive, he would have summarized this issue thusly: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“, or perhaps as one commenter put it “Much Apu about nothing“.

At this point, I was ready to dismiss the whole thing as the bombastic histrionics of one individual, done in order to promote his documentary… except for two things:

  • Hank Azaria responded to these articles and comments on the speculation that Apu may no longer be part of The Simpsons.
  • Kondabolu does make a good point. After almost 28 years, Apu’s character hasn’t changed much. While he did get married, have children and now appears to own the Kwik-E-Mart, his character has remained essentially static.

During this time, the disparity between television and reality was growing. The cultural makeup of our society has changed, along with our perception and acceptance of immigrants. Indian actors are appearing in more American television shows and are portraying people in prestigious professions: Mindy Kaling is a doctor in The Mindy Project; Kunal Nayyar plays an astrophysicist in The Big Bang Theory; Paull Walia has starred as a doctor in several television series, including Grey’s Anatomy, General Hospital and The Young & The Restless.

Kondabolu is reminding us that, even as an animated caricature, Apu no longer represents South Asians in North America. What’s going to happen to Apu? In one article, the interviewer asks Hari Kondabolu about rumours that Apu’s character will be killed off, He replies “I’d feel mixed about it… There’s more creative solutions, but it’s easier to kill off the character than change.

But does this mean that Apu should be kicked to the proverbial curb? Only if you believe that animated characters must remain static forever and are incapable of developing. Killing Apu’s character, or otherwise writing him out of the show, is nothing more than an emotional response and a myopic knee-jerk reaction. There are better ways to handle this situation. One that I’d like to propose is allowing Apu to grow and develop. Apu’s character shouldn’t be as flat as his two-dimensional animation.

Raj With Drink

Character growth has already been demonstrated in a recent television series, and in my opinion quite effectively. During the first season of The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali suffered from selective mutism – he wasn’t able to speak in the presence of women who weren’t related to him. Personally, I thought this running joke was getting old quickly, and I suspect that the BBT show’s writers did as well, since they created a loophole for him during the eighth episode of the first season: he could speak to women, but only after consuming alcohol. Soon, Raj almost always had a drink in his hand. By the sixth season, Raj’s selective mutism was purged entirely after his girlfriend, Lucy, broke up with him. Raj’s character evolved considerably since the series started. The Simpsons is now in its 29th season.

My vision is the development of Apu during a season-long story arc. I feel that this is the most realistic way to go about it, since no one is going to buy a sudden awakening or a life-changing epiphany. During the course of an entire season, I’d like to see Apu slowly observe the world changing around him, and then realize that new opportunities abound. Here are some subplot ideas that can be wovwn into the main stories:

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Character Development Scenes

Episode 1 Goal: Apu encounters and interacts with non-stereotypical Indians.
Scene: Russell Peters is driving through Springfield, and stops at the Kwik-E-Mart for a drink and some snacks. As Russell is paying for his items, he strikes up a conversation with Apu. After some small talk…

Apu: It’s nice meeting you. My name is Apu.
Russell: Everyone is so friendly in this town. Nice meeting you, too. My name’s Russell.
Apu: Russell? That’s your name?
Russell: Yes, my name is Russell. Russell Peters.
Apu: [leans in closer. Speaks softly, conspiratorially] Come on. I’m Indian, you’re Indian… what’s your real name?

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Episode 2 Goal: Apu sees limitless opportunities for Indians, well beyond beyond the Kwik-E-Mart.
Scene 1: Apu is watching TV and hears a news story about Microsoft, including a short interview with its CEO. Apu was expecting Bill Gates, and is astounded to learn that its CEO is Satya Nadella.
Scene 2: Later that week, there is a news story about Google. Apu is expecting a brief statement from Larry & Sergey, and is once again shocked to learn that Google’s CEO is Sundar Pichai. Apu starts to realize that America is indeed the land of opportunity for everyone, and wonders whether he can do more with his life than manage the Kwik-E-Mart.

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Multi-Episode Story Arc

Each year, the Kwik-E-Mart franchisees meet in a different city for their annual convention. This year, they are meeting in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. While at the hotel, Apu meets up with some other franchisees, and they share entertaining stories about their stores and customers, as well as trading Squishee machine maintenance tips. The group agrees to meet at a nearby restaurant for lunch, but Apu doesn’t hear them – he’s wandered off to another corner of the room, and is marvelling at a prototype of a new Squishee machine. When he returns, his group is gone, and he now has to forage the neighbourhood himself and find a place to eat.

Apu walks a couple of blocks and finds a small restaurant, not too far from Stanford University. As he is waiting for his food, he overhears a group of young people at the next table discussing their work and a couple of particularly perplexing coding and AI problems. Apu gets up, walks over and offers to help – after all, he did code an unbeatable Tic-Tac-Toe program as part of his Ph.D thesis in Computer Science, and is quite familiar with the theoretical and practical applications of artificial intelligence.

As it turns out, these young people are all Google engineers, and they are astounded by Apu’s programming insights. They initially assume that he’s visiting professor at Stanford, since the restaurant is frequented by its faculty. Their conversation becomes quite animated: Apu’s solutions could have applications in Google’s self-driving cars, and could form the foundation of an enhanced search engine that knows what you’re about to search for before you even start typing. One of them notes “If we embed his designs into Google Glass, it might become something that people actually want to wear this time. I think Sergey will be absolutely thrilled, since Google Glass was his pet project.” They invite Apu to join them at the Googleplex that afternoon, to meet with their boss.

Googleplex

The Cliffhanger: Apu is hesitant. There’s an important seminar starting in less than an hour. They are going to demonstrate the Squishee machine prototype, and announce a couple of new flavours for next year. He’s going to know what those flavours are before anyone else. On the other hand, he’s never been inside the Googleplex before. He now stands at a fork in the road, and is genuinely undecided.

I’ve written a lot more, but this is how the story arc would begin.

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Closing Thoughts

I can understand where Hari Kondabolu is coming from. During the past quarter century, our cultural landscape has shifted, moving slowly and almost imperceptibly, like tectonic plates, until the continual movement culminates in an earthquake. Suddenly, we are jolted awake, with the the realization that Apu is no longer an accurate representation of South Asians in North America. However, it’s not to late to develop and enhance his character. Let’s make this a positive growth experience for all of us.

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How I Would Deal With Celebrities Who Harass Women

The dominoes have started to fall, and they are now tumbling faster and faster. At this moment, we are living through what Malcolm Gladwell would call The Tipping Point.

Hollywood Sign

We are now all uncomfortably aware of this poorly-kept secret: women in the entertainment industry have been sexually harassed and assaulted by men in power, but rarely has anything been done about it. The tides started to turn in October 2014, when Bill Cosby was accused of multiple drug-facilitated sexual assaults. At first, we didn’t want to believe it – as Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby was America’s father during the 1980s. He liked Jello pudding and he didn’t swear during his comedy routines. What’s not to like? Then, as more and more women came forward, it became clear that our safe, comfortable reality was about to come crashing down. The number of accusers kept climbing until the total surpassed 50. This could not longer be a conspiracy or a collusion – we needed to adjust to a harsh, new reality.

What was a single tremor in 2014 turned into an earthquake during the summer and fall of 2017. One after another, major entertainment and political figures were being accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., James Toback, Ben Affleck, Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken.

As I was beginning this blog post, Charlie Rose was accused by eight women of sexual harassment. He has since been suspended by CBS. As I write this now, Pixar animator John Lasseter has just taken a six-month leave of absence from the company after acknowledging “missteps” in his behaviour with Pixar employees.

People are understandably outraged, not only by the abhorrent behaviour but also by the jarring pervasiveness of it. There is a collective desire to punish these perpetrators, and I share that feeling with you. However, what concerns me is not how we feel, but how we’ve reacted, and the consistency of our knee-jerk reactions:

These punitive measures may make us a sense that justice is being served, but they’re simply short-term, feel-good reactions. In my opinion, there is a much better way to handle these situations, and it begins with examining what we, as a society, want. Yes, we want them to pay for their transgressions, but there is a broader goal: we want them to stop abusing their power or position, to respect others, and to behave like decent human beings. The path to this goal begins with a look back at our childhood.

Childhood Lessons

When I was a little kid, my brother and I usually got along, but not always. When we were fighting or being antagonistic toward each other, my mother would walk into the room and say “I want you two to play nicely together!”. In hindsight, she was very wise. Instead of removing one of us from the room, she deliberately kept us together so that we would learn how to get along with each other. She didn’t adjust our environment because we weren’t well-behaved; we had to change our behaviour and adapt to our environment. It was a form of social Darwinism, and it worked… for a little while. Over time, my brother and I did learn to play nicely together.

I believe this parenting principle can also apply to adults. Of the people in the above list, let’s use Kevin Spacey as an example. After his reprehensible behaviour was publicized, Netflix, understandably, wanted to distance itself from him, and they cut ties with him. I get that. I’m sure that they see him as a toxic person, a general liability to their brand, and perhaps even to their bottom line. However, this is still a Lady Macbeth-esque knee-jerk reaction. Naturally, without their lead actor, the future of his television series, House of Cards, is up in the air.

I believe that there is a better approach to this situation, using a variation of my mother’s conflict resolution technique.

© Creative Commons Attribution, labelled for non-commercial re-use.

As yourself this: Will removing Kevin Spacey from his studio environment make him a better person? Rather than simply fire him (and possibly cancel House of Cards), I’d like to propose the following scenario:

Kevin Spacey’s current contract is torn up, and renegotiated, with the following additional provisions:

  • His annual salary will remain the same, but he will now receive only 50% of it.
  • The other 50% will be divided as follows:
    • 25% of his annual salary will be divided evenly among the co-workers he molested
    • The other 25% will be divided evenly among the rest of the employees. Not just the on-camera talent, but everyone working on the show.
  • He will apologize, in person and individually, to every colleague he harassed or assaulted.
  • He will treat everyone working on the show with the utmost respect and courtesy, at all time, both on and off the set.
  • Those colleagues whom he molested who no longer want to work with him will still be entitled to their share of the 25% portion of his salary, even if they find work elsewhere.
  • If he behaves inappropriately again, then he will be fired immediately and his character will be written out of the show.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the difference here is that his environment will not change; he will remain in it, learn to adapt to it, and learn to treat everyone around him with respect. This is actually a harsher punishment than simply taking away his show, because it makes Netflix the proverbial parent, who is saying “Listen, Spacey, you are not going to run away; we won’t allow it. You are going to stay here, and you are going to treat everyone with the utmost consideration.”

My proposal will give him the opportunity to start practising this less puerile behaviour, day after day, week after week, and month after month. He’ll still earn more than enough money to live, but the sudden reduction in pay will be a reminder that the pendulum still needs to swing the other way for a while before a balance can be restored. Over time, his new civilized comportment should become his new normal, just like it did for my brother and me. I, for one, have faith in Kevin Spacey; like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, I don’t think he’s too old to turn over a new leaf. I think he can transform himself into a decent person, and that is, ultimately, our goal.

In fact, this scenario, with minor modifications, could also be adapted for Jeffrey Tambor and Charlie Rose.

Let’s not be reactionary and change the environment for celebrities who behave poorly. Keep them in the same environment, make sure they know that they’re being watched, and then hold them to a higher behavioural standard. They need to practice continual respectful interactions until it becomes second nature. My proposal gives them that opportunity.

As I turn on my television and continue to watch the proverbial dominoes fall, our collective responses seem dishearteningly similar. It’s tempting to step in when karma isn’t moving fast enough for us, but let’s not succumb to knee-jerk reactions. If we want to create a better society, we need to play the long game. What we see as just and immediate punishment is merely our attempt at changing the environment in response to their actions. Let’s take this opportunity to shape their behaviour and help them realize that they must adapt, and that the changes must come from within.

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To The Edge Of the Universe!

The End Is Near 1

This protester’s sign may be a little premature, but he is correct. Humankind’s reign will eventually come to an end, and there is important work that (I feel) we must complete before we are extinguished.

There are three events that will cause the end of our collective existence: two are naturally-occurring and are in the very distant future. However, the third is one that we created ourselves, and may occur within the next 100 years. Let’s examine each one individually.

The Red Giant

Everyone who’s taken a high school science class knows that our sun will become a Red Giant in about five billion years. At that time, its diameter will increase until it becomes 200 times its current size, and its outer edge will be in the Earth’s orbit. This means that Mercury, Venus and the Earth will be consumed by the sun and completely incinerated. I admit this sounds disastrous, but during the next five billion years – assuming that humankind hasn’t nuked itself out of existence or rendered the Earth uninhabitable in other ways – I expect that we will have devised a way to travel to and colonize other planets, in order to continue our lives elsewhere. This event doesn’t particularly concern me.

Sun, Red Giant-600

Now let’s zoom out a little more and examine things on a cosmological scale.

The Big Crunch

I assume that most of you are familiar with the Big Bang Theory – not the television series, but the hypothesis that offers to explain how the universe was created. About 13.75 billion years ago, all of the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point called a singularity, which then expanded very rapidly, much like an explosion. At this moment, our universe is still expanding (as it has been doing since it was created), but many people who subscribe to this hypothesis also believe that at some point in the future, this expansion will cease and the universe will then start contracting. This contraction will continue until all of the matter in the universe collapses into a single point once again, which will be denser than a black hole. This event is known as the Big Crunch – the Big Bang in reverse. It will be the end of space and time, the universe itself, and (most importantly) everything that was ever created by its inhabitants.

Big Crunch

Although the Big Crunch won’t happen anytime soon, this is still a distressing thought. Everything that humans have ever created and accomplished – every book, building, invention, language, medicine, piece of art; all of our, music, poetry, sculptures and computer software – the entirety of our accumulated wisdom along with the fruits of all of our labours – will one day cease to exist. Preserving our collective knowledge as our sun becomes a Red Giant is a trivial matter – we simply have to move to Mars or to the outer planets in our own solar system – but there is no escape from the Big Crunch. There is no place in the universe where we can safely store this knowledge – no celestial bank vault or safety-deposit box – because, ultimately, all of the matter in the universe will eventually be destroyed. I realize that matter cannot be created or destroyed, but during the Big Crunch, the knowledge and wisdom and beauty contained in that matter will no longer exist.

A Global Catastrophe Of Our Own Making

While there’s still plenty of time before the universe collapses, there is another calamitous event that is just around the corner. Climate change could start making our planet uninhabitable, starting in less than a century.

CO2 Emmisions Chart-600

  • In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the shows host, quoting Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, warns of dire and potentially irreversible consequences for the planet’s food supply if we aren’t able to limit the global temperature rise to below 2°C, or our cumulative global CO² emissions to less than 2,900 gigatonnes. This upper limit is represented by the gray bar in the graph on the left. The red bar represents our present cumulative global CO² emissions. At our current rate of CO² emissions continue, we will exceed that threshold in about 20 years, as indicated by the graph on the right.

  • Author and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with CNN, is also worried that we are reaching the point of no return, and added “The longer we delay, the more I worry we might not be able to recover from this.”

  • Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview with the BBC, warned that humanity was in danger of destroying itself within the next 100 years. Not only from global warming, but also from nuclear war, and genetically-engineered viruses. He then suggested that we need to colonize other planets if we hope to ensure our survival.

Saving Everything Humankind Has Created

When the Big Crunch occurs, everything that humankind has ever created will be destroyed, but now we no longer have billions of years to think of a way to save it. Unless we can curtail our carbon emissions, we will have less than a century before we reach the point of no return, and the beginning of the end.

However, I have an idea – not to save the planet, but a way that we might be able to preserve everything that we’ve created. I will admit, this is a long shot, both literally and metaphorically. Here’s what I propose: We can launch a space probe – one that contains a digitized version of all of our accumulated knowledge (in a multitude of languages), along with a device that will read and translate this data) – and send it hurtling toward the edge of the universe.

Space Probe 2

Right now you’re probably thinking “If the entire universe is going to collapse, then why bother sending out a space probe anywhere, since it will also be destroyed in the Big Crunch?” Yes, that is a reasonable question. The next step in this plan, after launching the probe, is ensuring that it will reach the edge of the universe. Before we can do that, we first need to find out if this is even possible. The universe is still expanding, but how fast is it expanding? After doing a bit of research, I found out that the rate of expansion has its own special unit, called the Hubble Constant. There is some debate over its exact value, but the best guess so far is 71 km/s/Mpc (kilometres per second per megaparsec). The expansion rate is actually a bit more complicated than a simple velocity, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just assume that the rate of expansion is 71km/s.

If we can get our space probe to exceed the speed at which the universe is expanding, then it will eventually reach the edge of the universe. Luckily, space is practically a vacuum, so as long as our probe doesn’t hit anything, it won’t slow down. A continual propulsion source (from solar panels or a small nuclear reactor) can ensure a continual increase in speed. As a reference, the Helios 1 and 2 space probes, launched in 1974 and 1976, respectively, achieved a speed record of 70.22 km/s in their orbit around the sun. Exceeding the speed of the universe’s rate of expansion does appear to to be attainable, which means that we can launch a space probe, filled with our accumulated knowledge, and (theoretically) have it reach the edge of the universe.

The crucial question is: what will happen when our space probe hits the edge of the universe? I have no idea, but after giving it some thought, I think that it will be one of the following scenarios:

  • It will it bounce off the universe’s “wall”, and then simply proceed in the opposite direction, like a cosmic game of Pong.

  • It will disintegrate or otherwise be completely destroyed because it came into contact with an out-of-bounds area.

  • It will become stuck to the edge of the universe by some previously-unknown attractive force.

  • It will re-appear on the other side of the universe, as is if entered a wormhole (much like the arcade game Asteroids, where moving your ship off the right edge of the screen makes it appear again on the left).

  • It will re-appear in some random place in the universe, much like pressing the hyperspace button in the arcade game Asteroids.

  • It will penetrate the edge, and enter some other dimension.

  • It will penetrate the edge and enter the Creator’s World – much like an ant discovering a way through the plastic case of an ant farm.

Edge Of The Universe 2

Of these possibilities, the last two are the most intriguing, because they hold the promise of continuity along with the notion that something may exist outside our universe. When we die, most of us hope that there will be some form of afterlife, because we believe in the continuity of our awareness, or soul. We can’t accept that our essence can just cease, and that we will simply wink our of existence. Similarly, it would be just as tragic if all of our civilization’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom also vanished during The Big Crunch. The last two items in the list give us hope that our collective efforts may not ultimately be in vain, and that we, as a species, might be able to preserve what we’ve created, or present something of value to the creator of the universe.

For all we know, this may even be the purpose of our existence: to find a way to breach the universe’s barrier and give something back to its creator (or impress the creator with our literature, art, poetry, music and wisdom) before everything is ultimately destroyed in The Big Crunch. Our entire universe could even be a creator’s game: design a universe, let it unfold, and see how many civilizations will develop from the primordial ooze, and how many of them will eventually become technologically advanced enough to break through our universe’s barrier and send a message, before they annihilate themselves, destroy their homeworld or time runs out.

I have no idea which of these touching-the-edge-of-the-universe scenarios will turn out to be correct (if any), and I can’t even calculate the odds of a space probe reaching the edge of an expanding universe intact (although I’m sure they are astronomically low). However, if we do nothing, then all will be for naught – everything that every human has ever created will be destroyed. As for the most immediate threat, climate change, we have become a modern-day personification of Ebenezer Scrooge: unless we drastically change our polluting ways, we will also see our names on a (metaphorical) gravestone.

What are our chances for success? No one knows, but however infinitesimal they may seem, I believe that we have to try. Besides, you do buy the occasional lottery ticket, don’t you?

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