The Big Here JUL 11 2006
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.