A long view of world population

Posted on Wednesday, December 5th, 02007 by Stuart Candy
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The job of the long view is to penetrate illusion. […] How can we see the insidious transformations of our own day? Slow science is part of it, applied history is part of it, and every year there are more sophisticated tools of macroscopic vision. One video going the rounds of the conferences shows the accelerating growth of human population on a world map; the sudden overwhelm in the last seconds makes audiences gasp in shock.

~Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 02000, p. 146

Despite some pretty clunky animation, by present standards, this 01990 version of the World Population video packs the visceral punch, the acceleration shock of a compressed long view.

A few notes:
(a) This version is from a TV broadcast and is bookended by talking heads; you can skip to the main event which runs 0:45 through 3:35.
(b) It’s produced by Population Connection, an advocacy organisation formerly called Zero Population Growth. In aid of driving home the point, it (perhaps unnecessarily) includes projected figures in the same breath as historical ones, which muddies things somewhat. A bit more about the video can be found on p. 18 of this pdf report.
(c) A more recent version, updated 02000 — but longer and no more compelling — can be found here. The main segment there runs from 1:40 through 6:00.

But what do we get out of this type of video visualisation? Gleick’s remarks on the ubiquitous curve of exponential increase may point us in the right direction…

You have seen [this] graph. You have seen it more than once. It depicts the long-threatened population explosion, or some kind of population explosion, plotted over a few centuries, or millennia, or any time scale at all. It represents the growth in computer ownership over the last two decades. The number of commercial Internet hosts rising over a mere four years. Software patents granted from 1971 to the present. Chest-pain emergency departments in the 1990s. Millions of instructions per second carried out by a matchbook-sized computer. Potential sexual partners. Mustards. Published words. Four-minute milers. Everything, it seems, that grows out of the interaction between human beings. The amount of stuff we do, divided by the amount of time available. […] If a graph can be a cliché, the graph for exponential growth has become a cliché.

~James Gleick, Faster, 02000, pp. 275-6

So, the main offer of a video such as this, is seems to me, lies not in its details so much as its broad approach to making the familiar strange — our unprecedented 6.5 billion population, for instance. In short, it makes the cliché of accelerating change shocking again.

Thus do we recover the long view.

The next (last) 100 Years

Posted on Monday, December 3rd, 02007 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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I was recently reminded of this great prediction article by John Watkins published in the 01900 Ladies Home Journal.

Particularly interesting for how much it gets right and wrong, sometimes in the same prediction. Some examples of the 29 predictions:

  • There will be air-ships, but they will not successfully compete with surface cars and water vessels for passenger or freight traffic. They will be maintained as deadly war-vessels by all military nations. Some will transport men and goods. Others will be used by scientists making observations at great heights above the earth.
  • Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance.If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. Even to-day photographs are being telegraphed over short distances. Photographs will reproduce all of Nature’s colors.
  • There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other. Russian will rank second.

You can see an image of the actual article here, or a transcribed text version here.

100 Year Photo Blog

Posted on Wednesday, November 28th, 02007 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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 I came across this wonderful blog of historical photos recently.  The photo above was taken in 1858 of the temple at Karnak.  It is interesting to look up modern photos on Flickr of these same things.  For instance the columns in the above photos seem to have all been excavated in the last 150 years and now you can see how tall they really are.

The Spread of Slow

Posted on Monday, November 26th, 02007 by Kevin Kelly
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A great Metafilter posting about the spread of Slowing Down — not just slow food, but slow everything else.  The posting — which has links for all these slow threads — announces:

Beginning with Slow Food in 1986, the idea of rejecting the “cult of speed” has gradually spread from a focus on food into other fields. In his book

“In Praise of Slow”

Carl Honore explores the spread of the worldwide Slow movement, urging greater attention to all aspects of daily life, human relationships, and the quality of experience. Meanwhile, on the web, witness the spread of Slow. Slow down your stuff with Slow Home, Slow Travel, Slow Fashion, Slow Art, Slow Craft, Slow Design. Relax with some Slow Reading; check out a Slow Read from a Slow Library. Plan for Slow Cities governed by Slow Leadership. Use Slow Schooling, Slow Research, and the Slow University to explore Slow Science and Slow Math. Bank with Slow Money [PDF]. Explore the world with Slow Travel, using Slow Fuel for Slow Transportation. What’s the rush? Come on. Take it easy.

There’s a typically intelligent Metafilter discussion about the price of slowness in the discussions afterward that is worthwhile. One entry sums up the Slow Manifesto:

The Slow Making Manifesto:

    1.To strive for appropriate excellence in the making process

    2. To make objects that enhance the life of the user

    3. To know the origins of our materials, ensuring that they respect country; the communities who produced or harvested them and are from sustainable sources

    4. To make objects that will last, can be easily repaired when necessary and are made using materials and processes that do not harm the makers, the community or the environment

    5. To deal with our co-workers, clients, suppliers and sellers in an ethical and fair manner

    6. To foster, utilise and pass on skills that enhance the making process

    7. To enjoy and relish the way of slow making

the small-but-growing virtual here

Posted on Friday, November 23rd, 02007 by Stephanie Gerson
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Alexa.com allows users to compare traffic to different websites through time according to reach, rank, and page views and using various levels of magnification. It’s fascinating to compare not only the quantity of traffic, but the shape of growth curves. For example, although Facebook is still slightly behind MySpace in terms reach (though it appears to have pulled ahead in rank and page views on November 11th of this year), Facebook exhibits more of an exponential curve whereas MySpace exhibits more of a linear one, enabling predictions about when the former was destined to surpass the latter.


And although the data only goes back to slightly before 02000, this small virtual here is growing…


Posted on Thursday, November 22nd, 02007 by Stephanie Gerson
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Foresight ExchangeFutarchy is an untried form of government proposed by economist Robin Hanson, in which officials define measures of national welfare while prediction markets determine which policies are most desirable. In Hanson’s words, “we would vote on values, but bet on beliefs.”

Futarchy is based on the assumption that poor nations are poor because their governments adopt flawed policies, despite expertise recommending otherwise. Although this assumption may be problematic, in that it boils economic stagnation down to sheer misjudgment, the question of how to render governments accountable to public opinion regarding the future is a valuable one. Futarchy intends to address this by having democratically-elected representatives formally define and manage after-the-fact measurements of national welfare, while allowing market speculators to determine which policies are expected to raise national welfare (Hanson). According to Hanson, “the basic rule of government would be: when a betting market clearly estimates that a proposed policy would increase expected national welfare, that proposal becomes law.”

Hanson was also involved in the creation of the Foresight Exchange (see image), an online play predictions market in which current market prices reflect consensus about the future, and FutureMAP, a (now cancelled) DARPA research project into the use of prediction markets for shaping government policy.

It’s possible to imagine participation in something like the FX as a civic duty in Futarchic societies, and specialized predictions markets emerging around particular issues, geographies, etc. For more information, including Futarchy’s potential shortcomings, refer to “Shall We Vote on Values, but Bet on Beliefs?” and visit Hanson’s website.

Layers of Time

Posted on Wednesday, November 21st, 02007 by Kevin Kelly
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I found this on Otherthings Flickr page. It a multilayered paint chip taken from a public mural wall that was recently demolished.

This is an extreme closeup scan (2400 dpi) of a paint chip retrieved from the ruins of Belmont Art Park by Amy McKenzie earlier this year. The fragment is about 1cm thick, and appears to consist of about 150-200 layers of paint. (For a sense of scale, note the ridges of my fingerprint in the lower right.) This should give you an idea of the staggering number of pieces painted in this spot over the decades.  The park used to be surrounded by one long wall covered with artwork, but that wall was illegally demolished by real estate developers earlier this year.

46518700 6B3B8Ea353

Predictions & Prescriptions

Posted on Wednesday, November 21st, 02007 by Austin Brown
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Good Magazine ran an interview recently with a man they call The New Nostradamus. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita uses a mathematical model that is based entirely on game theory to predict the outcomes of political conflicts. He takes a very literal interpretation of the phrase “political science” and focuses his analysis strictly on issues of strategic interest, ignoring any cultural or historical aspects of the parties involved. He believes that the theory of rational choice can accurately predict the actions of any political actors as long as the data underpinning the determination of interests are correct. An analysis of his model’s predictive abilities done by the CIA found it to be accurate 90 percent of the time.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita


In the article a few of his predictions are discussed, but what is interesting is that he also makes a number of prescriptions. In fact, while there is a list at the end of the interview describing some of his accurate predictions, the discussion with him fails to clearly separate predictions from prescriptions. In the interview, he proposes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and criticizes the outcome of negotiations with Kim Jong-Il of North Korea for not conforming to his model.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the recent agreement that the United States reached with the government of Pyongyang closely resembles the one that Bueno de Mesquita’s model suggested: Kim agrees to dismantle his existing nuclear weapons but not his existing nuclear capability. “He puts it in mothballs with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors on site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And in exchange, we provide him with $1.2 billion a year, which we label ‘foreign aid,’ of course.” The “foreign-aid” figure published in the newspapers was $400 million, which concerns Bueno de Mesquita. “I read that and I said, I hope that’s not the deal because it’s not enough money. He needs $1.2 billion, approximately, to sustain the loyalty of his cronies in the military and so forth. It’s unpleasant, this is a nasty man, but we’re stuck with it. The nice part of the deal is that it’s self-enforcing. Each side has a reason to credibly commit to their part of the deal.”

It would appear that what he has actually developed is a highly sophisticated system of conflict mediation. His model assumes that people are selfishly rational and always gravitate toward very predictable terms in an agreement. It would be very interesting to show these predicted outcomes to two negotiating parties at the outset of their talks. Would they get to the same results faster?

Bueno de Mesquita acknowledges the power of what he is able to do with his work, which seems to play a big role in his approach. He will not call elections that he claims to know the outcome for because he does not want to influence them and he will not help organizations affect or manipulate government policy. Clearly, predicting the future is a complicated and controversial venture. It toys with our sense of continuity and our theories of causality, let alone the concept of free-will. It also seems that as people get better at it, we may be raising questions faster than we can answer them.

LongPen makes short work of distance

Posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 02007 by Stuart Candy
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Author Margaret Atwood, perhaps best known for the near-future fable The Handmaid’s Tale, has invented a device called LongPen which allows writers to sign their works at a distance, replicating their hand movements.

Says Atwood:

It is the world’s first long-distance, real-time signing and handwriting device.

In other words, the LongPen is not an Autopen, which signs your name over and over without your presence being required. Instead, the LongPen does whatever you have just done at your end, including ‘Happy Birthday Marge’ and a picture of a pussycat — making whatever marks you have just made, in the order and with the pressure you have made them. (The signature is a legal one – which LongPen has just had reconfirmed by an expert in this field.)

The LongPen is known in tech circles as a ‘disruptive technology’, which means – I’m told – that it came out of nowhere, was not anticipated, is not an enhancement of a pre-existing technology, and will radically change how things are done. Author signings are just a small part of the picture!

The product’s website keeps a running tally of the carbon saved by authors foregoing air travel to attend book signings (implying that they would otherwise have attended in person, which may or may not be the case). Still, the green credentials of the LongPen seem clear, and some of the possibilities it opens up are kind of intriguing: signing international contracts without flying anywhere; collaboration on tangible artwork; remote tattooing…

It compares interestingly to robotlab’s project The Bible Scribe, blogged here just last week. Put them together and you can shortly look forward to being the proud owner of an autograph signed remotely by your favourite robot author.

Svalbard gets even colder

Posted on Tuesday, November 20th, 02007 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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The BBC reports that the work on the Svalbard doomsday seed vault is charging right along…

Engineers have begun the two-month process of cooling down a “doomsday vault”, which will house seeds from all known varieties of key food crops.

The temperature inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will drop to -18C (0F) in order to preserve the seeds.

Built deep inside a mountain, it aims to safeguard the world’s crops from future disasters, such as nuclear wars, asteroids or dangerous climate change.

The first seeds are scheduled to arrive at the Arctic site in mid-February.

I still think its rather funny that, at least in the reports I have read, that the vault is mainly built under the assumption of global warming. However if the Greenland ice sheet falls and sinks northern europe into an ice age, Svalbard could end up under miles of ice… and its seed bank along with it.