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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.

In this comment and this one under my last post, Ian Falconer brings up a bunch of interesting points, some of which are summarized by these paragraphs from his first comment…

Here in the UK most people over 40 will remember placing calls via a human operator. A real life person who had a direct interaction with both caller and receiver when reversing the call charges. In smaller towns and villages this meant that the operator knew who was phoning who, when and often, given their overarching view, could assume why.

This was socially accepted as the operators were usually local and subject to the same social norms as the friends and neighbors they ‘surveilled’.

But they were also employees of the GPO (General Post Office) with a national security obligation and had a direct reporting route into the national security apparatus, so that, if they felt that something fishy was afoot (especially in times of war), they were assumed to be both reliable and honest witnesses.

No-one assumed secrecy in an operator-mediated system. They assumed discretion on the part of the operator.

Is an ISP any different just because the data is package-based rather than analogue ? It conducts all the same functions as the old operator.

The shift from public ownership to private and from land-lines to mobile has not changed the underlying model of presumed access (as far as teleco users are concerned) and assumed responsibility (on the part of the national security apparatus). And though both are now legally defined under the license terms of privatised telecos, few of the UK’s public know how their comms systems actually work, so often assume a similar design ethos to the US, where constitutionally defined rights are a starting point for systems organisation.

That British Telecom evolved from the GPO is no accident, but neither is it necessarily a designed progression intend on increased surveillance.

… and these from his second:

Against most evidence US Congress doesn’t set UK law. The EU & UK governments do that. And against most evidence the US doesn’t set global social norms. So while I’m not saying Brits explicitly like spies and respect code breakers, there is a history here that forms a backdrop to the national mind set and it looks towards Bletchley Park, Alan Turing & James Bond rather than The Stasi, Senator McCarthey or Hoover’s G-Men.

The time and place to look for a failure of oversight is the sale of rights to spectrum access but a global technological fix for a perceived lack of communicational security, especially a US-led one, seems unlikely. The righteous indignation with respect to Huwei hardware looks like a starting point rather than an end point right now.

To me these events and discoveries more likely to work to fragment the rough and ready constellation of networks into national gardens once more. This would force comms through regulated conduits making in-out surveillance even easier and I tentatively suggest that in the legislation of whatever-comes-next those carrying out oversight do a better job, if legally-enshrined privacy is their aim.

I am somewhat familiar with the UK, having spent a number of years consulting BT. I have also spent a lot of time in the EU, mostly studying and collaborating with VRM developers, a large percentage of which are located in the UK and France.

Here in the U.S. many of us (me included) still had “party lines” and required operator assistance for long-distance calls as recently as the mid-’70s. With party lines phone connections were shared by as many as six other homes, and people could listen in on each other easily. Operators could listen to anything, any time. Thus, as Ian says, discretion rather than secrecy was assumed.

And discretion is The Thing. As it was with the old phone system it also was with spying, which every government does, and we have always assumed was going on — much of it outside the laws that apply to the rest of us — and hopefully for some greater good. Thus whatever we end up with on the Internet will rest on a system of manners and not just of laws and technologies.

Ideally law, technology and manners work in harmony and support each other. What we have had so far, in the era that began with personal computing and grew to include the Internet and smart mobile devices, has been a disharmonious cacophony caused by technology development and adoption with little regard for the incumbent systems of manners and law. And it is still early in the evolution of all three toward working harmony such as we have long experienced in the physical world.

Of those three, however, manners matter most. It seems no accident, to me at least, that the Internet is defined by protocols, which are nothing more than mannerly agreements between network operators and among the human and organizational operators of the network’s billions of end points.

Security of the telco-like centralized locked-down sort was never in the DNA of the Internet Protocol, which is one reason why it never would have been invented by the very companies and governments through whose local, national and international networks the Internet connects us all.

So it should be no surprise, aside from all the privacy concerns currently on the front burner of popular consciousness, that telcos, cablecos, national governments and institutions such as the ITU have busied themselves with stuffing the Internet, in pieces, back inside the regulatory, billing and nationally bordered bottles from which it more or less escaped, at first un-noticed, in the 1980s and early 1990s.

J.P. Rangaswami, when he was at BT, famously noted that a telco’s main competency was not communications but billing. It still is. China’s censored national subset of the world wide Internet is for many countries a model rather than an aberration. And the drift of Net usage to cellular mobile devices and networks has re-acclaimated users to isolated operation within national borders (lest they suffer “bill shock” when they “roam” outside their country) — something the landline-based Internet overcame by design.

All these things play into our evolution toward privacy in the virtual world that is recognizably similar to what we have long experienced in the physical one.

National mind sets are important, because those embody manners too. Public surveillance is far more present, and trusted, in the U.K. than in the U.S. I also sense a more elevated (and perhaps evolved) comprehension of privacy (as, for example, “the right to be left alone”) in Europe than in the U.S. I am often reminded, in Europe, of the consequences of detailed records being kept of citizens’ ethnicities when WWII broke out. Memories of WWII are much different in the U.S. We lost many soldiers in that war, and took in many refugees. But it was not fought on our soil.

There is also in Europe a strong sense that business and government should operate in symbiosis. Here in the U.S., business and government are now posed in popular consciousness (especially on the political and religious right) as opposing forces.

But all these things are just factors of our time. What matters most is that the whole world will need to come to new terms with the three things I listed in my earlier Thoughts on Privacy post: 1) ubiquitous computing power, 2) ubiquitous Internet access, and 3) the unlimited ability to observe, copy and store data. All these capacities are new to human experience, and we have hardly begun to deal with what they mean for civilization.

I suspect that only the generation that has grown up connected — those under, say, the age of 25 — begin to fully comprehend what these new states of being are all about. I’ve been young for a long time (I’m 66 now), but the best I can do is observe in wonder those people who (in Bob Frankston‘s words) assume connectivity as a natural state of being. My 16-year old son feels this state, in his bones, to a degree neither I nor my 40-something kids don’t. To us elders, connectivity is an exceptional grace rather than a natural state.

Manners among the connected young, however, have barely evolved past the reptile stage. In Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook, The Onion was not fully joking (it never is) when it said “A troubling report finds that by 2040 every presidential candidate will be unelectable to political office due to their embarrassing Facebook posts.”

I just hope that the laws we are making today (protecting yesterday from last Thursday, as all new laws tend to do) will be improved by new generations made wiser by their experiences with technologies made ubiquitous by their elders.

In Bubkes, Stephen Lewis has lately been blogging with depth and insight on many topics — music, architecture, culture, infrastructure and events historic and current — in two cities with which he is intimately familiar: Istanbul and Sofia.

In Taksim Underpass: Ask Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Moses, he writes,

By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.

In Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo, he visits specious tales by the Turkish Prime Minister and his sympathizers, of protestors “harassing pious Muslim women and tearing off their headscarves” (among other offenses for which there is no confirming hard evidence), and compares them to equally wrong tales from the Vietnam War era. That was when “US antiwar activists were stigmatized — and crocodile tears poured forth — over reports that US soldiers returning from tours duty in Vietnam were being spit upon by opponents of the war.  Not a single person, however — neither spitter, spat upon, nor witness thereto — ever stepped forward to confirm any such attack.” In support of this he recalls an On the Media program confirming the purely propogandized nature of the claim. I just did some digging and found the program transcript. Here it is.

In Sofia, Bulgaria: From Protest to Protest to Protest, Steve visits “the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be” and how in Bulgaria “nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. ‘in principle‘).” His next post, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 1997: Musicians Marching in Protest, recalls an earlier protest, again accompanied by an excellent photo.

In Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism, Steve reports on joining a colleague in visiting “the layers of infrastructure — including Ottoman-era fountains — that have served Istanbul over centuries past and during its ten-fold growth in population during the twentieth.” I share with Steve a passion for what he and his colleague call “infrastructural tourism” — a practice which, he adds, “appears already to be underway, albeit searching for its own content and method, as per this report at Design Observer.” Wonderful link, that one. Go read that too.

In From the Archives: Fading Fragments of Legacy Infrastructure, he begins,

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

I’ve been doing something similar in New York and New Jersey, where I grew up. A few days ago, driving back to Manhattan from a meeting in Edgewater, New Jersey, I found myself following Google Maps’ navigation to the George Washington Bridge, turning onto Bruce Reynolds Boulevard before bearing right onto a ramp leading into the toll lanes. Paused at a light,  I saw on the right an old street sign marking the late Hoyt Avenue, and realized I was exactly where my parents lived when I was born: at 2063 Hoyt. Ninety-three years earlier, this was the view from that very same spot. (And here’s the larger photo set, with shots old and new. Credit for the old ones goes to my late father and to his little sister Grace, now 101 years old and doing fine.) I hope, when Steve next returns to New York (his home town), we can do some infrastructural touring together, cameras in hand.

Bonus link: Steve’s latest, Further to “Istanbul Conflicts From Afar:” Kudos, Mentions, and “Great Expectorations”, which cites this post as well.

The title of this post, Rebuilding the Future, is one I came up with back when I read Steve’s Taksim Underpass piece, and I wanted to post thoughts about the ironies that always surround the civic graces — especially infrastructure — that we choose to keep using (often for new purposes), or just to preserve, for generations to come. I didn’t go there, because I’ve already said enough and I’d rather that readers get into what Steve is writing and sharing. But I still kinda like the headline, so I’m letting it stand.