On The Fermi Paradox

Call me weird, and many have, but I have long been fascinated by the Fermi Paradox. Now a couple of Australian scientists claim to have found a partial resolution.

Enrico Fermi was an Italian-American physicist who worked on the making of the atomic bomb. He once said, in the context of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), that the question was not, is there anyone out there, but where is everybody?

This is a subject that has puzzled scientists ever since it became possible to detect any signs of civilisation around nearby stars from their radio emissions. (Sorry, this one is a bit science-heavy, but as I say, it fascinates me.)

We know that the chemical building blocks for life are everywhere. We know that the home galaxy contains 400 billion stars, many of them not unlike the Sun. Surely somewhere life must evolved, and if so, should have eventually developed into a technological civilisation

We know today that the paradox is even more baffling because we know, as Fermi did not, that extra-solar planets exist, having found many hundreds of them. Some, in his time, had theorised that the solar system was a one-off. We now know that planets may be the rule around stars, rather than the exception. There is still no one out there.

There have been any number of solutions put forward to the Fermi Paradox. There is the Shotgun Hypothesis – something or someone is deliberately wiping out technological civilisations as they emerge, for whatever reason.

The most accepted solution is the Great Filter Hypothesis. Something prevents the development of life from getting beyond a certain stage. Some think the Great Filter may still be ahead of us, and that technological civilisations may inevitably be doomed to fail in their early stages, by war, resources depletion, whatever.

Now two astrobiologists – such a discipline exists, this is a subject taken seriously by scientists – from the Australian National University have evolved their own version of the Great Filter. We know that when life emerged on Earth, conditions were entirely hostile. It took the interaction of that primitive life with the Earth as it was then to create more favourable conditions, releasing greenhouse gases and modifying the atmosphere to make it suitable for more advanced life. This is the so-called Gaian Hypothesis.

The two scientists from Australia suggest that that modification of the atmosphere may not be automatic. It may not happen, even after primitive life emerges. This may be the Great Filter which prevents life from developing elsewhere, or more likely, making it less common. They point to Venus and Mars, where conditions were once more favourable but where the process never took place. Mars is frigid, Venus an overheated hell.

I would say this goes so far, but not far enough. My own thesis, which I have thought about for years, is that life may or may not be common. If I were looking in the solar system, I would look not on Mars but under the frozen surface of Europa, one of the Gallilean moons of Jupiter, where there is a liquid ocean of water.

Life probably exists, then, but I suspect intelligence may be very rare, the sort of intelligence that develops the use of tools and ultimately a technological civilisation. It may be a rare fluke of evolution, like a peacock’s tail, that only emerges under particular evolutionary pressures that seldom occur.

The dinosaurs were around 200 million years, some walked upright with hands containing fingers and what looked like opposable thumbs, but none evolved an intelligence sufficient to develop technology of the sort we use. (No, they didn’t, trust me. We’d know from the fossil record.)

Most people have a dim idea that evolution is an arrow that only points one way. That microbes emerge from the slime, evolve into small snail-like creatures, into dinosaurs, and then apes appear, evolving into Man. That this is an inevitable process.

This is a misreading of evolutionary theory. Evolution occurs with jumps forward, leaps backwards through mass extinction events, and then forward again into ever greater complexity. But nothing is inevitable. And intelligence may be rarer than we think.

 Cherish it, then. Make the most of being human.

On Paul Kantner

“And our children will wander naked through the cities of the Universe…”

Paul Kantner, American songwriter, 1941 – 2016.

Paul Kantner has died. Political radical, Utopian dreamer, singer/songwriter/guitarist with Jefferson Airplane and innumerable spin-offs, he was 74.

I don’t think much of his music has made it unscathed into the 21st century. Too much a product of its time, the San Francisco counter-culture of the late 1960s. “We’re doing things that haven’t got a name yet!” Yeah, right.

But his music meant a lot to me, and a lot of other people, once.

I first came across JA, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Steve Miller, in the very early 1970s. I was emerging from a difficult, dreary repressed adolescence. I have written here before how teenagers co-opt culture, music, art, fashion, as a way of finding their own identity.

That music spoke to me of freedom. Freedom to sleep with whomever one wanted, take whatever drugs one wanted, establish a community of like-minded souls and tell the rest of society to go hang. (I am reminded here of what some have written about Bowie.)

Those ideals, with the benefit of hindsight, do not bear much scrutiny. They led a lot of people down a path to squalor, chaos, addiction and death.

But Kantner believed in them. He used to leave rolled joints in telephone kiosks, in the hopes that people would try them and be tempted to adopt his lifestyle. Naive, probably. I believed in them too, once. Naive, definitely.

Some of his music survives. When I Was A Boy I Watched the Wolves has an eerie beauty, and contemporary resonance. Then there was Blows Against The Empire.

A song cycle about a bunch of people who hijack a starship and head off to somewhere, anywhere, it probably comes over today as maundering hippie self-indulgence. With some good tunes.

For a teenager already obsessed with science fiction, and seeking my own painful way out towards self-liberation, identity and free expression, it came as a powerful fantasy indeed. “Spinning out of the steel and glass/Mankind gone from the cage…

He also co-wrote Wooden Ships, with David Crosby, another song about freedom and redemption. (Crosby’s autobiography, Long Time Gone, is one of the best memoirs of the beauty, madness and horror of those times.)

Paul Kantner, musician, visionary. RIP.

“Have you seen the stars tonight/Do you want to go up on A deck and look at them with me… We are free.”

On Google, Tax, And Ageing Relatives

Someone I know who is self-employed has just asked, via Twitter, why she has to pay tax at a rate of 20% and Google, which is significantly richer, has to pay at 3%. Let me explain.

It is because it is easier for HMRC to extract tax at 20% from a private individual or small company than it is to extract it, at any rate at all, from a global corporation. Such corporates pay tax on a largely voluntary basis, at a rate they calculate is the barest minimum level to prevent consumers from becoming so disgusted that they boycott their services. Or burn down their head office.

Let me explain further by example, though for reasons of privacy I will hedge around some of the details. Several years ago I took over the financial affairs of an Ageing Relative. Said AE had become incapable of looking after these for themselves, and those finances were in a mess.

To do this requires obtaining something called a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA). This takes some months, because there are certain understandable safeguards put in place by the law to stop the young raiding their Ageing Relatives’ bank accounts. The process was made more difficult by the incompetence of the solicitor involved.

One of the AR’s problems was the lack of a tax form for some years, partly because of carelessness and partly, more recently, because of lack of the necessary ability. As a result, HMRC wanted a form filled in by the deadline that year, even though AR’s financial incomings and outgoings were awfully simple and easy to track, consisting of two private pensions and one state one.

I could not fill in that tax form until I got that LPA. Also, I needed some information about those pension payments for the relevant year from HMRC. There was a delay on the LPA. HMRC was unhelpful, to say the least, in providing that information.

As a result, I missed the tax deadline by some months. Once the form was in, HMRC issued a notice fining me £800, to come out of AR’s assets.

I rang and explained the reason for the delay. It was physically impossible for AR to fill in the form, and once this became obvious, it took me some time to put myself in a position to do so for him. In part because of delays by HMRC.

The tax man I spoke to said, quite fairly, that I had a good point and should appeal. Now, guess to which body appeals against the actions of HMRC go? Indeed, to HMRC, which in its wisdom decided its earlier decision was the correct one. Odd, that. The fine was paid.

It is easier for the tax authorities to extract money from someone who was, during part of this process, literally on their death bed than to extract it from the likes of Google, Amazon, etc, etc. This is why we pay and they don’t.

On Mindfulness, And Peak Guardian

A couple of years ago I tried out the currently modish meditation technique called mindfulness.

This involves training yourself to become aware of your body and your feelings, setting aside ten minutes or so a day to focus on sensations, noises and what you are experiencing. Its proponents say it can be used as a form of therapy to fight mental illness, or as a simple process to improve mental well-being.

It has been adopted and endorsed by a range of celebrities. I found it did not seem to make much difference to me, nor did I see much effect, good or bad, when I dropped the practice after a few months. I suspect the perceived benefits may in many cases be down to the placebo effect. Those benefits are, in any case, hard to measure objectively.

Now an attack on mindfulness has appeared in The Guardian, for some reason. The piece claims mindfulness can cause panic attacks or a full-fledged psychological breakdown, and interviews people, unidentified, who have experienced this.

This seems, from my experience, implausible. One of the benefits, I suspect, is bringing the practitioner to a fuller awareness of his or her surroundings. We live much of our lives on automatic pilot. We all know the sensation of engaging in a pleasurable action without really being aware of it, of getting half-way through a meal or a casual drink and then realising we haven’t really tasted anything because we are not aware of what we are doing.

Any process that allows us to better experience such sensations, rather than wasting them, must be a good thing.

I am no psychologist, but I suspect The Guardian has merely turned up a few people with existing psychological conditions that worsened and attached the blame to their undergoing mindfulness – the practice is often diagnosed in such cases. It’s our old friend causation again – event B follows event A but is not necessarily caused by it.

The Guardian piece comes with a political spin attached. We are told the main business promoting mindfulness is worth £25 million. No indication how this sum is reached, but the implication  will be picked up by the paper’s readers. A business, therefore obviously bad in itself.

We are told, again without substantiation, that employers are forcing their staff into mindfulness sessions as an alternative to doing something about excessive workload, poor morale or bad management. It is being considered as “a route to heightened productivity.” Again the spin is obvious.

Oh, and the NHS is promoting the practice because it’s cheaper than other psychological therapies. It’s “the cuts”, you know.

It is, and you can believe me on this, impossible to “force” someone to practice mindfulness. All very Peak Guardian, then. Set it up to knock it down, with a political, anti-business spin. Mindfulness has previously been attacked by practitioners of organised religion as a fake one, a cult. It is not that, either, and comes with no spiritual baggage.

Hmm. With enemies like that, I am rather coming around to the idea again.

On Rhiannon Giddens

I know I have suggested here before that blogging about music you are listening to is self-indulgent. But I have been listening to Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn, which is worth an exception to the rule. Which, yes, I know, I break all the time.

Giddens lives in that place called Americana, the crossroads where blues, country, gospel and early rock ‘n’roll intersect. Though I doubt she had to sell her soul to the devil there.

This really is one of those CDs you play, put back on again, and then play again. Try She’s Got You, one of those drop dead country ballads. “The only thing different/The only thing new/I’ve got your picture/She’s got you.” Ow.

Unusually, it is a short CD for these times, 40 minutes plus, and not a duff track on it. Spotify the above, or Up Above My Head, by Sister Rosetta Sharpe – and normally I can’t get on with gospel. Or Waterboy.

And if you told me 40 years ago I would one day be recommending an album with songs written by Dolly Parton and, er, Charles Aznavour…

Strange Days indeed.

On Lord Janner

As those who know me will be aware, I studied law, briefly and unhappily, emerging from University with an indifferent degree in the subject and a profound dislike for the profession. A few spells as a juror and a couple of half-bungled convenancing transactions later, not much has changed.

Occasionally some event reinforces that view that, however clever some lawyers may be, they are not overly burdened with common sense. And that any legal process can and will be prolonged to the utmost extent if there’s a drink in it for them.

So I was taken by the following headline from the BBC yesterday: “Criminal proceedings against the late Labour peer Lord Janner over sex abuse charges have ended because of his death, an Old Bailey judge has said.”

It’s the intervention of that Old Bailey judge that makes it, isn’t it? It took one of the finest legal minds in the land –  I had lunch once at the Old Bailey, and they are indeed bright – to decide that there was no point in prosecuting a corpse.

I realise Janner was a wrong ‘un, with new cases of abuse still coming to light. I know some of the victims wanted to see him in the dock. (To aid compensation claims?) But what did they think the courts could do?

Prop him up, El Cid-style, in the box? “And how do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” Silence. “I think we’ll make that a not guilty, m’lud.”

Cross-examination would have been interesting, too, if a bit protracted. And precisely what sentence did they have in mind, had the awful process of the law found the peer, still dead, guilty? “Hanging’s too good for ‘im, I say.”

And how much did this ridiculous farrago cost the legal system, apparently, we hear almost every day, reeling under the impact of “the cuts”? So how much did it cost the tax-payer?

On Bowie, Again

The Bowie backlash has begun.

Admittedly, I have only seen one piece along the lines of, what’s all the fuss about, it’s only a dead pop star whose private life didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. That was, predictably enough, in the Daily Mail. I am sure there are others.

You do not have to be a tooth-grinding reactionary, though, to wonder if the outpourings have been a little overdone, and to wonder why.

I suspect this is because Bowie, born in 1947, is the first of the stars admired by and created by the Baby Boomer generation to die of natural causes towards the end of his natural life.

I am ten years younger than him, but still part of that generation. I do not recall anything like the outpouring of grief over the death of Elvis. He was older, not an icon for those of my age, and died a raddled, obese wreck performing schmaltz on a Las Vegas stage.

John Lennon was arguably much more important than Bowie, but he was cut down in his prime, and at a time in his career when any subsequent work did not promise much.

Bowie died at the height of his renewed creativity, and at an age that, though early, is one at which some of us might also expect to pass on, having merely encountered an excess of medical bad luck rather than a crazed gunman.

He is a reminder of our mortality, for the generation that is senior enough to be in a position to mould the news and authorise or provide those blanket tributes. Including our former Prime Minister.

I am reminded of the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994. He was an icon to a younger generation of his age but meant nothing to those Baby Boomers. His death went largely unmarked in the media for several days.

On Social Media

I absolutely love this. In the outpouring over the death of David Bowie, one tweet went viral. “If you are ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 bn years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

The tweet was ascribed to the actor Simon Pegg. Except that he doesn’t tweet any more. There is another Simon Pegg, who does, and whose offerings are often taken to be from the actor Simon Pegg, so it was then ascribed to him.

Except it wasn’t The Other Simon Pegg either. It was someone else .And it wasn’t initially about David Bowie. It may have come from a fan of Justin Bieber, back in the autumn. Or it may have been about the footballer Lionel Messi.  The exact sequence of events is unclear. In the revolving hall of mirrors that is social media, there is now probably no prospect of getting to the truth.

And I suspect it will continue to be assumed to be about David Bowie in future. It has become what the US writer Norman Mailer called a “factoid”, an inaccuracy so often repeated that it has become a form of truth.

Don’t believe everything you read on social media, then. Except here, of course.

On Executive Psychopaths

There is a widespread perception, and I have suggested this here before, that the ranks of senior managers in business contain more than their fair share of psychopaths. To get on in business might require a lack of feeling for your fellow employees, a steely ruthlessness and a willing to behave in ways that most of us might find difficult.

The psychopathic personality lacks what psychologists call “affect”, the ability to feel how others are feeling. This, for normal people, may make it difficult to carry out the sort of ruthless behaviour that might lead to success in the business world.

I recall a business leader I knew some years ago, who certainly seemed to match that personality trait, who openly boasted to me how he had done down a rival and deprived him of a benefit that he rightly deserved. The man seemed genuinely surprised that I seemed not to approve of his actions.

A study from the University of Bern in Switzerland, though, seems to suggest that the picture is more complex than it seems. It ranked a sample of employees for three personality traits that might seem to lead to success in business.

These were Machiavellianism, the ability to manipulate your peers, narcissism, being utterly self-obsessed and selfish, and psychopathy. The study’s findings were that the psychopaths in the sample actually were less successful. They were also less happy. Their willingness to take foolish risks told against them in the long run.

Machiavellianism was more closely correlated with success, understandably – the ability to manipulate may be useful in the workplace. The narcissists did best, of the three. They seemed able to translate their high sense of self-worth into higher pay, because they seemed to persuade colleagues that they deserved special treatment.

But in the long term, the study’s author, Daniel Spurk, found, people became tired of their selfish behaviour and saw through them.

Negative personality traits may get you so far, but apparently sometimes good guys finish first. They also tend, on the whole, to be happier.

On David Bowie

David Bowie is dead.

I am not going to add (much) to the acres of discussion on this, though I note there seemed to be rather more technical editing errors on R4 Today this morning than usual as the news broke.

One story, though. As I have written, my parents were never at the cutting edge of popular culture. The year is 1983, I think. We are driving through London, my father and I. Bowie has just finished the Berlin trilogy, then.

“Space Oddity” comes on the radio. My father listens. “I remember that one,” he says. “Did he ever do anything else?”

No. not really. Actually, I never liked him in his Spiders From Mars/Aladdin Sane era. Low was the first one I ever got. It sounded so deeply weird. And I was listening to awful lot of skronking avant garde jazz at the time. (Still am.)

It still sounded deeply weird. Warszawa.