The Peak Human

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the peakiest of times.

Amid the list of “peaks” (peak oil, peak medical costs, peak bad TV, etc.) is peak population. The population is going up now, but it won’t go up forever. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens in the next 40 years, the population will top out on or before 2050. Of course, if catastrophe strikes, we’ll start the downward slide rather more abruptly. Either way, it’s one of the most momentous transitions in the planet’s history, and it’s going to happen when many of the people reading this blog are still alive. Every generation tends to think of themselves as special, but it occurs to me that it’s not mere chauvinism to say big things are afoot and we have a front row seat. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the apocryphal Chinese curse.

All this made me realize something terribly obvious that hadn’t occurred to me before: there’s going to be a peak person. And when this peakster passes, that summit of humanity will never again be surpassed. Not on this planet, anyway. Furthermore, I’m in the right demographic to be the Sir Edmund Hillary of the population curve. The view from the top is bracing. It’s a long way down.

Here’s a talk by Phillip Longman on what depopulation might look like. It’s long, but he makes a number of interesting points. Hearing someone talk about the problems associated with a shrinking population reminds me of how economists manage to see the bright side of any story: “Interest rates are up… bad news!” vs. “Interest rates are down… bad news!”

Shuttle lift-off highlights

Here’s the kind of thing we used to see alongside a headline like HISTORIC IMAGE FROM SPACE or FUZZY BLOB WALKS ON OVEREXPOSED LUNAR SURFACE.


It’s no wonder people claimed the moon walk was fake. It wouldn’t be hard to fake this sneeze-and-spilled-ink furball. But we’ve come a long way since then. Cameras are cheap, and so is telemetry. That coupled with the fact that NASA is haunted by deadly launch mishaps means that a shuttle launch is one of the best documented events on the planet. Via the NASA_Ares Twitter feed, I came across this amazing video in which dozens of video streams from the STS-129 launch are merged into one artful reel. Please watch. If you’re impatient, jump ahead to 4:30.

STS-129 Ascent Video Highlights from mike interbartolo on Vimeo.

Hacking your mood

I need some opinions here. This is the lead from an article in the Telegraph:

Drinkers’ brains are tricked into thinking a glass of white wine is better and more expensive tasting when exposed to the red or blue background lighting than those in rooms with green or white background lighting.


I understand similar studies have shown that wine sipped from glass goblets tastes better than the same wine slurped through a straw from a Dixie cup, and that wine from a bottle with a tasteful label is preferable to a wine emblazoned with an image of Dick Cheney sunning himself in a Speedo. Such is human perversity.

Why is manipulating the aesthetic experience called out as trickery? Is Monet tricking you into tranquility with his water lily paintings? PLEASE NOTE: they’re not real water lilies. They’re only daubs of paint smeared around to look that way.

In a purely transaction-oriented society where Quantification and Optimization are ascendant, all art is marketing. That scent of lemon in the air? It’s only there to promote moral behavior. The fresh-baked bread? I just want you to buy my house.

But ultimately, if you worry too much about how you’re being manipulated, you can’t enjoy your wine under any circumstances. That’s when you have to shut down your left brain. De gustibus non est disputandum.

I worked in a wine store one summer, and I met a lot of people who were timid and self-conscious when it came to buying. “Is this a good one? Is it too cheap? Is it a good deal?” I learned a valuable wine-buying technique, and now I’m going to share it with you. Decide if you want red or white, pick a price that you’re willing to pay, and then pick a label you like. Done. “But you’re not drinking the label!” you might object. But of course you are. Get over it. You’re drinking the label, the bottle, and the glass. You’re drinking the sunset, and your companion, and the confidence that let you choose the wine and move on.

Enjoy it.

Why so many electrical plugs?

There’s an old email meme that you still see from time to time about how ancient Roman roads determined the width of modern railroads. Snopes tells us that it’s not terribly accurate, but the moral is clear enough: precedents are hard to shake.

Some patterns, like which side of the road you drive on, are very coercive. In such cases, once a local pattern is established, it’s dangerous or impossible to oppose it. What’s interesting is when these local patterns grow from small seeds into a global mosaic. Coercive growth of left-side driving, for example, propagated through much of the British Empire. But frontiers between differing regions are interesting places. What happens when you drive your car from a left-driving country to a right-driving country? In some cases (like Sweden in 1967) the resulting friction is enough to make the whole country switch. But in general, the cement has hardened, and everybody just has to live with the tension between two standards.

Electrical plugs are good examples of this. The standards are coercive, and when they harden, there’s not much you can do after that. Here’s a good article on Gizmodo about Why Every Country Has a Different F#$%ing Plug.

There’s a nice bit in there about how the UK came up with a new plug design after World War II. It seemed like a reasonable time to try something new, and the UK had a whole empire to foist it on after all. So you can see why they felt a certain sense of entitlement. But their timing was, in fact, terrible. They acted at the very moment the empire was going to pieces, and the legacy is an electrical plug that works (almost) nowhere else in the world. Still, what a manly hunk of metal is the English plug! It certainly shames the effete French two-pronger across the Channel.

Helicopter Photography

This is a story that makes you feel good about aerial surveillance, but keep in mind it’s still a story about aerial surveillance. It’s getting to be straightforward for anybody to fly a camera wherever they want to. I’m amazed how many videos on YouTube show people doing this same basic thing. Having said that, it must be said this guy is especially good.

Jason Lam sits at the center of the Venn diagram with two circles labeled “professional photographer” and “radio-controlled helicopter hobbyist”. Putting them together, he’s able to make movies like this.

He did it by building his camera-holding rig and attaching it to an off the shelf model helicopter. Here’s what the rig looks like up close.

So that’s what someone can do when they use a standard camera and a standard helicopter. But there is a shocking amount of talent in the world. Let’s look at what young William Thielicke is capable of. Oh, it appears that, in addition to mounting a camera on a helicopter, he’s invented his own helicopter. And made a really good video out of it. And he’s 29.

Remember, when you hear that buzzing sound, to look up and smile.

(Via Yann’s Techno Toys Blog)

The High-Water Mark of Winter

I have wonderful news: the days will not, in fact, keep getting shorter and shorter until inky blackness is total and the sun is forever blotted from the sky. Maybe you are cleverer than I am, but I have my doubts every year. In my corner of the northern hemisphere, yesterday was the day with earliest sunset. Although the day as measured from sunrise to sunset will keep shrinking for a few more weeks, the sunset has done its worst and must now spend six months in retreat. Get her running and keep the skeer up! There’s better days ahead, boys.

When I mentioned the significance of this day to my wife, she asked me just how much later the sun will set today. With the help of a handy spreadsheet from the NOAA, I can now tell you the answer. And the answer is… three seconds. Say what you will, but that’s three more seconds of sunlight where I come from.

Here’s a screenshot from an iPhone app that I recommend (as does Dan) called Star Walk. It shows the sun crossing the horizon on its way to bed.


And finally, while we are on our way to the winter solstice here, Saturn has been experiencing its equinox. Check out these Big Picture views of Saturn at equinox. That Cassini machine is a wonder.

Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West

Parabola magazine has, in its most recent issue, a transcript of an old talk by Joseph Campbell, “The Vitality of Myth.” It’s not available online, but it addresses one of Jung’s favorite questions: “What myth are you living by?” The question sounds academic and inert. You might ask: How much difference could a superstition make?

I thought of Campbell’s talk when I saw a video of Devdutt Pattanaik speaking at TED India: East vs. West — the myths that mystify. Pattanaik is the Chief Belief Officer at an Indian retail chain called the Future Group. What does a Chief Belief Officer do? He tries to figure out what myths his company lives by. And he sees his job partly as counterpoise to the overwhelming influence that process-oriented Western business culture has on Indian firms.

If an overemphasis on linear process is something he seeks to balance with the cyclic mythology of India, does that suggest that linear process is an artifact of Western mythology? It does. One definition of mythology is a funny hat that the other guy is wearing. It distracts you from noticing you’ve got one too.

In his talk, Pattanaik tells the story of an encounter between Alexander the Great and a naked mystic (“gymnosophist”) at the Indus river in 326 BC.

Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed. Each one thought that the other was a fool.

Alexander is maximizing personal achievement so as to win glory during the one lifetime allotted to him. The mystic is contemplating the pointlessness of desire and striving across many lifetimes. The world views could scarcely be more different. Pattanaik takes stories like this very seriously as he tries to understand how to build an Indian business culture that is both conventionally successful (profits matter) and that also resonates with the mythological groundplane.

I was struck by this, because I have often wondered how much our Western mythologies had to do with the development of math, science, and technology in the Europe and America. Progress, self-improvement, and relentless optimization all make more sense when time has a beginning and an end.

I recently read Daniel Walker Howe’s history of America between 1815 and 1848 (What Hath God Wrought). It was absolutely incredible to see how much modernism’s rise was propelled by religion. So many of the things we associate with enlightened progressive practice in America came about because of efforts of religious organizations, including the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and public education. And these organizations that were not simply preaching charity or tolerance in some vague sense; they were electrified with a specific millenarian mission. They were preparing for the return of Jesus. Because time had an end, just like Alexander’s life, it was important to set things right as quickly as possible. Don’t dawdle like you’ve got another lifetime coming… there is not a moment to be lost! They don’t call it the Protestant work ethic for nothing.

What all this means in the coming world of turbulent global mixing is unclear. What is clear is that India has a lot to teach us. I’m looking forward to it.


Okay, here’s a quick one that’s guaranteed to cost you some productivity. How long does it take you to get the little robot guy into the castle?

Machinarium is a beautiful puzzle-game, and you can play a short teaser online for free. NOTE: Don’t watch the movie until after you solve the puzzle.

(Found this one via Lynn‘s tweet)

Color pictures from Czarist Russia

People who lived before World War I were grainy variations of black, white, and gray. We know this to be true because of the photographic record. But those remote monochrome images also serve an important purpose. They separate us from those oddballs who did so many stupid things.

Then, out of the blue, comes something like this: color photography from czarist Russia. Look at this astonishing exhibit from the Library of Congress. The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated.

It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking, because the people look so real. What do we know that they don’t know? What do they know that we don’t know? Pictures like this force you to admit that maybe they weren’t comical stop-motion fops with waxed mustaches. Look at these peasant girls from 1909.


1909! Ye gods! I think that middle one was in my third grade class.