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Member since: Wed Feb 23, 2005, 03:32 PM
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The Great Filter--the most important question in history

Mark Sumner -- Daily Kos

I’m going to tell the same story in three different ways. And here’s the surprise — it’s about politics. It may not seem that way, and maybe i’m spoiling the ending. But stick with me, because this is the Most Important Question in History. It has to be. It’s right there in the title.

We’ll start in 1950, where some very smart guys, doing some very scary work, were having lunch. By the end of that lunch, they had come up with a question. The Question. In this group were Herbert York, a Native American who had already headed up Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and would go on to be the first Chief Scientist for the group that would become DARPA. There was Emil Konopinski, who figured out that setting off an atomic bomb would not ignite the atmosphere—probably. There was Edward Teller, who was born to an artistic Jewish family in Hungary, and who escaped to the United States to become a scientist, a vocal agnostic, and the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” And there was Enrico Fermi.

Fermi was a mathematician and physicist of such genius that in college his professors threw up their hands and asked him to teach them. In 1938, after winning the Nobel Prize at the age of 37, Fermi left Fascist Italy to collect his prize and simply did not go home. Instead he came to New York. He gave a lecture to military leaders, warning them about the possibility of a nuclear weapon months in advance of the famous letter from Albert Einstein, and 1942 he led the construction of the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor under the football field at the University of Chicago.

These four guys—a Mohawk, an immigrant from Hungary, an immigrant from Italy, and a Polish guy from Chicago—were clever people who were used to asking big questions about fundamental aspects of the universe. But when they began talking about the possibility of life on other planets at that lunch in 1950, they treated it like any other four guys having lunch would have done. As a joke. After a few laughs, the others gave up on the idea and began discussing current events. Then Fermi interrupted them with the first version of The Most Important Question:

"Where are they?"

York, who was the youngest of the men at the table, died in 2009. But in interviews he recalled that Fermi followed this outburst by providing a series of calculations and statistics that had run through his mind while the others were talking. Those calculations led directly to the next version of The Most Important Question … and why you should care.

Frank Drake is (note the “is,” Drake is still very much with us) an astronomer and astrophysicist who helped grow radio astronomy through the 20th century. When Fermi asked his version of The Question, Drake was an student at Cornell, where he was soon to graduate and serve a stint as an electronics officer in the Navy. Drake was, and is, an eminently practical guy, as much engineer as scientist, but he had one big interest that made his colleagues roll their eyes — aliens. After hearing a lecture from Russian scientist Otto Struve, Drake became obsessed with the idea of extraterrestrial life. And he never got over it.

This obsession didn’t exactly hurt Drake’s career. He was instrumental in converting the giant radio dish at Arecibo, Puerto Rico into an instrument for astronomy. He worked with a guy named Carl Sagan to create the plaque mounted on the side of the Pioneer probe. And in between he wrote dozens of influential papers, not a few books, and was a professor of astronomy at his alma mater for decades.

In 1961, Drake was one of the hosts for the first international scientific conference on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Specifically, Drake was interested in how many alien civilizations might be out there who could chat with us over the radio. For that event, Drake produced a string of letters that defined an equation. And it looked like this:

N = R* x fp x Ne x f1 x fi x fc x L

For the non-mathematically inclined, that may look a bit daunting. It’s not. What Drake is suggesting with this equation is that it’s really just a matter how how many stars there are in the galaxy, then how many of those stars have planets, and how many of those planets are capable of sustaining life, and so on. That big ‘L’ at the right side of the equation? That’s Drake’s term for how long a civilization capable of being detected hangs around. Remember that. We’ll come back to it.

The equation that Drake produced sounds very much like York’s description of Fermi’s thoughts after breaking into the conversation with his “Where are they?” question. And just as with what came to be called the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation really has no answer. You can fill in the values of the equation with numbers that make life exceedingly rare. Or you can crank out values that should have us neck deep in alien visitors. Neither Fermi nor Drake had a way to actually populate the variables of this equation with real numbers, so while it was a fascinating mental exercise … it was just a mental exercise.

But these days we have some real numbers to stick in those letters. Based on the work of probes like NASA’s just-retired Kepler Telescope, current estimates suggest that there are could be 40 billion Earth-sized planets hanging around the Milky Way. 40 billion. With a ‘b.’ And many of these planets exist within the “Goldilocks zone” around their parent stars. That is, the place where water can exist as a liquid.

It’s safe to say that the numbers we’ve determined for the first three values of the Drake Equation are bigger than those Drake used in 1961. In particular, that value up there represented as fp, which is the “portion of stars that have planets” looks like very close to 100 percent. So, in the words of a smart guy … where are they?

The answer has to be in the other parts of the equation; the places where we can’t yet fill in the values. Over the decades since Drake, those missing numbers—and the details of how they might be determined—have gotten some serious poking. And it’s led to a new term.

In 1996, economist Robin Hanson coined the term “The Great Filter.” Hanson, a professor at George Mason, and an adherent of “prediction markets,” put together several themes related to Fermi and Drake when putting together his approach. Paraphrasing his original thesis, we can see that there are good reasons to expect a large number of alien civilizations based on the number of stars and planets. But clearly there are not a large number of alien civilizations. In fact all the evidence we have suggests that there are exactly none.

To account for this startling result, there has to be something in the steps between having a planet where life could occur, and having an advanced civilization, that is so hard, such a difficult barrier to exceed, that it’s very, very … very, very. Very. Very rare for that barrier to be breached. Something out there — a Great Filter — stands between planets that could bear life, and those that produce intelligent civilizations.

People have had objections to this idea. Maybe aliens abide by the Prime Directive and they all leave primitive upstarts to their lonesome. Or maybe they’re homebodies who just don’t wanna go on an interstellar walkabout. And besides, it really is a long, long way between the stars.

Sorry, but none of those objections really cuts it. You don’t need 10,000,000 alien civilizations to have us tripping over old warp cores and wrappers from Phaser Burger. You just need one. For any of the “maybe they’re just quiet” objections to work, it would require that every single civilization that developed, regardless of the conditions in which it developed, would independently and uniformly determine that they would be quiet homebodies. No one, not a single Klingon Musk or Darth Bezos could ever get the idea of venturing out to colonize or launching self replicating probes. That answer seems much, much less likely than what the evidence suggests: There is no one out there.

Really, when you put the Great Filter together with Fermi’s question, there seem to be only two possible outcomes.

Answer One: Intelligent life is a fluke.

Maybe life is much more rare, much more unlikely, than our theories would suggest. All the substances required to create life seem common enough, and there are all those planets. But maybe there’s a step we don’t understand. Or maybe life is common, but it’s the development of complex life that’s rare. Maybe if we get out there, will find that our galaxy is really the Slimy Way, filled with planets overrun with the simplest forms of life, and nothing else. Or maybe it’s intelligence. Or technology — a lot of creatures on Earth, on both land and sea, seem to have reached the simple tool-using stage, but maybe getting from pointy stick to pointy stick with stone attached is just much, much harder than it looks. We don’t know which step, but one of the steps between “having a planet that appears suitable for life” and “having a technological civilization” may be a near impossible move.

This, by the way, is the Good Answer. The answer you should really, really hope is true. This is the answer that says “Yes, there is a Great Filter that stands in the way of developing a technological civilization, but we have passed that filter. The universe—the lonely, empty universe—is at our feet!”

Answer Two: Intelligent life is a disaster.

This the less good answer. The answer that says “Yes, there is a Great Filter out there … and it’s in our future.” What’s particularly bad about this is that everything would suggest that it’s in our immediate future. Because given not too much longer to hang around, this little group of monkeys is likely to escape and start being the sort of interstellar pest who would build a McDonald’s franchise on someone else’s moon … if there was anyone else.

Here’s what makes this excessively worrisome: We have no reason to think that developing intelligent life is all that hard. After all, in the one example we know of it all worked out. We know that in our Solar System, there are three planets that are at least somewhat “Earth like” and somewhat near the habitable zone. Of those, one developed life. That one went on to pass every other proposed bottleneck of the Filter theory. So as far as we can tell … it’s not that hard.

Answer two says that sure, intelligence may be as common as sand, but holding onto a technological civilization isn’t just hard, it’s essentially impossible. There are very good reasons to believe this is the correct answer.

It’s not just that since 1970, we’ve managed to kill off 60 percent of Earth’s animal life (yes, with caveats). It’s not just that humans and the things we eat now account for 96 percent of all the biomass on the planet—meaning that every Blue Whale, Mountain Gorilla, and African Elephant is left to squeeze into that last 4 percent. It’s not even that we’ve now driven our planet straight out of the climate zone where it has existed since our civilization originated. Although … yes, it could be any of those things. It may be that every intelligent civilization is simply not intelligent enough to not utterly foul its own nest.

Or it could be a matter of expanding access. A kind of malignant form of the freedom of information promoted by the Internet, and our laws, and … me, among a few billion others. Think about it this way: How many people on the planet have the ability right now to start a thermonuclear war? If you started tallying up leaders of nuclear-armed nations, you’re badly underestimating the problem.

Consider this event from 1983. On September 26 of that year, the Cold War was at its least cold. The United States and the Soviet Union were moving missiles around the globe, Ronald Reagan was talking “Star Wars,” and the United States was engaged in operations that were purposely designed to test the limits of Soviet airspace (and patience) by trotting nuclear bombers right up to the line.

So when the Soviet nuclear early-warning system lit up to announce the launch of multiple Minutemen ICBMs from the United States, there was every reason to believe that it was the real deal. Nuclear Armageddon was scant minutes away. But a Soviet officer named Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov correctly determined—guessed, is more like it—that the report was in error. He did not order the required retaliatory strike. When you go to bed tonight, say a little thank you prayer to Mr. Petrov.

There are thousands of people, from submarine commanders to software engineers, who have in their hands not just their own life, but that of our entire civilization. You don’t just have to worry about Kim Jong Un. You have to worry about the maintenance tech who installs Kim’s light bulbs. Now multiply that issue by genetic engineering. And nanotechnology. And AI.

We are reaching a period when the number of people who have it in their capacity to initiate a civilization-ending event may be as great as the number of people in that civilization. To survive is going to require that we meet the impossible task of behaving responsibly and sensibly, every one of us, all the time, day in and day out, for as long as we want that ‘L’ in the Drake Equation to go on.

After the first nuclear bomb was developed, there was talk of “putting the genie back in the bottle.” That never happened. We also can’t return any of these new genies, or any of the others whose bottles will soon wash up on our shores. We have to deal with them. Or die.

All that can be done is to consider these issues with the gravity that they deserve. To understand that we walk a knife edge every day. To embrace the idea that we have to educate every person on the Earth in both the opportunities our technology presents, and threats we must endure.

And there is one thing you can do about it that will have an immediate effect.

You can vote.

The Neuroscience of Perception.

I've been interested in the neuroscience of consciousness lately, and ran across this article and video --

What in the world is consciousness?

Part of my interest is driven by the clear example of mass hysteria on the part of Trump supporters -- how in the hell do they really believe the crap they believe?

Well, the answer is -- they are hallucinating it. And those hallucinations are guided in part by their media consumption.

'Fake news' is indeed the enemy of the American people. Fox News is a foreign-owned news outlet answerable to no American that dominates our markets. And guess what?

It's being used to destroy the United States.

I offer up the basic principles of Star Trek on this night.

-- Wealth is meaningless
-- Power is only for focus
-- Everyone is welcome
-- We have to grow up
-- We belong in the stars
-- Sometimes we have to fight (and die) for these principles.

Live Long and Prosper, Mighty Democratic Underground.


And here we are in our New Reality. Enjoy!

At this point, would it surprise anyone to find out that Joseph McCarthy took money from Russia?

He destroyed a lot of good people, sowed distrust and chaos, damaged the credibility of the U.S. throughout the world. Sound familiar? In the end he was ony stopped by the last decent Republican on planet Earth, Dwight David Eisenhower.

These days you can drag a fifty-ruble note through any Republican social club and find somebody willing to do anything or say anything, anything at all. It's become clear that conservatism is purely situational power politics -- there is no ideology, no plan, no philosophy -- just cash-hungry operatives far and wide.

I think it might have always been this way, and reading Tony Judt's 'Postwar' has really clued me in to the oft-used tactics of Russian intelligence -- divide the left, co-opt the right, and drive the chaos in such a way that a vulnerable nation falls to pieces and even perhaps into the Russian pocket, Jagshemash!

Russian leadership has done this since 1917 because they have been the quintessentially insecure nation, generally powerless and far more focused on machismo and maintaining a stagnant and inefficient social order than they are on learning how to do anything real. They talk a big game but suffer from brain-drain and dominance culture, so they have to cheat. It's just a fact of history.

I'm starting to wonder if McCarthy's antics weren't designed to throw everyone off the scent. The liberals and artists that might have had a passing dalliance with the Communists weren't capable of treason because they possessed a conscience; conservatives and libertarians, however -- whatever it takes, whatever they have to say, as long as someone pays for the champagne. That's now a Fact.

The best part is, they come cheap. Just like the discredited right-wing parties of the fourties and fifties in Eastern Europe, their expensive tastes and repressed sexual urges and utter lack of a moral compass make them perfect prey for a well-thought-out Ratfcking strategy. Mitch McConnell only cost them 2.5 million -- and look at the damage he's done. In the end his actions will probably kill more Americans than a twenty million dollar warhead would have, without blowback, without Mutually Assured Destruction, without the radiation drift.

War On The Cheap, using old-timey intelligence techniques honed in the Baltic States and Ukraine -- talk about your Asymmetrical Judo. A few hundred million bought them a herd of 'christian patriots', and a big stick to stir the muck with. In fact, everything's covered in muck now. Great Success.

Joseph McCarthy, a Russian operative? Maybe, maybe not.

Fits the profile, though. Like a goddamned glove.

On days like these I remember the Battling Bastards of Bastogne, and Gen. McAuliffe's answer.

Seige of Bastogne

It was on the 22nd of December that General von Lüttwitz submitted the following demand for surrender to his American counterpart commanding the American forces in Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe:

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.

The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

The German Commander.

Shortly thereafter, McAuliffe sent the following communication to von Lüttwitz in response to the German demand:

To the German Commander.


The American Commander

We're Americans. We will never give up, never say die, never compromise with the forces of Fascism.

The Republicans have chosen to walk down a dark, dark road, and it seems for the moment they have won a minor victory.

They'll lose the war, I promise you. History is clear -- fascism fails, democracy prevails.

To the GOP: NUTS!

And may you rot in hell, you goddamned cruel-hearted traitorous gangraping baby-caging KGB-loving Nazi motherfuckers.

It's worth noting that, win or lose, Judge Boof has lost.

Other attorneys will roll their eyes at him behind his back. His summer social list is going to shrink down to Odd Nazi. His children will have to fight this fight all their lives as deep inside them they begin to know the truth of their father. His wife -- we'll see how long that lasts.

He's been revealed. No pretense of dignity nor expensive black robe can ever cover him over again. He will be forever, win or lose, Judge Gangrapist, Judge Blackout, Justice Criminal Liar. Until his death any court he serves in will be suspect and all decisions questionable and arguably baseless.

Who cares what he feels? I do. I want his life to turn to ashes in his mouth, I want him to crash and burn and have an arc like fucking Jonah but without the happy ending. I want every dark soul who helped this human spider to forever be inflicted with the weight of his crimes, because he more than Dr. Ford has proven that he's likely guilty of all he's accused of and far more. I believe this man to be a serial rapist, perhaps reformed although we can't know because he hides everything and his culture approves of hiding crimes.

It can never be enough as long as justice is denied his victims. But it is a small, cold pleasure I take in this dark week that his prize has been dipped in shit, win or lose.

He's burning tonight. Oh, not with the kind of feelings an innocent man feels -- helpless, overwhelmed, lost. He's burning with pure rage because there will be no respect paid to him from any sane human being for the rest of his life. His past is dead, his dream is dead and this time even the alcohol won't help.

Never enough. But some small pleasure.

Republican Civil Decorum.

Barely a fucking joke.

A Nazi, a Kid-Cager, and a Gang Rapist walk into a bar.

Sorry, I meant into a room with bars. Where they stay. Forever.

Because the death penalty is wrong.

Reading Judt's 'Postwar' -- the Russians are doing to us what the Russians have always done.

Manipulating elections for fun and profit since 1917 because of deep national feelings of insecurity and powerlessness. Stalin really upped the game, though, stuffing ballot boxes and smearing or murdering political opponents without compunction. In Eastern Europe of the late 40's the classic technique was to co-opt the weak right-wing party while splitting the moderate left using infiltration, propaganda, and assassination. Judt's book sets forth powerful history that screams at me from the page.

For instance: the anti-Communist Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia 'jumped out a window' in 1948 -- sound familiar?

On 10 March 1948 Masaryk was found dead, dressed only in his pajamas, in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry (the Černín Palace in Prague) below his bathroom window. The Ministry of the Interior claimed that he had committed suicide by jumping out of the window, but it was at the time, and is still, widely assumed that he was murdered on behest of the nascent Communist government. Others in the country put it thus: "Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself."

I don't wish to be unnecessarily bigoted about this; but since the GOP continues to do Putin's bidding on a daily basis to the destruction of all I hold dear as an American patriot, fuck that.

Russia's a spider. A weak, insecure, mean, stupid spider that always defeats itself in the end. But for the moment -- they are effectively running this country, and it is horrifying to watch actual Americans act as if Russia's sinister sneak attack is a good thing.

I look forward to the Reset, and the Reckoning.
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