Jem Finer’s Longplayer for Voices Launches a Kickstarter

Posted on July 24th, 02014 by Chia Evers
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The Long Now Foundation’s relationship with the Longplayer Trust, which launched a Kickstarter campaign this week, is older than either organization. Nearly 20 years ago, in “The Big Here and the Long Now”, Brian Eno noted that:

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.

Two of his examples were Jem Finer’s “LongPlayer”—a 1,000-year musical composition commissioned by Artangel—and Danny Hillis’s Clock of the Long Now.

Both projects were in the early planning phases at the time, but they took form four years later on New Year’s Eve 01999. The first working prototype of The Clock marked the turn of the year at the Presidio in San Francisco by bonging twice, while Longplayer started running on a computer at the 19th-century Lighthouse in Trinity Buoy Wharf at the same time on midnight Greenwich Mean Time of the year 2000.

In 02002, Jem Finer expanded the Longplayer with a Graphical Score that transformed its six-part source music into a composition for human performers. The result was Longplayer Live, a 1,000-minute slice of the millennial composition that debuted at London’s Roundhouse, and was presented by Long Now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Artsin San Francisco in 02010.


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These performances, which ran in conjunction with the Long Conversation, were a natural outgrowth of one of the Longplayer’s primary concerns—how to sustain a composition that will long outlive its composer. Like The Clock of the Long Now, which was designed with human maintenance in mind, the Longplayer “is a social organism, depending on people—and the communication between people—for its continuation.”

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The next step in Longplayer Live’s evolution highlights this human role. The project is Longplayer for Voices, a choral adaptation of the Graphic Score. You can listen to an early test of a 1,000-second excerpt of the score for human voice in this video.

Over the next four years, Jem Finer, conductor Peter Broadbent, and composer Orlando Gough will work with a 240-person choir to develop a 1,000-minute version of Longplayer for Voices. While human voices will be needed for the performance, human generosity is needed to make the project a reality. The Kickstarter campaign will allow Longplayer for Voices to complete the score and recruit the choir in time for a performance at the Roundhouse in the fall of 02018. The Kickstarter campaign runs until August 15, 02014.

 

Adrian Hon Seminar Media

Posted on July 22nd, 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.

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Wednesday July 16, 02014 – San Francisco

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

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Future artifacts – a summary by Stewart Brand

Speaking from 02082, Hon described 5 (of 100) objects and events from this century’s history he felt most strongly evoked the astonishing trends that have transformed humanity in the past 8 decades.

Not all developments proved to be positive. One such was Locked Simulation Interrogation. In 02019 in Washington DC, frustrated by a series of 5 unsolved bombings, the FBI combined an unremovable top quality virtual reality (VR) rig with detailed real-time brain scanning to run a suspect through a cascade of 572 intense simulations designed to draw out everything the suspect knew about the bombings. As a result the 6th bombing was averted, and the technique of adaptive VR became a standard law enforcement tool. But over time it was found to be unreliable and often harmful, and in 02033 the Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.

By the 02040s people’s comfort with mood drugs and discomfort with lives that felt meaningless (mass automation had replaced many forms of work) led to the Fourth Great Awakening. In 02044 a religious entrepreneur found a way to transform human nature and acquire converts to the “Christian Consummation Movement” with a combination of one eyedropper, 18 pills, and an “induction course of targeted viruses and magstim.” Inductees were made more empathic, generous, trusting, and disciplined. The movement grew to 20 million Americans by the 02070s before it leveled off. The world learned what could be done with desire modification.

A lasting monument to humanity’s progress off planet was Alto Firenze, the first space station designed for elegance. Constructed in 02036, it progressed through a series of beautifications and uses from hotel to conference center and art museum to eventually being declared a World Heritage Site. In 2052 it was moved to L5 and thus escaped the cascade of debris collisions that completely emptied the over-crowded low-Earth orbit later that year.

Perhaps it was the steady increase of older people, along with continuing trends in self-quantification and “gamification,” that led to the Micromort Detector in 02032. “What if you could have a number that told you exactly how risky an action, any action, was going to be?“ The Lifeline bracelet measured the wearer’s exact health condition along with the environment and the action being contemplated and displayed how risky it would be in “micromorts”—a unit representing one chance in a million of death. Go canoeing—10 micromorts. Two glasses of wine—1 micromort. The bracelets became tremendously popular, though they were found to increase anxiety badly in some users. Later spinoffs included the Microfun Detector and Micromorals Detector.

Signs of ancient life were found on Mars in 2028, on Europa in 2048. “By the time extrasolar alien life was first imaged in 2055, celebrations were considerably smaller, the wonder and excitement having been eroded by the slow drip of discoveries. By then, everyone had simply assumed that life was out there, everywhere.“ One planet now discovered to have signs of intelligent life is 328 light years away. Thus the Armstrong Expedition, using an antimatter-fueled lighthugger craft bearing only artificial intelligences set out to make contact in 02079.

“This century,” Hon summarized, “we learned what it means to be human.”

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Alexander Rose speaks at Catalyst Week, Las Vegas on July 25th

Posted on July 19th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Alexander Rose - Long Now Foundation

On Friday, July 25th 02014, Long Now Foundation’s Executive Director Alexander Rose will speak at Catalyst Week series in Las Vegas. This month’s speakers are this Thursday and Friday at the Learning Village in downtown Las Vegas. You can RSVP here to attend.

Catalyst Week is a monthly event sponsored by the Downtown Project, Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh’s effort revitalize urban Las Vegas. As he discussed in his Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) for Long Now Hsieh hopes to make Last Vegas “the most community-focused large city in the world”.

You can watch Tony’s SALT talk to hear more about the Downtown Project or read more about him in our Seminar primer blog post.

The Future of Language at The Interval: Tuesday July 22

Posted on July 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Laura Welcher of Long Now and Rosetta ProjectDavid Evan Harris Executive Director of Global LivesMandana Seyfeddinipur
Laura Welcher, David Evan Harris, and Mandana Seyfeddinipur speak on Tuesday, July 22 at The Interval

This Tuesday at The Interval “The Future of Language” featuring Dr. Laura Welcher of Long Now’s Rosetta Project and Global Lives Project‘s David Evan Harris, and special guest Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme who is visiting from London.

Tuesday July 22, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are strongly encouraged as space is limited

Long Now’s Rosetta Project is dedicated to documenting and preserving human languages. In 02014 preservation is crucial because the languages of the world are dying at an unprecedented rate. And that’s only part of a larger problem.

The link between language diversity and biodiversity is well established. A quarter of all languages on Earth will not survive this century. When we lose a language we also lose the culture of its speakers, their specialized knowledge of the natural world and their care for it.

On Tuesday, July 22, at The Interval you’ll hear more about the situation and a new initiative between Long Now and the Global Lives Project to document the lives and culture of endangered language speakers and raise awareness of the problem in collaboration with The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and a team from the Smithsonian Institution.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur directs the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS, University of London. She is enabling hundreds of groups around the world to document dying languages around the world, some of the most important work going in this field.

The Global Lives Project is a Bay Area non-profit developing a video library of everyday life in cultures around the planet. Global Lives’ unique long-form videos tell a “Big Here” story about people around the world.

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 out the full list here.

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

World’s Oldest Comics: The Kanozero Petroglyphs

Posted on July 14th, 02014 by Chia Evers
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In Understanding Comics, which Stewart Brand described as “a seminal work at the level of Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information,” Scott McCloud defined comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Using this definition, McCloud proposed several examples of the earliest known comic: the 11th-century CE Bayeaux Tapestry, which tells the story of William I’s conquest of England; the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, an illustrated 14th-century CE Mixtec manuscript that narrates the life of Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw; and Egyptian tomb paintings like the harvest scenes in the Tomb of Menna, or this example from the Tomb of Nakht.

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Older than all of these, though, are the Kanozero Petroglyphs in northwestern Russia, which were carved between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. On an expedition in 02012, Jan Magne Gjerde and his colleagues from Tromsø University Museum peeled layers of sod from the ancient stones, revealing images of boats, moose, beavers, and harpoons.

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One series of images depicted a solitary hunter on skis, tracking a bear uphill. According to Past Horizons, “The ski tracks are just as one would expect for someone going up a slope with a good distance between the strides. The hunter then gets his feet together, skis down a slope, stops, removes his skis, takes four steps – and plunges his spear into the bear.” Describing the find, Gjerde said, “This is the oldest example of a cartoon petroglyph we know of, at least in Northern Europe, so it was utterly thrilling to get the chance to be part of this discovery.”

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In their ten days at the site, Gjerde and his team colored the petroglyphs with chalk, covered them with plastic sheeting, then traced their outlines onto the plastic with felt-tip pen. Although it was a cumbersome procedure—especially when unexpected rainstorms drenched the plastic sheets—it produced a portable record of the carvings that could be taken back to the museum and studied at length.

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As Gjerde noted, the petroglyphs add a layer of understanding to the archaeological record at this site. “We can excavate a settlement or find arrowheads but we usually don’t have direct evidence of what sort of animals have been hunted with such weapons.” At Lake Kanozero, the comics carved into the rock not only show what animals the ancient residents of the area hunted, but also how they hunted them. As Gjerde put it, “These people, at this spot, documented part of their lives and I was fortunate to be one of the first people in 5,000 years to see it.”

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Anne Neuberger Seminar Tickets

Posted on July 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Anne Neuberger presents Inside the NSA

Anne Neuberger presents “Inside the NSA”

TICKETS

Wednesday August 6, 02014 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

The NSA’s failures are public headlines. Its successes are secret.

These days America’s National Security Agency lives at the intersection of two paranoias—governmental fears of attack and citizen fears about loss of privacy. Both paranoias were exacerbated by a pair of devastating attacks—9/11 and Edward Snowden. The agency now has to evolve rapidly while managing its normal heavy traffic of threats and staying ahead of the ever-accelerating frontier of cyber capabilities.

In the emerging era of transparency, and in the thick of transition, what does the NSA look like from inside?

Threats are daily, but governance is long term. At the heart of handling that balance is Anne Neuberger, Special Assistant to NSA Director Michael Rogers and Director of the Commercial Solutions Center. (Before this assignment she was Special Advisor to the Secretary of Navy; before that, in 02007, a White House Fellow.) She is exceptionally smart, articulate, and outspoken.

Adrian Hon Seminar Primer

Posted on July 7th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Next Wednesday, July 16, Adrian Hon presents “A History of the Future in 100 Objects” in our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. Each month our Seminar Primer gives you background about the upcoming speaker and links to find out even more. This month we’ll tell you how Adrian Hon uses the power of narrative to create a science fiction of history and bring possible futures into focus.

Nothing gets us going like a good story. Colorful details entice us to escape from reality for a while, juicy plot twists hook us into an alternate world, and mysterious cliff hangers leave us always wanting more. Adrian Hon is no stranger to this power of storytelling: in fact, he’s harnessed it as an effective tool for motivation and inspiration.

Hon is a successful entrepreneur and an expert on alternate reality games (ARG). ARGs are narrative-driven games that blur the line between reality and fantasy; they use real-world tools and interactions to advance their fictional plot lines. Hon co-founded and is CEO of Six to Start, the game design company that is now probably best known for creating the running app Zombies, Run!

In the early 02000s Hon was working on a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Oxford when his burgeoning interest in ARG gaming took him down a different path. It all started with his passion for The Beast, one of the most successful early ARGs created to promote Steven Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Hon became the moderator for The Cloudmakers, an online discussion group dedicated to solving The Beast, and he wrote a detailed walkthrough of the game called “The Guide“.

Hon’s work on The Beast attracted the attention of ARG developers, and in 02003 he was invited to join game design start-up Mind Candy in London. There, he co-created Perplex City. Ostensibly a collectible card game that featured interconnected puzzles of varying complexity, it actually transported players into an intricate alternate reality.

Perplex City was a fictional place that existed in a parallel universe, one where society revered mental acuity like ours venerates athletic skill. Citizens of Perplex City would solve puzzles in order to rise into the elite class, and only the very smartest were invited to join the academy in the city center. Mimicking that meritocracy, each game card had a unique code which, along with the puzzle’s solution, earned players points on the Perplex City global leader board. (Polygon).

After Mind Candy, Hon and his brother co-founded their own game design company, Six To Start. They’ve worked with organizations like the BBC and Disney Imagineering to create ARGs that bring television shows, literature, and even important lessons to life. Take, for example, Smokescreen, an alternate reality game that teaches teens how to interact responsibly with social media and other digital communication tools. Or We Tell Stories, a game-like experiment in digital storytelling – including a story told through Google Maps – created in collaboration with Penguin Books.

These games are clever forms of marketing, and exceptionally effective educational tools. Their rich alternate realities bring scenarios to life in full technicolor, and the game structure means that players learn by actively searching for information, rather than by passively receiving it. The motivating power of ARGs is illustrated clearly by Zombies, Run!, Six to Start’s popular running app. It’s not your average fitness tracker:

When you put on your headphones and hit the play button on Zombies, Run!, you are simultaneously in the real world and in the game world. Imagine virtual-reality goggles for your ears. Using the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer and GPS system, the program knows where you’re going and how fast you’re running. It creates goals to reach, places to explore, allies to meet and enemies to defeat. (Polygon)

Perhaps it’s this same interest in alternate realities that draws Hon to explore possible futures for human civilization. As a teenager, for example, Hon was actively involved in the Mars Society, an organization that promotes and pursues exploration of the Red Planet (incidentally, Hon once talked about Mars exploration at a TED conference, thereby becoming one of the youngest people ever to take the TED stage).

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In his new book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, Hon muses about Mars exploration and other scenarios that may mark the coming century. The book is a late 21st century analogue of Richard Kurin’s November 02013 SALT talk (“American History in 101 Objects“): Hon has written it from the perspective of a historian in the year 02084, who describes the hundred objects that illustrate the defining moments in 21st century human history. Imagine the first de-extincted animal to be returned successfully to the wild, or the first fan-fiction book to be written using RFL – a text written by an algorithm based on an existing author’s characteristic tone and style.

In the collection’s introduction, the fictitious historian writes:

Every century is extraordinary, of course. Some may be the bloodiest or the darkest; others encompass momentous social revolutions, or scientific advances, or religious and philosophical movements. The 21st century is different: it represents the first time in our history that we have truly had to question what it means to be human. It is the stories of our collective humanity that I hope to tell through the hundred objects in this book. … This book is not the history of the 21st century; it is only a history, and a hundred objects can only tell a fraction of our stories. Some we can be proud of; others we might prefer to forget. My goal is that this book will give our successors some useful knowledge, some insights, at least some amusement. Perhaps, I hope, even some guidance.

Blending fact with fiction (a balance that shifts gradually toward the latter as time progresses), Hon’s descriptions present a nuanced image of 21st century civilization. Neither utopian nor dystopian, the collection suggests a sense of hope in humanity’s ability to handle whatever possible crises are thrown in its way. Hon is imaginative in the technological advancements he describes, but also never without some skepticism about its impact on human relationships and societal well-being.

These are stories of a possible future, stories of life and death and love and war and science and faith and exploration and despair and hope. It’s about what it means to be human in a century where humanity has never mattered more. And, like all science fiction, it’s about the hopes and fears we have today.

In a way the book is a sort of time-shifted alternative reality, using the story-telling skills he has honed working on ARGs to lead his readers to think about possible futures that just might be the real thing.

Long Now presents Adrian Hon talking about A History of the Future in 100 Objects at the SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday, July 16 in our continuing Seminars About Long-term Thinking series.

Craig Childs: Apocalyptic Planet, Field Guide to the Everending Earth — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on July 2nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In July 02013 author Craig Childs spoke to Long Now about his travels around the world. One of the world’s great intrepid travelers and story-tellers, Childs finds the places on Earth that are most geologically or climatically dangerous and hangs out, observing closely, then documents them from a personal as well as scientific perspective. 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. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until August 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):

This Earth is a story teller, Childs began. And it is not a stable place to live. It is always ending. We think of endings as sudden, but it is always a process. [...]

I would like to backpack on Mars, said Childs. For the local equivalent he hiked across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where it never rains. It’s been a desert for 150 million years. You walk across nothing but salt so hard it pings like steel. The sun blasts you all day and at night the water in your pack freezes solid. You walk for days and you don’t see a single living thing, you’re on a dead planet, and then it gets really strange because pink flamingoes come flying in over your head. They’re there to strain brine shrimp out of water sources. You’re at the end of the world and there are flamingoes! You think, ‘Yeah, that’s what this planet is about.’

Craig Childs’ books include House of Rain, Finders Keepers, and Apocalyptic Planet. He is a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and contributing editor at High Country News.

Craig Childs and Cactus

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.

Long Now’s Orrery Prototype For The 10,000 Year Clock

Posted on June 27th, 02014 by Austin Brown
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The Long Now's Orrery prototype

One of the first things that visitors see when they walk into The Interval, Long Now’s new public space, is the Orrery–a prototype for part of the 10,000 Year Clock now under construction. The Orrery is a simplified mechanical model of our solar system, a precise and durable computer, and an eight-foot-tall kinetic sculpture.

This is our 21st century interpretation of an ancient device: the first record of a planetary model dates back two millennia. While the modern design, the direct ancestor of Long Now’s Orrery, was first built in England three centuries ago.

The Orrery at The Interval

Our Orrery’s display features the six planets that can be seen with the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn). The “bit adder” gears below the planetary display each drives a planet. The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, so this model of the solar system can show their positions in orbit around the Sun accurately.

A kinetic sculpture of the Long Now: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years. So in the time since this prototype was first completed in 02005, Saturn would have traveled only a third of its year.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the actual celestial body:

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  • Sun: Yellow Calcite
  • Mercury: Meteorite
  • Venus: Lemon Yellow Mexican Calcite
  • Earth: Chilean Lapis
  • Mars: Red Namibian Jasper
  • Jupiter: Banded Sandstone
  • Saturn: Banded Utah Onyx

Because we can look back and see that the way time has been measured throughout history has changed, it’s reasonable to imagine when looking forward that it will continue to change – our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now. The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t at the whim of the powers that be or of passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock, therefore, keeps track of these robust and durable units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

Also robust and durable is The Orrery’s mechanical system for calculating the planets’ movements. A large and complicated gear system could do the job, but would wear down and lose accuracy over the millennia. To avoid this problem, Danny Hillis invented a device called a serial bit adder – a simple mechanical binary computer. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable – these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.

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The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states even if they become significantly worn. This is a digital representation. Most traditional clocks, on the other hand, perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number of states. This is an analog representation. As the gear’s teeth become worn, its position can shift and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time.

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. Lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists include Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist, and the base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.

Almost a decade after its completion, the Orrery has become an iconic image for Long Now and a fixture of our public space. Many first visit The Interval because they notice the unusual 8-foot tall structure through our window, and they have to know more. For Long Now members and staff it’s an inspiring reminder of the full-scale Clock, whose Orrery will be four times the size of our prototype. In the future the Sun and six planets may be the first clue to a visitor to the Clock site as to the nature of the device they’ve just discovered.

And others are inspired to reproduce the Orrery themselves:

Orrery sketched by Dan Bransfield

The Orrery is just one of many unique features of The Interval at Long Now. Come visit us and see the Orrery in person, have a delicious beverage, and enjoy all The Interval’s many pleasures. We are open 10AM to Midnight every day in San Francisco.

Stefan Kroepelin Seminar Media

Posted on June 25th, 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.

Civilization’s Mysterious Desert Cradle: Rediscovering the Deep Sahara

Tuesday June 10, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Kroepelin Seminar page.

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

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The Sahara and civilization – a summary by Stewart Brand

“Almost everything breaks in the desert,” Kröpelin began. He showed trucks mired in sand, one vehicle blown up by a land mine, and a Unimog with an impossibly, hopelessly broken axle. (Using the attached backhoe, it hunched its way 50 miles back to civilization.)

The eastern Sahara remains one of the least explored places on Earth, and it is full of wonders. Every year for 40 years Kröpelin has made multi-month expeditions to figure out the paleoclimatological changes and human saga in the region over the last 17,000 years. There are no guides, no roads. When you find something—astonishing rock art (there are thousands of sites), an amazing geological feature—you know you’re the first human to see it in thousands of years.

A great river, 7 miles wide, 650 miles long, once flowed into the Nile from the desert. Now called Wadi Howar, its rich, still unstudied archeological sites show it used to be a thoroughfare from the deep desert. A vast spectacular plateau called the Ennedi Highlands, as big as Switzerland, has exquisite rock art detailing pastoral herds of cattle and even dress and hair styles. Mouflon (wild sheep) and crocodiles still survive there.

Most remarkable of all are the remote Ounianga Lakes, some of them kept charged with ancient deep-aquifer fresh water because of the draw of intense evaporation from the hypersaline central Lake Yoa. In 1999 Kröpelin began a stratigraphic study of the lake’s sediment, eventually collecting a treasure for climate study—a 52-foot core sample which shows every season for the last 11,000 years.

For Kröpelin, many strands of evidence spell out the sequence of events in the eastern Sahara. From 17,000 to 10,500 BP (before the present), there were no human settlements along the Nile. But the Sahara was gradually getting wetter in the period 10,500 to 9,000 BP, and people moved in from the south. The peak of the African Humid Period, when the Sahara was green and widely occupied, was 9,000 to 7,300 years ago. Then a gradual desiccation from 7,300 to 5,500 BP drove people to the Nile, and the first farms appeared there. From 5,500 BP on, the Nile’s pharaonic civilization got going and lasted 3,000 years.

Unique artifacts such black-rimmed pots and asymmetric stone knives, once used in the far desert, turn up in the settlements that created Egypt. Kröpelin concluded: “Egypt was a gift of the Nile, but it was also a gift of the desert.”

And of climate change.

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