Blog Archive for the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ Category

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The 10,000-Year Geneaology of Myths

Posted on Wednesday, February 8th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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The “Shaft Scene” from the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

The “Shaft Scene” from the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS SCENES in the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France depicts a confrontation between a man and a bison. The bison appears fixed in place, stabbed by a spear. The man has a bird’s head and is lying prone on the ground. Scholars have long puzzled over the pictograph’s meaning, as the narrative scene it depicts is one of the most complex yet discovered in Paleolithic art.

To understand what is going on in these scenes, some scholars have started to re-examine myths passed down through oral traditions, which some evidence suggest may be far older than previously thought. Myths still hold relevance today by allowing us to frame our actions at a civilizational level as part of a larger story, something that we hope to be able to accomplish with the idea of the “Long Now.”

Historian Julien d’Huy recently proposed an intriguing hypothesis[subscription required]: the cave painting of the man & bison could be telling the tale of the Cosmic Hunt, a myth that has surfaced with the same basic story structure in cultures across the world, from the Chukchi of Siberia to the Iroquois of the Northeastern United States. D’Huy uses comparative mythology combined with new computational modeling technologies to reconstruct a version of the myth that predates humans’ migration across the Bering Strait. If d’Huy is correct, the Lascaux painting would be one of the earliest depictions of the myth, dating back an estimated 20,000 years ago.

The Greek telling of the Cosmic Hunt is likely most familiar to today’s audiences. It recounts how the Gods transformed the chaste and beautiful Callisto into a bear, and later, into the constellation Ursa Major. D’Huy suggests that in the Lascaux painting, the bison isn’t fixed in place because it has been killed, as many experts have proposed, but because it is a constellation.

Comparative mythologists have spilled much ink over how myths like Cosmic Hunt can recur in civilizations separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years with many aspects of their stories intact. D’huy’s analysis is based off the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who posited that these myths are similar because they have a common origin. Levi-Strauss traced the evolution of myths by applying the same techniques that linguists used to trace the evolution of words. D’Huy provides new evidence for this approach by borrowing recently developed computational statistical tools from evolutionary biology.  The method, called phylogenetic analysis, constructs a family tree of a myth’s discrete elements, or “mythemes,” and its evolution over time:

Mythical stories are excellent targets for such analysis because, like biological species, they evolve gradually, with new parts of a core story added and others lost over time as it spreads from region to region.  […] Like genes, mythemes are heritable characteristics of “species” of stories, which pass from one generation to the next and change slowly.

A phylogenetic tree of the Cosmic Hunt shows its evolution over time

This new evidence suggests that the Cosmic Hunt has followed the migration of humans across the world. The Cosmic Hunt’s phylogenetic tree shows that the myth arrived in the Americas at different times over the course of several millennia:

One branch of the tree connects Greek and Algonquin versions of the myth. Another branch indicates passage through the Bering Strait, which then continued into Eskimo country and to the northeastern Americas, possibly in two different waves. Other branches suggest that some versions of the myth spread later than the others from Asia toward Africa and the Americas.

Myths may evolve gradually like biological species, but can also be subject to the same sudden bursts of evolutionary change, or punctuated equilibrium. Two structurally similar myths can diverge rapidly, d’Huy found, because of “migration bottlenecks, challenges from rival populations, or new environmental and cultural inputs.”

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, in his talk “How Stories Last” at Long Now in 02015, imagined stories in similarly biological terms—as living things that evolve over time and across mediums. The ones that persist are the ones that outcompete other stories by changing:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

Throughout human history, myths functioned to transmit important cultural information from generation to generation about shared beliefs and knowledge. “They teach us how the world is put together,” said Gaiman, “and the rules of living in the world.” If the information isn’t clothed in a compelling narrative garb—a tale of unrequited love, say, or a cunning escape from powerful monsters— the story won’t last, and the shared knowledge dies along with it. The stories that last “come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and want them to propagate,” said Gaiman.

Sometimes, these stories serve as warnings to future generations about calamitous events. Along Australia’s south coast, a myth persists in an aboriginal community about an enraged ancestor called Ngurunderi who chased his wives on foot to what is today known as Kangaroo Island. In his anger, Ngurunderi made the sea levels rise and turned his wives into rocks.

Kangaroo Island, Australia

Linguist Nicholas Reid and geologist Patrick Nunn believe this myth refers to a shift in sea levels that occurred thousands of years ago. Through scientifically reconstructing prehistoric sea levels, Reid and Nunn dated the myth to 9,800 to 10,650 years ago, when a post-glacial event caused sea levels to rise 100 feet and submerged the land bridge to Kangaroo Island.

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Reid said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

Gaiman thinks that this process of transmitting stories is what fundamentally allows humanity to advance:

Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, in his talk “Civilization’s Infrastructure” at Long Now in 02015, said such stories remain essential today. In Fallows’ view, effective infrastructure is what enables civilizations to thrive. Some of America’s most ambitious infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of railroads across the continent, or landing on the moon, were spurred by stories like Manifest Destiny and the Space Race. Such myths inspired Americans to look past their own immediate financial interests and time horizons to commit to something beyond themselves. They fostered, in short, long-term thinking.

James Fallows, left, speaking with Stewart Brand at Long Now

For Fallows, the reason Americans haven’t taken on grand and necessary projects of infrastructural renewal in recent times is because they struggle to take the long view. In Fallows’ eyes, there’s a lot to be optimistic about, and a great story to be told:

The story is an America that is not in its final throes, but is going through the latest version in its reinvention in which all the things that are dire now can be, if not solved, addressed and buffered by individual talents across the country but also by the exceptional tools that the tech industry is creating. There’s a different story we can tell which includes the bad parts but also —as most of our political discussion does not—includes the promising things that are beginning too.

A view of the underground site of The Clock looking up at the spiral stairs currently being cut

When Danny Hillis proposed building a 10,000 year clock, he wanted to create a myth that stood the test of time. Writing in 01998, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand noted the trend of short-term thinking taking hold in civilization, and proposed the myth of the Clock of the Long Now:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

The Future Will Have to Wait

Posted on Friday, January 6th, 02017 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Eleven years ago this month, Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon published an article in Details Magazine about Long Now and the Clock.  It continues to be one of the best and most poignant pieces written to date…

chabonfuture

The Future Will Have to Wait

Written by Michael Chabon for Details in January of 02006

I was reading, in a recent issue of Discover, about the Clock of the Long Now. Have you heard of this thing? It is going to be a kind of gigantic mechanical computer, slow, simple and ingenious, marking the hour, the day, the year, the century, the millennium, and the precession of the equinoxes, with a huge orrery to keep track of the immense ticking of the six naked-eye planets on their great orbital mainspring. The Clock of the Long Now will stand sixty feet tall, cost tens of millions of dollars, and when completed its designers and supporters, among them visionary engineer Danny Hillis, a pioneer in the concept of massively parallel processing; Whole Earth mahatma Stewart Brand; and British composer Brian Eno (one of my household gods), plan to hide it in a cave in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada [now in West Texas], a day’s hard walking from anywhere. Oh, and it’s going to run for ten thousand years. That is about as long a span as separates us from the first makers of pottery, which is among the oldest technologies we have. Ten thousand years is twice as old as the pyramid of Cheops, twice as old as that mummified body found preserved in the Swiss Alps, which is one of the oldest mummies ever discovered. The Clock of the Long Now is being designed to thrive under regular human maintenance along the whole of that long span, though during periods when no one is around to tune it, the giant clock will contrive to adjust itself. But even if the Clock of the Long Now fails to last ten thousand years, even if it breaks down after half or a quarter or a tenth that span, this mad contraption will already have long since fulfilled its purpose. Indeed the Clock may have accomplished its greatest task before it is ever finished, perhaps without ever being built at all. The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.

The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The Future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The Future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.

Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?

I was surprised, when I read about the Clock of the Long Now, at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world ten thousand years hence. At one time I was a frequent visitor to that imaginary mental locale. And I don’t mean merely that I regularly encountered “the Future” in the pages of science fiction novels or comic books, or when watching a TV show like The Jetsons (1962) or a movie like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The story of the Future was told to me, when I was growing up, not just by popular art and media but by public and domestic architecture, industrial design, school textbooks, theme parks, and by public institutions from museums to government agencies. I heard the story of the Future when I looked at the space-ranger profile of the Studebaker Avanti, at Tomorrowland through the portholes of the Disneyland monorail, in the tumbling plastic counters of my father’s Seth Thomas Speed Read clock. I can remember writing a report in sixth grade on hydroponics; if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart.

Even thirty years after its purest expression on the covers of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and, supremely, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the collective cultural narrative of the Future remained largely an optimistic one of the impending blessings of technology and the benevolent, computer-assisted meritocracy of Donald Fagen’s “fellows with compassion and vision.” But by the early seventies—indeed from early in the history of the Future—it was not all farms under the sea and family vacations on Titan. Sometimes the Future could be a total downer. If nuclear holocaust didn’t wipe everything out, then humanity would be enslaved to computers, by the ineluctable syllogisms of “the Machine.” My childhood dished up a series of grim cinematic prognostications best exemplified by the Hestonian trilogy that began with the first Planet of the Apes (1968) and continued through The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Images of future dystopia were rife in rock albums of the day, as on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) and Rush’s 2112 (1976), and the futures presented by seventies writers of science fiction such as John Brunner tended to be unremittingly or wryly bleak.

In the aggregate, then, stories of the Future presented an enchanting ambiguity. The other side of the marvelous Jetsons future might be a story of worldwide corporate-authoritarian technotyranny, but the other side of a post-apocalyptic mutational nightmare landscape like that depicted in The Omega Man was a landscape of semi-barbaric splendor and unfettered (if dangerous) freedom to roam, such as I found in the pages of Jack Kirby’s classic adventure comic book Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-76). That ambiguity and its enchantment, the shifting tension between the bright promise and the bleak menace of the Future, was in itself a kind of story about the ways, however freakish or tragic, in which humanity (and by implication American culture and its values however freakish and tragic) would, in spite of it all, continue. Eed plebnista, intoned the devolved Yankees, in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who had somehow managed to hold on to and venerate as sacred gobbledygook the Preamble to the Constitution, norkon forden perfectunun. All they needed was a Captain Kirk to come and add a little interpretive water to the freeze-dried document, and the American way of life would flourish again.

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list—interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened)—have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any Future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say, Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.

If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his tenth birthday. It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank. My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. If you had told me, when I was eight, that a little kid of the future would feel that way—and that what’s more, he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings in it—that would have been even worse than hearing that in 2006 there are no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jetpacks for everyone. That would truly have broken my heart.

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

Long Now’s First Ever Member Summit: October 4, 02016

Posted on Friday, September 23rd, 02016 by Mikl Em
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The Long Now Member Summit - Oct. 4, 02016

Our first ever global gathering is less than two weeks away!
Join us in San Francisco on October 4th, 02016.

In 01996: The Long Now Foundation was established to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

In 02007: The Long Now Foundation’s Membership program was launched. The list of our 1,000 Charter Members is here.

On October 4th, 02016 we will host the first ever global gathering of Long Now members. Our membership has grown to nearly 8,000 people around the world. It’s time we got together.

In celebration of Long Now’s 20th anniversary our Member Summit will be a day dedicated to long-term thinking. We will have components of the 10,000 Year Clock on display–which will later be installed in West Texas.

The Clock of the Long Now: actual components of our 10,000 Year Clock will be on display at the Summit

Our staff will give updates on our projects (including the Clock). Long Now founders and Board will be on stage, but we’ll also have talks & discussions led by Long Now members, hundreds of whom will travel to San Francisco for this event.

The Interval at Long Now, our bar/cafe/museum, will be at the center of the Summit. The Interval is full of Long Now-related information & artifacts, including Clock of the Long Now prototypes, passenger pigeons, thousands of books, and the art of Brian Eno.

There’s much more–dinner from Off The Grid food trucks, drinks from The Interval menu, a festival of short films about long-term thinking co-curated by our members, and more. Tickets are still available.

Join us at the Summit and help celebrate the first 20 years of Long Now!

Celebrating 20 years (so far) of Long Now
Featuring a keynote presentation by David Eagleman

Neuroscientist and author David Eagleman speaks at The Long Now Member Summit, October 4, 02016

Why build a 10,000 Year Clock?

Posted on Friday, November 20th, 02015 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Adam Weber and Jimmy Goldblum of Public Record released this short video about The Clock of The Long Now this week at the New York Documentary Film Festival and it can also be seen at The Atlantic.

Clock of the Long Now on Display at Deutsches Museum in Munich

Posted on Tuesday, September 15th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Anthropozän_Spalte_de_cropFor the next twelve months, the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now will be on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. It forms part of their Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit – an interactive and multidisciplinary museum experience meant to prompt reflection and discussion about the notion of a ‘human era’.

“Spanning 1400 m2, the world’s first large exhibit on this important issue of the future reviews and surveys the concept of the Anthropocene through an analysis of such themes as urbanism, mobility, nature, evolution, nutrition, and human-machine interaction. The exhibit visualizes the history, present, and future of this human era, intersecting technology and the physical sciences with art and media. Historical exhibits guide us along our way through the Anthropocene, recent scientific discoveries and projects present challenges and potential solutions, and artistic design encourage contemplation.”

ClockAllWht1_00BFI-290px

This is the first time the Prototype has left London’s Science Museum since it was installed there, and the first time the prototype is on display in continental Europe. To learn more, you can explore the exhibit’s English-language catalog, German-language website, or take a virtual tour. Originally scheduled to run until January, the exhibit has already been extended to September 02016, and can be visited any time during museum opening hours, daily from 9 AM and 5 PM local time.

Alexander Rose speaking in Portland September 17th

Posted on Monday, August 31st, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Save-The-Date-Alexander-Rose-New-e1435864088868

On Thursday, September 17th, Alexander Rose (Executive Director of Long Now) will give a talk on how to design for 10,000 years, including how he approached many of the unique design challenges of The Clock.

Thursday, September 17th
5:30 – 7:30 pm
Lincoln Recital Hall (PSU)
1620 SW Park Avenue

General Admission: $10
Tickets available here!

 

From the City to the Great Basin: a Trip to Long Now’s Mountain in Nevada

Posted on Thursday, January 8th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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The Big Here video documenting a drive from San Francisco to Mount Washington in eastern Nevada was made in 02009 and shown as a Long Short before Stewart Brand’s Rethinking Green SALT talk. We showed it again this week at The Great Basin in the Anthropocene talk by Scotty Strachan at The Interval. That event focused on the larger region that includes Mount Washington.

The mount Washington site was originally purchased as a potential site for a monument scale 10,000 Year Clock to act as an icon to long-term thinking. The first of these Clocks is now underway in Texas (see longnow.org/clock/ for more details), and Long Now remains involved in this fascinating, important region of eastern Nevada.

Our Mount Washington property is home to the largest population of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones, amongst the oldest living things on Earth, are a symbol of The Long Now. And Long Now is working with scientists, like Scotty Strachan, at University of Nevada, Reno to study these bristlecones for insights into the last 10,000 years of climate amongst other research efforts.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The IntervalPhoto of Mount Washington by Scotty Strachan

Scotty Strachan: The Great Basin in the Anthropocene @ The Interval January 6 — The Mountains Keep Teaching

Posted on Sunday, January 4th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Scotty Strachan up and upPhoto by Scotty Strachan

January 6, 02015: Scotty Strachan (University Nevada-Reno)
Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene
Tickets are still available

This Tuesday a very special event begins our 02015 series of salon talks at The Interval in San Francisco. The Great Basin in the Anthropocene on January 6 will be a night full of science, natural beauty, and Long Now lore.

Scotty Strachan will talk about the natural history of the Great Basin Region. Scotty’s scientific research includes study of the climate and hydrology of the area as well as tree-ring analysis of bristlecone pines. This work has been conducted throughout the region including on Long Now’s property on Mount Washington in Nevada. Alexander Rose, Long Now’s Executive Director, will give a special introduction about Long Now’s history and connection with the area. You can purchase tickets here while they last.

In Stewart Brand’s 02004 TED talk (full video below), he tells some of the story of Long Now’s Mount Washington. It’s a talk Stewart called “How Mountains Teach”.

In 02004 we were considering the mountain as the initial site for the 10,000 Year Clock. And while we are currently building in Texas, we remain committed to this fascinating, important area. Long Now’s property features the largest group of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones are amongst the oldest living things on the planet and are a symbol of The Long Now.

As Stewart says in the talk:

If you go up on top of those cliffs, that’s some of the Long Now land in those trees. And if you go up there and look back, then you’ll get a sense of what the view starts to be like from the top of the mountain. That’s the long view. That’s 80 miles to the horizon. And that’s also timberline and those bristlecones really are shrubs. That’s a different place to be. It’s 11,400 feet and it’s exquisite.

This talk is a great introduction not only to Mt. Washington, but also to the entire Great Basin region. Alexander’s introduction before Scotty’s talk will revisit the story of Long Now’s purchase of the land, and talk about why it means so much to our organization.

Scotty is also a talented photographer. While conducting field research in the mountains and valleys of eastern Nevada, he also takes the time to document the natural beauty of the area. We are thrilled to share dozens of Scotty’s photographs not only during his talk but on video screens at The Interval leading up to and following his talk. Below are just a few examples of Scotty’s work. Tickets and more information about the talk are here.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The Interval Scotty Strachan at The Interval Mt Washington Great Basin
Great Basin horses - Scotty Strachan
Great Basin golden sky - Scotty Strachan Great Basin red sky - Scotty Strachan
Scotty Strachan long walk Nevada
All photos by Scotty Strachan

Brian Eno and Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now — a Seminar Flashback

Posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014 photos by Kelly Ida Scope

In January 02014 Brian Eno and Danny Hillis, co-founders of The Long Now Foundation, spoke about The Long Now, now in our Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. Long Now’s third co-founder, Stewart Brand, joined them onstage for the second part of the talk.

Leaving the planet, singing, religion, drugs, sex, and parenting are all touched on in their wide-ranging and humor-filled discussion. There’s much about the 10,000 Year Clock project, of course, including details about how The Clock’s chime generator will work. And, fittingly, they discuss the notion of art as conversation.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Long Now, now is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until Februray 02015. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Hillis talked about the long-term stories we live by and how our expectations of the future shape the future, such as our hopes about space travel. Eno said that Mars is too difficult to live on, so what’s the point, and Hillis said, “That’s short-term thinking. There are three big game-changers going on: globalization, computers, and synthetic biology. (If I were a grad student now, I wouldn’t study computer science, I’d study synthetic biology.) I probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars in this body, but I could imagine adapting myself so I would want to live on Mars. To me it’s pretty inevitable that Earth is just our starting point.”

Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author, and engineer. He pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID disk array technology used to store large databases. He holds over 100 U.S. patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices. Danny Hillis is also the designer of Long Now’s 10,000-year Clock.

Brian Eno is a composer, producer and visual artist. He was a founding member of Roxy Music and has produced albums for such groundbreaking artists as David Bowie, The Talking Heads and U2. He is credited with coining the term “Ambient Music” and making some of the definitive recordings in that genre. In recent years he has focused on generative art including numerous gallery installations and his Ambient Painting at The Interval at Long Now. His music is available for purchase at Enoshop.

EnoandHillisClockShop photo by Alexander Rose

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until February 02015). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014

Brian Eno, Danny Hillis: The Long Now, now, Seminar About Long-term Thinking 1/02014
photos by Kelly Ida Scope


Where Time Begins

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Last year I had the opportunity to give a talk and tour of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC at the invitation of Demetrios Matsakis, the director of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Time Service department.  The Naval Observatory hosts the largest collection of precise frequency standards in the world, and uses them to, among other things, keep services like internet time and the global positioning system in your phone running correctly.

The USNO Master Clock is actually an average of many timing signals

The US Naval Observatory keeps track of time and distance in what seems like obscure ways, but these signals are used for some of the most widely trusted and life-critical systems on the planet.  The observatory uses a series of atomic clocks, ranging from hydrogen mazers to cesium fountain clocks, which are averaged into the time signals we all use in synchronizing internet servers and finding our way with the guidance of our phones.  In fact GPS would not be possible without the highly accurate time signals generated by the observatory, as time very literally equals distance when you are a satellite flying overhead at speeds that actually have to account for Einsteinian relativity.


The humble rack servers pumping out one of the most accurate and life-critical time signals in the world

The Naval Observatory is also part of the larger network in the US that includes NIST and several labs around the world that contribute to the international standards of time like Universal Coordinated Time or UTC.  These time standards are defined in collaboration: many of the world’s national labs send in how long a second lasts based on their clocks, and these seconds are then averaged to define the second for the month.  But ironically, they do this in retrospect and sometimes add leap seconds, so they only know what the ‘second’ was last month, not this month.

I am often asked when explaining the 10,000 Year Clock why we do not use an atomic clock, as they are often reported to be accurate to “one second in 30 million years”.  But this does not mean they will last 30 million years; it is just a way to explain an accuracy of 10-9 seconds in everyday terms.  These atomic clocks are extremely fragile and fussy machines that require very exact temperatures and deep understanding of atomic science in order to even read them.  They sometimes only last a few years.

Two of the Rubidium Fountain Clocks at the USNO used to create the master time signal

Demetrios was also able to tell me more about some of the long-term timing issues that affect The 10,000 Year Clock.  Because the Clock synchronizes with the sun on any sunny day, one of the effects that we have to take into account is the rate at which the Earth’s rotational rate may change from millennium to millennium.  It turns out that the earth’s rotation can be greatly affected by climate change.  If the poles freeze in an ice age, and all the water freezes closer to the poles, the earth spins faster.  If the current warming trend continues and the poles melt extensively, the mass of the water around the equator will slow the earth’s rotational rate.  All these changes affect where the sun will appear in the sky, and since our clock uses the sun to synchronize, it is an effect we have to account for.  While this was all known to us, there is a counter effect that Demetrios told me about.  It turns out that when there is less water weighing down one of the tectonic plates of the earth, it rises up higher, counteracting some of the mass altered by the shift in water.  We will be investigating this further to see if it changes our calculations.

Many thanks to Demetrios Matsakis for inviting me to the Naval Observatory, it was an honor to present to some of the most technical horologists in the world, and witness the place where the ephemerality of time is pinned down to just “one second in 30 million years”.