the Search for ET

Microbic existence on Europa or DNA-strands etched into Martian fossils would be fascinating and profound in their implications. But the question that makes everyone tingle is the one about other civilization-building species.

Statistically, extraterrestrial life is almost a certainty. With upwards of 100 billion stars in each of upwards of 100 billion galaxies, the odds of life-bearing planets out there has a lot of 9’s in it; the question is about those that might host higher forms of auto-ambulatory life. It’s a question of time … waiting for an opposable thumb (or its analog) and the ability to solve abstract problems to arise in the same creature.

The oldest direct evidence we have for life on Earth consists of fossilized bacteria in 3½ billion-year-old rocks from Western Australia; these organisms were already quite advanced and must themselves have had a rich evolutionary history. Well, the Earth is just 4.6 billion years (GY) old, so, apparently, life established itself almost as soon as conditions permitted. That suggests that a biosphere is a relatively easy step for nature to take. If so, that would suggest the probability, rather than mere possibility, of life existing on planets exhibiting earthlike qualities in a benign relationship to a sun-like star. So we are, again, waiting for a thumb-using thinker.

Life appeared ~3.5GY ago, but multi-celled animal life didn’t appear until ~700 million years (MY) ago. This time lag (≤3GY) would suggest that the evolution of anything more complicated than a single cell is, if not unlikely, apparently difficult. If so, we can rule out planetary systems much younger than 4GY. Even if complex life always arises from simple life, given enough time, there is still no guarantee that intelligence and the ability to grasp tools will arise, let alone in the same species. Dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 140MY yet never exhibited either. It took us just 14MY to go from opposable thumbs to walking on the moon. Regardless of the inevitability of complex life forms on other planets, intelligent, tool-making life forms apparently are a chancy proposition.

Our galaxy is 100,000 light-years (LY) across, and contains ~100 billion stars. Let’s say that another advanced civilization is located 1,000LY from Earth (just 1% of the galactic diameter away), and is engaged in a search for other civilizations in the galaxy. Their view of Earth would be 1,000 years old. No RF or mWave emissions, no industrial pollutants in the atmosphere, no IR hot-spots (e.g., cities), no sign of technologically advanced civilizations because there are none[1]. The seasons would reveal the presence of flora. We would be tagged as a life-bearing world with no signs of technological life forms. To us, such a find would be a paradigm-bending discovery, but for a more advanced society, it may be yet another “life, but no civilization” discovery – added to a list of places to visit if ever in that area. Looking again at our own experience, the photosynthetic age lasted billions of years before fauna of any type appeared. It then took hundreds of millions of years to produce species with appendages that could grasp tools. Another few millions of years to structure-builders, and 10,000 years for the structure-builders to achieve a technological civilization. From 1,000LY away, Earth would look the same in 1000AD as it did in 1000BC, or 600,000,000BC, and no way to know which.

Our star is main-sequence of average-to-small size, is 5GY old, and has about 7GY of burnable fuel left. This, in a 13GY-old galaxy. We can rule out any first generation stars as having sired civilizations because until the first supernova, there was nothing heavier than hydrogen and trace amounts of helium free of stellar cores with which to build planets. It would take many, many novae to produce enough heavy ejecta to allow for metallic, rocky planets, supporting a rich, complex chemistry on their surface. Since only ~10% of main-sequence stars, and ~60% of the 30% of all stars that are non-main-sequence, are large enough to nova upon dying, we can probably eliminate the first 5GY or so of star formation as candidates for planets containing the right elements to permit complex chemistry. So the “life permitting” galaxy is ~7GY old. That potentially gives some other stars around a 2GY head start on us. Would that make any life on these planets two billion years more advanced than we are? We just don’t know. We don’t know how long it takes to go from CO2-breathers to complex organisms that metabolize oxygen, only how long it took on Earth. As I said earlier, the step from single-celled to multi-celled seems to be the one that nature doesn’t take easily. Or if she does, and it, for whatever reason, took much longer on Earth, other civilizations may be considerably more than 2GY advanced. We just don’t know.

Our first use of wireless telegraphy (i.e., electromagnetic broadcast of an organized signal) was in 1894, meaning that Earth isn’t really technologically interesting until one gets inside of 115LY of us (at which point we would become a weak pulsar – atypical behavior for a planet – as the signal emanating from New York City sweeps past the observer). As an observer moves closer, signal sources begin popping up from multiple locations, strength increases and signal complexity begins increasing. Inside about 70LY, mWave signals join the RF as sporadic television transmissions begin, again increasing in sources, strength and complexity as one nears Earth. At some point around 80LY out, it would become obvious that these signals originate from an advanced civilization.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has scanned for any emission signatures of a signal ranging from 1027W (the total power output of a sunlike star) to that of a galaxy (~1038W) out to ~40 million LY. Nothing. Civilizations having our broadcast ability[2] have been excluded out to ~800LY. What this means is that any source we’re looking at lacked a broadcasting technology a number of years ago equal to their distance in light years. In other words, a star system 100LY away did not host a broadcasting civilization 100 years ago, else we could detect those signals now. This tells us that any civilization at least as advanced as we are is further away than it is advanced – that is, they are not both sufficiently advanced and close enough to be communicable.

If speed-of-light communication is barren for 800LY, and increasingly impractical from there out, physical contact is even more improbable. To replicate the frequency of “credible” UFO reports, one of three conditions must be met: either a society sent out scores of waves of explorers to Earth without hearing back from the first wave; or scores of civilizations have somewhat simultaneously achieved the capability to visit Earth, and are somewhat simultaneously doing so; or, an exponentially advanced culture has mastered post-photo velocities and is able to get here without hitting anything (a feat that not even light itself can muster). Possible? Yes, but like a monkey typing out Shakespeare by random key-strokes, not in the least probable. All of this without even discussing the enormous economic commitment.

In my view, ET is out there, but, like us, is lacking the means to contact other advanced civilizations. Because the available breeding grounds for civilization are bunched into a relatively narrow band of time and conditions, I believe the progress of those resultant civilizations to be relatively parallel. We have as good a statistical chance of being someone else’s ET as someone else has to become ours.

This conversation is probably occurring in every galaxy.


[1] Newly united Britain is Saxon (the Normans haven’t invaded yet), but a united Europe did not survive Charlemagne, and is reverting to localized duchies (what will become France and Germany). The Abbasid dynasty out of Baghdad has just begun the Muslimizing of Punjab. The Mayan Empire is in full bloom.

[2] Arecibo’s potential 1011W signal is the best we’ve got.

Looking at 2010

The unpopularity of the current Congress and the history of off-year elections tell us that Republicans will make gains in both Houses in the 2010s. Both Houses will remain under Democrat control, but both Houses will lose their ability to run roughshod over opposing views. In retrospect, this is almost entirely attributable to the town hall meetings, which blindsided House Members as they encountered voters during the August recess[1]. The surprising turnout, and media dismissal of the participants, highlighted the arrogance and out-of-touchness of Members and further angered citizens who had genuine concerns about what the healthcare legislation would actually do, as opposed to what we were being told it would do. The visceral takeaway from the summer was that “the people” represent an annoying speed bump complicating Members’ ability to “do the peoples’ business”.

It can (and will) be argued that these mid-terms are a referendum on President Obama, and to a degree all mid-terms contain a bit of a vote of confidence on the sitting president. But these elections are unusually focused on voter anger at their Congressional representatives. There has been some degradation in the president’s popularity (Gallup dipped below 50% for the first time last week), but the Real Clear Politics average still shows a 50.6% approval rating (with 43.4% disapproval and 6% with no opinion). Contrast that with Congress’s RCP average of 27% approval, 64.3% disapproval and 8.7% undecided[2]. Healthcare, Congress’s top priority, polls at 44.3% approve, 48% disapprove, and 7.7% not sure. That proportion has been relatively stable (with a slight drifting toward disapproval) since late September[3].

As of this writing, Republican gains in the House will only serve to make that body even more contentious – the actual balance of power will not be affected, although Democrats’ ability to act unilaterally will be severely curtailed. The power shift will take place in the Senate. Control of the Senate will remain in Democrat hands, but they assuredly will lose their 60-vote supermajority. This fact alone will mandate Republican input on future legislation and deliberations. Harry Reid’s ability to get away with locking his door and writing major legislation to be presented as take-it-or-leave-it will end[4].

Democrats will retain 41 seats (Republicans 21) because those seats aren’t up this election cycle. Given Vice President Biden’s tie-breaking vote, Democrats need only win nine of their nineteen contested seats to retain control, and they are running ten reasonably secure incumbents. By contrast, the Republicans would have to win thirty seats to take the Senate, which would require holding all nineteen of their own seats plus capturing eleven seats currently held by Democrats[5]. That’s not going to happen unless there is a complete Democrat collapse.

I see the Republicans picking up three to six seats in the Senate, and while that may seem a small gain, it would represent a disproportionately large influence on the workings of the Senate. Look at how vehemently Senate leadership has had to court Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu (who isn’t up in 2010) and Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln (who is) on healthcare, and that’s because of the delicacy of having exactly 60 votes. The majority whip looks around and counts the Democrats that will be lost (moderates) and the Republicans they will get (moderates), and calculates how many Members (if any) must be won-over to get the vote. The fact that the Democrats must keep all of their moderates is a tribute to minority leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) ability to keep all Republicans in line. Add three to six minority seats to this, and the majority would have to work with the opposition to get anything to the floor for a vote.


[1] It’s no secret that this exactly why the White House was pressing for healthcare reform (as it was still called at the time) to get through both Houses before the August recess. That this legislation was unpopular among the people was known, but the degree of the unpopularity surprised everyone.

[2] The presidential polls covered the period between November 9 and 19, and included Gallup, Rasmussen, FOX News, CBS News, CNN, Quinnipiac and ABC News. The congressional polls covered the period between November 5 and 18, and included FOX News, CBS News, AP and Gallup.

[3] Healthcare data from pollster.com, which averages Quinnipiac, CBS News, ABC News, AP, Pew, Zogby, CNN, ABC News, FOX News, Harris, and YouGov, and is current to November 16.

[4] Harry Reid’s having a door to lock may well end, as early polls show Reid losing handily to either of two second-tier GOP candidates, real estate developer and son of a legendary basketball coach Danny Tarkanian and GOP state chair Sue Lowden, the likely eventual nominee. Yet the long-term incumbent can’t be written off. Senator Reid has raised more than $11 million and is already running television. He will almost certainly set a spending record for Nevada, and will have every resource the Obama White House can supply him.

[5] Also, Democrats are benefiting from the equal split of Senate seats up in 2010. Even though Democrats have a large majority of senators, it just so happens that both Democrats and Republicans are defending 19 seats each in the mid-terms, which makes it exceedingly difficult for the GOP to gain enough seats to capture the Senate.

Inscrutable

Just to set the record straight, President Obama, not Attorney General Holder, has decided to move the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trials[1] to New York’s Southern District. When he moved responsibility for the trials from DoD to DoJ and issued an executive order to stop all military tribunals (including KSM’s), that decision was made. Had General Holder decided to move the trials to New York and President Obama not approved, he would have stopped it. Holder works for Obama. It’s not like military tribunals are being eliminated – the USS Cole bombers are to continue in their tribunals at Guantánamo.

We hear much about the poetic justice of it all – convicting these bad actors in what would have been the shadow of one of their targets. But there are real concerns about the move that have only been tangentially addressed: security, defendants’ rights, outcomes, and the precedents it will set.

Security

There is no question that New York City is the most security-conscious municipality in country. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is a first-rate law enforcement commander, and the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority and other first responders in New York are the finest in the world. The question then becomes, can these trials be made at least as secure as they would be at Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo Bay? The answer is no. Will there be a KSM-trial associated attack in New York because of the move? Probably not (which is another way to say “maybe”). Would there be a KSM-trial associated attack at Camp X-Ray? No. The point then becomes why move the trials at any cost to security? What is gained to offset the inescapable uptick in risk? We have not been told … only that it will uphold American values to have the trials in civilian courts rather than by military tribunal. President Obama has cited the Nuremburg Trials as an example. Two problems – those trials were, in fact, military tribunals; and, they were held after Nazi Germany had been destroyed. They could have been held in the streets of Nuremburg without risk[2].

Rights

The biggest logistical problem raised by the move is that once KSM and his cohort reaches American shores, they assume the same constitutional rights that you and I have. Just why they should be accorded these rights has not been seriously addressed by the administration. The problems thus raised are not trivial. Virtually all of the most damning evidence (including all physical evidence) is inadmissible under civilian jurisprudence. These terrorists were not Mirandized upon capture (which themselves were warrantless), and their containment and interrogation was unconstitutional (under civilian law). Anything rising from those interrogations is considered “fruit of the poisoned tree”. We have already been told (by Holder and Obama) that they will not be released under any circumstances. Preventive detention, which is a regular feature of military tribunals, is non-existent in civilian law, meaning that either the trials themselves are moot, or they are prepared to engage in extra-constitutional punishment (either of which represents a distinct break from “American values”).

Outcomes

Remember when President Nixon almost derailed the Charles Manson trial by pronouncing him guilty? Well, President Obama just did the same thing in an interview with Fox News’s Major Garret[3] when he unequivocally pronounced that these defendants would be found guilty. Hearing that from some talking head is one thing, hearing it from the guy who the Justice Department works for is quite another[4]. Another aspect that has not been addressed by the administration is that KSM had agreed to plead guilty to the military tribunal, making verdicts and sentences[5] a fait accompli. Now, however, with New York as a backdrop and the world watching, guilty pleas are unlikely at best. A media circus is assured. And verdict and penalty are anything but (think OJ). These trials (and the media coverage of them) will put the Bush administration and CIA on trial, with KSM and his cohort as hapless victims. That’s the picture that will be transmitted to the rest of the world, in particular the Muslim world.

Precedents

Yesterday (Wednesday, November 18) Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked General Holder how many other enemy combatants, captured on foreign soil, have ever been tried in our civilian courts. Holder was unable to answer, so Graham answered for him, “None, sir. None.” The point is more than rhetorical; there is no precedent for doing what we about to do, which normally requires extraordinary justification, and, more importantly, sets future precedent in international law. General Holder is claiming that Mohammed is to be tried under the US criminal code for actions planned in Afghanistan but carried out by others on American soil. It is a defensible position, but where does this leave American intelligence planners working at CIA headquarters for actions carried out by others in a third country? Are they subject to prosecution in that third country? Those captured in the third country clearly are, but the claim here is that Mohammed is subject to prosecution under US laws for actions carried out by others in the United States. And that creates an undefined reciprocal liability. We can have every banana republic try to kidnap (warrantless captures) American intelligence officers wherever the find them (for trial), or we can simply refuse the claims from other nations for reciprocity. Neither prospect particularly highlights “American values”.

Add to the above unanswered questions of practical application, these trials will cost between $70 and $100 million with no reduction in the cost of running Guantánamo. More debt for no appreciable gain (KSM and accomplices remaining tribunals were essentially pro forma, given the guilty pleas).

This is the most baffling decision yet by an administration whose daily activity seems to challenge credulity.

My thanks to George Friedman[6], Ben West and Fred Burton of STRATFOR for their assistance in preparing this article.


[1] The other four terrorists having their trials moved to New York City are Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul-Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. All involved in the “Planes Operation”, KSM’s name for the September 11 attacks.

[2] Not to mention that three were acquitted (Franz von Papen, Dr Hjalmar Schacht, and Hans Fritzsche) and one outlived his sentence (Albert Speer) and was released.

[3] Wednesday, November 18 2009, Special Report, 6PM.

[4] All US attorneys work “at the pleasure of the President”.

[5] Since the other four worked for KSM, his guilty plea can be used in a military tribunal as de facto evidence against them.

[6] Chairman, Strategic Forecasting Incorporated (STRATFOR), dubbed by Barron’s as “The Shadow CIA,” it’s one of the world’s leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor’s clients include Fortune 500 companies and major governments.

Stress Crack or Sabotage?

The lamestream press, and those who don’t see rabid Islamism as being at war with us, are busy making excuses for why a US Army major would open fire in a room crowded with unarmed soldiers ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress of getting a free medical education (with a specialty in psychiatry), taking residency at one of the world’s finest teaching hospitals (Walter Reed – where presidents are routinely treated), being promoted to field grade without foreign deployment, and being assigned to America’s largest, best-equipped military base (Ft Hood TX) apparently got to him. After all, he was about to be shipped to Afghanistan – in a non-combat, supportive role of course … he’s a shrink not a medic.

Nidal Malik Hasan, American born and raised, and his family attended the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church [VA], pastored at the time by Imam (teacher) Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim radical who proclaims (then as now) Islam and America to be mortal enemies. But, as our president has assured us, even 20 years in the pews of a raving, hate-spewing pastor won’t influence one’s outlook on life. It’s just an unhappy coincidence that Imam al-Awlaki also pastored to Nawaf al-Hazmi and Hani Hanjour (two of the hijackers) months before September 11 2001, or that Major Hasan held his mother’s funeral at Dar al Hijrah, or that Imam al-Awlaki (who in 2002 fled to his parents’ native Yemen) blogged four days after the shooting that “Nidal Hasan did the right thing”.

In 2008, Major Hasan gave a PowerPoint presentation at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences [Bethesda MD] justifying suicide bombings and stipulated that shari’ah (Islamic law) trumped the US Constitution[1]. He regularly told classmates he was “a Muslim first and an American second.” At least six months ago, someone claiming to be Nidal Hasan came to the attention of law enforcement officials because of internet postings about suicide bombings and other threats, including posts that equated suicide bombers to soldiers who throw themselves on a grenade to save the lives of their comrades.

Major Hasan was mentoring 18-year-old Duane Reasoner Jr in the ways of Islam. On Wednesday, the night before the shooting, Hasan said he “didn’t want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Reasoner, who was raised as a Catholic. “He didn’t want to be deployed. He said Muslims shouldn’t be in the US military, because obviously Muslims shouldn’t kill Muslims. He told me not to join the Army[2].”

Over a period of at least two years, Major Hasan corresponded via eMail with Imam al-Awlaki (the content of those eMails is currently being examined by federal authorities). According to multiple surviving witnesses, Major Hasan shouted Allahu Akbar (God is Great!, a standard battlecry of Islamist terrorists, and the last intelligible remarks coming from the cockpit of flight 93 as it went down in Pennsylvania) as he opened fire.

Is Major Hasan just a taco short of a combo meal? Did he snap from the hitherto unknown aliment of Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome? Or should we take him at his word?


[1] Gordon Lubold, What is known about Nidal Malik Hasan and Fort Hood shooting, in Christian Science Monitor, November 6 2009.

[2] Bob Drogin and Faye Fiore, Retracing steps of suspected Fort Hood shooter, in Los Angeles Times, November 7 2009, p. A1.

a Look Inward

I am a Paleo-Liberal in the Washingtonian, Jeffersonian, Madisonian, Hamiltonian sense … certainly not a Neo-Liberal in the paternalistic, condescending, royalist sense of both “big government” political parties of today. The pathology of the American experiment is a meritocracy – to allow people to gain or fail according to their abilities within the law. This requires an enlightened polity – both in the ways of living in their times as well as in the matters of State. If the people are to govern, they must be capable of governing. We have grown complacent in our prosperity, and that complacency has allowed a ruling class to gestate.

Consider the arrogance of the legislators as they are fully prepared to usurp 23% of the national economy against the will of the people. It’s not a question of whether, under the rules, they can do it – they can – it’s a question of who works for whom. Our ruling class is ignoring the concerns of their constituents, and is prepared to take over healthcare and energy, as they already have financials and carmakers. Not one of the major programs undertaken by the federal government in the last year would have passed a referendum of the people – not the bailouts (banks and carmakers), not the “stimulus” package, not cash-for-clunkers, not the homebuyers’ rebate, not cap-and-trade, not healthcare … none of it.

We (the people) are on a greased slope back to serfdom[1].

Once in power, people become addicted to power. It’s human nature. Virtually any new government authority they grant themselves is at our direct expense … liberty – freedom of action – is a zero-sum game. This, again, points to the wisdom of our Founders, who envisioned a steady rotation between governors and governed, not a professional political class. And if you were to read the Constitution, you will see that it spells out the powers of government and (in the Tenth Amendment) specifies that those powers not so enumerated are left to the States and to the people, respectively. The whole idea of the American experiment was to limit government and allow the people to move freely.

A case in point is the crew of the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot Minneapolis by 150 miles or so because they were using their laptops in a discussion about crew scheduling. Congress is now considering banning the use of laptops in the cockpit. These guys have already lost their pilot’s licenses and their careers in aviation are effectively over. Punishment rendered. A law prohibiting what is already a bad idea is hardly necessary, but is consistent with the current overbearing ruling class we have spawned. To try and outlaw all bad outcomes is to increasingly outlaw freedom.


[1] If this Congress has its way, more than half of all voters will no longer pay income taxes, immunizing them against future tax hikes.

AfPak and Obama

President Obama’s Afghan options may be complex, but the choice is simple – prevent Afghanistan and [perhaps] Pakistan from becoming sanctuaries for international terrorism, or lose the war. Those are the stakes. Mr Obama sent his general into the “good war” with his strategy, and General McCrystal has issued a report-based request for assets to carry out that strategy. That was in August. President Obama still hasn’t acted on that request, at first stating that he needed to “rethink” [his own?] strategy. Then it was that he wanted to wait until after Afghanistan’s re-run of their corruption-riddled election. Who knows what it will be now. Robert Gibbs is still saying “the decision is weeks away.”

If you’re predisposed to take the President at his word, he profoundly misunderstands who General McCrystal is and what he is telling him. If you’re not so predisposed, the only rational explanation is that he’s mollifying his far-Left base by delaying the decision as long as possible, or he’s intellectually paralyzed by the decision.

The options can be simplified as the “McCrystal Plan” (counterinsurgency – COIN), the “Biden Plan” (counterterrorism), or some mix of the two. The most important aspect of the McCrystal Plan is who it comes from – General McCrystal was in charge of counterterrorism in Iraq. He’s an expert in it. After being on the ground in Afghanistan, he counsels against his specialty and in favor of COIN. With sanctuaries in Pakistan, he says, classical counterterrorism (killing bad guys and rolling-up their infrastructure) isn’t practical if we are not allowed to carry out “hot pursuit” missions (pierce Pakistani sovereignty with combat operations). We must instead gain the trust and respect of the Afghan people, train their forces to be effective, and give their government the security to mature. Classical COIN. These two philosophies are mutually exclusive in how they staff, equip, train, and operate. You could conceivably do both (with many, many more troops than the McCrystal Plan), but any “compromise” position will only sabotage both efforts. More troops and investment for worse results.

Again, if you are predisposed to take the President at his word, he profoundly misunderstands the relationship of the host government to COIN operations. If you are not so predisposed, he’s just delaying, or he’s intellectually paralyzed by the decision. For sporadic terror attacks to rise to the level of an insurgency (which requires the support – at least the acquiescence – of the people), the host government is de facto dysfuntionsl, incompetent, and probably corrupt. The first priority of the counterinsurgent is to gain the confidence of the people – make them less afraid of you then they are of the insurgents – and that’s done by providing security for the people against reprisals by the insurgents. Then you work to form (or reform) local governments to serve local needs. Then you work with the national government to become something the people want to defend against the insurgents. You can’t start by waiting for a national government “worthy” of your effort. That’s the last step. The process and result of the Afghan election are irrelevant to the COIN effort in that country.

Administration comments tying the competency of the election to the decision to commit troops are non-sequitur.

General McCrystal told the president that the war will take a long time to win, but it could be lost in a year. The amount of time it takes between tasking a maneuver unit to Afghanistan and getting that unit into Afghanistan eats most of that year (were the decision made in August). The president is burning time he doesn’t have.