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  

Discovered: World’s Oldest Audio Recording

I’m attending an audio conference at Stanford this week. Some of you may have seen the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. A significant bit of audio history has just been rewritten. Until this week’s announcement, the earliest known sound recording was Edison’s 1877 “mary had a little lamb” experiment. Today, we heard a woman’s voice recorded in 1860. We now know that a Parisian named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville made an audio recording 17 years before Edison (actually, Martinville attempted audio recordings as early as 1853, but they are unintelligible). This discovery does not diminish Edison – Martinville had no idea how to play back his phonautographs. The 1860 recording was discovered in an obscure French archive earlier this month by a team of American researchers. It’s quite the detective story. The French phonautograph was extracted via optical techniques developed by Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Raw, semi-processed, and fully-processed results were played publicly today for the first time. A semi-processed MP3 version is on-line here. What’s really fascinating is that Martinville’s method recorded TWO adjacent tracks. One track was the female voice program while the other track was a tuning fork specified by Martinville as 435 Hz. This of course allowed Berkeley researchers to lock absolute pitch. Brilliant! This afternoon, I spoke at length with the project’s lead researcher (David Giovannoni) who shared, “we’ve found evidence of even earlier Martinville recordings of similar caliber.” This remarkable story is likely not  

Playing on the Seashore

A few days ago, I blogged a demographic survey of TED Conference attendees. There’s a buffet of 65 categories — you’re given a choice of 10. Very few selected any kind of religious affiliation (e.g., Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.9%, Buddhist 1.6%, etc.). You’ll need to create a TED account to access profiles. You can create your own TED profile here. While few conclusions can be drawn from this, it brings up some interesting questions. We know that over 80% of the world’s adult population considers themselves religious or spiritual in some manner. This percentage holds true for the U.S.A., as well, with roughly 76% calling themselves Christian and another 10 million or so divided between Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc.. TED’s presenters tend to exhibit a high concentration of academic rigor. Bill Gates once commented, “I wasn’t prepared for this conference to be so profound. The combined IQ of the attendees is incredible”. Based on the TED demographic data, one might be tempted to conclude that increasing academic focus correlates with decreasing interest in religion or spirituality. A while back, I looked into the correlation of academics on spiritual orientation. I was surprised to find a number of studies available, the most rigorous of which is UCLA’s Spirituality and the Professorate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors. The UCLA study surveyed over 40,000 faculty members at 421 colleges and universities, seeking to characterize the role of religion and spirituality in their personal lives. The results? Commensurate with world and national averages, 81% of professors considered themselves a “spiritual person” and 70% describe themselves as “religious.” The 40,000+ academics were then asked if their spiritual life has a place in the academy. A significant percentage said yes, though weighting varied by discipline with roughly 50% of hard scientists and 60% in humanities answering in the affirmative. In another study, 2,000 medical doctors were surveyed about their spiritual life. Nearly 80% of MD’s were found to maintain an active spirituality and 90% said they attend religious services at least occasionally. In yet another recent study, professors at elite doctoral-granting schools were seen to be more skeptical of spirituality than professors at other schools. But even among the most elite academies, over 60% affirmed a personal faith or active spirituality (belief in God, a higher power, etc..). The Ecklund Study released May 2010, claims that “the ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on group-think, but hardly representative of reality.” While a person gifted with greater reasoning capacity may exhibit finer nuance in their understanding of spirituality, a growing body of recent studies show that elevated intellect and advanced academic training has little influence on a persons religious/spiritual inclinations. Spiritual belief and practice, as abstraction, remains generally constant throughout the intellectual spectrum. (As an aside, the Harvard study also noted that an overwhelming majority [95%] of university faculty did not consider Intelligent Design a serious alternative to Darwinian evolution. Despite a small vocal group of ID proponents, most today acknowledge the profound evidence (genomics, etc.) to support some manner of evolution. I personally see great beauty, design, and a kind of “natural intelligence” in biological evolution. Our universe remains no less a mystery and miracle in its ability to evolve. A far more interesting conversation is focusing on the origin of life itself — the seemingly spontaneous appearance of RNA and proteins roughly three billion years ago. A significant community of evolutionary scientists remains unmoved by the hypothesis of spontaneous appearance [via lightning, etc] of RNA.) One paper noted that in surveys of leading academies (such as the National Academy of Science) there is a significant decrease in public acknowledgment of spiritual or religious association. As the Harvard and UCLA studies infer, such data is likely biased by peer pressures of the academy and other elite in-groupings. I’ll call it the TED Effect. Clearly, many top academics are taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position for fear of career reprisal. Recent books from authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have led many to conclude that virtually all scientists are anti-spiritual, yet major academic surveys show just the opposite to be true:  a prominent majority of academics embrace some manner of spirituality. Physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in recently 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 humanly essential qualities such as hope, peace, charity, and compassion. 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.” This blog exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and spirituality. Numerous science / spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. I’ll conclude this long post with an excerpt from quantum physicist Freeman Dyson’s 2002 NYT book review. I share many of Dyson’s wonderful thoughts on the interplay of spirit and science and I encourage you to read the entire review. I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension. When I listen to Polkinghorne describing the afterlife, I think of God answering Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God’s answer to Job is all the theology I need. As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore. Little has changed since Newton said this: I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. The potentialities of life and intelligence in the universe go far beyond anything that we have imagined. Religion and science should both begin by recognizing the vastness of the ocean of truth and the pettiness of our search for smoother pebbles. Or, as the Sufi poet Rumi would remind us, “Sell your cleverness and buy  

Jill Taylor’s TED Talk

This is an absolute must-watch. Set aside 18 minutes and prepare to be floored. Consensus among TED’sters is that this may be the most memorable and important TED Talk ever. It was certainly the most talked-about presentation among those at TED2008. Enjoy and share with others. And let Jill’s experience inspire, motivate, and change the way you look at  

Food for Thought

According to the UNFAO, thirty percent of the earth’s usable land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production. What’s more, it’s said that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than all fossil-based transportation. University of Chicago Geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pam Martin calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would be equivalent to switching from driving a standard sedan (e.g., Camry) to a hybrid Prius. The Japanese National Institute of Livestock Science estimates that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. Energy consumption and food production are intimately related, with large animals being disproportionately more energy intensive than other food sources. As fuel costs skyrocket, so does everything else, especially food. Last year, the UNFAO’s worldwide Food Price Index shot up 40%. In one year. The EPA estimates that U.S. agriculture – much of which now serves the demand for meat – contributes to “nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation’s rivers and streams.” The use of antibiotics in cattle is said to be contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, along with increased incidence of diet-related disease. It gets even more personal. Stanford professor Rose Naylor shows that roughly 800 million people suffer from malnutrition, while most of the world’s corn and soy is used to feed cattle and pigs. Depending on animal and process, up to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption. For U.S. grain-fed beef, this imbalance is up to ten times higher. Diets heavily reliant on large animals are not only unhealthy and unnecessary, but one might say, unholy. By eating fewer large animals, we (1) use far less energy, (2) generate far less CO2, (3) potentially improve our health, and perhaps most importantly, (4) contribute to a more equitable and just distribution of calories into the world’s neediest communities. That, I believe, is Christ’s heart. The proteins, aminos, vitamins, and other nutrients we need can be found, in abundance, in foods other than big meat. Caveat: I’m not a vegetarian, but our family’s diet is rarely based on big  

Internet Singularity and the Exaflood

The rate of virtual information we generate and share is growing exponentially. But the Internet “backbone” is finite and limited. The USA is ranked 16th in broadband infrastructure, and falling. The advent of video and other high-speed requirements are taxing the Internet like never before. In early 2005, YouTube didn’t exist. Today, over 100 million videos are downloaded every day. The IIA advocacy group claims that “consumer and corporate Internet usage could outstrip worldwide network capacity in little more than two years,” generating what they call an exaflood of data. Maybe so, but something smells funny with the group – like they’re working a bit too closely with the backbone community. Anyway, they’ve produced an interesting video which I’ll attach, below. Regardless of the IIA’s affiliations, the Internet must grow in both bandwidth and, more importantly, egalitarian transparency. Free markets will assure a continued growth in backbone connectivity – no need to sound the alarms. Demand, and the almighty dollar, will drive bandwidth. What’s of greater concern is the increasing rate of governmental (or quasi-govt) intervention, like we see in Burma and China, restricting the free-flow of information and community. All freedoms, especially on-line religious freedoms, can be snuffed out by heavy-handed central rule. We saw this recently with Burmese Buddhists monks and reporters – a near-total Internet blackout. And if the information / backbone carriers (ATT, Global Crossing, etc.) had their way, they, too, would curtail interfere with the free-flow of data, as we’ve learned in recent “Net Neutrality” debates. There will come a time, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when ideological freedom will closely equate with a free global  

Peak Oil

One of my avocations is energy and sustainability research. Over the last four years, I’ve devoted a significant amount of time to studying the big-picture impact of energy on civilization. I’ve come to recognize this as the world’s most important “hard” issue (vs. what I believe to be the most important “soft” issue of God / spirituality and the Mediation of love). I just added a paper to the microclesia blog archives – something I wrote for Energy Bulletin. The paper is a summary of our 2005 ASPO Conference – the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. It’s nearly two years old, but the data and forecasts remain current. Especially important is the concept of Net Energy, or EROEI – Energy Returned over Energy Invested. Also in the process of re-skinning my Peak Oil resources page here. The CSS is down (ugly!), but the PO links should all work. Please visit some of these linked resources to learn more about the profound relationship between energy, population, and socio-economic stability. SOCIAL COMMENTARY The Oil We Eat (Harpers) HERE The Monkey Trap (R. Freeman) HERE TECHNICAL ANALYSIS Mat Simmons HERE D.O.E. Study HERE I’m always happy to share my time with anyone who wants to discuss this important issue. Give me a