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Stewart Brand
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Stewart Brand

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My summary of Steven Johnson’s Long Not talk...

HUMANITY HAS BEEN INVENTING TOWARD DELIGHT for a long time. Johnson began with a slide of shell beads found in Morocco that indicate human interest in personal adornment going back 80,000 years. He showed 50,000-year-old bone flutes found in modern Slovenia that were tuned to musical intervals we would still recognize. Beads and flutes had nothing to do with survival. They were art, conforming to Brian Eno’s definition: “Art is everything you don’t have to do.” It looks frivolous, but Johnson proposed that the pursuit of delight is one of the prime movers of history — of globalization, innovation, and democratization.

Consider spices, a seemingly trivial ornament to food. In the Babylon of 1700 BCE — 3,700 years ago — there were cloves that came all the way from Indonesia, 5,000 miles away. Importing eastern spices become so essential that eventually the trade routes defined the map of Islam. Another story from Islamic history: when Baghdad was at its height as one of the world’s most cultured cities around 800 CE, its “House of Wisdom” produced a remarkable text titled “The Book of Ingenious Devices.” In it were beautiful schematic drawings of machines years ahead of anything in Europe — clocks, hydraulic instruments, even a water-powered organ with swappable pin-cylinders that was effectively programmable. Everything in the book was neither tool nor weapon: they were all toys.

Consider what happened when cotton arrived in London from India in the late 1600s. Besides being more comfortable than itchy British wool, cotton fabric (called calico) could easily be dyed and patterned, and the democratization of fashion took off, along with a massive global trade in cotton and cotton goods. Soon there was an annual new look to keep up with. And steam-powered looms drove the Industrial Revolution, including the original invention of programmable machinery for Jacquard looms.

Consider the role of public spaces designed for leisure — taverns, coffee shops, parks. Political movements from the American Revolution (Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern) to Gay Rights (Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles) were fomented in bars. Whole genres of business and finance came out of the coffee shops of London. And once “Nature” was invented by Romantics in the late 1800s, nature-like parks in cities brought delight to urban life, and wilderness became something to protect.

Play invites us to invent freely.
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I agree. My question is, what new delights will biotech, transgenics, CRISPR etc. bring? I'm not sure we can see them yet, but I know they're there. Fabulous food, more interesting pets? People with enhanced phenotypes for experiencing joy?
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My summary of a Long Now talk by Douglas Coupland:

“The present and the future now coexist at the same time,” Coupland began. “It’s why time doesn’t feel like time any more. We’re inside the future.” He wondered if the constant acceleration of acceleration that we experience might lead to some kind of “collective cracking point” for humanity.

As an installation artist Coupland said he was highly impressed by the short truisms of the New York artist Jenny Holzer, such as “MUCH WAS DECIDED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN.” And so he began a “slogan project” of sayings that “make perfect sense now but would make no sense if you saw them 20 years ago.” Examples included:



LIVES ARE NO LONGER FEELING LIKE STORIES (“I call this process ‘de-narration.’”)




For an installation in Shanghai, Coupland created some “slogans for the 22d Century:”




Coupland ended with what he considers the three leading questions of our time: “Does the need to be remembered eclipse the right to be forgotten?” “Will the internet favor the individual over the group?” “Will the internet favor secularity or religion?”

At the end of the evening, Coupland looked at the camera and said, “Hello posterity. What are we doing right now that is scaring the crap out of you?”

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When my eyes first skipped across your post and saw all the slogans in ALL CAPS I thought for a moment that I'd somehow dropped into a YouTube comment thread for an alt-right video. Or that you'd lost your mind... On second reading I thought, "where can I get these printed into actual bumper stickers?"
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Here’s my summary of Kevin Kelly’s recent talk for Long Now:

Digital is just getting started

IN KEVIN KELLY’S VIEW, a dozen “inevitable” trends will drive the next 30 years of digital progress. Countless artificial smartnesses, for example, will be added to everything, all quite different from human intelligence and from each other. We will tap into them like we do into electricity to become cyber-centaurs — co-dependent humans and AIs. All of us will need to perpetually upgrade just to stay in the game.

Every possible surface that can become a display will become a display, and will study its watchers. Everything we encounter, “if it cannot interact, it is broken.” Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) will become the next platform after smartphones, conveying a profound sense of experience (and shared experience), transforming education (“it burns different circuits in your brain”), and making us intimately trackable. Everything will be tracked, monitored, sensored, and imaged, and people will go along with it because “vanity trumps privacy,” as already proved on Facebook. “Wherever attention flows, money will follow.”

Access replaces ownership for suppliers as well as consumers. Uber owns no cars; AirBnB owns no real estate. On-demand rules. Sharing rules. Unbundling rules. Makers multiply. “In thirty years the city will look like it does now because we will have rearranged the flows, not the atoms. We will have a different idea of what a city is, and who we are, and how we relate to other people.”

In the Q&A, Kelly was asked what worried him. “Cyberwar,” he said. “We have no rules. Is it okay to take out an adversary’s banking system? Disasters may have to occur before we get rules. We’re at the point that any other civilization in the galaxy would have a world government. I have no idea how to do that.”

Kelly concluded:
“We are at the beginning of the beginning — the first hour of day one. There have never been more opportunities. The greatest products of the next 25 years have not been invented yet.

"You‘re not late”


[Video of the talk is at the link.]
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re: "Access replaces ownership for suppliers as well as consumers. Uber owns no cars [...]"

Uber currently recruits drivers who own cars. So if the cars drive themselves and Uber doesn't own cars and consumers don't own cars, who owns cars? Why do they own them?
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Great profile of +Stewart Brand elder statesman of radical ideas and emissary from the Sixties counterculture 
Stewart Brand was at the heart of 60s counterculture and is now revered as a tech visionary whose book anticipated the web. Carole Cadwalladr met him
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We're excited to announce that all of our Seminars About Long-term Thinking videos are now FREE to watch on our site. And we've released a free iOS app that lets you take #LongNow videos with you everywhere... Watch talks by +Stewart Brand +Kevin Kelly +Paul Saffo +Danny Hillis +John Perry Barlow +Daniel Suarez +Rachel Sussman +Peter Schwartz +Beth Noveck +saul griffith +Drew Endy and many more for free.
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For a change, agreement and appreciation. Thanks for making this happen, +Stewart Brand​. One of the true values of the Internet is making information freely available to those seeking it. And for this, The Long Now joins others, including Google (Search, Scholar, YouTube, and its many, many scanned books), the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and modern-day Robin Hoods such as +Alexandra Elbakyan's Sci-Hub (a/k/a "the Library of Alexandra") in demonstrating that knowledge is a public good.
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Converting rice from a C3 to a C4 plant will revolutionize agriculture

My summary of Jane Langdale’s Long Now talk:

Feeding the world (and saving nature) in this populous century, Jane Langdale began, depends entirely on agricultural efficiency — the ability to turn a given amount of land and sunlight into ever more food.  And that depends on three forms of efficiency in each crop plant: 1) interception efficiency (collecting sunlight); 2) conversion efficiency (turning sunlight into sugars and starch); and 3) partitioning efficiency (maximizing the edible part).  Of these, after centuries of plant breeding, only conversion efficiency is far short of the theoretical maximum.  The photosynthesis in most plants (called “C3“) is low-grade, poisoning its own process by reacting with oxygen instead of carbon dioxide when environmental conditions are hot and dry.

But some plants, such as corn and sugar cane, have a brilliant workaround.  They separate the photosynthetic process into two adjoining cells.  The outer cell creates a special four-carbon compound (hence “C4“) that is delivered to the oxygen-protected inner cell.  In the inner cell, carbon dioxide is released from the C4 compound, enabling drastically more efficient photosynthesis to take place because carbon dioxide is at a much higher concentration than oxygen.

Rice is a C3 plant — which happens to be the staple food for half the world.  If it can be converted to C4 photosynthesis, its yield would increase by 50% while using half the water. It would also be drought-resistant and need far less fertilizer.

Langdale noted that C4 plants have evolved naturally 60 times in a variety of plant families, all of which provide models of the transition.  “How difficult could it be?” she deadpanned.  The engineering begins with reverse-engineering.  For instance, the main leaves in corn are C4, but the husk leaves are C3-like, so the genes that affect the two forms of development can be studied.  Langdale’s research suggests that the needed structural change in rice can be managed with about 12 engineered genes, and previous research by others indicates that the biochemical changes can be achieved with perhaps 10 genes.  The genes needed for the eventual fine tuning will emerge later.

When is later?  The C4 Rice project began in 2006 at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The research is on schedule, and engineering should begin in 2019, with the expectation that breeding of delicious, fiercely efficient C4 rice could be complete by 2039.

It is the kind of thing that highly focussed multi-generation science can accomplish.
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I'm curious about the relationship between improving photosynthesis via C3->C4 gene engineering and the need of the plant for nitrogen. If you push up the photosynthesis rate does that also mean you have to provide more nitrogen fertiliser?

The point being of course that nitrogen fertiliser currently depends on Haber–Bosch processes which are (again currently) heavily fossil fuel dependent. If we're unlucky we just replace one limit with another. And if the resource limits (fossil fuels) don't get us, the pollution (nitrogen run off) will.

ps. to the previous commenter, "plonk". 
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In his master's thesis Revive & Restore's lead scientist Ben Novak showed that for tens of thousands of years the Passenger Pigeon was THE ecosystem engineer of eastern North American forests. Those ecosystems have lost diversity since the Passenger Pigeon went extinct. Learn more about Ben's research, the science behind de-extinction, and the Passenger Pigeon on Revive & Restore's blog
By Ben J. Novak Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand congratulate Ben Novak at the Interval after Novak’s talk on his master’s thesis research for “the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback”, September 27, 2016. When Revive & Restore started working on Passenger Pigeon de-extinction four years ago, we hypothesized that the passenger pigeon could be a model species to develop the science of de-extinction. The Passenger Pigeon is certainly an iconic candida...
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7 mins. of me reminiscing about the Bay Area ’60s--Acid Tests, Trips Festival, Whole Earth, etc.

Museum fodder.
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Here's my summary of Brian Christian's great Long Now talk about "algorithms to live by"...

Deciding when to stop your quest for the ideal apartment, or ideal spouse, depends entirely on how long you expect to be looking, says Brian Christian. The first one you check will be the best you’ve seen, but it’s unlikely to be the best you’ll ever see. So you keep looking and keep finding new bests, though ever less frequently, and you start to wonder if maybe you refused the very best you’ll ever find. And the search is wearing you down. When should you take the leap and look no further?

The answer from computer science is precise: 37% of the way through your search period. If you’re spending a month looking for an apartment, you should calibrate (and be sorely tempted) for 11 days, and then you should grab the next best-of-all you find. Likewise with the search for a mate. If you’re looking from, say, age 18 to 40, the time to shift from browsing and having fun to getting serious and proposing is at age 26.1. (However, if you’re getting lots of refusals, “propose early and often” from age 23.5. Or, if you can always go back to an earlier prospect, you could carry on surveying to age 34.4.)

This “Optimal Stopping” is one of twelve subjects examined in Christian’s (and co-author Tom Griffiths’) book, Algorithms to Live By. (The other subjects are: Explore/Exploit; Sorting; Caching; Scheduling; Bayes‘ Rule; Overfitting; Relaxation; Randomness; Networking; Game Theory; and Computational Kindness. An instance of Bayes’ Rule, called the Copernican Principle, lets you predict how long something of unknown lifespan will last into the future by assuming you’re looking at the middle of its duration—hence the USA, now 241 years old, might be expected to last through 2257.)

Christian went into detail on the Explore/Exploit problem. Optimistic research minimizes later regret. You’ve found some restaurants you really like. How often should you exploit that knowledge for a guaranteed good meal, and how often should you optimistically take a chance and explore new places to eat? The answer, again, depends partly on the interval of time involved. When you’re new in town, explore like mad. If you’re about to leave a city, stick with the known favorites.

Infants with 80 years ahead are pure exploration— they try tasting everything. Old people, drawing on 70 years of experience, have every reason to pare the friends they want to spend time with down to a favored few. The joy of the young is discovering. The joy of the old is relishing.
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ola Brian

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"Climate scientists have long recognized the importance of forest conservation and forest regrowth in climate mitigation and carbon sequestration -- capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. But the detailed information required to make accurate estimates of this potential has remained elusive".

(Posted by +rasha kamel​)
Climate scientists have long recognized the importance of forest conservation and forest regrowth in climate mitigation and carbon sequestration -- capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. But the detailed information required to make accurate estimates of this potential has remained elusive.
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How r u 
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The darkness of dark matter and dark energy (Priya Natarajan talk)

This is my summary of the recent Long Now talk by the Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan.

ALL THAT WE KNOW of the universe we get from observing photons, Natarajan pointed out.  But dark matter, which makes up 90 percent of the total mass in the universe, is called dark because it neither emits nor reflects photons — and because of our ignorance of what it is.  It is conjectured to be made up of still-unidentified exotic collisionless particles which might weigh about six times more than an electron.

Though some challenge whether dark matter even exists, Natarajan is persuaded that it does because of her research on “the heaviest objects in the universe“ — galaxy clusters of more than 1,000 galaxies.  First of all, the rotation of stars within galaxies does not look Keplerian — the outermost stars move far too quickly, as discovered in the 1970s.  Their rapid rate of motion only makes sense if there is a vast “halo” of dark matter enclosing each galaxy.

And galaxy clusters have so much mass (90 percent of it dark) that their gravitation bends light, “lenses” it.  A galaxy perfectly aligned on the far side of a galaxy cluster appears to us — via the Hubble Space Telescope — as a set of multiple arc-shaped (distorted) galaxy images.  Studying the precise geometry of those images can reveal some of the nature of dark matter, such as that it appears to be “clumpy.”  With the next generation of space telescopes — the James Webb Space Telescope that comes online in 2018 and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope a few years afterward — much more will be learned.  There are also instruments on Earth trying to detect dark-matter particles directly, so far without success.

As for dark energy — the accelerating expansion of the universe — its shocking discovery came from two independent teams in 1998–99.  Dark energy is now understood to constitute 72 percent of the entire contents of the universe.  (Of the remainder, dark matter is 23 percent, and atoms — the part that we know — makes up just 4.6 percent.)  When the universe was 380,000 years old (13.7 billion years ago), there was no dark energy.  But now “the universe is expanding at a pretty fast clip.”  Natarajan hopes to use galaxy-cluster lensing as a tool “to trace the geometry of space-time which encodes dark energy.”

These days, she said, data is coming in from the universe faster than theory can keep up with it.  “We are in a golden age of cosmology.”
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This hole explanation sinks

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When chaos overwhelmed civilization (Eric Cline talk)

Last week archaeologist/historian Eric Cline gave a talk at The Long Now Foundation. Here’s my summary...

Archaeologist Cline began by declaring that the time he would most like to be transported to is the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean—the five centuries between 1700 and 1200 B.C. In those centuries eight advanced societies were densely connected—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Hittites, Cypriots, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. They grew to power over two millennia, but they collapsed simultaneously almost overnight. What happened?

The density of their connection can be learned from trade goods found in shipwrecks, from Egyptian hieroglyphs and wall paintings, and from countless well preserved clay-tablet letters written between the states. The tin required for all that bronze (tin was the equivalent of oil today) came from Afghanistan 1,800 miles to the east. It was one of history’s most globalized times.

In the 12th Century B.C. everything fell apart. For Cline the defining moment was the battle in 1177 B.C. (8th Year of Ramses III) when Egypt barely defeated a mysterious army of “Sea Peoples.” Who were they? Do they really explain the general collapse, as historians long assumed?

Cline thinks the failure was systemic, made of cascading calamities in a highly interdependent world. There were indeed invasions—they might have been soldiers, or refugees, or civil war, or all three. But the violence was probably set in motion by extensive drought and famine reported in tablet letters from the time. Voices in the letters: “There is famine in our house. We will all die of hunger.” “Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!” In some regions there were also devastating earthquakes.

The interlinked collapses played out over a century as central administrations failed, elites disappeared, economies collapsed, and whole populations died back or moved elsewhere.

In the dark centuries that followed the end of the Bronze Age, romantic myths grew of how wondrous the world had once been. Homer sang of Achilles, Troy, and Odysseus. Those myths inspired the Classical Age that eventually emerged.

Cline wonders, could the equivalent of the Bronze Age collapse happen in our current Age?

—Stewart Brand

[NOTE: These SALT talk summaries are now available on Long Now’s new publication on Medium. You’ll find photos and slides from each talk, along with further links and invitation to comment.]
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  • Stanford University
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