How to communicate with humans 10,000 years into the future

This week’s 99 Percent Invisible podcast tackles the complex problem of warning humans 10,000 years in the future to stay away from radioactive waste.

Languages change, so words won’t work. Take this example from Beowulf, which was written only one thousand years ago in English(!):

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

What about symbols?

Unfortunately, even symbols can change meaning over a few centuries. Take the skull and crossbones. Here’s how it’s evolved in meaning over the recent past:

  1. Resurrection
  2. A sailor died; let’s hope he’s resurrected someday; we’ll put a skull and crossbones next to his name to indicate such
  3. Before we capture this ship, we ought to hoist a flag indicating the seriousness of our threat
  4. Speaking of threats, don’t drink dangerous chemicals!

What if you drew a cartoon-like sequence of stick-figures to illustrate the danger of touching radioactive waste?

To do so, you’d need to assume the humans of the future will read from write to left–which dramatically changes the meaning of your stick-figure sequence.

So if words don’t work and symbols don’t work, what does?


Nadia Bolz Weber: “Stop Saying the Church is Dying”

From Nadia Bolz Weber’s sermon at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly of the ELCA, although she could have been talking about most churches in America:

It’s no news to anyone here that there is a lot of hand-wringing these days about the longevity of the Lutheran church. And yeah – to be sure, we used to be bigger, more significant and more impressive. Sure, we used to own more property, have more members, bring in more cash and leverage more power than we do today. It’s hard to argue with numbers. But the thing is, buildings, numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but brothers and sisters, they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom. I mean, were this denomination of ours a company, then for sure, investors would be scurrying for cover. But, people of God, maybe now is the time for us to take a hard look at the ways in which the church has tended to judge our success on a set of values that perhaps we had no business buying into in the first place.

The rest is here. Recommended.

The origins of the phrase “pulp fiction”

From Nicholas Basbanes’ On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, which is excellent:

Making ground wood pulp involves little more than cutting logs of equal length from freshly harvested trees, peeling off the bark, and grinding the stripped bolts that remain against a rotating stone under a stream of water. Once it’s reduced to finely shredded bundles of fiber, more water is added to produce a pulp; as the technology advanced, a disk-type mill was adapted to hasten the task. Cellulose fiber obtained in this manner is adequate for most applications, but the downside is the presence of a brown-colored chemical compound commonly found in trees known as lignin. . . . Lignin’s natural function is to cement tree fibers together by filling the spaces within the cell walls between the ropelike cellulose bundles. . . but when allowed to remain in pulp, it is unstable, and its brittle nature makes for a frail sheet of paper that yellows over time when exposed to air and sunlight.

When it was introduced commercially in the 1860s, the mechanical process simply yield paper with impurities left in; it was fast, easy, and useful for products such as wrapping paper that were never intended to last long in the first place. The reason newspapers printed on wood pulp turn yellow with age–and indeed why the phrase “pulp fiction” entered the language to identify inexpensive books of little literary merit printed on cheap paper that rapidly deteriorates–can be credited to lignin.

This book is filled with hundreds of pages of anecdotes like this. Recommended.

How much more you’re worth to marketers if you’re pregnant

Janet Vertesi was pregnant, and tried to hide it from the internet:

Pregnant women are incredibly valuable to marketers. For example, if a woman decides between Huggies and Pampers diapers, that’s a valuable, long-term decision that establishes a consumption pattern. According to Vertesi, the average person’s marketing data is worth 10 cents; a pregnant woman’s data skyrockets to $1.50. And once targeted advertising finds a pregnant woman, it won’t let up.

Reminds me of Alexis Madrigal’s post from a couple years ago: If It Wasn’t the Pregnancy Tests, Why *Did* Baby Catalogs Start Arriving at Our House?

What it feels like to get bitten by a black widow spider

It doesn’t sound fun.

By now the cramping had migrated into my groin area, and I was beginning to wonder what was in store. I was told that an anti-venom does indeed exist, but it’s kept in Arizona, and is highly toxic in and of itself, so they don’t fly that in unless I was otherwise at risk (toddler, elderly, poor immune system). So, my fate was to get jacked up on opiates and survive the onslaught of the neurotoxin from the spider which would otherwise cause tremendous pain and cramping for the next 6 hours.

Other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve


Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.

This imagined simplicity of others’ problems presents a contrast to the intangible burdens of post-industrial societies. Western nations are full of well-fed individuals plagued by less explicit hardships such as the disintegration of communities and the fraying of relationships against the possibilities of endless choices. The burdens of manic consumption and unabated careerism are not as easily pitied as crumbling shanties and begging babies. Against this landscape, volunteerism presents an escape, a rare encounter with an authenticity sorely missed, hardship palpably and physically felt — for a small price.

Reminds me of an excellent essay I came across a few years ago by Jo Ann Van Engen:

How would we feel if visitors came to the United States to spend a week volunteering at the Salvation Army, ate only the food they brought from home, talked only with each other (because they couldn’t speak English) and never left the building? Most of us would feel offended and bewildered that our visitors were not interested in learning about our country. . . . They take along the food they are used to (or eat every night at McDonald’s), stay in the best hotels, and spend all their time together. They are willing to serve as long as it’s not too uncomfortable. Often, they leave without having spent meaningful time getting to know the country’s people. . . . Third-world people do not need more rich Christians coming to paint their church and make them feel inadequate. They do need more humble people willing to share in their lives and sacrifices.

How first class airline seats are designed

David Owen has a fascinating piece in The New Yorker on how first class airline seats are designed.

If you checked into a luxury hotel and were taken to a room the size of a first-class airplane cabin, and told that you’d be sharing it with eleven people you didn’t know, all of whom would be sleeping within a few feet of your own skinny bed, you wouldn’t be thrilled, especially if you were paying twenty thousand dollars for the experience. Yet it’s not unheard of for people who travel long distances in really good seats to remember the flight as one of the best parts of their trip. Making them feel that way requires a particular kind of design and engineering skill, along with what amounts, almost, to psychological sleight of hand.

And this:

The plane had two business-class sections: a small one, with just eight seats, directly behind first class, and a larger one behind that, with thirty-four seats. To keep the larger section from seeming enormous (and therefore less exclusive), J.P.A. had used different upholstery tones in alternate seats, checkerboard style—a pattern that causes the brain to register less than the entire expanse. “In a way, it’s a trick of the eye,” Tighe said. “It cuts down on the perception of the repetition of objects.”

And this:

“The Virgin seat was very innovative, but we felt it was a shame to make people look away from the window,” Tighe told me. “And that seat has a global limitation, because there are cultures in which the soles of the feet are considered unsavory, or rude, and people are uncomfortable sleeping with their feet exposed where other people are walking—mainly in Asia and the Middle East.” Cultural differences in air travel can be significant. Americans are less bothered than Arab sheikhs when slobs wearing flip-flops end up in first class.

I’ve done my fair share of lurking on FlyerTalk, and once played the miles and points game. I’m amazed at the lengths people go and the prices they pay for a couple extra inches of legroom or a free drink–a cost they’d never be willing to incur in any other context.

(ht: Justin Bajema)

It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the internet

Alexis Madgrigal defines The Stream:

The Stream has been the organizing metaphor for the web for the past several years. In May 2009, a high-ranking editor of TechCrunch identified and summarized this grand shift in the way people used and talked about the web.

“Information is increasingly being distributed and presented in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages. The shift is palpable, even if it is only in its early stages,” Erick Schonfeld wrote. “Web companies large and small are embracing this stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop and Techmeme and Tweetmeme and Ustream and Qik and Kyte and blogs and Google Reader. The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness.”

The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness.

There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.

And then shows why the present state-of-things cannot continue:

When the half-life of a post is half a day or less, how much time can media makers put into something? When the time a reader spends on a story is (on the high end) two minutes, how much time should media makers put into something?

The necessity of nowness plus the professionalization of content production for the stream means that there are thousands and thousands of people churning out more crap than can possibly be imagined. And individual consumers of information have been tuned by social-media feedback mechanisms (Likes!) to do for free what other people do for money. They, too, write viral headlines, post clickbait, and compete for mindshare.

I am not joking when I say: it is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the Internet. Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.

Google is constructing a world of cheap answers

Great conversation with Kevin Kelly at

In a curious way, Google is all about answers. So you could say that Google is increasing answers over time, but what’s interesting is that answers are becoming cheap; they’re almost free, and I think what becomes scarce in this kind of place that we’re headed to is questions, a really good question, because a really good question can unleash new questions.

In a certain sense what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google’s reign, are great questions, and that means that for a long time humans will be better at than machines.

Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.

The world that Google is constructing—a world of cheap and free answers—having answers is not going to be very significant or important. Having a really great question will be where all the value is.

In 1953, there were 53 kilobytes of RAM on planet earth

George Dyson, in Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe:

In March of 1953 there were 53 kilobytes of high-speed random-access memory on planet Earth. Five kilobytes were at the end of Olden Lane, 32 kilobytes were divided among the eight completed clones of the Institute for Advanced Study’s computer, and 16 kilobytes were unevenly distributed across a half dozen other machines. Data, and a few rudimentary programs that existed, were exchanged at the speed of punched cards and paper tape. Each island in the new archipelago constituted a universe unto itself.