Tag Archives: civilization

Five Video Games To Help Combat Boredom During A Health Crisis

I’ve been trying to avoid the increasingly bleak news surrounding the ongoing health crisis involving the Coronovirus/COVID-19. I tried offering a more optimistic outlook a while back, but that post has since aged like spoiled milk and rotting cheese.

Make no mistake. This is a crisis. Not even Tom Hanks is immune to it. As I write this, several areas near where I live have confirmed new cases. There’s talk of schools closing and major events being cancelled. After the NBA suspended its season, anything is possible at this point.

We may soon face the possibility of being stuck at home, frantically washing our hands and trying to wait out this crisis. After the disease, the biggest threat is the boredom that inevitably comes with being cooped up inside for too long. Having endured many blizzards in my life that kept me stuck at home for days on end, I can confirm that this is a real possibility.

Thankfully, I learned from an early age that video games are a great way to alleviate boredom. There’s only so much TV I can watch and so many shows I can binge. With TV and movies, you’re not always engaged. It’s too passive. It’s easy to get anxious and tense. With video games, you have to stay engaged in order to play. It’s a good distraction, as well as a good way to pass the time.

It also helps that games have come a long way since the days of Super Mario and Donkey Kong. The games I played as a kid got me through blizzards. For an extended quarantine, the might not have sufficed. However, games these days are bigger and more complex than ever. Some are so big that they become a massive time-suck. You could lose days on end playing these games and never know the snow outside had melted.

Since this crisis will likely take longer to pass than a blizzard, I’d like to offer a list of video games that should help pass the time and combat boredom. Please note that none of these games are MMOs or games that require a constant internet connection. That’s to accommodate those who don’t live in places with good internet. Some of these games are only available on PC, but most are available on consoles in some form.

We’re in uncharted territory with this crisis, but crippling boredom is sure to make it worse. While you’re waiting out the worst of this crisis, please consider using these games to tide you over in the meantime.


1. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

The world of the Elder Scolls franchise is a vast, magical place and Skyrim is by far the most extensive. If you’re a fan of fantasy games, or the fantasy genre in general, you will lose yourself in this game for all the right reasons. It’s not just a game about slaying dragons and fighting monsters. That is part of the story, but there’s so much more to do.

There are side-quests galore. There are unexplored lands. There are magical items to gather, refine, and improve. There are personal connections to foster and develop. You never run out of things to do in Skyrim. It’s less a game and more a customizable fantasy world that you get to explore through a character you create. Such an immerse experience ensures you’ll have hours of fun. Just be careful with mods and cheats.


2. Mass Effect Trilogy

For fans of sci-fi, the world of Mass Effect is every bit as rich as Elder Scrolls. Specifically, I’m referring to the Mass Effect Trilogy, as a whole. I’d even throw in Mass Effect Andromeda if you want to expand it even more. Just make sure you get the version that patches the glitchy graphics.

I’ve mentioned Mass Effect before when talking about artificial intelligence. I’ve even cited it as having one of the best romantic sub-plots of any game I’ve ever played. Those are all great reasons to play this game, but there’s so much more to this world. I could spend days on end just writing about it and far longer playing it.

Mass Effect isn’t as much of an open world as Skyrim, but it’s so rich in scope and lore that you rarely run out of things to do. It’s also a game that isn’t linear in its story. There are many paths you can take, many choices you can make, and many passions to pursue. It’s a game with a great deal of replay value and given how long it takes to get through it just once, you’ll rarely be bored.

Also, it has Mordin singing. That’ll make any depressing day feel better.


3. Civilization Series (For PC Gamers)

This is a game for fans of real-time strategy, history, and fictional politics. It’s also one of those games that you don’t realize is such a time suck until you see how much you’ve played it. I know this because I spent an entire summer playing Civilizations III and it felt like the quickest summer vacation of my life.

Instead of shooting and adventure, Civilizations is all about strategy. You found a civilization. You build and grow that civilization from ancient times to the modern world. In the process, you try to dominate over other competing civilizations, whether through war or diplomacy. It’s a little complex at times, but it’s easy to get into. Before you know it, several hours have passed you by.

There are many entries of this franchise, but I would suggest going with Civilizations IV and V, depending on how good your PC is. Even without online play, these games offer a rich, rewarding experience that you’ll get lost in for all the right reasons.

Just be sure to keep track of time. Trust me, you’ll forget to eat or sleep if you don’t.


4. Sim City Series

This game has some personal weight for me. The Sim City franchise has always been near and dear to my heart. Since the days of Super Nintendo, this has been one of those games that offers something different. The goal isn’t to destroy or dominate. The goal is to build a city and make it the best damn city you can. It sounds dull, but Sim City makes it both fun and rewarding.

I remember spending hours on end, testing layouts and designs for cities. There are so many ways you can build your own city. Most versions of the games also have scenarios you can take on that test your ability to manage a city through a crisis. Given the recent news, it gives you a certain appreciation for what mayors and governors must endure.

Sim City might not appeal to everyone, but it’s a different kind of gaming experience that gets you engaged in a unique way. If you can get into it, you have something that you can enjoy for days at a time.


5. Grand Theft Auto 5

I know parents, politicians, religious officials, and people who just don’t like fun will hate this. However, when you’re stuck at home and fighting off boredom, there’s no getting around it. The Grand Theft Auto games are full of violence and sex, but they’re rarely boring. Grand Theft Auto V is, by far, the most comprehensive entry into the franchise and the game that will keep you in a permanent state of road rage for days on end.

There’s a rich story, but there’s also a vast world full of things to do. Many of those things involve sex, murder, drugs, and stealing, but that’s exactly why you play a game like this. It’s a dark fantasy world built on a foundation of heavy satire. When you need to blow off steam, there’s always a worthy target in the world of Grand Theft Auto.

It also has Trevor Phillips. If you can’t find entertainment value in playing Trevor Phillips, then you’re just being difficult.


I hope this helps anyone out there who is caught up in the worst of this crisis. Being cooped up inside for reasons you can’t control can be frustrating. No matter who you are, it gets to you after a while. There are many ways to cope, but if you have a computer or a video game console, you have options that should help tide you over. These are just some of them.

Stay safe. Stay calm. Above all, wash your damn hands.

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Filed under Current Events, video games

Why Intelligent Aliens May Destroy Us Even If They’re Peaceful (According To Mass Effect)

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What would happen if we went back in time and gave the Genghis Khan nuclear weapons?

What  would happen if we went back even further and gave machine guns to the Ancient Romans?

Let’s be even more subtle. What do you think would happen if you gave Aristotle a functioning smartphone with a complete catalog of Wikipedia? How much would that change the course of history? More importantly, how much damage would it potentially incur?

I consider myself an optimist. I generally place more faith in humanity than most people in this age of fake news and heavy cynicism. I have my reasons for doing so, but even my confidence in the human species has limits. I trust most people to do the right thing every time I drive my car on the highway. That doesn’t mean I’d trust a caveman from 10,000 BC to drive a fully-loaded tank.

I make this point because these are legitimate concerns consider when assessing how humanity deals with emerging technology. We can barely handle some of the technology we already have. How will we handle things like advanced artificial intelligence, gene hacking, or advanced robotics?

I’ve stated before that the human race is not ready for advanced artificial intelligence in its current state. I’ve also stated that the human race isn’t ready for contact with an advanced alien species, either. I believe we’re close. We may even be ready within my lifetime. However, if aliens landed tomorrow and brought an advanced artificial intelligence with them, I think our civilization and our species would be in trouble.

I also think the human race would be in danger even if those same aliens were peaceful. Even if they brought a super-intelligent AI that was as compassionate and caring as Mr. Rogers, our species would still face an existential crisis. To explain why, I’ll need to revisit one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.”

The various themes of this game, and the lore behind it, offer many insights into very relevant questions. In addition to the timeless hilarity of bad dancing skills, the game crafts a rich history between alien races like the Quarians and the Geth. That history reflected the dangers of mishandling advanced artificial intelligence, an issue humanity will have to deal with in the coming decades.

There is, however, another rich history between alien races within “Mass Effect” that offers a similar lesson. This one has less to do with artificial intelligence and more to do with what happens when a species technology that it’s not ready to handle. That danger is well-documented in the game through a hardy race of beings called the Krogan.

Like the Quarian/Geth conflict, the conflict surrounding Krogan has some real-world parallels. However, I would argue that their story Krogan is more relevant because it serves as a warning for what could happen when an advanced species uplifts one that is less advanced.

In the mythos of “Mass Effect,” the Krogan were once a primitive, but hardy species that evolved on the harsh world of Tuchanka. They’re reptilian, high-functioning predators in nature. They’re basically a cross between a velociraptor, a crocodile, and a primate. They have a tough, war-like culture, which is necessary on a world that contained hulking Thresher Maws.

They were not a species most would expect to develop advanced technology. Then, the Salarians came along. Unlike the Korgan, this amphibious alien race isn’t nearly as hardy, but is much more adept at developing advanced technology. In most circumstances, they wouldn’t have given the Krogan a second thought. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of the Rachni War and they needed help.

You don’t need to know the full details of that war. The most critical detail, as it relates to advancing an unprepared species, is how this war came to define the Krogan. Neither the Salarians nor the other alien races in the game could defeat the Rachni. In a fit of desperation, they uplifted the Krogan by giving them weapons and advanced knowledge.

In the short-term, the Salarians achieved what they’d hoped. The Krogan helped defeat the Rachni. In the long-term, however, it created another inter-stellar war in the Krogan Rebellions. Apparently, giving a hardy, war-like species advanced weapons doesn’t make them less war-like. It just gives them better tools with which to fight wars. That may sound obvious, but keep in mind, the Salarians were desperate.

The details of this war end up playing a major role in both “Mass Effect” and “Mass Effect 3.” That’s because to stop the Krogan, the Salarians resorted to another act of desperation. They crafted a biological weapon known as the genophage, which significantly curtailed the Krogan’s rapid breeding rate.

The damage this did to the Krogan race cannot be understated. Through the entire trilogy of “Mass Effect,” characters like Wrex and Eve describe how this destroyed Krogan society. In “Mass Effect 3,” Eve talks about how the genophage created massive piles of stillborn Krogan babies. That kind of imagery can haunt even the most battle-hardened species.

In the end, both the Salarians and the Krogan paid a huge price for giving technology to a species that wasn’t ready for it. Depending on the decision you make in “Mass Effect 3,” the Krogan species is doomed to extinction because of how ill-prepared they were. This haunted more than a few Salarians as well, one of which played a significant role in a memorable side-story in “Mass Effect 2.”

Regardless of how the game plays out, there’s an underlying message at the heart of the Salarian/Krogan dynamic. When a species is uplifted by another so abruptly, it’s difficult to see the long-term ramifications. Even though the Salarians were in a dire situation, they ended up creating one that had the potential to be much worse.

That danger is actually more pressing because, unlike advanced artificial intelligence, the act of uplifting a species effectively skips over the cultural and societal evolution that’s necessary to handle new technology. The Krogan never got a chance to go through that process before getting that technology. As a result, they became an existential threat to themselves and others.

The human race still has a long way to go before it creates the kind of artificial intelligence that would constitute such a threat. Aliens on the level of Salarians could land tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do to prepare ourselves. Whatever knowledge or technology we gained could do more than just upend human society. It could irreparably damage our species, as a whole.

Some of that outcome would depend on the intentions of the advanced alien race. It could be the case that they’re not like the Salarians and aren’t looking to enlist humanity in a war. It could also be the case that they’re smart enough to not give primitive humans advanced weapons. That could mitigate the risk.

However, that still assumes humans won’t find a way to use advanced knowledge to make weapons. When Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, he didn’t have any idea that it would be used to make a bomb that would kill go onto kill over 100,000 people. Even if advanced aliens are really smart, how could they be sure that humanity won’t use advanced knowledge to create something more horrific?

Sure, they could try to stop us, but that could only make things worse. The genophage wasn’t the Salarians’ first recourse. They actually went to war with the Krogan. They suffered heavy losses and so did the Krogan. In the long run, uplifting a less advanced species was detrimental to both of them.

That doesn’t just put the famous Fermi Paradox into a new context. It demonstrates a real, tangible threat associated with advancing a species before it’s ready. I would argue that the human race is close to that point, but we’re still not there. We have issues managing the technology we’ve created. There’s no way we can handle advanced alien technology at the moment.

Mass Effect,” in addition to being one of the greatest video games of the past two decades, offers many lessons for the future of humanity. It shows that humans are capable of great things. We have what it takes to join an entire galaxy full of advanced alien life. For our sake, and that of other advanced aliens, we cannot and should not rush it.

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Filed under Aliens, futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, philosophy, psychology

How Less Sex Can Crash The Economy

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There’s a funny, but revealing saying by famed economist, Paul Samuelson, on the difficulty of predicting economic trends. It goes like this:

The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions.

Other than being a play on numbers, there is a message in this quip that’s worth noting. No matter how many dire warnings accomplished economists give, a recession always seem to hit. It only ever becomes truly obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

I bring this up because I’m about to make some predictions about the future of the economy and I’m not an economist. I don’t claim to have more credibility on the matter than anyone else who has read every Freakanomics book ever written.

However, since the economy affects us all, it’s still worth talking about. Since the economy can influence our sex lives in ways I’ve discussed before, I feel like I can comment on the subject and even do a little speculation. Again, I want to make clear that I’m not an expert. This is just me making connections I feel are worth making.

When it comes to the economy, it’s not physically possible for anyone to make sense of all the data and connections that govern our affairs. Human beings are just too unpredictable and the amount of data involved is just too vast. Some points of data, though, carry more weight than others.

One of those points has to do with population and demographics. It’s a topic that’s becoming more and more relevant these days. Just this year, the birth rate in the United States dipped to a 30-year low. That’s somewhat remarkable because people tend to have more children when the economy is doing well and by most measures, the economy has been pretty good these past couple years.

This isn’t just an American problem, though. Many industrialized countries throughout the world are experiencing very low birth rates, some of which well below the replacement level rate that would keep a population stable. The reasons for this are many, but most boil down to cost. It’s just very expensive to raise a child these days and that cost is only going up.

Beyond the cost, though, there’s another factor at work that’s driving these declining fertility rates. People, in general, are just having less sex. That may seem obvious, given the data surrounding birth rates, but there are other aspects of the data that may reveal other factors.

For one, the decline in sexual activity is actually hitting the younger demographics, who are historically and biologically the most eager to engage, so to speak. I’m still old enough to remember when every other week seemed to bring dire news about teenagers having too much sex and horrifying their parents. Now, they’re not doing, but still finding ways to horrify their parents.

While I’m sure it still comes as a relief to some parents, it’s already causing concerns among demographers. However, I believe there’s a much larger concern about the economy, as a whole, that’s just starting to emerge. It has less to do with there being fewer babies and more to do with the nature of modern economies.

The days of economic health being measured by how many widgets a factory could produce are long gone. These days, most modern economies are built around consumer spending. Around 70 percent of the economy is consumer spending. That is not a trivial portion.

To illustrate why that could be a much greater problem down the line, I’ll need to make a few connections between sex and the economy. It’s not quite as kinky as it sounds, but those connections matter if you’re going to speculate about the future with any measure of accuracy.

Think, for a moment, about just how much economy activity goes into people seeking out sex and dealing with its associated byproducts, namely children. Whether you’re a man, a woman, or something in between, that pursuit drives a great deal of our economic activity.

Men work hard at jobs that don’t always pay that well to buy clothes, cars, and gifts with the hope that it’ll improve their chances of finding a partner. Women do the same, spending a great deal of money on cosmetics, clothes, and beauty treatments to attract desirable lovers. The money people spend on beauty products alone pumps a lot of money into the economy.

Even if the goal of these purchases isn’t directly linked to someone’s pursuit of sex, this activity does link to that fundamental pursuit that has driven society and our species for centuries. We work hard, establish functioning lives, and buy the things that prove to one another that we’re desirable lovers. It’s part of the many incentives that drive any economy.

It’s those same incentives, though, that can lead an economy into a cycle of destruction. Those cycles are behind every major financial crisis, but the one created by less sex and low birth rates may end up having a far greater impact. Some of those incentives are economic, but it’s the social incentives that might compound the issue.

Some of those incentives involve how modern marriage functions. More than a few people, myself included, have pointed out that marriage is not a very good deal, especially for men. If you look at it from the perspective of a simple contact, the flaws are pretty obvious.

Imagine, for a moment, that someone presents you with a contract. You will enter into a partnership in which you pledge emotional, financial, and intimate support for an undefined period of time. However, if the other party wishes to dissolve the partnership at any time for any reason, they can do so and get half your assets, as well as custody of your children.

Read over the fine print carefully. Would you sign that contract? Who in the right mind who isn’t drunk on irrational passions would? I think most people would see that as a bad deal and one that they have plenty of incentive to avoid.

On top of those incentives, there’s another round of them that has been growing recently. These come directly from the ongoing anti-harassment movement that has helped expose horrible sex crimes, but has also given men a powerful incentive to avoid women.

As a man, and I know this is anecdotal on my part, I find myself feeling very anxious around women who I don’t know or aren’t close family. I worry that one wrong gesture or one wrong comment will lead to an accusation that will subsequently ruin my life. I don’t want that and I don’t think any man wants that.

That’s not to say those incentives are powerful enough to make men stop feeling attracted to women, but I do think they’re sufficient to make men more reluctant to seek out intimate relationships with women. From an economic standpoint, the potential cost is very high, whether it’s paying for a child or for having your life ruined by an accusation.

From these incentives, the resulting economic situation won’t just be different. It will be unsustainable when you take into account the declining fertility rates. It doesn’t even have to be an economy where nobody gets married and has kids. It can just be an economy where most men and women stay single and don’t build much of their economic activity around pursuing sex.

In that economy, the only major purchases would be shelter, electricity, internet, and entertainment. As expensive as some of those can be, they’re not going to match the same amount of spending that comes with caring for children or for people just trying to get laid.

In the short-term, that means the economy will be dominated primarily by products and services that just help single men and single women relax on a Friday night after work. In the long-term, however, the consequences are much greater.

Without a growing population, there aren’t as many workers to support the large welfare states that most modern economies utilize. Moreover, without that same growing population, the consumer base starts shrinking. Even if a greater number of people have more money, that money is useless if there aren’t enough people to spend it.

From there, a cycle of fewer consumers starts feeding a process of declining spending. On top of that, fewer workers means it’s impossible to sustain a large welfare state, which leaves more people impoverished with even less money to spend. It began with declining birth rates, but it only accelerated when people just had less sex.

In the end, the economy as we know it now, just can’t function anymore. I’m not saying it’ll completely collapse, but it would have to adapt a lot in order to function with these incentives. I’m not sure what those adaptations would entail, whether it involves a universal basic income or using artificial wombs to augment the population.

I’ll say it one more time because I think I need to belabor this. I’m not an expert. This is just speculation on my part. This is what I feel could be the endgame for our economy, as we know it, if the current incentives hold. It’s a near certainty that there will be changes, but it’s impossible to predict what those changes will entail.

From my perspective, though, I think the implications are clear. A society where people are having fewer children is hard enough to adapt to, but we’ve already been doing that to some extent. One where people have less sex or flat out avoid it, though, may end up being much harder.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, sex in society, sexuality

Is The Human Race Ready For Contact With Alien Life?

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In general, I tend to have a high opinion of the human race. I believe that, in general, people are inherently good and will do the right thing in the long run, even if it requires mistakes and missteps along the way. Some of my personal experiences have fed this belief, as well as stories of incredible acts of compassion.

I say that as a preface because my faith in humanity does have limits. There are certain issues where those limits become a critical factor in answering major questions about where we are, as a species, and where we’re heading. I’ve tried answering some of those questions before, such as humanity’s readiness for advanced artificial intelligence. Now, I want to try to answer another where I feel humanity’s limits are a real issue.

It has to do with whether or not humans are alone in the universe. It’s probably one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked, inspiring heated debates, famous equations, and Hollywood blockbusters. I’ve certainly asked that question a time or two when looking up at the stars. I imagine there are few people who haven’t.

At the moment, the sheer size of the universe and the ever-growing number of planets we keep finding, the raw numbers make it almost certain that there’s other life outside our planet. It may even be within our own solar system. Just finding some microbes on one of Jupiter’s moons would be pretty profound, but I doubt it would bring that much change to the human race. Some might just brush it off or call it fake news.

It’s the act of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial life that has far greater implications for humanity. I would even argue that those implications could determine whether the human race will survive beyond the destruction of Earth, which is inevitable. Even advanced artificial intelligence wouldn’t compare because at least humans would create that. An intelligent alien civilization would be much less predictable.

In confronting this existential issue, I don’t believe movies or TV shows have come close to getting it right. “Contact” made a commendable effort, but never gave more than a half-answer. Movies like “Independence Day” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” were overly simplistic in their approach. That’s to be expected because, logistically speaking, there’s no way to fit all the implications into a single two-hour movie.

I believe that to answer the question of humanity’s readiness to confront an extraterrestrial species is multi-faceted. There are plenty of factors to consider, but before I get too bogged down by the particulars, I want to offer my personal opinion on the issue. Then, I hope to demonstrate why I have this opinion.

No, the human race is NOT ready for contact with intelligent extraterrestrial aliens, but we’re getting there.

I know that isn’t a straightforward answer. It may sound like I’m trying to stand on both sides of the fence, but like I said, the question is inherently complex. As such, it’s hard to offer a simple answer.

Part of the complexity comes from circumstances. In an instance where scientists on Earth identify an advanced alien species, possibly by detecting an alien mega structure like a Dyson Sphere around a distant star, I think the human race could handle that, for the most part.

Such a discovery would be, by far, the greatest ever made in the history of humanity. It would be the story of the millennium and confirm, once and for all, the answer to one of the most fundamental questions our species has ever asked. Getting an answer to that question would change how we see ourselves in the universe, but the extent of the impact would be limited.

Sure, it might cause some disruptions with respect to major religions, although some denominations already preparing for that. It might also cause some ripples in the social fabric of society. If we know there are alien civilizations in the universe that are more advanced than us, then suddenly we have fewer excuses to impose petty divisions within our own species.

There would be upheaval. There would be tension, as well. I still believe that society would adapt in that scenario. Once the shock wears off, we may very well go back to how we were before. Future generations would just shrug off the notion that advanced aliens exist and focus primarily on the issues directly affecting them on Earth.

There’s another instance, however, that has far more profound implications, as well as greater danger. In that scenario, the advanced alien civilization contacts us directly. Moreover, it effectively announces that it’s coming to meet us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

In that scenario, I don’t think the current order will remain intact. If we found out tomorrow that intelligent aliens exist and they’re on their way to greet us, I believe that society, as we know it, will fall apart under the weight of fear, uncertainty, and outright dread.

My reasons for believing this have less to do with my faith in humanity and more to do with my understanding of basic human psychology. It’s proven science that the human psyche is adverse to uncertainty. From a purely survival standpoint, that makes sense. Not knowing whether there’s a hungry lion hiding in the bushes is detrimental to our survival. We have a legitimate evolutionary reason for avoiding such situations.

An advanced alien civilization isn’t just a possible threat. It’s the ultimate uncertainty. Even if those aliens are peace-loving hippies who want nothing more than to create a utopian world for every species they encounter, we won’t know for certain. Even if they try to articulate their peaceful intentions, we may not believe them because assuming wrong would be more dire than any hungry lion.

If an alien civilization is advanced enough to both contact us and traverse interstellar space, then it’s highly likely that we wouldn’t stand a chance at stopping them. Despite what “Independence Day” might have you believe, there’s just no way we would be able to counter technology that could carry another species across the stars.

On top of that, we wouldn’t even know if these aliens were biological creatures, like us. More than a few scientists have speculated that it’s the natural path of all advanced life that it transcend its biology to become machines in part or entirely, which makes sense for any species that wants to survive in the vacuum of space. I would agree that any initial encounter humans have with advanced aliens will come in the form of a probe.

Even if that probe is no bigger than a basketball, its arrival on Earth would trigger so much panic that our society, economy, and political institutions wouldn’t survive in their current form. That’s not to say civilization would completely collapse. Some areas might descend into anarchy, but most wealthy countries would remain intact.

However, I believe they’ll remain intact through strict martial law. I also believe that, in the face of incoming aliens, there would be a huge scramble among nations to put together some sort of defense plan. Anyone remotely experienced with science or engineering would suddenly become incredibly valuable for their skills and likely be required to work on this issue.

No matter what recourse humanity takes, though, I don’t think it’ll matter once intelligent aliens arrive. The worst case scenario is that people are so afraid that a few become too trigger happy and attempt to attack. In that case, if the advanced aliens are the vindictive type, they would probably wipe humanity out with the same ease that we would use to step on an ant.

While I don’t think that scenario is that likely, I can certainly see fear dominating the discourse. It would probably extend beyond the initial contact. Even if  the aliens present themselves as friendly visitors, I imagine there will still be plenty of paranoia that it could all be a trick. Given how eager some people are to embrace conspiracy theories, I think this will cause plenty of problem, even in the best case scenario.

There’s still a chance that the human race could adapt to this encounter and be stronger because of it. However, if I had to bet money on the ultimate outcome, I wouldn’t wager much on that outcome. I think, at the moment, it’s more likely that fear and uncertainty will lead to the kind of irrational behavior that would prevent humanity from benefiting from an encounter with intelligent aliens.

As it stands, humans can’t even prevent conflict when encountering one another, especially if they look and act differently. I can’t imagine it would be much better if we encountered a species that was so different that we just had no way of relating to them. At least with minorities here on Earth, we share the same basic human template. For all we know, aliens will look, think, and feel things that are beyond our abilities.

Now, I know that scenario sounds bleak, especially for someone who claims to have more faith in humanity than most. However, there’s one last caveat that further complicates the issue and it has to do with the last part of my answer.

When I stated that the human race is not ready to encounter an advanced alien species, I mean that within a specific context. In the same way I don’t believe humanity is ready for advanced AI at the moment, I don’t think the collective psyche of the human race is to a point where we can accept the idea of confronting an intelligent alien civilization.

That, I do think we’re more ready today than we were 30 years ago. Humanity has made remarkable progress with respect to technology, society, and general welfare. Being more connected through media, the internet, and globalization has helped us better see ourselves as one species, at least to the extent our inherent tribalism will allow.

I believe that in the coming decades, especially as we augment our brains and our bodies, we’ll be more prepared to encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m not sure we’ll ever be completely ready, but I do think we’ll get to a point where we, as a society, will be able to handle it.

Whether or not that point comes within my lifetime or that of the kids being born today is hard to say, but given enough time and continued progress, I believe we’ll get there. For now, though, the prospect of encountering an intelligent alien civilization would incur some pretty detrimental effects on our species and our world. Even if aliens come in peace, we just not be ready to accept it.

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Filed under Aliens, human nature, media issues, philosophy, psychology

Overpopulation, The Black Death, And Why Thanos Is WRONG

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We’re living in a golden age, of sorts. If you’re fan of comic books, superhero movies, and complex villains, you’ve got a lot to appreciate. Between the emergence of complex villains like Walter White and the dominance of superhero movies at the box office, “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” being the latest, these are amazing times indeed.

It wasn’t that long ago that villains were barely distinguishable from a well-designed speed bump. Sure, there were memorable villains, but unless they came from the mind of George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola, they weren’t that memorable. They only ever existed to make the hero more heroic.

That all changed when Health Ledger raised the bar as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” That Oscar-winning performance, more than anything, proved that villains could be both compelling and have motivations that go beyond pissing off the hero. More recently, Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” has set a new standard that would make the Joker’s grin even wider.

As wonderful a time this is for fans of heroes and villains, alike, that added complexity comes with a few uncomfortable side-effects. In order for a villain to be compelling, they have to have some kind of motivation beyond just wanting to kill the hero. They have to have a goal or desire that ordinary, non-villainous people can understand and empathize with.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was an agent of death and chaos, but he found a way to make that seem right in the twisted, crime-ridden world of Batman. Thanos did the same with “Avengers: Infinity War.” What he did was on a much bigger scale than the Joker, but why he did it is actually part of what made him so menacing.

He didn’t want to wipe out half of all life in the universe out of sadism, hatred, or vengeance either. He didn’t even do it for the same reason he did it in the comics, which involved him falling in love with the female personification of death. I swear I’m not making that up. It’s one of those rare occasions that it’s good that the movie didn’t follow the comics too closely.

As the action-packed spectacle plays out in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Thanos goes out of his way to justify what he’s doing. It’s monstrous, brutal, and outright genocidal. At the same time, however, he really thinks he’s doing the right thing. He genuinely believes that the universe will benefit more than it loses by killing half of all life.

The way he goes about justifying such an atrocity is part of what makes “Avengers: Infinity War” such an incredible movie, as I made abundantly clear in my review. His motivations are presented so well that it’s hard not to ask the disturbing, yet pertinent question. Is Thanos right? Even if it’s only in part, is there some twisted merit to culling an entire population at that scale?

They’re deplorable questions with even more deplorable answers. Nobody who isn’t openly pro-genocide can condone Thanos’ methods. Even so, it’s a question that’s hard to leave unanswered. Even if that question itself disgusts us, it’s still one worth asking.

With that in mind, I’m going to make a concerted effort to answer it. Moreover, I’m going to try and answer in a way that doesn’t skew too heavily towards heroic or villainous biases. I’m just going to try and assess the merits of Thanos’ idea that culling life on a massive scale is necessary to save it in the long run.

The answer for such a daunting question is not simple, but it’s not as complex as those posed by other villains like the Joker, Baron Zemo, or Erik Killmonger. There’s a short and a long answer. To start, here’s the short answer to that daunting question.

Thanos is wrong, even if his intentions are right.

I think most sane people would agree with that. “Avengers: Infinity War” did an excellent job of giving context to Thanos’ action. He believed overpopulation on his home world, Titan, would destroy it. He turned out to be right. He saw, with his own eyes, his entire world destroy itself. In terms of raw numbers, he’s not wrong. Half a world is still better than no world.

There’s even some real-world parallels. Granted, they rely on immense amounts of suffering, but the implications are hard to ignore. It didn’t happen with the aid of infinity gems or talking raccoons though. It happened through an aptly named period called the Black Death, a period in history that I’m sure would fill Thanos with glee.

Most people with a passing familiarity of history know what happened during the Black Death. A wave of disease, mostly in the form of Bubonic Plague, ravaged Eurasia. It was so devastating that it’s estimated to have killed between 50 and 200 million people. In some cities, more than half the population died over a five-year span. Even by Thanos standards, that’s pretty brutal.

At the same time, though, the consequences of the Black Death had a few silver linings. Those lucky enough to survive inherited a world in which the flaws of the previous order had been shattered. Thanks to the Black Death, the old feudal order ended. A new middle class emerged. Old traditions and dogmas that helped spread the disease collapsed. From the ashes of that destruction, a stronger, healthier society emerged.

Thanos himself pointed that out in “Avengers: Infinity War” at one point. A massive onslaught of random, chaotic death has a way of getting society to reorganize itself. That kind of devastation makes it much harder to cling to the old order, especially if it relies on a mass of disease-prone peasants to do hard-labor for subsistence resources at best.

That’s the benefit Thanos sees. That’s also the danger that influential scholars like Thomas Malthus saw when he noted the dangers of overpopulation. Unlike Thanos, though, Malthus didn’t favor unleashing waves of death. He simply favored encouraging people to restrain themselves from having too many children that they couldn’t sustain. There was no need for an Infinity Gauntlet.

Both Thanos and Malthus saw overpopulation and strained resources as a problem, one that has to be solved by either restraint or mass death. However, the crux of their philosophy still relies on a series of key assumptions that are inherently flawed. This leads directly to the longer answer to that distressing question I posed earlier.

Thanos is wrong because his sample size is too small and justifying his actions requires assumptions that are demonstrably false.

I don’t think the answer needs to be that long, but it’s worth further elaboration. Not long ago, I cited a man named Dr. Norman Borlaug, a man who is basically the anti-Thanos. Rather than using death to fight hunger, he channeled the power of science, compassion, and good old grit to create new tools to improve food production, thereby feeding a growing population.

It’s worth noting that while Dr. Borlaug was hard at work, there were a lot of doomsayers out there like Thanos, warning that a growing population would lead to war, starvation, and conflict. Paul R. Ehrlich was probably the most famous with his book, “The Population Bomb,” which might as well have been written by Thanos.

Unlike Thanos, though, Dr. Borlaug and men like him helped prove that idea dead wrong. Ehrlich, Malthus, and Thanos all worked under the same flawed assumption. The carrying capacity of the world was finite. Once life approached that finite limit, it would lead to conflict that included starvation and war.

In the case of a species that could make weapons, like humans, that conflict could potentially destroy the entire world. That’s what happened to Thanos’ world. It almost happened to humanity on more than one occasion. However, there’s a fundamental flaw in that assumption. It’s the idea that humanity, or some other advanced species, is incapable of finding ways to transcending natural limits.

Part of what sets humans apart from other animals, who are very much at the mercy of a land’s carrying capacity, is their ability to make tools and modify the environment to improve survival and enhance resource management. As flawed as humans are, that’s still one of humanity’s greatest strengths. It’s part of what has helped us become the dominant species on this planet.

The human race, especially with the rise of modern civilization, has created amazing new tools that have helped us transcend the limits that once ravaged our species. Old limits like famine, disease, and even large-scale war have either been eliminated or mitigated. Even as our population increases, thereby straining our resources, we keep creating new tools that help us progress.

For Thanos to be right, humans and other alien species have to be incapable of making such tools. To some extent, Dr. Norman Borlaug proved Thanos wrong before Thanos was even created by Jim Starlin in 1973 . By then, Dr. Borlaug had already received a Nobel Prize for his work in helping to increase food production in places vulnerable to famine.

Maybe Thanos’ people never had a Dr. Borlaug to help improve their ability to prosper. From his perspective, someone like that is impossible. He goes onto assume that if it’s impossible on his world, then it’s impossible on every other world in the universe. It’s a flawed assumption, a sample size fallacy mixed with a faulty generalization fallacy.

Like a true villain, though, Thanos also works under the assumption that his world, Titan, is somehow representative of all worlds. It’s inherently egotistical, something that a lot of villains deal with. From Thanos’ perspective, though, he’s still doing what he thinks is right. He can’t possibly imagine that any other world could escape the fate of his.

There’s one more element he and other doomsayers like him have to assume that’s impossible to know. It’s also an element that undercuts many of the benefits that devastating events like The Black Death might foster. Even if killing half a population results in short-term benefits, those benefits are only justified if those killed weren’t going to aid in the progress of a society.

Think back to all those who died in The Black Death. Think back to those who’ve died in other terrible atrocities. How many of those dead might have gone onto become a Leonardo Di Vinci, a Martin Luthor King Jr., or a Nikola Tesla? Sure, there might have been a few nasty personalities mixed in, but they’re far less common than those with ideas, ambitions, and dreams.

It’s another significant assumption, believing that some of those lost in the atrocity might have gone onto solve the problems that Thanos foresaw. However, the fact that it’s every bit as possible as the contrary is further proof that Thanos’ logic, and that of other population doomsayers, is inherently flawed.

While I doubt these arguments would convince Thanos he’s wrong, seeing how he is still a villain and has a reputation for being mad, they’re still worth scrutinizing. Even if it’s possible to understand and even sympathize with Thanos to some extent, it’s refreshing to remind ourselves how flawed his assumptions are and how wrong he is in the grand scheme of things.

If nothing else, it reminds us why we should keep cheering the Avengers on when they take on Thanos again in “Avengers 4.” It’ll make that moment when they finally triumph that much more satisfying.

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The Strange Appeal Of The Apocalypse (According To “Rick And Morty”)

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What is it about the apocalypse that fascinates us so much? Why do movies about zombies, machine uprisings, and overall societal collapse appeal to us? Is it just the dramatic, action-packed stories they evoke that thrills us? Could there be something more to that appeal?

While I enjoy a good apocalyptic tale every now and then, I don’t consider myself a fan of the genre. In general, I opt for more hopeful and optimistic stories about the future and the present. I can still appreciate movies like “World War Z” and TV shows like “The Walking Dead,” but it’s not the kind of story that appeals to me, in general.

Even so, I don’t deny that there is a certain appeal to it. I’m not just talking about apocalyptic stories either. For some, the idea of a world in which civilization has collapsed has an innate allure that goes beyond zombies, killer robots, or even invading aliens. To some extent, that appeal is directly related to the flaws of civilization itself.

To appreciate those flaws and where the apocalypse fits in, it’s necessary to reference a show that has a knack for conveying complex philosophical insights in a way that’s both entertaining and hilarious. Yes, I’m referring to “Rick and Morty” again. No, I’m not apologizing for that.

In the same way this show has conveyed complexities of nihilism and the burdens of genius, this show also does a better job than most at conveying the unique appeal of the collapse of civilization. It does this through two episodes, “Rick Potion Number 9” and “Rickmancing The Stone.” While the details are subtle, as is often the case with “Rick and Morty,” the message is clear.

Simply put, the fruits of modern civilization are debilitating, dehumanizing, and soul-crushing for the vast majority of people. If you’re rich, good looking, and well-connected, then civilization is fantastic for you. You can get pretty much whatever you want and you can get other people to do all the hard stuff you don’t want to do.

If you’re everyone else, though, you’re kind of stuck. Throughout “Rick and Morty,” Rick Sanchez doesn’t hide from that fact. His nihilistic commentary on life, death, and everything in between makes clear that civilization is just a few extra inconveniences to an undisputed super-genius who can build a nuclear reactor out of pond scum.

However, it’s through characters like Jerry Smith, Rick’s perpetually mediocre son-in-law, that the true weight of modern civilization becomes clear. To some extent, Jerry represents all the non-Ricks of the world. They don’t have the benefits of good looks, deep pockets, or god-like genius navigate civilization. They’re basically stuck working for the scraps.

Both myself and most people reading this probably have more in common with Jerry than they care to admit. We work jobs we don’t like to make just enough money to survive in a society where simply living is both overly-complicated and expensive by modern infrastructure, law, and economics. For most people, just living in a decent place with a manageable mortgage payment and good WiFi is the most they can hope for.

In the apocalypse, though, everything is simpler. All those complexities of modern civilization go out the window. Life is no longer defined by your ability to find a job, pay the bills, stay out of jail, and not piss off the wrong people. It’s defined by your ability to survive day-by-day. It basically resets our society back to its tribal roots.

For some, that’s a horrible setback because it means they actually have to work, sweat, and toil for their survival rather than relying on underpaid peasants. For most, though, it’s a massive equalizer. Suddenly, your money, your fancy clothes, and your tax bracket don’t matter. All that matters is your ability to survive another day.

In “Rick Potion Number 9,” Rick and Morty’s antics bring about the complete collapse of civilization. In the process, Jerry Smith gets a chance to be something other than the guy that modern society walks all over because of his inherent mediocrity. Suddenly, he doesn’t need genius, looks, or connections to thrive. He just needs an ability to hold a crow bar and fight monsters.

In “Rickmancing The Stone,” this breakdown of civilization and equalization of stakes gets an even greater push, albeit without Jerry. He still plays a part in the story, but only to the extent that it’s clear just how much modern civilization crushes people like Jerry whose skills are too limited to thrive. Conversely, a “Mad Max: Fury Road” style apocalypse simplifies the types of necessary skills.

In that world, and nearly every other apocalyptic narrative for that matter, you don’t need to go to a fancy college, invest in complex industry, or network with rich elites. You just need to be willing and able to learn basic survival skills, like hunting, foraging, self-defense, and basic crafts. Most people with moderate hand-eye coordination and a little grit can learn those skills.

These are skills that go back to the basics of our hunter/gatherer past. They’re skills that still manifest today, both with rugged outdoor-lovers and in societies that have collapsed, albeit on a non-zombie, non-global scale. Whatever the circumstances, though, the end results are the same. The apocalypse doesn’t just simplify the stakes. It requires us to be egalitarian in the most pragmatic way possible.

Think of all the petty divisions we currently deal with, from identity politics to philosophical debates to never-ending feud between “Star Wars” fans and “Star Trek” fans. In the face of an apocalypse, all that stuff becomes meaningless. Disagreements over feminism and masculinity don’t matter. Clashes between liberals and conservatives don’t matter. Complex economic theories don’t matter.

To some extent, that is appealing. Sure, it also means no internet, no TV, no movies, no social media, and no media of any kind. It also means no air conditioning, no electricity, no modern medicine, and no modern comforts. That may limit the appeal, but at the same time, it removes the complications that comes with those amenities.

Let’s face it. They are complications that get pretty infuriating. In the modern world, you can’t just survive. You have to have a career. You have to have some sort of profitable skill. Even if you do, that’s no guarantee you’ll gain the respect you want, attract the mates you want, or establish yourself as a productive member of your community.

In the world of the apocalypse, it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers you had or likes you got on FaceBook. It doesn’t matter how many friends you had in high school, how many matches you won on “Overwatch,” or how many dumb things you did as a kid. When society, civilization, and infrastructure collapse, none of that matters. You’re essentially free to just live and survive.

For the Jerry Smiths of the world, the apocalypse would be the perfect make-or-break scenario. You either show that you’re willing to work, fight, and survive or you die. That’s all there is to it. It’s simple, blunt, and uncomplicated. You have just as much an opportunity as some guy who went to an overpriced prep school. Even if you fail, you fail on your own accord.

That said, there’s also a dark side to that appeal. While “Rick and Morty” double down on the dehumanizing, degrading nature of modern civilization, other shows like “The Walking Dead” show how it can take people who would be unremarkable in a civilized society and turn them into monsters. That’s how a high school football coach can become a tyrannical, but charismatic dictator.

Like modern civilization, the apocalypse affects people in different ways. Some, like Jerry Smith and Negan, might actually thrive in it. Others won’t be able to handle it, having become too comfortable with the trappings of civilization. That’s something that modern survivalist groups bank on and, should the apocalypse ever come, we’ll see how much or how little that pays off.

Personally, I hope that day never comes. It’s not just because I probably wouldn’t last long in an apocalypse. I’ve never gone camping, I don’t have any survival training, and I’m not sure how I’ll react to a zombie. I think that while modern civilization has its flaws, it has more long-term potential than any apocalypse, by default.

Since much of that potential is still unrealized, although we are making progress, the apocalypse will still have more appeal to the vast majority of people who feel trapped by the rigid complexity of modern civilization. They can only do so much with their lives and there’s only so much they have to risk.

Then again, maybe that’s something both civilization and the apocalypse have in common. As Rick Sanchez once said, “To live is to risk it all. Otherwise, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.” It’s just easier to do that in the apocalypse because, with or without zombies, the stakes are simpler and clearer for everyone.

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In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

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Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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