Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Art’ Category

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Three Major Installations (and an impending opening?) by James Turrell

Posted on Tuesday, September 3rd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Artist James Turrell, though generally somewhat elusive and inclined towards private commissions, has had a big summer, as reported by the New York Times in June. Major installations by Turrell have been featured in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. The first two end this month, while the latter runs through April of 02014.

His work focuses on light and perception and the full experience often requires a viewer to spend more than a passing glance. That’s because it can take the human eye up to 45 minutes to fully adjust to a dark room and many of Turrell’s installations make use of such subtle light effects that patience is required to even see what he’s done. The large scale and precise requirements of his work make this summer’s nationwide availability of it an unprecedented opportunity.

Turrell’s immersive installations create spaces not unlike the scenes in The Matrix where characters discuss their world’s central illusion – except in place of Neo’s and Morpheus’s colorless void, Turrell offers a world of color.

construct   turrell5

In other pieces, he creates Skyspaces – open roofed rooms with carefully calibrated ceilings and lights that seem to bring the sky down, to give it texture and to make it appear material.

He’s also known for the mythic Roden Crater, an extinct volcano he bought in 01977. Since then, work at the site has been aimed at creating a naked-eye observatory using principles of light and perception similar to his more accessible installations, but cosmic in scale. An ever more prevalent element of the mythos of the project is the question of when it will be done. Few have seen it as it’s come together over the decades, but the author of Turrell’s recent New York Times profile was able to explore and discuss Roden Crater in depth:

One by one, we walked up the tunnel. It was 854 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, with blue-black interior walls and ribs protruding every four feet. At the top, a great white circle of light beamed toward us. Or so it seemed. As we drew closer, the color changed from white to blue, and the shape began to shift, elongating from a circle to an oval and rising overhead, until it was clear that what had seemed to be a round opening at the far end of the tunnel was in fact an elliptical Skyspace in a large viewing room. A long, narrow staircase made of bronze ascended through it.

We climbed onto the top of the crater and stepped into the sun. Once again we were surrounded by a Martian landscape of crushed red stone. A cold wind blew across the caldera, and we lay down to view the sky, the clouds streaking overhead as the heavens vaulted.

Dusk was coming. We got up and followed a narrow ramp into another Skyspace. It was round, with a narrow bench around the perimeter. Turrell calls it “Crater’s Eye.” We took seats on the bench and stared through the opening in silence. The color of the sky was deepening. It was rich with blue and darkness. It seemed to hover on the ceiling close enough to touch. No one spoke for 30 minutes. I glanced over at Turrell. His hands were folded in his lap, his eyes smiling at the sky. Whatever else the crater had become for him — a job, a dream, an office, a persistent reminder of his own mortality — it was clear that the Skyspace still had the power to lift him up from earth.

Turrell may, it seems, reward patience like few artists can.

Harmonic Spheres and the Music of the Cosmos

Posted on Wednesday, August 21st, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras developed the science of harmonics. Legend has it that he was inspired by the sounds emanating from a blacksmith’s shop; producing experimental music with hammers and anvils, Pythagoras realized that the relationship between different musical notes can be expressed in the form of simple mathematical ratios.

Pythagoras saw in this a fundamental theory of the universe, and redefined the world – from the motion of celestial bodies to the emotional fluctuations in a human body – as iterations of a kind of cosmic music. More than a millennium later, Johannes Kepler interpreted this musica universalis as proof of Divine splendor, and devoted his career to a description of the geometric and harmonic order of our solar system.

Efforts to chart this celestial harmony can produce strikingly aesthetic images. Kepler’s sketches proved as much in his publications – as does this work by software developer Howard Arrington. Arrington used his own Ensign software to visualize the relationship between pairs of planets, producing a series of intriguing geometric mosaics. Better yet, he shares the program with which he created his images, so that you, too, can capture the music of the cosmos.

Art & The Art of Archiving at New York’s New Museum

Posted on Monday, August 12th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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From July 17 to September 8 of this year, the New Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is hosting XFR STN (read ‘transfer station’), an “open-door artist-centered media archiving project.”

A collaborative effort by artists for artists, XFR STN is essentially a preservation and migration service for artwork created with or on audiovisual and digital formats that have since become obsolete. The migrated works will be available publicly through the Internet Archive, and on view at the New Museum’s fifth floor gallery space.

Part public exhibit and part archival laboratory, XFR STN is turning the preservation of art itself into a creative process. It’s an effort at saving art from digital darkness – not only by ensuring its continued accessibility, but by keeping it alive in the public eye.

“Consistent with the dictum “distribution is preservation,” the project argues for circulation as a mode of conservation. “XFR STN” will serve as a collection and dissemination point for artist-produced content, as well as a hub for information about these past projects (including production materials and personal recollections). The project is both a pragmatic public service and an activity as metaphor: an opportunity to present aspects of a mediatic production process in continuous dynamic transformation.”


The End of (xkcd’s) Time

Posted on Monday, August 5th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The stories told in comics can range from decades-long epics to a single wordless image. Though Randall Munroe’s web comic xkcd has tended toward the shorter end of this vast spectrum, he recently concluded a narrative arc that unfolded over several months in the form of Time.

Starting off as a couple stick figures sitting on the beach and the instruction to “Wait for it…”, the image automatically updated in a kind of super-slow animation that followed the characters on a journey of discovery. Readers (viewers?) had little explanation to go on and began looking for clues and forming theories about the story’s setting and direction. A frame showing the night’s sky allowed astronomy buffs a chance to show that the story seemed to be taking place thousands of years into the future (just as we hope the 10,000-Year Clock’s face will prove useful). Munroe confirmed exactly that in a post on his blog once the story had concluded:

And as Time unfolded, readers gradually figured out that it was a story, set far in the future, about one of the strangest phenomena in our world: The Mediterranean Sea sometimes evaporates, leaving dry land miles below the old sea level … and then fills back up in a single massive flood.

Wired explores even further the research Munroe put into his story, including geographically appropriate flora and fauna, as well as creating  a constructed language:

With the help of a linguist, Munroe invented a language and orthography (dubbed “Beanish” by readers) for one of the foreign cultures his characters encounter, which he wanted to be “as different from [English] as our language is from Linear A or Linear B,” the still-undeciphered writing systems of ancient Crete. His abstruse approach worked; despite the efforts of “Time” superfans, no one has been able to decode the language, which Munroe finds fitting since “we haven’t cracked Linear A, either!”

Time chronicles a cataclysmically accelerated event in an uncharacteristically patient, ponderous style. Here’s the whole thing, turned into a video:

Brian Eno Designing Sound and Light Installations for The Interval at Long Now

Posted on Tuesday, July 16th, 02013 by Mikl Em
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Brian Eno visits the Long Now Clock workshop
Photo by Alexander Rose

In July of 02013 Brian Eno visited the Bay Area and saw the latest progress on the 10,000 Year Clock project. Clock designer Danny Hillis gave Brian a tour of the progress at the Long Now Clock assembly space (where these photos were taken.)

Brian and Danny in the Clock assembly space
Photo by Alexander Rose in July of 02013

Brian Eno confirmed on this visit that he is designing the ambient sound for The Interval at Long Now as well as a dedicated light-painting installation for the space. We are thrilled that Brian will be creating these one-of-a-kind works for our new venue. The Interval is intended to be a place that inspires conversations, and Brian’s sound and lightscape designs will be key elements to creating that atmosphere.

After rising to fame in the British pop music scene of the early 1970′s with Roxy Music and a series of acclaimed solo albums, Brian Eno made his mark as a producer working with such artists as David Bowie, the Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay and many more. Along the way he coined the term “Ambient Music” and made the recordings that eventually defined the genre.

In recent years he has increasingly focused on generative sound and visual art. His 77 Million Paintings software creates a slow, constantly evolving series of light-paintings with an ever-changing ambient sound and lightscape. Brian has released this type of algorithmically-driven digital work both as mobile apps and projected to monumental scale on the sails of the Sydney Opera House (below).

Luminous/Lighting the Sails
“Luminous/Lighting the Sails” photo by Paul Benjamin

Brian was amongst the first people with whom Danny Hillis discussed his idea to design a clock that would run for 10,000 years. The Clock and the process of building it are intended as an inspiring example of long-term thinking. From Danny’s 01995 article in Wired, announcing “The Millennium Clock”:

When I tell my friends about the millennium clock, either they get it or they don’t. Most of them assume I’m not serious, or if I am, I must be having a midlife crisis. (That’s nice, Danny, but why can’t you just write a computer program to do the same thing? Or, Maybe you should start another company instead.) My friends who get it all have ideas that focus on a particular aspect of the clock. My engineering friends worry about the power source: solar, water, nuclear, geothermal, diffusion, or tidal? My entrepreneurial friends muse about how to make it financially self-sustaining. My writer friend, Stewart Brand, starts thinking about the organization that will take care of the clock. It’s a Rorschach test – of time. Peter Gabriel, the musician, thinks the clock should be alive, like a garden, counting the seasons with short-lived flowers, counting the years with sequoias and bristlecone pines. Artist Brian Eno felt it should have a name, so he gave it one: The Clock of the Long Now.

After giving the Clock its name, Brian joined the Board of Directors of Long Now when it was founded as a non-profit in 01996. He continues to serve on our board, and we thank him for his generosity in also creating art specifically for this new project.

Brian Eno visits the Long Now Clock assembly shop
Photo by Alexander Rose

This will be the first sound and light installation of its kind that Brian has created in America.

The sooner we finish this project the sooner we can all enjoy Brian’s art in its new Bay Area home. We can’t wait, and we’d love for you to help us build it.

Our thanks to everyone who has supported the project so far. It’s not too late to donate and enjoy the benefits of being a charter donor like invites to pre-opening parties.

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Nassim Taleb writes to Stewart Brand

Posted on Monday, July 8th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In April, Brian Eno wrote to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, asking, ”how can we even think about designing for a future that we can’t imagine?”

The letter he sent was the inaugural Longplayer Letter, the first in a series of letters published by ArtAngel and Jem Finer’s Longplayer – a project to compose and perform a 1,000 year-long piece of music (running now for 13 years).

The letters are to be written in relay-style: in responding to Eno’s musings, Taleb wrote his letter to Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand. In it, he proposes a methodology for assessing risks to our planet:

Dear Stewart,

I would like to reply to Brian Eno’s important letter by proposing a methodology to deal with risks to our planet, and I chose you because of your Long Now mission.

First let us put forward the Principle of Fragility As Nonlinear (Concave) Response as a central idea that touches about anything.


If I fall from a height of 10 meters I am injured more than 10 times than if I fell from a height of 1 meter, or more than 1000 times than if I fell from a height of 1 centimeter, hence I am fragile. Every additional meter, up to the point of my destruction, hurts me more than the previous one. This nonlinear response is central for everything on planet earth, from objects to ideas to companies to technologies. 

Another example. If I am hit with a big stone I will be harmed a lot more than if I were pelted serially with pebbles of the same weight.

If you plot this response with harm on the vertical and event size on the horizontal, you would notice the plot curving inward, hence the “concave” shape, which in the next figure I compare to a linear response. We can already see that the fragile is harmed disproportionately more by a large event (Black Swans) than by a moderate one.

Figure 1 – The nonlinear response compared to the linear.

The general principle is as follows:

Everything that is fragile and still in existence (that is, unbroken), will be harmed more by a certain stressor of intensity X than by k times a stressor of intensity X/k, up to the point of breaking.

Why is it a general rule? This has something to do with the statistical structure of stressors, with small deviations much, much more frequent than large ones. Look at the coffee cup on the table: there are millions of recorded earthquakes every year. Simply, if the coffee cup were linearly sensitive to earthquakes, it would not have existed at all as it would have been broken in the early stages of the graph.

Anything linear in harm is already gone, and what is left are things that are nonlinear.

Now that we have this principle, let us apply it to life on earth. This is the basis of a non-naive Precautionary Principle that the philosopher Rupert Read and I are in the process of elaborating, with precise policy implications on the part of states and individuals.

Everything flows —by theorems — from the principle of nonlinear response.


Rule 1 – Size Effects. Everything you do to planet earth is disproportionally more harmful in large quantities than in small ones. Hence we need to split sources of harm as much as we can (provided these don’t interact). If we dropped our carbon by, say, 20% we may reduce the harm by more than 50%. Conversely we may double our risk with just an increase of 10%.

It is wrong to discuss “good” or “bad” without assigning a certain quantity to it. Most things are harmless in some small quantity and harmful in larger ones.

Because of the “globalization” and the uniformization of tastes we now concentrate our consumption across the same items, say, tuna and wheat, whereas ancient population were more opportunistic and engaged in “cycling”, picking up what was overabundant so to speak.

Rule 2 – Errors. What is fragile dislikes the “disorder cluster” beyond a point, which includes volatility, variability, error, time, randomness, and stressors (The “Fragility” Theorem).

This rule means that we can —and should— treat errors as random variables. And we can treat what we don’t know —including potential threats— as random variables as well. We live in a world of higher unpredictability than we tend to believe. We have never been able to predict our own errors, and things will not change any time soon. But we can consider types of errors within the framework presented here.

Now, for mathematical reasons (a mechanism called the “Lindy Effect”), linked to the relationship between time and fragility, mother nature is vastly “wiser” so to speak than humans, as time has a lot of value in detecting what is breakable and what is not. Time is also a bullshit detector. Nothing humans have introduced in modern times has made us unconditionally better without unpredictable side effects, and ones that are usually detected with considerable delays (transfats, steroids, tobacco, Thalidomide, etc.)

Rule 3 – Decentralizing Variations (the 1/N rule). Mother nature produces small isolated generally independent variations (technically belonging to the thin-tailed category, or “Mediocristan”) and humans produce fewer but larger ones (technically, “fat tailed” category, or “Extremistan”). In other words nature is a sum of micro variations (with, on the occasion, larger ones), human systems tend to create macro shocks.

By a statistical argument, had nature not produced thin-tailed variations, we would not be here today. One in the trillions, perhaps the trillions of trillions, of variations would have terminated life on the planet.

The next two figures show the difference between the two separate statistical properties.

Figure 2 Tinkering Bottom Up, Broad Design. Mother Nature: no single variation represents a large share of the sum of the total variations. Even occasional mass extinctions are a blip in the total variations

Figure 3 Top-down, Concentrated Design Human made clustering of variations, where a single deviation will eventually dominate the sum.

Now apply the Principle of Fragility As Nonlinear (Concave) Response to Figures 2 and 3. As you can see a large deviation harms a lot more than the cumulative effect of small ones because of concavity.

This in a nutshell explains why a decentralized system is more effective than one that is command-and-control and bureaucratic in style —it is that errors are decentralized and do not spread. It also explains why large corporations are problematic, particularly when powerful enough to lobby their way into state support.

This method is called the 1/N rule of maximal diversification of source of problems —a general one I apply when confronting decisions in fat-tailed domains.

Rule 4 – Nature and Evidence. Nature is a better statistician than humans, having produced > trillions of “errors” or variations without blowing up; it is a much better risk manager (thanks to the Lindy effect). What people call the “naturalistic fallacy” applies to the moral domain, not in the statistical or the risk areas. Nature is certainly not optimal but it has trillions of times the sample evidence of humans, and it is still around. It is a matter of a long multidimensional track record versus a short low-dimensional one.

In a complex system it is impossible to see the consequences of a positive action (from the Bar Yam theorem), so one needs —like nature— to keep errors isolated and thin-tailed.

Implication 1 (Burden of Evidence). The burden of evidence is not on nature but on humans disrupting anything top-down to prove their errors don’t spread and don’t carry consequences. Absence of evidence is vastly more nonlinear than evidence of absence. So if someone asks “do you have evidence that I am harming the planet?”, ignore him: he should be the one producing evidence, not you. It is shocking how people can put the burden of evidence the wrong way.

Implication 2 (Via Negativa). If we can’t predict the effects of a positive action (adding something new), we can predict the effect of removing a substance that has not been historically part of the system (removal of smoking, carbon pollution, carbs from diets).


This tool of analysis is more robust than current climate modeling, as it is anticipatory, not backward fitting. The policy implications are:

Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs. Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) To borrow from Rupert Read, there is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become “natural”.

What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay —or have my descendants pay — for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there —our non-naive version — simply because we would discover errors after considerable damage.

Nuclear. In large quantities we should worry about an unseen risk from nuclear energy. In small quantities it may be OK —how small we should determine, making sure threats never cease to be local. Keep in mind that small mistakes with the storage of the nuclear are compounded by the length of time they stay around. The same with fossil fuels. The same with other sources of pollution.

But certainly not GMOs, because their risk is not local. Invoking the risk of “famine” is a poor strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty. And calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor —indeed warped —understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.

The general idea is that we should limit pollution to small, very small sources, and multiply them even if the “scientists” promoting them deem any of them safe.


There is some class of irreversible systemic risks that show up too late, that I do not believe are worth bearing. Further, these tend to harm other people than those who profit from them. So here is my closing quandary.

The problem of execution: So far we’ve outlined a policy, not how to implement it. Now, as a localist fearful of the centralized top-down state, I wish to live in a society that functions with similar statistical properties as nature, with small thin-tailed non-spreading mistakes, an environment in which the so-called “wisdom of crowds” works well and the state intervention is limited to law enforcement (and that of contracts).

Indeed, we should worry about the lobby-infested state, given the historical tendency of bureaucrats to produce macro harm (wars, disastrous farming policies, crop subsidies encouraging the spread of corn syrup, etc.) But there exists an environment that is not quite that of the “wisdom of crowds”, in which spontaneous corrections are not possible, and legal liabilities difficult to identify. I’ve discussed this in my book Antifragile where some people have an asymmetric payoff at the expense of society: keep the profits and transfer harm to others.

In general, the solution is to move from regulation to penalties, by imposing skin-in-the game-style methods to penalize those who play with our collective safety —no different from our treatment of terrorist threats and dangers to our security. But in the presence of systemic —and branching out —consequences the solution may be to rely on the state to ban harm to citizens (via negativa style ), in areas where legal liabilities may not be obvious and easy to track, particularly harm hundreds of years into the future. For the place of the state is not to get distracted in trying to promote things and concentrate errors, but in protecting our safety. It is hard to understand how we can live in a world where minor risks are banned by the states, say marijuana or other drugs, but systemic threats such as those represented by GMOs encouraged by them. What is proposed here is a mechanism of subsidiarity: the only function of the state is to do things that cannot be solved otherwise. But then, it should do them well.


I thank Brian Eno for the letter and for making me aware of all these difficulties. I hope that the principle of fragility helps you, Stewart in your noble mission to insure longevity for the planet and the human race. We are not that many Extremistan-style mistakes away from extinction. I therefore sign this letter by adopting your style of adding a 0 to the calendar date:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb,
July 3, 02013


Bar-Yam, Y., 1997, Dynamics of Complex Systems, Westview Press, p 752

Taleb, N. N., 2012, Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder, Penguin and Random House.

Taleb, N. N., and Douady, R., 2012, Mathematical Definition, Mapping, and Detection of (Anti)Fragility, in print, Quant Fin, Preprint:

With thanks to William Goodlad.

© Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2013

Future letters will be published on the Longplayer site, the Long Now blog and Artangel’s site. Please leave comments, if you have them, on the Longplayer site.

Brian Eno on Light and Time

Posted on Wednesday, June 26th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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Screenshot from 2013-06-26 13:01:23

“I don’t go for scale, I go for length. I just want things that can go on forever.”

In collaboration with the Red Bull Music Academy, m ss ing p eces recently produced a short film about Long Now Board Member Brian Eno’s visual art. Accompanying an exhibit of 77 Million Paintings and a lecture by Eno in New York, the film explores Eno’s experiments with light-focused images as a way of addressing our being in time. In a blend of pictures and words, Eno muses about his interest in conceiving visual processes, rather than products: his aim is to generate organic, ever-growing and ever-changing creations that ask us to surrender to their pace.

“If we look at what gardeners do, they think, well, I’ll put nasturtiums here, and I’ll have narcissus here, and I’ll have peonies over here. But they know that that’s just the start of a garden. A garden grows, and it grows unpredictably. You can specify the starting point, and you can hope that it’s going to turn out in some way that you like. But essentially, you surrender to the project. You surrender to the thing growing in its own way. And there’s a gracefulness in being able to surrender.”

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Brian Eno writes to Nassim Taleb

Posted on Wednesday, May 1st, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The Longplayer Trust,  in collaboration with Artangel, have added a new element running in parallel with Jem Finer’s 1,000 year musical composition. On top of the software that has been playing the piece since the first second of the year 02000 online and at listening stations around the world, occasional in-person human performances of 1,000 minute segments, and Long Conversations, they have launched the Artangel Longplayer Letters:

Beginning on April 30th 2013, Artangel and the Longplayer Trust will be inviting thinkers and writers from a wide variety of disciplines to engage in a chain of written correspondence on the subject of long-term thinking. Unfolding slowly over time, the Artangel Longplayer Letters form a written conversation in which each conversant is both answering his or her predecessor and thinking toward his or her successor – it is a dialogical relay, very much in the spirit of the Long Conversations.

The first letter has been written by Brian Eno to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who will discuss Eno’s questions and pose his own in a letter to someone else. Eno writes,

Dear Nassim,

We’re all used to the idea that actions and thoughts take on different values when we expand the ‘picture’ within which we frame them. We realise that something which makes sense in a local frame may make less sense in a broader frame: dumping your waste in the river is fine as long as you don’t think too much about the people downriver. When you do, you might decide to stop dumping. Government ought to be the process by which such overlapping ‘bigger picture’ considerations are negotiated: good government should make empathy practical.

Indeed our geographical ‘circle of empathy’ grows decade on decade: a hundred years ago it would have been impossible to imagine millions of people raising hundreds of millions of pounds for tsunami victims on the other side of the world – people they didn’t know and would almost certainly never meet. In terms of geography, we inhabit a much bigger picture than we used to, and we sense our interconnectedness within it.

In terms of time, however, the picture seems to be narrowing. Public attention is increasingly focused on very near futures: businesses live in terror of the bottom line and the quarterly results, while politicians quake at tomorrow’s opinion polls and formulate policy in terms of them. We’ve heard tales of farmers planting olive trees or vineyards for their grandchildren to harvest, or of foresters cultivating groves of oaks to replace a chapel roof hundreds of years in the future, but by and large, we don’t do that anymore. We have less active engagement with our future than our ancestors did.

This diminishing future horizon is mirrored by an equally shrinking backwards view. We find ourselves left with prejudices and opinions that were hastily and emotionally formed at the time and not revisited and re-evaluated, drowned under a relentless stream of new stories and panics. We seem to be so thoroughly submerged by new impressions that we don’t have time to digest our own history.

To illustrate this, think about nuclear power. Start with FUKUSHIMA, that dread word. As a result of over-excited media reporting (‘great story!’ I heard one journalist say) that single word has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it’s doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future). In a conspiracy which seems almost dishonest, most Green groups failed to acknowledge this – it was too good as propaganda for them to let the facts get in the way – and of course the press never returned to the subject with any correctional follow-up. It became one of those little nuggets of received, and totally incorrect, wisdom: Nuclear=Fukushima=Catastrophe.

That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors – which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal. Coal is – even Greenpeace would agree – the worst option, though they’d claim that the gap can be filled by renewables. It can’t, not now and probably not for decades. In the meantime – and it may be a long, mean time – we’ll use coal. It’s cheap and very, very dirty.

So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2. An emotional over-reaction to a media storm has produced a thoroughly bad decision with longterm global consequences. It’s a classic ‘how not to’scenario. Is this how our future is going to be – lurching from one panic to another in a daze of ‘just coping’ and without the benefit of any long-picture wisdom within which to frame our actions? What would help us break out of that trap? Those olive farmers and church builders mentioned above had something we don’t: a sense that the future would quite likely be similar to the present. We, on the other hand, can be sure this won’t be the case. So the question is really this: how can we even think about designing for a future that we can’t imagine?

Where we have seriously addressed the long term at all, our efforts so far have tended towards ‘robust’ solutions: if we can’t predict the future we’ll defend against it by building super-robust structures. An example of this philosophy would be the now- abandoned megaproject for the storage of America’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. It was designed to resist anything the Universe could conceivably throw at it (or rather anything its designers could conceive, which is quite different). It had no adaptive capacity: it was a fortress, hardened, inert, requiring constant upkeep. But as you point out, ‘robust’ is not actually the opposite of fragile, but a point on the spectrum between ‘fragile’ and ‘anti-fragile’. The project was abandoned for political reasons and the problem of waste storage is still regarded as unsolved.

In the meantime, however, the waste is being stored: in huge drums beside the plants themselves. It’s intended as a temporary measure, but it might turn out to be a better one anyway. I think it offers a hint to the solution. Like this, the material is easily accessible should any better storage or recycling ideas appear in the next several millennia (quite likely, I should have thought…there must be Golden Swans as well as Black ones). It leaves open the possibility of easily adopting better solutions as they appear, and, because it is widely distributed rather than concentrated, it can be seen as dozens of separate experiments in waste storage being conducted simultaneously. Some of them will be better than others: evolution will take place. In that sense it seems to me a more antifragile solution. In a changing landscape what is needed is evolvability – the possibility of running a number of solutions at the same time and letting the better ones win out.

But there is a huge psychological appetite for robust solutions: it’s very natural to think that the best way to defend any system is by hardening it so it becomes unassailable. That looks like a good strategy partly because it entails more quantifiable activity on our part – and we tend to trust things if we think we’ve designed them (rather than if they’ve evolved by some process we don’t quite understand) and if we can attach lots of numbers to them. The problem is that ‘robust’ only works if the threats to the system are predictable – if you know what to harden against. The fact is, we don’t – and the hardening process itself reduces evolvability.

The nuclear issue – which I’ve used as an example in this letter – is only one of many I could have chosen. The fact is, we’re facing a lot of complex and interrelated problems which demand that we take positions now. To some extent, that position is going to have to be ‘let’s improvise’ because there’s a distinct limit to how well we can make predictions. The de facto nuclear storage arrangements currently in use in America are examples of ‘let’s improvise’ and in this case seem to be a not-too-bad arrangement. But ‘let’s improvise’ has its limitations: in fact it’s sort of what got us where we are now, in a place that’s both wondrous and problematic. We might need some other intellectual weapons in our arsenals, no matter how good we become at jamming.

Best Wishes


Future letters will be published on the Longplayer site, the Long Now blog and Artangel’s site. Please leave comments, if you have them, on the Longplayer site.

Wait for it.

Posted on Wednesday, April 24th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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There have been many comic strips that run for a long long time, but rarely does a single entry take on a prodigious life of its own. Randall Munroe has been publishing xkcd since 02005 - not a bad run – and regularly stretches the medium’s definition. Entries can range from a single panel, to massive informational charts. From the beginning of the strip, time, and vast quantities of it, has been a common theme. One recent foray into this subject matter garnered the strip a mention, alongside Long Now, in The Economist because it’s been updating for almost a month now.

Time,” as the piece is called, started off as a single panel with two people sitting on a beach. xkcd’s punchlines are generally hidden in the image’s title text, but in this case it simply says “Wait for it.” Every half-hour the image is updated, forming a very, very slow animation. (Most animated films, for instance, move along at 24 frames per second; this is more like .0006 frames per second.) The characters have been building a sandcastle and fortifying it against a rising sea since March 25th, 02013. You can see the whole thing, sped up, on Explain xkcd, a wiki created about the comic.

The eventual fate of the sandcastle and its creators, as well as the ultimate length of this story, remain unknown. Wait for it.

The Doctor Prescribes Brian Eno

Posted on Tuesday, April 23rd, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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Last week Long Now board member Brian Eno unveiled two new installations at Montefiore Hospital in Hove, England. The pieces are designed to be soothing for patients in the hospital and provide a sense of respite from the harsh realities of its clinical environment. In the lobby of the new hospital, Eno’s 77 Million Paintings will be on permanent display. The artwork, like the chime sequence for the 10,000 year clock, uses generative music techniques pioneered by Eno to ensure endless unique combinations of video and music to relax the viewer.

The other work in the hospital is a quiet room for patients of the hospital that plays a new ambient album by Eno entitled Quiet Room for Montefiore. The album will only be able to be heard in the hospital, somewhat of a hurdle for serious Eno fans. News of the installation has spread quickly, and Eno’s spokesman has confirmed that four other hospital architects are currently in conversation with Eno about putting similar rooms into the hospitals they are currently building. In talking about the new turn, Eno notes that this projects flowed quite naturally from his previous works:

“It seemed a natural step for me to take as I’ve been dealing with this idea of functional music for quite a few years.”

For those that won’t be able to make it to England, Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings will also go on display in New York at the Red Bull Music Academy from May 3rd until June 2nd.

A recently released interview from Alfred Dunhill also gives a glimpse into Eno’s general philosophy and approach to art: