Blog Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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Ed Lu: Thwarting Dangerous Asteroids — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Thursday, June 19th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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“How do you deflect an asteroid? Simple…”

In June 02013 former astronaut Ed Lu discussed the very real future threat of asteroids striking the Earth and efforts by himself and the B612 Foundation to keep the planet safe. It turns out that detecting them is the hard part. Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. Anthropocene Astronomy: Thwarting Dangerous Asteroids Begins with Finding Them is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until late July 02014. SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Kevin Kelly’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

What are we looking for? Asteroids that Lu calls “city killers” are about the size of a theater—an airburst of one could destroy the whole San Francisco Bay Area. In our children’s lifetime the chance of impact from one of these is about 30 percent. In the same period there is a 1 percent chance of an asteroid impact equivalent to all the bombs in World War II times 5; it could kill 100 million people.

We buy fire insurance against risk with lower probability than that. Then there’s a kilometer-size asteroid, which would destroy all of humanity permanently. The chance of collision with one in our children’s lifetime—.001 percent.

Ed Lu is CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation. As an astronaut he earned NASA’s highest honor: The Distinguished Service Medal and in his 3 missions logged 206 days in space while constructing and living aboard the International Space Station. From 02007 to 02010, he led the Advanced Projects group at Google developing imaging technology for Google Earth/Maps and Google Street View amongst other projects.

Ed Lu, image by

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

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 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.

ESA’s Rosetta Probe begins approach of comet 67P

Posted on Friday, June 6th, 02014 by Austin Brown
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The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe has sent some great images back to Earth illustrating its approach as it has pulls to within 2 million kilometers of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko the comet it is targeting. Later this year it will drop a lander on the comet to conduct important experiments on its composition–more on that below.

During development of the mission the ESA invited Long Now to include one of our Rosetta Disks on the probe. And so this ESA mission is not only the most detailed comet researcher ever, it is also the first off-world archive of thousands of human languages.

The Rosetta Project is Long Now’s initiative for long-term archiving of human languages. The disk includes parallel texts (inspired by the original Rosetta Stone) and thousands of pages of information documenting languages from all over the world. The Rosetta disk that is on the probe is an early prototype, a more recent design is shown below:

The microetched Rosetta Disk shown inside the Rosetta sphere (photo by Laine Stranahan)
photo by Laine Stranahan

The Rosetta space probe had been in hibernation since 02011, having completed several flybys and slingshot maneuvers after being launched in 02004. San Francisco’s Exploratorium marked the ESA’s successful re-awakening of the probe in January and continues to follow its journey. Last month Exploratorium Senior Scientist Paul Doherty spoke with Rosetta Project Scientist Claudia Alexander about recent developments and what scientists hope to learn from this up-close look at a comet.

Comets generally have very eccentric orbits, meaning they travel in very squished ellipses, rather than perfectly round circles. That eccentricity causes the comets to oscillate between the outer reaches of the solar system and relatively close passes by the Sun. Comet 67P is on its way in toward the Sun right now and that means it’s heating up. This causes ice to melt and boil and eject gas and dust from the comet’s nucleus, creating the characteristic comet tail. The Rosetta mission will orbit 67P for 17 months, through its closest approach to the Sun and then out again. This will provide an unprecedented level of detailed data as the comet goes through the significant changes caused by drastic changes in temperature.

After 17 months of orbit and study from above, the plan is for Rosetta’s Philae lander to drop onto the comet itself in November. It will drill into the surface of the comet and perform experiments to learn more than ever before what composes a comet. And you can follow its progress on Twitter.

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.