Blog Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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George Dyson: No Time Is There – A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, April 4th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In March 02013 George Dyson spoke for Long Now about the origins of the digital universe. Dyson, an author and science historian, gave a detailed explication of the dawn of the modern computer in the 1950s at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcast. Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

No Time Is There: The Digital Universe and Why Things Appear To Be Speeding Up is a recent SALT talk (for a little longer). It will be free for public viewing until late April 02014.

Legends of science and mathematics like Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann feature prominently in these stories. Dyson’s remarkable historical reporting also includes first-hand observances of von Neumann’s workspace and insights gleaned from his interviews with participants at these events. His father, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, went to work at IAS in 1953–the same year George was born.

Much of the early digital work was closely intertwined with the post-WWII effort to engineer better bombs.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

In the few years they ran that machine, from 1951 to 1957, they worked on the most difficult problems of their time, five main problems that are on very different time scales—26 orders of magnitude in time—from the lifetime of a neutron in a bomb’s chain reaction measured in billionths of a second, to the behavior of shock waves on the scale of seconds, to weather prediction on a scale of days, to biological evolution on the scale of centuries, to the evolution of stars and galaxies over billions of years. And our lives, measured in days and years, is right in the middle of the scale of time. I still haven’t figured that out.

George Dyson, 02013 March Seminar: No Time is There

George Dyson is an author and science historian whose books include Baidarka the Kayak, Darwin Among the Machinesand Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. This was the third time he spoke on the Long Now Seminar stage, including the 02005 SALT Talk presented with his sister Esther and their father Freeman Dyson.

Here’s a short video excerpt of this talk:

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

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars. That includes this Seminar video until late April 02014. Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits. You can join Long Now here.

The Oldest Telephone in the Western Hemisphere

Posted on Thursday, January 23rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Among its collection of some 137 million artifacts, the Smithsonian houses a unique piece of technology. Made of two hollowed-out gourds and a 75-foot length of twine, it’s the oldest example of telephone technology from the Western hemisphere – and it’s about 1,300 years old.

The object, featured recently in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, was made by the Chimu, a civilization that flourished in Peru for more than 500 years – until they were wiped out by the Inca around 01470.

Chimu society occupied an arid strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Western Andes. Its legacy is often eclipsed by that of the Inca, but the Chimu were well-known in their day for advanced artisanship and sophisticated social stratification. At its peak, the capital of Chan Chan was the largest city in pre-Columbian America. Spread out over about 3.8 square miles, its nine citadels were home to as many as 30,000 citizens, and formed the structural basis for a complex social hierarchy.

According to Ramiro Matos, curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Chimu were also skilled and inventive engineers.

The Chimu, [he] explains, were the first true engineering society in the New World, known as much for their artisanry and metalwork as for the hydraulic canal-irrigation system they introduced, transforming desert into agricultural lands.

Their advanced irrigation system fostered a strong agriculture-based economy and allowed society to flourish – enough, it seems, to encourage some exploration of technology as a way to sustain social hierarchies. The ancient telephone now in the Smithsonian collection, Matos surmises, must have been

“a tool designed for an executive level of communication” – perhaps for a courtier-like assistant required to speak into a gourd mouthpiece from an anteroom, forbidden face-to-face contact with a superior conscious of status and security concerns.

It’s impossible to determine whether this recovered sound-transmission device was a one-of-a-kind prototype, or simply the only surviving representative of a common appliance. But in either case, the object signals a moment of revolutionary – and inspiring – technological advancement for its day.

Contemplating the brainstorm that led to the Chimu telephone – a eureka moment undocumented for posterity – summons up its 21st-century equivalent. On January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs strode onto a stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco and announced, “This is the day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years.” As he swiped the touchscreen of the iPhone, it was clear that the paradigm in communications technology had shifted. The unsung Edison of the Chimu must have experienced an equivalent, incandescent exhilaration when his (or her) device first transmitted sound from chamber to chamber.

Long Now Years: Five-digit Dates and 10K-compliance at Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 02013 by Mikl Em
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Long Now 10-second Intro animation Conceived by Alexander Rose, James Anderson and Chris Baldwin | Sound by Brian Eno

The Long Now Foundation uses five-digit dates to guard against the deca-millennium bug (the “Y10K” problem) which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. As you may have noticed any reference we make to a year begins with a zero: 01977, 03012, 02000, 00521, 01215, etc.

It’s an idiosyncrasy to which we are dedicated. It’s nerdy fun, but it has a serious point, too. As our co-founder Stewart Brand points out: the present moment used to be the unimaginable future.

Long Now is fond of metaphors. Our 10,000 year Clock will begin to keep time at some point in the future, but it functions today as a viral idea carrying a long-term thinking payload. Once you are aware of the effort to build a clock that will last for 10 millennia you can’t unthink the flood of details that come to mind about that endeavor. “Big Time” becomes more tangible and hopefully you gain perspective on the small chronological units we typically give such weight to in our daily lives.

Our zero is for optimism. The notion that the externalized thoughts we write today may survive myriad years to a time when that fifth digit becomes significant. If we hope to grasp anywhere near that ambitious reach, it will require some forethought. Our five-digit dates represent that.

In the 01998 essay Written on the Wind (published in Civilization magazine) Stewart wrote this about the larger problem of digital obsolescence:

How can we invest in a future we know is structurally incapable of keeping faith with its past? The digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective. We’ll know that shift has happened when programmers begin to anticipate the Year 10,000 Problem, and assign five digits instead of four to year dates. 01998 they’ll write, at first frivolously, then seriously.

A sense of humor can be a useful sweetener for novel ideas. We hope the five-place-date draws attention to a larger view of time. And if it inspires a grin in the process that’s perhaps even better.

Our technology has come in layers. You are able to read this sentence because generations of programming has built upon binary foundations. Today’s engineers stand on the shoulders of giants and construct protocols, operating systems, programming languages, data formats… so those who follow can continue the process. And that might suggest there’s an inherent awareness of the future. But if the long view and big picture aren’t considered this chain of code can be its own trap.

Technology has blind spots. Hard code can be brittle. The “Y2K bug” demonstrated this. While that experience may seem fresh, there are already people writing code who were too young to take that lesson first hand.

So think of the extra digit as presupposing the future with a view to realizing our best potential. And underlining the need for considered preparation at an appropriate scale: The Big Here and Long Now (Brian Eno).

We invite you to join us in using 5-digit dates, frivolously or not, to inspire yourself and others to keep thinking in the Long Now. And here’s one way you can play along at home…

10k-compliance at home
Image courtesy of Michael Hohl

At the cusp of a new year, it’s a great time to tweak your Mac’s clock display for 5-digit dates. In 02007 we first noted this post by a Long Now fan which itself dates to 02005. We haven’t heard about hacks for displaying leading 0′s on other OS’s, but let us know if you’ve got one.

Apple has changed the preference controls with different versions, but here’s the basic gist:

  • Open “Date & Time” in System Preferences
  • At the bottom of the window, click “Open Language & Text Preferences”
  • Click on “Region”
  • Under “Dates,” click “Customize”
  • From there you can follow the 02007 instructions

You’ll notice that since we’ve originally posted this we’ve figured out a way to use 5-digit dates on our WordPress blog. Kudos to WordPress for making this easy: just add a zero to the URL pattern in the admin panel. If you’re interested here are more geeky details about how we implemented it. Feel free to fork and improve it!

Happy New Year, and here is to a wonderful 02014!

A 240-Year Old Programmable Computer Boy

Posted on Thursday, November 14th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In the late 18th century, Swiss clock- and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet Droz decided to advertise his business by building three automata, or mechanical robots, in the shape of young children. Still functional after almost 240 years, the machines are a marvel of mechanical engineering. “The Musician” is a girl who plays an organ – her eyes follow her fingers as they press down on the instrument’s keys, and her chest moves up and down in a breathing motion. “The Draftsman” is a boy who draws four different images – including a portrait of Louis XV.

The most complex of the three, however, is “The Writer.” Constructed with nearly 6,000 components, this mechanical boy sits at a small desk and uses a goose feather quill to write sentences on a piece of paper. Like his Draftsman brother, the Writer’s three-dimensional arm movements are coded by a series of cams: they direct his arm to an inkwell, into which he dips his quill, and then back to his paper, where he writes out letters in a neat cursive script. Professor Simon Schaffer, host of the BBC4 documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, explains:

As these cams move, three cam followers read their shaped edges and translate these into the movement of the boy’s arm. Working together, the cams control every stroke of the quill pen, and exactly how much pressure is applied to the paper, so as to achieve beautiful, elegant, and fluid writing. With this sublime machine, Jaquet Droz had reverse-engineered the very act of writing.

But the mechanical boy contained one perhaps even more astonishing feature. The wheel that controlled the cams was made up of letters that could be removed, and then replaced and reordered. These allowed the writer in principle to make any word and any sentence. In other words, it allowed the writer to be programmed. This beautiful boy is thus a distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

The Writer is an early example, too, of some of the mechanical technology that runs the 10,000 Year Clock. Of course, the Writer’s system is entirely analog, whereas the Clock incorporates both analog and digital mechanisms (the serial bit adders at the heart of the Orrery provide a binary input for its simulation of planetary movement). Nevertheless, the 18th century automaton is a miniature testimony to what the Clock exemplifies on monument scale: that mechanical systems possess the elegance, the transparency, and the functionality needed to endure across long stretches of time.

(via Colossal)

Time for Everyone Symposium in Pasadena

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

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

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

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

10 Petabytes and Growing: The Internet Archive

Posted on Monday, June 3rd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The Internet Archive seeks to offer universal access to all knowledge.  Jonathan Minard and Deepspeed Media recently created Archive, a short documentary exploring how they’re slowly but steadily achieving this ambitious goal.

Internet Archive from Deepspeed media on Vimeo.

Disruptive Technology

Posted on Wednesday, May 15th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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We are social animals: it’s by connecting and communicating with others that we’ve managed to survive, thrive, and become “as gods” on planet Earth.

The development of communications technologies has dramatically expanded our ability to connect with the world around us. Wireless networks now allow us to communicate in real-time with people on the other side of the globe; and with the portability of tablets and smart phones, global connectedness has become integral to even the most mundane aspects of our daily lives. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re always on the lookout for new ways and places to log in to the world wide web.

Nevertheless, new research suggests that the use of technology does not always facilitate greater connectedness. In fact, it may occasionally be experienced as quite disruptive.

Several recent studies have shown that people consider the experience of overhearing a person talk on a cell phone far more annoying than listening to two people converse; more so, even, than being surrounded by white noise. These wireless “halfalogues” are so disruptive, researchers argue, because they awaken our innate tendency to make sense of communicative stimuli. Faced with a one-sided conversation, our brain is co-opted by the instinct to fill in the conversational gaps, and can no longer focus on anything else.

These findings recently led The Atlantic Cities to question whether we really want to expand wireless coverage on subways and other forms of public transportation. Though it may be nice to have access to an app that tells you when to expect the next train, we may not want to encourage our fellow passengers to disturb our commute with their cellular halfalogues.

This thought echoes some early skepticism about Google Glass, the tiny wearable computer that is currently being tested by developers. Worried that it will create dangerous distractions and eliminate the last remnants of our public privacy, the New York Times reports, several establishments and even states have sought to pre-emptively ban the device. These concerns suggest that there is a time and place for online communications – and that our pursuit of innovative communicative technology should perhaps involve a debate about whether, and where, we might impose boundaries on its use.

The Economist hosts online debate about the future of driverless cars

Posted on Thursday, May 2nd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The Economist asks:

Are completely self-driving cars feasible in the foreseeable future?

Debating this proposition are Long Now board member Paul Saffo and automotive R&D executive Andrew Bergbaum. Saffo is “for the proposition” – he argues that self-driving cars will be commercially available, and maybe even common, by 02030 – while Bergbaum is against, arguing that legislation and existing business models will hamper roll-out of the technology.

The debate is ongoing on The Economist’s site: opening arguments were posted on Tuesday 4/30, rebuttals will go up Friday 5/3 and closing remarks are to be made on Wednesday 5/8.

Readers are encouraged to participate as well, in comment-form or through voting. Results of the vote are tallied daily and there’s a clear trend over the first 3 days in the direction of Paul Saffo’s stance. Will it hold when the rebuttals are posted? Check in over the next week to see.

A Voice From the Past

Posted on Monday, April 29th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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If you’ve ever wondered what the inventor of the telephone might have sounded like from the other end of a landline, you may finally have your answer: researchers have discovered and managed to restore a brief recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s own voice.

Famously – if controversially – credited for patenting the acoustic telegraph, Bell (01847-01922) dedicated his life to the science of creating, recording, and transmitting sound waves. He co-founded the Volta Laboratory in Washington, DC, where his team experimented with magnetic sound recording and worked on improvements to Edison’s phonograph. The Smithsonian Magazine writes:

Inside the lab, Bell and his associates bent over their pioneering audio apparatus, testing the potential of a variety of materials, including metal, wax, glass, paper, plaster, foil and cardboard, for recording sound, and then listening to what they had embedded on discs or cylinders.

The laboratory produced a considerable collection of recordings, and kept meticulous records of their proceedings. In the late 19th century, Bell donated a large amount of this to the Smithsonian Institution, where they have been carefully preserved. Sadly, however, Bell’s documentation included little information about the instruments he used to play his own recordings, and so the passing of time and evolution of technology reduced his discs to “mute artifacts.”

So when researchers at the Smithsonian discovered a piece of paper in a collection of the earliest audio recordings ever made that transcribed an 1885 recording ostensibly made by Bell, then matched that to an actual wax-on-cardboard disc sporting the initials “AGB” and the same date, April 15, 1885, they couldn’t just drop it into an old-school player and crank away. (Time)

Now, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have managed to bridge this technological divide: they have developed a way to “extract” sound from 19th century recordings. A high-resolution 3D camera allows them to create a topographical map of an audio disc without damaging its surface; a computer can then convert this map into sound waves. Using this technology, the Library of Congress brought the 1885 recording back to life, and found, indeed, a snippet of A.G. Bell’s own voice.


It is “a new invention in the service of invention,” says National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens. The Berkeley lab’s new disc-reading  technology has succeeded in restoring a piece of its very own origins: it has revived the legacy – and the voice – of a pioneer in the science of audio transmission.

The Digital Public Library of America

Posted on Friday, April 26th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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A digital library that makes published material available to anyone with an internet connection, free of charge: a realistic possibility, or a utopian fantasy?

Last April, a contributor to the MIT Technology review questioned whether it could be done: if Google Books had become mired in legal battles with US copyright law, would anyone else be able to figure out how to make published matter publicly available?

But this past week, the Digital Public Library of America celebrated its official launch at a library in Boston. As Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton explains, the Library is a nonprofit “project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans – and eventually to everyone in the world – online and free of charge.”

Partnering with institutions such as the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, and ARTstor, the Digital Public Library of America is not a database but a “distributed system of electronic content.” Rather than reinvent the wheel of digitization, it embraces what existing libraries and other organizations have already scanned in, and simply works to bring these resources together on a single, openly accessible, and nation-wide platform.

Unlike Google Books, the DPLA doesn’t hoover up institutions’ documents to be stored on its own servers. Its primary goal is to support coordinate scanning efforts by each of its partner institutions, and to act as a central search engine and metadata repository. Most of these libraries and museums have been slowly scanning and cataloguing their collections for years; the DPLA helps make those materials aggregatable and interoperable. (

In efforts to contribute to a truly universal spread of knowledge, the Digital Public Library of America offers a user-friendly interface and a searchable collection of materials under a Creative Commons license: “We are really fighting for a maximally usable and transferrable knowledge base,” says executive director Dan Cohen. Though the Library will – for the moment – refrain from offering anything that is currently under US copyright protection, part of its mission is to explore alternatives to existing copyright laws. As The Verge explains,

[Cohen] wants to create a platform where academic scholarship, whether in journals or monographs, can be disseminated and preserved in open formats for current and future generations. He wants to find ways for public libraries to engage in collective action with book publishers to make e-books as available as possible to US citizens. He wants the DPLA to explore alternative approaches to copyright that preserve authors’ and publishers’ chief profit window but also maximizing a work’s circulation, including the “library license” that would allow public, noncommercial entities (like the DPLA) to have digital access to certain works in copyright after five years, or Knowledge Unlatched, a consortium that purchases in-copyright books for open access. The DPLA also wants to work directly with authors to donate their books to the commons.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer writes that “scholars have long dreamed of a universal library containing everything that has ever been written.” He calls this a “Library of Utopia” – but agrees with the Digital Public Library of America that a utopia is more than idle fantasy. It is an idea worth striving for; perhaps even a moral imperative.

“If we can put a man on the moon and sequence the human genome, we should be able to devise something close to a universal digital public library. At that point, we will face another moral imperative, one that will be even more difficult to fulfill: expanding internet access beyond the less than 30% of the world’s population that currently has it.”