Intelligence, Wars, and The Great Silence

4 minute read

The Great Silence, or The Fermi Paradox is the following:

The universe is extremely big: there are more stars than grains of sands on all of Earth’s beaches (or 5x-10x more than that, depending on your approximations). And around many of these stars are orbiting planets. It is estimated that, in our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are forty billion planets that could support life. The universe is also extremely old: 13.8 billion years old. And we’ve only been around for the last 12.3 million years. If the age of the universe was a year, (called a cosmic year), multicellular life first appeared on Earth on December 5th, humans showed up on December 31st at 2:24pm, domesticated fire at 11:44pm, started farming at 11:59:32, created the wheel at 11:59:49, and modern history/when the first bottle of Dom Perignon was popped by a French monk in 1697 occurred at 11:59:59.4.

Due to enormous size and elderly age of the universe, it is reasonable to believe that intelligent life MUST have arisen throughout the universe on many, many occasions. And it is also reasonable to believe that at least ONE of these intelligent, technology-wielding life forms would have had more than enough time to spread across the universe.

So where are they?

As Ted Chiang wrote, in The Great Silence, “The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet. Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.”

Ted Chiang is one of my inspirations. Thank you Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang goes on to talk about intelligent life being out there and aware of us but staying quiet. But I’m more interested in the second idea. When I first read the “universe being a silent graveyard” thought, a theory popped into my mind: What if the intelligence required for ANY life form to leave a planet is also the seed of its self-destruction? Because what does it take for an intelligent life form to leave its planet?

  1. Most likely a sense of identity (Me exist in universe. Me explore universe). Species being aware of themselves can lead to conflict and competition.
  2. A harnessing and concentration of a planet’s resources (Me bring things on planet together to build a ship and leave planet). More conflict and competition. And perhaps exhaustion of planet’s resources.
  3. Knowledge (Me know how to survive in space for long time). Knowledge is power. Power corrupts absolutely…unless you’re George Washington.
Illustration: joecicak (Getty)

Add to this that an asteroid could hit a planet at any time and wipe out your species (sorry dinosaurs). Or, a thought-less thing on the planet could replicate uncontrollably and kill you (F U viruses.)

We were so careful, even wearing masks outside, until the asteroid hit…

And we only have to look at ourselves as a case study to see the danger of intelligence sophisticated enough to engage in space exploration.

During the extremely brief span of the last 110 years, we’ve sent humans to the moon and probes to Mars, well done humanity, but we’ve also accelerated climate change, built nuclear weapons, had two World Wars, and dropped two nuclear bombs that killed over 150,000 people instantly (and 214,000 by 1945).

I can’t help but compare humanity to the literary trope of the genius being linked with insanity/sickness. Our greatest artists were often insane, tortured, suicidal, cruel, extreme. Not all of them, but Caravaggio was a notorious criminal and murderer, Michael Jackson a child molester, Michael Jordan an addicted gambler (when MJ was asked how he could lose $3,000,000 one night in a casino, he replied, “I don’t like to lose,”) Eminem was only good at rapping when he was on drugs, Van Gogh cut off his own eye after a fight with his friend Gauguin then gave the ear to a prostitute, Joanne Rowling suffered through a disastrous marriage and an abusive husband, Frida Kahlo experienced incredible pain, the list goes on. To create great art often means an extreme personality has to experience extreme suffering or take risks and actions that could also potentially cause the creator’s demise. So maybe the great art of having the “species-capability of leaving a planet and exploring the universe” is inextricably linked up to species-destructive behavior? If you are a high-achieving individual, often something else has to give or in some way you have to pay.

Carvaggaio: “I paint, then I kill, then I paint, then I kill.”
Sin Esperanza / Without Hope by Frida Kahlo

Recently I finished reading Jeff Hawkins excellent book, published last year, A Thousand Brains. (Notes on it below.) Highly recommend. And he shared the theory I proposed above, using this analogy (invitation to a party = intelligence in the universe, attending the party = exploration of the universe for other life forms):

“Imagine fifty people are invited to an evening party. Everyone arrives at the party at a randomly chosen time. When they get there, they open the door and step inside. What are the chances they see a party going on or an empty room? It depends on how long they each stay. If all the partygoers stay for one minute before leaving, then almost everyone who shows up will see an empty room and conclude that no one else came to the party. If the partygoers stay for an hour or two, then the party will be a success, with lots of people in the room at the same time.

We don’t know how long intelligent life typically lasts. The Milky Way galaxy is about thirteen billion years old. Let’s say that it has been able to support intelligent life for about ten billion years. That is the length of our party. If we assume that humans survive as a technological species for ten thousand years, then it is as if we showed up for a six-hour party but only stayed for 1/50th of a second. Even if tens of thousands of other intelligent beings show up for the same party, it is likely that we won’t see anyone else while we are there. We will see an empty room. If we expect to discover intelligent life in our galaxy, it requires that intelligent life occurs often and that it lasts a long time.”

Only staying at a party for 1/50th of a second. Damn. Open the front door, HEY!, *SLAM*…who was that?

Hawkins goes on to write that humanity needs to engage in “estate planning,” or creating a record of our existence in case we kill ourselves off. I agree, especially after the events of the past week. We gotta get our quarreling asses on Mars, pronto, or create some type of self-sustaining satellite-archive that orbits the sun.

The previous chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, says that Vladimir Putin has lost his sense of reality and that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a turning point in history. According to a New Yorker article published two days ago, Putin has warned the world, “Whoever tries to interfere with us should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He continued to say that, “Russia is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Was he flexing or bluffing? Probably. But should we still be concerned? What if Putin is bitter that the World Taekwondo withdrew his honorary 9th dan black belt?

Interesting thought experiment: if you were part of Putin’s inner circle and you learned of his plan to fire nuclear weapons, would you have the courage to take him out?

There are 13,000 nuclear weapons on Earth, located in 9 countries. 90% of all nuclear bombs are now under Russian and U.S. control. Russia is believed to have more warheads, around 6,000. The majority of American and Russian bombs are more than 10x more powerful – in explosive yield, than the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has spit in the face of international laws and his own past policies. Dmitry Kiselyev, a Kremlin propagandist said last Sunday, “In total our submarines are capable of launching over 500 nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot.”

Putin has failed to rapidly conquer Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. His army is having supply issues. Will Russia dominate Ukraine, or will Ukraine survive? In any case, with humanity’s propensity towards wars, destroying the planet, tripling the population in the last 70 years, constructing nuclear weapons, we gotta engage in estate planning.

The clock’s ticking. Let’s at least leave a calling card at the intelligence-in-the-universe party, and include instructions on why to ignore the cheese plate and to try the champagne.

A Thousand Brains Notes

229: From the universe’s perspective, this is an arbitrary distinction: neither the poliovirus nor the wildflower is better or worse than the other. We make the choice about what us in our best interest. 
226: Interesting: « I have never been a fan of science-fiction literature. »
216: « It is estimated that there are forty billion planets in the Milky Way alone that could support life. »
210: No one knows what will happen, but it is unlikely that we are done creating ways to destroy ourselves. 
205: Copying yourself is a fork in the road, not an extension of it. Two sentient beings continue after the fork, not one. Once you realize this, then the appeal of uploading your brain begins to fade. 
203: The brain has 100 billion neurons and several hundred trillion synapses 
182: False models of the world can spread and thrive as long as the false beliefs help the believers spread their genes. 
143: Without the old brain, no fear or sadness. 
142: Our fear of death is created by older parts of our brain 
135: For example, the way the brain learns models of the world is intimately tied to our sense of self and how we form beliefs.
131 « The brain of an intelligent machine will consist of many nearly identical elements that can be connected to a variety of moveable sensors. »
130: Prédiction os how a column tests and updates its model.
129: To be intelligent, machines:
1.) Learning Continuously 2.) Learning via Movement 3.) many models 4.) Using Reference Frames to Store Knowledge 
80: Discovering a useful reference frame is the most difficult part of learning, even though most of the time we are not consciously aware of it. 
79: what we think next spends on which direction we mentally move through a reference frame, in the same way that what we see next in a town depends on which direction we move from our current location. 
71: Thinking occurs when we activate successive locations in reference frames. 
62: It is as if nature stripped down the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex to a minimal form, made tens of thousands of copies, and arranged them side by side in cortical columns. 
38: Forgetting happens when old or unused connections are removed entirely.
37: Everything we know is stored in the connections between neurons 
37: Thoughts and experiences are always the result of a set of neurons that are active at the same time. 
36: Neurons look like trees 
30: Prediction was a ubiquitous function of the neocortex.
26: vision and language are fundamentally the same. 
23: Intelligence, language, touch, are all manifestations of the same underlying cortical algorithm. 
23: a slice of cortex responsible for touch looks like a slice of cortex responsible for language or touch. 
19: There are no pure motor regions and no pure sensory regions. 
11: The human neocortex is particularly large, occupying 70% of the volume of our brain. 
11: no matter how smart or sophisticated we are, breathing, eating, sex, and reflex reactions are still critical to our survival. 
-Faculty that master chess and Go are not those that can cope with the complexity of the real world. 
-Uploading brain to computer wouldn’t be fun 

Three, Simple Steps For Keeping Your Website Safe

2 minute read

This essay is for people who do not consider themselves technologically savvy, who often feel like they’re sinking in the ocean of the internet, but who have a website (boat) or plan to build one (you’re a pirate). This post is also for burgeoning journalists or artists who are not skillful with computers but who want to someday showcase their work online. If you ever took a computer programming class or spent your sad childhood on the internet, please move on to another thing, because when you read my suggestions you’ll likely think, WHAT A SILLY DUMBASS! HOW DID HE NOT KNOW THAT SHIT ALREADY!? Because I spent my sad childhood digging holes in my neighbor’s backyard.

1.) Update your website, plugins, tools, etc. habitually

On January 10th, at the precise moment my loxodonta molar tooth made contact with a king figurine in a Galette des Rois tart cake, my website was hacked by a virus. I named him Neo and tried to kill him. At some point during the 10+ hours I spent on the phone with my domain provider (D.P.) I learned that the cause was my failure to update my website and its plugins. I guess viruses are attracted to old versions of things (future essay: how are wandering viruses created in the first place and how do they find random places on the internet to infect?) According to D.P. the virus was not targeting just my website and its plugin-MILFS, but was a “wide net” searching for bank info, credit card numbers, ways to get cash. As I talked to D.P. on the phone, I could tell by the professionally condescending tone of their voice that they were surprised by my technological ignorance/ineptitude. Here’s my explanation/justification:

I created my website in 2016 with the help of a wordpress freelancer I found through Craig’s list (Sam, a patient Hasidic Jewish man who lives in Bed-Stuy, what are you doing now Sam?) and through mind-numbing youtube videos, and I thought that once my website was created I could forget about the structure and focus on other things besides “up-keep.” I was wrong. If I had simply clicked an update button every once in a while, I would have saved myself 15 hours of stress and uncertainty, 70 euros, and my cyber dignity. While on the phone, on hold, listening to crackling orchestral music, and staring at the swirling water of my petty existence, I couldn’t help but apply a cliché life lesson to this little annoying situation: if you ignore little updates in your life, little adaptions, little up-keep, you’ll have to pay for them in a big way later on. Moral: update, just click that button.

2.) Download anti-virus software

Here’s a safe link to do this that my domain provider sent me:

The download is free, takes 1 minute, and once you have it, all you have to do is click the anti-virus button once in a while and it checks all the files on your computer. Another “trick” you can do with an anti-virus scanner is that if you have any files or plugins on your website that are suspicious/can dodge bullets, you can download the files to your computer, then run the scanner. I know this because I had to go into the “back-office” of my website (the webspace provided by my domain provider) download potentially infected files, then run the scanner on each of them. I received an email that looked like this (below)…then spent four hours scanning, please scroll down and enjoy! (So you wanna to smoke a cigarette Jimmy? Well then smoke the whole goddamn pack!)


3.) Last but not least, your website is never safe. Put all your content somewhere else

At some point, I admit, while talking to D.P., watching youtube videos on cleaning infected websites, and attempting to troubleshoot on my own, I almost had a mental breakdown. Why? Because I’ve probably spent over 800 hours working on my website, writing essays, finding pictures, reading sentences out loud to my bulldog Hank to find just the right rhythm (if his jowls twitch the sentence is too clunky), formatting, etc…I have 3875 subscribers (500 are probably robots), and all this would have disappeared if D.P. and I hadn’t been able to get rid of the virus. Of course it would not have been the end of the world if my website died, but my website is something special to me, it’s something I built, like Frankenstein, and it would have been three years of work down the drain if I hadn’t been able to recover it…

I now realize that if I really care about all the work I’ve done, I have to put it all in a word document, then on a hard drive. I suggest you do the same. Then, to be even more safe, bury the hard drive in your neighbor’s backyard.

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The Mechanics/Why-Can’t-It?! of Wifi

In my apartment there is patchy Wifi, so when I’m trying to research the mating patterns of snow leopards and the internet fails I’m driven to the brink of insanity. Furthermore, as a budding and brooding journalist I find myself grabbing for my phone like a mother for her-WHERE’S MY PRECIOUS LITTLE BABY whenever I’m in line at Shake Shack or Popeyes, and if the Wifi is uncooperative I’m filled with an unquenchable rage. Don’t ridicule my addiction-to-connection just yet, as the lauded journalist, James B. Stewart, wrote in Follow the Story: How To Write Successful Nonfiction, “In today’s ecosystem of news, the greatest sin is to cut oneself off from the conversation.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, if John Knych sends me one more picture of a snow leopard with the caption, “Sup Jim,” I swear to god I will end this conversation and…

Jim is right that journalists must consistently engage in society’s dialogue, especially when it becomes polarized, paranoid, or paternal, so our Wifi connections must be sound. The news conversation is becoming faster and readers are expecting more cutting-edge content. If I plan to survive and thrive in this cut-throat ecosystem, it looks like I must try and understand the nature of Wifi like the snow leopards understand the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia.

Author’s note: this snow leopard did not survive.
Author’s note: this snow leopard did not survive.

It was once widely believe that “Wifi” stood for wireless fidelity, but it is actually not an acronym and does not stand for anything. The term was coined by Phil Belanger in August 1999, when the branding consulting firm, Interbrand Corporation, wanted a name catchier than, “IEEE 802. 11b Direct Sequence.” Wifi is also the same thing as WLAN which stands for Wireless Local Area Network. The difference between Wifi and the dinosaur tail known as the ethernet cable (ethernet is slower because of the resistance in the wires) is that Wifi transmits data (0-1-1-0-1-0-0-0-0-1-1 = picture of a ManBearPig) through electro-magnetic waves in the air. But unlike heat waves, Wifi waves don’t need the elements of the air to affect electronics/enlighten your soul. Also, unlike radio waves which sometimes have wavelengths up to 3kHz long (100 kilometers), Wifi is transmitted on a much shorter frequency: either 2.4 Ghz or 5.0 Ghz (about 12 centimeters long). Most microwaves operate on this frequency, which is why they can interfere with the signal and thus your spiritual well-being.

Many things can interfere with a Wifi signal because these waves are sent back and forth between the router and your computer/phone. It’s an electrical conversation. Basically, through the electromagnetic pulses of your router, your computer/phone is instructed on what to do with each pixel on the screen (0-1-1-1-0 or off-on-on-on-off = another picture of a ManBearPig). Generally, the signal can’t go more than 150 feet from a signal router. The Wifi signal can be affected by the objects it encounters, such as concrete, wood, metal, other Wifi, and murderous clowns. You can actually buy “Wifi paint” that prevents other Wifis from interfering with your Wifi signal. The way you position your router affects the strength of the signal throughout your house/dumpster you sleep in on the weekends. Here are five ways to improve your Wifi signal:

1.) Lift your router off the ground. Many routers broadcast waves slightly downwards, and the material of the floor can affect the signal.

2.) Don’t put your router behind a hall or in a closet. Again, the obstructions cause interference. Ideally, you should hang it above your bed like a disco ball.

Disco Ball 80s

3.) Point the antennas of your router in different directions. If you have two antennas, point one horizontal and one vertical. Why? Because devices work best when their internal antennas are parallel with the routers. Most antennas inside laptops are horizontal. With a cell phone, the direction of the internal antennas depends on how you’re holding/desperately clutching it. So by bending your antennas of your router in different directions you have the highest chance of having a parallel match/good signal/nirvana.

4.) Download a wifi-signal-strength app on your phone so you can test which places in your apartment have good signals and why. Don’t tell anyone you did this.

5.) Don’t put your router near other electronics (ones with motors inside of them), like televisions, computers, or your Dance Dance Revolution machines. They can interfere with the router signal.

My favorite part of this video is the woman on the left (his mom?) just chillen in front of the fan.

While writing this essay I realized that my router was sitting two inches from my television. It was also a few feet from the printer. I’ve moved it to a better/less disrupting location and my Wifi has significantly improved. Now my life is beautiful again. I hope the suggestions above can help you too.

Sincerely, ManBearPig

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Why does turning malfunctioning electronics off, then on, work technological miracles?

From cell phones to personal computers to multi-million dollar pieces of electronic equipment, turning any of these devices off, then on, is frequently the best and simplest solution to a technological problem. The layman’s impatient neglect of this quick fix is often the bane of an I.T. worker’s existence, as shown in this comedy skit:

So what’s going on? Why does this technique work so well?

The best analogy I’ve read for understanding the inner workings of a computer and this miracle phenomenon is the mailroom.

Like a computer, a mailroom receives many different inputs which have to be organized, categorized, and sent out. If the mailroom is designed and managed efficiently, then the jobs of sorting letters and packages are done easily and smoothly. There has to be enough employees to adequately match the quantity of incoming mail to each set of zip codes. There has to be someone at the front desk to deal with walk-ins. Rolling bins have to be large enough to contain all of the daily packages. Stamps have to be readily available. The mail for the day has to be loaded into trucks. Etc.

Similarly, a computer programmer thinks of as many inputs as he can which a computer will have to cope with, and designs the responding actions which will be applied to these inputs. This piece of mail goes into this bin. This container is rolled to this loading dock at 3pm. Etc. But cyber reality, like our own, is complex and all the possible scenarios can’t be accounted for.

What if a famous actor moved into a zip code that was previously occupied by a low population of unknowns? All of a sudden, 10,000 letters of fan mail are directed to this one zip code, and the worker assigned to this area can’t keep up with the incoming mail. In the beginning of the day, the worker dutifully and successfully piles letter after letter, but soon the stack becomes too high, falls over, and affects the overall organization of the worker’s area. He calls for help from another part of the mailroom (Hey Jimmy! Shit’s hitting the fan!) and the initial problem snowballs and becomes systemic.

What if the famous actor posted on his website a fake address, encouraging his fans to send him a letter if they wanted an autographed photo of him buck naked and riding a polar bear? The poor bastard in the mailroom receives the letters, but doesn’t know where to put them, so he creates a new pile. Again, this new pile clutters the work area and the worker has to call for help. He puts the fake address letters on Jimmy’s desk, and this also slows down Jimmy.

These cascading problems lead to instability and frustration throughout the mailroom. Sometimes, it becomes so bad that everyone in the mailroom just puts their hands up and says, “You know what? Screw this shit. No more work.” That’s when your electronic device freezes.

Instead of getting frustrated and quitting, though, the best solution is to acknowledge the problem, clear everything away, and start from the beginning (a stable state where the majority of testing has been already done). If the people in the mailroom keep working they are only going to make the problems worse. Turning off your electronic device is like an announcement in the mailroom which says: “Everybody clear your desk, close any open files, and return to our initial schedule.” Some things will likely be lost, but the mail that was already sorted into bins and trucks before the disaster will not be affected. Furthermore, the skills and tools for organizing mail for the rest of the day are not affected, but are in fact refreshed and rejuvenated by a return to a known, starting position, a good initial state. Even if the previous problem still needs to be tackled, a return to the initial, known state allows the workers to go through what they were doing again, but this time taking a different path through the code using different variables (“Hey Jimmy, more letters are coming in for that goddamn actor, make room on your desk for me so if this gets out of hand again we have space”).

To conclude, I believe human beings have a similar strategy for coping with snowballing problems and mounting frustration, which is our re-set tool for returning to an initial, known, and stable position:



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