August 2009

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mtwilsonfire1

Just arrived at my house in Santa Barbara after a long drive down from Monterey. Most of the way I listened to live coverage of the Station Fire on KNX/1070, both through the car radio (KNX has a huge signal that covers the whole southwest at night) and online over my iPhone, which was plugged into the AUX input of the radio in my rented Ford Focus (not a bad car, by the way).

Here’s KNX’s latest story, with a map.

Here is a set of mashed-up fire maps I just created, courtesy of MODIS and the U.S. Forest Service and Google Earth.

On the Live Web

Lots of grist for (and from) the news mills there.

Among other directions, the fire is moving eastward across Mt. Wilson, which looms over Los Angeles from just north of Pasadena. Mt. Wilson is one among many points along the nearest ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains, most of which lie within the Angeles National Forest. Perhaps more significantly, it is the home to nearly all the transmitters of FM and TV stations serving the Los Angeles metro. Also Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Reports say that firefighters (two of which have died so far) are doing their best to protect the Mt. Wilson facilities, but I wonder how long they’ll stay before driving back down. The only road out to the north is the long and winding Angeles Crest Highway — which is closed and may already be burned — and Mt. Wilson Road itself, which goes west through areas colored in the map above. The LATimes says the firefighters will stay there “no matter what”.

I’ve been to Mt. Wilson a number of times, and have often shot it from the air as well. These now comprise “before” pictures of the mountain.

Here is a Bing “birds eye” view of one section of the top of Mt. Wilson. This shot shows the observatory.

This Google Map shows the parking area where I assume firefighting equipment can keep away from advancing fire.

For what little it’s worth, the five zillion channels I get on my Dish Network TV system have nothing I can find on the fire. The locals here in Santa Barbara are running network shows. CNN and HLN are covering two dead guys. CNN has Larry King interviewing Ted Kennedy, and HLN has junk news coverage of Michael Jackson’s creepy autopsy results. As a news environment, TV is a slo-mo suicide victim.

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A couple days ago I responded to a posting on an email list. What I wrote struck a few chords, so I thought I’d repeat it here, with just a few edits, and then add a few additional thoughts as well. Here goes.

Reading _____’s references to ancient electrical power science brings to mind my own technical background, most of which is now also antique. Yet that background still informs of my understanding of the world, and my curiosities about What’s Going On Now, and What We Can Do Next. In fact I suspect that it is because I know so much about old technology that I am bullish about framing What We Can Do Next on both solid modern science and maximal liberation from technically obsolete legal and technical frameworks — even though I struggle as hard as the next geek to escape those.

(Autobiographical digression begins here. If you’re not into geeky stuff, skip.)

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s I was obsessed with electricity and radio. I studied electronics and RF transmission and reception, was a ham radio operator, and put an inordinate amount of time into studying how antennas worked and electromagnetic waves propagated. From my home in New Jersey’s blue collar suburbs, I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York AM stations in the stinky tidewaters flanking the Turnpike, Routes 46 and 17, Paterson Plank Road and the Belleville Pike. (Nobody called them “Meadowlands” until many acres of them were paved in the ’70s to support a sports complex by that name.) I loved hanging with the old guys who manned those transmitters, and who were glad to take me out on the gangways to show how readings were made, how phasing worked (sinusoidal synchronization again), how a night transmitter had to address a dummy load before somebody manually switched from day to night power levels and directional arrays. After I learned to drive, my idea of a fun trip was to visit FM and TV transmitters on the tops of buildings and mountains. (Hell, I still do that.) Thus I came to understand skywaves and groundwaves, soil and salt water conductivity, ground systems, directional arrays and the inverse square law, all in the context of practical applications that required no shortage of engineering vernacular and black art.

I also obsessed on the reception end. In spite of living within sight of nearly every New York AM transmitter (WABC’s tower was close that we could hear its audio in our kitchen toaster), I logged more than 800 AM stations on my 40s-vintage Hammarlund HQ-129x receiver, which is still in storage at my sister’s place. That’s about 8 stations per channel. I came to understand how two-hop skywave reflection off the E layer of the ionosphere favored flat land or open water midway between transmission and reception points . This, I figured, is why I got KSL from Salt Lake City so well, but WOAI from San Antonio hardly at all. (Both were “clear channel” stations in the literal sense — nothing else in North America was on their channels at night, when the ionosphere becomes reflective of signals on the AM band.) Midpoint for the latter lay within the topographical corrugations of the southern Apalachians. Many years later I found this theory supported by listening in Hawaii to AM stations from Western North America, on an ordinary car radio. I’m still not sure why I found those skywave signals fading and distorting (from multiple reflections in the very uneven ionosphere) far less than those over land. I am sure, however, that most of this hardly matters at all to current RF and digital communication science. After I moved to North Carolina, I used Sporadic E reflections to log more than 1200 FM stations, mostly from 800 to 1200 miles away, plus nearly every Channel 3 and 6 (locally, 2,4 and 5 were occupied) in that same range. All those TV signals are now off the air. (Low-band VHF TV — channels 2 to 6 — are not used for digital signals in the U.S.) My knowledge of this old stuff is now mostly of nostalgia value; but seeking it has left me with a continuing curiosity about the physical world and our infrastructural additions to it. This is why much of what looks like photography is actually research. For example, this and this. What you’re looking at there are pictures taken in service to geology and archaeology.

(End of autobiographical digression.)

Speaking of which, I am also busy lately studying the history of copyright, royalties and the music business — mostly so ProjectVRM can avoid banging into any of those. This research amounts to legal and regulatory archaeology. Three preliminary findings stand out, and I would like to share them.

First, regulatory capture is real, and nearly impossible to escape. The best you can do is keep it from spreading. Most regulations protect last week from yesterday, and are driven by the last century’s leading industries. Little if any regulatory lawmaking by established industries — especially if they feel their revenue bases threatened, clears room for future development. Rather, it prevents future development, even for the threatened parties who might need it most. Thus the bulk of conversation and debate, even among the most progressive and original participants, takes place within the bounds of still-captive markets. This is why it is nearly impossible to talk about Net-supportive infrastructure development without employing the conceptual scaffolding of telecom and cablecom. We can rationalize this, for example, by saying that demand for telephone and cable (or satellite TV) services is real and persists, but the deeper and more important fact is that it is very difficult for any of us to exit the framing of those businesses and still make sense.

Second, infrastructure is plastic. The term “infrastructure” suggests physicality of the sturdiest kind, but in fact all of it is doomed to alteration, obsolescence and replacement. Some of it (Roman roads, for example) may last for centuries, but most of it is obsolete in a matter of decades, if not sooner. Consider over-the-air (OTA) TV. It is already a fossil. Numbered channels persist as station brands; but today very few of those stations transmit on their branded analog channels, and most of them are viewed over cable or satellite connections anyway. There are no reasons other than legacy regulatory ones to maintain the fiction that TV station locality is a matter of transmitter siting and signal range. Viewing of OTA TV signals is headed fast toward zero. It doesn’t help that digital signals play hard-to-get, and that the gear required for getting it sucks rocks. Nor does it help that cable and satellite providers that have gone out of their way to exclude OTA receiving circuitry from their latest gear, mostly force subscribing to channels that used to be free. As a result ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS are now a premium pay TV package. (For an example of how screwed this is, see here.) Among the biggest fossils are thousands of TV towers, some more than 2000 feet high, maintained to continue reifying the concept of “coverage,” and to legitimize “must carry” rules for cable. After live audio stream playing on mobile devices becomes cheap and easy, watch AM and FM radio transmission fossilize in exactly the same ways. (By the way, if you want to do something green and good for the environment, lobby for taking down some of these towers, which are expensive to maintain and hazards to anything that flies. Start with this list here. Note the “UHF/VHF transmission” column. Nearly all these towers were built for analog transmission and many are already abandoned. This one, for example.)

Third, “infrastructure” is a relatively new term and vaguely understood outside arcane uses within various industries. It drifted from military to everyday use in the 1970s, and is still not a field in itself. Try looking for an authoritative reference book on the general subject of infrastructure. There isn’t one. Yet digital technology requires that we challenge the physical anchoring of infrastructure as a concept. Are bits infrastructural? How about the means for arranging and moving them? The Internet (the most widespread means for moving bits) is defined fundamentally by its suite of protocols, not by the physical media over which data travels, even though there are capacity and performance dependencies on the latter. Again, we are in captured territory here. Only in conceptual jails can we sensibly debate whether something is an “information service” or a “telecommunication service”. And yet most of us who care about the internet and infrasructure do exactly that.

That last one is big. Maybe too big. I’ve written often about how hard it is to frame our understanding of the Net. Now I’m beginning to think we should admit that the Internet itself, as concept, is too limiting, and not much less antique than telecom or “power grid”.

“The Internet” is not a thing. It’s a finger pointing in the direction of a thing that isn’t. It is the name we give to the sense of place we get when we go “on” a mesh of unseen connections to interact with other entitites. Even the term “cloud“, labeling a utility data service, betrays the vagueness of our regard toward The Net.

I’ve been on the phone a lot lately with Erik Cecil, a veteran telecom attorney who has been thinking out loud about how networks are something other than the physical paths we reduce them to. He regards network mostly in its verb form: as what we do with our freedom — to enhance our intelligence, our wealth, our productivity, and the rest of what we do as contributors to civilization. To network we need technologies that enable what we do in maximal ways.  This, he says, requires that we re-think all our public utilities — energy, water, communications, transportation, military/security and law, to name a few — within the context of networking as something we do rather than something we have. (Think also of Jonathan Zittrain’s elevation of generativity as a supportive quality of open technology and standards. As verbs here, network and generate might not be too far apart.)

The social production side of this is well covered in Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, but the full challenge of what Erik talks about is to re-think all infrastructure outside all old boxes, including the one we call The Internet.

As we do that, it is essential that we look to employ the innovative capacities of businesses old and new. This is a hat tip in the general direction of ISPs, and to the concerns often expressed by Richard Bennett and Brett Glass: that new Internet regulation may already be antique and unnecessary, and that small ISPs (a WISP in Brett’s case) should be the best connections of high-minded thinkers like yours truly (and others named above) to the real world where rubber meets road.

There is a bigger picture here. We can’t have only some of us painting it.

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Following Tristan LouisFauxpenness, I posted Open vs. Fauxpen at Linux Journal. Includes hat-tipping toward Dave‘s recent work on URL shortening (the latest of which is here).

It’s been a long travel day, and we’ve got an hour to go before getting unstuck here in the Denver airport, which is in Nebraska, I think. Got an early flight out of Boston, then failed to get on by standby with two flights so far. But we’re reserved on the third, and due to arrive in Santa Barbara an hour and a quarter before tomorrow.

Anyway, my normally sunny mood, even in the midst of travel woes (one should appreciate the fact that commercial aviation involves sitting in a chair moving 500 miles an hour, seven miles up), was compromised earlier this evening by an unhappy exchange with Enterprise, the rental car company. I wrote about it in Unf*cking car rental, over in the ProjectVRM blog. It concludes constructively:

So I want to take this opportunity to appeal to anybody in a responsible position anywhere in the car rental business to work together with us at on a customer-based solution to this kind of automated lameness. It can’t be done from the inside alone. That’s been tried and proven inadequate for way too long. Leave a message below or write me at dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu.

Let’s build The Intention Economy — based on real, existing, money-in-hand intentions of real customers, rather than the broken attention-seeking and customer-screwing system we have now.

There’s the bait. We’ll see if anybody takes it.

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Imagine a “News from Lake Wobegon” without the homespun prairie jive, lasting for more than an hour every weeknight, and packed with great stories, mostly of being a normal kid from greater blue-collar Chicago. That was Jean Shepherd, who was Required Listening in New York — and the whole Northeast — from the ’50s to the ’70s. “Shep” was also a writer of books and articles, a public performer, an artist and a screenwriter best known for A Christmas Story the 1983 hit movie that has since become required showing on holiday season television.

So I’m listening right now to “A Voice in the Night: A Tribute to Jean Shepherd”, on one of the Sirius public radio channels. I can’t tell which one because the display on the receiver is too dim, and the service’s own guide is nearly clue-free. (And I wont get rid of this receiver, because it’s one of the early ones with an illegally strong FM transmitter, which I like, and because it fits in three different cradles that will fit none of the newer units. I will, with regret for losing Howard Stern, dump Sirius when my subscription runs out later this year.)

Anyway, I’m busy and would love to hear this show later on a podcast. Alas, the only listen-link on the show page goes to a RealAudio stream that requires sitting at your computer (and having a Real player). If anybody knows how to get this on a podcast, let the rest of us know. Thanks.

JOHO promo

David Weinberger‘s latest JOHO is up. He unpacks the highlights here. One among many typically quotable nuggets: Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

Two new posts over at the ProjectVRM blog: Testing the all-tip system, and Appreciating TipJoy. Oddly, I didn’t know until after I posted the first one that TipJoy was folding.

What Abby and Ivan Kirgin did with TipJoy was great pioneering work that we can all learn from. I know it will help what we’re doing with EmanciPay and other VRM projects.

Christopher Musico, writing in the Destination CRM Blog: “According to a new study by research firm Pear Analytics, less than one in ten tweets have any real ‘pass-along value’,as more than 40 percent of tweets are ‘pointless babble.’”

I look forward to seeing more when the whole study is published (here, Christopher says). Meanwhile it’s important to point out that nobody follows everybody (which I assume is what Pear Analytics did). Nor does everybody write for everybody. Or even anybody.

Most of the people I follow write stuff that has pass-along value. And I don’t post anything unless I think it has pass-along value as well.

What I’d like to see is a study probing that value. How many followers blog rather than re-tweet, for example? That’s what I’m doing here. So, rather than just re-tweeting thisGoodCRMQuality or Quantity: Twitter Edition, Part 2 | CRM Magazine Blog: New research finds pointless babble makes up t.. http://bit.ly/1gO6Y — I’m blogging about it.

Think of blogging vs. re-tweeting as digestion vs. bulemia. And I say that as a guy who tosses up plenty of chunks myself. :-)

Mostly I work like a hermit:  in an attic with two window air conditioners fighting the heat and providing an endless source of dull noise that furthers my sense of productive isolation. For the last few days of record-high temperatures, the AC units have been losing the fight. Today they’ve been winning, so I haven’t been paying any attention to the world outside.

Then, one minute ago: Boom! A crack of thunder. Sure enough, Wunderground says a storm is moving in. It doesn’t look big, but it’s bowling a strike right across Boston:

stormtrack

A perfect excuse to take a snack out on the back porch for a front row seat on the best of nature’s summer theatre. (One of the things I miss when I’m in Santa Barbara, though I’ve been missing Santa Barbara mightily during the heat wave here.) And sympathizing with the passengers that are surely soon delayed on approach to Logan.

[One hour later...] Well, that was a case of wishful blogging. The storm cell passed over Boston but missed most of Cambridge. I see here another small one is on the way (right now it’s over Ashland, between Hollston and Framingham), but it might be pooped out by the time it gets here.

[Next morning...] The small patch of rain never got here. In the evening I went to a barbeque in a Cambridge backyard and the place was still soaked by the rain that missed my place. This morning it’s hot all over again.

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Alan M. Dershowitz: “If it is immoral to kill an innocent fetus, how could it not be immoral to execute an innocent person?” That’s the bottom line of Dershowitz’ dissent from Antonin Scalia’s dissent in this matter here. I might dig into it if I had more time and interest, but I have neither at the moment. I will, however, respectfully request that the professor (and everybody writing about cases like this) put links in text so readers have handy citational paths back to source documents. Links are a native grace of writing on the Web, and a helpful courtesy as well. Please use them.

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