Blog Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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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.”

Our Digital Afterlives

Posted on Monday, April 22nd, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 02006, Long Now Board Member David Eagleman wrote in Nature:

There is no afterlife, but a version of us lives on nonetheless.

At the beginning of the computer era, people died with passwords in their heads and no one could access their files. When access to these files was critical, companies could grind to a halt. That’s when programmers invented death switches.

With a death switch, the computer prompts you for your password once a week to make sure you are still alive. When you don’t enter your password for some period of time, the computer deduces you are dead, and your passwords are automatically e-mailed to the second-in-command. Individuals began to use death switches to reveal Swiss bank account numbers to their heirs, to get the last word in an argument, and to confess secrets that were unspeakable during a lifetime.

In other words, a “death switch” is a way for us to pre-program an afterlife for our digital selves. Despite the relatively short lifespan of software platforms, it is likely that the data we post on the internet will live on – somewhere – after we ourselves expire.

Eagleman, along with several others, is urging us to think about what will happen to our digital legacy after death: to decide where we want our data to live, and who will have the privilege to engage with it. Do we want to place our legacy in the hands of an heir, or do we want our online presence to be erased? Alternatively, do we perhaps want to designate our own computers as executors of our estate, and have it send out friendly messages to our descendants every once in a while?

Over the past two years, a series of Digital Death Day “unconferences” has brought people together to talk about these kinds of questions. Evan Carroll and John Romano published a book and host an accompanying blog about ways to shape our digital afterlives. And most recently, Google introduced its Inactive Account Manager: a new tool that allows you to decide what will happen to your emails, photo albums, posted videos and personal profiles when your account becomes inactive.

Planning for our digital beyond is a way to save our own lives from receding into a digital dark age – and as such, it may be a way to keep something of ourselves alive after our bodies die. Eagleman muses:

This situation allows us to forever revisit shared jokes, to remedy lost opportunities for a kind word, to recall stories about delightfully earthly experiences that can no longer be felt. Memories now live on their own, and no one forgets them or grows tired of telling them. We are quite satisfied with this arrangement, because reminiscing about our glory days of existence is perhaps all that would have happened in an afterlife anyway.

Danny Hillis: We need a backup internet

Posted on Tuesday, March 19th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Speaking at TED earlier this year, Long Now co-founder Danny Hillis described the early days of networked computing – a time when one could register “” on a whim and everyone with an email address or a domain could be listed in a single book.

He explained that the design of the Internet Protocol and the early community using it were infused with communistic values - ironic, he notes, as the tech grew out of Cold War militarism.

Since then, of course, the internet, its users and its uses have expanded far beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. In so doing, it has become an essential societal infrastructure – without having been designed as such. As another Long Now Board Member, David Eagleman, points out, the internet is not invulnerable. Emergency communications and other high-priority services must be possible without the internet, but increasingly depend on it.

Hillis says a separate backup internet would not be hard to build and would dramatically increase our resilience to disaster and malfeasance.