Deep Thoughts & Random Musings
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Hocus Locus
Posts: 850
Joined: Fri Sep 22, 2006 11:05 pm
Location: Lost in anamnesis, cannot forget my way out


The idea of the Clock is to encourage long-term thinking,
which is in short supply these days.

~Stewart Brand, president of the foundation

When I tell my friends about the millennium clock, either they get it or they don't.
~Danny Hillis, designer

The monumental scale clock would be built inside spectacular white limestone cliffs at 10,000 feet elevation on the west side of the Snake mountain range, Nevada, United States.. Most of the range is within the Great Basin National Park, which is America's newest national park, established in 01986.The Millennium Clock is being designed and built by Danny Hillis, designer of some of the world's fastest computers. Entirely mechanical rather than electronic, the Hillis clock design utilizes a new form of digital calculation and synchronizes with the noon sun to achieve reliable accuracy over very long periods of time. As Hillis first described the Clock in 01993, "It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium." A working prototype of the Clock, eight feet high, is now operational and began to tick on New Year's Eve 01999.


Long Now projects

The Clock of the Long Now A 10,000 Year Clock. "When you start thinking about building something that lasts that long, the real problem is not decay and corrosion, or even the power source. The real problem is people. If something becomes unimportant to people, it gets scrapped for parts; if it becomes important, it turns into a symbol and must eventually be destroyed. The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost."

Long Bets: Accountable Predictions:There is no maximum period.The subject of the Prediction or Bet must be societally or scientifically important. All Long Bets are about things that matter, directly or indirectly.Predictors and Bettors must provide an argument explaining why the subject of their prediction is important and why they think they will be proved right. Long Bets are not guesses. Each predictor has a theory of how the world will proceed, and that theory is made explicit. At the conclusion of each Prediction or Bet there will be public examination of the original argument(s), to see how they match with reality.

The Rosetta Project Fifty to ninety percent of the world's languages are predicted to disappear in the next century, many with little or no significant documentation. Language is both an embodiment of human culture, as well as the primary means of its maintenance and transmission. When languages are lost, the transmission of traditional culture is often abruptly severed meaning the loss of cultural diversity is tightly connected to loss of linguistic diversity. To stem the tide and help reverse this trend, we are working to promote human cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to make sure that no language vanishes without a trace. The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages. Since becoming a National Science Digital Library collection in 2004, the Rosetta Archive has more than doubled its collection size, now serving nearly 100,000 pages of material documenting over 2,500 languages-the largest resource of its kind on the Net.
The Clock of the Long Now
A 10,000 Year Clock

The idea to build a monument scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock as an icon to long term thinking came from computer scientist Danny Hillis and was published in the form of an email to friends. Later it was followed up with an essay published in the 01995 Wired magazine scenarios isssue (shown below). Danny reasoned that by actually building a remote monument, the discussions around long term thinking would be far more focused, and it would lend itself to good storytelling and myth. Two key requirements of anything lasting a long time.

In 01996 a group of these friends led by Stewart Brand incorporated a non profit around the idea of long term thinking and responsibility. This group became the founding board of The Long Now Foundation. One of the members, Peter Schwartz, suggested that 10,000 years be the time frame, as it was about how long humans have had a stable climate and technological progression.

In 01997 the Foundation held a design meeting around the 10,000 Year Clock idea where Danny presented his prototype of a binary mechanical computer. It was at this meeting the Foundation got its name from a Brian Eno, and its first employee Alexander Rose.

With a sponsor for the first prototype and a new project manager, Danny Hillis began to design the first prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock. This prototype was completed in 01999 on new years eve where it bonged very slowly... twice. This prototype is now at the Science Museum in London in the Making of the Modern World exhibit.

The next project undertaken was an orrery, (a planet tracking display), using the same mechanical computer. This project is complete as of the summer of 2005.

The Foundation is now looking to scale up the designs with lessons learned from these first two efforts into a monument sized version. We have purchased high desert mountain top property in eastern Nevada as the site for the public 10,000 Year Clock. We are currently designing this experience and the mechanisms that would be used in this large scale version. There is no projected completion date, it is an ongoing program.

Documentation and images of all of these efforts, as well as several other efforts inspired by this project, are shown in the Clock menu to the left.
The Millennium Clock

An essay by Danny Hillis from 01995

Some people say that they feel the future is slipping away from them. To me, the future is a big tractor-trailer slamming on its brakes in front of me just as I pull into its slip stream. I am about to crash into it.

When I was a kid, three decades ago, the future was a long way off - so was the turn of the millennium. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably remote. But the funny thing is, that in all these years, the future that people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future has been shrinking one year, per year, for my entire life. 2005 is still too far away to plan for and 2030 is too far away to even think about. Why bother making plans when everything will change?

How we name our years is part of the problem. Those three zeros in the millennium form a convenient barrier, a reassuring boundary by which we can hold on to the present and isolate ourselves from whatever comes next. Still, there is more to this shortening of the future than dates. It feels like something big is about to happen: graphs show us the yearly growth of populations, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, Net addresses, and Mbytes per dollar. They all soar up to form an asymptote just beyond the turn of the century: The Singularity. The end of everything we know. The beginning of something we may never understand.

I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing. Did the carpenters plant new trees to replace the beams again a few hundred years from now?

I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.

When I tell my friends about the millennium clock, either they get it or they don't. Most of them assume I'm not serious, or if I am, I must be having a midlife crisis. (That's nice, Danny, but why can't you just write a computer program to do the same thing? Or, Maybe you should start another company instead.) My friends who get it all have ideas that focus on a particular aspect of the clock. My engineering friends worry about the power source: solar, water, nuclear, geothermal, diffusion, or tidal? My entrepreneurial friends muse about how to make it financially self-sustaining. My writer friend, Stewart Brand, starts thinking about the organization that will take care of the clock. It's a Rorschach test - of time. Peter Gabriel, the musician, thinks the clock should be alive, like a garden, counting the seasons with short-lived flowers, counting the years with sequoias and bristlecone pines. Artist Brian Eno felt it should have a name, so he gave it one: The Clock of the Long Now.

Ten thousand years - the life span I hope for the clock - is about as long as the history of human technology. We have fragments of pots that old. Geologically, it's a blink of an eye. When you start thinking about building something that lasts that long, the real problem is not decay and corrosion, or even the power source. The real problem is people. If something becomes unimportant to people, it gets scrapped for parts; if it becomes important, it turns into a symbol and must eventually be destroyed. The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost. The Dead Sea Scrolls managed to survive by remaining lost for a couple millennia. Now that they've been located and preserved in a museum, they're probably doomed. I give them two centuries - tops.

The fate of really old things leads me to think that the clock should be copied and hidden. The idea of hiding the clock to preserve it has a natural corollary, but it takes Teller, the professional magician, to suggest it without shame: "The important thing is to make a very convincing documentary about building the clock and hiding it. Don't actually build one. That would spoil the myth if it was ever found." In a way, Teller is right.

The only clocks that have ever really survived over the long run (like the water clock of Su Sung, or the giant hourglass of Uqbar) have survived in books, drawings, and stories.

In the universe, pure information lives the longest. Bits last. Just before Jonas Salk died, I was lucky enough to sit next to him at a dinner. I didn't know him well, but in past conversations he had always encouraged my more mystical lines of thought. I was sure he would like the millennium clock.

I was disappointed by his response: "Think about what problem you are trying to solve. What question are you really trying to ask?"

I had never thought of the clock as a question. It was more of an answer, although I wasn't sure to what. I talked more, about the shrinking future, about the oak trees. "Oh, I see," Salk said. "You want to preserve something of yourself, just as I am preserving something of myself by having this conversation with you." I remembered this a few weeks later, when he died. "Be sure you think carefully about exactly what you want to preserve," he said.

OK, Jonas, OK, people of the future, here is a part of me that I want to preserve, and maybe the clock is my way of explaining it to you: I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

I have hope for the future.

~Danny Hillis
The five-digit year usage emerged in The Long Now Foundation as an emblem of very-long-term thinking. And Clock designer Danny Hillis did run into a Y10K glitch in Microsoft Excel when he was calculating planet orbits over the next several millennia: figures after the year 10,000 were screwy.

The surprising remark noted by Jonas Salk: "Be sure you think carefully about exactly what you want to preserve." resonates deeply with me -- for in the digital age, culling of the revised and the irrelevant is a greater challenge than preserving of the relevant. There is a natural human tendency to 'bail out' of the issue by taking the position that everything is important. as if the issue of noting the relevant is too cumbersome to approach, or is somehow inexorably linked to censorship. As the cacophony of this digital Internet age raises in pitch, publicly served 'transient' storage will always and ever exceed that 'secured storage' by an order of magnitude.

Salk's remark carries far more dark irony and gentle warning then he had intended -- as I noted recently here at BFN, that his own most personal message for humanity, a philosophical odyssey into topics of population and long term survival of species -- originally published in 1973 "Survival of the Wisest" -- is now out of print.

A personal glimpse into the 'Long Now' (and back home again), The Dreamer

Now... looking back at all we've had
We let so many dreams just slip through our hands
Why must we wait so long before we see
How sad the answers to those questions can be?
Do you know where you're going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to? Do you know?
Do you get what you're hoping for?
When you look behind you there's no open door
What are you hoping for?
Do you know?

~Theme from "Mahogany"
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