Rick Prelinger’s “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, 4 “

Posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 02009 by Danielle Engelman
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Rick Prelinger

Gas Stations, Not Flowers

The fourth incarnation of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco played to a sold out house at the Herbst Theater with the chanteuse Suzanne Ramsey opening the evening with a selection of historical San Francisco songs including the 01926 gem Masculine Women Feminine Men.

Rick Prelinger prefaced the footage with a brief introduction to his archive, process, and most of all a request to go into your mother’s attic to pull out any films that feature San Francisco or the Bay Area. The archive needs your footage. Prelinger then queued up over seventy minutes…

Read the rest of Alexander Rose’s Summary

Wall of Knowledge

Posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Long Now friend and supporter Ken Wilson sends in this awesome concept for the Stockholm Library.  This design seems like it would lend itself well to a 10,000 year library…

The image above is a rendering by a team of students at the Architecture School of Paris La Seine. You can see the un-textured model below and read how the design was generated over at CG Society.

The technology of 10,000 years

Posted on Monday, December 7th, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Tunnel Boring Machine daylights at Yucca Mountain

Tunnel Boring Machine daylights at Yucca Mountain

Back 02002 Peter Schwartz wrote a great piece about our visit to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste site.  We often refer to it as “the other 10,000 year project”.  However 10,000 years is just the legally binding time congress set forth.  They actually have a design problem that spans millions of years.  This week several people have sent me this excellent write up in BLDG BLOG that features a Q&A with one of the technical architects of the project.  Most interesting to me were all the geeky technical details about material choices, climate, and engineering… an excerpt:

At Yucca Mountain we took the attitude that, since we basically have a dry mountain in a dry area with very little rainfall, we would use a material that can stand up to oxygen being present. The material we selected was a metal alloy called Alloy 22. Our design involves basically wrapping the stainless steel packages, in which we would receive the spent fuel, in Alloy 22 and sticking them inside this mountain with a layer of air over the top. What we know is that when water moves through rock or fractured materials, it tends to stay in the rock rather than fall—unless that rock is saturated. Yucca Mountain is unsaturated, so water ought not be a major issue for us at Yucca Mountain—yet it is.

We have to worry about future climates, because, right now in Nevada, we are in a nine year drought—and, basically since the last Ice Age, we have been in a 10,000-year drought. 80% of the time, if we look a million years into the past, we have, on average, twice the precipitation we have now. Most of the past is—and the future will be—wetter and cooler. Which is nice for Nevada! [laughs]

Discounting the Future

Posted on Friday, December 4th, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Upcoming seminar speaker and neuroscientist David Eagleman published an excellent piece that appeared in the New York Times yesterday.  While the piece keys on the events of this week, the broader point of the piece touches on an important element of human nature and long-term thinking.  Excerpt:

Some years ago, psychologists posed a deceptively simple question: if I were to offer you $100 right now, or $110 a week from now, which would you choose? Most subjects chose to take $100 right then. It didn’t seem worthwhile to wait an entire week for only $10 more.

And the further an event lies in the future, the less people care about it. So if offered $100 now or $500 18 months from now, many people still take the $100. The consequence is that there’s little difference between President Obama promising 18 months from now versus 18 years from now. In the human ken, both are obscured in the mists of the distant future.

Eagleman is also the author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives for which Brian Eno composed a special music concert along side a reading in Sydney earlier this year.

Failed Predictions

Posted on Thursday, December 3rd, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Stewart brand set over this excellently illustrated set of failed predictions listed over at oddee.com. Excerpts below:

“It will be years –not in my time– before a woman will become Prime Minister.”
–Margaret Thatcher, October 26th, 1969.

She became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom only 10 years after saying that, holding her chair from 1979 to 1990. But she wasn’t all that wrong since she is the only woman to have held this post. Maybe she should have added the word “again.”

“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”
–Dr Dionysys Larder (1793-1859)

It may sound impossible to Dr Larder, professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy at the University College London back in the 1800, but in 1939 the first high speed train went from Milan to Florence at 165 km/h (102.5 mph). Thankfully no one died. Nowadays these trains go at 200 km/h (125 mph) and faster.

This also reminded of what has become my favorite bathroom reading: The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky.  It is a brilliant listing of predictions and quotes like the ones above organized by category.  I have been paying attention to books and listings of future predictions since we started the Long Bets project.  The Experts Speak is most certainly the best compendium  I have come across to date.  It turns out there are several books and lists like this as they are endlessly entertaining.  What is curious though is how little attention is paid to good predictions, I have yet to find a good list or book about successful predictions.  I cant tell if its because there are so few correct predictions, or just because they are less interesting to us.

On a side note, the way I found the book was by a round about recommendation from Douglas Adams of all people.  In his last book Salmon of Doubt Adams discusses The Experts Speak along with Stewart Brand’s original idea for Long Bets as he wrote in Clock of the Long Now.

Water wars

Posted on Monday, November 30th, 02009 by Kirk Citron
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The Long News: stories that might still matter fifty, or a hundred, or ten thousand years from now.

The discovery of water on the moon is almost certainly the biggest Long News story of the year; it will make it much easier to build moon colonies, and it provides cheap fuel for travel to the rest of the solar system.

But Liz Brooking suggests we also look at water issues here on earth: three hundred million school children don’t have access to clean water today, and according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by the year 02030.

Some recent news stories about water:

1. What water on the moon might mean:
The wet side of the moon
New aluminum-water rocket propellant promising for future space missions
Moon potential goldmine of natural resources

2. Back down to earth:
Water scarcity will create global security concerns
New report on the economics of water scarcity

3. The politics of water:
Arab experts predict Mideast water wars
China enters Central Eurasia’s water wars
UN study advises caution over dams
India faces water crisis as temperatures rise
Africa must act to tackle water crisis
Devastation on a ‘biblical’ scale

4. Some possible solutions:
Carbon nanotubes capture greenhouse gases, desalinate water
The high rise urban farms of the future

We invite you to submit Long News story suggestions here.

Human Language as a Secret Weapon

Posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 02009 by Laura Welcher
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Earlier this month, a small group of World War II Navajo Code Talkers – who are today in their eighties and nineties – marched as a group for the first time in the New York City Veteran’s Day Parade as a way to raise awareness in the US about their wartime contribution. The Code Talkers were Navajo speakers recruited by the U.S Military for sending coded verbal messages by radio in World War II – an effort legendary today as producing “the only unbroken code in modern military history.”

This caught my attention partly because Navajo is a threatened language – while there are 150,000 speakers at last count and several thousand monolinguals, the word on the wire is that Navajo is losing ground to English among the youngest in the Navajo community – and children are, after all, the ones who decide a language’s fate.

I also had this question in the back of my mind – could a human language be used in such a way today?   Granted, we have sophisticated computer encryption that pretty much renders any human generated code obsolete.  But say for a moment that we didn’t, or couldn’t use digital technology…  do we simply know too much about what is possible in human language?  And failing that, is there any language out there esoteric and isolated enough that it could be put to such use?

First, to clarify, there is nothing inherent about the Navajo language that made the code uncrackable – a quick perusal of the recent press turns up descriptors like “ancient language” and “complex grammar” which could apply to any human language.  The phrase “near isolate” also doesn’t make sense because Navajo is a language with many linguistic relatives in the Athabaskan group throughout the Southwestern US, Canada, and Alaska.

What made the code uncrackable at the time was a combination of factors – physical and social isolation of the Navajo speech community certainly did, as few non-Navajos spoke the language.  Also, little was known linguistically about the language at the time, and linguistics outside of philology was itself a fledgling field of study. Most importantly, the code wasn’t just everyday Navajo, but a cipher based on Navajo with word-replacements like “tortoise” for tank or “iron fish” for submarine as well as Navajo substitutions for English military acronyms. A Navajo speaker was in fact captured and tortured for his knowledge at Bataan, but since he didn’t know the cipher, he was just as befuddled as everyone else.

I wonder though whether a linguist today with a basic knowledge of the language, and/or access to basic tools like a grammar and dictionary, transported back to that time might have figured it out, given enough data and the context in which the messages were delivered.   A relatively few cracked messages could render the essential cryptographic key. Do all human languages have such basic description?  Far from it.  My best guess based on what we’ve been able to find for The Rosetta Project is maybe one half of all human languages?  A third? Without this, the decryption task would have to encompass basic linguistic analysis as well.

So is it possible that a human language in this day and age could serve the purpose?  Maybe, maybe not — I welcome discussion.  But if not – and here’s the real question on my mind – are we linguists done?  Can we pack up our bags and go home? Although I think we understand something about human language – maybe a lot more than we did 70 years ago, it would be extreme hubris to say we really get all there is to human language at this point.  I expect there are plenty of surprises in store even as far as grammatical structure is concerned – and at every level of structure.  Many of the more interesting questions are likely to relate to how language is used in its cultural context — like the Pirahã avoiding speaking about the remote past because it is inaccessible to eyewitness verification.

That many lifetimes could be spent puzzling it all out is one of the great joys of linguistic discovery.  And to my way of thinking, the surprises about our human selves that lie in store is a primary reason to pursue language documentation as one of the great scientific and intellectual enterprises of our era.

Long Now Media Update

Posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 02009 by Danielle Engelman
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There is new media available from our monthly series, the Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Stewart Brand’s summaries and audio downloads or podcasts of the talks are free to the public; Long Now members can view HD video of the Seminars and comment on them.

Listen to the Audio of Sander van der Leeuw’s “The Archaeology of Innovation” (downloads tab)

Sander van der Leeuw’s “The Archaeology of Innovation”

Posted on Wednesday, November 25th, 02009 by Danielle Engelman
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Sander van der Leeuw

History of Innovation

The development of human mental ability can be tracked through the
progressive crafting of stone tools, Van der Leeuw explained. First
we learned to shape an edge—a line—then the surface, then the
whole volume of the tool, then the sophisticated sequence required to
make a superb spear point. It took 2 million years. But by 300,000
years ago the human brain had developed a sufficiently complex
short-term working memory to keep 7 (plus-or-minus 2) considerations
in mind at once. We could handle problems of multi-dimensionality….

Read the rest of Stewart Brand’s Summary

Long Now Gifts for the Holidays

Posted on Tuesday, November 24th, 02009 by Austin Brown
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We have updated our online store with some new items for the holiday season…

Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings is a generative art piece that will take thousands of years to fully take in – the software slowly layers and combines several hundred original paintings in an ever-evolving kaleidoscopic experience.  You can also hear experiments by Mr. Eno for the Chime Generator on “January 07003“. Pick up a Long Now embroidered twill baseball hat or a 100% cotton screen-printed T-shirt (printed locally by Ape Do Good of San Francisco) featuring CAD drawings of Long Now prototypes.  We also have short-sleeve button down embroidered work shirts.  And don’t forget to check out the Rosetta Disk DVD, a simulation of viewing our actual Rosetta Disk under a microscope that includes linguistic data on over 1,500 human languages.

We have meaningful gifts for anyone on your list, as we work hard to ensure that the wide variety of items in our store represent the ideas we promote. Visit our store at Fort Mason in San Francisco, 7 days a week, or check us out online.