September 2009

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What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later...] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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Quakes

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has an excellent Earthquake Center for all the earthquakes in the world, which is very handy at a time when many are happening at once, followed in some cases by tsunamis that cross seas to strike coastlines minutes to hours later.

For example, this list of earthquakes of magnitude 5 and greater shows in red both the 8.0 quake that caused tsunamis in the South Pacific, and the 7.6 quake that devastated western Sumatra and also poses a serious tsunami risk — both just in the last few hours. Tonga alone has seen thirteen aftershocks of 5.0 or greater. The Samoa Islands Region has seen twelve.

Bear in mind that the Loma Prieta Quake in 1989 was around a 7.0, and 5.0 earthquakes have caused thousands of deaths as well.

Most of us are great distances from both regions that were just hit, but we are still in position to help. One way is by getting facts straight, and also to keep fail whales from falling on lines that are bound to be congested. Hope this little bit of pointage helps.

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manicouagan

Above is the best (or the widest) shot I could get of Lake Manicouagan, which is the largest visible impact crater on Earth. Only three (or maybe four) are larger and none are visible.

The Manicouagan impact event happened about 214 million years ago, give or take. That was 14 million years before the end of the Triassic, which was first of the three “dinosaur ages” of the Mesozoic, an era that came to an end with the Chicxulub impact. Coming that far in advance the Manicouagan event  may not have been to blame for a mass extinction, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant.

There are better photos in the series, but it was a hazy day and the one above does the best job of showing the crater’s edges.

I’ve been wanting to see (and shoot) Manicouagan for many years, but routes and weather had never obliged before. This time they did, which was cool.

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Over in Fast Company, Tim Beyers nicely threads quotable pearls from Cluetrain‘s four authors, including yours truly, in Twitter’s Investors Missed the Cluetrain – Here’s Why. The context of the story is continued investment in Twitter at a reported $1 billion valuation of the company. (Fast indeed.)

Now that the piece is up, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts of my own.

First, while valuation is unavoidably interesting, value is avoidably important. In other words, it doesn’t get much respect. Not if it’s not being sold.

For example, RSS (currently getting more than 3 billion results on Google). It’s extremely useful. We would hardly have blogging or online journalism without it. But Dave Winer, to his enormous credit, decided not to make RSS itself a business. Instead he decided to release it into the world so countless uses could be made of it, and countless businesses could be built on top of those uses. He made RSS open infrastructure, just as Linus Torvalds did with Linux, and countless other geeks have done with their own contributions to the virtual lumberyard of free building material we use to make the online world. Open building material is valuable beyond calculation, because it has use value rather than sale value. (Eric Raymond explains the difference here.) The leverage of use value on sale value can be very high indeed. Where would Google and Amazon be without Linux and Apache? Where would any of us be without SMTP, IMAP and other email protocols — or, for that matter, the suite of free and open protocols on which the Net itself runs?

Twitter’s creators have chosen to make it a commercial form of infrastructure. This is not a bad thing. In terms of investment valuation (especially at this point in time) it’s a smart thing. But we should not mistake Twitter itself, or even its API, for the kind of true (free and open) infrastructure that comprise the Net and the Web. Nor, for that matter, should we consider Twitter the last word in the category it pioneered and now dominates. At this point in history, Twitter soaks up nearly all the oxygen the microblogging room. Thus there is no widely adopted open infrastructure for microblogging. (Identi.ca and the OpenMicroBlogger folks have worked hard on that, but adoption so far is relatively small.)

But, given time, something will take. I’d place a bet Dave’s RSS Cloud. It’s live, or real-time. It’s open infrastructure. And, as Dave put it here, it has no fail whale. (And now TechCrunch is Cloud-enabled.)

This relates to Cluetrain in respect to what a market is, and what a market does. Markets by nature are open. They are not “your choice of captor.” Cluetrain, at least for me, was a brief against captors, a case for open marketplaces. So, while Twitter may provide means for conversation out the wazoo, it still falls short of what are, for me, more important Cluetrain ideals. I await the fulfillment of those with growing patience.

If you had told me in 1999 that the two hottest names on the Web in 2009 — Facebook and Twitter — would both be silos, I’d have been disappointed. I’d have figured that by now most folks would understand the infrastructural nature of open code, open protocols, open formats. (For more on those expectations, see Making a New World, written a few years back but still relevant as ever.)

With time comes perspective. It is helpful to note that the Web as we know it is barely old enough for high school. (The first popular browser appeared in 1995.) As an environment supporting new forms of business life — ones thriving in an environment of ubiquitous and cheap worldwide connectivity that each participant is in a position to improve — we are at a paleozoic stage in which even the innovative companies continue to follow familiar industrial age models of command and control. That’s why they trap users, customers and whole markets in walled gardens that are value-subtracted simulacra of the whole Net. In the best cases (such as Twitter’s, Facebook’s and Apple’s) they create new markets around new inventions and new ways of doing things, but at the expense of isolation for themselves and all their walled-in dependents. So, even when they embrace (though never completely) openness and other forms of goodness at the engineering level, they remain Old Skool at the corporate level where equally Old Skool investors still place their bets. And, while they speed things up in the early stages — when they are still new and original — they slow things down after their walled markets become large enough to become industrial farms, harvesting income from trapped inhabitants.

The longer that walled farming remains a prevailing business practice, the longer the Industrial Age persists in the midst of the one that succeeds it, and the farther we are from arriving at the Net’s mesozoic: it’s dinoaur age. That age will be characterized, as it was for sentient reptiles, by greater liberty for individuals and greater autonomy for families, tribes and other groups of individuals.

Many of us have long seen that liberation coming — and implicit in the nature of the Net itself. The Cluetrain Manifesto announced it in early 1999 with “we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.” Chris Locke wrote that, and it galvanized the rest of us by giving voice to the liberating nature of the Net itself. Yes, the Net supports silos, but it is not itself a silo. It provides a base infrastructure for freedom, independence and empowerment. It creates wide open spaces for the social and business constructions we call markets. True, the urge by companies to build walled gardens in these wide open spaces persists undiminished. But in time companies will discover how much more value can be created by contributing to open infrastructure, and by offering original products and services based on that infrastructure, than by trapping customers in closed spaces and operating their own private marketplaces. (As, for example, Apple does with its iTunes store, and other phone makers and companies are now copying. This is very paleozoic stuff.)

We are now caught up in “social” everything. Cluetrain’s opening thesis, “markets are conversations,” is often credited for predicting, if not inaugurating, the “social web”. Overlooked in the midst, however, is what I think is a far more important thesis, coined by David Weinberger: “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy“. Ask yourself, How well do links work in Twitter? Better question: What happens when bit.ly goes down — or out of business? URL shortening needs to be part of the Net’s infrastructure too. Today it isn’t. For more on that, look up Dave Winer and URL shortening: Dave has a history of not being listened to by Google, Twitter and other giants. But he’s right about URL shortening. And about how Twitter can help de-silo it. Single-source commercial URL shorteners are handy and all, but they weaken hyperlinks by making them vulnerable to the failure of one company, or one authority. I am sure Twitter doesn’t mean to weaken hyperlinks (but rather strengthen them, in a way), but that’s what it does by relying on a commercial silo for shortened links. Weakening hyperlinks, at least to me, makes Twitter less valuable, no matter how much investors think it’s worth on some future stock market.

Dave Winer has long advised, “Ask not what the Web can do for you, ask what you can do for the Web”. Answering that generously in the long run will result in maximum value — and valuations in alignment with a more open and value-producing future.

Calling all Customers

VRM East Coast Workshop 2009 is coming up soon — on 12-13 October, at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA. It’s hosted by the Berkman Center and ProjectVRM at the Center.

As with earlier VRM workshops, it’s a free unconference, organized on the open space model. Participants choose the topics, move those topics forward in open discussion, and share progress with the whole group at the end of each day.

You can get a sense of the energy in a VRM gathering from photo galleries here, here, here, here and here.

Sign up for the workshop here.

For those of you not familiar with VRM, the letters stand for Vendor Relationship Management, and it’s about the tools that developers and friends are creating to provide individuals with tools of independence form organizations that wish to control them — and better means for engaging with those organizations. In other words, it’s about blowing up silos and walled gardens, and creating a better system: one in which individuals are the collection centers for their own data, and the ones controlling what gets done with that data.

There are many projects and topics already moving forward that should get a boost from participation at the workshop. Here in the UK this week I met with folks involved in MyDex and The Mine! Project — the latter in a VRM Hub meeting last night overlooking the Thames and Blackfriars Bridge.

In Boston I’m looking forward to a lot of discussion on a topic we might call HCRM, or Health Care Relationship Management. The Boston area is a hotbed of forward thinking about patients controlling their own health care data, and reforming the health care from the individual side of the relationshp with the systems in control of it.

I could (and should) write more, but I’m in London waiting for a plane, lucky to have any connectivity at all. (Which, if I’d had enough at my hotel this week, this would have been posted much earlier.)

I blog by grace of something I hardly expected to find: a free open wi-fi hot spot in London. Way back in (it says 1969, but it was actually) 2002, I had a ball discovering many free wi-fi hot spots in London, got to make many new friends, and enjoy, for a brief shining year or two, the grace of public wi-fi by countless distributed private means.

Somewhere betwen then and now that ended. So now I’m sitting with  newer friends where Blackfriars Bridge crosses the Thames, on Riverside Walk (or is it Southwalk?) in the Spring. Except it’s Autumn.

It’s been beautiful all week here. Guess I brought nice weather with me.

[Later...] Now it’s the next day. I’m at Heathrow, Terminal One, at the Star Alliance lounge, where the wi-fi is “completely down,” they tell me. Fortunately I have a BT OpenZone account, and I can get a signal from BTOZ just inside the door of the lounge, where my bum is parked now.

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First, links to a pair of pieces I wrote — one new, one old, both for Linux Journal. The former is Linux and Plethorization, a short piece I put up today, and which contains a little usage experiment that will play out over time. The latter is The New Vernacular, dated (no fooling) April 1, 2001. Much of what it says overlaps with the chapter I wrote for O’Reilly’s Open Sources 2.0. You can find that here and here.

I link to those last two pieces because neither of them show up in a search for searls + glassie on Google, even though my name and that of Henry Glassie are in both. I also like them as an excuse to object to the practice — by WordPress, Flickr and (presumably) others of adding a rel=”nofollow” to the links I put in my html. I know nofollow is an attrribute value with a worthy purpose: to reduce blog and comment spam. But while it reportedly does not influence rankings in Google’s index, it also reportedly has the effect of keeping a page out of the index if it isn’t already there. (Both those reportings are at the last link above.)

I don’t know if that’s why those sites don’t show up in a search. [Later... now I do. See the comments below.] But I can’t think of another reason, and it annoys me that the editors in WordPress and Flickr, which I use almost every day, insert the attribute on my behalf. Putting that attribute there is not my intention. And I would like these editors to obey my intentions. Simple as that.

With the help of friends in Berkman‘s geek cave I found a way to shut the offending additions off in WordPress (though I can’t remember how right now, sorry). But I don’t know if there’s a way to do the same in Flickr. Advice welcome.

And while we’re at it, I’m still not happy that searches for my surname always ask me if I’ve misspelled it — a recently minted Google feature that I consider a problem and which hasn’t gone away. (To friends at Google reading this, I stand my my original guess that the reason for the change is that “Searles” is somewhat more common than “Searls” as a surname. Regardless, I prefer the old results to the new ones.)

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The Excellent Adventure is the name of the blog. Its subhead is The tale of TeamHudson, as they discover that all they need is a tall ship…. Its About page says,

  In July of 2006, Laureen and Jason were startled to discover that despite all the various hopes, dreams, and aspirations of their youth, they’d somehow found themselves being garden-variety desk-driving SUV-owning suburbanites. And they were slightly ill. So late one evening, after the boys were tucked in and the lights were low, they dared to start dreaming again. They told each other stories about what they wanted out of their life together. And in no time at all, they’d discovered that the shape of their collective dream was a ship. And that the children’s futures were the stars they had to sail her by. And that was enough to get started with.

What happened since then isn’t on par with Job, but it hasn’t been fun. Today’s post is titled, My Loan with Bank of America: A Study in Customer Service Fail. The introductory grafs:

  We moved aboard the boat full time, and got the house ready to be put on the market. As my American readers are painfully aware, this is when the bottom started dropping out of the US real estate market, and my family watched in horror as our home lost $275,000 in value in under a year, the city the house was in wobbled around declaring bankruptcy, and my husband’s home construction business collapsed. Suddenly, we were supporting a mortgage, a boat payment, and five people on one salary. We held it together financially, but as the American Economic Death-Wobble increased, I was laid off from my Technical Editor job at Sun Microsystems, with 5,999 of my friends, and the whole thing was no longer do-able.

  Throughout this debacle, we kept making payments on the boat, s/v Excellent Adventure, as she was our home, our primary residence. We had attempted to do a loan modification with Bank of America, the loan holder, early on in the cycle, because continuity and commitment in our dealings with them seemed important. Because it was a boat, and not an on-land home, they refused, although they were quite good about tolerating missed payments, and even set up a three-month deferral for us at one point.

  We declared bankruptcy in February 2009.

What follows is a tragedy of errors, mostly on the part of the Hudsons’ creditor, Bank of America. The low point:

  I tried to ask a few questions, like, how come they felt they could repo with zero prior contact or request for payment, and if payment was so important, why would they not accept partial now and partial Monday when I had it, but was greeted with more screaming. Oh, and this:

  “Have a good weekend, Mrs. Hudson.”

  I hung up, thoroughly upset. I had never been screamed at like that in my life. In the space of five hours, Bank of America had gone from “don’t call us, you’re in process, we can’t help you” to “we’re repossessing your home.”

The saga continues, and gets worse:

  So here’s where we stand. Bank of America is unwilling to do a loan modification, despite having taken billions of dollars in TARP funding, which was supposed to go towards loan modifications. They would prefer to demand completely unrealistic payments and force repossession/eviction on a family than to adjust to the reality of the American economy, even temporarily. Forcing the eviction and repossession will give them an asset of negligible value, compared to the over-time benefit of the loan modification. They are happy to rely on bullying, scare tactics, and brutality, and seem to feel that they can crush people at will.

Their fight is now legal as well as financial. However…

  Another fact that is not widely known at all is that in the State of California, as of October 12th, it is a felony for an attorney to get payment up front to work on loan modification cases. I can see how, on the one hand, this is to protect people from the unscrupulous. But the net effect will be to prevent attorneys from taking loan modification cases. Banks are known to drag these things out as long as possible, thus making it financially untenable for attorneys, who have their own bills to pay, from taking on cases like mine. And Bank of America has proven that I, as a customer and individual, have no voice and no hope with them, without legal representation. This is backed up by their August 24th decision to not only scrap arbitration as a means of settling dispute, but also to continue with their ban on customers joining class action lawsuits. This means, effectively, that if you don’t have access to a lawyer and funding for that lawyer, you’re screwed. Against Bank of America, you stand alone.

Of course I (and most other readers) only know the Hudsons’ side of this thing. But they’re friends of friends, and I’ve been asked to pass along their story, in hopes that spreading the word might do some good. This blog has a lot of readers. Maybe one of you works at B of A, or knows some soul who does, and can help work this thing out. If the Hudsons are in a position to keep paying and avoid reposession, the bank should work with them.

That’s my take-away from Fawn Germer in It’s the Cynicism That’ll Kill You. The encompassing lines:

  So many of my former colleagues who are forced to transition and re-invent actually expected to report for newspapers until the final days of their careers. Change of this magnitude was so unexpected that most are shell-shocked and clueless about what to do next.

  Unfortunately, most have a handicap that will hold them back at every turn. It is the skepticism that made them good journalists and the cynicism that festered in the newsroom.

Her rap is “manifesting success” and “motivational leadership”. Hard-asses (including yours truly) can wince at that kind of stuff. But in fact there are more paths than ever these days. True, fewer for old farts (including yours truly) but more than none. Motivational leadership can help, since motivation is required.

This is a liminal time. In-between. The old isn’t gone (and much of it may never be) and the new isn’t more than partly here. Meanwhile the disruption of the former by the latter continues unevenly but inevitably. Opportunity in the midst abounds. As do tragedies.

I’d say more but they’re about to close the door of the airplane. Meanwhile, kudos to McCarran Airport here in Las Vegas for the free wi-fi. Well done.

bypassbridge

The shot above, made on Sunday out the window of a plane on approach to Las Vegas, comes three and a half years after this shot, which I took from the ground at Hoover Dam. Here’s a whole set of the fly-by. Not much of the dam shows. The Colorado River gorge is easier to see.

Two things stand out for me in this scene. One is the remarkable engineering involved in building the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, better known as the Hoover Dam Bypass. The other is that, from altitude — far more than from the ground — you can see the volcanic nature and origin of the rock supporting both the bridge and hte dam. I’ve been looking around for source docs online that detail the provenance of this rock, which needs to be of a competence sufficient to anchor one of the world’s biggest dams, while also supporting a bridge over a gorge. As I recall from the visit, it’s rhyolite. But, not sure. Looks like it. Maybe Arizona Geology can fill us in.

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