Living History

Just back from a month long “living Western history” trip. Dan finished a year of AP World History, so good timing. We started with the birth of democracy (ancient Greece circa 500BC) and explored forward 2000 years to the Renaissance (Florence circa 1500AD). We also included Minoan and Mycenaean history (Crete, etc.). Our connection gave us a day in London with a stop at Abbey Road  

To Find Forgiveness in Everything

It’s easy to love through a cold spring when the poles of the willows turn green pollen falls like a yellow curtain and the scent of Paper Whites clots the air but to love for a lifetime takes talent you have to mix yourself with the strange beauty of someone else wake each morning for 72,000 mornings in a row so breathed and bound and tangled that you can hardly sort out your arms and legs you have to find forgiveness in everything even ink stains and broken cups you have to be willing to move through life together the way the long grasses move in a field when you careen blindly toward the other side there’s never going to be anything straight or predictable about your path except the flattening and the springing back you just go on walking for years hand in hand waist deep in the weeds bent slightly forward like two question marks and all the while it burns my dear it burns beautifully above you and goes on burning like a relentless sun – Mary  

Six Simple Ideas

A nice little pitch-placed montage of pop scientists singing the praises of objectivity. I resonate with this thread. Science is a kind of poetry of shared reality. As Dawkins chirps, “science replaces private prejudices with publicly verifiable evidence.” World religion is fragmented into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of competing frameworks, with no central mediating idea. And while science can boast of central unifying tenets, it cannot address the depths of the human heart, the human spirit, the reality of hope (see Havel quote prior post). Maybe someday it will, but for now most of us embrace metaphysical metaphor to help make sense of mystery, death, and self. It is here: where objectivity meets mystery — where science meets spirituality — that our most important conversations are taking place. The world of religion can learn much from the scientific method, yet religion persists in trying to jam its clumsy superstitions into elegant, well-establish meta-patterns. Conversely, science, in its assumption that it can eventually objectify all reality, misses the fact that it hasn’t. Science would be well-served by integrating an engaged, conversational respect for the views of transcendence that currently fuel many of the planet’s greatest hopes and dreams. I’ve encountered a number of scientists who, while remaining atheistic or agnostic, have developed a healthy posture towards spirituality. Fact is, most scientists do maintain a sense of spirituality and/or faith. It’s a serious problem that the 5% militant extremes (on both sides) are often seen as the norm. As I mentioned here some years ago, physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.” Gleiser admits that science cannot offer the humanly essential qualities of hope, peace, charity, and spirit. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality… either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.” My public journal (aka blog) exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and faith/spirituality. Numerous science/spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. What’s needed in today’s rapidly connecting global culture, especially religious culture, is a way towards understanding the nature of unhealthy bias – how it clouds our thinking. Philosopher/scientist Massimo Pigliucci (NYU) offers six simple ideas that can help us overcome this “meta-bias” — our “not wanting to be wrong.” – Divorce your belief from your self – Think of disagreements as collaborative, not adversarial – Visualize being wrong – Take the long view – Congratulate yourself on being objective, not on being right – If you can’t overcome your competitive instinct, re-direct it Until we “become fine with being wrong” we will continue to harbor survival techniques which force us to hold on to irrational meta-biases. I journal this more as a reminder to myself than anyone  

Surfing the Exponential (Synthetic Biology)

Synthetic Biology. I don’t think I’ve ever been as equally intrigued and frightened as much by anything in my life. I listened to Craig Venter at TED earlier this year describe how he was creating entirely new genetic life forms (not simply hybrid recombinants). My reaction was identical. Until we reasonably know the total risks of synthetic biology, I believe the potential dangers of widespread boutique gene creation will usually outweigh the benefits. But it’s too late. The race is on. We may not recognize the power of the path we’re embarking upon until it is too late. A must-read New Yorker article describes in detail: ………… A team from Pennsylvania State University, working with hair samples from two woolly mammoths “one of them sixty thousand years old and the other eighteen thousand” has tentatively figured out how to modify that DNA and place it inside an elephant’s egg. The mammoth could then be brought to term in an elephant mother. “There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth” a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. Rex.,  the Times editorialized soon after the discovery was announced. “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.” It is only a matter of time before domesticated biotechnology presents us with what Dyson described as an “œexplosion of diversity of new living creatures. . . . Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.” I asked Endy why he thought so many people seem to be repelled by the idea of constructing new forms of life. “Because it’s scary as hell,” he said. “It’s the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.” If you can sequence something properly and you possess the information for describing that organism “whether it’s a virus, a dinosaur, or a human being” you will eventually be able to construct an artificial version of it. That gives us an alternate path for propagating living organisms. Moreover, how safe can it be to manipulate and create life? How likely are accidents that would unleash organisms onto a world that is not prepared for them? And will it be an easy technology for people bent on destruction to acquire? “We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone.” “These are powerful choices. Think about what happens when you really can print the genome of your offspring. You could start with your own sequence, of course, and mash it up with your partner, or as many partners as you like. Because computers won’t care. And, if you wanted evolution, you can include random number generators.” That would have the effect of introducing the element of chance into synthetic design. Although Endy speaks with passion about the biological future, he acknowledges how little scientists know. “It is important to unpack some of the hype and expectation around what you can do with biotechnology as a manufacturing platform,” he said. “We have not scratched the surface. But how far will we be able to go? That question needs to be discussed openly, because you can’t address issues of risk and society unless you have an answer.” “It’s very hard for me to have a conversation about these issues, because people adopt incredibly defensive postures,” Endy continued. “The scientists on one side and civil-society organizations on the other. And, to be fair to those groups, science has often proceeded by skipping the dialogue. But some environmental groups will say, Let’s not permit any of this work to get out of a laboratory until we are sure it is all safe. And as a practical matter that is not the way science works. We can’t come back decades later with an answer. We need to develop solutions by doing them. The potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.” “Do you know how we study aging?” Endy continued. “The tools we use today are almost akin to cutting a tree in half and counting the rings. But if the cells had a memory we could count properly. Every time a cell divides, just move the counter by one. Maybe that will let me see them changing with a precision nobody can have today. Then I could give people controllers to start retooling those cells. Or we could say, Wow, this cell has divided two hundred times, it’s obviously lost control of itself and become cancer. Kill it. That lets us think about new therapies for all kinds of diseases.” “We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that? “ This is open-source biology, where intellectual property is shared. What’s available to idealistic students, of course, would also be available to terrorists. Any number of blogs offer advice about everything from how to preserve proteins to the best methods for desalting DNA. Openness like that can be frightening, and there have been calls for tighter control of the technology. Carlson, among many others, believes that strict regulations are unlikely to succeed. Several years ago, with very few tools other than a credit card, he opened his own biotechnology company, Biodesic, in the garage of his Seattle home “a biological version of the do-it-yourself movement that gave birth to so many computer companies, including Apple.” “Strict regulation doesn’t accomplish its goals,” Carlson said. “It’s not an exact analogy, but look at Prohibition. What happened when government restricted the production and sale of alcohol? Crime rose dramatically. It became organized and powerful. Legitimate manufacturers could not sell alcohol, but it was easy to make in a garage or a warehouse.” By 2002, the U.S. government intensified its effort to curtail the sale and production of methamphetamine. Previously, the drug had been manufactured in many mom-and-pop labs throughout the country. Today, production has been professionalized and centralized, and the Drug Enforcement Administration says that less is known about methamphetamine production than before. “The black market is getting blacker,” Carlson said. “Crystal-meth use is still rising, and all this despite restrictions.” Strict control would not necessarily insure the same fate for synthetic biology, but it might. Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, has frequently called for restrictions on the use of technology. “It is even possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder” or even impossible “to control,” he wrote in an essay for Wired called Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.  “The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” Still, censoring the pursuit of knowledge has never really worked, in part because there are no parameters for society to decide who should have information and who should not. The opposite approach might give us better results: accelerate the development of technology and open it to more people and educate them to its purpose. Otherwise, if Carlson’s methamphetamine analogy proves accurate, power would flow directly into the hands of the people least likely to use it wisely. For synthetic biology to accomplish any of its goals, we will also need an education system that encourages skepticism and the study of science. In 2007, students in Singapore, Japan, China, and Hong Kong (which was counted independently) all performed better on an international science exam than American students. The U.S. scores have remained essentially stagnant since 1995, the first year the exam was administered. Adults are even less scientifically literate. Early in 2009, the results of a California Academy of Sciences poll (conducted throughout the nation) revealed that only fifty-three per cent of American adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, and a slightly larger number “fifty-nine per cent” are aware that dinosaurs and humans never lived at the same time. The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering. That won’t happen easily (or quickly), and it will never solve every problem we expect it to solve. But what worked for artemisinin can work for many of the products our species will need to survive. “We are going to start doing the same thing that we do with our pets, with bacteria,” the genomic futurist Juan Enriquez has said, describing our transition from a world that relied on machines to one that relies on biology. “A house pet is a domesticated parasite,” he noted. ” It is evolved to have an interaction with human beings. Same thing with corn” a crop that didn’t exist until we created it. “Same thing is going to start happening with energy,” he went on. “We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program  

Can Earth Sustain Its Population?

Challenging article  in this week’s Christian Science Monitor. Some say that the Earth cannot sustain the kind of rapid industrial growth we have seen 1950-present. My own research tells me that energy is scarce, not abundant (relative to demand). I’ve also found a strong correlation between access to energy and population growth (and its opposite: limited access to energy and population decline).     Do I think population control should be discussed in the USA? Yes. But today’s CSM article underscores the cultural difficulties in even discussing the issue. Kudos to CSM for having the journalistic guts to tackle this. Some data from the CSM article:    * In 1950 the less-developed (poorer) regions of the world had roughly twice the population of the more developed (richer) ones. By 2050 the ratio will exceed 6 to 1.  * Human numbers currently increase by 75 million to 80 million people annually, the equivalent of adding another United States to the world about every four years.  * At present, the average woman bears nearly twice as many children (2.8) in poor countries as in rich countries (1.6 children per woman).  * Some 51 countries or areas will lose population between now and 2050. Germany is expected to drop from 83 million to 79 million people, Italy from 58 million to 51 million, Japan from 128 million to 112 million and the Russian Federation from 143 million to 112 million.  * If recent trends continue as projected to 2050, virtually all of the world’s population growth will be in urban areas.  * Everyone born in 1965 or earlier and still alive has seen human numbers more than double from 3.3 billion in 1965 to 6.8 billion in 2009.  * The peak population growth rate ever reached, about 2.1 percent a year, occurred between 1965 and 1970. Human population never grew with such speed before the 20th century and is likely never to grow with such speed again. Note also comment #23 on this CSM article from Dr. Clifford  

The New Geometry of Music

I’ve played guitar since I was seven. That’s about 45 years, with some of those early years actually making a living at music, or playing in HS and college big-bands. I’m a huge fan of prog-rock and fusions of classical music with contemporary instrumentation. When I play, I’m not thinking about music theory, but rather the geometry of sound. I think of the guitar in geometric patterns. I harness geometry to evoke a musical experience. British inventor Peter Davies began thinking about sound geometry in the 1980’s when he patented the Note Tracker, a kind of “slide rule” based on musically geometric patterns, and manufactured briefly in the early 1990s. Later, Peter’s idea grew into a 156 key prototype geometrical controller called the “M-Box.” Around 2005, the M-Box had morphed again into something called the Minima, and finally in 3Q08, a true production-level device called the Axis is now shipping. After 500+ years of keyboard design (organs, harpsichords, piano-forte, etc.), little has changed to the fundamental single-axis western keyboard layout – white keys, black keys, arranged in a long single row of half-tone steps. I believe the Axis multi-dimensional music keyboard signals a catalytic event in musical history. Rather than try to explain the details of this brilliant invention, I would encourage you to watch prog keyboardist Jordan Rudess give a hands-on demonstration. If you have any interest at all in music, this is not to be missed. Welcome to the new era of musical keyboards, and what I think will be the beginning of an entirely new paradigm of musical performance based on the fundamental geometry of western  

Energy and Population

I’ve written before on the direct link between energy and population growth. Many of us think this is today’s most important structural issue: energy-population. I’ve hyphenated these words to stress that energy and population are interchangeable on a macro scale. The world would not have 6.5 billion people today without access to highly concentrated energy (e.g, fossil fuels). Of course, it took human ingenuity to harness the energy which created today’s “carrying capacity.” Humanity exploded in parallel with an understanding of energy application. It’s a chicken-and-egg spiral, yet energy remains the raw capital of social efficiency as well as the world’s largest business (by a huge margin). Earthbound energy is stored sunlight. The idea of energy = population is really self-evident if you take the extreme case. Prevent access to caloric energy: mammals parish. Restrict caloric energy: some survive while others die off. Measured in calories, today’s industrialized citizen uses roughly 230,000 kcals per day, and over 90% of that energy is consumed as fossil fuels. Compare this with pre-industrial societies (earlier than 1800) who used roughly 1/20th the energy we use today – and virtually all of that was biomass (wood, dung, etc.). Compare the relationship of GDP to energy. During the last 100 years, petroleum energy has accounted for fully two-thirds of the USA’s GDP, with stronger weighting during the last half of the century. An  exhaustive study was presented at the 2005 ASPO Conference by Robert Ayres (Professor Emeritus, Physics, INSEAD). Granted, we’re getting more efficient with our energy, which is why since 1980, GDP is increasing faster than historic energy comparisons, but we need to see this curve accelerate much faster to make a difference. Energy and GDP are still unbreakably linked. Populations have always grown… but very slowly until we learned how to harness high quality fuels. The Industrial Revolution (1700-1900) championed coal (steam engines, etc.) which fueled a dramatic rise in social efficiencies, leading to a rate of population growth seven times greater than the 1500-1700 era. Cheap, concentrated fossil fuels again doubled the rate of population growth (1900-1960), and then doubled again during the (1960-2000) Green Revolution. We could not have added and sustained an additional 3 billion souls (in just 40 years) without petro-chemical enriched soils, energy-intensive pesticides, and other energy-focused farming methods of the Green Revolution. Someone once calculated that fossil fuels have provided industrialized citizens with the equivalent of 30 unpaid servants. Maybe so. In 1900, roughly 80% of the U.S. population derived income from some manner of agriculture. Today, it’s less than 2%. Here’s a table I’ve created showing annual population growth during the last 2000 years. 0-1000AD: nil 1000-1500: 0.10% / yr 1500-1700: 0.12% 1700-1900: 0.83% 1900-1960: 1.56% 1960-2000: 2.58% (Green Revolution) In absolute numbers, global population looks like this. 0 AD 300 million 1000 310 million 1500 500 million 1700 600 million 1900 1.6 billion 1960 3.1 billion 2000 6.2 billion (source U.S. Census: More people have been added to the Earth during the past 50 years than have been added since the dawn of man. Some call the beginning of time through 1800 the “biomass fueled population” – just as coal reached a 20% share of energy resources. The “coal population” spans 1800-1940 or so, when oil reached at 20% share of energy resources. Post 1940 might be called the “oil population.” Nobel laureate, physicist, nano-pioneer Richard Smalley (d.2005) was considered by many as the world’s foremost authority on macro energy. He spent that last 20 years of his life researching world energy, population, social trend, etc.. He tirelessly lobbied world governments, industry, and classical economists to radically change the way we look at our energy future. He understood the dynamics of energy-population and warned that, without deliberate structural intervention, we would be facing an energy-economic shortfall unparalleled in human history. Classical economics defines energy as an “external event.” Economists see energy as a “constant” in their supply/demand equations – they assume that cheap, abundant energy will always be available. Energy researchers (physicists, geologists, engineers..) know this is wrong. Where there is a will, there is not always a way. Unfortunately, many people still think in terms of pure economics and dismiss the idea of energy scarcity. Certainly, rising energy costs will drive conservation, along with development of alternative energies. This will help to moderate the energy issues which confront us and future generations. But is it enough? Can emerging alternatives sustain industrial / economic growth as we know it? A growing body of research says no – that in the very near future our lives will be changed significantly by the reduced availability / affordability of fossil energy (explored in-depth on this blog). We’re entering an age where energy is no longer a fixed “external event,” but rather a dynamic variable in supply/demand equations – an anchor against the notion of unlimited growth. Short of discovering some new, highly concentrated, almost-free energy source (like oil and natural gas in the last century), economic performance will become inexorably tied to the increasingly higher costs of energy. Historically, demographers, drawing heavily from classical economic theory, have largely ignored the impact of energy on population growth. Yet many are now showing that energy is the underlying reason for much of this growth. Economic theories of growth have gotten a free-ride while energy has been cheap and plentiful. Now that we’re entering into an era of energy scarcity, classic energy economics is seen to be based on wrong assumptions. The study of world energy is massively complex. I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. We’re all making our best guesses based on the data we feel is most relevant. And, as always, I think it’s best to err on the side of caution. Some related resources on: energy vs. population, sustainability, carrying capacity. Jay Hanson on Friedman Economics & Energy Western Oregon University Summary on Historical Energy Consumption Drivers of Growth, INSEAD (excellent systems-level study) Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population Trends Energy Transitions – A Look at Both Sides (this post is a continuation of a conversation at Peter Rollins’  

Audio Week

With all the excitement over the Martinville phonautograph discovery (which predates Edison’s first tin foil recording by 17 years), I was asked by the Long Now Foundation to write a little bit about the future of our audio heritage. The Millennia Foundation supports the Long Now Foundation’s institutional guidelines: Serve the long view (and the long viewer) Foster responsibility Reward patience Mind mythic depth Ally with competition Take no sides Leverage longevity If you’re interested in the future of media, take a few minutes to read this