Blog Archive for the ‘Millennial Precedent’ Category

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These 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Work Perfectly, But Their Future is in Doubt

Posted on Monday, April 10th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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From National Geographic comes a video profiling the durable windmills of Nashtifan, Iran. These windmills constructed over a thousand years ago out of clay, straw and wood are not only still standing; they work just as well as they did when they were first built.

In designing and building the Clock of the Long Now, we have investigated many technologies built for the long-term. Some, like Iran’s windmills and Japan’s Ise Shrine, are ancient. Others, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the Mormon Genealogical Vault, are more recent efforts. All offer important lessons in why some technologies last and others do not.

Muhammad Etebari is the last custodian of the Northeast Iran’s ancient windmills.

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, discussing his excursions to these remote sites in a 02011 Seminar, noted that one of the main reasons a technology lasts is because there are people and institutions built to maintain it. In the case of the Nashtifan windmills, Muhammad Etebari is the last remaining custodian of the mills, and he cannot find an apprentice. After centuries of keeping the windmills running by passing the responsibility of maintenance from generation to another, the future of the ancient durable windmills of Nashtifan is now in doubt.

 

Watch National Geographic’s “See the 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Still in Use Today”

Watch Alexander Rose’s 02011 Long Now Seminar “Millennial Precedent” in full.

Craters & Mudrock: Tools for Imagining Distant Future Finlands

Posted on Tuesday, July 5th, 02016 by Vincent Ialenti
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 Lake LappajärviLake Lappajärvi (Photo Credit: Hannu Oksa)
About 73 million years ago a meteorite crashed into what is now Finland’s Southern Ostrobothnia region. Today, serene Lake Lappajärvi rests in the twenty-three kilometer wide crater made in the distant past blast’s wake. Locals still enjoy boating to Lappajärvi’s Kärnänsaari: an island formed by the Cretaceous meteorite collision’s melt-rock. Paddling there is an encounter with Finland’s landscape’s deep history.

Lappajärvi has caught the attention of safety case experts working on radioactive waste management company Posiva Oy’s underground dump for used-up nuclear fuel at Olkiluoto, Western Finland. These experts are tasked with predicting how Posiva’s repository will interact with the region’s rocks, groundwater, ecosystems, and populations throughout nuclear waste’s multi-millennial time spans of dangerous radioactivity. From 02012 to 02014, I spent thirty-two months in Finland conducting anthropological research on how safety case experts see the world, how they relate to one another, and how they reckon with various spans of time in their professional lives.

When I returned to my home institution Cornell University in August 02014, I wrote a three-article series for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog. In it I described how safety case experts envisioned Finnish landscapes changing over the next ten thousand years. I explained how they study a present-day ice sheet in Greenland and a uranium deposit in Southern Finland as analogues to help them think about Finland’s far future ice sheets and nuclear waste deposits. I suggested that, in this moment of global environmental uncertainty some call the Anthropocene, it becomes a pressing societal task to embrace long-termist “deep time thinking.”

I continue this line of thought here by exploring how safety case experts study prehistoric places – like Lappajärvi crater-lake – to forecast how Finland will change one million years hence. I present these prehistoric places as tools for imagining distant future worlds. I advocate that societies at large use these tools to do intellectual exercises, imagination workouts, or thought experiments to cultivate their own deep time thinking skills. Doing so is crucial on a damaged planet wracked by environmental crisis.

Safety case experts make mathematical models of how the Olkiluoto repository might endure or fall apart in the extreme long-term. They assess the nuclear waste dump’s physical strengths. This is the crux of their work. However, they also develop more qualitative, speculative, quirky approaches in their Complementary Considerations report. A hodgepodge of scientific evidence and PR tools aimed at persuading various audiences of the facility’s safety, this report plays a supporting role in their broader safety argument. And it contains a fascinating thought experiment: a section called “The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond A Million Years in the Future” (p197-200).

OlkiluotoFinland’s nuclear waste repository at Olkiluoto (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Complementary Considerations explains how Lappajärvi crater-lake kept its form throughout numerous past Ice Age glaciation and post-Ice Age de-glaciation periods. It tells a story of “fairly stable conditions and slow surface processes” over millions of years. In light of this, safety case experts expect only limited erosion and landmass movement throughout the repository’s multimillion-year futures. Lappajärvi’s deep histories are, in this way, taken as windows into Olkiluoto’s deep futures. From this angle, safety case experts argue that Posiva’s repository can, like Lappajärvi’s crater, withstand the waxing and waning of future Ice Ages’ ice sheets advancing and retreating.

Safety case experts also use prehistoric Littleham mudstone in Devon, England as a tool for forecasting Finland’s far futures. In Devon one can find copper that has survived over 170 million years without corroding away. The copper was long encased in the sedimentary rock. Complementary Considerations predicts a similar fate for the huge copper canisters Posiva will use to secure Finland’s nuclear waste. It also suggests that – because Littleham mudstone is more abrasive to copper than is the bentonite clay to surround Posiva’s canisters – the canister copper might see even rosier futures.

Safety case experts see the distant pasts of mudstone and copper in England as tools for envisioning the distant futures of bentonite and canisters in Finland. They see the distant pasts of a Southern Ostrobothnian crater-lake as tools for envisioning the distant futures of an Olkiluoto repository’s local geology. Deep time forecasts are, in this way, made through techniques of analogy. Visions of far future worlds emerge from analogies across time (extrapolating from long pasts to reckon long futures) and analogies across space (extrapolating across distant locales sometimes thousands of miles apart).

Yet, as safety case experts and their critics both cautioned me, one should not take these deep time analogies too seriously. There are, of course, limits to what, say, native copper in mudrock in Devon can really tell us about manufactured copper pieces in clayin Olkiluoto. Differences between repository conditions and these prehistoric places are, for many, simply too vast to make reasonable analogies between them.

But I am only half-interested in whether these techniques ought to persuade us of Posiva’s repository’s safety. I let the engineers, geologists, chemists, metallurgists, ecosystems modelers, and regulatory authorities sort that out. Instead, I find a unique intellectual opportunity in them. I wonder: can safety case experts’ techniques be retooled to help populations reposition their everyday lives within broader horizons of time? Can farsighted organizations like The Long Now Foundation help inspire general long-term thinking?

One does not have to be a Nordic nuclear waste expert to benefit from the deep time toolkits I present here. An educated public can too reflect on how analogical reasoning can stretch one’s imaginative horizons further forward and backward across time. For example, many drive through rural regions where stratigraphic rock layers are visible on highways carved into rocky hills. When doing so, why not visualize what the surrounding landscape might have looked like in each of the past times the rock faces’ layers respectively represent? Are the imageries that come to mind drawn from forest, mountain, desert, or snowy environments out there in the world today? What analogical resources did your mind tap to imagine distant past worlds? What might these landscapes’ far futures look like if they were to have, say, Sahara-like conditions? What about Amazonian rainforest-like conditions?

Posiva FacilityThe tunnel into Posiva’s underground research facility ONKALO (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Straining to imagine present-day landscapes in such radically different states – in ways inspired by encounters with the deep time of Earth’s everyday environments – can be an intellectual calisthenics strengthening one’s long-termist intuitions. It can serve as an imaginative mental workout for prepping one’s mind for better adopting the farsightedness necessary to think more clearly about today’s climate change, biodiversity, Anthropocene, sustainability, or human extinction challenges.

Scenes in which radically long time horizons enter practical planning, policy, or regulatory projects – with Finland’s nuclear waste repository safety case work as but one example – can be sources of tools, techniques, and inspiration for thinking more creatively across wider time spans. And groups that advocate long-termism like The Long Now Foundation have a key role to play in disseminating these tools, techniques, and inspirations publically in this moment of planetary uncertainty.

Vincent Ialenti is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology. He holds an MSc in “Law, Anthropology & Society” from the London School of Economics.

Member Discount for “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art”

Posted on Friday, October 23rd, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Long Now is proud to be a co-partner with YBCA in showing “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art”. The film will be shown at 7:30 PM on Thursday October 29 and 2:00 PM on Sunday November 1 at YBCA’s Screening Room.

Troublemakers unearths the history of land art, featuring a cadre of renegades who sought to transcend the limitations of painting and sculpture by producing earthworks on a monumental scale. Iconoclasts who changed the landscape of art forever, these revolutionary, antagonistic creatives risked their careers on radical artistic change and experimentation, and took on the establishment to produce art on their own terms. The film includes rare footage and interviews which unveil the enigmatic lives and careers of storied artists Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty), Walter De Maria (The Lightning Field), and Michael Heizer (Double Negative). (2015, 72 min, digital)

Long Now Members get $8 discounted tickets to the screening, check your email for instructions on how to reserve your discounted member tickets. Troublemakers will be shown in other cities as well, check here for your local screening.

2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

No Apocalypse Necessary

Posted on Monday, October 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Writing for Aeon Magazine, Colin Dickey, visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and discusses the apocalyptic rhetoric often associated with the project. He points out that apocalyptic thinking, while sometimes an effective motivator, can be a barrier to long-term thinking.

This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.

Exploring the surrounding environment, he marvels at how little human history has transpired in this remote place and yet how well what has happened there has been preserved. Today’s apocalyptic narratives put nature in the role of a vengeful god, but Dickey finds hints of salvation in Svalbard’s landscape. The seed vault, he points out, isn’t primarily a reaction to imminent disaster, but rather a hedge against slow-moving trends threatening crop-diversity and it utilizes the naturally cryogenic Arctic to its advantage.

Sometimes what seems like a panicked gasp for breath is something else entirely. The lessons of Svalbard are more complex than the simple, immediate apocalypse intimated by the hype surrounding the seed vault…

… A proper relationship to nature must involve a sense of stewardship, to be sure, and a willingness to work for a better tomorrow. But it might also do well to be stripped of a histrionic sense of perpetual catastrophe. Places such as Svalbard can help us to think on a much longer, deeper scale — one in which we are peripheral characters in a drama taking aeons to unfold.

Read Deep Chill, by Colin Dickey

Alexander Rose Visits Ise Shrine Reconstruction Ceremony

Posted on Thursday, October 3rd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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342px-Ise_Shrine_Meizukuri

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, also the Project Manager for the 10,000-Year Clock, collects inspiring examples (or in some cases, failures) of long-term thinking, architecture and design. In a talk called Millennial Precedent, he discussed some of these examples and the lessons he draws from them. Among them is a Japanese shrine in the city Ise.

Established an estimated 2,000 years ago, the shrine’s name “Jingu” literally means simply “the shrine.” Few structures on the planet can claim to have stood as long as Ise’s shrine, but the way it has managed to edure is singular. Rather than being constructed at monumental scale, or of immutable materials, the modest thatched-roof and wood structure is ritualistically rebuilt every 20 years. It’s secret isn’t heroic engineering or structural overkill, but rather cultural continuity.

02013 is a reconstruction year and the Shikinen Sengu ceremony marks this milestone. Alexander Rose will attend and share his experiences on our Twitter feed.

This essay by Junko Edahiro provides some great background on the shrine’s origins and long life:

The main sanctuary buildings follow the style of grain warehouses in the Yayoi Period (about 300 BC to 300 AD), which were used to store seed rice for next year and food in case of famine. Should these stocks run out, it would cause serious disruption, so grain warehouses were vital for protecting the people’s lives.

This kind of grain warehouse was normally supported by more than a dozen pillars sunk directly into the ground and had a thatched roof. A great deal of rain usually falls in Japan’s early-summer monsoon, and as the thatched roof absorbs rainwater it becomes heavier. The heavy roof presses down on the walls, and this closes gaps between the wall boards, keeping the inside dry. In summer, the roof dries out and becomes lighter, allowing air to pass through the building and this also keeps it dry. Thus, the roof and pillars function together like a living organism to securely protect the seed rice from moisture and pests.

The only way to support a thatched roof designed to increase in weight is to set the pillars directly into the ground. However, with this method, the pillars and the thatched roof eventually start to rot. Thus, the inevitable solution was to reconstruct these warehouses every 20 to 30 years. However, the life-giving seed rice could not be protected if the rebuilding process started only after the old warehouses could no longer be used. Thus, periodic reconstruction of these structures probably became customary, leading eventually to the Sengu ceremonies of Jingu Shrine in Ise, symbolizing buildings that protect life.

Read on… (and keep an eye on @longnow!)

The Apollo Goodwill Disc

Posted on Thursday, August 9th, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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On July 20, 01969, humans landed on the surface of the moon for the first time. But since only two of us got to go, NASA sent a message “FROM PLANET EARTH” in the rest of humanity’s stead. The message wasn’t a letter written in ink and paper, though. It was a thin silicon disc, with messages from various world leaders etched into its surface at a microscopic scale.  On the recent anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Steve Jurvetson posted photographs of some Apollo 11 artifacts, including the Goodwill Disc. Jurvetson writes on his Flickr page:

The story of the rushed creation of the disc is fascinating, as are the messages embedded in this interplanetary time capsule.

The concept started in June, 1969, and it was a politically charged project, in the midst of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. On June 27, NASA telephoned the state department, and got the unprecedented permission to contact the foreign chiefs of state to deposit a message on the moon. This was 19 days before launch. They were asked to compose and send typed and scribed letters to the U.S. (they came by telegram and mail).

But NASA did not know how they would store the messages so that they could last thousands of years in the harsh temperatures, solar radiation, and cosmic rays on the lunar surface. So they approached the supplier of some of the most advanced technology on Apollo – the nascent semiconductor industry.

Sprague manufactured 53,000 components on the Apollo 11 spacecraft and many more for the ground support equipment. The engineers chose silicon for the storage medium because of the density of storage and the stability of silicon over temperature in a vacuum.

You can read the text of the goodwill messages on Wikipedia, as well as on the original 01969 NASA description, which also explains a bit about the fabrication method.

Forty years later, The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Disk uses remarkably similar technology to provide a durable record of the world’s human languages:

For the extreme longevity version of the Rosetta database, we have selected a new high density analog storage device as an alternative to the quick obsolescence and fast material decay rate of typical digital storage systems. This technology, developed by Los Alamos Laboratories and Norsam Technologies, can be thought of as a kind of next generation microfiche. However, as an analog storage system, it is far superior. A 2.8 inch diameter nickel disk can be etched at densities of 200,000 page images per disk, and the result is immune to water damage, able to withstand high temperatures, and unaffected by electromagnetic radiation. This makes it an ideal backup for a long-term text image archive. Also, since the encoding is a physical image (no 1’s or 0’s), there is no platform or format dependency, guaranteeing readability despite changes in digital operating systems, applications, and compression algorithms.

 

(via BoingBoing)

Ancient Legend Saves Lives of Descendants

Posted on Wednesday, April 11th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Sometimes technology fails – but luckily, collective memory can step in to lend a hand.

In a recent LA Times article, José Holguín-Veras writes about an old legend that saved a small island community in Japan from perishing in the tsunami that followed the earthquake of March 02011. The quake had toppled their tsunami warning system, but when villagers saw the approaching waters, a lesson passed down from their ancestors told them what to do.

“A millennium ago, the residents of Murohama, knowing they were going to be inundated, had sought safety on the village’s closest hill. But they had entered into a deadly trap. A second wave, which had reached the interior of the island through an inlet, was speeding over the rice paddies from the opposite direction. The waves collided at the hill and killed those who had taken refuge there. To signify their grief and to advise future generations, the survivors erected a shrine.”

1,000 years later, those descendants knew not to make the same mistake, and bypassed the hill in favor of higher ground a bit further away.

We’ve written before about ancient tsunami warning systems in Japan, as examples of long-term thinking that helped communities learn from lessons of the past. The work of these Japanese ancestors illustrates the value of preserving our collective knowledge for the good of the future – and reminds us that local culture itself can be a durable archive of wisdom.

Alexander Rose at Chabot Space & Science Center March 16

Posted on Wednesday, March 14th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Long Now Executive Director and 10,000-year Clock Project Manager Alexander Rose will discuss the ongoing construction of the 10,000-year Clock in western Texas at the Chabot Space & Science Center Friday night, March 16th. He’s appearing at Chabot’s monthly Night School, where,

students of life can explore, imagine, create and mingle in an incredibly inspiring and magical setting. Themes and activities reflect current events, favorite pastimes and playful experiences, each celebrating the unique, resourceful and exciting community of the East Bay.

Get back to school and unleash your inner nerd, spark a new hobby, hobnob with artists and experts, enjoy a show, and relax and contemplate your place in the universe!

The evening includes plenty of futuristic fun & games, music from DC Miggy Pop, several talks, a planetarium show, and more. The hours are 7pm – 11pm & tickets are $12.

Long Now Media Update

Posted on Monday, November 21st, 02011 by Danielle Engelman
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Podcasts

WATCH

Alexander Rose’s “Millennial Precedent”

There is new media available from our monthly series, the Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Stewart Brand’s summaries and audio downloads or podcasts of the talks are free to the public; Long Now members can view HD video of the Seminars and comment on them.