All posts made in Mar. 2011:

The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

Sticking a zero at the beginning of the year is ace. They're building a clock that'll last those 10,000 years. Two lovely interventions in culture! Yum.

They recently asked on their blog, Peak Science? First they point out a trend, identified by Samuel Arbesman (Harvard Medical School): By measuring the average size of discovered asteroids, mammalian species and chemical elements, he was able to show that, over the last few hundred years, these three very different scientific fields have been obeying the exact same trend: the size of what they discover has been getting smaller.

And follow it with this speculation: we've basically picked all the low-hanging fruit of scientific discovery -- all Galileo had to do was be the first person to look at Jupiter through a telescope and he discovered four moons. But, we've found all the moons now, and without those easy to reach facts, we’re now forced to pool more effort and resources into learning new things.

Interesting! But I disagree.

The kinds of science mentioned are what Deleuze and Guattari call "royal science" -- it's the science you get taught at school where the discipline is given capital letters: Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science. It's the science where there are institutions, journals, funding, prizes, PhDs, and a division between those who are Scientists and the rest of society. It's the science you can get a qualification in, and the science you can fail in.

It happens that sciences start their lives somewhat differently -- biology emerged from hobbyist Victorian men and women first collecting, and then taxonomising animals and plants. Electricity was a hobbyist's occupation before it was formalised: the same journal would speak about a lecture, a new patent, an experiment with lightbulbs, and who had been hit by lightning that month. Sciences don't look like sciences to begin with. You can't "fail" in collecting examples of finches.

So, my first question: (1) where are the hobbies?

Of course, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, that particle accelerator loop 27 kilometres around, can't be a hobby -- it's too big and too expensive. But it's at the final "white dwarf" end of scientific evolution. It's way past its lively period of heady, explosive growth and illumination. Science goes through stages: first you collect (write down many examples), then you have a period of making taxonomies and hypotheses (a period of crazy invention and fights and predictions), and then you settle on a reductionist model and (a) the science turns into technology (lasers and CD players), and (b) you look for experiments to disrupt the model to start over again (CERN).

I simplify. But, y'know.

Collecting is easy. But it's not really seen as science (though it's essential). It's a an incidental activity, or a hobby, often by people who are fans of science, or philosophy, or some other similar discipline preoccupied with causality and structure (where it is also accompanied by cataloging and rule-making).

So my second question is (2) where are people collecting?

Answer my two questions, and we'll find new proto-sciences, science nurseries full of low-hanging fruit.

And here are some examples that pop immediately to mind:

  • PageRank, by Google, their form of analysing the web, is right at the beginning of a new science. As a way of understanding networks, it was ripe for the picking - Page and Brin just had to do it! - and we've still not looked at the higher-level molecules in the structure of the web. Links and pages are the fundamental particles. But imagine if the attention given to string theory was given to networks in the web: what evolving manifolds might we find? What 11-dimensional rules?
  • Stephen Wolfram's work with cellular automata. Algorithms are not expensive, and don't have to be examined by experts. So many of us could examine simple sets of rules that evolve, and find new interesting creatures in Conway's Game of Life. It's not hard, there's just a lot to territory to explore. So be explorers!
  • "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved" by Shulgin. An exploration of psychedelic compounds. They act so differently. #125: QUALITATIVE COMMENTS: (with 35 mg) There was a vague awareness of something all afternoon, something that might be called a thinness. There is a universe of internal life to catalogue before we can start drawing architectures, that super-complex muddy hinterland between consciousness and wet chemicals.
  • Mandelbrot and the world of fractals. There are shapes and rules in fractals which are as wide-ranging and fundamental as circles and rectangles. We see the networks of neurons in the brain reflected in the super-filaments of galactic superclusters that braid the known universe, and reflected again in the patterns that emerge at the end of a game of Go. Why are these similar? Can looking inward at one educate us about looking up at another? Perhaps. But we need to collect and taxonomise first, to learn how to describe new shapes. We're maybe 50 years off a breakthrough here, I guess, and Mandelbrot is our Galileo: Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
  • Small group dynamics and psychiatry. The experiments made on subjective experience, the social world, and the brain are easy (there are home brain imaging kits), and depend more on constructing a language for discussion (as Freud did) and data than slicing the brain up into tiny slices. There is a cosmos, a natural philosophy, of subjective experience to be described, and we'll need to make a lot of mistakes and try all kinds of alchemy before we attain the chemistry - or its equivalent - to speak about it, even to the level of literacy we have speaking about, say, modern art.
  • Kevin Kelly's Computational X -- Computational Medicine, Computational Linguistics, Computational Architecture, and more: Inventing materials, forms, structures that cannot be made with concrete and glass. Generate endless varieties of one form, with ease. There must be a commonality between these areas, if they are tractable to investigation with the same techniques. So how do we describe it? First, we need the stuff to describe. We all have computers. As hobbyists, let's apply computation to everything! Ah, we are doing that. So carry on, and look for abstract bridges and common shapes! It's a proto-science. A proto proto-science.

There are a billion low hanging fruits. We don't recognise these worlds as capital-S Science because they're not what we've been taught to see. Get out your telescope that you don't recognise as a telescope, and you'll see moons and Jupiters that have never before been spied.

Every morning I wake up to continuing news from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, which engineers are fighting to control. The problems - fires, explosions, venting of radioactive gases, a fire in the spent fuel area, the risk of fuel rods melting and releasing highly toxic substances into the environment - are the result of broken cooling systems damaged by a tsunami, itself the result of an earthquake, natural disasters in which large numbers of people died, in highly local but massively multiple tragedies.

I write as if you didn't already know, mainly to wrap my own head around what's going on. From the other side of the globe, I really can't grasp what's been happening on the western Pacific Rim these last few months. The floods in Australia, earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, Japan's continuing crisis. I don't have the imagination, it's a struggle to put myself there.

But Fukushima:

There are a few dozen engineers, and they're fighting, warring really against this problem, this overheating. And there's little or no electricity, and everything they're doing is outside operational parameters. It's become chaotic. I can just about get a little-finger hold on what that's like. They said on the radio this morning (or maybe overnight) that the current attempts to cool the overheating fuel rods are all improvised now. The engineers are using fire engines to pump sea water in through internal sprinklers. It's rumoured that one of the fires started when a fire engine ran out of fuel and could no longer pump. I can almost grasp that, the scrambling, the constant brainstorming and the constant new emergencies. I can't quite get the rest. The danger of death from radioactivity, the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from the local area. That's the size of the whole city where I went to school!

The nuclear aspect touches old fears. I was born and grew up in the Cold War. I was almost 12 years old in December 1989, at the time of the Malta Summit, when the corner was turned, detente found, and the end of the War declared. I'd had a childhood talking about atom bombs with my friends, and having nightmares about mushroom clouds and fallout. The fiction we read in class was often enough about nuclear apocalypse. A sudden escalation was not off the cards. I remember the first day, in the early 1990s, that I realised that the weight of possibility of nuclear war had lifted. I felt like I could breathe for the first time.

1991-2001 were blessed years in the West. The Cold War had ended, and the effects of foreign policy and a callousness to the rest of the world had not yet cross-multiplied with psychopaths and boomeranged into terrorism. There was crazy growth and there were easy recessions. India and China were off the radar, changing slowly, but not the obvious inheritors of global cultural leadership. The West was it.

I feel no guilt. That was the most carefree decade I'll have.

So the events in Fukushima touch an old terror for me.

They'll never read this, but I wish the very best of luck to all those fighting to bring the reactors under control. You're in my thoughts.

I want to end on something more abstract.

Matt Jones and I were talking in the studio yesterday and he mentioned the Holocene -- the geological period lasting from 12,000 years ago, the end of the most recent glacial period, until now. All of recorded human history is within the Holocene. But now, maybe (the story goes), we're in the Anthropocene: the epoch in which human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems.

It's the era of human-altered climate and of artificial islands. When archeologists in a million years dig deep down and take a core sample through 2011 AD, they'll look at the thin, white, compressed layer of undecomposed plastic waste and iridium traces - a geological layer 100% due to human civilisation - and they'll point to it and say "Ah, the Anthropocene," before turning it into shimmering jewellery and what-have-you.

The thing we have to realise is that this isn't an era of control. Our attempts to control the world have multiplied so much that they themselves have become part of the system, part of the world, and the entire thing has once again become chaotic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. We live in a world in which we must constantly adapt, improvise, and take care. We must show it respect (the world is not a resource: it is as big as us); we have to swim through it, not walk over it. Engineering is not only problem solving, and not only a way to manage risk, but an improvisational skill. We're going to need that.

It's all very grim in Fukushima. And I'm really feeling that grimness this morning, apologies for passing it on.

List of quotes from Ayn Rand.

Rand developed the philosophy of Objectivism, in which the pursuit of one's individual happiness and productive achievement is the highest moral purpose.

One should not depend on nor sway to others.

Rand: The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.

Anyway, I've been thinking about an email app built on a principle of Objectivism. At the moment, my email client defaults to doing nothing, and I must intervene to create action (ie, write a reply).

But if I had an Objectivist email app, it would automatically respond to all emails with stock enabling and forceful replies after a period of (say) 15 minutes, and I would have to intervene if I wanted it to not do that.


Origin of the name "Google": Sean and Larry were in their office, using the whiteboard, trying to think up a good name - something that related to the indexing of an immense amount of data. Sean verbally suggested the word "googolplex," and Larry responded verbally with the shortened form, "googol" (both words refer to specific large numbers). Sean was seated at his computer terminal, so he executed a search of the Internet domain name registry database to see if the newly suggested name was still available for registration and use. Sean is not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as "," which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering the name "" for himself and Sergey (the domain name registration record dates from September 15, 1997).


Baidu is Google's competitor in China, and is the 6th most popular site in the world.

Origin of the name "Baidu": 'Baidu' was inspired by a poem written more than 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty. The poem compares the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour with the search for one's dream while confronted by life's many obstacles. '...hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos, suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood.' Baidu, whose literal meaning is hundreds of times, represents persistent search for the ideal.


Incidentally, Baidu's city maps in China are all super-cute pixelated 3D cartoons of themselves. Here's one place I found: a miniature Eiffel Tower, next to a dense urban city hive. [Huh, my link stopped working.] It's like browsing the future dressed up as a children's game.


People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call 'conviviality.' They are degraded to the status of mere consumers.

I choose the term 'conviviality' to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members.

And so: To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call 'convivial.'

-- Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich (1972).