March 2010

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I just learned that Jack Jensen died yesterday, at age 71. I knew Jack a bit when I was a student at Guilford College in the late ’60s. (Class of ’69, to be precise.) Jack wasn’t much older than the rest of us then. When I was a freshman, Jack was a 26-year old assistant basketball coach under Jerry Steele. My involvement with athletics then consisted of running the scoreboard for the football team (sitting next to Carl Scheer, who did the play-by-play for the radio) and playing pick-up basketball in the college’s only gym when the team wasn’t practicing. After Jerry left (the year after I graduated), Jack took over as head coach. In 1973 he did what Jerry came close to doing: winning the NAIA national tournament, with a team that included World B. Free (who then went by his given name, Lloyd) and M.L. Carr. I remember what Jack said about the victory to Sports Illustrated at the time. While not verbatim, it was basically this: “We give the ball to Lloyd.” No BS about it.

Jack went on to coach Guilford basketball for 29 years, and was still coaching the golf team — which he led to three national titles — when he died, after returning from a golf tournament

From the email sent out by the college:

The most decorated coach in Guilford’s history, Jack was enshrined in the NAIA, North Carolina, Guilford County, Guilford College and Wake Forest University Sports Halls of Fame, as well as the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame. He was only the second person to coach two different sports to NAIA national titles. In 2009, Guilford‚s main basketball floor in the Ragan-Brown Field House was renamed Jack Jensen Court.

From Allen Johnson of the Greensboro News & Record: “He richly deserves the title legend.”

By all accounts he was an even better guy than the ace I remember. My best to his family, friends, and the thousands of others who knew him better than I did.

[Later...] More about Jack’s death (of a heart attack, on the phone, at the wheel of his car — but with no others hurt), funeral plans and more, here, here, here, here and here.

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What is this stuff we call power?

This question came to mind when I read about Digital Power and Its Discontents, a conference coming up on 21 April at Georgetown. In it (says that link) they will be “exploring the ways digital technologies disrupt the balance of power between and among states, their citizens and the private sector.” Rebecca MacKinnon, Micah Sifry, Brendan Greeley and other folks I know and like are listed as panelists and moderators.

The title and description raised a number of questions for me. Is power always a sum of something? Does disruption always subtract power from whatever it disrupts? What is “digital power” and how is it applied? What makes private and public “sectors”? Are they really that separate? Why does the possessive pronoun “their” apply to citizens?

The word balance calls to mind something like the image on the left. You have a sum of X in one place, and it’s balanced by a sum of Y in another. For many subjects involving power the metaphor applies. There is a given sum of gold in the world, for example. But does power always pile up in ways that a scale suggests? Does it pile at all?

Whatever digital power is, it has been growing over the last few decades, and continues to grow. It also serves everybody — regardless of the labels we give it. Some of us use that power better than others, but it’s still available in any case. (No, not evenly, but still available, if you want it and are motivated to use it.)

For that conference, and for the rest of us in the meantime, I invite considering this: The entity with the most power to gain is the individual (or, as they put it in wonky circles, citizens). I believe there is much to be discontented about, in both the public and the private sectors. I also believe that each of us is steadily acquiring more power, as individuals, to influence both government and business — and in ways that are constructive, even when they disrupt whatever the status quos are.  Giving individuals more power is the job ProjectVRM and its development communities have taken up. But it will happen anyway.

It’s tempting to focus on what Big Bad Government and Big Bad Companies are doing. They hog spotlights they deserve in any case. But digital technology makes many other places no less deserving of spotlights. Our ability to learn, to inform and to act, will only grow. If we’re busy being discontented with others who have more power at the moment, we’ll get less done. And we’ll miss out on a lot of the fun.

There is an ad running during the NCAA basketball playoffs that’s so creepy and surreal that I decided to take some screen shots of it, as a kind of public service to the company spending money on it.

The scene is a guy’s hairy armpit. (Do they have armpit models? Guess so.) As if this weren’t icky enough, all of a sudden a rectangle of flesh drops down, opening a grave, right there, in his sparse forest of hair. It’s like watching that eyeball get sliced in Un chien andalou. Creepy as shit. And you wonder, where did the missing block of pit go?  Is it down by the rib cage somewhere? Packed around his rotator cuff? Or is he hollow? And why no blood?

Then this white triangular thing rises out of the same hole.

You wonder, what the fuck is that? before seeing that Oh, okay, it’s a Matterhorn. But it’s not like the real thing. It’s more like a toy Matterhorn, with a little Swiss Chalet at its base, flanked by a few trees, looking like a snow-globe scene, without the globe and the snow.

By the time it’s over you’ve witnessed two awful things you don’t want happening to your body: Having your armpit turned into a deep hole — and then having it replaced by a piece of broken kitsch. It’s so disturbing that you don’t even notice, much less remember, the name of the advertiser.

Not my cup of meat. Or whatever that dude is made of.

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Four years and one day ago, we took a trip aboard a sailboat captained by our friend John Pfarr (who a few days later would later sail the same vessel to Hawaii, the South Seas and back — the dude is a serious sailor). Our modest destination was the string of oil platforms that rise above the coastal waters off Santa Barbara. These are now familiar landmarks, and are regarded with both loathing and affection, the latter especially by he sea (most obviously seal) life that abounds on the platforms’ pylons and girders, above and below the waterline.

As always, I took a lot of photos, one of which now also graces the poster for Oil + Water: The Case of Santa Barbara and Southern California, which will take place April 8 – 10, 2010 in the McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB, at UCSB. Specifically,

This conference will explore the ways in which oil and water have created and transformed the history and culture of Santa Barbara and Southern California. Topics will include the Santa Barbara oil spill; the impact of oil on Hollywood; agriculture and marine life; the Owens River Valley; the Salton Sea; cars and car culture; and environmental histories and their lessons.

Important stuff, and highly recommended.

Wide Water Rafting

I’m no yacht freak, but I this is one of the most amazing boats I’ve ever seen:

The concept is a “moving island.” It’s name is dimensional: 58×38. That’s in meters.

From Why-Yachts.com.

Hat tip to Dion Neutra.

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Correction

Roundabout dogs:

Consider your taste made.

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I submit to your interest two speeches that challenge acceptance of status quos by which our collective frogs are slowly boiling.

First is Freedom in the Cloud, by , given at the Internet Society in New York on 5 February.

Second  is Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity, by . Given on 13 March at SXSW. One teaser quote:

A teaser quote from Eben:

…in effect, we lost the ability to use either legal regulation or anything about the physical architecture of the network to interfere with the process of falling away from innocence that was now inevitable in the stage I’m talking about, what we might call late Google stage 1.

It is here, of course, that Mr. Zuckerberg enters.

The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.

Because he harnessed Friday night. That is, everybody needs to get laid and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time”. And it works.

A teaser quote from Danah:

It’s easy to think that “public” and “private” are binaries. We certainly build a lot of technology with this assumption. At best, we break out of this with access-control lists where we list specific people who some piece of content should be available to. And at best, we expand our notion of “private” to include everything that is not “public.” But this binary logic isn’t good enough for understanding what people mean when they talk about privacy. What people experience when they talk about privacy is more complicated than what can be instantiated in a byte.

To get at this, let’s talk about how people experience public and private in unmediated situations. Because it’s not so binary there either.

First, think about a conversation that you may have with a close friend. You may think about that conversation as private, but there is nothing stopping your friend from telling someone else what was said, except for your trust in your friend. You actually learned to trust your friend, presumably through experience.

Learning who to trust is actually quite hard. Anyone who has middle school-aged kids knows that there’s inevitably a point in time when someone says something that they shouldn’t have and tears are shed. It’s hard to learn to really know for sure that someone will keep their word. But we don’t choose not to tell people things simply because they could spill the beans. We do our best to assess the situation and act accordingly.

We don’t just hold people accountable for helping us maintain privacy; we also hold the architecture around us accountable. We look around a specific place and decide whether or not we trust the space to allow us to speak freely to the people there.

They’re talking about different things, but they overlap. They both have to do with a loss of control, and both set out agenda for those who care. Curious to know what ya’ll think.

Seems like all my favorite college hoops teams are playing in tournaments.

Harvard’s Crimson go up against Appalachian State tonight in the CIT.

UCSB’s Gauchos are the 15th seed in the NCAA Men’s Midwest bracket, a checkbox win for #2 seed Ohio State on Friday night.

The Quakers of my alma mater, , are back in the Final Four of the NCAA’s Division III, after polishing off . They take on Friday afternoon. Have a bunch of friends with Williams connections too.

My long-time fave Division I team, , is the top seed in the NCAA South bracket. They play a team whose jerseys say ARPB, before facing the winner of the game. My daughter and a bunch of neices and nephews are grads, so I’ll be rooting for them, should they survive.

I was Knicks fan growing up, but I didn’t follow basketball much until I went to Guilford in 1965. North Carolina is basketball country in any case, and somehow I got into playing it as well there. Nothing serious, just pick-up intramural ball. My whole game was shooting long-range bombers, and I lacked all the other skills (dribbling, passing) one expects to go with that one. But at least I wasn’t taken last when teams were chosen, which for me was exceptionally positive feedback.

As it happened Guilford also had damn fine basketball teams the whole time I was there. They were often ranked #1 in the NAIA, and in ’68 (a year they lost in the finals to Oshkosh State) they graduated three players into the NBA. The best of those was Bob Kauffman, the #3 pick in the draft that year. Bob went on to become a 3-time All-Star, and then the head coach and general manager of the Detroit Pistons. He completed that career by making the mistake of giving Dick Vitale the head coaching job. In 1975 Guilford won the NAIA tournament with a team that included World B. Free and M.L. Carr.

My Division I sympathies were originally with Wake Forest (also in the NCAAs) since my entire coterie of North Carolina relatives were affiliated in one way or another with the school. When I moved to Chapel Hill after college, however, I became a Carolina fan. I still am. (Wake too.) But my overriding affection for Duke was born at the first pre-season game of the 1977-78 season. That was when freshmen Kenny Dennard and Gene Banks joined Jim Spanarkel, Mike Gminski and Johny Harrell to turn a has-been team into what would become the powerhouse it has been ever since.

But I didn’t know that then. I was working on the Duke campus in the Fall of ’77 at the time, and was invited to that game (against ) by David Hodskins, who would become my business partner for most of the following two decades. David was a Duke grad with season tickets to games at the very intense Cameron Indoor Stadium. I was his date for many of those games over many years, and couldn’t help getting into the team.

While Duke had good years during ‘ tenure as coach back in the 1960s, it had been nowhere for most the decade that followed. In those days, as the UCLA dynasty (the biggest ever, never to be repeated), NC State, Maryland and Carolina were the cream of the ACC. Duke joined that elite with what John Feinstein (another Duke grad) called : the 1977-78 crew I saw play that pre-season game. Now people say, “How can you like an overdog like Duke?” Sorry, can’t help it. My experience as a Duke fan also prepped me for following Tommy Amaker, now the coach here at Harvard. (Tommy also played high school ball at Wilbert Tucker Woodson High School in Virginia, where one of his teammates was my cousin Andy Heck, a multi-sport athlete who went on to co-captain the Notre Dame football team that won the national championship in 1988, before going on to an eleven-year career as an NFL player. He’s now the offensive line coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.)

Speaking of overdogs, I’m also a Boston Celtics fan these days too, for roughly the same reason: I’m local here. And I like the team. Celtics coach Doc Rivers and I have a common friend in , who is a hard-core Duke fan too — as well as a former college hoops player. Buzz got into Duke when he went to law school there. (I still like the Knicks, though. And the Golden State Warriors. David Hodskins and I had season tickets to the Warriors back in the days of Run TMC.)

Wish I could say I expect Duke to win it all. Hope they do, but I just picked Kansas. Or maybe it was Kentucky. (The Kid just went downstairs to check.) Okay, it’s Kentucky. Whatever, it’ll be fun to follow. I see that CBS has the games on-demand over the Net. Count me in for that. We got nothing but Net here. (Hey, it’s the future of what used to be television. I just hope that single purpose — pumping “content” — doesn’t turn the Net into TV 2.0.)

We had a week of record rain here in Eastern Massachusetts. Lots of roads were closed as ponds and brooks overflowed their banks, and drainage systems backed up. At various places on Mass Ave north of Cambridge water was gushing up out of blown-off manhole covers. Traffic was backed up all over the place. Yesterday, the first after the rains stopped, many residents were pumping out basements through fat hoses that snaked out into streets. Much of this water only pooled somewhere else, since many drainage systems were filled too.

In some ways I’ve never stopped being the newspaper photographer I was forty years ago, in my first newspaper job (I didn’t have that many, total, but that was more fun than the rest of them). So I went out and looked for some actual floods worth shooting and found Magnolia Field in Arlington, near the Alewife T stop at the end of the Red Line. It’s a big soccer and lacrosse field, with with the Minuteman Bikeway at one end and a playground for kiddies at the other. It normally looks flat, but inundation by water proved otherwise. I could tell by the high debris mark that most of the field had been covered with water when the flood was at its maximum depth, but there was plenty left when I showed up and shot the photo above and the rest here.

Here’s the field on a sunny spring day, shot by Bing and revealed, too many clicks down, in its “birds eye view” under “aerial”. Here’s a link to the actual Bing view. And here’s Bing’s contribution to an iPhone app called MyWeather, which does a great job of showing a combination of precipitation and clouds, with looping animation:

I took that screen shot at the end of the storm on Monday night. You can see how it was our corner of a huge cyclonic weather system, rotating around an eye of sorts, out in the Atlantic off the Virginia coast. This winter we’ve had a series of these. As I wrote in an earlier post, it was one of these, spinning like a disk with a spindle in New York City, that brought rain to New England and snow pretty much everywhere else in February.

Now it’s Spring, almost literally. The sky was blue and clear as can be, winds calm, temperature hitting 66°. I know it won’t last, but it’s nice to get a break.

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Earlier this year the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University conducted research toward The Future of the Internet IV, the latest in their survey series, which began with Future of the Internet I – 2004. This latest report includes guided input from subjects such as myself (a “thoughtful analyst,” they kindly said) on subjects pertaining to the Net’s future. We were asked to choose between alternative outcomes — “tension pairs” — and to explain our views. Here’s the whole list:

  1. Will Google make us stupid?
  2. Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?
  3. Will social relations get better?
  4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?
  5. Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?
  6. Will our relationship to key institutions change?
  7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?
  8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?
  9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?
  10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

The results were published here at Pew and Elon’s Imagining the Internet site. Here’s the .pdf.

My own views are more than well represented in the 2010 report. One of my responses (to the last question) was even published in full. Still, I thought it would be worth sharing my full responses to all the questions. That’s why I’m posting them here.

Each question is followed by two statements — the “tension pair” — and in some cases by additional instruction. I’ve italicized those.

[Note... Much text here has been changed to .html from .pdf and .doc forms, and extracting all the old formatting jive has been kind of arduous. Bear with me while I finish that job, later today. (And some .html conventions don't work here in WordPress, so that's a hassle too.)]


1. Will Google make us smart or stupid?

1 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google).

2 By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has not enhanced human intelligence and it could even be lowering the IQs of most people who use it a lot. Nicholas Carr was right: Google makes us stupid.

1a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human intelligence in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in the way human intellect evolves?


Though I like and respect Nick Carr a great deal, my answer to the title question in his famous essay in The Atlantic — “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — is no. Nothing that informs us makes us stupid.

Nick says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Besides finding that a little hard to believe (I know Nick to be a deep diver, still), there is nothing about Google, or the Net, to keep anyone from diving — and to depths that were not reachable before the Net came along. Also, compare using the Net to TV viewing. There is clearly a massive move to the former from the latter. And this move, at the very least, requires being less of a potato.

But that’s all a separate matter from Google itself. There is no guarantee that Google will be around, or in the same form, in the year 2020.

First, there are natural limits to any form of bigness, and Google is no exception to those. Trees do not grow to the sky.

Second, nearly all of Google’s income is from advertising. There are two problems with this. One is that improving a pain in the ass does not make it a kiss — and advertising is, on the whole, still a pain in the user’s ass. The other is that advertising is a system of guesswork, which by nature makes it both speculative and inefficient. Google has greatly reduced both those variables, and made advertising accountable for the first time: advertisers pay only for click-throughs. Still, for every click-through there are hundreds or thousands of “impressions” that waste server cycles, bandwidth, pixels, rods and cones. The cure for this inefficiency can’t come from the sell side. It must come from the demand side. When customers have means for advertising their wants and needs (e.g. “I need a stroller for twins in downtown Boston in the next two hours. Who’s coming through and how”) — and to do this securely and out in the open marketplace (meaning not just in the walled gardens of Amazons and eBays) — much of advertising’s speculation and guesswork will be obsoleted. Look at it this way: we need means for demand to drive supply at least as well as supply drives demand. By 2020 we’ll have that. (Especially if we succeed at work we’re doing through ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center.) Google is well positioned to help with that shift. But it’s an open question whether or not they’ll get behind it.

Third, search itself is at risk. For the last fifteen years we have needed search because Web grew has lacked a directory other than DNS (which only deals with what comes between the // and the /.) Google has succeeded because it has proven especially good at helping users find needles in the Web’s vast haystack. But what happens if the Web ceases to be a haystack? What if the Web gets a real directory, like LANs had back in the 80s — or something like one? The UNIX file paths we call URLs (e.g. http://domain.org/folder/folder/file.htm…) presume a directory structure. This alone suggests that a solution to the haystack problem will eventually be found. When it is, search then will be more of a database lookup than the colossally complex thing it is today (requiring vast data centers that suck huge amounts of power off the grid, as Google constantly memorizes every damn thing it can find in the entire Web). Google is in the best position to lead the transition from the haystack Web to the directory-enabled one. But Google may remain married to the haystack model, just as the phone companies of today are still married to charging for minutes and cable companies are married to charging for channels — even though both concepts are fossils in an all-digital world.


2. Will we live in the cloud or on the desktop?

1 By 2020, most people won’t do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications, like Google Docs, and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will sign up to develop for smart-phone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications, because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system.

2 By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs.

Please explain your choice and share your view about how major programs and applications will be designed, how they will function, and the role of cloud computing by 2020.

The answer is both.

Resources and functions will operate where they make the most sense. As bandwidth goes up, and barriers to usage (such as high “roaming” charges for data use outside a carrier’s home turf) go down, and Bob Frankston’s “ambient connectivity” establishes itself, our files and processing power will locate themselves where they work best — and where we, as individuals, have the most control over them.

Since we are mobile animals by nature, it makes sense for us to connect with the world primarily through hand-held devices, rather than the ones that sit on our desks and laps. But these larger devices will not go away. We need large screens for much of our work, and we need at least some local storage for when we go off-grid, or need fast connections to large numbers of big files, or wish to keep matters private through physical disconnection.

Clouds are to personal data what banks are to personal money. They provide secure storage, and are in the best positions to perform certain intermediary and back-end services, such as hosting applications and storing data. This latter use has an importance that will only become more critical as each of us accumulates personal data by the terabyte. If your home drives crash or get stolen, or your house burns down, your data can still be recovered if you’ve backed it up in the cloud.

But most home users (at least in the U.S. and other under-developed countries) are still stuck at the far ends of asymmetrical connections with low upstream data rates, designed at a time when carriers thought the Net would mostly be a new system for distributing TV and other forms of “content.” Thus backing up terabytes of data online ranges from difficult to impossible.

This is why any serious consideration of cloud computing — especially over the long term — needs to take connectivity into account. Clouds are only as useful as connections permit. And right now the big cloud utilities (notably Google and Amazon) are way ahead of the carriers at imagining how connected computing needs to grow. For most carriers the Internet is still just the third act in a “triple play,” a tertiary service behind telephony and television. Worse, the mobile carriers show little evidence that they understand the need to morph from phone companies to data companies — even with Apple’s iPhone success screaming “this is the future” at them.

A core ideal for all Internet devices is what Jonathan Zittrain (in his book The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It) calls generativity, which is maximized encouragement of innovation in both hardware and software. Today generativity in mobile devices varies a great deal. The iPhone, for example, is highly generative for software, but not for hardware (only Apple makes iPhones). And even the iPhone’s software market is sphinctered by Apple’s requirement that every app pass to market only through Apple’s “store,” which operates only through Apple’s iTunes, which runs only on Macs and PCs (no Linux or other OSes). On top of all that is Apple’s restrictive partnerships with AT&T (in the U.S.) and Rogers (in Canada). While AT&T allows unlimited data usage on the iPhone, Rogers still has a 6Gb limit.

Bottom line: Handhelds will no smarter than the systems built to contain them. The market will open widest — and devices will get smartest — when anybody can make a smartphone (or any other mobile device), and use it on any network they please, without worrying about data usage limits or getting hit with $1000+ bills because they forgot to turn off “push notifications” or “location services” when they roamed out of their primary carrier’s network footprint. In other words, the future will be brightest when mobile systems get Net-native.


3. Will social relations get better?

1 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a negative force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

2 In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the Internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.

3a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human relationships in 2020 — what is likely to stay the same and what will be different in human and community relations?

Craig Burton describes the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero — comprised entirely of ends separated by an absence of distance in the middle. With a hollow sphere, every point is visible to every other point. Your screen and my keyboard have no distance between them. This is a vivid way to illustrate the Net’s “end-to-end” architecture and how we perceive it, even as we also respect the complex electronics and natural latencies involved in the movement of bits from point to point anywhere on the planet. It also helps make sense of the Net’s distance-free social space.

As the “live” or “real-time” aspects of the net evolve, opportunities to engage personally and socially are highly magnified beyond all the systems that came before. This cannot help but increase our abilities not only to connect with each other, but to understand each other. I don’t see how this hurts the world, and I can imagine countless ways it can make the world better.

Right now my own family is scattered between Boston, California, Baltimore and other places. Yet through email, voice, IM, SMS and other means we are in frequent touch, and able to help each other in many ways. The same goes for my connections with friends and co-workers.

We should also hope that the Net makes us more connected, more social, more engaged and involved with each other. The human diaspora, from one tribe in Africa to thousands of scattered tribes — and now countries — throughout the world, was driven to a high degree by misunderstandings and disagreements between groups. Hatred and distrust between groups have caused countless wars and suffering beyond measure. Anything that helps us bridge our differences and increase understanding is a good thing.

Clearly the Internet already does that.


4. Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

1 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has enhanced and improved reading, writing, and the rendering of knowledge.

2 By 2020, it will be clear that the Internet has diminished and endangered reading, writing, and the intelligent rendering of knowledge.

4a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of knowledge-sharing in 2020, especially when it comes to reading and writing and other displays of information – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? What do you think is the future of books?

It is already clear in 2010 that the Net has greatly enhanced reading, writing, and knowledge held — and shared — by human beings. More people are reading and writing, and in more ways, for more readers and other writers, than ever before. And the sum of all of it goes up every day.

I’m sixty-two years old, and have been a journalist since my teens. My byline has appeared in dozens of publications, and the sum of my writing runs — I can only guess — into millions of words. Today very little of what I wrote and published before 1995 is available outside of libraries, and a lot of it isn’t even there.

For example, in the Seventies and early Eighties I wrote regularly for an excellent little magazine called The Sun. (It’s still around, at http://thesunmagazine.org) But, not wanting to carry my huge collection of Suns from one house to another (I’ve lived in 9 places over the last ten years), I gave my entire collection (including rare early issues) to an otherwise excellent public library, and they lost or ditched it. Few items from those early issues are online. My own copies are buried in boxes in a garage, three thousand miles from where I live now. So are dozens of boxes of photos and photo albums. (I was also a newspaper photographer in the early days, and have never abandoned the practice.)

On the other hand, most of what I’ve written since the Web came along is still online. And most of that work — including 34,000 photographs on Flickr — is syndicated trough RSS (Really SimpleSyndication) or its derivatives. So is the work of millions of other people. If that work is interesting in some way, it tends to get inbound links, increasing its discoverability through search engines and its usefulness in general. The term syndication was once applied only to professional purposes. Now everybody can do it.

Look up RSS on Google. Today it brings in more than three billion results. Is it possible that this has decreased the quality and sum of reading, writing and human knowledge? No way.


5. Will the willingness of Generation Y / Millennials to share information change as they age?

1 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will continue to be ambient broadcasters who disclose a great deal of personal information in order to stay connected and take advantage of social, economic, and political opportunities. Even as they mature, have families, and take on more significant responsibilities, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will carry forward.

2 By 2020, members of Generation Y (today’s “digital natives”) will have “grown out” of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online games and other time-consuming, transparency-engendering online tools. As they age and find new interests and commitments, their enthusiasm for widespread information sharing will abate.

5a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence on the future of human lifestyles in 2020 – what is likely to stay the same and what will be different? Will the values and practices that characterize today’s
younger Internet users change over time?

Widespread information sharing is not a generational issue. It’s a technological one. Our means for controlling access to data, or its use — or even for asserting our “ownership” of it — are very primitive. (Logins and passwords alone are clunky as hell, extremely annoying, and will be seen a decade hence as a form of friction we were glad to eliminate.)

It’s still early. The Net and the Web as we know them have only been around for about fifteen years. Right now we’re still in the early stages of the Net’s Cambrian explosion. By that metaphor Google is a trilobyte. We have much left to work out.

For example, take “terms of use.” Sellers have them. Users do not — at least not ones that theycontrol. Wouldn’t it be good if you could tell Facebook or Twitter (or any other company using your data) that these are the terms on which they will do business with you, that these are the ways you will share data with them, that these are the ways this data can be used, and that this is what will happen if they break faith with you? Trust me: user-controlled terms of use are coming. (Work is going on right now on this very subject at Harvard’s Berkman Center, both at its Law Lab and ProjectVRM.)

Two current technical developments, “self-tracking” and “personal informatics,” are examples of ways that power is shifting from organizations to individuals — for the simple reason that individuals are the best points of integration for
their own data, and the best points of origination for what gets done with that data.

Digital natives will eventually become fully empowered by themselves, not by the organizations to which they belong, or the services they use. When that happens, they’ll probably be more careful and responsible than earlier generations, for the simpler reason that they will have the tools.


6. Will our relationship to institutions change?

1 By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, businesses, non-profits, and othe mainstream institutions.

2 By 2020, governments, businesses, non-profits and other mainstream institutions will primarily retain familiar 20th century models for conduct of relationships with citizens and consumers online and offline.

6a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the Internet’s influence upon the future of institutional relationships with their patrons and customers between now and 2020. We are eager to hear what you think of how social, political, and commercial endeavors will form and the way people will cooperate in the future.

Online cooperation will only increase. The means are already there, and will only become more numerous and functional. Institutions that adapt to the Net’s cooperation-encouraging technologies and functions will succeed. Those that don’t will have a hard time.

Having it hardest right now are media institutions, for the simple reason that the Internet subsumes their functions, while also giving to everybody the ability to communicate with everybody else, at little cost, and often with little or no intermediating system other than the Net itself.

Bob Garfield, a columnist for AdAge and a host of NPR’s “On The Media,” says the media have entered what he calls (in his book by the same title) The Chaos Scenario. In his introduction Garfield says he should have called the book “Listenomics,” because listening is the first requirement of survival for every industry that lives on digital bits — a sum that rounds to approximately every industry, period.

So, even where the shapes of institution persist, their internal functions must be ready to listen, and to participate in the market’s conversations, even when those take place outside the institution’s own frameworks.


7. Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

1 By 2020, the identification ID systems used online are tighter and more formal – fingerprints or DNA-scans or retina scans. The use of these systems is the gateway to most of the Internet-enabled activity that users are able to perform such as shopping, communicating, creating content, and browsing. Anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed.

2 By 2020, Internet users can do a lot of normal online activities anonymously even though the identification systems used on the Internet have been applied to a wider range of activities. It is still relatively easy for Internet users to
create content, communicate, and browse without publicly disclosing who they are.

7a. Please explain your choice and share your view about the future of anonymous activity
online by the year 2020

In the offline world, anonymity is the baseline. Unless burdened by celebrity, we are essentially anonymous when we wander through stores, drive down the road, or sit in the audience of a theater. We become less anonymous when we enter into conversation or transact business. Even there, however, social protocols do not require that we become any more identifiable than required for the level of interaction. Our “identity” might be “the woman in the plaid skirt,” “the tall guy who was in here this morning,? or “one of our students.”

We still lack means by which an individual can selectively and gracefully shift from fully to partially anonymous, and from unidentified to identified — yet in ways that can be controlled and minimized (or maximized) as much as the individual (and others with which he or she interacts) permit. In fact, we’re a long way off.

The main reason is that most of the “identity systems” we know put control on the side of sellers, governments, and other institutions, and not with the individual. In time systems that give users control will be developed. These will be native to users and not provided only by large organizations (such as Microsoft, Google or the government).

A number of development communities have been working on this challenge since early in the last decade, and eventually they will succeed. Hopefully this will be by 2020, but I figured we’d have it done by 2010, and it seems like we’ve barely started.


8. Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and his allies will have been achieved to a significant degree and have clearly made a difference to the average Internet users.

2 By 2020, the Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee will not be as fully effective as its creators hoped and average users will not have noticed much of a difference.

8a. Please explain your choice and share your view of the likelihood that the Semantic Web will have been implemented by 2020 and be a force for good in Internet users?

Tim’s World Wide Web was a very simple and usable idea that relied on very simple and usable new standards (e.g. HTML and HTTP), which were big reason why the Web succeeded. The Semantic Web is a very complex idea, and one that requires a lot of things to go right before it works. Or so it seems.

Tim Berners-Lee introduced the Semantic Web Roadmap (http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Semantic.html) in September 1998. Since then more than eleven years have passed. Some Semantic Web technologies have taken root: RDFa, for example, and microformats. But the concept itself has energized a relatively small number of people, and there is no “killer” tech or use yet.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Invention is the mother of necessity. The Semantic Web will take off when somebody invents something we all find we need. Maybe that something will be built out of some combination of code and protocols already laying around — either within the existing Semantic Web portfolio, or from some parallel effort such as XDI. Or maybe it will come out of the blue.

By whatever means, the ideals of the Semantic Web — a web based on meaning (semantics) rather than syntax (the Web’s current model) — will still drive development. And we’ll be a decade farther along in 2020 than we are in 2010.


9. Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

1 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 are pretty evident today and will not take many of today’s savviest innovators by surprise.

2 The hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come “out of the blue” and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovators.

9a. Please explain your choice and share your view of its implications for the future. What do you think will be the hot gadgets, applications, technology tools in 2020?

“The blue” is the environment out of which most future innovation will come. And that blue is the Net.

Nearly every digital invention today was created by collaboration over the Net, between people working in different parts of the world. The ability to collaborate over distances, often in real time (or close to it), using devices that improve constantly, over connections that only get fatter and faster, guarantees that the number and variety of inventions will only go up. More imaginations will be captured more ways, more often. Products will be improved, and replaced, more often than ever, and in more ways than ever.

The hottest gadgets in 2020 will certainly involve extending one’s senses and one’s body. In fact, this has been the case for all inventions since humans first made stone tools and painted the walls of caves. That’s because humans are characterized not only by their intelligence and their ability to speak, but by their capacity to extend their senses, and their abilities, through their tools and technologies. Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, called this indwelling. It is through indwelling that the carpenter’s tool becomes an extension of his arm, and he has the power to pound nails through wood. It is also through indwelling that an instrument becomes an extension of the musician’s mouth and hands.

There is a reason why a pilot refers to “my wings” and “my tail,” or a driver to “my wheels” and “my engine.” By indwelling, the pilot’s senses extend outside herself to the whole plane, and the driver’s to his whole car.

The computers and smart phones of today are to some degree extensions of ourselves, but not to the extent that a hammer extends a carpenter, a car enlarges a driver or a plane enlarges a pilot. Something other than a computer or a smart phone will do that. Hopefully this will happen by 2020. If not, it will eventually.


10. Will the Internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

1 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the Internet’s founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

2 In the years between now and 2020, the Internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

10a. Please explain your choice, note organizations you expect to be most likely to influence the future of the Internet and share your view of the effects of this between now and 2020.

There will always be a struggle to reconcile the Net’s end-to-end principle with the need for companies and technologies operating between those ends to innovate and make money. This tension will produce more progress than either the principle by itself or the narrow interests of network operators and other entities working between the Net’s countless ends.

Today these interests are seen as opposed — mostly because incumbent network operators want to protect businesses they see threatened by the Net’s end-to-end nature, which cares not a bit about who makes money or how. But in the future they will be seen as symbiotic, because both the principle and networks operating within it will be seen as essential infrastructure. So will what each of does to the help raise and renovate the Net’s vast barn.

The term infrastructure has traditionally been applied mostly to the public variety: roads, bridges, electrical systems, water systems, waste treatment and so on. But this tradition only goes back to the Seventies. Look up infrastructure in a dictionary from the 1960s or earlier and you won’t find it (except in the OED). Today are still no institutes or academic departments devoted to infrastructure. It’s a subject in many fields, yet not a field in itself.

But we do generally understand what infrastructure is. It’s something solid and common we can build on. It’s geology humans make for themselves.

Digital technology, and the Internet in particular, provide an interesting challenge for understanding infrastructure, because we rely on it, yet it is not solid in any physical sense. It is like physical structures, but not itself physical. We go on the Net, as if it were a road or a plane. We build on it too. Yet it is not a thing.

Inspired by Craig Burton’s description of the Net as a hollow sphere — a three-dimensional zero comprised entirely of ends
— David Weinberger and I wrote World of Ends in 2003 (http://worldofends.com). The purpose was to make the Net more understandable, especially to companies (such as phone and cable carriers) that had been misunderstanding it. Lots of people agreed with us, but none of those people ran the kinds of companies we addressed.

But, to be fair, most people still don’t understand the Net. Look up “The Internet is” on Google (with the quotes). After you get past the top entry (Wikipedia’s), here’s what they say:

  1. a Series of Tubes
  2. terrible
  3. really big
  4. for porn
  5. shit
  6. good
  7. wrong
  8. killing storytelling
  9. dead
  10. serious business
  11. for everyone
  12. underrated
  13. infected
  14. about to die
  15. broken
  16. Christmas all the time
  17. altering our brains
  18. changing health care
  19. laughing at NBC
  20. changing the way we watch TV
  21. changing the scientific method
  22. dead and boring
  23. not shit
  24. made of kittens
  25. alive and well
  26. blessed
  27. almost full
  28. distracting
  29. a brain
  30. cloudy

Do the same on Twitter, and you’ll get results just as confusing. At this moment (your search will vary; this is the Live Web here), the top results are:

  1. a weird, WEIRD place
  2. full of feel good lectures
  3. the Best Place to get best notebook computer deals
  4. Made of Cats
  5. Down
  6. For porn
  7. one of the best and worst things at the same time
  8. so small
  9. going slow
  10. not my friend at the moment
  11. blocked
  12. letting me down
  13. going off at 12
  14. not working
  15. magic
  16. still debatable
  17. like a jungle
  18. eleven years old
  19. worsening by the day
  20. extremely variable
  21. full of odd but exciting people
  22. becoming the Googlenet
  23. fixed
  24. forever
  25. a battlefield
  26. a great network for helping others around the world
  27. more than a global pornography network
  28. slow
  29. making you go nuts
  30. so much faster bc im like the only 1 on it

(I took out the duplicates. There were many involving cats and porn.)

Part of the problem is that we understand the Net in very different and conflicting ways. For example, when we say the Net consists of “sites,” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “visit,”we are saying the Internet is a place. It’s real estate. But if we say the Net is a “medium” for the “distribution” of “content” to “consumers” who “download” it, we’re saying the Net is a shipping system. These metaphors are very different. They yield different approaches to business and lawmaking, to
name just two areas of conflict.

Bob Frankston, co-inventor (with Dan Bricklin) of spreadsheet software (Visicalc) and one of the fathers of home networking, says the end-state of the Net’s current development is ambient connectivity, which “gives us access to the oceans of copper, fiber and radios that surround us.” Within those are what Frankston calls a “sea of bits” to which all of us contribute. To help clarify the anti-scarce nature of bits, he explains, “Bits aren’t really like kernels of corn. They are more like words. You may run out of red paint but you don’t run out of the color red.”

Much has been written about the “economics of abundance,” but we have barely begun to understand what that means or what can be done with it. The threats are much easier to perceive than the opportunities. Google is one notable exception to that. Asked at a Harvard meeting to explain the company’s strategy of moving into businesses where it expects to make no money directly for the services it offers, a Google executive explained that the company looked for “second and third order effects.”

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist for BT (disclosure: I consult BT) describes these as “because effects.” You make money because of something rather than with it. Google makes money because of search, and because of Gmail. Not with them. Not directly.

Yet money can still be made with goods and services — even totally commodified ones. Amazon makes money with back-end Web services such as EC2 (computing) and S3 (data storage). Phone, cable and other carriers can make money with “dumb pipes” too. They are also in perfect positions to offer low-latency services directly to their many customers at homes and in businesses. All the carriers need to do is realize that there are benefits to incumbency other than charging monopoly rents.

The biggest danger for the Net and its use comes not from carriers, but from copyright absolutists in what we have recently come to call the “content” industry. For example, in the U.S. the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), passed in 1998, was built to protect the interests of copyright holders and served as a model for similar lawmaking in other countries. What it did was little to protect the industries that lobbied its passing, while at the same time hurting or preventing a variety of other industries. Most notable (at least for me) was the embryonic Internet radio industry, which was just starting to take off when the DMCA came along. The saga that followed is woefully complex, and the story is far from over, but the result in the meantime is a still-infant industry that suffers many more restrictions in respect to “content” than over-the-air radio stations. Usage fees for music are much higher than those faced by broadcasters — so high that making serious money by webcasting music is nearly impossible. There are also tight restrictions on what music can be played, when, and how often. Music on podcasts is also essentially prohibited, because podcasters need to “clear rights” for every piece of copyrighted music they play. That’s why, except for “podsafe” music, podcasting today is almost all talk.

I’ll give the last words here to Cory Doctorow, who publishes them freely in his new book Content:

… there is an information economy. You don’t even need a computer to participate. My barber, an avowed technophobe who rebuilds antique motorcycles and doesn’t own a PC, benefited from the information economy when I found him by googling for barbershops in my neighborhood.

Teachers benefit from the information economy when they share lesson plans with their colleagues around the world by email. Doctors benefit from the information economy when they move their patient files to efficient digital formats. Insurance companies benefit from the information economy through better access to fresh data used in the preparation of actuarial tables. Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves look up the weekend’s weather online and decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store Western Union terminal.

This stuff generates wealth for those who practice it. It enriches the country and improves our lives.

And it can peacefully co-exist with movies, music and microcode, but not if Hollywood gets to call the shots. Where IT managers are expected to police their networks and systems for unauthorized copying — no matter what that does to productivity — they cannot co-exist. Where our operating systems are rendered inoperable by “copy protection,” they cannot co-exist. Where our educational institutions are turned into conscript enforcers for the record industry, they cannot co-exist.

The information economy is all around us. The countries that embrace it will emerge as global economic superpowers. The countries that stubbornly hold to the simplistic idea that the information economy is about selling information will end up at the bottom of the pile.


But all that is just me (and my sources, such as Cory). There are 894 others compiled by the project, and I invite you to visit those there.

I’ll also put in a plug for FutureWeb in Raleigh, April 28-30, where I look forward to seeing many old friends and relatives as well. (I lived in North Carolina for most of the 20 years from 1965-1985, and miss it still.) Hope to see some of ya’ll there.

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Some encouraging words here about Verizon’s expected 4G data rates:

After testing in the Boston and Seattle areas, the provider estimates that a real connection on a populated network should average between 5Mbps to 12Mbps in download rates and between 2Mbps to 5Mbps for uploads. Actual, achievable peak speeds in these areas float between 40-50Mbps downstream and 20-25Mbps upstream.The speed is significantly less than the theoretical 100Mbps promised by Long Term Evolution (LTE), the chosen standard, but would still give Verizon one of the fastest cellular networks in North America.

No mention of metering or data caps, of course.

Remember, these are phone companies. They love to meter stuff. Its what they know. They can hardly imagine anything else. They are billing machines with networks attached.

In addition to the metering problems Brett Glass details here, there is the simple question of whether carriers can meter data at all. Data ain’t minutes. And metering discourages both usage and countless businesses other than the phone companies’ own. I have long believed that phone and cable companies will see far more business for themselves if they open up their networks to possibilities other than those optimized for the relocation of television from air to pipes.

Data capping is problematic too. How can the customer tell how close they are to a cap? And how much does fearing overage discourage legitimate uses? And what about the accounting? My own problems with Sprint on this topic don’t give me any confidence that the carriers know how gracefully to impose data usage caps.

There’s a lot of wool in current advertising on these topics too. During the Academy Awards last night, Comcast had a great ad for Xfinity, its new high-speed service, promoted entirely as an entertainment pump. By which I mean that it was an impressive piece of promotion. But there was no mention of upstream speeds (downstream teaser: 100Mb/s). Or other limitations. Or how they might favor NBC (should they buy it) over other content sources. (Which, of course, they will.)

Sprint‘s CEO was in an another ad, promoting the company’s “unlimited text, unlimited Web and unlimited calling…” Right. Says right here in a link-proof pop-up titled “Important 4G coverage and plan information”, that 4G is unlimited, but 3G (what most customers, including I, still have) is limited to “5GB/300MB off-network roaming per month.” They do list “select cities” where 4G is available. Here’s Raleigh. I didn’t find New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston on the list. I recall Amarillo. Can’t find it now, and the navigation irritates me too much to look.

Anyway, I worry that what we’ll get is phone and cable company sausage in Internet casing. And that, on the political side, the carriers will succeed in their campaign to clothe themselves as the “free market” fighting “government takeovers” while working the old regulatory capture game, to keep everybody else from playing.

So five, ten years from now, all the rest of the independent ISPs and WISPs will be gone. So will backbone players other than carriers and Google.  We’ll be gaga about our ability to watch pay-per-view on our fourth-generation iPads with 3-d glasses. And we won’t miss the countless new and improved businesses that never happened because they were essentially outlawed by regulators and their captors.

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News Without the Narrative Needed to Make Sense of the News: What I Will Say at SXSW is where and how Jay Rosen lays out his current thinking on new agendas for whatever journalism will become after we’re done with the current transition.

He has long been concerned with how explanation is “under-emphasized in the modern newsroom” and offers excellent examples of how explaining should work, as well as ideas about how to institutionalize it. For example, “The goal is to surface the hidden demand for explanation and create a kind of user-driven assignment desk for the explainer genre, which is itself under-developed in pro journalism”. He adds, “Are there other ways to surface this kind of demand?”

I’d call attention to the imperatives of stories, and the role that might be played by new sets of well-explained facts that can help frame or re-frame a story.

See, stories are what assignment editors want. They’re also what readers want. And stories are different to some degree from the current vogue-word narrative. They do overlap, but they are different.

A few months back I visited the subject of story in What’s right with Wikipedia? — a piece I wrote in response to a What’s Wrong With Wikipedia story that had run in the Wall Steet Journal. I don’t know if that story was part of the WSJ’s GOP-aligned “What’s Wrong With Everything Liberals Do” narrative, but in any case I felt the matter needed explaining. Some Wikipedians did a good job of showing how there wasn’t much of a story there (read the piece to see how). For my part, I felt the need to explain what stories are actually about, which is problems, or struggles. Said I,

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

In his piece Jay mentions what a good Job the Giant Pool of Money episode of This American Life did of bringing sense to the country’s financial crisis. This gave rise to the PlanetMoney podcast, which is also terrific at explaining things. PlanetMoney feeds some of its best stuff to NPR’s news flow as well. One good example is Accidents of History Created U.S. Health System, which made it clear how we got to our wacky employer-supported health insurance system. Go listen to it and see if you don’t have a much better grasp on the challenge, if not of the solutions, currently on the table.

My point here, or one of them, is that the real story isn’t Obama vs. Intransigent Republicans (the Dems’ narrative) or Sensible Americans against Government Takeover (the Reps narrartive), but that we’ve got a health care system that burdens employers almost exclusively, rather than individuals, government (save for VA, Medicare and Medicaid), or other institutions. It’s an open quetion whether or not that’s screwed up, but at least it’s a question that ought to be at the center of the table, or the “debate” that been both boring and appalling.

This is consistent with what Matt Thompson says in The three key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, # 2 of which is WHAT WE MISS (1): The longstanding facts. But we also miss seeing the role that longstanding overlooked facts might play amongst the three story elements: protagonist, problem and movement. Take the problem of employer responsibility as a structural premise for health care. By itself, the problem just sits there. We need a protagonist and a sense that the story has movement. In the absence of either, we look for other defaults. Thus we cast Obama and his opponents as the protagonists, or to get into characterization as the issue if the topic gets logjammed, which it has been for awhile. So we hear about problems with the president’s charactrer. He’s not leading. Or … whatever. You can fill in the blanks

Meanwhile, we live in a world where employers are almost nothing like they were when the current health care system solidified at the end of World War II. In many towns (Santa Barbara, for example) the (or at least a) leading employer is “self”. Tried to get insurance for your self-employed butt lately? How about if you’re older than a child and have a medical history that’s other than perfect? Scary shit. Does the Obama plan make things better for you? According to this story in CNN, “Health insurance exchanges would be created to make it easier for small businesses, the self-employed and unemployed to pool resources and purchase less expensive coverage.” Hmm. “Easier” doesn’t sound like much relief. But doing nothing doesn’t sound good either.

So the easy thing is to go back to covering the compromise bill’s chances in Congress, and the politics surrounding it. That at least makes some kind of sense. We have all our story elements in place. It’s all politics from here on. Bring in the sports and war metaphors and let automated processes carry the rest. Don’t dig, just dine. The sausage-machine rocks on.

As Matt says, “… rarely do we acknowledge what we’re pursuing. When our questions make it into the coverage at all, they have to appear in the mouths of our sources, resulting in paltry, contorted pieces like this one, from the AP. Or they’re attributed to no one, weaseled into a headline that says only, ‘[Such-and-such] raises questions.’ Whose questions? Not ours, certainly.”

I also wonder if we’re barking up the wrong tree (or down the wrong hole) when we obsess about “curation” of news — a favorite topic of mainstream media preservationists. Maybe what we need is to see explainers as advocates of our curiosity about the deep questions, or deep facts, such that they might become unavoidable in news coverage.

This, of course, begs the creation of whole new institutions. Which is the job that Jay has taken up here. Let’s help him out with it.

[Later...] An additional thought: statistics aren’t stories.

I remember hearing about what were later called the killing fields of Cambodia, after refugees reported Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were murdering what eventually became more than a million people. Hughes Rudd delivered the story one on the CBS Morning News, as I recall between items on the Superbowl and Patty Hearst. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. But the story wasn’t a story. It was an item. It wasn’t until Sydney Shamberg ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine that the story got real. It got human. It had a protagonist. It became a movie.

I thought about this when I noticed there were exactly no comments following my Gendercide post. Here’s the fact that matters: countless baby girls are being killed, right now. But that’s not a story. Not yet. Not even with help from The Economist. I think the job here isn’t just to get more facts, or even to get the right name and the right face. The story needs its Dith Pran, and doesn’t have her yet. (Or, if it does, news hasn’t spread.)

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Gendercide

The worldwide war on baby girls, in the current (March 4) Economist, is one of the most disturbing stories I’ve read in years. In some parts of the world, millions of baby girls being prevented, aborted or killed at birth.

And I thought this was bad enough.

After visiting the Titan Missle Museum in Arizona, Matt Blaze wrote, How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years?

Good question.

Take a listen the next time you hear somebody say “Good question.” It means they don’t have the answer. Maybe it also means the best questions are unanswerable.

But maybe we also need to keep asking them anyway, for exactly that reason. This was a lesson I got a long time ago, and reported in 2005, in this post here:

About ten years ago I took a few days off to chill in silence at the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. One of the values the White Monks of the monastery share with Quakers in Sunday meeting is confinement of speech to that which “improves on the silence”. (Or, in the case of the monks, fails to insult the contemplative virtues of silence.) It was there that I had an amazing conversation with Father John Powell, who told me that any strictly literalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings “insulted the mystery” toward which those teachings pointed — and which it was the purpose of contemplative living to explore. “Christ spoke in paradox”, he said. Also metaphor, which itself is thick with paradox. Jesus knew, Father Powell said, that we understand one thing best in terms of another which (paradoxically) is literally different yet meaningfully similar.

For example, George Lakoff explains that we understand time in terms of money (we “save”, “waste” and “spend” it) and life in terms of travel (we “arrive”, “depart”, “fall off the wagon” or “get stuck in a rut”). For what it’s worth, George is Jewish. Like Jesus.

The greatest mystery of life, Father Powell explained, isn’t death. It’s life. “Life is exceptional”, he said. For all the fecundity of nature, it is surrounded by death. Far as we can tell, everything we see when we look to the heavens is dead as a gravestone. Yet it inspires the living. “Life”, he said, sounding like an old rabbi, “is the mystery”.

I was a kid in the fifties, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were busy not talking to each other while planting thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs  in the ground, pointed at each other’s countries. They were also sending thousands of additional warheads to sea in nuclear submarines. Every warhead was ready obliterate whole cities in enemy territory. Our house was five miles from Manhattan. We had frequent air raid drills, and learned how to “duck and cover” in the likely event of sudden incineration. Like many other kids in those days, I wished to enjoy as much of life as I could before World War III, which would last only a few hours, after which some other species would need to take over.

I was no math whiz; but I was an authority on adults and their failings. I could look at the number of missles involved, guess at all the things that could go wrong, and make a pretty good bet that something, sooner or later, would. I wasn’t sure we would die, but I was sure the chances were close to even.

In his new book The Dead Hand, Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman explains exactly how close we came:

At 12:15 A.M., Petrov was startled. Across the top of the room was a thin, silent panel. Most of the time no one even noticed it. But suddenly it lit up, in red letters: LAUNCH.

A siren wailed. On the big map with the North Pole, a light at one of the American missile bases was illuminated. Everyone was riveted to the map. The electronic panels showed a missile launch. The board said “high reliability.” This had never happened before. The operators at the consoles on the main oor jumped up, out of their chairs. They turned and looked up at Petrov, behind the glass. He was the commander on duty. He stood, too, so they could see him. He started to give orders. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system. He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch. The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to nd out. Was the satellite holding steady? Was the computer functioning properly?…

The phone was still in his hand, the duty ofcer still on the line, when Petrov was jolted again, two minutes later.

The panel ashed: another missile launched! Then a third, a fourth and a fth. Now, the system had gone into overdrive. The additional signals had triggered a new warning. The red letters on the panel began to ash MISSILE ATTACK, and an electronic blip was sent automatically to the higher levels of the military. Petrov was frightened. His legs felt paralyzed. He had to think fast…

Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in the correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything.

He told the duty ofcer again: this is a false alarm.

The message went up the chain.

How many other events were there like that? On both sides?

I think there lurks in human nature a death wish — for others, even more than for ourselves. We rationalize nothing better, or with more effect, than killing each other. Especially the other. Fill in the blank. The other tribe, the other country, the other culture, the other religion, whatever.  “I’ve seen the future,” Leonard Cohen sings. “It is murder.” (You can read the lyrics here, but I like the video version.)

Yet we also don’t. The answer to Matt’s question — How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years? —is lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, and others like him, unnamed. Petrov had the brains and the balls to say “No” to doing the crazy thing that only looked sane because a big institution was doing it.

We’re still crazy. You and I may not be, but we are.

War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says. You can read his book by that title, (required reading from a highly decorated and deeply insightful former war correspondent). You can also watch the lecture he gave on the topic at UCSB in 2004. The mystery will be diminished by his answer, but not solved.

Still, every dose of sanity helps.

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spinning_stormI’ve done much of my weather-watching this Winter using MyWeather, an iPhone app that not only combines satellite and radar views, but shows the motions of both, together.

What has amazed me, through much of the heavy weather that the Middle Atlantic states have had in recent weeks, is how smoothly cyclonic the precipitating weather has been.

For most of February’s last week, a huge  weather system revolved, around one stationary point: New York City. Like a big Lazy Susan it carried snow down from Canada , across the Great Lakes and through Upstate New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Virginias, Maryland and New Jersey — and rain from the Atlantic across New England, where some of it fell as snow, some of the time, inland.

So, while record snows fell from DC to NY, here in Boston we mostly got wet, with one day of high winds.

It was also interesting to watch the storm as it went out to sea and organized itself even more convincingly in the shape of a hurricane, complete with something of an eye. I could see it still rotating around, far out to sea, late last night, spinning rain across the Maritimes and down into coastal New England.

Now we have another weather system coming through. It looks like the tail end of the last one, and is forming its own little cyclone right now, off the coast of Virginia.

I just wish Spring would hurry up.

It will, of course. Just not here.