Like a lot of scientifically inclined technophillic folks, the space shuttle’s last flight makes me feel a little melancholy. I believe there are very good reasons to send people off world. If we are both lucky and conscientious then in the fullness of time humanity — or whatever inherits our history — will mediate the migration of the terrestrial biosphere beyond this pale blue homeworld. In doing so, we will ensure, or at least increase the probability, of life’s persistence into deep cosmological time and space. This goal, or something akin to it, is what has motivated a lot of people (myself included) to work on space exploration over the last half century. It is an enduring motivation, but to the public at large and to policymakers, I think it comes off as esoteric, cultish, or at least eccentric.
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Continue reading Links for the week of April 26th, 2010
After coming across Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s TED talk recently, and already being familiar with his stunning aerial photography, I was excited to see his film Home, about the Earth, and its dwellers. It is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The BBCs Planet Earth is gorgeous, but Home is far better. Every scene is a piece of art, like his photography, but in motion. I would pay to see it in high definition. The first half hour or so is a kind of naturalistic creation myth: true, but poetic. The formation of the Earth. The rise of the cyanobacteria, and the oxygenation of our atmosphere. The eventual emergence of our own species and the journey we took from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists, to city dwelling, fossil fueled, rulers of the world.
But there it stumbles. While what it says is true, it is not enough. The truth alone is no longer sufficient. The film is blind, or nearly so, to the future that we need to see. It’s too easy, given the truth we have inherited, to envision a dark future. Vague assertions that the solutions are at hand are not enough. He exclaims, and rightly so, that “We don’t want to believe what we know.” For some reason, we are afraid to envision a bright future. Maybe it’s because throughout the 20th century, the bright futures we envisioned often turned dark. Social progress became World Wars and gulags. Technological progress became mustard gas, ICBMs and DDT. Economic progress became the Depression and the disingenuous promise of perpetual growth through the liquidation of our natural capital. I agree that we don’t have time to be pessimists, but fodder for pessimism seems to be almost the only content out there in the environmental sphere. And it’s getting old.
- Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand – It's like his photography, but moving. Visually stunning. About 2/3 of the film is great, especially the almost mythologized story of our creation. Poetic, without being flowery or playing too fast and loose with the facts. Short on concrete suggestions for what to do, unfortunately. (tagged: sustainability green earth climate film )
- Web Site Helps Bicyclists Avoid Crash Hotspots – LA's local CBS affiliate did a story on Bikewise, featuring… me! (tagged: bicycle transportation technology maps google urban planning tv )
- The Artvertiser – Ad replacement technology not for your browser, but for your ad encrusted urban reality. Augmented reality goggles not included. (tagged: urban art technology advertising )
- L.A. County raids homeless camp under 10 Freeway – This is like something out of a William Gibson novel. A vast vault underneath the 10 freeway called "The Cave" by its denizens. Drugs, cooking, bicycles, babies, rats. What would LA be like today with 30% unemployment I wonder? (tagged: losangeles freeway homeless society police urban design architecture )
- HEET: Home Energy Efficiency Team – HEET is a bunch of collaborative energy efficiency "barn raisers", volunteering their time and knowledge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get home weatherized, insulated, and otherwise energetically improved. Now, it might be even better if one could, um, get some support (or at least a lack of obstruction) from the powers that be for this kind of behavior, but failing that, this is nothing short of brilliant civil disobedience. (tagged: sustainability architecture energy efficiency volunteer cooperation )
This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day. I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas. Missing, largely because we ate it. I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it. It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period. Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us. I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct. But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations. Down to 500 million people by the year 2150. Are we up to the task? This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.
He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background. Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it. It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now. It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did. If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening. Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth. Dive the coral reefs while I still can. Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest. And keep on composting my urine.
- If You Want to Know Bike Laws, Don’t Ask the California Highway Patrol – A great rundown of traffic laws as they apply to bicycles in California… and how unfortunately uninformed the police are. (tagged: bicycle transportation police law california )
- R3project: Sustainability in Barcelona – A blog recounting the story of remodeling (and living in) a previously abandoned 18th century apartment in Barcelona's old town, as sustainably (and cheaply) as possible. Available in English or Spanish! (tagged: green sustainability design architecture urban barcelona buildings )
- The Evolution of Life in 60 Seconds – 4.6 billion years of Earth history, boiled down into 60 seconds, showing the spectacularly non-linear nature of evolution. (tagged: non-linear video science evolution biology earth darwin history )
- EFF Surveillance Self-Defense Project – A tutorial from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, on what you can do to protect yourself against snooping, government and otherwise. Now if only these things would become standard, default practice, around which all of our applications and workflows are designed. (tagged: politics technology privacy surveillance security law )
- Human flesh search engines – A phenomenon of internet vigilantes, kind of like paramilitary morality cops, in China. We've been doing this kind of thing to spammers and other "internet criminals" for a while now. Strange to see it leak out into the real world. A potentially interesting propaganda tool. Mob justice on command? (tagged: internet technology china vigilante politics )