Men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words.

J.R.R. Tolkien


h/t Cookie Crumbs to Live By


The Great Filter

Here’s some brain exercise this morning, for any interested.

One of the most fascinating scientific puzzles is the Fermi Paradox. Given that there are billions of habitable planets in our galaxy, then why haven’t we seen evidence of any advanced alien civilizations? Even if complex life evolved on only a very small percentage of those planets, the odds are that there should be a great number of civilizations capable by now of interstellar communication/travel. So, where are they?

There are lots of suggested answers to this paradox, ranging from the simple (the Rare Earth hypothesis says that the evolution of complex life is so exceedingly unlikely that it may have occurred nowhere else) to the fantastic (the zoo hypothesis, for example, says that advanced alien civilizations shield themselves from us as they observe us, zoo-like).

Assuming the more likely scenario–the reason we haven’t heard from advanced alien civilizations is that they don’t exist–scientists posit that there must be some “Great Filter,” that is, that somewhere on the road from simple to exceedingly complex life, there is a wall which cannot be crossed, or which extinguishes life before it reaches the most advanced technological stage.

This Great Filter may be either behind us, or ahead of us. If it is behind us, then we’ve presumably cleared the great improbable hurdle and are the first (or only) complex life in the galaxy (there are some other possibilities that I’m discarding for simplicity sake). But maybe the Great Filter lies ahead of us. That argument supposes that while there may be many alien civilizations that reach our level of advancement, some catastrophe or obstacle prevents them from ever reaching the most advanced stage. Thus Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that if we should find evidence of extinct complex life on Mars (for example) that would be “by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover,” because it would mean the Great Filter lies ahead of us.

The most interesting proposed answers to the Paradox reject the notion that the seeming absence of contact with advanced alien civilizations means they don’t exist. Proponents of these hypotheses (including, for example, those who favor the zoo hypothesis), have come up with a fascinating list of possible explanations for why we aren’t in contact with advanced alien civilizations. While the hypotheses are bizarre, they eliminate the question of any “Great Filter.”

Here are 10 of them, taken from this  highly recommended article:

Group 2 explanations get rid of any notion that we’re rare or special or the first at anything—on the contrary, they believe in the Mediocrity Principle, whose starting point is that there is nothing unusual or rare about our galaxy, solar system, planet, or level of intelligence, until evidence proves otherwise. They’re also much less quick to assume that the lack of evidence of higher intelligence beings is evidence of their nonexistence—emphasizing the fact that our search for signals stretches only about 100 light years away from us (0.1% across the galaxy) and suggesting a number of possible explanations. Here are 10:

Possibility 1) Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000 years, a little blip of time. If contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it. Further, recorded history only goes back 5,500 years—a group of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes may have experienced some crazy alien shit, but they had no good way to tell anyone in the future about it.

Possibility 2) The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy. The Americas may have been colonized by Europeans long before anyone in a small Inuit tribe in far northern Canada realized it had happened. There could be an urbanization component to the interstellar dwellings of higher species, in which all the neighboring solar systems in a certain area are colonized and in communication, and it would be impractical and purposeless for anyone to deal with coming all the way out to the random part of the spiral where we live.

Possibility 3) The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species. Remember the picture of the Type II Civilization above with the sphere around their star? With all that energy, they might have created a perfect environment for themselves that satisfies their every need. They might have crazy-advanced ways of reducing their need for resources and zero interest in leaving their happy utopia to explore the cold, empty, undeveloped universe.

An even more advanced civilization might view the entire physical world as a horribly primitive place, having long ago conquered their own biology and uploaded their brains to a virtual reality, eternal-life paradise. Living in the physical world of biology, mortality, wants, and needs might seem to them the way we view primitive ocean species living in the frigid, dark sea. FYI, thinking about another life form having bested mortality makes me incredibly jealous and upset.

Possibility 4) There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location. This is an unpleasant concept and would help explain the lack of any signals being received by the SETI satellites. It also means that we might be the super naive newbies who are being unbelievably stupid and risky by ever broadcasting outward signals. There’s a debate going on currently about whether we should engage in METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence—the reverse of SETI) or not, and most people say we should not. Stephen Hawking warns, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Even Carl Sagan (a general believer that any civilization advanced enough for interstellar travel would be altruistic, not hostile) called the practice of METI “deeply unwise and immature,” and recommended that “the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.” Scary.

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—that is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move—because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Possibility 6) There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. Like walking into a modern-day office building, turning on a walkie-talkie, and when you hear no activity (which of course you wouldn’t hear because everyone’s texting, not using walkie-talkies), determining that the building must be empty. Or maybe, as Carl Sagan has pointed out, it could be that our minds work exponentially faster or slower than another form of intelligence out there—e.g. it takes them 12 years to say “Hello,” and when we hear that communication, it just sounds like white noise to us.

Possibility 7) We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. The more I learn about the topic, the more this seems like an idiotic theory, but I had to mention it because it’s talked about so much.

Possibility 8) Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”). As far as we know, super-intelligent civilizations exist in a tightly-regulated galaxy, and our Earth is treated like part of a vast and protected national park, with a strict “Look but don’t touch” rule for planets like ours. We wouldn’t notice them, because if a far smarter species wanted to observe us, it would know how to easily do so without us realizing it. Maybe there’s a rule similar to the Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” which prohibits super-intelligent beings from making any open contact with lesser species like us or revealing themselves in any way, until the lesser species has reached a certain level of intelligence.

Possibility 9) Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them. Michio Kakusums it up like this:

Let’s say we have an anthill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the anthill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”

So it’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

Along those lines, this may also be an answer to “Well if there are so many fancy Type III Civilizations, why haven’t they contacted us yet?” To answer that, let’s ask ourselves—when Pizarro made his way into Peru, did he stop for a while at an anthill to try to communicate? Was he magnanimous, trying to help the ants in the anthill? Did he become hostile and slow his original mission down in order to smash the anthill apart? Or was the anthill of complete and utter and eternal irrelevance to Pizarro? That might be our situation here.

Possibility 10) We’re completely wrong about our reality. There are a lot of ways we could just be totally off with everything we think. The universe might appear one way and be something else entirely, like a hologram. Or maybe we’re the aliens and we were planted here as an experiment or as a form of fertilizer. There’s even a chance that we’re all part of a computer simulation by some researcher from another world, and other forms of life simply weren’t programmed into the simulation.

For any fellow nerds who made it this far, may you have a pleasant day, free of Great Filters.


When I went out to open the chicken coop this morning I saw two deer standing neck-deep in the clover crop of one of our resting gardens. And that’s OK by me. As long as they’re eating clover they’re not eating broccoli.

My decision to reduce the size of our gardens was in part to enable us to better protect against deer.  After putting up our usual electrified net fencing around the spring garden, I added another fence about 2-3 feet around the perimeter of the interior fence. I’m told that deer have poor depth perception and aren’t as likely to jump a double fence. And every few days I’ve been spraying deer repellent (a concoction whose principal ingredient is rotten eggs) around the edge of the fence. So far so good.

While I’m going to return most of the retired garden space to grass, I intend to keep a couple of the plots sowed in deer-food cover crops, in the hope that they’ll focus on those rather than our people-food gardens.

As much as I complain about deer and the damage they do around here, I should add that they are an important part of our food self-reliance. I haven’t eaten any red meat in well over ten years now, other than venison. In fact I got out some ground venison to thaw overnight in anticipation of tacos for lunch.

So while I grumble and fret about feeding the deer, the truth is that they feed me too.


I finished planting our summer gardens yesterday, just as the rain began. The timing turned out to be perfect. It rained most of the night, turning the soil to mud. I haven’t checked the gauge yet this morning, but I suspect last night’s downpour puts us close to 10 inches over the past two weeks.

I planted:

Italian eggplant
Asian eggplant
Acorn squash
Hubbard squash
German Johnson tomatoes
Sweet corn
Bell peppers
Banana peppers
Butternut squash
Spaghetti squash
Zephyr summer squash
Yellow straightneck squash
Safari zucchini
Roma tomatoes
Green Beans (Roma variety)
Black Beans
Cantaloupes (Hale’s Best)
Watermelons (Crimson Sweet)

Tomorrow is opening day of our principal farmers market, so I’ll spend most of today picking and cleaning veggies. In the mud. I’m looking forward to it.

The Rat Race

Back in 1948 researchers at Yale University did a series of now-famous experiments on lab rats. In one they placed two rats in cages, inside of which was a button that would release a food pellet when pressed. One of the rats in the cage had been deprived of food a while and was very hungry. The other was satiated.

When the rats were put in the cage, the satiated rat just went into a corner and took a nap. But the hungry rat frantically searched the cage, desperately seeking food. Eventually the hungry rat pressed the food-button and subsequently it figured out that pressing the button generated the food. Of course the satiated rat didn’t learn that skill, because it didn’t need to search for food.

Hearing this discussed on a podcast recently has me thinking about how adversity can act as a motivator.

Might a person who grows up poor, for example, be more motivated to achieve than if that same person had grown up wealthy? It seems to me that may often be the case.

Of course I’m not suggesting that the desire to improve the condition/lifestyle of oneself and one’s children is the only motivator for hard work, creativity and thereby progress and economic growth. Intellectual curiosity, personal satisfaction from work and gain, and even megalomania, among other things, could have that same effect. But undoubtedly the desire to move from poverty to middle class and from middle class to upper class has historically been a motivator in our society.

If we ever achieve a society in which all our basic needs are assured (whether we work or not), I wonder how that will effect our collective work ethic? Will it even matter?

I realize that at an individual level there could be wide variety of different responses. I felt strongly motivated to succeed/improve when I was growing up and we were what would now be considered poor. So maybe I was like the hungry rat. But now, even though I might arguably be compared to the satiated rat, after working until past nine last night I’m up early this morning in order to try to finish planting our summer gardens ahead of the rain forecast for later today.

My guess is that if we ever become a society of satiated rats, plenty of us who might otherwise be working hard to make a living, will take naps instead. On the other hand, some of us, despite not being motivated by fear and necessity, will nevertheless continue to work hard and innovate.

But as much as I urge people to seek and experience contentment, and as strongly as I believe doing so on a wide-scale will be beneficial to humanity, we’ve never had a society that could be uniformly and justifiably content. I do wonder about the negative consequences that might come along with that.



The spring round of kidding seems to be over on White Flint Farm. There are a few mamas who haven’t kidded, but from the looks of them they weren’t bred. Everyone else has given birth.


As I’ve mentioned before, kid mortality can be very high in Boers. We’ve had years when it was as high as 50%. In that regard this season was extraordinary.  We had 23 births and 22 of them were alive. Only one required post-natal intervention (she was hypothermic) and she quickly recovered.


Unfortunately it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We lost five kids to coyotes. I’ve been worried about that happening ever since our Great Pyr guard dog died, but we’ve been reluctant to replace him. Over the next few years we had no trouble, so I quit worrying so much about it. The timing of their return causes me to believe that our horse Rowan (who died this winter) must have been keeping them away. Once we realized what was happening I’ve solved the problem (temporarily) by locking the kids in the barn at night. We’re working on other solutions too.


The perpetrator. My enemy.

But, returning to the bright side, we now have 17 healthy happy and playful kids in our main pasture–always a joy to see.


On the Road Again


When I left my law job for full-time life on the farm, one of the things I intended to do was take lots of weekend day-trips, partly to compensate for the loss of long vacations, which farm life doesn’t permit. But that never really panned out. We did give up our two-week vacations, but we added very few day-trips. The best time for hiking and sightseeing is when the weather is warm, and when the weather is warm there’s a seemingly endless list of farm work that needs doing. So while we did (and still do) take long post-supper walks most days, we rarely left the farm.

For years I’ve been resolving to do day-trips on Sundays, but it never seemed to happen. But with three under our belt in April I’m hoping we finally have the momentum to make them a regular part of our life.

A couple of weeks ago we visited Natural Bridge. It’s only two hours from here, but I’d never been. A stunningly beautiful place, the bridge has been carved out by a gentle creek, patiently over a couple of million years.


To get a sense of the size of this, notice the people standing beneath it.

There is a living history Indian village in the park. I was very interested to see how they made their roofs and fences.




Afterwards we visited the Natural Bridge Caverns, also a first for me, then made a quick stop in Lexington, home of Washington and Lee University, the Virginia Military Institute, and a lot of fascinating history.

On Sunday, April 9, a friend and I visited Appomattox Battlefield National Park, on the 152nd anniversary of the battle and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. The surrender occurred on Palm Sunday, and this year was only the 7th time since then that the anniversary has fallen on Palm Sunday.

Cherie isn’t much interested in military history, but she was out of town, so I visited with a childhood friend. He and I have been fascinated with local and Civil War history since our boyhood days, so visiting with him was a lot of fun.

It was a gorgeous day, perfect for the event. We were impressed with the skill and knowledge of the park historians, and we attended several of their talks. There was also an impressive group of re-enactors present. Despite the beautiful weather, and the historic anniversary, I’d estimate there were no more than a few hundred people in the park that day, with only a few dozen at each of the talks we attended.





The place has some special meaning for my family. My grandfather’s grandfather and his brother were paroled here, being among the handful of their original company who survived the entire war. It’s actually something of a wonder that I’m here to tell about it.

The previous Sunday we traveled part of a driving tour of the “lost communities” of southern Virginia, created as part of a larger project called the Lost Communities of Virginia. We discovered lots of interesting places right in our back yard, but came nowhere near finishing the tour. We plan to take it up again soon.

We had a picnic lunch at the nearby Staunton River Battlefield Park.  Here the Battle of Staunton River Bridge (often called the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys) was fought in June, 1864. With a force of 5,000 Federal cavalry bearing down on the bridge, intent on severing a vital lifeline to Richmond and other parts north, the commander of the 300-man unit protecting the bridge issued an urgent call for local volunteers. Four hundred and ninety two old men and young boys answered the call, arriving with whatever weapons they had. The makeshift defenders were able to repulse the Federal attacks.


We enjoyed hiking over the bridge (the current bridge uses the same supports but unlike its Civil War ancestor, it isn’t covered), as well as hiking the park’s nature trail. It was a beautiful way to spend an afternoon and we saw only two other people there.

I’m looking forward to more trips like these. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by lots of interesting destinations for lovers of nature and history. I’m determined to make the time to enjoy them.

And, after breaking our 12-year hiatus last year, we’ve booked tickets for another two-week trip to Europe this fall. As much as I love our quiet life on the farm, it’s good to start getting a little travel back into our lives too.