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Stewart Brand
writer futurist environmentalist
writer futurist environmentalist

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Dear woolly mammoth enthusiasts... If you like, you can donate to any of the 3 non-profits working on bringing them back:
Woolly Mammoth Revival
Woolly Mammoth Revival
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Toward agile government. Jennifer Pahlka’s Code for America organization does it. Here’s my summary of her Long Now talk:

*Pahlka quoted: “Efficiency in government is a matter of social justice.”8 (Mayor John Norquist) It is at the often maddening interface with government that the inefficiency and injustice play out. Two examples (both now fixed)… At the Veterans Affairs website, you needed to fill out the application for health benefits, but the file wouldn’t even open unless you had the unlikely combination of a particular version of Internet Explorer and a particular version of Adobe Reader. Nothing else worked. In California, the online application for food stamps was 50 screens long and took 50 minutes to complete.

How did such grotesquely bad software design become the norm? Pahlka points to laws such as the “comically misnamed” Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which requires six months to get any public form approved, and the 775-page Federal Acquisition Regulation book, which insists that all software be vastly over-specified in advance. “That’s not how good software is built!” Pahlka said. “Good software is user-centered, iterative, and data driven.” You build small at first, try it on users, observe what doesn’t work, fix it, build afresh, try it again, and so on persistently until you’ve got something that really works — and is easy to keep updating as needed. Pahlka’s organization, Code for America, did that with the 50-minute California food stamp application and pared the whole process down to 8 minutes.

These are not small matters. 19% of the US gross national product is spent on social programs — social security, medicare, food assistance, housing assistance, unemployment, etc. Frustration with those systems makes people want to just blow the whole thing up. Pahlka quoted Tom Steinberg (mySociety founder): “You can no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda.”

Government drastically needs more tech talent, Pahlka urged, and the user-centered iterative approach could have a broader effect: “It’s not so much that we need new laws to govern technology,” she said. “It’s that we need better tech practices that teaches how to make better laws. The status quo isn’t worth fighting for. Fight for something better, something we haven’t seen yet, something you have to invent.”

She concluded with what she learned from 8 years working with government at the city, state, and national levels: “Decisions are made by those who show up.”
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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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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
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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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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 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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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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Great profile of +Stewart Brand elder statesman of radical ideas and emissary from the Sixties counterculture
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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​)
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