The Fermi paradox.

The paradox, which is not really a paradox, and which was stated by Enrico Fermi, the famous physicist, goes like this: There are an enormous number of stars in the Universe, and we can assume many of them have planets, which means there must be an enormous number of civilizations out there. The question is, where are they? Why haven’t we seen any sign of them? There are all sorts of answers to this, and if you think about it, the real question is, why would we expect to see them?

One answer to the “paradox” is, we have: they are called UFOs. And here we reach the first example of faulty logic that pervades this sort of discussion. A logical argument starts with a premise, and in this case it might be:
UFOs are alien space vessels,
Hold the howls of laughter, please. This is patently nonsense, but it also an extremely bad premise, and the easiest way to see this is to think of the opposite statement:
UFOs are not alien space vessels.
Can you say with absolute certainty that there has never been an alien space vessel? The short answer is, no. The fact that almost all UFO sightings are simply natural phenomena is beside the point, after all everyone has seen flying objects, and sooner or later, one will be unidentified by someone. A statement usually needs qualifiers, thus if we rearrange our second statement to
No UFO is an alien space vessel,
we see at once the problem, and we stop the discussion right there. So, when making statements, we should all make sure we qualify our terms so we say exactly what we mean, and not bend to stupid exaggeration. As an aside, if we did that, an awful lot of silly political posturing would have to cease.

The second option is that stars are too far apart, and the distance is an inhibition to interstellar travel. After all, why invest a huge amount of money to build a starship when those building it will never get any information or benefit from it (because they will all be dead long before it reaches its target.)? Further, if you cannot get to relativistic velocities, so will the crew. A further problem might be that unless you know the destination is going to be useful, who wants to go? They might have come here once before, gone home and filed the information. Why come again?

A third reason is the age difference between stars, and this also applies to SETI, and may be a reason why that hears nothing. Suppose those sending a signal wish to minimize expense? If so, to keep the signal strength to a detectable level over the very long distances they would target their signal. Now, suppose citizens of Kepler452b reached our level of civilization at about the same time, and decided to transmit and aimed at us, because we are around a G2 star. They would have to keep at it for 1.5 billion years or so before we could conceivably detect it. Of course they might now seek out stars of an equal age, but now they are starting to make things difficult because they may have to go quite enormous distances to find the right star. But even more problematical, consider the issue from military strategy. When you send, you identify yourself, but since you send because you cannot go, any alien that picks up the signal and comes to visit will be extremely more advanced technically than you are, and if they are warlike, you lose.

Finally, there is the option I opted for in my “First Contact” SF trilogy: when humans managed to find a way of contacting a highly moral alien race, they were told that while what they had done was clever, it was unfortunately premature, and humans were simply not ready for contact with such aliens. One particular problem was that they had to stop fighting amongst themselves, the argument being, if you hate each other this much, how could you be let loose on aliens? Even though the example ism fiction, why would an alien race want to have fundamentalist terrorists on the loose? Then, if they are moral, they would not wish to contact us because such contact would severely damage us. Moral aliens will not give us technology. If you want to know what happens when a more advanced race meets a lesser one, look no further that what happened to the indigenous people of America.

Finally, or those interested in seeing more of the arguments in this last paragraph, the first book in this trilogy, A Face on Cydonia will be on a discount for a few days, starting on August 20.

Leaders; do we get the best?

How to select leaders is of particular interest here (New Zealand) at present because the Leader of the Opposition has resigned, and the race is on for a replacement. The resignation came because the previous man, while he had a great record as a reasonable negotiator, was not an incisive speaker and he had a poor command of television appearance. He did not look good, he was picked on by the commentators, so he had to go. Quality was irrelevant! Whether that is good for democracy I leave to you to decide, but this issue of leadership is one of the themes of my ebook trilogy First Contact, which, while nominally about contact with aliens, it also looks at governance in a dystopian future. One of the advantages of fiction, and why I write it, is that one can construct scenarios to make specific points without embarrassing a specific person, and without starting a feud with someone. The idea is to give things to think about for those who wish to, besides also entertaining.

The first book (A Face on Cydonia) starts by showing how governance has failed to eliminate blatant injustice and corruption, how one character becomes devoted to stopping that while another evolves into taking advantage of the situation and becoming a significant part of the problem. In the second (Dreams Defiled) the characters advance, and one becomes in a position to “fix things”, while the other evolves into an even worse character and sabotages the first, only then to be constrained by other forces. At the end of the third (Jonathon Munros) the main surviving character notes that the set of skills needed to get to a position of power through a vote have nothing in common with the set of skills required to do the job the candidate is standing for.

This particularly applies to politicians, but in Jonathon Munros it also applies to some extent to the election of the head of a corporation. For a corporation, the voters were restricted to Board members, and the candidates were, perforce, senior directors and so to some extent many of the skills could be assumed to be present from all candidates. In the novel, the problem was, if a candidate simply wanted to stand on his or her reputation, the candidate would lose. Winning required some additional pressure, which opens the way for bribes and threats. In other words, the skill required to get to the top was to be more cunning than the others. What happened was, of course, is simply fiction, but I believe the problem is real. Sometimes the best person really does get to the top, but in other cases it is someone less than adequate. Recall the time when Apple Computer hired as CEO the man from Pepsi? As someone remarked, the biggest technology challenge he faced previously was to change the colour of the can. In a period of years, Apple went from the most promising and advanced personal computer company to a near basket case. That it survived was almost entirely due to picking Steve Jobs as CEO, and I suspect that only happened because the company finally realized it had done so badly it needed a near miracle.

The case for politicians is worse. I recall once being in such a candidate selection meeting. There were seven votes. Three came from votes from the floor, i.e. party members who would cast their individual vote after hearing the candidates speak. Three came from a branch committee of the party, and I have no idea how they were selected. Finally, one came from the party head office, exercised by a representative. In principle, all votes were supposed to be decided from the candidates’ speeches, but in practice, the head office vote would be predetermined. So, did the best candidate win? What happened is one candidate got the three from the branch committee, who were presumably his friends. Because two of the other candidates were of reasonable quality the floor votes went to them but were divided, and the three branch votes produced a majority over the others. I have no idea how the final vote was decided but the three votes won. Only too often candidates win positions in safe seats because they have been loyal party members, or because they have friends on the selection committee.

Another issue is the minority card. The argument seems to be that we need more of the minorities. More women, more gay people, more minority races, more indigenous people, then there is the religious card. A Jewish lesbian of mixed Chinese/Maori descent would seem to tick a lot of boxes here. I do not have anything against any of those groups, but I do think that if they ask me to give them the right to run the country, they have the obligation to show they have some chance of doing the job. What do you think?