Preserving Virtual Worlds

Posted on Thursday, November 1st, 02012 by Catherine Borgeson
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“This is our history, and just a handful of people are saving it.”

— PixelVixen707, screen name of “Rachael Webster,” a fictional character in the alternate reality game Personal Effects: Dark Art

Virtual games are becoming cultural artifacts. Yes, they are commodities, (the global market for video games is forecast to hit $82 billion by 02017) but, beyond entertainment, they also facilitate complex exchanges between many members of society.  It would be impossible to provide an accurate record of much of our existing popular culture without archiving games.

Take the online world EA Land, formerly The Sims Online, for example.  The service was generating very little revenue, despite the re-branding, resulting in its sudden demise (a common phenomenon in the digital realm). Electronic Arts pulled the plug just weeks after its debut as EA Land — its designer became its destroyer. Amidst avatars exchanging hugs and tearful goodbyes, a virtual world winked out of existence with a whimper — a whimper that might have only been witnessed by the players had it not been for Stanford archival researcher Henry Lowood. He captured the virtual apocalypse presented in the 11-minute radio piece, “Game Over.” Roman Mars (now with 99% Invisible) originally produced this episode for Snap Judment along with Robert Ashley’s A Life Well Wasted (an Internet radio program about everything video games).

Preserving video games presents formidable challenges. These nebulous artifacts consist of platforms, operating systems and network communities. The digital content is interactive, which is just as defining as the code itself.  These challenges were the subject of Preserving Virtual Worlds (PVW), a two-year collaborative research venture geared towards preserving and exploring the history and cultural impact of interactive simulations and video games — saving video games for future generations (02008-02010). In addition to Henry Lowood of Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Linden Lab collaborated on the project.

PVW focused its investigation on a case set of eight different games, interactive fictions and virtual worlds. The case studies were selected from different time periods in gaming history, different platforms and different degrees of player involvement to maximize the potential problems that might prevent the games from being preserved in the long-term.  Based on their investigations into the games, they developed a set of requirements for game preservation.

Unlike a book in a library, computer games have very poorly defined boundaries that make it difficult to determine exactly what the object of preservation should be. Is it the source code for the program? The binary executable version of the program? Is it the executable program along with the operating system under which the program runs? Should the hardware on which the operating system runs be included? Ultimately, a computer game cannot be played without a complex and interconnected set of programs and hardware. Is the preservationist’s job maintaining a particular, operating combination of elements, or is to preserve the capability to produce an operating combination using existing software and hardware? Is it both? Once these questions of the boundaries of preservation have been addressed, there are a host of other difficulties presenting the would-be preservationist. What information, beyond the game itself, will we need to ensure continuing access to the game? How should librarians, archivists and preservationists go about organizing the bed of information needed to preserve a game? What strategy should we adopt to preserve software in a technological environment in which computing hardware and operating systems are undergoing constant and rapid evolution? Given the costs of preservation of normal library and archival materials, how can we possibly sustain the additional costs of preserving these complex and fragile technological artifacts?

Preserving Virtual Worlds 2 follows the initial report. PVW2 will focus on providing a set of best practices for preserving educational games and game franchises, such as Oregon Trail,  Carmen Sandiego and the Super Mario Brothers series.

Echoes of Leningrad in St. Petersburg

Posted on Tuesday, October 30th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Sixty-eight years ago, St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad, and counted as one of the Soviet Union’s largest cities. These days, those two names conjure up images of a distant past; an anachronistic, shady corner of European politics and culture.

Yet this series of images, posted a while back on Englishrussia, suggest that today’s St. Petersburg still strongly echoes its Leningrad past. Old has been transposed onto new: photographs taken during the 3-year Nazi siege of the city have been stitched into contemporary pictures of the same sites. The results bring this harrowing time in the city’s history back to life, situating the tragedy of World War II amidst contemporary landmarks.

The world has changed in the nearly seven decades since the end of WWII, and these images certainly visualize this transformation. But they also highlight an undercurrent of continuity. The seamless overlay of one era onto another suggests a kind of urban endurance and resilience, in spite of the traumatic events that history may throw its way.

Peter Warshall Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, October 24th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Peter Warshall on Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth

Peter Warshall on “Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth”


Wednesday November 28, 02012 at 7:30pm Cowell Theater at Fort Mason

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! &#8226 General Tickets $10

About this Seminar:

For 3.8 billion years, life has lived in a bath of solar radiance. The Sun’s illumination outlines which objects are appealing, bland, or repellant. Its powers of desiccation, blistering, bleaching, and revelation govern a balance between beauty and danger. Its flood of photons shapes light-harvesters (“eyes”), pigments, and surfaces—stretching planetary aesthetics to include “invisible light” (ultraviolet, infrared, and polarized).

From euglena to Matisse, all creatures dwell in a variety of luminance locales—dramas of biospheric brightness, color mixes, and rebellions against darkness (such as fireflies and luminescent fish). The most recent rebellion has been human-devised lamps that impact everything from the artistic-military complex (camouflage and mimicry) to the materials, techniques, and display of paintings, electronic imaging, and growing plants.

This 55-minute journey travels from unicells to octopi to op-art, with a dose of PR for “planetary color webs” and their influence on awareness, desire, self-direction, memory, contemplation, and curiosity.

Armed with a PhD in Biological Anthropology from Harvard, Peter Warshall has shaped watershed theory and practices, conservation biology, relations with Indian tribes in the Southwest, and refugee activities in Africa. For a decade he was the editor of the Whole Earth Review.

Lazar Kunstmann and Jon Lackman Seminar Primer

Posted on Tuesday, October 23rd, 02012 by Austin Brown
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“Preservation Without Permission: the Paris Urban eXperiment”

Tuesday November 13, 02012 at the Cowell Theater, San Francisco

The Paris Urban eXperiment (known for short as UX) began in 1981 as a boast by a middle schooler and has since grown into a large secretive network of artists, craftspeople, and urban explorers. With over two millennia of streets, sewers, catacombs, and basements, their home city is an infrastructural palimpsest riddled with historical artifacts too numerous to be effectively preserved by its government. For those with the know-how, though, not preserving this heritage would be a tragedy worth skirting the law to avert. Jon Lackman writes for Wired:

Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.”

Lackman’s story focuses on one particular preservation project undertaken by a subgroup of the UX, the Untergunther. They took it upon themselves to sneak into one of Paris’s iconic churches, the Pantheon, and to restore the centuries-old clock that hadn’t worked in many years. The Pantheon’s reaction to this work wasn’t as grateful as expected, but their mission wasn’t to delight the building’s current administration:

Paris, as they saw it, was the center of France and was once the center of Western civilization; the Latin Quarter was Paris’ historic intellectual center; the Pantheon stands in the Latin Quarter and is dedicated to the great men of French history, many of whose remains are housed within; and in its interior lay a clock, beating like a heart, until it suddenly was silenced. Untergunther wanted to restart the heart of the world.

Lazar Kunstmann, of the UX, and Jon Lackman discuss this and other acts of rogue preservation on November 13th at the Cowell Theater. You can reserve tickets, get directions and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page.

Subscribe to the Seminars About Long-term Thinking podcast for more thought-provoking programs.

Steven Pinker Seminar Media

Posted on Friday, October 19th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

The Decline of Violence

Monday October 8, 02012 – San Francisco


Video is up on the Pinker Seminar page for Members.


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


The Long Peace – a summary by Stewart Brand

“Nothing can be more gentle than man in his primitive state,” declared Rousseau in the 18th century. A century earlier, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “In the state of nature the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The evidence shows that Rousseau was wrong and Hobbes was right, said Pinker. Forensic archaeology (“CSI Paleolithic”) reveals that 15 percent of prehistoric skeletons show signs of violent trauma. Ethnographic vital statistics of surviving non-state societies and pockets of anarchy show, on average, 524 war deaths per 100,000 people per year.

Germany in the 20th century, wracked by two world wars, had 144 war deaths per 100,000 per year. Russia had 135. Japan had 27. The US in the 20th century had 5.7. In this 21st century the whole world has a war death rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people per year. In primitive societies 15 percent of people died violently; now 0.03 percent do. Violence is 1/500th of what it used to be.

The change came by stages, each with a different dynamic. Pinker identified: 1) The Pacification Process brought about by the rise and expansion of states, which monopolized violence to keep their citizens from killing each other. 2) The Humanizing Process. States consolidated, enforcing “the king’s justice.” With improving infrastructure, commerce grew, and the zero-sum game of plunder was replaced by the positive-sum game of trade. 3) The Humanitarian Revolution. Following ideas of The Enlightenment, the expansion of literacy, and growing cosmopolitanism, reason guided people to reject slavery, reduce capital crimes toward zero, and challenge superstitious demonizing of witches, Jews, etc. Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

4) The Long Peace. Since 1945 there has been zero use of nuclear weapons, zero combat between the Cold War superpowers, just one war between great powers (US and China in Korea, ending 1953), zero wars in western Europe (there used to be two new wars a year there, for 600 years), and zero wars between developed countries or expansion of their borders by conquest. 5) The New Peace is the spreading of the Long Peace to the rest of the world, largely through the decline of ideology, and the spread of democracy, trade, and international organizations such as the UN. Colonial wars ended; civil wars did flare up. 6) The Rights Revolution, increasingly powerful worldwide, insists on protection from injustice for blacks, women, children, gays, and animals. Even domestic violence is down.

Such a powerful long-term trend is the result of human ingenuity bearing down on the problem of violence the same way it has on hunger and plague. Something psychologists call the “circle of empathy” has expanded steadily from family to village to clan to tribe to nation to other races to other species. In addition, “humanitarian reforms are often preceded by new technologies for spreading ideas.” It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude.

In the Q & A, one questioner noted that violence is clearly down, but fear of violence is still way up. Social psychologist Pinker observed that we base our fears irrationally on anecdotes instead of statistics—one terrorist attack here, one child abduction there. In a world of 7 billion what is the actual risk for any individual? It is approaching zero. That trend is so solid we can count on it and take it further still.

Subscribe to our Seminar email list for updates and summaries.

The Time Keeper

Posted on Wednesday, October 17th, 02012 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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One of the early ideas for the 10,000 Year Clock was to simply endow a family whose job it would be for 400 generations to just shout out the time every day.  I had no idea there was already someone like that… RIP John Votta.

“The Washington Square timekeeper was a link back to a very ancient tradition of people who both tell time and look out for the public good,”

The whole story at Washington Square News

The Long View on Real Estate

Posted on Wednesday, October 17th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Sometimes a long view can yield a very different perspective than the short view.

Take housing prices, for example. For the past five years or so, the news media have often characterized the housing market as ‘volatile’ and ‘fragile’. The statistics certainly bear this out: from 02000 to 02008, the global housing boom propelled real estate prices to unprecedented heights – only to come crashing down dramatically as this latest economic bubble burst. It’s enough to suggest that real estate might not be the most reliable kind of investment.

But when you zoom out across the scale of time, this ragged spike on the graph of housing prices actually softens gradually, until it fades – among other similar spikes around it – into the continual ebb and flow of one long, wavy line that never strays far from its average.

This conclusion emerges from a (very) longitudinal study of housing prices by Piet Eichholtz of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Eichholtz tracked nearly four centuries of housing prices on the Herengracht, a stately canal in the historic center of Amsterdam. While housing prices certainly plummet with the devastation of wars and soar in response to economic growth, Eichholtz’ graph shows that over the long term, average “real” housing prices – those adjusted for inflation – actually oscillate around an average that stays more or less constant across time.

These findings suggest, perhaps, that the price of real estate ultimately reflects its nature as a basic human necessity. Housing is, and will always be, valuable because it offers us shelter – not because it can make us money. In that sense, real estate prices may be better compared to the cost of produce and dairy products than to the value of the Dow Jones index.

The study has been discussed on a few blogs, and the original paper by Eichholtz can be found here.

Decoding Long-Term Data Storage

Posted on Friday, October 12th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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If human societies are founded on the accumulation of knowledge through the ages, then the long-term transmission of information must be the cornerstone of a durable civilization. And as we accelerate ever more rapidly in our expansion of knowledge and technological capability, the development of durable storage methods becomes ever more important.

In the process of brainstorming such methods, two central questions emerge. The first of these concerns the type of storage media you might use: what kind of material is likely to last long enough to convey a message to generations thousands of years into the future? Throughout much of history, people carved important messages into stone, bone, or other hard materials. So far, we don’t seem to have come up with anything better: most of us are familiar with the limited lifespan of CDs, vinyl, and computer hard drives. Faced with this lack of suitable options, several organizations and companies around the world have re-embraced the long-term durability of hard natural substances. The Long Now’s Rosetta disk, for example, is made of nickel. Arnano, a French technology start-up, has developed a disk of sapphire on which to micro-etch information – civic records, perhaps, or important messages about the storage of nuclear waste. And most recently, Japanese electronics giant Hitachi announced a new data storage technology that uses quartz glass.

The second – and perhaps even more intriguing – question concerns the language of your message. What kind of ‘code’ will be most easily accessible to future generations, and what technologies will they have available to help them decrypt a message from the past?

The storage and transmission of data often requires multiple levels of encoding. When we think of ‘code’ we often think of computers – but in fact, we routinely go through two layers of encryption before we can even begin to digitize information. Spoken human language is itself a code, in which sounds are used to signify things or ideas. The use of a writing system adds a further layer of encryption: sequences of letters or pictographs signify the sounds that represent things or ideas. Yet another layer of encryption can then be applied by translating a writing system into binary numbers (and numeric systems are a kind of code, as well!) or perhaps even DNA.

These extra layers of encoding offer the advantage of information density: they can help you pack lots of information into a very small format. However, each layer also further complicates the decodability and readability of a message. Because the Rosetta Disk is itself intended to be a tool for decryption – a primer of human language meant to help future archaeologists unlock entire worlds of culture, just like the Rosetta stone did in the 19th century – Long Now has chosen to store its data in the analog form of human alphabets, rather than add an extra layer of encryption by a digital code of 1’s and 0’s.

Arnano, the makers of the sapphire disk, have made a similar choice. The added advantage is that this analog information is readable by the human eye (aided by a microscope or magnifying glass).

It’s safe to assume that the languages future generations will speak – and the technologies they’ll have available – will most likely be very different from what we use today. This brings up an important third question: how do you include ‘instructions’ for decoding and reading with your message? Following the example of its namesake predecessor, the content on Long Now’s Rosetta Disk is its own primer: if you know at least one of the 1,500 languages included on the disk, all other information can be decoded. Perhaps a similar kind of parallel multiplicity of codes is possible for other storage methods as well.

These questions of language and code are inevitably more difficult to answer than that of the storage medium. You can subject your chosen material to stress tests to make sure that it will stand up to acid, erosion, or any other kind of potential natural disaster. But there’s no similar test for language; it’s impossible to predict what codes will be interpretable by the people of the future, or what technology they’ll have available to decrypt a message. Nevertheless, these conundrums are no less important to grapple with, and any proposal for long-term storage worth its salt must offer some potential answers to these questions.

Lazar Kunstmann and Jon Lackman Seminar Tickets

Posted on Wednesday, October 10th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Lazar Kunstmann and Jon Lackman on Preservation without Permission: the Paris Urban eXperiment

Lazar Kunstmann and Jon Lackman on “Preservation without Permission: the Paris Urban eXperiment”


Tuesday November 13, 02012 at 7:30pm Cowell Theater at Fort Mason

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! &#8226 General Tickets $10


About this Seminar:

There is at least as much underneath Paris as there is above it. The secretive members of the Paris Urban eXperiment, known internally as “The UX”, have spent the last 30 years surreptitiously probing into this world – and improving it. A few years ago these underground hackers and artists became infamous when one morning the clock at the Panthéon, that had not worked in years, began chiming. It was just one of at least 15 such restorations done without permission.

In a first-time-ever public presentation, the UX spokesman, who goes under the name Lazar Kunstmann, along with author Jon Lackman from Wired, will present some of the theory and work of the Urban eXperiment. Lackman chronicled much of their work in the February print edition of Wired—which is co-sponsoring this event.

The History of Color Wheels

Posted on Thursday, October 4th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Our perception of color may be a matter of optics, ophthalmology, and neurology – but the way in which we think about color is as much a matter of cultural history.

In a pair of blog posts, the online design magazine Imprint offers an illustrated history of the color wheel. From enlightenment thinkers such as Jacob Christian Schäffer and Moses Harris, to German author Goethe, mathematician Tobias Mayer, and painter Albert Henry Munsell, these articles trace the very colorful history of human efforts to categorize colors and theorize on the relationships between them. The world of science and art may by now have moved on to more systemized – and scientifically rigorous – categorization systems, but color wheels are by no means obsolete, the author concludes:

However inadequate, scientifically speaking, it is to describe the color-spectrum using a wheel-shaped model, there’s an irresistible fitness about marrying circles with color. As a geometric figure, circles possess a certain strength, a self-contained quality in which a smooth, unperturbed body can be imagined to hold an entire universe. Sometimes the pod will crack, spilling its contents with rampant energy, or maybe the circle holds indefinitely. For an entity as slippery and ubiquitous as color, only a circle can be imagined as a perfect enough shape to contain all of it.

And indeed, if you have an eye for it, color wheels can be found anywhere.