Homeopathic solutions to the Fermi paradox

Homeopathy: for those who have never learned the details, claims that the potency of a treatment can be increased by repeatedly diluting it. There are many scales — the C-scale is “how many times has this been diluted by a factor of 100”, the X-scale “…by a factor of 10”. I’d say “clearly nonsense”, but I fell for it when I was a teenager.

Fermi paradox: there are so many stars in the observable universe — tens of sextillions (short scale) — that even fairly pessimistic assumptions imply we should be surrounded by noisy aliens… so why can’t we see any?

One of the most common resolutions to the Fermi paradox is that there are one or more “great filters” which make it entirely unlikely that any of those stars have produced intergalactic expansionist civilisations. There are good reasons to expect direct intergalactic expansion rather than starting with ‘mere’ interstellar expansion, and (rather more surprisingly) good reasons to think we’re within spitting distance of the technology required, but that only makes the non-technological problems all the more severe. There are a lot of unknowns here, obviously we’ve only got ourselves as an example, so the space between “where we are now” and “owning the universe” is filled entirely with underpants gnomes, and that’s where homeopathy fits in, in two separate ways.

First, as a categorical example. Homeopathy represents an archaic way of thinking, yet it’s very popular. It’s simple, it’s friendly, it is a viral meme. There are many of these, some of them are quite destructive, and while it’s nice to think nature is in a balance — especially when we’re thinking of something we’re really proud of such as our own minds — the truth is nature (including humans) often goes off the deep end and only sometimes recovers. It’s very easy for me to believe that an anti-rational meme such as homeopathy can either destroy a civilisation entirely, or prevent it developing into a proper space-faring civilisation.

Second, as an analogy. Dilution. It’s not the first dilution of a homeopathic preparation which removes all atoms of active ingredients from the result, but the repeated dilution. If there are, say, twenty things which have an independent 50% chance of holding back or wiping out a civilisation out before it can set up a colony — AI; bioweapons; cyber-warfare; global climate change (doesn’t matter if artificial warming or natural ice age); cascade agricultural collapse; mineral resource exhaustion; grey goo; global thermonuclear war; cosmic threats collectively from noisy stars whose CMEs make electricity impractical to asteroids and gamma ray bursts; anti-intellectualism movements, whether deliberate or not; feedback between cheap genetic engineering and genetically-defined super-stimulus making all the citizens a biologically vulnerable monoculture … — twenty items each with a 50% chance adds up to million-to-one odds (million-ish, but if you care about the difference you’re taking the wrong lesson from this).

Yes, one-million-to-one is almost irrelevant compared to ten sextillion. Odds of (100e9)^2-to-one would require 73 such events, not 20, but this combines with the previous Fermi estimates, it doesn’t replace them. 20 such events reduces the overall problem by a factor of a million, no matter what your previous estimate was, and both 20 events and 50% chances are just round numbers, not a real ones. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many small-filters we might face: as the Great Recession was starting, someone said that no two recessions are the same because we learn from all our mistakes and so each mistake has to be a new one. Sadly it’s worse even than that, as humanity as a whole does repeat even its economic mistakes, so even if we weren’t re-rolling some of our previously-successful dice because we keep thinking “we’re too big to fail“, humans don’t know all the ways we can fail to survive.

The Great Filter doesn’t have to be something that civilisations encounter exactly once and in much the same way a sentence encounters a full stop — it can be the death of a thousand paper-cuts.

If we do finally reach the stars, we may find the universe is much more interesting than it currently seems. Instead of Vulcans and warp drive, we might find hippy space-elves communing with their trees via mind-warping drugs… and if we don’t, instead of wiping ourselves out, we might become the hippy space-elves that some sentient octopus discovers while going boldly where no sentient octopus has gone before.

Philosophy, Psychology

A life’s work

There are 2.5 billion seconds in a lifetime and (as of December 2018) 7.7 billion humans on the planet.

If you fight evil one-on-one, if you refuse to pick your battles, if only 1% of humans are sociopaths, you’ve got 21 waking seconds per opponent — and you’ll be fighting your whole life, from infancy to your dying breath and from when you wake to when you sleep, with no holiday, no weekends, no retirement.

Conversely, if you are a product designer, and five million people use your stuff once per day, every second you save them saves a waking lifetime of waiting per year. If you can relieve a hundred thousand people of just 5 minutes anxiety each day (say, about social media notifications), you’re saving six and a half waking lifetimes of anxiety every year.

When people complained about the cost of the Apollo programs, someone said Americans spent more on haircuts in the same time. How many Apollo programs of joy are wasted tapping on small red dots or waiting for them?

I have this east-European friend who loves travelling. One time he went to Scotland and had his travellers’ cheques stolen, but being traveller’s cheques he was able to get free replacements — in this case, special commemorative tartan ones with Gordon Brown’s face on them. He was really proud of them, and kept showing them off at every possibility. One day, when in northern India, he showed it to a local who didn’t believe it was real, and went to the trouble of looking up the ID number to see if it was a fake. He always remembered the Sikh with the cheek to check the ex-Exchequer chequered Czech cheques.

— My first proper original joke, updated.

Humour, Politics

Brexit RPG

You are in a maze of twisty-turny tweets, all alike. You are likely to be eaten by a GRU.


You meet a Tarot reader. Roll a d6:

1. The fortune teller predicts the UK will cancel Article 50 and remain in the EU.

2. The fortune teller predicts Westminster will reject May's Deal, but instead call for the UK to join the EEA.

3. The fortune teller predicts Westminster will agree May's Deal.

4. The fortune teller predicts Westminster rejects May's Deal. Project Fear turns out to have been an understatement, as 10% of the UK's electricity is supplied by France under EU-specific rules, and the UK requires a reliable electricity supply to keep water mains running because it doesn't use water towers to pressurise the system.

While Westminster isn't paying attention, NI has a referendum under the Good Friday agreement and decides to reunify with the Republic of Ireland; Scotland unilaterally becomes independent and takes the nuclear submarines with it; and Wales, Yorkshire and Cornwall give it a go too.

5. The fortune teller predicts Westminster considers repeating the trade strategy that was highly successful in China in 1839–1842 and 1856–1860.

The UK accidentally becomes a military dictatorship after the British armed forces say "no" to this plan on the grounds that the Opium Wars were in fact wars, and as most of the EU is in NATO and the UK is also in NATO, the UK would have to declare war on itself.

6. Like 5, but instead of the second paragraph, the fortune teller predicts the UK is forced to declare war on itself under NATO article 5.

America takes over and the UK is forced to have a written constitution. Lots of people very unhappy because it's a copy of the American one and the UK population hates guns so much even the police aren't routinely armed.


If you have ITEM:NEWS that COUNTRY:NORWAY has rejected UK membership of the EEA, then if the Tarot reader rolls a 2 you may instead collect ONE BOWL OF POPCORN as compensation.


No, it’s not a prediction. It’s just a text adventure…


More scam emails

As a follow up to a previous email scam (, I’m now seeing scam attempts to fake the “from” line of an email to look like it comes from myself, from a hacked account.

It’s not different enough from the previous attempts to bother showing the content, and already been discussed by way of other examples on Hacker News.

The only interesting new point, is that this shows me that my email account’s Sender Policy Framework settings are not fully active. Apparently it’s in a fallback state because my domain hosting is still being transitioned from Retrosnub to Mythic Beasts.

Politics, Psychology

Brexit as an example of failure to comprehend conditional probabilities

It’s been 2 years 5 months 12 days 12 hours 25 minutes since my first post about Brexit, and I still don’t really know what will happen.

Almost everything is conditional probability: “If there’s a hard (no-deal) Brexit, then the traffic jams from Dover, Harwich/Felixstowe, etc. will be about as long as is physically possible given the number of trucks in the UK.”

Conditional probabilities suck for human-human interactions.

Any pro-Brexit person who reads that will tend, I think, to remember that prediction without the “if” clause; and if there is a deal, they will be much more likely to crow about it as “yet another Remoaner failure”. (Also often missed: “much more likely” doesn’t mean “will”, but I keep seeing people read it that way).

This sort of prediction tends to be used by propagandists as a modern-day Cassandra: the worst case scenario is so bad that everyone strives to prevent it — in this case by not countenancing a no-deal scenario — and so it becomes just another reason to distrust experts who fought against a no-deal scenario. In turn, this increases the chances of something as bad as a no-deal scenario next time. I see the same thing with the Millennium Bug, and as a kid with global warming (no, it wasn’t scientists who told you we were heading straight into an ice age, it was newspapers; any scientists actually talking about an actual ice age were talking about the end of an interglacial warm period and were even then outnumbered 6-to-1 by those concerned about things getting warmer).

I can only think of three post-Brexit-Great-Britain (yes I do mean GB, not UK, I know too little about NI) predictions that are not conditional on the final form that Brexit takes:

  1. The UK population will still be arguing about it
  2. These arguments will involve at least one large march (≥10,000 people)
  3. At least one building will be set on fire (or an attempt will be made: they’re designed to not be on fire)

I put at least 1-in-3 odds that events 2 and 3 will be performed by both angry Leavers and angry Remainers.