The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Stewart Brand writes to Esther Dyson

Posted on Friday, November 29th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In July, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a letter to Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Taleb. Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand. Brand’s response is now addressed to Esther Dyson, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of her choosing.

The discussion thus far has focused on how humanity can increase technological capacity to meet real global needs without incurring catastrophic unintended consequences.

Dear Esther,

Ghosts don’t exist, but ghost stories sure do. We love frightening ourselves with narratives built around a horrifying logic that emerges with the telling of the tale, ideally capped with a moral lesson.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a three-wishes fable where innocent-seeming wishes go hideously astray. A mother mad with grief wishes her dead son alive again. When the knock comes at the door, the father realizes that the thing knocking is horribly mangled and rotted, and he uses the third wish to destroy it. Powers that appear benign, we learn, can have unintended consequences.


Reinventors Roundtable on Longpath Thinking

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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On November 20th, Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose took part in a Reinventors Roundtable discussion called “Reinvent Longpath Thinking.” Another participant in the discussion, Ari Wallach, coined the term Longpath as a framework for thinking long-term and in his consultancy work, encourages clients to imagine where they want to be a decade or more into the future.

The discussion centered on a topic near and dear to Long Now – making longer-term thinking more common. All the participants brought great questions and perspectives. Below are some highlights, but you can watch the whole thing at

A 75-year Study on the Secrets to Happiness

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic make-up.

So concludes the synopsis of Triumphs of Experience, the latest book to come out of the Harvard Grant Study, an ambitious and comprehensive project that has tracked the life course of 268 male members of the Harvard classes of 01938 – 01940 for seventy-five years now.

The study began in 01938 as an effort to examine optimal human health: unlike ordinary medical studies at the time, the project’s directors were interested not in what made people sick, but rather in what caused them to thrive. Since then, teams of researchers have tracked an enormous amount of variables in the lives of their subjects. They’ve conducted regular physiological examinations and laboratory measurements, as well as IQ tests, personal interviews, and psychiatric evaluations. They’ve even spoken with the study participants’ parents, wives, and children.

There are other longitudinal studies that rival this one in length, but George Vaillant, the study’s director from 01972 to 02004, explains that none are as comprehensive as the Harvard Grant Study:

… what makes the Grant Study unique is that the men have given us permission to present their lives in three dimensions, so that the book is not only about statistics, but it’s about stories. The book is the history of how the men, and the science, and its author changed from a pre-World War II view of the world, to the way we see it in 02012.

Funded by a variety of sources over the years, the study offers a comprehensive history of individual lives (including that of John F. Kennedy, a study participant until his assassination fifty years ago), but also of the advances we’ve made in research methodologies and data collection: its files are stored in a variety of media, from the IBM punch cards used during the project’s first years, to the digital spreadsheets used today.

A first comprehensive report on the study was published in 01998, when participants were in their late 50s. Triumphs of Experience extends that portrait into the men’s old age, but still conveys the same basic message: happiness and professional success have little to do with status or income, and everything with the warmth and stability of your interpersonal relationships. What Vaillant emphasizes is that the course of our lives is not determined by the hardships we encounter, but by the resilience we show in the face of adversity – and the more connected we are with others, the better we are at coping with life’s difficulties.

Of course, a group of male Harvard undergraduates, particularly those of the late 01930s, is unlikely to be representative of the general US population – let alone of the rest of the world. Still, there are lessons to be drawn from this study. Not the least of these is the reminder that some of the most profound insights into the nature and experience of human life cannot be found through quick, narrow experiments: they require the dedication and patience of a long-term, multi-generational project.

Internet Archive Fundraiser – Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8 – 2nd Showing

Posted on Tuesday, November 26th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Now in its eighth year, Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes of San Francisco is almost always the largest of our Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Pre-sale tickets have sold out again at the Castro Theater and a few tickets will be released to the walk up line on the day of the show.

Those who didn’t get tickets to the December 17th event, though, have another chance to catch this great show. Rick is screening it again at the Internet Archive the following night, Wednesday December 18th and this show is a fundraiser for the Internet Archive.

The Internet Archive recently lost a lot of equipment and many books to a fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the expenses incurred to replace and repair what was damaged will be significant. Rick Prelinger has generously offered this second screening of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8  and proceeds will go to the Internet Archive’s efforts to rebuild the scanning facility where the fire took place.

Lost Landscapes of San Francisco: Fundraiser Benefitting Internet Archive
December 18, 02013 at 6:30 PM
Detail and Tickets

The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

Posted on Wednesday, November 20th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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We in the Western world are not the only ones who grow up with the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

Stories about young children who face off with a trickster wild animal are told around the world. In East Asia, for example, there is the tale of a tiger who masquerades as an old woman to lure her grandchildren into bed with him. And in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the evil beast is an ogre who ensnares a young girl by imitating the voice of her brother.

Oral folk tales like these change easily as they are told and retold through generations. They’re fluid, ever-morphing cultural artifacts – and as such, their history and cross-cultural relatedness can be difficult to trace. Nevertheless, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK has recently shown that it can be done. Borrowing methods that are commonly used in biology to establish evolutionary relationships between species, an analysis conducted by Jamshid Tehrani reveals that these varying narratives are related to one another much like humans are to the Great Apes: they all, ultimately, descend from the same ancestor.

That ancestor, in this case, is a story called “The Wolf and the Kids:” an ancient folktale with European roots, in which a wolf pretends to be a mother goat in order to eat her babies. The Daily Mail quotes Tehrani:

My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales turn out to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids but over time, they have evolved to become more like Little Red Riding Hood, which is also likely to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids. This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood evolved twice from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.

Tehrani’s work also contradicts the long-held theory that both Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf And the Kids originated in East Asia – in fact, he shows, it was the other way around. “Specifically,” the anthropologist says, “the Chinese blended together Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf and the Kids, and local folk tales to create a new, hybrid story.”

Fairy tales and other stories serve a purpose. They help us make sense of the world and of ourselves, and give us a way to transmit our knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation. As such, Tehrani’s study does more than show that societies around the world and across time have shared their stories with one another: it suggests a certain unity of human psychosocial experience. There must be, out in the world, some real or prospective experience that we are all faced with at some point or other – an experience in which we all seem to find ourselves supported by the narrative theme of young children confronted by a wily wolf.

Taking the longpath

Posted on Monday, November 18th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Writing for Wired, Ari Wallach contrasts the perspectives that go into building a cathedral that isn’t completed until long after its designer’s death and a McMansion that’s built, foreclosed on and abandoned in less than a generation.

He proposes what he calls the “Longpath,” to encourage more endeavors of the cathedral’s scale:

We need a framework for long-term strategy — one that is visionary yet goal-oriented. Without organising principles, it will be impossible to corral the corporations and capitals of the globe to tackle our significant long-term challenges.

To this end, I suggest “longpath”. It’s a term that connotes long-term and goal-oriented strategies. It can help leaders navigate the balance between short-term gain and long-term ruin.

To further develop this perspective, is hosting and livestreaming a roundtable discussion with Wallach. Long Now’s executive director Alexander Rose will also take part in the discussion, along with Felicia Wong, Nicole Boyer and Peter Leyden.

This roundtable will bring together an eclectic group to consider how Longpath Thinking might really work. How long is long? Are there better methods for thinking in this way? How would we begin to institutionalize this approach in government and business, the economy and society?

Watch the conversation online on Wednesday November 20th, 02013 at 11:00 am PT.

Climate Change and Us: What Does the Future Hold?

Posted on Thursday, November 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Peer beyond the headlines as experts explain what the IPCC report really says about global warming and what it means for our planet and for mankind in a live presentation and discussion on Friday December 13, 02013 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth major assessment report in 02014. The first working group (of three) has already released their findings on the development and growth of global warming. In short: climate change is not slowing down and humans are a major factor in its acceleration.

swissnex San Francisco, in partnership with The Long Now Foundation, invites the public to hear from a diverse panel of experts on the report’s key takeaways for the scientist, the citizen, and the entrepreneur. Be prepared to come with your questions and join the discussion around short- and long-term strategies for a warming planet.  Long Now members receive a discount on tickets, please see your email for instructions on reserving.

The speakers and panelists are:

  • Susan BurnsSenior Vice President, Global Footprint Network
  • Saul GriffithInventor, Co-founder Otherlab
  • Paul HawkenEnvironmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, author, professor
  • Gian-Kasper PlattnerDirector of Science, IPCC WGI Technical Support Unit, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Thomas StockerCo-Chair Working Group I, IPCC

Cost to register is $20, with a $10 discount for Long Now Members
(Check your email for promotional code.)
Friday December 13th, 02013 at the YBCA Forum
A reception for the audience and speakers will follow.
Details and Registration

A 240-Year Old Programmable Computer Boy

Posted on Thursday, November 14th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In the late 18th century, Swiss clock- and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet Droz decided to advertise his business by building three automata, or mechanical robots, in the shape of young children. Still functional after almost 240 years, the machines are a marvel of mechanical engineering. “The Musician” is a girl who plays an organ – her eyes follow her fingers as they press down on the instrument’s keys, and her chest moves up and down in a breathing motion. “The Draftsman” is a boy who draws four different images – including a portrait of Louis XV.

The most complex of the three, however, is “The Writer.” Constructed with nearly 6,000 components, this mechanical boy sits at a small desk and uses a goose feather quill to write sentences on a piece of paper. Like his Draftsman brother, the Writer’s three-dimensional arm movements are coded by a series of cams: they direct his arm to an inkwell, into which he dips his quill, and then back to his paper, where he writes out letters in a neat cursive script. Professor Simon Schaffer, host of the BBC4 documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, explains:

As these cams move, three cam followers read their shaped edges and translate these into the movement of the boy’s arm. Working together, the cams control every stroke of the quill pen, and exactly how much pressure is applied to the paper, so as to achieve beautiful, elegant, and fluid writing. With this sublime machine, Jaquet Droz had reverse-engineered the very act of writing.

But the mechanical boy contained one perhaps even more astonishing feature. The wheel that controlled the cams was made up of letters that could be removed, and then replaced and reordered. These allowed the writer in principle to make any word and any sentence. In other words, it allowed the writer to be programmed. This beautiful boy is thus a distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

The Writer is an early example, too, of some of the mechanical technology that runs the 10,000 Year Clock. Of course, the Writer’s system is entirely analog, whereas the Clock incorporates both analog and digital mechanisms (the serial bit adders at the heart of the Orrery provide a binary input for its simulation of planetary movement). Nevertheless, the 18th century automaton is a miniature testimony to what the Clock exemplifies on monument scale: that mechanical systems possess the elegance, the transparency, and the functionality needed to endure across long stretches of time.

(via Colossal)

Rick Prelinger Seminar Tickets

Posted on Tuesday, November 12th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking


Rick Prelinger presents “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, 8”

Tickets have sold out for this event

Unclaimed tickets will be released to the walk-up line the night of the event; please note that tickets are not guaranteed to those waiting in the walk-up line.


Tuesday December 17, 02013 at 7:30pm Castro Theater


About this Seminar:

For the eighth time, Rick Prelinger brings together familiar and unseen archival film clips showing San Francisco as it was and is no more. Blanketing the 20th-century city, from the Bay to Ocean Beach, this screening includes newly-discovered images of Playland and Sutro Baths; the waterfront; families living and playing in their neighborhoods; detail-rich streetscapes of the late 1960s; the 1968 San Francisco State strike; Army and family life in the Presidio; buses, planes, trolleys and trains; a selected reprise of greatest hits from years 1-7; and much, much more. As usual, you’ll be the star at the glorious Castro — audience members are asked to identify places and events, ask questions, share their thoughts, and create an unruly interactive symphony of speculation about the city we’ve lost and the city we’d like to live in.

Rick Prelinger, an archivist, writer, filmmaker and teacher, has made LOST LANDSCAPES OF SAN FRANCISCO for eight years; LOST LANDSCAPES OF DETROIT for three; and recently completed NO MORE ROAD TRIPS?, a feature-length dream ride across the U.S. made completely from home movies. He runs a large archives of amateur film and home movies in San Francisco and teaches at UC Santa Cruz. With Megan Prelinger, he co-founded Prelinger Library, an experimental library and workspace open to the public in downtown San Francisco.

A visit to Star Axis

Posted on Monday, November 11th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Having climbed the staircase for some time, I stopped on a step that sent me back to the sky of twenty-five hundred years ago, the sky that loomed overhead when the Book of Job was written. I braced myself against the cool stone of the corridor that bracketed the staircase, and looked up through the tunnel. In the 5th century BC, the orbit of Polaris was much further out from the pole than it is now. We know this from our understanding of precession, but also from observations that were recorded at the time, observations that suggest a new way of looking at the sky had begun to emerge by then. Very slowly, it seems, the conceptual filters that humans used to interpret celestial phenomena had started changing, becoming less theological and more empirical. Instead of scanning the sky for the moods and faces of a humanlike god, people began looking for patterns in it. They went searching for order itself in the void.

Aeon Magazine Senior Editor Ross Anderson recently had the privilege of visiting Star Axis, a large-scale architectural installation in the New Mexico desert by artist Charles Ross. Anderson tells the story of his journey to the incomplete and mystery-shrouded artwork, with plenty of backstory on its creator and the astronomical mechanics it highlights.