Category Archives: life the universe and everything

The Fermi Paradox and Why You Should Talk to Your Kids

Are you listening to This American Life? If you aren’t, you should. Every week, they take a topic, and bring you stories about and around that topic. It’s marvelously produced, always interesting and sometimes touching; and, not for nothing, it’s the predecessor of some other smash-hit podcasts like Serial and S-Town. (Serial’s first-season was off-the-chain good, but its follow-up was less so. S-Town apparently had quite the following but left me more than a little frustrated in the end — too many bait-and-switches as it pretended to be about one thing when it was really about another thing, oh wait, no, it’s really about this thing over here. But I digress.)

This week’s episode is Fermi’s Paradox, which is a topic that — well. To say it fascinates me is undercutting things a bit, sort of like saying cats are fascinated by laser pointers. For the uninitiated, the Fermi Paradox is essentially this: If the universe is so mind-bogglingly vast, and the chances for alien life therefore so (theoretically) inevitable, then why have we yet to see any signs of any aliens? Or, put even more simply: we shouldn’t be alone, yet we seem to be all alone.

Personally, I fall squarely on the side that believes there must be life elsewhere in the universe, and (less obligatorily) that it is exceedingly likely that some of it should be intelligent. It’s the height of hubris, in my view, to think that we’re it. “Where, then, are the aliens,” you ask? Well, I take the view that Neil deGrasse Tyson takes (if I’m religious at all — and I’m not — then it’s about real, and really intelligent people like NDT), which is something along the lines of:

Given what we know about space, to say that ‘there are no aliens’ is like taking a bucket of water out of the ocean, seeing there are no whales in it, and concluding that whales do not exist.


This American Life is taking on the Fermi Paradox this week, but in typical This American Life fashion, it’s not just the story itself, but stories thematically linked to that story. In orbit, if you will, around the theme. And while I enjoyed the straightforward take on the Fermi Paradox (wherein the — reporter? storyteller? guy with the recorder? — speaks with a dean of physics and a head of SETI), what really got me was the last segment. Which had nothing to do with aliens; it was about loneliness.

Right? Because, where are the aliens –> are we alone in the universe –> loneliness is the worst.

So the last segment is about a father and his daughter, who at the time was nine, having this communication breakdown. He was a work-at-home type, and she was the precocious question-asking type (which is to say, perfectly normal), and she would always pester him with questions. Why this. Why that. How do birds fly? Why do we breathe? (I know this life. My son once asked me how we could put out the sun. I think XKCD addressed this once. [update — he did!]) And the father, like any exasperated father, got frustrated and tried to think of an easy way out.

“Look. Stop asking me these questions. If they really matter to you, write them down, and I’ll answer them then.” (Again, I know this life. Tell the kid to think about what they’re saying, and they’ll get distracted smashing some Lego constructions to bits and forget about it. This is how I solve most of my problems as a father. “Ask me again later” is the only way I survive most days.) He fully expected maybe a few questions and a drawing of a bunny. What he got, a few days later, was a fifty-question list, which he began to dutifully research and answer as best he could, citing sources like Kierkegaard for the philosophical ones and Einstein for the science. Laboring for months over his earnest responses to her earnest questions. Which he would then dutifully explain to her.

These answers, naturally, flew over her head for the most part. But that didn’t matter. The twist, of course, is that the daughter didn’t care about the answers to the questions; she just wanted her dad to talk to her.

Heartbreaking and adorable, and my two-paragraph summary doesn’t do any of it an inch of justice. I teared up in the car on the way to school. (But I didn’t cry. MEN DON’T CRY.)

And of course, it got me thinking about my own interactions with my own kids, and realizing that, you know, I should probably talk to them some more.

The segment in question starts around the 34-minute mark, but the whole episode is worth a listen.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Look Around

A short entry today:

Holy carp, it’s Saturday. The Thanksgiving holiday is basically over (teachers get a few perks). If you asked me — or, I’d imagine, any other teacher, even the ones that only got a few days off — I’d be just as likely to believe that we only got an extra day or two as opposed to the full week.

Not because I got a lot done over the break (I didn’t). Not because a lot was happening over the break (decidedly not). But just because when we’re sitting around with our families and spending time with the people we love, the time seems to pass a little faster. A watched clock at work can take an age to tick over, but the same clock when you’re enjoying time with the kids — watching them explore and paint and build with blocks and chase the cats and “read” books and “help” around the house — well, that clock runs at ludicrous speed.

It’s easy to lose track of that stuff. The tribulations of parenting a two- and a four-year-old seem to outweigh the joys on your average day-to-day. The good stuff is still there, of course, but it has to fight for its time, and when you’re working full-time, the stuff you have to do sort of ends up claiming its time first.

But holidays give us a chance to slow down and take a look at the whole picture, and you know what? This parenting thing? It’s not so bad. I gripe about it a ton, but all things considered, my kids are both pretty awesome. I mean, who cares if the house is a wreck, if my wife and I both have permanent raccoon-eyes, if the best moment of our day most days is the moment we’ve gotten them down to bed, the screaming has stopped, and we can sit on the couch and exhale. They amaze me every day, even if they do drive me nuts more often than not.

This week has reminded me of that. So even though I’m not going to give a pages-long things I’m thankful for account, I’ll just point out that I am, indeed, thankful for my kids, who, as I pointed out above, amaze me every day. And for my wife, who, truth be told, does most of the work with the kids and allows me to work a creatively fulfilling job and practice my creatively fulfilling hobbies. And for the rest of our family, who continually shower the kids and us with love. And … no, stop that. Keep it brief.

I started this post out planning to keep it short, and I’m creeping towards going long, so I’ll get to the point: the quote that inspired this post. Not a particularly poetic one, but a classic all the same, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

So. Here’s to the holidays that allow us to stop and look around once in a while.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

The Mis-Education of the Stanford Rapist (We Are All Teachers)

I didn’t want to write about this Stanford case, mostly because I don’t want to think about it too much. In particular, I don’t want to think about it for two reasons:

  1. It is only by the ludicrous caprice of luck that the women in my life haven’t been touched by the poison of rape or rape culture (that I know of!). A friend of mine on facebook put it rather succinctly (and I’m paraphrasing): It’s like a minefield. Suppose we lined up 100 women at a college or university and started walking across the field. I make it across, but turn around to see that 20 women didn’t make it, and are now lying in pieces across the field. And the truly horrifying thing is that I did nothing different to cross the field than the ones that didn’t make it.
  2. The rapist (and that’s the only way I’ll refer to him here, because that’s what he is) is (apart from the rape I mean) not so very different from guys that I went to school with, if not myself. I mean, I got good grades. I wasn’t athletic, but I was somewhat talented and well-enough liked in my circle of friends. I was a suburban white kid. Not particularly affluent, but I can’t remember wanting for much in my childhood. Point is, I could easily have been friends with someone like the rapist and not known the difference. There, but for the grace of etc…

Unfortunately, as I see the outrage growing across social media, and the poignant and plaintive sentiments arising from the women in my circle, I’m realizing that this problem is bigger than a Stanford rapist. It’s cultural. And because I have a daughter (and a son, for that matter), it’s an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with in my house.

And deal with it we must. There’s something broken in our culture, and by extension, in ourselves. It’s so easy for the rapist’s father to say “this is not the son I raised; he made a mistake.” Regardless of how tone-deaf his letter was (and I want to circle back around to the issue of platforms and how you use them in a later post), his sentiment was basically what the sentiment of any parent would be. Look at the mothers and fathers of criminals of all stripes, and you will see the same statement bubbling up like primordial gas from a primeval swamp: we had no idea. But we have to have an idea. Regardless of intent, the actions of the father and mother (or maybe, their lack of action) played a role in turning their son into a rapist. Just Alyssa had a rather good post about this that’s worth a read. But parents have to know what their kids are doing, and they have to be aware of the impact that their actions will have on their kids. As much as his dad and his friends protest that the rapist is “not that sort of person” and he “just made a mistake,” it’s hard to imagine a perfectly straight-laced kid going straight to sexual assault as a first transgression. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not just the fault of the rapist.

Another friend of mine wrote about how she came to realize that men were a thing she had to protect herself against, a thing she had to be wary of. And it made me realize that conversations I thought were a very long way off indeed are perhaps not so very far off as I would prefer. Because the time will come when she has to protect herself — hopefully not from an active attacker, but certainly from getting into a situation where a would-be attacker crosses the line from upstanding Stanford student to rapist. And I want her to be prepared when that time comes.

But that’s only half of the equation. In fact, it’s not even half. Because while women are the victims of rape, they are not the source of it. Rape is a male problem with female consequences. Which means that, perhaps even more so than teaching my daughter how to protect herself, I have to teach my son how to treat women so that they don’t have to protect themselves. The Stanford rapist did not become a rapist just because he had a few drinks. He became a rapist because of a lifetime of entitlement and the enabling of parents and peers and an ignoring of warning signs along the way.

In a way, he is, sadly, a victim as well — but not in the way his dad thinks. Not as a promising young man whose future has been ruined by the evils of alcohol and college culture and an unfortunate 20 minutes behind a dumpster. He’s a victim of those people who should have taught him better, should have steered him onto a better path miles and years before he encountered his victim behind a dumpster. He is a victim of his parents and his friends and his culture that trained him to think he was entitled to whatever he wanted and that he would get away with whatever mistakes he made.

We have to educate our young women — but I have no doubt that the victim in this case was educated. No defense is perfect. Even the best-defended fortress will fall under constant attack — and make no mistake, our young women are under constant attack in this day and age. No, far more important than educating our young women is educating our young men. The best defense is a good offense, so they say; and the best defense for our young women is creating a society in which they no longer have to know how to defend themselves.

We have work to do. Parents of young men have work to do. Teachers of young men have work to do. Friends of young men have work to do. Aunts and uncles, big brothers and sisters, employers, pastors, coaches … if there is a young man in your life who has ever looked to you for an answer, you have work to do.

The justice system isn’t going to do it for us. Government isn’t going to do it for us. God certainly isn’t going to do it for us.

If we want this to change — if we really want our young women to be safe — the change starts in our own houses. It starts with us.

May the Fourth Be With You (And Also With You)

Know what I like best about the “religion” of the force in Star Wars? It doesn’t take sides.

I mean, let’s be honest, the Force is religion. This guy or that girl or some other dude or your long-lost father is strong in the force for reasons never stated and certainly not comprehensible (and you can GTFO with that midichlorians sharknado). If the Force is on your side, you can perform straight-up miracles, like levitating your Orange Crush across the room because you’re too lazy to go get it during the commercial break in Coruscant’s Next Top Jedi, or force-choking your idiot friend who won’t shut up about how Han shot first.

The miracles are cool and awesome and super. But what I actually like best is that the Force is an equal-opportunity personal savior. The Force is perfectly happy serving Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker or Kylo Ren or Rey WhoTheHellKnows. Everybody and anybody can call on the Force to bless themselves or anybody else.


“May the Force be with you.”

Ben Kenobi says it. Anakin Skywalker says it. Emperor Palpatine says it. Princess Leia says it. Yoda says it. Darth Vader says it. Even Han Solo says it, and he is an explicit non-believer on the subject.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a tree-hugging freedom fighter, a power-crazed space slumlord, a half-insane cave monkey or a floppy-haired debonair space ace, you can call on the Force to help you out, and if you’re lucky, it just might save your ass.

What does this mean?

Well, if the Force is an explicit metaphor for religion, I think it shows that religion, faith, belief, are much like a lightsaber. Be it red, yellow, green or fantastic purple, it’s just a tool. It isn’t intrinsically good or bad. It just is, and whether it’s a symbol of good or bad depends entirely upon the person wielding it.

And if the Force isn’t religion, well, that’s okay too, because it’s still just a tool. Like the hammer collecting dust in your garage, it doesn’t have a stake in whether your house stays in good repair or if it crumbles to dust. It’s there to bang on some nails if you want to, or to go smashing up some drywall if that’s your thing, or, hell, it’s even happy just hanging there watching dust motes swirl in the stale air.

*makes the jump to lightspeed without plotting coordinates first because that’s the way we do it in the new era of Star Wars*


Long week

I  don’t understand WordPress or the Internet, apparently. On a good day with a clever post I can get maybe 30 views? Than I don’t post anything for almost a week and I get 50 on a Thursday. Weird.

But yeah, about that no-posts-for-almost-a-week thing.

Busy week. Surprisingly busy. With some shockingly big news: I got a new job. More details sometime soon, but suffice it to say I’m a little shell-shocked and a lot excited.

Meanwhile, a query for AI is about 90% done, so now I just need to pick some unsuspecting agents to send it to; a good research project for the weekend.

It’s late, and this week has been long enough. See you tomorrow with the re-motivator.

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