Liminal thinking at scale

My short 2009 review1 of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline includes this Kevin Kelly quote that continues to resonate for me:

Kevin Kelly calls the book “a short course on how to change your mind intelligently” — in this case, about cities, nuclear power, and genetic and planetary engineering. These are all things that Steward Brand once regarded with suspicion but now sees as crucial tools for a sustainable world.

In Changeable minds I wrote about a touchstone question that I now sometimes ask people:

What’s something you believed deeply, for a long time, and then changed your mind about?

It’s a hard question for any of us to answer, but as Dave Gray and Wael Ghonim have recently reminded me, it matters more and more that we try. Here’s a useful picture I grabbed from Gray’s screencast on what he calls liminal thinking:

The idea is that I’m standing in the bubble on the left, atop an unconscious pyramid of belief formation. You are standing in the bubble on the right, atop your own unconscious pyramid. And our two pyramids rest on different regions of an underlying reality. How can we engage in productive discourse?

Gray says it requires two tricky maneuvers. First I need to shine a light down into the unconscious fog, climb down my own “ladder of inference,” and reflect on how my own experience of reality informs my own beliefs. Then, he says, I need to take that flashlight, walk over to your pyramid, and climb up your ladder of inference. “Liminal thinking,” he tweeted the other day, “is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and reframing beliefs.”

I’ll surely read his book when it comes out. But since I already agree with the principles and practices it espouses, I don’t expect a mind-changing outcome. It’s clear that Dave Gray and I stand on mostly-overlapping belief pyramids. What would motivate somebody not in that bubble to want to cross the chasm to a very different pyramid?

Wael Ghonim’s latest TED talk suggests an intriguing possibility. He’s now given two such talks. The first, in 2011, was a stirring tribute to social media’s role in fomenting the Arab Spring. (Ghonim created the pivotal We are all Khaled Said Facebook page.) In 2016 the Arab Spring seems a distant memory, and Ghonim entitled his latest talk Let’s design social media that drives real change. Here’s the key takeaway for me:

There’s a lot of debate today on how to combat online harassment and fight trolls. This is so important. No one could argue against that. But we need to also think about how to design social media experiences that promote civility and reward thoughtfulness. I know for a fact if I write a post that is more sensational, more one-sided, sometimes angry and aggressive, I get to have more people see that post. I will get more attention.

But what if we put more focus on quality? What is more important: the total number of readers of a post you write, or who are the people who have impact that read what you write? Couldn’t we just give people more incentives to engage in conversations, rather than just broadcasting opinions all the time? Or reward people for reading and responding to views that they disagree with? And also, make it socially acceptable that we change our minds, or probably even reward that?

I suspect that relatively few of us already are liminal thinkers, or are willing and able to learn and apply the principles and practices. Can we imagine, and build, a social media platform that encourages liminal thinking at scale? That’s an idea worth sharing.

1 When I revisited that post today, I was also intrigued by this:

Don’t miss the annotations — a website that reproduces every paragraph that includes citations, links to their sources, and adds updates.

Alas, the link to those annotations — in iCloud, at — has rotted. For me it’s another reminder to prioritize work on the archival capabilities we envision for Hypothesis. We want to archive both your annotations and (where possible) the documents they refer to.

When it’s cold in New England, thoughts turn to alternative home heating

I started this WordPress incarnation of my blog in late 2007. On this day in 2009 I published  one of the most-read posts here: Central heating with a wood gasification boiler. WordPress stats have shown me that interest has been seasonal. When it’s winter in the northeastern US, people still heating with oil imagine alternatives. As a result, more people find their way to that post than do in summer.

Would this year’s freaky warmth depress that historical wintertime interest in the article? That’s what I expected to find, and this chart appears to confirm it.


Of course interest in the blog has declined in general over that period, because I’ve put less effort into writing and promoting it. But if we chart another perennial favorite, Why Guiness tastes better in Ireland, there’s no downward trend:


So I think the temperature correlation is valid. And I predict the orange curve on the first chart will trend upward when there’s another cold winter in the Northeast.

Abomination and progress: A schizophrenic Saudi timeline

When I read Katherine Zoepf’s article about emerging legal awareness among Saudi women, I found myself imagining a timeline of events. Then I realized I could create one pretty easily with Hypothesis:

A timeline of events noted in Sisters in Law: Saudi women are beginning to know their rights


In 2004, Saudi Arabia introduced reforms allowing women’s colleges and universities to offer degree programs in law.

In 2004, she was a student in the human-resources department at King Abdulaziz University, in Jeddah, when the university announced that it would be opening a degree program in law for female students. It was the first such program in the kingdom, and Zahran immediately switched her concentration to law.


The first female law students graduated in 2008, but, for several years after that, they were prohibited from appearing in court.

In 2008, King Abdullah, who died last January, appalled some of his subjects when he announced that the Riyadh University for Women would be renamed Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, in memory of a favorite aunt.

The fact that women couldn’t obtain law licenses wasn’t a source of anxiety for Zahran and her classmates, but by 2008, when she graduated, the justice ministry still hadn’t indicated that it would begin licensing female lawyers.


Sorcery is considered such a grave concern that, in 2009, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice created a specially trained unit to conduct witchcraft investigations.


In 2011, when Mohra Ferak entered the law department at Dar Al-Hekma, her immediate family was supportive, but others were horrified. People said, “Are you serious?”


In 2013, law licenses were granted to four women, including Bayan Mahmoud Zahran.

Since 2013, women have been allowed to ride bicycles, but only in designated parks and recreation areas, chaperoned by a close male relative.

In supermarkets, which have employed women since 2013, low partitions suffice, because semi-public spaces are easily monitored by members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police.


The lecturer, Bayan Mahmoud Zahran, a thirty-year-old Jeddah attorney who, in January, 2014, became the first Saudi woman to open a law firm.

The advent, in 2014, of car services that can be requested through mobile apps has given women a freedom of movement that had seemed impossible just months earlier.


The first lecture in the series, which Ferak called Hawa’a’s Rights (Hawa’a is the Arabic version of the name Eve), was publicized on Twitter and took place on the evening of April 15th.

The second Hawa’a’s Rights lecture, on April 26th, addressed personal-status law, the category of Saudi law that governs marriage, divorce, guardianship, and inheritance.

In early October, at the end of the Islamic calendar year, the Saudi justice ministry announced that in the past twelve months there had been a forty-eight-per-cent increase in cases of khula, divorces initiated by women.

In November, in an adultery case, a married woman was sentenced to death by stoning; her unmarried male partner received a hundred lashes.

Today, several thousand Saudi women hold law degrees, and sixty-seven are licensed to practice, according to justice-ministry figures released at the end of November.

To make this timeline I started by annotating the article in a particular way. All the dates of interest were in the 2000s, so I did an in-browser search for 20 which highlighted all the occurrences of 2004, 2008, 2011, etc. I selected those sentences and made Hypothesis annotations with the tags 20xx, Women, and Saudi Arabia. For dates in 2015, I repeated this exercise using search for names of months.

You can see the annotations in context here, and as extracts here. A light massage of that data yielded the timeline.

It’s a weirdly schizophrenic mix of despair and hope, abomination and progress. One the one hand, there’s still stoning.

On the other hand, there’s growing awareness of legal rights — if not yet a strong movement to expand them. And there’s dramatic new mobility thanks to Uber.

Will the better angels of our nature prevail? If we project this timeline into the future, I’m betting that we’ll see less witchcraft and stoning, more freedom and mobility.

Organic hydro-engineering

We arrived in California in the fourth year of the drought. It didn’t rain often last winter but when it did it poured, and the Santa Rosa Creek — which had been trickling through our neighborhood — became a torrent. As I watched all that precious rainwater rushing away to the Russian River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean, I wondered: What’s California doing to capture that water? The answer so far seems to be: Not much.

The need for large-scale water storage has been long discussed, but (at least from my newcomer’s perspective) not seriously considered until the recent crisis. The picture worth a thousand words was of Governor Jerry Brown examining bare ground in the Sierra Nevada Mountains last March. That ground should have been covered with deep snow.

Here in Santa Rosa, a friend who runs Atlas Coffee has taken matters into his own hands. He acquired the 500-gallon storage tank shown here:

Since that photo was taken, he’s hooked it up to a pump. Rainwater flows off the roof, it’s pumped into the tank, and then it irrigates the plants. It’s a wonderful idea that I’m sure has occurred to other homeowners and businesspeople, but you don’t see many other implementations around town. And as El Niño approaches, other priorities will understandably loom larger. Hydro-engineering projects, even relatively simple ones like this, are daunting. And the problem really needs to be addressed at much larger scale.

On that larger scale we still tend to imagine hydro-engineering projects, bigger ones like raising the height of the Shasta Dam to the tune of $1.2 billion [High Country News]. That sounded plausible to me. Then, last night, I watched a PBS documentary on beavers. I’m a sucker for nature documentaries, and I’ve missed seeing beavers since moving to California, they were everywhere in New Hampshire, so it was fun to watch them in action. Then this segment grabbed me:

Here’s a bit more of the backstory. In the Susie Creek watershed near Elko, Nevada, the land’s been drying out since cattle began grazing it 200 years ago. Beavers, reintroduced recently, reversed that trend. In this post, the Resilient Design Institute’s Alex Wilson refers to the same clip I quoted above:

The excellent 2014 PBS Nature documentary Leave it to Beavers describes how beavers modify the landscape to retain moisture. It turns out that beavers don’t only create ponds by damming creeks, the excavate ponds deeper, allowing them to hold more water. Biologist Glynnis Hood, Ph.D., who has been studying beavers near Edmonton, Alberta, described how important a role beavers play in Alberta by holding water.

“In 2002 we had the worst drought on record,” she reported. “The only places where we had water in natural areas was where we had beaver, and farmers were actually seeking out neighbors who had beavers on their landscape to water their cattle. So with beavers back on the land, even during the worst drought on record, they were mitigating the effects of drought and keeping water on the landscape.”

That idea was echoed in the PBS documentary by hydrologist Suzanne Foudy, Ph.D., of the U.S. Forest Service in describing the impact new beaver arrivals have been having on Susie Creek in north-central Nevada, near Elko. “If the snowpack’s coming off earlier and ranchers want water,” she said, “then we’ve got to figure out a way to keep it on the landscape, because it’s no longer going to be stored as snow in the mountains.” She continued: “What beavers do in all these itty-bitty streams is they create these small savings accounts, these pockets where it’s stored — no longer as snow, but as surface and groundwater.”

I’ve always enjoyed watching beavers and thinking about their effects on my local environments. But I never realized that the species as a whole can provide a critical ecosystem service at large scale. Here’s hoping that California will recruit them to help us replace a dwindling snowpack with water stored on the land. And that, as a bonus, I’ll get to see them more often again.

Humane local transportation

The recent documentary film Slingshot, about Dean Kamen’s quest to deliver water purification systems to the billion of us who need them, touches only briefly on the invention for which Kamen is most widely recognized: Segway. Almost everyone’s heard of the self-balancing electric scooter, though far fewer can name its inventor. Despite Segway’s fame, conventional wisdom says it was a failure: an overhyped product that solved no important problem.

At one point in the film we see Kamen gliding around his property in New Hampshire, reflecting on the unsustainability of a civilization whose organizing structural principle has been the automobile. Looking back over my recent blog posts I can see it’s a topic that’s been much on my mind. This picture illustrates two very different options available to me when traveling between our home (1) in Santa Rosa’s West End and Luann’s studio (6) in the SOFA arts district downtown.

The yellow path traverses two structures that bisect the town: the 101 freeway and the Santa Rosa Plaza, our downtown mall. It’s a walkable journey — with difficulty — but not a cyclable one as the path of least resistance runs through the interior of the mall. You won’t enjoy the walk, though. It entails long periods of waiting at stop lights to cross roads that, depending on time of day, may carry much or very little vehicular traffic.

The green path, meanwhile, runs along the Prince Memorial Greenway. Begun in 1989, not long after the mall was built, the greenway both restored the ecologically damaged Santa Rosa Creek and opened up an ideal route for walking, cycling, and — though I’ve yet to see it there — Segwaying.

Some say that Segway was never destined to coexist with automobile-based infrastructure. It could only succeed in yet-to-be-built cities defined by an alternative pattern language that describes RING ROADS, LOCAL TRANSPORT AREAS, and PEDESTRIAN PATHS. That might be true. But while some of the 300 million Chinese expected to urbanize by 2030 [Forbes] may land in such cities, most of us inhabit legacy infrastructure that allocates large amounts of urban space to the temporary storage of automobiles, and equally large amounts to their roadways.

The pervasive fabric of concrete and pavement feels permanent, unchangeable. And yet I traverse it easily. Last month, walking along the creek within view of the 101 freeway, I saw a merlin taking a bath. Neither of us was bothered by traffic noise, the sonic barriers around the freeway at that point are highly effective. What would it take to weave more of these corridors into our cities and flow non-automotive traffic through them?

Stymied by that question, Dean Kamen asked a different one: What would it take to deliver reliable high-capacity low-power vapor compression distillers to the people who need them? Actually inventing and refining a reliable high-capacity low-power vapor compression distiller is necessary but not sufficient. You need to distribute that gear worldwide and support its ongoing use. Governments lack the expertise and capacity to do that. The Coca-Cola company not only has both but also, it turns out, a mandate to offset the water impact of its business. The effort to purify the world’s water is now a Coke / DEKA partnership.

It has been a long road for Slingshot but thanks to that partnership I now think Kamen’s vision for clean water can be realized in my lifetime. I’m less optimistic about living to see the realization of his vision for humane modes of local transportation. But I’m willing to be surprised. And I wonder what unsuspected distribution partner might help bring the change.

Faithful reanimation of born-digital artifacts

Here’s a glimpse of a capability I’ve long imagined:

It’s a picture of me browsing my December 1995 BYTE column, using the same browser — Netscape Navigator 4.0 — that I used when I wrote the column 20 years ago. You can try this yourself, for any archived website, using, a new project by the brilliant web archivist Ilya Kreymer. I’ve gotten to know Ilya by way of Hypothesis. We use his pywb proxy (hosted at to inject our annotation software into web pages.

The blog has the scoop on’s lightweight emulation strategy. It’s a harbinger of things to come. Much of our cultural heritage — our words, our still and moving pictures, our sounds, our data — is born digital. Soon almost everything will be. It won’t be enough to archive our digital artifacts. We’ll also need to archive the software that accesses and renders them. And we’ll need systems that retrieve and animate that software so it, in turn, can retrieve and animate the data.

The enabling technologies are coming together quickly. Cloud-based computing keeps getting better and cheaper. The Docker revolution makes it radically easier to save and recreate complex software configurations. For the most part we benefit from this new infrastructure without noticing it or thinking about it, and that’s a good thing.

With, though, it’s hard not to notice or think about the infrastructure that delivers this magic into your browser. That’s a good thing too. It’s useful for everyone to have some awareness of what’s required to experience cultural artifacts with original fidelity, or to reliably reproduce scientific experiments. Ilya’s project isn’t only a great way to revisit the early web. It’s also a signpost on the road to these futures.

The downtown space station

An article I read years ago, and wish I could find again, claimed that America’s first enclosed shopping malls were designed to evoke the space stations of the mid-twentieth-century sci-fi imagination. I don’t know if that’s true but they do share a common design: the long central axis, with attached pods bathed in artificial light and recirculated air.

Until we moved to Santa Rosa, I rarely visited an enclosed mall. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) one in Keene, NH, which suited me just fine. I’ve always been allergic to the experience that malls try to create.

Here, though, the Santa Rosa Plaza (5) is a obstacle I ofen encounter when I walk between our home (1) in the West End and Luann’s studio (6) in the SofA district.

There is, thankfully, an alternative. The Prince Memorial Greenway runs along both sides of Santa Rosa Creek (4). It takes you around or under both of the structures that so heinously divide our part of downtown from the main part: the 101 freeway and the mall.

I use the creek trail as often as I can. The areas under the freeway are brightened by vast painted and tiled murals. Wildlife sightings include fish, egrets, black-crowned night-herons and, one time, a merlin. I see some of my neighbors walking or biking along, and others — the homeless ones — encamped along the banks.

When I’m headed downtown, though, the path of least resistance is (1, 2, 3, 5, 7). As you can see it leads through the mall. Although 101 looks formidable, you can cross under it at many points visible in the photo: 3rd Street, 4th, 5th, and 6th. But there’s no getting around the mall! I’d have to detour south to 1st or north to 7th to avoid it.

So I end up walking through the mall a lot, along what would be 4th street if it still existed. I try to enjoy it, and if I pretend that I’m walking through a space station I almost can. But this space station has landed in the wrong place. It bisects downtown even more egregiously than the mighty 101 freeway. What the hell were they thinking?