Geology

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Unless you look out the window.

When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:

baffin Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly, these glaciers and mountains…

baffin1…were.

While I’m sure there are good maps of Greenland somewhere (Nuuk? Denmark?), Google, Bing and the rest are no help. Nor are the fat world atlases. Here’s an island the size of a continent, with lots of Fjords and islands and glaciers and mountains and stuff, many of which were surely named by the natives or visitors, and there ain’t much.

But:::: good news.

There, out my dirty and frosty window over the trailing edge of the wing, was the same long deep valley I had seen seven years before. Only now I was equipped to learn what was what, and where. My GPS and the plane’s map — there on a screen mounted in the back of the seat in front of me — agreed: we flying over the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, most arctic and least populated territory.

The valley, I discovered on the ground, is called Akshayuk Pass. It connects the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords, bisecting the peninsula. Imagine a Yosemite Valley with a floor of glaciers draining into Arctic rivers, flanked for seventy miles by dozens of Half Domes and El Capitans — crossing the Arctic Circle, through an island where the last Ice Age still hasn’t ended.

On the west side of the pass is the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland inside the forbidding and spectacular Auyuittuq National Park. Wikipedia explains, “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.’” Nobody lives there. Hiking across it ranges from difficult to impossible. The only way to fully take it in is from the sky above, like I found myself doing right then. It was thrilling.

On the first flight over, I became fascinated by a mountain, just south of the Penny Ice Cap, that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here from the 2007 trip:

asgard So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again two days ago. Here’s how it looked this time:

agard2 Now that I could research the scenery, I found it was Mt. Asgard, named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to amazing photos by Artur Stanisz, shot from Turner Glacier, which Asgard overlooks in the shot above. Fun fact: one of the great James Bond ski chase stunts was shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)

So now we have all these albums:

Which join these others on Flickr:

A digression on the subject of aviation…

A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shade my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.

Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were very few: maybe eight, out of dozens of windows in the economy cabin of our Boeing 777. Everybody was watching a movie, eating, sleeping or otherwise paying no attention to the scenery outside.

No wonder a cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and failed movies.

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Many of our ancestors would have given limbs for the privilege of seeing what’s on the other side of our window shades in the sky. Glad all we need is to give up our cynicism about flying.

That line came to me a few minutes ago, as I looked and read through the latest photographic blog posts by Stephen Lewis in his blog, Bubkes). This one…

Stephen Lewis photo… titled Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile, is accompanied by richly detailed text, including this:

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden were uprooted several years ago.  in their place: a summer-time restaurant surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds and a tall antenna tower of a mobile telephony company resting on a broad concrete footing.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby…

Nothing is permanent, but in this case the more durable feature is the grandmother and her friendly face — the face of the place, while she lasts.

Also arresting is Corn Stalks, a Plateau, the Black Sea, and the Horizon:

dscf0268

It’s a place that calls to mind face in its verb form. A synonym might be to meet, or to confront. We face a challenge, an opportunity, a problem, success, failure, or the world. Things face us as well, but not always directly. Three of the four things in the photo are mostly hidden by the first, but far more vast and open. Also flat. Horizons may feature mountains, but they are horizontal: flat and wide.

We are walking and running animals that work best in the horizontal. Our eyes shift more easily to left and right than to up and down. Our stereoscopic vision and hearing also locate best in the horizontal spread from one here to many theres.

Our species dispersed from Africa toward gone horizons, mostly along coasts long since drowned by melting ice caps. The Black Sea has changed greatly in spread and shape throughout human history, and may have reached its present height in a deluge through the Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways.

The view on the path in the photo is framed between the vertical blinders of dry corn stalks at the edges of fields of unseen vastness. (Corn fields have always been both beautiful and a tiny bit creepy to me, ever since I got a bit lost when wandering as a kid into a cornfield somewhere, with no clear direction out other than the sound of distant voices.)

Between the last paragraph and this one, Stephen posted another photo, titled Shabla, Bulgaria: Seawards and Kitchenwards, taken on the shore of the Black Sea:

shabla-bulgaria-seawards-and-kitchenwards

The subject is mostly boats and ramps. In the foreground are stairs and wood railings, two of the many literal and figurative framings, none quite horizontal, in a vertical photo with dimensions we call “portrait.” On the face of this Bulgarian shore, one ear is the sea itself. All the ramps face land and sea. To them the camera is an unseen visitor from another dimension.

While seeing and hearing are mostly horizontal (our ears as well as our eyes are aligned with the horizon), eating is vertical: food is something we “eat up” and “get down.” So is nutrition: we “raise” crops and cattle.”

In Stephen’s photos, things have faces too. Some are literal, such as in Guns of August, Books of August: The Iconography of a Gravestone in Prague:

ww-i-grave-prague-copy-2 The photo puts in contrast the irony of cemetery “monuments” (as gravestones are now called), commemorating stuff nobody alive remembers, for an audience a living performer might round to zero. Under the subhead The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead, Stephen writes,

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life’s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.

Last month I visited the graves of relatives three generations and more ahead of mine, at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, and reported on that visit in Lives of the Dead. While some graves at Woodlawn yearned toward the kind of extravagance Stephen found in Vinohrady, my late kinfolk leaned in the opposite direction, marking little or nothing of who they planted there. To my knowledge, I was the first to surface (at those last two links) twenty Englerts, Knoebels and others whose faces in death are carpets of mowed grass.

And who knows how long anything will last on the Web? My old blog, on which I wrote from 1999-2007, survives by the grace of a friend, and its blogroll is a near-cemetery of rotting links.

Every thing faces a future for as long as we grace it with expectation of use, appreciation or some other goodness. Why else save anything?

So I’m glad Stephen keeps putting these photos up, and enlarging them so well with prose. Here’s a list of other photos in his series, posted since the last time I last blogged his series:

It’s a wonderful gallery. Enjoy.

“Influence” is hot shit these days. Linkedin 0cde531has been making a big deal about it; and it seems to be working, according to Dharmesh Shaw, a Linkedin Influencer:

First of all, there’s the sheer power and reach of the platform. When I write on my personal blog (which is reasonably popular) an article will get roughly 5,000-10,000 views. If it turns out to be popular and is widely shared on social media, that number can spike to 50,000+ views. That’s pretty good. It makes my day when it happens.

But let’s compare that to how my content performs on the LinkedIn platform. I’ve posted 30 articles as an Influencer. The average number of views across those articles? 123,000!

The most popular article I’ve written has received 1.2 million views and 4,200 comments (whew!) That’s heady stuff.

And it’s also fun. I enjoy the opportunity to write about a broader range of topics. Obviously I write about issues that are important to startups, but I also get to write about building a company you love, andpersonal branding, and even extremely broad themes like the qualities of truly confident people.

I’m sure the same leverage also comes through publishing in Medium, Forbes, The Atlantic, HuffPo and other big Web publishers that pump lots of content. I’m happy for Dharmesh and other writers in those pubs. Hell, I may end up writing for one or more of them as well. Who knows. But meanwhile, as a writer, I have three problems with them.

First is that they’re all silos. This was unavoidable in in the physical world — every publisher needed their own platform; but on the Net and the Web, we already have a platform for all of us. We shouldn’t have to only write for the big publisher to be heard. This is why I’d rather write here, where I’ve got my own press and I’m free and fully in control, rather than in one of these big silos.

Second is that they don’t pay me. When one does, I’ll be glad to write for them.

Third is noise. A lot of stuff published on these sites is damn good. But all of the publishers are pumping as much as they can in front of as many eyeballs they can for as many advertisers as they can. Which is cool (provided the advertising is of the old-fashioned brand kind, and not of the surveillance-fed kind). But the volume of it tends to make everything into Snow on the Water. I also have little faith that the links won’t rot.

But here’s the bigger thing: being useful has more leverage, and more substance, than just being influential. In fact, I think being useful might be the most highly leveraged human virtue, other than love. Without it, we wouldn’t have civilization. And being useful makes you influential anyway.

So here are two ways to make yourself useful: tag eveything you can and use permissive Creative Commons licenses. Lets start with the effects of these things, for me, and work back to causes.

Look at these links:

 

All of them feature a photo by me. I did nothing to put those there beyond tagging uploaded photos “anthropocene” and licensing them to only require photo credit (“Attribution CC BY“). So, whenever somebody writes about the Anthropocene Epoch (a durable topic that deeply matters), and wants to use a photo without any copyright friction, there is a high chance that one of my photos tagged “anthropocene” will illustrate the piece, with credit. Same thing happens with:

Photos generously licensed also tend to show up in Wikipedia, by way of Wikimedia Commons, which has a palette of graphic elements that writers can raid when editing Wikipedia articles. As of today 490 of my photos are in Wikimedia Commons. Many (perhaps most) of them also show up in Wikipedia, again with credit. I did nothing to put any of those photos in either Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia. I simply made them useful.

It helps, of course, to have dozens of thousands of photos up on the Web, but that matters less than the motivation behind them — the same motivation one can put behind anything: make it useful.

Two more bits of advice: say interesting stuff, and link a lot. We can see the effects of both in Echovar‘s blog post, Mind the Gap: You are as You are Eaten. In it he takes something I said, then follows three links in it to three different blog posts, writing deeply about all of them in ways I had not anticipated.

Were those posts influential, useful or both? Probably both, but either way, useful came first.

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Christopher Lydon at the AthanaeumThere’s a challenge going around Facebook: to name ten books that have changed your life.

So I’ve thought about my own, and kept a running list here in draft form. Now that it’s close enough to publish, methinks, here they are, in no order, and not limited to ten (or to Facebook) —

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstloy. I’ve read and re-read it many times, though not in the last two decades. I got turned onto it by this broadcast on WBAI in New York, back in 1970.
  • Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. I sound my barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world. More here.
  • Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, who gets my vote for the best nonfiction writer of all time. I’ve read and love all of McPhee’s books, but his geology series — Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising From the Plains and Assembling California — turned me on in a huge way to geology, the Earth and the long view of time. All are collected, with one more added, in Annals, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. The best of the series, by the way, is Rising From the Plains, just for the stories of its lead characters, geologist David Love and his parents, living the pioneer life in central Wyoming early in the last century. Great stuff.
  • Rabbit Run and the rest of the Rabbit series, by John Updike. While many of Updike’s subjects bore or annoy me (and his frequent descriptions of sex, all as clinically detailed as a Wyeth paintings, fail as porn), the quality of his writing is without equal, imho.
  • The Bible. I was raised on it and read lots of it, back in my early decades. So I can’t deny its influence. The King James is my fave, having a beauty that others lack.
  • Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy, by Michael Polanyi. Less famous than his brother Karl, and nearly quote-proof. (The one exception: “We know more than we can tell.”) But deep. Studied the crap out of him in college, thanks to the obsessions of one philosophy professor.
  • Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff. All of George’s books changed me. My vote for his best is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Explains convincingly a shitload about politics and much else.
  • The Book of Knowledge and Grollier encyclopedias. We had those in our house when I was a kid, and I read them constantly.
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Call me hooked. Typee rocks too.
  • Nature and other essays (notably Self-reliance) by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hit me between the eyes in my college years. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events… Without Emerson, there would have been no Linux for me. Also no ProjectVRM, and probably no Cluetrain either. Also from that century, Hawthorne and Poe.
  • Websters New Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning the one my parents gave me when I went away to high school at age 15 in 1962. It’s one of the most worn and marked up books I have.
  • Huckleberry Finn, and many other works of Mark Twain. Read most of them in my teens.
  • Our Dumb World, by The Onion. The funniest book ever written. Please update it, Onion folks.
  • Dave Berry Slept Here: a Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry. His funniest book.
  • Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. My vote for Bellow’s best. Conquered people tend to be witty.
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Blew my mind.
  • How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. Explains so much I never saw or knew before, especially about infrastructure and code.
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. I also saw him speak when I was in college. Very moving.
  • Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert. I like the original better than any of the later sequels and prequels.
  • The Foundation Series, by Isaac Azimov. I only like the original trilogy, which blew my mind when I read it, many years ago. Likewise…
  • The entire James Bond series, by Ian Flemming. Knocked them off in a college summer session. Pure escapism, but it helped my writing. Flemming was good. Bonus link: Alligator, a parody of Bond novels by Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith of the Harvard Lampoon. In it MI5′s front is a car dealership. If any actual customers show up, they are taken to the back and then “politely, but firmly, shot.”
  • The Cluetrain Manifesto. Co-writing it changed my life. Simple as that.
  • Many books by Thomas C. Hinkle, which I read as a child hiding away from the bitter and humiliating experiences of failing to compete in academics, sports and everything else at school. The books weren’t great literature, but they were great escapes. All were adventures involving heroic animals on the prairie, where both Hinkle and my mother grew up. (He was from Kansas and she was from Napoleon, North Dakota, about which it was said “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”) When I got older my interest in prairie settings transferred to…
  • Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas and Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, who wrote in the anglicized idioms of Sioux and Cheyenne. Amazing stuff. Honorable mentions in this same vein: Black Elk Speaks, by John Niehardt and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. Not sure why, but there has always been a warmth in our family toward native Americans. And maybe that’s why I also like…
  • The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card. The natives in this one have a heroic transcendence (as do others). Got turned on to these by our youngest son, who has read at least ten times the number of books in his short life than I’ve read in my long one.
  • The Poltergeist, by William G. Roll. I worked for Bill at the Psychical Research Foundation, which hung off the side of Duke in the late ’70s. His work opened my mind in many ways. Great times there too.
  • Other authors that run in the credits of my life: Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Conrad, Yates, Kipling, Tennyson, Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Hesse, Wallace Stevens, Jeffers, Steinbeck, Delmore Schwartz, Card, e.e. cummings, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Salinger, Mailer, Barth. (Thanks to Interleaves and Robert Teeter for listing Harold Bloom‘s Western Canon, which helped with the list above.)

Ah, and the photo at the top is of our good friend Christopher Lydon, taken while he was giving us newcomers a tour of the Boston Athenæum, which we immediately joined and will love forever. Besides being a great lover of books, Chris is a broadcasting legend whose Radio Open Source is a treasure that spills weekly onto the Net and WBUR.

 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.

This post is a hat tip toward Rusty Foster’s Today In Tabs, which I learned about from Clay Shirky during a digressive conversation about the subscription economy (the paid one, not the one Rusty and other free spirits operate in), and how lately I’m tending not to renew mine after they run out, thanks to my wife’s rational approach to subscriptions:

  1. Don’t obey the first dozen or so renewal notices because the offers will get better if you neglect them.
  2. See if you miss them.
  3. If you don’t miss them, don’t renew.

While thinking about a headline for this post, I found that searches for theater and theatre are both going down, but the former seems to be holding a slight lead.

While at Google Trends, I also did a humbling vanity search. Trust me: it helps not to give a shit.

Other results::: tired is up… stupid still leads dumb, but dumb is catching up… Papua New Guinea leads in porn. And Sri Lanka takes the gold in searches for sex. They scored 100. India gets the silver with 88, and Ethiopia settles for the bronze with 87. Out of the running are Bangladesh (85), Pakistan (78), Nepal (74), Vietnam (72), Cambodia (69), Timor-Leste (67) and Papua New Guinea (66) — perhaps because porn is doing the job for them.

Michael Robertson continues to invent stuff. His latest is Clock Radio, a Chrome browser extension that lets you tune in, by genre or search, to what’s playing now on the world’s Internet radio stations. Links: bit.ly/ClockRadio & bit.ly/ClockRadioVideo. Here’s what mine looks like right now:

I’m not surprised (and I don’t know why) that most of the stations playing music I like are French.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer at Google, will talk about The Fight for Internet Freedom tomorrow at Stanford. Register by 5:30pm Pacific, today. @Liberationtech is hosting. Oh, and Google Fiber may be coming to your city.

George Packer says Amazon may be good for customers but bad for books, because Amazon is a monopoly in that category. Paul Krugman meanwhile says the same kinda thing about Comcast, and the whole cablecom biz. He’s not alone. Nobody likes the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time Warner Cable, other than Comcast, their captive regulators and their big-biz amen corner in what’s left of the press. (Watch: it’ll pass.) FWIW, Quartz has some nice charts explaining what’s going on.

What’s the word for a business nobody dominates because basically the whole thing, as we knew it, looks like Florida a week after Chicxulub? That’s what we have with journalism. The big reptiles are gone or terminal. The flying ones are gonna be birds one of these eras, but for now they’re just flying low and working on survival. For a good picture of what that looks like, re-dig A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which Alexis Madrigal posted in The Atlantic on March 13 of last year. In it he said,

…your total budget for the year is $12,000, a thousand bucks a month. (We could play this same game with $36,000, too. The lessons will remain the same.) What do you do?

Here are some options:

1. Write a lot of original pieces yourself. (Pro: Awesome. Con: Hard, slow.)
2. Take partner content. (Pro: Content! Con: It’s someone else’s content.)
3. Find people who are willing to write for a small amount of money. (Pro: Maybe good. Con: Often bad.)
4. Find people who are willing to write for no money. (Pro: Free. Con: Crapshoot.)
5. Aggregate like a mug. (Pro: Can put smartest stuff on blog. Con: No one will link to it.)
6. Rewrite press releases so they look like original content. (Pro: Content. Con: You suck.)

Don’t laugh. These are actual content strategies out there in the wilds of the Internet. I am sure you have encountered them.

Myself, I’m very partial to one and five. I hate two and six. For my own purposes here, let’s say you do, too, and throw them out.

That leaves three and four…

You’re reading #4. Flap flap flap…

Speaking of trash talk, Polygon says NBA 2K14 gives you a technical foul for swearing at the game.

I like the Fargo2 model:

Want to know where your Internet comes from? Look here. While it lasts. Because what that describes is infrastructure for the free and open world wide Internet we’ve known since the beginning. Thanks to the NSA spying, national leaders are now floating the idea of breaking the Internet into pieces, with national and regional borders. That seems to be where Angela Merkel is headed by suggesting a Europe-only network.

Progress: there’s an insurance business in protecting companies from data breaches. No, they’re not selling it to you, because you don’t matter. This is for big companies only.

Finally, because you’re not here — or you wisely don’t want to be here — dig what parking in New York looks like right now, after two weeks of snow, rain, freezing, melting and re-freezing:

parking in NYC

Let’s hope it thaws before alternate side parking goes back into effect.

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.

In Google sets out future for Maps — Lays down gauntlet to Nokia with plans for personalized, context-aware and ‘emotional’ maps in future, in Rethink Wireless, Caroline Gabriel begins this way:

Google may be feeling the heat from an unlikely source, Nokia, at least in its critical Maps business. The search giant has put location awareness at the heart of its business model, but Nokia has overtaken it in several respects with its cloud-based Here offering – based on the acquisition of Navteq in 2007 – and has also licensed its mapping platform to some powerful partners such as Microsoft, Amazon and a range of car makers.

Google is promising dramatic changes to its own maps to help fend off the Nokia/Microsoft alliance and also, in the Android segment at least, the challenge from Amazon to a Google-centric experience.

As usual with stories like this, the issue is framed in terms of vendor sports: big companies doing battle over some market category. Lost, also as usual, is what the individual user, or customer, might actually want.

That’s what I’m here for.

So let me start by saying I don’t want a “Google-centric experience,” whatever that is. Nor do I want Google’s (or anybody’s) Matrix-like approach to satisfying what its robotic systems think I might need. Here’s how Caroline explains that ambition:

Bernhard Seefeld, product management director for Google Maps, told the GigaOM Roadmap conference this week that future software will “build a whole new map for every context and every person”, incorporating all kinds of information about the individual and updating this constantly. He added: “It’s a specific map nobody has seen before, and it’s just there for that moment to visualize the data.”

Pushing a major theme at Google this year, Seefeld talks about applications creating emotional connections for users – “emotional maps that reflect our real life connections and peek into the future and possibly travel there”. This will involve context-aware maps that combine location and personal data, some of that taken from other Google apps, particularly its Google Now personal digital assistant – mainly seen as a response to Apple Siri, but in fact far broader in scope, and with a powerful artificial intelligence engine.

Context-aware is fine, provided I provide the context, and the context is as simple as, for example, “I am here” and “I want to go to this other place.” I don’t want guesswork about my emotions, or anything else that isn’t on the vector of what I alone know and want. Paper maps didn’t do that, and the best electronic ones shouldn’t either — not beyond what still feels as hard and useful as paper maps always did.

See, maps are fact-based descriptions of the world. Their first and most essential context is that world, and not the person seeking facts about that world. Yes, map makers have always made speculative assumptions about what a map reader might like to know. But those assumptions have always been about populations of readers: drivers, aviators, hikers, bike riders, sailors, geologists, etc. That they don’t get personal is a feature, not a bug.

A brief story that should tell you a bit about me and maps.

In October 1987, on the way back to Palo Alto after visiting my daughter at UC-Irvine, my son and I noticed it was an unusually clear day. So we decided to drive to the top of Mt. Wilson, overlooking Los Angeles. On the way we stopped at a fast food place and ate our burgers while I studied various AAA maps of Southern California and its cities. When we arrived at the top, and stood there overlooking a vista that stretched from the San Bernardino mountains to the Channel Islands, four guys from New Jersey in plaid pants, fresh from golfing somewhere, asked me to point out landmarks below, since I already was doing that for my son. The dialog went something like this:

“Where’s the Rose Bowl?”

“Over there on the right is Verdugo Mountain. See that green stretch below? In there is the Rose Bowl.”

“Oh yeah.”

“On the other side of Verdogo is the San Fernando Valley. South of that are the Hollywood Hills.”

“Is that where the Hollywood sign is?”

“Yes, on the south side, facing Hollywood. Mulholland Drive runs down the spine of the hills on the far side of the Sepulveda Pass, where the 405 passes through. The Malibu Hills are beyond that. You can see the buildings downtown to the left of that. Long Beach and San Pedro, Los Angeles’ port cities, are to the left of the Palos Verdes peninsula, which are the hills over there. You can see Santa Catalina Island off beyond that.”

“Where was the Whittier Earthquake?”

“Over there in the Puente Hills. See that low ridge?”

“Yeah. Wow. How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t. This is only my second trip through. I live up north.”

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey, like you.”

“How do you know so much about all this around here?”

“I study maps.”

Of which I have many, now mostly mothballed in drawers. Maps collection on my iphoneI have topo maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, sectional charts from the FAA, maps atlases from the Ordnance Survey in the U.K., and many more. When I fly in planes, I follow the scene below on my laptop using Garmin Road Trip (an app that is sorely in need of an update, btw.) That’s how I can identify, literally on the fly, what I see out the window and later detail in my aerial photo collections on Flickr.

So, having presented those credentials, I rate Google’s Maps mobile app at the top of the current list. Google’s search is great, but substitutable. So are many other fine Google services. But I have become highly dependent on Google’s Maps app because nothing else comes close for providing fully useful facts-on-the-ground. Here are a few:

  • Transit options, and arrival times. Here in New York one quickly becomes dependent on them, and they are right a remarkable percentage of the time, given how uneven subway service tends to be. Hell, even in Santa Barbara, which is far from the center of the public transportation world, Google’s Maps app is able to tell me, to the minute, when the busses will arrive at a given stop. It’s freaking amazing at it.
  • Route options. Even while I’m on one route, two others are still available.
  • Re-routing around traffic. It doesn’t always work right, but when it does, it can be a huge time/hassle saver.
  • Timeliness. It couldn’t be more now, and a living embodiment of the Live Web at work.

I also like Here, from Nokia. (As you can see from my collection of maps apps, above. Note the second dot at the bottom, indicating that there’s a second page of them.) I also have enormous respect NAVTEQ, which Nokia bought a few years back. NAVTEQ has been at the map game a lot longer than Google, and is at the heart of Here. But so far Here hasn’t been as useful to me as Google Maps. For example, if I want to get from where I am now to the meeting at NYU I’ll be going to shortly, Google Maps gives me three options with clear walking and riding directions. Here gives me one route, and I can’t figure how to get the directions for taking it. (Both are on my iPhone, btw.)

So here is a message for both of them, and for everybody else in the mapping game: Don’t subordinate pure mapping functions to a lot of “emotional” and other guesswork-based variables that advertisers want more than map readers do.

This might also help: I’m willing to pay for the maps, and services around them. Not just to avoid advertising, but to make those services accountable to me, as a customer, and not as a mere “user.”

As advertising gets more and more personal, and more creepy in the process — without any direct accountability to the persons being “delivered” a “personalized experience” — a market for paid services is bound to emerge. I’ll enjoy being in the front of it.

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I orient by landmarks. When I was growing up in New Jersey, the skyline of New York raked the eastern sky. To the west were the Watchung “Mountains“: hills roughly half the height of Manhattan’s ranking skyscrapers. But they gave me practice for my favorite indulgence here in Los Angeles: multi-angulating my ass in respect to seriously huge mountains.

What stands out about these things aren’t just their elevations…

  1. San Gorgonio, 11,503′*
  2. San Jacinto, 10,834
  3. San Antonio (Old Baldy), 10,068*

It’s their relief. These mothers are almost two miles high: alps above low plains and hills that slope under city and suburbs to the sea. One day when I went skiing at Mt. Baldy (same mountain as I shot above, on approach to LAX), I met guys who had gone surfing that very morning, not far away.

That’s right: skiing. In Los Angeles County.

All these mountains are crumples along a seam in the earth called the San Andreas Fault. The 40-quadrillion-ton Pacific Plate is crunching up against the also-huge North American plate at a high rate of geologic speed and force. The core rock inside these mountains is about 1.7 billion years of age, but the mountains themselves are, geologically speaking, as new and temporary as waves of surf. Note the catch basins at the base of San Antonio Canyon in the shot above. Their purpose is to catch rocks rolling off the slopes, as well as rain-saturated “debris flows”: Southern California’s version  of lava.

Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (here’s an LA Times review), which features a long chapter titled “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains.” That anybody would build a damn thing on or below the slopes of these virtual volcanoes speaks volumes about humanity’s capacity for denial.

Well, I was gonna drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson this morning to catch the sunrise over the layer of marine fog just over my head here in Pasadena, but I’ve got too much work to do. So I’ll just enjoy orienting toward it as I drive to Peet’s for coffee, and let ya’ll derive whatever vicarious pleasures might follow along. Cheers.

[Later...] Beautiful clouds atop the mountains all day today, with showers scattered here and there, and even a bit of snow. Tonight the snow level will be about 5000 feet, I heard. Should be pretty in the morning. Alas, I’ll be arriving at Newark then.


* The photos in Wikipedia for both are ones I shot from airplanes. They are among more than 400 now in Wikimedia Commons. I love feeding shots into the public domain, to find helpful uses such as these.

It’s interesting to see where photos end up (or start out, or re-start out) when one puts them in position to be used and re-used with minimized friction. The one above, of a coal-fired power plant in Utah that supplies electricity to Los Angeles, and which I shot from a flight overhead in January 2009, appears in at least these three places, so far:

At this point 391 photos of mine have found their way into Wikimedia Commons. I put none of them there. I just post them in Flickr and license them permissively.

I just noticed that mining and power generation figure prominently in that collection. Maybe that’s because I like to shoot pictures of infrastructure, geology and both at once. Or maybe it’s because the subject is interesting enough for Wikimedians to put the shots in there. Dunno.

Oddly, I don’t see the Utah power plant shot in the midst, but maybe I missed it. More likely people using the shots have done a search-by-license on Flickr, such as this one for coal.

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