Oldest Living Things in The World

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Besides the canonical Bristlecone Pine, there are many other organism on earth that will outlive you. Photographer Rachel Sussman has been traveling around the world to find and photograph them. I'm surprised by the number and variety of long-lived organisms. I very much like that she includes the low lifes -- lichen and so forth. You can keep up with her investigations with her intelligent blog.



Free Wins Against Malaria

"Nothing free can be valuable" say some critics. That is, giving away things devalues them. This is obviously untrue in the digital realm, but what about physical things? The fear of the free was especially an issue in charity. If, with good intentions, you give medicines, or pumps, or solar panels, to the needed for free, won't they neglect, or trade off, or ignore these gifts?  In particular, if you give long-lasting insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets to families in malaria territory, would they just use them for fishing, or sell them? Maybe you should sell them the nets originally for a small amount?

Turns out after many years of testing, that the free nets are incredibly effective in reducing malaria. Free wins! The story by Jeffery Sachs is here in Scientific American. Or you can read the PDF for the academic paper on the experiment.

Free or not, nets are a great idea and better than malarial drugs. If you want to fund a net ($10), there's a number of places that help  you do that, including Nothing But Nets.

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650 Million Years in 1.2 Minutes

This ultra time-lapse simulation of tectonic drift shows how dynamic our home planet it. The clip portrays the most recent 400 million-year geological history of the continents of Earth, and a prediction of its next 250 million years, all in 70 seconds. I love the way New York comes crashing into London in the far future. (Thanks, Stewart Brand) UPDATE: My mistake. I got lost. In 250 million years NYC crashes into West Africa, not London. Much more interesting!

Earth In 1Min20


Taxonomy of Internet Maps

A fews ago I posted my growing collection of hand-drawn maps of the internet. (If you'd like to contribute one, there's a button to download the blank PDF.) The intent behind this effort is to capture the unconscious layout that ordinary people have in mind when they navigate the internet. In posting the images on Flickr I suggested that they would make great fodder for a creative scholar. Much to my surprise two days later, a professor in Argentina wrote the first paper with a first attempt to classify this initial set of maps.

Mara Vanina Oses is a psychologist and professor of media at the Psychology School at the University of Buenos Aires. You can view her report (PDF) here.

A few samples of her results:

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...Even when a lot of people have the idea that Internet is the network of networks a lot more don't have yet this idea; they see the Internet as a connection with a center (star) as a way to get to the rest of the items (mesh) or as a simple line of items.

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So far we have that 2 out of 5 people consider themselves as the center of Internet and 1 out of 5 can’t place him/herself there (either because he/she could be anywhere or because doesn’t found a place).


Bendy Map Projection

It's not often a new kind of map perspective is invented, but this one by Schulze & Webb looks new to me. It's an ingenious blend of 3D and overhead orthogonal. The "bent" perspective is wonderfully intuitive. Their map of Manhattan is static, printed, and meant to be "poured over." But the cartographic view wants to be dynamic, interactive, and generated on the fly as you scroll around. Let's hope Google Maps et al pick up the concept. (Via Kottke)



Network Nation

A quarter century ago I wrote a cover story about the embryonic "Network Nation" that was dawning  online. At that time (in 1984) there was only the barest glimmer of what we see now. It was a decade before the arrival of the web, years before there was a publicly accessible internet, and a few years before the WELL. A more precise title of my article might have been "Network Archipelago" because each new-born online destination was quite isolated from the rest. 

I was a travel columnist at New Age Journal, where this piece was published. I treated these small outposts of new cultures as if they were the first emerging tips of a rising new continent, and I was visiting them to write a travel guide.

Here's the first paragraph:

Take a flashlight and peer into the little square hole where your telephone plugs into the wall. See those four colored wires way in the back? Those strips of copper are holding back the waters of network nation. Define a network as at least two computers linked together, usually via telephone wires; the network nation is a web of people stretching from Bar Harbor to San Diego, from Seattle to St. Petersburg, linked electronically to one another through the medium of their computers. At this moment, in the pattern of the jiggly electrons pooled behind your telephone plug, minds meet without bodies, commute to work, and visit friends. This kaleidoscopic networking is done with dinky computers or sleek $3,000 machines. Computer neighbors can leave notes or write stories and news to each other, which can be read on the computer screen anytime; these messages can be strictly private or made public for everyone to discuss.

One from the middle:

The thing I grow to love about EIES is that it is a place to meet, perhaps like the cafes of old Paris. It's the kind of place we haven't had in our time, the sort of spot American bars wish they were, and what churches used to be. We yearn for a common ground to rest on and to refigure the events of the day, to chat, and to make fun without having to explain too much. The friends we'd like to live in our neighborhood live instead in Dallas or St. Paul or Phoenix. But on the networks, we all meet in green computer light no matter where we are. Every evening I can log into the electronic cafes of EIES and spend an hour with friends, trading news, listening, and laughing.

And near the end;

What can I say about computers while standing in the dappled sunlight of a golden spring day, and still be honest? The truth is that telecommunicating is still slow, cumbersome, and expensive. Worse, no two systems are the same. Every bulletin board or data bank has its own idiosyncratic layout, a different protocol, a different dialect. At the same time, it's hard to lose a grip on the computer dream: networks of small computers flashing our intelligence along the surface of the globe just as our thoughts surge along the membrane of our cerebrum.

Re-reading the report 25 years later I am struck by how small that early world was. I visited just about every place online at that time. Each node was thin, only active part time. Today the online world is so vast that I'd have trouble visiting all the pages on my own website, let alone even begin to map the internet out.

What I got right: The variety, diversity, and fullness of relationships, emotion, engagement, and creativity possible online. At the time computers had the reputation of being cold, sterile, anti-social machines, and I tried to convey the powerful social dimension they contained. I think that came across.

What I got wrong: Always on. More than once in the article I noted folks who logged on "every day." I had no sense that we would be online all our waking hours. I gave no hint that moving from one place to the next would be a simple click instead of having to redial a phone number. Or that we'd be online via mobile phones, without dialing! I wrote about the network as an exotic destination with no appreciation that it would simply become our home address. That seemed too much to believe.

The full piece can be read here in legible text, or in this PDF.


Slumdog Tourism

Slum tourism or "poor-ism" has been around a while. There was a good New York Times article on the trend in visiting squatter cities in March 2008.  You can get slum tours in Mexico, South Africa, Brazil and India.  In my own travels years ago I would frequently do slum tours without knowing it. It was called "wandering around". By any name, if you have a chance, it's worth doing.

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The movie Slumdog Millionaire has sparked interest in a Mumbai slum tours, which started two years ago, and since they are safer than ones in Brazil, have become quite popular. The Mumbai slum Dharavi is billed as the "largest sum in Asia." Several outfits, particularly the original Reality Tours give tours to "one of the most interesting places to see in Mumbai." I've been to Bombay (Mumbai now) several times, and I would have to agree with the last statement.

According to a Mumbai metro blog:

The [Reality Tours] agency, started by Chris Way, a young British transplant, sells tours of Mumbai’s slum neighbourhoods, promising a unique way to experience the “real” Mumbai.

One option is a budget, three-hour walking tour of Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, in the central suburb of Mahim. There residents earn a living by making clay pots and soap or recycling the city’s waste. A longer car tour offers more: a visit to a children’s shelter; a stop to watch the city’s dhobis (washermen) at work; a drive past the vast textile mills that are being torn down and replaced with glitzy malls and office blocks; and then on to Dharavi.

These tours are great value-at about $7 for the walking tour and $13 for the one by car-and for a good cause: 80% of the fee goes to a local charity that helps slum dwellers.

Further details about you can expect to see on the slum tour:

The east flank of the Mahim Station is dominated by the plastic and metal recycling catacombs of 13th compound. It is amazing to see the heavy machinery’s melting and molding the plastic pellets for toys and button manufacturers producing Barbi Dolls of India. The delicious aroma from tiny bakeries and sweet shops, the exotic smell of soaps and cosmetics creates new magical incense, one can feel instantaneously. The dime-sized cyber cafes, mass-producing tailors, altar shapers and the children waving from the precipitous balconies is the most happening in slums that qualifies an active show and tell.

It will not be a boasting to say that Dharavi churns out some 500 million dollars worth of goods. The mostly unregistered and unregulated industries range from tanneries to plastic re-cyclers, garment factories to potters brick kilns every thing is there.
UPDATE: Photographer Jonas Bendiksen has produced an exhibit and book based on his photographs of four different mega-slums around the world. The website The Places We Live gives a virtual 360 degree tour inside four homes in each location. Clear, sympathetic, engrossing photos. The book "The Places We Live"is available on Amazon.


Breakup of the USA

In the world of scenario planning, the fact that something is unthinkable should not prevent us from considering it. The breakup of the Soviet Union was unthinkable almost until the day it happened. At the same time, of course, not every impossible thing will happen.

Among the most unthinkable scenarios for most Americans is the unthinkable idea that the United States could become the disunited or turn into divided states. Even though this union accumulated very slowly in the first place, and against all odds -- in other words it was not inevitable -- the fact that the USA will not always be as united, or at least united in the way it is now, is considered, well... unthinkable.

But as Juan Enriquez notes in his amazing PopTech talk, based on his book "The Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing, and Our Future", no US president has ever died under the same flag that he was born under. That is, the borders of the United States has constantly shifted even in modern times. The last state was added in 1959 (after I was born!) and more could be added still. Americans are comfortable ADDING states, but it might not take much to subtract one. The outcome of the US Civil War has biased Americans to disbelieving in subtraction, but that might change.

In past decades bold American thinkers have imagined how the US might break up, but these were more thought experiments indicating the cultural differences within this large country. There's no shortage of maps showing the alternative arrangements of North American countries. One of the finest is Joel Garreau' s 1981 scenario of the Nine Nations of North America.


However the current economic instability and the general devolution of nation states around the world has led to several outsiders considering the break up of the US as a serious possibility. Two of these scenarios come from Russians.

In the past year or so, traffic to Dmitry Orlov's online presentation about the 'collapse gap' has soared as word of mouth recommendations about his scenario flourished. Orlov's argument is that the parallels in the state of the USSR twenty years ago and the USA now make an economic collapse likely. Orlov does not specifically talk about breaking up as collapse. He says the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US.


The most recent breakup scenario was noted today in the Wall Street Journal in a piece about Russian professor Igor Panarin, who predicts the breakup of the US in the year 2010. He has been predicting the same for the past decade but is now getting an audience. The logic of his scenario goes like this:

He predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.

With his Soviet KGB background it may be no surprise that in Panarin's scenario the breakaway "countries" all succumb to foreign influence and are not really independent. In contrast American scenarios of breakup envision the resultant countries -- like the Pacifica coast -- as vibrant independent influences themselves.


It is certain that in the long run, the borders of the US will change. I think it is far from clear how it will change at the moment. I would be willing to bet the US will add something (Puerto Rico?) before it subtracts, but that is a minor matter. History is betting that at some point the nation as we know it will break up.

So, to my fellow Americans, happy new year!


Eye-Cam Wanted


This is Tanya Vlach's new eyeball. She lost her real one in a car accident a few years ago. I met Tanya at a film festival recently. During our conversation she said she was looking for help in turning her artificial eye into a eye-cam.  You know, a mini web cam inside an eyeball. It would capture live video and stream it to a memory somewhere and also perhaps eventually assist her own vision in real time. She confessed that she was not technologically adept enough to hack it on her own.

I suggested that she put her request out into the web to see if anyone there has any ideas. She is serious about the project, which is half art, half medical innovation. She doesn't have any money to fund the contraption because she says, she is still trying "to figure out how to get out of my astronomical debt that I owe for the medical care that saved my life."

Her solicitation for engineering help, and a place to reply is here.

I am attempting to recreate my eye with the help of a miniature camera implant in my prosthetic / artificial eye. The intraocular installation of an eye-cam will substitute for the field of vision of my left eye that I lost in 2005 from a car accident. While my prosthetic is an excellent aesthetic replacement, I am interested in capitalizing on the current advancement of technology to enhance the abilities of my prosthesis for an augmented reality.

Specifications for the eyeball:
    * DVR
    * MPEG-4? Recording
    * Built in SD mini Card Slot
    * 4 GB SD mini Card
    * Mini A/V out
    * Firewire / USB drive
    * Optical 3X
    * Remote trigger
    * Bluetooth wireless method
    * Inductors: (Firewire/USB, power source)


Flag of Earth

This is the first flag I feel I could fly with unalloyed pride.  Now all I need is a lapel pin version.


The flag was designed by James Cadle. Prior to the US landing on the moon, there was hope a flag for humanity, rather than the American flag, would be erected on the moon. Some hoped the UN flag would fly, but that never happened.

Some time later, James Cadle, who lived on a farm in rural Illinois, was inspired by this debate to create the Flag of Earth. It is intended to be used for ANY purpose that is representative of Humankind as a whole, and not connected to any country, organization, or individual. James made it his life's work to promote and distribute this flag everywhere. He and his wife made the flags on their kitchen table, and sold them for what it cost to make and distribute them.

The Flag of Earth is often flown at locations doing SETI work in order to indicate that the search is the "work of humanity and not a specific country or organization." Cadle died in 2004, but he left the design in the public domain, bless him.

At the Flag of Earth website there are templates for printing them out or purchasing ready-to-fly sown ones.


Yuri's Night

I am going to be out of town on April 12, so I am sorry to miss Yuri's Night.  If you are in the Bay Area then, you should check it out. It is a techno party that runs from 2 pm to 2 am at the giant NASA hanger in Moffet Field.


Once a year in over a hundred places all over the world, Yuri's Night commemorates the anniversary of the launch of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the launch of the first Space Shuttle exactly twenty years later. Yuri's Night Bay Area taps into the San Francisco area's unique energy to bring together scientists, artists, technologists, musicians, and space enthusiasts in a fusion of celebration and education that is unlike anything else you've ever seen. In 2008 the event is growing to twice the size, bringing in more hot musicians, more brilliant scientists, more amazing artists, and the all-new Festival of Ideas.

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Photo of 2007 gathering from Laughing Squid Flickr pool

Scheduled speakers this year: Will Wright (Spore), Saul Grffith (Squid Labs), and musicians and djs from around the world.


An Eternal Last Goodbye

Via Jad Abumrad, host of RadioLab, I came across a 18-minute loop of music commissioned by a very enlightend hospital morgue near Paris.  The composer's assignment was: "Please write us a song that will allow family members to face the death of a loved one."  The morgue wanted music for the bereaved that did not pump up emotional grief, but instead elevated the eternal aspect of all things.  Help slow the living down, to take the long view.

The resulting musical piece (Salles de Departs by David Lang) is lovely, with an ethereal but not too alien spirit. And the architecture of the place is cool.  It feels like the morgue has been there 10,000 years, has always been there, and will always be there.


Both the music and the design provokes you to think outside of time, which I what I hope our 10,000-year Clock does. 


Second thought: Seems like folks have gone nuts in outdoing each other in creative weddings? Wait till you see their funerals. Boring off-the-shelf traditional funerals are becoming as passe as traditional cookie-cutter birthday parties, graduations and weddings. These life-passage events are now opportunities for showing off your individuality. What bigger life passage is there than death? Coming up for the boomer generation and beyond: funerals with style.


How Buildings Learn

Stewart Brand wrote a wonderful book called "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built" . It is a fabulous and useful manual, well worth reading and re-reading if you have any relationship with a building.

The book presents buildings as predictions. The architect or owner of a building has an idea in their mind of what they want a shelter to do, and they build the structure upon these expectations. They might begin with the idea of a family, and then design for what they think their family will do. Or they might design it for a company, or a church, or a community.

Trouble is, the future doesn't usually work out the way we expected. Our family may be bigger, or smaller than we expected. Our church may whither, or move, and the building bought by a grocery. Retail stores go through a parade of very different tenents. So buildings -- good buildings -- have to adapt to different uses over time. The best buildings are ones that are incredibly flexible for many different uses. This flexibility, this adaptability, Stewart calls "learning" and it permits a building to survive. The unadaptable ones are torn down. The result is that the classic buildings, the ones we call great because they are old and venerable, are actually the ones that are most adaptable. In other words those buildings learn the most.

Even small residential buildings, the ones that have no names, are often the most adaptable. The organic nature of changes made as buildings adapt to different families, new uses, and new technologies is what gives old cities and neighborhoods much of their charm. We tend to cover up these changes in expectations over time, so that buildings often pretend that they have not changed their minds (like some people).

But every now and then, there's a building that doesn't hide its journey through time.  When I saw this picture of a house in Cuba, my first thought was: This is how buildings learn!  This building has seen a lot. And despite getting some things "wrong" in the past, it's serving well in the present.  The main difference between this home and many others, is that no one has tried to erase its history.



The Way of Japan vs Any Way in China

James Fallow has been living in China, traveling in Japan. He noticed two different approaches to refueling the same small plane.

In Japan they do it this way. Note the uniform, safety outfits, and cushion to protect the plane's wing.

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In, China, they just do  what has to be done, in any way they can.

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As Fallow writes in his Atlantic blog:

With usual caveats against sweeping generalization, what this made me think was: Japan is all about the way of doing things. Practice, ritual, perfectionism, as much fanatical attention to the process as to the result. China is all about finding a way to do things. Improvisation, little interest in rules, putting up with whatever is necessary to attain the result.

(Yeah yeah yeah, there are exceptions: perfectionist operations in China, loosey-goosey ones in Japan. Still.)

At the moment, I am feeling positive toward both approaches. The emphasis on the right way of doing things is re-surprising on each encounter with Japan. And the determination to do things in China, no matter what, commands respect, despite the obvious complications and problems it creates.


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