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kottke.org posts about Tim Urban

What if the Earth were a middle-aged adult and other comparisons

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2017

Sometimes big distances, long time periods, and large numbers can be difficult to grasp. So it helps to contextualize them with comparisons. When you do so, you realize that a billion is much much more than a million:

But when he linked these numbers to time, it brought things in perspective: 1 million seconds is nearly 12 days, whereas 1 billion seconds is almost 32 years. “Everybody gets it when you say it like that,” he wrote in an email. “If you just said 1 billion is three orders of magnitude greater than 1 million, I don’t think it would make the same impression.”

Tim Urban’s Life Calendar emphasizes the relative shortness of human life and the importance of using your time well by reorganizing a human lifespan into weeks.

Each row of weeks makes up one year. That’s how many weeks it takes to turn a newborn into a 90-year-old.

It kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are — fully countable — staring you in the face.

High school chemistry teacher Keith Karraker recently imagined the Earth having the lifespan of a typical human, which is a useful way of thinking about young humanity is in comparison.

Earth’s about half-way through its life. If it were a middle-aged adult of 40, its last mass extinction happened about 7 months ago.

To 40-yr-old Earth, humans have been using tools for a week and a half, and just left Africa 8 hours ago to settle around the globe.

All of human history is the last half hour. It’s been an exhilarating and disastrous half hour. But we figured out some really cool shit.

We figured out quantum, relativity, and DNA. A randomly mutating and replicating molecule built a machine to figure itself out.

Even much older evolutionary changes are surprisingly recent on this scale. Spines debuted just over 4 yrs ago. About when iPhone 5 did.

For more on the visualization of large scales, see also Powers of Ten, the leisurely pace of light speed, the size of supermassive black holes, and this comparison of the sizes of things from the Moon to galactic superclusters and beyond:

You want to talk about human insignificance? If Betelgeuse, one of the largest stars shown in the video, were in the Sun’s place, it would nearly reach the orbit of Jupiter, from which light takes 43 minutes (on average) to reach the Earth. (via @stevesilberman)

We Work Remotely

The day we make first contact with another world (and they’re jerks)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2016

First contact with an alien civilization will be a momentous event in the history of Earth. Unless the other civilization is kind of a dick. Tim Urban didn’t quite cover this scenario in his post about the Fermi Paradox.

Horizontal history

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2016

At Wait But Why, Tim Urban turns history on its side by thinking about time-synchronized events around the world, as opposed to events through the progression of time in each part of the world.

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s — it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

He does this mainly by charting and graphing the lifetimes of famous people, revealing hidden contemporaries.

Horizontal History Graph

I’ve been slowly making my way through Ken Burns’ remastered The Civil War.1 At a few points in the program, narrator David McCullough reminds the viewer of what was going on around the world at the same time as the war. In the US, 1863 brought the Battle of Gettysburg and The Emancipation Proclamation. But also:

In Paris that year, new paintings by Cezanne, Whistler, and Manet were shown at a special exhibit for outcasts. In Russia, Dostoevsky finished Notes from the Underground. And in London, Karl Marx labored to complete his masterpiece, Das Kapital.

And a year later, while the advantage in the war was turning towards the US:1

In 1864, a rebellion in China that cost 20 million lives finally came to an end. In 1864, the Tsar’s armies conquered Turkistan and Tolstoy finished War and Peace. In 1864, Louis Pasteur pasteurized wine, the Geneva Convention established the neutrality of battlefield hospitals, and Karl Marx founded the International Workingmen’s Association in London and in New York.

Urban explicitly references the war in his post:

People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869).

The Civil War. The Origin of Species. Alice in Wonderland. The infancy of Impressionism. Pasteurization. Das Kapital. Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance. All in an eight-year span. Dang.

  1. Which is simply excellent. I had forgotten how powerful the storytelling technique Burns devised for his documentaries is. Really really worth your time to watch or re-watch.

  2. In talking about the Civil War, I’ve been trying to use Michael Todd Landis’ new language…so, “labor camps” instead of “plantations” and “United States” instead of “Union”.

Elon Musk’s Quest for a Fantastic Future

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2015

Ashley Vance has written a book about Elon Musk and it comes out next week.

In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance provides the first inside look into the extraordinary life and times of Silicon Valley’s most audacious entrepreneur. Written with exclusive access to Musk, his family and friends, the book traces the entrepreneur’s journey from a rough upbringing in South Africa to the pinnacle of the global business world. Vance spent more than 30 hours in conversation with Musk and interviewed close to 300 people to tell the tumultuous stories of Musk’s world-changing companies: PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity, and to characterize a man who has renewed American industry and sparked new levels of innovation while making plenty of enemies along the way.

The Washington Post has a list of memorable quotes from the book.

“He’s kind of homeless, which I think is sort of funny. He’ll e-mail and say, ‘I don’t know where to stay tonight. Can I come over?’ I haven’t given him a key or anything yet.” - Google chief executive Larry Page on Elon Musk, who owns a home in Los Angeles but doesn’t have a place in Silicon Valley, which he visits weekly for his work at Tesla.

Musk took to his Twitter account to dispute two of the quotes on that list, including the one that makes him sound most like a cartoonish supervillain.

It is total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child’s birth just to attend a company meeting. I would never do that.

Musk also says about the book:

Ashlee’s book was not independently fact-checked. Should be taken w a grain of salt.

Musk recently got in touch with Tim Urban of the excellent Wait But Why to see if he would be interested in an interview about Musk’s work. The first post in that series was posted last week: Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man.

Update: Bloomberg Business has an excerpt from Vance’s book with the intriguing title Elon Musk’s Space Dream Almost Killed Tesla.

Musk, of course, wasn’t just building rockets. In 2003, about a year after he started SpaceX, Musk helped found Tesla Motors, which planned to sell an electric sports car. Musk had spent years pining after a good electric car, and though he had committed \$100 million to SpaceX, he would now put an additional \$70 million into Tesla and end up as the company’s CEO. It was a decision that would almost break both companies.

Superintelligent AI, humanity’s final invention

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2015

When Tim Urban recently began researching artificial intelligence, what he discovered affected him so much that he wrote a deep two-part dive on The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and Our Immortality or Extinction.

An AI system at a certain level — let’s say human village idiot — is programmed with the goal of improving its own intelligence. Once it does, it’s smarter — maybe at this point it’s at Einstein’s level — so now when it works to improve its intelligence, with an Einstein-level intellect, it has an easier time and it can make bigger leaps. These leaps make it much smarter than any human, allowing it to make even bigger leaps. As the leaps grow larger and happen more rapidly, the AGI soars upwards in intelligence and soon reaches the superintelligent level of an ASI system. This is called an Intelligence Explosion, and it’s the ultimate example of The Law of Accelerating Returns.

There is some debate about how soon AI will reach human-level general intelligence — the median year on a survey of hundreds of scientists about when they believed we’d be more likely than not to have reached AGI was 2040 — that’s only 25 years from now, which doesn’t sound that huge until you consider that many of the thinkers in this field think it’s likely that the progression from AGI to ASI happens very quickly. Like — this could happen:

It takes decades for the first AI system to reach low-level general intelligence, but it finally happens. A computer is able understand the world around it as well as a human four-year-old. Suddenly, within an hour of hitting that milestone, the system pumps out the grand theory of physics that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics, something no human has been able to definitively do. 90 minutes after that, the AI has become an ASI, 170,000 times more intelligent than a human.

Superintelligence of that magnitude is not something we can remotely grasp, any more than a bumblebee can wrap its head around Keynesian Economics. In our world, smart means a 130 IQ and stupid means an 85 IQ — we don’t have a word for an IQ of 12,952.

While I was reading this, I kept thinking about two other posts Urban wrote: The Fermi Paradox (in that human-built AI could be humanity’s own Great Filter) and From 1,000,000 to Graham’s Number (how the process of the speed and intelligence of computers could fold in on itself to get unimaginably fast and powerful).

Living in the future: the view from 2015

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2015

It’s 2015. Stuff that happened in the 80s and 90s is getting to be positively ancient. Allow Tim Urban to make you feel old. I want to quote the whole thing, but I’ll make do with just a few snippets:

These movies came out closer to World War II than to today: The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Airplane, Caddyshack.

There are millions of people alive today who will live well into the 22nd century.

How about 1980? It’s closer to FDR, Churchill and Hitler fighting each other than it is to 2015.

As you know, I love this sort of thing. Part of it is nostalgia and the whole “fuck I’m old” lament. I like it for the shift in perspective; it’s cheap time travel.

Update: And whoa, somehow I missed Urban’s post on Putting Time in Perspective. Wow.