Jared Diamond on Collapse

One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years was Collapse by Jared Diamond. It’s meaty, well researched, well argued, systematic, fascinating, and fairly terrifying (though with the possibility of hope, at least).

In this 20 minute video, Diamond pretty much summarises the whole book. If you think it’s something you might want to read, watch the vid, because everything he talks about is explored in much more depth in the book — and all the book’s major themes are touched upon.

If still unsure, check out Diamond’s Long Now seminar (audio here), which is where I first came across him.

Doors to hell

The Door to Hell [longnow].

Other entrances to Hell, originally noted by Gimboland in 2002.

Impending food crisis?

Reading and listening to Long Now stuff has given me an (at its most optimistic) more skeptical and (at its most pessimistic) more long term non-human-centric view of stories like this, but it’s nonetheless food for thought (excuse the pun): Financial Times: impending food crisis? [i-r-squared via jreighley, randomly via twitter].

Hard red wheat is limit up again (i think thats 9 days out of 11) and is at $19.80 a bushel. When it broke $6 a bushel last summer that was an all time high.

A WFP official, for example, recently showed me the red plastic cup that is used to dole out daily rations to starving Africans – and then explained, in graphically moving terms, that this vessel is typically now only being filled by two-thirds each day, because food prices are rising faster than the WFP budget.

But it’s this that really caught my eye:

World grain stock as Days of Consumption, 1960-2006

“Errr, never mind. They’re movin’”

Slowing down — awesome video.

New York-based performance art collective Improv Everywhere showcases their latest project, “Frozen Grand Central”, which mischievously targeted victims of the Big Apple’s notoriously short now.

“If you fear change, leave it in here.”

Paul Saffo: “Embracing Uncertainty – the secret to effective forecasting”.

The first images of the Earth from space

The first photos of the Earth from space, taken from a captured German V2 rocket in 1946. Cor. [longnow]

Aside: again with the pagination!

All known bodies in the Solar System larger than 200 miles in diameter

Here’s a super-cool (and very very large) image: All (known) bodies in the Solar System larger than 200 miles in diameter. Via the recently unveiled Long Now blog.

I received my Long Now charter membership card this morning. The envelope was beautiful – square, dun cardboard, a big Long Now logo, pretty American stamps, a San Francisco postmark, understated address labels… I was really impressed. Unfortunately, I was much less impressed by its contents, my “limited edition, individually numbered, stainless steel Charter Member card”. Flimsy (in fact, slightly bent), and fingerprinted, it really didn’t have the expected feel of, well, longevity. I was, at least, expecting something thicker and less bendable. :-)

Come in, number 348, your time will be up in ten thousand years

Woo hoo. I am the 348th charter member of the Long Now Foundation. Among other things, this gets me access to the US premiere of Eno’s “77 Million Paintings”; alas, I’d say the probability of me affording a flight to the USA this year is approximately zero. Ah well.

On the other hand, I don’t really mind. The best thing you can do to protect the environment, as Spencer Beebe says, is stay at home. :-)

The Quest of the Algorithm of the Chimes of the Bells of the Clock of the Long Now

I’m on a bit of a quest at the moment, which is turning up all sorts of interesting bits and bobs (and distracting me nicely from the work I should be doing today).

Yesterday I listened for the first time to Danny Hillis‘ 2004 Long Now seminar on “Progress on the 10,000 Year Clock” (listen here). Like most of these seminars (which I really should write about in more detail some time) it’s well worth a listen, bristling with neato facts, insights, and mind-expanding ideas. (A less time-consuming but still usefully detailed introduction to the clock project can be found here.) One of the things which particularly caught my imagination was the discussion of the bells. Apparently His Enoship noticed that the number of days in 10,000 years is almost exactly equal to the number of permutations of ten things (365 x10000 = 3650000; 10! = 3628800) – so the idea is that once per day these ten bells will chime in a certain order, never heard before, never to be heard again. (Eno has released a CD of “bell studies”, which is on its way to me even as I type.) Hillis invented an algorithm for the ordering of the chimes, so we know what ordering will be played for any day in the next 10,000 years (Eno’s CD plays the sequences for January 7003) and as you’d expect, people have run with this idea. I have an itch to run with it too, probably (predictably) in Haskell.

So where’s the algorithm? I haven’t found it yet, to my great surprise. :) I would have expected it to be fairly easily available, but apparently not. It might be in Stewart Brand’s book about the clock (also on its way to me), but I sure don’t see it anywhere online. However, there are a couple of implementations floating around, so perhaps some reverse engineering is in order…

Sean Burke has created a web page for exploring the bell patterns, with visualisations and MIDI downloads – code in Perl (and a Postscript (!) version here). Not fancying reverse-engineering the Perl too much, I wrote and asked Sean if there was a better source for the algorithm. Apparently Danny’s original version is in Mathematica. I haven’t found it, but Sean says he’ll send me what he can find in a few days. Otherwise, I guess I’ll keep digging, ask around on the Long Now forums, etc.

Sean pointed out that, when reverse engineering, “there’s understanding, and there’s understanding”, and pointed me at this fantastic war story, which sounds like a Daily WTF candidate to me. I’ve been there in the past, and in my case it was spaghetti Perl I was banging my head against – not pleasant. Still, the whole process of reverse engineering, of picking apart the code slowly, gradually and gently teasing the tangled knot open, can be a wonderful thing in itself. Or it might just turn out that the Mathematica code is clean and easily Haskellised. I doubt it, though, from what I’ve seen of Mathematica. :-) I expect it’ll live in a much lower-level domain than I want to work in, which is, of course, more than half the fun. If I can take an esoteric algorithm in a difficult language and translate it into beautiful and readable higher-order code, that’d be something worth writing about. So, watch this space (but don’t, of course, hold your breath).

In the mean time, as I said, the search is turning up all sorts of cool stuff. We present:

Another version of the algorithm, by Joe McMahon, in OS X/AppleScript discussed here, here & here (code via that last link). Interesting mention of ChucK too, which looks quite shiny (though again, maybe a little low-level for my taste).

Prototype chime generator diagram – I would wear a t-shirt with that on it.

An interview with Alan Kay from two weeks ago, which also points at the Kay-says-it’s-a-must-read Doug Engelbart essays (and no, I must confess, I hadn’t heard of Engelbart).

Pop culture lives in the present; it doesn’t really live in the future or want to know about great ideas from the past. I’m saying there’s a lot of useful knowledge and wisdom out there for anybody who is curious, and who takes the time to do something other than just executing on some current plan. Cicero said, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” People who live in the present often wind up exploiting the present to an extent that it starts removing the possibility of having a future.

Stewart Brand meets the Cybernetic Counterculture – whee, the 60s!

(These last two via this del.icio.us page on “admirable people”.)

Introducing the Long Now Foundation

One of my favourite books is Brian Eno‘s A Year With Swollen Appendices, which is basically his diary for the year 1995 along with some essays from that time (the “swollen appendices”). I think I love this book so much because he’s living a kind of life I’d quite like to lead, but probably never will: this is my equivalent of reading “Hello” magazine or something. :-)

Anyway, I mention the book now because I’ve just come across the website of a great idea which I first came across in one of the appendices: The Long Now Foundation, whose aim is to promote long-term thinking in this age of increasingly short timeframes. Quote:

I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

Fancy that.