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.

Terrible Reviews: Welcome to Limetown

There’s this thing I’ve been looking for for a long time.

It’s something missing in contemporary media.

We have fantastic books, mind-blowing films, life-encompassing television shows, soul-consuming video games. The literature and stories are awesome. But one medium has fallen by the wayside: media for the ear.

Storytelling has become more and more visual as cameras and the ability to broadcast have become accessible for any berk with a smartphone and internet access. And that’s a good thing, awesome even. But for years before the television came around, it was stories for the ear that captivated audiences; stories where only the actors’ voices, soundtrack, and sound effects told the story. It’s hard to believe that we could be so captivated these days. But that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Podcasts are taking us back in that direction — just look at the success of Serial to see that. And I loved Serial. But, at its heart, Serial was a detached look into a cold case twenty years gone; an examination of facts and places and names and events, kept at a journalist’s clinical distance.

But I wanted something that went one step further. Something that would tell a story that would suck me in, a story where I could care about the characters, where there was a lingering behind-the-scenes mystery, where there’s that unease and tension that can only be crafted by a master storyteller.

Well, it’s here.

I discovered Limetown yesterday while my wife and I were looking for something to listen to on the drive out to Grandma’s house. Today, I listened to the second episode.

And I am hurting. HURTING. For the next episode.

From their website, Limetown Stories:

Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again.

In this seven-part podcast, American Public Radio host Lia Haddock asks the question once more, “What happened to the people of Limetown?”

The show begins in that clinical sense that Serial and This American Life use, but by the end of the first and carrying on over into the second episode, the show takes a hard left and the story comes to life. I won’t be sharing spoilers here, because you really owe it to yourself to go and have a listen. But this is that thing I’ve been looking for.

It’s masterfully crafted. It’s believably voiced. It’s beautifully soundtracked. It’s science fiction, thriller, suspense, human interest, all in one. And it has its hooks in me something fierce. It’s like This American Life meets Welcome to Night ValeSerial meets The X-Files. Your local nightly news broadcast meets Fringe. If you like science fiction, if you like the unexplained and the inexplicable, you’ll love this. If you enjoy the fiction I post up here, Limetown is right up your alley.

There are only two episodes out so far, with another five slated for the coming months, and they cannot get here soon enough.

If you are listening to podcasts, you need to be listening to Limetown. Seriously. Go get it.

Surreal Cereal

Man, I just love cereal, don’t you? The way each individual froot loop tastes exactly the same as every other froot loop in outright defiance of the concept that the colors represent different froot flavors. The way Cap’n Crunch leaves the roof of your mouth with wicked road rash. The way that Corn Flakes literally taste more like cardboard than cardboard (and honestly, who in their right [or wrong] mind would eat corn in flake form?).

Yep, cereal is awesome.

What’s that? Oh. OH.

This post is about Serial. No, no, don’t get up. I’ll save you the trouble and deduct ten points for opening my post with that terrible joke.

''Serial'' (podcast) logo.png

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Serial is a spinoff from This American Life which focuses on a murder trial from 1999 Maryland. When I first heard about the show, I thought it was a fictional piece stitched together to look (or rather, sound) and feel authentic, but it’s not. It’s an actual case which has actually been tried. Headlined by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig and following the trial of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee, Serial has done for podcasts what The Daily Show did for news, which is make you give a damn about something that you were tired of.

As is the requisite with any sort of review post, I should disclaim that there are spoilers ahead, but they are minor. Essentially I’m only going to spoil the ending, which sounds like the worst thing I could do, but if you listen to even a couple of episodes, you will probably have an idea of how the thing will end, and you will probably be right. I’d also remind you of the ridiculousness of getting upset at having a series that’s over a month old spoiled for you. It’s out there. It happened. It’s over. It is not our fault if you get the ending spoiled for you at this point. So, SERIOUS SERIAL SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’ll start off with the effect that the show (I feel compelled to call it that, even though ostensibly it isn’t, but whatever) had in my household. I heard about Serial and silently filed it in a “to do one day if I ever get around to it” folder. It sounded interesting, but nothing I couldn’t put off. Then my wife heard about it, and since she’s finished her Masters’ program and is looking for things to do with her newfound free time, she loaded it up and had a listen to it while out for a run one day.

Then she got home from that run but kept her headphones on to listen to episode two while puttering around the house. She asked me if I’d heard of this Serial thing. I said I had, but I didn’t know much about it. She put her headphones back on and went in for another episode.

By the next day, when she had her headphones on again, I was feeling a little put out that my wife was spending more time with her podcast than with me, and she was dying for me to get on board, so we both listened to the first episode (she for the second time). I heard it. I processed it. I resisted.

She asked me what I thought, and I tried to get into this whole metatextual analysis of whether or not the format is right for what they’re trying to do, and why this is any different from any existing true-life crime show. Hemming and hawing about how I had kind of enjoyed it but didn’t really see what the big deal was, I excused myself. Later that night, she tried to say good night to me, but I didn’t hear her, because I had my headphones on in bed, listening to episode two.

For the next two days, we didn’t share much conversation at home aside from “What’s for dinner?” and “What episode are you on?” while we both poked around the house listening to Serial on our headphones. Finally, yesterday, we both finished (and I’m ashamed to admit that I finished ahead of her thanks to my work commute and some stolen time on a lunch break) and resumed normal human interaction.

I’ll say this. There’s nothing particularly novel about the show, or even the case it examines. If you’ve watched any true-crime show, it’s pretty much like that, minus the crime scene pictures and mugshots. The host shares her thoughts on this or that aspect of the case, then there’s a cut to an interview with a witness or an audio playback of a police interview or courtroom testimony, and then it’s back to the host. Nothing special.

And (here’s your spoiler) the ending is entirely unsatisfying. Koenig spends 12 episodes of anywhere from 30 to 55 minutes each agonizing over whether Adnan is guilty or not, and at the end of 12 she’s no closer to a concrete answer than she is at the end of about three episodes. Which is to say, he was probably wrongly convicted (based on the overwhelming dearth of hard evidence of his involvement in Hae’s death), but he is also probably not completely innocent either (there are too many coincidences and too many things people know that they couldn’t possibly know for him not to have been involved at least in some way). To sink in the requisite hours to listen to this thing and then not have a big climactic reveal at the end feels like a terrific let-down (a sentiment the host herself admits having misgivings about). Koenig and her team put in all this work — we the audience put in all this time listening — it seems like everybody deserves an answer, and the show doesn’t offer one. (They offer theories in the ultimate episode, but for each theory, they also offer perfectly feasible rebuttals). It’s frustrating.

But. (There is always a but.)

For some reason, when I was listening, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d go back like a rat in a maze for the next tidbit, sneaking in five or ten minutes between meetings at my workday on Monday, kicking back during my lunch hour, listening on the way to and from school, just to hear the next piece of the puzzle. It establishes some sort of hold on you, like a leech suctioning itself to your thigh, and just won’t let go.

I’m not sure exactly why I found it so compelling.

Each episode focuses on one particular aspect of the case: there’s one episode, for example, where Sarah and an assistant drive around the town trying to recreate various possible sequences of events for the day the murder was committed. This microscopic rather than macroscopic view gave me the feeling that there was always something else to know, something just out of sight to be covered in the next episode. The soundtrack is quirky and sparse, never getting in the way but cleverly accentuating the feelings of doom or doubt that creep in as certain bits of evidence are revealed. The host’s certainties echoed my own as she learned more, but every time she seemed convinced, there was a new piece of evidence to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. I was personally convinced of his guilt and innocence about four or five times over throughout the series. And finally, the case has so many moving parts and entangled elements … well, it’s easy to see why the producers chose this case to build the series around. The (alleged) killer and his victim were from overbearing families that didn’t want them to see each other. There’s a friend who gives up the killer to police with a story so improbable it seems impossible to make up, but wait — he’s a drug dealer and social misfit who’s not exactly trustworthy in the best of times. Friends at school alternately can’t believe Adnan was involved in the murder or aren’t shocked in the least, depending on whom you ask. And at the center of it all is Adnan himself, whom Sarah interviews regularly on the phone. He’s charismatic and charming and intelligent and eminently likable, and somehow the show introduces and entertains both possibilities: that he’s a good guy who’s been the victim of the worst luck in the world, and that he’s an insanely smart psychopath who plays the nice guy so well it’s impossible to detect the snake lurking under the surface. Oh, and this all happened about fifteen years ago, so everybody Sarah talks to has a memory like a bag of potato chips (mostly empty, and even the solid stuff at the bottom isn’t really good for you).

And as for the series not giving you any sort of resolution for the story it’s told… well, that’s life, innit?

Like I said, the series poses no answers, for all its trying. But I think the swings between certainty and doubt, between liking Adnan and hating him, between trusting the evidence and not believing a shred of it, are themselves evidence of a narrative that’s been masterfully crafted to rope in readers and keep them listening week after week. (Heck, it roped me, and I thought I didn’t like it after the first episode.) You need only google “serial theories” to find yourself in the midst of entire communities of people arguing, sometimes vehemently, about the case and why Adnan is irrefutably guilty against people who fervently believe he is untaintedly innocent. Granted, that’s arguing on the internet for you, but the fact remains: people across the country have had their lives consumed with this thing.

As for myself, the unabashed cynic and hater of all things popular, I didn’t want to buy the hype. I thought it’d be, as so many other stories that take the nation by storm are, like ice cream: delicious and sinful and in no way having any depth or beneficial to your health. But there’s something more to Serial. I have to say it’s worth the time it takes to experience it. I might even say it’s brilliant. Certainly it’s well done and compelling. However it holds up as a story, it certainly holds up as a podcast. And, love it or hate it, millions of people are talking about it, which basically puts it on the same level of pop-culture import as Kim Kardashian. Probably higher of late if she hadn’t done that thing with her butt. Without hesitation I can declare that anything to do with Serial is a better use of your time than anything to do with Kim Kardashian or her butt. It hasn’t just left a mark in the landscape of podcasts, it’s left a smoldering crater. Serial, I mean; not Kim’s butt. Incidentally, “smoldering crater” is the end I’d picture for Kim Kardashian.

And her butt.