Mariana Mazzucato: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths


Jason's Notes

For every Tesla grant success story you will see a half dozen Solindras. Without that government investment you will never get Xerox, micro computers, the Google search algorithm, or the Internet. These concepts became singularities that changed how business is done, but as singularity were wholly unpredictable with very high risk.

It's difficult to write out the question for the government versus entrepreneurial elements until you examine the risk factors. The simple easy truth is that big business has no interest in high-risk. The foundation of a good business is to outsource your risk to others. The entity that can take on big risk is big government. This has been shown over and over with major innovations in technology and pharmaceuticals in the last 50 years. You have no interest as a big business in taking those big risks and why not capitalize on a government program that allows you to upgrade and market basic research.

Countries that invested in themselves. Germany for example has a higher debt than Italy does. The issue for Italy is not its debt load, but rather its lack of income because it does not support basic research which leads to innovation which leads to market share. Germany, on the other hand, has consistently been riding a wave of innovation after innovation starting with becoming the preeminent tool and die makers to the world. Finland has been capitalizing on the concept of providing services to the Alternative Energy Market not the actual technologies.

The caveat is the necessity to share innovation with other innovators. The USSR had three times thee research funding as Japan. Japan's system of lateral sharing of ideas created a multiplier effect that outperformed the USSR's hierarchy of research silos.

Mariana Mazzucato

From the Long Now Foundation :

Government as radical, patient VC

The iPhone, Mazzucato pointed out, is held up as a classic example of world-changing innovation coming from business.

Yet every feature of the iPhone was created, originally, by multi-decade government-funded research. From DARPA came the microchip, the Internet, the micro hard drive, the DRAM cache, and Siri. From the Department of Defense came GPS, cellular technology, signal compression, and parts of the liquid crystal display and multi-touch screen (joining funding from the CIA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, which, by the way, developed the lithium-ion battery.) CERN in Europe created the Web. Steve Jobs’ contribution was to integrate all of them beautifully.

Venture Capitalists (VCs) in business expect a return in 3 to 5 years, and they count on no more than one in ten companies to succeed. The time frame for government research and investment embraces a whole innovation cycle of 15 to 20 years, supporting the full chain from basic research through to viable companies. That means they can develop entire new fields such as space technology, aviation technology, nanotechnology, and, hopefully, Green technology.

But compare the reward structure. Government takes the greater risk with no prospect of great reward, while VCs and businesses take less risk and can reap enormous rewards. "We socialize the risks and privatize the rewards." Mazzucato proposes mechanisms for the eventual rewards of deep innovation to cycle back into a government "innovation fund"---perhaps by owning equity in the advantaged companies, or retaining a controlling "golden share" of intellectual property rights, or through income-contingent loans (such as are made to students). "After Google made billions in profits, shouldn’t a small percentage have gone back to fund the public agency (National Science Foundation) that funded its algorithm?" In Brazil, China, and Germany, state development banks get direct returns from their investments.

The standard narrative about government in the US is that it stifles innovation, whereas the truth is that it enables innovation at a depth that business cannot reach, and the entire society, including business, gains as a result. "We have to change the way we think about the state," Mazzucato concludes.

--Stewart Brand

Daniel Janzen: Third World Conservation: It's ALL Gardening


There is no wilderness. Ten thousand years ago hunters wiped out most of the major mega-fauna in all the forests and from then on all land is a commodity. From then on society has been looking for a way to employ all property, all species. The question is what is the "highest and best use"? Is it strip farming, or biodiversity cultivation that enables the tens of thousands of species living there to do jobs for us.

Taking conservation out of a the government run model and evolving a new contributing component of society expands the political base. Making locals' livelihoods dependent on conservation and ecotourism mobilizes the voters to support the conservation activities.

Daniel Janzen

Big as life and twice as opinionated, the renowned preservation biologist Daniel Janzen spoke for The Long Now on Friday, April 9, 2005. His perspective on preservation may be jarring to some: "It’s ALL Gardening".

Dan Janzen is most widely known for his heroic efforts helping set all of Costa Rica on a preservation path, ensuring that the mega-diverse nation continues indefinitely as a haven for science and eco-tourism. His particular focus, Guanacaste Conservation Area, was recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. His ongoing work there in field taxonomy and innovative preservation practices led to his receiving the Crafoord Prize (1984), the Kyoto Prize (1997), and the Albert Einstein Science Prize (2002). Professor Janzen teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

--Stewart Brand

Phillip Longman: The Depopulation Problem, The Long Now

July 28, 02017

Longman paints a very simple picture for the next three generations: too many people in the late 20th century were born, and many decided not to procreate. The effect are already being felt: too much health care needs in the United States has led to run away health care costs. The mandate to get health care insurance seems like a sick joke from this perspective. Not only are Boomers using more health care, it is getting more fancy and expensive. They have insurance which is leveraging its losses onto the backs of young people whether they will or no.

So with reproduction rate dropping world wide (population still forecasts another 2 billion), who will the future generations be composed of?

  1. The highest scoring communities are the fundamentalists. They place a higher value on group ethic than the cult of the individual, and assert the value of reproduction.
  2. Those who don't watch television. Reproduction rates decline with TV adoption in any market. Very telling that last week Iran condemned 100k satellite dishes last week.

This is very telling today, 12 years after Longman's presentation, when considerable numbers of Syrians are taking refuge abroad. They are finding their values in conflict with their hosts, and a rash of crimes (largely fundamentalist induced chauvinism) are being reported every week.

Government response has been counter productive: raise taxes on those who are still able to have children. That is very telling of who is voting: the elderly are voting themselves 7 times the funding we are giving to children. But a dried fruit gives no juice. The necessity to stay in education until the middle end of our best reproductive years, then establish our career and dig out from student debt for another 15 before we feel any job security guarantees that young people will never feel like they can afford the $200k (2004 number) to take a child to age 18.

And so the pendulum swings. Fifty years of progress on human rights and individual rights will be undone by demographics. The fundamentalists and uneducated are more likely to have children, and children (largely) adopt the views of their parents.

As more work years, debt, and tax are laddeled on the young, they see fewer opportunities. I myself have looked to young countries to move to, to learn more, and live cheaper. More will be exiting the formal economy where they are burdened with the macro impact of society. What will that look like? Health care now is imposed on Americans and they are fined a great deal of money if they choose not to buy.

Phillip Longman

From the Long Now:

Full PDF of the talk here, slideshow here

No need to summarize this time. Phillip Longman wrote out his whole talk, with the illustrations more viewable even than they were at the Seminar and talk. (excerpt below)

It is full of rethink-the-news sentences like: "Notice that Japan’s lengthening recession began just as continuously falling fertility rates at last caused its working-age population to begin shrinking in relative size."

One thing worth adding from the Q&A at Phil’s public lecture August 13th. Kevin Kelly asked him what he thought the world might feel like in 100 years.

"People a century from now will have so few blood relatives I think it could be very lonely." The audience, convinced by then, was utterly still.

Excerpt from Longman's talk:

"So where will the children of the future come from? Some biologists speculate that modern human beings have created an environment in which the "fittest", or most successful, individuals are precisely those who have few, if any, offspring. As more and more humans find themselves living under conditions in which children have become costly impediments to success, those who are well adapted to this new environment will tend not to reproduce themselves. And many others who are not so successful will imitate them.

But this hardly implies extinction. Some people will still have children. They just won’t be people highly motivated by material concerns or secular values. Disproportionately, the parents of the future will be people who are at odds with the modern environment – people who either "don’t get" the new rules of the game that make large families a liability or who, out of religious or chauvinistic conviction, reject the game altogether. In short people like Mormons. "
--Stewart Brand

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet: Lhasa, Darchen

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet: Lhasa, Darchen

Flags on every roof
Malas in every window
Kingdom in the sky

Jokhang Temple kora, Lhasa

There is no way to express the amazement of driving through the center of centers. All my life I have seen Tibetan text in little snippets. Ever its presence meant I was sitting in the mandala. Now it is on every building, on LED scrolling marquees, WCs. This, quite literally, was the land of my childhood's fables.

Jokhang roof, Lhasa

Every time we enter Lhasa our bus is stopped, and travel permits checked. About every 80 km we have to stop for ten minutes to have our papers checked. A police officer is constantly with us.

Samye Monastery

Our visit to Samye Monastery was cut short, but the green Gompa is spectacular. A great deal of renovation is underway. As the monastery founded by Padmasimbava, this is chronologically the first in Tibet. I was introduced to hard Dhri cheese: rock hard dairy product (with a few Yak hairs for flavor). Not the best cheese, but the taste and texture association with Samye is cemented in my memory.

Tsurphu Monastery

The clouds of valley are so close to the valley floor that they form a second tier of mountains wafting around the giants that enclose the valley. Most mountains are adorned with prayer flags fluttering their scripture into the wind. In this way the whole volume of the valley - from river to peaks - is sanctuary. It is very much a nested mandala starting with the protector mountains, down to the house or Gompa compound/court, into the lhakang, in still further to the shrine, and last to the heart of the rupa.

The Roman architecture term for a temple was "fane". To be "profane" was to be before or outside the fane. In Lhasa there is a sense that the mountains form the outer wall of the sacred space.

At Tsurphu we practiced together in the main shrine room behind the resident monks. They made us rich yak butter tea with plenty of salt. The statues behind the practice area are enormous, Karmapa after Karmapa! Many in our group are in tears.

Postcard of Kailash thangka

The closer we get to the mountain, the more ephemeral it gets. Each step closer we slide sideways. Weather reports are telling us the temperature will likely not get above freezing. Historical reports all agree the average daily high should be in the 50s. The forecast says with wind chill on our days should be 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The long road to Darchen

So far off the map
Drive through Thangka land
Rarified air

Altitude is a teacher to contend with here. At over 15k above sea level my first hour taught me much of my mortality. I quickly started moderating my breathing, kept my head down, and wondered if the bus had a defibrillator on board. Some of us start to sing.
Anyone who has heard of "Rebreathing" or yoga will know the effects of overly deep breathes. Your breath requires your whole body, and when you deepen it consistently it will give rise to all manner of emotional release.

This land is nearly indescribable. I can write that it is like driving through a Tibetan painting (Thangka) but I cannot convey what it is like to be surrounded by that landscape in every direction. The mountains are rich in iron AND copper, washing the vista in hues of green and red. Shining outcrops of salt glisten like jeweled mountains. The shadows of the clouds moving across the land morphing from one auspicious shape to another.

Then the really tall mountains hove into view on the horizon. Cloud and glacier capped - they are enormous. Simply the single biggest things I have ever laid eyes upon. The magic of this land is alternately bringing me to tears and terrifying me with its raw power.

And then the first siting of Kailash... Yeah... um... That is huge. Surrounded by four other peaks in remarkable symmetry, one of our band who has walked the Kailash kora before tells how this is the model of the Mandala, that Samye Monastery is patterned on this range.

First site of Kailash

Darchen, our basecamp for two nights is a small foothill town where the altitude exceeds that of Everest's base camp. Word from pilgrims coming down from Kailash is that the weather is good.
Dragon cloud over Darchen

Angela's sinuses have gone into overdrive, and she's developed a mixture of symptoms that are very concerning. People are sharing medicine with her. One gentleman has stayed behind in Lhasa due to heart issues. He sent his kit with me, ensuring I'll have enough clothes. Our group is acting more like a group with every labored breath.

Darchen wandering goats

The sun will burn unprotected exposed skin in 7 minutes. Solar tea kettles are everywhere. It is hard to imagine this village covered in snow 9 months out of the year.

Rainbow around my tea cup

Tomorrow we set foot on Kailash. We are not cavalier, boisterous, or confident. But we are together, and as much as we are afraid, we are thinking of our families, friends and greater sangha.


Thank you for reading this far and being witness.

Jason Winn and Angela Hartsell

Friday , July 1 02016

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet: Shanghai and Huang Shan

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet
Shanghai and Huang Shan

Yu Garden, Shanghai

Lone entitled son
Match-making elders desperate
Sighing in the rain

Family is so critical to most Chinese that parents can be found in the park with laminated descriptions of their child in the hope to arrange a date for them with an eligible bachelor or bachelorette. Try to imagine your parents managing your Tinder or eHarmony account on your behalf. With decades of the "One Child" policy limiting every couple to a single heir, they live in terror of that one child not achieving success. Retirement is fundamentally defined by the success of their lone progeny.

Expats confided in us that this has led to sincere spoiling of the children, a nation of only-children. Never to have a brother's advice, a sister's tough love, no nephews or nieces, no cousins. The great pruning of all family trees seems to have left all slender reeds - often bumping into each other but finding it so hard to connect.

Bride and Groom Market, People's Square Shanghai

Currently there are 20 million men in China who will never marry as their brides were never born. A patriarchal society is contingent upon father-hood, heirs, family. Soon a sizable minority of China will create a new value system to guide their lives because they cannot

Walls within the walls
Surrounded by multitudes
Grasshopper alone

Caged grasshopper at the Bird and Insect Market, Shanghai

Last millennia's built environment is a choppy framing of vignettes in China. This led to a two-dimensional diorama-design approach focused on creating living paintings. Scratch the surface and the plaster flakes, exposing the impermanence of culture.

Exploring the old city within the moat is a bustling community with clean laundry flying gaily across every alley. Shops selling every necessity abound, and scooter repair can be had on every corner. Micro-commerce is the promise of Shanghai, freeing the brave from a life at the factory manufacturing nearly every item on my person.

Old Town, Shanghai

Their crowns in the smoke
The very air is a fume
Empty skyscrapers

On the cutting edge of digital connectivity, Shanghai redefines space and commerce in a blood-bath of competition. Any product can be delivered to your door within an hour or two with the right phone app. Competition is so fierce in the unregulated market it can squash small producers within hours while counterfeit products flood the market. This disconnect from one another seems to suit the lone-minded population. Only just beginning is the notion of dining alfresco. Not so much as a coffee can be enjoyed on an old lane in China. The idea was not considered sanitary and the streets design precludes a use other than transport and commerce.

The notable exception to the rule are streets designed by foreign countries. The French Concession sports a vast sprawl of swank bars and cafes. Shanghai's history and most of its notable historic architecture is defined by its role as international hub of China.

Ever-present is the walls within walls. Defining family from other extends from the Great Wall down to the domicile down further to the caged cats and grasshoppers. Everything and everyone in its place.

Yu Garden, Shanghai

We counted dozens of empty skyscrapers.

Angela, Huangshan Scenic Area

Dragon mountain crags
Longest day and fullest moon
Wet steps in the mist

Visiting Huang Shan (Yellow Mountains) needs to be on your "bucket list". Hiking the 10,000 steps is not for the feint of heart, but there are palanquins for those who need a lift. The dramatic natural beauty is alternately picturesque and belittling in the vast reach of the dozens of peaks. This natural treasure is only slightly marred by the radar station at the very top.

In the distance: stairs to Greeting Pine, Huangshan Scenic Area

The stairs help to make this wonder accessible to millions every year. While solitude is in short supply anywhere in China, you can still transport your mind to the distant peak (only to find yourself hiking up its stairs an hour later, gazing back upon your previous summit.)

Jason, Huangshan Scenic Area

Being in China has shown me a desperation born of profound loneliness while fighting to keep my place in every line. While my dear friends in Japan cultivate a garden of hospitality, I know most of that country is similarly isolated. The grasshoppers in their wicker baskets are chirping. Each of us surrounds ourselves with comfortable homes; each one an extension of our neuroses and aspirations.

Many of my obstacles are geographic. When you are on the road, and you move from foreign to weird to unfathomable, you find your umbilical cord cut. Like any birthing process, it is profoundly uncomfortable. Hence the efficacy of leaving your home, and going on pilgrimage.

Peregrine rejoices
Lama-la in a bathrobe
Feet in the cool pool

Arriving in Beijing, Angela and I trudged into the swankiest hotel ready to join our fellow pilgrims. Making our way to the room we first encounter Lama Dudjom Dorje, our teacher, walking towards us dressed in a plush white bathrobe!

Jason, Lama D Dorje, and Angela with the model for the proposed KTC Dallas Gompa (Lama in bathrobe picture omitted)

Tomorrow we are with our Sangha. Tomorrow we fly to the Tibetan Plateau.


Thank you for reading this far and being witness.

Jason Winn and Angela Hartsell

Thursday, June 24 02016

The Kyoto notes:

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet : Kyoto

Discovering Pilgrim's Mind, a Journey to Tibet

Shotoku-an Chashitsu, Kyoto

Host and guests, same bowl
Boundaries designed to be crossed
Walking on damp rocks

Our first refuge on the road to Kailash is the tea house of Jack and Hiromi. Within moments of crunching up the stone path to their chashitsu I feel my mind and body down-shift from 2016 to 1906. The smell of long-grain wood floors, the moss of the garden, and the damp of the rain pulls you to the earth.

Jack's vision for this tea house seems rooted in authenticity. From the kitchen counter to the clay roof ridge cap each element is hand-crafted and fitted together with the finesse of fine cabinetry. The solidity typical of modern houses is conspicuously absent. Several of the walls are sliding screens of loose-woven reed - always allowing gentle breezes to waft through the house. The garden, and city beyond are never shut out, and I cannot hide a sigh or chuckle from the neighbors.

Jack and Hiromi open their home to those who wish to study tea. Indra (of Lithuania) and Tim (of New Zealand) encountered Jack and Hiromi the morning Angela and I arrived and came to class twice during our short visit. Hospitality is a state of being here, not an action.

My teacher makes tea
Reflecting Story Mountain
Cool bottomless lake

Jack Convery was my teacher in the early 80's when he taught at Vidya Elementary school in Boulder, Colorado. A carpenter and teacher by trade he later found himself at the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia at the same time my family lived in Halifax. Once or twice a year he stayed at our house when attending a program in Halifax. Over two decades ago, Jack moved to Kyoto to study the Way of Tea. He is still my teacher and the lesson evolves.

Hostess of patience
Hidden wish-fulfilling jewel
Precious Ladybug

Hiromi, wife of Jack, is a Kyoto artist who has exhibits from Japan to Switzerland, yet sells stamps to tourists at the Golden Temple. Her generosity making us meal after meal, filling our sake cup, (doing our laundry!) is inexhaustible. Jack is one of the luckiest men in Japan.

We define human
Over hot morning o-cha

"Welcome to a land blessed by practice." - Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Nearly every night of our stay at Shotoku-an is tea class. Anywhere between one and 10 students trickle in after dinner and begin to prepare to enjoy tea. Many travel an hour or four to attend class, some with poise, some with mirth, all with bravery in a modern Japan defined by 12-hour work days, personal gadgets, and long commutes.

Each time I visit Jack and Hiromi I dive a little deeper into the tea bowl. What I can share today traces the edge of the tatami mats in the tea room. The Ken of Japanese design gives the space an order that divides the room, the tea utensils, and the host from guests. The tamai (tea practice) resolves the duality by mixing hot and cold water, tea bowl and tea. When the tea bowl crosses the edge of the tatami from host to guest, duality is collapsed through generosity. The making of tea is defined by a series of sharings: a graceful mudra, the sound of water poured, the warmth of the fire, the tea, laughter, stories, space, Dharma and silence.

Jack suggested I make Turkish tea for his students to expand their education in their art. I found a Turkish rug seller downtown, Mustafa Tugrul (, who extended his hospitality by giving us two servings of his personal supply so I could make Turk Çay for Jack's students.

Climbing step by step
Tiny ants discovering
Great mist topped mountain

Telling people "I'm going to Tibet to walk around a sacred mountain." feels as outrageous as saying "I'm going to the Moon." Clearly I am crazy and should be locked up. Occasionally I am seized by fits of spontaneous chuckling at my peregrinations.

My path takes me so far outside my comfort zone I am genuinely afraid. Japan is too small, China too big, and Tibet too high. Certainly navigating a 110-year-old home with little shower, low beams, and ladder-like staircase is reshaping how I inhabit space. I suspect the extremes to come will shape my mind and body further, forcing a surrender of my agenda.

"In China we eat everything with four legs but the table and everything with two legs but the people." -proverb

So far the food has been amazing. Am I ready for REAL Chinese cuisine? Am I ready to navigate the largest city on the planet? (Shanghai population: 25 million = entire state of Texas), am I prepared to breath air equivalent to a pack of cigarettes a day?


Fear separates us
Generosity joins us
Rain pools on lotus

Soon we land in Shanghai. Along with a bag of pastries, KOSMOS chawan joins us on the rest of the pilgrimage (see for the story of a Bowl of Tea for Peace).

Thank you for reading this far and being witness.

Jason Winn and Angela Hartsell

Thursday, June 16 02016
Thanks to Jack Convery-Soko for use of several images for this entry

Martin Rees: Life's Future in the Cosmos

Jason's Notes

1. The question isn't so much is life unique. Clearly it is capable of happening once so it must be possible under possible conditions found elsewhere. With the recent discovery of planets in great abundance throughout the cosmos we know that life is likely out there, but given the constraints of distance and time, it isn't much to worry about. The cosmic scale is such that detection is very unlikely.

2. The only thing that would change this would be the discovery of a way to by-pass the speed of light. This has not apparently been done by any other races, and given the opportunity for other civilizations to rise in the eons before ours, this suggests it isn't possible.

3. Alternately, it is possible for civilization to realize a greater value than interstellar resource consumption. They may well have evolved beyond the need for additional resources. They may have found a way to sidestep the Universe's tendency to hurl deadly rocks at the planet.

4. There is clearly a great deal to learn from the study of cosmology. but given our dramatic dependency on Earth-like conditions (per our current genome) we have no choice but to take the best care of the planet we have under our feet. Its biosphere is co-evolved with us to support our life. Given the record to unprecedented levels of CO2 and the dramatic sea rise predicted, we are in for a wake-up call.

5. The coming crisis is inevitable, and therein may well be our salvation. Many millions of people will have cause of suffering. But that suffering will demand action and a wholly new approach to civilization.

6. The Atlantis Project: Future tourism will be an aquatic wonderland to dive the newly submerged cities.

7. How might we take advantage of the vast subsurface cities? Will their infrastructure be able to be put to use? Gigantic fish farms? Seaweed farms? Water purification? Given suitable bedrock foundations, partially submerged buildings could be retrofitted to stand after the waters rise. This would likely be limited to protected harbors that would not be exposed to significant waves.

8. There will be vast quantities of steel that humanity will want to salvage from the Atlantis zones.

9. For a generation, navel salvage will be a way of life. Laws of salvage will need to be drafted to determine who has the right to conduct salvage on what is now public water ways.

10. Millions of poor people may establish watery villages, boat culture, extraordinary water pollution. A big enabler of this will be cheap desalination..

Martin homepage

From Long Now's Stuart Brand:

This fall Lord Rees completes his five-year term as president of The Royal Society. He continues as Britain's Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. His books include Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe and Our Final Hour.
President of the Royal Society, England's Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees brings a lifetime of cosmological inquiry to a crucial question: What if human success on Earth determines life's success in the universe? He thinks that civilization's chances of getting out of this century intact are about 50-50. He is hopeful that extraterrestrial life already exists, but there's no sign of it yet. But even if we are now alone, he notes that we may not even be the halfway stage of evolution. There is huge scope for post-human evolution, so that "it will not be humans who watch the sun's demise, 6 billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae." Appropriately, Rees's Long Now talk will be at the Chabot Space & Science Center in the hills above Oakland, in the planetarium.

Cosmic Life The pace of astronomic discovery, said the Astronomer Royal, keeps increasing with the constant improvement in our sensing technology. The recent discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe (dark energy) revolutionized cosmology, and with the launch of the Kepler Telescope in 2009, we are beginning to detect and study Earth-sized planets around distant stars. Since the Moon landings, humans in space have done little of scientific interest, but unmanned probes have delivered revelations from the planets and moons of the solar system, with much more to come. The best prospects for finding life elsewhere in our solar system appear to be on Mars, on Saturn's moon Titan, or on Jupiter's moon Europa. (Human space exploration is best pushed by private individuals such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, rather than governments, Rees feels. Governments aren't allowed to be realistic about the dangers of space travel.) "We are the nuclear waste of stellar fusion," Rees noted, the ash from long-dead stars all over the galaxy exchanging their gases in a complex ecology, and the galaxies show a mega-structure of density contrasts generated by gravity. Poised midway in scale between atoms and stars, biological life appears to be the peak of complexity in the universe---a flea is more complicated than a star. Since we don't know how our own life emerged and haven't discovered any elsewhere, we still have no idea whether life is common in the universe or if we are unique. We can be certain that we are not the culmination of life forms here, because we are less than halfway through the Sun's lifespan. In the six billion years to come, there are likely to be creatures as far beyond humans as we are beyond microbes, and science as far beyond our present understanding as quantum theory is remote to a chimpanzee. Now that we are stewards of this planet, we are responsible for maintaining life's possibilities in this cosmic neighborhood.
--Stewart Brand

Angela Hartsell's Farewell to the Community Gardens of San Antonio

Late March 2016 Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas was forced to let go Ms. Hartsell due to funding shortfalls. In her own words:

Dear Gardeners, Supporters, Partners, Fans and Friends,

Nine years ago, the idea of a network of Community Gardens across San Antonio was just a dream. Today we see Community Gardens in all parts of San Antonio, with many participants brought together for a common cause — improving their quality of life and making their communities more beautiful and sustainable. Who would think that working side-by-side in the soil would have such benefits? Growing fresh, nutritious food; planting trees and flowers; and nurturing relationships across generations and backgrounds all strengthen our neighborhoods.

It has been a great pleasure for me to work alongside all of you. As you continue to till the soil, plant seeds and seedlings, and cultivate your network of friends and neighbors, please appreciate how far we’ve come and be proud of the role you have played.

Your Community Garden Network has helped you develop new skill sets and extended your access to resources such as tools, building plans and supplies, plants, workshops, food, green space, and more. You have built confidence in your ability to solve problems and be successful with these new skills.

I am happy to have been a part of your lives and the life cycle of San Antonio! We have made this great city a better place to live, work, and play, and there’s plenty more to do.

San Antonio needs each and every one of you to sustain this effort through the grassroots energy and enthusiasm you have demonstrated so far.

I too will carry on, sharing my skills and my passions with the world. Stay in touch, and our web of shared skills, outstanding visions, and compassion will continue expanding.

My mission continues to be to make our world a better place by ensuring that everyone has a touchstone that connects them back to nature and thereby to each other.

With affection in heart and awareness in mind,


You can touch base with me at

Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth, Peter Warshall

February 03 02016

From Jason Winn

All is Beautiful, abject beauty. Judgement makes likes and dislike. A naturalist will ride that line between ugly beauty and beauty-beauty. If it disturbs you, give it more attention.

Time in the creative :

Does restoration make it beautiful?
Wabi-sabi: does time make things more beautiful?
Obviously that which suggests age suggests persistence, continuity, but most importantly a orientation. Thus the story has a deep beginning. Nostalgia writ large.

Steps from "attractive" to "beautiful": Freedom, Hope, Contingency. Creativity is being challenged: people are planning their artwork to change.
"All our work is an installation. You just have to decide how long you want it to last." - Fredrick Jameson

Peter Washall:

Trained at Harvard as a biological anthropologist, ecologist Warshall was the natural-systems editor for the Whole Earth Catalog and was the editor for Whole Earth Review for a decade. He was also the author of Septic Tank Practices.

From the Long Now:

Light and beauty

“The naturalist’s task,” Warshall began, “is to observe without human-centered thoughts and human-centered agendas, to observe with a Gaian perspective and with the perspective of the organisms you’re watching. The naturalist considers all species in space/time as equally beautiful.” There’s a connection between art and science---between the poetic organization of thought and the pragmatic organization of thought. Light operates at a distance. That inspires anticipation, which becomes yearning, which becomes desire, which becomes hope, which generates transcendence. When an image becomes transcendent for you, it becomes part of how you perceive. “The Sun is the initiator of all sugars.”

Starting 250 million years ago, life rebelled and began generating its own light. There are 40 different kinds of bioluminescence, used for mate attraction, for baiting prey, for deceit. “Danger and beauty always go together. Deceit---not truth---is beauty. A term some art critics use is ‘abject beauty.’” Humans began the second light rebellion by harnessing fire a million years ago. Then came electric lights in the 1880s, and we transformed the light regime and hence behavior of many species. Artists like James Turrell shifted art from reflected light to emitted light, and that is increasingly the norm as we spend our days with screens radiating information into our eyes.

Our eyes are pockets of ocean that let us perceive only a portion of the Sun’s spectrum of light. Bees, with their crystal eyes, see in the ultraviolet. Snakes perceive infrared, and so do some insects that can detect the heat of a forest fire from 40 miles away.

Bowerbird males create elaborate art galleries, even devising forced perspective, to impress females. Young male bowerbirds watch the process for four years to learn the art. Throughout nature, watch for bold patterns of white, black, and red, which usually signal danger.

Every day there is a brief time without danger. At twilight---as daylight shifts to night---all life pauses. “That moment has a contemplative beauty that we cherish. It is a moment of Gaian aesthetic.”

Warshall’s talk, and his life, have been a convergence of art and science. Asked about how scientists could learn more about art, Warshall suggested they go to an art class and learn how to draw. As for how artists can learn more of science, he had two words:

“Outdoors. Look.”
       --Stewart Brand

Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster : Geoffrey B. West

January 2 02016

Jason's Notes:

The most important network in the city is the social network. This is defined by the 4 to 6 people closest to you. That then scales up to larger clusters and diversifies the quality of interactions in a city. As a city gets bigger, it benefits from sub-linear scaling (x<1), so they become more efficient and get economies of scale. Conversely, the value of the social/economic system is super-linear (x>1.15), and value is added to the system the larger it gets by virtue of an enriched network.

Networks allow for continuous cycles of innovation, which is what you need to overcome the hockey-stick graph that shows exponential growth. However, the dark side is that rebounds of innovation need to become quicker each time.

At their core, cities are fundamentally resistant to change. A cool city 39 years ago is likely to still be cool, and a dull place without innovation is likely to still be just as dull. Change isn't adopted quickly by the governing social networks. "Cities are physical manifestations of our social networks."

Corporations are sub-liniar: the bigger they get the less they own and they less they earn per employee. They don't benefit from economies of scale. They stagnate and follow the sigmoidal curve that a living creature does: they start of small and grow quickly until ripe then taper off and die.

Companies don't allow crazy people in, and innovation dies (or is de-funded) and the company is fragile  to major shocks. First there are engineers, then accountants, then lawyers, they the company dies.

Scaling and simplicity is evolved survival patterns in interrelations, sub-liniar scaling.

Geoffrey B. West

From the Long Now:
Superlinear Cities

"It's hard to kill a city," West began, "but easy to kill a company." The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And "cities are the crucible of civilization." They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. "Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities."

"We need," West said, "a grand unified theory of sustainability--- a coarse-grained quantitative, predictive theory of cities."

Such a theory already exists in biology, and you can build on that. Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability. (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber's Law.) Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale. If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line. From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.

But the proportion is not linear. Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use. Only a tripling in energy use is needed. It's sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4. Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.

With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life. A shrew's heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human's 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute. The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative. Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life. (West added that human bodies run on 100 watts---2,000 calories of food a day. But our civilizational energy use adds up 11,000 watts per person. We're like blue whales walking around.)

Does such scalability apply to cities? If you plot, say, the number of gas stations against the size of population of metropolitan areas on a log-log scale, it turns out you get another straight line. Ditto with the length of electrical lines, carbon footprint, etc. Per capita, big city dwellers use less energy than small town dwellers. As with animals, there is greater efficiency with size, this time at a 9/10 ratio. Energy use is sublinear.

But unlike animals, cities do not slow down as they get bigger. They speed up with size! The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate. All the productivity-related numbers increase with size---wages, patents, colleges, crimes, AIDS cases---and their ratio is superlinear. It's 1.15/1. With each increase in size, cities get a value-added of 15 percent. Agglomerating people, evidently, increases their efficiency and productivity.

Does that go on forever? Cities create problems as they grow, but they create solutions to those problems even faster, so their growth and potential lifespan is in theory unbounded.

(West pointed out that there is a bit of variability between cities worth noticing. On the plot of crimes/population, Tokyo has slightly fewer crimes for its size, and Osaka has slightly more. In the U.S., the most patents per capita come from Corvalis, Oregon, and the least from Abiline, Texas. Such variations tend to remain constant over decades, despite everyone's efforts to adjust them. "Exciting cities stay exciting, and boring cities stay boring.")

Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.'s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

What is the actual mechanism of difference? Research on that continues. "Cities tolerate crazy people," West observed, "Companies don't."

       --Stewart Brand

Beyond Digital Thinking, Nicholas Negroponte

December 31 02015

Jason's Notes:

Critically speaking, a big non-profit is likely to be definitively inefficient. Large grants to large organizations are as good as small grants to small organizations. Too much overhead. non-profits don't have to be run inefficiently. You can run them business-like and achieve greater returns in a more sane manner.

Just because you are a non-profit with principles does not lend you the armor of Mother Teresa. Likely, your principles are screwing someone, and they will get you if they can.

Startups are a scourge on talented minds. Being obsessed with turning a profit, getting cash flow, these are poison for creativity. "FOCUS" is the death of creativity. In this manner, it isn't that the mind is blurred, but that putting all eggs in one basket kills cross pollination.

If the free market will/could do it on its own, stop doing it. The real innovations are those that are outside the mainstream, and thence comes significant changes to technology.

Innovative organizations can't be franchised. By their very nature they are rule-free zones. If you are asking if your crazy incubator is following the model, you've failed. There needs to be freedom of capitol, decentralization, and the older must listen to the younger.

In every way, it is play.

Nicholas Negroponte

A world of convergence

In education, Negroponte explained, there’s a fundamental distinction between "instructionism" and "constructionism." "Constructionism is learning by discovery, by doing, by making. Instructionism is learning by being told." Negroponte’s lifelong friend Seymour Papert noted early on that debugging computer code is a form of "learning about learning" and taught it to young children.

Thus in 2000 when Negroponte left the Media Lab he had founded in 1985, he set out upon the ultimate constructionist project, called "One Laptop per Child." His target is the world’s 100 million kids who are not in school because no school is available. Three million of his laptops and tablets are now loose in the world. One experiment in an Ethiopian village showed that illiterate kids can take unexplained tablets, figure them out on their own, and begin to learn to read and even program.

In the "markets versus mission" perspective, Negroponte praised working through nonprofits because they are clearer and it is easier to partner widely with people and other organizations. He added that "start-up businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus.’"

As the world goes digital, Negroponte noted, you see pathologies of left over "atoms thinking." Thus newspapers imagine that paper is part of their essence, telecoms imagine that distance should cost more, and nations imagine that their physical boundaries matter. "Nationalism is the biggest disease on the planet," Negroponte said. "Nations have the wrong granularity. They’re too small to be global and too big to be local, and all they can think about is competing." He predicted that the world is well on the way to having one language, English.

Negroponte reflected on a recent visit to a start-up called Modern Meadow, where they print meat. "You get just the steak---no hooves and ears involved, using one percent of the water and half a percent of the land needed to get the steak from a cow." In every field we obsess on the distinction between synthetic and natural, but in a hundred years "there will be no difference between them."

--Stewart Brand

Black Swans - Nassim Nicholas Talab

Jason's Notes

December 26 02015

The Future Has Always Been Crazier Than We Thought

Talab is tearing through the faculty of logic and theory to get at a simple truth: our minds can manufacturer endless fantasies. This is a benefit for creating and a endless pit for theorizing.

Black Swan: Event that wasn't seen coming
  1. Hard to predict based on information before it occured, (computers, Harry Potter, neck ties, World War).
  2. Low predictability and high consequence.
  3. They have retrospective predictably, but unfathomable beforehand.

Silent evidence is highlighted by historians, who don't deal imperial evidence so they can't make predictions. They need to work with real data. Neal Ferguson is such a historian. He showed the UK war bond market didn't see WWI coming. Over-causation

This personal bias is fundamental to our mental construct. Hume's Problem: domain dependent philosophers are out of touch beyond the venue of their expertise. Not recognizing their own subject in the texture of real life.

Framing is a condition where once you see something on paper you start believing in it. All statistics work like this. Once you establish a perceived pattern it is very hard to un-see. In general, the use of statistics leads to mediocrity as it smooths out all anomalies against the background. In historic research we instead see the exceptional, items not supported by statisticians because of their framing.

"Never take advice from someone wearing a suit and tie."

The notion is that a "professional" is going to profess, as that is his or her job. "Never ask a barber if you need a haircut". They will have an opinion because they want to validate their position in society. There is a critical lack of the ability to say "I don't know."

(Trungpa Rimpoche identified this as the "realm of the professional". Their key phrase: "Trust me.")

The real risk are theorist leaving their home of infinite number of possibilities and applying such mindsets to practice. Better is to practice - then theorize. Then you are working with givens and constraints.

A discipline for the professional: don't tell people what they should do, tell them what they shouldn't. Your theories are nebulous and unproven. Your mistakes are concrete lessons learned from experience. There is a survival reason to keep elders around: they remember things that actually happened and therefore draw conclusions from givens.

Conversly, don't ask what should you do, ask what you should not do.

Lebanon-born, polyglot, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a scholar of randomness and knowledge, a mathematical finance practitioner, and author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Homepage

Skeptical empiricist Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, has bracing things to say about the future. It is inevitable that we will be massively blindsided by events, because our understanding is misled by an array of beguiling illusions about reality. Some lessons: Events are not predictable, but consequences are, so focus on preparedness. Pay attention to elders, because they've experienced more Black Swans. Check Wikipedia's bio of Taleb for more on the vividness of his ideas and exposition.

From the Long Now:

Dispatches from Extremistan

A “black swan,” Taleb explained, is an event which is 1) Hard to predict; 2) Highly consequential; 3) Wrongly retro-predicted. We pretend we know why the big event happened, and so entrench our inability to deal with the next world-changing improbable event.

Examples: Viagra, 9/11, Harry Potter, First World War, Beatles, the PC, Google, and the rise of any successful religion. History is dominated by sudden, lasting changes wrought by deeply unexpected events.

Part of the problem is that we ignore the “silent evidence” of the nonobserved and nonobservable. We compute probability from the success of survivors. No one writes or reads a book titled “How I Lost a Million Dollars.” Another problem is that we revise our own predictions and intentions unconsciously to match what actually happens. We disguise having been wrong by pretending we were right. This is “confirmation bias.”

There are TWO kinds of randomness, two realms in which events happen…

Mediocristan is dominated by the average— one new observation won’t change much. If you are measuring the weight of a large sample of humans, adding the heaviest person in the world won’t change the result, whereas measuring the average wealth of a large sample of humans would be transformed by adding the wealthiest person. Mediocristan is the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and of the Gaussian Bell Curve.

Extremistan is dominated by extremes. Every year 16,000 novels are published in English. A handful of best-sellers absolutely dominate. This is the realm of the power-law curve and the Long Tail. Extremistant defies prediction. You can say there will be a few monsters and lots of midgets and the world will be changed by the monsters, and that’s all you can say.

Benoit Mandelbrot convinced Taleb that the main dynamic of Mediocristan is energy, and the main dynamic of Extremistan is information. Anything social is Extremistan.

Thus there are two kinds of experts. A soufflé chef really is an expert and can be trusted. An economist is a pseudo-expert. “Never take advice from someone wearing a tie.” All you get from a Council of Economic Advisors is an illusion of control. Stock market analysts have proved to be worse than nothing.

Don’t focus on probability. Focus on consequences. Black Swans will come. Prepare against the negative ones; be ready to soar with the positive ones.

Pay attentive heed to tradition and old people— they have experienced more Black Swans.

PS… All of the SALT speakers perform for free. Taleb added the further generosity of insisting on paying for his travel and lodging. Extra thanks to him for that.

       --Stewart Brand

"The Power of Ideas, what ideas do we need for the future" Peter Schwartz

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

"How Long is Your Now? How Big is Your Here?"

Time frames in a few years: things look to be getting worse. Time frames over centuries: things are getting quite a bit better.

Every view of the future:
  1. Long term dynamics of how things happen
  2. How those play out
  3. See the consequences
  4. Use those insights to guide present choices

In the long run, Humanity is in a constant struggle to:
  1. Keep from killing each other too much
  2. Live within our means
  3. Live meaningful life
  4. Enable us to do great things

Powerful ideas are not always really good ones. Religion or Communism have tremendous power, and some have staying power because people continue to believe in them.

Cosmology really does matter: it defines the limits of your thinking. Ideas come from ideas, and they come from tools. Without givens ideas don't evolve.

Bib: Constant Battles

Peter Schwartz:

From the Long Now:

The art of the really long view

For such a weighty subject there was a lot of guffawing going on in the Seminar Thursday night.

The topic was "The Art of the Really Long View." Peter Schwartz chatted through his slides for tonight's lecture, then the discussion waded in. Present were Danny Hillis, Leighton Read, Angie Thieriot, Ryan Phelan, David Rumsey, Eric Greenberg, Kevin Kelly, Anders Hove, Schwartz, and me.

The event was very well audio and video taped, so we can link you to a fuller version later. For now, here's a few of my notes.

Much of discussion circled around Schwartz's assertion that the most durable and influential of human artifacts are IDEAS. And a distinction worth drawing is between POWERFUL ideas and GOOD ideas. Not all powerful ideas turn out to be good, in the long run. For example, Schwartz proposed that monotheism has been an extremely powerful idea, dominating all kinds of human activity for millennia, but its overall goodness is increasingly questionable.

Or take the powerful idea of Communism and the powerful idea of Capitalism. Looking at them when both were being touted as world solutions around, say, 1890, how would you distinguish which one was likelier to play out as good? Most of us, then, would probably have given the nod to Communism, particularly in light of robber-baron excesses in the US, etc.

Danny Hillis proposed that bad powerful ideas are essentially collective hallucinations which mask reality, whereas good powerful ideas have built into them all kinds of reality checks. So Capitalism---expressed as markets---has prevailed so far because it is an emergent, distributed, out-of-control feedback system.

Some notable quotes (among many):

    "The future is the ONLY thing we can do anything about." --Hillis

    "Denial is a special case of optimism." --Leighton Read.

Revisiting Long Now's frequent chant that multiplying options is the great good to do for future generations, we examined the idea of "toxic choice"---for instance the stupefying multiplicity of choices in a supermarket or department store that make you long for a good boutique. "But lots of boutiques," said Ryan Phelan. "I've got it! " said Read, "We'll have two big toxic choice emporiums, connected by a bunch of boutiques! I think we've just invented the mall."

Contemplating work to be done, Schwartz said: "We know it would be a good idea to have the rule of law extended to include ecological systems, but we haven't figured out how to make that a powerful idea yet."

       --Stewart Brand

Inequity + Network = Power Curve - Chris Anderson, Will Hearst

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

The Long Time Tail
  1. The great limiter to a curve isn't so obvious. Walmart music section my have a few ten thousand options. Rhapsody has literally millions. The upper limit is defined by what people will listen to, the total notes in a music system etc. Shelf-space is still a fundamental limitation.
  2. Per the founder of Netflix: the true power in today's media is the recommendation. This is free advertising that is pinpoint accurate to the consumer. Get the consumer to self-identify their need and it isn't advertising - it is content as valid as the entertainment.
  3. Books are limited not by shelf-space, but the human language of the library.
  4. Copyright laws are likely holding back the potential of humanity by keeping material out of circulation on the prospect that could be made of nostalgia.
  5. In today's media market, the editor has moved from the role of arbiter to curator. Major hits still make money, but their market share is dwarfed by the vast amateur media market.
  6. News is no longer news. It is opinion framing. Journalism doesn't exist: material is gathered by freelance photographers and sold to Tokyo, London, and New York to be packaged and opinions by experts slathered on top to make it palatable. Citizen news has much more validity than network news.

Chris Anderson

Will Hearst

From the Long Now:

The power law is the shape of our age

You know something is up when an audience member is taking cell phone photos of the presenter’s slides for instant transmittal to a business partner.

Chris Anderson does have killer slides, full of exuberant detail, defining the exact shape of the still emerging opportunity space for finding and selling formerly infindable and unsellable items of every imaginable description. The 25 million music tracks in the world. All the TV ever broadcast. Every single amateur video. All that is old, arcane, micro-niche, against-the-grain, undefinable, or remote is suddenly as accessible as the top of the pops.

“The power law is the shape of our age,” Anderson asserted, showing the classic ski-jump curve of popularity— a few things sell in vast quantity, while a great many things sell in small quantity. It’s the natural product of variety, inequality, and network effect sifting, which amplifies the inequality.

“Everything is measurable now,” said Anderson, comparing charts of sales over time of a hit music album with a niche album. The hit declined steeply, the niche album kept its legs. The “long tail” of innumerable tiny-sellers is populated by old hits as well as new and old niche items. That’s the time dimension. For the first time in history, archives have a business model. Old stuff is more profitable because the acquisition cost is lower and customer satisfaction is higher. Infinite-inventory Netflix occupies the sweet spot for movie distribution, while Blockbuster is saddled with the tyranny of the new.

Anderson explained that we are leaving an age where distribution was ruled by channel scarcity— 3 TV networks, only so many movie theater screens, limited shelf space for books. “Those scarcity effects make a bottleneck that distorts the market and distorts our culture. Infinite shelf space changes everything.” Books are freed up by print-on-demand (already a large and profitable service at Amazon), movies freed by cheap DVDs, old broadcast TV by classics collections, new videos by Google Videos and You Tube online. Even the newest game machines are now designed to be able to emulate their earlier incarnations, so you can play the original “Super Mario Bros.” if so inclined— and many are.

“I’m an editor of a Conde-Nast magazine [Wired] AND I’m a blogger,” said Anderson. In other words, he works both in the fading world of “pre-filters” and the emerging world of “post-filters.” Pre-filtering is ruled by editors, A&R guys (”artist and repertoire,” the talent-finders in the music biz), studio execs, and capital-B Buyers. Post-filtering is driven by readers, recommenders, word of mouth, and buyers.

Will Hearst joined Anderson on the stage and noted that social networking software has automated word of mouth, and that’s what has “unchoked the long tail of sheer obscure quantity in the vast backlog of old movies, for example.” Anderson agreed, “The marketing power of customer recommendations is the main driver for Netflix, and it is zero-cost marketing.”

“By democratizing the tools of distribution, we’re seeing a Renaissance in culture. We’re starting to find out just how rich our society is in terms of creativity,” Anderson said. But isn’t there a danger, he was asked from the audience, of our culture falling apart with all this super-empowered diversity? Anderson agreed that we collect strongly and narrowly around our passions now, rather than just weakly and widely around broadcast hits, but the net gain of overall creativity is the main effect, and a positive one.

Questions remain, though. “Digital rights is the elephant in the room of freeing the long tail.” Clearing copyright on old material is a profoundly wedged process at present, with no solution in sight. Will Hearst fretted that we may be becoming an “opinionocracy,” swayed by TV bloviators and online bloggers, losing the grounding of objective reporting. Anderson observed that maybe the two-party system is a pre-long-tail scarcity effect that suppresses the diversity we’re now embracing. Much of how we run our culture has yet to catch up with the long tail.

       --Stewart Brand

Welcome to the Anthropocene: we are small potatoes. - John Baez

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

Zooming Out on Time:

Our sense of time is laughably constrained to scale so small as to be perfectly inconsequential. When you zoom way out on history we see a much more varied climate. We should understand our petri dish bubble in history to be an incredible blessing and assume that our luck won't continue.

John Baez:

From the Long Now:
Welcome to the Anthropocene

The graphs we see these days, John Baez began, all look vertical— carbon burning shooting up, CO2 in the air shooting up, global temperature shooting up, and population still shooting up. How can we understand what really going on? “It’s like trying to understand geology while you’re hanging by your fingernails on a cliff, scared to death. You think all geology is vertical.”

So, zoom out for some perspective. An Earth temperature graph for the last 18,000 years shows that we’ve built a false sense of security from 10,000 years of unusually stable climate. Even so, a “little dent” in the graph of a drop of only 1 degree Celsius put Europe in a what’s called “the little ice age” from 1555 to 1850. It ended just when industrial activity took off, which raises the question whether it was us that ended it.

Nobel laureate atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen suggests that the current geological era should be called the “Anthropocene,” because it is increasingly dominated by human-caused effects. Baez noted that oil companies now can send their tankers through a Northwest Passage that they may have created, since it is fossil fuel burning that raised the CO2 that raised the summer temperatures in the Arctic that melts the polar ice away from the land.

Zoom out further still to the last 65 million years. The temperature graph shows several major features. One is the rapid (every 100,000 years) wide swings of major ice ages. When they began, 1.35 million years ago, is when humans mastered fire. But almost all of the period was much warmer than now, with ferns growing in Antarctica. “Now it’s cold. What’s wrong with a little warming?” Baez asked.

The problem is that the current warming is happening too fast.

Studies of 1,500 species in Europe show that their ranges are moving north at 6 kilometers a decade, but the climate zones are moving north at 40 kilometers a decade, faster than they can keep up. The global temperature is now the hottest it’s been in 120,000 years. One degree Celsius more and it will be the hottest since 1.35 million years ago, before the ice ages. Baez suggested that the Anthropocene may be characterized mainly by species such as cockroaches and raccoons that accommodate well to humans. Coyotes are now turning up in Manhattan and Los Angeles. There are expectations that we could lose one-third of all species by mid-century, from climate change and other human causes.

Okay, to think about major extinctions, zoom out again. Over the last 550 million years there have been over a dozen mass extinctions, the worst being the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, when over half of all life disappeared. The cause is still uncertain, but one candidate is the methane clathrates (”methane ice”) on the ocean floor. Since methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, massive “burps” of the gas could have led to sudden drastic global heating and thus the huge die-off of species. Naturally the methane clathrates are being studied as an industrial fuel for when the oil runs out in this century, “which could make our effect on global warming 10,000 times worse,” Baez noted.

“Zooming out in time is how I calm myself down after reading the newspapers,” Baez concluded. “A mass extinction is a sad thing, but life does bounce back, and it gets more interesting each time. We probably won’t kill off all life on Earth. But even if we do, there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and ten billion galaxies in the observable universe.”

       --Stewart Brand