Human Self-Interest and the Problem of Solving Long-Term Issues

Posted on Friday, November 8th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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We are a selfish, short-sighted lot. As many a game theory experiment has shown, we simply aren’t as motivated by the promise of collective future benefits as we are by the gratification of instant private rewards.

A group of researchers based at NYU now argues that this kind of self-interest can throw up significant hurdles to the process of solving long-term, multi-generational problems like climate change. As reported in the October issue of Nature Climate Change, The team conducted a study that measured participants’ willingness to invest personal resources into a group effort that would lead to rewards in the future: each subject was given €40, and was then asked to deposit €0, €2, or €4 into a collective “climate account” that would fund an environmental awareness advertisement. If each participant deposited enough for the account to reach a total of €120, all would receive an additional €45.

However, the reward of cooperation, the €45 endowment per group member for meeting the €120 target, was distributed on three different time horizons. In one treatment (T1), the €45 cash endowment was paid the next day; in the second treatment (T2), the €45 cash endowment was paid 7 weeks later; in the third treatment (T3), the €45 endowment was invested in planting oak trees that would sequester carbon (as well as provide habitat and greenery) and therefore provide the greatest benefit to future generations, although in a currency different to the monetary endowments offered in T1 and T2.

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Just as the scholars hypothesized, participants’ willingness to invest was highest in the T1 scenario, and lowest for T3. In other words: the further a reward lies in the future – and the less likely the individual therefore is to benefit from it himself – the less motivated he is to give his personal resources up for the greater good. The research group concludes:

The results show the power of intergenerational discounting to undermine cooperation …. Immediate monetary rewards seem to matter most. Applying our results to international climate change negotiations paints a sobering picture. Owing to intergenerational discounting, cooperation will be greatly undermined if, as in our setting, short-term gains can arise only from defection. This suggests the necessity of introducing powerful short-term incentives to cooperate, such as punishment, reward or reputation, in experimental research as well as in international endeavours to mitigate climate change.

The article explains that immediate and delayed rewards trigger entirely different parts of the human brain, suggesting that long-term and short-term strategizing involve divergent cognitive processes. It seems, then, that our best chance of fostering a sense of accountability for the future may be to create scenarios in which both parts of the brain are stimulated simultaneously: by coupling the incentive of long-term rewards with that of very short-term consequences.

Revive & Restore Sequences Extinct Passenger Pigeon DNA

Posted on Thursday, November 7th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Revive & Restore’s passenger pigeon expert, Ben Novak, has been working for months to gather samples of DNA from 77 specimens of the extinct bird.

Our first glimpses of data confirmed that the samples would be able to provide the DNA needed for a full genome sequence, but as we delved into the work, the specimens exceeded our expectations. Not only do we have one specimen of high enough quality for a full genome, we have more than 20 specimens to perform population biology research with bits of DNA from all over the genome.

Among those specimens, “Passenger Pigeon 1871” offers the most intact genome and was selected to be sequenced in full.

On Revive & Restore’s blog, Novak tells the story of taking the sample to a UCSF lab and running it through the Illumina HiSeq 2500. Soon, he explains, they’ll have a catalogue of the species’ entire genome, though in a form akin to a stack of unordered pages. He turns now to the work of sorting those fragments.

Richard Kurin Seminar Primer

Posted on Tuesday, November 5th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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“American History in 101 Objects”

Monday November 18, 02013 at the SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco

Richard Kurin, Under-Secretary of History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian, has been looking through all of the Smithsonian’s museums, archives, research centers–even their zoo–to find the objects that best tell the story of America. Inspired by the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” (which focuses on ancient history), these objects were selected to bring American history to life.

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While the objects are all in some way tied to the landmass on which the United States was founded, many of them pre-date the country and even its European progenitors, referencing time periods we can barely comprehend. The oldest object in the collection is the Burgess Shale, a collection of fossils from more than 500 million years ago that gave us an unprecedented glimpse into the Cambrian Explosion, an evolutionary surge that led to many of the forms of life we know today. From the Burgess Shale, the collection continues through Native American artifacts, Revolutionary War heirlooms, key technological objects, wartime memorabilia, all the way to objects from space exploration.

Kurin weaves a compelling narrative through these objects, explaining their significance, how they came into their collection, and how their meanings have shifted in their afterlife at the museum. These objects show us a new way of looking at history, one that goes beyond words on a page. By embedding history in these objects, Kurin simultaneously makes history immediate and material, while also reminding us of the importance of the institutions that painstakingly preserve these objects.

To learn more about these objects and how the part they played in American History, join us on November 18th at the SFJAZZ Center. You can reserve tickets, get directions and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page.

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Time for Everyone Symposium in Pasadena

Posted on Monday, November 4th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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From November 7 to 9 of this year, the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors will hold a symposium and special exhibition at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. Entitled “Time for Everyone: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Public Time,” the event will examine the myriad ways in which we experience, measure, and use time:

“From its natural cycles in astronomy, to its biological evolution, to how the brain processes it differently at various stages of life and under different circumstances, to how we find it, how we measure it, and how we keep it, this symposium will explore many facets of this fascinating subject of unfathomable depth.”

Speakers include author Dava Sobel, as well as Long Now Board member David Eagleman, who will discuss the way our brains perceive and process time.

Coupled with a special exhibit of mechanical clocks, watches, and sundials built by 17th century clock maker Thomas Tompion, the symposium is sure to offer a rich perspective on the way our civilization has engaged with time throughout history. For more information about the program, speakers, and clock exhibit, please visit the symposium website.

The Cure for Broken Links and Dead Dot-Coms

Posted on Friday, November 1st, 02013 by Catherine Borgeson
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“The Internet echoes with the empty spaces where data used to be.”
– Alexis Rossi from the Wayback Machine

The Internet Archive recently unveiled a new plan to fix broken links utilizing the Wayback Machine.

The Wayback Machine provides digital captures of URLs to create stable access to websites that otherwise might vanish. The service initially launched in 2001 with 10 billion pages. Today it archives 10 billion pages every 10 weeks and currently contains more than 360 billion URL snapshots.

We have been serving archived web pages to the public via the Wayback Machine for twelve years now, and it is gratifying to see how this service has become a medium of record for so many.  Wayback pages are cited in papers, referenced in news articles and submitted as evidence in trials.  Now even the U.S. government relies on this web archive.

Steady improvements to the Wayback Machine have been made over the past year to keep pace with the always evolving digital landscape of the Internet. Content went from being a year out of date to appearing in the Wayback Machine an hour after a site is crawled.  Anyone can create a permanent URL to cite a page and the Wayback Machine supports a number of different APIs.

Part of what makes the web so great is its churning and ephemeral nature, but as more and more of our culture and history is built on the dunes of ever-shifting silicates, we stand to stumble forward without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, like Guy Pierce’s amnesiac in Memento. The Wayback Machine improves the web’s memory and in a way, our own.

In becoming better equipped to keep up with the growing Internet, the Wayback Machine has also become a well-suited solution to the broken link epidemic.  It is first working with individual webmasters and a couple larger sites such as WordPress and Wikipedia:

Webmasters can add a short snippet of code to their 404 page that will let users know if the Wayback Machine has a copy of the page in our archive – your web pages don’t have to die!

We started with a big goal — to archive the Internet and preserve it for history.  This year we started looking at the smaller goals — archiving a single page on request, making pages available more quickly, and letting you get information back out of the Wayback in an automated way.  We have spent 17 years building this amazing collection, let’s use it to make the web a better place.

The Long Now, now: Celebrate a Decade of SALT with Brian Eno & Danny Hillis

Posted on Thursday, October 31st, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The Seminars About Long-term Thinking began in 02003 with a talk by one of our founding board members, Brian Eno. In that inaugural SALT talk, simply titled “The Long Now,” Eno described the way he came to the name for our organization.

Instant world news and the internet has led to increased empathy worldwide. But empathy in space has not been matched by empathy in time.

He reckoned that if we can’t help but live in the moment of the “now,” why not make that moment longer – a “Long Now.”

We’re very pleased to announce that Brian Eno will be returning to San Francisco to talk again, with Long Now co-founder and 10,000 Year Clock inventor Danny Hillis, to celebrate the beginning of the second decade of SALT talks this January 02014.  Together, they’ll present “The Long Now, now” on January 21st, 02014 at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Members of Long Now will be able to reserve one complimentary ticket for this special evening, and purchase one additional ticket for a guest.

Members will also get advance notice of ticket availability; please note that the venue holds about 900 people. This event may sell out just through member tickets, so if you are considering membership, now is a great time to join and support Long Now and our mission to foster long-term thinking.

Adam Steltzner Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, October 30th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Beyond Mars, Earth

Tuesday October 15, 02013 – San Francisco

 

Video is up on the Steltzner Seminar page for Members.

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

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Mighty daring on Mars
a summary by Stewart Brand

Engineer Steltzner took his rapt audience striding with him through the wrong solutions for landing a one-ton rover on Mars that his team worked through a decade ago. Previous rovers had weighed 50 pounds, 385 pounds. This traveling “Mars Science Laboratory” would weigh 1,984 pounds. The old airbag trick wouldn’t work this time, nor would a palette, or legs.

After exhausting everything that looked reasonable but could not work, the team settled on a mini-rocket “sky crane” approach that might be able to work, but there was nothing reasonable-looking about it. Selling the concept, Steltzner invoked arguments such as: “Great works and great follies may be indistinguishable at the outset,” while reminding himself that “Sometimes what looks crazy is crazy.” To make things worse, the idea could not be tested on Earth, because our atmosphere and gravity situation is so different from Mars, “and simulations only answer things you know to worry about.”

Furthermore, the landing had to occur within a tiny target ellipse only 4 by 12 miles in the Gale Crater at the base of Mount Sharp, which stands 15,000 feet about the crater floor. To “kiss the Martian surface” at that spot, the landing system had to go through multiple stages (the “seven minutes of terror”) totally on its own, decelerating violently from 10,000 miles per hour to a gentle 0 mph without a single flaw at any stage. On August 6, 2012, with the whole world watching, the system performed perfectly, and Steltzner’s team at JPL exploded with high-fives and tears on the world’s screens.

After showing the video, Steltzner asked, “Why do it, why spend the $2.5 billion the mission cost?” One eternal question about Mars is whether life is there, or was there. This rover has already determined that Mars once had sufficient amounts of the right kind of water that life could have managed there. “It would have been something bacterial, pond-scummy.” He is now at work on a conjectural series of three missions to bring samples of Martian material back to Earth. The first mission would collect and cache the samples; the second would launch the cache to Mars orbit; the third would return it to Earth. Later projects should explore the ice-covered ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa and the methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan.

“With this kind of exploration,“ Steltzner said, “we’re really asking questions about ourselves. How great is our reach? How grand are we? Exploration of this kind is not practical, but it is essential.” He quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Steltzner reminded the audience of the relative inhospitability of Mars and the intense inhospitability of space. “Outside of the magnetic field of this planet that shelters us from the streaming radiation of the Sun, it’s a really nasty place. It’s inconceivably cold or indescribably hot, bathed in radiation.” To contemplate terraforming Mars or building colonies in space, he said, makes solving the problems here on Earth of maintaining this planet’s exquisite balance for life seem so obvious and doable.

In the harsh lifelessness of space we discover how precious is life on Earth.

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Neil Gaiman on Libraries and the Future

Posted on Tuesday, October 29th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Books connect our future and our past, teaching us about what came before and encouraging us to imagine what might yet be. Because of this, reading and libraries remain essential even in our technological and multimedia future, Neil Gaiman recently insisted in a lecture for London’s The Reading Agency:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. […]

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

His full remarks are available at The Guardian. We’re grateful to Mr. Gaiman for his enthusiasm and support of reading and libraries – he’s been a huge help to our own effort to build a library: our Manual for Civilization, which will live in the currently-under-construction Long Now Salon.

Humans and nature: It’s complicated.

Posted on Friday, October 25th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Depending on your point of reference, humanity can seem distinct from and damaging to nature or like an emergent part of a single thriving force. Two interviews with the authors of new books illustrate this elasticity and the multifaceted conceptions of ourselves and nature we shift through depending on the questions we ask and the spaciotemporal scales we consider.

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J.B. MacKinnon and Sharon J. Riley, writing for Harpers, discuss The Once and Future World in which MacKinnon explores the impact humans have had on the Earth’s ecosystems and how misunderstanding that impact can lead us to misunderstand nature itself. He relates the story of a whale that was spotted just off the coast of downtown Vancouver:

Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago… If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

It’s been said that “technology is anything invented after you were born.” In a similar way, our reference point for nature often comes from what we grew up with, even though most of us were born into environments hugely affected by human development. Ecology and Natural History can show us a deeper picture of the major changes wrought by humans the world over and illustrate major inflection points (like the Industrial Revolution, or the Columbian Exchange) against former baselines. MacKinnon reminds us that these baselines are relative, but that they also tend to be fairly stable in comparison to human rates of change.

Human society, in MacKinnon’s account, has degraded nature by harming biodiversity. It’s this diversity, he says that we ought to seek, rather than the restoration of any particular baseline of the past. In looking forward, he offers a model for valuing biodiversity that, surprisingly, comes from one of nature’s symbolic antipodes – the city:

I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity.

If MacKinnon asks how humanity has affected nature on Earth, Ross Anderson and Lee Billings discuss what life on earth has to learn about itself as our search for other worlds really gets going. This galactic expansion of scope compresses, in some ways, the conversation’s working definitions of nature and humanity.

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Ross Anderson, for The Atlantic, spoke with Lee Billings about his book Five Billion Years of Solitude which explores the science and cosmological ramifications of the search for extrasolar planets and their potential inhabitants. The book is largely about the scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field, but Billings and Anderson also discuss the emergence of life on Earth and the inevitable end of Earth’s habitability.

A point Billings repeatedly stresses is the fragility of our newfound ability to look and venture beyond our own small world. Ecological, political, cultural and technological obstacles threaten to limit our achievement and, as alluded by the book’s title, doom our planet to a life of solitude. The work of the scientists in Billing’s writing is important and grandiose in effect, but often mundane in practice and the same can be said about the governance of a society.

Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.

These concerns, in Billings’ mind however, aren’t limited to humanity. What we’ve achieved, we owe to the natural world from which we’ve been born and to which we’re still a part. We aren’t beginning to consider that Earthlings might someday reach other planets and stars because of humanity’s exceptionalism, though that’s been important; we’re considering it because of the riches we lucked into on this precious world.

We really owe our progress and our current state not only to our biology, but also to our planetary resources—to the fossil fuels we burn, the ores we mine, the rich diversity of other species we exploit, and so on. We’re presently using most of those resources in very unsustainable ways. We’ve already plucked all the low-hanging fruit, and much of what we are burning and mining and exploiting now is only available to use through our already sophisticated technology.

So if we somehow drive ourselves extinct, if all our great edifices collapse, I think it would be very difficult if not impossible for anything else to rise up and rebuild to where we are now, even given a half-billion or a billion years. People can and will disagree with me about that, but my position errs on the side of caution, on the side that says humanity’s present moment in the Sun is too valuable to treat as something disposable.

Any species can overreach its niche and in that we may not be exceptional. Environmentalists often threaten apocalypse and the fall of human society if we don’t learn to value the Earth’s resources properly, but Billings expands the scope and the stakes. Our work seeking other worlds isn’t just a human endeavor, it’s a planetary one. Like MacKinnon suggesting that we imagine ourselves to be a citizen of diverse city, Billings suggests that we’re ambassadors for that city and we may not have a successor.

In taxonomy, classifiers who focus on their subject matter’s similarities are known as “lumpers,” while those most interested in difference are “splitters.” Ultimately, of course, humans are just another part of the natural world, governed by evolution and physics like anything else. But in our day to day lives, and even across generations, our place on this planet is clearly unique in key ways. As these two conversations show, parsing our role on this planet involves both lumping and splitting.

Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has spent a career studying humanity’s close biological family and often focuses on lumping us in with other primates, but he offers a single, essential split he’s observed about humans: that we can simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. And maybe that quirk itself is what allows us to zoom from a galaxy, down to a planet, and in to a city and to simultaneously lump and split this thing we call nature and ourselves.

The Heirlooms of Language Through Temporary Tattoos and a Nickel Disk

Posted on Wednesday, October 23rd, 02013 by Catherine Borgeson
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On Saturday October 19, 02013, Long Now participated in Exploratorium Market Days—a series of free, outdoor “mini-festivals” geared to educate the public through the science and art communities and museums. The theme of the month was “Heirlooms,” which focused on the “diverse treasures that we preserve and pass along to future generations.”

Together the Rosetta and PanLex Project staff presented the intangible culture of language in a very tangible way—the Rosetta Disk and temporary tattoos.

The PanLex Project is building an enormous database with the goal of translating all of the words of all of the world’s languages. They created an interface to this database where people could either choose from a list of commonly-used words in tattoos, such as “patience” or “victory,” or enter one of their own choice.

The next screen listed all the translations of that word in the PanLex database, sometimes for hundreds of languages. People were captivated at looking through the list and deciding which language to print their tattoo in. For some, the deciding factor was an interesting script, or because only a handful of people spoke that language. For others it was a language they themselves spoke and personally connected with.

In addition to the PanLex and Rosetta Project staff, Exploratorium Explainers helped run the booth. These are a diverse group of high school students interested in learning new things while explaining and helping others in the process.

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On a more permanent role of archiving and preserving languages, the Rosetta Disk was also on display. A steady stream of people viewed the micro-etched languages with a microscope throughout the day.

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Exploratorium’s Director of Public Programs Melissa Alexander invited Long Now to participate in Market Day. She wanted people to get a sense of the vast amount of languages while understanding that like many species, languages are endangered and are disappearing from the planet regularly.

“I had a Ray Bradbury moment–I wanted everyone to learn how to say hello, please & thank you and welcome in at least one endangered language. Loved the setup and clearly our Explainers did too–if our Explainers like it, it’s golden–teenagers are great thermometers.”