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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Excellence vs. B of A

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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Vroom with a view

DEN_sunset

I’m not there, in that shot above. That was in Denver, en route from Santa Barbara to Boston last Monday. Now I’m at a different airport — O’Hare in Chicago — en route from Boston to Las Vegas.

Still, I thought it as a nice shot in a pretty set. So there ya go.

Starting a few upgrades back, Firefox started showing this…

firefox_feature

…  when you clicked on that little icon at the left end of the location bar. (What’s the name for that?) Now, with version 3.5.3 (and perhaps earlier versions — the last one I used before this was 3.0.9), it still shows that same pop-down thing, but no longer selects the location text to the right. That’s not a problem, because you can still select all the location text with one click anywhere within that text. I only discovered that feature by experimenting around. Searching the Mozilla site was useless. The feature also violates normal expectations of what happens when you click once (place cursor), twice (select word), or three times (select all) on text, but I don’t mind. A little conditionality doesn’t hurt, and it’s good to be able to select a whole URI easily.

What I don’t get is why it’s worth mentioning that a site “does not supply identity information” and that the site “is not encrypted” when these two conditions prevail for approximatly every site on the Web, including Firefox’s own, which is the case I used above to demonstrate the feature. Yes, I understand why the pop-down is there, but I’d rather return to having a click on the icon select all the text to the right. Is there a way to go back to that?

Meanwhile what “identity information” are they talking about? Mine? Mozilla’s? If I click on “More Information…” a Page Info window opens, telling me next to “Owner” that “This web site does not supply ownership information.” Of whom? Of what? To whom? Not clear.

Hey, I’ll cop to being a second-rate geek (which is true); but it’s a safe bet that if I don’t know what this is about, regular old Web surfers don’t know, either.

So, as long as we’re being unclear, it’s better (at least for me) to go back a few steps toward something that’s both plain and useful. Bury this pop-down’s functionality in the Tools menu or something.

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I like sports, and I enjoy sports talk radio. That’s one reason I have five car radio buttons set on stations carrying games or sports talk: four on AM (WRKO/680, WEEI/850, WAMG/890, WZZN/1510) and one on FM (WBZ-FM/98.5). The other is that sports talk is about 50% advertising, so I like to punch around.

But I wasn’t surprised to read ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate set to sign off, by Chad Finn in the Boston Globe. It begins, “ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate, WAMG-AM 890, will go off the air Monday after four years plagued by a weak signal and limited local programming.” In fact, “weak” doesn’t cover it. By day WAMG’s 25,000-watt signal covers the Boston metro pretty well. But at night the station drops to 6,000 watts and a pattern that excludes the whole north side of the metro. The map at that last link doesn’t show how much like a headlight that pattern really is.

Yet that’s not the worst of it. WAMG was able to “drop in” to the market from nowhere in 2005, thanks to a change in FCC rules that protected what were once called (literally) “clear channel” stations. Because signals on the AM band bounce off the ionosphere at night, powerful ones can be heard up to thousands of miles away. Since there were then only 106 channels (every 10KHz from 540 to 1600KHz), a handful were granted “clear channel” status, making them the only stations on those channels at night. Thanks to this rule, I could hear KFI/640 from Los Angeles in New Jersey and WBZ/1030 from Boston in Palo Alto. Here’s the whole list of “clears” as they stood when their status still held.

Since long-distance listening had mostly gone away by the late 1970s, the FCC in 1980 reduced protection for the old “clears” to 750 miles from their transmitters. WLS/890 in Chicago was one of those clears. So you might say that WAMG appeared through a new loophole. Problem was, WLS had not gone away. It often still reached Boston quite well at night, pounding WAMG’s already-weak signal.

This last week I was down in the South portion of Cape Cod, where WAMG puts no signal at all. As a result I could hear WLS quite well on a portable radio, along with other Chicago giants.

The Globe story suggests that WAMG will probably go dark. Given the coverage realities, that might not be the worst thing.

A thought. WAMG is licensed to Dedham, not Boston. It might not be the worst thing for Clear Channel (the name of the company that owns WAMG and a zillion other stations) to sell the licesnse to somebody in the Dedham community, who could cut the power back (to save electricity) and just try to serve the local community itself. Provided, of course, that local radio of the AM sort (which has changed little since the 1920s) still makes sense.

[Later...] Following up on 10 October 2009, WAMG has been off the air for several weeks.

For years I’ve been watching my old pal Britt Blaser work to improve the means by which citizens manage their elected politicians, and otherwise improve governance in our democracy.

Now comes Diane Francis, veteran columnist for the National Post in Canada (but yes, she’s an American), summarizing the good that should come from Britt’s latest: iVote4U, and its trial run toward the elections in New York coming up in just a few days. New York’s Digitized Dems Can Take Over City Council Sept. 15, says the headline. In addition to the Drupal sites of the last two links, there is a Facebook app as well.

The idea, sez Britt, is “to give voters a way to manage their politicians as easily as they manage their iTunes”. If you’re a New Yorker who plans to vote next week, give it a whirl. If enough of you do, you might begin to see what we call Government Relationship Management (or GRM) at work.

iVote4U pioneers as a fourth party service.Follow that link for more on what I mean by that; or check out Joe Andrieu’s series on user driven services. If we want government that is truly of, by and for the people, we need tools that give meaning to those prepositions. Especially the first two. Britt has dedicated his life to providing those tools. Give them a try.

You don’t need to be a Democrat, by the way. These tools should work equally well for voters of all political bendings.

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Same date, new sphere

On 9/11/2001 I had already been blogging for nearly two years. It’s interesting to see what I wrote this day, back then. Since my blog then was not on local time, my first four posts were actually the last from the day before. My first 9/11 post was this one.

A declaration of peace was my second post. Longer and more thoughtful posts came on 9/12, 9/13, 9/14, 9/16 and so on.

Kinda sad to see how many links now go nowhere, or to blogs that have since been abandoned. My blogroll on the right side of those pages has a lot of rot in it too.

In August 2007 I moved my blog here. Thanks to Dave Winer, the old blog archives live.

The Net is different too, especially around the Web. Google is the new Microsoft. Facebook is the new AOL. Twitter is the new CB radio. Much of what used to be on TV and in print have moved to the Web in new forms. Much of education too.

One year ago we were in the midst of a financial collapse. That’s ending now, maybe, sort of.

The whole world is in a transitional state, between many old institutions that aren’t yet dead and many new ones that are not yet formed. That includes Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

The attack on the World Trade Center was followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have not ended. In Iraq, which has a working government and a degree of peace, an agreeable end can be imagined. Less so in Afghanistan, which George Will, America’s top conservative columnist, thinks we should now abandon.

Terrorists have not attacked the U.S. directly again. At least not that blatantly, or to the same great effect. Interpret that any way you like.

Bonus link.

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Fire from above

stationfire_from_above

Above is a picture of the Station Fire, taken from the plane I was riding from Santa Barbara to Denver on Monday afternoon. I believe the water body at the bottom is the San Gabriel Reservoir. It lies in the midst of the San Gabriel Mountains, most of which are in the Angeles National Forest, much of which got burned up in the last two weeks.

I didn’t see this scene myself, since I was seated on the left side of the plane, with a view of the Mojave desert. But I knew the fire was there, below the right side of the plane, which had a perfect view of the burn area. So I handed my camera over to people sitting on the right side, and they made the shots.

The fire has been burning itself out in the back country, which it was doing on Monday when that shot was taken. Current stats: 160,357 acres, 71% contained, 3,647 personnel, containment expected on Tuesday September 15th, 2009, at approximately 6:00 PM. (Yes, they’re that precise.)

Here’s my whole set of Station Fire-related images.

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My postings last week on the Station Fire (below) brought an invitation from Dave to contribute something along the same lines for InBerkeley. I did, and the title is The Next Berkeley Fire. Since fire is one of the two big dangers of living in this corner of paradise, I visited the subject of earthquakes as well (for which I just added a missing graphic — trust me, it’s scary)

Meanwhile, today I return to Boston for another school year. Still packing and working on writing assignments right now, so expect continued light blogging. See ya on the East Side.

stony

Above is the latest (as of this morning) MODIS satellite map (on Google Earth) of Station Fire spottings in the Angeles National Forest north of the Los Angeles basin. Near the center I’ve marked the Stony Ridge Observatory. While less familiar than the famous Mt. Wilson Observatory (and little known outside its own circles), Stony Ridge has a long history and is much loved as well as relied-upon.

This story in the LA Times raised concerns that Stony Ridge might be lost, but the latest word on the observatory’s own site, as well as the map above, suggest that it has been spared. I wonder to what degree this is because firefighters worked to save it, or that the fire simply avoided it. In any case it looks like a hole in the donut of surrounding fire—and that most of the fire spreading currently is away from populated areas.

Here are some aftermath shots of Mt. Wilson.

Here’s my whole Angeles Fire series on Flickr.

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, for which I am a 1K (>100,000 miles per year) flyer, and which I fly so close to exclusively that I’m almost too familiar with their methods, has in the last year added a number of opt-out inconveniences to booking and check-in systems. Here is one for bonus miles that shows up both online and on-screen when going through the “Easy Check-In” process at the airport. Now the passenger has look carefully at the small print before saying no to something he or she doesn’t want.

Worse, one can’t opt out once for this stuff. One has to do it every time.

When I ask people behind the counter how they feel about it, they always say they hate it. It’s one more thing to straighten out with customers who meant to say “no,” but hit “accept” by mistake. Which is, at least partly, the idea.

Why do mainstream broadcasters keep calling that big fire north of Los Angeles “the so-called Station Fire?” You never hear “so-called Hurricane Bill” or “so-called Hurricane Erika”. Why is that?

The main reason is that hurricanes have a much better naming convention. The surnames of hurricanes are first names of humans. The first names of wildfires often make no sense to ordinary folk. Gap, Day and Station don’t call meaning to mind. As I recall the Day Fire was the second to start on Labor Day, 2006. The other fire was called Labor.

With their human names, hurricanes are personified, making them easy to follow and remember. Katrina, Andrew, Hugo and Fran leap from memory a lot quicker than “The Great Hurricane of 1938” — which happened to be a Category 5 monster. It killed hundreds of people and blew out the wind guage at the Blue Hill Observatory when a gust hit 186 miles per hour. If it had been named Lucinda, it would have persisted as one of New England’s greatest weather legends. Instead it’s like, whoa, who knew?

According to this report, fires are named by the people who fight them. I suggest to those same folks that it will be easier to fight a fire with a personified name than a locational one. Why? Fear. Residents are much more likely to get their rears in gear when “Jack” or “Martha” are coming up the canyon than when “Station” is doing the same.

redwoods

Why do mature redwood trees have trunks that rise two hundred feet before branches commence, live for centuries and have bark that’s a foot thick? Because they are adapted to fire.

zaca

Why does the silver-green chaparral that covers California’s hills and mountains burn so easily? Because it’s supposed to.

calpoppies

Why, other than its color, is the California Poppy such an appropriate flower for the Golden State? Because it is adapted to both fire and earthquakes. Says Wikipedia, “It grows well in disturbed areas and often recolonizes after fires”.

Of course, so do we. That’s why it’s not weird to find humans colonizing hillsides and other “disturbed areas” of California. Case in point: I am writing this in a house sited on an former landslide, not far from the perimeters of two wildfires that claimed hundreds of other houses in the past few months.

Every spot on Earth is temporary, but California is a special example. As permanence goes, California is a house of cards.

For example, take a look at some of the animations here, prepared by geologists at UCSB. Watch as a sheet of crust the size of a continent gets shoved under the western edge of North America. Debris that piled up in the trench where that happened is what we now call the Bay Area. Submerged crust that melted, rose and hardened under North America — and was just recently exposed — we now call the Sierras. Take a look at the last 20 million years of Southern California history. It’s a wreck that’s still going on. One section of that wreck is a bend along the boundary between plates of crust. Mountains pile up along that bend, like snow in front of a plow. The biggest of these ranges we call the San Gabriels. Those are on fire right now. Add up all the Southern California wildfires over the last twenty years and you’ll get a territory exceeding that of several smaller states.

My point is perspective. The human one is so brief that it can hardly take in the full scope of What’s Going On, or what our lives contribute to it. In a geological context, what we contribute are carbon and fossils. We do that by dying. Other planets have geologies as well, but none have marble, limestone, coal or oil. Those are all produced by dead plants and animals. It would be hard to make heat on Mars because — as far as we know — there is no dead stuff to burn.

Humans love to make structures and produce heat, which means we have an unusually strong appetite for dead stuff. Even cement and steel require dead stuff in their making.

If you fly a lot, as I do, you start to notice black lines on the landscape. These are coal trains that move like ant trails from mines in the West to power plants all over the country. The largest of these mines are in Wyoming, more than 50% of which has coal to burn. This coal consists of dead stuff that has been buried for dozens of millions of years, and took at least as long to form. In Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee says the largest power plant in Georgia, Plant Sherer, “burns nearly thirteen hundred coal trains a year—two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming.”

Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you’re not human.

From any scope wider than our own, we are a pestilential species. Since the human diaspora began spreading out of Africa only a few thousand generations ago, we have chewed our way through land and species at a rate without equal in the history of the Earth, which began 4.567 billion years ago, or more than a third of the way back to the start of the Universe. We are distinguished by our intelligence, our powers of speech and expression, our ability to use tools and to build things, our ability to learn and teach, and our diversity (no two of us, even twins, are exactly alike). There are 6.781 billion of us now. Few of us will live more than a hundred years, and fewer still will have more than a few decades to contribute more than carbon to the world.

Among the many recent developments in civilization, two stand out. One is a widespread realization that the effects of human activity on the planet are non-trivial. The other is a growing ability to connect with each other and communicate over any distance at very little cost. What will we do with this knowledge, and the ability to share it? Will we follow the model of civilizations that waste the places where they live? Or will we prove to be creatures who can change their nature and stop doing that?

The former is the way to bet. The latter is the way to go.

Bonus read: John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. A third of it is called “Los Angeles vs. The San Gabriel Mountains.” While it is mostly about “debris flows” — slow motion landslides — that happen during winter rains, the important part for today’s discussion involves a primary condition for those flows: mountain slopes denuded of vegetation by fires. This means you can count on many mudslides this coming winter.

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