The Long Now Foundation is dedicated to long-term thinking. I’ve been a member for quite a few years now …which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very long at all.
One of their projects is Long Bets. It sets out to tackle the problem that “there’s no tax on bullshit.” Here’s how it works: you make a prediction about something that will (or won’t happen) by a particular date. So far, so typical thought leadery. But then someone else can challenge your prediction. And here’s the crucial bit: you’ve both got to place your monies where your mouths are.
Ten years ago, I made a prediction on the Long Bets website. It’s kind of meta:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
That was ten years ago today. There’s just one more year to go until the pleasingly alliterative date of 2022-02-22 …or as the Long Now Foundation would write it, 02022-02-22 (gotta avoid that Y10K bug).
It is looking more and more likely that I will lose this bet. This pleases me.
I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.
Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.
If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?
You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:
Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.
Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.
It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.
But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.
The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:
Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.
I lived in Germany for the latter half of the nineties. On August 11th, 1999, parts of Germany were in the path of a total eclipse of the sun. Freiburg—the town where I was living—wasn’t in the path, so Jessica and I travelled north with some friends to Karlsruhe.
The weather wasn’t great. There was quite a bit of cloud coverage, but at the moment of totality, the clouds had thinned out enough for us to experience the incredible sight of a black sun.
(The experience was only slightly marred by the nearby idiot who took a picture with the flash on right before totality. Had my eyesight not adjusted in time, he would still be carrying that camera around with him in an anatomically uncomfortable place.)
Eighteen years and eleven days later, Jessica and I climbed up a hill to see our second total eclipse of the sun. The hill is in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Travelling thousands of miles just to witness something that lasts for a minute might seem disproportionate, but if you’ve ever been in the path of totality, you’ll know what an awe-inspiring sight it is (if you’ve only seen a partial eclipse, trust me—there’s no comparison). There’s a primitive part of your brain screaming at you that something is horribly, horribly wrong with the world, while another part of your brain is simply stunned and amazed. Then there’s the logical part of your brain which is trying to grasp the incredible good fortune of this cosmic coincidence—that the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and also happens to be 400 times the distance away.
This time viewing conditions were ideal. Not a cloud in the sky. It was beautiful. We even got a diamond ring.
I like to think I can be fairly articulate, but at the moment of totality all I could say was “Oh! Wow! Oh! Holy shit! Woah!”
Our two eclipses were separated by eighteen years, but they’re connected. The Saros 145 cycle has been repeating since 1639 and will continue until 3009, although the number of total eclipses only runs from 1927 to 2648.
Eighteen years and twelve days ago, we saw the eclipse in Germany. Yesterday we saw the eclipse in Idaho. In eighteen years and ten days time, we plan to be in Japan or China.
Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.
The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.
A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.
Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.
Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:
Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.
I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.
One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.
Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.
This site is a presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the renowned 17th century diarist who lived in London, England. A new entry written by Pepys will be published each day over the course of several years; 1 January 1660 was published on 1 January 2003.
I’m a big fan of long-term thinking and—in web terms—this project is as old as Methuselah. It’s refreshing. In an industry so caught up in the churn and grind of the new and the shiny, I think it’s wonderful that Phil dedicated himself to a project that he knew would require a long-term investment of his time. Russell wrote about it in Wired recently:
In some worlds ten years isn’t very long: it’s not if you’re digging an undersea tunnel or discovering a cure for disease. But in the busy, silly world of early 21st-century media, making a ten-year assertion was a big deal — something akin to the Clock of the Long Now.
I’ll be sorry to see you go, Mister time-shifted Pepys. But I understand that it’s hard for you to keep writing a diary when your eyesight is failing.
The ill condition of my eyes, and my neglect for a year or two, hath kept me behindhand in my accounts, so as to render it difficult now.
Our perception and measurement of time has changed as our civilisation has evolved. That change has been driven by networks, from trade routes to the internet.
I was pretty happy with how it turned out. It was a 40 minute talk that was pretty evenly split between the past and the future. The first 20 minutes spanned from 5,000 years ago to the present day. The second 20 minutes looked towards the future, first in years, then decades, and eventually in millennia. I was channeling my inner James Burke for the first half and my inner Jason Scott for the second half, when I went off on a digital preservation rant.
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
I made the prediction on February 22nd last year (a terrible day for New Zealand). The prediction will reach fruition on 02022-02-22 …I quite like the alliteration of that date.
Here’s how I justified the prediction:
“Cool URIs don’t change” wrote Tim Berners-Lee in 01999, but link rot is the entropy of the web. The probability of a web document surviving in its original location decreases greatly over time. I suspect that even a relatively short time period (eleven years) is too long for a resource to survive.
Well, during his excellent Webstock talk Matt announced that he would accept the challenge. He writes:
Though much of the web is ephemeral in nature, now that we have surpassed the 20 year mark since the web was created and gone through several booms and busts, technology and strategies have matured to the point where keeping a site going with a stable URI system is within reach of anyone with moderate technological knowledge.
The detailed terms of the bet have been set as follows:
On February 22nd, 2022 from 00:01 UTC until 23:59 UTC,
entering the characters http://www.longbets.org/601 into the address bar of a web browser or command line tool (like curl)
using a web browser to follow a hyperlink that points to http://www.longbets.org/601
return an HTML document that still contains the following text:
“The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.”
As expected, it’s an excellent talk. I caught the start of it on my walk in to work this morning and I picked up where I left off on my walk home this evening. In fact, I deliberately didn’t get the bus home—despite the cold weather—so that I’d get plenty of listening done.
Round about the 23 minute mark he starts talking about Open Library, the fantastic project that George worked on to provide a web page for every book. He describes how it works as a lending library where an electronic version of a book can be checked out by one person at a time:
You can click on: hey! there’s this HTML5 For Web Designers. We bought this book—we bought this book from a publisher such that we could lend it. So you can say “Oh, I want to borrow this book” and it says “Oh, it’s checked out.” Darn! And you can add it to your list and remind yourself to go and get it some other time.
Holy crap! Did Brewster Kahle just use my book to demonstrate Open Library‽
It literally stopped me in my tracks. I stopped walking and stared at my phone, gobsmacked.
It was a very surreal moment. It was also a very happy moment.
Now I’m documenting that moment—and I don’t just mean on a third-party service like Twitter or Facebook. I want to be able to revisit that moment in the future so I’m documenting it at my own URL …though I’m very happy that the Internet Archive will also have a copy.