Most of you know that I have a reputation for optimism. I find that irritating since, in fact, I have a rather low opinion of humanity and of our dismal historical record. I know the odds are against us, especially in a galaxy that seems devoid of voices. Still… I find today’s fashion for universal cynicism – spanning from left to right – to be not only tedious and dull, but fantastically unhelpful. The Enlightenment, the best thing that our species or planet ever did, thrives on a confident, can-do, problem solving spirit. Not the sick drug of pessimistic sanctimony.
I’ve long pointed to work done by Prof. Steven Pinker and others, showing that inter-human violence has fallen steeply (on average and per capita) every decade since the end of World War II. Civilization’s moral compass has swerved in powerfully positive ways. Although the campaign to rid ourselves of racism, sexism and other sicknesses is far from done, those ancient ills were taken for granted in most cultures but are now driven into ill repute. As the environmentalist author of EARTH, I feel we’ll become good planetary managers as much by learning from what we’ve started doing well, as from self-flagellation.
So I had to pause and wonder why I was irked by an article in The Spectator (UK), blithely declaring that “2012 was the best year ever! Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity.” It’s not that any single thing the author wrote was wrong: the campaign to halve world poverty reached its goal seven years early, for example, in 2008, and no one said a thing. The list of good news is long, amazing and encouraging. The author is right to point out that gloom blinds us to hope.
Still, as a “contrarian” I find occasional outbursts of fizzy optimism just as grating as the much more common habit of grotesquely thoughtless grumpiness. The optimists are more-right and more-helpful, by far! Still, do read this article. He’s completely right! Yet the aroma of smug satisfaction is almost as bothersome to me as the overwhelming stench of me-too cynicism rising from millions. We have grownup work to do. Both sides… grow up.
== Interesting Miscellany ==
The rest of this posting sweeps up a wide melange of miscellaneously enticing items: enjoy.
My friend Kevin Kelly offers a fascinating perspective on the meaning of General Transparency in the era of YouTube. “Cameras are becoming ubiquitous, so as our collective recorded life expands, we’ll accumulate thousands of videos showing people being struck by lightning. When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable accident, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of our 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we’ll float in extraordinariness.” And “Over time this extremism accumulates. When the improbable dominates the archive to the point that it seems as if the library contains ONLY the impossible, then these improbabilities don’t feel as improbable.”
See a review of Jared Diamond’s new book “The World Until Yesterday.” The span and thrust are pretty clear — it seems a much less important a contribution than Guns, Germs and Steel or Collapse, at least on the grand level of sweeping ideas.
In portraying the wisdom — and some systematic errors — of tribal societies, Diamond comes down as he did in the disappointing final chapters of Collapse, deeply skeptical of modernity and its prospects for achieving respect-worthy civilization. He expresses nostalgia for the primitive that – while sometimes insightful and willing to perceive warts – can also, in some campus communities, turn into a fetish. Indeed, in EXISTENCE I portray him as an archetype for one variety of renunciationism — a philosophy you’ll be hearing more about as we head toward the mid-century crisis of choice — whether our path will be forward or back.
Still, I always recommend Jared Diamond’s works. He is a major thinker and you will be broadened. Though it’s rare to come across wisdom as fine as Jonas Salk’s succinct: “Be a good ancestor.”
=== Fun numeralogy and destiny ==
Interesting facts about 2013: - first year with four distinct digits since 1987 - first since 1432 with four consecutive digits!
The secret bad day? January 13, 2014 could be viewed as the 13th day of the 13th month of the 13th year
Oh but the biggest deal? The Fourteenth Year. You’ll be hearing more about this from me. The fact that the 20th Century “began” in all its character, in 1914… as the 19th Century began with Napolean’s defeat in 1814. It is a daunting trend to contemplate, if you let it really sink in.
Heck let’s spread our sources wider from Jared Diamond and glance at another take that’s relevant: Joseph Tainter’s (1990) book: The Collapse of Complex Societies contains Tainter’s theory within the title. Tainter appears to take the view that the social complexity of major urban cultures creates the seeds of collapse through an inevitable process. Rising populations, over-used resources, growing stratification of classes, difficulties of allocation and management, all of these problems can be solved by innovation and determination. But unlike Toynbee, who sees ongoing renewal in a culture’s “creative minority,” Tainter says that this renewal process gets harder and harder to maintain, with ever diminishing rates of return. In this dour view – somewhat of a cross between Marx and Spengler – Tainter seems to agree with Diamond that our sole hope for long term stability is to rein in ambition, to reduce complexity, even if that requires some degree of suppression…
If you’ve read my review of Collapse, you know how highly I think of Diamond’s scholarly efforts to warn us of problems… and how little I think of his proposed solutions.
Me? When it comes to prescriptions, I’ll go with Toynbee. We need a vigorous society, not a cowardly one. A culture that invests eagerly in its creative minority.
== Making a new world ==
So, is the “maker movement” going to rescue American manufacturing independence… and civilization in general, as some tech-utopians not predict? (And as I depict in my graphic novel TINKERERS.) Have a look at a very thoughtful essay in Technology Review that considers some factors that the tech-transcendentalists – in their zeal to believe – may have missed.
While we’re on new worlds: “Dio” is a new endeavor by Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, to do something I had been aiming at with my Holocene invention, empowering folks and businesses to create their own virtual worlds. It looks pretty crude so far… and could definitely be vastly improved with my patents… but I’d be interested in what people think, who try it out.
Why Silicon Valley innovation has stalled. A fascinating article that uses a simple metaphor to show what’s wrong with the current Startup-VC Mentality. “Unlike medical research, or for that matter microprocessor engineering, the current internet space is largely driven by people trying to make a fast buck as opposed to people working at the edge of the envelope.” … “People aren’t driving new technological innovations so much as they’re creating convenience models…. There’s nothing wrong with entrepreneurs seizing a business opportunity, but what is disconcerting is how this entire segment has convinced themselves that they are on the cutting edge of innovation and have all the answers. Using the medical analogy, the current environment in the internet space essentially tells people that they will make more money as a pre-med dropout opening clinics than as a serious researcher looking for a cure for cancer.”
Tell me about it. I have patented several dozen fundamental interaction modalities that would enhance online communications. But they do not fit the “massage what’s familiar” mindset of those who have made billions milking the obvious and plucking the low-hanging fruit.
Ah but want good news? Sales of super-efficient and durable LED light bulbs are skyrocketing as prices fall, posing a new challenge for manufacturers. LED lights offer higher profit margins, but because they can last for decades, people will be buying fewer bulbs — of any sort. The Energy Information Administration estimates that total light bulb sales will fall by almost 40 percent by 2015, to just under a billion from 1.52 billion bulbs, and continue their decline to about 530 million by 2035, with LEDs making up a steadily increasing portion of the market. New versions even accept bluetooth commands to adjust color or output on demand. (We’ve spent to LED our highest use areas and will shift each room as prices keep falling. This is an ingredient in world-saving.
Do you tire of videos everybody says you HAVE to watch? This kite-flying display – Romancing the Wind – is spectacular… by a Canadian in his 80s. More sublime than you ever could have expected.
Danger 5 is the most creative comedy I’ve seen since Coupling. (Sort of WW2 in the 1960’s with cheesy special effects). Then go to hulu.com and watch the 2 episodes they have up. New ones added every Sunday. “Team, your mission is to stop the flow of weapons into France and above all, Go Kill Hitler!”
Ooooh I am so so tempted by this… Father hires virtual hitman to assassinate deadbeat son in online video game. Get off! Go outside and throw a ball.
== More Marvelous Miscellany ==
A contemplation of Shakespeare and Galileo..both born in 1564 (450 years ago next year).Galileo supposedly the day Michaelangelo died. And Newton born the year Galileo died. Ah cue Rod Serling.
Kickstarter projects come in a wide range of ambitions. Here is one at the high end. Motion capture maven Tracy McSheery is participating in a project to create an animated movie: Tower of the Dragon, with just $50,000 of startup funds. See” Features some cool freebies.
Here’s a short film Tom Munnecke did a while back about Jonas Salk’s “good ancestor theme.”
Speaking of ancestors, the appropriately named CRACKED site has distilled why we do not need social status in society to be something that’s inherited (as ruined 99% of human cultures.) See: The 5 Most Hilariously Insane Rulers of All Time. Though poorly-written and historically flakey in spots, it is still tragically funny. Even if it leaves out the worst loony monarchs, by far. Try Victoria’s grandsons “Nicky” and “Willy.” Time travelers… skip Hitler and take out those two. If the Kaiser and Czar had had “accidents” in 1913, Adolph would’ve become a minor animation frame painter in Disney’s 1930s Star Wars studio.
This is exactly what the Age of Amateurs should and will be about. A woman who is a professional hairdresser became fascinated with images of Roman and Greek women in complex tresses. She recreated scores of them for an archaeological journal, proving that they had been real, held by needle and thread, rather than wigs. There was no guild opposition to her contribution, only enthusiastic help… as I have found when I published papers about Neoteny, anthropology, addiction and so on.
== And a final sweep of coolstuff ==
The British Interplanetary Society offers a lovely retrospective on pioneering space artists including the great Chesley Bonestall
Zoom in and find yourself! A census dotmap of every person counted by the US & Canadian censuses.
Askimo TV is an interesting concept… a collation of pod video interviews with experts on a wide array of curiosity topics. What do you think of it?
ouch… The website “SSRI Stories: Antidepressant Nightmares” offers a sortable database of more than 4,800 newspaper articles, scientific journal reports, and TV news items linking antidepressant use to cases of extreme violence. Not taking sides. Just so you know.
Petra Haden’s amazing a capella renditions of movie scores... scroll down and play the whole thing!
Raspberry Pi is a palm-sized full computer – announced in 2012 (here among other places) selling for under $50 — for a bare circuit board that runs free linux on a 700Mhz processor using an SD card instead of hard drive, but with two USB and one ethernet ports to let you link in your stuff. According to tech-biz guru Doug Hornig: “Interest ran so high in the first days that it stalled the sites of the shops selling the computers. Moreover, that demand has proven durable. Premier Farnell, one of the two authorized manufacturers of the product (RS Components is the other), announced in January that it has sold more than a half-million units. RS Components, which took 100,000 pre-orders on day one, is apparently selling them equally briskly, so it’s likely that there are now a million of the devices out there.”
A whole amateur maker trend is finding uses for the things and they have abounded with an app store and “Raspberry Jams” – meetups of enthusiasts. Google is giving 15,000 to schools in the UK. Competitors in the under $100 space to lookup: Mini X, Oval Elephant, Cubieboard, and Olimex. Hornig adds: “It just might be that manufacturers of these microdevices are sowing the seeds for the next crop of young hackers (who will increasingly come from the developing world, as all of its nascent talents are released).”
My friend and Colleague Matt Pallamary has written some wonderful things. Now it seems that this year’s production from Austin based aerialist group Sky Candy is based on Matt’s novel Land Without Evil, which tells the tale of the physical and spiritual journey a Guarani Indian man undertakes in order to lead his people to a mythical place of peace. Austin Public television also offers a cool peek at the performance.
Want to see the effects of Twitter on the dumbing down of people? Go to Google and type in “How can u” and see their suggested continuations. Then type in “How can an individual” ’nuff said.