May 2010

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When news came on April 21 that ‘s drilling rig had exploded — killing eleven, sinking the rig, and leaving an open oil well gushing a mile down on the ocean floor — my first thought was, What if they can’t plug that thing? I’m still wondering. So far we’ve seen no evidence that they can. One can still hope, but hey: it’s been more than a month. Maybe plugging this thing is kinda like plugging a volcano.

My next thought was, Can the companies involved survive? The environmental impact would surely exceed that of any filed statement’s scenarios. Shoreline habitats, food sources, ways of life and indusrtries that depend on clean gulf coasts and waters would be damaged or destroyed for unknown lengths of time, and across a wide area. All the states adjoining the Gulf of Mexico, including those of Mexico itself, might be affected. So might islands and coasts elsewhere. (Follow the oil’s spread here.) The liabilities here can easily exceed the worth of the liable companies, or their abilities to pay.

Much blaming is going on, of course. Yesterday I heard Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana come down on both BP and the federal government. Those parties have also heaped blame on others. None of it helps. Could be nothing will help, until the well gets plugged, or upward pressure from the oil reservoir drops far enough to make containment possible. [Later... perhaps with the help of a relief well.]

How big is the reservoir here? We knew how much oil the Exxon Valdez carried. In this case, however, I haven’t heard an answer. Maybe one of the rest of ya’ll can find those figures, if they’re available. I’m guessing, from the pressure involved, that it’s large enough to FUBAR the whole Gulf, and then some, for years.

It might help to think of fossil fuel extraction as grave robbing, because that’s what it is. Most of the energy that lights our homes and keeps our computers humming comes directly from dead plants and animals. These are in great supply. In fact, they are more than sufficient to keep us civilized, if your time horizon is human rather than geological. Most humans don’t care about futures beyond those of their grandchildren. Geology, however, is much more patient. You need geology to make oil and coal. And for that geology takes millions of years.

This means, of course, that we will run out of the stuff if we keep extracting and burning it at current rates. But “we” is the wrong pronoun here. The right one is “they.” Because we’ll be dead by then, and so will our grandchildren. It’s an open question whether “they” will be equal to the problems we’ve caused for them.

No species lasts forever. All do what they’re best at, naturally. It’s hard to deny that what we’re best at are at least these three things:

  1. Increasing our numbers
  2. Spreading all over the place
  3. Using up resources — especially those that take millions of years to make and burn up in  an instant.

This last weekend the Wall Street Journal ran Humans: Why They Triumphed, by Matt Ridley. Its closing paragraphs:

There’s a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events. Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters.

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex. And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

Why “triumphed?” Who lost? And what is this dominion of ours, over which we now rule? At what costs, perhaps fatal, do we maintain it?

Etched on the front of the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming, is a large inscription that reads, STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON NOT GIVEN. This contributed the title to John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, which, among other things, described exactly what would happen to New Orleans should a levee break, long before the resulting flood actually happened.

I suppose all species are arrogant winners. Ours, however, is uniquely equipped to overcome that natural insanity. Whether we will or not, however, is an open question. My bet, not that I shall ever collect on it, is that we are even more Ozymandian than Shelley imagined — whether the well gets capped or not.

Bonus blog.

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Or let the paleontologists dig it for you. That’s what a team led by Yale researchers did last year in southeastern Morocco’s Lower and Upper Fezouata Formations. The result is covered by LiveScience in Oldest Soft-Bodied Marine Fossils Discovered . Specifically, “The animals represented by these newly discovered fossils, including sponges, annelid worms, mollusks, and horseshoe crabs, lived during the Ordovician period between 480 million and 472 million years ago, making them the oldest ever discovered during this period.”

So, while I have your attention on that, let me redirect you to Ron Schott’s Road Trip: An Experiment in Social Geology. He begins,

With your help, dear readers and fellow geobloggers, I’d like to run an experiment in social geology this summer. My hypothesis is that real-time/live-web tools and social networking can be applied to geology-focused road trips in ways that enrich the experience for both the road-tripper and the audience of active participants. This blog post is a call for collaborators, and a starting point for discussion and refinement of this hypothesis. I hope that it evolves into much more than that.

Me too. While Ron traverses The West, I’ll be heading to France for much of June and July. But I’ll keep up with him and enjoy vicarious digging of hard rock landscapes, many of which I already know but haven’t seen. Sez Ron,

The response to my blog posts two weeks ago using excerpts from John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World has inspired me to attempt to GigaPan at least four more of his I-80 geologic localities on my way out to San Francisco. Tentatively, and subject to tight restrictions imposed by the vagaries of weather and the need to arrive at the conference on time, I’m aiming to GigaPan the Gangplank/Summit area of the Laramie Range, roadcuts in the Rawlins, WY area, something in the Rock Springs/Overthrust area of western Wyoming, the Wasatch Front/Great Salt Lake, the Golconda Thrust, and an ophiolite in the Sierra Foothills.

The only thick book I’ve picked up nearly as often as McPhee’s Annals is Tolstoy’s War and Peace (though the latter not in the last couple of decades, I regret to admit). The Gangplank and the Overthrust sites I have visited dozens of times in re-readings of Rising from the Plains, my favorite of the four prior books that Annals combines (with a bonus section called Crossing the Craton). The Wasatch, Salt Lake, Golconda thurst and Sierra Foothills ophiolites star in Basin and Range and Assembling California, which Annals also includes. Been to all of those many times as well.

Ron is a Gigapanner of the first water. Here’s the latest, shown with a Canon 5D like my own (though with a better lens than any that I have). Can’t wait to see what he shows. (Some samples from his professional work as a geology professor.)

Good to see by his tweets (he’s @rschott) that he’s still cruising the West Coast (after getting some gigapans in Utah en route ). While he’s still out there, here a few possible side trips I’d like to suggest :

  • Love Ranch, where David Love grew up. Love was the geologist who guided McPhee through Wyoming. The title of the resulting book, Rising from the Plains, comes from a diary of David’s mother, Ethel Waxham Love, a writer whose prose was equal to McPhee’s, and who carries much of the book’s narrative burden. Dr. Love and the ranch buildings are all gone, but not the landscape, nearly all the features of which were named by the Love family.
  • Red Bluff Ranch, near Lander and west of the Gas Hills, amidst red Triassic features raised to weather when the Wind River Range, said David Love to John McPhee, “just pooched out.” Red Bluff Ranch is where Ethel Waxham (years away from becoming a Love) arrived when she — as McPhee loves to put it — came into the country by stagecoach.
  • The Powder River Basin strip coal mines, where the land celebrated by “Home on the Range” is classed as “overburden” and peeled off by the square mile to extract coal. This is featured in the “Coal Train” chapters McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers.

I can think of many more, but those are a start. I’ll add more later. Right now I gotta take the kid to the dentist.

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I came late to love math. Not sure why, but my grasp of the concepts (which is far from great) is not matched by skill or speed at calculation. There always seemed to be teeth missing in the gears of my mind. Give me a short column of two-digit numbers and I’m likely to give you three answers in three tries.

Still, I’ve long appreciated what the human mind could do with math (which is approximately everything, if you want a working civilization), thanks not to any teachers of the subject, but rather to Martin Gardner of Scientific American. He made math fun, even when I didn’t get where he was going with it. He even played a small role, I think, in getting me my first (and pretty much only) writing gig for a major magazine.

Alas, he died yesterday, at age 95. Here’s a profile of him, from 1995.

Thanks to @dpentecost for the heads-up.

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Branding has jumped the shark. The meme is stale. Worn out. Post-peak. If branding were a show on Fox, it would be cancelled next week.

I can witness this trend by watching links going to three posts I made last month:

The latest to point this direction is People Aren’t Brands, by one of these guys here (I see no byline) in UKSN, the UK Sports Network. After pointing generously to the second of the posts above, they say,

In the current business world, brands aren’t human beings. They should be, and any social media practitioner worth her salt will be working damn hard with their clients to try and make them more so, but as it stands they are companies, corporate vehicles which are not set up to deal with human error…the kind we are all susceptible to, especially some high profile celebs.

Well, all due respect (and UKSN deserve plenty), brands aren’t people. True, it’s good to humanize companies, turn them inside out, tear down the walls of Fort Business, and otherwise cut out the pro forma BS that tends more commonly to bottle up a company’s humanity than to celebrate and leverage it. But doing that isn’t branding. It’s just good sense.

True, branding is a helpful way to align a company’s distinctions with its identity, or to make it more attractive, memorable and stuff like that. But it matters far less than a well-earned reputation. Consider these statements:

  • Nike has a reputation for making good shoes.
  • Apple has a reputation for making artful technology.
  • Toyota has a reputation for making reliable cars.

Now let’s re-phrase those using the word “brand” instead of “reputation.”

  • The Nike brand makes good shoes
  • Apple is the brand for artful technology.
  • Toyota is the reliable car brand.

Two points there. First, it’s hard to re-phrase reputation as brand, no matter how you put it. Second, branding is not positioning. By that I mean it would be easier to make positioning statements about any of those companies than to make a branding statement.

That’s because brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both. At worst they’re a paint job, a claim, a rationalization or an aspiration. Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.

Consider for a moment the value of Toyota’s reputation as a maker of reliable cars. This reputation was earned over at least five decades. Millions of people have had good experiences with reliable Toyota cars and trucks. That reputation has kept Toyota’s head above water through the trials of the last year, when an endless string of bad news stories about sudden acceleration and other faults have been streaming through the news media. In the tug between bad news and good reputation, branding was a no-show.

Judged by the standards of real branding companies (such as Procter & Gamble, which invented and named the practice), Toyota’s branding work has been mediocre at best. It has created cars with confusing names (Corolla, Corona, Carina, Celica, Crown, Cresta, Cressida) and weird hard-to-pronounce names (Camry, Yaris), and has produced relatively little memorable advertising, considering the size of the company and the quality of its cars. Worse, those Toyotathon ads by local dealers, which ran until the Daily Show’s Toyotathon of Death segment buried them for good, were among the most persistent and annoying pitches of all time. In fact, Toyota dealers in general had relatively bad reputations. The one thing Toyota did well was make reliable cars. Toyota’s reputation persists because it was earned, not just claimed.

Branding is jumping the shark now because, on the whole, the Net favors reality over bullshit. Saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff, at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.

The hard thing for social media folks is that they’re still working the Saying Stuff beat while  Doing Stuff is what matters most. Getting companies to do different stuff, or to do the same stuff differently, is hard. Getting companies to do either of those things for long enough to earn a reputation for it is harder still.

But, good luck with that.

Meanwhile here’s how UKSN (in its People Aren’t Brands post) advises companies aligning with sports figures:

Corporates need to let go of the term ‘brand’ and all the connotations it brings when they are working with celebrities. When they hire the celeb, they think that person is now representative of the brand…something which humans can’t do! They can be themselves and if the company is comfortable with whom they are and what they stand for as a human being…then there is value to be derived by association. Expecting the person to fit into the perceived brand of a company is a recipe for (potential) disaster.

All good advice. What makes branding especially difficult in the sports world is that celebrity itself, and the fashions surrounding it, are part of the game. Sports figures endorse, and are endorsed by, “corporates,” and both benefit from each other. This morning I heard that money offered by teams shouldn’t have that much influence on which team LeBron James signs up with next (so long as they’re all within a few million dollars of each other), because he’ll make far more from his corporate affiliations. This is a set of considerations where UKSN knows far more than I do, and where branding of the old P&G sort still matters a great deal.

Sports is a special case. So are fashion and celebrity, and how all three of those overlap.

In most of society, however — including most of the business world — who you are and what you do matter more than how you look and how famous you become. Because who you are and what you do are what make the world a better place. And not just something to talk about.

[Late addition...] Tom Ford with Tina Brown on marketing and branding. Great clip.

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Until her Supreme Court nomination turned Elena Kagan into big-time news fodder, there was not an abundance of great pictures of her to be found on the Web. Among the better ones to be found were a couple I had posted on Flickr a couple years ago, when she was still Dean of Harvard Law School. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The second of those (cropped a bit) was put up on Wikimedia Commons, and for awhile accompanied her Wikipedia entry, and continues to be used in a number of places.

Both shots have a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 license, meaning anybody can use it, and should also give me credit for having shot it. And both shots have appeared since then in many publications. Some, like Wikipedia, do a good job of following the license. Some, for example Outside the Beltway — in this piece stirring the shit about Ms. Kagan while accusing CBS and other news organizations of bad journalistic practices — do not.

None of that is troubling, or even very interesting. Instead what prompts this post is a comment under one of the two photos, from an entity called TEA PARTY LEADER. It’s a diatribe that verges on hate speech, but (in my amateur judgment) doesn’t quite cross the line. The question for me, when I saw the comment, was Should I kill it?

My photo pile on Flickr isn’t a public space. It welcomes comments to the degree that it simply allows them. It has no rules (of my own or defaulted by Flickr) regarding comments, beyond the ability Flickr provides for editing or deleting them.

I asked fellow Berkman Fellows list for their thoughts, and those went both ways. Some said the space is mine to manage, and if somebody is rudely spamming the premises I should feel free to delete their icky work. Others said doing so indeed would violate free speech principles, even if I would be within my rights in doing so. I was also probed with questions about whether I would delete the comment if its positions were more agreeable to me — though with manners just as rude.

I’ve been inclined from the start toward leaving it up, and that’s where I’m staying. But in the meantime I thought I’d pass along the same questions.

What would you do, and why?

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In the old days the “news cycle” was the interval between the news media’s pumpings: the paper’s daily print run, the TV station’s morning and evening news programs.

Now that cycle is as short as the TTT: Time To Tweet.

Consider yesterday.

Sitting in an idle subway car at the Alewife station, from which all southbound MBTA Red Line trains commence, twenty minutes passed while I became increasingly late for a lunch date near the Central station, normally about twelve minutes away. Finally the awful PA system started squawking something to passengers about a “police action” at the Harvard station (three down from Alewife, one short of Central) and something else about “delays” and “southbound.” Once it became clear that trains wouldn’t go, I called my wife and got a ride to my lunch.

In the meantime I tweeted What was the “police action” at that kept southbound trains from going through Harvard Square today? #mbta

The first tweet back from @universalhub (Adam Griffin) said @dsearls Bank robber cheaped out and tried to escape on the T rather than hiring a proper getaway car.

That last link unpacks a story by Adam in UniversalHub (the website) titled Week’s best reason for delays on the Red Line. The central paragraph:

MBTA Transit Police report a Harvard Square bank robbery suspect tried to make good his escape on the Red Line (they don’t say in which direction). He was quickly nabbed, but the station had to be shut to allow for evidence collection.

The linked report is this:

On Friday 7th May 2010, @MBTAPoliceTPSA2 said:


Sorry for delays and inconvenience on Red Line in Cambridge. Bank robbery tried to make escape using Red Line train. He was arrested without incident, but left behind a sea of evidence that had to be properly collected for prosecution purposes. On behalf of Cambridge and Transit Police Departments, and the MBTA, thank you for your patience and understanding today during this public safety incident.

And we thank you too, @MBTAPoliceTPSA2 and @universalhub. Impressive.

The Boston Globe had a story this morning on it. Maybe the TV and radio stations did to. If so I missed it.

Re-draw your own conclusions.

…in the mid-Atlantic and New England states between 1800 and 1830, turnpike companies accounted for 27 percent of all business incorporations.

That’s from Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America, by Daniel B. Klein, Santa Clara University and John Majewski, University of California Santa Barbara. A long entry in, an encyclopedia of economic history, it unpacks a remarkable but mostly-forgotten stage of business growth in North America. In reading it I wonder what relevance it might have to the current problems regarding the financing, deployment and running of Internet infrastructure, especially for rural areas that are outside the geographic scope of telephone and cable company ambitions. Take this paragraph, for example:

For Americans looking for better connections to markets, the poor state of the road system was a major problem. In 1790, a viable steamboat had not yet been built, canal construction was hard to finance and limited in scope, and the first American railroad would not be completed for another forty years. Better transportation meant, above all, better highways. State and local governments, however, had small bureaucracies and limited budgets which prevented a substantial public sector response. Turnpikes, in essence, were organizational innovations borne out of necessity – “the states admitted that they were unequal to the task and enlisted the aid of private enterprise” (Durrenberger 1931, 37).

The operative phrase is in the first sentence: better connections to markets. These were markets of the literal sort: places where people gathered to carry out business and other social activities. Most of the civilized world was country then. The most common business was farming. As farming spread farther from cities, the largest of which were ports with harbors or astride navigable inland waters, means had to be found to finance the building and operating of roads. Another two paragraphs:

Throughout the nineteenth-century, the United States was notoriously “land-rich” and “capital poor.” The viability of turnpikes shows how Americans devised institutions – in this case, toll-collecting corporations – that allowed them to invest precious capital in important public projects. What’s more, turnpikes paid little in direct dividends and stock appreciation, yet still attracted investment. Investors, of course, cared for long-term economic development, but that does not account for how turnpike organizers overcame the important public goods problem of buying turnpike stock. Esteem, social pressure, and other non-economic motivations influenced local residents to make investments that they knew would be unprofitable (at least in a direct sense) but would nevertheless help the entire community. On the other hand, the turnpike companies enjoyed the organizational clarity of stock ownership and residual returns. All companies faced the possibility of pressure from investors, who might have wanted to salvage something of their investment. Residual claimancy may have enhanced the viability of many projects, including communitarian projects undertaken primarily for use and esteem.

The combining of these two ingredients – the appeal of use and esteem, and the incentives and proprietary clarity of residual returns – is today severely undermined by the modern legal bifurcation of private initiative into “not-for-profit” and “for-profit” concerns. Not-for-profit corporations can appeal to use and esteem but cannot organize themselves to earn residual returns. For-profit corporations organize themselves for residual returns but cannot very well appeal to use and esteem.

The Internet is to commerce today what the oceans were two centuries ago: essential means for connecting between distant places and moving goods. While physical goods must still move by physical means, digital goods and the digital communications surrounding them move via the Internet, which connects over a variety of wired (copper, fiber) and wireless paths. Every town and district with absent or small data transport capacities today faces the same kinds of choices that were met by the toll roads two hundred years ago.

In the long run toll roads proved a temporary solution to a permanent problem that could be solved other ways. But I wonder what we still might learn from them, at least for regions where the problems are similar, and the solutions likely to be just as temporary.