The Weekender, February 10, 2017

1) “I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It” (Observer, 10 minutes, February 2017). This is somewhat political in nature on its face, but that’s not why I’m sharing it. In fact, I don’t even know if the advice it offers is good advice. But the story within is amazing and his hypothetical future view of public discourse is also. (The author has a book on the subject, too; if you’re interested, you can pick that up here.)

In 2009, I helped sketch out a marketing campaign for an internet personality and blogger named Tucker Max. With a very limited advertising budget available for the independent movie he had written and produced, we had few options for getting the word out.

Maybe it was crazy but my thinking was that one of the best ways to get young men to go see a movie was to tell them they should not be allowed to see it.

[ . . . ]

After placing a series of offensive ads on buses and the metro, from my office I alternated between calling in angry complaints to the Chicago CTA and sending angry emails to city officials with reporters cc’d, until ‘under pressure,’ they announced that they would be banning our advertisements and returning our money. Then we put out a press release denouncing this cowardly decision.

I’ve never seen so much publicity. It was madness.

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3) “The Troll Taunter” (Backchannel, 10 minutes, February 2017). Caution: A lot of bad language in this one. It’s about a woman who volunteered to edit Wikipedia, only to find a lot of people taking aim at her because of her gender. So, she retaliated — every time someone took aim at her, “she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia.”

4) “The Fermi Paradox” (Wait But Why, 22 minutes, May 2014). A reader, Douglas H., sent this to me a month ago, but I was coincidentally thinking about Fermi estimations yesterday and — well, I won’t bore you with it. Let’s get to the actual story here. This is a long pull-quote, but it sets up the Paradox perfectly:

When confronted with the topic of stars and galaxies, a question that tantalizes most humans is, “Is there other intelligent life out there?” Let’s put some numbers to it—

As many stars as there are in our galaxy (100 – 400 billion), there are roughly an equal number of galaxies in the observable universe—so for every star in the colossal Milky Way, there’s a whole galaxy out there. All together, that comes out to the typically quoted range of between 1022 and 1024 total stars, which means that for every grain of sand on every beach on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there.

The science world isn’t in total agreement about what percentage of those stars are “sun-like” (similar in size, temperature, and luminosity)—opinions typically range from 5% to 20%. Going with the most conservative side of that (5%), and the lower end for the number of total stars (1022), gives us 500 quintillion, or 500 billion billion sun-like stars.

There’s also a debate over what percentage of those sun-like stars might be orbited by an Earth-like planet (one with similar temperature conditions that could have liquid water and potentially support life similar to that on Earth). Some say it’s as high as 50%, but let’s go with the more conservative 22% that came out of a recent PNAS study. That suggests that there’s a potentially-habitable Earth-like planet orbiting at least 1% of the total stars in the universe—a total of 100 billion billion Earth-like planets.

So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world. Think about that next time you’re on the beach.

Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite dish array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?


5) “When Things Go Missing” (New Yorker, 14 minutes, February 2017). This is just beautifully written — and impossible to excerpt. The author tells two stories, one of losing things — a wallet, her phone, and even her truck — and the science and mythology around it; and then does the same for her second story, about losing her father. Take the time to read it, you’ll not be disappointed.

6) “Dropped” (Grantland, 21 minutes, March 2014). The subhead should give you all the inspiration you need to click because it’s ridiculous: “Why did Anthony Gatto, the greatest juggler alive — and perhaps of all time — back away from his art to open a construction business?”

Have a great weekend!