Clockmaking: 2

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Clockmaking

Well, I finished building my ROKR kit clock, and it works. Fully wound-up it runs for about 5-6 hours before friction defeats it. It makes a pleasantly organic tick-tock sound that I’m now addicted to. Makes me feel a bit like a GOD who created LIFE out of lifeless bits of matter! 😎😇.

It strikes me (heh!) that the default identity of a clock should be the signal it generates, translated to a sound or flow, rather than what it looks like physically. So I am going to lead with a tick-tock sound clip, the hello world of this clock…

hello world dot clock

I highly recommend this kit if you are in a mood to grok the headspace of the early scientific revolution circa 1600-1660, between Galileo and Huygens. Having built this clock, suddenly the Big Mood of that era feels a lot clearer.

I’m going to walk through the highlights of the build in this post, mainly with an eye to interesting appreciative reflections, but I’ll also share a few frustration-avoidance tips for those who might want to actually build this kit. While I was tweeting about this, a few people mentioned they’d bought and abandoned this kit halfway, or built it but failed to get it running, which is a pity, since it is a very satisfying build.

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MJD 59,128

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

Covid is the first global downgrade in the average human quality of life since World War 2. Some of the individual downgrades are adaptive for climate change as well, and will likely get locked in for a longer term. Lowered global human mobility at all scales, from local driving to international flying, feels like the biggest downgrade to me. It feels sad. Sad like a pay cut, but also sad like the ending of The Lord of the Rings. The end of an era. A paradise lost.

One sense seems to mitigate the sadness, and that is the sense of a closer connection to distant histories and futures. The world just got bigger in space, but smaller in time.

Reading about the Spanish Flu 100 years ago (1918-19), or the Black Death 670 years ago (1348-50), feels in some ways like reviewing my own memories from 6 months ago. Equally, the future 100 or 670 years out suddenly feels a lot more real. I now feel a lot closer to 2120, when Covid will merely be yet another endemic seasonal sniffle, and climate change impacts will be peaking. And to 2690, when the climate wars will likely have settled as a distant memory of a war won (or at least nobly or ignobly fought and survived by a few).

Thanks to Covid, we can now live more fully in what the Stewart Brand crowd calls the long now. It is one of the few tastes that’s easier to satisfy, rather than harder, post-Covid.

After a few decades of collective historic presentism, attended by a certain historical amnesia and future-blindness, we are once again tapping into historical currents that connect us to lives and events far in the past and future. An abstract sense of history and the future has suddenly turned as visceral as personal memory. Living humans, mostly born 1930-2020, have clumsily merged their stories into the larger story of humanity, 20,000 BC to 3000 AD. Through the merge conflict, those of us alive today can, if we choose, outgrow the sense of temporal exceptionalism that has been the human default for decades.

Paul Erdos was good at living in the long now:

In 1970 I preached in Los Angeles on ‘my first two-and-a-half billion years in mathematics.’ When I was a child, the earth was said to be two billion years old. Now scientists say it’s four and a half billion. So that makes me two-and-a-half billion. The students at the lecture drew a time line that showed me riding a dinosaur. I was asked, ‘How were the dinosaurs?’ Later, the right answer occurred to me: ‘You know, I don’t remember, because an old man only remembers the very early years, and the dinosaurs were born yesterday, only a hundred million years ago.'”

(from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman)

Before Covid, I was 45 years old, in the middle of say a 90-year life (if I’m lucky). Post-Covid I suddenly feel 670 years old, looking forward to a personal future that extends another 670 years out. I’m in the middle of a 1340-year long now. Some of my old posts in this vein (Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories, 2014 and A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality, 2013) suddenly feel a lot more real.

From a 1340-year long-now perspective, looking out at world events somehow feels less sad. The world eventfully existed for long before you and I were around, and will continue to exist for long after. We may be just passing through, playing at most a small part overall, but we don’t have to restrict our presence in the world to our lifespans. We can expand it to occupy the temporal span of all events we are capable of viscerally feeling.

Still, we can’t actually live for 1340 years, even if we get viscerally better at inhabiting such a long now. Living in the long now means feeling more time than you can touch. That begets a longing. Long-nowing means longing-now.

Mansionism 2: Bungalows

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mansionism

Though I’m big on climate-resilient futures, I have an ambivalent relationship with density as a means to achieve them. I mostly grew up in company bungalows on generous-sized lots, and loved it. Both the word and the architectural style are Indian in origin. The style originated in feudal-era Bengal and spread across north India during the British Raj. In North Indian languages, the word bangla refers both to the style of house and the Bengali language.

As a prominent Bengali nobleman, Rabindranath Tagore likely had mansion-scale super-bungalows in mind when he wrote (emphasis mine):

Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

I don’t mean to be snarky, but this is the mansion whose narrow domestic walls he was born and raised in:

Jorasanko Thakurbari, now Rabindra Bharati University (P. K. Niyogi, CC-BY-SA-3)

Tagore is an anglicization of Thakur, which is a feudal title like Lord, not a last name. The Tagore family mansion pictured above, Jorasanko Thakurbari, is now part of the campus of Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, a public university dedicated to a Tagoresque tradition of education.

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Notes: The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I read this next book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, by Benn Steil, in an attempt to take the idea of a “Marshall Plan for post-Covid recovery” seriously.

I’m glad I did because I apparently had an entirely misguided understanding of what the plan was, the context in which it was undertaken, how it worked, and how well it worked.

In the decades since the OG plan arguably saved postwar Europe from collapse, the idea of a “Marshall Plan for X” has become something of a cliche in policy circles, and an event like the Covid19 pandemic is perhaps the most tempting sort of binding for X. I myself tweeted on March 28 that maybe we should shoot for a “bottom-up OODA Marshall Plan” sometime in March.

Now, having read the book, I have to say, the Marshall Plan is perhaps not the best precedent to look at for today’s needs, even though there are elements worth learning from, mostly in the what not to do department. If there are lessons here for post-Covid, they are not the obvious ones.Here is the original thread. On to the notes.

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Epistemic Reserve Notes

The metaphor of learning-as-purchasing pervades language — “are you buyin’ this?”

What is the currency of knowledge exchange?

Perhaps it used to be ‘facts’ — but as explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, focusing on facts will never improve public discourse.

We need a new “epistemic currency,” common to everyone. Fortunately, one already exists, and it’s more fundamental than facts: Trust.

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Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

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Wittgenstein’s Revenge

We treat facts like they’re “atoms of truth” — small, indivisible, solid — and if you add them up, you get “big truths.”

But like atoms, facts are mostly empty space, and the closer we examine them, the less solidity we find.

It may be time to graduate from the metaphor of facts completely, to a metaphor that reflects a healthier relationship between truth and people.

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Hyperreality Prevails

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Albrecht Dürer. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.
23.5 cm × 29.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To picture a rhinoceros in Renaissance Portugal, consider the unicorn. Whether conflated with the oryx or the narwhal at its southernmost and northernmost coordinates, the unicorn was no less of a shapeshifter than Dionysus, who came from the East―the two sharing goatlike renditions; the axis, as Pliny described it, being “sacred to Bacchus.” The unicorn began its westward march during the Bronze Age, from the Indus Valley; its virtuous, convertible version as horned horse―beguiled and betrayed by a virgin―anchored in Late Antiquity by the Physiologus. The hunt of the unicorn established itself as a Christian allegory, laced with barely suppressed panic menace, through the Middle Ages. Save for a handful of scholars who insisted on the identity of both creatures, the rhinoceros was all but lost to Western memory.

Anonymous. The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead. 1495-1505. One of seven tapestries popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn. Wool, silk, silver, and gilt. The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Until 1515, there had been no rhinos in Europe since Roman times, when great exotics―animal and human―were consumed as entertainment. The Indian exemplar that arrived in Lisbon from Goa as a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I―and which drowned while being transported in the same capacity to Pope Leo X―was a time-traveller, an alien visitor, a royal hostage. It was beheld by two kings, examined by experts, dispersed by correspondents and inspired a curious woodcut as accompaniment to a self-effacing poemetto by a doctor Penni, whose claim to historical fame was to witness the beast.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s Forma & Natura & Costumi de lo Rinocerothe stato condutto importogallo dal Capitanio de larmata del Re & altre belle cose condutte dalle insule nouamente trouate. 1515. 10 cm × 9,5 cm. Institución Colombina, Seville.

A letter describing the rhino and a[nother] sketch of it wound their way to Nuremberg, where Albrecht Dürer took what best he could from them―and Pliny―to show accuracy is accessory to success. His was not the first impression of the creature, nor―unlike Hans Burgkmair’s coeval woodcut―was his accurate, but Dürer’s rhino was too real for reality to outcompete. Despite the reintroduction of rhinoceroses to Portuguese and Spanish courts in 1577―and their sporadic appearance in art, under sometimes very illustrious names, yet earlier―Dürer’s rhino served as his species’ ambassador to Europe until the Enlightenment.

Burgkmair, Hans. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.

The genius of Dürer’s rhino is partially encoded in its hyperreality. As it slouched westward over centuries, it became recognisable―in its resemblance to the concept of a rhino, and its deviance from it. Scholarly discussion on its skin abounds, with some opinions pointing to it not being hide, but hidden, armoured. After Pliny, King Manuel did try to make his beast combat one of his elephants, and the rhino’s portrait may include its cover as eventual automaton, test subject, neural link, cyborg. Unlike Burgkmair’s rhino, Dürer’s is also unchained, suggesting its identity as unicorn, the animal that can’t be captured lest through virgin eyes―like Dürer’s were. We may not have such eyes again.

The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

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Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

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