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.
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.
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.
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: politicsclimatesustainabilityfuturewar )
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: technologieurbandesigneconomicshistorytechnologypoverty )
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: bicycletransportationurbandesigneconomy )
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: technologypoliticsinternetprivacygovernmenttwitterweb2.0iran )
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: climateeconomicsgdp )
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: energyefficiencysustainabilityfinancegreendebtinvestingbonds )
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: technologyscienceenergyclimatenon-linearsustainabilitypolicy )
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: economicsfinancegoldmansachscapitalismclimatebailout )
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: economicsurbansocietynon-linearpoliticslongnow )
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: artboatperformancesailing )
Pinko bastion spawns capitalist solution to solar financing – Boulder city/county passed the same kind of property-tax based financing of energy efficiency (and solar) improvements on the Nov. ballot too – modeled on Berkeley, but with enabling legislation at the state level (to avoid the kind of lawsuit Berkeley had to fight over whether or not they had the power to issue such bonds). The biggest worry I had in reading the Boulder initiative though, was that they had not yet come up with a good mechanism for ensuring that the improvements which were being proposed (more insulation, solar hot water, whatever) would necessarily save enough energy in order to justify the value of the bond being created. Hopefully they’ve fleshed that metric of value out much better by now (in both Boulder and Berkeley) and it’s not possible to abuse it… otherwise I suspect you’ll get deployment of faddish fixes (e.g. sexy-sexy PV instead of solar hot water, or better insulation, or super-windows, etc) instead of the best energy improvement per dollar invested. (tagged: financecapitalisminvestingenergyefficiencysustainabilitygreensolarberkeleyboulderbonds )
Campaign for a Car-Free Lincoln Park, Pt. 2 – A lack of car-free options for arriving at Lincoln Park, coupled with poorly lit, unsafe parking far away from the park's main attraction means everyone just drives their cars all over the park, on the grass. Across the street, the DMV has a huge parking lot which is totally unused after business hours, which is when the park gets the overwhelming majority of its use. Why not (gasp!) timeshare the DMV lot? Hopefully no small children have to get crushed by the marauding death machines for someone in the state and city government to take this idea seriously. (tagged: carsparkingtransportationurbanplanningdesign )
FlyingConcrete – Beautiful biomimetic architecture. Curving vaulted ceilings and stairways. Rounded sleeping nooks and pillars like trees. Traditional rectilinear construction is so boring. This is lightweight concrete (cement with perlite, pumice, and other lightweight filler added instead of sand and gravel) laid up on a mesh that's been shaped such that when the cement hardens, it's a load bearing compressive structure. (tagged: architectureartconcretedesignconstructionbuildingssculpture )