Think ahead, but not too far

It’s a good time for spaced-based sci-fi at the moment, with the latest Dune and Foundation adaptations on screens of various sizes. The former seems to be making a bigger impact than the latter, though. This article from the Long Now folks suggests a reason why.

“Dune,” “Foundation,” and the allure of science fiction that thinks long-termBlog of the Long Now
In a moment of broader cultural gloominess, Dune’s perspective may resonate more with the current movie-going public. Its themes of long-term ecological destruction, terraforming, and the specter of religious extremism seem in many ways ripped out of the headlines, while Asimov’s technocratic belief in scholarly wisdom as a shining light may be less in vogue. Ultimately, though, the core appeal of these works is not in how each matches with the fashion of today, but in how they look forward through thousands of years of human futures, keeping our imagination of long-term thinking alive.

Long-term thinking, that can only be a good thing, right? Longtermism, on the other hand…

Against longtermismAeon Essays
Why do I think this ideology is so dangerous? The short answer is that elevating the fulfilment of humanity’s supposed potential above all else could nontrivially increase the probability that actual people – those alive today and in the near future – suffer extreme harms, even death. Consider that, as I noted elsewhere, the longtermist ideology inclines its adherents to take an insouciant attitude towards climate change. Why? Because even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably isn’t going to compromise our longterm potential over the coming trillions of years. If one takes a cosmic view of the situation, even a climate catastrophe that cuts the human population by 75 per cent for the next two millennia will, in the grand scheme of things, be nothing more than a small blip – the equivalent of a 90-year-old man having stubbed his toe when he was two.

Getting stuck and unstuck

Do you ever get stuck with your blog? I certainly do, as these gaps between posts can testify. Here, Tim Davies shares his obstacles and succinctly reminds us why he — and many of the rest of us — sticks with it.

Overcoming posting-paralysis?Tim’s Blog
The caption of David Eaves’ blog comes to mind: “if writing is a muscle, this is my gym”. And linked: writing is a tool of thought. So, if I want to think properly about the things I’m reading and engaging with, I need to be writing about them. And writing a blog post, or constructing a tweet thread, can be a very effective way to push that writing (and thinking) beyond rough bullet points, to more complete thoughts.

And for inspiration, check out these visualisations of creative processes.

ProcessMelike Turgut
No matter how much we all try to ground our ideas in simplicity, the process of solving a creative problem is often chaotic. With this project, I try to make sense of the chaos by trying to pin-point the stages of my creative process. I use time as my constant [represented as a straight red line] and map my process around it.

Making a very slow splash

There’s slow TV, then there’s really slow TV.

The Slow Mo Guys usually shoot their videos at 1,000 frames a second and play them back at 25 frames a second, in effect stretching one second into 40 seconds. But in this video they’re using a camera that allows them to shoot a mind-boggling 90,000 frames a second. When that footage is played back at 25 frames a second, one second lasts one whole hour.

The Slow Mo Guys: What if every second lasted an hour?YouTube
Gav shows you the tranquil results of stretching every second to be an hour long.

At this speed, a minute would last two and a half days, an hour would last about five months, and a day would come in at just under a decade, at nine years and ten months. Shall we keep going? A month would last around three centuries, and a year would be about 3,597 years.

Interesting visuals, for sure, but that concept of experiencing time at different scales is captivating.

Does anyone else get slightly filled with dread imagining how bad it would be to be stuck at this speed. Even if you were surrounded by people you wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. It would be so lonely. It would take you so long to move anywhere. You wouldn’t be able to let anyone know what was happening to you. To them you’d be moving at normal speed but acting strangely…

It immediately brought to mind one of my favourite Borges short stories, The Secret Miracle, with the playwright facing a firing squad.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Secret MiracleSCASD [pdf]
The rifles converged upon Hladik, but the men assigned to pull the triggers were immobile. The sergeant’s arm eternalized an inconclusive gesture. Upon a courtyard flag stone a bee cast a stationary shadow. The wind had halted, as in a painted picture. Hladik began a shriek, a syllable, a twist of the hand. He realised he was paralyzed. Not a sound reached him from the frozen world.
He thought: I’m in hell, I’m dead.
He thought: I’ve gone mad.
He thought: Time has come to a halt.

It’s a common enough device, but Borges does it most poetically, I would say. But going back to that video, here’s what falling into a pool for an hour looks like. The action really kicks off at the 26 minute mark.

Reminds me a little of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Pyscho although that feels like watching a rollercoaster compared to this.

Misunderstanding our past, present and future

It’s obvious, when you think about it. Of course not all Neanderthals were ‘cavemen’ — half were women.

SheanderthalAeon Essays
Archaeology is no exception to biases against women’s interests across science and the humanities. Since the early days, a tendency to conceptualise humanity’s deep origins as populated literally by ‘cavemen’ has led to presumed male activities being presented as most visible and interesting. … In fact, for most of the subsequent 160 years, female Neanderthals – if featured at all – tend to be fewer in number, peripherally located, and limited to ‘domesticated’ activities including childcare and skin-working. They are essentially scenery, in the words of the anthropologist Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, rather than active providers working on stone knapping or hunting and, in addition, they’re often fearfully lurking, hidden in dark grottos.

The world is a very different place now.

Why eye-catching graphics are vital for getting to grips with climate changeThe Conversation
One misconception about the climate crisis is that warming will be uniform across the world. Deniers cite cold fronts or blizzards as evidence that warming is exaggerated, or hark back to past heatwaves – such as that experienced by the UK in 1976 when temperatures exceeded 35°C – as proof that the scientists have got it wrong. Apart from this misleading conflation of weather (daily conditions) and climate (long-term conditions), this kind of argument misses the complex patchwork of effects that interact to create what gets reported in the headline figures. Maps can be an invaluable weapon against this misunderstanding. … [W]hat is needed are more universally accessible visualisations that are able to show where we’re heading in no uncertain terms.

How on earth would you protect future generations from something with a half-life of over 700 million years? Use your imagination.

The art of pondering Earth’s distant futureScientific American
We do not, of course, live in these imagined worlds. In this sense, they are unreal—merely fictions. However, our capacities to envision potential futures, and to feel empathy for those who may inhabit them, are very real. Depictions of tomorrow can have powerful, concrete effects on the world today. This is why deep time thought experiments are not playful games, but serious acts of intellectual problem-solving. It is why the safety case experts’ models of far future nuclear waste risks are uniquely valuable, even if they are, at the end of the day, mere approximations.

They’ve seen it all

Via Kottke, an alternative to Noah Kalina’s method of photographing the passage of time. It reminds me a little of Nancy Floyd’s work, only more so.

Faces of centuryJan Langer
Photographs show portraits of one hundred years old Czechs. Nowadays, there are over 1200. In fifty years their number will reach 14,000. How these people see their life after such a period? The majority of those I approached agree that with advancing age life is faster; until, at last, the life will pass in a moment. Time is shrinking, as are the faces of the elders. I wondered what changes and what remains on a human face and in a human mind in such a long time, and in such a short while in relative terms. I wondered how much loneliness of the old age weighs, and what memories stay in 100-year-old mind.

The biographies are quite poignant, the last one especially so.

We’ve made it to the weekend — for now

Why remote work may render the 5-day workweek obsoleteFast Company
A mere 300 years ago, before the industrial revolution, there was no such thing as grinding it out for five days in order to run to a Saturday date night or a day of lesiure on Sunday. From the start of when Homo erectus first began roaming the earth, working and living were one and the same. Every day we did our chores. Every day we enjoyed the company of our tribe. The five-day workweek is a sociocultural artifact, not evidence-based framework for maximizing productivity and well-being.

I know several people that enjoy working on weekends (myself included). On weekends there is no steady stream of emails and calls during the day and no scheduled meetings, so all of the time can be allocated to deep-thought tasks, a luxury employees long for but never have the time to get to.

Not for me, thanks. I’ll stick to the status quo.

Time flies

Do you remember Noah Kalina, the photographer who took a picture of himself every day for twenty years? Here’s something similar — less structured, perhaps more melancholic.

The photographer who set out to watch herself ageThe New Yorker
Over nearly four decades, beginning in the early eighties, the photographer Nancy Floyd executed an epic project of self-documentation, the results of which are collected in her new volume, “Weathering Time.” But it is not Floyd’s strict adherence to a plan that makes her project so compelling. It’s that she completed it with a laid-back kind of tenacity—an anti-perfectionistic, unfixed attitude, which lends her book, a curiously organized archive of some twelve hundred black-and-white images, a meandering charm.

Nancy Floyd has been photographing herself every day for almost 40 yearsi-D
The resulting “visual calendar”, as Nancy calls it now, consists of over 2,500 photographs. “Most often I’m by myself in these straightforward images, but sometimes I’m with family and friends. As time passes, births, deaths, celebrations, and bad days happen. Pets come and go, fashions and hairstyles evolve, typewriters, analog clocks, and telephones with cords disappear; film gives way to digital and the computer replaces the darkroom.”[…]

I like the surprises that arise when I pull together photographs to create new categories, such as Trousers or Shirts with Word. … I’ve been waiting for years to be the same age as my parent’s in my pictures. This year I made my first image: Mom and Me at 63. Viewing the pictures side-by-side there is no doubt that I am my mother’s daughter.

I’ve got to try this for myself. There must be some interesting juxtapositions to be found within the thousands of photos I’ve got on Flickr, not to mention all the boxes of old prints squirreled away in various cupboards upstairs…

Not a lot of watch for your money

You can never have too many watches, I say. I used to have a very thin one, a Swatch Skin possibly? It was nothing like this one from Piaget, that’s for sure.

Altiplano Ultimate Concept WatchPiaget
Altiplano watch, 41 mm. Cobalt alloy case. World’s thinnest mechanical hand-wound watch : 2 mm, a total fusion between the case and the Manufacture movement. Manufacture Piaget 900P ultra-thin, hand-wound mechanical movement. Winner of the prestigious “Aiguille d’Or” watch price at the 2020 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG).

It’s only 2mm thick? Yep.

The incredible inner workings of the world’s thinnest watchWired UK
The Piaget Ultimate Concept first launched as a show-stealing proof-of-concept in 2018; now the watch is now in fully commercialised form (confusingly, still with the “Concept” nomination). It’s a mere 2mm-thick whisper of mechanical virtuosity that’s unlikely to be trumped in thinness any time soon […]

Made to order, the watch is described as “price on application”, though WIRED understands it to be well to the north of 300,000 Swiss francs.

So what’s 300,000 Swiss francs in sterling? Perhaps it’s one of those hyperinflated currencies like the Zimbabwe dollar and this amazing watch is within reach after all.

(For instance, did you know that a German 5 Million Mark coin, worth about $700 in January 1923, was only worth about one-thousandth of one cent by October 1923. And in Hungary, their highest banknote value in 1944 was 1,000 pengő, but by the end of 1945, it was 10,000,000 pengő, and the highest value in mid-1946 was 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengő.)

OK, maybe not.

Worth the wait?

Well, I’m back in the office for the first time in six months, surrounded by hand sanitisers and risk assessments, one child has returned to school for her final year after in effect six months off, another will be leaving home in a week to start university in a place currently under a local lockdown, so my head’s full of concerns and anxieties I don’t wish to think more about here thank you very much. So let’s put all that to one side and relax with some music.

John Cage, the man behind a much loved piece of nothing, perhaps hadn’t realised how literally some people would take his instruction to play ‘as slow as possible’ when performing one of his compositions. Piano notes eventually fade away, but notes on an organ can be held indefinitely.

A 639-year-long John Cage organ performance has a long-awaited chord change todayClassic FM
Organ2/ASLSP, ‘As Slow as Possible’ is a keyboard work written by John Cage in the mid-1980s. The score consists of eight pages of music, to be played at the piano or organ, well, very, very slowly. […] Up until this time, the most recent note change occurred on 5 October 2013, and the next change will sound on 5 September 2020, with the organ playing a G sharp and an E, until the next scheduled chord change on 5 February 2022.

The concert (installation art performance? sculptural exhibition?) is taking place in Halberstadt, in Germany, thought to be the place where the first modern keyboard organ was built in 1361, 639 years before the turn of the 21st century, hence the duration of this piece.

A 639-year concert, with no intermission for coronavirusThe New York Times
Andreas Henke, the town’s mayor, said that most of Halberstadt’s inhabitants probably didn’t even know about the piece, or, if they did, they referred to it as “that cacophony.” But, he added, “John Cage carries Halberstadt’s name out into the world.”He said the performance raises “philosophical questions about how we confront time.” “We are all so consumed by our daily working lives,” he said. “This forces us to stand back and slow down. It is very special to be a part of an art project that will connect generations and last for generations,” Mr. Henke added. He said that it was “his great hope” that the project would make it to 2640.

Of course it was livestreamed, but see if you can resist the urge not to fast-forward to the chord change moment, three hours and twenty minutes in…

Too subtle a change for me, I think. It’s an interesting idea, though: if you remove the human from the music-making process, you remove the need to constrain time to human scales. But without the human, can we still comprehend it as music? A drone that lasts for years and years just reminds me of my tinnitus.

Spring has sprung, don’t forget

Let’s take a break from all the news about job losses, exam cancellations and social distancing failures to remind ourselves of the date. It’s the first day of Spring!

Spring Equinox 2020: 5 weird traditions to celebrate the first day of Spring todayMirror Online
There is an ancient Chinese belief that you can stand an egg on its end on the first day of spring. The theory goes that, due to the sun’s equidistant position between the poles of the earth at the time of the equinox, special gravitational forces apply.

Or was it yesterday?

Today marks the earliest “first day of Spring” in 124 years for CanadaNarcity
March has always marked the beginning of springtime. For the northern hemisphere, that date has fallen on the 20 and 21 for as long as you can probably remember. That’s because, March 19, the first day of spring 2020, is the earliest it’s been in 124 years.

Either way, it gives me a chance to share this, from David Hockney.

spring

A message from David Hockney: ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’The Art Newspaper
David Hockney is currently in complete lockdown in Normandy, where he has been since his last exhibition opening. But he is still producing beautiful things, which he wanted to share with us as something positive.

Oops, they did it again

So it seems they’re going to pick the wrong one again.

Hillary Clinton: “Incredible” Elizabeth Warren lost because she’s a womanVanity Fair
“I think we made some progress, but there still was a lot of the unconscious bias and the gendered language that has been used around the women candidates,” Clinton said. “I think it affected all of the women that ran.”

Elizabeth Warren and her supporters now have tremendous power to shape the rest of the primaryTime
Warren is personally beloved by her team, and as the news sunk in, staffers described a “sense of sadness,” “crying,” and an overwhelming feeling that that the best candidate for President had been let down. One staffer describes it this way: “You’ve got a 78-year old heart attack survivor and a 77-year old who’s clearly sundowning. And hey, you’ve got someone who might be broadly acceptable to both factions, but.. what? She’s a woman? Oops, never mind.”

I was surprised to read, however, that Warren’s in her 70s too. I thought part of her appeal, apart from being the most competent, was that she was of a more normal age for such a job—that is, below retirement age, whatever that is nowadays.

But what is normal? I was curious to find out the ages of other such people. It makes for interesting reading.

  • Bernie Sanders is 78
  • Joe Biden is 77
  • Donald Trump is 73
  • Bill Clinton is 73
  • Hillary Clinton is 72
  • Elizabeth Warren is 70
  • Gordon Brown is 69
  • Vladimir Putin is 67
  • Tony Blair is 66
  • Angela Merkel is 65
  • Theresa May is 63
  • Barack Obama is 58
  • Boris Johnson is 55
  • Justin Trudeau is 48
  • Emmanuel Macron is 42
  • Leo Varadkar is 41
  • Jacinda Arden is 39

Watch out men, it’s a Leap Day!

Vintage Leap Day postcardsPostcrossing
2020 is a Leap Year, so how about a look at some old postcards illustrating one of the best-known Leap Day traditions? If you’ve never heard of this, the tradition is that on Leap Day (and only on Leap Day!) women can propose to men.

And there were some serious consequences for those that refused. Huffington Post has more on this and other marriage superstitions and traditions, and check out this Flickr group for more Leap Day postcards.

watch-out-men-1

watch-out-men-2

watch-out-men-3

Unforeseen Brexit impact #641

This could get interesting.

Brexit could be about to totally mess up the UK’s time zonesWired UK
In March 2019 the European Parliament approved a proposal that spelled the end of clock changes within the EU. From 2021, EU member states will have to choose whether to stick to summer or winter time for good, with no more springing forward or falling back.

London two hours behind Paris? Two different time zones each side of the border in Ireland? Not to worry, though, I’m sure the government has it all under control. Er …

Although the government has made it clear that it doesn’t want to follow the EU’s example, it hasn’t been exactly forthcoming on what will happen if when we fall out of step with the rest of the EU. In an effort to prod them into action, the House of Lords has released a report analysing what will happen if the UK opts to keep the clock change – with the potential for chaos on the Northern Ireland border and trade with Europe.

Happy New Decade

Happy New Year, and all that. At last, we’re in a decade with a normal name.

decades

Decadesxkcd

2020 is such a futuristic-sounding year.

It’s 2020 and you’re in the futureWait But Why
It’s also weird that to us, the 2020s sounds like such a rad futuristic decade—and that’s how the 1920s seemed to people 100 years ago today. They were all used to the 19-teens, and suddenly they were like, “whoa cool we’re in the twenties!” Then they got upset thinking about how much farther along in life their 1910 self thought they’d be by 1920.

To give us a sense of the decade we’ve just left behind, here, via Kottke, is a list of all the best ‘best of’ lists, if that makes sense.

Lists: Best of the 2010s decade
This page, compiled by @fimoculous, aggregates all of the lists related to 2010s decade.

As well as what you’d expect to find (34 lists in the Books category, and 120 lists in the Film category), there are a few more interesting ones.

Here’s an extra one to add to the list, before our futuristic hubris catches up with us.

From Glass to Fire Phone, these were the decade’s top tech flopsWired UK
Facebook Portal: In 2018, though, a scandal-infected Facebook was attempting to put out fire after fire – the Cambridge Analytica breach, Russian troll ads, the UN’s report on its role in Myanmar. With Facebook the absolute worst word in privacy and trust, no-one wanted a Facebook camera and microphone in their homes, especially one which the company admitted would track call data in order to serve ads to users.

Too much of a good thing?

Looking for something to watch when you’ve got too much time on your hands?

The top 10 best 10-hour long videos on YouTubeLifewire
It’s pretty unlikely that most viewers actually sit there to watch one of these excruciatingly long videos in full, but that’s not really the point. The point is that a 10-hour version of a popular video or meme simply exists, and that’s what makes it at least ten times funnier than the original.

I see there’s an epic version of the catchy/creepy Russian Trololo guy, which I think I’ll pass. Though if they made a 10 hour version of any of these old Russian tunes I won’t complain.

Fixing space and time

Here’s a wonderfully poetic extract on time and impermanence from Maria Popova’s new book, Figuring.

The first surviving photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and how the birth of astrophotography married immortality and impermanence
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.

fixing-time-and-space

Yes, it’s an incredible photograph (here’s my own version), but this is about more than just astronomy.

We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.

I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.

Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.