Monday September 21, 02015 – San Francisco
Griffith began with an eyeroll at the first round of responses in the US to reducing greenhouse gases, a program he calls “peak Al Gore.” Some activities feel virtuous —becoming vegetarian, installing LED lights, avoiding bottled water, reading news online, using cold water detergent, and “showering less in a smaller, colder house”—but they demand constant attention and they don’t really add up to what is needed.
Griffith’s view is that we deal best with greenhouse gases by arranging our infrastructure so we don’t have to think about climate and energy issues every minute. Huge energy savings can come from designing our buildings and cars better, and some would result from replacing a lot of air travel with “video conferencing that doesn’t suck.“ Clean energy will mostly come from solar, wind, biofuels (better ones than present), and nuclear. Solar could be on every roof. The most fuel-efficient travel is on bicycles, which can be encouraged far more. Electric cars are very efficient, and when most become self-driving they can be lighter and even more efficient because “autonomous vehicles don’t run into each other.” Sixty percent of our energy goes to waste heat; with improved design that can be reduced radically to 20 percent.
Taking the infrastructure approach, in a few decades the US could reduce its total energy use by 40 percent, while eliminating all coal and most oil and natural gas burning, with no need to shower less.
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Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast of this sold out event starting at 7:15 PT, September 29
Veteran technology writer John Markoff speaks in Long Now’s “Conversations at The Interval” series this Tuesday. He will discuss his new book Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots which covers the birth of artificial intelligence in the 1950s all the way up to the consumer and industrial robotics innovations of today. Long Now’s Paul Saffo will interviewed Markoff onstage.
Tickets to this talk sold out very quickly, as our Interval events often do. Due to the huge interest in this event, Long Now will be live audio-streaming Tuesday’s talk for members.
You can join Long Now for just $8/month which includes tickets to Seminars, HD video of 12 years of Long Now talks, and many other benefits.
Current Long Now members, just login on the member site. The stream will begin at 7:15pm Pacific.
Machines of Loving Grace is the first comprehensive study to place [robots] in the context of the cloud-based intelligence
—George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
In recent years, the pace of technological change has accelerated dramatically, posing an ethical quandary. If humans delegate decisions to machines, who will be responsible for the consequences? Drawing on his forty years covering the tech industry, Markoff conducted numerous interviews and extensive research to assemble this history and poise key questions about how we will cohabitate with our robotic creations.
Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast at 7:15 PT on September 29
This will be the third time we have live streamed an Interval event. Due to our limited resources, it is not possible to do so for most talks. We do plan to release Interval talks as podcasts and video on the Long Now site (similarly to our Seminar series).
We also plan to stream the talk by Andy Weir author of The Martian which takes place at The Interval on October 27, 02015. Tickets will go on sale for that talk two weeks beforehand and we expect it will sell out quickly.
Long Now is looking for a major sponsor to fund the cost of producing the series to the standard of our Seminar media. We are also seeking a sponsor to support more regular streaming of Interval events. Sponsorship inquiries are welcome.
Our understanding of ancient civilizations can be spotty. Because not all cultural artifacts withstand the test of time, we have to piece together our portraits of these societies with partial clues, making inferences where needed to cover gaps in the archaeological record.
But one of these clues offers a remarkably detailed picture of economic life in an Assyrian market town. As a recent feature in the New York times explains, archaeologists have discovered an uncharacteristically complete set of records kept by businessmen who ran importing enterprises in Kanesh, an ancient trading hub in what is now Turkey.
Dating back to the 19th century BC, these records have allowed Assyriologists to construct an intimate and detailed portrait of the lives these traders led, and the socio-economic policies that shaped their businesses.
The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds, and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.
It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods – silver, tin, textiles – transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable … The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.
But as the quote above implies, these records – as does much of history – also contain lessons for the present. The comparison of this ancient market to our modern-day economy offers a rare opportunity to assess what features are inherent to the nature of trading systems, and what is the product of specific cultural or political forces.
The remarkable similarities between this ancient market and the contemporary global economy suggest that most attempts at trade regulation may be ineffective: fluctuations in things like the volume of trade, or the distribution of profits, may ultimately be part of the nature of trading systems. But what we can do is anticipate and regulate the impact of global trade on our local economy.
That, in fact, is what the [Assyrians] did, 4,000 years ago … Trade brought enormous wealth to a dozen or so families. But rather than hold all of it for themselves, the wealthy were made to redistribute a high percentage of their earnings through taxes and religious foundations that used the money for the public good. This way, the wealth created by trading with Kanesh made nearly everybody – at least every free citizen – better off.
In April of 01815, Mount Tambora - an active volcano in what is now Indonesia - erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.
A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.
Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.
There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:
… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.
Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.
Wire Cutters is a short animated film created by artist Jack Anderson. It concerns two robots who run into each other while mining on a desolate planet and then fight over their minerals. The film is too long to be considered a Long Short for our Seminar series, but nonetheless exemplifies long-term thinking.
For the next twelve months, the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now will be on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. It forms part of their Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit – an interactive and multidisciplinary museum experience meant to prompt reflection and discussion about the notion of a ‘human era’.
“Spanning 1400 m2, the world’s first large exhibit on this important issue of the future reviews and surveys the concept of the Anthropocene through an analysis of such themes as urbanism, mobility, nature, evolution, nutrition, and human-machine interaction. The exhibit visualizes the history, present, and future of this human era, intersecting technology and the physical sciences with art and media. Historical exhibits guide us along our way through the Anthropocene, recent scientific discoveries and projects present challenges and potential solutions, and artistic design encourage contemplation.”
This is the first time the Prototype has left London’s Science Museum since it was installed there, and the first time the prototype is on display in continental Europe. To learn more, you can explore the exhibit’s English-language catalog, German-language website, or take a virtual tour. Originally scheduled to run until January, the exhibit has already been extended to September 02016, and can be visited any time during museum opening hours, daily from 9 AM and 5 PM local time.
Languages are works of art, great libraries, how-to guides for living on planet Earth, windows into our minds and inalienable human rights. The Rosetta Project is The Long Now Foundation’s first exploration into very long-term archiving. It serves as a means to focus attention on the problem of digital obsolescence, and ways we might address that problem through creative archival storage methods.
Laura’s talk, titled ‘”The Rosetta Project: Strategies for Very Long-term Archiving” will focus on the Rosetta project and her experience with building this at Long Now. If you are interested hearing Laura speak and meeting fellow long-term thinkers, please RSVP at the Meetup site here.
Infrastructure decisions—and failures to decide—affect everything about a society for centuries. That long shadow, James Fallows points out, is what makes the decisions so difficult, because “We must choose among options whose consequences we can’t fully anticipate.” What we do know is that infrastructure projects are hugely disruptive and expensive in the short term, and neglecting to deal with infrastructure is even more disruptive and expensive in the long term. What would a healthy civilization do?
These days California is making decisions about high-speed rail, about water supply for agriculture, about driverless cars, about clean energy—all infrastructure issues with long, uncertain shadows. Fallows reminds us that “Everything about today’s California life is conditioned by decisions about its freeway network made 60-plus years ago, and by the decision to tear up the Southern California light-rail network in the decades before that.” (That remark came in a 15-part series of blogs about high-speed rail in California that Fallows posted at theatlantic.com. He approves of the project.)
James Fallows is the journalist’s journalist, covering in depth subjects such as China, the Mideast, flying, the military, Presidential speeches (he once wrote them for Jimmy Carter), journalism itself, and his native California. Based at The Atlantic magazine for decades, he blogs brilliantly and has produced distinguished books such as Postcards from Tomorrow Square, Blind into Baghdad , and Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.
This will be the first time he speaks about civilization entire.
Since their inception in 02003, the Seminars About Long-term Thinking have featured over 100 speakers from a wide range of disciplines. Curated by Stewart Brand, each of these Seminars address some aspect of long-term thinking. From the ideas presented and discussed in the live event, he crafts a summary which captures and elucidates these ideas. A few days after a Seminar, this summary gets posted to the SALT list and blog, but we also collect these distillations in a book, “The SALT Summaries”. Every six months we update the Kindle eBook with the most recent Seminars, and we wanted to let our readers know how they can now update their Kindle book.
After you login to your Amazon account, go to the Manage Your Kindle page. On that page, you should see the cover of the book with an update option hovering above it. If you click update, the update should transfer to all of your devices. Thank you for supporting the Seminars About Long-term Thinking.
Monday August 10, 02015 – San Francisco
Thanks to recent exoplanet research, Seager began, we now know that nearly all of our galaxy’s 300 billion stars are accompanied by planets, and a unexpectedly high number of them are rocky like Earth, and many of those orbit in a “habitable” range—meaning that they could harbor liquid water and perhaps life. How can we detect that life?
(To learn about the 4,700-plus planets so far discovered, Seager recommended an exciting dynamic map and encyclopedia from NASA called “Eyes on Exoplanets.” Seager predicts that “If an Earth 2.0 exists, we have the capability to find and identify it by the 02020s.”)
The way to discover life from a distance is to search for spectrographic evidence of “biosignature gases” such as oxygen or methane in the planetary atmosphere. To do that we have to acquire direct imaging of the rocky planets, but we can’t because our telescopes are blinded by the brilliance of the planet’s star, a billion times brighter than the planet. “It’s like looking for a firefly next to a searchlight, from thousands of miles away,” Seager said. Even the next planet-discovery telescope, called TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which is coming in 02018, will not be able to study exoplanet atmospheres.
The solution that Seager has been working on is called Starshade. To perfectly occult a star with a perfectly dark, hard-edged shadow, it will be deployed tens of thousands of kilometers from its telescope. It will be a disk 15 to 20 meters in diameter, with a perimeter of exotically shaped “petals” to defeat the effect of light diffracting around the edges of the disk. The edges have to be geometrically exact and machined to razor sharpness. The Starshade would fly in formation with a telescope located at the stable Lagrange point called L2, a million miles from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. The cost, including launch, will be about $650 million—not currently budgeted by NASA.
Now that we know planets are extremely common, one of the profoundest questions is whether life is also common in our galaxy, or is it extremely rare? Seager thinks that life abounds out there, and we will be able to point to examples in this century.
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