Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A stocking stuffed with Wikileaks

So it's 9 days 'till Christmas and I know I should be wrapping gifts or making sugar plums or getting a tacky sweater out of mothballs, but somehow it seems more festive in my slanted mind to polish off a bottle of cab and try to wrap my weary old head around the whole Julian Assange-Wikileaks thing. So here goes.
  1. I think whistleblowers are brave, necessary people.
  2. I don't think Assange is a whistleblower.
  3. He's rather unlikable for an Aussie. He should wrestle a crocodile or something fun like that.
  4. All the "sex crimes" he's accused of are trumped up, of course.
  5. He looks a little like a young, less interesting version of Andy Warhol.
  6. He thinks he's done something really profound but all the stuff in the secret documents is just "yawn."
Let's dig into the explosive secrets exposed in the diplomatic "cables" (and people are still sending cables? Is this in the parallel universe where people still use fax machines, too?) :
  • Nations spy on each other through the UN. Okay, so? Of course, it's against the rules, and of course, everyone does it. The operative word might be "realpolitik"? Next question.
  • The mean old US and A has contingency plans to invade various countries. Really? This is a revelation? Since we spend 613 septillion dollars on the Pentagon every year, I hope they have plans to invade and conquer every square inch of the planet, from Montenegro to Andorra to Vatican City, for Pete's sake. I want some product for my tax dollar.
  • State Department flunkies file reports on the behavior and habits of world leaders. So the fuck what? Again, this is a revelation? This is news?
  • People are debating and have conflicting views about how we should act in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether to stay or go, and stuff like that. OMG! I never imagined THAT was going on?!
The phrase "tempest in a teapot" comes to mind. It's telling that the story has been "a bunch of documents got leaked" instead of "leaked documents reveal XYZ." The truth is, the leaked documents reveal nothing but the normal course of events in the affairs of state. Compare what's been learned from these leaks to the skullduggery of Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin bullshit, the Iran-Contra affair - when those dirty doings came to light, it was shocking. The fact that Silvio Berlusconi is a narcissistic dick, or that Mahmoud "Members Only" Ahmadinejad likes pre-pubescent girls in white undies, is not meaningful news, is not a world-changing leak, and is not on par with the drama of the Pentagon Papers, even if Daniel Ellsberg is defending Assange. (Note: While Berlusconi clearly is a narcissistic dick, and while the chances are good that Ahmadinejad does, in fact, like pre-pubescent girls in white undies, I don't know if these facts were revealed by Wikileaks or not. I just like to make things up.)

Truth be told (and is it ever?) I prefer the maximum amount of government transparency at every level. We're all grownups here. And by "all" I mean me and you. But for me, to date, Wikileaks is a pathetic non-story. It's as if your older brother sat you down and said, "Look, I know this is going to be disturbing, but I have proof that mom and dad have been having sex." Pardon me for not being shocked.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Universe overcrowded: Illegal immigrants to blame?

Disclaimer: I suck at science. Chemistry, biology, physics - they all hate me. Sure, I can memorize some shit and pass a test, but any real understanding of why cells divide when it just seems to complicate things, or why protons and electrons continue to hang out together when they clearly have such different points of view, eludes me. Regardless, science intrigues me. It's possible to be fascinated by something while not understanding it at all. Take women, for example. But I digress.

Science is the topic because of a new report in the journal Nature. Turns out there may be three times as many stars in the universe as previously believed. Last I heard, the universe is still expanding, so there's probably plenty of room for all this so you don't really need to clear out the garage.

It's not like there weren't a lot of stars to begin with. Like 400,000,000,000 (400 billion) here in the good old Milky Way, and 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) in some other galaxies, and the old estimate was that the universe had around 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 sextillion - and that's a real word, even though I wish I'd made it up.) Now the big brains tell us the actual number may be closer to 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (300 sextillion), which is, by any measure, a fuck of a lot of stars.

Considering that most of us use the words "million" and "billion" as if they're roughly the same (thanks to the federal budget folks for that, I think, because they don't seem to know the difference) it's really challenging to get your mind around these big numbers. One of the most useful methods of putting big numbers into context is to correlate them to time. For example:
  • One million seconds = 12 days
  • One billion seconds = 31 years
  • One trillion seconds = 31,689 years
  • Three hundred sextillion seconds = just a really, really long time. Longer than two operas back-to-back maybe.
Logic suggests that with all those stars there must be lots and lots of planets, and some of those planets must be pretty similar to ours, so the likelihood that there is life out there beyond us is increased. That leads directly to a musing on what a revelation it would be if there was, at last, some undeniable discovery, some evidence that we are not alone. How human experience would be forever altered if it was learned that there are billions or trillions more creatures - perhaps not that different from us? - living out there in far-flung galaxies. Imagine the possibilities for the expansion of the human mind and culture, and the pursuit of meaning. Not to mention the potential for retail sales growth!