Warren Buffett Wins Multi-Million Dollar Long Bet

Posted on February 9th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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SAN FRANCISCO, CA. February 9, 02018.* The Long Now Foundation today announced that it has arrived at a decision for Long Bets #362, popularly known as the “Million Dollar Buffett Bet,” between Warren Buffett and Protégé Partners LLC. Warren Buffett has won the bet, and by a significant margin.

In the bet, Warren Buffett predicted that “Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 02008, and ending on December 31, 02017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.”

Warren Buffett invested in the Vanguard index fund. Protégé picked five hedge fund of funds (whose names have never been publicly disclosed—although Buffett does see their annual audits).

While Protégé’s position pulled ahead in the early years of the bet, which occurred during the global financial collapse, Buffett’s position more than made up for it, taking the lead for the first time in the bet’s fifth year. Over the decade-long bet, the index fund returned 7.1% compounded annually. Protégé funds returned an average of only 2.2% net of all fees. Buffett’s point, which was well-illustrated, is that when looking at returns, fees are often ignored or obscured. And when that money is not re-invested each year with the principal, it can almost never overtake an index fund if you take the long view.

“In my opinion, the disappointing results for hedge-fund investors that this bet exposed are almost certain to recur in the future,” Buffett said in last year’s Berkshire Hathaway annual report. “When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.”

Girls Inc. of Omaha

Buffett and Protégé initially wagered an investment that would become $1 million at the end of the bet, but the bond value appreciated faster than expected, resulting in shifting the investment strategy and growing the winnings to $2.2 million. The winnings will go to the charity of Buffett’s choosing, Girls Inc. of Omaha. Given that Girls Inc. currently has an operating budget of $2.8 million annually, the winnings will go a long way in furthering the charity’s mission to inspire girls to be “strong, smart and bold.”

“Long Bets is honored to have hosted this decade-long wager,” said Alexander Rose, Executive Director of The Long Now Foundation. “It is both gratifying to see long-term thinking winning the bet, and to have such a great outcome for the worthy charity receiving the winning stakes.”

About Long Bets

Long Bets is a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake. The Long Now Foundation furnishes the continuity to see even the longest bets through to public resolution.

The Long Bets forum is intended as a tool to improve long-term thinking. We often make statements about the future, but there’s little that compels us to really think about what we say: even the craziest statements will never have to be revisited. We only remember the tiny fraction of statements that turn out to be correct, leading us to think all predictions generally come true.

Long Bets is changing all this by encouraging us to hold ourselves accountable for the predictions we make. We ask all predictors to put their name, a solid argument, and a financial pledge down in support of their statement about the future. And Long Now, in turn, provides a long-term record where any prediction can be revisited, reviewed, and discussed at any time.

How to make a Long Bet

A Long Bet always starts with a prediction. Anyone can visit the Long Bets website and click on “Make a prediction.” All predictions should come with an argument in support, a financial pledge, and an end-date. The minimum term for a prediction is two years; there is no maximum term.

A prediction becomes a bet when a challenger comes forward with a counterargument. The predictor may then choose to make a bet with the challenger. The predictor and challenger will agree on a wager, and each will choose a charitable cause to receive the winnings.

When the end-date for the bet passes, The Long Now Foundation will adjudicate the bet and donate the proceeds to the winner’s charity of choice.

The Long Bets site offers a public record of all predictions and bets. We highly encourage discussion about what we may learn, or what we have learned, from bets and their outcomes. This is what feeds improvement of long-term thinking—the real pay-off.

*The Long Now Foundation uses five-digit dates. The extra zero is to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years.

Edge Question 02018

Posted on February 7th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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John Brockman.

For the last twenty years, literary agent John Brockman has presented the members of his online salon Edge with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time.(Previous prompts include “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” or “What should we be worried about?”).

The essay responses — in excess of a hundred each year — offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.

Brockman’s interest in asking questions traces back to the late 01960s and the work of his friend, the late conceptual artist/philosopher James Lee Byars. In 01968, Byars launched a one-hour Belgian television program called the “World Question Center.” He explained the thinking behind the program as follows:

To arrive at an axiology of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

“Chrysanthemum” by Katinka Matson | katinkamatson.com

This year’s question will be Edge’s last. And this time, Brockman’s doing something a little different.

“After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions,” Brockman writes. “So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask ‘The Last Question’? Your last question, the question for which you’ll be remembered.”

That’s right: instead of answering Brockman’s annual question, Edge Salon contributors are providing their own questions as answers.

This year’s extensive collection of “answers” includes contributions by several Long Now Board members, fellows, and past and future speakers from our Seminars About Long-Term Thinking speaker series:

What is the Last Question?

Chris Anderson,¹ author, entrepreneur and Emeritus Member of the Long Now Board of Directors, asks:

How can we put rational prices on human lives without becoming inhuman?

Complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman² asks:

How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?

Writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson³ asks:

Will the process of discovery be completed in any of the natural sciences?

Stewart Brand,⁴ co-founder and President of Long Now and Revive & Restore, asks:

Can wild animals that are large and dangerous be made averse to threatening humans?

Brian Christian,⁵ co-author of Algorithms To Live By, asks:

Is the unipolar future of a “singleton” the inevitable destiny of intelligent life?

The geneticist George Church, who is working with Revive & Restore on reviving extinct species, asks:

What will we do as an encore once we manage to develop technological solutions to infection, aging, poverty, asteroids, and heat death of the universe?

Jared Diamond,⁶ author of Guns, Germs and Steel, asks:

Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?

Physicist Freeman Dyson⁷ asks:

Is it ultimately possible for life to bend the shape of the universe to fit life’s purposes, as we are now bending the shape of our environment here on earth?

Science historian George Dyson⁸ asks:

Why are there no trees in the ocean?

Neuroscientist and Long Now Board Member David Eagleman⁹ asks:

Can we create new senses for humans — not just touch, taste, vision, hearing, smell, but totally novel qualia for which we don’t yet have words?

Musician and Long Now Co-Founder Brian Eno¹⁰ asks:

Have we left the Age of Reason, never to return?

Academic, businessman and author Juan Enriquez¹¹ asks:

So, before The Singularity…?

Linguist Daniel L. Everett¹² asks:

Will humans ever embrace their own diversity?

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris¹³ asks:

Is the actual all that is possible?

Inventor and Long Now Co-Founder W. Daniel Hillis¹⁴ asks:

What is the principle that causes complex adaptive systems (life, organisms, minds, societies) to spontaneously emerge from the interaction of simpler elements (chemicals, cells, neurons, individual humans)?

Futurist and Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly¹⁵ asks:

How can the process of science be improved?

Margaret Levi,¹⁶ Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford, asks :

Are humans capable of building a moral economy?

Technology reporter John Markoff¹⁷ asks:

How will the world be changed when battery storage technology improves at the same exponential rate seen in computer chips in recent decades?

Theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan¹⁸ asks:

Are there limits to what we can know about the universe?

Futurist Tim O’Reilly¹⁹ asks:

How can AI and other digital technologies help us create global institutions that we can trust?

Religious historian Elaine Pagels²⁰ asks:

Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker²¹ asks:

How can we empower the better angels of our nature?

Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco²² asks:

What will it take for us to be fully confident that we have found life elsewhere in the cosmos?

Royal Astronomer Martin Rees²³ asks:

Will post-humans be organic or electronic?

Futurist and Long Now Board Member paul saffo²⁴ asks:

Will we ever be able to predict earthquakes?

Businessman and Long Now Board Member Peter Schwartz²⁵ asks:

Is the universe relatively simple and comprehensible by the human brain, or is it so complex, higher dimensional and multiversal that it remains forever illusive to humans?

Science writer Michael Shermer²⁶ asks:

Would you like to live 1,000 years?

Science fiction author Bruce Sterling²⁷ asks:

Do the laws of physics change with the passage of time?

Biotechnologist and geneticist J. Craig Venter²⁸ asks:

Will the creation of a super-human class from a combination of genome editing and direct biological-machine interfaces lead to the collapse of civilization?

Theoretical physicist Geoffrey B. West²⁹ asks:

How and when will it end or will it persist indefinitely?

Science writer Carl Zimmer³⁰ asks:

How does the past give rise to the future?

These are just a few of this year’s thought-provoking answers; you can read the full collection here.

Long Now Foundation talks by this year’s Edge contributors (Most are available to watch for free online):

[1] Chris Anderson spoke at Long Now about “The Makers Revolution” (02013) and “The Long Time Tail” (02006).

[2] Samuel Arbesman spoke at The Interval about “Technology at the Limits of Comprehension” (02016). Note: video not yet available.

[3] Mary Catherine Bateson gave a Long Now talk titled “Live Longer, Think Longer” (02011).

[4] Stewart Brand has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “Pace Layers Thinking” (02015), “Reviving Extinct Species” (02013), “Long Finance” (02010, with Alexander Rose and Brian Eno), “Rethinking Green” (02009), and “Cities and Time” (02005).

[5] Brian Christian spoke at Long Now on “Algorithms To Live By” (02016).

[6] Jared Diamond spoke at Long Now on “How Societies Fail — And Sometimes Succeed” (02005).

[7] Freeman Dyson spoke at Long Now with his children Esther and George Dyson on “The Difficulty in Looking Far Ahead” (02005).

[8] In addition to speaking with his father and sister in 02005 (see footnote 7), George Dyson spoke at Long Now about “The Digital Universe and Why Things Appear to Be Speeding Up” (02013) and “Long-term Thinking About Large-scale Computing” (02004).

[9] David Eagleman spoke at Long Now on “The Brain and the Now” (02016) and “Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization” (02010).

[10] Brian Eno has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “The Long Now, now” (02014, with Danny Hillis), “Long Finance” (02010, with Stewart Brand and Alexander Rose), “Playing with Time” (02006, with Will Wright), and “The Long Now” (02003).

[11] Juan Enriquez spoke at Long Now about “Mapping the Frontier of Knowledge” (02007).

[12] Daniel L. Everett spoke at Long Now about “Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge, and the Future” (02009).

[13] Sam Harris spoke at Long Now about “The View from the End of the World” (02005).

[14] Danny Hillis spoke at Long Now about “The Long Now, now” (02014, with Brian Eno) and “Progress on the 10,000 Year Clock” (02004).

[15] Kevin Kelly spoke at Long Now about “The Next 30 Digital Years” (02016), “Technium Unbound” (02014), and “The Next 100 Years of Science” (02006).

[16] Margaret Levi spoke at The Interval about “The Organized Pursuit of Knowledge” (02017).

[17] John Markoff spoke at The Interval about “The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots” (02015). Note: video not yet available.

[18] Priyamvada Natarajan spoke at Long Now about “Solving Dark Matter and Dark Energy” (02016).

[19] Tim O’Reilly spoke at Long Now on “The Birth of the Global Mind” (02012) and at The Interval on “Maps and Metaphors” (02018). Note: video from O’Reilly’s Interval talk not yet available.

[20] Elaine Pagels spoke at Long Now about “The Truth About The Book of Revelations” (02012).

[21] Steven Pinker spoke at Long Now about “The Decline of Violence” (02012) and will be speaking be speaking at Long Now on “A New Enlightenment” on March 13, 02018.

[22] Carolyn Porco spoke at Long Now about “Searching for Life in the Solar System” (02017).

[23] Martin Rees spoke at Long Now about “Life’s Future in the Cosmos” (02010).

[24] Paul Saffo spoke at Long Now about “The Creator Economy” (02015), “Pace Layers Thinking” (02015, with Stewart Brand), and “Embracing Uncertainty” (02008).

[25] Peter Schwartz has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “The Starships ARE Coming” (02013), “Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress” (02008, with Niall Ferguson), “Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years” (02006, with Ralph Cavanagh), and “The Art of the Really Long View” (02003).

[26] Michael Shermer spoke at Long Now about “The Long Arc of Moral Progress” (02015).

[27] Bruce Sterling spoke at Long Now about “The Singularity” (02004).

[28] Craig Venter spoke at Long Now about “Joining 3.5 Billion Years of Microbial Invention” (02008).

[29] Geoffrey West spoke at Long Now about “The Universal Laws of Growth and Pace” (02017) and “Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” (02011).

[30] Carl Zimmer spoke at Long Now about “Viral Time” (02011).

Nicky Case: The Attractors Behind Disasters

Posted on January 25th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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Why do disasters like blackouts and financial crises cascade so quickly, but fixing them takes so long? The answer, game developer Nicky Case says, is “attractors”—the parts of a complex system that attract the system towards failure.

 

 

Largest Early World Map Set to Be Unveiled at Rumsey Map Center

Posted on January 24th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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Urbano Monte’s planisphere, digitally stitched together. Source: Rumsey Map Center

On July 25, 01585, near the end of a century of unprecedented change, four Japanese boys stopped in Milan on their way back home to Japan. They’d been sent as the first Japanese Embassy to Europe three years earlier by the Jesuit missionary Alesandro Valignano. Their European tour took them through Spain, where they met King Philip II, and to Rome, where they met with the Pope. Now, in Milan, they encountered Urbano Monte, a gentleman scholar from a wealthy Milanese family whose interests had lately turned to geography. Writing about meeting the Japanese boys, Monte “commented on their appearance and manners; the former he found odd but he thought their manners impressive and their eating habits fascinating.”

Detail of Tavola XXXXII (Antarctica, Urbano Monte Portraits of 1587 and 1589).

The encounter with the Japanese embassy inspired Monte to undertake an ambitious project that would consume his efforts for the next twenty years: the Trattato Universale, a four-volume compendium and geographical treatise that attempted to showcase the entire geographic knowledge of the world. The third volume of the Trattato contained his most impressive and innovative work: a map of the world across sixty individual sheets that, were it to be stitched together as his instructions dictated, would be the largest world map made in the sixteenth century.

But Monte’s project was largely forgotten by history, and his life and work rarely studied. His world map was hidden away in an atlas for centuries, the bound pages belying the visionary scope contained within. In September 02017, David Rumsey, a map collector and Long Now’s Treasurer of the Board of Directors, acquired the map from antique map seller Barry Ruderman for the Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University. Now, the Rumsey Map Center is bringing Monte’s vision to life. Rumsey’s team has digitized and assembled the sixty sheets into a single world map that stands a remarkable nine feet in diameter.

The map is extraordinary for reasons beyond its size. It largely eschewed the Ptolemaic modes of representation that had held sway in mapmaking since the time of the Greeks in favor of contemporary cartographic sources. And, in an unusual choice, Monte used polar azimuthal projection, portraying the spherical Earth with the North Pole at its center — a perspective seldom used in mapmaking until the advent of air travel in the 20th century, most notably on the emblem of the United Nations.

The United Nations emblem, top, and the Urbano Monte planisphere, bottom.

In a recent essay, historian Katherine Parker writes that Monte’s choice of azimuthal projection is a reflection of the experimental and exciting time of sixteenth century Renaissance cartography:

With the advent of circumnavigations, the trade to the East Indies, and the encounter with the Americas, the known world of Renaissance scholars literally expanded, necessitating new ways to depict the round globe on a two-dimensional plane.

Compared to the better-known and more widely-used Mercator projection, Monte’s azimuthal projection has the advantage of accurately displaying the relative size of continents in the Northern Hemisphere, whereas Mercator’s exaggerates the size of land masses like North America, making it seem larger than Africa when it is in fact three times smaller (As has been noted elsewhere, this artifact of the Mercator projection has had significant social and political implications). Like the Mercator projection, polar azimuthal projection results in distortion around the South pole and Antarctica. But as Greg Miller writes, this was in line with the cartographic thinking of the time. “Most cartographers thought [Antarctica] had to be massive to counterbalance the large landmasses to the North,” Rumsey says.

Each region contains notes and images that nod to the location’s myths and histories. Japan in particular contains numerous place names not seen on other maps of the time — an indication both of Monte’s interest in the region and the likelihood that he was given access to Jesuit knowledge of the terrain after the visit by the Japanese embassy.

Like many mapmakers of his era, Monte chose to fill in the blank spaces of his map, which teems with with mermen, unicorns, griffins and large birds. Chet Van Duzer, a renowned History of Cartography scholar, has written extensively on this tendency in mapmaking, which he argues is motivated by horror vacui — a fear of empty spaces.

Tavola XXXXII (Antarctica, Map Dedication, Urbano Monte Portrait)

“Sea monsters certainly expressed a fear of the unknown depths of the ocean,” Van Duzer says, “and also, in some cases, of the unknown dangers of distant regions. The Indian Ocean, the most distant ocean from Europe, tends to have a higher number of sea monsters than other oceans on medieval European maps.”

Van Duzer theorizes that the monsters that persisted among so many sixteenth century maps could be an attempt by mapmakers to hide their ignorance, or to increase the market value for their works (Wealthy patrons preferred lavish decorations). As maps transitioned from ways of illustrating cosmic principles (as in the medieval mappa mundi) to being reliable instruments of navigation, the sea monsters disappeared.

It is an unusual and remarkable map, far ahead of its time. Now, thanks to advances in technology, and 430 years after it was first envisioned, viewers can finally see the world as Urbano Monte intended. The map is viewable online and to visitors to the Rumsey Map Center.


Learn More:

Stewart Brand Gives In-Depth and Personal Interview to Tim Ferriss

Posted on January 16th, 02018 by Ahmed Kabil
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Tim Ferriss, who wrote the The Four Hour Work Week and gave a Long Now talk on accelerated learning in 02011, recently interviewed Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand on his podcast, “The Tim Ferriss Show”. The interview is wide-ranging, in-depth, and among the most personal Brand has given to date. Over the course of nearly three hours, Brand touches on everything from the Whole Earth Catalog, why he gave up skydiving, how he deals with depression, his early experiences with psychedelics, the influence of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller on his thinking, his recent CrossFit regimen, and the ongoing debate between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation. He also discusses the ideas and projects of The Long Now Foundation.

Brand frames The Long Now Foundation as a way to augment social intelligence:

The idea of the Long Now Foundation is to give encouragement and permission to society that is rewarded for thinking very, very rapidly, in business terms and, indeed, in scientific terms, of rapid turnaround, and getting inside the adversaries’ loop, move fast and break things, [to think long term]. Long term thinking might be proposing that some things you don’t want to break. They might involve moving slow, and steadily.

The Pace Layer diagram.

He introduces the pace layer diagram as a tool to approach global scale challenges:

What we’re proposing is there are a lot of problems, a lot of issues and a lot of quite wonderful things in that category of being big and slow moving and so I wound up with Brian Eno developing a pace layer diagram of civilization where there’s the fast moving parts like fashion and commerce, and then it goes slower when you get to infrastructure and then things move really slow in how governance changes, and then you go down to culture and language and religion move really slowly and then nature, the tectonic forces in climate change and so on move really big and slow. And what’s interesting about that is that the fast parts get all the attention, but the slow parts have all the power. And if you want to really deal with the powerful forces in the world, bear relation to seeing what can be done with appreciating and maybe helping adjust the big slow things.

Stewart Brand and ecosystem ecologist Elena Bennett during the Q&A of her November 02017 SALT Talk. Photo: Gary Wilson.

Ferris admits that in the last few months he’s been pulled out of the current of long-term thinking by the “rip tide of noise,” and asks Brand for a “homework list” of SALT talks that can help provide him with perspective. Brand recommends Jared Diamond’s 02005 talk on How Societies Fail (And Sometimes Succeed), Matt Ridley’s 02011 talk on Deep Optimism, and Ian Morris’ 02011 talk on Why The West Rules (For Now).

Brand also discusses Revive & Restore’s efforts to bring back the Wooly Mammoth, and addresses the fear many have of meddling with complex systems through de-extinction.

Long-term thinking has figured prominently in Tim Ferriss’ podcast in recent months. In addition to his interview with Brand, Ferris has also interviewed Long Now board member Kevin Kelly and Long Now speaker Tim O’Reilly.

Listen to the podcast in full here.

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

Eno at the San Francisco opening of 77 Million Paintings in 02007. Photo by Scott Beale.

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.