'The Future Is About Old People, in Big Cities, Afraid of the Sky'

And four other intriguing things: when otters attack, the objects of brain interfaces, WWI diaries, and a digital model of a piano.
National Archives

1. Bruce Sterling's keynotes at SXSW tend to get more fascinating as time goes by, but here it is right as it goes into the bottle.

"The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, 'Oh, well my town will never get bigger.' Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, 'Oh, well I’m never going to get older.' Okay, you are gonna get older... I have the feeling I’ve spent enough time talking about it. I’m actually bored with writing fiction about it. I think I’m gonna spend a couple of years trying to get to physical grips with the problem — What kind of life would old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky actually have? I think it’s time to try some prototypes."

+ Not a keynote, but just see this note on "green" from 02007.


2. In otter news, Norway leads.

"'We did not know what kind of animal it was. I have never seen an animal like that in my life,' said Mohamed Rashed, owner of Skippy’s Fast Food. 'I was terrified it was going to attack.' The otter appeared to have been wounded, likely by being hit by a ferry propeller. It ran amok in the restaurant, terrifying staff and customers, until a wildlife officer came to catch it in a dog carrier. The apprehension did not go exactly as planned, and the otter managed to take a big chunk out of the wildlife officer before being successfully trapped."


3. Brain-machine interfaces are probably going to be weirder physical objects than I'd ever considered.

"But plenty of clever young neuro-engineers are trying to surmount these problems, like Michel Maharbiz and Jose Carmena and their colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley. They are developing a wireless brain interface that they call 'neural dust.' Thousands of biologically neutral microsensors, on the order of one-tenth of a millimeter (approximately the thickness of a human hair), would convert electrical signals into ultrasound that could be read outside the brain."


4. Help transcribe some World War I war diaries

"The National Archives has digitised the war diaries of the units under the command of the British and Indian cavalry and infantry divisions on the Western Front. The war diaries are made up of a variety of different types of pages, including cover pages, title pages, orders, signals, maps, narrative reports and the main diary pages themselves. They are catalogued by theatre of operations, unit and the date range covered, but we don't know much more about the content of the diaries beyond this."


5. The Pianoteq synthesizer isn't a series of piano recordings you play back: It models the processes of the soundboard and hammers and strings.

"It uses a type of synthesis called physical modeling, which recreates the original instrument mathematically. In the case of the piano, this involves modeling the hammers, the strings, the soundboard, and even the pedals. And it’s hands down the most true-sounding synthesized piano I’ve ever played. Pianoteq captures the sounds of every key at every velocity. It accurately captures harmonics when I press the sustain pedal down. Or that weird (wonderful) buzzing in lowest octave. I’m not a maestro but, in a taste test, I can’t tell tell the difference between a recording of Pianoteq and a recording of a real piano."


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

avenge, revenge, vengeanceAvenge vengeance are one pair. The distinction between the two pairs is neither very clear nor consistently observed, but the general principle that personal feeling is the thing thought of when revenge is used, & the equalization of wrongs when avenge or vengeance is used, may assist choice. Avenge & vengeance suggest retribution; revenge, vindictive retaliation. Avenge your fallen brotherTake vengeance on them that do evil. He vowed to have his revenge


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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