Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Art’ Category

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Lost century-old Antarctic images found and conserved

Posted on Friday, January 10th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

A small box of 22 exposed but unprocessed photographic negatives left nearly a century  ago in an Antarctic exploration hut has been discovered and conserved by New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust.

“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era,” Antarctic Heritage Trust Executive Director Nigel Watson said in a press release. “There’s a paucity of images from that expedition.”

Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

The team of conservationists discovered the clumped together negatives preserved in a solid block of ice in Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island. The hut served as one of the many supply depots of Captain Scott’s doomed Terre Nova Expedition to the South Pole (01910-01913). While the expedition made it to the Pole, they died during the return trip from starvation and extreme conditions. Today, preserved jars of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, John Burgess & Sons French olives and blocks of New Zealand butter can still be found in the hut, as well as a darkroom intact with chemicals and plates.

Two years after Scott’s expedition, the hut was inhabited by the Ross Sea Party of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (01914-01917). Ten marooned men lived there after being stranded on the ice for nearly two years when their ship, the SY Aurora, broke free from her moorings during a blizzard and drifted out to sea.  By the time of their rescue, three men had died, including the team’s photographer Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith. While the photographer of the negatives cannot be proven, someone in the Ross Sea Party did leave behind the undeveloped images.

Chief Scientist Alexander Stevens looking south on the deck of Aurora. Hut Point Peninsula in the background. Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

These never-before-seen images give testament to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. And only in places like Antarctica could such a situation exist. The photographer used cellulose nitrate film, which according to Kodak, is a relatively unstable base. The film breaks down in humidity and higher temperatures, giving off powerful oxidizing agents. However, if the conditions are right, the film may last for decades, or as the Antarctic Heritage Trust discovered, a century.

The photographs found in Captain Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans, Antarctica required specialist conservation treatment. The Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ) engaged Photographic Conservator Mark Strange to undertake the painstaking task of separating, cleaning (including removing mould) and consolidating the cellulose nitrate image layers. Twenty-two separate sheets were revealed and sent to New Zealand Micrographic Services for scanning using a Lanovia pre-press scanner. The digital scans were converted to digital positives.

via i09

The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visit to Star Axis

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

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

The Oldest Petroglyphs in the American West

Posted on Monday, September 9th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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The story of the oldest Americans is largely unknown to us; the first people to arrive on the North American continent didn’t leave behind any material clues for later generations to find. But a recent discovery in Nevada may now offer us a little glimpse into their world. In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers reveals that a series of petroglyphs, carved into boulders near Pyramid Lake, are even older than previously suspected – and might be attributed to the first people to set foot in the American West.

Unlike those ancient Americans, weather patterns do leave their mark on the world around them – and this allowed paleoclimatologist Larry Benson to determine that the images are about 10,000, or about 14,000, years old. The petroglyphs are carved into what Benson knew to be a lakebed, and must therefore have been created during a dry period. Chemical testing of samples from the site revealed that such a dry period occurred between 14,800 and 13,200 years ago, and again between 11,300 and 10,500 years ago. Whichever dating turns out to be the right one, these are easily the oldest petroglyphs that have been found on the North American continent, and will inform what we know about the first people to cross the Bering Strait.

The images are composed of abstract swirling and geometrical patterns. The researchers have suggested that the carvings may depict natural phenomena, such as leaves, clouds, or even the Milky Way. But without other evidence of culture from this period, it will be difficult to determine what exactly the etchings represent – or who created them.

“We have no idea what they mean,” Benson said of the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs. “But I think they are absolutely beautiful symbols. Some look like multiple connected sets of diamonds, and some look like trees, or veins in a leaf. There are few petroglyphs in the American Southwest that are as deeply carved as these, and few that have the same sense of size.”

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 Art 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
Photos of Brian Eno & Danny Hillis by Alexander Rose (02013)

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

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”:

Brian Eno visits the Long Now Clock assembly shop

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 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 at the time of our founding as a non-profit in 01996. He continues to serve on our Board, and we thank him for his generosity in creating art and music for us to share at The Interval.

Brian has built a very limited set of “ambient paintings”, and we are proud to say that the one shown below will be on permanent display at The Interval behind our bar. Currently this is the only example of Brian’s generative light work in America, and the only one on permanent public display anywhere.

Brian Eno's Ambient Painting at The Interval

We are so proud to welcome Brian’s art to its new Bay Area home. And we can’t wait to welcome guests to The Interval to share it in person. You’ll find more images of the ambient painting here, as well as the latest photos of The Interval in its pre-opening state.

Our thanks to everyone who has supported The Interval 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.