Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Are Expansive Aliens Obvious?

In our 3 parameter model of where are the grabby aliens in space and time, each parameter can be estimated using existing data: our current date, the dates of major events in Earth history, and the fact that we don’t see aliens clearly visible in our sky.

That last “fact” might seem most open to question, so what if we reject it? Well if we still assume that we would have noticed being directly inside a grabby-controlled volume, then our model still applies. That is, we would still know where grabby aliens are distributed in time, and they’d be distributed the same shape in space, except that their density in space rises by a factor of one thousand for every factor of ten by which their speed falls.

Instead of our usual assumption, that we would have by now noticed differences between volumes controlled or not by grabby aliens, we’d be in a world where they make their spherical-until-meeting volumes look only subtly different, a difference that we have not yet noticed.

In this case, there could be hope for astronomers to search the sky for subtle circular borders in the sky between GC volumes and surrounding volumes. The next two graphs show, as a function of power n and speed ratio s/c, distributions over how many such volumes there would be in the sky, and their total length in radians of their borders on the sky. (The maximum length of a circle on the sky is 2π radians.)

These distributions are mainly due to varying birthdate; earlier civilizations see fewer others in their sky.

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Power Laws Approximate Appearance

Feb. 1, we posted our first grabby aliens working paper, and yesterday we just posted our first revision, which is 85% longer:

If Loud Aliens Explain Human Earliness, Quiet Aliens Are Also Rare

Robin Hanson, Daniel Martin, Calvin McCarter, Jonathan Paulson

The hard-steps model of advanced life timing suggests humans have arrived early. Our explanation: “grabby” civilizations (GC), who expand fast and long, and change their volumes’ appearances, set an early deadline. If we might soon become grabby, today is near a sample GC birthdate. Fast GC expansion explains why we do not see them. Each of our three model parameters is estimable from data, allowing detailed GC predictions. If GCs arise from non-grabby civilizations (NGCs), a depressingly low transition chance (~10^-4) seems required to expect even one other NGC ever active in our galaxy.

After we learned that Jay Olson had previously said many of the things that we said, we went looking for new things to say. One of them is results on the tension between optimism for our future and optimism for SETI. I’ll describe some more additions in posts soon.

We also fixed some minor errors. And while before we just claimed that a simple power law well approximates the appearance function for advanced life, this time we got around to showing it:

These graphs show the % error between a more realistic model for the timing of advanced life, and a best approximating power law. That % error is averaged over the actual times when grabby aliens would appear according to that power law, assuming that humans today have a certain rank within that distribution. The error seems quite acceptable, <~10%, for powers of 2 or more.

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Super Hostile Takeovers

For a brief period in the late ’50s, until the mid-’60s, when modern hostile takeover techniques were perfected, we had a pretty much unregulated market for corporate control. Shareholders received on average 40% over the pre-bid price for their shares. But… 1968 … Williams Act … made it vastly more expensive for outsiders to mount successful tender offers. The highly profitable element of surprise was removed entirely.

The even stronger inhibition on takeovers resulted from actions taken by state legislatures and state courts in the ’80s. The number of hostile tender offers dropped precipitously and with it the most effective device for policing top managers of large, publicly held companies. … now, with the legal power to shift control in the hands of the incumbent [managers], they, rather than shareholders, will receive any premium paid for control. … It should come as no surprise then that, as hostile takeovers declined to 4% from 14% of all mergers, executive compensation started a steep climb. (more)

As this quote shows, current laws make it crazy hard to buy public firms, which has the effect of greatly entrenching CEO power and raising their compensation. Like blackmail laws, this is another way in which law goes out of its way to favor powerful elites. Law pretends to dislike and oppose elite dominance, but key details show otherwise.

Even during U.S. historical period when takeovers were easiest, still “shareholders received on average 40% over the pre-bid price for their shares.” That means those trying to takeover in essence faced a 40% tax; no point in taking over a firm if you can’t make it worth at least this much more. So this most effective device for policing top management would be even more effective if we could cut this tax, so takeovers could help in more cases.

The key problem is that when a takeover attempt starts to buy up lots of stock in a firm, people start to notice and then bid up their prices, expecting that a takeover will improve the value of the firm. Can we fix this problem?

Yes, consider that when the government wants to buy a bunch of land properties to build a project like a road, it faces a similar problem, that after the first few purchases the other property owners will greatly raise their price, knowing that the government can’t do its project without all the needed properties. 

The standard solution to this problem is eminent domain, where the government forces them all to sell at some official “market price”. But, as I’ve discussed, a better solution is to use a Harberger tax, where each property owner must always declare a value for their property, a value which is used both to set their property tax, but also to be an always-available sales price for the property. These values will generally be reasonable, due to owners trying to avoid paying high taxes, allowing the government or any other party to quickly assemble large property bundles for any big project without needing any special powers.

We could use the same trick for stocks. Tax stock ownership, and require every stock owner to declare a value for their stock, a value used both to set their tax, and also available to takeover attempts as a sales price. Then a takeover could happen overnight, as 51% of the stock is suddenly purchased at its declared Harberger tax value.

Most speculators might want to declare a value just above the current stock price, and we’d make it easy for them to just declare a percent increment, like say “My value is always 10% over the current market price.” If most did that, a takeover might only face a 10% tax, instead of the 40% tax described above.

I gotta admit that cases like current policy discouraging hostile takeovers makes me despair of trying to introduce any more complex or less effective innovations. The case for allowing more hostile takeovers seems to me especially simple and strong. If even a change this valuable and simple can’t be done, what hope is there for other policy changes?

Added 3p: The tax seems to be about the same size today, but so the main extra problem now is allowing far fewer takeovers:

In large-sample studies, the winning offer premium typically averages approximately 40%–50% relative to the target price two calendar months before the initial bid announcement. (more)

Of course we should also make it easier for someone who owns 51% of stock to actually control the firm. So not using poison pills, staggered boards, supermajority voting rules, voting vs non voting stock, required prior notice of or plan to purchase, etc.

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Live And Learn

In my last four posts you’ll see a pattern repeated twice: first I participate in “ground” talk on a particular issue, then I stand back and reflect on some patterns in that ground talk. I see this as a healthy way to think about social behavior.

If I only participated in each topic, I’d miss the chance to notice key social patterns up close. A great pleasure and power of being a social scientist is that most all social behavior you see around you is grist for your mills.

If I only thought about behaviors from a distance, without participating in them, I’d miss many crucial details useful in testing broader theories. Yes, by participating I risk collecting biases due to my particular stances, biases that my block me from seeing larger pictures. That probably does happen, maybe even a lot. But this still seems like a good mix.

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Who Wants Good Advice?

Bryan Caplan:

1. Finish high school. 2. Get a full-time job once you finish school. 3. Get married before you have children. ….
While hardly anyone explicitly uses [this] success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear – and vociferously object. … Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty. … talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics.

A scene from the excellent documentary Minding the Gap:

Bing: Do you, do you feel, like, concerned that [your young son] Elliot’s going to grow up, like, messed up?
Zack: Sigh. I’m 50/50 about it.
Lately I have been concerned over my influence on him, and as he gets older, how he’s gonna look at the difference between the [middle class] way his family lives and the [lower class] way I live. And.
A lot of people grow up and they are [starts a denigrating head wiggle and affected speaking style] nununu, fucking, I’m gonna play football, and I’m gonna go to college and I’m gonna get this nice office job and start a family and have 2.5 kids and a car and a garage and everything’s just gonna be nice. And I’ll buy a boat and a snow mobile. [end nodding and affected style]
I’m like ‘Fuck you, you piece of shit.’ Like, just cause you’re too fucking weak to make your own decisions and decide what you want to do with your own life, doesn’t mean everyone else has got to be like you.
Ha, ha, I don’t know, fuck, ha ha. I, ah, ask me another question. (1:10:52-1:12:00)

Zack seems to have long been well aware that he flouted the usual life advice. He lashes out at those who do, and he seems quite sensitive about the issue. Much like all those sociologists sensitive about discussing or recommending the success sequence.

Many people, including myself and Bryan, think it is a shame that so many seem worse off from making poor lifestyle choices, and so are inclined to recommend that good advice be spread more widely. However, what if most everyone who makes poor choices is actually well aware of the usual good advice when they make their poor choices? And what if they like having the option to later pretend that they were unaware, to gain sympathy and support for their resulting predicaments? Such people might then resent the wider spreading of the good advice, seeing it as an effort to take away their excuse, to blame them for their problems, and to reduce their sympathy and support.

That’s my best guess interpretation of the crazy paranoid excuses I’ve heard to oppose my free agents for all proposal. (If you doubt me, follow those links.) It would cost nothing to give everyone an agent who gets ~15% of their income, and so has a strong incentive to advise and promote them. Yet I mainly hear complaints like that such agents would: force clients to work in oppressive company towns, censor media to cut any anti-work messages, lobby for higher taxes, or send out minions to undermine promising artistic careers. Even though becoming an agent gives you no added powers; you can only persuade.

In a poll, most oppose even a test of the idea:

My conclusion: most people are well aware of a lot of advice, widely interpreted as good advice, that they don’t intend to follow. So they don’t actually want agents to give them good advise, as others would hear about that and then later give them less sympathy for not following the good advice that they have no intention of following. Yes, their children and other people in the world might benefit from such advice, but for this issue they are too focused on themselves to care.

Note this theory is similar to my standard theory of why firm managers don’t want prediction markets on their deadlines. Early market estimates take away their favorite excuse if they miss a deadline, that all was going well until something came out of left field and knocked them flat. Its so rare a problem that it couldn’t be foreseen, and will never happen again, so no need to hold anyone responsible.

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Sell Tax Rights To Make Agents

Assume the federal government is owed X% of a certain person’s future wages w(t). Or some fixed function F(w(t)). You might not think the government entitled to such income taxes, but you gotta admit the odds of changing this situation anytime soon look slim.

I propose that the government auction off this right to collect these income taxes. Ideally at birth, if not sooner. Government could use the auction revenue to pay off part of its government debt, and thus in effect convert one kind of debt into another. So the government’s expected tax revenue need not suffer.

This selling-tax-rights action would create a job agent out of the auction winner. Someone with an incentive to try to help and promote this taxpayer, to get them to earn more money, and thus to pay more taxes to their agent. The auction would find the person or organization who thinks they can do this job best, and if they actually succeed then they would benefit. And if this system works on average then the government also gains in expectation at auction time.

This system would probably also benefit the taxpayer themselves, as we aren’t giving the agent any powers but persuasion. The agent can suggest options and strategies to the taxpayer, and can recommend the taxpayer to others. But the taxpayer and others can ignore any of this advice, and can refuse to divulge any info to this agent.

The agent could at any time sell their agency role to anyone else who thought they could do a better job. This might be to the parents or schools of children. For adults, it might be to an employer. Or adults might buy the rights to become their own agent, maybe taking out loans to pay for that. As long as these various agents do a better job advising and promoting the taxpayer than would the government, this system becomes a net win for all parties, at least in expectation.

You might worry that an agent would threaten their taxpayer, saying that unless the taxpayer does certain unpleasant things the agent will refuse to advise or promote them, and thus somehow trash their career. This seems an unlikely problem to me, but if this issue becomes a dealbreaker, I know how to use conditional speculative markets to solve it, at the cost of a bit more mechanism complexity.

You might worry that an agent would be mistaken about their ability to help, and thus harm their taxpayer in the process of hurting themselves. Thinking you were protecting both parties, you might regulate who is allowed to become an agent, and what agents are allowed to do. I don’t recommend this path, but I admit that only severe regulation might kill off most benefits of this system.

If the taxpayer dies, then of course their agent stops getting paid. So agents will want to advise on health, in addition to careers. And on anything that promotes health. For example, if getting happily married helps careers, the agent will want to advise on that. If a taxpayer emigrates, their target nation might not accept this taxation transfer system, in which case the agent would also lose. But this is a standard reason nations have given for not allowing citizens to emigrate; as the world hasn’t accepted that argument for nations, I don’t see why they’d accept it for agents.

Once the rights to tax revenue is sold to agents, governments would lose a direct incentive to provide services to citizens in order to increase citizen income. But governments would retain the incentive to create the appearance of high future income, to induce higher auction prices. And modern governments mainly choose service levels to citizens based on the threats and actions of voters, not based on government calculations on tax revenue.

What about non-federal governments? Well they could just collect their taxes as usual. Or their taxes could also be auctioned off at birth, and then the federal government could over time reimburse the jurisdiction where the taxpayer resides for their lost taxes. This second approach seems preferable, as it creates stronger agent incentives.

And that’s my proposal. Looks like a clear win-win for everyone. What don’t you like?

Added 10p: Please note that I did not propose to give agents control over how taxes are collected. This is not about “tax-farming.” No need or reason to change the tax collection process for this system. The IRS collects taxes because it is assigned to do so, not because the rest of the government gets to spend the money right then. I collects taxes nearly the same no matter who gets the tax revenue or when.

Yes, agents would want to lobby for higher taxes, while taxpayers want to lobby for lower taxes. Taxpayers have more votes, however, to influence policy, and their long term incentives are for good tax levels. Note that a similar problem is that governments can print money to avoid having to pay their debts, yet this only rarely actually happens. Just as governments are afraid to scare bondholders, since that raises the interest rates they pay, governments should be afraid to scare tax auction bidders, as that would lower their auction revenue.

There is a reasonable concern that taxpayers might try to commit to trash their lives, or to emigrate, until they are sold their agent rights. Or until a secret ally can buy their rights. As with insurance fraud, it probably works sufficiently well to call this behavior fraud, criminalize it with large penalties, and offer rewards to those who report violations. And we don’t have to let emigrants who stop paying taxes ever return.

Many offer the generic works-against-anything argument “We can’t allow a conflict of interest to exist between two groups, as the bad side might lobby harder”. Here the groups are agents and taxpayers re tax levels.

If there any doubts re if individual taxpayers would benefit, let’s only auction the rights for a random half (or tenth) of the population. That would also reduce problems with changing enforcement and revenue patterns. And maybe also only for newborns whose parents approve.

Added 20Mar: Another solution to the fiscal discipline problem is to put the auction revenue into a separate trust fund like we do with social security payments. Also, see my next post for a poll on this topic.

Added 21Mar: Here is a related proposal. Also, maybe once a year the government can include info on how to contact your agent in the mail they send you about your taxes. See more comments on the idea here.

Added 22Mar: Most who dislike seem mainly offended by their not being able to pick their agent. But if the relation is much more productive in that case, then target-picked agents should be able to win auctions, and get other agents to sell the role to them.

Added 24Mar: We should also note that this would allow ordinary people to invest more easily in, and diversify more over, a whole new class of assets. That should be worth something in terms of reducing risk for any given average return.

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Our Default Info System: Status And Gossip

Around 1988-1990, I was working on the idea of “hypertext publishing”, which today we call the web. I was invited to give a talk to a few (<10) academics working on computer based info systems, I think at Xerox PARC. I argued that we then were hampered by our poor systems for finding out what other people had done and said.

One of the audience members said that, via gossip, he had no problem finding out what others were doing in his field. If anything was important, he’d hear about it via gossip, and if someone didn’t have enough status to get people to gossip about his work, it couldn’t be important enough for him to attend to.

Today, a physics academic told me (and a few others) that it isn’t a problem that physicists can’t be persuaded by contrarian arguments published in respectable peer reviewed physics journals, as they won’t read or consider it if it goes against their prior expectations. He said what really matters is your status, not whether you’ve published or where. Gossip about high status people gets their arguments considered even without publication, and no one else’s arguments matter anyway. Low status people can contribute by working out the details of high status people’s arguments.

And from a sociological point of view, of course, they are both correct. In a world that has decided that only arguments from high status people are worthy of considering, each one of them can safely ignore all the others. Even if some low status person somehow forces the world to hear and be persuaded by their argument, the high status people can and will close ranks to ensure that this low status person gains minimal concrete advantages from it, to make sure everyone learns the lesson about going through proper channels.

I presume you can see the social problem here, of insufficient information aggregation and intellectual progress. They can probably see it too, if forced to think on it. But why should they, and even if they saw the problem why should they risk personal prestige to change things, as success just makes it easier for others to compete with them.

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What Holds Up A North Pole of Dust?

I recently came across this news item:

Factoring in gravitomagnetism could do away with dark matter

By disregarding general relativistic corrections to Newtonian gravity arising from mass currents, … Ludwig asserts [standard] models also miss significant modifications to [galaxy] rotational curves … because of an effect in general relativity not present in Newton’s theory of gravity — frame-dragging … Ludwig presents a new model for the rotational curves of galaxies which is in agreement with previous efforts involving general relativity. … even though the effects of gravitomagnetic fields are weak, factoring them into models alleviates the difference between theories of gravity and observed rotational curves — eliminating the need for dark matter.

My initial reaction was skeptical snark. Yes, gravity has a magnetism, just as does electricity, and yes magnetism can push on stuff in a way that mimics the effects of dark matter. But I knew that this is an old hope, usually dropped after people do a standard quick calculation and see that its effect looks really weak, given the usual speeds of stars rotating in a galaxy.

But then a few days later I actually read the paper, and found myself impressed and persuaded. When I tweeted this fact, I got a lot of indignant pushback. Many said there’s no point to a paper that explains galaxy rotation curves, if it doesn’t also explain all the other data said to support dark matter. Many publicly said that the paper is almost surely wrong, because of the usual quick calculation. For example Garrett Lisi posted this:

Yet I could prod few of these denouncers to actually read the paper. (And most who did seemed to fail some basic comprehension tests.) Some even said I have too few physics journal publications (only 3) to speak publicly on the topic; I should leave that to those who refused to read the paper.

But the whole point of news and research is be surprised to learn things you’d didn’t expect. Why even have news or research if you will only allow them to confirm what you expect? The author, Gerson Ludwig, is well aware of the usual expectations, and published his finding saying they are wrong in a good peer reviewed journal. Furthermore, Ludwig is part of a research tradition of a least 5 papers I’ve found (1 2 3 4 5), all of which say there’s much less need to invoke dark matter to explain galaxy rotation curves if one does calculations closer to full general relativity. If even after that everyone is going to reject the idea based on priors and a quick heuristic calculation, why do research?

So I decided to dig into this paper, to see if I couldn’t either find its mistake or explain its reasoning better. Bottom line: I found a big very questionable assumption made not only by Ludwig, by also by the other 4 papers. See if you can spot it before I tell you.

For planets orbiting stars, or moons orbiting planet, it is widely accepted that simple Newtonian gravity is an excellent approximation. But when this approach was used to study orbits of stars around galaxies, it was found to badly predict their orbital speeds (i.e., “rotation curves”). To explain this puzzle, many posit a lot more “dark matter” than what is easily seen, distributed quite differently than the stuff we easily see.

Even though the usual quick calculation suggests it won’t make a difference, a number of authors have tried to calculate these rotation curves using something closer to (but still far from) full general relativity (GR). And all of those (that I’ve found) claim that it makes a big difference, enough to solve the puzzle. For which they are also widely criticized, because priors and usual quick calculation.

Ludwig tried a standard approximation to GR that is closer than Newton, but still linear, one which we understand well as it is very like Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism:

Here E is gravity’s “electric” field that pushes still stuff toward each other, and B is gravity’s “magnetic” field, that in addition pushes away from each stuff that is moving in parallel.

As star-star collisions are very rare, Ludwig assumes a time-invariant (i.e., “equilibrium”) rotationally-symmetric system of zero-pressure (p=0) dust that only moves in the azimuthal direction. (That is “around” the galaxy, in a direction perpendicular to the radial and vertical dimensions). This implies that E and B have only radial components ERBR and vertical components EZ, BZ, and also that:

The first (radial balance) equation says that magnetism is only a big effect on star motions in galaxies if vB becomes comparable in magnitude to E, while the second (axial balance) equation says that E and vB are in fact comparable in magnitude! Yes these are talking about different (R vs. Z) components of these vectors, but over the whole galaxy these components are connected in ways that ensure that large values of one component in one place imply large values of the other component in other related places. For example, here is a calculated B field around a spinning uniform mass sphere:

 

Thus Ludwig finds gravitomagnetism to be always important for equilibrium rotating gravitating dust! Using his model, he does a decent job of predicting rotation curves for three galaxies, using only mass distributions estimated from the light we see, though he allows some corrections and fits the ratio of mass to light to each galaxy.

So how could the usual quick calculation go so wrong here? Well, consider a point as indicated by the big red arrow here near the “North Pole” of this galaxy.

Gravity’s E should be pulling it downward, toward the center, but according to the only-azimuthal motion-assumption it is not falling down. Yet according to Equation 2.2 above, if the pressure is zero then the only other force left to hold it up is v x B. So of course these assumptions must imply a large magnetic field B, with a comparable influence to E.

But is this right, and if not which of Ludwig’s assumptions is wrong, or at least high questionable? I say it is his assumption of zero pressure, an assumption also made by all of the other related papers I found. Ludwig justifies his zero-pressure assumption by saying that stars almost never collide. But the concept of pressure just doesn’t depend much on collision rates!

Consider that astronomers usually say that what “holds up” stars near the red arrow is momentum. Previously, their velocities started high closer to the center, and declined as they climbed the gravitational potential to reach near that red arrow. They have recently or will soon stop rising and begin to fall back toward the center.

One can tell exactly this same story about atoms in an atmosphere. Even if they never collided, their average density and velocity would still change just the same with altitude as they flew up from the ground. Atmospheric “pressure” declines with altitude because the number of atoms that pass through any given area (and how fast and massive) declines, not because they actually collide. Pressure tells of momentum transfer that would happen if the objects moving through a plane were instead to bounce off that plane; but they don’t actually have to bounce for there to be pressure.

So similarly the usual picture of galaxies “held up” by momentum is actually a picture of a non-zero pressure, a pressure highest near the center and declining away from it, and a pressure strong enough to counter gravity and “hold up” the average density of stars near the North pole. So the pressure is not near zero, even though collisions are very rare.

What about Ludwig’s empirical fits? Well he never compares them to models using non-zero pressure, so his fits don’t tell us which better explains rotation curves, pressure or gravitomagnetism. Same for all the other papers in his area.

So yes, the skeptics were right; Ludwig’s analysis contains a big questionable assumption, and so their quick calculation doesn’t obviously mislead here. And yes if you are busy and this is not your area it makes sense to just ignore his paper if you think it unlikely to be right. But if you are going to publicly denounce it as mistaken, especially on the basis of your high level of physics authority, it is more helpful if you do what I’ve tried to do, namely try to find and publicize its error, or publicly admit if you can’t. That’s how research moves forward.

Added 16Mar: These authors got at least five publications out of their mistakes, and no serious academic journal would consider publishing my rebuttal. As those publications are full of complex math and technical work, and my blog post looks doesn’t show much technical prowess. Which shows a well-known big bias in academia (econ too, not just physics): why bother to learn the concepts deeply if you can get many more publications and prestige via more manipulation of symbols you insufficiently understand? Why bother to look for such errors in others’ work if you can’t get publication credit from it? Even if you do make a conceptual mistake, your referees aren’t likely to notice, and even if someone publicly shows the mistake, that will likely be someone/someplace with too little academic prestige to count, or even be noticed.

 

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Do Foo Fighters Show Our Snafu Fubar Future?

Many of our institutions are prodigiously wasteful. Under the feel-good veneer of win-win cooperation— teaching kids, healing the sick, celebrating creativity—our institutions harbor giant, silent furnaces of intra-group competitive signaling, where trillions of dollars of wealth, resources, and human effort are being shoveled in and burned to ash every year, largely for the purpose of showing off. Now our institutions do end up achieving many of their official, stated goals, but they’re often rather inefficient because they’re simultaneously serving other purposes no one is eager to acknowledge. (More)

Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable and baffling astronomical calculator that survives from the ancient world. The hand-powered, 2,000-year-old device … Salvaged from a merchant ship … off the Greek island of Antikythera. … en route to Rome from Asia Minor. … unclear how the ancient Greeks would have manufactured such components. … If … capable of such mechanical devices, what else did they do with the knowledge? … odd that nothing remotely similar has been found or dug up. … If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?” (More)

Between 1405 and 1433, Ming China sent out seven gigantic naval expeditions … traveled along the Indian Ocean trade routes as far as Arabia and the coast of East Africa, but in 1433, the government suddenly called them off. … not engaged in a voyage of exploration, … Chinese already knew about the ports and countries [visited]. … not sailing out in search of trade. … merchants were considered to be among the lowliest members of society. … meant to display Chinese might … intended to shock and awe. … Why did the Ming halt these voyages in 1433, and either burn the great fleet in its moorings or allow it to rot (depending upon the source)? … Emperor, was much more conservative and Confucianist in his thought, so he ordered the voyages stopped. … In addition to political motivation, the new emperor had financial motivation. (more)

FUBAR (Fucked/Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition/Recovery/ Any Repair/All Reason), like SNAFU and SUSFU, dates from World War II. … “Fucked Up By Assholes in the Rear”. … FUBAR had a resurgence in the American lexicon after the term was used in two popular movies: Tango and Cash (1989); and Saving Private Ryan (1998). … survived WWII and for a time, mainly in the 1970s, found its way into the lexicon of management consultants. (More)

The first sightings occurred in November 1944, when pilots flying over Germany by night reported seeing fast-moving round glowing objects following their aircraft. The objects were variously described as fiery, and glowing red, white, or orange. Some pilots described them as resembling Christmas tree lights and reported that they seemed to toy with the aircraft, making wild turns before simply vanishing. Pilots and aircrew reported that the objects flew formation with their aircraft and behaved as if under intelligent control, but never displayed hostile behavior. However, they could not be outmaneuvered or shot down. The phenomenon was so widespread … for the most part called “foo-fighters”. The military took the sightings seriously, suspecting that the mysterious sightings might be secret German weapons, but further investigation revealed that German and Japanese pilots had reported similar sightings. … Their behavior did not appear to be threatening. (More)

With this title and these quotes, can you see where I’m going with this? If not, keep reading.

Over the last few months I’ve put much time into modeling “grabby” aliens, who expand far and fill up the universe. They must appear very rarely, but they still have enormous consequences when they do. Most people seem to think there are thousands of times more less-capable non-grabby civilizations out there, who only rarely birth grabby descendants. Big enough to call “advanced civilizations”, yet who somehow almost always instead die or permanently prevent their parts from expanding fast.

Yet its damn hard to permanently kill advanced life. Even if a supernova were to boil all Earth oceans, extremophiles would still survive in deeper rocks, and they could re-evolve multicellular life within the 1.1Gyr it still has left to exist on Earth. Triggering all the nukes on Earth, by comparison, probably wouldn’t even kill all humans, much less all big brain mammals. So how do 999 out of 1000 advanced civilizations never allow any parts that expand freely? I just honestly can’t see how self-destruction can account for most of these.

As I’ve gotten older one of the biggest things I’ve learned is just how inefficient and messed up our world often is. Sure, the younger me expected there was a lot of that, but it is so so much worse than I thought. Most of what we spend on education and medicine is wasted, and probably also in charity and finance. Most billion dollar projects are massive wastes. And government is worse, especially re over-regulation and lack of innovation. The military is consistently quite visibly “fucked up” and far from efficient even in wartime; imagine what it must be in peacetime without pressures to win. Via something close to a world government in highly coordinating regulatory elite cultures, the world has refused to release the vast potential of nuclear energy, or even to let a few hundred people do challenge trials to save millions of lives in a pandemic. Eliezer Y. is quite right; our world is chock full of “inadequate equilibria.”

Now consider the fact that one of the strongest trends over the last few centuries, and likely the driving trend behind all the others, is an increase in organization size and complexity, with more functions and decisions drifting up to higher levels. The obvious long term prediction from that is world government, for whom competitive pressures to innovate and be efficient get much weaker.

That is roughly what we saw in China when it saw few outside threats and was centrally run for centuries. Remember their famous turning back from outside contact, of which they were very technically capable, due in part to internal culture and politics. And recall the amazing Antikythera tech, apparently never used for so many obvious-to-us applications.

Finally, consider UFOs, also called “foo fighters” during WWII, and now often called UAPs. If they really do represent aliens more advanced than us, these aliens seem amazingly incompetent and to have squandered literally-astronomical potential. If common UFO reports are to be believed, their abilities don’t seem to change with time like ours do, they have sometimes crashed and died here, and they have retained fragile biological bodies.

If they are trying to hide from us, or trying to show themselves to us, either way they are failing badly. Electronics often stops functioning near them, at night they often shine brightly and shine lights on other things, and are not camouflaged. Their timing and locations are supposedly to be explained a lot by their wanting to observe our military and nukes, but why couldn’t they view that stuff from a much further hidden vantage point?

And the most dramatic fact about any aliens behind UFOs: they have not remade the universe, nor even anywhere near our little corner of it. Yet if they were everywhere in the universe as common as they are here, how could none of them ever do big stuff?

To put this all together: what if the natural future path of a civilization like ours is much larger organizations, including a strong world government with lots of strong regulation that stifles innovation and many useful applications of available tech. It prevents war, which has long been a big driver, perhaps the main driver, of efficiency and innovation. All of which greatly amps up the SNAFU and FUBAR trends that even today burn up most all resources in huge inefficiency furnaces. Some techs improve in some ways, but in big important tech categories progress just stops or reverses.

They get tech to move in space, but central powers wary and jealous of colonization rivals lock down and cut most innovation, especially re interstellar colonization. Which is so damn expensive at first that they hardly need to try, but by the time travel to stars becomes feasible the regulatory culture has had a very long time to lock in its policies deep. Yeah that seems crazy from a distance, but look at all our FUBAR stuff up close and tell me this can’t happen.

Yes, if aliens like this were near most stars, surely just a few of them would escape this fate, which would be far more of them than fit into our grabby aliens framework. So any aliens we see around us must be quite rare, and so their correlation in being here can’t be accidental. As I’ve suggested before, maybe they were born at a star also born in our sun’s stellar nursery, a nursery seeded via panspermia, and they reached star travel before we did and went out hunting for life at their star’s siblings, the only other advanced life for a million galaxies around. They then made sure no sibling civilizations defied their dominance and anti-expansion regulations.

This isn’t a pretty picture. Not remotely pretty. But in a world as fucked up as ours, might it be that these sort of dysfunctions just get a lot lot worse? Sure, eventually there should be a few competent aliens, grabby ones, who do take over the universe. Competence wins in the end. But might it not be just a bit arrogant to assume that we are almost ready to join that club?

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Non-Grabby Legacies

Our descendants will have far more effects on the universe if they become grabby, and most of their expected effects come in that scenario. Even so, as I discussed in my last post, most see only a small chance for that scenario. So what if we remain a non-grabby civilization? What will be our long-term legacies then?

In roughly a billion years, grabby aliens should pass by here, and then soon change this whole area more to their liking. At that point, those grabby aliens will probably have never met any other grabby aliens, and will be very interested in estimating what they might be like, and especially what they might do when the two meet. And one of their main sources of concrete data will be the limited number of non-grabby alien civilizations that they have come across.

Which is all to say that these grabby aliens will be very interested in learning about us, and should be willing to pay substantial costs to do so. So in the unlikely event that our civilization could last the roughly billion years until they get here, those aliens would probably pay substantial costs to protect and preserve us, if that were the cost of learning about us. Of course if they had more advanced tech, they might have other less-fun-for-us ways to achieve that goal.

In the more likely case where we do not last that long, the grabby aliens who arrive here will be looking for any fossils or remnants that they could study. Stuff left here on the surface of the Earth probably won’t survive that long, but stuff left on the surface of geologically dead places like the moon or Mars might well. As could stuff left orbiting between the planets or stars.

Anticipating this outcome, some of us might try to leave data stores about us for them to find. Like we did on the Voyager spacecraft. As our long term legacy. And some of those folks might try to tie their personal revival to such stores. I’m not sure how it could be done, but if you could mix up the info they want with the info that specifies you as an em, maybe you could make it so that the easiest way for them to get the info they want is to revive you.

Of course if a great many people tried this trick, they might bid the “price” down very low. “They want you to revive them for a week to get your info; I only ask one day.” So elites might regulate who is allowed to leave legacy data stores, to keep this privilege to themselves.

Long before grabby aliens got here, they would pass through spacetime events where we’d be active on their past light cone. In fact, sending out a signal from here in most any direction should eventually hit some grabby aliens expanding in our direction. So if we could coordinate with them to send signals out just when they’d be looking at us (such as by sending signals following those from a cosmic explosion), we could tell them about us, and influence them, via such signals.

Some of us might want to try the trick of mixing up their em code with the info aliens want, to force their revival at the receiver end, but the bandwidth to send signals to be received in a 100Myr is rather small. However, as I’ve discussed before, one key function for such signals is that they can prove that they were sent on the date claimed. Later data stores found here are less trustworthy, as they could have been modified in the interim. So perhaps we could send out hash codes to verify datastores saved here now.

We could of course also tell them about any other non-grabby aliens we have discovered. But they’d probably already know about them, assuming they have vastly greater capabilities and tech at least as good as ours.

So is this an exciting legacy to you? A few stories about us that might help some other ambitious civilization calibrate how yet other ambitious civilizations will react upon meeting? No, well then maybe we should work on figuring out how to become grabby ourselves.

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