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It Istanbul Spice Marketwould have been great to visit the Egyptian Spice Market in Istanbul with my old friend Stephen Lewis, whose knowledge that city runs deep and long. But I was just passing through the Old City by chance, waylaid en route from Sydney to Tel Aviv, and Stephen was still in Sofia, which he also knows deeply and well.

But I still enjoyed his company vicariously, though his remarkable photography, such as the shot on the right, explained in his blog post, Exuberance or Desperation? Street Vendor, Rear Wall of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul, Anno 2000. Stephen’s tags — Film-based Photography, Infrastructure, Istanbul, Public Space, Rolleiflex 6x6cm, Street Commerce, Turkey, Urban Dynamics — expose the depth and range of his knowledge and expertise on all those matters, about which he blogs at Bubkes.org.

His two prior posts, also featuring Istanbul, are Unkapani Before the Construction of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge: A Declining Neighborhood Perched Atop a Major Infrastructural Improvement and Urban Back Streets: End of Day, Samatya Quarter, Istanbul.

Before that, is Brooklyn, Late Spring: Blossoms in the Midst of a Cold Spell. There he writes,

The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

This hits home in a literal way for me. My ancestors on the Searls side (half of which originated via German and Irish immigration) lived in New York for generations. And I am currently domiciled, at least part of the time, in a district of far-northern Manhattan that remains, as @ChrisAnnade, puts it, “Starbucks-free.” It is a high-character neighborhood of Orthodox Jews and Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. It’s an inexpensive part of the city, where commercial establishments are mostly of the non-chain type and sky-bound rents are not yet the norm. But it’s nice enough that I suspect things will change as the neighborhood gets “discovered” by people with more money or fame than those who already live there.

nytimesriverDave says “The New York Times home page needs a re-think.” But he doesn’t stop there, because thinking isn’t enough and complaining is worse than useless. (As I’ve often found. For example, here.)

We need to hack up something new, different, better and — most of all — simpler and easier to implement than anything the Times can do on its own.

(The Times is kinda busy now anyway. And it’s not inclined to simplicity, especially on the Web. That’s not a knock. We’re talking DNA here. But the Times can listen and act, as it did back when Martin Nisenholtz and his team followed Dave’s lead and adopted RSS, reforming and reinvigorating the whole publishing business in the process. We want the same kind of adoption and effects again this time.)

The simplest thing you can do as a programmer is leverage something Dave came up with years ago called river of news. As a reader you can blog, tweet and otherwise submit to the world your suggestions.

Hashtag: #timesriver.

Tagline: All the news that’s fit to flow.

Here’s Dave’s own current set of rivers.

That’s a handy model, but neither Dave nor I want that to restrict your thinking or your coding. We want new thinking, new hacking, new (and renewed) heads on the case and fingers on keyboards.

For that Dave has convened a hackathon. Here’s how he got it rolling:

Here’s an OPML file with all the NYT feeds I could find, in Oct 2012.#

Your task: Build a website using the flow of these feeds. A new way to sample the flow of news from the NYT.#

Here’s what I’m using now, designed years ago. Surely you can do better!#

Share a pointer to your work with this hashtag: #nytfeedfun.#

There’s a lot of data flowing through there. #

A picture of a slice of cheese cake.

PS: Deadline? We’re having an RSS meetup in NYC in mid-June.#

Guidance from my (non-programming) corner:::

Think about turning the Times from a static thing to a live one* — literally, from a paper to a river.

Think about how a river forms. Its sources are tributaries: branches that flow in, not out. The biggest rivers sustain life in their waters and alongside their banks. They are at the very core of culture and civilization. And they pour out through a delta to the ocean. The ocean is the Web. The delta is whatever we make it.

I’ll be writing more about this topic in the coming days and weeks, both in service to journalism’s cause (whatever it is — and I mean that seriously) and to wrap my tour of duty as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter,Journalism Institute. (In that I’m following the large footsteps of Dave, who served in the same post under our friend and mentor Jay Rosen.)

So hack away. I’m very eager to see the results — but not as eager as I hope the Times itself will be — for everybody’s sake. (I’m serious about that too. The Times is the anchor institution for civilization as well as journalism. Helping it adapt may be the highest calling we have.)

* Some background on the static/live distinction, written almost a decade ago, and now more relevant than ever.

 Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28)

Back in ’99, I went to a mini-retreat with a small group of people in Santa Cruz. Y2K possibilities were much feared then, and over lunch outdoors at a Moroccan restaurant one of us laid out levels of concern along two axes: social disruption on one and technical disruption on the other — low and high in both directions. We were asked to place our bets in four quadrants. As I recall, I was the only one who expected close to zero, both ways. (Mostly I thought Y2K would poop the biggest New Years party in a thousand years. And, to the absent degree it mattered, I was right.)

Now I have been asked, on one of the lists I inhabit, to contemplate similar scenarios for the fate of humankind in a time of global warming. This time I’m going the other way and betting on a high degrees of badness. But my angle on the future is not one biased toward preservation of our species — or even a high degree of concern for it.

Species tend to last a couple million years, give or take. (Horseshoe crabs and other relics from the Paleozoic are rare exceptions.) On the geological scale of the Earth’s own maturation, two million years isn’t much. The genus homo has been around longer, but our current human model has only been around for a couple hundred thousand years, give or take. So who knows.

Still, humans have long been a threat many life forms, including their own, plus a number of elements in the periodic table. (Helium, for example.)  It’s not for nothing that geologists are seriously considering renaming the Holocene epoch (the latest slice of the Quarternary period) the Antropocene — for the simple reason that human agency is all over it.

Any species risks ruining its ecosystem without other forces to keep it in check. Our species, however, has mostly eliminated those forces, especially disease. Thus our natural rapacity toward other species, and toward the Earth and all its exhaustible resources, goes unchecked, while our numbers steadily increase. Our only natural enemy, it seems, is ourselves, and not just because we grow in number toward a statistical cliff. We also have a boundless capacity to rationalize killing countless numbers of our own. Our intelligence and ingenuity, in service to our own needs, in oblivity to negative outcomes, have made us the ecological equivalent of Agent Smith: a rogue program proliferating itself on the Earth’s operating system like a self-replicating virus.

The more I study geology, especially from altitude, the more I see the history of the Earth in four dimensions, and the evanescence of our present geologic time.

  • Here’s Kettle Point in Ontario, on the south shore of Lake Huron. From above you can see old shorelines written in rows of trees in forests that first grew beside retreating beaches. These rows march away from the shoreline as the land below rebounds from the relieved weight of a glacier that melted, leaving Huron as a puddle, not long before humans began building pyramids. You see the same rebound along the shores of Hudson Bay.
  • Here are the San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles’ own alps, raised in the last few million years by the crumpling of the Pacific Plate against the North American one along the San Andreas Fault. Note the empty reservoirs at the bases of ravines in the mountain front. The reservoirs are are there to catch “debris flows” and boulders that frequently break loose, like ice calving off a glacier, and roll toward the suburbs below. Few geologies short of volcanoes are more active than these mountains, which are wasting down almost as fast as they are rising up, one catastrophic lurch after another.
  • Here is the Long Valley Caldera, which I shot while skiing on Mammoth Mountain (an active lava dome with hot and toxic vents that occasionally claim a wayward snowboarder). The Caldera was produced by a “super-volcanic” eruption many times the size of Krakatoa, in the late Pleistocene. It is still active, and stars as one of the US Geological Survey’s roster of volcanic hazards.
  • Here is the seaside community of La Conchita, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, on the South Coast of California, a few days after a mudslide killed ten people there. (You can see the slide clearly in the photo.) The whole town sits on a beach below an unstable mass of land that has clearly slid before and will surely slide again — soon.

While human agency contributes to global warming in the Anthropocene, what makes the Quarternary special is its rhythmic series of glaciations. Our current warm period is an interglacial one. Ice caps will likely grow again, whether we’re here or not. The Quarternary ice age (which we are still in) is the fifth known one, and likely the last, because the Sun is heating up. A billion years from now, the Sun will have boiled off Earth’s water. But the planet will already be too hot for life in less than half that time. A half-billion years is about age of the Manhattan schist I see out my window here in New York.

At 4.568 billion years old, our solar system is about a third the age of the Universe, which has been producing and reproducing galaxies and stars at a rapid rate and with unimaginable degrees of violence. That we’re in such a relatively quiet corner of the cosmos owes to the Sun’s rank as an ordinary star. All the named stars in the night sky are bigger than the Sun, and most are much younger as well.

We should consider ourselves fortunate to enjoy a few moments late in the life of a remarkably durable set of little spheres out in a rural arm of the Milky Way. Just being here, now, is an amazing grace. But it’s going to get harder, whether we fight the inevitable or not.

My main hope toward humanity waking up and doing what it can to stop shitting up the planet is the Internet: a grace designed (at the protocol level where its means are organized) to put each of us at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else, and at zero cost. The Net is a new platform for living, thinking, talking and inventing — without having to raid the world of irreplaceable goods in the process. And I hope we make the most of it.

“In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes said. And, if “we” includes every living thing that ever walked, swam or oozed around on Earth, death has already proven to be hugely productive, as well as abundant.

It is the job of the living, in their brief hours upon the stage, to do more than strut, fret, and be heard from no more. In the long run every thing will be nothing. But we don’t need to signify that in the meantime.

Bonus linkage on Mother’s Day: Jean Russell‘s Thrivable (@Thrivable). Here’s the philosophy, the book, the blog, and herself aka @NurtureGirl. She and her colleagues are doing the Leading Work here.

From Merriam-Webster:

cru·ci·ble

noun\ˈkrü-sə-bəl\

  1. : a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted
  2. : a difficult test or challenge
  3. : a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions

This is what cars will become.

The difficult decision is where to draw the line between what the owner/driver controls and what the maker/seller controls.

On one side is the owner/driver’s sovereignty over his or her own vehicle (more about this below). This includes the right to hack or customize that vehicle, to obtain and manage data that vehicle throws off, and to relate to other drivers with other vehicles (see Robin Chase), outside the control of the manufacturer or any other commercial “provider.” This is what we get, Cory Doctorow says, from general purpose computers.

On the other side is the manufacturer’s urge to provide that vehicle as a kind of IT service, like Tesla does, and to manage that vehicle much as, say, an iPhone is managed by Apple. This is also what we get from cable company set top boxes.

In the industrial Matrix we have built so far, the latter prevails increasingly, and that is limiting the ability of the former to flourish. For more on why this is a problem, visit the Lessig Library (notably Remix, Code, Code 2.0, The Future of Ideas and Free Culture), Cory Doctorow, Eben Moglen, the EFF and other fighters for personal freedom.

Cars will be crucibles because they have been, for more than a century, instruments of personal freedom and independence. (Not to mention the biggest-ticket retail item any of us will ever buy.) It is not for nothing that we speak of our car and its parts in the first person possessive: my tires, my dashboard, my fender, my seats. We even do this with rental cars, because, as drivers, our senses extend outward through the whole vehicle. In expert use our tools and machines become extensions — enlargements — of ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with having help in this from the Apples, Googles and Teslas of the world, provided our sense of where we end and where those companies begin is maintained, along with our full sense of autonomy and independence as individual human beings who can be social in our own ways, and not just in the controlling ways provided by commercial entities.

But today that line is very blurred, and may not be a line at all. As long as that blur persists, and superior power lies on the corporate side, we will have problems with compromised autonomy for individuals and their things. Those problems will only get worse as cars get “better” the (current) Tesla way. (Tesla can change, of course, and I hope they do.)  And the entire market greenfield that grows naturally on personal independence and autonomy will fail to materialize. We can drive all we want around walled gardens.

Cory calls this crucible a “civil war”. I don’t think he overstates the case.

An early shot fired in that war is Fuse, which plugs into the ODB2 port under your dashboard and gives you data your car throws off, and ways to use that data any way you please. Can’t wait to get mine.

By the way, I believe one reason Mozilla is in its current fix is that browsers and email — its founding apps — were born as instruments of personal autonomy. That’s what Mosaic and Netscape Navigator were: cars on the “information superhighway.” Now, too much of the time, they are just shopping carts. More about that in the next post.

(HT to Hugh McLeod for the car-toon.)

I last visited Barcelona more than twenty years ago. Back then the Sagrada Família was already impressive, but also incomplete.  All that stood were the nativity façade and some small number (four? eight?) of the Sagrada’s eventual eighteen towers. I recall nothing of the interior, perhaps because there was none. In many ways, in fact, it resembled a ruin: something not all there.

This time was different. The church, our guide told us, was about a third complete the last time we were there, and is a bit more than two thirds complete now. Still remaining are some new towers and detail work on the exterior, a proper floor for the interior (it’s mostly temporary marble now), and the final entrance: the glory façade at the south end, or the foot of the church’s cross.

Impressive and iconic as the exterior is, the interior achieves a magnificence which, to me, exceeds not only every other church I’ve seen, but every building, period. The forest of columns, which really do resemble trees, spread above oval “knots” into branches that hold up the roof the way spread out fingers might hold up a dish from below. In fact they do far more than that: they are also made to carry the weight of the Jesus tower, which will rise to five hundred and sixty feet above the ground, ranking the Sagrada as the tallest church on Earth.

And, rather than leaves, the ceiling features beautiful pores — the navels of hyperbolas — that suggest portals toward the infinite. That’s one view, above. More can be found in this photo set. The captions aren’t right yet, but the connection at our B&B here is awful, so writing — even a blog post like this — is a bit of an ordeal. So I won’t be in a position to fix things up until I get back stateside next week. Meanwhile, enjoy a visit vicariously.

To an window-sitter accustomed to flying over the American West, Catalonia from altitude looks like Utah. On the northern horizon the Pyrenees, like the Uintahs, run east-west above a dry landscape of settled alluvium, much of it reddish as the San Rafael desert. While the shapes of the ancient towns below are clearly old world in shape and style (for example, red tile roofed), and no doubt receives a greater dousing of rain, the resemblance is still striking.

As always when flying over new places, i found myself wondering about geological provenance. And that was the reverie blown straight out of my mind when a singular landform slid into view. Shaped like the upper half of an elongated football, a half-buried zeppelin, the spine of a humpback, it was deeply eroded into bulbous hoodoo shapes, like those of Utah’s arches and goblins. Yet in a more significant way it also reminded me instantly of the equally anomalous church we were sure to visit in Barcelona, to which we were on approach: Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, which I last visited twenty years ago, and would visit again two days hence, on New Years Day, 2014. (Here are some interior shots I took there.)

Was the landform an inspiration for the church? Digging around later, I found the answer was yes. Same goes for the cuevas of Majorca, which I gathered the instant I saw those as well, when I visited the island in 1998.

The landform is the Holy Mountain of Montserrat, which means “serrated mountain” in Catalan.

I’d say more, but Net connection at our Barcelona B&B is iffy at best. Evidence: I wrote this several days ago and am only getting it up today, 2 January. So the rest will just have to wait, probably until I’m back in the States next week.

I took my first job in radio at WSUS in Franklin, New Jersey, in 1973. The station at the time consisted of a run-down ranch house at the top of Hamburg Mountain, overlooking the central valleys of Sussex County, a square of farms and forests at the northern point of the state. The house was at the end of a steep road that was more rocks than dirt. Beside it stood a 240-foot tower from which the station radiated a light-bulb powered signal: just 360 watts, on one of the channels reserved in the U.S. for local stations. But, since signals on FM tend to reach what can be seen from the antenna, the station’s coverage was greater than its only competition in the county. Also, since hills and mountains shadowed Sussex County from New York’s FMs, WSUS had a big competitive advantage as FM inevitably overtook AM in popularity.

The new owner was Peter Bardach, a first-rank media guru working for Doyle Dane Berbach, the advertising agency in New York that led the creative revolution of the 1960s. Peter’s specialty was forecasting the successes and failures of TV shows, and his predictions for Fall seasons  were featured annually in TV Guide. His smart bets with WSUS were on both FM and Sussex County, which at the time was said to have more dairy cows than human beings — but was sure to have a growing economy in the years ahead.

Peter bought the station in 1971 for $75,000 from Lou VanderPlate, who named it WLVP when he launched it in 1965. Its format was Christian music, mostly, and failed. Peter took possession through a new company he called Sussex County Stereo, even though the station remained mono until long after I moved on. I often told Peter he should make it stereo, but he insisted on keeping it mono because he believed the station’s weak signal would be made weaker if it were stereo. He had a partial case: the signal-to-noise ratio of stereo signals is worse than mono; but at the time there were many receivers that defaulted to stereo-only, and already car radios were getting good at gradually shifting from stereo to mono with weak signals.

Peter didn’t run the station, though. That job went to James Edward Normoyle, whose professional name was Jay Edwards. (That was his handle as a disc jockey when he worked at 1010 WINS, the Top 40 pioneer in New York.) They made an amazing team. Peter was quiet and polite while Jay was loud and brash. Both urged me to push the envelope of my nascent talents, which I did as a jack-of-all-trades at the station. While I was paid to sell ads, I was also the news director and a part-time engineer and disc jockey.

Back then we were the underdog station in the region, which had long been super-served by WNNJ (now WTOC) in Newton, the county seat. WNNJ was a small daytime-only station at 1360am, but it was an excellent “full service” local institution. (Its FM sister, radiating from the same tower near downtown Newton, was WIXL/103.7, which played what was then called “beautiful music” It radiated with plenty of wattage, but the low tower height limited coverage and wasn’t much competition.) This was in the days of great radio rivalries, and it was fun to go head-to-head with an old established station as a newcomer.

Our format was “town and country” — a mix of Top 40 and country music. We literally had two stacks of 45rpm records feeding two turntables: one for “town” and one for “country.” It was weird but fun.

Not long after I got there we moved the studio and offices to downtown Franklin, but Peter’s heart was still up on the mountain. That was where Jean Babcock lived. Jean was the station’s most passionate groupie and eventually Peter’s wife. (His obituary below says otherwise, so I don’t know the real story there. Maybe somebody can fill me in.)

In 1974 I moved to North Carolina and went to work for WDNC and WDBS there, and gradually lost touch with most of the WSUS crew. I heard many years later that Jay had died (long after he bought WSUS from Peter for a good price and sold it years later for a better one). Bob O’Brien, another friend from those days, is gone too. So yesterday I found myself wondering, out of the blue, about Peter. I looked him up and found that my intuition was correct. He died on November 30. Here is the gist of his obituary from the Panama City, Florida News Herald:

Peter Michael Bardach (1929 - 2013)


Mr. Bardach, of Lynn Haven, Fla., and Newton, N.J., died November 30, 2013. Peter Michael was preceded in death by his longtime partner and companion, Mrs. Gene Babcock of Lynn Haven and Franklin, N.J., and his partner Priscilla Miller of Lynn Haven. He leaves behind Priscilla’s children, Brad, Paul, Dusty, Howard, Pat, Barbara, Susan and Lynn.Prior to his retirement in 1993, Mr. Bardach enjoyed a lengthy career in the fields of advertising and broadcasting. He was employed for 25 years by Foote, Cone and Belding in New York, where he served as Senior Vice President Broadcasting. In 1972 he founded WSUS FM in Franklin, N.J., which later expanded into television WUSU Video 8. In 1987 he founded WRBA, Bay 96 Radio, in Panama City, Fla.During his retirement, and up to the time of his death, he was an active volunteer at WKGC Public Radio at Gulf Coast Community College. He produced and broadcast the weekly “Showcase of Show Tunes,” “WKGC On Stage,” “Peter Michael’s Place,” and was co-producer and host for “Emerald Coast Studio.”

I’m glad to know Peter continued to invest his interest in radio, and lived a full long life. My best wishes to all who loved him.

Other links:

I’d also like to shout out to three good friends from those days: Donna Sooley (née Flory), Stan Olochwoszcz (aka Lee Ryder) and Bob Morris (aka Forrest Greene). The first two (especially Stan) are still on my radar, but Bob has dropped off. He was last heard from on the late WERA in Plainfield, New Jersey. If you’re out there, Bob, get in touch.

[Later...] Just learned that the great Larry Lujack, a Top 40 disc jockey who played in its peak years for WLS in Chicago, has died. Here’s the first installment of a TV special on Larry, shot back in the biggest-hair era of American History. And here is Eric Rhoads’ tribute — not just to Larry, but to a whole generation of what Eric calls “communicators.” I believe there are more of those than ever now. They’re just not on old-fashioned radio.

Fred WilsonI’m bummed that I missed LeWeb, but I’m glad I got to see and hear Fred Wilson’s talk there, given on Tuesday. I can’t recommend it more highly. Go listen. It might be the most leveraged prophesy you’re ever going to hear.

I’m biased in that judgement, because the trends Fred visits are ones I’ve devoted my life to urging forward. You can read about them in Linux Journal (starting in 1996), The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999, 2000, 2011), this blog (starting in 1999), ProjectVRM (starting in 2006) and The Intention Economy (2012). (Bonus links: What I said at Le Web in 2007 on stage and in an interview.)

He unpacks three megatrends, with an additional focus on four sectors. Here are my notes from the talk. Some of it is quotage, but little of it is verbatim. If you want to quote Fred, go to the source and listen.

1) We are making a transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks. The former is the way the world has been organized for the last two hundred years. Markets, government, businesses are all pyramids. Transaction and communication costs were so high in the industrial era that these pyramids were the best way to organize work and run systems. But now technology-driven networks are replacing bureaucracies. Examples…

Twitter. Replaces the newspaper. The old army of reporters that reported to divisional editors who chose what would appear in limited spaces and distribute through printing mills and trucked to your doorstep was slow moving and bureaucratic. Now all of us are reporters. The crowd determines what’s important. This is an example of a tech-driven network.

YouTube. TV was hierarchical. Now all of us are video creators.

SoundCloud. Anybody can create audio or music. No labels. No radio or music industry required.

We first saw this trend in media and entertainment. Now we’re seeing it in AirBnB, One Fine Stay. Creative industries like Kickstarter and VHX. Learning with Codecademy and DuoLingo for languages.

We are very early with all of these and more to come.

2) Unbundling. This has to do with the way services are packaged and taken to market. In the traditional world, you only got to buy the thing that had everything in it. Now tech is changing that. More focused, best of breed, delivered a la carte. Now on mobile and internet you get better everything. Best of sports, fashion, classified advertising.

Banking is being unbundled. Banks used to do everything. Now entrepreneurs are picking off services. Lending Club. Funding Circle. auxsmoney in Germany. Taking profitable lending franchises away. Working capital. c2fo. Management services. All new, all based on networks.

Education. It’s expensive to put a lot of students in a building with a professor up front of every class. You needed a library. Administration. Very inefficient, costly, pyramidal and centralized. Now you can get books instantly. Research is no longer as highly centralized and capital dependent. See Science Exchange: collaboration on an open public network.  All this too is also early.

Entertainment. Used to be that you’d get it all on cable. Now we get Netflix and YouTube on our phones. Hulu. A la carte. Airplay, Chromecast.

3) We are all now personally a node on the network. We are all now nodes on the network, connected all the time. Mobiles are key. If forced to make a choice between phone and desktop, we go with the phone. (About 80% of the LeWeb audience did, along with Fred.) In the larger world, Android is being adopted massively on cheap phones. Uber, Halo.

This change is profoundly impacting the world of transportation. Rental cars. Delivery. Payments. Venmo, Dwolla, Square. Peer to peer. You can send money to anybody. For dating there’s Tinder. Again, this is new. It’s early.

The four sectors…

a) Money. Not just Bitcoin. At its core Bitcoin is a protocol: the financial and transactoinal protocol for the Net. We haven’t had one until now. As of today it is becoming a layer of internet infrastructure, through a ledger called the blockchain that is global. All transactions are cleared publicly in the blockchain. Entrepreneurs will build tech and services on this. Payments and money will flow the way content now flows. No company will control it. Others’ lock on our money will be gone.

b) Health and wellness. Health care is regulated and expensive. Health and wellness is the opposite. It’s what keeps you out of the hospitals. (QS is here.) The biologies of our bodies will be visible to us and connected. Some communications will be personal and private, some networked, some with your doctor and so on. Small example: many people today gamify their weight loss.

c) Data leakage. When the industrial revolution came along, we had polluting. It took a century to even start dealing with it. In the information revolution, the pollution is data. It’s what allows Google, Facebook and the government spy on us when we don’t want them to. We have no control over that. Yet.

d) Trust and identity. We have allowed Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter to be our identity services. It’s very convenient, but we are giving them access to all we do. This isn’t good. Prediction: a bitcoin-like service, a protocol, that is distributed and global, not controlled by anybody, architected like the Internet, that will emerge, that will give us control over identity, trust and data. When that emerges I’ll let you know. I haven’t seen it yet.

Talk to me, Fred. :-)

Hart Island

As Halloween approaches (and death itself, for all of us, eventually), I find myself thinking, Do zombies always have to be bad? And, What if zombies were good? And, Hey, maybe good zombies are what we call ‘angels’.

Then I find myself wondering where one would recruit armies of zombie angels (let’s call them “zangels”), besides your basic headstone-studded cemeteries. Then it comes to me: Hart Island, New York’s potters field, and home to a million or more of New York’s unclaimed dead, off the coast of The Bronx. What a great name and place for a movie starring zombie angels!

I see it opening on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, with that familiar passage from Emma Lazarus‘ sonnet The New Collosus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The camera sweeps upward, past Liberty’s lifted lamp, to the lifting lid of a plain wooden coffin, topmost of a stack among many in a trench on Hart Island, where the City accumulates boxed bodies by the dozen before a bulldozer, operated by inmates from the Department of Corrections, mass-buries them.

Correction is the theme. The zangels, wretched refuse all, teeming on a shore forgotten by all but the forsaken living, stir awake on a holy mission: to warn the living that the gap between rich and poor is stretching to a breaking point more dangerous than any terrorist plot.*

The zangels aren’t decayed, but appear in their living form, absent the infirmities and temporal concerns that put them in the ground. And they have a plan.

First they confront the very inmates whose work on the island is burial. These they recruit to spread the word. But they do this selectively, starting with just one or two of the inmates, met by one or two of the zangels. The inmates, convinced (after first disbelieving, of course — gotta have that stage), plot next steps with the zangels, who then swim over to City Island, steal some fresh clothes off some clotheslines and head for meetings with a few of the zangels’ surviving friends, co-workers and loved ones. These too are shocked and disbelieving at first, but become disciples of the zangels, who are expert at disappearing and reappearing when necessary.

A code line — “Take liberty to Hart” — is used by the secretive but growing cohort of zangel disciples to organize meetings and start spreading the word.

Not sure what the big conflict with bad guys should be. Gotta have that too. Maybe the bad guys are Gordon Gecko types living in penthouses, working in high-floor offices, making money with work that creates wealth only for themselves. That’s a bit too Hollywood and pat, but I’m just thinking out loud right now, and need to get back to Real Work. But there are plenty of movie-making folk among readers here. I’m hoping those folks pick this up and run with it. I think it’s a hell of a good idea (puns intended).

Meanwhile, here’s a key resource that’s also the main cause:  The Hart Island Project, which seeks to de-shroud Hart Island, bring full respect to those buried there, open access to the public, and unearth and organize good records for those buried there. The project’s founder, Melinda Hunt (@hartisland), owns HartIsland.com as well as HartIsland.net and HartIsland.org. I’m sure she’d let the movie (provided it’s a good one) use HartIsland.com. (She also has a documentary on the island you can sample and buy here.)

Anyway, with Halloween front and center at the moment, I can’t think of a better way to organize and bring attention to a good cause by focusing on a Real Issue.

* Three good sources on this: Chris Hedges, writing about societal collapse and the seductions of warJoseph Stiglitz, whose latest book is The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future; and Stephen Lewis, a New York native and an authority on many relevant topics, blogging at Bubkes.com.

A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. — Samuel Johnson

Hart Island

Visitors to New York’s Orchard Beach (at the top of the photo above) probably don’t know that the low wooded island offshore will, at the current rate, contain a million buried human bodies, if it doesn’t already.

The site is Hart Island (aka Hart’s Island), and it is New York’s Potter’s Field: where the city’s “unclaimed and indigent” dead are buried by inmates of the Department of Corrections, which also controls the island. Visitors are not welcome.

I knew nothing about Hart Island until I found myself looking at the picture I shot of the place, above, while seeking information about something else. Though bleak, the stories of the place are fascinating — and, it seemed to me, far too important to leave as far out on the margins of consciousness as they are of the City. So I compiled a list in a Fargo outline, which I’ve arranged below.

One item I’ll pull out of the list to start with is The Hart Island Project, by Melinda Hunt (@hartisland) and a team of collaborators. Melinda has been leading a steady effort to open up the island to visitors and to humanize and modernize the records kept of persons buried there. Her constituency includes all who reside in what we might call the Mass Grave of the Barely-Known Outcasts — and too few of the living, so far. So dig:

In fact Hart Island is New York’s ninth Potter’s Field. Writes Melinda Hunt,

A few of these early potters fields remain in the public domain as smaller parcels of land now known as Madison Square Park (1794), Washington Square Park (1797), Bryant Park and the Public Library (1823). Except for the last potter’s field in Manhattan, located at the current Waldorf Astoria Hotel (1836), no records exist of the bodies being moved elsewhere. At all other sites, parks were created after the cemeteries, parade grounds, and the reservoir closed. Once the city expanded beyond 50th Street, the East River became a more convenient route for transporting the bodies. Potter’s fields opened briefly on Randalls Island (1843) and Wards Island (1846) before moving much further out to Hart Island.

It’s a haunting history. Another excerpt:

  The burial records show an ever-changing pool of immigrants, diseases and disabilities administered to by a range of institutions. It remains too mixed and varied to become the darling of any special interest group. Genealogists that I have spoken with claim that most families with immigrant roots in New York City probably have lost relatives buried on Hart Island. As one recently told me: “People come to me hoping to discover ‘nobility’ in their ancestry, but the missing people usually turn out to have had alcohol problems or mental illness and were buried in Potter’s Field.”

In New York City, the combined nine potter’s fields have close to one million burials. An immense amount of history is associated with these places. Yet, there is almost no academic or institutional interest in the public cemeteries. Most of the writing about Hart Island takes the form of journalism documenting specific events. Distinctive in these accounts is the unanswered question of why such a place continues to exist. Most other American cities cremate the unclaimed and unwanted. If burials are provided they are in more accessible places. Chicago has a potter’s field with mass graves as part of a private cemetery. New York City offers burial assistance to families who organize an application. Nonetheless, the burials continue to number two to three thousand a year. Even with the twenty-five year time limit, the northern 45 acres of Hart Island named Cemetery Hill is full. Current burials have moved to the shallow grounds south of the workhouses.

New York City has a long-standing policy of respecting diverse religious practices. Many religions do not permit cremation. Until recently Catholics buried on Hart Island were placed in separate “consecrated ground.” In 1913, “baby trenches” were separated from “adult trenches.” Starting in 1935, “catholic babies” had separate trenches from “regular babies.”

Incredible care and expense goes into conducting the burials. In 1990 the cost of flowers, tools, heavy equipment, parts to repair equipment, general maintenance equipment, fuel and inmate labor, at thirty-five cents per hour, drove the cost of each burial to $346. In addition, the city provides for free exhumation if family members claim a body within seven years of burial.

During the first fifty years of Hart Island burials, “unclaimed” people were buried in single graves. Only the “unwanted” whose relatives assigned them to a public burial were in mass graves. Today, all bodies are carefully organized into a grid. The ends of trenches are marked by a number pressed into a concrete block. Re-excavations require locating the designated body within this numbered scheme.

Perhaps it is the abstraction of human lives into trench numbers and statistics that is most disturbing about the potter’s field. I was impressed by the fact that the burial records from the nineteenth century contain full names, causes of death and countries of origin. In this century the names of babies up until 1940 are strictly female; each child’s identity is linked exclusively to the mother. She is the person forever associated with the potter’s field. After 1940, only surnames are listed. By 1955, the causes of death for children are uniformly listed as “confidential.” By 1970, the category “cause of death” is left blank. That the island is prohibitively difficult to visit adds another level of removal.

Then there is this, from Thomas Badhe, in a Common Place essay,” The Common Dust of Potter’s Field: New York City and its bodies politic, 1800-1860″:

The first Potter’s Field burial ground in New York City was located at the site of what would become the militia parade ground and city park at Washington Square. On this nine-and-a-half-acre plot, at the city’s pastoral northern edge, lay the densely packed corpses of about 125,000 “strangers,” many of whom had died during two separate yellow-fever epidemics between 1795 and 1803. Not surprisingly, local residents who had fled crowded lower Manhattan for country estates in the region came to find in Potter’s Field an intense nuisance. Whatever sympathy anyone had for the anonymous dead did not supersede wealthy New Yorkers’ sense of entitlement when it came to their comfortable insulation from the city’s darker side. In a letter to the Common Council, they wrote, “From the rapid Increase of Building that is daily taking place both in the suburbs of the City and the Grounds surrounding the field alluded to, it is certain that in the course of a few years the aforementioned field will be drawn within a precinct of the City.” Within the first two decades of the nineteenth century, their prediction had been realized, and the Potter’s Field began a lengthy series of migrations in a vain effort to stay a step ahead of the city’s relentless growth.

In 1823, the city moved Potter’s Field to an empty lot at the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Fourth Avenue—what would then have been the far northern reaches of the metropolis. This place served as the Potter’s Field until the 1840s when, as the city grew northward, it was relocated once again to Randall’s Island in the East River. Cast off the Island of Manhattan like so many family farms, Potter’s Field would no longer clash with the New Yorkers’ Victorian sensibilities or inhibit the Manhattan real-estate boom.

Just south of Randall’s Island, separated by a treacherous, narrow channel known as Little Hell’s Gate, was Ward’s Island, the site of another Potter’s Field in the mid-1850s. Both Randall’s and Ward’s Islands already housed other city institutions for the indigent, including the Emigrant Refuge and Hospital, the State Inebriate Asylum, the juvenile branch of the Almshouse Department, and the headquarters for the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. As one guide to New York and its benevolent institutions observed, “multitudes of persons went from the dram-shop to the police-station, and from the police courts to the Workhouse from whence, after a short stay, they returned to the dram shop . . . until they at length died on their hands as paupers or criminals, and were laid in the Potter’s Field.” For most of New York’s institutionalized underclass, there was literally a direct path from the door of the asylum or workhouse to the Potter’s Field.

Relocating the city’s cemetery from Manhattan’s urban grid to an island in the East River did not put an end to the city’s problem with the indigent dead. In 1849, the Daily Tribune reported on the political and legal wrangling between the governors of the Almshouse and the Common Council (the nineteenth-century name for the City Council), the former seeking to wrest authority over Potter’s Field from the latter. The governors cited the poor management of the paupers’ burial ground, which the Tribune referred to as “that den of abominations,” as evidence that the Common Council was unable to manage the Potter’s Field. “We do sincerely trust somebody will shoulder the responsibility of the Potter’s Field,” the Tribune pleaded, “and rid the Island of the abomination before the advent of another warm and perhaps an epidemic season.”

The Common Council and the Governors of the Almshouse traded letters, pleas, and vitriol for the better part of a decade. In May of 1851, the Governors warned the Common Council that, “the land now appropriated [for the Potter’s Field] is now nearly full, and the small space left for further interment (which now average upwards of one hundred per week), renders prompt action necessary.” Four years later, it was still unclear who had control over the Potter’s Field, and conditions were worsening. By this time, there were two burial grounds for paupers: the primary site on Randall’s Island and a smaller one on Ward’s Island to the south. The Board of Governors proposed to expand the Ward’s Island site in 1854, and the Times supported the proposition, suggesting that “it is time that the remains of paupers were interred in some quarter better fitted for their last resting-place than the one now used on Randall’s Island.” In their reports to the Board of Health and the Common Council, the Governors of the Almshouse urged that, “humanity, a due regard for the living, and a sense of proper respect for the dead” be part of any effort “to remedy the existing and impending evils.”

In the meantime, the disinterment of bodies at the old site on Fourth Avenue aroused its own controversy. In 1851, a plan was adopted by the Common Council to expand Forty-ninth Street through the old Potter’s Field, which required the disinterment of thousands of bodies. This project stretched on for nearly the entire decade, accompanied by foot-dragging and corrupt contractors. Commenting on the enormity of the project, the Times reported in the spring of 1853 that “the City Authorities are cutting a street through the old Potter’s Field . . . where so many victims of the Cholera were hurriedly interred in 1832. The coffins were then, in many instances, stacked one upon another; and now, in digging through the hill, the remains of twenty coffins may be seen thus piled together.”

As with the active Potter’s Field, the old paupers’ burial ground aroused no small amount of controversy. In the summer of 1858, the Timesagain reported on the work, claiming that “within three weeks past about 3,000 skeletons have been exhumed from the old Potter’s Field . . . and removed to Ward’s Island.” The winter of 1858-59 passed without any further exhumation, and “meantime the thin layer of earth which covered some hundred half-decayed coffins has fallen away, and . . . crowds of urchins assemble there daily and play with the bones of the dead; troops of hungry dogs prowl about the grounds and carry off skulls and detached parts of human bodies.”

Many of the old potter’s fields became parks. Washington Square is said to have twenty thousand bodies beneath it. Yet today it seems no more haunted than is Paris by its Catacombes, which I visited and wrote about three years ago, and which contains a population of dead that outnumber the city’s live citizens. The real haunting, I believe, is within our culture and its institutions. On that I’ll give Thomas Badhe the last words:

Having strolled through the rural cemeteries, we can better appreciate why the piles of moldering coffins exposed to the public in the 1850s caused New Yorkers to question their city’s claims to “civilization.” But the Potter’s Field was not only the antithesis of the rural-cemetery ideal (as well as a failure of municipal administration); it was also a site of spiritual death, obliterated social identity, and the graveyard of vice. If, as one proponent of rural cemeteries claimed in 1831, “the grave hath a voice of eloquence,” the Potter’s Field spoke in a dark chorus about the failures of democracy and civilization, the stark and messy exigencies of urban inequality, and thousands of individual lives wrecked on the shores of the great metropolis.

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