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Doomsday Deluxe

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I frequently enjoy watching the Doomsday Preppers program on the National Geographic Channel.  I get a particular kick out of hearing the reason each particular family gives for building a bunker and making plans for Armageddon.  At the end of each story, the producers at Nat Geo usually reference the consensus of expert opinion concerning the particular doomsday scenario discussed by the featured family.  A popular fear is that earth will get knocked off its axis, causing a polar shift.  (You’ve probably heard Matt Damon mention that one on the TD Ameritrade commercial – wherein he credits the Mayans for starting the rumor.)  Although many of the preppers’ fears are far-fetched, there are certainly many legitimate causes for the sort of concern which could lead a perfectly reasonable person to initiate efforts toward the Ultimate Plan B.  My personal favorite threat is Fukushima.

A number of reports have recently been published concerning the efforts made by more upscale preppers to build designer bunkers.  This situation really cries out for a new television program:  Beverly Hills Bunkers or Celebrity Preppers of Palm Beach.

The Raw Story website ran an AFP report describing the efforts by developer Larry Hall to convert abandoned missile silos into luxury bunkers.  At this point, Hall has found four buyers who have plunked down nearly $2 million each for a silo bunker:

“They worry about events ranging from solar flares, to economic collapse, to pandemics to terrorism to food shortages,” Hall told AFP on a tour of the site.

These “doomsday preppers”, as they are called, want a safe place and he will be there with them because Hall, 55, bought one of the condos for himself. He says his fear is that sun flares could wipe out the power grid and cause chaos.

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Built to withstand an atomic blast, even the most paranoid can find comfort inside concrete walls that are nine feet thick and stretch 174 feet (53 meters) underground.

Instead of simply setting up shop in the old living quarters provided for missile operators, Hall is building condos right up the missile shaft. Seven of the 14 underground floors will be condo space selling for $2 million a floor or $1 million a half floor. Three and a half units have been sold, two contracts are pending and only two more full units are available, Hall said.

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He is also installing an indoor farm to grow enough fish and vegetables to feed 70 people for as long as they need to stay inside and also stockpiling enough dry goods to feed them for five years.

The top floor and an outside building above it will be for elaborate security. Other floors will be for a pool, a movie theater and a library, and when in lockdown mode there will be floors for a medical center and a school.

Complex life support systems provide energy supplies from sources of conventional power, as well as windmill power and generators. Giant underground water tanks will hold water pre-filtered through carbon and sand.

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Interested buyers have included an NFL player, a racing car driver, a movie producer and famous politicians, he said, but he now requires all the money up front.

Blake Ellis of CNN Money gave us a peek at how “the one percent” is getting ready for doomsday:

Northwest Shelter Systems, which offers shelters ranging in price from $200,000 to $20 million, has seen sales surge 70% since the uprisings in the Middle East, with the Japanese earthquake only spurring further interest. In hard numbers, that’s 12 shelters already booked when the company normally sells four shelters per year.

Who spent $20 million on a bunker?  Oprah?  Bill Gates?  Lloyd Blankfein?

Inquiring minds want to know how their favorite celebrities will be riding out The Apocalypse.  Which porn stars will Charlie Sheen invite to his Doomsday Den?  How many people within one degree of Kevin Bacon will Kyra Sedgwick allow into his bunker?

There is definitely a television show here – and it’s bound to draw a bigger audience than the number watching Doomsday Preppers.  Any guesses as to which network runs with this?


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Scientists Bust the Top One Percent

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Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last fall, we have been hearing the incessant mantra of:  Don’t blame the rich for wealth inequality.  In fact, Herman Cain’s futile bid for the Presidency was based (in part) on that very theme.  Last January, James Q. Wilson (who passed away on Friday) wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  Paul Buchheit of the Common Dreams blog rebutted Wilson’s essay with this posting:  “So say the rich:  ‘Don’t blame us for having all the money!’ ”.  How often have you read and heard arguments from apologists for the Wall Street banksters, upbraiding those who dared speak ill of those sanctified “job creators” within the top one percent of America’s economic strata?

Finally, a group of scientists has intervened by conducting some research about the ethics of those at the top of America’s socioeconomic food chain.  Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on this subject.  Their paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.  In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.  In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The impact and the timing of this article, with respect to the current debate over income inequality, have resulted in quite a bit of interesting commentary.  I enjoyed the perspective of Peter Dorman at the Econospeak blog:

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along – rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.

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The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.

Most of the commentary written about the PNAS article has been relatively non-partisan.  Two-day access for reading the article on-line will cost you ten bucks.  For those of us who can’t afford that (as well as for those who can afford it – but are too greedy to pay for anything) I have assembled a number of excerpts from articles written by those who actually read the entire scientific paper.  The following passages will provide you with some interesting details about the research conducted by this group.

Christopher Shea of The Wall Street Journal gave us a brief peek at some of the specific findings of the studies conducted by this team.

It went so far as to show that higher-class people will literally take candy from the mouths of children.

An excerpt quoted by Shea illustrated how the group expanded on an observation made by French sociologist Émile Durkheim:

 “From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,” Durkheim famously wrote.  Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

Brandon Keim of Wired offered us more research data from the article, while focusing on the observations of team member Paul Piff, a Berkeley psychologist:

“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.  “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies.  This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”

According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society.  It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

“When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes,” said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan.  “The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives.  We always control for political persuasion,” he said.

For Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, the research performed by this group helped explain the rationale behind a bit of Republican campaign strategy:

Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party.  Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica reported on some of the juicy details from a few experiments.  When reading about my favorite experiment, keep in mind that the term “SES” refers to socioeconomic status.

Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior.  At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted.  At this point you might be able to guess what the results were.  High SES participants took more candy.

Gitlin concluded his review of the paper with this thought:

The researchers argue that “the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”  However, they point out that their findings aren’t absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.

Meanwhile, the debate over economic inequality continues to rage on through the 2012 election cycle.  It will be interesting to observe whether this scientific report is exploited to bolster the argument that most of the one-percenters suffer from a character flaw, which not only got them where they are today – but which is shared by their kleptocratic comrades, who have facilitated a system of legalized predation.


 

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Revenge Of The AstroNerds

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April 20, 2009

I used to be an AstroNerd.  Back in the mid-1980s, I was a member of the Chicago Astronomical Society.   On the second Friday of every month, I would attend the monthly meeting at 7 p.m.  We would usually see slides of the spectacular space pictures taken by an astronomer who had the opportunity to use the telescope at some major observatory and there would be a discussion period.  Back then, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope seemed as though it would never happen because of the tragedy involving the Challenger space shuttle.  At the Chicago Astronomical Society meetings, I was amused by the fact that some of the members were outraged because manufacturers of “hobbyist” telescopes (such as Celestron and Meade) were introducing new scopes, driven by a hand-held computer, allowing the user to view dozens of different celestial objects over the course of an hour.  These complainers had been used to working on calculations as to where to find some binary star or nebula they wanted to see and spending almost the entire night trying to find it.  Suddenly, any spoiled brat with two thousand bucks to spend, could get involved in astronomy with a much greater reward.  To the old-timers:  this was cheating.  At the end of each meeting, I would walk home from the Adler Planetarium and watch Miami Vice.  Although I have yet to purchase a really nice Celestron, I eventually did move to Miami, where there is so much humidity and city light, you can only see a small handful of stars even on a clear, “winter” night.  To escape the reflected urban light, some people take their telescopes out to the Everglades and feed themselves to the alligator-sized mosquitoes.  Others risk death by driving along the two-lane, Overseas Highway (the head-on collision capitol of the world) to go sky-watching in the Florida Keys.

Last week, I was amazed by the television program, 400 Years of the Telescope, broadcast on PBS.   (It’s also available on DVD at the above link.)  I found it shocking that currently, there are a number of absurdly enormous earthbound telescopes under construction.  Apparently, computer technology can be used to enhance the images from these scopes to rival the views from the Hubble.  As for the Hubble, I was surprised to learn that the numerous repairs to that device, beginning with the heroic job by astronaut Story Musgrave, actually included upgrades.  The current image quality from the Hubble is now “hundreds of times better” than its designers ever anticipated.  An example is this photograph of the Orion Nebula taken in 2006.

Given our current economic crisis, astronomy and space exploration are having more trouble than ever obtaining funding.   An example of this is discussed in the current (May) issue of The Atlantic.  (As an aside, this issue has three great articles about the economy here, here and here.)  Thomas Mallon wrote an article about the current effort by a number of scientists and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, to develop and launch a privately-funded spacecraft that would be propelled by sunlight.  They anticipate that this concept could eventually be used for interstellar flight.  As Mallon pointed out, NASA will soon be out of the business of launching people into space, with no viable plan on the drawing board to continue doing so:

Between the shuttle’s planned retirement in 2010 and a new system’s development, the U.S. government will have to rely on the old Soviet Soyuz to get crews and supplies up to the International Space Station.  Worse, the first of our own new launch vehicles, Ares 1, is already beginning to look unreliable, at least in tests.  American politicians now mostly avoid the old conditional trope “If we can put a man on the moon” — because we can’t, not anymore.

Mallon explained that Ann Druyan has found it difficult obtaining funding because these days, the people with the enthusiasm for space exploration and the money — are using it to pay their own fare for a ride into space:

The Discovery Channel did put up a quarter million dollars to jump-start the renewed effort, and she has her fingers crossed for a few big potential donors she can’t really talk about.  Even so, she can’t get over the general timidity and lack of imagination she keeps encountering, and she’s particularly aghast at the scads of cash some ego-tripping big-money men seem willing to spend on personal space tourism:  “Isn’t the whole planet enough for them?”  Google’s Sergey Brin — whose company the project also appealed to, unsuccessfully, years ago — is yet another billionaire who hopes to romp around in orbit.

Although The Great Recession is having an attenuated impact on the super-rich, its consequences for society as a whole will be incalculable if too much scientific research is put on “hold” indefinitely.  Let’s hope that some billionaires rise to the occasion and save us from falling into a dark age of scientific stagnation.  Come on, Bill Gates  —  give your fellow nerds some help!