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Stewart Brand
Works at The Long Now Foundation
Attended Stanford University
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Stewart Brand

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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.]
Fostering Long-term Thinking
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Expand your horizon to Africa I am looking forward to ur invitation 
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Great piece in Science on Zimovs’ Pleistocene Park and restoring the mammoth steppe

Climate stabilization comes with restoring the megaherbivores to the subarctic and arctic. This is the biome that revived woolly mammoths will help bring back.

3 minute video at the link.

Article here:
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Bueno trabajos para tomar como modelo en Peru para restructurar las biomasas y los nichos ecologicos´para revertir los daños y contribuir con la estabilizacion del clima-
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Building an endowment for The Long Now

A campaign is under way to build a fund of $500K+ to create an endowment for The Long Now Foundation so it can keep being useful for the next 9,980 years (we’re 20 years old now). The fund will be managed according to a long-term investment strategy we’ve been developing over the last few years. You are invited to pitch in.

In the description of the program at the link, Long Now quotes from my book THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW as follows...

The slow stuff is the serious stuff, but it is invisible to us quick learners. Our senses and our thinking habits are tuned to what is sudden, and oblivious to anything gradual. Between the near-impossible win of a lottery and the certain win of earning compound interest, we choose the lottery because it is sudden. The difference between fast news and slow nonnews is what makes gambling addictive. Winning is an event that we notice and base our behavior on, while the relentless losing, losing, losing is a nonevent, inspiring no particular behavior, and so we miss the real event, which is that to gamble is to lose.

What happens fast is illusion, what happens slow is reality. The job of the long view is to penetrate illusion.
June 02016 marks Long Now’s twentieth anniversary. In terms of a new nonprofit, it is a pretty good run. But for Long Now it means...
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A link to the fund is here:
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Excellent short video about the 10,000-year Clock

3 minutes about why building a monumental Clock inside a mountain to keep accurate time for ten millennia feels like a good idea, and how it is proceeding. Narrating the great imagery you have Danny Hillis, Alexander Rose, and me.
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+Stewart Brand Timehenge.
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Steven Johnson on the superintelligence threat

The author of HOW WE GOT TO NOW takes a long-now perspective on the Nick Bostrom worry about pathogenic AIs in the future.
Can humans evolve fast enough to defend ourselves against the AI threat?
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I'm stuck on America needs Indians.
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Self-Driving Genes Are Coming

[My Edge answer at the link]

The new biotech tool called “gene drive” changes our relation to wild species profoundly. Any gene (or set of genes) can be forced to “drive” through an entire wild population. It doesn’t matter if the trait the genes control is deleterious to the organism. With one genetic tweak to its germline, a species can even be compelled to go extinct.

The technique works by forcing homozygosity. Once the genes for a trait are homozygous (present on both chromosomes) and the parents are both homozygous, they will breed true for that trait in all their descendants. Artificially selecting for desired traits via homozygosity is what breeders do. Now there’s a shortcut.

In effect, gene-drive genes forbid the usual heterozygosity in cross-bred parents. In any two parents, if one of them is gene-drive homozygous, all their offspring will be gene-drive homozygous and will express the gene-drive trait. Proviso: it only works with sexually reproducing species—forget bacteria. And it only spreads quickly enough in rapidly reproducing species—forget humans.

The mechanism was first described in 2003 as a potential tool by Austin Burt of Imperial College London. The way it works is that a “homing endonuclease gene” cuts the DNA in the adjoining chromosome and provides the template for the DNA repair, thus duplicating itself. In Richard Dawkins terms, it is an exceptionally selfish gene. Heterozygous becomes homozygous, and after several generations the gene is present in every individual of the population. The phenomenon is common in nature.

Gene drive shifted from an interesting concept to a powerful tool with the arrival in the last few years of a breakthrough in genome editing called CRISPR-Cas9. Suddenly genes could be edited easily, cheaply, quickly, and with great precision. It was a revolution in biotech.

In 2014 George Church and Kevin Esvelt at Harvard published three papers spelling out the potential power of CRISPR-enabled gene drive and the kind of public and regulatory oversight needed to ensure its responsible deployment. They also encouraged the development of an “undo” capability. Ideally the effects of an initial gene drive release could, if desired, be reversed before it spread too far with the release of a countermanding secondary gene drive.

The benefits of gene drive could be huge. Vector-borne scourges like malaria and dengue fever could be eliminated by eliminating (or just adjusting) the mosquitoes that carry them. Food crops could be protected by reversing herbicide-resistance in weeds. Wildlife conservation would be able to cure one of its worst threats—the alien invasive rats, mice, ants, etc. that are massively destructive to native species on ocean islands. With gene drive the invaders could be completely extirpated (driven extinct locally), and the natives would be protected permanently.

Developments are coming quickly. A team at Harvard proved that gene drive works in yeast. A team at UC San Diego inadvertently proved that it works in fruit flies. Most importantly, Anthony James at UC Irvine and colleagues showed that malaria mosquitoes could be altered with gene drive so that they no longer carry the disease. Kevin Esvelt is developing a project to do the same with white-footed mice, which are the wildlife reservoir for Lyme disease in humans; if they are cured, humans will be as well.

The power to permanently change wild populations genetically is a serious matter. There are ecological questions, ethical issues, and many technical nuances that have to be sorted out thoroughly. Carefully, gradually, they will be.

Humanity has decided about this sort of thing before. Guinea worms are a horrible parasite that used to afflict 2.5 million people, mostly in Africa. In 1980 disease control experts set about eliminating the worms totally from the world, primarily through improved water sanitation. That goal of deliberate extinction is now on the brink of completion. One of the strongest advocates of the project, President Jimmy Carter, declared publicly, “I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.”

Gene drive is not a new kind of power, but it is a new level of power. And a new level of responsibility.

Subscribe to Edge. ×. You can subscribe to Edge and receive e-mail versions of EdgeEditions as they are published on the web. Fill out the form, below, with your name and e-mail address and your subscription will be automatically processed. Email address *. Your name *. Country * ...
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I see this technology being described as a weapon(war on rats). (i am uneducated)
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My answer to this year’s Edge Question

The question: “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news? What makes it important?”

Of the 194 answers, mine is:
“Self-driving genes are coming”
Subscribe to Edge. ×. You can subscribe to Edge and receive e-mail versions of EdgeEditions as they are published on the web. Fill out the form, below, with your name and e-mail address and your subscription will be automatically processed. Email address *. Your name *. Country * ...
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+Sambodhi Prem Self-driving genes make Bitcoin seem trivial. And I say that as a huge, giant fan of Bitcoin. It's like the difference between TCP/IP and hybridized pygmy wheat: Yeah, one of them changed the way we communicate and do business. The other kept a billion of us in the developing world from starving to death. 
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Breakthrough C4 rice advances

One of the most dramatic improvements in the efficiency of agriculture is coming with the bringing of C4 efficiency to C3 rice. Jane Langdale will be giving a Long Now talk on it March 14 in San Francisco.

Quote from the update at the link...

“Professor Jane Langdale, Professor of Plant Development in the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, and Principal Investigator on Phase III of the C4 Rice Project, said: ‘Over 3 billion people depend on rice for survival, and, owing to predicted population increases and a general trend towards urbanization, land that currently provides enough rice to feed 27 people will need to support 43 by 2050...‘

”Professor Langdale added: ‘The intrinsic yield of rice, a C3-type grass, is limited by the inherent inefficiency of C3 photosynthesis. Notably, evolution surmounted this inefficiency through the establishment of the C4 photosynthetic pathway, and importantly it did so on multiple independent occasions. This suggests that the switch from C3 to C4 is relatively straightforward. As such, the C4 programme is one of the most plausible approaches to enhancing crop yield and increasing resilience in the face of reduced land area, decreased use of fertilizers, and less predictable supplies of water’.

"Phases I and II of the programme were focused on identifying new components of the C4 pathway – both biochemical and morphological – as well as validating the functionality of known C4 enzymes in rice. Phase III will refine the genetic toolkit that has been assembled and will focus both on understanding the regulatory mechanisms that establish the pathway in C4 plants and on engineering the pathway in rice.“

Efforts to 'Turbocharge' Rice and Reduce World Hunger Enter Important New Phase. Tuesday, 01 December 2015. ST. LOUIS, MO – A long-term project aimed at improving photosynthesis in rice is entering its third stage, marking another step on the road to significantly increased crop yields that will ...
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One interesting thing is that (indian) corn has surpassed rice as #1 plant in China recently.  Just because it grows faster and uses less water than rice.  Corn is one of the most important C4 plants in use; with C4 rice, there would be less need to change the eating habits.
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All it takes to improve forecasting is KEEP SCORE (Philip Tetlock talk)

Last week Long Now had a talk from the author of SUPERFORECASTING: The Art and Science of Prediction. Here’s my summary of Phil’s talk:

Will Syria’s President Assad still be in power at the end of next year? Will Russia and China hold joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean in the next six months? Will the Oil Volatility Index fall below 25 in 2016? Will the Arctic sea ice mass be lower next summer than it was last summer?

Five hundred such questions of geopolitical import were posed in tournament mode to thousands of amateur forecasters by IARPA—the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity--between 2011 and 2015. (Tetlock mentioned that senior US intelligence officials opposed the project, but younger-generation staff were able to push it through.) Extremely careful score was kept, and before long the most adept amateur “superforecasters” were doing 30 percent better than professional intelligence officers with access to classified information. They were also better than prediction markets and drastically better than famous pundits and politicians, who Tetlock described as engaging in deliberately vague “ideological kabuki dance."

What made the amateurs so powerful was Tetlock’s insistence that they score geopolitical predictions the way meteorologists score weather predictions and then learn how to improve their scores accordingly. Meteorologists predict in percentages—“there is a 70 percent chance of rain on Thursday.” It takes time and statistics to find out how good a particular meteorologist is. If 7 out of 10 such times it in fact rained, the meteorologist gets a high score for calibration (the right percentage) and for resolution (it mostly did rain). Superforecasters, remarkably, assigned probability estimates of 72-76 percent to things that happened and 24-28 percent to things that didn’t.

How did they do that? They learned, Tetlock said, to avoid falling for the “gambler’s fallacy”—detecting nonexistent patterns. They learned objectivity—the aggressive open-mindedness it takes to set aside personal theories of public events. They learned to not overcompensate for previous mistakes—the way American intelligence professionals overcompensated for the false negative of 9/11 with the false positive of mass weapons in Saddam’s Iraq. They learned to analyze from the outside in—Assad is a dictator; most dictators stay in office a very long time; consider any current news out of Syria in that light. And they learned to balance between over-adjustment to new evidence (“This changes everything”) and under-adjustment (“This is just a blip”), and between overconfidence ("100 percent!”) and over-timidity (“Um, 50 percent”). “You only win a forecasting tournament,” Tetlock said, “by being decisive—justifiably decisive."

Much of the best forecasting came from teams that learned to collaborate adroitly. Diversity on the teams helped. One important trick was to give extra weight to the best individual forecasters. Another was to “extremize” to compensate for the conservatism of aggregate forecasts—if everyone says the chances are around 66 percent, then the real chances are probably higher.

In the Q & A following his talk Tetlock was asked if the US intelligence community would incorporate the lessons of its forecasting tournament. He said he is cautiously optimistic. Pressed for a number, he declared, “Ten years from now I would offer the probability of .7 that there will be ten times more numerical probability estimates in national intelligence estimates than there were in 2005.”

Asked about long-term forecasting, he replied, “Here’s my long-term prediction for Long Now. When the Long Now audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials."
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Here's another #bitcoin prediction market:
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The sequel to Shantaram is terrific

Countless readers like me who were enthralled by Gregory David Roberts’ semi-autobiographical novel Shantaram couldn’t bear to leave his world of Bombay at the end of the book, so we either reread it or listened to the brilliant audio version.  Now we can re-enter his world through the equally huge sequel, The Mountain Shadow, with a continuation of the characters who survived the first book.

The appeal of the first book was immersion in India, especially the Bombay slums and underworld.  The appeal for me of the second book is what he is attempting with the story and the writing.  He says that the first book was about exile and this one is about the search for love and faith.  He is a wonderfully idiosyncratic writer--that may explain why he has millions of readers and almost no professional reviewers.  (Amazon reviews of Shantaram are over 2,000; formal reviews in big media, almost zero.)  A sample of his prose:

“I felt good, and bad: one bad mission away from good.

“Again-and-again, the train wheels sang, again-and-again, again-and-again, as farms and fields and towns of dreams streamed past my window, and a shawl of sky misted distant mountains with the last of that year’s rain.”

Roberts often writes aphoristically (which I appreciate since I do too); he even has characters engage in aphorism smack-downs.

In addition to the regular hardcover and Kindle editions at the link, Roberts has an e-book version you can get direct from him on the web, with extra material not in the regular version, here: The Mountain Shadow (9780802124456): Gregory David Roberts: Books
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James Fallows expands on his Long Now talk about infrastructure

We under-imagine benefits and over-imagine problems with civilian infrastructure projects, yet we do the opposite with military infrastructure-scale weapons systems.  Both behaviors defy reason and cause harm.
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+Gordon Wells Shhh.  (Yes.)
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Revealed: the origin of “Information wants to be free”

It was in a dialogue I had with Steve Wozniak at The Hackers Conference in 1984.  Getty Images displays the moment recorded on video at the link. I never saw this video before today.   I see that I did not exactly say “Information wants to be free.”
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+Thomas Scoville I’d love to see your piece.  I didn’t back then.  I’m at
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Have him in circles
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  • The Long Now Foundation
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