Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Parameters of Doom: Part I (intro)

The following very long article - series is about catastrophic doom, a concept that I view from many perspectives. It was deemed TOO broad for a coming academic book on the subject and if I collect much more material, it might make a book! Or else a series to post on Amazon Shorts. (For that reason, please read/comment, but don't copy.)

The Parameters of Doom:
What We can Tell from History, Geology
Human Nature... and the Stars


Optimism and pessimism come in ironic shades. Some expect the future will take care of itself -- solutions will arise naturally out of market forces, or we'll just continue our run of incredible luck. Then again, might we already be on a failed path? Doomed by ignorance, complacency, sin... or perhaps by a sequence of events entirely outside of our control?

The universe contains quadrillions of stars, many far older than our sun. Logic suggests that intelligent life should have prospered and spread, to such a degree that signs of that proliferation would be visible by now, in much the same way that way humanity has laid unmistakable imprints across both the Earth and the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet, despite scans of both the sky above and rocks below, no trace of nonhuman technological achievement has yet been verified. Some conclude that the universe may be a more lonely place than optimistic searchers predicted.

In other words, intelligent life may not be an easy game to play.

This clue -- along with many others from history, biology, physics and our own hard life experience -- may caution us, provoking redoubled efforts to probe the territory just ahead, searching for possible failure modes. Human beings already have a talent for this kind of dour fretting. As obsessive worriers, we know, deep in our hearts, that life is hazardous and nothing is guaranteed. Success often depends on both good planning and good luck.

In this extended series, I plan to cover each of these themes in a wide-ranging overview, surveying the topic of failure from several perspectives.


* At its core, our aim is to explore possible futures -- both good and bad -- before any of them have a chance to come true. How do humans do this? Is there any chance of success?

* Other societies were able to envision catastrophe, but cultural assumptions limited their ability to consider the worst failure modes. The ones that would bring them crashing down.

* For a century, we have probed more deeply into why civilizations collapse, but even these appraisals have been colored by cultural bias.

* “Singularities” represent the extrema of transforming change, both success and failure.

* Is the rocket of progress aimed up or down?

* What boundary conditions to calamity can be see in the sky overhead and rocks below?

* What general processes can we use to encourage best possible outcomes? How might we best avoid calamity during the years ahead?

* Our urgent goal is to find a wide range of quicksand pits - potential failure modes -- as we charge headlong into the future. Nothing could be more important than improving two skill sets -- Anticipation and Resiliency

* After dealing with generalities, is there any one practical step that could make a crucial difference, right now? How about a method for finding out which human beings tend to be “right” more often than others?


This promises to be a very wide-ranging discussion. We'll start by considering some of the limitations that have been imposed by culture and our own natures, often hampering our ability to look ahead.

.

comments, suggestions, references welcome...

38 comments:

cryptochrome said...

It's all about the three 'R's: Robustness, Resiliency, and Redundancy.

Well ok, I just made that up because it's a nicely structured meme, there are no doubt others. 'Anticipation' for one, although that will surely never give you the whole story. 'Adaptation/-ability', although that's somewhat like resiliency, and arguably can be taken too far. What else? What the hell, how about another 'A': 'Aspiration'.

koreyel said...

"... is there any one practical step that could make a crucial difference, right now?"

I think there is.
It is not palatable however.

Nevertheless here goes:

Our current standard of living is directly linked to the finite stores of chemical energy that geological processes have stored in the Earth's crust.

OIL... Where would we be without it?

Nevermind.

Suffice it to say that stored hydrocarbons are an incredible powerful gift to humanity.

How powerful?

Well consider this graf from a recent London Times piece:

A barrel of oil contains the equivalent of almost 25,000 hours of human labour. A gallon of petrol contains the energy equivalent of 500 hours — enough to propel a three-ton 4x4 along 10 miles; to push it yourself would take nearly three weeks.

Oil really is black gold.
(Actually it is more valuable than gold.)

And yet...
And yet...

We have 4% of the world's population consuming (most foolishly) 25% of the world's supply. America wastes this resource as if it was a throw away commodity. There is no sense/cents of its true value.

That's got to end.

Want to change the world?
Want to help humanity survive?
Want to find "one practical step that could make a crucial difference, right now?"

Convince Americans that oil is finite and that they've got to treasure what's left of it... and simulataneous look for alternatives.

It is that simple.
It is that difficult.

Frank said...

How about 3 P's: Pessimism, Paranoia and getting Pissed off with those blind screw-ups who aren't willing to acknowledge the signs of future disasters. Too extreme? Yessurree!

fpoole said...

I think the discussion of optimism, pessimism, and the realities at present is a bit difficult to be very accurate with. For example: "Doomed by ignorance, complacency, sin... or perhaps by a sequence of events entirely outside of our control?". This may ring true for a specific scenario, one place at one time, but not for all scenarios. Since humanity's fate is a part of the discussion at hand, that discussion has to include the pluralities involved. Just because American Suburbia might be doomed (*cough*Wisteria Lane, anyone?*hack*) doesn't mean that Essen or Malmo will share its fate.

I'll be looking forward to how this series will play out. I don't always get much of a chance to sit and read, but this exercise of the mind is a part of my daily communications cycle. ;)

michael vassar said...

David Brin said:
How about a method for finding out which human beings tend to be “right” more often than others?

Intriguing question. Very arguably financial markets are such a method, but they produce a mix of humans who either tend to be right or who are lucky and risk-taking with no clear parameter from distinguishing between the two.
If we had a reliable way of knowing who was usually right, would more correct people gain more authority, or would they just be resented? Does the history of religion suggest that most people place very little value upon being right?

Nicq MacDonald said...

Okay, here's a wild speculation regarding impending catastrophe-

since the release of Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near", there's been a lot of talk about whether our future is headed in Kurzweil's optimistic direction- or into a new dark age.

What's seldom asked, however, is this: might the singularity itself, rather than being a radical techno-transcendence, be a catastrophe itself?

I have a scenario in mind that I call the "nihilistic/orgasmic" singularity. I put it together from speculations in John Horgan's "The End of Science" and Ken Wilber's "Boomeritis".

Take for a moment what drives human activity beyond the sphere of survival needs: creative/"immortality" needs. Namely, needs of a sexual character. All economic activity beyond bare survival is essentially sexual or creative. From trying to attain wealth, posessions, or self-modifications to attract the opposite sex in order to propagate one's self, to creating works of art or scientific discovery, to forming clubs and institutions, most of our activities are done, consciously or unconsciously, in order to propagate our genes and memes.

Now, take the sexual act itself. The partners become posessed by desire, and initiate contact. They typically caress and stimulate each other, escalating the desire. The act itself commences, steadily becoming more intense... until...

*poof* There's a sudden shock of bliss, and then...

Nothing. Maybe a pleasant afterglow, but it's all over. The expected "ultimate rapture" never occurs. One is suddenly plunged back into normal life.

Take technological civilization as sex on a massive scale. As our population and energy consumption rises, as our technology steadily improves, it seems as if we're rushing for some ultimate end. We climb closer and closer, our need for speed ever increasing, new technologies and techniques emerging that stimulate us further and further. The inexorable rush continues- we're suddenly, briefly propelled into a more than human state- then an overmind, as implanted computers link us together into a god-brain... and then... in a sudden flash of bliss and horror... it ends.

The great mind realizes that the only purpose of existence was existence itself, and in it's shock, destroys itself in a sudden clap of thundrous bliss.

All that is left of Earth is a charred, lifeless desert.

Now just think... this could have happened millions of times already, throughout the universe... millions of "bad singularities"...

And shudder and rejoice at what is to come...

Palliard said...

American dependence on oil, and the attendant urban sprawl, I think can be traced to two things: the deconstruction of the family unit that came with the industrial revolution, and actually having the resources to get what we want.

The manufacturing industry's need for a lean, mobile workforce led to the extended family being pared down to the nuclear family... three generations under one roof became a lot less common.

The invention of the automobile made it possible to exploit then-abundant land and oil in order to get something most of us want: a house we don't have to share, with a yard big enough for the dog to poop in.

Result: an ever-expanding sprawl of single-family homes, linked to everything else they need by gas-guzzling automobiles.

Only short-term solution I see is to get people what they want in a more efficient manner.

Steve (not the blogger) said...

Regarding oil:

An article in Petroleum Review, October 2005 with an analysis at Past Peak.

Oil may soon be too valuable to burn.

I'll repeat an idea that I think I posted a while ago - eliminate the US government subsidies for petroleum exploration. Subsidies might have made sense when we were just developing a petroleum economy, but not now. By eliminating subsidies, the differential cost goes to the pump and is not paid by income tax, so consumers feel the pain and make market-based choices. There is minimal net impact to the economy, since gas is still the same price, it just changes where we pay for it. I have heard that this would decrease our income taxes by an amount commensurate with increasing gas to about $4/gallon.

About who is right most frequently, how do we judge those who might have been right, but whose prediction prevents the occurrence? Rachel Carson's Silent Spring for example. Was she a prophet who prevented ecological collapse or a eco-whiner whose dire predictions would never have come true anyway? Instead of individuals being right often, how about institutions (e.g. NSF) that can tap a whole bunch of experts to get the whole picture?

About intelligence - There is plenty of evidence about how humans evolved, and this also shows how close a thing it was. Considering that all humans on the planet have less genetic diversity than one troop of chimps, our founding population must have passed through a grim bottleneck and humans almost didn't make it. Maybe there is life practically anywhere it can exist, but maybe intelligence is just not a particularly efficient survival characteristic for potential proto-sapiens. [sarcasm] It sure doesn't seem to confer a lot of benefit in politics, a close analogy for "Nature red in tooth and claw." [/sarcasm]

I also think that there has not been strong selection for thinking about long-term consequences in the measly amount of time we have been able to affect the Earth, so it is going to be a tough sell no matter what doom we contemplate.

I saw an interesting article I have been trying to find to post a link to - I thought it was in Science but I haven't found it. It was about how political solutions to problems tend to assume binomial outcomes. For example, global warming. On the negative side, people say that there is no global warming, and anyway the things people are proposing to combat it will be too expensive. The people on the other side say that the costs of global warming are higher than the prevention costs. This article proposes a blended approach, where countermeasures are put into place, but with the caveat that they go away if the benefit is outweighed by the cost, using true costing of the environmental effects. The analysis shows that the Administration's plans that we will use technology and the economy to get out of global warming only works for a very narrow set of assumptions. It also shows that implementing the greenie side's proposals would end up costing us more than the benefit we receive in all but the worst case of global warming. The blended approach balances these factors in response to actual costs and benefits, and since it would be built into legislation that way, it would only require monitoring for things to add or take away as results become known. The conclusion to the article said that this technique should work well for legislation in any area where there are unknowns in the problem or the solutions.

When I teach Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) we consider three ways of reducing the overall dangers: Reduce frequency or probability of occurrence, reduce the severity if it does occur, and improve our ability to detect its imminent occurrence. I also teach Prevention Planning and Analysis, which tries to identify failure modes and effects, and then link these to first, second, and third order causes to determine where the right place to put controls would be. Perhaps these concepts can be used with doom scenarios as well.

Anonymous said...

"*poof* There's a sudden shock of bliss, and then...

Nothing. Maybe a pleasant afterglow, but it's all over. The expected "ultimate rapture" never occurs. One is suddenly plunged back into normal life."

Speak for yourself, man!

Anonymous said...

I have to ask before this new bit begins:

I followed the "Modernity and its Enemies" bit all the way through and it didn't seems come to any conclusions or definitively end, it just petered out.

Did I miss the end?

Jon

koreyel said...

Nicq:

"All economic activity beyond bare survival is essentially sexual or creative. From trying to attain wealth, posessions, or self-modifications to attract the opposite sex in order to propagate one's self...

There is something in this passage that has always troubled me.

Given the importance of propagating oneself...

Or, as Heinlein's Lazarus Long put it:

"A zygote is a gamete's way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe."

I've never understood the nearly universal opposition to cloning.

What better way to propagate yourself than to literally propagate yourself?

And yet the majority of people regard cloning as an abomination.

This for me is a conundrum wrapped in a enigma wrapped in a double helix.

There is something screwy going on here.

Someone please explain...

Anonymous said...

Every few months there is some event that the Bush administration claims represents "turning the corner" in Iraq. Yet, it took roughly 18 months for US deaths to cross the 1000 mark. It has taken less than 14 months since then to cross the 2000 mark. That is an INCREASE in the rate of US fatalities. The war is becoming MORE not less deadly. And our troop levels are actually somewhat higher now than they were a year ago. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraqdeaths26oct26,0,705156.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Ben Tilly said...

For koreyel, it is quite simple.

Evolution has only learned to deal with challenges that it faced in the past. Since nobody had the option of cloning in the past, we haven't evolved to truly appreciate it.

Similarly we did not evolve in the presence of modern birth control. So we're not adapted to deal with it. But now that we have it, I'm sure that we'll evolve a response - for instance carelessness. (Remember, evolution heads towards whatever causes us to have descendents. This type of "success" may bear no relationship to what we normally might think is desirable.)

David Ivory said...

My nightmare scenario is Global Climate Change, not temperature rise as such, the Earth has experienced many different temperature regimes, but the effect that this major climatic shift has on natural environments.

In the past populations of plants and animals have had the flexibility to be able to adapt to change by shifting their geographical range. But now this is restricted by a kleptocratic human species. We're already there.

Restrictions to current ranges also reduce the size of a population of a species and thus the genetic diversity within a population. This means that the population will be less flexible and unable to cope with changes to environmental conditions, or to adapt their range.

I fear that the consequence of a major temperature rise will be a collapse of wild populations no matter what we do.

In the past a collapse in the natural environment has meant disaster for the human civilisation dependent upon it. With a Global Civilisation and Global Climate change this may mean the collapse may be global... leaving who knows what?

We'll need some good ideas then.

....................................

There is an analogy here for the current discussion.

Human societies seem to me like natural environments... a large groups of people holding an ecology of beliefs. Flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances also seems to me to be the key issue in the discussion regarding State, Aristos and the Clergy discussed in earlier posts.

Or more to the point Kleptocracies endanger our survival by reducing our ability to respond to problems. Indeed they survive by stifling change, reducing the diversity of ideas within a population and imposing conformance to a norm in a society.

Most people on the planet aspire, with some notable exceptions, to the opposite, a free and open society in which many different opportunities abound. A healthy social environment with a diversity of beliefs, social norms, business models and ideas is one where individuals can have a fulfilling life but it is also a good in the larger picture - at civilisation survival level.

So to address David Brin's question:

How about a method for finding out which human beings tend to be “right” more often than others?

In the West I think we have the right method already and we need to nurture it. A socially mobile population, universally educated, with social freedoms, and a diversity of beliefs that would astound our ancestors.

This allows good ideas and those that espouse them to rise to prominence. The measure of success is not just monetary though is often a proxy.

But to make it work we have transparency and a free market for information so we have the ability to discover these ideas in order to judge and test them. To paraphrase one of DB's recent posts, if everyone came forward to say what they knew then in this transparent world the flurry of ideas would become a storm.

Perhaps the blogosphere and Google are a hint of what is to come?

I suspect that David has posed a straw man as it also seems obvious that criticism of ideas is needed as a way to test ideas. This happens naturally in a market while the scientific method enshrines David Brin's CITOKATE in the competition for Science journal citations. Blogosphere has trackbacks and Google Pagerank.

But with kleptocratic regimes in charge of many countries this is a pipe dream for most people.

Our Western Socially Liberal Capitalist Enlightenment was the good idea we had some time ago that allowed our society to find the right ideas for the moment for a growing number of people. But we need to defend it in the West and take it Global, preserving the diversity of ideas along the way.

So let's call it a GSLCE!

Hmmm sounds like a ship from an Iain M Banks novel - Generally Silly Large Cultural Experiment?

As to pondering the limitations imposed on us - I think there are many things inherent in our natures that prevent us from acting rationally. There is a great book called "Irrationality" by Stuart Sutherland which illustrates many such issues.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0813521505/002-5292296-3676022

So if there is any one thing we can do to improve things - get everyone to read this book and act more sensibly - or at least in the knowledge that what we do is often not in our best interest.

And climate change? That's hard - really hard. We'd better get to work on it now as it is pretty damn scary... anyone with some good ideas?

- David Ivory

Rob Perkins said...

I just can't help myself:

The parameters of Doom are:

-- IBM-compatible 486 computer
-- 2 Mbytes of memory
-- 30 MB hard drive
-- VGA graphics
-- Soundblaster 16 (optional)

I'll shut up now!

Ivan Fischer said...

Hmmm ...

"The war is becoming MORE not less deadly. And our troop levels are actually somewhat higher now than they were a year ago."

Maybe increase in troop numbers simply makes it easier for attrition to occur ... greater abundance of viable targets. Regardless of that, the numbers indicate that the current strategy fails on reduction of casualties.

"Similarly we did not evolve in the presence of modern birth control."

Yes, this is very disturbing to me. Most advanced nations and most capable intelligent individuals seem to have no desire to procreate. Natality is at an all-time low in western democracy and Japan, leaving poorly educated/fundamentally religious/careless to populate the next generation. Is this what happened in America in recent decades? Will the wolrd become populated by a majority of people only interested in food and sex? I have difficulty finding counter-arguments. Can anyone provide at least some consolation on that issue?

"maybe intelligence is just not a particularly efficient survival characteristic for potential proto-sapiens"

Highly possible. All social species more complicated than insects seem to require a level of intelligence neccessary to coordinate group efforts. Still, perhaps a population has to face a serious bottleneck situation which can only be solved with a little more intelligence, which could be a very low-probability situation.

On removing oil subsidies:

Better yet - tax only energy. Everything requires energy to make, so every product will already incorporate this tax. Simplification of the tax system could reduce the hated red tape and save billions. (And, of course, get thousands of accountants fired, which is always a worthy goal) Subsidize education, research, food, and health. I think the long-term benefits will prove miraculous. But then again, I am an optimistic idealist, so what do I know?

"we need to defend it in the West and take it Global, preserving the diversity of ideas along the way"

How very true. However, we are far from ideal. We need to educate, educate, educate. We need to promote critical thinking and scientific method as the way to reach decisions. I see this as the only way to fight the "dictatorship of the majority". Laws against euthanasia, prostitution, and illicit drugs only serve to promote hypocrisy, organised crime, and deny personal choice. Democracy works best if the voting population is educated, informed, active in the political process, and tolerant of cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities. I hope for a return to "Athenian democracy" - one man, one vote. Internet voting could make representation obsolete, replacing legislative government branch with the entire population. Open public forums and the desire to be informed might be the thing we need.

And for comic relief:

Barring all other options, the increase in global stupidity, supersition and primitivism caused by birth control and family planning could easily be solved the Moonraker way. Just get the few of us onto a space station/deserted island with a dead volcano, assemble together the world's nobel laureates, greatest artists, and as many bright, capable people you can find, and then drop black lotus/SARS/bird flu on the rest. Alternatively, we could just sit back and observe, learning new ways a society can bring itself down.
But keep the lotus handy, in case they come near.

Nicq MacDonald said...

"I hope for a return to 'Athenian democracy' - one man, one vote. Internet voting could make representation obsolete, replacing legislative government branch with the entire population. Open public forums and the desire to be informed might be the thing we need."

Which sounds nice in theory, until you look at the state that already basically has legislative direct democracy...

California.

The state government can't touch 85% of the budget, the executive power of the governors office is eviscerated, and pretty much any meaningful legislation power has been put in the hands of a people who are very easy to demagogue. Not exactly utopia.

That said, Cali is hardly a dystopia either- and my home state, South Dakota, with a legislature completely dominated by a single party that has turned the state government into the most closed in the nation, with a governor so powerful he can all but rule by decree (fortunately, SD's current governor is a boring insurance agent who would rather enjoy his private jet privledges than tinker with the state), a decaying rural economy and indian reservations with a third-world standard of living is hardly a model either.

Perhaps Minnesota, with it's highly participatory political culture, divided legislature, open caucuses, multi-party debates and powerful third parties is a slightly better model, though they have their issues too...

John said...

Ahh, yes, the Fermi Paradox. Why are we apparently alone? Glad you're on this topic.

See www.faughnan.com/setifail.html. I've got nothing original there -- this topic has been well covered by better minds than mine. Still, it's a good starting point I think.

One note on the Paradox. It doesn't say these species can't exist, only that they don't produce evidence of their existence. In particular, they don't occupy space the way we do.

It may be that it is our type of existence that is supremely transient. So technologic civilizations either become non-technologic (hence no impact) or they become something else that has no impact. (Insert any speculation on the interests and motivations of post-singular worlds.)

So the 'optimists' solution to the paradox is that not all die, but all transform. None remain like us.

The other solutions are along the lines of 'all die', the anthropic principle (we're alone, hence that's the way it is), and the 'design' argument. (Deity, simulation, etc).

Ivan Fischer said...

"legislation power has been put in the hands of a people who are very easy to demagogue"

Not being overly informed on Cali political structure, I will have to take your word for it. In any case, one of my points was that we need to prevent people from being easy to demagogue, first and foremost. Everything else is impossible if we have easily swayed, emotive public.

To john:

How many stars have we actually searched for signs of extraterrestrial life? As far as I know, only a miniscule amount of stars closest to us. And all our search so far has been based on a hypothesis that all alien life forms would use some sort of radio communications. What if a race has evolved/constructed other systems? What if their weak signal is obscured by other galactic phenomena? I would really like to find an alien civilisation, but it might by that the best and/or only way to do so is to send robotic probes. Self-replicating ones would be quite nice.

Eric said...

Ivan: one of the reasons the current US government works as well as it does (which is not to say it works well) is because it's set up not to require people to be saints, but to allow for the system to work when people work in their own self-interest.

The fact is, that people *are* easy to demagogue, and much as we might like to,
we're not going to change human nature. The only political system I can recall in recent times that relied on changing people's innate natures was Communism, and we all know how well *that* worked.

Much as it pains us, we must live in a world of facts, not wishes, and what we need is systems that work more or less as designed when people *are* demagogued, because any system that requires that people not be so easily frightened into action will not be implementable in the next 10,000 years or so.

I happen to think that our current system of checks and balances is not perfect, but it's pretty darned good, and a lot better than most of the alternatives. Case in point: the President was not able to steamroll his allies into accepting an obviously unsuitable nominee to the Supreme Court. You want catastrophic doom? I predict the US will become nearly irrelevant to the world within 5 years of adopting any sort of direct democracy, Internet-based or no.

Ivan Fischer said...

Sorry, could not let this one go:

"people *are* easy to demagogue, and much as we might like to,
we're not going to change human nature"


Do you truly believe it is human nature to be easily swayed? Are you easily demagogued? If not, is it because you were born with an anti-brainwash gene, or because you are an educated, internet-using individual, making his own mind by gathering information from several (preferrably unbiased) sources? Everyone can be such. We can still be misinformed, or prejudiced, but it is not so easy to talk fear into us.

"any system that requires that people not be so easily frightened into action will not be implementable..."

Sounds as if a successful government needs to hold its people in fear. Is this really your opinion, or have I misunderstood?

A man is only free when he is free of fear. And living in a former communist country that saw civil war in my lifetime, I should know.

I apologise to all for spamming ... had a lot of free time today.

Anonymous said...

As to the Fermi Paradox, my attitude is as follows:

Image that there were only two human beings on the entire globe, that they had never communicated with each other before, and had no direct evidence of each other's existence. How likely would it be that they would find each other within their lifetimes?

Now compare that to the size of the universe and consider just how unimaginably huge the universe is. if there are any other civilizations out there, how difficult would it be for us to find each other? Nearly unimaginable I would say.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try (I approve of METI, SETI, and any other ideas to find them, but I don't see reason to be optomistic that we'll find others within my lifetime. I hope that I'm wrong about this and if any of you reading this see a flaw in my reasoning, please point it out.)

Jon

Anonymous said...

"I hope that I'm wrong about this and if any of you reading this see a flaw in my reasoning"

Jon:

Here is the "rub" against the two-souls-on-a-vast-globe argument.

* There is no reason that intelligent life could not have arisen hundreds of millions if not billions of years ago on other worlds in the galaxy. (It is, as far as we know, sheer contingency that it took so long for Earth to become home to complex multicellular life after billions of years of being home to yeast and algea and such. And there is no reason that habitable worlds could not have formed several billion years earlier than the Earth did.)

If just ONE world became home to intelligent life more than a few million years back, *and* these beings developed a space-travelling civilization, they would have lots and lots of time to, by the current day, fill up the galaxy.

They should be everywhere, and if they use radio their presence should be obvious.

One avenue of Fermi Paradox speculation is:

"Why didn't this scenario play out?"

Another is "If it did play out, why can't we detect a galaxy worth of industrial development?"

Palliard said...

My own feeling vis-a-vis the Fermi paradox is that people have vastly over-estimated a few variables in the Drake equation, particularly how likely intelligent life (as in "technologically advanced") is to develop in the first place.

One the time-scale that advanced life has existed on the earth, out of the numerous times there was an opportunity for a tool-using technological species to arise, it has only happened once as a fluke (and not a historical inevitability by any stretch). It is not so unthinkable that we are a statistical anomaly. Boring... but not unthinkable.

Anonymous said...

"Boring... but not unthinkable."

Yeah, I suspect this is the case.

The up side of the "empty (except for us) universe" scenario is that we, if we play our cards right, get to become the Galactic Elders.

Before we get bored and transcend to a higher plane of reality, we could run terraforming campaigns across great swaths of the galaxy and plant all sorts of strange artifacts to baffle the races that follow.

First order of business: Uplift cougars and timber wolves and plant them on the opposite sides of an open cluster rich with habitable worlds. Let THEM settle the "which is better, cats or dogs?" question.

Stefan

Eric said...

@ivan:

Do you truly believe it is human nature to be easily swayed?

If you were to rephrase that as "To be susceptible to emotional arguments", yes. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn't, and I suspect most who woud claim not to be would be lying.

Are you easily demagogued?

I'm definitely susceptible to emotional arguments; I have to work to make sure I don't let them affect my judgement, but ultimately, I can't be entirely sure one way or the other that I have succeeded. Sure, I *think* I'm objective, but I would, wouldn't I?

Sounds as if a successful government needs to hold its people in fear. Is this really your opinion, or have I misunderstood?

You have misunderstood about as completely as it is possible to misunderstand and still read the same language, I think. :) You need to read the rest of my comment, where I pointed out that the reason the US works as well as it does is not because the framers of the Constitution tried to make people into angels, but because they designed a system where people can be devils, and things will still work out.

Let me try this another way: people are going to be who they are, and the vast majority of us (I do not exclude myself) are susceptible to emotional manipulation, regardless of our education level-- I think many well-educated people, like myself, like to think they're above emotional manipulation, but I quite frankly think they're fooling themselves. I hope you would admit that even if it were possible to educate everyone in the US to the point to where they were not vulnerable to emotional appeals, it would take decades, if not longer, and what would we do until then?

No, what we need is not, I believe, a system of government which is predicated on human nature suddenly changing after centuries of consistenly behaving in a given manner, nor one which is dependent upon people being the worst they can be all the time. What we need is a system which encourages people to be the best they can, but also allows them to be the worst without fundamentally harming the system. I happen to be (un?)reasonably fond of the current US system, without being blinded to its various and sundry faults. (I'm somewhat keen on the idea of "Aussie Rules Elections", and am always interested in ways to encourage participation in politics beyond the two major parties).

Eric said...

@ivan:

FYI, I'm going on vacation tomorrow, so I won't be able to read your comments. Don't feel I'm ignoring you; I'm just going to be scuba-diving in the Bahamas. :)

You might read Stephen Pinker's "The Blank Slate", though, and ponder this probably mangled misquotation of somebody whose name I've forgotten:

"People don't change; they just get more so."

Nicq MacDonald said...

Okay, here's a crazy, DB worthy solution to the problem of federal direct democracy, similiar to his electoral college solution:

Apportion house representatives at the same ratio they were originally apportioned- in the 1790's.

Sure, there would be over 5,000 of them. They wouldn't all fit in the capital building... but who needs one? We have teleconferencing! Think about it- every congressman could stay in his home district and legislate from a home office, where he would be easily accessible by all his constituents. Your "friendly neighborhood congressman"- wasn't this the way it was meant to be in the first place? One person representing 30-40 thousand, rather than 750k+?

Okay, so the idea is nuts. It would definitely create a whole new crop of problems. But I like it, for some odd reason...

Anonymous said...

Niqc...
5000 odd congressmen... and 100 senators. The house of Reps would be like a yahoo message board...
It appeals to me.

HH

Rob Perkins said...

I've been in favor of a 5000-delegate House of Representatives for a few years, now. The upshot is that there is a proposed constitutional amendment *still* out there, as article I of the original Bill of Rights, which needs only to be ratified by 34 States, having already been approved by the first Congress!

It's a perfect use of a grassroots movement! :-D

Frank said...

"a 5000-delegate House of Representatives"

Wouldn't that be a catastrophe for lobbyists? Surely, there can't be enough money to buy THAT many politicians...

Anonymous said...

===========================
"a 5000-delegate House of Representatives"

Wouldn't that be a catastrophe for lobbyists? Surely, there can't be enough money to buy THAT many politicians...
=========================
Well, since the 5000 delegates would be splitting the current salary of 400 delegates, the reduced pay would make them vulnerable to smaller bribes. So, I think we can get the lobbyists on board...
HH

David Ivory said...

I just found an article that illustrates in more detail my big worry - Climate Change and the effect upon species.

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