I’ve been listening to The Fall of Civilizations podcast a lot. It’s weirdly calming in the midst of this hellscape of a year to hear stories of other times when everything fell apart completely. And yet somehow the world kept going. Through dark ages and forgetting, back to the beginning of our collective memory.
What remembering the past through oral storytelling lacks in fidelity, it partly makes up in simplicity. You can only hold so many stories in your head at once. They evolve over time, but if you don’t remember the way the story used to be, then it isn’t like that anymore. Those other versions of the past just fall away. Once you start writing things down, the narratives proliferate in parallel. It becomes much harder to forget, much harder to agree what happened, or even what is happening. Paradoxically once you start keeping careful notes, you’re overwhelmed by just how many options there are to choose from.
And occasionally, we reshuffle the deck and sift through the library as individuals, or as a society, and choose which volumes we want to highlight. Which ways we want to remember ourselves, and the story of how we got here. We can lose and remake our Official Past in the same way we occasionally discover a new Official Future, when the old one starts going stale.
So we find ourselves here with a tangled multiplicity of histories, stories about how we got to where we are — and even flamboyant disagreement about where we are. Never mind having a sane discussion about where it is we’re going.
A fun little musing from the Atlantic Cities on the difficulty of envisioning a very different world, even when we all know that big changes do take place over time. Old technologies slowly decay, and fade into the background, as a new normalcy takes over. We will see Jane Jacobs’ attrition of cars by cities eventually.
A NYT article detailing the use of stimulants in high school to enhance academic performance. The problem of course is that they actually work. What are the long term consequences? Where’s the line between use and abuse? And who really thinks it stops after the SAT and AP tests? I wonder whether takes more than coffee to pull 80-100 hour weeks trying to make partner in the corporate litigation firms of lower Manhattan.
The future we live in isn’t so far removed from the dystopian visions of Ray Bradbury or Aldous Huxley. And yet we hardly notice, day to day. That’s what makes them wonderful. Orwell’s 1984 is so obviously horrible to everyone in it and reading that it can be dismissed in ways that the consensual dystopia can’t…
It is thanks to Ray Bradbury that I understand this world I grew into for what it is: a dystopian future. And it is thanks to him that we know how to conduct ourselves in such a world: arm yourself with books. Assassinate your television. Go for walks, and talk with your neighbors. Cherish beauty; defend it with your life. Become a Martian.
BMW is running an ad campaign on the future of mobility. Of course, they call it a “documentary”. It’s amazing how close they come to imagining a future in which we don’t use cars in cities. But of course, since they’re a car company, they can’t quite get there. The fundamental attribute of cities that makes them work — density — is also what makes them incompatible with cars.
I recently watched Code 46 again. When I first saw it a few years ago I didn’t like it very much, but this time it seemed more interesting. The storyline doesn’t hold together very well, and from a scientific point of view there are some painful gaffes, but it’s at least attempting to explore some important present and near-future issues, which is more than I can say for most science fiction films. That makes me sad, since I feel at its best, science fiction helps us understand how we interact with and relate to technology, and how technology changes the way we interact and relate to each other. The fact that there’s so little mainstream science fiction trying to do this today is frightening. We’re just blindly stumbling forward into the darkness. Maybe the best thoughtful sci-fi I can recall from the recent past is Gattaca, which depicts in a very stylized way a future society which is starkly divided between those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not. Gattaca is pretty clearly unconcerned with the details as opposed to the implications of its premise, and that makes it easier to gloss over whatever issues it has. It’s less clear that Code 46 is this self aware, but at least on a second viewing, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Be warned, there are spoilers below.
Continue reading Code 46 and the dearth of thoughtful science fiction
I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means hiding place. In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?
It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way. Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry. But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel. Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.
Continue reading Into Eternity by Michael Madsen
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Continue reading Links for the week of September 11th, 2009
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- Christian high school discussion of climate change – Kurt Klein's AP Environmental Science class is reading Richard B. Alley's Two Mile Time Machine, about paleoclimate, ice cores, and abrupt climate change events. (tagged: climate ice science greenland education religion )
- Prefabricated Passive Houses in the USA – Bau Technologies is attempting to bring pre-fabricated (or rather off-site constructed) passive houses to the US. Looks awesome. (tagged: architecture sustainability energy efficiency passivhaus design )
- Yogurt making tips – Detailed instructions on how to make yogurt, and also a source for equipment and cultures. (tagged: food yogurt homemade cooking recipe )
- Climate Wars – A Canadian radio show exploring some of the climate change scenarios which have been studied by the US Dept. of Defense in a personal, "War of the Worlds" kind of way. Be forewarned, this is apocalypse porn, and probably not productive unless you need to get yourself riled up. (tagged: politics climate sustainability future war )
- Our Passive House — the first passive house in Utah. – A Utah couple chronicles the design and construction of their passive house, with blog posts and photos. Great to see these things going up on this side of the Atlantic finally! (tagged: passivhaus sustainability design architecture buildings )
- Will Allen: Street Farmer – A long profile of Will Allen and his intensive urban farming project in Milwaukee: "Growing Power". Aquaponics and vermicomposting of donated food wastes. This is realistic urban farming at a moderate scale. (tagged: sustainability urban food agriculture compost )
- Gini coefficient | Wikipedia – A wonderfully simple and general mathematical measure of the non-uniformity of a distribution, mostly used in economics, but applicable elsewhere just as well. (tagged: economics math wikipedia research science finance )
- Here comes the data: OECD Factbook eXplorer – There are terabytes of interesting data out there that nobody can actually understand, because we don't have good interfaces for playing with it, and poking around. This is the OECD's attempt to offer a window into its own demographic treasure trove. Obviously inspired by the gapminder, from Google and Hans Rosling. (tagged: data maps statistics visualization demographics oecd economics )
- The Choice of Cities – I'm not convinced we really know why the humans are coming to the cities. Whether it's a pull, or a push. How the migrants feel about their lot. Is it, globally, the same as the push we had in this country a hundred years ago? Or was it a pull? What happened when the frontier closed, when all the land was spoken for, and the factories and mines and mills were opened for business.
And what will cities look like once everyone has arrived? If we actually reach that day, when the countryside is emptied, and the flow staunched, then how will cities develop going forward? What will their margins look like? Will the slums filled with newcomers vanish? What will they be replaced with? (tagged: technologie urban design economics history technology poverty )
- Bike Among the Ruins – Detroit is half abandoned. The houses are almost free. The streets are empty and the people are poor. It's also flat. Could a cyclone of bicycles wipe clean the slate, even within the sight of our beloved, bankrupted, and now employee owned husk of an industrial titan… GM? (tagged: bicycle transportation urban design economy )
- Behind the Veil by Eve Arnold – A series of photographs of women, from Afghanistan and the middle east from 1969. Very different from our "Summer of Love"… (tagged: photos islam afghanistan women )
- The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized – Iran is one of the first places we get to see old school blood in the streets mixed with the new age of instantaneous, ubiquitous communication. We've tended to focus on the positive aspects, while briefly forgetting the potential powers of an electronic police state, which is to some degree what Iran has built. No massive army of eavesdroppers and informants is needed in such a regime. A few deep packet inspection boxes from Siemens sitting on the fiber backbone, and a few on the microwave towers from Nokia. Technology is largely neutral. (tagged: technology politics internet privacy government twitter web2.0 iran )
- 55 km to Amsterdam – A day of inter-city transportation by bicycle in the Netherlands. Can it really be that idyllic? (tagged: bicycle transportation netherlands infrastructure )
- 1993 Y Hike Pictures – Wow, pictures of myself from 1993 on the Y Hike. I still remember just about everyone in that group. I look so… young! (tagged: caltech yhike backpacking wilderness sierras )
- Traitor Joe's | Greenpeace – Trader Joe's doesn't make any effort to source sustainably caught fish. Unfortunately, with 70-80% of global commercial fisheries in collapse, it's virtually impossible to sell (or buy) most tasty fish species ethically. (tagged: sustainability fish traderjoes ocean food )
- Organic Farms as Subdivision Amenities – Housing developments that incorporate small organic farms, CSAs even, instead of the usual golf-course crap. How would one adapt this for denser living I wonder? (tagged: design agriculture urban csa food architecture )
- Enphase Energy System Monitoring – Another real-time and historical solar power monitoring system. This one is installed on the roof of one of the Boulder Housing Coalition Co-ops in Boulder. Pretty awesome! Smart grid indeed. (tagged: solar energy technology transparency electricity )
- Caltech Building Dashboard – A near real time view of the power being generated by Caltech's 200 kW PV installation on the Holliston parking structure. Also shows historical data and weather information. Pretty cool. Would be great to just have the raw datastream available via an API too… and be able to see all the Caltech's per-building consumption too. (tagged: energy solar caltech pasadena technology transparency data internet )
- How To Destroy Half the Planet for the Low, Low Price of 5% of Global GDP – Never mind the possibility of unforseen climatic consequences. Even if the pessimistic IPCC scenarios are right, and even if they "only" reduce global GDP by 5% over the next 100 years, that purely economic metric is not sufficient, because it turns out you can wipe 2.5 billion people and their nations off the face of the Earth, mainly in the tropics, and only reduce global GDP by 5%. Cold comfort, that. (tagged: climate economics gdp )
- Walter Mebane's statistical analysis of Iran's election results – Walter Mebane at UW Madison has done several statistical analyses of the Iranian election results, and finds significant irregularities in the Ahmedinejad results. (tagged: election iran statistics democracy fraud system:filetype:pdf system:media:document )
- Carbon Cap and Trade Debate – Ralph Cavanagh (legislative council for NRDC) and Jim Lazar, an economist, debate the merits of Cap and Trade, for an hour and a half. Looks interesting, but don't have time to watch it at the moment (tagged: video towatch climate policy economics )
- Property Assessed Clean Energy Bonds – PACE bonds are a way of overcoming the capital intensivity of many energy efficiency retrofits which make sense in the mid to long-term, but not on the typical short term investors time horizon. They also allow homeowners who may move before their investment in efficiency has paid for itself to pass on the obligation to future owners, instead of losing the investment. They also shift the costs of doing energy efficiency from capital expenses to debt servicing, which is advantageous in many jurisdictions for tax purposes. Berkeley, CA and Boulder, CO pioneered them for municipalities, but they can also work in a commercial context. (tagged: energy efficiency sustainability finance green debt investing bonds )
- It’s Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado – Colorado has taken its first tentative steps down the road to legalizing… rainwater harvesting. I hope they go all the way. I'd hate to have to end up breaking yet another immoral law. (tagged: environment colorado water law sustainability rain green architecture design )
- Welcome to Tällberg – A "conference" analogous to the WEF in Davos, but held in Sweden, in the woods, and with sustainability as the given goal, instead of economic growth. Would be an interesting stop on the Green Cities Bike Tour. (tagged: green economics technology politics policy design conference )
- Power Struggle – A commentary on Steven Chu's position that we need major basic scientific and technological breakthroughs to successfully tackle our energy problems in the context of global warming. The hope is that in the short term, the vast array of incremental changes we have available is enough to get us started, and that by mid-century, the major breakthroughs will have been forthcoming. Ah, non-linear dynamics. (tagged: technology science energy climate non-linear sustainability policy )
- The Great American Bubble Machine – An article from Rolling Stone, by Matt Taibbi, on the endless bubble building shenanigans that Goldman Sachs has engaged in over the years, and their supposed current machinations to engineer a bubble in the as-of-yet uncreated market for greenhouse gas emissions. Markets, I like. Markets run by some Great American Gangster Kingpin, not so much. Especially not this particular market. Remember: Nature doesn't do bailouts. (tagged: economics finance goldmansachs capitalism climate bailout )
- The Economics of Ideas – An article about Paul Romer by Kevin Kelly, musing on the problems and benefits of having an economy which is primarily driven by informational goods. (tagged: economics technology non-linear )
- Paul Romer: A Theory of History, with an Application – Paul Romer talks about two different kinds of informational goods: "technology" and "rules". The former being knowledge about how to re-arrange the material world to increase its value to humans, and the latter being constraints on the ways we interact with each other. His "new/endogenous growth" theory suggests that overwhelmingly, wealth creation throughout history has been due to these two kinds of goods, and that they are virtually infinite resources. What he does not explicitly admit in the talk though, is that much of our increased apparent wealth has come at the cost of virtual liquidation of material resources. Truly sustainable growth absolutely must close the materials loop somehow. Better sooner than later. The rest of his idea is wonderful: we need a system which enables rule set entrepreneurs, or we aren't going to get sufficient innovation in the field. He suggests myriad autonomous city states, and I agree emphatically. (tagged: economics urban society non-linear politics longnow )
- The Swimming Cities of Serenissima – Improvised and chaotic houseboats built from found bits, floating down the Mississippi (2006-2007), or the Hudson (2008), or sailing the Adriatic from Slovenia to Venice (2009). Like a tiny maritime Burning Man. Only a couple of boats today… What if it were an armada? (tagged: art boat performance sailing )