The Fermi Paradox and the Multiverse

Turtles All the Way DownCaleb Scharf wrote a provocative article over at Scientific American, Does a Multiverse Fermi Paradox Disprove the Multiverse? His answer: maybe! My answer: no!

The Fermi Paradox is the contradiction of why it is that we aren’t constantly seeing space aliens given the predictions of just how common intelligent life must be in the universe. I don’t see the paradox because I think the predictions of life in the universe are ridiculous. We have good reason to believe that the Earth is the only place in our solar system that has life beyond bacteria. So it would seem that even life as complicated as flat worms is really hard to develop. It requires a stable system. And it turns out that the Earth has a lot of advantages — not least of which being our ridiculously large moon that stabilizes our rotation.

I know what people who know a little science (that is, have seen Cosmos) say to this, “But there are so many stars in so many galaxies! True enough. But most of the stars are clustered in the galactic nucleus where it is much too violent to allow advanced lifeforms to really get a foothold. Nonetheless, I’m more than willing to believe that the universe is riddled with flat worms. My big problem is much more speculative: humans.

In this regard, I’m not talking about the inherent violence of humanity and its tendency to destroy itself. But it is ridiculous for us to think that we will continue on as we have been. People think too much of a Star Trek future. But it just won’t be that way. We will either somehow get past our reliance on hierarchy or we will destroy ourselves through ossification. And if we do move forward, there is no telling where we will go, but it is unlikely to be out to visit nearby stars. We, with our modern view of reality, think that is the next step. But in two thousand years — to say nothing of 200,000 years — we will have a distinctly different way of seeing reality.

In many ways, we have regressed. Our science has gotten so good that it is now possible for a small minority — the power elite — to manipulate the masses. Just twenty years ago, global warming really wasn’t a political issue. There were still many unknowns — but that was the extent of it. Then the oil industry decided that admitting to global warming was a major threat to its profits. And now half the people in the United States think it is a hoax. It is very possible that Orwell was right, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The only difference will be that it will be a democracy and the people will gladly vote for that boot stomping their faces.

The other issue is that there are huge constraints on moving from one solar system to another. The closest star is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.3 light years away. So even at 0.9 the speed of light, it would take five years to get there. And that doesn’t include all the acceleration and deceleration that would be necessary. Even at that speed — which is a practical impossibility — a one way trip would be more than ten years. If we looked at the far more doable case of 0.1 the speed of light, it would be 43 years there, but about 90 years realistically. What about trans-light speeds or worm holes? I think they are firmly rooted in science fiction.

Scharf applies the Fermi Paradox to the multiverse. But this strikes me as even more ridiculous. He makes his case based upon some of the more foolish discussions of the multiverse. I don’t accept that other universes could just be anything. He claims that if universes could be anything, then surely there would be some that would allow one to move from one universe to another. I think that rather blurs the distinction between universes. Regardless, what if our universe is one of those that doesn’t allow such universe hopping? What’s more, if some civilization did come from another universe to ours, they would be equally constrained in finding our little planet.

I know that I am kind of pessimistic about all of this. But it seems to me silly. The multiverse is an interesting concept. It is possible that some day we could prove that it exists. No kind of simple argumentation on either side of the question is going to solve anything. But I think it is kind of silly to take the Fermi Paradox — which most think does not disprove that intelligent life is everywhere in the universe — and use it one step further out.

As for me, I just excited that we are visiting Pluto.

Dylann Roof Is Right About the Confederate Flag

Ta-Nehisi CoatesThis afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.

Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage…

Nikki Haley deserves credit for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. She deserves criticism for couching that removal as matter of manners. At the present moment the effort to remove the flag is being cast as matter of politesse, a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. The flag is a “painful symbol” concedes David French. Its removal might “offer relief to those genuinely hurt,” writes Ian Tuttle. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,” tweeted Mitt Romney. The flag has been “misappropriated by hate groups,” claims South Carolina senator Tom Davis.

This mythology of manners is adopted in lieu of the mythology of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great drawback of being rooted in a lie. The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
What This Cruel War Was Over

Obamacare Survives, Court Still Embarrassing

We Heart ObamacareIn a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court found against the plaintiffs in King v Burwell — thus keeping the subsidies for Obamacare bought on the federal exchanges. I’m pleased, of course. The last thing we needed was the kind of disruption that finding for the plaintiff would have created. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion and he made pretty much the same argument he did the first time Obamacare made its way to the Court, “The court’s decision reflects the philosophy that judges should endure whatever interpretive distortions it takes in order to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery.” In other words, the court is not there to be pedantic.

For those who don’t know, the question before the court regarded five words: “an exchange established by the state.” Obamacare provided subsidies for people buying insurance on these exchanges. The plaintiffs claimed that if a state used an exchange run by the federal government, then subsidies were not available. It turned out that this phrase was contradicted by other phrases in the law. So whichever way the court found would conflict with parts of the law. So the three judges that found against it — Scalia, Alito, and Thomas — were not being consistent. As usual, they were just being ideologues.

Antonin Scalia - Nazi OfficerThe result still bothers me. Scalia’s dissent is apparently sarcastic, talking about the clear meaning of the five words. It’s just the same as his broccoli comments last time. What it makes me think is that all you need to know how this unholy trinity will find in a case is to listen to what people are saying on right wing radio. But as we know from Ian Millhiser, this has generally been the rule. The Supreme Court is not a serious deliberative body. In general, it is a deeply conservative body that finally sees reason long after everyone else has.

The problem is that smart people can always find plausible sounding reasons for their opinions — regardless of how absurd those opinions are. Scalia claimed that “words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the state.'” Matt Yglesias noted that words don’t actually work the way that Scalia claims. Yglesias provided the following amusing paragraph to demonstrate:

Individual stringz of letterz r efforts to express meaningful propositions in an intelligible way. To succeed at this mission does not require the youse of any particular rite series of words and, in fact, a sntnce fll of gibberish cn B prfctly comprehensible and meaningful 2 an intelligent reader. To understand a phrse or paragraf or an entire txt rekwires the use of human understanding and contextual infrmation not just a dctionry.

The good news about the ruling can be found from Brian Beutler, Game Over, Obamacare Haters. He noted that Roberts wrote the decision to close down this process of chipping away at Obamacare — looking for a few loose words in the massive law and try to use it to tear the whole thing apart. “The ruling thus combines a standard textualist mode of interpretation — a view to the statute’s full context to determine the meaning of isolated provisions — with a common sense analysis of the law’s structure into a mode of interpretation you might call heurism.” That’s a good thing.

Last July, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, found against the plaintiffs in his case, stating that the phrase was “ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.” And that meant that the IRS had a right to deference regarding its interpretation. Given that the IRS has been given great latitude in interpreting lots of statutes, this seems like the reasonable interpretation. It should have stopped there. A 6-3 decision is fine — I’ll take it. But the fact that Scalia and company will allow this is an embarrassment.

The Increasing Democratic Advantage

David WassermanDavid Wasserman, like a good liberal, is very careful when talking about the Democrats’ chances in the 2016 election, Mapping the 2016 Electorate: Demographics Don’t Guarantee a Democratic White House. But the article is about how much more the electorate favors the Democrats in 2016 than it did in 2012. Jonathan Chait provided a better headline, How Much Will Demographics Help Hillary Clinton? He pointed out what ought to be obvious to all, “And, of course, nobody thinks demographics guarantee a Democratic White House.” But it does highlight the problem that the Republicans have. It’s like going into the last inning of a baseball game: being up one run up doesn’t mean you will win, but it’s better than being one run down.

Wasserman calculated that, all else being even, the changing demographics will give the Democrats a 1.5 percentage point boost. He provided the numbers for the 15 states where Romney and Obama were within 10 percentage points of each other. And it is striking. Florida, which Obama won by just 0.9 percentage points, has a demographic change of 1.6 percentage point shift, indicating a much more comfortable 2.5 percent point victory. North Carolina is even a more exciting shift. Obama lost by 2.0 percent points, but with the help of a 1.7 percentage point shift in that state, 2016 would see a Democratic defeat of just 0.3 percentage points — really down in the noise.

I still maintain that the political science fundamentals dictate that the trend of the economy is the single biggest issue. If the economy goes into recession at the beginning of next year, the Republicans are almost certain to win. As a result of this, I worry about the actions of the Federal Reserve. They keep putting off raising interest rates. While I believe that is the right thing to do, there is enormous pressure by the power elite for the Fed to raise rates. It just can’t be justified right now: the inflation rate this year have been zero, nada, nichts, nothing!

But will the Fed raise them next year, tanking the economy just in time to assure a Republican victory? This shouldn’t happen. If the Fed does its job properly, it should be able to cool the economy without throwing it into recession. But you have to wonder about the Fed raising rates in 2016 — which I am almost certain it will do. For four years, the inflation rate has been below the Fed’s 2% target — a target that I consider too low anyway. If the target is 2%, shouldn’t the Fed allow the rate to get a bit above that level for a while? We will see just how professional and courageous the Fed shows itself to be over the next year.

There is another side to this, however. I wonder if there isn’t a tipping point. The Republicans have put all their political eggs in one one basket. And as the country has changed demographically, the party has done nothing to reach out to the demographic groups that are growing. Are we reaching the point where a modest recession would still allow the Democrats to win the presidency? I don’t think we are there yet. But one thing is for certain: if the economy continues to improve, Hillary Clinton will beat any Republican who runs against her. And she will do it by a larger margin than Obama beat Romney.

Morning Music: Pop Goes the Weasel

Spinning Wheel and WeaselI’m still sick, and this, rather than my other job, is really getting in the way of my work here. And one thing that really makes work hard when I’m sick is that I’m so unfocused. Normally, when I’m working I don’t notice anything going on around me. But earlier today, I heard an ice cream truck. It was playing the song “Pop Goes the Weasel.” And it got me thinking about the song.

It turns out that it started as a dance in England in the early 1850s. It had no lyrics except for the cadence, where I assume people would shout, “Pop goes the weasel!” I can just imagine the good cheer. But over time, people wrote lyrics for the whole song. And they have changed over time as these things will. It’s all nonsense; it doesn’t mean anything.

The phrase “pop goes the weasel” does, however, have some meaning. According to Wikipedia, a weasel is the clock reel on a spinning wheel. It is where the completed yarn is collected. The standard clock real has a two yard circumference. So 40 revolutions create 80 yards of yarn, or a skein. The clock reel (weasel) was designed to “pop” when the spinner had completed one skein. Hence: “pop goes the weasel.” Then again, this could all be made up afterward, given that when the song was first popular, no one knew what the phrase meant. But the spinning wheel explanation makes more sense than any others.

Here is a nice animated video of the song made for kids by Hooplakidz. It includes a very fetching weasel too:

Anniversary Post: Battle of the Little Bighorn

Battle of the Greasy GrassOn this day in 1876 was the Battle of the Greasy Grass, or as the losers call it, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or sometimes just Custer’s Last Stand. It was part of the Great Sioux War of 1876. And what was that? Well, it was the usual: previous treaties between the United States and the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne had designated boundaries of their territory. But gold was found and so the Americans came to take over the land because, well, they wanted it and the tribespeople didn’t matter.

Even though they won that battle, they lost the war. There was never any question of that. It would be as if Rhode Island went to war with the rest of the United States. Similarly, when the Confederacy went to war with the United States, it was doomed from the start. In fact, it is something of a miracle that the Civil War lasted as long as it did. As Rhett Butler said in Gone With the Wind, “There’s not a cannon factory in the whole south… I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen… I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we; they’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines, and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” Just as the south had no chance, the native tribes had no chance, other than that the Americans would treat them civilly — so it was a lost cause.

The end result of the war was the annexation of the Sioux land and the shipping off of the natives to concentration camps — popularly known as “Indian reservations.” People talk about slavery being America’s original sin, but I would contest that. From the first meetings of Europeans with native Americans, we’ve seen that superior firepower and resources do not imply superior behavior or civilization. But I’m not evolved enough not to take a certain amount of pleasure in George Armstrong Custer getting himself killed. Although he took a lot of people with him. And in the end, I don’t mean to blame him for a centuries long campaign against indigenous people — a campaign that continues to this day.

We mark this day 139 years ago when Custer blew it, as part of an evil war, as part of a longstanding American policy based upon racism and hubris.