Music, Time and Long-Term Thinking: Brian Eno Expands the Vocabulary of Human Feeling

Posted on November 30th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Brian Eno’s creative activities defy categorization. Widely known as a musician and producer, Eno has expanded the frontiers of audio and visual art for decades, and posited new ways of approaching creativity in general. He is a thinker and speaker, activist and eccentric. He formulated the idea of the Big Here and Long Now—a central conceptual underpinning of The Long Now Foundation, which he helped found with Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis in 01996. Eno’s artistic career has often dealt closely with concepts of time, scale, and, as he puts it in the liner notes to Apollo“expanding the vocabulary of human feeling.”

Ambient and Generative Art

Brian Eno coined the term ‘ambient music’ to describe a kind of music meant to influence an ambience without necessarily demanding the listener’s full attention. The notes accompanying his 01978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports differentiate it from the commercial music produced specifically for background listening by companies such as Muzak, Inc. in the mid-01900s. Eno explains that ambient music should enhance — not blanket — an environment’s acoustic and atmospheric characteristics, to calming and thought-inducing effect. It has to accommodate various levels of listening engagement, and therefore “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” (Eno 296).

Ambient music can have a timeless quality to it. The absence of a traditional structure of musical development withholds a clear beginning or end or middle, tapping into a sense of deeper, slower processes. It lets you “settle into time a little bit,” as Eno said in the first of Long Now’s SALT talks. As TimeMagazine writes, “the theme of time, foreshortened or elongated, is a defining feature of Eno’s musical and visual adventures. But it takes a long lens, pointing back, to bring into focus the ways in which his influence has seeped into the mainstream.”

Eno’s use of the term ‘ambient’ was, however, a product of a long process of musical development. He had been thinking specifically about this kind of music for several years already, and the influence of minimalist artists such as Terry RileySteve Reich and Philip Glass had long shaped his musical ideas and techniques. He also drew on many other genres, including Krautrockbands such as Tangerine Dream and Can, whose music was contemporaneous and influential in Eno’s early collaborations with Robert Fripp, e.g. (No Pussyfooting). While their music might not necessarily fall into the genre ‘ambient,’ David Sheppard notes that “Eno and Fripp’s lengthy essays shared with Krautrock a disavowal of verse/chorus orthodoxy and instead relied on an essentially static musical core with only gradual internal harmonic developments” (142). In his autobiography, Eno also points to developments in audio technology as key in the development of the genre, as well as one particularly insightful experience he had while bedridden after an accident:

New sound-shaping and space-making devices appeared on the market weekly (and still do), synthesizers made their clumsy but crucial debut, and people like me just sat at home night after night fiddling around with all this stuff, amazed at what was now possible, immersed in the new sonic worlds we could create.

And immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.

This became clear to me when I was confined to bed, immobilized by an accident in early 01975. My friend Judy Nylon had visited, and brought with her a record of 17th-century harp music. I asked her to put it on as she left, which she did, but it wasn’t until she’d gone that I realized that the hi-fi was much too quiet and one of the speakers had given up anyway. It was raining hard outside, and I could hardly hear the music above the rain — just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized that this was what I wanted music to be — a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment.

It was not long after this realization that Eno released the album Discreet Music, which he considers to be an ambient work, mentioning a conceptual likeness to Erik Satie’s Furniture Music. One of the premises behind its creation was that it would be background for Robert Fripp to play over in concerts, and the title track is about half an hour long — as much time as was available to Eno on one side of a record.

It is also an early example in his discography of what later became another genre closely associated with Eno and with ambient: generative music. In the liner notes — which include the story of the broken speaker epiphany — he writes:

Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part.

That is to say, I tend towards the roles of planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.

This notion of creating a system that generates an output is an idea that artists had considered previously. In fact, in the 18th century even Mozart and others experimented with a ‘musical dice game’ in which the numerical results of rolling dice ‘generated’ a song. More relevant to Brian Eno’s use of generative systems, however, was the influence of 20th century composers such as John Cage. David Sheppard’s biography of Brian Eno describes how Tom Phillips — a teacher at Ipswich School of Art where Eno studied painting in the mid 01960s — introduced him to the musical avant garde scene with the works of Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and the previously mentioned minimalists Reich, Glass and Riley (Sheppard 35–41). These and other artists exposed Eno to ideas such as aleatory and minimalist music, tape experimentation, and performance or process-based musical concepts.

Eno notes Steve Reich’s influence on his generative music, acknowledging that “indeed a lot of my interest was directly inspired by Steve Reich’s sixties tape pieces such as Come Out) and It’s Gonna Rain” (Eno 332). And looking back on a 01970 performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Royal College of Art, Brian Eno highlights its impact on him:

This was one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life — sound made completely physical and as dense as concrete by sheer volume and repetition. For me it was like a viscous bath of pure, thick energy. Though he was at that time described as a minimalist, this was actually one of the most detailed musics I’d ever heard. It was all intricacy and exotic harmonics. (Sheppard 63–64)

The relationship between minimalism and intricacy, in a sense, is what underlies the concept of generative music. The artist designs a system with inputs which, when compared to the plethora of outputs, appear quite simple. Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain is, in fact, simply a single 1.8 second recording of a preacher shouting “It’s gonna rain!” played simultaneously on two tape recorders. Due to the inconsistencies in the two devices’ hardware, however, the recordings play at slightly different speeds, producing over 17 minutes of phasing in which the relationship between the two recordings constantly changes.

Brian Eno has taken this capacity for generative music to create complexity out of simplicity much further. Discreet Music (01975) used a similar approach, but started with recordings of different lengths, used an echo system, and altered timbre over time. The sonic possibilities opened by adding just a few more variables are vast.

This experimental approach to creativity is just one of many that Eno explored, including some non-musical means of prompting unexpected outputs. The same year that Discreet Music was released, he collaborated with painter Peter Schmidt to produce Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas.

The work is a set of cards, each one with an aphorism designed to help people think differently or to approach a problem from a different angle. These include phrases such as “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed,” and “Use an old idea.” Schmidt had created something a few years earlier along the same lines that he called ‘Thoughts Behind the Thoughts.’ There was also inspiration to be drawn from John Cage’s use of the I Ching to direct his musical compositions and George Brecht’s 01963 Water Yam Box. Like a generative system, the Oblique Strategies provides a guiding rule or principle that is specific enough to focus creativity but general enough to yield an unknown outcome, dependent on a multitude of variables interacting within the framework of the strategy.

Three decades later, generative systems remained a central inspiration for Eno and a source of interesting cross-disciplinary collaboration. In 02006, he discussed them with Will Wright, creator of popular video game series The Sims, at a Long Now SALT talk:

Wright observed that science is all about compressing reality to minimal rule sets, but generative creation goes the opposite direction. You look for a combination of the fewest rules that can generate a whole complex world that will always surprise you, yet within a framework that stays recognizable. “It’s not engineering and design,” he said, “so much as it is gardening. You plant seeds. Richard Dawkins says that a willow seed has only about 800K of data in it.” — Stewart Brand

Brian Eno has always been interested in this explosion of possibilities, and has in recent years created generative art that incorporates both audio and visuals. He notes that his work 77 Million Paintings would take about 10,000 years to run through all of its possibilities — at its slowest setting. Long Now produced the North American premiere of 77 Million Paintings at Yerba Buena center for the Arts in 02007, and members were treated to a surprise visit from Mr. Eno who spoke about his work and Long Now.

Eno also designed an art installation for The Interval, Long Now’s cafe-bar-museum venue in San Francisco. “Ambient Painting #1” is the only example of Brian’s generative light work in America, and the only ambient painting of his that is currently on permanent public display anywhere.

Ambient Painting #1, by Brian Eno. Photo by Gary Wilson.

Another generative work called Bloom, created with Peter Chilvers, is available as an app.

Part instrument, part composition and part artwork, Bloom’s innovative controls allow anyone to create elaborate patterns and unique melodies by simply tapping the screen. A generative music player takes over when Bloom is left idle, creating an infinite selection of compositions and their accompanying visualisations. — Generativemusic.com

Eno’s interest in time and scale (among other things) was shared by Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand, and they were in close correspondence in the years leading up to the creation of The Long Now Foundation. Eno’s 01995 diary, published in part in his autobiography, describes that correspondence in its introduction:

My conversation with Stewart Brand is primarily a written one — in the form of e-mail that I routinely save, and which in 1995 alone came to about 100,000 words. Often I discuss things with him in much greater detail than I would write about them for my own benefit in the diary, and occasionally I’ve excerpted from that correspondence. — Eno, ix

Out of Eno’s involvement with the establishment of The Long Now Foundation emerged in his essay “The Big Here and Long Now”, which describes his experiences with small-scale perspectives and the need for larger ones, as well as the artist’s role in social change.

This imaginative process can be seeded and nurtured by artists and designers, for, since the beginning of the 20th century, artists have been moving away from an idea of art as something finished, perfect, definitive and unchanging towards a view of artworks as processes or the seeds for processes — things that exist and change in time, things that are never finished. Sometimes this is quite explicit — as in Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field,” a huge grid of metal poles designed to attract lightning. Many musical compositions don’t have one form, but change unrepeatingly over time — many of my own pieces and Jem Finer’s Artangel installation “LongPlayer” are like this. Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds — seeds for processes that need a viewer’s (or a whole culture’s) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our new selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future.

[…] In this, the 21st century, we may need icons more than ever before. Our conversation about time and the future must necessarily be global, so it needs to be inspired and consolidated by images that can transcend language and geography. As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.

The Chime Generator and January 07003

Brian Eno’s involvement with Long Now began through his discussions with Stewart Brand about time and long-term thinking, and the need for a carefully crafted sonic experience to help The Clock evoke deep time for its visitors posed a challenge Eno was uniquely suited to take on.

From its earliest conception, the imagined visit to the 10,000-Year Clock has had aural experience at its core. One of Danny Hillis’ earliest refrains about The Clock evokes this:

It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium. —Danny Hillis

In the years of brainstorming and design that have molded this vision into a tangible object, a much more detailed and complicated picture has come into focus, but sound has remained central; one of the largest components of the 10,000-Year Clock will be its Chime Generator.

Rather than a bong per century, visitors to the Clock will have the opportunity to hear it chime 10 bells in a unique sequence each day at noon. The story of how this came to be is told by Mr. Eno himself in the liner notes of January 07003: Bell Studies for The Clock of the Long Now, a collection of musical experiments he synthesized and recorded in 02003:

When we started thinking about The Clock of the Long Now, we naturally wondered what kind of sound it could make to announce the passage of time. Bells have stood the test of time in their relationship to clocks, and the technology of making them is highly evolved and still evolving. I began reading about bells, discovering the physics of their sounds, and became interested in thinking about what other sorts of bells might exist. My speculations quickly took me out of the bounds of current physical and material possibilities, but I considered some license allowable since the project was conceived in a time scale of thousands of years, and I might therefore imagine bells with quite different physical properties from those we now know (Eno 3).

Bells have a long history of marking time, so their inclusion in The Clock is a natural fit. Throughout this long history, they’ve also commonly been used in churches, meditation halls and yoga studios to offer a resonant ambiance in which to contemplate a connection to something bigger, much as The Clock’s vibrations will help inspire an awareness of one’s place in deep time. Furthermore, bells were central to some early forms of generative music. While learning about their history, Eno found a vast literature on the ways bells had been used in Britain to explore the combinatorial possibilities afforded by following a few simple rules:

Stated briefly, change-ringing is the art (or, to many practitioners, the science) of ringing a given number of bells such that all possible sequences are used without any being repeated. The mathematics of this idea are fairly simple: n bells will yield n! sequences or changes. The ! is not an expression of surprise but the sign for a factorial: a direction to multiply the number by all those lower than it. So 3 bells will yield 3 x 2 x 1 = 6 changes, while 4 bells will yield 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24 changes. The ! process does become rather surprising as you continue it for higher values of n: 5! = 120, and 6! = 720 — and you watch the number of changes increasing dramatically with the number of bells. — Eno 4

Eno noticed that 10 bells in this context will provide 3,628,800 sequences. Ring one of those each day and you’ll be occupied for almost exactly 10,000 years, the proposed lifespan of The Clock.

Following this line of thinking, he imagined using the patterns played by the bells as a method of encoding the amount of time that had elapsed since The Clock had started ringing them. Writing in 02003, he says:

I wanted to hear the bells of the month of January, 07003 — approximately halfway through the life of the Clock.

I had no idea how to generate this series, but I had a good idea who would.

I wrote to Danny Hillis asking whether he could come up with an algorithm for the job. Yes, he wrote back, and in fact he could come up with an algorithm for generating all the possible algorithms for that job. Not having the storage space for a lot of extra algorithms in my studio, I decided to settle for just the one. — Eno 6

And so, the pattern The Clock’s bells will ring was set. Using a start point (02003 in this case), one can extrapolate the order in which the Bells will ring for a given day in the future. The title track of the album features the synthesized bells played in each of the 31 sequences for the month of January in the year 07003. Other tracks on the album use different algorithms or different bells to explore alternative possibilities; taken together, the album is distinctly “ambient” in Eno’s tradition, but also unique within his work for its minimalism and procedurality.

The procedures guiding the composition are strict enough that they can be written in computer code. A Long Now Member named Sean Burke was kind enough to create a webpage that illustrates how this works. The site allows visitors to enter a future date and receive a MIDI file of the chimes from that day. You can also download the algorithm itself in the form of a Perl script or just grab the MIDI data for all 10,000 years and synthesize your own bells.

If the bell ringing algorithm is a seed, in what soil can it be planted and expected to live its full life? Compact disks, Perl scripts and MIDI files have their uses, of course, but The Clock has to really last in a physical, functional sense for many thousands of years. To serve this purpose, the Chime Generator manifests the algorithm in stainless steel Geneva wheels rotating on bearings of silicon nitride.

Eno’s Chime Generator prototype. Photo by Because We Can

One of the first prototypes for this mechanism resides at The Interval. In its operation, one can see that the Geneva wheels rotate at different intervals because of their varying numbers of slots. Together, the Geneva wheels represent the ringing algorithm and sequentially engage the hammers in all 3.6 million permutations. For this prototype, the hammers strike Tibetan Bowl Gongs to sound the notes, but any type of bell can be used.

The full scale Chime Generator will be vertically suspended in the Clock shaft within the mountain. The Geneva wheels will be about 8 feet in diameter, with the full mechanism standing over seventy feet in height.

The bells for the full scale Chime Generator won’t be Tibetan Bowl Gongs like in the smaller prototype above. Though testing has been done within the Clock chamber to find its resonant frequency, the exact tuning and design of the Clock’s bells will be left until the chamber is finished and most of the Clock is installed in order to maximize their ability to resonate within the space.

Like much of Brian Eno’s work, the chimes in the 10,000-Year Clock draw together far-flung traditions, high and low tech, and science and art to create a meditative experience, unique in a given moment, but expansive in scale and scope. They encourage the listener to live and to be present in the moment, the “now,” but to feel that moment expanding forward and backward through time, literally to experience the “Long Now.”



This is the first of a series of articles, “Music, Time and Long-Term Thinking,” in which we will discuss music and musicians who have engaged various aspects of long-term thinking, both historically and in the contemporary scene.

A Message from Long Now Members on #GivingTuesday

Posted on November 28th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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We hope you’ll consider a tax-deductible donation to Long Now this giving season.

Thank you to Long Now members and donors: we appreciate your additional support this giving season. With your help we can foster long-term thinking for generations to come.

Danny Hillis publishes new essay on Long-Term Timekeeping in the Clock of the Long Now

Posted on November 7th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Danny Hillis, Long Now co-founder and designer of the 10,000 Year Clock, has a new essay, “Long-Term Timekeeping in the Clock of the Long Now” in the book The Science of Time 2016: Time in Astronomy & Society, Past, Present and Future (published November 02017). The Science of Time 2016 presents “information on the science and history of time and its impact on sciences, cultures, religions, and future developments in the field:”

The uses of time in astronomy – from pointing telescopes, coordinating and processing observations, predicting ephemerides, cultures, religious practices, history, businesses, determining Earth orientation, analyzing time-series data and in many other ways – represent a broad sample of how time is used throughout human society and in space. Time and its reciprocal, frequency, is the most accurately measurable quantity and often an important path to the frontiers of science. But the future of timekeeping is changing with the development of optical frequency standards and the resulting challenges of distributing time at ever higher precision, with the possibility of timescales based on pulsars, and with the inclusion of higher-order relativistic effects. The definition of the second will likely be changed before the end of this decade, and its realization will increase in accuracy; the definition of the day is no longer obvious. The variability of the Earth’s rotation presents challenges of understanding and prediction.

In this symposium speakers took a closer look at time in astronomy, other sciences, cultures, and business as a defining element of modern civilization. The symposium aimed to set the stage for future timekeeping standards, infrastructure, and engineering best practices for astronomers and the broader society. At the same time the program was cognizant of the rich history from Harrison’s chronometer to today’s atomic clocks and pulsar observations. The theoreticians and engineers of time were brought together with the educators and historians of science, enriching the understanding of time among both experts and the public.

The book can be purchased here. (Hillis’ individual chapter in the book is also available for purchase.)

Can “Zebras” Fix What “Unicorns” Break?

Posted on October 26th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Long Now Partners with Zebra Movement to Help Bring Long-Term Thinking to Startups and Venture Capital

The disruptive potential of Silicon Valley, epitomized in the mantra to “move fast and break things”, was once praised as its killer feature. These days, it is increasingly perceived as a bug.  Startups come and go, but the underlying structure of tech and venture capital persists. Entrepreneurs and investors have grown accustomed to the idea of limited runway, quick exits, and short-term gains, while accepting a 90% failure rate among startups as simply the cost of admission for playing the game. “Growth becomes the overriding motivation,” Noam Cohen wrote in a recent piece for The New York Times. “Something treasured for its own sake, not for anything it brings to the world.”

Entrepreneurs Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams are after a different sort of disruption—one that transforms tech and venture capital through long-term thinking and alternative business models that result in both profit and social impact. They call their project the Zebra Movement.

Founders of the Zebra Movement. From left: Jennifer Brandel, Co-Founder and CEO of Hearken; Mara Zepeda, Co-Founder and CEO of Switchboard; Astrid Scholz, Co-Founder and CEO of Sphaera; and Aniyia Williams, Co-Founder and CEO of Tinsel / Black & Brown Founders.

It started in 02016, when the Zebra founders wrote a provocative essay that deployed sex metaphors to critique the startup status quo of chasing “unicorns”:

Much is made about Silicon Valley’s culture of “innovation.” But the model for startup venture financing, and the system of rewards driving this supposed innovation, isn’t creative — it’s masturbatory. It wastes potential. It’s uninspired. It leaves founders like us staring at the ceiling.

Yes, we want to build businesses that succeed financially. But we also want so much more than that, and we aren’t alone. Most of the founders we know, many of whom happen to be women, are driven to build companies that generate money and meaning. And they’re in it for the long haul — not just to get their jollies, make their names, and exit.

The essay went viral, generating responses from hundreds of founders, investors, and advocates. The Zebra founders followed with a manifesto earlier this year to provide the beginnings of a solution to what they called the “broken” structure of technology and venture capital.

This is an urgent problem. For in this game, far more than money is at stake. When VC firms prize time on site over truth, a lucky few may profit, but civil society suffers. When shareholder return trumps collective well-being, democracy itself is threatened. The reality is that business models breed behavior, and at scale, that behavior can lead to far-reaching, sometimes destructive outcomes.

[…]

A company’s business model is the first domino in a long chain of consequences. In short: “The business model is the message.” From that business model flows company culture and beliefs, strategies for success, end-user experiences, and, ultimately, the very shape of society.

We believe that developing alternative business models to the startup status quo has become a central moral challenge of our time. These alternative models will balance profit and purpose, champion democracy, and put a premium on sharing power and resources. Companies that create a more just and responsible society will hear, help, and heal the customers and communities they serve.

The founders enlisted the Zebra as the symbol for their movement:

Why zebras?

  • To state the obvious: unlike unicorns, zebras are real.
  • Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.
  • Zebras are also mutualistic: by banding together in groups, they protect and preserve one another. Their individual input results in stronger collective output
  • Zebra companies are built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.

Thousands responded after the Zebra founders proposed a conference to gather together and further define the goals and ethos of their movement. DazzleCon (a “dazzle” being a gathering of zebras) will be taking place from Wednesday, November 15 to Friday, November 17, 02017 in Portland, Oregon. Long Now has joined the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Knight Foundation, among others, in supporting the Zebra founders by sharing resources, ideas and strategy for considering and applying long-term thinking to the growing conversation within the movement. We will be co-partnering with DazzleCon for the evening program of keynote talks on Wednesday, November 18th. (The evening program is open to the public; Long Now members can receive a $15 discount by entering the promo code LONGNOWDAZZLE on the Eventbrite page). 

We asked one of the founders, Mara Zepeda, to reflect on the role she believes long-term thinking should play in technology and Silicon Valley:

I grew up with many tattered copies of the Whole Earth Catalog. I would later connect with Howard Rheingold, who sits at the intersection of the Whole Earth Catalog ethos and technology, as a friend and teacher (we also both graduated from Reed College). I believe the deep, nuanced, systems thinking approach the Long Now Foundation promotes is so necessary in today’s culture. As the co-founder and CEO of a technology company, I’ve noticed its absence most acutely in technology, where a pervasive “winner takes all” culture of investor profits, billion dollar companies, and quick exits reigns supreme. Long-term thinking is what is so desperately needed in these times.

We need to return to the values of thinkers like Stewart Brand, Alan Kay, Howard Rheingold, Christopher Alexander, and Douglas Engelbart who believed that technology should augment humans, and create thriving ecosystems of collective intelligence.

In The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand quotes institutional management advisor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. The gist is that people who take the long view will do so when they trust their leaders, the rules of the game are fair, they will share equitably in the returns, and feel a commitment to those who come after them. Zebra companies embody and promote these values of trust, shared prosperity, and a long-term investment in the earth, community, and each other.

Aligning around these principles creates better people, more ethical products, cooperative communities, and a kinder and more equitable world. We are thrilled to partner and share this wealth of knowledge across disciplines and generations.

If you’re interested in attending DazzleCon, or would like to know more about the Zebra Movement, head here. To attend the evening program at a discounted rate, enter LONGNOWDAZZLE on the Eventbrite page.

PanLex: Overcoming Language Barriers with the World’s Largest Lexical Translation Database

Posted on October 25th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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In an unassuming office on the fourth floor of Downtown Berkeley’s historic Chamber of Commerce high rise, three linguists are at work building the world’s largest lexical translation database. The mission of PanLex, a project of The Long Now Foundation, is to overcome language barriers to human rights, information, and opportunities. After ten years of pooling together different sources from across the world, PanLex’s database covers over 2,500 dictionaries, 5,700 languages, 25 million words, and 1.3 billion translations. Now, the PanLex team is ready to see what it can do. They’re targeting under-served language communities, international humanitarian organizations, and global businesses to explore what practical problems PanLex can address.

“Choose any language you can imagine,” Julie Andersen, the PanLex Director of Programs, instructs me as we power up the PanLex translator for a demo. “The most interesting language you can think of,” Ben Yang, the Director of Technology, adds.

Unlike the machine translation service Google Translate, which translates whole sentences and texts in up to a hundred major world languages (sometimes to comedic effect), PanLex is a panlingual database (built to contain every language), and lexical (focused on words, not sentences).

Stumped by the possibilities, I opt for Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, modern forms of which are spoken today by an estimated 1.5 million people. I once read that the word “avocado” originated with Nahuatl, and that the same Nahuatl word for avocado also meant “testicle”—due, presumably, to the similarity in shape.

“How about avocado?” I ask.

The PanLex translator app in action, translating “avocado” into Classical Nahuatl.

Yang types avocado in the field for English, selects Nahuatl, and we’re immediately presented with words with different translation quality scores, with ahuacatl having the top score. Tapping on the word displays the paths from the English word through equivalent words in different languages which lead to the Nahuatl word. Translating ahuacatl back to English provides the words: avocado, bollock, egg, and testicle, among others, with avocado having the highest quality score.

It’s a simple, intuitive interface, one that belies the implications for human rights embedded within. At the heart of the PanLex project is the conviction that with access to information and the ability to communicate comes the ability to exercise one’s rights.

“You might want to communicate in a different language just because you want to connect with someone,” David Kamholz, PanLex’s Project Director, tells me. “Say you see a person on the street and you want to talk to them and you don’t share a language. By not speaking the same language, you’ve lost the richness in life that comes from communicating with someone you might want to. But that’s not necessarily a human rights issue.”

“Human rights comes into play where you’re talking about a scenario where, say you’re sick and want to see a doctor, but there’s no doctor who speaks your language. Or you need a lawyer, or you want to vote, but you can’t understand what’s going on in the election. Or you just want to look up some information on Wikipedia, or understand something about a field you’re studying, and you’re trying to read it and you can’t. The rights outlined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights require the ability to communicate. If you can’t communicate with certain entities, be they your government, your doctor, your lawyer, or your teacher in school, you can’t exercise your rights.”

The PanDictionary was the conceptual forerunner to PanLex.

This focus on breaking down barriers to human rights did not mark the PanLex project from its inception. At first, it wasn’t even known whether building such a database was possible. In 02004, a group of researchers at the University of Washington’s Turing Center set out to answer a question:

Can we automatically compose a large set of Wiktionaries and translation dictionaries to yield a massive, multilingual dictionary whose coverage is substantially greater than that of any of its constituent dictionaries?

The result of their research, PanDictionary, demonstrated that it was possible to significantly improve the quality of inferred translations using a novel algorithm that pooled together several multilingual dictionaries and placed them in an interoperable format.

Say you want to translate something in Basque, a language linguistically unrelated to any living language, to Zulu, the most widely spoken home language in South Africa. You can go from Basque to English, and from English to Zulu, but what is the probability that the word in Zulu is an accurate translation of the Basque word? The English might not preserve the meaning completely, giving rise to what’s called a transitive inference problem. But if you have independent confirmation from enough intermediate languages, such as French, Russian, Hindi, et cetera, you can correct for the ambiguities and provide multiple paths that converge on the same Zulu word, and therefore receive a reliable translation.

Jonathan Pool, a political scientist who helped advise the research project, wanted to go a step further than a proof of concept demonstrating that such a database was possible. He wanted to build it.

Pool was struck at an early age by the degree to which linguistic knowledge influenced the universe of opportunities for people. As a member of the Peace Corps teaching English in Turkey in the the 1960s, he observed that it was knowledge of languages, rather than professional skills, that more often than not determined who got hired for jobs. Thus began a career at the intersection of academia, language politics and policy, where Pool’s research focused on individual and collective choices about language, linguistic diversity and the consequences of linguistic discrimination.

In the PanDictionary project, Pool glimpsed the practical implications that a massive lexical database could provide. The vision of PanLex—a database enabling anyone in the world, regardless of their language, to communicate and exercise their rights—was born.

For the next six years, Pool dedicated himself to building out the database, singlehandedly doing the programming, improving its structure, and scouring the Internet for every possible linguistic source he could find. He was also independently funding the venture.

The PanLex team. From left: Project Director David Kamholz, Director of Technology Ben Yang, and Director of Programs Julie Anderson. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki.

As the database grew larger, Pool expanded his one-man operation, bringing in linguist and self-taught programmer David Kamholz in 02013. Linguists Julie Anderson and Ben Yang joined in 02015. Anderson acquired new data to be ingested into the database, which Yang analyzed and integrated, along with building new tools for it.

“It’s really fun getting my hands on all these dictionaries of languages from all over the world, especially the under-served languages,” Anderson says. “To me, this is brain candy.”

PanLex soon caught the attention of Laura Welcher, project director for The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project. The Rosetta Project began in 02000 as Long Now’s first exploration into long-term archiving, with the goal of building a publicly accessible digital library of human languages. Rosetta had been collecting parallel vocabulary lists early on as a targeted collection effort. As part of Rosetta’s sharing efforts with other linguistics projects, many of these lists made their way to the PanLex project, where the PanLex team incorporated them into their database, linked that data to other language data, and cleaned up and normalized the data. Rosetta and PanLex agreed that they were complementary projects and should work closely together. PanLex became a sponsored nonprofit project of the Long Now Foundation in 02012.

“I think of Rosetta and PanLex as sister projects,” Welcher says. “They are functionally separate projects with separate staff, but with similar and complementary goals. Rosetta also focuses on explorations in very long-term archiving media which PanLex doesn’t specifically do, although they are participating in the larger data collection effort and PanLex lexical data currently makes up about half the language data on the Rosetta Wearable Disk.”

Pool stepped back from day-to-day operations in 02017, and Kamholz took over as Project Director. Now that the database is sufficiently robust (“We have the largest collection of lexical data in the world,” notes Yang), Kamholz is leading PanLex through its next phase. A part of that next phase entails more clearly elucidating PanLex’s value proposition. Another part means finding sustainable ways to generate revenue.

PanLex’s data is freely available and no permission is needed for noncommercial use. Photo by Carolyn Wachnicki

“Earlier this year, we started the process of asking: Who are we, what are we really trying to do?” Kamholz says. “What is the world we want and what is our vision of where PanLex fits into that? We’ve always said that we want to help these under-served communities and partner with global humanitarian organizations, but what exactly do we want to do for them? I wouldn’t say we necessarily changed our mission so far as make it more explicit and concrete.”

“Before, our mission was to translate every word into every language, with a vision of universal communication,” Anderson says. “Now…”

“I wouldn’t say that’s not what we’re trying to do at this point,” Kamholz interjects. “But we’re also trying to do things that in the relatively short term can immediately help people.”

At the moment, PanLex is looking to partner with international organizations both large and small, from the Red Cross, World Bank and OxFam to Translators Without Borders.

“If, for example, there are NGO’s that deal with disaster preparedness,” Anderson says, “we can provide them with dictionaries of languages with disaster and medical terminology tailored to their specific needs and specific regions.”

PanLex is also looking to partner with global businesses. “There are many businesses that are trying to expand into markets around the world,” Kamholz says. “And they’re getting to the point where the major world languages are not enough for them to reach everyone, and we would have the ability to help them reach more people.”

Katrina Esau, one of the last remaining speakers of a Khoisan language that was thought extinct nearly 40 years ago, teaches her native tongue to a group of school children in Upington, South Africa on 21 September 2015. Photo by Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty

PanLex’s vision of overcoming language barriers to human rights is inspiring, to be sure. But there are some who contend that the preservation of a diversity of languages could actually make it more challenging for communities to communicate. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, wouldn’t an easier solution to the problem be to have everyone learn the same language, like Mandarin or English? As philosopher Rebecca Roache recently put it:

The advantages to adopting a single language are clear. It would enable us to travel anywhere in the world, confident that we could communicate with the people we met. We would save money on translation and interpretation. Scientific advances and other news could be shared faster and more thoroughly. By preserving a diversity of languages, we preserve the obstacles to communication. Wouldn’t it be better to allow as many languages as possible to die out, leaving us with just one universal lingua franca?

“There are two ways to answer that,” Kamholz says. “One is, well, what about the people who don’t speak those languages yet, what are they supposed to do now? Do we say to them: You won’t have human rights until fifty to a hundred years from now and then you’ll speak English or Mandarin? Those people exist now and still need their rights.”

Endangered Languages in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Via Endangered Languages

 

“But I would go even further and say, we don’t want a world where the only possible future, and the only way to exercise your rights, is to speak English or Mandarin,” Kamholz continued. “We want a diverse world with many points of view, with different cultural traditions. We don’t want everyone to be the same in that sense, and we don’t want that to be the only solution. We’re enabling people to access information and exercise their rights, but it’s also driven by this desire for diversity and pluralism. We want to make it easier and more possible for people who are in these under-served language communities to access the information they need, and empower them to make their own decisions regarding the preservation of their cultures, their traditions, their languages. There are lot of people in the world who want to do that, but it feels like such a lopsided struggle of us against the world. It seems impossible. But we believe PanLex helps make it easier for people to maintain things they want to maintain. This is just one small piece of the many things that need to happen to make that a reality. I’m not under the illusion that we can do it singlehandedly. I just want us to contribute to the process and hopefully inspire others along the way.”

To learn more about PanLex, go to panlex.org or email info@panlex.org.

 

Is the Bristlecone Pine in Peril? An Interview with Great Basin Scientist Scotty Strachan

Posted on September 26th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments

Earlier this month, the bristlecone pine, one of the oldest and most isolated organisms on Earth, found itself in unfamiliar territory: in the headlines. News outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post reported that the bristlecone pine was “in peril” and threatened by extinction due to a warming climate. The news came from a study published in Global Change Biology that suggested that the limber pine was “leapfrogging” the bristlecone as they “raced” up the mountains, with climate change acting as the “starting gun.”

Scotty Strachan, an environmental scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, is skeptical of the statements that this finding “imperils” bristlecone. Strachan has a background in dendrochronology with a specific focus on the Great Basin, where the bristlecone pine grows. He has previously spoken at The Interval and has been collaborating with Long Now on bristlecone pine research on its property on Mt. Washington. We had a chance to sit down with Strachan and get his take on the study and the ideal relationship between what Strachan calls “short-term science” and “long-term science.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Great Basin scientist Scotty Strachan

LONG NOW: When this study first came out, you commented that the press release was speculative. Could you elaborate on what you took issue with?

The bristlecone pine as a species do not exist inside one particular seasonal climatic envelope. But this paper makes this assumption [of uniform seasonality and stand dynamics]. This doesn’t represent the regional climate variability well, especially where bristlecone biogeography and potentially centennial-scale regeneration is concerned.

The study in question is based on data that actually continue recent work in Great Basin done by Constance I. Millar, who’s been working at treeline for decades. She came up with the idea that perhaps the lower [elevation] species of limber pine in the subalpine woodlands was “leapfrogging” over the bristlecone tree line in terms of its fifty-year recruitment pattern. [Recruitment refers to the addition of new individuals into a population or community]. The difference here is that she didn’t immediately rush to “species in peril” judgement like this press release emphasizes.

Photo by Scotty Strachan

The researcher [UC Davis PhD student Brian Smithers] went to a few sites where bristlecones have been studied previously in the Great Basin. But the bristlecone occur in more than twenty-five mountain ranges in the Great Basin, and in several cases are not co-located with limber pine.

The paper spends a good deal of time, as it should, talking about what is known and what has been studied about bristlecone regeneration—which in terms of long term multi-decadal work, is actually very little. Bristlecone live in a region where you have high [climate] variability both interannually and interdecadally.

The bristlecone pine are distributed in space from the White Mountains in the western Great Basin, where they have irregular summertime input of rain, to Mt. Washington, Great Basin National Park, and ranges in central Utah, where more often than not you have a significant summertime component of moisture that actually can alleviate drought conditions. The structure of healthy bristlecone stands across these ranges can be very different, and you can bet that regeneration processes vary accordingly.

Photo by Scotty Strachan

LONG NOW: Why do you think there’s such an appetite for stories like these that sound an alarmist tone?

We see this as a recurring theme in science, and not just in the environmental fields: “We’re not telling anything new, but we’re going to make an alarmist story about it.” Sometimes these alarmist press runs can generate certain momentum inside agency mechanisms that lead policy and science down the wrong road with detrimental effects, particularly if the details of the system in question are not well-understood.

For instance, if you are the Bureau of Land Management, you control large swaths of the interior west, and you’re responsible for maintaining the viability of the land in some way. You have mixed mandates where you balance the current resource users of the land, cattle ranchers maybe, or solar farm industrialists, with sometimes competing conservation issues that range from sagebrush to horses. You’re being pulled in all these different directions, so which science is right?

Photo by Scotty Strachan

We’ve seen over the last thirty years an uptick in the amount of agency time spent in conservation efforts rather than resource use, just broadly. So the question is, how are those funds being directed and then, is it always a good idea for people to actually mess with the landscape in a sort of conservation management approach? So conservation of the forests in California for the last many decades has resulted in the catastrophe that’s waiting to happen in any given watershed in terms of forest densities and the fires that come from that.

The same thing can happen when you have niche science that says we’re going to manage the shrublands for say, a single species, like the sage grouse. So if you poke your nose in the sage grouse issue you’ll find that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent via combinations of special interest groups and researchers to help conserve sage grouse habitat only. Well, that includes lots of cutting down woodlands that are naturally growing, amid similar “alarmist” claims that the woodlands are “invasive,” when there is plenty of science out there that says in many locations that’s simply not true. Effects to soils, other bird populations, indigenous tradition, recurring management costs, and so forth are sidelined, and that’s a problem.

Photo by Scotty Strachan

I’ll go back to a quote from Sierra bighorn sheep scientist John Wehausen:

“Ecology is quite messy statistically, unlikely to yield simple, clean answers. Be prepared to devote a long time if you want an adequate understanding at a system level; e.g. decades, not years…be open to the possibility that variables you never considered may be very important, relegating a lot of previous research to little more than preliminary study.”

And he’s talking about sheep, not bristlecone.

So you have this repeated approach of niche management as a rallying cry, to the detriment of many other considerations on the landscape system. If knee-jerk landscape-scale human interference get extended to bristlecone, then yeah, I’d say risk to the species increases.

Photo by Scotty Strachan

LONG NOW: What’s a better approach?

I look at it in terms of long-term science and short-term science. Short science operates like this: we go out there, we take a look at what’s happening, maybe we like what we see maybe we don’t like what we see, we draw some conclusions based on what we can observe at the time, we go forward and we say: “This is what we think happened, and we need policy X.” That’s great, except that’s effectively snapshot science. The same is true even if you include, say, some modeling—this is done often, like ecological modeling based on climate models—and say, “here’s what we think has been going on for the last one hundred years and therefore our look is not necessarily a snapshot.” Very often that short science is stated as fact, absolute fact, and that is the problem.

So short science is good because you need to go out there, you need to do an intensive look at something and get a snapshot, so that somebody can follow that snapshot one year, ten years, fifty years from now. That’s what’s really critical. Drawing those conclusions and stating it as absolute fact without having any long science to back it up, especially when we’re talking about landscapes or ecosystems where you have multi-century cyclic behavior in the ecology, let alone any climate changes, now all of a sudden you’ve got a bit of a conundrum. To me, one without the other is not good science from the management or landscape interference point of view.

Photo by Scotty Strachan

LONG NOW: So it’s not that you’re dismissing short term science. Rather, you’re saying the short term science should be informed by long term science.

Yes, and here’s the other thing. Very often the short science takes the easiest path, which means you aren’t studying the mechanisms so much as you are simply observing the current status of things. Obviously you have to start somewhere. So you can still do short science—by short in this context I mean less than decades—you can still do that and try to observe some mechanisms rather than rely on perhaps other mechanistic studies that came in some cases very long before you and may have been very rudimentary in nature. Scale is a critical issue, geographically and temporally. And something that I don’t usually see in papers that shoot for sweeping conclusions is a section that takes on “Sources of Uncertainty” and then lists them, explaining how each of those sources has either been controlled for, or if not controlled for then a reasoned, fact-filled explanation as to why the author believes the influence is negligible.

We’ve been working with the Long Now Foundation out on Mount Washington to study more of the mechanistic processes to do with Great Basin woodlands and bristlecone pine for a number of years now. We’ve got the first multi-year, continuous sub-daily record of bristlecone growth response to climate and interactions with seasonal resources and surrounding species, including limber pine, and the data are becoming more fascinating every year. We hope to run this study for decades. Yes, more of those papers are coming! That’s the kind of investigative approach that needs to be developed more around the west, and not just for bristlecone. You can’t manage what you don’t monitor. Investing in this kind of longer science and maintaining it is a huge challenge—because long science doesn’t write headlines, or at least, not until much much later! I think that the Long Now Foundation has a part to play in helping re-orient the dialogue around how short and long science differ, and also how each informs our views and interactions with the geography around us.  

Cassini Ends, but the Search for Life in the Solar System Continues

Posted on September 21st, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments

On September 15 02017, the Cassini-Huygens probe, which spent the last 13 years of a 20-year space mission studying Saturn, plummeted as planned into the ringed planet’s atmosphere, catching fire and becoming a meteor.

Cassini’s final moments, dubbed “The Grand Finale” by NASA, elicited reactions of wonder around the world. The stunning photographs Cassini captured of Saturn over the course of its mission were shared widely on social media. While the images understandably received most of the attention, the discoveries the probe made in its search for life in the solar system, especially on the Saturnian moons of Enceladus and Titan, will perhaps be its enduring legacy.

The atmosphere of Titan, a moon of Saturn. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, who led the imaging team for the Cassini mission, spoke at Long Now in July 02017. In the Q&A, Stewart Brand asked Porco about what the impact of finding life in the solar system would be:

As the Cassini mission came to an end, Porco shared her reflections on the mission in a final captain’s log:

Captain’s Log

September 15, 2017

The end is now upon us. Within hours of the posting of this entry, Cassini will have burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn … a kiloton explosion, spread out against the sky in a meteoric display of light and fire, a dazzling flash to signal the dying essence of a lone emissary from another world. As if the myths of old had foretold the future, the great patriarch will consume his child. At that point, that golden machine, so dutiful and strong, will enter the realm of history, and the toils and triumphs of this long march will be done.

For those of us appointed long ago to embark on this journey, it has been a taxing 3 decades, requiring a level of dedication that I could not have predicted, and breathless times when we sprinted for the duration of a marathon. But in return, we were blessed to spend our lives working and playing in that promised land beyond the Sun.

My imaging team members and I were especially blessed to serve as the documentarians of this historic epoch and return a stirring visual record of our travels around Saturn and the glories we found there. This is our gift to the citizens of planet Earth.

So, it is with both wistful, sentimental reflection and a boundless sense of pride, in a commitment met and a job well done, that I now turn to face this looming, abrupt finality.

It is doubtful we will soon see a mission as richly suited as Cassini return to this ringed world and shoulder a task as colossal as we have borne over the last 27 years.

To have served on this mission has been to live the rewarding life of an explorer of our time, a surveyor of distant worlds. We wrote our names across the sky. We could not have asked for more.

I sign off now, grateful in knowing that Cassini’s legacy, and ours, will include our mutual roles as authors of a tale that humanity will tell for a very long time to come.

Carolyn Porco
Cassini Imaging Team Leader
Director, CICLOPS
Boulder, CO
cpcomments@ciclops.org

A few hours before its mission came to an end, Cassini took a final photograph of the planet it spent the last thirteen years exploring.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


The topic of space invites long-term thinking. Some recent Long Now talks:

Galloping, GIFs and Genes: Geneticists Store Moving Image in Living Bacteria

Posted on August 22nd, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Revive & Restore, Technology   chat 0 Comments

In 01872, California Governor Leland Stanford hired the famed photographer Eadweard Muybridge to settle a question of popular debate—whether all four of a horse’s feet ever left the ground when it galloped. The resulting series of photographs, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, showed without a doubt that horses do indeed go airborne at a full speed gait.

Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878)


As one of the earliest motion pictures ever made, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop became an icon of the scientific method in popular culture, demonstrating empirically what the human eye alone could not perceive. With the rise of animated GIFs as a form of visual communication in the 02010s, Sallie Gardner at a Gallop has found new life on the Internet.

It is perhaps fitting then, that Harvard researchers led by geneticist George Church chose Sallie Gardner at a Gallop to demonstrate one of the latest advances in genomics. As reported in July 02017 by Nature, the clip is the first motion picture to be encoded in the DNA of a living cell. Church, who is working with Revive and Restore to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction, used CRISPR to enable the chronological recording of digital information, showcasing the genome’s potential as a storage device.

As the New York Times reported:

Dr. Church and Seth Shipman, a geneticist, and their colleagues began by assigning each pixel in the black-and-white film a DNA code based on its shade of gray. The vast chains of DNA in each cell are made of just four molecules — adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine — arranged in enormously varied configurations.

The geneticists ended up with a sequence of DNA molecules that represented the entirety of the film. Then they used a powerful new gene editing technique, Crispr, to slip this sequence into the genome of a common gut bacteria, E. coli.

Despite the modification, the bacteria thrived and multiplied. The film stored in the genome was preserved intact with each new generation of progeny, the team found.

Geneticists hope to one day use the technology to record events in the cells of the human body, enabling doctors to playback the recording if someone gets sick—akin to the black boxes in airplanes that record data in crashes. For now, the advances demonstrate that Muybridge’s horse, which can now be retrieved and multiplied at will from the DNA of a living cell, can go viral in more ways than one.

Further Reading

 

Why Do Some Forms of Knowledge Go Extinct?

Posted on July 26th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Art   chat 1 Comment

The History of Art and Architecture slide library at Trinity College, Dublin. Via the Department of Ultimology.


Fiona Hallinan is an artist and researcher based at Trinity College, Dublin. She’s co-founder of a project along with curator Kate Strain called the Department of Ultimology. Ultimology is the study of that which is dead or dying in a series or process. When applied to academic disciplines, it becomes the study of extinct or endangered subjects, theories, and tools of learning. Long Now recently spoke with Hallinan when she visited The Interval. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

LONG NOW: What was the inspiration for a department studying extinct or endangered subjects and theories?

Fiona Hallinan: It began back when Kate and I were both alumni of the History of Art and Architecture Department at Trinity University College, Dublin. We learned everything we studied from a rather limited slide library. And we were speculating how in the last ten years those slides probably had been digitized, and students now probably had access to an infinite number of images compared to our limited selection. We wondered how that had impacted how people learned the discipline, and therefore how that had actually evolved the discipline of art history itself. So we came up with an idea for a department within the university that would examine all the other disciplines and departments from that perspective.

Via the Department of Ultimology.


We had encountered the term “ultimology” in the context of the study of endangered languages and thought that that could be expanded to become a general discipline across the university that looked at that which was dead or dying. In 02014 we applied for and won the Trinity Creative Challenge, which was a provost’s award for artistic projects that would explore the university and present the knowledge being produced there to the general public. We spent the next year conducting interviews with different heads of departments and disciplines about what was ultimological in their disciplines. Based off of our findings, we organized the First International Conference of Ultimology, a public event that presented a mix of artistic commissions, presentations and real academic papers. Through that we were invited to be hosted as the Department of Ultimology in residence at CONNECT, which is the center for future networks at Trinity.

LN: What is your methodology when approaching a given academic discipline? Are you reaching out to specific fields and subjects that you suspect as having ultimological potential?

FH: At the beginning we just wanted to get as wide as scope as possible; we had a particular narrative that we expected to encounter, namely, that there was an increasing commercialization of the university because certain disciplines could receive funding that perhaps other modes of knowledge production could not on account of phasing out of interest and activity. We thought that a subject like, say, medieval architecture might be virtually impossible to get funding for nowadays versus something like computational linguistics. And as a result, this was causing a shift or change in the structure of the university.

The Illusion of Infinite Resources,” by the Department of Ultimology.


While we did find that that was true to an extent, we also found that as a term, “ultimology” was really exciting for lots of the academics that we spoke to, and there was a sense of relief that finally there was somewhere they could put all of this endangered or extinct knowledge. Often, we would go into a meeting and people would be prepared with heaps of examples, whereas other times people would be interested but say that ultimology wasn’t really that relevant to their discipline, only to realize through inquiry that it was.

One example of that was in Trinity’s Department of Psychology, where the department head, Dr. Jean Quigley, said that psychology didn’t really have anything ultimological because ideas and tools were added all the time instead of being taken away. We asked her for an example of something that had been recently added, and she described the concept of personality. From that, we asked what would the set of qualities we call “personality” been described as before. And she said that people would have spoken about the soul. So from that conversation we started to think about different methodologies, and we described that methodology as negative space—the space that the concept would have occupied before.

A second methodology we developed was the idea of ultimology as a service. We hold clinics where academics come to us and speak to us, and the ultimological becomes a service akin to therapy where people can get things off their chest or they can talk about their research papers that didn’t go anywhere. It becomes a repository for the burden of the recent past.

Another methodology we began to utilize was the idea of embodiment, where we embody the Department of Ultimology through commissioning artists to make us the accessories or trappings of a real department, like bureaucratic forms.

Lanyards designed by Dennis McNulty for the First International Conference of Ultimology. Via the Department of Ultimology.


For our conference, we found a company in Dublin that had a hundred remaining lanyards with mobile phone loops on them, which would have been used in the pre-smartphone age. We commissioned an artist, Dennis McNulty, to riff on these lanyards with a poetic piece of text on them about the designer of the iPhone. The lanyard itself looked like an iPhone. And so there was this potential in an object like a lanyard that connoted a certain context and space of knowledge production, and I think there’s scope there to work with artists to consider those objects and what they mean and what their associations are for us. The bureaucratic questionnaire fulfills a similar function: it asks what research is, and talks about the idea of a person’s practice. While it looks very bureaucratic, its purpose is to get people to go deeply into reflecting on what they actually do.

The performativity of being a “department”  is essential. By doing it, it becomes real. While the Department of Ultimology is technically an art project, it’s not about just a specific outcome or a specific object coming out of it;  it’s more about using an artistic process to re-evaluate everything critically.

LN: What role does nostalgia play in the Department of Ultimology? Do the academics you interview bemoan a lost discipline or practice?  

FH: We try to be careful to avoid nostalgia, to avoid people being sad for something just because of a kind of fondness for it. While I’m not against nostalgia personally, I think it’s less interesting to fetishize the past, and more interesting to look at how these things actually affect the future.

Glassware blown by Trinity’s resident glassblower John Kelly.


For example, we met with Dr. Sylvia Draper, Head of the School of Chemistry at Trinity, and asked her what had changed in the discipline of Chemistry. She spoke about how glassware used to be an essential part of research. If you were a student of chemistry, you might actually design a piece of glassware that goes with your research. Draper told us that Trinity College had a glassblowing workshop on site with a glassblower named John Kelly, but that he was going to retire in two years and would not be replaced. It ties back to the commercialization of the university: the reason he’s not being replaced is because he’s salaried and a salaried employee is a high cost for the university. And so he and his work become expendable because in theory the department can just bring in cheaper, standard glassware from abroad.

However, if you’re a student and you’re planning your experiment and it requires an intricate, strange, unique piece of glass, it might now be much more expensive for you to get it, which might impact how you look at your research. You might be less willing or able to do something weirder, essentially. I picture it like these tiny little cracks that maybe can’t be explored in a discipline as people are funnelled down into a more particular standard route.

John Kelly at work in his lab at Trinity College, Dublin. Via the Department of Ultimology.


So while there’s a sense of nostalgia thinking about John Kelly in his lab and his beautiful glassware, it’s less about trying to preserve what he’s doing for the sake of it; there’s an actual reason behind it that’s important to know about. It’s also very short-term thinking. Say his salary is 50,000 Euro a year, and a piece of special glassware costs 1,000 Euro to ship in. it’s really quickly not going to add up, and is a short-sighted view of saving money now without much thought to the future.

LN: Looking to the future, what’s next for the Department of Ultimology?

Kate Strain and Fiona Hallinan, founders of the Department of Ultimology.


We’re hoping to publish a journal in December. We’re treating the journey of making it all as part of the project as well. So it won’t be a roll-out of a finished product, and I think that we might think of the field of peer review as potential for a public event.  

Ultimately, we would like to start a Department of Ultimology in every time zone. We say “time zones” because  it’s a way of dividing the world that is perhaps more timeless than countries or nation-states. There’s an instability to those, particularly at the moment, whereas time zones have a celestial, larger-than-us quality.

Keep up with the Department of Ultimology by heading to its website or following it on Twitter.

Interview: Alexander Rose and Phil Libin on Long-Term Thinking

Posted on July 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Thinking, Rosetta   chat 0 Comments

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose and former Evernote CEO Phil Libin recently spoke with the design agency Dialogue about the layers of civilization, the future of products, and the Clock of the Long Now.

The interview is wide-ranging, covering everything from the early tech, design and science fiction influences in Rose and Libin’s childhoods to how Long Now’s pace layers theory helps reconcile the tension between long-term planning and Silicon Valley’s fast-paced approach to entrepreneurship and product innovation.

The interview also provides a look at a little-known chapter in Long Now’s history, namely, how Alexander Rose left a career in video games and virtual world design after hearing about The Clock Project:

Stewart told me about The Clock Project. Back then the project was just a conversation between Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, and Stewart, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head when I heard about it. By strange luck, there was a Board meeting a week after where I met Danny for the first time. It was then that he told me he had a funder for the first prototype of the Clock and asked if I wanted to help build it. I immediately said, “Yes, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to work on video games anymore.”

Read Dialogue’s interview with Alexander Rose and Phil Libin in full (LINK).

Watch Stewart Brand and Long Now board member Paul Saffo discuss the Pace Layers of Civilization in a 02015 Conversation at The Interval (LINK).


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