Monday, September 27, 2010

A Cholera Outbreak in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Given the magnitude of the universe in which we live, I presume that intelligent species abound. I also presume that these species are located on planets so far from one another that no two will ever make contact. (Regardless of what James Cameron tells you, it's very unlikely that humankind will ever travel to the star system next door, let alone traverse the galaxy like the USS Enterprise—especially since taking care of matters on earth always will be higher on the to-do list than interstellar travel.)

Recently astronomers have discovered that large, spiral galaxies "eat" their smaller neighbors. For those of us on earth, images of one galaxy consuming another are spectacular. But who knows how many civilizations have been devoured by a hungry spiral galaxy. Shouldn't we mourn for our peers on other worlds who are destroyed by astronomical phenomena? Maybe. But given the immensity of our universe, it is possible (probable?) that, at any given moment, an intelligent species goes extinct.

At this point I'd like to propose what I call the law of emotional proximity. This law says that our emotional investment in a tragedy is inversely proportional to our distance from that tragedy. A murder or suicide in one's neighborhood likely will leave one sad and shaken. A murder or suicide in another part of the world likely will have a negligible affect on one's emotions.

Here's an equation based on the law of emotional proximity:

The emotional impact of a tragedy on an individual is equal to the severity of the tragedy divided by the proximity of the tragedy to the individual.

In other words, a natural disaster in Mongolia must kill and/or displace millions of people in order to provoke an emotional response from someone in Missouri equal to that provoked by a natural disaster in Illinois that kills and/or displaces dozens. We care more about things that happen close to home that we do about things that happen in other nations (or other galaxies). It makes sense. The most effective way to meet all people's needs is for localities to take care of their own. And for much of human history, a tragedy on another continent may as well have stricken a far-away planet. One thousand years ago, someone in North America would have been oblivious to a disaster or epidemic in Africa or India, and certainly would not have had the means to help any victims of such a crisis.

Today things are different. We have access to news from other parts of the world; we have means to raise awareness and to donate money and supplies. And we probably have a responsibility to stay informed and to act. Once upon a time, people made their clothes, grew their food, and bought and sold goods locally or regionally. Today, most anyone who lives in a developed nation wears clothes, uses electronics, owns toys and/or knick-knacks, and sets things down on furniture that was manufactured elsewhere in the world. Since we rely on the global community to provide us with inexpensive goods, we should pay attention to when our global neighbors are suffering.

I say all of this because recent months have seen a major cholera outbreak in Cameroon and Nigeria that has killed more than 1,000 people and infected several thousand more. But after much searching, I've determined that no one—outside of the group that set up this project at Global—is doing anything. The Global Giving project is seeking the modest sum of $4000 just to help people in the northern provinces of Cameroon. In more than six weeks, it has only raised $60. So stop by and donate $10 (or more) then check with your favorite international aid agency and ask, "Are you doing anything to help cholera victims in Nigeria and Cameroon?" Then ask, "Dude. Why not?"

See also: Pakistan Needs Help

Update: Read this report on the cholera crisis from the Cameroon Tribune.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Kneeling in the End Zone Game of the Week

  • Game: Texas Christian (3-0) vs. Southern Methodist (2-1); tonight, 7:00 PM CST; ESPN

  • Synopsis: Former Southwest Conference rivals meet in the annual battle for the Iron Skillet. SMU, whose school of theology has been home to renowned Wesleyan scholars Albert Outler and Billy Abraham, looks to spoil the national championship hopes of TCU, the most prominent school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

  • SMU's Story: People under 30 don't remember that SMU was once a football powerhouse, winning unofficial national titles in 1981 and 1982. But after a pay-to-play scandal in the 1980s, the NCAA gave the Mustangs football program the "death penalty," canceling the entire 1987 season and severely restricting the program's recruiting, scheduling, and TV appearances. NCAA penalties so hampered SMU football that the Mustangs would not appear in a bowl game for more than two decades. The drought ended last year when the Ponies took a 7-5 record to the Hawaii Bowl, where they issued a death sentence of their own, executing Nevada 45-10. (To be clear, The United Methodist Church, in its Social Principles, opposes capital punishment.) This season, SMU looks to take the next step toward redemption under coach June Jones.

    God doesn't give up on us, even when we do horrible things. Moses, a fugitive guilty of killing an Egyptian, returned to liberate his people from slavery. David, whom God punished severely for having an affair with Bathsheba and having her husband killed, served faithfully as God's anointed king of Israel. Christ tapped Paul, who had persecuted early Christians and overseen the stoning of Stephen, to lead the church's mission to Gentiles throughout the Roman world. SMU's story of redemption reminds us that nothing we do, no matter how reprehensible, can separate us from God's grace.

  • TCU's Story: The TCU football program also has a storied history. The Horned Frogs won a consensus national championship in 1938 and several times represented the Southwest Conference in the Cotton Bowl. TCU struggled in the 1970s and 1980s then, in 1996, lost its seat among college football royalty when the Southwest Conference disbanded (in large part due to the indiscretions of the Frogs' opponent this evening). Arkansas had already; Texas, A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor joined the Big 8 schools in the new Big XII Conference. The four Dallas/Fort Worth- and Houston-area schools were left to fend for themselves. TCU landed in the WAC then moved to Conference USA in 2001 before finally joining the Mountain West Conference in 2005. While the MWC is not one of the six power conferences and does not own a BCS automatic bid (and may never own one now that Utah and BYU are leaving), it has earned a reputation as a conference that can produce elite teams. This year, TCU, a BCS outsider, is in its best position in more than 70 years to contend for a national title. Even though TCU played in a BCS bowl last season and began this season in the top ten, the Horned Frogs earning a spot in the BCS National Championship Game would be unprecedented.

    Thanks to TCU, Boise State, and Utah (and don't sleep on Nevada), this could be a dream season for college football outsiders—one that could see a school from a non-BCS AQ conference playing for the crystal football. TCU or Boise winning a national championship would shock college football fans, but it shouldn't shock anyone familiar with Scripture. Throughout the Bible, God calls outsiders to be leaders and to do the work of God's kingdom. Despite the ancient Near Eastern tradition of blessings and birthrights passing down from a father to his oldest son, God ordained that Isaac, Jacob, and Judah (none of whom were their father's firstborn and none of whom did anything to earn their birthright) would be blessed. God chose Gideon, the least member of the weakest clan in the tribe of Manasseh (with an attitude problem to boot), to lead Israel against Midian. God anointed David, and not one of his older and more accomplished brothers, to be the second king of Israel. And God chose Mary, an unwed peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah. God went beyond Israel's borders to call outsiders such as Rahab (also a prostitute), Ruth, Cornelius, and Lydia. One could make a convincing case that God prefers working with outsiders.

    It may seem strange for football fans to see TCU ranked #4 in the polls this early in the season (and a win over SMU combined with an Arkansas upset of Alabama and an Oregon State victory over Boise State could lift the Frogs as high as #2), but it isn't strange to God.

Order Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ideas Worth Ignoring Podcast—Episode 11, "Non-Geographic Substates"

Now available in the iTunes Music Store.

Pretty much every nation, state, province, territory, parish, county, and municipality defines its borders geographically. Is it possible to have a non-geographic state? Sure. Why not?

Click here to subscribe or download individual episodes or make your way into the podcast department of the iTunes Music Store and search for "Scrambies."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tuesday Night Trivia

Tonight's challenge is for Meyer, who is still upset about Pluto being re-classified as a dwarf planet:

Four planets have moons that are larger than Pluto. Name these planets.

You get bonus points if you name the moons. There are seven in all, four of which orbit the same planet.

Also, as I've tried to explain to Meyer, Pluto isn't even the largest dwarf planet. Eris is bigger. That said, all of the moons in question are larger than Eris too. (So, if you want, you can just substitute "any dwarf planet" for "Pluto" in tonight's challenge.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

I Just Became Aware of More George Lucas Star Wars Tampering

Every few years since 1997, George Lucas has toyed with his meisterwerk, the Star Wars original trilogy. Some of the changes are obvious and ridiculous. Others are more subtle.

This evening, while doing some research on Wikipedia to find out whether Bail Antilles and Wedge Antilles were from the same planet or related in some way, I learned of a subtle change to Empire Strikes Back that I hadn't noticed before. For the 2004 DVD release of Empire, Lucas replaced Boba Fett's original voice (provided by Twilight Zone veteran Jason Wingreen) with the voice of Temuera Morrison, who played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones. In Clones we learn that Boba Fett is a perfect genetic replica of his father; so, yes, Boba's adult voice should be similar and perhaps identical to Jango's. But I'm bothered by the degree to which Lucas has gone to make the original films play better with the prequels.

The Fett thing isn't really a big deal. Like I said, I didn't even notice it. But I wish Lucas could be content with imperfection. The original Star Wars films are imperfect, but they're great. And nothing Lucas has done to buff out the imperfections has made the original trilogy any greater than it already was. (And if he decides to address the imperfections with the prequels, I fear his golden years will be long and miserable.)

Actually, I'll take this one step further: George Lucas should retire from Star Wars. But, before he does, he should give someone like Edgar Wright his blessing to do a Star Wars reboot.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Monsters Are Due in Murfreesboro

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street." Cue Rod Serling:

Maple Street, USA. Late Summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and a flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 PM on Maple Street.

This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moment...before the monsters came.

The episode begins with a shadow passing over Maple Street, followed by a thunderous noise and a flash of light. The power goes out and none of the cars will start. The neighborhood fanboy suggests that aliens are invading and that some aliens probably moved into the neighborhood in advance of the invasion, disguised as humans. The residents of Maple Street dismiss the comic-book scenario at first, but as strange things continue to happen, the alien invasion idea takes hold. The neighbors panic and begin suspecting and accusing one another of being aliens in disguise. Paranoia and violence ensue and the once idyllic neighborhood self-destructs. The episode's final scene shows two aliens overlooking Maple Street from a nearby hillside. The aliens remark on how easy it was to incite panic and conclude that the best way to conquer earth is to let the earthlings destroy themselves.

"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" first aired in the wake of the Second Red Scare, but I've thought about it a lot this week as I've reflected on the reaction to the Islamic Center of Mufreesboro's plans to build a new facility. The situation on Maple Street isn't completely analogous to what is going on in Murfreesboro (I'm not sure who in Rutherford County is playing the role of the aliens), but in both cases fear, paranoia, and prejudice have turned neighbors against one another.

If you aren't familiar with the controversy over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM), it's similar to the controversy surrounding the Park51 project in Manhattan, but opponents of the ICM don't have the proximity-to-Ground-Zero argument to fall back on. (To my knowledge, Muslims had nothing to do with any of the lives that were lost on the Stones River National Battlefield.) Instead they argue that Middle Tennessee's Muslim community will use the new facility to train terrorists. Why else would Muslims build a swimming pool and a playground if not to train terrorists? Opponents ignore the fact that most of the approximately one thousand members of the ICM have lived in Murfreesboro for years, without incident, and are part of the community. Neighbors. The ICM is building the new facility because its current space does not accommodate the congregation's membership. (It's the same thing churches in Middle Tennessee do all the time.)

If you want to learn more about the controversy, watch this segment from The Daily Show.

What disturbs me most about this situation (even more than the alleged arson at the ICM site last weekend) is the way that people in the Boro have turned on their neighbors. It's sad. Ignorance, fear, and election-year politics—like the shadow, noise, and power outage on Maple Street—have caused a vocal minority of Middle Tennesseans to assume the worst about people who have lived peacefully in their community for years. People who have lived in the same neighborhoods, shopped in the same stores, eaten at the same restaurants, and signed their kids up for the same soccer leagues suddenly are at odds, and for no good reason. It's absolutely heartbreaking.

Cue Rod Serling:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and the thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own: for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

See also: this post from local blogger Stephen Yeargin

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tuesday Night Trivia

(I'm actually posting this on Wednesday morning. I meant to do it last night, but I fell asleep.)

My dad correctly answered Friday's question on the phone last night. The two cities that can boast both a World Series title and a Grey Cup are Toronto and Baltimore. The CFL briefly expanded into the United States in the mid 1990s, and the Baltimore Stallions won the cup in 1995. When the Ravens came to Baltimore, the Stallions moved to Montreal and became the latest incarnation of the Allouettes.

Today's challenge also has a football theme:

What is the fewest number of games a team qualifying for the NFL Playoffs can win during the regular season?

I cannot remember a team making the playoffs with worse than an 8-8 record, but it is mathematically possible to earn a bid with fewer than eight wins.