kottke.org posts about Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder polled 1600 people to find a list of the 50 best non-fiction podcasts. The list skews nerdy, science, and tech. The top 5 is unsurprising:
1. This American Life
4. 99% Invisible
5. WTF with Marc Maron
Kevin Kelly has travelled in every sort of way, from five-star hotels to penniless hitchhiking. And he says that when traveling, more time is better than more money.
When you have abundant time you can get closer to core of a place. You can hang around and see what really happens. You can meet a wider variety of people. You can slow down until the hour that the secret vault is opened. You have enough time to learn some new words, to understand what the real prices are, to wait out the weather, to get to that place that takes a week in a jeep.
Money is an attempt to buy time, but it rarely is able to buy any of the above. When we don't have time we use money to try to get us to the secret door on time, or we use it avoid needing to know the real prices, or we use money to have someone explain to us what is really going on. Money can get us close, but not all the way.
From Kevin Kelly, a collection of photos he took of Katmandu, Nepal in 1976.
Nepal was recently affected by a 7.8 earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of more than 6000 people and much property damage.
Katmandu was an intensely ornate city that is easily damaged. The carvings, details, public spaces were glorious. My heart goes out to its citizens who suffer with their city. As you can see from these images I took in 1976, the medieval town has been delicate for decades. Loosely stacked bricks are everywhere. One can also see what splendid art has been lost. Not all has been destroyed, and I am sure the Nepalis will rebuild as they have in the past. Still, the earthquake shook more than just buildings.
If you look carefully you may notice something unusual about these photos. They show no cars, pedicabs, or even bicycles. At the time I took these images, Katmandu was an entirely pedestrian city. Everyone walked everywhere. Part of why I loved it. That has not been true for decades, so this is something else that was lost long ago. Also missing back then was signage. There are few signs for stores, or the typical wordage you would see in any urban landscape today. Katmandu today is much more modern, much more livable, or at least it was.
Ran across one of my favorite little pieces of writing the other day: Sixty Men from Ur by Mark Sumner. It's about how short recorded human history really is. The piece starts out by asking you to imagine if you view the history of life as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States' great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you're no more than three away yourself. That's how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It's only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You're ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you've come out the bottom of that dime. You're that close to it.
See also human wormholes and the Great Span, unlikely simultaneous historical events, and timeline twins.
Update: From Wired last year, Sam Arbesman writes about Kevin Kelly's concept of touch generations.
I was recently listening to a lecture by Kevin Kelly where he introduces the concept of touch generations, the idea of a list of people based on when one person died and when the next was born: one person is in the next touch generation of someone else if they were born when the other person died. So Galileo and Newton, while unrelated, are in successive touch generations because Newton was born the year that Galileo died. Essentially, it's a way of connecting lifetimes across the years.
David Carr writes about the surprising success of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools book, which is based on his long-running website of the same name.
But last year, he had what sounded to me like a dumb idea. Mr. Kelly edits and owns Cool Tools, a website that writes about neat stuff and makes small money off referral revenue from Amazon when people proceed to buy some of those things. He decided to edit the thousands of reviews that had accrued over the last 10 years into a self-published print catalog -- also called "Cool Tools" -- which he would then sell for $39.99.
So, to review, his idea was to manufacture a floppy 472-page catalog that would weigh 4.5 pounds, full of buying advice that had already appeared free on the web, essentially turning weightless pixels into bulky bundles of atoms. To make it happen, he crowdsourced designs from all over the world, found a printer in China and then arranged for shipping and distribution. It all seemed a little quixotic and, well, beside the point.
Except the first printing of 10,000 copies, just in time for Christmas, sold out immediately, a second printing of 12,000 will go on sale at Amazon next week and a third printing of 20,000 copies is underway. So, not so dumb after all.
I haven't had a chance to dig too deeply into my copy yet, but my six-year-old sat down with it a few weeks ago and had about a million questions per page for me. Which seems a like a positive sign.
Kevin Kelly writes about the challenges of creating a civilization from scratch, say after an apocalypse or interplanetary journey.
Let's take a very sophisticated item: one web page. A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
Kevin Kelly on the realism of the 48 frames/second version of The Hobbit.
What's going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?
I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew.
I saw The Hobbit at 48fps and it was a unique experience. At times, it was amazing, like you were in the movie, tromping around Middle Earth. At other times, the effect was laughably bad, like having a bunch of cosplaying dwarves in bad makeup standing around in your fluorescently lit living room. Dwalin, son of Fundin, I can see your skin cap.
Kevin Kelly notes that the internet -- and in particular, YouTube -- is exposing us to massive quantities of things that are impossible and amazing and muses about how that might be affecting our culture.
Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we'll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online - which is almost all day many days -- we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.
That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don't want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.
We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache -- the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare -- by definition -- but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.
I was reminded earlier today of True Films, Kevin Kelly's collection of must-see documentaries, educational films, etc.
As dogged as I have been in tracking down great true films, I have seen only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 that have been made. So I am ready for more. However I will only list true films and documentaries that are available as VHS tape or DVDs at consumer prices. In other words, films that are easy for most people to see upon request. I won't include films that are only shown in theaters, or available via high-priced rentals, or simply out of print.
The site hasn't been updated in over a year but the content is evergreen. True Films is also available in book and ebook formats.
Kevin Kelly argues that Spielberg's Tintin movie passes beyond the uncanny valley into the "plains of hyperreality".
One of the great charms of the Tin Tin movie (besides its solid story, and uplifting sensibility) is the incredible degree of detail, texture, lighting, and drama that infuses every scene. Because the whole movie is synthetic, every scene can be composed perfectly, lit perfectly, arranged perfectly, and captured perfectly. There is a painterly perfection that the original Tin Tin comics had that this movie captures. This means that the stupendous detail found in say TinTin's room, or in a back alley, or on the ship's deck can be highlighted beyond what it could in reality. You SEE EVERYTHING. When TinTin's motorcycle is chasing the bad guy and begins to fall apart, nothing is obscured. Every realistic mechanical part is illuminated realistically. This technique gives a heightened sense of reality because every corner of the entire scene is heightened realistically, which cannot happen in real life, yet you only see real-looking things. This trick lends the movie a hyperreality. Its artificial world looks realer than real.
The uncanny valley issue has been less noticeable lately, but what really snaps me out of being immersed in movies lately is the Impossible Camera™. In 100% CGI shots, when cameras move quickly with sharp changes in direction over long distances, something that actual cameras can't do, it snaps me right out of the action because it's so obviously fake. For instance, any scene in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies where Spidey is flying through Manhattan. Fay, fay, fake.
Kevin Kelly forecasts that Amazon will soon be handing out free Kindles...perhaps to Amazon Prime members.
In October 2009 John Walkenbach noticed that the price of the Kindle was falling at a consistent rate, lowering almost on a schedule. By June 2010, the rate was so unwavering that he could easily forecast the date at which the Kindle would be free: November 2011.
Since then I've mentioned this forecast to all kinds of folks. In August, 2010 I had the chance to point it out to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. He merely smiled and said, "Oh, you noticed that!" And then smiled again.
The Kindle has never been knock-it-out-of-the-park great...it looks like Amazon's strategy is not to build a great e-reader but to build a pretty good free e-reader.
Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson talk about their new books, What Technology Wants (Kelly) and Where Good Ideas Come From (Johnson).
Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno's point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.
Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there's far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.
Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren't self-contained things; they're more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Johnson and Kelly will be conversing with each other further at the New York Public Library in mid-October.
Kevin Kelly is compiling a list of really good magazine articles. Lots of good Instapaper chum there already.
There are a ridiculous number of microbes in the Earth's oceans.
During an 11 month study in 2007, scientists sequenced the genes of more than 180,000 specimens from the Western English Channel. Although this level of sampling "far from exhausted the total diversity present," they wrote, one in every 25 readings yielded a new genus of bacteria (7,000 genera in all).
That's genus, not species. Kevin Kelly translates:
This suggests there is a long tail of life in bacteria, with a few species super-abundant, but many many species with very thin populations. At the far end of the tail there may be a billion species with only a few individuals. [...] And like other kinds of long tails, the sum of all these small bits total up to exceed the sum of individuals in the most popular species. As the microbiologists involved in the Census of Marine Life like to say, this survey reveals life's "hidden majority."
Kevin Kelly on defining ourselves by technology we don't use:
I'm interested in how people personally decide to refuse a technology. I'm interested in that process, because I think that will happen more and more as the number of technologies keep increasing. The only way we can sort our identity is by not using technology. We're used to be that you define yourself by what you use now. You define yourself by what you don't use.
"Tis not polite to say, English, but we told thee so." See also. (via lined and unlined)
Kevin Kelly has written a really interesting piece about Moore's Law, which is the tendency for the number of transistors on an integrated circuit to increase exponentially. In it, Kelly explores what drives Moore's Law and what it means for the future.
Since the rate of these explosions of innovation can be varied to some degree by applying money or laws, their trend lines cannot be fully inherent in the material itself. At the same time, since these curves begin and advance independent of our awareness, and do not waver from a straight line under enormous competition and investment pressures, their course must in some way be bound to the materials.
The only slightly disappointing aspect of the article is that he stops short of speculating about what it is about these materials that generates Moore's Law-like growth...the geometry, chemistry, and physics involved.
On the long list of books I would read if I had the time for such a thing, reading, is Art & Fear. Ted Orland, one of the authors and a working artist himself, describes the book thusly:
This is a book about the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn't get made, and about the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.
Kevin Kelly called the book "astoundingly brilliant" and pulled this excellent excerpt from it.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -- albeit a perfect one -- to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes -- the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Special heads-up to Merlin Mann: the first book in the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list for Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit that you've been going on and on about is, bum bum bum, Art & Fear. You should maybe 1-click that sucker right into your book-hole. (via modcult)
Kevin Kelly has written a great post called Amish Hackers, which addresses the myth that the Amish don't use technology. As Kelly illustrates, the Amish use electricity, cell phones, cars and even the internet but their adoption of technology is not quick, they rent rather than buy (e.g. taking taxis rather than owning cars), and their default stance with any new gadget is to test first to see if it fits with their views.
One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that "you got messages rather than conversations." That's about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, "If I had a TV, I'd watch it." What could be simpler?
Last month, indie game developer Cliff Harris asked on his blog: why do people pirate the games I make? That question made its way onto some popular web sites and he got hundreds of thoughtful responses. Kevin Kelly summed up the responses that Harris received.
He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got -- even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult -- like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines -- anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.
The gaming, music, and movie industry would do well to take note of the key sentence here: "Anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult -- like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines -- anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route."
Last week, I tried to buy an episode of a TV show from the iTunes Store. It didn't work and there was no error message. Thinking the download had corrupted something, I tried again and the same problem occurred. (I learned later that I needed to upgrade Quicktime.) Because I just wanted to watch the show and not deal with Apple's issues, I spend two minutes online, found it somewhere for free, and watched the stolen version instead. I felt OK about it because I'd already paid for the real thing *twice*, but in the future, I'll be a little wary purchasing TV shows from iTunes and maybe go the easier route first.
A list of predictions about the unthinkable future by Kevin Kelly and Brian Eno, made in 1993. This one by Eno isn't half bad:
A new type of artist arises: someone whose task is to gather together existing but overlooked pieces of amateur art, and, by directing attention onto them, to make them important. (This is part of a much larger theory of mine about the new role of curatorship, the big job of the next century.)
Kevin Kelly on a fascinating concept called scenius. As defined by Brian Eno:
Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.
Kelly lists four factors that are important in nuturing scenius:
1. Mutual appreciation -- Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
2. Rapid exchange of tools and techniques -- As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
3. Network effects of success -- When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
4. Local tolerance for the novelties -- The local "outside" does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
Kevin Kelly says that people whose fields have been Turing'd -- outsourced in some way to computers -- are in general more receptive to then adopting other potentially disruptive technologies.
We have this long list of tasks and occupations that we humans believe only humans can do. Used to be things like using tools, language, painting, playing chess. Now, one by one they get Turing'd. A computer beats them. Does it better.
So far we've can check off arithmetic, spelling, flying planes, playing chess, wiring chips, scheduling tasks, welding, etc. All have been Turing'd.
Computer scientists are great to work with, because in general they are completely fearless. They were Turing'd long ago. They grok that many of the tasks they used to do can be done much better by computers. On the other hand, doctors as a rule are loathed to accept new technology because what they do is hard to delegate to computers. Ditto for a lot of biologists.
Kevin Kelly has written a thoughtful post about how to make money in a world where the rules are:
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
He then lists eight reasons why people pay money for things that could be free, one of which is immediacy:
Sooner or later you can find a free copy of whatever you want, but getting a copy delivered to your inbox the moment it is released -- or even better, produced -- by its creators is a generative asset. Many people go to movie theaters to see films on the opening night, where they will pay a hefty price to see a film that later will be available for free, or almost free, via rental or download. Hardcover books command a premium for their immediacy, disguised as a harder cover. First in line often commands an extra price for the same good.
Kevin Kelly has a rave review of a slide/negative scanning company called Scan Cafe. Here's how it works: send off your slides and negatives to Scan Cafe, they catalog and send them off to India to be scanned, you go online to choose the which negatives/slides you want final scans of, and in a few weeks, you get your originals and a DVD containing 3000 dpi scans of your photos. Kelly says:
Some people are very concerned about sending their precious originals to India -- or anywhere for that matter. They should not be. ScanCafe has a very elaborate tracking and shipping system that would work even if you were shipping jewels. Their scanning facilities in Bangalore (description and photos here) are more organized than you are. I have more trust in this system than I would handing them over to any neighborhood scanner.
A collection of the best 150 documentaries as determined by Kevin Kelly. Kelly's got good taste in movies -- or at least it jibes with mine -- and True Films is a fine guide for those looking to introduce more documentary films into their media diet.
Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16 is a documentary about Abby and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins who are essentially one physical person with two heads (as well as a few other body parts). From a review of the film by Kevin Kelly: "Endless questions ensue from this documentary about their suburban life. If each girl controls only one arm and one leg, how can they ride a bike? Hit a baseball? Swim? When they drive a car, how do they decide where to turn? And do they get one licence or two? That particular question is answered on their 16th birthday, as this film follows them to the driving test center, where they pass the driving test (both turning the wheel). Their local DMV decides to issue them each one licence."
A clip from a previous film on the girls is available on YouTube.
Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I'm trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I'm going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:
Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect...people use less energy when they're often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you'll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.
Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.
Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library...no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning...no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.
Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.
Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing...so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, "China needs to go green."
Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for -- what's the term these days? -- an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you're a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.
"The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system." -- Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.
Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.
Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.
Stewart Brand: "We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right." Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth's population will start to fall.
Kevin Kelly on an intriguing concept called The Big Here:
You live in the big here. Wherever you live, your tiny spot is deeply intertwined within a larger place, imbedded fractal-like into a whole system called a watershed, which is itself integrated with other watersheds into a tightly interdependent biome. At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.
Accompanying his post is a 30-question (plus 5 bonus questions) quiz that determines how closely you're connected to the place in which you live. Taking the quiz as he suggests (without Googling) and then researching the actual answers using the recommendations left by previous quiz takers is a useful, humbling, and instructive exercise.
Even though I live in Manhattan, a place where so much of the surroundings are unnatural and the inhabitants are effectively disconnected from nature, I decided to tackle the quiz and expected to do poorly. And so I did. Here are my results, with commentary. (There are some spoilers below, so if you don't want to be swayed in your answers, take the quiz first, then come back.)
1) Point north.
Easy with Manhattan's grid, although you have to remember that the avenues don't run directly N/S.
3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.
Comes from upstate NY via various aqueducts and tunnels. I've seen parts of the old Croton Aqueduct in northern Manhattan.
5) How many feet above sea level are you?
I guessed 30 feet, Google Earth says it's 36 feet.
9) Before your tribe lived here, what did the previous inhabitants eat and how did they sustain themselves?
A somewhat complicated question -- by previous tribe, does it mean the English, the Dutch, the Indians, or the printing company that owned the building I currently live in? -- but I basically know how all of those groups lived, more or less.
11) From what direction do storms generally come?
18) Which (if any) geological features in your watershed are, or were, especially respected by your community, or considered sacred, now or in the past?
The skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan wouldn't be possible without all that bedrock underneath.
19) How many days is the growing season here (from frost to frost)?
180 days. (180 is in the ballpark, but it's probably a little more given the proximity to the ocean.)
22) Where does the pollution in your air come from?
31) What species once found here are known to have gone extinct?
2) What time is sunset today?
Within 15 minutes of the actual time.
7) How far do you have to travel before you reach a different watershed? Can you draw the boundaries of yours?
Across the river to New Jersey. (Locate your watershed.) I don't know enough detail to draw it.
8) Is the soil under your feet, more clay, sand, rock or silt?
I guessed bedrock, but Manhattan's bedrock comes to the surface near midtown and points north of there, not further south where I live.
13) How many people live in your watershed?
10 million. (Actual answer is 9.1 million.)
15) Point to where the sun sets on the equinox. How about sunrise on the summer solstice?
20) Name five birds that live here. Which are migratory and which stay put?
Pigeons, hawks, falcons, ducks, sparrows. Ducks migrate. (Turns out that falcons and hawks migrate too.)
21) What was the total rainfall here last year?
50 inches. Average is ~48 inches and last years precip was ~56 inches.
24) What primary geological processes or events shaped the land here?
32) What other cities or landscape features on the planet share your latitude?
Portland, OR; Rome, Tokyo.
10) Name five native edible plants in your neighborhood and the season(s) they are available.
Are there plants still native to Greenwich Village? Marijuana? We grow tomatoes in our apartment, does that count?
17) Right here, how deep do you have to drill before you reach water?
500 feet? (Now that I think about it, it's probably a lot less.)
34) Name two places on different continents that have similar sunshine/rainfall/wind and temperature patterns to here.
East coast of Japan? East coasts of southern Africa or South America?
Absolutely wrong / no clue
4) When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?
6) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom here?
12) Where does your garbage go?
On the curb?
14) Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood?
16) Where is the nearest earthquake fault? When did it last move?
23) If you live near the ocean, when is high tide today?
25) Name three wild species that were not found here 500 years ago. Name one exotic species that has appeared in the last 5 years.
I'm assuming Williamsburg hipster, Chelsea queer, and PR flack are not the answers they're looking for here.
26) What minerals are found in the ground here that are (or were) economically valuable?
27) Where does your electric power come from and how is it generated?
28) After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go?
29) Where is the nearest wilderness? When was the last time a fire burned through it?
30) How many days till the moon is full?
Turns out it was just full.
33) What was the dominant land cover plant here 10,000 years ago?
I answered 9/35 correctly and 9/35 for partial credit. I wonder if I would have done any better if I still lived in rural Wisconsin.
Update: Matt Jones is interested in building a Big Here Tricorder:
What I immediately imagined was the extension of this quiz into the fabric of the near-future mobile and it's sensors - location (GPS, CellID), orientation (accelerometers or other tilt sensors), light (camera), heat (Nokia 5140's have thermometers...), signal strength, local interactions with other devices (Bluetooth, uPnP, NFC/RFID) and of course, a connection to the net.
The near-future mobile could become a 'tricorder' for the Big Here - a daemon that challenges or channels your actions in accordance and harmony to the systems immediately around you and the ripples they raise at larger scales.
It could be possible (but probably with some help from my friends) to rapidly-prototype a Big Here Tricorder using s60 python, a bluetooth GPS module, some of these scripts, some judicious scraping of open GIS data and perhaps a map-service API or two.
Fascinating thoughts on the future of science by Kevin Kelly. The sequence of recursive devices and triple blind experiments ("no one, not the subjects or the experimenters, will realize an experiment was going on until later") were especially interesting.