The Human Experiment

The grand experiment known as Biosphere 2 — in which eight people, along with many animals and plants, locked themselves for two years into an optimistically self-sustaining glass dome — has not gotten the credit it deserves. This semi-scientific, semi-theatrical adventure is a vitally important experiment for any long term space venture, and a fantastic lab for planetary studies. The Biosphere 2 trial yielded many insights, both of nature and human nature, but because it was marred by pathological secrecy, personality flaws, and unexpected technical glitches, its achievements were ignored in science and overlooked by the press. I’ve written a lot about the scientific lessons of Biosphere 2, but nothing about the “human experiment” because the insiders were not talking. Now at least one of them is.

The kind of mavericks needed for any wild-eye utopian undertaking are usually remarkable and remarkably flawed. This hairy experiment was no exception. Its large-scale audacity was guaranteed to produce large-scale doses of human drama, which is what eventually filled the Biosphere 2. This book, written by one of the participants, is unflinching in its honesty and does a fair job of recounting the intense two-year journey of the eight inside, and what was learned. Before you set off for the stars, read this.

– KK

The Human Experiment: Two years and twenty minutes inside Biosphere 2
Jane Poynter
2006, 368 pages
$19
Available from Amazon

Author’s website

Sample excerpts:

What confused people all the more was that Biosphere 2′s magic — and possibly its Achilles’ heel — was that it was not conceived as any single thing, making it impossible to pigeonhole. It was a scientific project, a tool for furthering our knowledge of ecosystems and systems ecology. It was an artistic expression in its extraordinary architecture. It was business enterprise, meant to make money from spin-off technologies and later, tourism. It was an educational tool to inspire people of all ages. And it was an engineering project, developing a prototype for long-duration, self-sustaining space bases. If you ask twenty people who were part of the project what the aim of it was, you would receive close to twenty different responses.

So, the question remains, were we a cult?

The real difficulty in honestly answering that question lies in the definition of cult. The meaning is so diffuse that it is nearly useless. However, the predominant flavor of the word is pejorative, which I wholeheartedly reject. Those who study cults today make a clear distinction between dangerous cults and other forms of tight-knit groups that can include corporations.

Some of the common denominators between definitions of cults did fit our group. There is usually a domineering charismatic leader, a sense of isolationism, and a central ideal. John had been our unquestioned leader and was increasingly authoritarian. Before coming to Biosphere 2, I had seen John only a few times each year on his rounds through each IE project. He could be mean and humiliating, but he was also funny and inspiring. But now John remained at Biosphere 2 most of the time. His grip on the group tightened with every piece of bad news.

The isolationist attitude was particularly acute toward people who questioned our way of life. Our central ideal was the way of life itself. But I can say unequivocally that we were not a cult if the definition includes brainwashing and loss of individuality. And we certainly were not a cult based on G. I. Gurdjieff — an early-twentieth-century American mystic with followers in Europe and America — as some claimed who heard that we read some of his works.

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Here I am showing off newborn triplet goats. Vision, the goat in the foreground, was one of four female African pigmy goats. Along with a male goat, Buffalo Bill, chickens and pigs also ran around the animal bay. (more…)

 



Histomap of World History

Not a map really, but a 5-foot-high chart showing in one glance 4,000 years of human history on a global scale. Thirty years ago I saw this on the wall of someone’s dorm room and it flipped me out then, and every time I’ve seen it since. Its beauty is how Mr. Sparks divies up world power (somewhat crudely) into its main factions graphed in each increment of fifty years since 2000 B.C.E. Different civilizations are color-coded so one can easily trace the flow and ebb of culture over the centuries.

It has three uses for me: whenever I am reading about some historical event I can instantly see what else was going on in the world at that time (for instance, what was happening in France during the Ming Dynasty). I also get a very intuitive sense of the rises and falls of civilizations, a pattern that no other chart or book has been able to give me. And hanging on the wall, it never fails to elicit gaps of shock when visitors recognize our modern place in the chart. At ten bucks, it’s a bargain education.

– KK

Rand McNally Histomap of World History
John B. Sparks
1952, 66 x 11 inches

As of December 4, 2006 this item is out of stock from the North American Montessori Teacher’s Association. However the author’s granddaughter wrote to me to say that she has copies she is willing to sell at $12 (+$8 shipping). Email Jacquie Glanz: jacquieglanz at yahoo.com.

 



Universe

So far this is my favorite one-volume gallery of the other inhabitants in our universe. Organized by ascending distance from us, it includes portraits of known planets, remarkable stars, flamboyant nebula, and outstanding galaxies. Better than any other atlas, or map, or online source, this book gives you a really good picture of this place called the universe.

– KK

Universe
A Journey from Earth to the Edge of the Cosmos
Nicholas Cheetham
2009, 224 pages
$30, from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

Uranus
Planet
163 light minutes
Uranus’ northern hemisphere is emerging from the grip of a long, dark, winter. Winters on Uranus are compounded by the fact that at the poles the Sun does not rise for 21 years as a consequence of the planet’s extreme axial tilt. As sunlight returns, the frigid atmosphere warms stirring spring storms that blow bright clouds of crystallized methane before them at up to 420 kph (260 mph).

*

Ant Nebula Mz3
Planetary nebula
3 thousand light years
Another addition to our menagerie of dying stars is this light-year-sized stellar insect. No common-or-garden variety of nebula, this creature surpasses all its cousins by producing a record breaking 3.6 million kph (2.1 million mph) outflow of charged particles. Such is the spectacular diversity of planetary nebulae, one might be forgiven for eagerly anticipating our own Sun’s demise.

*

Eskimo Nebula NGC2392
Planetary nebula
5 thousand light years
This Eskimo’s parka disguises another bipolar planetary nebula. Its second lobe is concealed directly behind this one – we are viewing the nebula edge on. The parka’s orange fur trim is though to be formed by slow-moving globules of gas streaming in an eroding flow of faster-moving material. And it is moving quickly: this Eskimo’s hood is growing at 1.5 million kph (900,000 mph).

 



The Past From Above

Civilization is a pattern best seen from above, at an altitude that encourages a long view. Master aerial photographer Georg Gerster has spent the last 40 years photographing ancient archeological sites around the world from the passenger seat of rented airplanes. His portraits of large-scale human works are stunning. Meta-patterns emerge. We see the persistence of the past in the most modern places. We see the anticipation of the modern in the most ancient places. Many of these vast sites are legendary, but totally new seen from above, others will be unfamiliar to readers: Alexander’s Wall, Chimu at Chan Chan Peru, the circular city of Hamadan, Iran, and so on. Gerster’s chapters are brilliant; he clusters cities as if they were ideas: “Seeing and Being Seen – Festival Sites and Places of Assembly,” “For Safety’s Sake – Fortifications and Bulwarks,” “Building For Eternity — Graves and Cemeteries.” The big book is heavy with full-page full-color images, as one would hope; 240 in all. But the best and most important part of this big long view are the meticulously researched notes on each overhead image. You get a succinct, but masterful, footnoted treatise on what you are seeing, written by an archeologist. From them you get the aha behind the ooooh. Gerster is a floating eye with a brain. He gives tours of our biggest achievements on this planet.

– KK

The Past from Above
Georg Gerster
2005, 415 pages
$41
Available from Amazon

Sample excerpts:

The Median capital at Hamadan, from 7th century BC, Iran, 1976

According to Herodotus, Hamadan – the ancient Persian Hagmatana, Greek Ecbatana – was built by the first king of the Medes, Deioces, as a residence and as the first city of the Medes. Herodotus’s description of seven concentric walls, each a different colour and slightly higher than its neighbour, is entirely fanciful. Situated on the main road to Mesopotamia at a height of almost 2000m, with a good climate, plentiful supply of water and on a large fertile plain, this was the most important city on the plateau during the Achaemenid period. Alexander the Great hoped to turn it into the capital of the eastern Empire.

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The northern cemetery at Hierapolis/Pamukkale, 3rd century BC – 3rd century AD, Turkey, 2002. World Heritage Site.

The best advertisement of every ancient city was its cemeteries, which tended to be located along its main arterial roads in front of its gates. Here the number and size of the tombs was an indication of the city’s economic importance and of the hierarchical status of its individual families. Few cities in Asia Minor had as many lavish funerary buildings as Hierapolis in Phrygia. Especially impressive is the cemetery by the north gate, which marks the end of the city’s broad main street, an impressiveness due not least to the great variety of different types of tomb. Among the oldest are those that date from the hellenistic period when the city was founded and which include simple underground chamber tombs for the less wealthy and round tumuli for well-to-do families. The brick base houses an underground chamber over which a conical burial mound has been raised. Typical of the Roman period are the 2000 or so limestone sarcophaguses on differently designed stone bases and mausoleums in the form of miniature temples or entire houses on some of which a sarcophagus additionally stands as if on a platform. Many graves bore inscriptions giving information about their occupants or about commemorations held in the small gardens beside them. But they also document the size of the area covered by individual graves and threaten punishment for illegal building. This was no doubt necessary because, as our photograph shows, the cemetery became increasingly crowded with the passage of time, especially in the first row of graves along the street and in the immediate vicinity of the city gates.

 



For All Mankind

What a marvelous treat! This exquisite documentary transforms the hugely institutional (if not imperial) Apollo journey to the moon into something very intimate and personal. Sort of a home movie version of “my trip to the moon and back.” The film score by Brian Eno assists the lift-off. This film really made me proud to be a human.

– KK

For All Mankind
1989, 79 min.
Directed by Al Reinart
$36
Available from Amazon
Rent from Netflix

 



Future Survey

As the future arrives, it gets harder to keep up. Here is how the professional futurists run in front of the curve: they read Future Survey. Global Business Network (a scenario-practicing consultancy to which I belong) sends a copy each month to all its network members.

Every 30 days, Michael Marien summaries the current crop of future-oriented books and articles. Because he seems to read and see EVERYTHING published in the realm of the Next, no matter how obscure or academic, his comparative evaluations of books are astoundingly useful. Each issue I usually discover one or two great works of forecasting I had not known about. But more importantly, Future Survey extracts the key ideas from piles of mediocre books — books I no longer have to bother with. Marien synthesizes these reviews into emerging notions, which then become indispensable for tracking mega trends, not mere fashions and fads. Marien has been doing this for 20 years, and his database of 5,000 reviews (available online) is as good a history of the future as we have. For his almost single-handed crusade to tame the uncertainty of what-is-coming, Marien should get a medal.

Remarkably for such a future-oriented publication, Future Survey is stuck in the paper past. It has no web presence to speak of. Its database of past reviews are only accessible via an extremely clunky and crude search. Nonetheless, its monthly 24-page newsletter is highly evolved and perfect for study and scanning.

– KK

Future Survey
12 issues/year
$98
Available from
World Future Society

Sample excerpts:

The Palgrave Companion to North American Utopias. John W. Friesen and Virginia Lyons Friesen (both U of Calgary). NY: Palgrave Macmillan, April 2004/274p/$35.

“Utopian dreams are badly needed in modern society because our societal worldview is almost entirely devoid of divergent thinking Without utopian dreams and `what if’ conceptualization, society would be philosophically impoverished.” Our society is ripe for a new view of utopian living. This book examines how a utopian society can be formulated and brought to fruition, and tells the stories of thousands of optimists in various generations who dreamed up utopias and were willing to make great sacrifices. Some designed utopias were communal, others were not; some had religious foundations, others did not; most were agriculturally based, but others successfully operated on the edge of technological advance.
Chapters discuss the concept of utopia, the need for utopia, Oberlin College (founded in 1833 with strong communal overtones, it has been a leader in many respects), migrant utopias, the Mennonites (>1 million in 37 countries, including 320,000 in the US and 124,000 in Canada; a photo of John Friesen’s Mennonite grandparents is included), the Amish (>150,000 in North America, in 230 separate communities), Sudeten Germans and Doukhobors in Saskatchewan, the Amana colony in Iowa, the Shakers, the Zoar society in Ohio, Fourierism in the US (divided into some 40-50 phalanxes, each with a common building housing some 1,600 individuals), the Village of Harmony in Pennsylvania, Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana, unorthodox communes (Ephrata, Oneida), the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s, the Bruderhof, The Farm in Tennessee (strict vegetarians living in harmony with nature; operating since 1971), New Age communes (seven examples provided), and still-functioning Hutterite communalism (“the successful operation of a 471-year experiment”).

Some specific factors that assure the longevity of utopian experiments: 1) Leadership: leaders must be capable and charismatic individuals who are representative of their constituency, elected by the membership, subject to periodic review, and replaceable if necessary; 2) Strong Boundaries: effective communities have physical, social, and behavioral boundaries that provide a satisfactory and meaningful lifestyle (Amana and Zoar contributed to their demise by encouraging extensive outside contact); 3) Credal Loyalty: a strong belief system is essential, with a balance between fervency and laxity, and an institutional life that is structured but not stifling. [NOTE: A thorough and engaging history and analysis of separatist little utopias. For whole-society and whole-world utopian thinking, see Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age by Russell Jacoby (Columbia U Press, May 2005; FS 27:5/213) and Viable Utopian Ideas: Shaping a Better World edited by Arthur B. Shostak (M.E. Sharpe, 2003; FS *25:2/078).] (utopias in US and Canada)

*

The Future of Sport, Robin Gunston (Chair, New Zealand Futures Trust) in H. Didsbury (ed), Thinking Creatively in Turbulent Times (WFS Conference Volume, July 2004), 215-224. (Similar version in The Futurist, Jan-Feb 2005, 31-36.)

Some key trends leading to different possible futures for sports: 1) Sport as Entertainment: sport at top level has become almost completely show biz, with the cult of the individual, high salaries, games presented as spectacle, less sportsmanship, and more emphasis on winning (many sports bodies, participants, and viewers are resenting the intrusion of the TV scheduler and advertisers into the flow of the game); 2) More Individual Sport: a trend associated with changes in work-life balance and the culture of individualism; the serious fitness addict or sporting person is turning to individual pursuits such as marathons and personal fitness regimens; 3) Business Owners Demanding Return on Investment: most team sports are in professional leagues and managed as business franchises; owners press demands on coaches and players that create a win-at-any-cost mentality; 4) Sport as Big Business: a vast increase in sports sponsorship; 5) Enhanced Performance: more use of designer drugs, weight training, and, soon, genetic enhancement; 6) High-Tech Equipment: shoes designed for various sports, computerized analysis systems in auto and yacht racing, specially designed field event equipment.

Some key drivers of change in sport: the blurring distinction between work and leisure, the drive for instant entertainment, the growing power of sports governing bodies, and the loss of core values in society. From these drivers, four possible long-term scenarios are sketched: 1) Religiosport: major sports replace conventional religion with shrines (stadiums), rituals, high priests, piety (fan loyalty), and actively condoning violence against rival sects (teams); 2) Machosport: associated with the worst forms of idolatry, individual sports people become popular idols, and the ideal of modern man or woman; 3) Technosport: developing when winning is everything and ethics counts for nothing; sport managed entirely by large businesses; 4) Valuesport: an end to the big business of organized team sports and events, with advertising no longer linked to sports and all teams backed by their community; the preferred future of large sports events may not be the Olympics, but “Global Community Games” backed by a growing values-based movement. (sport trends and scenarios)

 



Radical Evolution

It isn’t often an author gets to herald the biggest news in the last 10,000 years. But you’ll get the full, uncensored, mind-blowing report here in this entertaining and surprisingly deep book. Meet soldiers who don’t sleep, animals controlled with joy sticks, computers controlled by merely thinking, the blind driving cars, and parents designing their kids — and that is just what is happening right now. Veteran scout Joel Garreau prepares ordinary readers for the ultimate question of this century: Who do you think we should be? He makes it clear that as of today, human nature is now under the control of humans, and we ARE doing something about it — but we aren’t aware of it. To guide you through this boggle Garreau offers astonishments, conundrums, and sanity.

– KK

Radical Evolution
The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, our Bodies — and What it Means to be Human
Joel Garreau
2004, 384 pages
$17
Available from
Amazon

Sample excerpt:

The first telekinetic monkey that DARPA funded is named Belle. Belle is a cute monkey — an owl monkey, tiny, with huge brown globular eyes framed in white ovals two-thirds the size of her head. Her fur is russet and gray. Belle is astonishingly quick. One of her accomplishments is her prowess at an electronic game. She intently watches a horizontal series of lights in her lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She knows that if a light suddenly shines and she moves her joystick left or right to correspond to its position, she gets a drop of fruit juice. Treats may not matter now, though. She’s gotten way into the game.

Belle is not really telepathic, strictly speaking. That would mean that she could communicate form her mind directly to another mind. DARPA’s researchers haven’t gotten that far — yet. Although Michael Goldblatt clan clearly see how they might.

Belle is telekinetic. That means that simply by thinking, she can get a mechanical arm far away — in Massachusetts, in fact — instantly to move exactly the way her mind commands. Her Duke researchers line up probes thinner than the finest sewing thread right next to individual neurons in different regions of Belle’s motor cortex — the part of the brain that plans movements. These are linked to two computers, one in the next room and another 600 miles north, at MIT, via the Internet. The computers each control a robotic arm. Then the researchers disconnect her joystick and start Belle’s game. Sure enough, not only is she able to play it splendidly using just her thoughts, but the two robotic arms instantly mimic the motions that Belle’s arm would make to control the joystick, “like dancers choreographed by the electrical impulses sparking in Belle’s mind,” her researchers report. The first time she did it, the two labs, in North Carolina and New England, erupted into loud celebration.

*

“Special Forces guys working a 14-hour day are going to burn 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day. If we increase it to 24 hours a day” — that would be if Carney’s program works and these guys don’t sleep — “they’re going to need 12,000 calories a day. You can’t eat that much. Well, you can, but you’re not going to feel good about it. It boils down to one Meal, Ready to Eat, and 46 PowerBars. You can’t eat 46 PowerBars in a day. You can’t even carry’em. And so the question is, if we can only get 15-20 percent of your calories into you in a rational way, why put any into you at all? Why not, say, live off of what you’ve got? We’ve all stored calories — we just don’t have access to them right now. So this is about improving the muscle and mitochondria so they can utilize the energy that’s available. Maybe instead of deploying you lean and mean, we deploy you mean and plump.

*

The demographic lag between those who use the Internet in developing countries and those who use it in the United States was about five years, the Canadian researchers reported. This technology is getting to the masses a lot faster than did electricity, radio, washing machines, refrigerators, television, air conditioners and automobiles.

 



The Times Atlas of the World

This is the best atlas of the world. Period. It is the most accurate, clearest, most-up-to-date, and most comprehensive atlas ever published. Unlike previous atlases, it locates and names those hundreds of thousands of towns where most of the people of the world live. Take any place you want in any other atlas you want–Afghanistan, Botswana, China–and compare that spot to the stunningly crisp and full maps here. You suddenly realize the other atlas is just waving their arms vaguely. Usually places outside of the US and Europe are reduced in size and left blank. Here, they prosper in splendid microscopic detail. In my travels I’ve found even large country-specific maps don’t have the depth of reality of these pages. I now wince with pain if I have to use another atlas; browsing this one is bliss. It’s got all the creeks of the Congo, all the roads of Russia, all the oases in the Gobi. And half this atlas is a divine index of 225,000 place names, with geographical coordinates in degrees and minutes. I’m in heaven! This is the fairest picture of human places on this planet yet.

-- KK  

The Times Atlas of the World
2011 (13th Comprehensive Edition), 544 pages
$132

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

This is the part of the world that is normally left blank. Known as the Empty Quarter, it isn’t empty here.