Category Archives: Random Blogging

Happy New Year (Maybe?? Finally??)

No one I know is sorry to see 2020 depart. I’m certainly not!

I want to wish all of you who visit here–those who comment and those who “lurk”–a much, much better 2021! We will soon have a sane occupant in the Oval Office, and a government managed by people who actually understand what a government is and how it is supposed to function.

Thanks to that new administration, those of us wanting protection against COVID-19 should have access to a vaccine by late spring–meaning we will once again be able to hug our family members, meet and mingle with our friends, and resume at least a semblance of our former activities.

Tonight–probably not at midnight, as I rarely stay up that late anymore!–I will raise a glass and wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. A year very different from the year we are completing.

See you tomorrow for my usual rant…..

 

The Fermi Paradox

Ours is a science-fiction family.

That fandom probably explains our fascination with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, and conversations in which we exchange theories about why no representative of other civilizations has ever contacted us. (I continue to assume that reports of alien abductions and Roswell conspiracies are evidence of something other than intergalactic visitations.)

Which brings me to an article my middle son recently shared about the “Fermi paradox.”

The article begins with the math. Using the most conservative estimates, there are 500 quintillion, or 500 billion billion sun-like stars, a 100 billion billion earth-like planets, and 10 million billion potentially intelligent civilizations in the observable universe. If we limit the calculations to our own galaxy, and use the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), that would come to 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 potentially intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. (The bases for these estimates is in the article.)

So: why hasn’t anyone called? Written? Why hasn’t SETI picked up any signs of such civilizations?

Welcome to the Fermi Paradox…

In taking a look at some of the most-discussed possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox, let’s divide them into two broad categories—those explanations which assume that there’s no sign of Type II and Type III Civilizations because there are none of them out there, and those which assume they’re out there and we’re not seeing or hearing anything for other reasons.

For his part, my son is convinced that civilizations get to a certain point in their development and destroy themselves–that technological innovation outstrips social progress/maturation, and they self-destruct. (As he notes, perhaps they are unable to combat climate change in time)… In the Fermi Paradox, this theory is called The Great Filter.

The Great Filter theory says that at some point from pre-life to Type III intelligence, there’s a wall that all or nearly all attempts at life hit. There’s some stage in that long evolutionary process that is extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond.

There are more comforting theories.

Super-intelligent life might have already visited Earth before we were here. Sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years (assuming we can consider humanity sentient–see Wednesday’s post)…Or we might live in the galactic equivalent of “the sticks”–some out-of-the way part of the galaxy. Perhaps civilizations that endure  lose interest in exploration. Or on the other hand, maybe there’s only one such civilization, and it’s a “superpredator”  (the Borg??) devoid of what we would consider ethics, that exterminates (or assimilates) other intelligent civilizations once they get past a certain level.

Or maybe there’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive to hear it, or because we’re listening for the wrong things.

Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Of course, it’s also possible that super-intelligent civilizations have created a tightly-regulated galaxy–sort of like Star Trek’s Federation– in which Earth has been labeled a “no go” zone because we’re part of a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule applicable to still-uncivilized planets.

As the author of this explanatory piece notes in his conclusion,

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

Hard to say.

I’m just hoping my son’s theory is wrong–and if it’s right, that we don’t hit the Great Filter for a while…

 

This Is Your Brain On Grievance

Most of the people I consider “normal”–assuming there is such a thing–view America’s current dysfunctions with incomprehension. A phrase I hear more and more frequently from all sides of the political aisle is “what on earth is wrong with those people?”

Two articles from Politico suggest an answer.

The first is a collection of “explanations of the election” by twenty voters who display the various attitudes we’ve come to expect from an assortment of geographically and philosophically diverse Americans. (Hint: It’s the other guy’s fault…)

The second was a really fascinating article by James Kimmel, Jr., a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies.  Evidently, people can become addicted to grievance in much the same way they can be addicted to drugs.

And as the collected opinions of those twenty Americans demonstrates, there’s a lot of grievance around.

Kimmel’s studies show that a brain on grievance looks a lot like a brain on drugs.

In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s brain biology. Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication. Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.

Evidently, people can become addicted to seeking retribution against those they consider their enemies. Kimmel has a name for it: revenge addiction, and he suggests this may explain why some people just can’t “get over it”  long after others feel they should have moved on. (He also warns that some of those people may resort to violence.)

The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable.

Unfortunately, this addiction to revenge doesn’t only affect Trump.

Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.

If a revenge addiction is as contagious as Kimmel believes, what can we do about it? Kimmel warns that addiction interventions are risky and that they often backfire.

Unfortunately, Kimmel doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer; he says we’re in for a long haul. Worse, neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.

Several commenters to this blog–not to mention pundits and academics, among others– have worried about the weaponizing of grievance by political parties and interest groups who recognize that playing on our fears and anger generates donations and motivates voters.  Similarly, media outlets and social networks use grievance to attract clicks and increase sales. In a very real sense, they’ve become dealers.

We need to turn down the heat.

I still remember those old (ineffective) anti-drug TV ads that showed a hand breaking an egg into a hot frying pan, and a voice-over intoning: This is your brain on drugs!

Can we avoid frying that egg by turning off the burner beneath it? As Trump departs, can we “turn off” some of the incivility and nastiness he promoted–the rhetoric that generates grievance?

Maybe “political correctness” isn’t such a bad thing….

 

We Can’t Unscramble This Egg

The COVID vaccine–actually, now two of them–is on the way. Granted, the way is filled with potholes, thanks to the incompetence of an administration lacking any ability to govern effectively, but reliable sources estimate that vaccines will be broadly available by late spring. Thanks to a new administration that actually knows what it is doing, we can anticipate a return to something approximating normalcy by late in 2021.

Historians, sociologists, political scientists and assorted pundits will spend the next few decades trying to explain how we got here. By “we” I don’t just mean the United States, and by “here” I don’t just mean the pandemic and its mismanagement, or the incomprehensible fact that in November some 70+ million voters agreed to buy whatever excrement Trump and the GOP cult insist on selling.

Eventually, we will see the reasons for–and consequences of– disastrous governing decisions made by the U.S. and Great Britain, and the growth of right-wing terror and autocracy elsewhere. One of the few things that seems fairly clear now is that substantial numbers of people around the world are reacting against the realities of modernity and globalization and fearing the loss of familiar cultures and comfortable certainties.

A lot of those people are saying, essentially, “stop the world, I want to get off.” That, of course, is like trying to unscramble eggs.

There was a particularly perceptive essay by someone named William Falk in The Week, in which he suggested that we have a choice:  we can accept the reality of our interrelationships, and appreciate and embrace the insights and values of the Enlightenment, or we can retreat into superstition and suspicion.

The vaccines are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence—all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna’s vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we’ve relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.

It isn’t just the vaccines, of course. The global economy is inextricably interdependent. The threat of climate change doesn’t respect national borders–it requires a co-ordinated international response. Terrorism is a far different threat than conventional warfare, and requires international co-operation to root it out. There are multiple other examples, including most obviously COVID-19.

When the current pandemic is finally contained, the “normal” to which we return is unlikely to look like the “normal” we left. How it differs will depend upon the ability of humans to emerge from our tribal affiliations and work together. That, in turn, will depend mightily upon our ability to get a handle on the disinformation and hysteria promoted by our existing media landscape, especially the social media algorithms that incentivize its spread.

We really are at one of those tipping points that occur during human history.

We can accept the reality that we share an endangered planet inhabited by inevitably interrelated and interdependent populations, and that we need to create institutions that will allow us to save it and inhabit it peacefully, or we can give in to the forces trying to take humanity into a new Dark Ages and possible extinction. 

What we can’t do is evade the challenge and unscramble the global egg.

Happy Holidays/Merry Xmas

All I want for Chanukah/Xmas/Kwanzaa is civic sanity and political integrity.

I may have to wait awhile…

Thanks from the bottom of my heart for all the kind messages on my retirement. They are more appreciated than you can know!

Wishing everyone who visits this blog as enjoyable a holiday as possible in this year of the Pandemic.

See you tomorrow.