You are one in a million. A precious snowflake, and you’re totally unique.

What was your reaction to those statements? My guess is that you may think it is hackneyed, untrue and ridiculous. You aren’t unique, there are tons and tons of people just like you. Lets find out exactly how many.

First, lets define a few characteristics here.

1: Gender
2: Race
3: Age Group

For gender, there are two possibilities, for race, lets say 3 (White, Black, Asian) (you could argue a lot about the appropriate number), for age group, lets say six groups (preteen, teen, young adult, adult, middle age, elderly). We could expand further downward (infant, toddler, etc), but you aren’t one of those because you can read.

So as of right now, there are 36 different possible readers taking only 3 characteristics (which of course aren’t the full dimension).

Lets keep adding some values:

4: Political affiliation (3 possibilities liberal, conservative, libertarian)
5: Religion (we’ll go with 6 common possibilities, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist)
6: Nationality (google say 196, but we can differ)
7: Occupational sector (I could argue a lot about these and it depends on how you define these, but lets say 20 different employment sectors)

So now, based on these 4 new characteristics, we have 3*6*196*20, or 70,560, times 36 (from our first three), which gives up 2,540,160.

But we’re not anywhere near done. For fun, lets add the Myers Brigs Categories

8-11 Myers Brigs (Extroverted/Introverted, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving, sensing/intuiting, or 16 total)

Lets add some more random items:

12: Are you a traditionalist or a trailblazer? (2)
13: Are you high strung or chilled out. (2)
14: Are you career oriented, family oriented, friend oriented, or community oriented (4)
15: Do you get your way or get along? (2)

Ok, lets go back to some more traditional measures:

16: Sexual Orientation (2)
17: Education Level (we’ll say 5, did not finish high school, high school only, some college, college degree, graduate degree)

Ok, now we’ve got 16x2x2x4x2x2x5 which is 5,120. Multiply this by our number above and we get 13,005,619,200. With only 17 criteria, we now define more types of people than there are people in the whole world. So if you’re a young adult white male conservative Christian American financial services professional who is an INTJ, a traditionalist, a high strung community oriented get-along straight college graduate, you can say that you are unique. Actually you can’t, because that’s who I am.

Now, there’s two major complaints I anticipate. The first is that my categories above weren’t fair because your religion/race/whatever wasn’t on there. Well, that just means you are even more unique than above, you truly are special.

The second, and much more relevant piece, is that many of the above are correlated with one another. Take me, for instance, a straight white christian male. All of those are somewhat to heavily correlated with being conservative, which, no surprise, I am (kind of). Which means that, although there are in fact more categories than there are people to fill them, people aren’t randomly assigned, and its very likely that there a bunch of categories with more than one person in them, some of them probably numerous (perhaps mine has a quite a few). But it isn’t many; lets go by my example again.

First, lets start off with Americans, which we’ll say there are 300 million of.
Half are men, which gets down to 150 million.
My age group has 20.3% of the population (I’m defining young adult as 20 – 34), that’s 30.45 million people.
We’ll save 78.5% are christian, of which half are conservative (total of 39.25%). Brings us to 11.95 million.

4% of people work in financial services, and we’ll say that all of them have at least an associates degree. According to wikipedia, 41.89 % of the population had a associates or bachelors degree and 11.77% had advanced degrees. We’ll assume that the ratio of advanced to non advanced degree holders is the same in the financial services industry as it is outside of it, which means that 2.88% of people in the US are financial services professionals without an advanced degree. This now brings us to 344,160 people are like me, in the first 6 categories.

According to google, INTJs are 2% of the population, but more common in men, (of which I am), and we’ll say that in other various ways I’m more correlated with the value, so to pick a number we’ll say 8% of people with the above characteristics are INTJs.

Of these, lets say 80% are traditionalist, 70% are high strung, 40% are community oriented, 75% get along and they’re all straight.

Which means that, in my bucket, there are perhaps 4,625 people. Which may be a lot, but its not too many. I’m sure there are bigger buckets, something with Indian Hindu working in agriculture probably has many more, but again, we’re only talking about 17 different characteristics. I haven’t mentioned whether you like history, whether you are a poet, if you play an instrument, if you prefer the country to the city, the mountains to the beach, the summer to the winter, whether you run, bike, play a team sport. If you like science fiction, if you watch reality TV, if you are in to fashion, or follow sports. If you do drugs, drink alcohol. If you’re in a weird subculture.

All of these are important things, things which matter, which help describe who a person is. And I haven’t even mentioned whether you’re married or have kids yet.

Combine all of these, and while I suppose its still possible there are “Buckets” which might have more than one person in them, I imagine that, just within these characteristics, the vast majority of humanity has a bucket entirely to themselves. And I can go on regarding these characteristics, I’m sure I can name another 20 or 30 categories easily, and there are numerous subcategories within these groupings.

So what is the point? First of all, yes, you truly are unique, there is only one you, and we’ve just proved it, with math.

Sometimes, we compare things to other things. Just the other day, I contrasted the US political climate to the number of original movies coming out. That was a comparison I made, because of my outlook and experience. There are comparisons, accomplishments and insights that only you can make. You are special, and I mean that in the best possible way.


Are ghosts real?

We all have guilty pleasures, mine is paranormal activity. Not the movie series (I’ve never seen any but have heard they are horrible), but just the concept that bigfoot or ghosts or aliens are real.

Three reasons bigfoot isn’t real:

1: If he were real we would have hard evidence: remains, a captured creature, or unmistakable photographic evidence. We have little “good” photographic evidence.

2: Sightings correlate with interest over time. We’ve had few sightings before 1958, suddenly he appears not only in the Pacific Northwest but across the country, as far east as Maine and as far south as Florida. Basically, we’re to believe that he hasn’t appeared in the US at all, until he becomes culturally important, then he is suddenly ubiquitous.

3: The more likely one is to believe in Bigfoot, the more likely one is to find evidence of him. The most famous piece of evidence is the Patterson Gilmlin film (you almost certainly know what it is, but if you need a refresher, click here). Why were the people in the area? They were filming a fictional movie about bigfoot. There have been who knows how many movies filmed in California, thousands of people in the Californian mountains and woods, and the single best piece of evidence happens to be created from people already connected to bigfoot? It seems like a very unlikely coincidence.

There is one reason, however, to put some stock in the bigfoot legend. Take a look at this map:


(map by wikipedia User:Fiziker)

Bigfoot sightings seem to follow a general rule: the more people in a state, the more people who see Bigfoot. (New York doesn’t follow this rule, but this makes sense, most people in New York are in a single very urban metropolitan area). Almost everything on this map can be explained by a simple rule: when people are in rural areas, they see a bigfoot with some constant probability. That probability should depend greatly on not just the number of people in an area, but in the number of bigfoot as well, and it doesn’t seem to. There are few to no patterns with regard to geography within this map.

Except one. Washington has more than any other state, and Oregon has a disproportional number of sightings. Why is this? Is it some cultural reason, are people expected to see bigfoot more in those states? Are people more likely to perpetuate hoaxes in Washington and Oregon?

I think that either of those explanations is a better one than that Bigfoot actually exists, but I must admit that it does influence my belief somewhat (perhaps from a 0.2% to a 0.3% chance that bigfoot exists), there does seem to be some geographic pattern that bigfoot follows.

Regardless of all this, bigfoot isn’t a big deal. If somebody were to discover a bigfoot next year, it’d be a big story, then life would go on as normal. If bigfoot were to exist, it wouldn’t really affect our lives or our concept of our world at all. There are other such “cryptids” which are similar, the yeti, the skunk fox, ogopogo, etc. I doubt any of them exist, but they wouldn’t be a big deal.

Ghosts are another matter. If we ever determine that ghosts actually exist, many people will have to re-examine their entire worldview. Suddenly, physics will either have to deal with the fact that we have souls or that there is something really weird going on with ghosts.

If you were to ask anyone why they don’t believe in ghosts, the answer would probably be something like why hasn’t anyone seen them. But thousands, perhaps millions of people have seen ghosts. Well, why aren’t there any photographs of ghosts? But there are hundreds of photographs of ghosts. Don’t believe me, do a quick google search for ghost photograph, and see them.

But are they real? Is it possible that every single person who attributes something to ghosts is wrong about it? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that every single photograph and video which has a ghost is some form of a hoax, optical illusion, or other mistake? Again, it is possible, people make mistakes about things all the time. We see faces all the time where they shouldn’t be.

So should we believe in ghosts? Quite frankly, I have idea. The amount of ghostly evidence seems to about fit the pattern of people frequently mis-attributing things to ghosts and sometimes making things up. But I have no idea what the evidence level of “ghosts are real” would look like.

Lets put ghosts in perspective by talking about bigfoot. If bigfoot was real, there’d probably need to be at least 2,000 of them to form a stable breeding population. If the population was spread out over the state of Washington, (area of about 70,000 square miles), and we were to monitor 5,000 sites throughout Washington (either through game photographs or people with cellphone cameras or the like), each of which covers a half acre. Finally, each bigfoot stays in a viewing site for 6 hours, then is randomly transported to another viewing site. This is an admittedly weird scenario, but it gives us something to go by; some assumptions are simplifications to be sure (bigfoot probably aren’t teleporting), but they go in both directions (a half acre may be too big, but six hours may be way too long.  Also, there are areas of Washington we shouldn’t expect Bigfoot to live, such as Seattle).  Anyway, lets see what happens when we run the numbers:

This boils down pretty quickly to a randomly drawn ball problem. If there are 91 million balls in an urn and 2,000 of them are red, the chances of drawing a red ball are only .00219%. Which means that there is a 99.99781% chance that, at any given time, you will draw a non red ball. The chances that you draw a red ball in either of two draws is the probability that you don’t draw a red ball in the first times the probability you don’t draw one in the second. To simplify, we can reduce the probability of drawing a red ball on any number of draws by using the formula x = 1- P^N, where x is the probability of not drawing a red ball in N draws, and P is the probability if not drawing a red ball in one draw.

We can use our example and ask a new question, how many draws would we need to make before we had a 50% chance of drawing a red ball? We can use a simple formula, .5 = .9999781^N. Or, to make it simpler,N = Log(base .9999781) of .5, which means N is 31,656.85. So to get better than even odds of drawing a red ball, we would on average draw 31 thousand balls.

Lets apply this to bigfoot. If there are 2,000 bigfeet in Washington, and we have a viewing sites of a half acre each, that means we would have to make 31 thousand observations before we expect to see one. Which, with 5,000 viewing sites, each observation taking 6 hours, would take us all of 36 hours. A day and a half to find bigfoot, given our parameters. Which means we should be seeing many many many more bigfoot sightings than we do right now; about 120 per year, not 593 all time. Now you can argue about my numbers, but that’s not the point. The point is we can have some sort of baseline, we can make assumptions to create some sort of a test, if bigfoot is real, how often should we see him. We can then get an estimate and compare it what we actually see, and see if it matches our theory.

I don’t think we can do that with ghosts. If ghosts are real, how common are they? I have no idea. If they exist, what are the chances that we see them in any given time period? Again, I have no idea, it matters a lot if they are supposed to come out once per day or once per year. Are they permanent or do they eventually dissipate (or cross over or whatever). I have no idea what the answer to any of these questions would be.

I’m not trying to argue that ghosts somehow exist – I am saying that i don’t even know how to determine if they are.

Perhaps the wisest thing I’ve ever heard in terms of epistemology is this: that true things become more obvious the more they are studied. I think that’s the only thing I can really say about ghosts, that they’ve been studied a lot, but we aren’t more sure of them now than we were 20 years ago. Perhaps that’s something, but its hollow to me, a non answer. Sure, I can say that I don’t believe that ghosts definitely do exist, but I have a very hard time understanding why I should have a strong belief that ghosts don’t exist.

The great filter Part 2

A while ago I wrote about the “Great Filter,” or the reason why we don’t see aliens everywhere we look in the universe. Read about it here:

Last time, I argued that the great filter cannot be a totalitarian regime, is very unlikely to be either berserkers or environmental damage, and is somewhat unlikely to be nuclear war and/or pandemic. Which leaves us with two more filters, the starships are hard, or that civilizations aren’t interested in colonization.

Today, I’ll talk about whether starships are hard.

In order for something to be a filter, it needs to have the following characteristics.

1: It must prevent the colonization of the galaxy.

2: It needs to be stable (or long-lasting), it if effects a civilization in time period x, it must still do so in period x+1

3: It needs to be universal, and effect (nearly) all civilizations, regardless of biology or culture.

So does difficulties building starships meet all three categories? For item 1, definitely. For item 2, also definitely, the laws of physics governing space travel aren’t changing. If its hard to build a spaceship today, just waiting won’t make it easier. At first glance, it appears to be universal as well, as all civilizations are facing the same laws of phyics. However, there may be two reasons why this would be different. First, some species may be more able to survive on starships, for instance they may be smaller. Secondly, some civilizations may start out closer to colonizable star systems than others. However, even with these two, we can say that space ships hit the “nearly” universal tag.

So, having established that difficulty in building spaceships can lead to Fermi Paradox, we tackle the more interesting question which is, has it?

At first it seems obvious that it will. Assume that the highest speed of a starship is 10% the speed of light. Next, assume that the average colonizable target is 80 light years away. Simple math says that it will take 800 years, or roughly 23 human generations to complete the journey. So you have to have a starship big enough to house enough people to preserve genetic diversity over such a time period (we’re talking about hundreds at the bare minimum, probably more realistically in the thousands), and enough space to grow food, house recycling functions (for not just materials but water, air, etc), provide living quarters, and enough energy to run the whole thing. Furthermore, we’d need to transport all sorts of animals, fish, livestock etc, to populate the new world, in addition to feeding people along the way. Also, all the equipment needed to actually colonize the new world. We’re talking about a big spaceship, and enough energy to get that spaceship that fast is enormous, not to mention slowing it down when it gets to the target.

All this seems to lead us to the conclusion that yes, space colonization is very hard.

But there are a few things we can do to modify this. First, let’s assume that people aren’t busy living on board the spaceship, but instead in a state of suspended animation. Ditto for all the cattle, fish, plants, dogs, and whatever else we want to bring. Suddenly, the total power requirements goes down, a lot.  Also, since we don’t have to worry about storing or growing food, we can cut our speed down, say to about 2% the speed of light, making the journey take 4,000 years instead of 800, which means that civilization on earth may no longer exist, but if the new colony can become self sufficient and expand, then it will be able to colonize the galaxy.

One might object by saying that I’m making up a technology that we haven’t proven to exist. Furthermore, while suspended animation may be possible, it might not work for long periods of time (it may work for 50 years, but not for 4,000), or that it may still take a lot of energy to keep the suspendee alive. All of this may be true, but I would argue that of course we assume there must be some technology which doesn’t exist for us yet which could lead to space colonization after all I don’t think we’ve discovered everything. And while there may be difficulties in suspended animation, there is nothing that I know of in the laws of physics which would prevent it, unlike warp drives for instance.

There is however, a much easier way to transport people across the vastness of space than suspended animation. And that is to transport not fully grown humans, but fertilized eggs. While we certainly don’t have experience freezing embryos for thousands of years, there’s no reason to assume that storing them at near absolute zero temperatures wouldn’t work. Furthermore, in the coldness of space (2.7 Kelvin), you wouldn’t need to spend energy on refrigeration technology. Now, we’d need a way to take those embryos and develop them outside of the womb, and then raise/educate those children, which could either be done by a subset of humans (if suspended animation is feasible), or by robots.

The same holds true not just for humans, but for all manners of plant and animal life, we can take an entire genetic ecosystem worth of genetic material in a series of canisters no bigger than a large room. And there may be even more compact ways. Instead of storing embryos, we could potentially just store DNA sequences of organism, then “build” them when the starship reaches its destination. Whether this is feasible or not is up in the air, but it certainly seems possible to me.

Now, how big would a spaceship need to be in order to do this. How about 10,000,000 metric tons of starship? That’s big, about 15 times the mass of the largest ship every built (the Seawise Giant), but small compared to something like the fleet of oil tankers on planet earth right now (less than 10% of the mass of Ultra Large Crude Carrier, when loaded with petroleum). Now, can a ship that size hold all the things needed to colonize a planet? Truth is, I have no idea, but lets run with it for a second.

So if we have 10 million tons, that’s 10 billion kilograms. Doing some math (e = 1/2 mv^2), it will take about 3,000 years worth of current us electricity consumption to get the ship up to a speed of 1% the speed of light, which is a lot, but is it too much? If we reach the point of harvesting energy using space solar panels, it becomes a bit easier. We would require only a solar panel of 136 miles on each side, placed at 0.1 AU, to harvest that amount of energy over a year (assuming 22% efficiency). This is about one and a half Marylands worth of solar panels. This seems like a lot, but (according to this source: it is only about half the total surface area of highways in the US. In short, if we get to the point where we’re mining asteroids, we can do it. Storing that energy and then using it to power the ship are another matter, and while it seems hard, it doesn’t seem impossible. (Math allows us to proportionally change things easily! If you want to increase the speed of the ship, to .02 c, for instance, just double the length of the solar panel side. If you want to double the mass of the ship, use two years instead of one).

One final thing, which I’ll comment on because I spent a long time figuring this out, is how to slow the ship down. There are plenty of actual starship designs out there, including hyrdogen scoops and the like (Bussard Ramjets), but I thought, hey, why not use a parachute to slow a ship down. I did the math to determine how big a parachute you’d need to slow down such a ship, and it was one of my favorite problems to solve ever. Feel free to skip all the math, but here it is:

To solve it, we use the drag equation, f = 1/2 p * v^2 & a * c

Where F is force, P is fluid density, V is velocity, A is area of the parachute, and C is the drag coefficient. For reasons I won’t go into, we can say that C = 2, so the formula becomes

f = p*v^2*a, or
v’ = -p*v^2*a/m (m is mass)

I put the negative sign in because the acceleration will always be negative, ie the ship will always be slowing down. In order to translate this to a function of time, we use the initial value problem: (

Since -p*a/m is a constant, lets just call it k, that gives us

dv/dt = v^2 k


dv/v^2 = k* dt

Integrate both sides and you get

-1/v + C = k * t + B

subtract C from both sides

-1/v = k*t + B-C

We can call B-C a new term (D), then simply isolate v

-1/v = k*t + D

1/v = -k*t – D
v = 1/(-k*t – D), which means that the function is

v(t) = 1/(-k*t – D), we know everything except D, but we know what the starting speed is (.01 c, or 2,997,925 m/s)

v(0) = 1/(-k*0 – D) or

2,997,925 = 1/-D, which gives us a D of -0.0000003335640952.

so v(t) = 1/(-k*t + 0.0000003335640952)

k, if you remember, is -fluid density * area / mass. So for units of k*t we get (mass / length^3 * length^2 / mass * time), this reduces down to 1/length * time, or -1/velocity, which is great because that’s the unit we need, our units match.

Now, it would be absurd to use this to slow the spaceship down to zero (it would take forever), but we can use it to slow the starship to say the speed at which the earth revolves around the sun (30,000 m/s). Finally, lets say how long we want it to happen (over a period of 3,000 years, for instance), we get

v(3000 years) = 30,000 m/s

Since we never defined how big the parachute is, we can now solve for it, given our constraints above:

v = 1/(-(-P*A/M) *t + D))

Rearrange to isolate A:

A = M/pt * (1/v + D)

throw in the numbers we know: (I originally did the math based on a 824 thousand metric ton ship)

A = 824,000,000 (mass of ship) / 2.39E-21 (density of space in kg/m^3) * 94,672,800,000 (3000 years in seconds) * (1/30,000 (speed in m/s) -0.0000003335640952 (our constant D, in s/m)

I love this so much because it uses ridiculously large and small numbers (giant ships, giant sails, the density of outer space!!)

Anyway, we get a value of 120,123,349,601,661, square meters, which is pretty big, or 10,000,000 meters on one edge of the (square) sail, about 6,850 miles, which is a sail about the diameter of earth. A sail built from any substance would be prohibitive in terms of mass, but using an electromagnetic field wouldn’t.

All of this is to say that I think it would be possible to slow the ship down. Can we speed it up? Put it this way; 1% of the speed of light is only 200 times faster than space probes we’ve already built. Surely we could built something to go, if not that fast, 50 times faster than the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

All this, though, leads us to the easiest path of all, while humans may or may not ever be able to colonize the galaxy, surely self replicating robots could? We’ve already built robots which can function for years on other planets, building some sort of robot or collections of robots which could construct more versions of themselves on other planets makes not only the difficulties of getting there, but the difficulties of transporting humans there almost disappear.

Building a collection of robots to colonize the galaxy might not seem romantic or noble, and it may not even be wise; in fact we might say that it is a very bad idea. But that doesn’t matter for our purposes, all we need is the idea that a: it’s possible and b: that somebody somewhere decides to do it. If we have those two conditions, then its pretty much inevitable that we get a galaxy full of robots, which, based on our observations, doesn’t appear to be what we have.

Starships are hard to build, no question. But I don’t think they are so hard to become the great filter. If there are enough intelligent civilizations, one of them will build self replicating robots and conquer the galaxy.

Next up, do we lose our desire?

On libertarians

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.  H. L. Mencken

There’s something odd about the libertarian political philosophy. Like all good bad political monikers, it has a conveniently hard to dismiss name. I mean, you like liberty, right? Also, you like Society, Progress, and Democracy. I guess that’s par for the course for Libertarianism. But unlike other beliefs, it seems to be based on a certain set of premises, which form a logical platform that doesn’t change across time and place. If you’re talking about right-wing vs left wing politicians, you can get very different platforms depending on where and when you’re about. A conservative in Massachusetts in 1920 and a conservative in Spain in 1970 are two wholly different animals. I mean, one wanted to re-establish the monarchy. Also, if we’re trying to project into the future, then these terms are equally helpless. What will the conservative position be in 2060? What will the liberal one be? I don’t know.

But the libertarian philosophy is, more than any other, a constant position. The libertarian position right now is pretty much what any libertarian solution would be in any time or any place: reduce the state to performing a few key, essential roles. I don’t know exactly what the challenges we’ll be facing in 2060 will be, but I have a pretty good idea what the libertarian platform in 2060 will consist of. (less government spending, dovish foreign policy etc).

All of the other parties and platforms seem to have evolved into being, carrying with them the baggage of history, being shaped not just by ideas but by events. It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican party was the party for conservatives and progressives, while the Democratic Party was the home of northern ethnic minorities and southern racists. Think about how weird politics is for a second. We have one party which is in favor of stimulus spending, is in favor of gay marriage, and was against the war in Iraq. What does these things have in common? Nothing! (in fact, if anything there should be a slight correlation between favoring stimulus spending and favoring war, as war raises spending). There’s not really any good reason why our positions on a war should be strongly correlated with your position on gay marriage, yet this is pretty much the case, you tell me you view on position x, and I’ll have a pretty good chance of guessing your view on position y, and so will everyone else. This is kind of frightening, because I think that more and more our positions are being determined by our politics in a way that I don’t think has normally happened, and I don’t like it, although I suppose that is an essay for another time.

The exception to this rule is libertarians. They have a simple philosophy which can guide them in all circumstances, which to put in the shortest possible terms is “butt out.” Should we go to war in Iraq? No, lets not get involved. Should we allow two men to marry each other? Sure, it’s not our business. Should the government spend a lot of money on this project? No lets not get involved.

We can further demonstrate this by noticing that the libertarians don’t really have an opposite party (or platform). They will tell you that the opposite of a libertarian is a statist, but there are no actual statists, or at the very least, there are no people who would call themselves statists.

I guess you can make the opposite of libertarianism is communism, that whereas the solution for libertarians is always less government, the solution for communists is always more government. Perhaps, but the libertarian movement (not party mind you) is alive and well in America (yes, I realize that this is a very America centric post), where you can easily count among libertarians (although not members of the Libertarian Party) such people as Rand Paul (Senator), Gary Johnson (former Governor) or Glenn Beck (popular commentator). There is no such communist opposite in America. Also, while Communist regimes didn’t do so well in practice with civil liberties, in theory they supported civil liberties, which means they aren’t in opposition in everything in theory. (I realize that you’re rolling your eyes right now – you might be thinking that I’m saying something as stupid as “in theory, communism works,” which I’m not. I am not in any way trying to defend communism by looking at what it “claims” to believe or what it wants to happen, and then using that as any sort of basis for judgement. Communism has, everywhere its been tried, produced results which range bad to Mordor-on-Earth. What I am trying to do is, by looking at the theories or claims which underly communism, seek to determine motivation if you will of Communism, and compare it to the motivation of Libertarianism, and find some (but not much) areas of overlap.)

The reason that parties have opposites is a fairly simple one. There are many things that Democrats and Republicans agree on: that we shouldn’t go to war with Canada, that slavery is bad, that we should have a standing army, not to quarter troops in people’s houses, etc. It’s just that the things that the two major parties agree on, are, by definition, not part of the debate. So, when looking at all the topics that are under debate, almost all can be split into a Republican/conservative side, and a Democrat/liberal side, those that don’t have backers on either side aren’t part of the discourse, and those that have backers in one party with no detractors in the other quickly become policy.

But libertarianism is not like this, the great irony here is that other political positions developed through decentralized mechanisms over time, the libertarian philosophy is much more the product of human design.

There is one fact about libertarianism that which should be said. You will often hear people say something to the effect of “this election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competency which is why you should vote for candidate X.” Now, in my experience, nobody ever says this about somebody who they don’t already agree with ideologically, but that’s beside the point. With libertarians though, it’s never about competency. An idiot libertarian will reduce the size and scope of government. A genius libertarian will reduce the size and scope of government. With all other forms of government, ability is important. If you fight a war, having good generals is important, if you are instituting a large bureaucracy, its important to get the right people in charge, if you’re centrally planning the economy, well you wan that done by the right team. But in libertarianism, idiocy is no handicap – it doesn’t require smarts to do nothing.

Of course, there are exceptions, libertarians working within a system would want the capability to actually enact their platform through procedural maneuvering or inspiring the troops. And you’d want a libertarian President who couldn’t reduce the government to the ideal libertarian size to be able to manage the government in the meantime. Of course this doesn’t mean that libertarians themselves are dumb, if anything quite the contrary (although I suspect this is mainly due to libertarian not being one of the default choices, you have to be somewhat engaged in the political world in order to be a libertarian, in a way that you don’t to become a Republican or Democrat.)

There are of course essays and website intelligently attacking and rebutting libertarianism , this just isn’t one of them. If I’ve managed to convince you that libertarianism is wrong, then you probably haven’t been reading closely enough. I do think however that the peculiarities of libertarianism mentioned above are at least partially responsible for its relative popularity, and deserve mention and study.


Watson, as I’m sure that everyone has heard of, is the name of IBMs jeopardy winning computer. normally, there’d be some sort of adjective before computer like “super,” but I don’t know what it would be, perhaps smart is the best word for it? I recently read that IBM was attempting to use this in Oncology, to help doctors treat cancer. This is, for many, perhaps myself included, a scary thought. We all know that computers are capable of doing amazing things, but they are also capable of doing incredibly dumb things. I would almost go so far as to offer a definition of common sense as the thing that computers lack. So I think it is important not to remove humans from the decision making process, but of course nobody is arguing to remove humans from the process. (interestingly, while the best computers have been able to consistently beat the best humans at chess for about 10 years now, which is always the first example given in regards to “oh the humans are losing”  to computers nonsense. What is interesting though is that, in chess, computers almost never make stupid mistakes. However, the best players in chess are “centaurs” or combined human/computer teams, but in this case its the humans, instead of protecting against computer stupidity, providing human creativity).

There’s a story about a teacher trying to teach kids something about knowledge, so she gives her students three numbers: 2,4,8. Then she tells the students that these numbers follow a certain pattern, and that they can give her other sets of numbers, and she will tell her student if it follows the pattern she has in mind or not. (There’s a video of that right here, in case you don’t want to read). The students very quickly notice a pattern, that each number is twice the previous number, and then give her similar sets: 3, 6, 12 or 4, 8, 16. For those of these, the teacher says yes, these fit my pattern.

However, the pattern is just that the numbers are in increasing order, not that they are double the previous number. This pattern necessarily includes all sequences where each number is twice the previous one (for positive numbers). But once we get a certain theory in our heads, its hard to get it out. So what should the students have done? Simple, not only give sequences which they think will yield positive results, but sequences which they think will yield negative results. Now, you may be thinking that this is simply confirmation bias, but you’re wrong. The students were never given any information which contradicted their hypothesis, so it’s not that they were ignoring or minimizing inconvenient information. Furthermore, they weren’t above testing their hypothesis, oh no, they were ready to put their theory to the test. The problem is that they didn’t know where to look, or which questions to ask.

For better or for worse, this is how humans think. They make observations, come up with a theory or pattern, which causes them to make further observations, which leads them to ask certain questions, which may or may not lead them to a decision. This is totally different from how a computer can make these same distinctions. Instead of looking for the “big” evidence which points in one direction, the computer can look at many small items, compare it to some type of database, and can take a bunch of pieces of “small” evidence and turn it into a guess.

The best way that I can describe this is to use the game 20 questions. When humans play it, they typically go through some sort of decision tree, asking a question, then based on the answer pose a new question within that tree. For animal, it might even go through kingdom/phylum etc. (it is a vertebrae? Yes, is it warm-blooded? Yes. Is it a mammal? No. Is it a flightless bird? Yes. Is it an ostrich? No. is it a Penguin? Yes)

Compare that tree of questions to the below, courtesy of (if you’d like to play, for some weird reason select the “think in British” option, it seems to be smarter than the American Version).

1. It is classified as Animal.
2. Can you buy it? No.
3. Can it jump? Yes.
4. Is it ferocious? No.
5. Is it multicoloured? Yes.
6. Is it a type of mineral? No.
7. Is it fluffy? Yes
8. Is it originally from Africa? Sometimes.
9. Does it live in the jungle? No.
10. Is it black? Sometimes.
11. Does it live in trees? No.
12. Would you give it as a gift? No.
13. Does it live in groups (gregarious)? Yes.
14. Does it have a bushy tail? No.
15. Can it be tamed? No.
16. Can it climb? No.
17. Are there many different sorts of it? Yes.

Q18. I am guessing that it is a penguin?

None of those questions seem to follow any sort of pattern (after the initial animal question)- but somehow, taken together, they indicate penguin. None of those seem to hone in on Penguin at all; no question about living in the arctic, swimming, eating fish, or for that matter, even being a bird. Yet based only only those 17 questions (one of which seems like complete nonsense – is it a type of mineral!), the computer somehow knows that I was thinking of Penguin. Note also that most of the questions are completely unlike the children in my story, the computer must be getting a lot of information from the “no” answers.

A long time ago, when 20q first came out on the internet and AOL Instant Messenger was still a thing, used to on, get my friends to play 20 questions with me, only I’d be using 20q. So they’d be given a long string of what they think were nonsense questions, only to be told the correct answer. My friends thought I was doing magic, I suppose I was cheating but it was fun.

Take the question, “is it multicoloured” Penguins are, because they are black and white. But when we hear that, we suddenly think of peacocks, or baboons, or things that are not just multicolored, but extravagantly colored. We infer more from the answer than can be truly stated.

Which all brings me back to our friend Watson. A computer which can help diagnose conditions based on a bunch of diverse, mundane data is something that will almost certainly prove useful. Humans are, on the whole, much more creative than computers, but there are certain circumstances in which computers appear more creative. Considering penguin as an answer to my above set of questions, for instance. It’s not real creativity, it’s just that the computer can consider every animal at once, we are limited in our considerations. While I’m not quite ready for medicine to be taken over by computers entirely, I’m looking forward to seeing Watson help out in the ER.

Playing the lottery is not a Sharpe choice

The Powerball Jackpot is approaching $500 million dollars tonight.  The chances of winning are 1 in 175 million. Which gives the expected value of $2.86 per ticket, and at a cost of $2 per ticket, that’s a great value!

Of course, the 500 million is an annuity, the “lump sum” or the real value is 337, which gives a value of $1.92 per ticket. This is increased by all the other prizes, as one can win $4, $7, $100, $10,000 and $1,000,000 for various combinations. Doing the math (which I won’t spell out in this post) gives you about $0.36 per ticket, so for tonight’s jackpot we can estimate the expected value of a single ticket at $2.28, or roughly a 10% average return.

If, as we’ve calculated, the expected value of the ticket is $2.28, is buying a ticket the economically intelligent thing to do? What, for that matter, does expected value actually mean?

One way to think of it is to imagine buying all possible tickets. There are 175 million possible number combinations (thus the 1 in 175 million chances), if you bought every possible ticket, you would be guaranteed a winner, (and multiples of all the lesser prizes) which means that buying all the tickets will make you money, about $400 million to be approximate. If buying all the tickets will get you x amount of money, then buying 1 ticket will get you x/175 million in money; doing this math gets us to the $2.28 figure.

But there’s something else to consider, that is the possibility of another winner. If two people win the prize, then the prize amount drops in half. Lets say, for the sake of simplicity, that there is a 40% chance of having two winners (which, if anything seems too low, it seems like when lotteries get this high). That reduces the expected value of the ticket from 2.28 to 1.90, which makes it fall below our magical $2 level.

But what is this telling us? Well, it tells us that if we buy all the tickets, now we will expect to lose money. But why does this have any relevance for anyone who buys a single ticket? Lets imagine a scenario. First, lets assume that, for whatever reason, the jackpot is rarely split in two so you barely figure that into your calculations (maybe a 1% chance of two winners instead of a 40% chance). Now, imagine that you buy a Powerball ticket, and to your joy while watching the drawing you see each of your 6 numbers match those being drawn. As you’ve just one the jackpot, you are ecstatic. The next day, as you get the morning newspaper, you see the headline: “Record Powerball Jackpot has 2 winners” Instead of winning the full jackpot, you only win half. Now, do you regret buying the ticket? Of course not, ex ante, the math worked in your favor, ex post, the math worked in your favor.  So why, if when event x happens it does not cause you to change any rewards scheme, should the possibility of event x enter into your calculations?   No realistic number of winners will ever push the jackpot down to a level where you wouldn’t be happy winning it.

Lets change gears a moment and talk about taxes. Assume that taxes takes away half the winnings.  Business Insider did the math here: basically the taxes push the expected value to $1.32 (for some insane reason they are reporting the expected return on buying a ticket, instead of the expected value of a ticket.) They figure that you should apply the after tax return to the cost of buying a ticket to determine the expected value.

But what does our analysis actually mean? If we return to the scenario of buying every ticket, all in all we’d spend about $350 million, get the jackpot and all the other prizes, for a value of about $400 million. Now, if you assume that you would pay half that $400 million in taxes, you’d be left with $200 million, or a loss of $150 million, so you figure don’t buy the tickets. But in reality you wouldn’t be charged $200 million in taxes, because of the ability to write off gambling losses against gambling wins. So instead of paying $200 million, you would only pay $25 million in taxes (on 50 million net winnings), which pushes the net value to positive territory.  So which value is correct? One the one hand, you’re not actually buying all the tickets, and the value of a single ticket as a tax write off is negligible. On the other hand, it’s not like paying the taxes on the winnings is going to make a big difference, you’ll still be horribly rich. So what is the answer?

The answer is that there is no answer. Using something like expected value is a tool which helps us understand our world, but it is not the world. For any Powerball lottery, there is always a very small chance that you will become very rich. Exactly how rich is hardly an interesting question. Imagine yourself with $100 million. Now imagine yourself with $200 million. There isn’t much of a difference. Or to put it differently, think of all the things that you could do with $200 million that you couldn’t do with $100 million: not a gigantic difference. So if the human difference between 100 and 200 million dollars isn’t big, what is the point in taking the jackpot, multiplying it by the probability of winning, and comparing that number to the ticket price? If you win, you’ll be happy. If you lose, you wasted money. In other games with lower variance in returns (such as roulette) can help you understand whether you will win or lose over the long run, in the case of roulette the long run is over an hour or a few hours. But in Powerball, the long run would last millions of years (potentially billions if you only play when the Powerball odds are in your favor), so how is that useful?

In finance, there is a concept called the Sharpe ratio. It measures the marginal change in return to marginal change in risk. Basically, it’s a way of adjusting returns for risk. If I did my math right, in our situation we an expected return of about .14 (winning 2.28 on a 2 dollar ticket is a 14% return, we can assume the risk free rate of return is zero overnight (close enough anyway), and a standard deviation on the return of 162 million. Which gives us a Sharpe ratio of 0.00001123293428; well below the advised value of 1 for a decent risk adjusted investment. It’s not perfect resolution of the problem, but it does illuminate the basic problem with Powerball, if it’s worth $2 for a 1 in a 175 million chance to win $300 million, it’s probably still worth $2 for a 1 in a 175 million chance to win $40 million, big changes in very low probability events just aren’t significant.

Grand Theft Auto 3

(because what the public demands is reviews of 15 year old games)

I don’t necessarily know that my absolute favorite video game of all time is, and I could (and perhaps will at some point) argue that even deciding such a thing is beside the point. But one of my favorites is Grand Theft Auto 3.

It was revolutionary for its time, and it still holds up today. It was violent, perhaps more violent (or at least violent in a different manner) than any game that had come before (or at least any major video game). But what was so great about it was how everything worked together.

There are a lot of debates about whether or not video games are “art.” To which my answer would be of course they’re art, although they’re mostly bad art. There are exceptions of course, and, in this blogger’s humble opinion, Grand Theft Auto 3 was among the first to really be great. It was able to tie together the theme, gameplay, setting and story so well that everything felt right. You felt like you were really in a corrupt city, and everything you saw and did served to enrich that experience. Taking low level jobs to attack rival gangs, slowly working your way up in organized crime, switching allegiances and starting gang wars.

The true brilliance of the game ability to interact with the world. Let me explain what I mean. There was one mission where you were assigned to kill somebody and given a sniper rifle, but the game allowed you to accomplish the goal however you wanted. If you used the sniper rifle, that’s fine. But if you charged in with a machine gun, it might not work as well, but if you accomplished it you accomplished it. Each mission had different goals, but almost all of them had the same basic gameplay, if you wanted to improvise you could, and the games rules were flexible enough to handle that improvisation, which is something that is still uncommon today, but truly unique then.

But you didn’t just interact with the world in active ways, simply being in the world was an experience. There were multiple radio stations, each with a different theme and most were 100% original, and they all played commercials which were hilarious. All the media within the game, the billboards, the radio, the shops, all served to create a unified theme, it was a truly immersive experience.

One of the more brilliant ideas was to have the protagonist completely silent during the whole game. Doing so allowed you to project your own motives onto him. Also, I think that it fundamentally changed the way you viewed the game world, instead of trying to shape the game world you were only reacting to it. You were acting like a criminal and a gangster because that was the only way the world worked; you had to be corrupt, there was not other way. There are other games where the protagonist never speaks, Chrono Trigger being a notable example. What is interesting to me is that in both cases I never realized it while playing either game, it was only when it was explicitly told to me that I realized that case (in Chrono Trigger’s case, when I read about it, in GTA3, when it is pointed out in a radio segment). I think that I didn’t realize it because I already felt like the character. Games feel out of place to me when I am forced to do something that I wouldn’t want to do, (or wouldn’t want my character to do), this is especially true when I am forced to say something I wouldn’t want to say. Forcing me to say nothing is in many ways more liberating than giving me two false choices.

As great as things are, they couldn’t last. Rockstar Games has since made multiple sequels. With each no sequel, new features were added, but instead of complimenting the game, they often detracted from it. Vice City was much the same, taking place in a pastiche of Miami in the 1980s. It played actual music from the 1980’s and allowed the player to purchase property. While it was still a great game, it didn’t seem like it pushed any boundaries, maybe a few incremental improvements on the previous installment, but nothing major.

The next in the series, GTA San Andreas, brought the player to a fictional California, complete with a fictional San Fransisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (yes, I know that Las Vegas is not in California). The biggest change in this game was the sheer size of it, for the first time there were significant areas of wilderness between cities. But it also added a lot of features which actually hurt the game. In order to finish the game, you had to do a variety of missions which involved flying planes, for which the control scheme wasn’t pretty terrible, other missions where you had to sneak (which turned the game into a kind of bad version of a Metal Gear Solid game). Now, instead of having the liberty of game mechanics which were flexible enough to handle the situation as the player wanted, there were missions which had to be beat in a certain way and which didn’t take advantage of the games best mechanics. Overall it was a good game though, and kept most of the fun intact.

GTA IV, the first game for the PS3/XBox360 generation, was something else. It went back to Liberty City (a fictional New York), made it super detailed and very big. Every little thing in it was interactive; in San Andreas there were occasional video game consoles which you find and play. In GTA IV, it was overcharged, every bowling alley and darts game was playable. Which is something that is kind of nice to have, but not really. The gameplay of the bowling was pretty bad, which would be fine if it was only an add on, but it wasn’t. The story forced you to go bowling in order to progress, which is horrible and terrible and awful. Why force you to stop playing a good game in order to play a bad one?

Relationship building was a big part of GTA IV, which makes no sense whatsoever. In the first several games your character is basically a violent sociopath, doing whatever he wants. That’s the appeal of the game. But in GTA IV, you switch between violent sociopath and ideal boyfriend, it is awkward and jarring, the theme starts to work against itself. It feels like GTA IV either wanted to keep on simulating real like without realizing that at a certain point it would have to stop being a GTA game, or they simply had a bunch of ideas and included them in the game only by judging whether they are good by themselves, not trying to consider whether they belonged in the game.

There’s a new one out that I haven’t played, and so I will be happy to admit if it has dialed down the feature creep, or if it pushes the gameplay envelope. Mostly though I’m done with the series, it was a great at first, and influenced the gaming world perhaps more than any other game in the last 20 years, but I think overall it is an example of something simply growing too old and being crushed under its own weight.

Blogging is Hard

When I started this blog, I wanted to do so for several reasons.

I spend a lot of time thinking, whether on the bus or while I’m sitting around – I’d give you an example of the things I think about, but you can just read this blog to get an idea. So the main idea of this blog was to write what I think; those ideas that I have.

I wanted to do this for two reasons, the first is that I think my ideas might be worth sharing; I want to contribute at least a little, and I think this is a good way to do it.

The second is two flesh these ideas out. As long as an idea is in my head, its kind of jumbled up; I have a habit of quickly moving from one idea to another, and while I don’t necessarily think that those ideas are bad, writing them down often helps to make them more concrete. Looking closer at these two reasons, there appears to be a bit of a paradox.  One is self centered (but for the benefits of others): based on the idea that the whole world is just waiting to hear what I have to say. The other is selfish: I am blogging for myself (to help me formulate my ideas, in this respect I don’t really care about the reader), yet in this reason am I respecting the reader more?

Anyway, back to the subject of my blog.

One thing I wanted to do was to update my blog every day. I’ve not done so perfectly (I’ve missed a few days), but I have been faithful enough that the benefits of blogging every day still apply. But I’ve found that the more I blog, the harder it gets to really write about thing s succinctly. Yesterday I wrote 2,500 words comparing Hillary Clinton to Optimus Prime (well, not really), today I wrote 3,000 words talking about the Fermi Paradox. That is a lot of writing.

Every November, some of my friends take part in a what is called the National Novel Writers Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. The idea is simple, to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. It is somethign that they value doing and I’d hate to hold it against them. But they are miserable during the duration of it. And how much do they write? Well, doing the math, we can see that it comes to 1,666 words a day, quite a bit, but today I’ve almosted doubled that. Anyway, I’m sure that evenening everything out I may not get to 50,000 words a day, and in my opinion writing a single coherent fiction novel is harder than writing 25 or so independent essays. But anyway, my point is that I’m writing a lot.

I need to work on several things with this blog, most notably splitting out my posts into multilple pieces. There is no reason that I couldn’t have split the Fermi Paradox post into 2 or even 5 pieces (even though I’ve already split it into 3 pieces, thats right you’ve got at least 2 more epic masterpieces coming your way!). I’m trying to put my thoughts into writing, to make the abstract real, but, well, it’s starting to get out of control.

The Great Filter, Part I

Go watch this video

Its only 15 minutes long. Or don’t, but the rest of this post will be a commentary on the video, so there wouldn’t be much point to reading this.

Robin Hanson argues that there is a “great filter” something which is killing everything in the universe. The argument goes that, because we don’t see any aliens, we can be reasonably sure that there aren’t any, and therefore we have to figure out why.

A couple of notes on the Fermi Paradox:

It’s probably true; we can be reasonably sure that, if life anywhere got to the point of distributing itself across the galaxy, it would very quickly get everywhere. Basically, it’s exponential growth; when civilizations get to the point that they can colonize star systems, even if each star system can colonize another once every 100,000 years, that means that galactic population doubles every 100,000 years, which means it goes to one star system to every star system in the entire galaxy within 3.6 million years (log 2 of 100,000,000,000 * 100,000), or about .03% of the lifetime of the galaxy. So within galactic time, if any civilization is willing and able to colonize the galaxy, it will do so within the blink of the galactic eye. That means we can be pretty sure that there haven’t been any such civilizations within our galaxy yet.

What it doesn’t mean is that there aren’t one off civilizations on various planets. Yes, a single planet could be populated by a civilization which doesn’t want to colonize the galaxy.  There could be dozens of these, perhaps hundreds.  But not thousands and certainly not millions.  If intelligent civilization is common in our galaxy, then either galactic colonization must be impossible, or the galaxy most already be colonized.

If we assume that a Galactic civilization would, in some manner effect the galaxy itself (a common candidate for this is the Dyson sphere*, which would encompass an entire star system for the purpose of extracting energy) we would theoretically be able to notice it in other galaxies (in the case of Dyson spheres, we would notice bodies which emit no visible light yet emit large amounts of infra red radiation); which we do not notice. So it doesn’t appear that there have been colonizers at any point in the near universe, (which Robin Hanson estimates covers 10^18 planets).

There are couple of other explanations for the Fermi Paradox.  Most likely that there are civilizations our there, but we don’t see them, because they use something better than radio to communicate, and don’t bother building Dyson spheres because a single zero point energy source has twice the power of a star, or they all quickly migrate to subspace, because nobody would ever want to live in boring space if they can help it.  Or maybe there is a sort of prime directive, and that advanced civilizations aren’t allowed to contact unadvanced ones.  These are all possible, but not certain.  We still must give some possibility to the theory that the universe is just as it looks: dead.

So what prevents life from populating the universe is called the great filter. It can be something in the past, such as the development of single celled life (if this is really “hard” then maybe about of a billion planets we would only expect three or four to develop single celled organisms, of which we are one). They could also be in the future, for instance maybe we will destroy the environment, or maybe a giant pandemic will destroy humanity.

In order for something to be the great filter, it must posses these three traits:

1: It must prevent galactic colonization
2: It must be stable
3: It must be universal (or near universal)

Item one is self explanatory. Item two simply means that in order for a thing to prevent colonization, it has to be long lasting; at least in terms of galactic time (even setbacks of thousands of years don’t count for a galaxy that is ten billion years old).  Finally, it must be universal. That is, it has to be something that effects every candidate for colonization (or in the case of multiple filters, each filter must affect enough civilizations that the combination of filters affects all civilizations).

Robin Hanson proposed a list of possible filter candidates for the future:

Robot Rebellion
Totalitarian world
no starships?
lose desire

Lets examine them

Asteroid and  Supernovae: Hanson dismisses these; we can see that they are not universal. That is, we are reasonably knowledgeable about how often Asteroids and Supernovae happen, and they aren’t common enough to be universal. There may have been individual civilizations destroyed by either of these things, but we wouldn’t expect every civilization to be destroyed by them. Earthquakes and supervolcanoes can also be dismissed for the same reason (or can be dismissed as a future filter.  Perhaps supervolcanoes are common enough in the typical planets that they prevent civilization from starting on almost every planet.  But we can be reasonably sure that the Yellowstone supervolcano won’t go off for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  Unless we think we are 100,000 years away from colonizing the galaxy, then we don’t have to worry about the supervolcano stopping us).

Robot rebellion is another filter that Hanson rejects, Robots may destroy us but then they would colonize the galaxy (and would probably do a better job at it!).

Totalitarian world is an interesting one, but for various reasons I think we can reject it.  Maybe a despotic government will rule the world, blocking all progress. This actually fails on all three levels. Looking at 20th century dictatorships, we can say two things. First, that they aren’t very stable. Of the totalitarian governments, most of them no longer exist. Totalitarian governments in Germany, Russia, Italy and Spain have been dissolved one way or another. We can maybe put an expected lifespan of 150 years for a totalitarian government, not exactly very stable. Even if I’m grossly underestimating the stability, it doesn’t really matter, these governments would have to existing for hundred of thousands of years to be a filter.  Thank God that Nazi Germany lost, but even if they won and established a thousand year Reich, it would have set humanity back, well, one thousand years.  Again, a horrible thing from a human perspective, but in galactic time it would be inconsequential.

Secondly, based on our history, totalitarian governments aren’t exactly bad at space exploration. Nazi Germany made great advances in rocketry, the Soviet Union had Sputnik and Mir, China has a not unimpressive space program. By all accounts North Korea is a living nightmare, but they still have if not a space program, then a rocketry one. One may argue that these governments aren’t as good as the free world at space exploration (and I think the evidence bears this out), but even if we assume that a totalitarian government would progress only 10% as fast as a free one then we would expect to colonize the galaxy, maybe instead of 500 years from now then 5,000 years from now.

Finally, in order for Totalitarian government to be the filter it must be universal.  Such a government might occur on earth, but for it to be the great filter, it has to occur for all civilizations; regardless of the underlying biology (or culture or history) of the species.  Basically, if you believe that totalitarian government is a real filter; then you’d have to basically believe that there is a form of government such that it will occur in every intelligent species, once established it will last for the duration of habitable epoch of the planet on which it occurs, (in our case, that’s in the hundreds of millions of years), and which absolutely prevents space colonization.

For berserkers, we can also think that there is reason to doubt. There are, from what I can tell, two subsets of this.

The first idea is that nobody wants to begin colonizing the galaxy because if they did they will be “found out” and then destroyed by all the other civilizations. I find this very hard to believe, that every civilization is in fear of every other civilization. If the fears are grounded, then colonizing space would lead to their destruction. But whoever destroyed them, well, they would be revealing themselves; leading to their destruction. The cycle repeats itself until every civilization but one has been destroyed, and the one left has effectively colonized the galaxy. If the fears aren’t grounded, then it only takes one civilization trying otherwise to break the who system.  To me, it looks like a very fragile equilibrium.

The second berserker hypothesis is that there is a single, dominant civilization that destroys all other civilizations who approach space colonization. There are basically two problems with this. The first is that we should expect to see signs of the berserker civilization and we don’t. In fact, the fact that we still exist is a good indication that there aren’t any berserkers out there. The second problem is the universality of the berserker. Maybe the berserkers have effectively stopped space colonization in this and in neighboring galaxies. But when we look at galaxies farther away, we should expect to see the end of the berserker influence.  If we look a billion light years in one direction, and a billion light years in another, then we should expect, even if the berserkers have been going at it for 4 billions years and expand at half the speed of light (both generous estimates, in my opinion), to see the entirety of the berserker influence. There’s a good falsifiable test here. That is, after building a better telescope, if we see signs of life in galaxies farther away (perhaps looking 2 billion years back), then we can expect that there may be something preventing life in our neighborhood, and that can be berserkers.  But for now, since the dead spots in the universe don’t seem to be local, we can reject (or at least reduce the possibility) of berserkers.

Finally, that leaves us with the following:

War/Pandemic/Environmental destruction
No Spaceships
Lose Desire

I will talk about the No Spaceships and the Lose Desire in two other posts, but for now I will talk about war/pandemic/environmental destruction.

For pandemic, there are two types. The first is naturally occurring pandemic, the second is human designed pandemic. We can reject naturally occurring pandemic due to universality. Yes, we might be destroyed by a virus, but we wouldn’t expect every civilization to randomly be destroyed by viruses, any more than we expect the human race to become extinct by everyone having a heart attack at the same time. The second is more worrisome, that we will design a supervirus (or superbacteria or superfungus) that will destroy us. This would be stable and prevent colonization – but is it universal?

Let’s change focus briefly to talk about war. Well, we’ve had plenty of wars in human history, but I guess the kind of war we’re talking about here is nuclear war. Nuclear war would certainly stop space colonization so it would be effective, but would it be universal?

Well, the best way to determine how likely things are is to look at how often they happen (this may seem like it is obvious but it isn’t. I will have to write something about it at some point). But in this case, it’s hard, because we don’t have multiple examples of civilizations; and the one example we do have (us) it is kind of necessary that we can only have observations before it happens.

However, there is a way we can look at this. Lets assume that we are in the xth percentile of luckiness. Then, see how long we’ve been lucky for, and we can calculate the yearly odds of destroying ourselves.

Lets give an example; say we’re in the luckiest 1% of the galactic population. Therefore, we can assume that at most, 99% of the galactic population has destroyed itself by this point in its history. Its been 62 years since the Soviet Union developed hydrogen bombs (I’m assuming that we only have world destroying possibility if two parties have the bomb). If we are in the luckiest one percent, then we can do some math, and assume that at most, there is a 7.16% chance the average civilization will destroy itself via nuclear weapons in any given year. (the math for this is (1-x)^y = z, where y is the number of years since self destruction became possible, z is the percentile of luck that we are, and x is the chance that we will destroy ourselves in any given year.) If we assume there is a 7.16% chance any given civilization will destroy itself in a given earth year after possessing the bomb, then we can expect that if there were 10,000 civilizations, the longest one would last 124 years after building the bomb.  This might be  a little too short to colonize the galaxy. Anyway, instead of writing more, let me add a chart:

How long the last civilization will last based on…
How Lucky We are (percentile) Worst case Chances of Self Destruction per Year 10,000 civs 100,000 civs 1,000,000 civs 10,000,000 civs
1% 7.16% 124.00 155.00 186.00 217.00
5% 4.72% 190.62 238.27 285.93 333.58
10% 3.65% 248.00 310.00 372.00 434.00
25% 2.21% 411.92 514.90 617.88 720.86
50% 1.11% 823.84 1,029.80 1,235.76 1,441.72
90% 0.17% 5,419.88 6,774.85 8,129.82 9,484.79

If we assume we’re in the 50th percentile (which might be the most reasonable assumption), we can see that even if there are only 10,000 civilizations in the galaxy, we can expect at least one of them to last about 824 years after the invention of the bomb, which might be enough time to begin to colonize the galaxy.  If we assume the galaxy produced 10 million civilizations (about one intelligent civilization per ten thousand star systems), we see that we can expect one civilization to last 1,442 years.  Also, since we’re so close to the invention of the H bomb, these numbers will become out of date quickly. If you’re reading this in July of 2015 (assuming that you’re not reading it from a fallout shelter), you can replace the 824 with 830 in this paragraph.  If we’re still around in 20 years, that number will be 1,089.

Finally, let’s think about the universality of this: this analysis assumes that we all civilizations are like us. In reality, if there are many civilizations out there, we can assume a diversity of characteristics. We may be in the luckiest 1%, but I find it very hard to believe we are in the most peaceful 1% of intelligent species in the galaxy. Also, think about how much less likely nuclear war would be if we had a single world government (or single superpower, as opposed to the four or five we have now). A single world government would have little reason to ever launch nuclear weapons or do anything else to end the species. If we assume that there are other civilizations out there which are, either significantly more peaceful or significantly more likely to have a world government than we are, then we can revise those numbers above upward. If anything, we are in the worse case scenario; we had the invention of nuclear weapons coincide with the development of a major ideological divide (communism vs democracy/capitalism), so there perhaps reasons to think ourselves further down on the chart in terms of luck (paradoxically, this is a case where we want to be less lucky; if our current success in not killing ourselves depends less on luck, then it depends more on “skill”, which means we are likely to last much longer).

I think we can assume the same for the intentional pandemic I mentioned above. The motives for pandemic are similar, but if anything the execution is more difficult. Its very easy to understand how a nuclear winter could literally kill everyone, but with a pandemic, all you have to have is .01% of the population survive, and within a few thousand years we’ll be right back where we are. If it only kill 95% of the population, we might be talking about only a few hundred years to get back to where we are (if that, as our technology wouldn’t necessarily be destroyed).

Finally, on the topic of war, lets talk about stability of destruction. I don’t know exactly how destructive a nuclear war would be (although I don’t want to find out). If it blasts us back to the stone age, then it only sets us back a few thousand years, which isn’t much in galactic time.   We could potentially see 10,000 civilizations from a single planet alone (although that would assume that the negative effects of nuclear wars wouldn’t begin to accumulate, or that the effects wouldn’t retard civilization development). If destroys all big animals, leaving only rats and pigeons and cockroaches, then it very well may be that there will be another intelligent civilization on earth within a few million years (lets say 50 million years). If we have another 400 million years left of habitable earth, then we have 8 more chances just from one planet. Even if nuclear war destroys everything but bacteria on this planet, it is still conceivable that Earth would eventually get another chance at colonizing the stars.

There is one last category, which is environmental damage. This is a very hard one to speak about, because, even if we assume that global warming is real, it’s difficult to really tell how harmful it will be. It may cause the ice caps to melt and for low lying populations to be displaces and for famine to break out, it may kill billions. This would be very bad, but it wouldn’t be a filter. It would literally have to destroy the human race to really be a filter. Also, we can look at the same logic we talked about earlier. We are at some level a responsible species, after all we were threatened by the destruction of the ozone layer, but we pretty much solved that through the Montreal Protocol.  Again, I find it very hard to believe that there have been thousands or millions of civilizations in the Galaxy, and we just happened to be the most responsible one.

Now, there can always be something that I’m missing, and I will discuss the other filters at a later point, but for now I’m ready to at least temporarily dismiss the above as causes of the great filter.
*I once met Freeman Dyson’s Granddaughter and Son-in-law.

Transformer Politics

It’s a wonderful time to be a movie fan. We’ve had so many wonderful movies come out recently, from the sequel of the Star Trek reboot movie, to the sequel to the Spiderman reboot. Chances are, if you like comic books, you’re going to see your masked avenger on the big screen. And even if you don’t like the movie, you’ll get an entirely new version of that movie soon! Whats that, you didn’t like Brandon Routh as Superman? Well, you can see Henry Cavill as the man of steel.  Tobey Maguire not your taste?  Try Andrew Garfield!

Let take a look on at the top 10 movies of 2014:

1: Guardians of the Galaxy – based on a comic book and a film set in the same universe as who knows how many others

2: The Hunger Gamse: Mockingjay – Part 1. – Based on a book, sequel to other installments of the same series.

3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Based on a comic book, in the same universe as movie #1, direct sequel to another comic book movie.

4: The Lego Movie: Not based on a comic book! Although it has a comic book character in it. Based on a children’s toy line.

5: Transformers: Age of Extinction. 4th in a series of movies based on a cartoon based on a children’s toy line.

6: Maleficent: A reboot/spin off of a cartoon movie that came out in 1959

7: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Another in a series of movies that are so numerous I’ve lost count of them (let’s see, there were 3 basic X-men, First Class, two Wolverine movies, I think a Magneto movie? is this the 8th movie?) based off of a comic book.

8: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A sequel to a reboot of a popular movie franchise:

9: Big Hero 6: An animated movie based off a Marvel Comic book.

10: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. A sequel to a reboot of a movie franchise that came out in 2002 and was based off a comic book.

Well, there you have it, 10 movies, 10 pre-existing franchises – most of them based on superhero comic books. (also, as an aside, maybe its time to buy Disney Stock. A full 6 of those movies are based on properties Disney owns).

So what is the point?

I can think of several reasons why this is happening. I do need to mention that part of this is due to the international market of movies now. Action translates much better than comedy or drama, and therefore we get more dumb action movies. But this only explains why popular movies are action movies, not why they are action movies based on pre-existing properties. Another reason is the expensive nature of marketing movies, and movies that are sequels already have a built in fan base, and are thus need less marketing.

These are important and play a role; but I want to talk about two other things that are effecting this.

The first is nerd culture. At some point, nerds became the driving force behind popular culture, which is a clear reversal the past 100 years. For the longest time, nerds had been the lowest rung of the social ladder, and the things that nerds did, watch cartoons after a certain age, care about comics, video games, and the like were considered signs of low status, and for a large part the reason those were low status is partially because they were rare. In high school, and especially after college, it was hard for people to relate to others who had those interests. Therefore, the “marginal nerd,” that is, someone whose natural interests were such that they could in effect choose to be more of a nerd or choose to more typical, chose to be more typical; it served them better in meeting other people, finding mates, getting a better job, etc.

At a certain point, two things happened. One is it became came along and allowed people of any interest to find others with the same interests. While the internet is the biggest single cause of this, there are other reasons as well, the existence of fan conventions is a big one as well. The other thing that happened is the number and pay of jobs requiring “nerd” skills greatly increased; there is now a giant demand for programmers, engineers, financial “quants,” and other jobs which, for whatever reason, nerds seem to be more skilled at. These two things both led that aforementioned marginal nerd to be much more likely to embrace his (or her) nerdy side.

Now, all this is kind of just normal, it may be interesting to think about but not necessary to cause every movie to be about comic books. After all, when disco was in, there were movies with disco soundtracks, movies about disco and movies starring John Travolta; but its not like there were only movies about disco in the 1970s. But with the advent of nerd culture, you see almost nothing but movies aimed at nerds. (and if you think I’m cherry-picking 2014 to make my point, 2013 is eerily similar at the top ten spots: Marvel Universe movie at number 1, followed by hunger games, followed by comic book movies, then a bunch of 3D animated movies, also a spin off of a classic children’s fantasy movie. 2012 was different though, instead of a marvel universe movie followed by a hunger games movie, it was a marvel universe movie, then a different comic book movie, then a hunger games movie.) So what is it about nerds that has this effect? For the most part, its that nerds become nerds by liking stuff a little too much. If they like comic books, they don’t just like comic books, but they have to know and somehow reconcile the whole of the comic book universe’s history. If they like Star Trek, they don’t just like watch the TV show, they learn Klingon. And so on. They are dedicated to their interests in ways that other subcultures aren’t. All this means that they are a gigantic market, they have disposable income and they care deeply about movies; making a movie for nerds is very lucrative.

But again, while this may explain a lot of what of the box office, it doesn’t explain everything. After all, the Twilight movies have done incredibly well, and nerds hate those movies with a passion. Also, the Fast and the Furious movies have done quite well, (most of them guaranteed a top ten domestic gross), and other than being aimed at males, there is nothing nerdy about those movies.

Certainly a lot of it is risk averse behavior by the movie studios. They can refuse to make movies which don’t have a built in fan base, and they can refuse to attempt ground breaking movies set in new fictional universes. But that’s not really what is going on, as these movies are still getting made, it’s just that no one is going to see Jupiter Ascending this weekend, while the whole universe is going to see the Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I think that what is going on here is something that is kind of scary. Our cynicism is so great that we won’t believe what the studios tell us, instead we look to other places such as social media to tell us which movies to see, and we see them. Yet social media is enthralled by its own set of agendas, it’s currency is eyeballs and recommending a movie that doesn’t become popular can be bad for the site. So, whether through careful planning or through Darwinian mechanisms, the most popular sites become those who tell us what we want to hear; it’s not just the studios who can’t shape demand; neither can anyone else. So our movie culture is frozen at some point in the late 90’s.  Paradoxically as the studios have lost their role as gatekeepers and can no longer shape demand, they have become more powerful in influencing what movies we see.

In 1993 a director decided to take a risk, and bought the movie rights to a science fiction novel, from which he made a giant action sci-fi movie. The actors were fine, each played his or her part in the story, but none of them were the draw; the draw was the computer generated dinosaurs. It was marketed to death but made an incredible amount of money.

20 years later, any studio that wants to make a movie about dinosaurs can do so; while the rights to Jurassic Park are proprietary, nobody owns the concept of dinosaurs. Yet they don’t, we won’t see another movie in the mold of Jurassic Park; however we will see probably several more movies with the world “Jurassic” in their title.  In terms of movies, our society values names beyond content, and is almost incapable of creating anything that is both popular and original.

At about now, any responsible essay about the latest trend in movies would have to mention things about how television is the new center for creativity in the popular arts, specifically mentioning premium cable networks and even video streaming sites.  Television has recently given us all sorts of original content: we’ve had crime stories (such as The Wire), fantasy epics (Game of Thrones) period pieces (Mad Men). Even within some of those genres you have incredible diversity. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and True Detective are all about crime; yet none of them are like ther others in any way except superficially.

But this isn’t an essay about movies, it’s an essay about politics.

In 1992, we had a Presidential race between two people, one was an upstart Democratic governor who had a new vision of the future and represented a change not just in politics but in attitude and culture as well. The other was an experienced Republican technocrat whose resume was a mile long: President, Vice President, Congressman, Ambassador to China, Ambassador to the UN, and director of the CIA, not to mention his business and military experience. Bush vs Clinton was about not just two political parties or two sets of policies, in many ways it was a referendum on what the presidency was about. Was experience more important than vision? Did the country need a new enthusiasm or a steady hand?

Just like we won’t see another Jurassic Park but we will see another Jurassic Park Movie, , we won’t see another Bush vs Clinton, but we may very well see another Bush vs Clinton. As of February 7 2015, the most likely presidential matchup looks to be Jeb Bush vs Hilary Clinton.

Jeb Bush was the two term governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Before that time and since that time, he hasn’t exactly become known for a whole lot. Now it’s very easy to be snarky and take pot shots at somebody whose only accomplishment is being a two term governor. Its a lot more than I’ve accomplished and probably you have as well.   Being a governor is not unimpressive, it is only a few rungs away from the very top of the political ladder, furthermore being reelected is also no mean feat. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m writing this in my pajamas from the comfort of my apartment and I really don’t mean this as a personal criticism of Jeb Bush at all. What I do mean to say is that as elected officials go (which is necessarily an impressive set of people), he isn’t that impressive. There are a number of Republican governors in recent memory (Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal easily come to mind) who are, if not better candidates for President, more representative of a facet within the GOP. The same can be said for various senators (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio come to mind).

Hilary Clinton moved to New York State for the sole purpose of running for Sentator there. After Rudy Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer and withdrew from the New York Senate race in 2000, Hillary Clinton defeated republican challenger Rick Lazio.  She won re-election in 2006, and became Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State. (everything I said about not snarking with regards to Jeb Bush can be said doubly for Hillary Clinton). In the only truly competitive race she ever ran, the 2008 democratic nomination for President, she was beaten. This is, even with my above parenthetical, a little bit unfair, losing the democratic nomination to Barack Obama is kind of like losing a game of basketball to Lebron James, also Secretary of State is a very important position, and Senator is nothing to shake a stick at either. But, at least on paper, I don’t think she is that much more impressive than Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of Health and Human Services former governer of Kansas), Janet Neapolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security, former Governor of Arizona), or John Kerry (Secretary of State, former Senator) (although you can argue that Kerry already had his chance). My point is that, even if you like Hillary, I don’t think she is so impressive that she should waltz to the nomination in a way that only Vice Presidents of two term presidents typically do.

Just like our movies are dominated by a sort of culture of least resistance, our political culture seems to be heavily influenced by a similar dynamic. Seeking not just to pick a president we like, but a president we think others will like, we are almost forced to pick the familiar name. After all, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. We are unable or unwilling to entertain “new” things, we reach to the familiar, to recreate something from our past, without realizing our that our past wasn’t created by trying to recreate its past.

Now it is entirely possible that we may get to November 2016 and be on pins and needles about whether Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren will be our next president; and everything I’ve said will have been proved to be mostly bunk. In fact, while I’m on the fence as to whether Hillary Clinton will become the nominee, I am actually doubtful that Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee. Furthermore, this whole essay is missing the elephant in the room (er, the donkey in the room?), having failed to mention Barack Obama. I guess if we’re comparing people to movies, Obama would be Avatar, something wholly original (at least in terms of franchise/name if not content) who broke lots of records. However, even if we see a Paul vs Warren race (or Walker vs Booker or whatever), I don’t think that it will invalidate the whole of this essay. Instead, it will prove not that the same instincts which govern movies don’t apply to politics, but that we are capable of overcoming those instincts for the truly important decisions we face, (which, I suppose, is a very optimistic way of ending this essay.)