The Great Filter Rorschach 

Fermi wondered why we have not met aliens. He recreates an equation which we are still just figuring out some of the constants. Part of it wonders how many civilizations wipe out themselves. This Great Filter makes people concerned any time life on our planet is threatened.

During the Cold War, the concern was a nuclear war would wipe out human civilization or even all life. Olivia Butler’s Xenogenesis series is a little dated as it concerns this period. I heard about the Fermi Paradox back then. A distant second was an asteroid impact. Lately a popular concern is global warming being the Great Filter. Artificial Intelligence seems a close second.

Whatever is our current social concern for how we are going to kill off ourselves seems to be what we think killed off other intelligent species. We wonder how they could have survived it or why they died off in failing to.

At least these Great Filter concerns get us discussing how humanity can survive. Though, I wish we are further along in space travel as we need to spread out in the universe to survive.

Zero-Sum Politics

Liberals see “rights” as something of a public good (like national defense or a scenic view), whose consumption by one individual doesn’t diminish consumption by others. In fact, they believe that all Americans are thereby made better off.

In the conservative version of identity politics, however, everything’s a zero-sum game: Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or other characteristics doesn’t unleash greater human potential to the benefit of all. Instead, it’s a step backward for everyone else, part of the never-ending war of all against all. Your gain is necessarily my loss.

In a world where one sees others gaining with a zero-sum game view, one should have fear for oneself, family, and friends. When the government encourages certain behaviors, they are picking winners and losers. Fear of being the loser becomes a real thing.

Whereas, with the non-zero-sum point of view, when the government encourages certain behaviors, it lifts up the lowest to improve the environment for everyone.

Should we rebuild after hurricanes?

Over the years, I have thought about owning a house a Mexico Beach, FL. However, I knew that hurricanes are inevitable. So, there is no way I would own one on the beach because it would likely get destroyed by a hurricane. However, I felt better about a house well back from the beach, like a fifth of a mile. Michael’s storm surge leveled even half of the houses that far back.

Over a decade ago, I had a conversation with a coworker about this question. I think where I landed was a buffer zone. I would love the Florida coast to be a series of state parks. Towns can start a tenth of a mile back. The state parks could build sea walls and encourage the development of sand dunes over them. Hopefully, such a plan would better protect them from a storm surge.

The trick though is Mexico Beach is built on a barrier island. The town has not expanded much inland because bay behind the island has mostly filled in to create wetlands. Building there probably means more flooding from rain. So people would go from flooding from storm surges during the occasional hurricane to flooding nearly yearly. So, they would have to still build higher much like New Orleans.

Also, as the sea levels rise, places like Mexico Beach will need to move inland as well.

Framing Dangers

IMG_0163
From my 2015 beach trip

Hurricane Michael leveled much of Mexico Beach, which is a place I know pretty well. Spread out over my lifetime, but a rough impression is, I think, I have spent about half a year at this particular town. That would rank it third longest of places where I have lived.

Several people have expressed surprise about this hurricane was as strong as it was. I wonder if part of the problem is communication. This hurricane quickly intensified. A meteorologist I follow from UGA wrote Tuesday morning when it had increased to a Cat 2:

Michael will likely be a Major Hurricane (Category 3 or higher) at landfall.

And on Monday in Forbes:

As I write this, the [Big Bend] region is staring at the very real possibility of a strong category two or major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) making landfall in the Wednesday-Thursday time frame this week.

He was communicating this storm was quickly intensifying and to expect something far stronger than the usual storms that strike this area. People I love live in Valdosta, which was being named dropped over and over as a likely target for the storm after it made landfall. Everyone I know chose to hunker down and ride it out even as the likely winds to hit Valdosta increased through tropical storm to Cat 1 and Cat 2. People with large trees that could cave in the roof of their homes. My wife’s extended family in the Panama City area also chose to stay.

Why? I called my mother to encourage her to come to stay with us because Valdosta was in the path. She didn’t want to leave. My mother described that Hermine was pretty bad, but it wasn’t that bad for them. A tree damaged just a corner of the roof. Hermine was also a Category 1 with 80 mph winds where it came ashore and probably down to tropical storm strength where Mom lives. Thankfully Michael came ashore well west of Hermine and tracked away from Valdosta family, so they were spared the worst part. We still have not heard from most of my wife’s Panama City family.

So, while meteorologists were trying to say, “this is going to be really bad,” people didn’t really hear it that way. Mom is someone who took meteorology courses in college and wasn’t getting the message. The UGA one has a timeline defending that the NWS did enough to provide notice.

4 am Monday CDT (October 8): …  there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall.

He also said:

Yes, the rapid intensification was shocking but there was plenty of information hinting or explicitly stating that a major hurricane (even category 4) was possible.

I guess my point is hints are not enough. The reason why stores have prices ending in 99 cents is that one extra cent difference lowers sales because people tend to have the impression it is more expensive. Saying “3 or higher” pins people to think 3, not 4 or 5. This effect, called Framing, is pretty well studied in how people make poor decisions because of it. Even marketers study how to use it to influence shoppers. Maybe if some behavioral economics experiments are done to see show Framing affects the way people interpret meteorological messaging, scientists looking not to overstate what they are seeing may learn they are inadvertently giving people a different impression than intended. It is a struggle to be sure, to find the correct way to communicate this stuff.

Politics as storytelling

Two decades ago, during my biweekly game in Berkeley, the black, white, and Latino players engaged in a series of long, heated debates about O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence. We didn’t necessarily change each other’s opinions about the case, but we gained a far deeper understanding of each other—and our respective group’s experiences—in the process. This surely affected our political perspectives too.

I’ve been mulling this scene. I think the reason I like to discuss politics with people of all perspectives is peeking under the onion layers. Prod someone into talking about something they are passionate about, and they tell stories. They describe how something makes them feel by talking about how it relates to a past event.

Okay, some people are going to be purely factual about a position. That is boring to the human brain. A story engages us. So people eventually fall into telling stories that make their point.

Most people fall near the center of a spectrum on a random issue. And, how they are asked about something can influence how they respond. Ask about abortion and someone is either for or against. Ask about different types and some people who are against turn out to be okay with allowing some types. Tell different stories about a certain type and depending on the details some people can flip their stance depending on the elements it contains.

We do this without really being aware. And I love to notice people not being aware of these inconsistencies.

And these stories reveal far more about them than just the stance. The stories we tell reflect an attempt at shaping how a person wants to be perceived. We instinctually leave out the parts that we don’t want others to know, but others who have experienced the same event know those details. Those omissions also over time get lost as we forget them.

Skynet for school shooting prediction

This sounds likely to be fraught with false positives.

In particular, the language a student uses during an interview can help distinguish a high-risk teenager [shooter] from a low-risk one, according to previous research Barzman directed. That study concluded that the former was more likely to express negative feelings about himself and about the acts of others. He also was more likely to talk about violent acts involving himself and violent video games or movies.

My clique in high school were the metalheads, barely passing nerds, and social rejects. Self-deprecation was the basis of our humor. Violent video games or movies was the basis of our media consumption. The only one of us every accused of fighting was a case of mistaken identity as the first and last (not middle) names matched the very common actual guy of another race.

Artificial intelligence is the tool of choice for this kind of stuff. I hope the research is light years ahead of where this article describes it.

The trouble with geek friends

Geeks have intense interests. They border on obsessions. They know EVERYTHING about those interests. And argue vehemently for them, about them, and against others. These habits bleed over into other non-geek areas such that it felt like an intrinsic part of the culture.

For decades I doubted you could have geeks without arguments, so I find it interesting when I run across people discovering a community and getting turned off when arguments break out. They just wanted to find others who love the thing. Love led to arguments in my teens through twenty-somethings. It took making enough non-geek friends in order to realize just how skewed my understanding of reality was.

The trouble is, you better not have feelings. For they will be stepped on. Eventually. Well, unless you fall solidly on the autism spectrum. For the segments of geekdom who do, they might not be aware how they make others feel without very direct response. I am calling them arguments because to outsiders these discussions seem full of anger. to strong geeks, this is how we discuss.

It seems theoretically possible for people to get along wonderfully well. I have seen it more with children who sometimes treat their beloved things as malleable. They love them, but they can alter these impressions when they need. By shifting their opinion, they remove the conflict. Older humans are a bit more rigid.

As an introvert, small talk is meh. I much prefer deep conversations. And geek friends bring depth. Find their interests to bring out a conversation. That is easy. And to my mind a rewarding part of socialization. Finding people who wanted to talk about deep things is how and why I cultivated so many of my friendships. Having broad but deep interests allowed me to engage on many things.

Displaying confidence in so many different things is why people considered me intelligent. Given my social circles, I figured this normal so just average.

No worries. People self-select into geekdom. Either they acclimate or they move on to another group. They will keep their interests either way.

 

 

Some Hawking quotes

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.

If there is an afterlife, then he has that complete understanding now.


One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.


We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.


Quiet people have the loudest minds.


Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.


For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.


My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.


 

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking

Teeshirt reads: Obey gravity. It's the law!
Obey gravity. It’s the law!

When I was twelve, my father recommended I read a book. It is the only book one I can think of that he has ever made to me. But, I have to say, it was probably the best recommendation anyone has ever made to me. See, when I was a kid, I loved space technology and astronomy. I could recite fact after fact about NASA missions, the planets, and the stars. Anything I could learn about them was appreciated.

A Brief History of Time by Hawking opened up to me cosmology, physics, and quantum mechanics. Reading about these topics stretched my brain and put me in my happy place. I save up the books about this stuff for when I feel at my lowest because diving into them will correct my mood. A difficult week at work? Definitely, time to remove thinking about that stuff by thinking about the multiverse, chaos, and quantum entanglement. Perspective is everything.

Dr. Hawking also represented something I think science desperately needed: celebrity. His popularity and brand recognition showed that academic papers are not the only way to talk about science to the masses. He paved the way for Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene. Scientists are writing great books on their areas and the masses are gobbling them up because there is interest. It makes me happy that a society we think of as having gotten intellectually lazy has a hidden interest in science.

It makes me sad that he is gone because he provided me so much more than I could ever adequately explain.

Outraged? Don’t share

Our attention is the product for Facebook and Twitter. They make money by selling advertising. The more time we spend on the site, the more ads they put in front of us, the more money they make.

Outrage makes them the most money. We are more likely to share what outrages us. We have tribalized our social groups such that our friends are most likely going to be outraged too and more likely to share. So the outrages go viral.

The most effective things to make us share are also probably fake or misleading. We get so upset that we do not bother to check until maybe someone not so outraged fact-checks and points out the problem. So fake items go viral.

The synergy of fake outrageous news is powerful. It is manipulative. We train the social media algorithms that we WANT to be manipulated. We spend more time on these sites because we are addicted to being manipulated.