Future of Human Spaceflight at The Interval: September 30, 02014

Posted on September 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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On Tuesday September 30, 02014 Ariel Waldman (Spacehack.org)
leads us to the stars. Tickets are almost sold out!

Ariel Waldman and the Shuttle Atlantis
Ariel Waldman selfie by Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman: The Future of Human Spaceflight
Tuesday September 30, 02014 at 7:30pm

at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are encouraged
Download the Pathways to Exploration report

Ariel Waldman has developed a unique career from her enthusiasm for space exploration and her passion to get more people participating in science on Earth and beyond.

Waldman founded Spacehack.org to help anyone with Internet access find space research efforts in need of crowdsourced assistance. Some like SETI@home would like to borrow cycles from your home computer when you’re not using it. Your processing power can help crunch small pieces of big data. And who knows what you might help discover.

Some Spacehack-linked projects need human eyes to evaluate out-of-this-world images like M83 which quickly gets amateurs up to speed estimating the age of star clusters and classifying them. Others projects need things like writing or coding help. Then there’s Spacelog which asks contributors to review transcripts of past NASA missions. Reading vintage dialogue between astronauts and Mission Control, then helping to share it with the world–it’s any space geek’s dream.

Spacelog Mercury 3 transcripts

Spacelog’s Mercury 3 transcripts

Spacehack helps thousands of all ages to learn about and participate in space science. While Science Hack Days, which Ariel helps facilitate around the world, enable the scientifically curious to create fun and productive collaborative projects over the course of a couple days.

Both Spacehack and Science Hack Days are inclusive, enabling both experts and those without advanced scientific education to participate. This work led to Ariel being awarded an accommodation from The White House as a Citizen Scientist.

She was also asked to join a committee of space industry insiders to contemplate the Future of Human Space Travel. The U.S. Congress asked the committee to:

[Undertake] a study to review the long-term goals, core capabilities, and direction of the U.S. human spaceflight program and make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human spaceflight program.

Their work is now complete and the final 286-page report is free to download. It’s called Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.

At The Interval on Tuesday, September 30th, Ariel will talk about the committee, the report, and all the work she has done bringing space and science to the people of Earth.

We hope you can join us; there are only a few tickets left!

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval, our bar / cafe / museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Tickets just went on sale for another talk about Humanity’s relationship to the deep ocean.

Interval donors hear about our events first. There’s still time to become a charter donor. See the full list of upcoming talks here.

Peter Schwartz: The Starships ARE Coming — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on September 12th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In September 02013 futurist Peter Schwartz spoke for Long Now about realistic scenarios for human interstellar travel. Peter, a founding Long Now Board member, participated in “The 100-year Starship” project and contributed to the book Starship Century (Edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford) with scientists and science fiction authors positing realistic ways humanity could voyage beyond our Solar System.

Our September Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) ”flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Starships ARE Coming is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options.

  1. Generational ships: whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendants will complete.
  2. Sleep ships: like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation
  3. Relativistic ships: at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.
  4. Download ships: “Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device.

Peter Schwartz is a futurist, scenario planning  expert, and author of The Art of the Long View. Currently he serves as Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at Salesforce.com. In 01988 Peter co-founded Global Business Network and served as their chairman until 02011. He is a co-founding Board Member of The Long Now Foundation and has spoken in our SALT series on four occasions.

Peter Schwartz

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Revive & Restore Update at the Commonwealth Club September 18, 02014

Posted on September 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 3.15.02 PM

On Thursday, September 18th, Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand will be giving an update on the Revive & Restore project at the Commonwealth Club of California. The talk will explore the flagship project of Revive, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, as well as several other projects that have come to fruition since Stewart gave his SALT in 02013. Some of these projects, like Ferreting the Genome, focus on using genetic technology to help species at the brink of extinction that need more genetic variability in their population, while others, like the Heath Hen project, focus on new candidates for de-extinction.

01-tedx-rebirth-wooly-mammoth_64849_600x450

While discussing the science behind these projects, Stewart and Ryan will be giving a broad overview of the ecological motivation behind these projects, the bioethics of de-extiction, and how genetic technology can generally compliment endangered species protections.

This talk will be free for students, $12 for Long Now and Commonwealth Club members, and $20 for general admission. More information can be found here, and a link for the Long Now member discount can be found in your email.

The Future Declassified at The Interval: Tuesday September 23, 02014

Posted on September 5th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Mathew Burrows at The Interval: The Future Declassified

Our next talk at The Interval takes as its subject the complexities of our collective global future:

Mathew Burrows: The Future Declassified
hosted by Paul Saffo
Tuesday September 23, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are encouraged
as space is limited

The volatility of today’s world is apparent just by reviewing the day’s headlines. Across the globe, the pressures of population growth, environmental change, and constant technological disruption are just a few of the factors that promise to influence how governments, economies, and individual lives will change in the coming years.

So how to make sense of it all? It takes access to information, methodical analysis, and the application of wisdom gained from observing past change to see tectonic patterns in cultural shifts and plot their trajectories. On September 23rd The Interval at Long Now welcomes one of the most seasoned experts in reading the epic trends of the global stage.

Dr. Mathew Burrows has been an advisor to the US Government in various positions for the better part of 30 years. Typically his reports have been available exclusively to top US administration officials, ambassadors, intelligence services, and allied governments. But his new book, appropriately titled The Future Declassified, offers his insight and forecasting talents to the general public. Its foreboding subtitle “Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action” confirms the importance of the stakes at hand.

Looking forward to the year 02030, Burrows underlines the interconnectedness of the decisions made today with the medium and long-term future of our society and the planet.

Long Now Board of Directors member Paul Saffo will be hosting this event. A well-respected forecaster in his own right, Paul teaches forecasting at Stanford University, and he chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University.

We hope you can join us for this important talk, there are still tickets available.

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval, our bar / cafe / museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The lineup of upcoming talks is growing. Check the full list here.

Interval donors hear about our events first: there is still time to become a charter donor.

Drew Endy Seminar Primer

Posted on September 3rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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On Tuesday, September 16th, Drew Endy presents “The iGEM Revolution“ as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Each month, our Seminar Primer gives you some background about the speaker, including links to explore even more.

adventures-in2
From Adventures in Synthetic Biology, by Drew Endy

Biotechnology is a young science, but it’s already proven its (potential) benefit to civilization. We can now engineer bacteria to manufacture life-saving drugs, we have new ways to diagnose disease, and we know how to modify the genome of plants so they become resistant to certain pests. Yet so far, says Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy, biotech has only realized a few of the grand promises it made in the 01970s, after scientists first succeeded in the synthesis of recombinant DNA. How can we realize these promises? How can we make biology easier to engineer? Endy’s answer to these questions is the growing field of synthetic biology, and an open-source, collaborative approach to the development of new bio-engineering tools.

Synthetic biology is built on the technologies of genetic engineering that were developed during the 20th century, but takes them a few steps further. Genetic engineers can isolate blocks of a cell’s genetic material, extract it from its nucleus, and splice it into another cell’s DNA to create a recombinant genome. Synthetic biologists, on the other hand, splice in pieces of DNA that they’ve built from scratch. It’s like the difference between composing an essay by cutting and pasting word sequences from existing texts, or doing so by putting individual letters in sequence in order to create words of your own.

The Human Genome Project gave us the ability to read nature’s instructional manual – DNA – like words in a book. But the real opportunities, scientists say, lie in our ability to not only read genetic code, but to write it, then build it using off-the-shelf chemical ingredients, strung together like holiday lights. It is the creation of new genomes – and a new frontier in bioengineering. (San Jose Mercury News)

Drew Endy was trained as an engineer, but found his way to biology when a senior-year college class made him realize that living matter holds great potential as building material. “I like to build stuff, and biology is the best technology we have for making stuff – trees, people, computing devices, food, chemicals, you name it,” Endy explains in an Edge conversation. He went on to obtain a graduate degree in biochemical engineering. But in his postdoctoral research, Endy began to grow frustrated with the existing cut-and-paste methods of DNA engineering. It’s an inexact science that often produces unexpected side effects: evolution has turned DNA into a complex library of information, and simply splicing in a new gene may not always lead the host cell to express it in the way you had expected. As a feature in The Economist explains,

No intelligent designer would have put the genomes of living organisms together in the way that evolution has. Some parts overlap, meaning that they cannot change jobs independently of one another. Others have lost their function but have not been removed, so they simply clutter things up. And there is no sense of organization or hierarchy. That is because, unlike an engineer, evolution cannot go back to the drawing board, it can merely play with what already exists. Biologists, who seek merely to understand how life works, accept this. Engineers such as Endy, who wish to change the way it works, do not. They want to start again.

Image by Peter and Maria Hoey

The only way to fully control – and understand – what a cell does, Endy realized, is to build its DNA from scratch. We should think of cells a bit more like we think of computers: as hardware that can be fully programmed – by DNA, the perfect software language. In an interview for the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy proposes,

Let’s look at biology not as a science, but as a technology platform … Biology is the most compelling technology platform anybody has ever seen. It’s the stuff of life and it’s a reproducing machine! It’s a nanotechnology that actually works. You can program it with DNA – sort of. We’re learning how to do that. It’s the most overwhelmingly cool, impressive technology platform any engineer is ever going to encounter if they’re alive today.

Endy’s mission is to help the world learn this new technology – to make biology easier (and thereby faster, more accessible, and finally more productive) to engineer. And in order to do that, Endy identifies two crucial tools.

The first is standardization: rather than having to build pieces of DNA from scratch every time they want to create a new gene, synthetic biologists should be able to pick and choose ‘parts’ from a standard, universal toolkit of genetic material. Forbes explains:

The Industrial Revolution got a serious boost in 1864 when a machinist standardized screws. Henceforth someone trying to build an engine could pluck a standard 8-gauge, 32-threads-per-inch machine screw off the shelf. Endy aims for similar standardization in the new field of synthetic biology, and embraces the radical approach of creating a free registry of building blocks. In 2002 MIT professors started a not-for-profit called BioBricks that has collected 2,000 biological components, including gene sequences that sense light, produce light, send messages between cells and switch cell functions on and off.

We can think of BioBricks as the biological equivalent of Legos: they’re pieces of genetic material with universal connectors on each end, so they can be combined with any other piece to create novel strings of DNA. BioBricks make DNA easier to engineer because they create a certain level of abstraction. Rather than having to put the individual As, Cs, T’s and G’s of DNA together when building a synthetic gene, engineers can use BioBricks as a kind of genetic shorthand – just as software programmers make use of languages like Java to spare them the work of writing out their code in bits (Stanford Alumni Magazine). Endy imagines that these BioBricks will be manufactured in so-called BioFabs (International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology) – a “biological design-build facility.” In fact, he helped launch the first one in Emeryville, in 02009.


Image from the European Molecular Biology Organization

The idea of facilities dedicated entirely to building BioBricks suggests that standardization also leads to a productive division of labor. In his interview with the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy explains, “Separation of design and fabrication can allow people to specialize, becoming experts in each area … We’ve seen this with microprocessors. Someone designs the chip and somebody else builds it.” It’s led to more sophisticated processors – by allowing people to specialize, greater complexity can be developed.

The second crucial tool involves making those standard parts publicly available and encouraging everyone – engineers and students alike – to get creative, share their findings, and help one another learn. The BioBricks Foundation, of which Endy is president and co-founder, works on the premise that “… fundamental scientific knowledge belongs to all of us and must be freely available for ethical, open innovation.” In his Edge conversation, Endy adds,

Biotechnology today derives investments from business models that support the exclusive application of different biological functions for a very small number of problems. For example, there are wonderful companies that have locked up most of the relevant intellectual property around how to engineer proteins to bind DNA. The products that they can deliver are going to be measured in small positive integer numbers, a few diseases. But, the real value associated with being able to engineer proteins that bind DNA are in the uncountable applications people could use the proteins for. It’s like a programming language where it would be a big downstream economic cost if you owned “if/then” and you were the only person who could use it.

Endy considers education a crucial component for fostering this open-source collaboration and innovation. He tries to get high schoolers and college students excited about synthetic biology in several ways – by writing comics about it, for example (and you’ll see several images from his Adventures in Synthetic Biology included in this post).

But Endy’s interest in education is truly epitomized by iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It began as an undergraduate course that Endy developed while teaching at MIT, and has since evolved into a large annual event that draws thousands of participants from all over the world. Competing teams use BioBricks – which they get from and contribute back to the BioBricks Foundation’s Standard Registry of Parts – to engineer synthetic organisms that perform particular functions. The competition not only gets undergraduates excited about the field of bioengineering; its promotion of creative collaboration also spurs innovation and advances new technologies.

Of course, the widespread accessibility of new DNA-building tools isn’t entirely risk-free. Critics worry about what kinds of dangerous new things might be built if those standard parts fall into the wrong hands. Endy understands that advances in synthetic biology involve important questions about what new technologies might produce, who will control them, what cultural and ethical implications they’ll hold, and what safety issues may arise. He advocates discussion about these issues: in 02008, The Long Now Foundation hosted a debate between Endy and Jim Thomas, Research Programme Manager at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), and an outspoken critic of synthetic biology.

Though he sees the value of open discussion about the ethics of bioengineering, Endy hopes we do keep thinking about how synthetic biology might benefit society – and how engineering tools can be leveraged to produce that benefit in an accessible and easy, but also responsible and ethical way. Endy will talk about the promise of synthetic biology, his work with iGEM, and more on Tuesday, September 16 at SFJAZZ Center.

We are Walking Rocks: Friends of the Pleistocene Explore the Geologic Now

Posted on August 30th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Geopoetry Smudge Studio

In The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time Joel Smith writes:

Imagine making a picture using film so insensitive to light – so slow, in photographic parlance – that to burn an image onto it required an exposure of twenty-five centuries. Geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. The picture from that negative would reveal a world made of stone, and stone only. It would be a world where plants and people, seasons and civilizations, had come and gone, quite untouched, and unbothered, by mankind. And yet, here it is, a world, unmistakably shaped by human hands.

Perhaps one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is that our power of imagination tends to be dwarfed by our power of transformation. Twenty-five centuries ago, Rome was little more than a small town; Confucius had just resigned from his government post; Olmec society had slid into decline; and none of the languages we speak today had yet evolved. Entire civilizations rise and fall within the blink of a geologic eye – and whether as cause or consequence, we have a collective attention span to match.

We might be able to stretch our sense of “our time” a century or two into the past and future, but anything beyond that feels so far away that it dissolves into (seeming) irrelevance. As a result, we often don’t realize that our contemporary world is significantly shaped by the geological worlds that came before it; and that the fruits of our short-term pursuits can far outlast our own physical existence on Earth.

The Friends of the Pleistocene try to encourage this realization by spurring our temporal capacity for imagination. An interactive and creative research collaboration by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, the duo behind Smudge Studios, FOP’s mission is, essentially, to create the kinds of pictures Smith imagined. Through a variety of projects, they direct our focus to the Pleistocene traces that continue to reverberate through our contemporary world, and to the impact our culture makes on the ancient landscapes around us.

The geologic epoch of the Pleistocene is commonly dated from 2.58 million to 10,000 years BP (before the present). We know it as the time of glacial periods, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and Neanderthals. It is also the period of humanity’s childhood: it’s during the Pleistocene that the genus Homo first learned to walk upright and manipulate its environment with stone tools. This epoch predates agriculture, or any notion of ‘civilization’ – yet its landscapes are still as much a part of our present world as they were to our early ancestors. As Kruse and Ellsworth explain,

The Pleistocene landscape literally shapes how we live today and affords the placement and design of many infrastructures in our contemporary lives, such as building highways along the spines of glacial moraines, as in the case of the Long Island Expressway, or the great views afforded by the now extinct Pleistocene Lake Bonneville’s shoreline “benches” where suburban houses perch in Draper, Utah. We also use Pleistocene lakebeds as testing grounds for weapons (such as for the Trinity test in 1945) or for recreation, like the Bonneville Salt Flats or Cape Cod’s beloved swimming holes – the kettle ponds.

And just as the Pleistocene continues to shape our world, so do we continue to make an impact on it. Kruse and Ellsworth recall making this realization during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Utah:

… we came across their (CLUI’s) book on the Nevada Test Site. At that point, we had no idea that over 1000 nuclear bombs had been detonated in the United States. We began to realize that the tourist experience of the American West often overlooked the fact that just behind or underneath the stunning backdrops of iconic scenery were invisible vibrant human-made materials, and they were actively reshaping the landscapes we were moving through, at the very moment we were moving through them. The forceful actions of many of those materials were potent enough to continue this reshaping into deep geological futures. This led to future trips where we actually toured the NTS and ended up designing a project to visit the sites where underground testing had occurred outside the NTS. It was literally standing at these sites, in the present, that geologic time and the contemporary moment came vividly together for us.

Exploring such ancient sites across the United States and beyond, the Smudge duo harness art and design as useful tools to spur our imagination into time scales that dwarf a human lifetime. They produce photographic essays, narrative field guides, educational events, and speculative tools to help others explore the convergence of human and geologic processes – and they add not one, but two zeroes to their date notations!

Smudge’s projects include an examination of how the Pleistocene geology of the Great Lakes continues to influence processes of urbanization in the region; visualizing the ancient geological materials that constitute the man-made buildings of New York City; mapping the intersection of human and geologic processes in the American West; and representing the material origins of the energy that sustains our civilization.

Much of their work has examined the handling of nuclear waste – an issue that indelibly reminds us of how tied we are to the deep material processes of our world:

In realizing that the contamination can’t be moved from where it is, and will stay contaminated for tens of thousands of years in the future, it seems important to start developing capacities to think and design for larger timescales. … We humans have catalyzed a geologic impact around the globe, materially. These effects are much more than the nuclear, but nuclear materials are such a clear and potent example, they still exist at the root of our work and are why we veered in this direction so many years ago.

Their projects tend to incorporate an interactive approach: Ellsworth and Kruse try not only to visualize, but to encourage others to join in their imaginative processes:

Interactivity seems key to the ideas we’re working with – which focus on the importance of being able to experience the material reality and force of processes and movements that are either hard for humans to sense physically, or hard for humans to admit politically or emotionally.

In 02012, Kruse and Ellsworth published Making the Geologic Now, an edited collection of photographs and essays by more than forty contributors that include Rachel Sussman, (photographer/author of the Oldest Living Things in the World and Long Now SALT speaker) and Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe).

Making the Geologic Now documents and encourages what they have identified as a “turn toward the geologic,” a collection of “early sightings” of emergent social and cultural awareness of the deep geological parameters of our world. The book is meant to be generative rather than analytical or critical; in their introduction Kruse and Ellsworth describe the contributions as

places to think experimentally about what might become thinkable and possible if humans were to collectively take up the geologic as an instructive partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences. The book provides an armature for framing responses to that idea.

Earlier this year Kruse and Ellsworth went to Norway for a work they called “Inhabiting Change” – it’s part of a larger collaboration that investigates the socio-geographic changes ahead for the Arctic Circle. Once seen as a remote forbidding place, it is now being transformed by the forces of capitalism, the pinch of dwindling resources, and a growing global population. As they expressed their goal for this project:

We intend to create dynamic tracings of the arrival of new futures of the North into widespread human + nonhuman cognizance. Works that result from Inhabiting Change may take the form of a series of linked multi-media dispatches. We also intend to compose a collaborative, human + nonhuman voice with multiple, moving points of view—while we live and make in the midst of the forces of change that currently are composing emerging futures north.

Ultimately, what Ellsworth and Kruse hope people take away from their work is new curiosities about and appreciations of their bare physical materiality – the chemical and physical fact that we are “walking rocks,” and that we live within the geologic, as a condition of our daily lives.

Making The Geologic Now can be purchased or downloaded from Smudge Studios. They also offer a place to contribute your own sightings of the geologic.

Images by FOP/Smudge Studios

David Eagleman: Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization — Seminar Flashback

Posted on August 22nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In April 02010 author and neuroscientist David Eagleman proposed several internet-enabled ways to avoid the collapse of civilization. Eagleman is a Guggenheim Fellow known for his research on time perception and synesthesia; his books include the best-seller Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Civilizations always think they’re immortal, Eagleman noted, but they nearly always perish, leaving “nothing but ruins and scattered genetics.” It takes luck and new technology to survive. We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization

David Eagleman directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. His latest book is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He is also a Long Now Board member

David Eagleman

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

You can join Long Now to watch full video of this Seminar. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

Time Bottled in a Dozen 50-Milliliter Flasks

Posted on August 21st, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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The 12 evolving E. coli populations

Photo by Michigan State University

For most living organisms, 60,000 generations is an extensive amount of time. Go back that many human generations, or about 1,500,000 years, and there are fossils suggesting Homo erectus were widespread in East and Southeast Asia at that time. Even for the fruit flies, which geneticists have studied for over a century because of their conveniently short lifespans, 60,000 generations equals about 3,750 years. But biologist Richard E. Lenski has observed 60,000 generations in under 27 years–all from a single strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli), the common gut microbe.

On February 24, 01988 Lenski and his team at Michigan State University embarked on an ongoing long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) to gauge the importance of chance and history on the adaptation of bacteria.  He started 12 genetically identical “lines” in 50-milliliter flasks from a single strain of E. coli. The bacteria reproduced every few hours. In April of this year, the population reached the milestone of 60,000 generations. In an interview with previous SALT Speaker Carl Zimmer back in 02009, Lenski explained:

I’ve always been fascinated by this tension between chance and necessity, the randomness of mutation and the predictable aspects of natural selection.

bacterial-growth-oEvolutionary biologists think about natural selection as a never-ending process because the environment is alway changing. However, LTEE takes place under much different circumstances than the “real world.” It is a very simple environment with no other species present. Researchers can expose populations to the same daily environmental stresses: a boom-and-bust cycle. Every 24 hours the bacteria are transferred to fresh glucose medium for 6 hours or so followed by 18 hours of starvation.

This constant laboratory environment allows for basic and rather abstract questions. How reproducible or repeatable is evolution? How long can fitness keep increasing and how high can it go? Do organisms ever reach their peak? And while the selective pressures and unchanging environment are not typically found in nature, Lenski argues there is still high value to his experiment:

The fact that the real world is a changing environment and not sort of this artificial constant environment we’ve made in the lab is a really important issue. But it’s doesn’t really tell us the answer in the baseline case, what would happen if the world did not change? And at least to my mind, science often progresses by coming to grips with these special cases, that don’t necessarily exist outside the lab….It’s really hard to make sense of the complicated, constantly changing world around us if we can’t make sense of these special, really simple cases.

The most obvious strengths of using bacteria for experimental evolution is the speed of generations, but an even more important advantage is that E. coli can be frozen. Lenski and his team have frozen the bacteria every 500 generations, creating what they call a “frozen fossil record.” Lenski explained in an interview for Science Podcast:

At different time points along the way we freeze the cells down and the frozen cells are actually viable, so we can bring them back from the freezer, we can resurrect them, revive them. That allows us to directly compete organisms that lived at different points in time.  So in effect, it allows us to do time travel.  The dream of any evolutionary biologist.

Petri dishes of E. coli

Photo via Beacon

In the November 02013 issue of Science, Lenski and two members of his lab – Michael J. Wiser and Noah Ribeck – published their most recent work looking at fitness over the 50,000 generations. They measured how much the evolved bacteria have improved relative to their ancestors under the same environmental setup.

They found that all 12 lines show consistent responses to selective pressures. For example, their descendants now grow faster in their standard sugary broth, and all populations show an increase in cell size.

Yet variation lies hidden underneath these parallel changes. The fitness increases were nearly uniform in all 12 lineages, but not exact; the cell size grew in all of the populations, but by different amounts. When Lenski and his colleagues studied the bacteria’s DNA, they found that after thousands of generations, the populations’ genomes were full of alterations. These changes were different in each population and had accumulated at very different rates, suggesting a prominent role of chance in setting evolution’s course.

In November 02013, after hitting the 50,000 generation mark, Lenski published a blog piece thinking about the long-term fate of his long-term experiment. He questions who will take over when he retires, and how the experiment will be sustained. He imagines his experiment being carried out by another 49,999 generations of scientists, each one overseeing another 50,000 bacterial generations. That is 50,0002 generations, or 2.5 billion generations in total, and would take about a million years to achieve. If this were to happen, Lenski predicts that the bacteria will reduce their doubling time from their ancestors’ ~55 minutes to ~23 minutes–which would also require a lot of freezer space. Lenski writes:

I’d really like science to test this prediction!  How often does evolutionary biology make quantitative predictions that extend a million years into the future?  Maybe the LTEE won’t last that long, but I see no reason that, with some proper support, it can’t reach 250,000 generations.  That would be less than a century from now.  If the experiment gets that far, I’d like to propose that it be renamed the VLTEE – the very long-term evolution experiment.

richard-lenski

Richard Lenski examines the growth of E. coli. Photo by G.L. Kohuth/Michigan State University

 

The NSA reaches out

Posted on August 19th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Inside the NSA

Wednesday August 6, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Neuberger Seminar page.

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Audio is up on the Neuberger Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.

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The NSA reaches out – a summary by Stewart Brand

Of her eight great-grandparents, seven were murdered at Auschwitz. “So my family’s history burned into me a fear of what occurs when the power of a state is turned against its people or other people.”

Seeking freedom from threats like that brought her parents from Hungary to America. By 1976 they had saved up to take their first flight abroad. Their return flight from Tel Aviv was high-jacked by terrorists and landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Non-Jewish passengers were released and the rest held hostage. The night before the terrorists were to begin shooting the hostages, a raid by Israeli commandos saved most of the passengers.

Anne Neuberger was just a baby in 1976. “My life would have looked very different had a military operation not brought my parents home. It gives me a perspective on the threats of organized terror and the role of intelligence and counterterrorism.” When she later entered government service, she sought out intelligence, where she is now the principal advisor to the Director for managing NSA’s work with the private sector.

The NSA, Neuberger said, has suffered a particularly “long and challenging year” dealing with the public loss of trust following the Snowden revelations. The agency is reviewing all of its activities to determine how to regain that trust. One change is more open engagement with the public. “This presentation is a starting point.”

“My family history,” she said, “instilled in me almost parallel value systems – fear of potential for overreach by government, and belief that sometimes only government, with its military and intelligence, can keep civilians safe. Those tensions shape the way I approach my work each day. I fully believe that the two seemingly contradictory factors can be held in balance. And with your help I think we can define a future where they are.”

The National Security Agency, she pointed out, actively fosters the growth of valuable new communication and computing technology and at the same time “needs the ability to detect, hopefully deter, and if necessary disable lethal threats.” To maintain those abilities over decades and foster a new social contract with the public, Neuberger suggested contemplating 5 tensions, 3 scenarios, and 3 challenges.

The tensions are… 1) Cyber Interdependencies (our growing digital infrastructure is both essential and vulnerable); 2) Intelligence Legitimacy Paradox (to regain trust, the NSA needs publicly understood powers to protect and checks on that power); 3) Talent Leverage (“the current surveillance debates have cast NSA in a horrible light, which will further hamper our recruiting efforts”); 4) Personal Data Norms (the growing Internet-of-things—Target was attacked through its air-conditioning network—opens vast new opportunities for tracking individual behavior by the private as well as public sector); 5) Evolving Internet Governance (the so-far relatively free and unpoliticized Internet could devolve into competing national nets).

Some thirty-year scenarios… 1) Intelligence Debilitated (with no new social contract of trust and thus the loss of new talent, the government cannot keep up with advancing technology and loses the ability to manage its hazards); 2) Withering Nation (privacy obsession hampers commercial activity and government oversight, and nations develop their own conflicting Internets); 3) Intelligent America (new social contract with agreed privacy norms and ongoing security assurance).

Initiatives under way from NSA… 1) Rebuild US Trust (move on from “quiet professionals” stance and actively engage the public); 2) Rebuild Foreign Trust (“extend privacy protections previously limited to US citizens to individuals overseas”); 3) Embrace Collective Oversight (reform bulk collection programs in response to the President’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board).

As technology keeps advancing rapidly, the US needs to stay at the forefront in terms of inventing the leading technical tools to provide public services and maintain public security, plus the policy tools to balance civil liberties with protection against ever-evolving threats. “My call to action for everyone in this audience is get our innovative minds focussed on the full set of problems.”

A flood of QUESTION CARDS came to the stage, only a few of which we could deal with live. Anne Neuberger wanted to take all the questions with her to share with NSA colleagues, so Laura Welcher at Long Now typed them up. I figure that since the questioners wanted their questions aired on the stage to the live and video audience, they would like to have them aired here as well. And it would be in keeping with the NSA’s new openness to public discourse. Ms. Neuberger agreed…

I have a general (unfocused) question about transparency – which
hasn’t been mentioned thus far. What is the NSA’s rationale around
hiding its activities from the American people? What can you tell us
about the issue of transparency going forward?

What are the key questions NSA is discussing following the Snowden
releases? And what is the NSA doing to address these issues?

Germany is very, very upset. What could we have done, and what should
we do in the future, to fulfill our many responsibilities while also
respecting our most valuable international relationships?

How can we work toward a new social contract when the intelligence
agency directors repeatedly lie to the Congress and to the public?

Is it true you can still find one-star generals playing Magic the
Gathering in the NSA canteen during lunch hour?

The failures of 9-11 were not technical failures, but failures of
individuals and organizations to work together toward a common goal.
What concrete steps can you describe in the intelligence community
that have been taken to remedy this?

What is the NSA doing to make the scope of its data collection efforts
as transparent as possible, while still achieving its goals w.r.t.
national security?

Is it an acceptable outcome that NSA fails at securing us in the
service of privacy considerations?

If the Snowden incident hadn’t happened, would the NSA have hired the
civil liberties expert? What structural changes will make this role
actually effective?

Has the real tension been between the NSA needing to protect its own
systems while ensuring that everybody else’s are vulnerable? Is this
inevitable?

Do you believe the mission of the NSA can be accomplished without
building a record of all worldwide communications and activities? Why?

Is the NSA embedding backdoor or surveillance capability in any
commercial integrated circuits?

If you want to address the damage to public trust, and improve the
social contract, why not applaud the work Edward Snowden has done to
demonstrate how your agency has gone astray?

Do you consider the NSA’s role in weakening the RSA random number
generator to be a violation of the NSA’s existing social contract?
How do you think about its exploitability by criminal elements?

What do you tell American corporate tech leaders who are concerned
about lowered trust and security of their services and products? Lack
of trust based on national security letters, for example, or
weaknesses introduced into RSA crypto by the NSA?

What is the best mechanism for an intelligence agency to prevent
themselves from using “national security secrecy” to cover up an
embarrassment? Is there something better than whistleblowers?

Secure information and privacy need to be balanced – please give an
example of when you feel the NSA worked at its best in this balancing
act. Please be specific :-)

How much is your presentation a reflection of NSA or your personal views?

Should the NSA play a role in devising the new rules for cyberwar?
(Since the old rules for war don’t work in the digital universe.) How
do we citizens participate?

Do you personally feel that the leaks of the last year have revealed
serious overreach by your agency? Or, do you feel as though the NSA
has simply been unfairly painted and that the leaks have been
damaging?

Privacy is, logically, implied (4th, and 5th and 10th Amendments).
Should it be an explicit right? If so, how should it be architected?

Amnesty for Snowden?

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it seemed to take us by surprise. Have
Snowden’s revelations damaged our ability to anticipate sudden moves
by rivals and adversaries?

How can the NSA build an effective social contract when it destroys
evidence in an active case and when its decisions are made in a secret
court without public scrutiny?

How can the public make informed decisions if NSA keeps secret what it
is doing from its public rulers viz the abuses exposed by Snowden?

Can you give an example of a credible “cyber threat” thwarted by the NSA?

Why did NSA dissolve its Chief Scientist Office? So too FBI. This
Office funded the disk drive and speech recognition.

How do you reconcile your stated goal of improving the security of
private sector products with NSA’s documented practice of
intentionally weakening encryption standards and adding backdoors to
exported network devices that facilitate billions of dollars of
e-commerce?

How does surveillance directed towards the United States’s closest
allies help deter terrorist threats, and how does the damage of our
relationship with Germany and other allies offset the benefits of
conducting such surveillance?

I am an American, legally, politically, culturally, economically. I
was born in Pakistan and am a young male. My demographics are the
prime target of the NSA. I have no recourse if the NSA sees that I
have visited the “wrong” links. I am afraid that the NSA deems me a
suspect. Your response?

Balancing the needs of ‘security, society and business’ leaves most of
us with 1 vote in 3. Given the shared interest in big data by
security agencies and business, how do the rest of us keep from
getting outvoted 2-to-1 every time?

Your fears seem to be based on a highly competitive scarcity-based
economy. What is your role in a post-scarcity society?

In what ways do public, crowdsourced prediction markets help to
resolve the tension between public trust and the need for
sophisticated intel?

Does the government have either a duty or a need to be open and honest
in its communication with the public?

How does the NSA approach biological data? Synthetic biology applications?

You never use the word law.

How many more leaks would it take to make your mission impossible?
Personally I look forward to this particular point in time.

Please share your thoughts on: Re: ‘talent leverage’ impact on world
stage. We are all one family on spaceship earth, and we have grave
system failures in the ship. If the U.S. gov’t can shift from empire
to universal economic empowerment, based on natural carrying capacity
of each ecosystem. Then, trust can be restored that this is not a
gov’t of and for the military-industrial complex, and the most
powerful corporations.

What are three basic reasons that make the NSA assume that it doesn’t
need to obey the law?

Surveillance and security are mutually contradictory goals. Shouldn’t
these functions of the NSA be split into different agencies?

Was Snowden a hero or a damaging rogue? Did he catalyze changes to
keep NSA from being the “KGB”?

Do we live in a democracy when there are no checks and balances in the
intelligence community? –> CIA/Senate, –> Snowden/NSA?

You described the importance of a social contract in determining the
appropriate balance between privacy and intelligence gathering. But
contracts require all parties to be well-informed and to trust each
other. How can the American public trust the intelligence community
when all of the reforms you mentioned only occurred because a
concerned patriot chose to blow the whistle (and now faces
prosecution)?

How are we to maintain the creative outliers and risk takers (things
that have been known to create growth and brilliance) if we are
keeping / tracking ‘norms’ as acceptable – or the things we accept. –
How will we know if we are wrong?

Can or does the NSA influence or seek to influence immigration policy
so that the US could retain foreign workers here on expiring H1Bs?

What does the NSA see as some of the greatest emerging technologies
(quantum decryption for example) that can create the future
“Intelligent America”?

What are the factors that determines whether the NSA ‘quietly assists’
improving a company’s product security, or it weakens or promotes
weaker crypto standards / algorithms / tech?

Please talk about the recent large scale hacking from Russia.

Why frame this as “how can laws keep up with technology” instead of
“how do we keep the NSA from exceeding the law?”

1) Was NSA interdiction of a sovereign leader’s aircraft a violation
of international law? 2) Does NSA believe they can mill and drill a
database to find potential terrorists?

The NSA paid a private security form, RSA, to introduce a weakness
into its security software. Spying is one matter. But making our
defenses weaker is another. How do you defend this?

What is your biggest fear about NSA overreaching in its power [?]

How many real, proven terrorist threats to the U.S. have been
uncovered by NSA surveillance of email / cell phone activity of
private citizens in the last few years (4-8)?

Your list of tensions omitted any mention of corporate or otherwise
economic fallout that may result or have resulted from the Snowden
revelations. What relief mechanism do you foresee maintaining
corporate trust in the American government?

You mentioned doing during slide 14 that the Director of the NSA is
declassifying more information to promote “tranparency”. Can you
please elaborate on how we might find these recently declassified
documents?

Long ago we created a “privilege” for priests, doctors and lawyers,
fearing we could not use them without it. Today, our computers know
us better than our priests, but they have no privilege and can betray
us to surveillance. How do we fix that?

What systems are in place to prevent further leaks?

1) Is it ok for a foreign entity to collect and intercept President
Obama’s communications without our knowledge? 2) Do you think William
Binney and Thomas Drake are heroes?

How do we build a world of transparency, while also enabling security
for our broader society?

As we grow more connected, the sense of distance embodied in national
patriotism and the otherness of the world shrinks. How is a larger
NSA a reasonable response in terms of a social contract?

Describe the culture that says it’s ok to monitor and read US
citizens’ email (pre-revelation) [?]

How can the NSA enable more due process during the review of approvals
of modern “wire taps” (i.e. translating big data searches to
individuals)?

In the next 10 years there will be breakthroughs in math creating
radical changes in data mining. What are the social risks of that
being dominated by NGO’s vs. government?

Has the NSA performed criminally illegal wiretapping? If so, when
will those responsible be prosecuted?

Can you define what unlocking Big Data responsibly really means and
give examples? Can NSA regulate Facebook in terms of privacy and
ownership of users’ data?

How do other governments deal with similar problems?

What prevents NSA from trusting “Intelligent America” revealing that
linking information but not the content was broadly collected could
have been understood and well presented. Funded [?] “Intelligent
Ingestion of Information” …[?] DARPA 1991-1995.

Please address the spying upon and the filing of criminal charges
against US Senators and their staff by the USA, particularly in the
case of Senator Diane Feinstein of California.

Does the NSA’s legitmacy depend more on the safety of citizens or
ensuring the continuity of the Constitutional system?

Can you shed any light on why Pres. Obama has indicted more
whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined?

When will Snowden be recognized as a hero? When will Clapper go to
jail for perjury? Actions speak louder than buzz words.

Does NSA make available the algorithms for natural language processing
used by the data analysis systems?

In the long term view, it would seem freedom is a higher priority
value than safety so why is safety the highest value here? Why isn’t
the USA working primariy to ensure our continued freedom?

How do you protect sources and methods while forging the new social contract?

How can any company trust cybercommand when the same chief runs NSA
where the focus is attack? How can we trust the Utah Data Center
after such blatant lies of “targeted surveillance?”

Now that the mass surveillance programs have to some extent been
revealed, can we see some verifiable examples of their worth? If not,
will NSA turn back towards strengthening security instead of
undermining it?

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 encouraged our govt. leaders to adopt
aggressive surveillance laws and regulations and demands from the
intelligence communities. How do we reverse these policies adopted
under duress?

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Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on August 16th, 02014 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Seminars   chat 0 Comments

In August 02013 Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman spoke for Long Now about two types of thinking he’s identified and their implications. The pioneer of behavioral economics gave an insightful and humor-filled presentation on how we think and make decisions. Kahneman contrasted his pessimism with Stewart Brand’s characteristic optimism in their on-stage conversation after the talk (which was ended prematurely by a fire alarm). Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. Thinking Fast and Slow is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Before a packed house, Kahneman began with the distinction between what he calls mental “System 1”—fast thinking, intuition—and “System 2”—slow thinking, careful consideration and calculation. System 1 operates on the illusory principle: What you see is all there is. System 2 studies the larger context. System 1 works fast (hence its value) but it is unaware of its own process. Conclusions come to you without any awareness of how they were arrived at. System 2 processes are self-aware, but they are lazy and would prefer to defer to the quick convenience of System 1.

Daniel Kahneman is professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. His books include the best selling Thinking, Fast and Slow (02011). He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work in prospect theory in 02002 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 02014.

Daniel Kahneman

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.


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