Things to Be Surprised By

Since many sites have offered their predictions for 2015, rather than repeat them it might be better to list some sleeper issues which may have been widely ignored.

  • The student debt bomb could be about to explode. “Under the radar, maneuvers to avoid paying off loans are surging. ‘Forbearance’ has hit the $125 billion mark,” writes Jason deLisle in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Libyan ground war is “imminent”, predicts Bel Trew at Foreign Policy. “For three years, Libya has been without a functioning government, police force, or army. The country has been ripped apart by warring fiefdoms of ex-rebels who helped oust Qaddafi but have since directed politics with AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns. This summer, as the battle lines began to harden, two rival factions emerged to vie for control of Libya: On one side is the newly elected parliament that has been banished to the eastern city of Tobruk — supported by the fractured remains of Qaddafi soldiers who defected during the uprising, as well as regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side is Libya Dawn, a self-described revolutionary coalition of militiamen and Islamist-leaning politicians that originated in the western city of Misrata, allegedly backed by Turkey and Qatar.”
  • Here Comes The Saudi Dynasty Succession Crisis, writes Michael Kelly at the Business Insider.
  • Obama is overlooking deep trouble in Venezuela, writes Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post.  The former socialist paradise is becoming a failed state.
  • The Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal may tarnish Bill Clinton, sink Hillary.  Epstein story at the Daily Mail.
  • Retaking Mosul. American Special Forces are training Iraqis to go on the offensive aginst ISIS, retaking Mosul being the first step. Karen Leigh and Matt Bradley from the WSJ report.

  • The Palestinian Authority may dissolve itself for lack of funds and interest in actual governance, from the Jerusalem Post.
  • DC activists will lobby Obama for statehood. “D.C. Activists Urge Obama to Back Statehood in State of the Union,” says Byron Tau in the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Eurozone crisis is baaack, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the Daily Telegraph.
  • 2015 will be the year of “microaggression”, Katherine Timpf, the National Review. “according to a Princeton University student, joking about the way he pronounces ‘Cool Whip’ is a microaggression, and microaggressions are very serious because they cause binge drinking. In a column for The Daily Princetonian, Tennessee freshman Newby Parton explains that he is from an area where people pronounce their ‘wh’ sounds ‘hw,’ and that this has caused hardship in his life — such as having to endure people asking him to say ‘Cool Whip’.
  • A Russian Default, US market crash may be in the offing. Daniel Altman, Foreign Policy.

Those are but some things that may come at us from left field. We won’t know which of them is important until some time has passed.  In the longer term perspective what starts unnoticed in the current events often develops into a major issue over the years. Perhaps the biggest sleeper issue to emerge in 2014 was the growing catalog of exoplanets compiled by astronomers in nearby star systems.

Why is this important? For one thing it sheds light on the surprising importance of mistakes and the dangers of perfection in this world.

Rachel Feltman describes the spate of newly discoverd exoplanets in the Washington Post. “Twenty years after the first confirmed discovery of an exoplanet — a planet orbiting a major star, but not our own — these celestial bodies have really hit their stride. Last year broke records, with astronomers discovering over 800 alien planets in 2014 alone. But now that finding a new exoplanet has become old hat, astronomers are focusing on getting to know these alien worlds intimately, and learning how they form.” These astronomical developments suggest that planetary formation is relatively common and have existed on timescales suitable for life.


Another study presented at the same conference suggests that the oldest super-Earths may be the most likely to harbor life. Laura Schaefer of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used computer simulations to estimate how water might form and behave on a planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and found that (based on the evolutionary history of our own planet) life might have a slower start.

So on a super-Earth sized planet, she believes, it might take 5.5 billion years to cook up complex life — which is about a billion years longer than it took on Earth.

Our inability to detect life anywhere but on earth is a harsh reminder that survival is hard.  Yet we are alive, so how did we do it? The relative abundance of exoplanets heightens the problem posed by the Fermi Paradox to an unbearable degree. Our current biological models suggests that survival is relatively easy, and therefore life should be comparatively common in a place the size of the observable universe.   And yet “where is everybody?”

Some readers may recall that “the Fermi paradox … is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and humanity’s lack of contact with, or evidence for, such civilizations.” In the last century humanity knew it was alive in a known tree in a dark forest. Now that more light has filtered onto the scene we see at least 800 trees in our field of view and can reasonably guess that life, if formed according to accepted reasoning, should be found on some percentage of them. But we hear nothing, no sound in the expanding forest we now see.


The sheer number of exoplanets — the plethora of visible silent trees in the forest — deepens, rather than sheds light upon the problem. We must be missing something from our model because it predicts other observable life in abundance and yet we fail to observe even a single instance it.

Astrobiologist Andrew Snyder of Oxford says the silence is ominous for humanity.

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life.

What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of near-term human extinction. This is because of a concept known as the Great Filter.

The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens, despite the existence of hundreds of billions of solar systems in our galactic neighbourhood in which life might evolve?

The Great Filter conjecture is the big save for the our current theories, like an epicycle which keeps the mainstream model viable. It posits the existence of a major, self-induced limit to intelligent life, which otherwise would spread throughout the universe. In that view, the growing complexity so characteristic of intelligence also leads to a Catastrophe from which nothing has so far escaped. The result of burgeoning intelligence is inescapable death, a kind of information cancer.  The Great Filter is the flip side of the Tower of Knowledge.


Although Snyder doesn’t directly prove the existence of a filter he asks a different and contingent question: if the Great Filter exists, how would we know if we’re past it? He writes, “Might every sufficiently advanced civilisation stumble across a suicidal technology or unsustainable trajectory? We know that a Great Filter prevents the emergence of prosperous interstellar civilisations, but we don’t know whether or not it lies in humanity’s past or awaits us in the future.”

This is where our list of unforeseen follies comes in.

Some readers might think the list of 2015 ‘sleeper challenges’ proves that human stupidity has not yet run its course so Snyder can categorically conclude that humanity is not yet past the Great Filter. But in fact humanity’s screw ups may actually be the reason the Great Filter hasn’t kicked in yet. It may be that that the diversity produced by nonconformity, disobedience and freedom has time and again provided the escape hatch from the filter itself. Perhaps the life which arose in other trees in our vast forest were more perfect; and therefore stifled by their very perfection.

This intuition has been around for a long time. St. Augustine, in his treatise on the Sermon on the Mount argued that a certain childishness was necessary to inherit the earth; because in some mysterious way the most dangerous spells man could invoke were “the knowledge that puffeth up”. There is a powerful human tradition that the “knowledge that puffeth up” is a supremely dangerous.

If so, our imperfections may yet contain the seed of our salvation. Tholuck, some authority about whom I can find nothing, tantalizingly linked the idea of freedom to survival when he called the Sermon on the Mount “the Magna Charta of the Kingdom of Heaven”. Augustine himself interestingly argued that while Law was sufficient to conquer the earth, Love was necessary to gain admission into heaven.  He leaves the idea hanging there and one wishes he had gone on.


The Fermi Paradox is a reminder that we are missing something from the equation of survival. Perhaps Frodo was right when he said, ‘I will bear the Ring though I do not know the Way.’ Perhaps for as long as we don’t have all the answers the Great Filter does not apply.

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