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allen-searls

My father, Allen H. Searls, would have turned 106 today. It’s not inconceivable that he might have lived this long. His mother lived almost to 108, and his little sister died at 101 just last December. But Pop made it to 70, which still isn’t bad.

He was, to me at least, the living embodiment of a good man: strong, warm, loving, loyal, fair and funny. He was a good husband and father, a hard worker, and a soldier who served his country twice. First was in the Coastal Artillery at Sandy Hook. Second was when he re-enlisted to fight in WWII. He was also very smart. he could do math in his head faster than anybody I’ve ever met, and he rarely lost at card games. Not surprisingly, the Army measured his IQ at 157. (Not that I think anybody’s smarts can be reduced to a number. I’m just bragging on the old man here.)

Here is what I wrote about Pop on my old blog, fourteen years ago…

Bootstrapping

 

Al Searls
Allen Searls: bootstrapper, gandy dancer & fisherman, West Palm Beach, 1958

Today’s DaveNet is about bootstrapping. Dave says:

 

When engineers build a suspension bridge, first they draw a thin cable across a body of water. Then they use that cable to hoist a larger one. Then they use both cables to pull a third, and eventually create a thick cable of intertwined wires that you can drive a truck across (actually hundreds of trucks).

My father was a bootstrapper: a high steel construction worker whose first big job was the George Washington Bridge, which connected Manhattan with his home town of Fort Lee, New Jersey. The bridge was completed in 1931, the year he turned twenty-three.

Pop’s favorite job on the bridge was rigging the giant cables that draped from cliff to cliff across the bridge’s 600-foot towers. When my sister Jan and I were small, he’d take us for walks on the bridge — then just a couple blocks from our Grandmother”s house — and explain how they hung and wrapped the cables, how he and his buddies would cut the hanging carriage loose at one tower and ride it up and down the parabola draped in space between the two towers, not sure if the thing would hold in one piece or if they’d get killed looking for cheap thrills. I’n fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the old man, right there on top of the hanging carriage in this archival picture. For all I know, he might be in some of these other cable-rigging pictures, here and here.

I thought about Pop a lot the last time I was in New York. The view from our tiny apartment there includes a small slice of the bridge. Looking at it brought back the pride I felt as a kid — and still feel — knowing Pop helped build this magnificent thing.

I was born sixteen years after the bridge was finished. By that time Pop had already lived an adventurous life, serving twice in the military (the second time in WWII) and working as a gandy dancer on The Alaska Railroad. His specialty was building railroad trestles. It was in Alaska that he met Mom, a Swedish girl from North Dakota, doing social work for the Red Cross out of Anchorage.

It’s funny. We had a pretty standard suburban life when I was growing up in New Jersey. Mom was a teacher. Pop sold insurance. But Jan and I always knew our parents were a little… different. Good, hard-working people, but adventurers too.

Mom is still around, going strong at 87. Pop died in 1979. I still miss him. He’d have loved the Web and all the bootstrapping it takes to build it right.

Addenda…

      My sister Jan writes:

Actually, Mom was a country school teacher who got her masters in U of Chicago and pioneered the Child Welfare Service for the Territory of Alaska in 1939. She joined the Red Cross in 1944 when she “went outside” (what they called leaving Alaska). She really was a pioneer — Child Welfare was a very new concept then.

Tom von Alten also adds this correction: Great image, and probably too poetic to be niggling about, but the curve of cables under their own weight is a catenary, rather than a parabola, fwiw. He also points us to a fun page on the PBS Super Bridge site.

And a bonus link.

 

Back in the early ’90s I was waiting for an elevator one night at a high rise hotel when I was joined by a group of Miami heat basketball players and Jack Ramsay, who was then most famously the former coach of the Portland Trailblazers, a team he led to an NBA championship in 1977. But he had coached a number of other teams, including the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) during my former schoolmate Bob Kauffman‘s time there. So I thought, “Oh. Jack Ramsay is coaching the Heat now.” Back in those days Miami was not a great team, and even as a fan I was paying no attention to them. But the team was paying attention to Dr. Ramsay. That much was clear.

We got on the elevator together. The tallest players, 7-foot Matt Geiger among them, had to cock their heads toward one shoulder to avoid bumping the ceiling. I was crowded into a corner like a piece of luggage. The team had just lost a game. For the whole trip up to the Nth floor, Jack talked to the guys about what you can learn by losing that you can’t by winning — in useful detail. It was obvious that the old guy was still a great coach, and that the players had great respect for him. By that I mean, they weren’t just being nice. They were listening, carefully.

It was only later that I learned that Jack was not the coach, officially. His job was color commentary on Heat broadcasts.

All basketball fans by now have learned something from Doctor Jack, who went on to share his wisdom and experience over ESPN and other outlets. The man always had something interesting to add to the time-filling blather that comprises most of sports commentary.

So I just learned that the good doctor passed this morning, at age 89. I also learned that he enlisted for service in the U.S. Navy at age 19 during World War II, and shortly thereafter became the platoon leader of an underwater demolitions team — the forerunner of today’s Navy Seals. I suppose he was younger during his service than most or all of the players he taught in that elevator. Tougher too, I’m sure.

Ghandi said we should learn as if we’ll live forever and live as if we’ll die tomorrow. Jack Ramsey was clearly one of those guys who did both, for all his life.

Aral Balkan is doing a bang-up job getting Indie rolling as an adjectival meme. He’s doing it with his Indie PhoneIndie Tech Manifesto and a talk titled Free is a Lie.

To put the Indie movement in context, it helps to realize that it’s been on the tech road at least since 1964, when Paul Baranone of the Internet’s architects, gave us this design for a network:

Meaning the one on the right. The one on the left was common in those days and the one in the middle was considered inevitable. But the one on the right was radical. First, it reduced to one the “attack surface” of the network. Take out one node or one link and the rest stayed up. Second, it also served as the handy design spec for the protocols that now define the Internet. Aral, the Indie Phone and the IndieManifesto are all about the one on the right: Distributed. So, for that matter, is The Cluetrain Manifesto. For example:

That was Chris Locke’s line. “Markets are conversations” (one of my lines) and “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” (one of David Weinberger’s) also come from the same spot.

Marketing comes from A and B. Never C. Thus, as Jakob Nielsen told me after Cluetrain came out, “You guys defected from marketing. You sided with markets, against marketing.” Meaning we sided with individual human beings, as well as society in general. But certainly not with marketing — even though all three of us made a living in marketing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cluetrain became, and remains, a favorite of marketers, many of which continue to defect. (Bonus link.)

Independent, sovereign, autonomous, personal and heterarchical are all adjectives for what one gets from a distributed network. (This may call forth an acronym, or at least an initialism.) By whatever name it is an essential camp, because each of us is all six of those things (including distributed). We need tech that enables those things and gives us full agency.

We won’t get them from the centralizers of the world. Or decentralizers that don’t go all the way from B to C. We need new stuff that comes from the truly personal side: from C. It helps that C — distributed — is also central to the mentality, ethos and methodologies of hacking (in the positive senses of the word).

Ever since the Net went viral in the mid-’90s, we’ve built out “solutions” mostly on the models of A and B: of centralized and decentralized. But too rarely all the way to C: the fully personal. This is understandable, given the flywheels of industry, which have the heft of Jupiter and have been spinning ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

But one fully personal exception stands out: the browser. It was born to be the best instrument of individuality we could have, even though it has lately become more of a shopping cart than a car. (That was one point of Earth to Mozilla: Come back home.) If we want the browser to be fully personal (e.g. private) again — as it was in the first place, before commercial imperatives were laid upon it, and the Web looked like a library (which one would browse) rather than a shopping mall — Mozilla is our best hope for making that happen. There are no other candidates. And it’s clear to me that they do want to work toward that goal.

We won’t get rid of centralization and hierarchy. Nor should we, because there are many things centralization and hierarchy do best, and we need them to operate civilization. Our personal tools also need to engage with many of them. But we also can’t expect either centralization or decentralization to give us distributed solutions, any more than we can get government or business to give us individuality, or for hierarchy to give us heterarchy. The best we’ll get from them is respect: for us, and for the new tools we bring to the market’s table.

Aral is right when he tweets that Mozilla’s dependence on Google is an elephant in the room. It’s an obvious issue. But the distributed mentality and ethos is alive and well inside Mozilla — and, for that matter, Google. I suspect it even resides in some corner of Mark Zuckerberg’s cerebrum. (He’s too much of a hacker for it not to be there.) Dismissing Mozilla as a tool of Google throws out babies with bathwater — important and essential ones, I believe.

Meanwhile we need a name for the movement that’s happening here, and I think Aral’s right that “Indie” might be it. “Distributed” sounds like what happens at the end of a supply chain. “Heterarchical” is good, but has five syllables and sounds too academic. “Sovereign” is only three syllables (or two, depending) and is gaining some currency, but it more commonly applies to countries than to people. “Personal” is good, but maybe too common. And the Indie Web is already catching on in tech circles. And indie itself is already established as a nickname for “independent.”  So I like it.

I would also like to see the whole topic come up at VRM Day and IIW, which run from 5 to 8 May in Mountain View. The links for those:

http://VRMday2014a.eventbrite.com

http://iiworkshop.org (register at http://bit.ly/1hWpNn5)

Here is my short list:

  1. Larry Josephson
  2. Howard Stern
  3. Bob Grant
  4. Bob & Ray
  5. Barry Gray
  6. Bob Fass
  7. Steve Post
  8. Rush Limbaugh
  9. Alex Bennett
  10. Allan Handelman

And here are my qualifications: a) the performer has to do (or have done) a show that runs daily (or close),  b) the listener has to sense that they are missing something if they’re not listening, and c) I need to have been a listener.

I bring this up because in January I heard Howard Stern speak regretfully — and movingly — about how Bob Grant was something like “the greatest broadcaster who ever lived,” and how he (Howard) blew the chance to say that to Bob directly while the old guy was still alive. Bob died on New Years Eve at age 84. (Later Howard was not only reminded that he did say kind things to Bob, but somebody produced recorded evidence. Apparently Howard is correct that his memory sucks.)

I first heard Bob in the early ’70s, when he came to WMCA in New York from KLAC in Los Angeles. (Staying at the same spot on the dial, since both were on 570am.) WMCA had dropped its Top 40 format (conceding that ground to WABC and the FM band) and became the first full-time talk station in New York. I agreed with very little that Bob espoused, but found the show highly entertaining, especially when some dumb caller made no sense and Bob yelled “Get off the phone!”

But Howard is by far the best radio performer, ever. There’s nobody close. He’s funny as hell and his celebrity interviews are masterful to an extreme nobody will ever exceed. All his shows are longer than Gone With The Wind, filled with original comedy bits and supported by a veteran and gifted staff of interesting characters who are themselves sources of entertaining studio encounters. On days Howard’s not on, the re-runs — both from the past few days and from archives that stretch back a quarter century — are also brilliant. The show is blue, but I enjoy that. Life fucks itself all the time, or none of us would be here.

I put Larry Josephson ahead of Howard because I’ve never loved a morning host more than I loved Larry. Back when he was on WBAI in the ’60s and early ’70s, my daily life was anchored in Larry’s show. Larry spoke frankly about his personal life, and flouted just about every morning-host formalism you can list. (As Howard still does. But Larry was first.) He’d show up late, eat on the air, and take calls during which you heard nothing of the person at the other end. He was funny (among other things, like me, he was a sucker for puns), wickedly smart, hugely informed, and deeply interested in big issues of many kinds. Years later he leveraged all that into the public radio shows Modern Times and Bridges. I still have many recordings of both on cassettes in my garage. After leaving the air Larry made a living selling recordings of Bob & Ray (next on my list), who were two of the funniest guys in radio, from the fifties into the seventies. Find those and other goodies (including What is Judaism and Only In Amercia) from Larry at RadioArt.org. Meanwhile, also dig what Larry is doing today at An Inconvenient Jew: My Life in Radio. A better biography than this one or Wikipedia’s is here.

Bob & Ray are next on my list because they were the funniest radio comics of their time. Both had warm baritone voices, which hardly changed whether they were playing characters young or old, male or female. Their humor was droll and dry and played for irony at many levels. Buy some samples from Larry.

I’ve got Barry Gray next because he was — at least for me — the father of all the radio talk shows that followed. His slot from 11pm to 1am on WMCA seemed highly anomalous, given WMCA’s role as one of New York’s Top 40 music landmarks. But for me as a kid growing up in the 50s and early 60s, it was a window on the intellectual and cultural world, giving me lots of stuff to talk and think about the next day. I liked Barry Farber too (they were both pioneers, and Farber is still at it today) but to me, growing up, the better Barry was Gray.

I put Bob Fass and Steve Post next because they were Larry Josephson’s teammates on WBAI during the station’s heyday, and I loved all three of them (and some others I hate not mentioning, but I’m trying to keep this from getting too long). Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable was required late night radio listening in The Sixties, and had enormous influence on the spirit of that time, including too many events and personalities to mention. I recall Steve as WBAI’s smart and witty utility infielder and team captain. He was more than that, both for WBAI and later for WNYC, where he was active while I was elsewhere. Mostly I enjoyed listening to him whenever he was on.

I put Rush Limbaugh next because he is just so damn good at what he does. For many years I enjoyed listening to him, even though I mostly disagreed with his politics. He was tuned in to a sensibility that I knew well, and in many ways he understood the political left better than it understood itself. Maybe he still does. I’m just so tired of right wing talkers at this point that I don’t listen to any of them. But I want to give credit where due, and Rush deserves plenty.

I first heard Alex Bennett on WMCA in the late ’60s, and followed him to WPLJ while I was still living in New Jersey. Later I picked him up again in the Bay Area when he was on a variety of stations there. Alex was at his best (for me at least), when he brought comedians into the studio to hang out. I’m sure Alex played a key role in the surge in comedy clubs that happened in the 1980s. (Wow, I just learned that Ronni Bennett is Alex’s ex. Guess I missed that.)

Allan Handelman is the only guy on this list (and I regret that they are all guys) who has had me as a guest on the air. It was in the early ’80s on WPTF in Raleigh, to talk about radio, like I am now. I first heard Allan when he was on a little FM station in Farmville, North Carolina. I was 100+ miles away, in Chapel Hill, but had a big antenna on my roof that I would aim east to get Allan’s signal, amazed at the guests he would get to come on. Most notable among those was Frank Zappa. Allan’s discussions with Frank are among my treasured radio memories.

So that’s it for now. I started to write this in January and decided to finally throw a few more sentences in, and liberate it from the Drafts folder. If you care, tweet or comment on your own faves. One I would volunteer for a slightly different category (such as “uncategorizable”): Phil Hendrie.

Turkey shut down Twitter today. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced, “We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” (Hurriyet Daily News) He also said Turkey will “rip out the roots” of Twitter. (Washington Post)

Those roots are in the Internet. This is a good thing. Even if Turkey rips the roots out of the phone and cable systems that provide access to the Net, they can’t rip out the Net itself, because the Net is not centralized. It is distributed: a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. At the most basic level, the Net’s existence relies on protocols rather than on how any .com, .org, .edu or .gov puts those protocols to use.

The Net’s protocols are not servers, clouds, wires, routers or code bases. They are agreements about how data flows to and from any one end point and any other. This makes the Internet a world of ends rather than a world of governments, companies and .whatevers. It cannot be reduced to any of those things, any more than time can be reduced to a clock. The Net is as oblivious to usage as are language and mathematics — and just as supportive of every use to which it is put. And, because of this oblivity, The Net supports all without favor to any.

Paul Baran contrasted centralized systems (such as governments), decentralized ones (such as Twitter+Facebook+Google, etc.) and distributed ones, using this drawing in 1964:

Design C became the Internet.

It appealed to military folks because it was the best design for surviving attack. Even in a decentralized system there are central points of vulnerability where a government can spy on traffic or knock out a whole service. The “attack surfaces” of a distributed system are no larger than a single node or a single connection, so it’s much harder to bring the whole thing down. This is why John Gillmore says “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” No doubt this is happening right now in Turkey, just as it is in China and other countries  that block sites and services on the Net. It might not be easy, but it is do-able by design. That design is not about hard fixed administrated lines, but voluntary connections, or what Bob Frankston calls ‘DIY connectivity’.

Twitter’s centralized nature makes it a dot in the star-shaped designs of A and B. That dot becomes a black hole when powerful actors like the Turkish and Chinese governments “eradicate” it. We need to bear this in mind when we design and use centralized systems — and even decentralized ones.

It helps to recognize that some things — such as being social with each other — do not require centralized systems, or even decentralized ones. They can be truly distributed, heterarchical and voluntary. Just as we have freedom of speech and association in any free society, we should have the same on the Net. And, at the base level, we do.

But this isn’t easy to see, for five reasons:

  1. We do need centralized systems for doing what only they can do
  2. Existing building methods and materials make it easy
  3. The internet is also a “network of networks” which at the backbone and “provider” level (the one you access it through) is more like a combination of B and C — and, because you pay providers for access,  it’s easy to ignore C as the virtuous base of the whole thing
  4. After eighteen years of building centralized systems (such as Twitter) on the Net, it’s hard for most people — even geeks familiar with the Net’s base design — to think outside the box called client-server (and some of us call calf-cow)

A great way to avoid the black hole of centralization is to start from the fully distributed nodes that each of us are, designing and building first person technologies. And I have a specific one to recommend, from Customer Commons:

This is Omie:

She’s the brainlet of Customer Commons: She is, literally, a clean slate. And she is your clean slate. Not Apple’s. Not Google’s. Not some phone company’s.

She can be what you want her to be, do what you want her to do, run whatever apps you want her to run, and use data you alone collect and control.

Being a clean slate makes Omie very different.

On your iPhone and iPad you can run only what Apple lets you run, and you can get only from Apple’s own store. On an Android phone you have to run Google’s pre-loaded apps, which means somebody is already not only telling you what you must do, but is following you as well.

Omie uses Android, but bows to Google only in respect of its intention to create an open Linux-based OS for mobile devices.

So Omie is yours, alone. Fully private, by design, from the start.

Omie needs crowdfunding. More specifically, she needs somebody who is good at doing crowdfunding videos, to help us out. We have the script.  If you’re up for helping out, contact me. I can be DM’d via @dsearls, or emailed via my first  name @ my last name dot com. Thanks!

 

 

The power is out and won’t be back for awhile. That’s what the guys in the hard hats tell me, down where they’re working, at the intersection where our dead-end street is born. Many trucks are gathered there, with bright night-work lights illuminating whatever went wrong with the day’s power pole replacement job. The notices they left on our doors said they’d be done by five, but now it’s eight and I’m sitting in a house lit by candles, working on the nth draft of a writing assignment, in the absence of a steady flow of electrons off the power grid. Also in the absence of connection except to the physical world alone. Connectivity = 0. My laptop is good for another four hours or so, but without a connection I lack the building materials I need for constructing the piece. So I’m writing this instead.

Some other utilities are unaffected by the power outage, of course. I have matches, and can fire up the gas stove. Water runs, cold and cold. It also drips out of the little motel-grade refrigerator upstairs, defrosting itself into towels I’ve fed under it. The freezer in the kitchen remains closed, to keep whatever is in there from thawing and requiring use in the next couple days. What I’m witnessing is a gradual breakdown that is easy to imagine accelerating fast, especially if I was coping instead with a wildfire or an earthquake.

Three interesting facts about California and the people who — like me — choose to live here:

  1. The state tree is the California redwood. What made these things evolve into groves of spires with thick bark, standing at heights beyond three hundred feet, with branches in mature specimens that commence a hundred or more feet above the ground. I say they are adapted to fire. A cross section of a mature redwood will feature black edges to rings spaced thirty, fifty, two hundred apart, all marking survival of wildfire at a single location.
  2. The state flower is the California poppy. Here is what makes poppies thrive in dry rocky soils that are poor for agriculture but rich with  freshly exposed minerals: they are adapted to earthquakes. More than any other state, except maybe Alaska, California is a product of recent earth movement. Imagine looking at the southern Appalachians in the U.S. or the Blue Mountains of Australia, two million years ago. It’s not hard: they would pretty much like they do now. If you looked at the site of the future California from anywhere two million years ago, you would recognize nothing, unless you were a geologist who knew what to look for. All of California has been raised up or ferried in by tectonic forces that have been working at full throttle for a couple hundred million years, and aren’t moving any slower today.
  3. Neither of those facts teaches caution to human beings who choose to live here. For example, the home where I write this, in Santa Barbara, has been approached, unsuccessfully, by two wildfires in recent years. The Tea Fire in November 2008 burned 210 homes and the Jesusita Fire in May 2009 burned other 80 more. The Tea Fire came straight at us, incinerating everything but rocks and soil for a mile in its path before stopping a quarter mile and ten houses short of where I’m sitting right now. (Here is my report on the aftermath.) The Coyote Fire in September 1964 burned the same area, and much more. The Sycamore Fire in 1979 came even closer, burning houses just up the street from here.

“We live in the age of full convenience,” John Updike wrote, at a time when it made sense to think copiers and fax machines marked some kind of end state.* But the lessons that matter at the moment arise from the absence of the two most essential utilities in my life, and probably yours too: the electric grid and the data network. (Yes, I can get on the Net by tethering my laptop to my mobile phone, but both use batteries that will run out, and the phone is down below 20% already anyway.) So here are three lessons that come to me, here in the dark, all of which we are sure to continue ignoring::::

  1. Civilization is thin. A veneer. Under it nature remains vast, violent and provisional. In the long run, which may end at any time for any of us, nature will prove no easier to tame than the tides. For three great perspectives on this, I highly recommend John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature. The title is taken from a plea to students, carved into sandstone over the door of a building at the University of Wyoming in Laramie: STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON, NOT GIVEN. (I also recommend this blog post, by Themon The Bard, who went to UW and provides a photo.) Its chapters are “Iceland versus the volcanoes,” “Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains” and “The Army Corps of Engineers versus the Mississippi River.” The New Yorker re-ran a set piece from the third of those, right after Hurricane Katrina, which produced what New Orleans natives call “The Flood.” In it McPhee describes what would happen to New Orleans when a levee is breached. Here is the original, published years before reality certified true McPhee’s prophesy.
  2. Humanity is insane. A good working definition of psychosis is disconnection of the mind from reality. As a species we have proven ourselves nuts for the duration, as the examples above attest. Present company included. (Further proof: war, genocide.) It should be clear by now that humanity is not merely at the top of the food chain around the world, but a pestilence to everything God (or whatever) put in position to be exploited in the short term, regardless of the obvious fact that it took approximately forever to put those resources in place, and how much of it cannot be replaced. While it’s true that in the very long run (a billion years or few), the aging Sun will cook the planet anyway, we are doing our best to get the job done in the geologic present. This is why many geologists propose renaming our current epoch “Anthropocene.” Bonus question: Why do political conservatives care so little about the long-term conservation of resources that are, undeniably, in limited supply and are clearly bound for exhaustion at any consumption rate? Before categorizing me, please note that I am a registered independent, and in sympathy with economic conservatives in a number of ways (for example, I do like, appreciate and understand how the market works, and in general I favor smaller government). But on environmental issues I’m with those who give a shit. Most of them happen to be liberals (or, in the current vernacular, progressives). George Lakoff provides some answers here (and in several books). But, while I love George, and while he has probably influenced my thinking more than any other human being, it still baffles that opposing conservation of resources fails to seem oxymoronic to most avowed conservatives.
  3. The end is in sight. Somewhere I’ve kept a newspaper story that did a great job of listing all the resources our species is bound to use up, at current rates of exploitation, and how long that will take. On the list were not only the obvious “reserves,” such like oil, gas, coal and uranium, but other stuff as well: helium, lithium, platinum, thorium, tungsten, neodymium, dysprosium, niobium… stuff we use to make stuff that ranges from balloons to hard drives to hybrid car engines. Many of the heavier elements appear to have been deposited here during bombardments by asteroids several billion years ago, when the Earth has hard enough not to absorb them. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth mostly by decay of radioactive elements in certain kinds of natural gas. Much of the world’s helium comes from the ground here in the U.S., where our enlightened congresspeople decided a few decades back to hand the reserves over to private industry, where “the market” would decide best how it would be used. So, naturally, we are due to run out of it within maybe a couple dozen years, and have not yet found a way to replace it. Read on.

[Later...] I wrote this three nights ago, but didn’t put it up until now because I was already way overdue on the  writing assignment I mentioned up top, and I had to deal with other pressing obligations as well. So I just went through the post, copy-edited it a bit and added some links.


* Special thanks goes to anybody who can find the original quote. I’ve used it so often on the Web that I’ve effectively spammed search results with unintended SEO. The closest thing I can find is this from Google Books, which fails to contain the searched-for nugget, but still demonstrates why Updike’s criticism earns the same high rank as his fiction.

Fort Lee has been in the news lately. Seems traffic access to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee was sphinctered for political purposes, at the spot marked “B” on this map here:

The spot marked “A” is the site of my first home: 2063 Hoyt Avenue. Here’s how it looked in 1920:

My grandfather, George W. Searls, built it in 1900 or so. He and grandma, Ethel F. (née Englert) Searls, raised thee children there: Ethel M. Searls, born in 1905, Allen H. Searls (my father), born in 1908, and Grace (née Searls) Apgar, born in 1912. Grandpa died in 1935, but Grandma and Aunt Ethel lived here until 1955, when I was eight years old.

It was in a fine old neighborhood of similar mansard-roofed homes, most of which were built before the George Washington Bridge showed up and became the town’s landmark feature. Pop, who grew up climbing the Palisades and had no fear of heights, helped build the bridge, mostly by rigging cables.

Not long after finding a place to stay in New York in Fall of 2012, my wife and I took a walk across the bridge to visit the old neighborhood. I knew the old house was gone, the land under it paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. What I didn’t expect was finding that the entire neighborhood had been erased. See the brown area on the map above, between the highway and Main Street? That was it. Palisade Avenue, behind Hoyt, is now a house-less strip of rotting pavement flanked and veined by wild grass. The only animal life we spotted was a large groundhog that ran to an old storm drain when we approached.

Little of the Fort Lee I knew as a kid is still there. The only familiar sights on Main Street are City Hall and the old fire station. Dig this: City Hall also shows up in the background of this shot of Mom with my cousin Paul and I, when we were both a few months old, in April 1948. This street too has been obliterated: replaced by stores and parking lots, with no trace of its old self.

When I was a kid in the ’50s, my grandparents’ generation — all born in the second half of the 19th Century — was still going strong. One relative I remember well was great-aunt Eva Quackenbush, Grandpa Searls’ older sister. Here she is with Mom, and the baby me. Eva was born in 1853, and was twelve years old when President Lincoln was shot — and event she talked about. She visited often from her home in St. Louis, and died just a few days short of 100 years old, in 1953. Living long is a Searls family trait. Grandma made it to 107 and Aunt Grace to 101 (she passed just last month, fun and lucid to the end).

So to me the world before cars, electricity and other modern graces was a familiar one, because I heard so many stories about it. Grandma grew up in The Bronx, at 742 East 142nd Street, when it looked like this:

Today, according to Google’s StreetView, it looks like this:

The red A marks 732. On the left, behind that wall, is a “towed car” lot. It sits atop a mound of rubble that was once “old Lincoln Hospital”:

According to the Wikipedia article on Lincoln Hospital, “In 1895, after more than half a century of occupying various sites in Manhattan, the Board of Trustees purchased a large lot in the South Bronx—then a semi-rural area of the city—at the corner of 141st Street and Southern Boulevard.” This is a morning view, lit from the southeast, looking north across 141st Street. Grandma’s place was on the back side of the hospital. Amazing to think that this scene came and went between the two shots above it.

Grandma’s father, Henry Roman Englert, was the head of the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in the city. His trade was also destroyed by industrial progress, but was an art in its time. Here he is, as a sharp young man with a waxed mustache:

Henry was a fastidious dude who, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters to appear and stand in a row. He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl. Or so the story went. Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Grandma met Grandpa in 1903, when she was twenty and he was forty. She was working as a cleaning woman in the Fort Lee boarding house where Grandpa lived while he worked as a carpenter. One day she saw him laying asleep, and bent down to kiss him. He woke, reached up, and kissed her back. Romance commenced.

Grandma didn’t like to admit having done cleaning work, insisting always that she was “lace curtain Irish,” to distinguish her family from “shanty Irish.” When ethnic matters came up in conversation over dinner, she would often say “All for the Irish stand up,” and everybody would rise. In fact she was only half Irish. Her mother, Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, died in her thirties. Henry later married an Italian woman and produced more progeny, only one of which was ever mentioned by Grandma. That was Harry, who died at age five. The largest framed photograph in Grandma’s house was one of Harry, looking up and holding a toy.

Kitty’s dad was Thomas Trainor, who came over from Ireland in 1825 at age 15 to escape England’s harsh penal laws. (He shipped out of Letterkenny with an uncle, but the Trainors were from south of there. Trainor was anglicized from the Gaelic Tréinfhir, meaning “strong man.”) Thomas worked as an indentured servant in the carriage trade, and married Catherine McLaughlin, the daughter of his boss. Thomas then prospered in the same business, building and fixing carriages at his shop at the south end of Broadway. His two daughters were Kitty and “Aunt Mag” Meyer, whom Grandma often quoted. The line I best remember is, “You’ve got it in your hand. Now put it away.” Mag taught Grandma how to walk quietly while large numbers of other people in the house were sleeping. Grandma passed the same advice to her grandkids, including me: “Walk on the balls of your feet, toes first.” The Trainors also had a son, who ran away to fight in the Civil War. When the war ended and the boy didn’t come home, Thomas went down to Washington and found his son in a hospital there, recovering from a wound. The doctors said the boy would be home by Christmas. And, when Christmas came, the boy indeed arrived, in a coffin. Or so the story went.

An interesting fact about Fort Lee: it was the original Hollywood. The Searls family, like most of the town, was involved. Grandpa was D.W. Griffith’s head carpenter, building film sets such as this one here. Here he is (bottom right) with his crew. Here’s a link for the Fort Lee Film Commission, featuring samples of the silent movies made there. Among the extras are family members. Lillian Gish and Lon Chaney both boarded upstairs at 2063 Hoyt. So did the dad of the late Elliot Richardson, a cabinet member in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Time flies, and so do people, places and memories. My parents’ generation is now gone, and family members of my own generation are starting to move on. I can count ten places I used to live that are now gone as well, including my high school. Kevin Kelly told me a couple years ago that none of us, even the famous, will be remembered in a thousand years. I’m sure he’s right.

But I still feel the urge to pour as much as I can of what I know into the public domain, which is what you’re witnessing now, if you’re still with me at the bottom of a long post. I believe it helps to see what was, as well as what is.

For example, this view up Hoyt Avenue from the site of the old Searls place, in 2012, is now filled with a high-rise that is almost complete. The little bridge-less town where my grandparents met and my father and his sisters grew up is now a henge of high-rises. Fort Lee itself is now also known as Fort Lee Koreatown. In this constantly shifting urban context the current scandal seems a drop in the bucket of time.

 

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.

Obamacare matters. But the debate about it also misdirects attention away from massive collateral damage to patients. How massive? Dig To Make Hospitals Less Deadly, a Dose of Data, by Tina Rosenberg in The New York Times. She writes,

Until very recently, health care experts believed that preventable hospital error caused some 98,000 deaths a year in the United States — a figure based on 1984 data. But a new report from the Journal of Patient Safety using updated data holds such error responsible for many more deaths — probably around some 440,000 per year. That’s one-sixth of all deaths nationally, making preventable hospital error the third leading cause of death in the United States. And 10 to 20 times that many people suffer nonlethal but serious harm as a result of hospital mistakes.

The bold-facing is mine. In 2003, one of those statistics was my mother. I too came close in 2008, though the mistake in that case wasn’t a hospital’s, but rather a consequence of incompatibility between different silo’d systems for viewing MRIs, and an ill-informed rush into a diagnostic procedure that proved unnecessary and caused pancreatitis (which happens in 5% of those performed — I happened to be that one in twenty). That event, my doctors told me, increased my long-term risk of pancreatic cancer.

Risk is the game we’re playing here: the weighing of costs and benefits, based on available information. Thus health care is primarily the risk-weighing business we call insurance. For generations, the primary customers of health care — the ones who pay for the services — have been insurance companies. Their business is selling bets on outcomes to us, to our employers, or both. They play that game, to a large extent, by knowing more than we do. Asymmetrical knowledge R them.

Now think about the data involved. Insurance companies live in a world of data. That world is getting bigger and bigger. And yet, McKinsey tells us, it’s not big enough. In The big-data revolution in US health care: Accelerating value and innovation (subtitle: Big data could transform the health-care sector, but the industry must undergo fundamental changes before stakeholders can capture its full value), McKinsey writes,

Fiscal concerns, perhaps more than any other factor, are driving the demand for big-data applications. After more than 20 years of steady increases, health-care expenses now represent 17.6 percent of GDP—nearly $600 billion more than the expected benchmark for a nation of the United States’s size and wealth.1 To discourage overutilization, many payors have shifted from fee-for-service compensation, which rewards physicians for treatment volume, to risk-sharing arrangements that prioritize outcomes. Under the new schemes, when treatments deliver the desired results, provider compensation may be less than before. Payors are also entering similar agreements with pharmaceutical companies and basing reimbursement on a drug’s ability to improve patient health. In this new environment, health-care stakeholders have greater incentives to compile and exchange information.

While health-care costs may be paramount in big data’s rise, clinical trends also play a role. Physicians have traditionally used their judgment when making treatment decisions, but in the last few years there has been a move toward evidence-based medicine, which involves systematically reviewing clinical data and making treatment decisions based on the best available information. Aggregating individual data sets into big-data algorithms often provides the most robust evidence, since nuances in subpopulations (such as the presence of patients with gluten allergies) may be so rare that they are not readily apparent in small samples.

Although the health-care industry has lagged behind sectors like retail and banking in the use of big data—partly because of concerns about patient confidentiality—it could soon catch up. First movers in the data sphere are already achieving positive results, which is prompting other stakeholders to take action, lest they be left behind. These developments are encouraging, but they also raise an important question: is the health-care industry prepared to capture big data’s full potential, or are there roadblocks that will hamper its use

The word “patient” appears nowhere in that long passage. The word “stakeholder” appears twice, plus eight more times in the whole piece. Still, McKinsey brooks some respect for the patient, though more as a metric zone than as a holder of a stake in outcomes:

Health-care stakeholders are well versed in capturing value and have developed many levers to assist with this goal. But traditional tools do not always take complete advantage of the insights that big data can provide. Unit-price discounts, for instance, are based primarily on contracting and negotiating leverage. And like most other well-established health-care value levers, they focus solely on reducing costs rather than improving patient outcomes. Although these tools will continue to play an important role, stakeholders will only benefit from big data if they take a more holistic, patient-centered approach to value, one that focuses equally on health-care spending and treatment outcomes.

McKinsey’s customers are not you and me. They are business executives, many of which work in health care. As players in their game, we have zero influence. As voters in the democracy game, however, we have a bit more. That’s one reason we elected Barack Obama.

So, viewed from the level at which it plays out, the debate over health care, at least in the U.S., is between those who believe in addressing problems with business (especially the big kind) and those who believe in addressing problems with policy (especially the big kind, such as Obamacare).

Big business has been winning, mostly. This is why Obamacare turned out to be a set of policy tweaks on a business that was already highly regulated, mostly by captive lawmakers and regulators.

Meanwhile we have this irony to contemplate: while dying of bad data at a rate rivaling war and plague, our physical bodies are being doubled into digital ones. It is now possible to know one’s entire genome, including clear markers of risks such as cancer and dementia. That’s in addition to being able to know one’s quantified self (QS), plus one’s health care history.

Yet all of that data is scattered and silo’d. This is why it is hard to integrate all our available QS data, and nearly impossible to integrate all our health care history. After I left the Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) system in 2010, my doctor at the time (Richard Donohue, MD, whom I recommend highly) obtained and handed over to me the entirety of my records from HUHS. It’s not data, however. It’s a pile of paper, as thick as the Manhattan phone book. Its utility to other doctors verges on nil. Such is the nature of the bizarre information asymmetry (and burial) in the current system.

On top of that, our health care system incentivizes us to conceal our history, especially if any of that history puts us in a higher risk category, sure to pay more in health insurance premiums.

But what happens when we solve these problems, and our digital selves become fully knowable — by both our selves and our health care providers? What happens to the risk calculation business we have today, which rationalizes more than 400,000 snuffed souls per annum as collateral damage? Do we go to single-payer then, for the simple reason that the best risk calculations are based on the nation’s entire population?

I don’t know.

I do know the current system doesn’t want to go there, on either the business or the policy side. But it will. Inevitably.

At the end of whatever day this is, our physical selves will know our data selves better than any system built to hoard and manage our personal data for their interests more than for ours. When that happens the current system will break, and another one will take its place.

How many more of us will die needlessly in the meantime? And does knowing (or guessing at) that number make any difference? It hasn’t so far.

But that shouldn’t stop us. Hats off to leadership in the direction of actually solving these problems, starting with Adrian Gropper, ePatient Dave, Patient Privacy RightsBrian Behlendorf, Esther Dyson, John Wilbanks, Tom Munnecke and countless other good people and organizations who have been pushing this rock up a hill for a long time, and aren’t about to stop. (Send me more names or add them in the comments below.)

With Comet Ison on the horizon (but out of sight until it finishes looping around the Sun), I thought it might be fun to re-run what I wrote here in 1997 (in my blog-before-there-were-blogs), about the last great comet to grace Earth’s skies. — Doc


 

Ordinary Miracles:
Start Your Day With Comet Hale-Bopp

Hale-Bopp

Graphic by Dr. Dale Ireland, whose excellent comet page is here.


By Doc Searls
March 6, 1997

It’s 5:15AM as I write this. A few minutes ago, after the kid woke us for his breakfast, I walked to the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. When I arrived at the sink, I looked up and saw the most amazing thing: Hale-Bopp, the comet, brighter than any star, hanging from the Northeast sky over San Francisco Bay.

I’ve seen five comets in my life. None have been more spectacular than this one is, right now. It’s astonishing. Trust me: this one is a Star of Bethlehem-grade mother of a comet.

Considering the comet’s quality, publicity has been kind of weak. Which makes sense, since I have noticed an inverse relationship between comet quality and notoriety.

KahoutekThe most promoted comet in recent history was Kahoutek, in 1971. Kahoutek was supposed to be the biggest comet since Halley last appeared in 1910. But after all the hype, Kahoutek was nearly invisible. I can’t even say I saw it. At least I can say Ilooked and that maybe I saw something. (But hey, I lived in Jersey at the time. Whaddaya ‘spect?)

Comet WEstIn fact, Kahoutek was such a big no-show that when Comet West appeared in 1975, it received almost no publicity at all. But it was a wonderful comet. First it appeared as a morning star with a bright little tail about one moon long, above the Eastern horizon. Then, after it whipped around the Sun and flew back out toward its own tail, the comet spread into a wide V that graced the evening sky like God’s own logo. At the time I lived in a rural enclave outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and every night for several weeks a few of us would wander out and marvel at the show.

HalleyThe next comet was Halley, in 1986. Astronomers had rightly mixed feelings about Halley. On the one hand, they knew this would be one of Halley’s least visible visits. On the other hand, they knew it would raise interest in astronomy. Well, Halley was nearly as big a bust as Kahoutek. At best the “Great Comet” was a tiny smudge in the sky. Can you see it in this picture? Right. My friend Jerry Solfvin and I had about the same luck when we joined a 3AM traffic jam of about 10,000 people who went to the far side of Mt. Diablo to look at this. By the way, this picture is from the Hyuktuke Gallery at the NEFAS (Northeast Florida Astronomical Society) site.

Comet Hyuktake showed up about a year ago, and enough time had passed since the Halley disappointment to allow the new comet a fair measure of publicity. And Hyuktake was a beauty. When it skirted the North Star, the comet’s tail stretched across a sixth of the sky. The best image I’ve found is this cool 3-D number by Dave Crum. Click on it to visit a larger version at the NEFAS site.

And now we have Hale-Bopp. Although Hale-Bopp won’t come nearly as close to Earth as Hyuktake did, it’s putting on a bigger show, mostly because it’s a bigger comet. lot bigger. This thing is more than 200 times larger than Halley: about 40km across. You can actually see some shape to it, even with the naked eye. To spot it, look to the Northeast in the early morning, when it’s still dark. You’ll see it below and to the left of Cygnus (the Northern Cross), pointing straignt down toward the horizon. It’ll be brighter than any other star in the sky, and with a tail that stretches across the Milky Way. On the 6th you’ll also see the last sliver of moon down to the East, and on succeeding days the moon will move out of the way long enough for a great view.

Finally, let’s not forget the kid, who was born between Hyuktake and Hale-Bopp. In this context the miracle of his arrival (to parents our age) seems almost ordinary.

Anyway, it might be fun to find the publicity coefficient of modern comets that at least get a little press. If the relationship is inverse, as I suspect, consider this modest page a bit of publicity prosthesis.

And don’t miss it. This may be the last comet you ever see.


Bonus links from the present:

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