On The Possibility of Being Visited By Intelligent Alien Life

It’s a long read and not exactly for those with short-attention spans, but well worth the time if you have some to spare.

From Reddit: via WilWheaton.com:

I am not going to address the actual Roswell landing, what I am going to address is any alien life coming to Earth at all. Ever.

I study astronomy as a hobby, I have ever since I was a kid. One of the questions anyone who studies astronomy will inevitably wonder is if alien life exists (it absolutely does/has/will) and if it has ever (or will ever) come to Earth (it has not, and will not). It’s sad to be an astronomy lover and a sci-fi fan and know with such certainty that this has never occurred.

So let me explain….

THE SIZE OF THE GALAXY

This is not to be taken lightly or overlooked. The galaxy is absolutely enormous. I cannot stress that enough. Our galaxy is a barred-spiral galaxy, and looks something like this. So how big is that? Well…

  1. In terms of distances, the Milky Way is 1,000 light years “thick”, and has a diameter of 100,000 – 120,000 light years. (As per NASA) So let’s imagine the Milky Way as a massive cylinder in space, what is its volume? Well, volume of a cylinder = radius2 * height * pi. That gives us approximately 10 TRILLION cubic light-years. That’s a whole lot of space, and that’s not including the massive amounts of dark matter in the Milky Way or the massive Halo of stars that surrounds the Milky Way.
  2. So that is a hell of a lot of light-years, but what, exactly, is a light-year? In case you don’t know what a light year is, it is the distance that light travels in 1 full year, which is about 5.8 trillion miles (or, 5,800,000,000,000 miles). The nearest star is 4.3 light years away, meaning it is about (4.3) x (5.8 trillion miles) away. NASA explains it quite well.
  3. So, again, let’s go back to our imaginary cylinder that is the Milky Way galaxy. That sucker is 10 trillion cubic light years of volume. And a light year is 5.8 trillion miles. Therefore, every cubic light year is 2.03 x 1038 cubic miles. This means that the volume of the galaxy is 2.03 x 1051 cubic miles, which looks like 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 mi3. That is the volume of the cylinder that is our galaxy. (thanks to /u/jackfg, /u/stjuuv, /u/hazie, /u/Wianie, and everyone else who pointed out my earlier erroneous calculation!)

TRAVEL

Okay, you admit, the Milky Way galaxy is unfathomably huge. And, to top it off, it’s only one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. BUT, as you correctly would point out, most of the “volume” we calculated previously is empty space, so you don’t really need to search empty space for other lifeforms, you just need to look at stars and planets. Great point, but it gets you nowhere. Why? Well…

  1. Even thought we’ve cut down our search to just the stars, we still have the astronomical problem of actually getting to them. Traveling from the Earth to the Moon takes about 1.2 seconds for light. You can see it in a neat little .gif right here. So how long did it take our astronauts in a rocket-fueled spaceship? It took the Apollo missions about 3 days and 4 hours to get there. So a trip that takes light about 1.2 seconds would take a rocket-propelled ship about 3.16 days, give or take. It takes light 8 minutes to get to the Sun. It takes light 4.3 years to get to the nearest star. Now just stop and imagine how long that trip to the nearest star would take going at the speed it took us to get to the Moon. A dozen generations of human beings would live and die in that amount of time. The greatest technology we have and all of Earth’s resources could not get these hypothetical astronauts even out of our Solar System. (And in doing so, the radiation would fry them like bacon, micro-meteorites would turn them to swiss-cheese, and so on).
  2. So, our hypothetical aliens are not traveling on rockets. They simply can’t be. The distances are enormous, the dangers unfathomable, and they don’t have infinite time to be getting this mission done. Remember when I said that galaxy is 100,000+ light years across? Imagine traveling that in something that takes generations to go 4.3 light years. There quite literally has not been enough time since the Big Bang for such a flight to be completed. So, clearly, anything making these journeys would need a method of travel that simply doesn’t exist. We can posit anything from solar sails that accelerate a craft up to 99% the speed of light, or anything else that allows travelers to accelerate up to relativistic speeds in between star systems. The problem, however, is that acceleration/deceleration (as well as travel between these stars, maneuvering while in flight, and so forth) still takes years and years and years and years. And that’s not including actually searching these star systems for any kind of life once you get there. You see, once you decelerate this craft within a star system, you still have to mosey your ass up to every single planet and poke around for life. You might think you could just look at each one, but it’s not even possible for a telescope to be built that can see a house on Earth from the Moon, so good luck finding life when you’re on the other side of the solar system (and that’s if the planet’s even in view when your spaceship arrives). And how, exactly, are you going to poke around from planet to planet? What will you do to replenish the ship’s resources? You certainly aren’t going to be carrying water and food to last until the end of time, and without the infinite energy of the Sun beating over your head, you’re going to have a tough time replenishing and storing energy to be doing this mission even after you get as far as Saturn, where the Sun becomes significantly smaller in the “sky”. So the logistics of getting from one star to the other are huge, unmanageable, a complete mess for propulsion systems of any kind. Everything Earth has could be pored into the mission and we wouldn’t get out of the Oort Cloud. And even if we did, then what? Cross your fingers and hope you can replenish supplies in the nearest star? How are you going to keep going after that? How suicidal is this mission? And that’s just to the nearest star. What happens if the ship needs repairs? How many of these missions can you send out? If you only send out one, you’re looking at taking eons just to search 1% of our galaxy, but the resources to send out a fleet of these ships doesn’t exist. And how will you even know they succeeded? Any communication they send back will take half a decade to get here because those transmissions move at light speed, and that’s IF they manage to point their transmitter in the right direction so that we can even hear them. It would take us decades to even realize we’d need to send a second ship if the first one failed.
  3. Now remember how I said that the volume of the Milky Way wasn’t relevant since you’re just looking for stars and planets, not combing all of empty space? That wasn’t 100% accurate, because now you’re starting to realize that you actually have to traverse all of that empty space. To get from star to star requires crossing those unparalleled voids. That whatever-the-fucking-however-huge quadra-trillio-billions of miles is suddenly looking a bit more massive again. And keep in mind, all of these deadly, insurmountable problems I’ve laid bare are just getting to the nearest star from Earth. And there are a lot of stars in the Milky Way, as we will shortly see.
  4. EDIT TO INCLUDE DEATH: It’s also worth noting that when traveling at relativistic speeds you are going to have an awful time maneuvering this ship. So what do you do when a rock the size of a fist is headed right for your vessel? You die, that’s what, because you are not getting out of its way. And that’s if you see it, but you most likely would never know. Micrometeors and space dust smaller than your pinkie-nail would shred your ship to absolute pieces. Space is not empty, it is full of small little things, and a ship with a propulsion system would slam into all of them on its journey. I cannot find the source, but a paper I read years ago proposed the smallest “shield” needed to safely do this on one trip would be miles thick of metal all around a ship, and that’s only if the ship was as big as a house. Insanity. Propulsion systems will not work for this voyage if they’re going that fast.
  5. THE POINT BEING: So clearly, at this point, we have to resort to magic. That’s right, no-kidding magic. We’re talking about Faster-than-Light travel, because anything else is utterly doomed. And honestly, there isn’t much to say on FTL travel, because it’s pure speculative magic. It’s so crazy that in accomplishing it you create time-travel, time paradoxes, and you break all of special relativity into nice tiny chaotic pieces. But, as this is hypothetical, I’m going to grant you faster than light travel. No explanation, we’ll just use MAGIC and be done with it, but if you’re curious, here’s some reading on the matter.
  6. Finally, we are going to keep all of this travel within the Milky Way galaxy. Why? Well, we’re staying confined to just the Milky Way because, quite frankly, it’s already an absurd scenario without magnifying all the problems by a magnitude of 100+ billion more galaxies. As stated earlier, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies (in fact, when Hubble looked out into a patch of sky smaller than your pinky nail, it saw 10,000 galaxies, but there are untold-numbers of galaxies too far away to see, so that number is the minimum in just that patch of sky. There’s a lot of galaxies in the universe).

SO, to recap: our hypothetical aliens are from the Milky Way, they are searching in the Milky Way, and they can travel faster than light. PROBLEM SOLVED, right? Now our aliens will inevitably find Earth and humans, right…? Yeah, about that…

STARS AND PLANETS

Okay, so I’ve granted you not only that we aren’t searching all of the massive volume of the Milky Way (just the stars), I’m now granting you faster-than-light travel (with no explanation or justification, but that’s how we have to play this game). But I still haven’t even brought out the big guns, because the biggest and most important question of all hasn’t been addressed: How many stars and planets are the aliens actually looking through, just in the Milky Way galaxy? Well….

  1. There are anywhere from 100 billion – 400 billion stars in just the Milky Way galaxy. Determining this number involves calculations of mass, volume, gravitational attraction, observation, and more. This is why there is such a disparity between the high and low estimates. We’ll go with a number of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way for our purposes, simply because it’s somewhat in between 100 billion and 400 billion but is still conservative in its estimation. So our hypothetical aliens have to “only” search 200 billion stars for life.
  2. Now we’re saying the aliens have faster than light travel. Let’s, in fact, say that the amount of time it takes them to travel from one star to the other is a piddly 1 day. So 1 day to travel from 1 star to the next.
  3. Yet, we still haven’t addressed an important point: How many planets are they searching through? Well, it is unknown how many planets there are in the galaxy. This Image shows about how far out humans have been able to find planets from Earth. Not very far, to say the least. The primary means of finding planets from Earth is by viewing the motions of a star and how it is perturbed by the gravity of its orbiting planets. We call these planets Exoplanets. Now, what’s really fascinating is that scientists have found exoplanets even around stars that should not have them, such as pulsars.
  4. So our aliens have their work cut out for them, because it looks like they more or less have to search every star for planets. And then search every planet for life. So, again HOW MANY PLANETS? Well, we have to be hypothetical, but let’s assume an average of 4-5 planets per star. Some stars have none, some have lots, and so on. That is about 800 billion – 1 trillion planets that must be investigated. We gave our aliens 1 day to travel to a star, let’s give them 1 day per planet to get to that planet and do a thorough search for life.
  5. Now why can’t the aliens just narrow this number down and not look at some planets and some stars? Because they, like us, can’t know the nature of all life in the universe. They would have to look everywhere, and they would have to look closely.

Summary: So we’ve given our aliens just under 1 week per solar system to accurately search for life in it, give or take, and that includes travel time. We’ve had to do this, remember, by essentially giving them magic powers, but why not, this is hypothetical. This would mean, just to search the Milky Way for life (by searching every star) and just to do it one time, would take them approximately 3 BILLION years, give or take. That is 1/5 the age of the universe. That is almost the age of the planet Earth itself. If the aliens had flown through our solar system before there was life, they wouldn’t be back until the Sun had turned into a Red Giant and engulfed our planet in flames. Anything short of millions of space-ships, with magical powers, magically searching planets in a matter of a day for life, would simply be doomed.

Oh, but wait, maybe they can narrow it down by finding us with our “radio transmissions”, right? They’re watching Hitler on their tvs so they know where to find us! Yeah, well…

ON VIEWING EARTH AND RADIO TRANSMISSIONS

Regardless of whether or not our magical aliens have magical faster-than-light travel, there is one thing that does not travel faster than light, and that thing is…. light. So how far out have the transmissions from Earth managed to get since we started broadcasting? About this far. So good luck, aliens, because you’re going to need it. This is, of course, assuming the transmissions even get that far, because recent studies have shown that after a couple tiny light years those transmissions turn into noise and are indistinguishable from the background noise of the universe. In other words, they become a grain of sand on an infinite beach. No alien is going to find our tv/radio transmissions, possibly not even on the nearest star to Earth.

So what if they have super-duper telescopes? Well, the size it would take for a telescope to view the flag on the Moon just from Earth would need to be 650 feet in diameter. And that’s if you knew exactly what you were looking for, and where, and were essentially on top of the thing. Seeing details of any planet like Earth from any distance outside the solar system is 100% impossible. Seeing details once inside the solar system would take massive telescopes, and even then you’d need to know where the planets are to look at, you’d need to know what you were looking for, and that’s assuming the aliens you’re looking for on those planets are just strolling around on the surface. After all, most of Earth is ocean and intelligent life could have easily evolved there and not on land. And what about underground? You need to study these worlds pretty carefully (though, granted, Earth has us just right up on the surface making it easier once you are actually staring right at the planet).

TIME

There is one final nail in this coffin and that is one of time. Human beings have only existed on this planet for the past few tens of thousands of years. We’ve only had civilization for 10,000 years. In other words, if the entire history of the Earth were represented as a 24 hour clock, humans have existed for a grand total of 1.92 seconds out of that 24 hour clock. The point is that this would mean an alien would not only need to find Earth within the entire unfathomable galaxy, they would need to find it within a specific time-frame. It’s not as though we’ll be here for billions of years while they search, and if they are even a fraction too early, we won’t exist yet.

Think of it this way. If it “only” took the aliens 100 million years to comb the entire galaxy for life on Earth, they would have .0001% of that amount of time as a window in which they could find humans at all. To find human civilization is .00001% of that time. To find us as we are now is an even smaller fraction. In fact, the dinosaurs went extinct 60,000,000 years ago, so even if they make a return trip, and if they were last here when the dinosaurs went extinct, they won’t be due back for 40 million+ years. And that’s if we give them ultra-super-duper magical powers so they can scan the whole galaxy in “just” 100 million years.

So our aliens are not only finding our invisible planet in a crazy-huge galaxy, they are finding it in a VERY specific and narrow amount of time. Outside of that, they’d be far more likely to find our planet as a frozen wasteland, a molten slag-ball from pole to pole, or just find dinosaurs. Again, IF they found it at all, ever, which doesn’t seem terribly likely in the first place.

SUMMARY

So, as discussed:

  1. It is impossible for aliens to directly view Earth, the planet, and certainly not details of it from outside the solar system.
  2. It is impossible for them to pick up transmissions from Earth even at our nearest star.
  3. Therefore they have to actually go solar system to solar system in order to hunt down life, even intelligent life.
  4. The distances they must travel are enormous.
  5. The number of stars they have to search is enormous.
  6. The window they have to find us in is extremely small, so that even if they made a return trip it would be long after we are extinct.
  7. Combining these amounts of time needed, the amount of space to be searched, and the TINY fractional window they have to accomplish this in, we are looking at something that is an impossibility compounded by an impossibility.

And that’s not even getting into the fact that we’re positing the aliens have existed for this long. How many alien intelligences are there in our galaxy? What if there’s only one that ever pops up in any galaxy? What if there have been 1,000 others in the Milky Way but they’re already all extinct? What if they don’t exist yet? These are utterly unanswerable, which is why I don’t go much into what the aliens are or how many there might be, but it does provide further layers upon layers upon layers of problems. The mess that one need sift through to even begin to hope for aliens bumbling into Earth and start probing us is enormous, unfathomable, immeasurable.

So, I hope you can now see why Roswell is pure crap. It’s a roundabout way of getting there, but I can say with absolute certainty two things:

  1. Given the massive size of the universe and the time it has existed, it is 100% certain that alien intelligence exists (or has existed) somewhere else in the universe.
  2. It is 100% guaranteed they have never, and will never, find us on this planet.

EDIT: Some people balked at my 100%. To me, 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999…% is 100%.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously interested in this subject and will find the entire conversation thread fascinating…

I Find This Sad, But At The Same Time…

…strangely reassuring and well worth a few minutes of your time to read in full.

Western civilization will completely collapse in the next 200 years

Hari Seldon is a fictional character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series who studied broad patterns of human behavior, and through that study was able to predict the collapse of civilization. The general principle is simple: large masses of humans are similar to large masses of atoms in a gas. Predicting the behavior of any individual atom is nearly impossible, but the prediction of the behavior of a gas–how it will react to changes in temperature and pressure, for example–is simple and deterministic. You don’t need to know how each individual atom will behave, because in the aggregate masses of atoms show statistical properties that are invariant. Isaac Asimov’s premise in the Foundation books is that large masses of people are predictable for the same reason: the large-scale flow of action is driven by statistical factors that will cause predictable patterns to emerge, even if the behaviors of individuals cannot.

So call me Hari Seldon… because I’ve been looking at some patterns recently, and I’m convinced Western Civilization will completely collapse within the next 200 years.

(continue reading)

Let’s Play a Game

I call it Stupid or Don’t Give a Fuck.

This is a discussion Ben and I were having the other day while driving home from lunch. We’ve both noticed an increase in the general assholery of our fellow Americans lately, both on the road and off.

We used to quickly dismiss it as just plain stupidity (left turns from right hand lanes, etc.) but the thought occurred to me the other day that it’s more than just stupidity. I think that with everything going on in the world over which they feel they have no control, a lot of people have just developed an entitled, fuck-it-all mentality when it comes to the little things they can control.

“Why should I follow traffic rules when no one else does?”

“Why should I actually have my fast food order sorted before I get to the head of the line?”

“Why should I do x, y, z and maintain basic civility toward people when it’s obvious no one else is and they’re getting away with it?”

Now granted, there have always been self-important, entitled assholes:

But it seems that until last November this douchebaggery was just kind of simmering there, for the most part held in check by civil society.

Not any more!

The “election” of the Cheeto-faced Jizztrumpet and the ongoing train-wreck that has followed has unleashed all that pent-up effluent and has allowed it to run freely in the streets with its head held high. People who would otherwise be muzzled by basic standards of civil behavior can now be flaming douchebags to anyone and everyone without any fear of repercussion. Because if the President can get away with Treasonwhy do I have to play by the rules?

BECAUSE FOLLOWING THE RULES AND TREATING OTHER PEOPLE WITH RESPECT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO, MOTHERFUCKERS.

So I would suggest start playing a game when you’re out and about and see something that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. Try and figure out if someone did something out of sheer stupidity or out of a misplaced fuck-it-all sense of entitlement.

Nostalgia

I’ve reached that point in our absence from Denver that when looking through photos of our time there I find myself feeling a bit wistful and catch myself thinking, “Was it really so bad?”

Human memory is a funny thing. We tend to remember only the good times and tend to gloss over or outright forget the bad ones. It took me years to get over San Francisco—and that departure was forced by circumstances, not something I particularly chose. Even now, officially absent from Baghdad-by-the-Bay for longer than the sum total of the time I lived there, I still occasionally feel a pang—albeit brief—of homesickness when running across a particularly beautiful photo of The City. (Curiously, my own photos from my time there do not elicit such feelings.)

So I’m sure the same thing will happen with Denver as time goes by. “Was it really so bad?” YES, Mark. Yes it was. Remember the night you got stuck in the snow on the way home from work? How about the continual, hellacious traffic and the horrific drivers? Remember all those times waiting at a bus stop (because you finally wised up and refused to drive to work when it snowed) in -8°F weather? For chrissake if nothing else remember the abysmal employment that both you and Ben had to deal with!

As I’ve mentioned before, we wanted an adventure, and Denver certainly provided that. And Sammy. Mustn’t forget that Denver is where Sammy came into our lives! Sometimes I think that was the sole reason the Universe put us there in the first place.

Another Explanation For The Fermi Paradox

Trump’s election and what he represents probably also explains why we have not been—at least openly—visited by any extraterrestrials. I mean, if you looked down on the creatures swarming over this planet who possess nuclear weapons, share the same DNA with each other and can’t even get along with each other, would you want to drop in and say hello? Oh hell to the no! If anything, you’d quarantine this rock…

Wheels Within Wheels


“We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” ~ Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld

I remember having one of those deep, philosophical discussions with a friend several years ago and the subject of reincarnation came up. He posited that reincarnation was indeed real, but that instead of moving on to new adventures in new timelines, we simply go back and do everything again and again, until—as he put it—we get it right. At the time that thought horrified me; it was like we were trapped in a never-ending Groundhog Day, but blessedly unaware that we’d passed this way before.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot now that the first season of Westworld has come and gone, and that one quote above stands out. I mean, it makes as much sense as anything else to explain our “reality.”

But how would this work? How could you reincarnate again and again into the exact same timeline, only to unchangingly experience the same things again and again—and what about everyone else who you’ve interacted with?

I guess the only way I was able to wrap my had around it was to envision it as an infinitely complex series of interlocking gears. Your lifetime is one gear. Connected to that gear are the gears of everyone else in your life; everyone you’ve known or are yet to meet; and through those gears, the gears of everyone who has ever lived—or will ever live. You’re all meshed together, but only certain segments of those gears actively interact with each other (i.e., your time in each other’s lives).

Philosophically speaking, the only issue I have with this idea is that it doesn’t allow for any change or growth beyond one’s original storyline, something that is the antithesis of what we’ve come to accept as being a fundamental part of life and of being human.

But it does explain those occasional instances of Déjà vu, does it not?

Some days…

…I feel like so much hate-based gasoline has been poured over this country planet that all it’s going to take is one small match to set the entire thing blaze.

Maybe that is the reason we haven’t been contacted by—or have heard transmissions from—any alien civilizations. Perhaps they all reach the point in their development that humanity currently finds itself, achieving an unprecedented degree of scientific enlightenment and standing at the brink of leaving their planetary cradle, only to have the technology spawned by that enlightenment allow bronze-age prejudices and hatreds—long simmering under the surface—to finally spew forth in all their base ugliness, causing the entire civilization to self-immolate.

I know that in the vastness of the universe, that couldn’t have happened to every civilization, but I’m beginning to think it happens often enough that space-faring civilizations are very rare indeed and all their explorations reveal are the burnt-out husks of once-great societies littering the galaxies.

Alternate Universes

Ben and I were heading home the other day and as we were driving down Lincoln and crossed 22nd Street, I was reminded of a time—a lifetime ago, it seems—when my family almost bought a house in that neighborhood.

It was during eighth grade—or perhaps shortly after I’d graduated. Dad was rightfully proud of the work he’d recently done for Hallcraft on their new Biltmore Highlands subdivision, so one sunny Saturday we headed over to what seemed at the time to me like the far east side of the valley to check it out. I don’t know how the talk started, but before I knew it we went from looking at the model homes to being shown one house in particular a few streets over that my parents were actually considering buying. It was a large, beautiful three bedroom, two bath place with a courtyard entrance, a spacious kitchen and a large family room with a fireplace. The bedroom that was to be mine was significantly larger than my current room, eliciting no small amount of excitement on my part. The room also had two windows instead of one.

My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by the fact that it would now actually cost to phone my best friend (apparently calling from certain Phoenix exchanges to certain Glendale exchanges back in the day incurred wasn’t free).

This move also meant that my sister and I would be transferring to a new school district, something I think caused my parents’ eventual decision to bail on that house and that particular subdivision.

We did end up moving into a new home a few months later, actually only about a half mile south of where we had been living, so the seed had definitely been planted. I’m sure economics were also a factor; we got a much larger house for less money in Hallcraft’s Bethany Heights than we would’ve gotten if we’d moved to Biltmore Highlands.

Ironically, even though my best buddy and I now actually lived closer to each other than we had previously with this move, after high school started we drifted apart and each went our separate ways. (I found out many, many years later that Neal—whom I’d known since 4th grade—transitioned to Angela sometime in our twenties. He’d always told me he’d felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, so this did not come as a huge surprise.)

What does all this have to do with the title of this post? Well, I got to thinking how different (or perhaps not) my life would’ve been had we actually moved to Biltmore Highlands and my sister and I had been forced into a new school district.

Obviously, I would never have met the people or made the friends I did if I’d gone to a different school than the one I did, but I wonder if life post-high school would’ve actually been that different. I’d still have undoubtedly gone to the University of Arizona in Tucson and had similar experiences. Or would I?

A currently popular idea in cosmology is that there are an infinite number of universes, each one calving off and growing on its own, depending upon what choices are made. And not just your choices, but multiply that by the billions of other souls on this rock and it boggles the mind. Multiply that by the number of possible planets and potentially sentient beings in the universe, and it truly becomes an unimaginable number.

So it’s always an interesting “what if” game to play. What if I’d actually gone to ASU instead of UofA, stayed in school and gotten my degree? What if I’d kept on going the night I walked out of The Joshua Tree and never met Dennis? What if Bernie and I never visited San Francisco—much less moved there?

I suppose there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that if this multiverse idea is in fact reality that somewhere, maybe as close as the orbit of an electron—there are universes where Hitler was never born; where JFK was never assassinated; where you are just as likely to be President of the United States as you are to be living in a cardboard box under an overpass; a world where the Dark Ages never occurred and Christianity never gained a foothold; a world where you actually bought that Apple stock in the 90s; a world where mankind has already colonized the solar system and is moving out to the stars…

A Skeptical Look at the Possibility of Life on Other Planets

From Skeptic Ink:

There were several interesting articles and images that all gave me the inspiration for this post. So, let’s talk about the idea of life in our universe beyond our solar system.

The first question to think about is how many other planets are there. The answer is lots. No, “lots” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I got this image from NASA (click the image to the source… it’s big).

Hubble Deep Field Image, NASA.

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy did a calculation to determine just how many galaxies Hubble could see. Note that isn’t all the galaxies in the universe, just the ones the Hubble Space Telescope could potentially see.

First he calculated how many galaxies were in a small piece of the above image. It’s about 50. That piece was 1/100 of the actual image. So, the image above contains about 5,000 galaxies.

Then he found out that the image is 10 square arcminutes. The entire sky is about 150 million square arcminutes, which means that there are about 15,000,000 pieces of sky the same size as the above image. At roughly 5,000 galaxies per, we get a total of 75,000,000,000 galaxies. That’s 75 billion visible galaxies with the Hubble.

The Milky Way has about 100 billion stars (though some estimates approach 400 billion).  If we assume that an average galaxy has 100 billion stars, which is fairly safe, then we get 100 billion * 75 billion stars in the universe.

That is 7,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 7.7×1021 stars.

How many could potentially support life? Well, a lot depends on A) how you define life and B) what conditions we consider for that life.

Right now, we know of only one planet that unambiguously has life. There is significant potential for life elsewhere in our solar system. Though it would likely be limited to the bacteria level or extraterrestrial equivalent. Still, if we find life on Europa, Titan, Enceladus, or even Mars, then the options for life on extrasolar planets just got even better.

But let’s talk about that life on other planets. How would life appear?

Well, that’s an entire topic of research called Origins of Life (OOL). The results are very impressive so far. There are multiple ways to get the basic organic compounds needed for life, without life needing to be present. One of the main sticking points has been ribose sugars, the main component in the backbone of DNA and RNA. Some new research suggests that is much less of a sticking point than previously thought.

Cornelia Meinert (Meinert 2016) and her team discovered that a relatively simple reaction, catalyzed by ultraviolet light, forms ribose and a variety of other sugars… in space.

Ice is common in space, we regularly track large balls of space ice and even landed on one of them. So, that’s water. Another needed component is ammonia, which seems to be common in space as well. Finally, we need a source of carbon and that comes from methanol (methyl alcohol). Which is, you guessed it, common in deep space. These are all inorganic sources of these materials, no life required.

The idea behind the paper is that a planetary nebula, that is a pre-solar system, has all these materials much more scattered than in a solar system with planets. There’s a lot of supporting evidence for this in our own solar system.

In our solar system, excluding the sun, Jupiter has 3 times the mass of every other planet combined. It has methane, ammonia (including ammonia ice), even benzene rings (link to Voyager probe results). So, in a pre-planetary nebula, all of these compounds would be present.

Much like the famous Miller-Urey experiment, the researchers took these compounds, exposed them to near space temperatures (78 Kelvin, which is -319 F), hit them with UV light, then warmed them up. The result was 56 unique compounds (not including the isomers of those compounds), most of which, we would think required life to manufacture.

The question then becomes, how did the material formed in space get to Earth. That’s where theLate-Heavy Bombardment comes in. The hypothesis is that between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, the inner planets underwent a very heavy period of asteroid and comet impacts. The suggested impacts are stunning. By extrapolating lunar impacts to Earth, the estimate is over 20,000 impacts large enough to form a 20 kilometer diameter crater. As an example, Meteor Crater in Arizona is just over 1 kilometer in diameter.

Larger impacts would also have happened, including multiple impacts resulting in 5,000 kilometer craters.

This is in addition to other research about the common origin of RNA, lipids, and proteins.

The point is, we find these compounds all over the universe. And the universe is truly immense. It is the height of arrogance to assume that life only exists on Earth and that humans are the only intelligent species in the universe.

Now, a discussion about whether we would ever find that other life is a totally different prospect. But even with one planet per galaxy with life, that’s 75 billion planets with life in our universe.

We Are The Aliens

Stop and think about that for a minute.  We are the aliens to any other planetary civilizations in our glittering night skies. Keeping that in mind, is our behavior toward our fellow human beings really something we’d like to be projecting outward to potential galactic neighbors?

Human beings are killing each other over skin color and god myths, and have been for most of our history. God myths! Is it any wonder we haven’t heard from anyone out there? If we can’t even accept each other’s differences, how the hell would anyone who might be listening in and aware of our existence—no doubt beings far different than us—expect to be welcomed here with open arms? Is our brutality toward each other really the first impression we want to put forward?

Unfortunately it’s too late to change that. As the old axiom goes, “You’re never given a second chance to make a first impression,” and our planet’s first impression consisted of Nazi Propaganda

I’m sure—based on statistical probability alone—that the universe is teeming with what we would immediately recognize as intelligent life. But based on the radio and television signals that have spread out from our planet to a radius of eighty light years or so, I’m not surprised in the least that we haven’t heard a word back from anyone—much less had the proverbial flying saucer land on the White House lawn. I mean, would you want to make contact with a group of beings who have so little respect for their fellow creatures or their planet that it borders on insanity?

For all we know, there are galactic marker buoys surrounding our solar system warning potential visitors to avoid the third planet at all cost.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that human beings, despite all our science and technological innovations over the past five hundred years or so are aware of only a very, very small part of what is actually going on in this thing we label reality. Further, I also believe that at this stage in our evolution, if we were shown what truly lies behind the proverbial curtain, the our species would suffer a collective psychotic break…

All We Are Is Dust In The Wind

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that lot of weird stuff goes through my head when I’m laying awake in bed at 4 am; stuff that wouldn’t have pinged my consciousness when I was younger. This morning, while still pondering the joint loss of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I remembered reading somewhere that within 300 years of your death—unless you’re someone notable like Bowie or Einstein or Neil Armstrong—you will have been completely forgotten since anyone who knew you directly will have long since passed on as well.

I personally put that time frame at half that—or even less. Think about your grandparents. Now think about your great grandparents. How much do you actually know about them and their lives?

I know more about my material grandparents than my paternal. Even then, that knowledge is woefully lacking, and since Mom was an only child, once my sister and I pass on, that knowledge will vanish as well. I believe my grandfather was a chemical engineer. I know he worked in a white collar capacity at a paper mill for the majority of his life, and was recognized by the company for coming up with a new way of folding napkins for use in fast-food restaurants. Beyond that, I haven’t really got a clue. Was he in the army? Did he fight in World War I? How did he and my grandmother meet? Those are some of the things I probably should’ve asked Mom about when she was alive, but they were also those things that when you’re younger you really don’t care about. I have no idea if my grandmother ever worked—or if she did, what exactly her profession had been. As far as I know, she was a homemaker for her entire life (as was pretty common for women of that generation).

Going back another generation, I have no knowledge of my great grandparents beyond what I’ve seen in old photographs. If you even ask me their names I couldn’t tell you without having to look it up somewhere. My great-grandfather (or perhaps it was his father) fled Germany because—as family legend has it—he shot a deer in the Kaiser’s forest and the penalty if he’d been caught was death.

I know even less about my paternal grandparents. I think my dad’s father was a cabinet maker and owned his own business for many years in Safford, Arizona. I have no idea if my grandmother did anything outside the home. Their parents? No clue whatsoever.

About thirty years ago I realized how woefully inadequate my knowledge of even my own parents’ lives had been, so I asked them both to write short autobiographies. Dad took to the assignment like a fish to water; Mom never did come through with her story. Dad’s revelations and secrets were enlightening and helped explain many major and minor mysteries of his life, but like so many things, his written story has gone missing and I’m left with only my own memories of what he’d transcribed.

I think this lack of proper passing-on-of-the-family-story explains both my folks’ interest in genealogy as they grew older. Curiously, at least at this point in my life I do not share that interest. Since my sister never had children, when she and I are gone it will be the end of the line for this particular branch of the family and no one will be asking who my folks—or their folks—were or what they did during their lives.

And also since I have no children, I’ve pretty much resolved myself to knowing that at some point after I’m gone—like so many people who have come before—all my photographs, art, and possessions will end up at the bottom of a landfill or as curiosities in second-hand stores, offering some rare personal glimpses into life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

That’s why the here and now is so important. It’s all we’ve got.

Equalizer

Once upon a time, any audiophile worth his salt owned (or at least wanted) one of these beasts. The thought being that a graphic equalizer allowed control over the entire audio spectrum instead of just at the ends, as the more common bass and treble controls afforded. In theory it allowed you to tweak specific ranges of frequencies to achieve the desired “flat” (i.e. uncolored) response from your audio source. Alternately, you could use the equalizer to boost or reduce frequencies intentionally for effect.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I actually had an equalizer in my system, although not nearly as impressive as the one above. And you know, I found it to be a complete waste of money. Maybe it was my already-aging ears deceiving me, but I found nothing really needed a degree of tweaking that couldn’t be accomplished with the bass and treble controls on my receiver.

Funny, that.

Anyhow, I was thinking the other night how I wish there was some sort of equalizer for life; something that allowed you to fine tune those areas that needed a little help. Increase employment or employment satisfaction, boost income, decrease fear and anxiety.

Sadly, no such device exists, not even in the darkest recesses of eBay.

Reflection and Vision

Stolen:

It’s that Monday. The last Monday of the year.

For me this is a day of reflection and a day of vision. What did I do this past year? What didn’t I do? Did I forget something? What was unexpected? What did I accomplish? Where did I go? What was learned? Any regrets? Do I owe an amends that I may have missed? Have I properly expressed gratitude? Have I forgiven? Did I love? Did I laugh? Where do I want to go? What do I wish to accomplish? Who do I need to spend time with? Who do I want to meet? How can I best invest my time? What do I need? What do I want?

Today as I go about life, I will contemplate. Twenty sixteen will be a great year. I will have a good vision. With vision comes inspiration. With inspiration comes motivation.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ….H Jackson Brown Jr. 

I Just Realized…

…that there are multiple deaths-by-firearm in almost every show we watch in the evening. Got a problem? Put a bullet in someone. Need to neutralize the bad guys? Go in with guns blazing. It’s become a seemingly inexorable part of our popular entertainments.

And still we (as in the American public) wonder why this country experiences so many real life gun deaths.

I don’t know what it says about me, but I will admit that I generally enjoy these shows, whether it’s Agent X, The Blacklist, or any of the various sundry shows containing some combination of the letters “C, I, and S.” But tonight, after the umpteenth gratuitous brain splattering and the events of Paris still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t take any more. I had to get up and leave the room.

Other recent realizations?

I’m now older than the younger owner of the architectural firm in San Francisco that I called home for so many years was when they first hired me.

And I’ve now been away from—and haven’t set foot back in—San Franciso for almost as long as the total time I lived there.

This was especially poignant after exchanging a recent email with said owner of the architectural firm who wrote, “Most of the clients we had when you worked for us are now dead.”

Life is passing way too quickly.

For Posterity

With our society’s increasing reliance on digital storage, it occurred to me the other day that all the sounds and images we’re amassing and storing will—in all likelihood—be irrevocably lost to future generations because of the unstoppable pace of technological change that’s barreling down upon us. Not even the NSA itself will have access to the petabytes of data they’re amassing in fifty years unless it’s constantly refreshed and translated to the latest formats. And I seriously doubt anyone’s got time for that.

The ancients knew what they were doing. Stone tablets—barring their outright destruction—last for millennia. Paper can last for centuries if properly curated. Digital media…not so much. If “bit rot” alone doesn’t rob our descendants of our history, the mere fact that all the formats currently in use will no doubt be obsolete and unreadable in less than the span of a human lifetime.

This is already a becoming a problem. Have you ever tired to open a document created in the original version of WordPerfect? (Is WordPerfect even still a thing?) Yeah, a basic text editor can still pull out the important information, but the time required to remove the machine code and reformat that information into its original form is horrendous. I ran into this recently while trying to retrieve the Journals I’d written in the late 80s and early 90s.

Don’t even get me started on image formats or anything done in old desktop publishing programs. Anyone remember Ventura Publisher? Just try to open one of those documents. Good luck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in our rush to digitize the world and the ease it’s provided in recording the minutiae of our lives (anyone remember the limit of being able to record only 12, 24, or 36 images at a time on film?) we’re ultimately in danger of losing it altogether.

Musings on the Night of the Winter Solstice

On this, the longest night of the year, I want to wish each and every one of my readers a very happy winter solstice and may all your wishes for the next twelve months come true.

As the days have grown shorter and the shadows longer, my thoughts have returned to something I have often pondered over the years. Namely, what kind of religions and mythology would arise among an indigenous population on a world orbiting a double sun, especially in a system where the planet orbited outside the mutual orbit of the suns (thus keeping the suns in close proximity to each other in the sky) and the two stars were identical or close to identical in size, brightness, and other physical characteristics.

I can’t help but think that their belief in soulmates would be profound, and how the merging of two entities into one would be paramount in their religion. As the two suns would appear to dance around each other and then periodically seem to merge into a single orb (in the relatively rare instances when everything lined up properly) during conjunction, I think it would create a belief system that prized cooperation over selfishness. Sex, coupling, and partnership would be praised and I think war would be a very alien concept to this race.

Furthermore, if the stars were of the same color, I’d go so far as to say that same-sex unions might be highly prized, moreso than if the stars were different colors. The different color argument could also be interpreted to implicitly bless mixed-race (if they had them) unions.

This double-sun scenario would also produce interesting physical effects on a very personal scale as well. Two suns would cast double shadows. If the suns were identical in color, perhaps these shadows would symbolize separate-but-connected aspect between the physical and spiritual aspect of life to these beings. If the suns were of different colors, perhaps it could just as easily symbolize the ying and yang, the good and evil dichotomy of life and how even those are connected, because the shadow cast by one sun would actually be tinted the color of the other sun.

If you threw a third sun into the system (most likely beyond the orbit of the planet itself, causing it to periodically travel into the planet’s night sky), I think the beliefs and mythology would get even more interesting, because during part of the year it would appear to be rushing to join the pair of main suns, part of the year appearing to join in that dance, part of the year appearing to rush away from the pair of suns, and finally spending part of the year absent from the daylight sky altogether, “banished” as it were, to the night sky.

Then we have the altogether different arrangement from my forever-a-work-in-progress book, that takes place in a system whose main sun is so incredibly large and hot and luminous and the habitable zone surrounding it so huge that any life-sustaining worlds would have orbits (and therefore years) that would last hundreds—if not thousands—of Earthly years. In this scenario, the sun would not appear to move against the background of stars on a time scale that would be immediately apparent to a race at all. It would be as if our sun took twice a human lifetime just to pass through a single sign of the zodiac. And the same goes for observation of whatever other planets there might be (possibly dozens) in the system. Would early (i.e. non-telescopic) stargazers even recognize them as something different from the background stars?

And in this case, if the planet’s own axis rotation did not have an appreciable wobble, seasons on this world would also last hundreds of years. A human could be born, grow old and die without ever seeing a change from winter to spring or spring to summer.

My book system is actually based on a real star: Rigel in the constellation Orion. Rigel is an incredibly hot and bright star, something like 40 times the size of our sun, 60,000 times as brilliant and lies anywhere from 600 to 900 light years from Earth, depending on who you talk to. We know it has a pair of companion stars, each of which is about five times the size of our sun that revolve around their own center of gravity, and together orbit the main star at about 50 times the distance between our sun and Pluto.

And if you want to take this mental exercise even further, consider this: While they could theoretically be present and part of the system, at this huge distance, even with a telescope we would be unable to detect stars the size and brightness of our own sun because of glare from the main star. (Even seeing that pair of huge companion stars is difficult with the largest telescopes.)

So this presents an interesting scenario in and of itself: in addition to the pair of giant suns orbiting supergiant Rigel, there may in fact, be sun-sized stars and planetary systems also in orbit around Rigel, much like Jupiter and Saturn have their own mini “solar systems” of moons surrounding them in our own system.

If this is indeed the case, the night skies on any worlds (whether they orbit the main star or the double companion or unseen sun-sized stars) would be incredible beyond our wildest dreams. If you throw into the mix the fact that Rigel is in the same neighborhood as a group of other huge, luminous blue-white stars (Orion’s “belt” and “sword”), the night skies must be awesome.

Money

Money: it’s something all of us want more of and most of us need to survive in this world, but what exactly is it? I was thinking about this the other day and I came to the inescapable conclusion that money is imaginary. It is a societally-agreed upon concept and really not much more.

Yeah, I understand back in times past it was bits of precious metal exchanged for goods and services, but now it’s just nothing more than our collective belief and faith in slips of paper and increasingly, simply numbers floating through cyberspace.

Think about that for a minute. I don’t know about any of you out there, but for me with the advent of almost universal direct-deposit years ago, money doesn’t even physically change hands any more. I remember back in the 80s when I first started working, having to stand in line at a bank—during my lunch hourto either cash out or deposit a physical paper check. Granted, direct deposit was—and remains—a godsend on so many levels. No more waiting in line behind retired seniors who apparently have no other time during their day except during the lunch hour to go to a bank, and the money itself—er, the numbers are there immediately to be used as you wish. But there’s nothing physically there. I don’t even have printed checks for my current account now. Everything is done electronically.

The entire world economy is now built and running on these electronic numbers—and only because we have all agreed that they mean something. As an avid sci-fi enthusiast, I always chuckle when terms like “galactic credits” or whatnot are brought up because the concept sounds so ridiculous. But seriously, how is our money really any different?

Is there really enough precious metal stockpiled by the world governments to backup all these pretty, multicolored slips of paper and glowing numbers appearing on millions of display screens? And even if there is, why is precious metal precious in the first place—beyond it’s relative scarcity in the scheme of things—and why have we assigned an arbitrary value to it?

If gold—which supposedly guarantees the worth of all those numbers and all that paper—could be synthesized by the ton tomorrow, would the economy collapse? If gold—or any other precious metal—suddenly became worthless, then what?

This reminds me of an episode of the old Twilight Zone series where a group of bank robbers pull of the perfect heist, stealing a million dollars worth of gold bars and then putting themselves into suspended hibernation in a cave to elude capture. Upon awakening from their deep sleep, they enter a world where gold is now manufactured by the ton and their heist is worthless.

Have I taken the red pill? (Or is it the blue one? I haven’t seen The Matrix enough times to remember.)

It Seemed Like I Blinked and 20 Years Passed

“Inside every older person is a younger person—wondering what the hell happened.” ~ Cora Harvey Armstrong

When did I start turning into an old man?

Okay, so I’m not old, as in driving a golf cart around a retirement community old (or even anywhere near it), but old as in realizing that many of the people I work with could be my children if I were straight and had married and produced offspring at the “usual” age for doing such things. I also learned the other day that my recruiter had referred to me as “an older gentleman” to one of the other contractors. Older gentleman?

Fuck me.

It is kind of funny, because while I still envision myself being near that age and more or less feel like I did in the picture (from 1984) below, it’s only when I happen to catch my reflection somewhere that I realize I sure as heck don’t look it anymore. And more often than not, when I stop to actually gaze into a mirror I find myself asking, “Who the hell are you, and how did you get into this house?”

Of course, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself since long before the picture to the right was taken, but it now has a totally different thrust behind it.

Definitely well into “middle age,” I’ve now been forced to confront that my hair has for the most part completely disappeared (and is never coming back—I’ve often wondered if I should just start shaving it regularly—and get it over with), the morning puffiness under my eyes does not spontaneously disappear as I wake up, and I’ve been wearing monocular contact lenses (one for distance, one for reading) for years now. Lastly, where did all that added poundage come from? At the time that photo was taken I thought I looked fat. Oh, that I were so fat now!

Along the same lines, when did all my friends get so old?

At least we’re all wondering these same things together, and can freely discuss them without feeling too—I dunno—silly. Because of the AIDS epidemic however, we lost almost the entire first generation of openly gay men who could’ve answered so many of our questions and become the role models in whose footsteps we followed. They might’ve helped us define what it meant to be a middle-aged—and ultimately elderly—out gay man in America. But sadly, we are left to find our own paths, and with so many of my own generation lost in the 1990s, even those resources are not as boundless as they might’ve been.

Home

As an adult, I have had 31 different addresses. But very few of them have unequivocally been home.

Home. What is it? What causes a suite of rooms in a non-descript apartment building on some obscure street to become a home? That’s a question I was pondering this morning when I started thinking about all the places I’d lived—and which ones stood out as actually being home.

The length of time in a place didn’t seem to have a lot to do with it. Lord knows the first three apartments I lived in at Monaco in Tucson never really became home. The place that followed, apartment 2013 at Old Farm, did became home to both Dennis and I. It might have been because it was brand new and we were the first people to live there. I know it was a sad day when we had to move because Dennis bought a king-size waterbed and they were only allowed on the first floor.

The move from apartment 2013 downstairs to apartment 2015 pointed out what home was not. That place never became home and never would. When Dennis and I split up and I decided to move to a different unit in the complex, it was a bit of a relief.

Apartment 801 at Old Farm? Yes, that qualified as home. I can’t say why, but I felt comfortable returning to it each evening. It was also the place of great beginnings—and when Dennis and I reconciled—great reunions.

After we moved to Phoenix, nowhere there ever became a true home for me. There was something wrong with both of the places I lived. With the Tempe abode, it was Steve’s townhouse and we were interlopers. I was merely living there. When I moved into my own place in a year later, while it was brand new like Old Farm, it still never became home. I always felt it was merely a stepping stone; a place to wait until something else came along. I was never truly enamored of the layout of the place, which, I suppose, had a great deal to do with it.

After meeting Bernie, I returned to Tucson and we moved in together. Calle Polar was a strange apartment complex, and for a variety of reasons it never achieved home status either. Nor did the move to Eastridge later that year, although it did come close. Again, it was because the apartment wasn’t exactly what we had wanted. Can you say sky blue carpet?

When we moved to Northridge apartments on Wilmot it was interesting, but again, alas, it wasn’t home. I don’t remember why we decided to do it, but we took on a friend of Bernie’s as a roommate. As much as I loved the place (It had a great layout and was part of a single-story building) it never really achieved home status either.

However, after Bernie and I split up and I moved into my own place at Northridge, that was an entirely different story. At the time, that apartment, probably more than any other, was Home. I still don’t understand why, especially considering that I actually ended up spending such a short period of time there, but for whatever reason I felt safe and secure. Giving that up, even for the exciting promise of San Francisco, was difficult for me to do.

Bernard and I came to terms and shared our first apartment after moving to San Francisco. It was nice I suppose, but it never really was home to either one of us. When our lease expired and the landlord raised the rent an exorbitant amount, it was a relief to both of us that we’d have to find another place to live.

And that’s what brought me to the building on Folsom Street—the only other place at the time besides my own apartment at Northridge Apartments in Tucson that actually became a home and not just place to keep my toys and furniture.

I suppose that’s why every time I considered moving away I decided against it. There was just something about the energy of the building (despite the overall energy of the neighborhood) that jived with me on some unconscious level. Even moving from apartment #7 to apartment #9 did not diminish my love for that building. It was truly unfortunate the circumstances surrounding my departure—but looking back on things now, it was time.

Even when I moved to that in-law unit on 14th Street, I knew it wasn’t my ideal apartment. But I had to get away from the Folsom Street apartment. It was expedient. It wasn’t great, but it provided a much-needed escape.

That’s why it came as a bit of a relief when, a year later, that landlord said he wanted me to move out so he could expand the main house back into the in-law.

The building on 17th Street that I moved into was going to be home not once, but twice over the next five years. My first apartment there faced south and overlooked to the soccer field behind Mission High School, so it was incredibly sunny. The hardwood floors had been refinished right before I moved in, and while the kitchen was abominable (something I came to expect from pretty much every San Francisco apartment), the place itself was very hospitable and I have many good memories there.

But in a fit of absolute madness, a year later I not only moved out of that comfortable one-bedroom apartment in the edge of the Castro, but gave my cat into my mother’s care—to move into a studio apartment in building in a skeevy neighborhood where my boyfriend at the time lived. Ah, the stupidity of youth.

By the time Rory and I split up, the building on Fell Street came to be known by both of us as Hell on Fell.

Fortunately, I was able to return to the building on 17th Street, although my old apartment was no longer available.  Instead, I moved into a unit on the same floor that faced the street.  It wasn’t in nearly as good condition as my original apartment had been, but through a lot of personal sweat equity, it was turned into something really special, and definitely became Home.

It was very hard to leave when I decided to throw my entire life into the air and return to Tucson in 1995.

Since I had such great memories of the complex when I’d lived there prior to moving to San Francisco, I moved back into Northridge. Again, it became Home, even if I ended up missing San Francisco to such a degree that I moved back to The City six months later.

My initial return to San Francisco didn’t work out as expected. My dear friend Michael suggested that I move in with him—at least until I got settled and gainfully employed. Michael was renting a house out in the Avenues, about five blocks from the beach. Not my ideal location because of the weather, but it would give me a place to stay until I found something of my own. I found work quickly enough, but Michael and I discovered we made a good pair, so the temporary invitation was extended and made permanent.

I enjoyed living with Michael, and really didn’t even mind the weather or the horrific commute downtown, but this was still not home. After being laid off from my job and then moving through a series of temporary positions with nothing long-term coming my way, my mom suggested I move back to Arizona and live with her until I found a job.

When Michael started dating someone I couldn’t stand to be around, I knew it was time to leave.

So, at age 39 and unemployed, I moved back to Phoenix and in with my mother.

I found work within a few weeks of being back in Phoenix, and few months months later I’d saved enough money to get my own place. But at that point I was again missing San Francisco to such a degree that I knew I had to make a decision: stay in Phoenix or answer the Siren’s call and return to The City.

The City won out.

I found work almost immediately, and ended up moving in to a building “up on the hill” on Grand View Avenue where my friend Rick  lived. It wasn’t a Victorian and it didn’t have hardwood floors, but it had one amenity I’d never really enjoyed since moving to San Francisco: a private garage.  The building was constructed in the 1950s, so it had that mid-century kitsch thing going on. It was a rather small building with only 12 units and the residents affectionately referred to it as “Melrose Place.”

It didn’t take me long to discover why it earned this moniker as over the course of the time I lived there I managed to sleep with my downstairs neighbor and his partner—on multiple, different occasions and never at the same time.

Melrose, indeed.

And yes, even with all the physical shortcomings of this non-descript building, it became home as well. When I lost my job in the aftermath of 9/11 and quickly depleted my savings, I was once again faced with returning to Arizona.

This time I moved in with my dad.

It took a bit longer to find work this time, but I did land a long-term contracting position and I moved into my own place about ten months later.

I’d learned of Arioso when some friends of mine moved there a few years earlier. Even, then, while still living on Grand View and enjoying my life in San Francisco, I was insanely jealous of what they were getting for the same amount of money I was paying. This brand new complex had washers and dryers in each unit, an amenity that I had come to crave recently because the laundry facilities on Grand View were out of service more often than they were in use, forcing me to haul my laundry down the hill to a local laundromat.

Arioso was definitely home. It was where I lived when I received my cancer diagnosis and where I lived while successfully going through treatment. My place was on the first floor at the back of the complex and extremely secluded and quiet. Five years later, now permanently employed with benefits and finally at the point where the cancer specter was behind me and I was able to again plan for the future without having to constantly look over my shoulder, I was ready to figuratively move out of some of that seclusion. The opportunity to move into a new apartment in the complex presented itself and I jumped on it.

The apartment was in a building just across the parking lot on the third floor that overlooked the seldom-used pool and jacuzzi. This place was immediately Home, and to this day remains my mental smultronstället.

Our first place in Denver was never home. It was comfortable, it was accessible, but I never bonded with it and frankly, we ended up there because it was expedient.

Our new place? I think it definitely has the possibility of becoming Home. I immediately felt a kinship with the place, and unlike with our last apartment, I hope we end up staying here several years.

Seasons

In the early months of 2002, I learned of a book called The Fourth Turning which proposed that history is not linear as we’ve been taught in the west, but rather cyclic—an idea that’s actually been the norm throughout much of history and is exemplified by the Mayan calendar. That’s not to say that specific events happen again and again, but the general “flavors” of history repeat like a well oiled machine. The radio interview I heard intrigued me enough that I added the book to my Amazon Wish List and then promptly forgot about it.

I was cleaning out the Wish List a couple weeks ago and rediscovered it. I went online to see if the Denver Library had the book. They did, so I checked it out. I’m slowly making my way through it, and a lot of what the authors have proposed is really resonating with me.

The world is descending into a global conflagration. Totalitarian leaders of nations that feel they have been humiliated by the US and its allies are becoming evermore vitriolic and threatening. An economic powerhouse is emerging in the Pacific rim. Americans are divided about how to respond. Some believe we need to aggressively get on to the world stage and bring tyranny to a halt. Others are appalled by our international adventurism and believe we should look for multilateral peaceful avenues of negotiation. They suspect the President of abusing his office and acting as an imperial president. They suspect he is taking liberties with our civil liberties and they suspect he is manipulating events behind the scenes to bring us into war. The president is deified by many and reviled by many more. Politicians are engulfed in rancorous arguments over divisive social issues as the economy is perceived to be stagnating. People worry about their economic future. Children are increasingly protected. Most institutions of society are weak and are struggling to regain health. Oh yeah. Did I mention I was writing about the 1930s?

William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote The Fourth Turning fifteen years ago, five years prior to 9/11. The authors make the case that there tends to be an eighty year cycle to our culture that is connected to a repeating sequence of four generational archetypes (Hero, Artist, Prophet, Nomad). Each generation consists of people born within roughly a twenty year period. As they go through the life cycle (child, young adult, middle age, elderhood) they tend to exhibit certain traits based on the table that was set for them by previous generations, just as they in turn set the table for the generations that follow. Therefore, approximately every twenty years the great bulk of one generation moves from occupying one life stage to the next older life stage. That kicks off the next in a sequence of twenty year eras called a “turning.” Each of the four turnings has a distinct feel and tends to exhibit certain characteristics. The four turnings together make up a saeculum.

A key dynamic in Strauss and Howe’s theory is the oscillation of crises. Each saeculum begins with a high sense of community and unity. Civic structures run effectively and efficiently. During the Second Turning a spiritual crisis emerges. The youth begin to feel that the social order is confining and stale. They become introspective as they search for deeper meaning. During the Third Turning there is a deepening and consolidating of the insights gained from introspection and spiritual quest. However, in the meantime, the cultural institutions are coming apart and the culture fragments. During the Fourth Turning a secular crisis emerges. It often (though I don’t think necessarily) culminates in an armed conflict. There is a struggle to develop a common ground on which to rebuild and rejuvenate cultural institutions for the future. After the crisis climaxes, a new saeculum is born. During the First Turning, gains in community cohesion are deepened and consolidated which eventually gives birth to a new spiritual crisis. And so the cycle goes.

Many believe that 9/11 marked our transition into the Fourth Turning. The previous Fourth Turning began in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression and climaxed with WWII. Many authors are drawing parallels between pre-war Europe and now. The subsequent First Turning (The High) ran from 1946-1964. The Second Turning (The Awakening) went from 1964-1984. The Third Turning (The Unraveling) ran from 1984-2001. We are now believed to be in the Fourth Turning (The Crisis) which will likely not play its way out until the early 2020s.

Because of the dynamics of the generations involved and the issues they face, there is a mood common to each of the turnings. In the table below, the Third Turning is italicized indicating the Turning that was current at the time the book was published in 1997.

This idea of cyclicity has also gotten me thinking about personal cycles. A human lifetime can also be divided into four “Turnings,” or as I prefer to call them, seasons, each roughly 20 years (more or less) in length. This explains why Ben and I sometimes see things so differently. He is in the “summer” of his life—full of growth, vibrancy and expansiveness. I, however, am in autumn, whereby I’m in more of a “gathering” mindset, seeking security and a sense of stability against my approaching winter. Yet (thankfully) somehow our relationship works.

Many lives also experience the archetypal Turnings, although perhaps at an accelerated pace. I know that in my own case, I entered a personal Fourth “Crisis” Turning when I received the cancer diagnosis in 2003.  It literally turned my life upside down (as Strauss and Howe describe what happens to our culture every 80 years or so), but it also forced me to abandon old, outmoded ways of thinking and strike out anew, resulting in some incredible creativity.  As I’ve written about before, the Crisis showed me exactly who and what was really important in my life; everything else was discarded. I moved through that period and came out the other side a changed—and I would like to think, better—man for the experience.

The authors’ description of the Fourth Turning explains so much of what I see happening in this country—as well as the general way people are feeling about life these days. We may be in for some very difficult times over the course of the next decade, but as a country we will come out better for it. That gives me hope.

And while I don’t mean to get all political, I certainly trust Barack Obama to navigate us through these rocky waters far more than any personality those on the right would have govern us.

I’m only about a quarter of the way into the book, but at this point I highly recommend finding a copy and drawing your own conclusions.

Some Thoughts on Home

A few days ago I read this heart-wrenching article about the long-term unemployed who are homeless and living out of their cars in Santa Barbara.

One quote from a woman whose family had just recently gotten resettled into an apartment especially resonated with me: “For the first month after getting the place,” she said, “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to be in this house.”

While Ben and I were never homeless per se, after leaving Phoenix, the affect of being unemployed and living three months in that hotel room had much the same effect on me, and is something I never want to go through again. For months after getting back into an apartment I wanted nothing more than to simply come home from work and be there. Even now most days I crave the security of our apartment over going out and doing much of anything after work.

That’s why any talk—even hypothetical—of us moving to a different place now leaves me very unsettled.

Ben will be graduating and receiving his Masters Degree in Education next month. This will be the first time since I’ve known him that he will not be in school. This is a huge change for him, and I think he’s feeling a bit lost as he begins his chosen career. The other day he told me that he now wants to get his Doctorate, and added, “We’ll have to decide where we want to live.”

Where we want to live? Excuse me?

When I was Ben’s age, I wouldn’t think twice about packing up and moving once a year. But now that I’m older, having stability—especially after the radical changes this past year have brought—is extremely important to me. The last thing I want to do is cross state lines again—especially since I’ve finally adjusted to living in Denver.

“Don’t worry, it won’t be for another six years.”

I pointed out the obvious fact that I’m no longer in my 30s and can’t just walk into another job like I used to be able to. In six years I will be at an age that even with my impeccable skill set and piles of kudos from previous employers, finding work in my chosen profession might be prove difficult. While my current job is far from ideal, it’s still a job, relatively secure (or at least as secure as any job in this economy), providing a steady income with benefits paid. There are millions of Americans out there still desperately searching for what I have, and I’m not exactly sure I’m willing to give that up—especially as I get older—just so Ben—as much as I love him—can become a professional student.

Would You Want to Survive the End of Civilization?

An interesting question for the five or so followers I have who actually leave comments:

Let’s say the end of the world as we know it is coming — but someone offers you a priceless spot in their guaranteed-to-be-safe bunker, so you can be one of the chosen few who rebuilds the Earth. Would you want to survive, and emerge into the post-apocalyptic wasteland? Would the positives of playing a role in a new society outweigh the loss of creature comforts? Or would you rather just go out with the  majority of the human race? (Source.)

My answer? Not just no, but hell no—especially if my loved ones were gone.

We Are the Aliens

Stop and think about that for a minute.  We are the aliens to any other planetary civilizations in our glittering night skies. Keeping that in mind, is our behavior toward our fellow human beings really something we’d like to be projecting outward to potential galactic neighbors?

Human beings are killing each other over skin color and god myths, and have been for most of our history. God myths! Is it any wonder we haven’t heard from anyone out there? If we can’t even accept each other’s differences, how the hell would anyone who might be listening in and aware of our existence—no doubt beings far different than us—expect to be welcomed here with open arms? Is our brutality toward each other really the first impression we want to put forward?

Unfortunately it’s too late to change that. As the old axiom goes, “You’re never given a second chance to make a first impression,” and our planet’s first impression consisted of Nazi Propaganda

I’m sure—based on statistical probability alone—that the universe is teeming with what we would immediately recognize as intelligent life. But based on the radio and television signals that have spread out from our planet to a radius of eighty light years or so, I’m not surprised in the least that we haven’t heard a word back from anyone—much less had the proverbial flying saucer land on the White House lawn. I mean, would you want to make contact with a group of beings who have so little respect for their fellow creatures or their planet that it borders on insanity?

For all we know, there are galactic marker buoys surrounding our solar system warning potential visitors to avoid the third planet at all cost.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that human beings, despite all our science and technological innovations over the past five hundred years or so are aware of only a very, very small part of what is actually going on in this thing we label reality. Further, I also believe that at this stage in our evolution, if we were shown what truly lies behind the proverbial curtain, the our species would suffer a collective psychotic break…