February 2011

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Here’s a great idea for local TV news departments: start streaming, 24/7/365, on the Net. You don’t need to have first-rate stuff, and it doesn’t all have to be live. Loop fifteen minutes of news, weather and sports to start. Bring in local placeblog and social media volunteers. Whatever it takes: you figure it out.  Just make it constant, because that’s what TV was in the first place, and that’s what it will remain after the Internet finishes absorbing it, which will happen eventually. Now’s the time to get ahead of the curve.

Here’s why I thought of this idea:

. Far as I know it’s the only serious TV that’s live, streaming 24/7/365 on the Net. I watch it on the iPad wherever we have it… in the car, on a cabinet in the bedroom, or — in this case — on the kitchen counter, next to the stove, where I was watching it while making breakfast yesterday morning. That’s when I shot the photo.

At our place we don’t have a TV any more. Nor do a growing number of other people. Young people especially are migrating their video viewing to the Net. Meanwhile, all the national “content” producers and distributors are tied up by obligations and regulations. Try to watch NBC, CBS, ABC, TNT, BBC or any other three- or four-letter network source on a mobile device. The best you can get are short clips on apps designed not to compete with their cable channels. Most are so hamstrung by the need to stay inside paid cable distribution systems (or their own national borders) that they can’t sit at the table where Al Jazeera alone is playing the game.

That table is a whole new marketplace — one free of all the old obligations to networks and government agencies. No worries about blackouts, must-carries and crazy copyright mazes, as long as it’s all the station’s own stuff, or easily permitted from available sources (which are many).

Savor the irony here. Al Jazeera English is the only real, old-fashioned TV channel you can get on a pad or a smartphone here in the U.S. It’s also the best window on the most important stuff happening in the world today. And it’s not on cable, which is an increasingly sclerotic and soon-to-be marginalized entertainment wasteland. A smart local TV station can widen the opportunities that Al Jazeeera is breaking open here.

Speaking as one viewer, I would love it if , , , , or had a live round-the-clock stream of news, sports, weather and other matters of local interest. We happen to live at a moment in history — and it won’t last long — when ordinary folks like me still look to TV stations for that kind of stuff, and want to see it on a glowing rectangle. Now is the time to satisfy that interest, on rectangles other than those hooked up to antennas or set-top boxes.

And if the TV stations don’t wake up, newspapers and radio stations have the same opportunity. Hey, already puts Dennis and Calahan on . Why not put them on the Net? And if NESN doesn’t like that (because they’re onwed by Comcast), WBZ can put  on a stream. The could play here.  So could and . ‘BUR already has an iPhone app. Adding video would be way cool too.

The key is to make the stations’ video streams a go-to source for info, even if the content isn’t always live. What matters is that it leverages expectations we still have of TV, while we still have them.

And hey, TV stations, think of this: you don’t have to interrupt programming for ads. Run them in the margins. Localize them. Partner with Foursquare, Groupon, Google or the local paper. Whatever. Have fun experimenting.

Yesterday , the king of local TV consultants (and a good friend) put up a post titled The Tactical Use of Beachheads. Here are his central points and recommendations:

There is, I believe, a way to drive the car and fix it at the same time, but it requires managers to step outside their comfort zone and behave more like leaders. The mission is to establish beachheads ahead of everybody else, so that when the vision materializes, they’ll be prepared to monetize it. This is a risk, of course. There’s no spreadsheet, no revenue projections to manage, no best practices, no charts and graphs, because it’s not about seeing who can outsmart, outthink or outspend the next guy; it’s all about anticipating new value and going for it. The risk, however, can be mitigated if the beachheads are based on broad trends.

This can be very tough for certain groups, because we’re so used to being able to hedge bets with facts and processes. Here, we’re leapfrogging processes to intercept a moving target. It’s Wayne Gretzky’s brilliant tactic of “skating to where the puck is going to be,” instead of following its current position.

In our war for future relevance, here are five beachheads we need to establish in order to drive our car and fix it at the same time. Four of them relate to content that, we hope, will be somehow monetized. The fifth deals specifically with enabling commerce via a form of advertising.

  1. Real Time Beach — It is absolutely essential that media companies understand that news and information is moving to real time, and that real time streams are what will really matter tomorrow. It’s already happening today, but until somebody makes big money with it, we’ll continue to emphasize that which we CAN make money with, the front-end design of our websites. These streams take place throughout the back end of the Web, and they will make their way to the front end, and soon. There are early signs of advertising in the stream, and we should be experimenting with this, too. This is an unmistakable trend, and if we don’t move and move fast, it’s one I’m afraid we’ll lose.
  2. Curation Beach — Examples like Topix above show that curation beach is really already here, although I’d call those types of applications “aggregators.” They’re dumb in that they’re simply mechanical aggregators of that which is — for the most part — being published by others. Curation is more the concept of helping customers make sense out of all the real time streams that are in place. We’re all using the streams of social media, for example, to “broadcast,” but the real value is to pay attention and curate. This is a beachhead ready for the taking.
  3. Events Beach — One of the key local niches still left for the taking is the organizing of all events into an application that helps people find and participate. The ultimate user application here will be portable, for it must meet the needs of people already on-the-go. I refer to this beachhead as “event-driven news,” and it is largely created and maintained by the community itself. Since many events dovetail with retail seasons, this is easily low-hanging beachhead fruit.
  4. Personal Branding Beach — If everybody is a media company then media is everybody. This is a fundamental reality within which we’re doing business today, and it presents a unique opportunity for us and our employees. The aggregation of personal brands is a winning formula for online media, and we should be exploiting it before somebody else does. Our people are our strongest asset for competing in the everybody’s-a-media-company world, and we have the advantage of a bully pulpit from which to advance their personal brands. This is more important than most people think, because the dynamic local news brands of tomorrow will be associated with the individual brands of the community. The time to begin establishing this beachhead is now.
  5. Proximity Advertising Beach — The mobile beachhead is both obvious but obscured, because we’re all waiting for somebody to show us how to do it. This could be a real problem, for we know what happened when we allowed the ad industry itself to commodify banner advertising. Outsiders set the value for our products. The same thing is likely to happen here, unless we stake out territory for ourselves downstream first. There are predictions that mobile CPMs will hold at between $15-$25, and that’s enough to make any mobile content creator smile, but I would argue that the real money hasn’t even been discovered yet, because these CPMs are merely targeted display. Remember that the Mobile Web is the same Web as the one that’s wired, and it behaves the same way. The new value for mobile is proximity, and that’s where we need to be focusing. Let’s do what we can to make money with mobile content, but let’s also establish a beachhead in the proximity marketing arena, too, because that’s where this particular puck is headed.

If we approach these beachheads entirely with the question “where’s the money,” we’re likely to miss the boat. This strategy is to get us ahead of that and let the revenue grow into it. None of these will break the bank, and they’ll position us to move quickly regardless of which direction things move or how fast.

Live local streaming on the Net is a huge beachhead. I see it on that kitchen iPad, which only gives me Al Jazeera when I want to know what’s going on in the world. The next best thing, in terms of moving images, is looking out the window while listening to the radio. Local TV can storm the beach here, and build a nice new business on the shore. And navigating the copyright mess is likely to be lot easier locally over the Net than it is nationally over the air or cable. (Thank you, regulators and their captors.)

And hey, maybe this can give Al Jazeera some real competition. Or at least some company on TV’s new dial.

[Later...] Harl‘s comment below made me dig a little, so I’m adding some of my learnings here.

First, if you’re getting TV over the Net, you’re in a zone that phone and cable companies call “over the top,” or OTT.  ITV Dictionary defines it this way:

Over-the-top - (OTT, Over-the-top Video, Over-the-Internet Video) – Over-the-top is a general term for service that you utilize over a network that is not offered by that network operator. It’s often referred to as “over-the-top” because these services ride on top of the service you already get and don’t require any business or technology affiliations with your network operator. Sprint is an “over-the-top long distance service as they primarily offer long distance over other phone company’s phone lines. Often there are similarities to the service your network operator offers and the over-the-top provider offers.

Over-the-top services could play a significant role in the proliferation of Internet television and Internet-connected TVs.

This term has been used to (perhaps incorrectly) describe IPTV video also. See Internet (Broadband) TV.

But all the attention within the broadcast industry so far has been on something else with a similar name: over-the-top TV (not just video) which is what you get, say, with Netflix, Hulu, plus Apple’s and Google TV set top boxes. Here’s ITV Dictionary’s definition:

Over-the-top-TV - (OTT) – Over-The-Top Home Entertainment Media – Electronic device manufacturers are providing DVD players, video game consoles and TVs with built-in wireless connectivity. These devices piggy back on an existing wireless network, pull content from the Internet and deliver it to the TV set. Typically these devices need no additional wires, hardware or advanced knowledge on how to operate. Content suited for TV can be delivered via the Internet. These OTT applications include Facebook and YouTube. Also see Internet-connected TVs.

No wonder TVNewsCheck reports Over-The-Top TV at Bottom of Station Plans. Stations are still thinking inside the box, even after the box has morphed into a flat screen. That is, they still think TV is about couch potato farming. The iPhone and the iPad changed that. Android-based devices will change it a lot more. Count on it.

Since Al Jazeera English is distributed over the top by , I checked to see what else LiveStation has. They say they have apps for CNBC, BBC World News and two other Al Jazeera channels, but on iTunes (at least here in the U.S.) only the three Al Jazeera channels are listed as LiveStation offerings. LiveStation does have its own app for computers (Linux, Mac and Windows), though; and it has a number of channels (not including CNBC) at . I just tried NASA TV there on my iPhone, and it looks good.

Still, apps are the new dial, at least for now, so iPhone and Android apps remain the better beachhead for local stations looking for a new top, after their towers and cable TV get drowned by the Net.

Over on Facebook, and friends have been pondering the provenance of Invention is the mother of necessity. Writes Don, “… heard that once from Doc Searls – I think its an original. Seems more true everyday. (think facebook, smartphones, the internet, computers).” So I responded,

Back in the ’80s, I had a half-serious list of aphorisms I called “Searls’ Laws.” The first was “Logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions casts the deciding votes.” The second was, “Invention is the mother of necessity.”

There were others, but I forget them right now. One, from my high school roommate (now the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem, PA — who blogs, in a fashion, here), was “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be eaten.” He was sixteen when he said that.

Anyway, one day I laid my second law on the CEO of our ad agency’s top client at the time, a company called Racal-Vadic. The CEO was Kim Maxwell, who taught at Stanford before kicking ass in business, and has since moved on to other things.) He replied, “Ah, yes. Thorstein Veblen.”

I thought, wtf? So I looked it up, and sure enough, Thorstein Veblen uttered “Invention is the mother of necessity” about a century before I made it one of my laws.

Anyway, my point in using it remained the same: Silicon Valley was built on inventions that mother necessity (from ICs to iPhones) at least as much as it was built on necessities that mother invention.

Just thought I’d share that out here in the un-silo’d non-F’book world.

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I first heard about the “World Live Web” when my son Allen dropped the phrase casually in conversation, back in 2003. His case was simple: the Web we had then was underdeveloped and inadequate. dnaSpecifically, it was static. Yes, it changed over time, but not in a real-time way. For example, we could search in real time, but search engine indexes were essentially archives, no matter how often they were updated. So it was common for Google’s indexes, even of blogs, to be a day or more old. , PubSub and other live RSS-fed search engines came along to address that issue, as did  as well. But they mostly covered blogs and sites with RSS feeds. (Which made sense, since blogs were the most live part of the Web back then. And RSS is still a Live Web thing.)

At the time Allen had a company that made live connections between people with questions and people with answers — an ancestor of  and @Replyz, basically. The Web wasn’t ready for his idea then, even if the Net was.

The difference between the Web and the Net is still an important one — not only because the Web isn’t fully built out (and never will be), but because our concept of the Web remains locked inside the conceptual framework of static things called sites, each with its own servers and services.

We do have live workarounds , for example with APIs, which are good for knitting together sites, services and data. But we’re still stuck inside the client-server world of requests and responses, where we — the users — play submissive roles. The dominant roles are played by the sites and site owners. To clarify this, consider your position in a relationship with a site when you click on one of these:

Your position is, literally, submissive. You know, like this:

But rather than dwell on client-server design issues, I’d rather look at ways we can break out of the submissive-dominant mold, which I believe we have to do in order for the Live Web to get built out for real. That means not inside anybody’s silo or walled garden.

I’ve written about the Live Web a number of times over the years. This Linux Journal piece in 2005 still does the best job, I think, of positioning the Live Web:

There’s a split in the Web. It’s been there from the beginning, like an elm grown from a seed that carried the promise of a trunk that forks twenty feet up toward the sky.

The main trunk is the static Web. We understand and describe the static Web in terms of real estate. It has “sites” with “addresses” and “locations” in “domains” we “develop” with the help of “architects”, “designers” and “builders”. Like homes and office buildings, our sites have “visitors” unless, of course, they are “under construction”.

One layer down, we describe the Net in terms of shipping. “Transport” protocols govern the “routing” of “packets” between end points where unpacked data resides in “storage”. Back when we still spoke of the Net as an “information highway”, we used “information” to label the goods we stored on our hard drives and Web sites. Today “information” has become passé. Instead we call it “content”.

Publishers, broadcasters and educators are now all in the business of “delivering content”. Many Web sites are now organized by “content management systems”.

The word content connotes substance. It’s a material that can be made, shaped, bought, sold, shipped, stored and combined with other material. “Content” is less human than “information” and less technical than “data”, and more handy than either. Like “solution” or the blank tiles in Scrabble, you can use it anywhere, though it adds no other value.

I’ve often written about the problems that arise when we reduce human expression to cargo, but that’s not where I’m going this time. Instead I’m making the simple point that large portions of the Web are either static or conveniently understood in static terms that reduce everything within it to a form that is easily managed, easily searched, easily understood: sites, transport, content.

The static Web hasn’t changed much since the first browsers and search engines showed up. Yes, the “content” we make and ship is far more varied and complex than the “pages” we “authored” in 1996, when we were still guided by Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of the Web: a world of documents connected by hyperlinks. But the way we value hyperlinks hasn’t changed much at all. In fact, it was Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s insights about the meaning of links that led them to build Google: a search engine that finds what we want by giving maximal weighting to sites with the most inbound links from other sites that have the most inbound links. Although Google’s PageRank algorithm now includes many dozens of variables, its founding insight has proven extremely valid and durable. Links have value. More than anything else, this accounts for the success of Google and the search engines modeled on it.

Among the unchanging characteristics of the static Web is its nature as a haystack. The Web does have a rudimentary directory with the Domain Name Service (DNS), but beyond that, everything to the right of the first single slash is a big “whatever”. UNIX paths (/whatever/whatever/whatever/) make order a local option of each domain. Of all the ways there are to organize things—chronologically, alphabetically, categorically, spatially, geographically, numerically—none prevails in the static Web. Organization is left entirely up to whoever manages the content inside a domain. Outside those domains, the sum is a chaotic mass beyond human (and perhaps even machine) comprehension.

Although the Web isn’t organized, it can be searched as it is in the countless conditional hierarchies implied by links. These hierarchies, most of them small, are what allow search engines to find needles in the World Wide Haystack. In fact, search engines do this so well that we hardly pause to contemplate the casually miraculous nature of what they do. I assume that when I look up linux journal diy-it (no boolean operators, no quotes, no tricks, just those three words), any of the big search engines will lead me to the columns I wrote on that subject for the January and February 2004 issues of Linux Journal. In fact, they probably do a better job of finding old editorial than our own internal searchware. “You can look it up on Google” is the most common excuse for not providing a search facility for a domain’s own haystack.

I bring this up because one effect of the search engines’ success has been to concretize our understanding of the Web as a static kind of place, not unlike a public library. The fact that the static Web’s library lacks anything resembling a card catalog doesn’t matter a bit. The search engines are virtual librarians who take your order and retrieve documents from the stacks in less time than it takes your browser to load the next page.

In the midst of that library, however, there are forms of activity that are too new, too volatile, too unpredictable for conventional Web search to understand fully. These compose the live Web that’s now branching off the static one.

The live Web is defined by standards and practices that were nowhere in sight when Tim Berners-Lee was thinking up the Web, when the “browser war” broke out between Netscape and Microsoft, or even when Google began its march toward Web search domination. The standards include XML, RSS, OPML and a growing pile of others, most of which are coming from small and independent developers, rather than from big companies. The practices are blogging and syndication. Lately podcasting (with OPML-organized directories) has come into the mix as well.

These standards and practices are about time and people, rather than about sites and content. Of course blogs still look like sites and content to the static Web search engines, but to see blogs in static terms is to miss something fundamentally different about them: they are alive. Their live nature, and their humanity, defines the liveWeb.

This was before  not only made the Web live, but did it in part by tying it to SMS on mobile phones. After all, phones work in the real live world.

Since then we’ve come to expect real-time performance out of websites and services. Search not only needs to be up-to-date, but up-to-now. APIs need to perform in real time. And many do. But that’s not enough. And people get that.

For example, has a piece titled Life in 2020: Your smartphone will do your laundry. It’s a good future-oriented piece, but it has two problems that go back to a Static Web view of the world. The first problem is that it sees the future being built by big companies: Ericsson, IBM, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Qualcomm. The second problem is that it sees the Web, ideally, as a private thing. There’s no other way to interpret this:

“What we’re doing is creating the Facebook of devices,” said IBM Director of Consumer Electronics Scott Burnett. “Everything wants to be its friend, and then it’s connected to the network of your other device. For instance, your electric car will want to ‘friend’ your electric meter, which will ‘friend’ the electric company.”

Gag me with one of these:

This social shit is going way too far. We don’t need the “Facebook” of anything besides Facebook. In fact, not all of us need it, and that’s how the world should be.

gagged on this too. In A Completely Connected World Depends on Loosely Coupled Architectures, he writes,

This is how these articles always are: “everything will have a network connection” and then they stop. News flash: giving something a network connection isn’t sufficient to make this network of things useful. I’ll admit the “Facebook of things” comment points to a strategy. IBM, or Qualcomm, or ATT, or someone else would love to build a big site that all our things connect to. Imagine being at the center of that. While it might be some IBM product manager’s idea of heaven, it sounds like distopian dyspepsia to me.

Ths reminds me of a May 2001 Scientific American article on the Semantic Web where Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila give the following scenario:

“The entertainment system was belting out the Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ when the phone rang. When Pete answered, his phone turned the sound down by sending a message to all the other local devices that had a volume control. His sister, Lucy, was on the line from the doctor’s office: …”

Sound familiar? How does the phone know what devices have volume controls? How does the phone know you want the volume to turn down? Why would you program your phone to turn down the volume on your stereo? Isn’t the more natural place to do that on the stereo? While I love the vision, the implementation and user experience is a nightmare.

The problem with the idea of a big Facebook of Things kind of site is the tight coupling that it implies. I have to take charge of my devices. I have to “friend” them. And remember, these are devices, so I’m going to be doing the work of managing them. I’m going to have to tell my stereo about my phone. I’m going to have to make sure I buy a stereo system that understands the “mute the sound” command that my phone sends. I’m going to have to tell my phone that it should send “mute the sound” commands to the phone and “pause the movie” commands to my DVR and “turn up the lights” to my home lighting system. No thanks.

The reason these visions fall short and end up sounding like nightmares instead of Disneyland is that we have a tough time breaking out of the request-response pattern of distributed devices that we’re all too familiar and comfortable with.

tried to get us uncomfortable early in the last decade, with his book Small Pieces Loosely Joined. One of its points: “The Web is doing more than just speeding up our interactions and communications. It’s threading and weaving our time, and giving us more control over it.” Says Phil,

…the only way these visions will come to pass is with a new model that supports more loosely coupled modes of interaction between the thousands of things I’m likely to have connected.

Consider the preceding scenario from Sir Tim modified slightly.

“The entertainment system was belting out the Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ when the phone rang. When Pete answered, his phone broadcasts a message to all local devices indicating it has received a call. His stereo responded by turning down the volume. His DVR responded by pausing the program he was watching. His sister, Lucy, …”

In the second scenario, the phone doesn’t have to know anything about other local devices. The phone need only indicate that it has received a call. Each device can interpret that message however it sees fit or ignore it altogether. This significantly reduces the complexity of the overall system because individual devices are loosely coupled. The phone software is much simpler and the infrastructure to pass messages between devices is much less complex than an infrastructure that supports semantic discovery of capabilities and commands.

Events, the messages about things that have happened are the key to this simple, loosely coupled scenario. If we can build an open, ubiquitous eventing protocol similar to the open, ubiquitous request protocol we have in HTTP, the vision of a network of things can come to pass in a way that doesn’t require constant tweaking of connections and doesn’t give any one silo (company) control it. We’ve done this before with the Web. It’s time to do it again with the network of things. We don’t need a Facebook of Things. We need an Internet of Things.

I call this vision “The Live Web.” The term was first coined by Doc Searls’ son Allen to describe a Web where timeliness and context matter as much as relevance. I’m in the middle (literally half done) with a book I’m calling The Live Web: Putting Cloud Computing to Work for People . The book describes how events and event-based systems can more easily create the Internet of Things than the traditional request-response-style of building Web sites. Im excited for it to be done. Look for a summer ublishing date. In the meantime, if you’re interested I’d be happy to get your feedback on what I’ve got so far.

Again, Phil’s whole post is here.

I compiled a list of other posts that deal with various VRM issues, including Live Web ones, at the ProjectVRM blog.

If you know about other Live Web developments, list them below. Here’s the key: They can’t depend on any one company’s server or services. That is, the user — you — have to be the driver, and to be independent. This is not to say there can’t be dependencies. It is to say that we need to build out the Web that David Weinberger describes in Small Pieces. As Dave Winer says in The Internet is for Revolution, think decentralization.

Time to start living. Not just submitting.

Just learned from Craig Burton that  Microsoft has killed off Windows Cardspace. Here’s the report from Mary Jo Foley. Here’s the Twitter search. Plenty of pointage to follow there. Here are Mike Jones’ reflections on the matter.

I don’t have time to get my thoughts together on this right now, but here’s my brief take at this early point. As almost always with me, it’s optimistic:


What mattered most about Cardspace, or about Infocards (the non-Microsoft term) was the selector, which was something that the user operated, that was under user control. As Craig just put it to me on the phone, the selector tells a service that the client is not a machine, that the client has control, that there is human being who makes his or her own choices about identity and other variables that have always belonged under the user’s control, but that the cookie-based system to which the commercial web has been defaulted from the beginning can not recognize.

What we (that is, developers) should do now is look at what Microsoft has abandoned, and use what we can of it to do what Microsoft did not, and apparently will not.

Frankly, for all the great work that Mike, Kim Cameron and other Microsoft folks did in this space, the biggest problem has always been their employer. While Microsoft deserves credit for giving these good people lots of support and room to move — including open source development, no less — the legacy was always there. Microsoft was a hard company for the rest of the world to trust as a leader in an area that required maximum openness and minimum risk that BigCo moves would be pulled. Which is what Microsoft just did.

So let’s move on.

says we’re overdue for a plasma bullet from the Sun. In Saturday issue (at that last link) they have a movie of a plasma blast coming out of sunspot 1147, on the eastern (left) edge of our nearest star.

Yesterday they reported this:

SOLAR FLARE: Sunspot 1158 has just unleashed the strongest solar flare of the year, an M6.6-category blast @ 1738 UT on Feb. 13th. The eruption appears to have launched a coronal mass ejection (CME) toward Earth. It also produced a loud blast of radio emissions heard in shortwave receivers around the dayside of our planet. Stay tuned for updates!

BEHEMOTH SUNSPOT 1158: Sunspot 1158 is growing rapidly (48 hour movie) and crackling with M-class solar flares. The active region is now more than 100,000 km wide with at least a dozen Earth-sized dark cores scattered beneath its unstable magnetic canopy. Earth-directed eruptions are likely in the hours ahead.

And today they say,

EARTH-DIRECTED SOLAR FLARE: On Feb. 13th at 1738 UT, sunspot 1158 unleashed the strongest solar flare of the year so far, an M6.6-category blast. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded an intense flash of extreme ultraviolet radiation, circled below:

The eruption produced a loud blast of radio waves heard in shortwave receivers around the dayside of our planet. In New Mexico, amateur radio astronomer Thomas Ashcraft recorded these sounds at 19 to 21 MHz. “This was some of the strongest radio bursting of the new solar cycle,” he says. “What a great solar day.”

Preliminary coronagraph data from STEREO-B and SOHO agree that the explosion produced a fast but not particularly bright coronal mass ejection (CME). The cloud will likely hit Earth’s magnetic field on or about Feb. 15th. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras.

The shot above is one I took on a flight from San Francisco to London in 2007. For some reason it flew far south of the usual route, giving me a somewhat distant view of the aurora that showed up outside my window on the left side of the plane. It was my first good view of one.

I shot another set here on a later flight a few weeks later. When flying to and from Europe, always get a seat on the north side if you want to see the show.

Meanwhile, watch SpaceWeather for more developments. Also NOAA’s Space Weather Service, which yesterday said this:

February 11, 2011 — Region 11153 has rotated on to the far side of the Sun, having given us an M class flare and a handful of small C class flares over the past few days. Recently, there have been some small active regions appearing and disappearing that haven’t bothered to produce any interesting activity and there are currently 4 of them on the disk. What has the attention of forecasters is the Sun’s East limb, where old Region 11149 is just beginning to reappear having transited the far side of the Sun. During that transit, multiple coronal mass ejections were observed that were directed away from the Earth. If that region stays active, we could be in store for some interesting space weather in the days ahead as it moves towards the center of the solar disk.

I have a feeling we’ll be taking a plasma bullet in the next few days.

I’ve been fairly quiet on the developments in Egypt, preferring to let others do the blogging, especially when they know far more than I do. (Ethan Zuckerman, for example.) But I’ve been involved in many conversations, because it’s damned interesting, what’s going on. One of those conversations is with my sister Jan, by email. She’s a retired Commander with the U.S. Navy, and a veteran at international matters as well, having served as an exchange officer with the British Royal Navy and as a protocol officer with the U.S. one.

I liked an email she sent this morning well enough to ask her if it was cool to share it. She said yes, and here it is:

I can’t help but believe that at least half the educated and aware (not always the same thing, is it?)  population of the world isn’t digesting yesterday’s outcome without thinking of their own government.  I liked Tom Friedman’s line in his latest column Postcard From a Free Egypt – NYTimes.com Hello, Tripoli, Cairo calling. I can feel his optimism and I have it, too.

I don’t think this is going to be nasty to watch; I have been beyond impressed with the control the protestors have displayed in this process, and I just realized why:  Facebook may have gotten them into the Square, but it was Twitter that kept them in hand.  This was not the protest of the bullhorn, of the warping of direction by misinterpretation caused by passing the word along because the word was universally available in one shot! The age of reiteration is over.  Now is the age of the direct thought going out to all ears vs the age old chain of mouth to ear to mouth to ear….  That is the power of Twitter.

So the message and the method stayed true.  No one went off the rails, the whole thing was non-violent in intent and in execution. And – the hitherto unimaginable – the youth stayed true to that.  Youth, who we associate with hooliganism in sports and overheated loyalty to their current cultural idols, they kept their eye firmly on the long-view.  They led their elders – the professionals who had lived under the thumb and threats of a tyrant, the educated who were stifled and stilled by fear, the political who were passively waiting.  The youth led, because they had a unity of purpose that was tightly held — or in this case twittered.

Today I am stunned, and smiling, and … wondering.  Do our politicians realize that we, too, have an enormous disenfranchised population?  That we have a large, youth-filled population who feel they have few options or opportunities? That we have an underclass in living in a poverty that should be unimaginable in a first-world country?  That we have an eager and interested population that feels its voice cannot be heard by our government over the cacophony of corporate interests?

And this is not the voice of the Tea Party.  I think it will become glaringly obvious  that the Tea Party was a just a segment of the frustrated, found to be useful to and thereby fueled and funding by special interests, enlarged by bored and lazy media and will eventually be fragmented by electoral fulfillment.  The population I’m thinking of has not been heard from yet.  The Administration may think that Organizing for America gives them a voice, but it hasn’t, because it is too one-way.  It is a fund-raising, message passing tool of the administration.

The voice heard in the square in Cairo and in the streets of Egypt did not rise up overnight or out of thin air.  That voice that has been unheard because it was a voice shouting in a vacuum.  But a vacuum cannot exist in cyberspace. Traditionally in revolutions the key is to take over the one-to-many vehicles of mass communication, radio and TV.  But this time they were not taken over, they were ignored.  They weren’t needed because it was the masses that were communicating.

So now we are in a new age, an age of leadership and governments being held accountable to the voice of the governed.  And in this new age I am optimistic for Egypt as well as other oppressed people.  I hope every autocrat and dictator is hearing footsteps in the dark.  And I hope our government is paying close attention — people have voices and, no matter how disenfranchised, they have just learned a new way to make them heard.

Bonus link.

[Later...] While this post has met with a fair amount of approval here and in the Twitterverse, Doug Skogland has some pushback.

Perhaps linking to this piece by Nicholas Kristof will help.

[This piece was written for (in Raleigh, North Carolina ) and published twenty-five years ago, on February 10, 1986. Since it might be worth re-visiting some of the points I made, as well as the event itself, I decided to dust off the piece and put up here. Except for a few spelling corrections and added links, it's unchanged. — Doc]

I can remember, when I first saw the movie , how unbelievable it seemed that and could fly their spacecrafts so easily. They’d flick switches and glance knowingly at cryptic lights and gauges, and zoom their ways through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill them if they ran into anything; and they’d do all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved.

That same night, after I left the movie theatre, I experienced one of the most revealing moments of my life. I got into my beat-up , flicked some switches, glanced knowingly at some lights and gauges, and began to zoom my way through hostile traffic at speeds that would surely kill me if I ran into anything; and I did all this with a near-absolute disregard for the hazards involved. Suddenly, I felt like Han Solo at the helm of the . And in my exhilaration, I realized how ordinary it was to travel in a manner and style beyond the dreams of all but humanity’s most recent generations. I didn’t regret the likelihood that I would never fly in space like Han and Luke; rather I felt profoundly grateful that I was privileged to enjoy, as a routine, experiences for which many of my ancestors would gladly have paid limbs, or even lives.

Since then I have always been astonished at how quickly and completely we come to take our miraculous inventions for granted, and also at how easily we use those inventions to enlarge ourselves, our capabilities, and our experience in the world. “I just flew in from the Coast,” we say, as if we were all born with wings.

I think this “enlarging” capacity, even more than our brains and our powers of speech, is what makes us so special as creatures. As individuals, and as an entire species, we add constantly to our repertoire of capabilities. As the educator said, our capacity to learn is amplified by our ability to develop skills. Those skills give us the power to make things, and then to operate those things as if they were parts of ourselves. Through our inventions and skills, we acquire superhuman powers that transcend the weaknesses of our naked, fleshy selves.

One might say that everything we do is an enlargement on our naked beginnings. That’s why we are the only animals that not only wear clothes, but who also care about how they look. After all, if we were interested only in warmth, comfort and protection, we wouldn’t have invented push-up bras and neckties. Or other non-essentials, like jewelry and cosmetics. It seems we wear those things to express something that extends beyond the limits of our bodies: the notions of our minds, about who we are and what we do.

But clothes are just the beginning, the first and most visible layer in a series that grows to encompass all our tools and machines. When we ride a bicycle, for example, the bike becomes part of us. When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we ply that tool as if it were an extra length of arm. Joined by our skills to tools and machines, our combined powers all but shame the naked bodies that employ them.

I remember another movie: a short animated feature in which metallic creatures from Mars, looking through telescopes, observed that the Earth was populated by a race of automobiles. Martian scientists described how cars were hatched in factories, fed at filling stations, and entertained at drive-in movies.

And maybe they were right. Because, in a way, we become the automobiles we drive. Who can deny how differently we behave as cars than as people? It’s a black that cuts us off at the light, not Mary Smith, the real estate agent. In traffic, we give vent to hostilities and aggressions we wouldn’t dare to release in face-to-face encounters.

Of course, we have now metamorphosed into entities far more advanced than automobiles. As pilots we have become airplanes. As passengers we have become creatures that fly great distances in flocks.

If those Martian scientists were to keep an eye on our planet, they would note that we have now begun to evolve beyond airplanes, into spaceships. In their terms we might note the Tragedy as the metallic equivalent of a single failure in the amphibians’ first assault on land. Evolution, after all, is a matter of trial and error.

But as we contemplate the price of our assault on the shores of space, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. For example: is the Challenger tragedy just a regrettable accident in the natural course of human progress, or evidence of boundaries we are only beginning to sense?

On January 28th, Challenger addressed that question to our whole species. We all felt the same throb of pain when we learned how, in one orange moment, seven of our noble fellows were blown to mist at the edge of the heavens they were launched to explore.

Most of us made it our business that day to visit the TV, to watch the Challenger bloom into fire, and to share the same helpless feeling as we saw the smoking fragments of countless dreams rained down in white tendrils, like the devil’s own confetti, to the ancestral sea below. The final image — a monstrous white Y in the sky — is permanently embossed in the memories of all who witnessed the event.

It was so unexpected because the shuttle had become exactly what NASA had planned: an ordinary form of transportation, a service elevator between Earth and Space. NASA’s plan to routinize space travel succeeded so convincingly that major networks weren’t even there to cover the Challenger liftoff. Instead they “pooled” for rights to images supplied by Ted Turner‘s Cable News Network. Chuck Yeager, the highest priest in the Brotherhood of The Right Stuff, voiced the unofficial NASA line on the matter. “I see no difference between this accident and any accident involving a commercial or military aircraft,” he said.

Would that it were so.

“Fallen heroes” is not a term applied to plane crash victims. In fact, the technologies of space travel are still extremely young, and the risks involved are a lot higher than we like to think. “Since NASA made it look so easy, people thought it would never happen. Those of us close to the program thought it could happen a whole lot sooner. We’re glad it was postponed this long,” said , a former astronaut and pilot of the .

The fact that the shuttle program was so vulnerable, and we failed to recognize the fact, says unwelcome things about our faith in technology, and now is when we should listen to them. Because the time when flying through space becomes as easy as flying down the road, or even through the air, is still a long way off. In the meantime, it might be best to leave the exploring to guys like Lousma, who are blessed with the stuff it takes to push the risks out of the way for the rest of us.

And we’re talking about the kind of risks that were built into the shuttle from its start.

Consider for a moment that the shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

A new program, for example, would probably take better account of the Perrow Law of Unavoidable Accidents. A corrolary of Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — the Perrow Law is modestly named after himself by , Professor of Sociology and Organizational Analysis at Yale University. According to Perrow, the shuttle program has succeeded mostly in spite of itself. Its whole design is so detailed, so complex, so riddled with interdependent opportunities for failure, that we’re lucky one of the things didn’t blow up sooner, or worse, suffer a more agonizing death in space.

“The number of interconnections in these systems is so enormous,” he says, “that no designer can think of everything ahead of time. It may be that this was one major valve failing on one of the tanks, but I rather suspect that that’s not the case. NASA tests and is very concerned about those valves. They have back-ups for every major system. The problem is more likely to have been a number of small things that came together in a mysterious way — a way that we may never learn about.”

He continues, “The chances for an accident will be only marginally reduced if we find the cause of this, and harden something or increase the welds, and eliminate this one thing as a source of an accident. But right next to it will be a dozen other unique sources of accidents that we haven’t touched. But by touching the components next to it, we may increase the possibility of other accidents.”

, who wrote , and invented the term, suggests that NASA may have snowed itself into believing that space travel is past the pioneering stage, and that, as a concept, the shuttle’s “coach & freight service — a people’s zero-G express” was premature. Of the martyred teacher, , he says “Her flight was to be the crossover, at last, from a quarter of a century in which space had been a frontier open only to pioneers who lived and were willing to die by the code of ‘the right stuff’ — the Alan Shepards, s and Neil Armstrongs — to an era when space would belong to the entire citizenry, to Everyman. The last role in the world NASA had in mind for Crista McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew was that of pioneer or hero.”

This was because NASA had labored long and hard to break the political grip of what Wolfe calls “Astropower,” the “original breed of fighter-pilot and test-pilot astronaut — the breed who had been willing, over and over again, to sit on top of enormous tubular bombs, some 36 stories high, gorged with several of the most explosive materials this side of nuclear fission, and let some NASA GS-18 engineer light the fuse.”

The fact was, Wolfe suggests, that McAuliffe and her companions “hurtled for 73 seconds out on the edge of a still-raw technology” before they perished. Which is why he asks “If space flight still involves odds unacceptable to Everyman, then should it be put back in the hands of those whose profession consists of hanging their hides, quite willingly, out over the yawning red maw?”

If the answer is yes, then what will need to happen before Everyman is really ready to fly the zero-G express?

In a word, simplification. Right now there is no way for a single pilot’s senses to stretch over the entire shuttle system, and operate it skillfully. A couple of years ago, the Director of Flight Operations for NASA said “this magnificent architecture makes it that much harder to learn to use the system.” According to Professor Perrow, “because the Shuttle system was designed in so many parts by a phalanx of designers, when it’s all put together to run, there is nobody, no one, who can know all about that system.”

Perrow says “It requires simplification for a single person, a pilot, to know everything that’s happening in such a hostile environment as space.” One of the great simplifications in aviation history was the substitution of the jet engine for the piston engine. That’s what we need to make space travel agreeably safe.”

It is ironic that on the day the Challenger blew up, , a space industry consultant and a former NASA administrator, was about to mail the first draft of a commission report to the president on the future of the U.S. space effort. That report advanced two recommendations: 1) a unmanned cargo-launching program to deliver cargo to space at a fraction of current shuttle costs; and 2) an improved shuttle or a new-generation system like the “hypersonic transportation vehicle” the Air Force has wanted ever since NASA beat the rocket airplane into space. The hypersonic transport would simply be an airplane that can fly in space. By contrast, the shuttle is a spacecraft that can glide to earth. Already, hypersonic transport technology has been around for years. Reports say the first “space plane” could be ready to fly in the 1990s. The thing would cruise along at anywhere from Mach 5 to Mach 25, which would mean, theoretically, that no two points on the earth would be more than three hours apart.

But it will have to fight the inertia behind the shuttle program, which is substantial, and slowed only momentarily by the Challenger explosion.

I fear we can only pray that future missions will continue to dodge Murphy’s law.

Over time, however, our sciences will need to face Perrow’s Corollary more soberly. We need to recognize that there are limits to the complexities we can build into our technologies before accidents are likely to occur. Thanks to Fail Safe, Doctor Strangelove , and other dramatic treatments of the issue, we are already familiar with (and regretably taking for granted) the risks of nuclear catastrophe to which we are exposed by our terribly complicated “defensive shields.”

And this hasn’t stopped us from committing to even more dangerous and complicated “defensive” projects, the most frightening of which is the euphemistically titled , better known by its nickname: Star Wars. Professor Perrow says “Star Wars is the most frightening system I can think of.” In fact, Star Wars is by far the most complex technology ever contemplated by man. And possibly the most expensive.

There are cost projections for Star Wars that make NASA’s whole budget look like pocket change. Portentiously, the first shuttle experiment with Star Wars technology failed when shuttle scientists pointed a little mirror the wrong way. We can only hope that the little mirrors on Soviet Warheads are aligned more cooperatively.

Complexity is more than a passing issue. It is science’s most powerful and debilitating intoxicant. We teach it in our schools, confuse it with sophistication and sanction it with faith. In this High Tech Age, we have predictably become drunk on the stuff. And, as with alcohol and cocaine, we’ll probably discover its hazards through a series of painful accidents.

Meanwhile, there is another concern that ironically might have been illuminated by a teacher, or better yet a journalist, in space. Its advocates include a recently-created organization of space veterans whose non-political goal is to share their singular view of our planet. That view sees a fragile ball of blue, green and brown, undivided by the lines that mark the maps and disputes on the surface below. It is an objective view, and we need it badly.

The implications of that view are made more sober by recent discoveries suggesting limits to the viability of human life in the environments of space. Outside the protective shield of our atmosphere, travelers are bombarded constantly by cosmic radiation that produces cancer and other ailments.

Weightlessness also has its long-term costs. While there may be ways to reduce or eliminate the risks involved with space travel, we are still, at best, in the zygote stage of our development as space creatures. It might be millennia before we are finally ready to leave Earth’s womb and dodge asteroids in the manner of Han Solo.

Until then, it would be nice if we didn’t have to discover our limits the hard way.

As you can tell, if you read the small print in this StrikeStar map, we’re being hit by lightning (and therefore thunder) here in the Boston area, right now. After nothing but snow, over and over, for a month and a half, we get a day of rain with a Summer encore. Very strange.


Quiller Quote

I’m reading Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, by Matt Taibbi, and loving every page of it. The prose is over-the-top in the manner of Hunter S. Thompson, without the drugged persona. Every page has at least one quote-worthy line, but the one that made me yell “Wow!” came on page 209, where he describes Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” And now I see that line makes it into the first paragraph of Matt’s Wikipedia entry. And he has 23,771 followers (@mtaibbi) on Twitter.

So I’m behind the curve on this one. But we can all catch up. He blogs (and more) for Rolling Stone.