Life

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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.

You can’t sled on slush

I grew up on Woodland Avenue in Maywood, New Jersey, a few miles west of where I am now in New York City. Flexible flyerThe street was unremarkable, except when it snowed. Then the town would often block it off, so kids could sled on it. It wasn’t a big hill — just an ideal one for sledding: steep at the top, with a long glide path. With a good start you could ride your Flexible Flyer down past Garden, Cole and Elm Streets, all the way to Cole’s Brook. On the other side of that was Borg’s Woods, which was then owned by the Borg Family. They had a steep back yard behind their house on Summit Avenue in Hackensack, and kindly encouraged neighborhood kids to sled there.

So snow was a big deal for us, and still is for me. I love it. Alas, too often Winter forecasts in New York went like this: “Snow, changing to rain.”

Well, that’s what happened today in New York. We had a beautiful snowy day before it turned into rain and worse. For the last hour or so we’ve also had lightning, thunder and hail. The result is thick white slop, atop the frozen and half-thawed mess left over from the last storm. Here is how it looks right now at Weather.com:

I am sure there are kids in Maywood (and all over the East Coast) who wish the snow didn’t turn to slush today. My inner kid knows how they feel. (I’m also hoping my grandkids in Baltimore fared better. They got a bunch of snow today too — I think with less rain.

(By the way, our original Flexible Flyer looked just like the one above, only a bit longer. It could seat three or four kids. And nobody ever wore helmets.)

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.

 

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.)

Grandma Searlsfootstone says “1882 -  ” and is hardly and overstatement. She died pushing 108 in 1990, and was lucid, loving and strong in all the ways that matter.

She was one of four sisters in her family. That’s them, with their dad, on the left. Grandma is the one on the bottom right.

My father was one of three sibs, with two sisters, Ethel and Grace. My mom was one of three sisters and one brother. My wife is one of six sisters, plus two brothers. All those women were, and are, strong too. (Grace is now 101 and doing great.) My sister (Commander in the U.S. Navy), daughters and granddaughter too. Love ‘em all.

It’s Grandma’s birthday tomorrow, her 131st. It’s my wife’s birthday today. My daughter’s was yesterday. (Also JP Rangaswami‘s and RageBoy‘s.) So here’s a toast to all of them — and especially to the strong women who have been raising me all my life.

Hart Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hart Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a haunting history. Another excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and these from his second:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Route 66A year ago I entered the final demographic. So far, so good.

@Deanland texted earlier, asking if I had a new affinity with WFAN, the New Yawk radio station that radiates at 660 on what used to be the AM “dial.” Back when range mattered, WFAN was still called WNBC, and its status as a “clear channel” station was non-trivial. At night clear channel stations could be heard up to thousands of miles away on a good radio. Other stations went off the air to clear the way for these beacons of raw 50,000-watt power. As a kid I listened to KFI from Los Angeles in the wee hours and in California I sometimes got WBZ from Boston. Now even “clears” like WFAN are protected only to 750 miles away, which means any or all of these stations also on 660 splatter over each other. Reminds me of a fake ad I did once back when I was at WSUS: All the world’s most beautiful music, all at once. We overdubbed everything we could onto one track.

Funny, a few months back my 16-year old son asked what the point of “range” was with radio. He’s a digital native who is used to being zero distance from everybody else on the Net, including every broadcaster.

He made his point when we were driving from Boston to New York on a Sunday afternoon last month, listening to the only radio show he actually cares about: All A Capella on WERS. While WERS is one of Boston’s smaller stations, it has a good signal out to the west, so we got it nearly to Worcester. Then, when it went away, the kid pulled out the family iPad, which has a Net connection over the cell system, got WERS’ stream going, and we listened to the end of the show, somewhere in Connecticut, with the iPad jacked into the car radio, sounding great.

Meanwhile here I am with a giant pile of trivia in my brain about how AM and FM broadcasting works. It’s like knowing about steam engines.

But mostly I keep living in the future. That’s why I’m jazzed that both VRM and personal cloud development is rocking away, in many places. Following developments took me on three trips to Europe in May and June, plus two to California and one to New Zealand and Australia. Lots of great stuff going on. It’s beyond awesome to have the opportunity to help move so much good stuff forward.

Speaking of distance, the metaphor I like best, for the birthday at hand, is “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” Composed in the ’40s by Bobby Troup, the jazz composer and actor, it has been covered by approximately everybody in the years since. The Nelson Riddle sound track for the TV show Route 66 was evocative in the extreme: one of the best road tunes ever written and performed. In addition to that one I have ten other versions:

  • Erich Kunzel
  • John Mayer
  • Chuck Berry
  • Nat King Cole
  • The Cramps
  • The Surfaris
  • Oscar Peterson & Manhattan Transfer
  • Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby
  • Manhattan Transfer
  • Asleep at the Wheel

My faves are the last two. I’ll also put in a vote for Danny Gatton‘s Cruisin’ Deuces, which runs Nelson Riddle’s beat and muted trumpet through a rockabilly template of Danny’s own, and just kicks it.

Anyway, my birthday is happy, so far. Thanks for all the good wishes coming in.

Springing in Paris

Parc de la Villette

That’s the Parc de la Villette, also variously known as Parc La Villette, Parc Villette, or just Villette, here in Paris. I shot it two days ago, when we got here and the weather was clear. It got cloudy and wet after that. But it looks like things will clear up for:::::

OuiShareFest

From the About page:

The first major European event dedicated to the collaborative economy.

This three-day festival will bring together a global community of entrepreneurs, designers, makers, economists, investors, politicians and citizens to build a collaborative future.
Paris, May 2-3-4, 2013.

Not just another business conference.

Co-designed with its community, OuiShare Fest will feature a wide range of hands-on activities and great live music.
Day 1-2 will gather 500 professionals and public officials.
Day 3 will be free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

I’ll be speaking there on Friday morning at 9:30. The title: Markets are Relationships. I’ll be there for most of the rest of the show too. Great line-up of topics, speakers and attendees. After that, it’s Silicon Valley for IIW.

See ya theres.

 

The history of computing over the last 30 years is one of lurches forward every time individuals got the power to do what only big enterprises could do previously — and to do a much better job of it.

It happened when computing got personal in the ’80s.

It happened when networking got personal in the ’90s.

It happened when both together got mobile and personal in the ’00s.

And it will happen with personal data as well in the ’10s.

We as individuals will be able to do more with our own data than big enterprises can. Meanwhile, nearly all the “big data” jive today is about what only big companies can do. Yet we’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends: with individuals winning, because they were better equipped. And we know the big companies will win too, because they are comprised of individuals. Both will end up doing what only they can do best.

This is why Big Data needs the modern equivalent of the PC, the Internet and the mobile phone: an invention that mothers necessity.

I think that invention is the personal cloud. All we — today’s developers — need to do now is build a good and compelling personal cloud. Or a choice of them. Once that happens, and people start using them, the big companies (and government agencies) of the world will cave in and release personal data that they clutch like a treasure, thinking that only Big Solutions to their Big Data problems, from Big Vendors, will do the job. They caved in on computing when they embraced PCs, on networking when they embraced the Internet, and on mobility when they embraced smartphones and tablets.

I could be wrong, but I’ve made the same prediction three times already. This is the fourth. To me, the only question that matters is: How?

Some pretty cool startups and open source dev groups will vet their answers at IIW. See ya there.

When you see an ad for Budweiser on TV, you know who paid for it and why it’s there. You also know it isn’t personal, because it’s brand advertising.

But when you see an ad on a website, do you know what it’s doing there? Do you know if its there just for you, or if it’s for anybody? Hard to tell.

However, if it’s an ad for a camera showingng up right after you visited some photography sites, it’s a pretty good guess you’re being tracked. It’s also likely you are among millions who are creeped out by the knowledge that they’re being tracked.

On the whole, the tracking-driven online advertising business (aka “adtech”) assumes that you have given permission to be followed, at least implicitly. This is one reason tracking users and targeting them with personalized ads is more normative than ever online today. But there is also a growing concern that personal privacy lines are not only being crossed, but trampled.

Ad industry veterans are getting creeped out too, because they know lawmakers and regulators will be called on for protection. That’s the case George Simpson — an ad industry insider — makes in  Suicide by Cookies, where he starts with the evidence:

Evidon measured sites across the Internet and found the number of web-tracking tags from ad servers, analytics companies, audience-segmenting firms, social networks and sharing tools up 53% in the past year. (The ones in Mandarin were probably set by the Chinese army.) But only 45% of the tracking tools were added to sites directly by publishers. The rest were added by publishers’ partners, or THEIR partners’ partners.

Then he makes a correct forecast government intervention, and concludes with this:

I have spent the better part of the last 15 years defending cookie-setting and tracking to help improve advertising. But it is really hard when the prosecution presents the evidence, and it has ad industry fingerprints all over it — every time. There was a time when “no PII” was an acceptable defense, but now that data is being compiled and cross-referenced from dozens, if not hundreds, of sources, you can no longer say this with a straight face. And we are way past the insanity plea.

I know there are lots of user privacy initiatives out there to discourage the bad apples and get all of the good ones on the same page. But clearly self-regulation is not working the way we promised Washington it would.

I appreciate the economics of this industry, and know that it is imperative to wring every last CPM out of every impression — but after a while, folks not in our business simply don’t care anymore, and will move to kill any kind of tracking that users don’t explicitly opt in to.

And when that happens, you can’t say, “Who knew?”

To get ahead of the regulatory steamroller, the ad business needs two things. One is transparency. There isn’t much today. (See Bringing Manners to Marketing at Customer Commons.) The other is permission. It can’t only be presumed. It has to be explicit.

We — the targets of adtech — need to know the provenance of an ad, at a glance. It should be as clear as possible when an ad is personal or not, when it is tracking-based or not, and whether it’s permitted. That is, welcomed. (More about that below.)

This can be done symbolically. How about these:

 means personalized.

↳ means tracking-based.

☌ means permitted.

I picked those out of a character viewer. There are hundreds of these kinds of things. It really doesn’t matter what they are, so long as people can easily, after awhile, grok what they mean.

People are already doing their own policy development anyway, by identifying and blocking both ads and tracking, through browser add-ons and extensions. Here are mine for Firefox, on just one of my computers:

All of these, in various ways, give me control over what gets into my browser. (In fact the Evidon research cited above was gained by Ghostery, which is an Evidon product installed in millions of browsers. So I guess I helped, in some very small way.)

Speaking of permission, now would be a good time to revisit Permission Marketing, which Seth Godin published in May 1999,  about the same time The Cluetrain Manifesto also went up. Here’s how Seth compressed the book’s case nine years later.

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

Real permission is different from presumed or legalistic permission. Just because you somehow get my email address doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because it’s in the fine print of your privacy policy doesn’t mean it’s permission either.

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went.

Real permission is what’s needed here. It’s what permission marketing has always been about. And it’s what VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) is about as well.

Brand advertising is permitted in part because it’s not personal. Sometimes it is even liked.. The most common example of that is Super Bowl TV ads. But a better example is magazines made thick with brand ads that are as appealing to readers as the editorial content. Fashion magazines are a good example of that.

Adtech right now is not in a demand market on the individual’s side. In fact, judging from the popularity of ad-blocking browser extensions, there is a lot of negative demand. According to ClarityRay, 9.23% of all ads were blocked by users surveyed a year ago. That number is surely much higher today.

At issue here is what economists call signaling — a subject about which Don Marti has written a great deal over the last couple of years. I visit the subject (with Don’s help) in this post at Wharton’s Future of Advertising site, where contributors are invited to say where they think advertising will be in the year 2020. My summary paragraph:

Here is where this will lead by 2020: The ability of individuals to signal their intentions in the marketplace will far exceed the ability of corporations to guess at those intentions, or to shape them through advertising. Actual relationships between people and processes on both sides of the demand-supply relationship will out-perform today’s machine-based guesswork by advertisers, based on “big data” gained by surveillance. Advertising will continue to do what it has always done best, which is to send clear signals of the advertiser’s substance. And it won’t be confused with its distant relatives in the direct response marketing business.

I invite everybody reading this to go there and jump in.

Meanwhile, consider this one among many olive branches that need to be extended between targets — you and me — and the advertisers targeting us.

 

Aaron Swartz died yesterday, a suicide at 26. I always felt a kinship with Aaron, in part because we were living demographic bookends. At many of the events we both attended, at least early on, he was the youngest person there, and I was the oldest. When I first met him, he was fourteen years old, and already a figure in the industry, in spite of his youth and diminutive stature at the time. Here he is with Dave Winer, I believe at an O’Reilly conference in San Jose:

It’s dated May 2002, when Aaron was fifteen. That was the same year I booked him for a panel at Comdex in Las Vegas. His mom dropped him off, and his computer was an old Mac laptop with a broken screen that was so dim that I couldn’t read it, but he could. He rationalized it as a security precaution. Here’s a photo, courtesy of Mary Wehmeier. Here’s another I love, from the same Berkman Center set that also contains the one above:

All those are permissively licensed for re-use via Creative Commons, which Aaron helped create before he could shave.

Aaron’s many other passions and accomplishments are well-described elsewhere, but the role he chose to play might be best described by Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing: “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” Cory also writes, “Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

I hope that’s true. But it would have had a much better chance if he were still here doing what he did best. We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.

[Later...] Larry Lessig makes the case that Aaron was driven to end his life by the prospect of an expensive trial, due to start soon, and the prospect of prison and worse if he lost the case and its appeals. Writes Larry ,

[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.  And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

One word, and endless tears.

[Later again, 13 January, Sunday morning...] Official Statement from the family and partner of Aaron Swartz is up at http://RememberAaronSw.tumblr.com. Here it is, entire:

Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

Funeral and other details follow at the bottom of that post, which concludes, Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com.

Also, via @JPBarlow: “Academics, please put your PDFs online in tribute to @aaronsw. Use #pdftribute.” Here’s the backstory.

A memorial tweet from Tim Berners Lee (@TimBerners_Lee): Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.

Some links, which I’ll keep adding as I can:

Tags:

A new window of the sole

monofocal interocular lens“I see,” we say, when we mean “I understand.” To make something “clear” is to make it vivid and unmistakable to the mind’s eye. There are no limits to the ways sight serves as metaphor for many good and necessary things in life. The importance of vision, even for the sightless (who still use language), is beyond full accounting. As creatures we are exceptionally dependent on vision. For us upright walkers sight is, literally and figuratively, out topmost sense.

It is also through our eyes that we express ourselves and make connections with each other. That eyes are windows of the soul is so well understood, and so often said, that no one author gets credit for it.

Yet some of us are more visual than others. Me, for example. One might think me an auditory or kinesthetic type, but in fact I am a highly visual learner. That’s one reason photography is so important to me. Of the many ways I study the world, vision is foremost, and always has been.

But my vision has been less than ideal for most of my adult life. When I was a kid it was exceptional. I liked to show off my ability to read license plates at great distances. But in college, when I finally developed strong study habits, I began getting nearsighted. By the time I graduated, I needed glasses. At 40 I was past minus-2 dioptres for both eyes, which is worse than 20/150. That was when I decided that myopia, at least in my case, was adaptive, and I stopped wearing glasses as much as possible. Gradually my vision improved. In 1999, when the title photo of this blog was taken, I was down to about 1.25 dioptres, or 20/70. A decade later I passed eye tests at the DMV and no longer required corrective lenses to drive. (Though I still wore them, with only a half-dioptre or so of correction, plus about the same for a slight astigmatism. They eye charts said I was then at about 20/25 in both eyes.

My various eye doctors over the years told me reversal of myopia was likely due to cataracts in my lenses. Whether or not that was the case, my cataracts gradually got worse, especially in my right eye, and something finally needed to be done.

So yesterday the lens in my right eye was replaced. That one was, in the words of the surgeon, “mature.” Meaning not much light was getting through it. The left eye is still quite functional, and the cataract remains, for now, mild.

Cataract surgery has become a routine outpatient procedure. The prep takes about an hour, but the work itself is over in fifteen minutes, if nothing goes wrong, which it usually doesn’t. But my case was slightly unusual, because I have a condition called pseudoexfoliation syndrome, or PEX, which presents some challenges to the surgery itself.

As I understand it, PEX is dandruff of the cornea, and the flakes do various uncool things, such as clog up the accordion-like pleats of the iris, so the eye sometimes doesn’t dilate quickly or well in response to changing light levels. But the bigger risk is that these flakes sometimes weaken zonules, which are what hold the lens in place. Should those fail, the lens may drop into the back of the eye, where a far more scary and complicated procedure is required to remove it, after which normal cataract surgery becomes impossible.

In the normal version, the surgeon makes a small incision at the edge of the cornea, and then destroys and removes the old lens with through a process called phaceomulsification. He or she then inserts an intraocular lens, or IOL, like the one above. In most cases, it’s a monofocal lens. This means you no longer have the capacity to focus, so you need to choose the primary purpose you would like your new lens to support.  Most choose looking at distant things, although some choose reading or using a computer screen. Some choose to set one eye for distance and the other for close work. Either way you’ll probably end up wearing glasses for some or all purposes. I chose distance, because I like to drive and fly and look at stars and movie screens and other stuff in the world that isn’t reading-distance away.

The doctor’s office measured the dimensions of my eye and found that I wouldn’t need any special corrections in the new lens, such as for astigmatism — that in fact, my eyes, except for the lens, are ideally shaped and quite normal. It was just the lenses that looked bad. They also found no evidence of glaucoma or other conditions that sometime accompany PEX. Still, I worried about it, which turned out to be a waste, because the whole thing went perfectly. (It did take awhile to get my iris to fully dilate, but that was the only hitch.)

What’s weird about the surgery is that you’re awake and staring straight forward while they do all this. They numb the eye with topical anesthetic, and finally apply a layer of jelly. (They actually call it that. “Okay, now layer on the jelly,” the doctor says.) Thanks to intravenous drugs, I gave a smaller shit than I normally would have, but I was fully conscious the whole time. More strangely, I had the clear sense of standing there on my retina, looking up at the action as if in the Pantheon, watching the hole in its dome. I could see and hear the old lens being emulsified and sucked away, and then saw the new lens arriving like a scroll in a tube, all curled up. As the doctor put it in place, I could see the lens unfurl, and studied one of the curved hair-like springs that holds it in place. Shortly after that, the doctor pronounced the thing done. Nurses cleaned me up, taped a clear shield over my eye, and I was ready to go.

By evening the vision through that eye became clearer than through my “good” left eye. By morning everything looked crystalline. In my follow-up visit, just 24 hours after the surgery, my vision was 20/20. Then, after the doctor relieved a bit of pressure that had built up inside the cornea, it was better than that — meaning the bottom line of the eye chart was perfectly clear.

Now it’s evening of Day 2, and I continue to be amazed at how well it’s going. My fixed eye is like a new toy. It’s not perfect yet, and may never be; but it’s so much clearer than what I saw before — and still see with my left eye — that I’m constantly looking at stuff, just to see the changes.

The only nit right now is  little rays around points of light, such as stars. But the surgeon says this is due to a bit of distortion in my cornea, and that it will vanish in a week or so.

The biggest difference I notice is color. It is now obvious that I haven’t seen pure white in years. When I compare my left and right eyes, everything through my left — the one with the remaining cataract — has a sepia tint. It’s like the difference between an old LCD screen and a new LED one. As with LED screens, whites and blues are especially vivid.

Amazingly, my computer and reading glasses work well enough, since the correction for my left eye is still accurate and the one for my right one isn’t too far off. For driving I removed the right lenses from my distance glasses, since only the left eye now needs correction.

But the experience of being inside my eye watching repairs in the space of the eye alone — sticks with me. All vision is in the brain, of course, and the world we see is largely a set of descriptions we project from the portfolio of things we already know. We can see how this works when we disconnect raw sensory perception from our descriptive engines. This is what happens with LSD. As I understand it (through study and not experience, alas), LSD disconnects the world we perceive from the nouns and verbs we use to describe it. So do other hallucinogens.

So did I actually see what I thought I saw? I believe so, but I don’t know. I had studied the surgical procedure before going into it, so I knew much of what was going on. Maybe I projected it. Either way, that’s over. Now I don’t see that new lens, but rather the world of light refracting through it. That world is more interesting than my own, by a wider margin than before yesterday. It’s a gift I’m enjoying to the fullest.

On the way back from a concert in Brooklyn yesterday we shared the subway with a well-known filmmaker. He’s one of those people who look ordinary enough to blend in with the rest of us, which is lucky for him. Still, he’s not anonymous. We know his name. We’ve seen his movies. We also did our best not to pay him special attention. That is, to let him have the form of privacy we call anonymity. Even if he is hardly anonymous.

I thought it was cool that he took the subway rather than a taxi. There was a woman with him, obviously a friend. They had an energetic conversation. His voice also was familiar. She got off one stop before he did, a couple stops later.

Our home base since ’01 has been Santa Barbara. If you hang out on State Street in Santa Barbara, or on Coast Village or Valley Road in Montecito, you’re bound to run into celebrities fairly often, since lots of them live there. The correct and courteous thing to do is ignore them: to pretend, as best you can, that they have not made the Faustian trade of anonymity for fame. I’ve known a few celebs in my time and without exception they’ve found being known to everybody mostly a drag.

This stuff is close to my mind these days because privacy is a Big Issue. See, online we are all celebrities to the advertising personalizers. That’s why sites plant cookies and tracking beacons in our browsers to follow us around like invisible paparazzi. Fixing it won’t be easy; but we will fix it, sooner or later. Simple courtesy demands it. And it is on simple courtesies that civilization stands.

This is a hard one to write. Peter Sklar, the founder, editor and chief-everything of Edhat, Santa Barbara’s original onine daily, has died.

Peter was the Steve Jobs of placeblogging. Like Steve, he was an original genius and nobody’s fool. He could be prickly and sarcastic, and he did things his way. He was also a fun guy, great to hang out with and to talk to at any depth on any subject. Thus, in character, he had a clear and steady vision of local journalism that was equally serious and felicitous — a combination that served as a model for placeblogs across the country.

What made Edhat so wonderful, from the start, was Peter’s light touch. There was always gentleness, humor, and a strong aesthetic sense of what’s right for the town, its people, its businesses, its unique and quirky civic qualities. Peter wrote most of Edhat in the early days, and I assume until recently as well. Edhat’s voice has remained Peter’s, always been a delight to read.

As an original and highly principled genius, Peter could be less than sweet to others he thought were horning in on his turf, either with competing publications or with the larger concepts of placeblogging and journalism. (In fact, Peter liked neither the term “blogging” nor any of the blogging or content management systems in the market. As an alpha programmer, he home-brewed Edhat from the start. He also did it on old versions of Windows, which drove me nuts as an open source and Linux guy.*) But again, the main thing with Peter was fun. It says something that, among all the advice we gave him back in Edhat’s formative years, the one piece he took was holding a party. When I get a chance later I’ll dig up and share the pictures. Meanwhile, here’s how Craig Smith, another friend and local blogger, describes Peter and his work:

A mathematician by training and a dedicated runner, Peter always struck me as being quirky (kind of like Edhat) and he could at times be temperamental. He liked numbers (as in, “we counted the number of horses in the Fiesta parade”) and he liked rules. (Ever notice how many rules there are about posting comments on Edhat?) He could fairly have been described as a my-way-or-the-highway type guy. But you could also say that about Steve Jobs. But like Jobs, Peter was a genius at what he did. Never mind that guys like me didn’t like some of his rules about what kind of stories Edhat would link to (he would link to news stories but not “opinion pieces” or newspaper columns) or the fact that the comments section on Edhat often seemed to be in need of some serious adult supervision, Peter always knew what his community of readers wanted and he made sure that they got it.

With newspapers on the decline, Peter was a champion of “citizen journalism” and Edhat was a place where a lot of breaking news in this town first got (and still gets) reported. And many times that reporting is done by the Edhat community of readers. Skeptical of mainstream media, he once told me, “Remember, the word ‘professional’ only means that they are getting paid.”

It’s meaningful that Craig and I both compare Peter to Steve. (Note: I didn’t see Craig’s post until I started writing this one.)

I only got the news about Peter over breakfast a few minutes ago, from my wife, who knew him better than I did. It clobbered us both. Santa Barbara is home for us, but our work takes us elsewhere so much that we don’t get to see our friends there often enough. I was looking forward to catching up with Peter on our next return to town over the holidays. Even though I kept up with Santa Barbara through Edhat, I missed learning that Peter had been sick with inoperable brain cancer for over a year. Now he leaves a huge hole in our hearts, an in our town.

But Edhat lives, and not just in Santa Barbara. I can’t begin to tell you how much tenacity and grace it takes to do what Peter and his crew have done with Edhat.

Here’s a picture Peter and Molly, in a nice obituary by The Independent, the local weekly paper (and a competitor with whom Peter enjoyed a happy symbiosis). And another, by Leah Etling, who worked with Peter at Edhat. More at KEYT, Noozhawk and the Santa Barbara Review. Also this from David Powdrell.

Our hearts are with Sue, Nick, Zack, Molly and the larger Edhat family, including the great town Peter left better than he found it.

* Few know that “Edhat” as a name actually had a Linux connection. Maybe you can guess it.

Strays Amid Rome Set Off a Culture Clash says The New York Times. On one side, archaeologists who wish to save ruins from occupation by cats. On the other side, the cats’ lovers, including tourists who marvel more at the abundance of serene kittehs, lounging atop walls and columns than at the historic site itself:  a place called Largo di Torre Argentina, or just “Argentina” to the locals.

It looks like Rome’s exposed basement, excavated down to one floor below street level. The broken-down walls and columns of Argentina contain no less than four Republican Roman temples and a corner of Pompey’s Theatre, beside which Julius Caesar was assassinated — perhaps within this very space. The whole thing lies within the Campus Martius, of which the main surviving structure is the nearby Pantheon.

I was there with the family two summers ago, and shot some kitteh pictures. To help anybody who wants pix for their own kitteh-vs-whomever stories, I’ve put those shots in a photo set here. All are Creative Commons licensed for attribution only (the least restrictive license available on Flickr).

Hurricane flag

7:30am Tuesday morning: I can tell the storm is over by tuning in to the Weather Channel and finding it back to the normally heavy load of ads, program promotions and breathless sensationalism. So I’ll turn ya’ll back over to your irregularly scheduled programs. Rock on.

11:14pm The Weather Channel just said 4.1 million homes are without power now. The numbers bounce around. For a good list of outages, check with Edward Vielmetti’s blog.

11:07pm Bitly stats for this page  http://hvrd.me/YerGzj). Interesting: 442 clicks, 30 shares. Below, two comments other than my only one. Life in the vast lane, I guess. FWIW, I can’t see stats for this site, and generally don’t care about them; but I put some work into this post and the list over at Trunk Line, so some feedback is helpful.

10:48pm When you look up “Sandy” on Bing images, shouldn’t you see at least one hurricane picture? Instead, a sea of pretty faces. Here’s Sandy + hurricane. Credit where due: I can figure a way to shorten the tracking cruft out of the URL with Bing. Not so with Google’s Sandy search, which looks like … well, I killed it, because it f’d up this page royally. Please, Google, have mercy. Make the search URL’s sensible again.

10:42pm Glad I stayed in Boston, with power running and a solid Verizon FiOS fiber connection (25mbps upstream and down), right through the storm. Looks like the New York place is powerless right now, and the Verizon DSL connection there is awful even in good weather. Got lots of stuff to do here too, through Thursday.

9:54pm TV stations with live streams online:

In a city-by-city rundown, Hartford wins with four stations, Washington and New York is second with three each, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia come in third with one station each, and Providence loses, with no live stations online at all. (Thanks for the corrections, which I keep adding.)

All the CBSlocal.com stations have “listen live.” C’mon, guys. You’re TV stations.

Some TV stations, e.g. WFXT in Boston, have pages so complicated that they don’t load (again, for me). On the whole, everybody’s site is waaay too complicated. At times like this they need three things:

  1. Live video
  2. Rivers of news
  3. Links to files of stories already run

Better yet, they should just have an emergency page they bring up for crises, since it’s obviously too hard for many of them to tweak their complicated (often crap-filled) CMSes (Content Management Systems) to become truly useful when real news hits the fan.

9:50pm When you go to bed tonight in #Sandy territory, take the good advice of Ready.gov, with one additional point I picked up in California for earthquake prep: have shoes nearby, and upside down, so they don’t take glass if any breaks nearby.

9:46pm What’s the ad load right now on the Weather Channel? Usually it seems like it has more ads than programming. Clearly there is less advertising now. How much less? Are the advertisers paying more? Anybody know the answers?

9:37pm A moment of calm. Rain slowing. intellicast map

The current weather map, via Intellicast, on the right. Note the snow and ice in West Virginia. Eye-less, #Sandy is currently spinning around the juncture of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. BTW, this is Intellicast’s “old” map, which I like better.

9:29pm A friend runs outage totals from many sources:

  • Total out 3,0639,62:
  • Maine 65,817
  • New Hampshire 120,687
  • Vermont 14,482
  • Massachusetts 378,034
  • Connecticut 254643
  • New York 836,931
  • New Jersey 929,507
  • Pennsylvania
  • Delaware
  • Maryland 279,396
  • Virginia 118,766
  • DC 16,608
  • West Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio 49,091
  • Michigan
  • Illinois

With so many blank TBDs, the numbers must be higher.

9:18pm Please, radio stations, stop streaming in highly proprietary formats (e.g. Silverlight and Windows Media) that require annoying user installs (which won’t work on some platforms, e.g. Linux). Right now I’d like to listen to WOND in Atlantic City, but it wants me to get Silverlight. Not happening.

9:12 Via @WhoaNancyLynn, boardwalklooks like the Boardwalk is without boards in Atlantic City. Bonus link from Philly.com.

9:06 Water covering the runway at LaGuardia, says the Weather Channel. (Which I’m still watching here in Boston over our Dish TV connection in Santa Barbara. Amazing how solid it has been.)

8:54 Added newspapers to the list of sources at Trunk Line.

8:49 Courant: More than 500,000 without power in Connecticut. Boston Globe: 350,ooo out in Mass. Weather Channel: “More than 3 million without power.” Kind of amazed our house isn’t among those. Winds have been just as big in gusts as the microburst from last summer, which caused this damage here. One big difference: leaves. Fall was post-peak to begin with, and remaining color has mostly been blown away. In the summer, trees weren’t ready to give up their leaves, and many got blown over or torn up.

8:03 Just heard Con Edison has shut down the power in lower Manhattan. Con Ed outage map“Completely dark down toward Wall Street.” No specific reports on the Con Ed site. But here’s an outage map (on the right).

7:56 Listening to WCAI (Cape and Islands radio), on which I hear locals saying that things aren’t as bad as had been expected.

7:54 The Christian Science Monitor has a story on the sinking of the Bounty off Cape Hatteras. Two crew are still missing. What was it doing out in that storm? The story says they left Connecticut last week for Florida and was in touch with the National Hurricane Center; but Sandy was already on the radar then, wasn’t it? Maybe not. Dunno. In any case, bad timing.

7:38 Heard a loud pop across the street, followed by a flickering orange light between the houses, and reflected on the windows. Wondering if a fire had started I went out in the wind and rain, found it was nothing and got thoroughly soaked — and almost hit by a car. This is a quiet street that should have no traffic under the conditions, but there it was. Fortunately, we spotted each other just in time.

7:33 Curious: what’s up with JFK, LGA,EWR, BOS. If the seas rise enough, some runways may be under water. But… haven’t heard anything yet.

7:31 Water continues to rise, etc. Yet… Not seeing or hearing about any Big Disasters. The Weather Channel is reporting lots of storm surge levels, all-time records… but no unusual damage reports yet.  Their reporters are still standing on dunes, walking on sea-walls. In a real big-time storm surge, they’d be long gone, along with geology and structures. You can almost hear a bit of disappointment for lack of devastation to show. “We still have hours and hours and hours left…” Translation: “and time to fill.”

7:28 @TWCbreaking: “The water level at the Battery in #NYC has reached 11.25 feet, surpassing the all-time record of 11.2 feet set in 1821.#Sandy

7:25 Big winds, long ping times over my FiOS connection.

7:21 List of mainstream live media covering #Sandy.

7:17 I wonder if the main effects of #Sandy will be like #Irene‘s: while most of the media attention was on the coast, Vermont was quietly destroyed.

7:12pm The Weather Channel just said that #Sandy has lost her (or is it his?) hurricane status, and is now just a “superstorm.” I also notice that Crane 9 quit reporting winds at 4pm. :-( Meanwhile Huffpo says on Twitter than #Sandy has it down.

6:41pm Here’s a “before” shot of the crane on 57th Street that’s now broken. (@DaveWiner has a closer shot here.) I took it on 27 August. Between staying in hotels (e.g. the Salisbury, twice), going to meetings, shopping and other stuff, I’ve gone back and forth in front of this construction site more times than I can count. So, naturally, I shot some pictures of it. Fun fodder: the OUT and IN liquid concrete vats that the crane hauled up and down for many months. These shots are Creative Commons licensed for attribution only, so feel free to re-use them.

6:22pm Just heard on the Weather Channel that up to 10 million people may be without power soon. This “will take a big bite out of retail in November.”

5:59pm Dark now. Just in time for the biggest winds yet. Whoa. House is shaking. Tree pieces flying by.

5:46pm More evidence that station-based radio is declining: the great WBZ, which still carries three of the most august call letters in radio history, is http://cbsboston.com on the Web and @cbsboston on Twitter. Same goes for CBS stations in Washington, New York and elsewhere. Clear Channel meanwhile is blurring all its station brands behind iHeartRadio.

5:43pm @WNYC reports that many of New York’s major bridges are soon to close. Earlier I heard on WBZ that toll booths are abandoned, so feel free to ride through without paying if you’re busy disobeying advice to stay off the roads.

5:22pm Five “creative newsjacks” of #Sandy by “savvy marketers”. At Hubspot. Explanation: “Newsjacking is the practice of capitalizing on the popularity of a news story to amplify your sales and marketing efforts. The term was popularized thanks to David Meerman Scott’s book Newsjacking.” All are, in the larger scheme, trivial, if not in bad taste. For that, nothing beats The Onion:

5:12pm Crane 9 in New Jersey (see the graphic below) now reports steady winds of 46mph from the northeast with peak gusts of 63mph.

4:45pm I have some “before” shots of the crane that broke on 57th Street. I’ll put those up soon.

4:40pm Right now we have the highest winds since a microburst in July took out hundreds of trees in a matter of seconds across East Arlington, Mass. Here’s a photo tour of the damage that I took at the time. In fact I have a lot more shots that I haven’t put up yet. I might do that when I get a break.

4:38pm A gust just peeled back some siding on the house across the street. Watched some pieces of trees across the street break off and fall.  The trees taking it hardest are the ones with leaves, which increases the wind loading. Interesting to see how the red maples give up their colored leaves while the black oaks do not. Same with the silver and norway maples. The leaves on those seem to resist detachment.

2:55pm Given the direction of the storm, it will continue longer in New England than elsewhere, even though the hit is not direct.

2:52pm Just heard a crane on W. 57th Street went down. That’s the site next to the Salisbury Hotel, I believe. Across from the Russian Tea Room.

2:45pm Now it’s getting scary here near Boston. Very high wind gusts, shaking the house, along with heavy rain. Check out the increasing peak winds at Crane 9 at the New York Container Terminal in New Jersey, on the right.

2:21pm Thinking about fluid dynamics and looking at a map of the New Jersey and Long Island coasts, which in two dimensions comprise a funnel, with Raritan Bay and New York Harbor at the narrow end. High tide will hit about 8pm tonight there. Given the direction of the storm, and the concentrating effects of the coastlines toward their convergence point, I would be very surprised if this doesn’t put some or all of the following under at least some water:

  • All three major airports: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark.
  • The New York Container Terminal.
  • The tower bases of New York’s AM radio stations. Most of them transmit from the New Jersey Meadows, because AM transmission works best on the most conductive ground, which is salt water. On AM, the whole tower radiates. That’s why a station with its base under water won’t stay on the air. At risk: WMCA/570, WSNR/620,  WOR/710, WNYC-AM/820,  WINS/1010, WEPN/1050, WBBR/1130, WLIB/1190, WADO/1280 and several others farther up the band. WFAN/660 and WCBS/880 share a tower on High Island in Long Island Sound by City Island, and I think are far enough above sea level. WMCA and WNYC share a three-tower rig standing in water next to Belleville Pike by the  New Jersey Turnpike and will be the first at risk.
  • [Later... According to this story, WINS was knocked off the air.]
  • [Later still... Scott Fybush's Northeast Radio Watch says WMCA and WNYC were knocked offAnd the WNYC site says it was knocked off too. He has a long list of silenced stations there.]

Funnel #2, right where the eye will hit: Delaware Bay. Watch out Philly/Camden/Wilmington.

Funnel #3, Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor.

1:03pm: I forgot to bring a portable radio, so I got a new little “travel radio” for $39.95 from Radio Shack, along with some re-chargeable batteries. After charging them overnight, I put the batteries in, and… nada. The clock comes on at 12:00, but nothing else happens. None of the buttons change anything. The time just advances forward from the imaginary noon. So, it’s useless. Oh well. I have other radios plugged into the wall. But if the power goes out, so do they.

12:48pm: In a crisis like #Sandy, one of the great failures of public television is exposed: there is almost no live local coverage of anything, despite a boundless abundance of presumably willing helpers in the Long Tail. Public TV’s connection with What’s Actually Happening is astoundingly low, and ironic given its name. Scheduled programs throb through the calendar with metronomic precision. About the only times they ever go live is during pledge breaks, which always give the impression of being the main form of programming. If they were as good at actual journalism as they are at asking for money*, they would kick ass. I’ve included local public stations in my list here. None of them are go-to sites for the public. I just scanned through them, and here’s the rundown:

  • Maryland Public Television displays no evidence that a hurricane is going on.
  • WHYY Philadelphia-Wilmington: Pointage to Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, which ran from 10-Noon today. The top Special Announcement is “Visit NewsWorks.org or follow @NewsWorksWHYY on Twitter for continuing coverage of Hurricane Sandy.”
  • WNET in New York is itself almost inert. But it does have links to its three broadcast outlet pages. thirteen.org in Metro Focus has a scary visual of likely flooding in New York, last updated at 7:38pm Sunday. WLIW, another of its stations, has the same pointage. That’s about it. Its NJTV site is a bit more current. They post this: “Committed to serving Garden State residents during what is predicted to be an exceptional storm in Hurricane Sandy, NJTV will provide updates throughout the day plus Gov. Chris Christie’s next press conference. Monday night, join Managing Editor Mike Schneider for full storm analysis during live NJ Today broadcasts at 6 pm, 7:30 and 11 pm. Residents can also expect ongoing weather-related news updates on the network’s Facebook andTwitter sites. NJTV is also planning a joint broadcast with WNET’s MetroFocus news program on Tuesday night at 9:30 pm, to assess the effect of the storm on the Tri-State area.” Can’t wait.
  • WETA in Washington, D.C. has exactly nothing. WHUT appears to be down.
  • CPBN, the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, has nothing.
  • WGBH in Boston points to a show about the great hurricane of ’38. Almost helpful, that.

* See Jan Hooks’ legendary Tammy Jean show on the old Tush program, which ran on Ted Turner’s original cable station back at the turn of the ’80s. It was a perfect parody of a low-end religious program that seemed to exist only for seeking money, which viewers were told to put in the “money font”: a fish bowl on a pedestal. Watch here, starting around 2:50 into the show. Bonus show, with the pitch point arriving about five minutes in.

12:43pm: Normally I’d be headed this afternoon to Jay Rosen‘s Studio 20 journalism class at NYU. But after NYU announced its closures yesterday,  I decided to stay here in Boston and report on what some corners of journalism are up to, as Sandy hits New York. To help with that, I’ve put up a roster of what I’m calling “infrastructural” sources, on Trunk Line, a blog that Christian Sandvig and I set up at the Berkman Center, and which is coming in handy right now. I have websites, feeds, radio and TV stations. Haven’t added newspapers yet. Stay tuned.

12:38pm: A Weather Channel reporter on the beach in Point Pleasant, New Jersey just said, live, “We’ve been told to get out of the shot. Sorry. Gotta cut it off.”

12:28pm: Getting our first strong wind gusts here, from the north. The fall colors, which were right at peak on our street, just flew past my window here in the attic.

12:19pm: We have no TV here at the Boston place. Normally I carry an EyeTV Hybrid thingie to watch over-the-air TV on a laptop, but the thingie is at our New York place (yes, we’re there too; just not now). But we have Dish Network back home in Santa Barbara, so that’s what I’m watching, over our iPad here in Boston, thanks to the Slingbox on the Dish set top box. (Which is actually in a hall cabinet, since “sets” these days don’t have tops. They have edges, none of which supports a box.) Consider the route here. TWC distributes to Dish over a 50,ooo mile round trip to a satellite. Then Dish sends the signal to Santa Barbara over another round trip through a satellite just as far away. Then I’m watching 3000 miles away over a wireless connection at our place in Boston. Credits en route go to Cox for the cable connection in Santa Barbara, and to Verizon FiOS for the connection here. This will work until the power goes out here.

12:12pm: Finally heard somebody on the Weather Channel mention that there is a full moon today, which means maximized tide swings. Here’s the tide chart for the Battery, at the lower end of Manhattan.

11:20am Weather Channel gets all ominous, sez InsideTV at Entertainment Weekly.

11:18a: Slate is on top of Frankenstorm coverage in the papers.

11:05am: Radio stations should list their stream URLs as clearly as they list their dial positions. None do. Some have many steams but not enough links. WNYC, for example, has a nice help page, but the links to the streams are buried in a pop-up menu titled “other formats” (than the “Listen Now” pop-up page).

11:00am: How New Nersey Broadcasters Have Prepared for Sandy, at RadioINK. It begins,

New Jersey Broadcasters Association President and CEO Paul Rotella tells Radio Ink stations in his state have been preparing for Hurricane Sandy since Friday. “This is a perfect example of how only  local radio and TV can provide the critical information our audiences need to know in times of emergency. Sure, you can get a “big picture” overview from some media sources, but our citizens need to know much more detailed and salient information that only local broadcasters can provide.”

No links. Anybody have evidence of that yet? I’m listening to WKXW, aka New Jersey 101.5, After a lot of ads, they have lots of weather-related closings, followed by live talk, where they’re talking about other media at the moment.

10:56am: I’ve put up a fairly comprehensive list of infrastructure-grade Sandy information sources over on the Trunk Line blog. Much of what I’ll write about here will come from checking over there. Note that all the TV and radio stations from DC to Boston carrying live (or nearly live) coverage are listed, plus a number of live streams from stations providing them.

NOAA has Sandy headed straight at New Jersey and Delaware. The Weather Channel has a prettier map:

I was going to go to New York today, but decided to stay around Cambridge instead. All the media are making dire sounds, and there is lots of stocking up going on. Home Depot, Costco, all the grocery stores have had packed parking lots all day. Schools are closed all over the East Coast. New York City is shutting down the subways and Mayor Bloomberg has advised everybody to stay inside. Huge storm surges are expected.

I’m a natural event freak, so I’m on the case, but also need some sleep, in the calm before The Storm. More in a few hours.

Toronto

Thanks to my hosts with the Conference Board of Canada, I got some excellent quality time in Toronto this week, including drinks and dinner, respectively, at the Horizons bar and the rotating 360 restaurant at the 1500-foot level of the CN Tower.

Of course, being the aerial photography freak that I am, I took a lot of pictures there, looking down on interesting infrastructure, building construction, and a skyline at sunset and after dark, viewed from the city’s highest landmark.

Here’s a slideshow of the whole series.

I started working in retailing, wholesaling, journalism and radio when I was 18-24. I co-founded an advertising agency when I was 25-34. Among other things there, I studied Nielsen and Arbitron ratings for radio and TV. The radio station I did most of that work for was an album rock station, one of the first, target demographic 18-34. It’s a country station now, target demographic, 25-54. Other “desirable” demographics for commercial media are 18-49 and 25-49. The demographic I entered between the last sentence and this one, 65+, is the last in the series and the last least desirable to marketers, regardless of the size of the population in it. Thus I have now fallen over the edge of a demographic cliff, at the bottom of which is nothing of interest to marketers, unless they’re selling the cushy human equivalent of parking lots. Cruises. Golf. “Lifestyle” communities. Gack.

For individuals, demographics are absurd. None of us are an age, much less a range of them. We’re animals who live and work and have fun and do stuff. Eventually we croak, but if we stay healthy we acquire wisdom and experience, and find ourselves more valuable over time. Though we’re less employable as we climb the high end of the demographic ladder, it’s  not because we can’t do the work. It’s mostly because we look old and our tolerance for bullshit is low. Even one’s own, sometimes.

Nearly 100% of the people I work with are younger than me, usually by a generation. Sometimes by two. I almost never feel old among them. Sometimes I joke about it, but I really don’t care. It helps to have been around. It helps to know how fast and well the mighty rise, and then fall. It helps to see what comes and stays, and to know why it matters more than what comes and goes.

For most of my life I’ve worked in the most amazing industry the world has ever hosted. Technology is a miracle business. Lots of good new things come and go, but three are staying for the duration. I knew it when I saw each arrive and then fail to leave. They were things nobody owned, everyone could use and anyone could improve. For all three reasons they supported boundless economic growth and other benefits to society. The first was the personal computer. The second was the internet. The third was the smartphone. All three were genies that granted wishes without end, and weren’t going back in their bottles.

Yeah, they all had problems and caused many more. They were like people that way. But these two graces — compute and worldwide communication ease — in your pocket or purse, is now an expectation as human as wearing shoes. Nobody owns the design for those too. Also, everyone can use then and anyone can improve them. That’s pretty freaking cool, even though it’s hardly appreciated.

I could go on but I’ll let this interview with Dorie Clark suggest the rest. I’ve gotta sleep before we hit the road early in the morning to celebrate the beginning of the rest of my life. May yours be at least as long. And as good.

 

racing shopping cartYesterday my 15-year-old son and I made brief stop at the Micro Center in Cambridge, looking at what it might take (and cost) to build a Linux/Windows desktop computer from the ground up—something that had been an interest of his for the last couple of years. (Mine too, actually.) The answer, price-wise (at least there), was more than we wanted to spend, so we decided to stop looking and head out.

But there were plenty of distractions in the store, so I paused at a few counters, tables and bins to examine stuff like cheap ($2.99) optical mice, flat-screen monitors (mine are old and fading), and various kinds of outboard drives. (Two of mine crapped out last week, and our first stop of the day had been dropping them off at a repair shop.)

As it happens we were on our way back from a hike in the Blue Hills Reservation, where the kid’s patience had already been stretched by my tendency to pause to munch and reminisce at every huckleberry patch (I grew up spending summers among them), plus a half-hour stop at the observatory and science center at the crest of Blue Hill itself. So he was glad when we finally walked out of the store, and, presumably, to the car and then home.

But there was a Trader Joe’s in the same lot, and I wanted to make a quick stop there to pick up a few supplies. The kid groaned.

“I promise to shop like a man,” I said. “Fast as I can.” Then I began to sing that rhyme to the tune of the Four Season’s “Walk Like a Man.” Shop like a man, fast as you can. Shop like a man, my son…

He replied, “The true man shops without stopping.”

It then took us less than two minutes to get what we wanted (yogurt for smoothies, peppermint tea, a couple other things), check out and leave. The kid calls this “speed shopping.” Also “powering through” a store. Rob Becker, whose Defending the Caveman is a required theater experience (go as a couple—it’ll help), puts it this way in an interview:

Q: What does the title of your show refer to?

A: The show is about an average guy’s response to all the anger that is coming at him. It goes back to the beginning of time. The image of the caveman is that of a guy bopping a woman on the head and dragging her back to his cave. But no serious anthropologist believes that. The caveman thought women were magical. But the caveman, to me, became a symbol of man being misunderstood.

Q: What were our primitive roles, and what effect do they have on our behavior today?

A: Men were hunters; women were gatherers. The hunter locks in on one thing, which is why guys have a narrow focus, whether it’s watching TV, reading the newspaper or driving. They block everything else out because, as hunters, they had to focus on the rear end of an animal. On the other hand, women, as gatherers, had to take in the whole landscape. Their field of vision is wider.

Q: How do these differences manifest themselves in a shopping mall?

A: The hunter tracks one thing. If I need a shirt, I go and kill a shirt with my credit card and drag it home. The gatherer doesn’t know what she’s going for because she doesn’t know what’s going to be ripe or in bloom. She’s open to the environment. When I go shopping with my wife, I keep bugging her about what she’s looking for, and she says, “Don’t bother me; I’ll know it when I see it.”

Q: Do men and women respond differently to an empty bowl of potato chips?

A: Women cooperate, men negotiate. If six women are sitting around a bowl and it gets low, they all get up and go to the kitchen as a pack. And while they’re there, they’ll make more dip. With six guys, it’s completely different. One guy will say, “It’s my house; I’m not going to refill it.” Another will say, “Yeah, but I bought ‘em.” Another will say, “But we used my car.” I’ve seen it come down to their using a tape measure so the guy closest to the kitchen had to go.

The italics are mine. The kid’s too.

Tags:

I won’t go into details, because it’s a private matter for the people involved. But the story is about a good woman and her loving husband and sons, all good men in the full meaning of that term.

A few minutes ago I was thinking in the shower about what “good men” actually meant. This is the answer that came to me: They’ve got your back, and they’ve got your heart.

Wanted to share that while it’s still fresh.

Tags:

The Web as we know it today was two years old in June 1997, when the page below went up. It lasted, according to Archive.org, until October 2010. When I ran across it back then, it blew my mind — especially the passage I have boldfaced in the long paragraph near the end.

The Internet is a table for two. Any two, anywhere. All attempts to restrict it and lock it down will fail to alter the base fact that the Net’s protocols are designed to eliminate the functional distance, as far as possible, between any two points, any two devices, any two people. This is the design principle for a World of Ends. That last link goes to a piece and I wrote in 2003, to as little effect, I suspect, as @Man’s piece had in 1997. I doubt any of the three of us would write the same things the same ways today. But the base principle, that table-for-two-ness, is something I believe all of us respect. It won’t go away. That’s why I thought it best to disinter @Man’s original and run it again here.

I have another reason. Searching for @Man is Michael O’Connor Clarke‘s last blog post before falling ill in June. I don’t know who or where @Man is today. I did correspond with him briefly when we were writing The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999, but all my emails from that time were trashed years ago. So I’m clueless on this one. If you’re out there and reading this, @Man, get in touch. Thanks.


Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards!

by @Man

Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards!
Attention, Fat Corporate Bastards in your three piece suits!

Attention Fat Congressional Bastards!
Attention, Fat Congressional Bastards in your three piece suits!

We know about your plans for the Internet. Although you won’t listen, we would like to point out how wrong you are now, so we can point out gleefully how right we were later.

According to a presentation given by Nicholas Negroponte at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto, called “The Information Age: Transforming Technology to Strategy,” here is what you Fat Corporate Bastards think we want:

  1. Movies on demand (94% executive approval)
  2. Home shopping (89% approval)
  3. On-line video games (89% approval)

Here’s what you think we don’t want:

  1. educational services
  2. access to government information

Here’s a clue: you can stick the first set up your bum, sideways.

Here’s what we really want. Don’t bother paying attention; I want you to learn the hard way, by wasting lots of time and money.

Desired Internet Service Attributes:

  1. Cheap, unlimited flat-rate international communication
  2. Hands off: No censorship, no advertisements, no lawsuits
  3. Respect
  4. Privacy

Desired Internet Services:

  1. Email, WWW, Usenet, IRC, FTP
  2. Explicit adult material
  3. Access to government and corporate information for oversight purposes
  4. Educational services
  5. Free networked multiplayer games

Guess what? We already have all the things we want. As soon as we’re ready for something new, we get it – for free. Why? Because the traditional consumer/producer relationship doesn’t exist on the Internet. Don’t you think that if we really wanted the things you think we want, we would have already developed them some time in the past 20 years for free? Free! Free! It’s so much fun to be able to use that word you hate. Take your margins with you and stick to trying to shove ads onto PBS and NPR.

You almost certainly think of the Internet as an audience of some type–perhaps somewhat captive. If you actually had even the faintest glimmering of what reality on the net is like, you’d realize that the real unit of currency isn’t dollars, data, or digicash. It’s reputation and respect. Think about how that impacts your corporate strategy. Think about how you’d feel if a guy sat down at your lunch table one afternoon when you were interviewing an applicant for a vice-president’s position and tried to sell the two of you a car, and wouldn’t go away. Believe it or not, what you want to do with the Internet is very similar. Just as you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect when you’re at a table for two in a public place, so too do the users of the Internet have a reasonable expectation of privacy and respect. When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.

If you don’t understand right now, don’t worry. You’ll learn it the hard way. We’ll be there to help you learn, you filthy corporate guttersnipes.

With bile and premonitions of glee,

@Man


@Man, World-Class Data Snuggler

My son remembers what I say better than I do. One example is this:

I uttered it in some context while wheezing my way up a slope somewhere in the Reservation.

Except it wasn’t there. Also I didn’t say that. Exactly. Or alone. He tells me it came up while we were walking across after getting some hang time after Mass at the . He just told me the preceding while looking over my shoulder at what I’m writing. He also explains that the above is compressed from dialog between the two of us, at the end of which he said it should be a bumper sticker, which he later designed, sent to me and you see above.

What I recall about the exchange, incompletely (as all recall is, thanks to the graces and curses of short term memory), is that I was thinking about the imperatives of invention, and why my nature is native to Silicon Valley, which exists everywhere ideas and ambition combine and catch fire.

is one of the world’s truly great guys. Besides being smart, funny, caring, hard-working, a good husband and father — and pretty much all the other positive stuff you could pack into a bio, Michael was one of the first people to not only dig  , but to grok it thoroughly at every level, including the multiple ironies at all of them. And to continue doing so through all the years since.

Like three of Cluetrain’s authors, Michael was a marketing guy who was never fully comfortable with the label or the role, and broke every mold that failed to contain him. Unlike those three, however, he continued to labor inside the business, which still needs many more like him. Because, from the start, Michael has always stood up for the the user, the customer, the individual whose reach should rightly exceed others’ grasp.

His labors are suspended, however, while he takes on a personal battle with .

Friends of Michael’s have put up SupportMichaelOCC.ca, so all of us who care about him and his family can easily lend support. He’s a sole breadwinner with four kids, so this is a tall order. Whether you know Michael or not, please do what you can.

Bonus links:

My sister and I received a durable lesson in generosity in the summer of 1963, in the heart of Iowa. That was where our family’s 1957 Ford Country Sedan station wagon, towing our Nimrod pop-up camper trailer, broke down.

It was on a Sunday morning in late June, heading south from Des Moines on I-35 when the engine made a loud bang, and there was smoke and steam everywhere. We pulled over to shoulder and sat there for a long time while the engine cooled off and the day heated up. Then we topped off the radiator with some of the water from our cache, started the car back up and knew right away that the engine was in very bad shape. Pop figured that fewer than car’s straight-six engine’s cylinders were working, and that water was leaking through the head gasket  (since steam as well as smoke and unburned gas fumes were coming out the exhaust). There was no traffic to flag down on the highway, which was still new.  So all we could do was limp on, while limping was all the car could do.

At the top of the first exit was a sign that pointed west to St. Charles, and east to St. Mary’s. The former was closer, it said, so we turned right. We pulled up in front of a general store with some old guys on the porch out front, and asked if there was a service station nearby.

“Deane fixes cars,” one of them said, and told us which house was Deane’s. It was down the road on the left.

Turns out this was Deane Hoskins, a master mechanic with a complete garage in his garage. His day job was working for GM’s diesel division in Des Moines. His wife was Arlouine, a teacher like Mom. They also had a bunch of kids: Carolyn, Linda, Janet, Karen and Robert. All were friendly and eager to help. Deane told us to pull in. So Pop and I disconnected the camper, left it in the street, and went up the driveway to help Deane as best we could while he tore down the broken engine.

At the peak of the Hoskins garage’s roof, facing down the driveway, was a thermometer in the shape of a big clock. It said 112°. Sweat poured off Deane’s nose and chin. I remember that his eyes were blue, though one was a mix of blue and brown. The whole time he talked to us about engine design, how they worked, and what they were built do do. This Ford, he explained, was built to fail.

The policy was called “planned obsolescence,” and you could see it in the cooling tubes in the engine block, flanking the cylinders. Water cooled by the radiator flows through these tubes, keeping an engine from overheating. The pistons in the first and sixth cylinders looked fine. The ones in the second and fifth were pitted on the top. The pistons in the third and fourth cylinders had holes blown through their tops. That was because the cooling tubes flanking the third and fourth cylinders had metal plugs in them, causing the pistons to overheat and eventually fail. The plugs were the opposite of necessary, unless the necessity was a blown engine, eventually. In our case the eventuality was sixty thousand miles.

This was a huge blow to Pop, a committed Ford Man. This wagon was the first new car he had ever bought, and it had been nothing but trouble from Day One. Even before this last failure he figured the car cost $60 per month on average to fix, and this was in 1950s dollars. It was also clear and present evidence of customer-hating corporate venality. To this day it amazes me to see nothing written about Ford’s (or anybody’s) practice of plugging an engine block’s cooling tubes. Were all of Ford’s inline-6 blocks crippled like this? Or was this an experiment by Ford with just a few engines to see what happened? How could a worker in good conscience have put the plugs in there, when the result would obviously be a short life span for the engine?

Deane drilled out the plugged tubes, removed the bad pistons, honed out the two center cylinders, called up a friendly Ford dealer, and drove us over to pick up some new pistons and a fresh head gasket. The dealer was closed on Sunday, but opened up just for us. On the way over we went through a covered bridge, one of those later made famous by The Bridges of Madison County.

By evening Deane had the engine back together, and the car running fine. We spent the night as the Hoskins’ house guests, and in the morning went on our way. For years Mom kept up with the Hoskins family through Arlouine. It was what moms did in those days. Mom was from a small town two states away: Napoleon, North Dakota. St. Charles and its friendly ethic was familiar to her.

Pop’s partisan loyalties were simple and clear. Three of the biggest were to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Ford Motor Company and the Republican Party. So this was the second time he felt betrayed. The first was when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The third was Watergate.

Leaving St. Charles on Monday morning, we drove west. In Griswold, barely bigger than St. Charles, we found a Chevy dealer. It wasn’t that Pop was suddenly a believer in Chevy, but that he had become a disbeliever in Ford. He also took Deane’s word that GM didn’t play the planned obsolescence game. There were just two new cars in the showroom: a minimal white Biscayne and a  blue Bel-Air. Pop and Mom wanted to get the Biscayne, but my sister and I talked them into getting the Bel-Air, which had a 283 v-8 rather than the Biscayne’s straight six. Better for pulling the trailer, we argued, successfully. Pop’s compromise was to make sure the car had no radio and no air conditioning. That car was almost trouble-free until the transmission went, at 125,000 miles — a lot in those days. That’s when we sold it, in 1969.

And that’s Griswold, above. I spotted it last week while looking out the window of the plane from Newark to Los Angeles. It doesn’t look much different from above than it did on the ground forty-nine years ago. The dealer was small, with just two cars in the showroom: our Bel-Air and the Biscayne. No Impalas. I don’t remember the name, but there are no Chevy dealers in Griswold today.

I see that Deane died in 1991 and Arlouine in 2005. And, at the second link, that Linda is also gone. But our encounter with the Hoskins family isn’t forgotten, half a century later. To me the “flyover” states are places where good people live and lucky people drive through. Turns out our bad luck in St. Charles with a bum Ford was the best thing that could have happened.

 

 

Through my work over the years I have often been directed to the worlds of Elinor OstromElinor Ostrom, and toward speaking to her in person. Alas, the latter choice is now off the table. She died yesterday, at 78, of pancreatic cancer.

On Monday evening, in the Q&A during my talk, I was asked about the relevance of Ostrom’s work to mine around VRM and The Intention Economy. I answered, with regret, that my sourcing of Ostrom was limited to a bibliography entry, after I had to reduce the curb weight of the book from 120,000 words to 80,000. So here’s one section, recovered from the cutting room floor:

In Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom says Hardin’s argument is not new:

Aristotle long ago observed that “what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest” (Politics Book II, ch. 3). Hobbes’s parable of man in a state of nature is a prototype of the tragedy of the commons: Men see their own good and end up fighting one another…[1]

She goes on to cite a long list of other sources, the growing sum of which have long since snowballed into a single widely held conclusion: “Much of the world is dependent on resources that are subject to the possibility of a tragedy of the commons.”[2]

Yet Hardin’s model, she explains, is an argument of one very narrow kind: a prisoner’s dilemma, “conceptualized as a noncooperative game in which all players possess complete information … When both players choose their dominant strategy… they produce an equlibrium that is the third-best result for both.” The game is fascinating for scholars because “The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge the fundamental faith that rational beings can achieve rational results.” She adds, “The deep attraction of the dilemma is further illustrated by the number of articles written about it. At one count, 15 years ago, more than 2,000 papers had been devoted to the prisoner’s dilemma game (Grofman and Pool 1975).”[3]

Ostrom, however, doesn’t challenge Hardin’s assumption that common pool resources and a commons are the same thing.[1] Lewis Hyde does. In Common as Air (2010), he makes a thoroughly argued case against both Hardin’s tragedy-prone commons and idealized models, such as what he calls John Locke’s “aboriginal first condition” and Lawrence Lessig’s “dreams of pentitude.” What Hyde argues for is something much more complex, subtle and—I believe—important to understand if we are to make the most of the Internet.

“I take a commons to be a kind of property,” Hyde writes, “and I take ‘property’ to be, by one old dictionary definition, a right of action,” noting “that ownership rarely consists of the entire set of possible actions.”


[1] Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990) 2-3. [2] Ibid., 3. [3] Ibid, 4-5.

[4] In fairness, Hyde notes, “Garret Hardin has indicated that his original essay should have been titled ‘The Tragedy of the Unmanaged commons,’ though better still might be ‘The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals.” (Common as Air, 44.) [Links added.]

The final version focuses entirely on Lewis Hyde’s work, which I believe encompasses Elinor Ostrom’s, at least for my purposes in the book. Still, leaving her out seems especially regrettable now.

And I encourage study of her work. Our common pool resources, which are many and of transcendant importance, are well served by her original thinking about them.

Bonus linkage:

Making the rounds is , a killer essay by in MIT Technology Review. The gist:

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

This is the first time I have read anything from a major media writer (and Michael is very much that — in fact I believe he is the best in the biz) that is in full agreement with The Advertising Bubble, my chapter on this very subject in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. A sample:

One might think all this personalized advertising must be pretty good, or it wouldn’t be such a hot new business category. But that’s only if one ignores the bubbly nature of the craze, or the negative demand on the receiving end for most of advertising’s goods.  In fact, the results of personalized advertising, so far, have been lousy for actual persons…

Tracking and “personalizing”—the current frontier of online advertising—probe the limits of tolerance. While harvesting mountains of data about individuals and signaling nothing obvious about their methods, tracking and personalizing together ditch one of the few noble virtues to which advertising at its best aspires: respect for the prospect’s privacy and integrity, which has long included a default assumption of anonymity.

Ask any celebrity about the price of fame and they’ll tell you: it’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be a Faustian bargain (or a bargain at all) if anonymity did not have real worth. Tracking, filtering and personalizing advertising all compromise our anonymity, even if no PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is collected.  Even if these systems don’t know us by name, their hands are still in our pants…

The distance between what tracking does and what users want, expect and intend is so extreme that backlash is inevitable. The only question is how much it will damage a business that is vulnerable in the first place.

The first section of the book opens with a retrospective view of the present from a some point in the near future — say, five or ten years out. A relevant sample:

After the social network crash of 2013, when it became clear that neither friendship nor sociability were adequately defined or managed through proprietary and contained systems (no matter how large they might be), individuals began to assert their independence, and to zero-base their social networking using their own tools, and asserting their own policies regarding engagement.

Customers now manage relationships in their own ways, using standardized tools that embrace the complexities of relationship—including needs for privacy (and, in some cases, anonymity). Thus loyalty to vendors now has genuine meaning, and goes as deep as either party cares to go. In some (perhaps most) cases this isn’t very deep, while in others it can get quite involved.

When I first wrote that, I said 2012. But I decided that was too aggressive, and went with the following year. Maybe I was right in the first place. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here’s what Michael says about the utopian exhaust Facebook and its “ecosystem” are smoking:

Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

The buyer is a person. That person does not require either a social network or absolutely-informed guesswork to know who she is or what she wants to buy. Obviously advertising can help. It always has. But totally personalized advertising is icky and oxymoronic. And, after half a decade or more at the business of making maximally-personalized ads, the main result is what Michael calls “the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles.”

That’s one of mine on the right. It couldn’t be more wasted and wrong. Let’s take it from the top.

First, Robert Scoble is an old friend and a good guy. But I couldn’t disagree with him more on the subject of Facebook and the alleged virtues of the fully followed life. (Go to this Gillmor Gang, starting about an hour in, to see Robert and I go at it about this.) Clearly Facebook doesn’t know about that. Nor does any advertiser, I would bet. In any case, Robert likes so many things that his up-thumb has no value to me.

I have no interest in Social Referrals, and if Facebook followed what I’ve written on the subject of “social” (as defined by Facebook and its marketing cohorts), it wouldn’t imagine I would be interested in extole.com.

I’m 64, but married. “Boyfriend wanted” is a low-rent fail as well as an insult.

I get the old yearbook pitch every time I go on Facebook, which is as infrequently as I possibly can. (There are people I can only reach that way, which is why I bother.) I don’t even need to click on the the ad to discover that, as I suspected, 60s.yearbookarchives.com is a front for the scammy Classmates.com.

I’ve never been fly flishing, and haven’t fished since I was a kid, many decades ago.

And I don’t want more credit cards, of any kind, regardless of Scoble’s position on Capital One.

In a subchapter of  titled “A Bad Theory of You,”  calls both Facebook’s and Google’s data-based assumptions about us “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He also says that at best they put us into the  — a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.” But what you see on the right isn’t the best, and it’s not uncanny. It’s typical, and it sucks, even if it does bring Facebook a few $billion per year in click-through-based revenues.

The amazing thing here is that business keeps trying to improve advertising — and always by making it more personal — as if that’s the only way we can get to Michael’s “sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way.” Three problems here:

  1. By its nature advertising — especially “brand” advertising — is not personal.
  2. Making advertising personal changes it into something else that is often less welcome.
  3. There are better ways to get to achieve Michael’s objective — ways that start on the buyer’s side, rather than the seller’s.

Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal and a collaborator on the advertising chapters in my book, nails the first two problems in a pair of posts. In the first, Ad targeting – better is worse? he says,

Now, as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the “waste,” how do you pick out the signal?

I’m thinking about this problem especially from an IT point of view. Much of the value of an IT product is network value, and economics of scale mean that a product with massive adoption can have much higher ROI than a niche product…. So, better targeting means that online advertising carries less signal. You could be part of the niche on which your vendor is dumping its last batch of a “boat anchor” product. This is kind of a paradox: the better online advertising is, the less valuable it is. Companies that want to send a signal are going to have to find a less fake-out-able medium.

In the second, Perfectly targeted advertising would be perfectly worthless, which he wrote in response to Michael’s essay, he adds this:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself.

John Battelle, who is both a first-rate journalist and a leader in the online advertising industry, says this in Facebook’s real question: What’s the native model?:

Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).

But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.

I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.

But Facebook isn’t the real issue here. Working only the sell side of the marketplace is the issue. It’s now time to work the buy side.

The simple fact is that we need to start equipping buyers with their own tools for connecting with sellers, and for engaging in respectful and productive ways. That is, to improve the ability of demand to drive supply, and not to constantly goose up supply to drive demand, and failing 99.x% of the time.

This is an old imperative.

In , which Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I wrote in 1999, we laid into business — and marketing in particular — for failing to grok the fact that in networked markets, which the Internet gave us, individuals should lead, rather than just follow. So, since business failed to get Cluetrain’s message, I started in mid-2006 at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The idea was to foster development of tools that make customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with vendors. That is, for demand to drive supply, personally. (VRM stands for .)

Imagine being able to:

  • name your own terms of service
  • define for yourself what loyalty is, what stores you are loyal to, and how
  • be able to gather and examine your own data
  • advertise (or “intentcast”) your own needs in an anonymous and secure way
  • manage your own relationships with all the vendors and other organizations you deal with
  • … and to do all that either on your own or with the help of that work for you rather than for sellers (as most third parties do)

Today there are dozens of VRM developers working at all that stuff and more — to open floodgates of economic possibility when demand drives supply personally, rather than “socially” as part of some ad-funded Web giant’s wet dream. (And socially in the genuine sense, in which each of us knows who our friends, relatives and other associates really are, and in what contexts our actual social connections apply.) I report on those, and the huge implications of their work, in The Intention Economy.

Here’s the thing, and why now is the time to point this out: most of those developers have a hell of a time getting laid by VCs, which on the whole have their heads stuck in a of the Web, and can’t imagine a way to improve the marketplace that does not require breeding yet another cow, or creating yet another ranch for dependent customers. Maybe now that the bloom is off Facebook’s rose, and the Filter Bubble is ready to burst, they can start looking at possibilities over here on the demand side.

So this post is an appeal to investors. Start thinking outside the cow, and outside the ranch. If you truly believe in free markets, then start believing in free customers, and in the development projects that make them not only free, but able to drive sales at a 100% rate, and to form relationships that are worthy of the word.

Bonus links:

HT to John Salvador, for pointing to Life in the Vast Lane, where I kinda predicted some of the above in 2008.

Newtown Creek

Thanks to Jeff Warren (also here) of GrassRootsMapping and  Public Laboratory, I now know — and am highly turned on by — the possibilities of mapping in the wild. That is, mapping by the 99.xxx+% of us who are not in the mapping business, and are in the best multiple positions to map the world(s) in four running dimensions.

Check Jeff’s latest post at MapKnitter for what extra good can come from the series of shots I took of New York from altitude recently, and blogged about here. Pretty damn cool.

The thought now of what can be done with my many thousands of aerial photos is both exhiliarating and daunting. Fortunately, the work won’t be just mine — or any one person’s. And that’s what’s most cool about it.

Today I’m in solidarity with Web publishers everywhere joining the fight against new laws that are bad for business — and everything else — on the Internet.

I made my case in If you hate big government, fight SOPA. A vigorous dialog followed in the comments under that. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Nobody who opposes Big Government and favors degregulation should favor the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA, or H.R. 3261. It’s a big new can of worms that will cripple use of the Net, slow innovation on it, clog the courts with lawsuits, employ litigators in perpetuity and deliver copyright maximalists in the “content” business a hollow victory for the ages.

I also said this:

SOPA is a test for principle for members of Congress. If you wish to save the Internet, vote against it. If you wish to fight Big Government, vote against it. If you wish to protect friends in the “content” production and distribution business at extreme cost to every other business in the world, vote for it. If you care more about a few businesses you can name and nothing about all the rest of them — which will be whiplashed by the unintended consequences of a bill that limits what can be done on the Internet while not comprehending the Internet at all — vote for it.

This is the pro-business case. There are other cases, but I don’t see many people making the pure business one, so that’s why I took the business angle.

The best summary case I’ve read since then is this one from the EFF.

The best detailed legal case (for and against) is A close look at the Stop Online Piracy Act bill, by Jonathan @Zittrain. The original, from early December, is here.

Not finally, here are a pile of links from Zemanta:

Oh, and the U.S. Supreme Court just make it cool for any former copyright holder to pull their free’d works out of the public domain. The vote was 6-2, with Kagan recused and Breyer and Alito dissenting. Lyle Denniston in the SCOTUS blog:

In a historic ruling on Congress’s power to give authors and composers monopoly power over their creations, the Supreme Court on Tuesday broadly upheld the national legislature’s authority to withdraw works from the public domain and put them back under a copyright shield.   While the ruling at several points stressed that it was a narrow embrace of Congress’s authority simply to harmonize U.S. law with the practice of other nations, the decision’s treatment of works that had entered the public domain in the U.S. was a far more sweeping outcome.

No one, the Court said flatly, obtains any personal right under the Constitution to copy or perform a work just because it has come out from under earlier copyright protection, so no one can object if copyright is later restored.  Any legal rights that exist belong only to the author or composer, the ruling said.  If anyone wants to resume the use or performance of a work after it regains copyright, they must pay for the privilege, the decision made clear.

IMHO, the U.S. has become devoutly propertarian, even at the expense of opportunity to create fresh property from borrowed and remixed works in the public domain. One more way the public domain, and its friendliness to markets, is widely misunderstood.

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I got to know Judith Burton when she was still Judith Clarke and Senior VP Corporate Marketing for Novell, in 1987. Novell had just bought a company called CXI, which had been a client of Hodskins Simone & Searls, the Palo Alto advertising agency in which I was a partner. By that time HS&S had come to specialize in communications technology clients, and the chance to do something with Novell as well seemed more than opportune, since it was clear that Novell was smarter about comms than just about anybody at that time.

So David Hodskins came up with the idea of putting together a “connectivity consortium” made up of Novell and several other HS&S clients. In seeing connectivity as a hot topic on the horizon, David was way ahead of everybody’s time. But that made it perfect for the two most forward-thinking minds at Novell: Judith and Craig Burton, who would later become her husband.

I didn’t know Craig before I pitched Judith on the connectivity consortium idea — and she took the bait. She brought Craig to our first meeting, and the two of them together blew my mind. Judith saw no boundaries to what could be done with marketing, and Craig saw the Big Picture of connectivity better than anybody I had ever met, before or since.

In the short term, over subsequent conversations and meetings, I saw how it was that Novell changed the networking conversation so quickly and completely. It was during these learnings that I came up with the “markets are conversations” line that became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, more than a decade later. Because Novell was busy proving it, more than any other company in technology at that time.

Just a few years earlier, the network conversation was mostly about “pipes and protocols.” Data Communications and Communications Week were the leading trade pubs in the space, fat with stories and ads that pushed and compared the virtues of Ethernet vs. Token Ring and bus vs. ring vs. star topologies. Every vendor sold whole networks from the wires on up, including everything that ran on those wires, file servers, network interface cards in the backs of PCs, and applications. If you bought a Sytek or a Corvus network, you couldn’t use anybody else’s hardware, software or wiring. Every vendor had its own silo (or, in some cases, such as IBM’s, an assortment of silos). And it occurred to almost nobody that there should be a choice other than silos and lock-ins.

It was Craig Burton’s idea make Novell’s NetWare a “Network Operating System” (NOS) that could run on everybody’s hardware and wiring. NetWare thus became a new platform for network services that could run everywhere, starting with group file storage (the first local “cloud,” you might say), and printing.

But nobody talked about networking on Novell’s terms until Judith Clarke literally invented whole new venues for network conversations. These included a magazine (LAN Times), a trade show (NetWorld), a reseller channel and a class of networking professionals (Certified Netware Engineers, or CNEs). By the end of the Eighties the world talked about networking in terms of capabilities and services rather than of pipes and protocols.

One move that stands out for me was Novell’s decision to drop its grandfathered position at the center of the Comdex show floor (this was when Comdex was one of the biggest trade shows on Earth) and rent ballroom space next door on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. So rather than show stuff off on the floor with everybody else, Novell set up a storefront and business meeting space right where the traffic was thickest. And it worked.

As Craig put it to me a few days ago, ”She changed the industry in the way she approached people and ideas, taking a podunk company in Provo and making it look like it owned the planet — which, in many ways, it did. And she unselfishly gave credit to everybody else all along the way.”

Novell began to slide after Judith and Craig left the company, in 1989. With the Burtons gone, Novell forgot where it came from. While Judith and Craig liked to zig where Microsoft zagged, and to embrace Microsoft’s — and everybody else’s — platforms and technologies, Novell CEO Ray Noorda preferred to attack Microsoft head-on, by acquiring already-lame competitors (remember WordPerfect?) and failing over and over to make a dent in Microsoft’s hull. It was sad to watch.

For reasons I forget, the connectivity consortium didn’t happen, but I got to be close friends of both Judith and Craig, and have remained so ever since. I also consulted the couple after they left Novell to co-found The Burton Group with Jamie Lewis, another brilliant Novell veteran.

A few years later Judith and Craig moved on to consulting on their own. (Under Jamie’s continued leadership The Burton Group was sold to Gartner a couple years ago.) Craig especially has been a steady source of original thinking on countless subjects. Judith sometimes participated in projects with Craig, but mostly focused on philanthropic and civic projects, and time with family. (Here is her Linkedin profile.)

On Tuesday of this week she collapsed at her home, and died later in the hospital. Her death is a shock to everybody. Even though she hit a few medical bumps this past year, she seemed to be doing better. And she was just 66. Being 64 myself, I consider that age way too young for life’s end.

My heart aches for Craig, and for Judith’s kids and grandkids, whom she adored. In my own memory, her amazing blue eyes, bright smile and sweet voice persist. She was a beautiful woman, as well as a smart, creative and loving one. The picture above gives just a hint toward all of that.

It does bother me a bit that her death has not made bigger news. If she had passed during her heyday at Novell, the news would have been huge. But then, the news ain’t what it used to be, and will continue to evolve away from the old top-down few-to-many systems. The Internet is everybody’s connectivity consortium now.

We didn’t end up needing Data Communications, Comms Week, LAN Times, NetWorld, Comdex or countless other once-sturdy institutions that were obsoleted by something Craig and Judith both saw coming long before it arrived: the ability of anybody to connect with anybody, outside of any one company’s system for trapping customers and users.

Judith’s work back in the decade helped make the future in which we now all live and thrive. We’ll miss her, but we won’t miss each other. To Judith, all of us were the people networks were for. And now we have that, regardless of how hard any company or government works to lock us back into silos or limit what we can do in them. Had she been less loving, I doubt she would have seen that, or worked so well at what she did for all of us.

[Later...] Here is an email from Jamie Lewis that fell through the cracks when it arrived (apologies for that):

I first met Judith in 1984, when I was working for a publication for PC retailers. I was writing about PC networking, so I inevitably met both her and Craig in my coverage of Novell. I started getting to know Judith in 1985, when the magazine I was working for folded, and Novell offered me a job in the corporate marketing department.

As many people know, there’s a very long list of things Judith did in making Novell the company it was in its hey day. She founded the LAN Times, a corporate newspaper devoted to networking. (Yes, it sounds obvious today. But in 1983, not so much. And there are more than a few technology writers still working today that earned their chops writing for the LAN Times.) She created the NetWorld tradeshow. (Again, obvious or even antiquated in today’s context, but then, it was the first of its kind.) She built a PR and marketing machine, complete with relentless press tours, events, and other efforts to get the NetWare word out.

The list goes on. But that list is just that—a list. While most, if not all, of the stuff on that list was important, innovative, and impactful, it really doesn’t do the woman justice to simply enumerate things on a list. She was more than the sum of the items on that list.

If you look the word “dynamic” up in the dictionary, you’ll find Judith’s picture there. When she walked into the room, the room changed. She commanded attention. She ran the show. She exuded authority and confidence. This could rub some people the wrong way, but it is what made her successful. That she accomplished what she did in a time and place that wasn’t exactly ideal for a career-oriented woman says a lot about her resolve.

And that gets to the most important thing I learned from her, something that I think was at the heart of why Novell did so well during her tenure. Simply put, it’s this: Have the balls to act like who or what you want to become. If you wait until you are that to start acting like that, you’ll never be that.

It’s clear how this approach worked so well for Novell. When I joined, Novell had about 250 employees. Its revenues were microscopic in comparison to the “big guys” – IBM, Digital Equipment and, later, Microsoft – that it was challenging while simultaneously doing battle with a host of similarly sized companies on the other.

But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say, “Wow, I thought Novell was a lot bigger than that,” when they heard how many employees we had, or what annual revenues were at the time. Novell in every way looked and behaved like it belonged in the big leagues—like a much bigger company—due in large part to Judith’s skills in marketing and communications. It’s a mistake to underestimate how important this was to Novell’s success.

The fact that NetWare was a great product certainly helped. But we all know that the information technology market is littered with the corpses of companies that had great technology but didn’t know how to market it or sell it. Judith’s ability to position Novell played no small part in ensuring the success of what was a very good product. Because Novell acted like it belonged in the big leagues, it did belong. This raised the customers’ comfort level, making it easier for them to bet on a small company for such an important product. It also forced much larger companies, such as DEC and IBM, to treat Novell as a peer.

I can distinctly remember when I realized how important this was. We were in final competition with DEC for a very large deal with a very large company. A Fortune 200 company. If we got the business, it would be a major win, a win at the “corporate standard” level, the kind of win that would be a major milestone. During the final stages of the competition, DEC issued a 30-page white paper that we later subtitled “why NetWare causes cancer in rats”. The sales person on the account phoned me in an absolute panic. The paper was full of misinformation, she said, and she was afraid the customer was going to believe it. I told her that we first needed to thank DEC for establishing Novell as a legitimate competitor in the eyes of the customer. We would respond to the paper, I said, but would be careful not to spoil the big favor DEC had just done for us. We did respond, but in the high road fashion that Judith (and Craig) established as our modus operandi, the approach that drove my initial answer to the call. And we won the business.

That positioning also made Novell look superior in comparison to the companies that were much closer to it in size and revenue. 3Com was our nemesis, the one company that everyone in our company loved to hate. Yes, 3Com was hardware to Novell’s software, which is why NetWare prevailed. But NetWare also succeeded because Judith was so good at positioning Novell, establishing software as the issue in the market and forcing 3Com (and later Microsoft and IBM) to fight on Novell’s terms.

There were, of course, a very large number of people responsible for making Novell what it was. It’s also nice to be on the right side of the issue, and there’s no question that Novell and NetWare were in the right place at the right time. But the attitude, the positioning, and the messaging that was Novell’s essence during that amazing run in the 80s and early 90s, that was all Judith. Novell wouldn’t have been the same company without her efforts. That win over DEC, for example, wouldn’t have happened without the months and years of relentless and effective marketing that preceded it. And I don’t think the correlation between Judith’s personality and Novell’s was any coincidence. Novell had the audacity to act like it belonged because Judith did.

Years later, at Burton Group, whenever I heard people say they thought we were bigger than we actually were, I never failed to think of Judith. We carried that same attitude, a willingness to believe and act like we belonged. I learned a great deal from Judith, but it’s that lesson that had the biggest impact. She and Craig took a chance on a journalism major that had never written a line of code, and for that I will be forever grateful. She inspired and drove those around her to be better, to be what they aspired to be. I think I can speak for all of the people who knew and worked with her when I say she’ll be missed, and that we appreciate what she did for us, and for the industry she played such a large part in creating.

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Ray SimoneRay Simone, my good friend and long-time business partner, died this morning. He was 63 years old. He is survived by his wife Gillian, his daughter Christina, and many good friends for whom he remains an inspiration and a delight.

Ray was one of the most creative people I have ever known. Though we originally shared the Creative Director title at our agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, Ray was the Main Man. While I was a good copywriter, Ray could do it all: come up with killer campaigns, clever headlines, great design and art, tight scripts, whatever. His knowledge of art, of typography, of technologies and sciences — actually, pretty much everything — was encyclopedic. He worked his ass off, and he was great to work with as well.

We met in the mid-’70s in Durham, North Carolina, when I was still “Doctor Dave,” an occasional comic radio character for WDBS and columnist for the station’s magazine, and Ray was an artist whose equally comic work appeared in the same publication. We both circulated in the same low-rent Hippie creative-art-music-dance-weekend-party crowd surrounding Duke University. Ray was working with Hodskins Simone and Searls 1978David Hodskins and some other folks at small “multiple media” shop (decades ahead of its time) that had somehow spun out of the Duke Media Center. One day, when I called up Ray to talk about collaborating on an ad for an audio shop I was working for part-time, Ray put me on hold and told David that Doctor Dave was on the line. David told Ray to arrange a lunch. A team was born over that lunch, and in 1978 it became an advertising agency: Hodskins Simone & Searls. The photo on the right dates from that time.

By 1980 we were specializing in high tech clients up and down the East Coast, and after several years decided to open a satellite office in Silicon Valley. After winning some major West Coast

Hillbilly Jazzaccounts we moved the whole agency to Palo Alto, and by the early 90s HS&S was one of the top shops there. (Huge props to David Hodskins for his leadership through all that. David was the agency President and another truly brilliant dude.)

Twenty years after its founding,  HS&S was acquired. By then I had moved on to other work, and after awhile so had David and Ray. While I went back to journalism, Ray went back to art, teaching at Ocean Shore School in Pacifica, as well as at Brighton Preschool, which he and Gillian, his wife and soulmate, ran in the same town. He was Sting Ray to the kids there. Says Gillian, “He made story time come alive.”

He also went back to painting. But his full portfolio of accomplishments includes much, much more. For example, Ray designed covers for dozens of major country and bluegrass albums, mostly for Sugar Hill Records. Two samples, one for Vassar Clements and the other for the Red Clay Ramblers, are on the left and right. Here is a partial discography (drawn from here and other places), in alphabetical order:

Ray was himself a musician. When he was a student at what is now Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he played keyboards in a band that traveled to gigs in a used hearse. Some of the stories he told about those days were beyond wild and very funny.

Ray designed countless t-shirts and posters, most of which were worthy of collection. Panel from Ray Simone Hassle House poster(Wish I still had some, but alas.) Old friends from Durham will fondly remember the Forklift Festival at the late Plantation (an run-down mansion on North Roxboro that should have been preserved), which sprang up as a wacky alternative to the annual Folklife Festival (now Festival for the Eno). Same goes for the Good Time Boogie, an annual gathering in Eastern North Carolina for which there was huge attendance, pass-the-hat funding and no publicity.

Ray did brilliant t-shirt designs for both. His cartoon poster for a place called Hassle House, done in the style of MAD’s Will Elder by way of Vaughn Bodé, was the first thing that turned me on to Ray. It was funny as hell, and I can still remember every panel of it. (Rob Gringle provides more background in a comment below, and also reminds us that Ray did many covers for The Guide, the monthly published by WDBS. I still have a stack of Guides somewhere.)

[Later...] Big thanks to Jay Cunningham for providing scans to the poster. That’s one panel, there on the right.

Ray was a born athlete, though he never exploited his talents beyond casually (but never maliciously) humiliating anybody who took him on at ping-pong, darts, softball or whatever. I remember one softball game where he grabbed a hard grounder bare-handed at third base, and — while falling down — threw out the runner at first base. All in one move. Like it was no big deal. It was awesome.

He took up fencing when we were still in North Carolina, and quickly won trophies.

A student of fun history, he was active for years in the Society for Creative Anachronism. In that capacity he once served “stargazy pie” at Monkeytop, the rambling Victorian urban commune where he, David Hodskins and many others lived at various times on Swift Street. (It’s now the restored E.K. Powe House.)

When Ray and Gillian (also an artist) were married at a California ranch in 1991, everybody was costumed as cowboys and cowgirls.

A devoted reader of science fiction and watcher of movies, Ray could expound with insight and authority on either subject, plus too many others to list.

Yet what matters most is that Ray was a loving guy and a first-rate friend. Back at the turn of the ’90s, when I had sworn off dating after a series of failed relationships, Ray pulled me out of my shell. As a direct result I’ve now been happily married for more than twenty years, with a wonderful teenage son. I know Ray had similar influences on others as well.

I could add much more, but I want to post this today. I’m sure other old friends will weigh in as well. Additions and corrections of course are welcome. Here are a few I failed to string among the pearls above:

      • His full name: Raymond George Simone. Most of his album credits are for Raymond Simone.
      • Simone is pronounced with three syllables and a long e: Simonē. That is, the correct Italian way.
      • He was born in Potsdam, New York, and grew up in High Point, North Carolina.
      • He had one brother, Jim, who died of throat cancer many years ago. Ray’s malady was lung cancer, no doubt an effect, as with Jim, of smoking. Ray quit many years ago, but it still caught up with him.
      • His mother, born and raised in Oklahoma, was part Cherokee. Both his parents passed in recent years.
      • He sometimes called himself The Weasel (others shortened that to “The Weez”), and drew himself in cartoons as a weasel with a mustache. For most of the early years we worked together, Ray’s signature look was long hair and a mustache, sometimes waxed at the tips.
      • Here is Ray’s Facebook page, with a self-portrait from when he was more full-bodied, a couple years back.

The photo at the top of this post is cropped from this one, shot by Gillian last Friday when David and I came to visit Ray at their home. Ray knew he didn’t have much time left, but was still in good humor. That was the day after Thanksgiving. So I’m thankful that I was in town and that these three old partners could get together one last time.

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Rochester, Vermont

My favorite town in Vermont is Rochester. I like to stop there going both ways while driving my kid to summer camp, which means I do that up to four times per summer. It’s one of those postcard-perfect places, rich in history, gracing a lush valley along the White River, deep in the Green Mountains, with a park and a bandstand, pretty white churches and charm to the brim.

My last stop there was on August 20, when I shot the picture above in the front yard of Sandy’s Books & Bakery, after having lunch in the Rochester Cafe across the street. Not shown are the 200+ cyclists (motor and pedal) who had just come through town on the Last Mile Ride to raise funds for the Gifford Medical Center‘s end-of-life care.

After Hurricane Irene came through, one might have wondered if Rochester itself might need the Center’s services. Rochester was one of more than a dozen Vermont towns that were isolated when all its main roads were washed out. This series of photos from The Republican tells just part of the story. The town’s website is devoted entirely to The Situation. Here’s a copy-and-paste of its main text:

Relief For Rochester

Among the town’s losses was a large section of Woodlawn Cemetery, much of which was carved away when a gentle brook turned into a hydraulic mine. Reports Mark Davis of Valley News,

Rochester also suffered a different kind of nightmare. A gentle downtown brook swelled into a torrent and ripped through Woodlawn Cemetery, unearthing about 25 caskets and strewing their remains throughout downtown.

Many of the graves were about 30 years old, and none of the burials was recent.Yesterday, those remains were still outside, covered by blue tarps.

Scattered bones on both sides of Route 100 were marked by small red flags.

“We can’t do anything for these poor people except pick it up,” said Randolph resident Tom Harty, a former state trooper and funeral home director who is leading the effort to recover the remains.

It was more than 48 hours before officials in Rochester — which was cut off from surrounding towns until Tuesday — could turn their attention to the problem: For a time, an open casket lay in the middle of Route 100, the town’s main thoroughfare, the remains plainly visible.

I found that article, like so much else about Vermont, on VPR News, one of Vermont Public Radio‘s many services. When the going gets tough, the tough use radio. During and after natural disasters, radio is the go-to medium. And no radio service covers or serves Vermont better than VPR. The station has five full-size stations covering most of the state, with gaps filled in by five more low-power translators. (VPR also has six classical stations, with their own six translators.) When I drive around the state it’s the single radio source I can get pretty much everywhere. I doubt any other station or network comes close. Ground conductivity in Vermont is extremely low, so AM waves don’t go far, and there aren’t any big stations in Vermont on AM anyway. And no FM station is bigger, or has as many signals, as VPR.

One big reason VPR does so much, so well, is that it serves its customers, which are its listeners. That’s Marketing 101, but it’s also unique to noncommercial radio in the U.S. Commercial radio’s customers are its advertisers.

VPR’s services only begin with what it does on the air. Reporting is boffo too. Here’s VPR’s report on Rochester last Thursday, in several audio forms, as well as by transcription on that Web page. They use the Web exceptionally well, including a thick stream of tweets at @vprnet.

I don’t doubt there are many other media doing great jobs in Vermont. And at the local level I’m sure some stations, papers and online media do as good a job as VPR does state-wide.

But VPR is the one I follow elsewhere as well as in Vermont, and I want to do is make sure it gets the high five it deserves. If you have others (or corrections to the above), tell me in the comments below.

Some additional links:

My parents, Eleanor and Allen Searls, were married 65 years ago today. Allen and Eleanor Searls wedding The wedding was in Grace United Methodist Church, in Minneapolis.* Mom’s family, all descendents of Swedish immigrants to homesteads in Minnesota and North Dakota, were the primary attendees, as I recall being told. Pop’s family was from New Jersey, and that’s where the couple settled down and raised their family. Additions were myself, a bit less than a year later, and my sister Jan, another 20 months after that.

We were lucky kids. Our parents were good, sane, loving, smart, hard-working and convivial people. Our home was a safe and happy one. We had lots of family gatherings, and lots of friends in our town and around the little summer place Pop and uncle Archie Apgar built on the edge of the Pine Barrens in South Jersey. For us that place was paradise.

Mom and Pop are gone now, but the family is still intact. We celebrated my birthday at Pop’s little sister Grace’s place in Maine two weekends ago. She’s 99 now, and doing great. (Here’s a photo set from that trip. All the shots of me in that set were ones Grace shot. As you can see, I enjoyed the company.)

So here’s a toast to Mom and Pop. We love ya both, and always will.


*Today that’s Northeast United Methodist Church, and it’s not clear to me if the church where Mom and Pop got married is the one still at 2510 Cleveland Street N.E., or the one the website says is for sale at 2511 Taylor St. N.E. I suspect not, though, since the picture of that church, called Trinity United Methodist Church, doesn’t have steps like the ones we see in this picture of Mom and Pop leaving the church after the wedding.

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I didn’t know George DesdunesGeorge Desdunes, though now I wish I’d had the privilege. He was a friend of acquaintances who sent out emails in March to lists of people who might want to know he had died and to provide details about his funeral. Those emails were among many others I barely noticed at the time. This afternoon I ran across those emails again while looking for something else, and I became curious. The emails said nothing about who he was and why he died, so I looked him up.

Turns out George was a nineteen-year old sophomore at Cornell when he died during a fraternity hazing event. The university has since rescinded recognition of the fraternity, and George’s mother has sued the fraternity for $25 million, naming twenty fraternity members in the lawsuit. According to that last story, in The Cornell Daily Sun,

Desdunes participated in a mock kidnapping before his death, court documents state. He and another SAE brother were taken to the townhouse apartments on North Campus by several pledge members, and they had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. The two were quizzed about “fraternity information and lore,” and when they answered incorrectly they did exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the documents state.

After his death, authorities discovered Desdunes’ blood alcohol level was 0.35, according to court documents related to the criminal charges. However, Andres’ lawsuit states that her son’s blood alcohol level was 0.409. By comparison, the legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.

By all accounts (here’s one) George was the kind of kid anybody would like to have as a son, a friend, a mentor: smart, caring, friendly, a good student and athlete… the list goes on. (My second-degree acquaintance with him comes through the camp he attended for a number of years before serving as a counsellor in the last summer of his life.)

One reason I went to a college without fraternities was that I had already endured enough hazing at the boarding school I attended as a teenager. While I know fraternities can be a lot of fun, and that they yield lifelong friendships and support networks, I also believe they formalize social exclusion and (in some cases) cruelty rationalized by tradition.

All I said in the last sentence is arguable, of course; but that’s not what I’m after here.

What I’m after is remembering something more than the story of a young man who died for no good reason (plus a number of bad ones). What I want us to remember is the moral philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut, the author and soldier who survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of War during WWII (and whose forced labor required pulling burned bodies from the smoking rubble). Vonnegut summarized that philosophy in just two words: “be kind.”*

Being kind is not at the core of most academic curricula at the college level, much less of fraternity hazing ceremonies. But among our many contradictory human natures, no moral imperative is more essential to our well being, and to the persistence of all that is good in the world.

Kindness is a grace without which George would not have become the good guy he was. That he died for lack of it is less important than what he had of it, and what the rest of us still need to enjoy, and to practice.

* Kurt Vonnegut’s full dictum (from God Bless You Mister Rosewater, his funniest book) is “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Elsewhere, however, he boils it down to those last two words.

 

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“When I’m Sixty-Four” is 44 years old. I was 20 when it came out, in the summer of 1967,  one among thirteen perfect tracks on The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. For all the years since, I’ve thought the song began, “When I get older, losing my head…” But yesterday, on the eve of actually turning sixty-four, I watched this video animation of the song (by theClemmer) and found that Paul McCartney actually sang, “… losing my hair.”

Well, that’s true. I’m not bald yet, but the bare spot in the back and the thin zone in the front are advancing toward each other, while my face continues falling down below.

In July 2006, my old friend Tom Guild put Doc Searls explains driftwood of the land up on YouTube. It’s an improvisational comedy riff that Tom shot with his huge new shoulder-fire video camera at our friend Steve Tulsky’s house on a Marin County hillside in June, 1988. It was a reunion of sorts. Tom, Steve and I had all worked in radio together in North Carolina. I was forty at the time, and looked about half that age. When my ten-year-old kid saw it, he said “Papa, you don’t look like that.” I replied, “No, I do look like that. I don’t look like this,” pointing to my face.

Today it would be nice if I still looked like I did five years ago. The shot in the banner at the top of this blog was taken in the summer of 1999 (here’s the original), when I was fifty-two and looked half that age. The one on the right was taken last summer (the shades on my forehead masking a scalp that now reflects light), when I was a few days short of sixty-three. By then I was finally looking my age.

A couple months back I gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum where I was warmly introduced as one of those elders we should all listen to. That was nice, but here’s the strange part: when it comes to what I do in the world, I’m still young. Most of the people I hang and work with are half my age or less, yet I rarely notice or think about that, because it’s irrelevant. My job is changing the world, and that’s a calling that tends to involve smart, young, energetic people. The difference for a few of us is that we’ve been young a lot longer.

But I don’t have illusions about the facts of life. It’s in one’s sixties that the croak rate starts to angle north on the Y axis as age ticks east on the X. Still, I’m in no less hurry to make things happen than I ever was. I’m just more patient. That’s because one of the things I’ve learned is that now is always earlier than it seems. None of the future has happened yet, and it’s always bigger than the past.

106 degrees That’s how hot my car thought it was today. I understand it hit 103° at Logan. Right now it’s 10pm and still 95° on our back porch. It’s hotter indoors. Up in the attic, where I work, two window AC units bring the space down to about 82°. They can’t do much better. We have another unit in our master bedroom, and that one can make the space actually comfortable. Little window fans take care of the other spaces as best they can.

So we’re among the lucky ones, if not the greenest. (To be that, we’d turn the ACs off.)

I got back from a month in Italy yesterday, flanked at the ends by a day each in Paris. It was a great trip. Details later when I put some pix up. Meanwhile, some observations on differences, in respect to heat.

First, it was hot much of the time in Italy, but nothing like this current heat wave in Boston. I think the hottest it got was in Rome, when it hit about 35° Celsius, which is about 95° Fahrenheit. Our little apartment there had AC that was pretty good, though not great. But other places didn’t. As in France, a lot of places have some AC, but not much. Or just none. Two of the places we stayed had no AC, and the AC at none of them was as aggressive as any $100 U.S. window unit.

In Florence the Uffizi (English version) had no AC that I could tell. All those old paintings just cooked away, along with throngs of visitors. [Update in 2013: the Uffizi folks found this post from the distant past and told me that the museum is now air conditioned. Cool!] The Accademia was a little better, but not much. None of the churches had any, understandably. The Duomo’s museum had pretty good AC. The San Marco monastery and convent, decorated by abundant paintings and frescoes by Fra Angelico, is kept at a constant cool room temperature and low humidity, and is quite comfortable, at least indoors. Same with the Vatican Museums.

So why do some of these places go to great effort to control temperature and humidity while others do not? I’m only guessing that it’s too much trouble in some. I mean, look here:

When your building dates from the 13th century and has walls made of thick stone blocks (and that’s probably what’s under the stucco here), you do the best you can on a room-by-room basis. The shot above is of the only three window AC units in a building that had many more windows than you see here. At some point the thinking becomes, “Hey, if you want to cool off, ride a scooter or buy some gelato.”

But one gathers also that sometimes things just don’t work. The apartment we rented in a former Palazzo (still called that) in Florence had two AC units, and the main one just moved air without conditioning it a bit. Several attempts were made to fix it, but we finally gave up and lived with AC just in one bedroom. The elevator also bounced on the end of its cable and one time broke off pieces of something in the shaft on the way down. We could hear stuff clatter and fall down the shaft below. At other times the elevator made creepy noises we attibuted to the “‘vator demon.”

I wondered if ice had anything to do with it. Here in the U.S. we not only love AC, but piles of ice in everything that needs to be cold. A drink on the rocks better have more than two little cubes, which is about what you get when you ask for ice in most places I’ve been in Europe (each cube is transfered carefully to your glass by a small tong). When we got back yesterday, one of the first things I wanted was a tall glass of iced tea — the kind that’s a glass full of ice with tea poured over it. On the whole, they don’t have that in Europe. When I got one, it was heaven.

Why do we like ice so much? One reason might be that we invented the big-time ice shipping business here in the U.S. (especially here in Boston, where Frederic Tudor made a fortune at it, starting on Fresh Pond and Spy Pond, near where we live), and, as a result, we love lots of the stuff. I’m guessing it was cheaper here too, so we splurged. But, I dunno. Corrections welcome.

In any case, it’s good to be back. Lots of work to do, heat or no. (And I do miss the gelato already.)

Last week we spent a lot of time here, in Venice:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

The triangular marble plaza on the edge of the Grand Canal of Venice is known informally as Bancogiro, once one of Italy’s landmark banks, and now the name of an osteria there. The plaza is part of Rialto Mercado, the marketplace where Marco Polo was based and prospered when he wasn’t out opening trade routes to the east. It’s also where Shakespeare set The Merchant of Venice, and where Luca Pacioli studied double entry bookkeeping, which he described in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità (Venice 1494), one of the first textbooks written in the vernacular (rather than Latin), and an early success story of the printing press.

Here’s a photo set of the place.

Here’s a 360° view. (While it’s called “Fondamenta de la Preson,” that’s just the cockeyed white building in the map above — a former womens prison — in the corner of the plaza.)

Note that Google Maps tells us little about the location, but plenty about the commercial establishments there. When I go for a less fancy view, the problem gets worse:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

In that pull-down menu (where it says “Traffic”) I can turn on webcams, photos and other stuff from the Long Tail; but there’s no way to turn on labels for the Grand Canal, the Bancogiro plaza, the Rialto Mercado vaporetto (water bus) stop, the Rialto Mercado itself, the Fondamenta de la Preson (women’s prison, labeled, sort of, in the upper view but not the lower), or even the @#$% street names. The only non-commercial item on the map is the Arciconfraternita Di San Cristoforo E Della Misericordia, which is an organization more than a place.

(My wife just said “You know those hotel maps they give away, that only show hotels? It’s like that, only worse. The hotel maps at least give you some street names.”)

For example, try to find information about the Bancogiro: that is, about the original historic bank, rather than the osteria or the other commercial places with that name. (Here’s one lookup.) For awhile I thought the best information I could find on the Web was text from the restaurant menu, which I posted here. That says the bank was founded in 1157. But this scholarly document says 1617. Another seems to agree. But both are buried under commercial links.

The problem here is that the Web has become commercialized at the cost of other needs of use. And Google itself is leading the way — to the point where it is beginning to fail in its mission to “organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

This is understandable, and easily rationalized. Google is a commercial enterprise. It makes money by selling advertising, and placing commercial information in settings like the ones above. This has been good in many ways, and funds many free services. But it has subordinated purely useful purposes, such as finding the name of a street, a canal, or a bus stop.

There are (at least) two central problems here for Google and other giants like it. One is that we’re not always buying something, or looking only for commercial information. The other is that advertising should not be the only business model for the likes of Google, and all who depend on it are at risk while it remains so.

One missing piece is a direct market for useful information. Toward that end I’ll put this out there: I am willing to pay for at least some of the information I want. I don’t expect all information to be free. I don’t think the fact that information is easily copied and re-used means information “wants” to be free. In other words, I think there is a market here. And I don’t think the lack of one is proof that one can’t be built.

What we need first isn’t better offerings from Google, but better signaling from the demand side of the marketplace. That’s what I’m try to do right now, by signaling my willingness to pay something for information that nobody is currently selling at any price. We need to work on systems that make both signaling and paying possible — on the buyer’s terms, and not just the seller’s.

This is a big part of what VRM, or Vendor Relationship Management is about. Development is going on here. EmanciPay, for example, should be of interest to anybody who would like to see less money left on the market’s table.

Bonus link.

 

Poetry

I used to write poetry.

I’m talking mostly decades ago.

at my ages, that could be any of manywhen

a little cummings in that last line.

Been digging Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor.

The poem for my last post came to me as I set the book down and got back to work. The OPML Editor was open, and it’s a shitload faster to write with than WordPress’ own editor, so I blogged it. Bing! justlikethat.

It might seem a bit out of character, but I have lots of those.

And many more left to write.

Creation is every thing:

The blade, the cradle

The rock and the hand.

All nouns and all verbs;

But no adjectives, no adverbs.

Just what is, what was,

What will be,

And how.

is ahead of his time again.  nailed computing as a utility, long before “the cloud” came to mean pretty much the same thing. His latest book, , explored the changes in our lives and minds caused by moving too much of both online — again before others began noticing how much the Net was starting to look like a handbasket.

Thus The Shallows comes to mind when I read Alice Gregory’s in . An excerpt:

I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both “keep up” with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.

In-person communication feels binary to me now: subjects are either private, confessional, and soulful or frantically current, determined mostly by critical mass, interesting only in their ephemeral status. Increasingly these modes of talk seem mutually exclusive. You can pull someone aside—away from the party, onto the fire escape—and confess to a foible or you can stay inside with the group and make a joke about something everyone’s read online. “Maybe you keep the wrong company,” my mother suggests. Maybe. But I like my friends! We can sympathize with each other and feel reassured that we’re not alone in our overeager consumption, denigrated self-control, and anxiety masked as ambition.

Here’s Nick:

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call . Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.

The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.

And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.

Try writing about the Net and tuning it out at the same time. Clearly Nick can do that, because he’s written a bunch of books about the Net (and related matters) while the Net’s been an available distraction. Meanwhile I’ve spent most of the past year writing just one book, fighting and often losing against constant distraction. It’s very hard for me to put the blinders on and just write the thing. In the last few months what I’ve succeed in doing, while wearing the blinders and getting most of my book writing done, is participating far less in many things that I help sustain, or that sustain me, including projects I’m working on, time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and this very blog. (Lotta white spaces on the calendar to the right there.)

On the whole I’ve been dismissive of theories (including Nick’s) about how the Net changes us for the worse, mostly because my own preoccupations, including my distractions, tend to be of the intellectually nutritive sort — or so I like to believe. That is, I’m curious about all kinds of stuff, and like enlarging the sum of what I know, and how well I know it. The Net rocks for that. Still, I see the problem. I can triangulate on that problem just from own struggles plus Alice’s and Nick’s.

used to say, “Great minds discuss ideas, mediocre minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” (Attributed, with some dispute, to Eleanor Roosevelt.) The Net feeds all three, but at the risk of dragging one’s mind from the great to the small. “What else are we doing on the internet if not asserting our rank?” Alice writes. (Would we ask the same about what we’re doing in a library?) Later she adds,

Sometimes I can almost visualize parts of myself, the ones I’m most proud of, atrophying. I wish I had an app to monitor it! I notice that my thoughts are homeopathic, that they mirror content I wish I weren’t reading. I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that “hilarious” moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine. Almost every day at 6 PM my Google Alert tells me that an “Alice Gregory” has died. It’s a pretty outdated name, and most of these obituaries, from family newsletters and local papers, are for octogenarians. I know I’m being tidy-minded even to feel a pang from this metaphor, but still . . .

It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it. I started writing this piece when the book came out at the end of July, and I started unwriting it almost immediately thereafter. Zeno’s Paradox 2.0: delete your sentences as you read their approximations elsewhere. How will future fiction work? Will details coalesce into aphorism? I wonder if instead of scribbling down in my notebook all the familiar aspects of girls I see on the street, as I used to, I’ll continue doing what I do now: snapping a picture and captioning it, in the words of Shteyngart, “so media.”

I’ll grant that we have problems here, but is literacy actually being ruined? Is long-format journalism actually obliterated? The New Yorker is as thick as ever with six to eight thousand word essays. Books still move through stores online and off. Our fourteen year old kid still reads piles of books, even as he spends more time online, watching funny YouTube videos and chatting with a friend three time zones away. Is he worse for that? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway.

What I am sure about is this: Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr are temporary constructions on the Web, like Worlds Fairs used to be, when we still had them. The Internet is a world where all four seasons happen at once. New sites and services are like plants that germinate, grow, bud, bloom and die, over and over. Even the big trees don’t grow to the sky. We need their fruit, their shade, their wood and the humus to which they return. Do we need the other crap that comes along with it those stages? Maybe not, but we go for it anyway.

Last Tuesday gave an excellent Berkman Lunch talk titled Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Self-Branding in Web 2.0. The summary:

In the mid-2000s, journalists and businesspeople heralded “Web 2.0” technologies such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook as signs of a new participatory era that would democratize journalism, entertainment, and politics. By the decade’s end, this idealism had been replaced by a gold-rush mentality focusing on status and promotion. While the rhetoric of Web 2.0 as democratic and revolutionary persists, I will contend that a primary use of social media is to boost user status and popularity, maintaining hierarchy rather than diminishing it. This talk focuses on three status-seeking techniques that emerged with social media: micro-celebrity, self-branding, and life-streaming. I examine interactions between social media and social life in the San Francisco “tech scene” to show that Web 2.0 has become a key aspect of social hierarchy in technologically mediated communities.

I’ve been in and out of that scene since 1985, and I know personally a large percentage of Alice’s sources. One of them, , provided Alice with some terrific insights about how the status system works. Tara also punched out of that system not long ago, moving to Montreal and starting a company. She has also been very active in the development community, for which I am very grateful. She’s on a helluva ride.

Listening to the two Alices,  comes to mind:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

Speaking of which, here’s Bill Hicks on life’s ride:

The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.

“Shut him up! We have alot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.

And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.

(Watch the video. It’s better.)

Social media, social networking — all of it — is just practice. It’s just scaffolding for the roller coaster we keep re-building, riding on, falling off, and re-building. That’s what we’ve been making and re-making of civilization, especially since Industry won the Industrial revolution. (That’s why we needed world’s fairs,  to show off how Industry was doing.)

You go back before that and, on the whole, life didn’t change much, anywhere. Most of our ancestors, for most of the Holocene, lived short, miserable lives that were little different than those of generations prior or hence.

Back in the ’70s I lived in a little community called Oxbow, north of Chapel Hill. My house was one off whats now called Wild Primrose Lane, in this map here. In those days the bare area in the center of that map was a farm that was plowed fresh every spring. One day while we were walking there, I picked up a six-inch spear point that looked like this one from the (one county over):

(Hmm… I’ve been wondering what happened to the one I found. Could this be it? The more I look at it, the more I think so.) Anyway, I brought it to friends in the anthropology department at UNC — associates of the great Joffre Coe — who told me it was a Guilford point, from the Middle Archaic period, which ran from 6000 to 3000 B.C. (The original color was gray, as you can see from the chipped parts. The surface color comes from what’s called patination.)

What fascinates me about this date range, which is similar to the range for other kinds of points everywhere in the world, is how little technology changed over such a long period of time. Generation after generation made the same kinds of stone tools, the same way, for thousands of years. Today we change everything we make, pretty much constantly. There was no operating among the Guilford people, or anywhere, in 5000 B.C. Today Moore sometimes seems slow.

I don’t have a conclusion here, other than to say that maybe Nick and both Alices are right, and the Net is not so ideal as some of us (me especially) tend to think it is. But I also think the Net is something we make, and not just something that makes us.

Clearly, we could do a better job. We have the tools, and we can make many more.

 

An 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan yesterday, and a tsunami is spreading, right now, across the Pacific ocean. Thus we have much news that is best consumed live and uncooked. Here’s mine, right now:

aljazeera

Not many of us carry radios in our pockets any more. Small portable TVs became passé decades ago. Smartphones, tablets and other portable Net-connected devices are now the closest things we have to universal receivers and transmitters of live news. They’re what we have in our pockets, purses and carry-bags.

The quake is coming to be called the 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, and your best portable media to keep up with it are these:

  1. Al Jazeera English, for continuous live TV coverage (interrupted by war coverage from Libya)
  2. Twitter, for continuous brief reports and pointage to sources
  3. Wikipedia, for a continuously updated static page called 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami, with links to authoritative sources

I just looked at ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, CBC and BBC online, and all have recorded reports. None have live coverage on the Net. They are, after all, TV networks; and all TV networks are prevented from broadcasting live on the Net, either by commercial arrangements with cable and satellite TV distributors, or by laws that exclude viewing from IP addresses outside of national boundaries.

Television has become almost entirely an entertainment system, rather than a news one. Yes, news matters to TV networks, but it’s gravy. Mostly they’re entertainment businesses that also do news. This is even true (though to a lesser degree) for CNN.

At NBC.com, you won’t find that anything newsworthy has happened. The website is a bunch of promos for TV shows. Same with CBS.com, Fox.com and ABC.com. Each has news departments, of course, which you’ll find, for example, at Foxnews.com (which is currently broken, at least for me). Like CNN and BBC, these have have many written and recorded reports, but no live coverage (that you can get outside the U.K, anyway, in the case of BBC). Thus TV on the Net is no different than print media such as the New York Times. None. Hey, the Times has video reports too.

NPR has the same problem. You don’t get live radio from them. Still, you do get live radio from nearly all its member stations. Not true for TV. Lots of TV stations have iPhone, iPad and Android apps, but none feature live network video feeds, again because the networks don’t want anything going “over the top” (of the cable system) through Net-connected devices. This is a dumb stance, in the long run, which gets much shorter with each major breaking news story.

Here’s the take-away: emergencies such as wars and earthquakes demonstrate a simple and permanent fact of media life: that the Net is the new TV and the new radio, because it has subsumed both. It would be best for both TV and radio to normalize to the Net and quit protecting their old distribution systems.

Another angle: the Live Web has finally branched off the Static Web (as I wrote about in Linux Journal, back in 2005), and is fast becoming our primary means for viewing and listening to news. To borrow a geologic metaphor, the vast tectonic plates of TV and radio are being subsumed along their leading edges by the Live Web. Thus today’s wars and earthquakes are tectonic events for media old and new. The mountain ranges and civilizations that will build up along the new margins will be on the Live Web’s plate, not the old TV, radio and print plates.

A plug… Those  worried about how to pay for the change should support the VRM community’s development of EmanciPay. We believe the best consumers of media will become the best customers of media only by means that the consumers themselves control. For free media that’s worth more than nothing (as earthquake and war coverage certainly are), the pricing gun needs to be in the hands of the customer, not just the vendor (all of which have their own different ways of being paid, or no means at all). We need a single standard way that users can say “I like that and want to pay for it, and here’s how I’m going to do that.” Which is what EmanciPay proposes. The demand side needs its own ways and means, and those cannot (and should not) be provided only by the supply side, or it will continue to be fractured into a billion silos. (That number is a rough estimate of commercial sites on the Web.) More about all this in another post soon. (It’s at the front of my mind right now, because some of us will be meeting to talk about it here in Austin at SXSW.)

Meanwhile, back to your irregularly unscheduled programs.

[Later...]  I’ll add notes here…

  • Joey Trotz reports that http://cnn.com/live has four live streams. And, as others say below, so does the BBC. All can be viewed on a browser with Flash, and a disabled popup window blocker. Therefore some laptops and Android devices should also be covered, to a degree; but it’s all bit of a kluge. To me the standard is a live stream using at least a relatively open standard like .mp3 for audio and whatever-it-is that Al Jazeera is using for video (on the iPhone and iPad, at least, it can’t be Flash, so what is it?). The key: ease of viewing (fewest clicks) or listening. This means an app, usually, as of today. Note that nearly all smartphones in use today will be old hat two years from now.
  • I just downloaded and added the CNN app to my iPhone. It has “live” in its tabs, but the picture isn’t moving for me. Not sure what that means.
  • Thanks to Danilo, in the comments below, for suggesting that I make clear some distinctions that at least a couple commenters have missed. I do that in this comment here, and I’ll say it here as well. This post is not a slam on the good work that broadcasters do. Nor am I declaring the death of TV and radio as we know it. I am using AND logic here, not OR. When I say the Net is subsuming radio and TV, and that broadcasters need to normalize to the Net, I am saying that the Net is becoming the base medium. Broadcasters need to be streaming online as well as over the air and over cable. Back when he renewed his contract with SiriusXM, Howard Stern said as much about satellite radio. The new base medium for Howard’s SiriusXM channels, as well as all the other channels in the satellite radio lineup, is the Internet. Satellite distribution will become the backup live stream service, rather than the main distribution system. This is why Howard has been out stumping on TV talk shows for the SiriusXM smartphone app. Yes, it is true that the satellite system will cover many areas that the cell and wi-fi distribution system will not. But the reverse will also be true. SiriusXM on the Net is a global service, rather than one restricted to North America. The service is also not capacity-limited in the number of files and streams that can be offered, which is the case with satellite alone. Another point I’m making is that TV networks especially are restricted in their ability to stream by the deals they have with cable companies, and (in the case of, say, the BBC) by blocked use over IP addresses outside national boundaries. These are severely limiting as more and more viewing moves to hand-held devices. And those limitations need to be faced. Al Jazeera shows what can be done when the limits aren’t there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gag me with one of these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the preceding scenario from Sir Tim modified slightly.

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

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

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

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

Again, Phil’s whole post is here.

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

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

Time to start living. Not just submitting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would that it were so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow fooling around

Snow house

That’s what it looks like now. And a “double” storm is due to hit tomorrow night.

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I’m sure all of us with mobile phones do the same thing. When we go into a meeting, a movie, chruch or whatever, we silence our phones. And then forget to un-silence them when we’re done. Then, after too much time has passed, we remember — or are reminded by means other than the phone, such as a spouse saying “Why didn’t you answer when I called? — that we’d turned it off.

So I suggest an un-silencer option. You would set the silencer to snooze for one, two, three or some other number of hours, and then return to normal.

Maybe some phones have this already.

Yes, I know that on some phones, such as the i, the silencer is a physical slider. But it can still be done in software on phones that allow it.

And yes, I know this is a trivial issue, but it’s how I’m dealing now with three missed calls.

Is it “twenty eleven” or “two thousand eleven”?

I’m hearing more of the former, I think. By that I mean “twenty eleven” is more commonly used than was “twenty ten,” an the “thousand” thing is wearing off.

Sooner or later it will have to. I doubt we’ll be saying “two thousand thirty two” when 2032 rolls around. “Thousand” persisted through the ’00s (the “aughts”), but is getting a bit stale now that we’ve turned the caledar up to eleven.

I haven’t bothered to check, but is one more correct than the other? Does the AP have a position on this, for example? Just wondering.

Here’s a post I put up in 2003:

A pain in the friend

Gil Templeton:
I haven’t seen my old friend Gil Templeton since his brother David’s wedding, whenever that was. Ten years ago? Twelve? Both Gil and David worked for me — Gil as a copywriter in North Carolina and David as a PR account executive in California. Both guys were as different as two primary colors, with a few significant exceptions, especially in the humor department. Both were very funny guys. I remember how Gil (who went on to write piles of sketch comedy … and act in some too) and I co-wrote a country music song, or part of one, anyway, when we should have been working late one night. Most of it was Gil’s. All I remember is the refrain:
I’m too old to fuck
and too young to die
but not too drunk to eat
So bring my baby some likker
and burn me up some meat
David used to crack everybody up with a perfect imitation of… (gulp) me. Before then I never had any idea that I was imitable, or that I had a walk others called a “waddle.”
The Templeton Brothers were terrific company. I loved them both. Still do. However, as too often happens, geography gets in the way, and life goes on with less and less contact, until…
A few minutes ago I got a email from David, who’s now in Connecticut, pointing to a cover story by Gil in the Nashville Scene, the arts weekly in the Music City, where Gil moved after he left North Carolina in the early 80s. It’s The Pain Chronicles: One man’s life-changing, body-aching, drug-addictive struggles with a devastating injury — a shorter version of Gil’s forthcoming book by the same title, from Coldtreepress. It’s a harrowing tale, and told, as always, with sharp humor.
I had no idea. Seeing the picture above brought tears to my eyes. There’s My Man, with a cane. Same glasses. Same hair. Same strong chin. Same wise-ass smile. I had forgotten how much I miss him.
We’re so lucky, most of us. Life is a death sentence, but most of our time on death row is a cakewalk. The journey is the reward, right? Except for those of us whose ships are caught on the rocks.
Right now I’m feeling lucky to have these two good brothers as friends. Even after all these years apart.

Last night I got an email from David reporting that Gil died in his sleep that morning. He was just 53.

Among our favorite comedy bits was one — I think it was from National Lampoon’s Lemmings show — in which a stoner musician mumbles a tribute to “the late Neil Young,” who once played with “Crosby Ogden Nash,” and who was “a credit to both rock and roll.” There was another line in there, where the stoner says, “We used to eat beans and hitch to gigs…” When he’d see me, or call on the phone, Gill would yell “BEANS!” just to recall the bit. After awhile, “Beans” became what we’d call each other.

In creative sessions at our agency, we used to spend hours in the “Think Tank” coming up with ideas. None of those ideas today is as memorable as what Gil once said to sum up a long filibuster by another guy in Creative: “So what you’re saying is, ‘The client sucks and the product cannot be sold.’” It cracked everybody up, and the ideas began flowing like a river.

I guess you had to be there. I’m glad I was.

Bonus links:

[Later...] Here’s Gil’s obituary.

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Just learned that Gerry Rafferty has died. Chronic alcoholism, apparently. I liked his music. Good lyrics, catchy tunes.. He was big in progressive/album radio when I worked and hung out there. I suppose he’s best known for the Raphael Ravenscroft solo saxaphone choruses in the song “Baker Street” (for which Ravenscroft was paid £27 with a check that bounced*); but what always stood out for me, at least with Rafferty’s hits, was his use of the second person voice. “Stuck in the middle with you“, “Star” and “Baker Street” were all complaints addressed to somebody with whom Rafferty had a problem. I suppose those people have outlived him. He was only 63: same age as me.

*Bonus link.

When I was walking to school in the second grade, I found myself behind a group of older kids, arguing about what subjects they hated most. The consensus was geography. At the time I didn’t know what geography was, but I became determined to find out. When I did, two things happened. First, I realized that I loved geography (and along with it, geology). Second, I learned that popularity of anything often meant nothing. And I’ve been passionate about geography ever since.

But not just for myself. Instead I’m interested in feeding scholarship wihin subjects that interest me. For both geography and geology I do that mostly through photography. Toward that end, here are a few recent sets I’ve posted, or updated:

Meanwhile, close to 200 of my shots are now in Wikimedia Commons. Big thanks to the Wikipedians who have put them there. I can’t begin to count how many Wikipedia articles many of these illustrate. currently accompanies eighteen different articles in fourteen different languages.

While we’re on the subject of , I’ll commend to you the new book Good Faith Collaboration by , a fellow at this year. His first chapter is online.

You may notice that most of my links to subjects, both in my online writings and in my photo captions, go to Wikipedia entries. Sometimes people ask me why. One reason is that Wikipedia is the closest we have come, so far, to a source that is both canonical and durable, even if each entry changes constantly, and some are subject to extreme disagreement. Wikipedia is, like the , a set of . Another reason is that Wikipedia is guided by the ideal of a neutral point of view (NPOV). This, Joseph says, “ensures that we can join the scattered pieces of what we think we know and good faith facilitates the actual practice of fitting them together.”

The nature of the Net is to encourage scatterings such as mine, as well as good faith about what might be done with them.

Although I appreciate being called “smart” (as Hugh MacCleod kindly does here), that adjective has always troubled me, no matter what, or to whom, it’s applied. Two reasons: 1) because I believe smartness is a far more common quality than our bell-curving institutions would have us believe;  and 2) because the label too often serves as a filter for skepticism.

Rather than make a long post about the topic, however, I’ve decided instead to quote a long post from a list I subscribe to. It’s in response to another post citing this Boston Globe piece on on “group IQ”:

It’s a good piece. I wonder if they also studied the collective intelligence of open source development communities, all of which by necessity require intelligent work by everybody involved.

That curiosity aside, my only problem with the piece is the same one I have with all stories of this kind, which is failing to challenge the belief that  individual intelligence — a quality even more kaleidoscopic than one’s own DNA chain — can be measured and expressed mathematically, as a “quotient.”

IQ testing — and the belief that each of us possesses a fixed quality called “IQ” — is a relic of eugenics: the long-discredited ideal of assisting human evolution through selective breeding. IQ testing was invented by Lewis Terman, a famous proponent of eugenics, early in the last century <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Terman>, and persists in spite of abundant sources of discredit to its base assumptions.

Let me tell you about somebody. His IQ score in kindergarten was high enough to put him in the “fast” group, where he remained until the 6th grade, at which point he so hated school that he barely participated. His IQ score had also declined over that same stretch — so far, in fact, that his teacher wanted to kick him out of the class for being too dumb, and insisted that the kid be re-tested. The kid did well enough on the test to stay in class, but tanked on all standardized tests, year after year… to the point where, at the end of the 9th grade, the school put him on a track toward a “vocational” high school to learn a “manual” skill or two.

The kid’s parents believed the kid was actually smart, however, and enrolled him in what might be called a “correctional” high school. Here the kid continued to do poorly, earning a diploma by the slimmest of margins. His SAT scores at best matched the national mean. So the family found a good-enough college in the South that was willing to take him. There he also got awful grades, advancing to his sophomore and junior years by earning the lowest possible grade point average, to a 1/100th of a point, each time.

Through all that schooling, only one teacher believed in the kid. That was his 11th grade English teacher, who said the kid had writing ability, and once read one of the kid’s humorous pieces aloud to the class. From that point forward the kid became more and more of a writer, so that when he moved to a major in philosophy, as a junior in college, he could finally put his original writing and thinking to work.

Not that his grades were great after that. He hit the dean’s list one semester, but that was it. He got out in four years and went on to many kinds of work after that, all involving writing, plus three other qualities his friends in school valued, even if the schools  themselves did not: insight, a skepticism toward prevailing beliefs, a a sense of humor. Those are what earned him a living for the next forty-plus years, by the end of which he had also earned fellowships with a couple of brand-name universities.

So let’s go back to the IQ part of this story. This kid’s mother happened to be a teacher in the same grade school system, and knew all his scores, including IQ tests. Turns out the kid’s known IQ scores had an eighty point range. They measured nothing other than success at solving a series of puzzles on a given day.

In case you hadn’t guessed by now, that kid was me. One of the things I learned back in those years of hating school (though still learning plenty) was that every human being is different, and that this difference is the most human of natures. I also learned that genius is common, and that all of us bring unique and valuable qualities to our collective tables.

It is these differences that matter most for groups as well as for individuals. And these differences, at their best, are beyond measure.

Doc

While we’re on the subject, a bonus link.

And Happy New Year. (Maybe I’ll run into one of ya’ll at FirstNight in Boston, where I’m headed right now.)

Smart people SLEEP LATE yells the headline of this opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press. It begins,

Sleep is a fundamental component of animal biology. New evidence confirms that, in humans, its timing reflects intelligence. People with higher IQs (intelligence quotients) tend to be more active nocturnally, going to bed later, whereas those with lower IQs usually retire to bed sooner after nightfall.

Let’s stop right there and ask a few questions:

  • Does each of us actually have a “quotient” — a sum — of intelligence?
  • Is intelligence actually measurable as a sum?
  • Do you believe you have an IQ? Do you know what it is?
  • Would you be willing to share your IQ scores? Why? Or why not?

I took many IQ tests during my years in school. And since my mother taught in the public school I attended through the 9th grade, she had access to all my records. Between those and others I’ve seen, my known IQ scores have an eighty point range: from quite smart to quite dumb. Those scores are among the many facts that convinced me long ago that IQ testing is meant mostly for one thing: ranking people. It’s made to privilege some, to keep privileges from others, and to move the rest as a herd through school or some other system. It legitimizes the arbitrary sorting of human beings into castes based on poor measures of one quality that makes each of us very human, and therefore also very different from every other human being. In a cruel way, it seeks to measure the immeasurable, and to sort us out accordingly.

IQ testing became popular in an age when eugenics was still taken seriously: when it was assumed by privileged populations that races and ethnic groups differed by intelligence and other measures. Today we go out of our way to avoid that kind of thinking, at the official level. But the proclivity persists. Assuming that people have an IQ — intelligence measured as if by a thermometer — is still more than common, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. That’s what we see in reports like the quoted one above.

So here’s my advice to anybody writing about the topic: recognize that IQ is a one-time score on a test, not a true measure of the very human and highly arcane personal quality we call intelligence. Don’t say “Those with higher IQs.” Say “Those with higher IQ scores.” The difference is between humanity and that which seeks to replace it with a number. It should help to think about the harms caused by the latter.

Way to die

I just learned by Dave that Chris Gulker died on Wednesday. (Somehow I missed the news at first pass.) I barely knew Chris, I knew enough to get that he was terrific guy, citizen, friend, photographer, blogger and much more. I don’t think it’s possible to die more consciously and graciously than Chris did. Dave’s right that it’s wrong not to read Chris’s obituary in a mainstream paper. But there are plenty of good ones out there* where it matters most. Start with Scott Rosenberg’s.

*And thank you, IceRocket, for still doing great blog search. It matters. Everybody, please do read the list of goodbyes that come up in a search for Chris.

Summer in the Fall

I took the picture above while I was crossing Harvard Yard yesterday. Pretty much captures the look and the mood of the region lately.

It’s 72° on my back porch right now, 9 o’clock at night. It was another warm day here in eastern Massachusetts. While it’s snowing in Minnesota and raining everywhere else on the East Coast, it’s pretty damn nice here.

In fact it’s so warm that I regret having taken the air conditioners out of the windows last week. Could have used them today, especially here in the attic, where I do most of my writing. Instead the windows are open. Outside, crickets and tree frogs sing. For them it’s still summer.

Fall colors are peaking a bit more gradually than usual, thanks to the absence of frost so far this year. Whether or not the globe is warming, things are not cooling off much here.

I love it. Reminds me of North Carolina. Fall  happens there too. It just comes later, lasts longer, and lacks a critical mass of maples.

Of course in a month this will all be over for sure. In two months there will be frozen slush on the ground. But for now, it’s mighty sweet.

Bonus sentiments, from the Bard himself:

SONNET 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

And at my age Shakespeare was fifteen years dead already. Which is why I’m with Frost, who had “miles to go before I sleep.” Or George Burns, who explained his longevity in two words: “I’m booked.”

Happy 42 Day

It’s 101010 today. In binary, that’s 42. It’s also the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

And, as it happens, our son’s 14th birthday. You can imagine how very cool that is.

Went to see The Social Network last night, and thought it was terrific. Even though most of the scenes set at Harvard and Silicon Valley were shot elsewhere, the versimilitude was high. And,while it was strange to see the recent past treated as history, the story actually works, and carries truth, even if it doesn’t ring true for the living subjects of the story. (I’ve haven’t met any of the movie’s characters, but I thought Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of the Sean Parker character was drawn straight from Jason Calacanis.)

The story that matters, at least to me, is about the making of a Silicon Valley success. In The Business-Movie Business, The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki unpacks Hollywood’s small and mostly poor assortment of movies about business. His summary statement is “Movies’ mistrust of capitalism is almost as old as the medium itself.” Here’s how he puts “The Social Network” in that context:

Watching “Wall Street,” you’d think that business is a Hollywood obsession. But it’s really Hollywood’s biggest blind spot.

For that reason, the fall’s most important business film—indeed, the most important business film in ages—is not the second “Wall Street” but, rather, “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s film about Facebook. The film represents a rare attempt to take business seriously, and to interrogate the blend of insight, ruthlessness, creativity, and hubris required to start a successful company. Hollywood has made good films about money, loyalty, trust, and organization before—but most of them have been about gangsters. “The Social Network” suggests that it could also start making good films about businesspeople who don’t carry guns.

Henry Blodget’s blog post title sums up his own take: No Wonder Everyone Loves The Facebook Movie: It’s The American Dream. He begins,

True, it paints Harvard as a stuffy cartoon-scape. True, it treats women as as video-game props, sex tools, and platforms for coke-snorting. And, true, Mark Zuckerberg’s character comes off as a bit of an asshole. (But based on the other evidence I’ve seen, this would seem to be a fair representation of the reality at the time. And, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s writing and Jesse Eisenberg’s delivery, even the assholishness is charming.)

But all this is secondary to the main message of the movie, which is a celebration of what makes a vibrant corner of our economy–and our country–great.

What’s the Facebook movie really about?

It’s about a college sophomore who says “fuck you” to authority, follows his passion, and creates something great. In so doing, he works ridiculously hard, inspires his colleagues, blows past the comfortable establishment, and becomes rich beyond belief.

In other words, the Facebook movie is the latest incarnation of the American Dream.

Ah, but we wake up from our dreams. And Hollywood knows how to make that movie too.

Mark Zuckerberg is clearly an extremely bright and prescient dude, and Facebook could hardly be a bigger success story. But that story isn’t over. In fact, it’s just begun.

(An aside… Both The New Yorker and BusinessInsider, from which I lifted the quotes above, do something I hate. They give me more than I intend to copy, putting on my clipboard a “Read more” and the URL of the piece. So, when I paste the passage, I get bonus jive. Sometimes this is handy, but it smacks of pure promotion, and its annoying.)

Back on July 31 I posted The Data Bubble in response to the first of The Wall Street Journal‘s landmark series of articles and Web postings on the topic of unwelcome (and, to their targets, mostly unknown) user tracking.

A couple days ago I began to get concerned about how much time had passed since the last posting, on August 12. So I tweeted, Hey @whattheyknow, is your Wall Street Journal series done? If not, when are we going to see more entries? Last I saw was >1 month ago.

Then yesterday @WhatTheyKnow tweeted back, @dsearls: Ask and ye shall receive: http://on.wsj.com/9DTpdP. Nice!

The piece is titled On the Web, Children Face Intensive Tracking, by Steve Stecklow, and it’s a good one indeed. To start,

The Journal examined 50 sites popular with U.S. teens and children to see what tracking tools they installed on a test computer. As a group, the sites placed 4,123 “cookies,” “beacons” and other pieces of tracking technology. That is 30% more than were found in an analysis of the 50 most popular U.S. sites overall, which are generally aimed at adults.

The most prolific site: Snazzyspace.com, which helps teens customize their social-networking pages, installed 248 tracking tools. Its operator described the site as a “hobby” and said the tracking tools come from advertisers.

Should we call cookies for kids “candy”? Hey, why not?

Once again we see the beginning of the end of fettered user tracking. Such as right here:

Many kids’ sites are heavily dependent on advertising, which likely explains the presence of so many tracking tools. Research has shown children influence hundreds of billions of dollars in annual family purchases.

Google Inc. placed the most tracking files overall on the 50 sites examined. A Google spokesman said “a small proportion” of the files may be used to determine computer users’ interests. He also said Google doesn’t include “topics solely of interest to children” in its profiles.

Still, Google’s Ads Preferences page displays what Google has determined about web users’ interests. There, Google accurately identified a dozen pastimes of 10-year-old Jenna Maas—including pets, photography, “virtual worlds” and “online goodies” such as little animated graphics to decorate a website.

“It is a real eye opener,” said Jenna’s mother, Kate Maas, a schoolteacher in Charleston, S.C., viewing that data.

Jenna, now in fifth grade, said: “I don’t like everyone knowing what I’m doing and stuff.”

A Google spokesman said its preference lists are “based on anonymous browser activity. We don’t know if it’s one user or four using a particular browser, or who those users are.” He said users can adjust the privacy settings on their browser or use the Ads Preferences page to limit data collection.

I went and checked my own Ads Preferences page (http://www.google.com/ads/preferences) and found that I had opted out of Google’s interest-based advertising sometime in the past. I barely remember doing that, but I’m not surprised I did. On the whole I think most people would opt to turn that kind of stuff off, just to get a small measure of shelter amidst the advertising blizzard that the commercial Web has become.

Finding Google’s opt-out control box without a flashlight, however, is a bit of a chore. Worse, Google is just one company. The average user has to deal with dozens or hundreds of other (forgive me) cookie monsters, each with its own opt-out/in control boxes (or lack of them). And I suspect that most of those others are far less disclosing about their practices (and respectful of users) than Google is.

(But I have no research to back that up—yet. If anybody does, please let me have it. There’s a whole chapter in a book I’m writing that’s all about this kind of stuff.)

Meanwhile, says the Journal,

Parents hoping to let their kids use the Internet, while protecting them from snooping, are in a bind. That’s because many sites put the onus on visitors to figure out how data companies use the information they collect.

Exactly. And what are we to do? Depend on the site owners and their partners? Not in the absence of help, that’s for sure. The Journal again:

Gaiaonline.com—where teens hang out together in a virtual world—says in its privacy policy that it “cannot control the activities” of other companies that install tracking files on its users’ computers. It suggests that users consult the privacy policies of 11 different companies.

In a statement, gaiaonline.com said, “It is standard industry practice that advertisers and ad networks are bound by their own privacy policy, which is why we recommend that our users review those.” The Journal’s examination found that gaiaonline.com installed 131 tracking files from third parties, such as ad networks.

An executive at a company that installed several of those 131 files, eXelate Media Ltd., said in an email that his firm wasn’t collecting or selling teen-related data. “We currently are not specifically capturing or promoting any ‘teen’ oriented segments for marketing purposes,” wrote Mark S. Zagorski, eXelate’s chief revenue officer.

But the Journal found that eXelate was offering data for sale on 5.9 million people it described as “Age: 13-17.” In a later interview, Mr. Zagorski confirmed eXelate was selling teen data. He said it was a small part of its business and didn’t include personal details such as names.

BlueKai Inc., which auctions data on Internet users, also said it wasn’t offering for sale data on minors. “We are not selling data on kids,” chief executive Omar Tawakol wrote in an email. “Let there be no doubt on what we do.”

However, another data-collecting company, Lotame Solutions Inc., told the Journal that it was selling what it labeled “teeny bopper” data on kids age 13 to 19 via BlueKai’s auctions. “If you log into BlueKai, you’ll see ‘teeny boppers’ available for sale,” said Eric L. Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

Mr. Tawakol of BlueKai later confirmed the “teeny bopper” data had been for sale on BlueKai’s exchange but no one had ever bought it. He said as a result of the Journal’s inquiries, BlueKai had removed it.

The FTC is reviewing the only federal law that limits data collection about kids, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or Coppa. That law requires sites aimed at children under 13 to obtain parental permission before collecting, using or disclosing a child’s “personal information” such as name, home or email address, and phone and Social Security number. The law also applies to general-audience sites that knowingly collect personal information from kids.

So we have pots and kettles calling each other black while copping out of responsibility in any case—and then, naturally, turning toward government for help.

My own advice: let’s not be so fast with that. Let’s continue to expose bad practices, but let’s also fix the problem on the users’ end. Because what we really need here are tools by which individuals (including parents) can issue their own global preferences, their own terms of engagement,  their own controls, and their own ends of relationships with companies that serve them.

These tools need to be be based on open standards, code and protocols, and independent of any seller. Where they require trusted intermediaries, those parties should be substitutable, so individuals are not locked in again.

And guess what? We’re working on those. Here’s what I wrote last month in Cooperation vs. Coercion:

What we need now is for vendors to discover that free customers are more valuable than captive ones. For that we need to equip customers with better ways to enjoy and express their freedom, including ways of engaging that work consistently for many vendors, rather than in as many different ways ways as there are vendors — which is the “system” (that isn’t) we have now.

There are lots of VRM development efforts working on both the customer and vendor sides of this challenge. In this post I want to draw attention to the symbols that represent those two sides, which we call r-buttons, two of which appear [in the example below]. Yours is the left one. The vendor’s is the right one. They face each other like magnets, and are open on the facing ends.

These are designed to support what Steve Gillmor calls gestures, which he started talking about back in 2005 or so. I paid some respect to gestures (though I didn’t yet understand what he meant) in The Intention Economy, a piece I wrote for Linux Journal in 2006. (That same title is also the one for book I’m writing for Harvard Business Press. The subtitle is What happens when customers get real power.) On the sell side, in a browser environment, the vendor puts some RDFa in its HTML that says “We welcome free customers.” That can mean many things, but the most important is this: Free customers bring their own means of engagement. It also means they bring their own terms of engagement.

Being open to free customers doesn’t mean that a vendor has to accept the customer’s terms. It does mean that the vendor doesn’t believe it has to provide all those terms itself, through the currently defaulted contracts of adhesion that most of us click “accept” for, almost daily. We have those because from the dawn of e-commerce sellers have assumed that they alone have full responsibility for relationships with customers. Maybe now that dawn has passed, we can get some daylight on other ways of getting along in a free and open marketplace.

The gesture shown here —

— is the vendor (in this case the public radio station KQED, which I’m just using as an example here) expressing openness to the user, through that RDFa code in its HTML. Without that code, the right-side r-button would be gray. The red color on the left side shows that the user has his or her own code for engagement, ready to go. (I unpack some of this stuff here.)

Putting in that RDFa would be trivial for a CRM system. Or even for a CMS (content management system). Next step: (I have Craig Burton leading me on this… he’s on the phone with me right now…) RESTful APIs for customer data. Check slide 69 here. Also slides 98 and 99. And 122, 124, 133 and 153.

If I’m not mistaken, a little bit of RDFa can populate a pop-down menu on the site’s side that might look like this:

All the lower stuff is typical “here are our social links” jive. The important new one is that item at the top. It’s the new place for “legal” (the symbol is one side of a “scale of justice”) but it doesn’t say “these are our non-negotiable terms of service (or privacy policies, or other contracts of adhesion). Just by appearing there it says “We’re open to what you bring to the table. Click here to see how.” This in turn opens the door to a whole new way for buyers and sellers to relate: one that doesn’t need to start with the buyer (or the user) just “accepting” terms he or she doesn’t bother to read because they give all advantages to the seller and are not negotiable. Instead it is an open door like one in a store. Much can be implicit, casual and free of obligation. No new law is required here. Just new practice. This worked for Creative Commons (which neither offered nor required new copyright law), and it can work for r-commerce (a term I just made up). As with Creative Commons, what happens behind that symbol can be machine, lawyer or human-readable. You don’t have to click on it. If your policy as a buyer is that you don’t want to to be tracked by advertisers, you can specify that, and the site can hear and respond to it. The system is, as Renee Lloyd puts it, the difference between a handcuff and a handshake.

Giving customers means for showing up in the marketplace with their own terms of engagement is a core job right now for VRM. Being ready to deal with customers who bring their own terms is equally important for CRM. What I wrote here goes into some of the progress being made for both. Much more is going on as well. (I’m writing about this stuff because these are the development projects I’m involved with personally. There are many others.)

You can check out some of those others here.

Bonus link: Tracking the Companies that Track You Online. That’s a Fresh Air interview by Dave Davies of Julia Angwin, senior technology editor of The Wall Street Journal and the lead reporter on the What They Know series.

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While walking around Paris for the last month, I’ve been fascinated by the highly fossiliferous limestone that comprises so many of its iconic structures. At one point I thought, Hmm… The City of Light is built with materials of death. I had no idea how much farther that thought would take me.

Without abundant death we wouldn’t have asphalt, concrete, marble, travertine, chert, oil, coal or countless other graces of civilization. Still, there seemed to be an unusual abundance of limestone in use here, and I wondered where it came from. Naturally, from my 21st century perspective, I assumed that all the stone had been quarried in some other place: hills outside of town, perhaps. (Lutetian limestone, it’s called, and it’s a relatively new rock: only only a few dozen million years old. Younger than dinosaurs. It’s also known as “Paris stone”, and has become quite the fashion item lately.) What I hadn’t figured was that nearly all of this building stone, for many centuries, was extracted from beneath Paris itself.

I didn’t learn that fact until we visited the Catacombes a couple days ago.

The Catacombes are bone banks called ossuaries. They occupy abandoned quarries beneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million people. Many of the deceased are surely the same men (and women? probably) who carved out the quarries, mostly in the first several centuries of the last millennium. It must have been quite a project, since they withdrew enough rock to assemble Notre Dame, thousands of other churches large and small, bridges, city walls and homes — and left beneath the streets of Paris more than 300 kilometers (100 miles) of tunnels, including rooms and vaults that together comprise a vast man-made cave system. Top to bottom, a vertical cross-section of Paris looks like this:

  • Surface — streets, buildings, parks
  • Metro tunnels
  • Sewers
  • Quarries

Fossils are bones of stone, I explained to my kid. And limestones are stones of bone. Here in the Catacombes, down hallways that go on and on and on and on, the bones of dead Parisians are stacked into walls, with an artistry that makes one wonder what was going on in the heads of the masons. The walls facing the halls and passing visitors are built mostly with femurs and skulls. The femurs are stacked and interlocked, with the knee knuckles outward, course after course forming a pattern like stitches in a cloth. These are interrupted by horizontal lines of skulls, and usually topped with a final row: a crowning course of human heads. Here and there some arm bones might be used, but femurs and skulls were clearly the preferable building material. Behind these walls behind lie the rest of the bones: remains of remains.

The masons were priests. The bones were gathered from the city’s cemeteries, which had become rotten with an abundance of corpses as the end of the 18th century approached. That’s when it was decided to move the bones down into deeper graves. The quarries were empty, so the bones came down. The whole project went in stages, running from the late 1700s to the middle 1800s. The priests, whose jobs already required exceptional respect for the dead, were conscripted for the work.

The pictures in my collection (such as the one above) aren’t the best I’ve taken. Most of the light was provided by dim illumination in the catacombes itself, or by cell phones. If you wish to know more (and I recommend it), here are a pile of fascinating links:

Since one walks through the tunnels in the company of others, it is less creepy than you might think. After a while, endless aisles of bones also tend to make the bones themselves ordinary. Yet one wonders: Is this skull Robespierre’s? Danton’s? Both lost their heads at the guillotine, but down here all heads are equally ordinary and anonymous, fully respected, but still just building material.

A lesson: different as we all are in life, we are remarkably identical in death. Skulls tend to all look the same. So do other bones. One can say, These were babies once. Then laughing children. They grew up, learned about life, and lived long enough to produce more babies and get work done. And what they’ve left is no different than what everybody else leaves.

What makes us animals is that we eat other living things. (We need their carbon.) We live on things that lived. And we build with them too. Death supplies us. In turn, we supply as well. And all our turns will come.

What makes us different is who and what we are, and what we do, when we’re alive. Life is for the living. And so, it turns out, is death.

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At ProjectVRM we call EmanciPay “a relationship management and voluntary payment framework in which buyers and sellers can present to each other the requirements and options by which they are willing to engage, or are already engaging”. These include preferences, policies and choices about what to pay and how. (Actual payment would be carried out by PayPal, Google Checkout or some other system built for the purpose.)

All of this is new stuff for buyers, and we’re not building it all out at once. In fact, we’re starting with a small piece of code for the seller’s side, so they can signal willingness to engage with buyers in the free and open marketplace, rather than only in the sellers’ own silos. If they want to signal that willingness (which we might call “VRM-friendliness”), they’ll include a bit of RDFa code in their Web pages. If that code is present, the seller’s r-button goes from a default gray to red. If the user already has a relationship (or has had some other interaction) with the seller, the buyer’s side r-button also turns red. So, in this mocked-up example —

— I can see that KQED is VRM-friendly, and that I already have had some kind of dealings with the station.

Right now the code for both sides is in the works, and is also a Google Summer of Code (GSoC) project. It builds to a large extent on Tipsy, described as a “a framework for voluntary donations to bloggers, musicians, and other content creators on the web”. Tipsy is the creation of Oshani Seneviratne and Adam Marcus, both grad students at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), whom I got to know through David Karger, a professor at CSAIL, whom I got to know through Keith Hopper, who fathered ListenLog. Our GSoC programmer is Ahmad Bakhiet, a student at Kings College London.

When we’re through with the current stage, we’ll be ready to test out the seller’s side code with stations (or with anybody), which will include means for deciding what happens when the user clicks on the right-side r-button. What matters most at the first stage is the signal of VRM-friendliness, which is a huge state-change form the old silo’d business-as-usual. What it says is “I’m open to what you bring to the market space between us, and to a potential relationship.”

We have this in the real brick-and-mortar commercial world, but not in the e-commerce world, for the simple reason that we have lacked mechanisms for creating the open market spaces between buyers and sellers — the space in the middle here:

Phil Windley of Kynetx gives a perfect “History of E-Commerce” slide in his talks. It goes,

1995: Invention of the cookie.

The End.

Cookies are bits of code that sites put in your browser to help them remember stuff about you. These are handy in many ways, but they also put all responsibility in the hands of those sites — of the sellers.

And if you want to do serious shopping, you can’t just put down cash or a credit card, do your business and walk away. No, you have to register. And to do that you need to accept terms of service that are known in the legal trade as contracts of adhesion. These are usually not read by users for several reasons, the most important of which is that they are not negotiable. Whether or not they are unconscionable, or enforceable, is beside the point. If you want to do business, you have to agree.

Where contracts of adhesion apply, markets are not conversations.
Needing to accept these contracts is a big source of friction in the online marketplace. It’s one of those areas where things are slower online than off. It is also therefore one of those areas where the better model is the familiar offline brick-and-mortar one. (In fact, one could argue that loyalty cards bring to the brick-and-mortar world one of the more annoying inventions of online retailing.)

So that’s a big part of EmanciPay’s challenge, and something we’ve been working on at ProjectVRM. What we’re working to create is a two-sided approach to eliminating the need for users to accept one-sided contracts. We’re creating code with easily-understood wording and symbols, which can be read by lawyers, ordinary users, and machines (ideals first articulated by Creative Commons.) This code can be used for expressing preferences, policies and bases on which each side can trust the other. There’s much more that can go on both sides, but those are a start.

When you click on the seller’s r-button in EmanciPay, you might see a pop-down menu that looks like this:

The new item there is the symbol I’ve labeled “terms”. It’s one half of the iconic “scales of justice.” A similar one might be on the buyer’s drop-down menu as well. Also there might be preferences, standing requests for products or services, links to personal data stores, or whatever we feel like putting in there.

We see the r-buttons and their affordances as places where both the buyer and the seller (or the individual and any organization — this needn’t be limited to commercial settings) can offer, selectively, means of engagement and the data required.

But one of the first jobs here is to get the paranoid lawyers out of the room and the engagement-oriented ones in the room, to help describe new terms of engagement that yield little or nothing in real protection, while offering means for engagement that reduce or eliminate the frictions to which we have become too accustomed over the last fifteen years.

While we’re still baking EmanciPay, I want to visit some questions about what my actual or potential interactions with KQED, WBUR, WWOZ and other stations on my ListenLog might be. There are many possibilities here. One might be to take a budget that I pay down proportionately through time. Another might be to just throw some money now and then at sources of programs that I’ve found especially good — or that I like right now, for that matter. We can be real-time about this. Another might be to pledge money to stations where which I spend more than X amount of time. The list can go on.

I can also, at my discretion, also share some or all of my data with stations and other parties (such as program hosts or producers).

And I can also open myself to programmatic approaches, created by other parties, that work inside the EmanciPay framework. The possibilities are endless here, and suggestions are welcome.

At this stage we plan to test out and play with EmanciPay at first by using Tipsy‘s lottery model. In this one, listeners pay one source, on (say) a monthly basis, with the source being chosen as the winner of a lottery. In other words, if you look at the list of stations on my ListenLog, I would budget $X per month to pay out to some lucky public radio station. Code on the station’s side (the same code that lights up the seller’s r-button) would make them eligible for winning my monthly lottery. At the end of the month, the lucky station gets paid. Get enough listeners and stations involved, and we can have some fun with it.

But that’s just a small first step. The ones that follow will shake down richer and more symmetrical, involved and cross-informative relationships between stations and listeners — and then expand out into other territory, I hope starting with the music industry. From there we can move on to other content industries, and then to the broader marketplace in general.

If all goes according to plan, r-buttons will be commonly used and well-understood symbols. Of course, plans can change. Alternative ideas are sure to emerge, along with many improvements to this one, which is among many others in the VRM movement. It just happens to be the one I’ve been working on most.

Meanwhile, big thanks to to Vince Stehle (who has moved on from Surdna, but made the grant happen when we needed it most), to Keith Hopper and NPR, to Jake Shapiro and the crew at PRX, to many other friends in public radio (and to ones in free commercial radio as well, such as Bill Goldsmith of Radio Paradise), to Daniel Choi, Oshani Seneviratne, Adam Marcus, Ahmad Bakhiet and other helpful programmers, to the VRM community, and to the Berkman Center, which has kept faith with me and with ProjectVRM through the years required to get things off the ground.

We’re still getting started here. But we’ve come a long way too.

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Three things happen in a marketplace. One is transaction, another is conversation and the third is relationship. Let’s talk about what you, as a customer (not just a consumer), can do with each.

Transaction

Let’s start with price. Here in the industrialized world, price has been something that sellers have set, and buyers have paid, ever since John Wanamaker invented the price tag in the late 1800s. In some cases buyers have had room to haggle (such as with buying a horse or a car), but on the whole we customers pay what sellers ask. Or we move on.

A price is a signal. So is buying something. So, in a less direct way, is not buying. But those aren’t the only signals that matter. A lot can happen between the point where you start shopping and any seller’s bottom line, on both the seller’s part and yours.

Take the signaling system called advertising, which is becoming a half $trillion business, worldwide. Most advertising is, almost by definition, wasted. Wanamaker’s famous quote — ”Half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half. — was off by nearly fifty percent. The amount of advertising that does nothing for customers is usually close to one hundred percent. Sure, advertisers try to minimize waste; and in many cases (such as Google’s AdSense and AdWords), advertisers only pay for clicks. And advertising pays for many good things in the world. But there is a limit to what it can do for you, as an individual buyer, and that limit is set by who does the signaling.

What if you were able to signal your interest in an umbrealla, some binoculars, size 9EEEE running shoes, or a stroller for twins, in the next half hour — and to do that in a secure way that doesn’t reveal to potential sellers any more than they require to respond, and doesn’t put you into any marketer’s pitch mill? What if you could name the price you’d pay for whatever — and not have to do that inside any company’s closed and private marketplace?

Conversation

The first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto is “Markets are conversations.” We meant several things by that. One, as we explained in the book, was

The first markets were markets. Not bulls, bears, or invisible hands. Not battlefields, targets, or arenas. Not demographics, eyeballs, or seats. Most of all, not consumers.

Another was this:

For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.

These were the kinds of conversations people have been having since they started to talk. Social. Based on intersecting interests. Open to many resolutions. Essentially unpredictable. Spoken from the center of the self. “Markets were conversations” doesn’t mean “markets were noisy.” It means markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work.

Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.

Marketing got the message, and conversation of the literal sort is now part of the marketing canon. But marketing reform didn’t stop there. Marketing is now all gaga over “social media” as well, in part because many believe that Cluetrain was all about “social” markets. I don’t remember thinking about it that way at the time, but I can see why people think so. Regardless of that, there is a big delta between social activity in markets and “social media” as they are understood today. Here are the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia’s social media entry (since it will be revised, here is the version I’m quoting:

Social media are media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media use web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues. They support the democratization of knowledge and information and transform people from content consumers to content producers. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”[1] Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM). Social media utilization is believed to be a driving force in defining the current period as the Attention Age. A common thread running through all definitions of social media is a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.

Social media have been modernized to reach consumers through the internet. Social media have become appealing to big and small businesses. Credible brands are utilizing social media to reach customers and to build or maintain reputation. As social media continue to grow, the ability to reach more consumers globally has also increased. Twitter, for example, has expanded its global reach to Japan, Indonesia, and Mexico, among others. This means that brands are now able to advertise in multiple languages and therefore reach a broader range of consumers. Social media have become the new “tool” for effective business marketing and sales.[2] Popular networking sites including Myspace, Facebook and Twitter are social media most commonly used for socialization and connecting friends, relatives, and employees.

Wisely, Wikipedia has the entry flagged for “multiple issues.” Here are mine:

  1. The “social media” named above are corporate entities, not personal ones. Blogging, instant messaging, texting, emailing, voice and other equally (or more) social and conversational technologies — ones that are not owned by anybody, most of which rely on the Net’s agnostic protocols — are ignored.
  2. “Social media” is for marketing. In other words, something that exists mostly to serve sellers, not buyers.

Forgotten or ignored by the writers, and by marketing in general, is Cluetrain’s prime clue: one that comes before all ninety-five theses:

Social media, as described by that Wikipedia entry, are about extending marketers’ grasp. Not about extending the reach of human beings.

The Cluetrain hasn’t jumped the tracks here. But a lot of marketers sure have.

Relationships

Companies care about relationships with customers, of course. They manage those relationships many ways, including customer relationship managment (CRM) systems. While not nearly as big as advertising, CRM is still a huge industry. In “CRM: Then and Now”, Josh Weinberger of CRM Magazine writes,

According to figures from AMR Research (now part of industry-analysis giant Gartner), annual sales of CRM software exploded from $762 million in 1997 to $14 billion in 2007—nearly a 20-fold increase in just a decade.

Over on your side — the customer side — we have VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management. Thanks to Josh and other good folks at CRM Magazine, VRM is on the CRM radar. (Here’s the table of contents for the May edition of the magazine, with a series of VRM — and Cluetrain — related articles. And here’s what I wrote about those on the ProjectVRM blog.) Right now VRM is a $0 billion business. But then, so was the Internet at one point. (At a base level, it still is, even though it supports $trillions in business activity.) So, while VRM is still pre-natal, the Internet isn’t much older. If we date the commercial Web from the start of e-commerce in 1995, it’s a sophomore in high school. If the slate of economics in the Internet Age has a near-infinite height and width, most of it is still clean.

The informational environment supported by the Internet’s growing protocol suite is already much larger and more thick with possibilities than could ever be contemplated in the old brick-and-mortar retail world. This new environment also encompasses and enlarges the scope of brick-and-mortar business far beyond their old physical dimensions. The Net also invites the development of tools for doing just about anything that can be imagined when every connected entity is at a functional distance of zero from every other entity. That’s why the Net’s protocol suite has grown over the years, and will continue to grow. It seems only reasonable that some new tools coming down the pike will help buyers manage relationships with sellers at least as well as sellers manage relationships with buyers.

Right now there are many tools, services and other stuff in the VRM pipeline. In the next two posts I’m giong to show you a couple of those tools. The first is ListenLog, which provides a way for online listeners to log their own activities, and to better understand which stations ane programs matter to them, and how. The second is EmanciPay, which does two things. One is provide a way for customers to signal the amounts they are willing to pay, and for what. The other is to signal the customer’s own terms of engagement, as an alternative to the current seller-provided terms, which by default —

  1. are based on distrust,
  2. almost nobody reads,
  3. give all advantages to the seller,
  4. have hardly changed since 1995, and
  5. don’t exist in the everyday brick-and-mortar world, where you don’t have to become a “member “of a store just to buy a shirt or shoes there.

Borrowing the argot of economics, we’re looking here to reduce or eliminate information asymmetry, and to apply the Internet’s end-to-end principle to buyer-seller interactions. Our goal is not to create a whole new kind of marketplace, but rather to return the ones we have to what markets were like before industry won the Industrial Revolution: places where buyers and sellers met, talked, came to know one another — and otherwise engaged in a system that was not limited to choices provided only by sellers.

It helps consider the matter of context. That is, your context. Right now, as a customer, your context is usually comprised of many retailers, each with many products. The way the industrial retailing system works today, most sellers want to control their relationship with you, inside their CRM system, or whatever other systems they use. In the tech world, we call each of these a silo. The mental model looks like the image on the left.

Retail silos are controlled and contained spaces, each standing on the seller’s own foundation: its rules for interacting with customers. All the seller’s goods are in there. So are its employees, its legal stuff, its products, its R&D, its trade secrets — and its data about you. That data includes whatever you’ve shared with them, knowingly or nor not, in the course of doing business with them, or simply moving about in the world, leaving a crumb-trail of information about yourself and what you’ve done. In many cases your relationship is formalized with a “loyalty card” (like the ones on the right) or some other form of membership.

Each of these is your membership in a seller’s silo. Thus the pile of cards shown on the right can also be represented this way:

Your relationships in this environment are all separate, requiring that you operate within each retailer’s container. Your personal data, preferences and buying history with one company are not easy to move or duplicate into another. Nor are they meant to be. The way this system works, the sellers make all the rules. And each seller has its own rules. By this system, a free market is your choice of silo.

You too have a container as well. That container is what you consider private and yours alone, even if some of it is shared, selectively, with other parties. This information might include your relationships, your finances, your weight, your diet, your travels, your health. True, much of that data (for example, with health) is out of your hands. But you still have a sense of what’s private and yours alone.

For a look at how much your own silo matters, do a search for “privacy“. The one I just did brought up 1,390,000,000 results. That’s more than the results for “face” and “hand” put together. Privacy is a big deal in these early Internet years because you’re not in control of it. All those silos out there — the ones with your personal data — have far more control over your data than you do.

Markets, in both their literal and metaphorical meanings, are middle grounds. They are places where we are selectively open to society, and especially to sellers — and where they are open to us. One way to represent that is to turn our silos on their sides and open them up, so we each have a representation of containment, but also of openness, and even of attraction. So, instead of having silos, we have magnets, like this:

You are on the left. The seller is on the right. And the market is in the middle.

The VRM community is working on building this out. (As we said above, the CRM community has begun to join the effort as well.) We are doing this by creating ways of relating in which both sides are open to the other, but neither contains the other. The two can have attractions toward each other, but engagement is optional. Think of the result as a market that’s far more free than the your-choice-of-silo model.

We call these two shapes “r-buttons“. The “r” is for relationship. We use the color red, at least some of the time, because that was the color I used when I first drew r-buttons on a whiteboard when I was describing to PRX techies how VRM worked. At the time I was just talking about buyers and sellers, not designing graphic representations of anything. But the casual illustration worked, so we’ve run with it. (My wife just suggested that the two buttons together might be “our-buttons”. I like that.)

Next: ListenLog.

After that: EmanciPay.

We are what we do.

We are more than that, of course, but it helps to have answers to the questions “What do you do?” and “What have you done?”

Among many other notable things l did was survive breast cancer. It was a subject that came up often during the year we shared as fellows at the Berkman Center. It may not have been a defining thing, but it helped build her already strong character. Persephone also said she knew that her personal war with the disease might not be over. The risks for survivors are always there.

So it was not just by awful chance that Persephone showed up at a Berkman event this Spring wearing a turban. She was on chemo, she said, but optimistic. Thin and frail, she was still pressing on with work, carrying the same good humor, toughness, intelligence and determination.

The next time I saw her, in early June, she looked worse. Then, on June 24, Ethan Zuckerman sent an email to Berkman friends, letting us know that Persephone’s health was diminishing quickly, and that she “probably will not live through July.” He also said that she had moved to a hospice, but was doing well enough to read email and accept a few visitors — and that he had hoped to visit her on July 6. Just five days later, Ethan wrote to say that Persephone had died the night before. I had been working in slow motion on an email to her — thinking, I guess, that Ethan’s July 6 date was an appointment she would keep. This post began as that email.

Persephone is gone, but her work isn’t, and that’s what I want to talk about. It’s a subject I wanted to bring up with her, and one I’m sure all her friends care about. We all should.

What I want to talk about is not “carrying on” the work of the deceased in the usual way that eulogizers do. What I’m talking about is keeping Persephone’s public archives in a published, accessible and easily found state. I fear that if we don’t make an effort to do that — for everybody — that we’ll lose them.

The Web went commercial in 1995, and has only become more so since. Today it is a boundless live public marketplace, searched mostly through one company’s engine, which continues to adapt accordingly. While Google’s original mission (“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) persists, its commercial imperatives cannot help but subordinate its noncommercial ones.

In my own case I’m finding it harder and harder to use Google (or any search engine) to find my own archived work, even if there are links to it. The Live Web, which I first wrote about in 2005, has come to be known as the “real time” Web, which is associated with Twitter and Facebook as well as Google. What’s live, what’s real time, is now. Not then.

Today almost no time passes between the publishing of anything and its indexing by Google. This is good, but it is also aligned with commercial imperatives that emphasize the present and dismiss the past. No seller has an interest in publishing last week’s offerings, much less last year’s or last decade’s. What would be the point?

It would help if there were competition among search engines, or more specialized ones, but there’s not much hope for that. Bing’s business model is the same as Google’s. And the original Live Web search engines — Technorati, PubSub, Blogpulse, among others — are gone or moved on to other missions. Perhaps ironically, Technorati maintained an archive of all blogging for half a decade. But I’ve been told that’s gone. is still there, but re-cast as a news engine. Only persists as a straightforward Live Web engine, sustained, I suppose, by Mark Cuban‘s largesse. (For which I thank him. IceRocket is outstanding.)

For archives we have two things, it seems. One is search engines concerned mostly about the here and now, and the other is Archive.org. The latter does an amazing job, but finding stuff there is a chore if you don’t start with a domain name.

Meanwhile I have no idea how long tweets last, and no expectation that Twitter (or anybody other than a few individuals) will maintain them for the long term. Nor do I have a sense of how long anything will (or should) last inside Facebook, Linkedin or any other commercial walled garden.

To be fair, everything on the Web is rented, starting with domain names. I “own” , only for as long as I keep paying a domain registrar for the rights to use it. Will it stay around after I’m gone? For how long? All of us rent our servers, even if we own them, simply because they use electricity, take up space and need to be maintained. Who will do that after their paid-for purposes expire? Why? And again, for how long?

Persephone worked for years at Internews.org. I assume her work there will last as long as the organization does. Here’s the Google cache of her Key Staff bio. Her tweets as (her last was June 9th) will persist as long as Twitter doesn’t bother to get rid of them, I suppose. Here’s a Google search for her name. Here’s her Berkman alum page. Here’s her Linkedin. Here are her Delicious bookmarks. More to the point of this post, here’s her Media Re:public blog, with many links out to other sources, including her own. Here’s the Media Re:public report she led. And here’s an Internews search for Persephone, which has five pages of results.

All of this urges us toward a topic and cause that was close to Persephone’s mind and heart: journalism. If we’re serious about practicing journalism on the Web, we need to preserve it at least as well as we publish it.

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So this is what it takes to shake me out of my blogging torpor: a message on my phone with the short form of what the National Weather Service says here:

Tornado Watch

Central Middlesex County, Southeast Middlesex, Northwest Middlesex County (Massachusetts)

TORNADO WATCH OUTLINE UPDATE FOR WT 263
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
145 PM EDT SAT JUN 5 2010
TORNADO WATCH 263 IS IN EFFECT UNTIL 1000 PM EDT FOR THE
FOLLOWING LOCATIONS
MAC005-009-011-013-015-017-021-023-025-027-060200-
/O.NEW.KWNS.TO.A.0263.100605T1745Z-100606T0200Z/
MA
.    MASSACHUSETTS COUNTIES INCLUDED ARE
BRISTOL              ESSEX               FRANKLIN
HAMPDEN              HAMPSHIRE           MIDDLESEX
NORFOLK              PLYMOUTH            SUFFOLK
WORCESTER

Click here or on the screenshot above and you’ll get to Intellicast.com, which has excellent moving visualizations of storms in progress, among much else. What you’ll see above is rain (and worse, perhaps) advancing on the Boston area, where I happen to be right now.

We tend to associate tornadoes with flat midwestern and prairie states, but they happen often enough elsewhere. The difference in eastern and southern states is that they funnel clouds are often hard to see, thanks to the prevalence of trees. I recall one that rolled through Durham, North Carolina when I lived there in the late ’70s. The wind and the rain were so strong that I didn’t realize how close one tornado came to the spot where I was at the time (a little store off the main boulevard to Chapel Hill on Hope Valley Road). After it cleared we saw ripped up trees and an overturned Cadillac just down the road.

It always bothered me that there were no storm cellars in North Carolina. A few old fallout shelters here and there, but nothing like the space where Dorothy’s family dove into the ground in the Wizard of Oz. But here in Massachusetts they believe in basements. We have one here, in fact, three floors down. But the view is better here in the attic, so I think I’ll stay for a bit.

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Or let the paleontologists dig it for you. That’s what a team led by Yale researchers did last year in southeastern Morocco’s Lower and Upper Fezouata Formations. The result is covered by LiveScience in Oldest Soft-Bodied Marine Fossils Discovered . Specifically, “The animals represented by these newly discovered fossils, including sponges, annelid worms, mollusks, and horseshoe crabs, lived during the Ordovician period between 480 million and 472 million years ago, making them the oldest ever discovered during this period.”

So, while I have your attention on that, let me redirect you to Ron Schott’s Road Trip: An Experiment in Social Geology. He begins,

With your help, dear readers and fellow geobloggers, I’d like to run an experiment in social geology this summer. My hypothesis is that real-time/live-web tools and social networking can be applied to geology-focused road trips in ways that enrich the experience for both the road-tripper and the audience of active participants. This blog post is a call for collaborators, and a starting point for discussion and refinement of this hypothesis. I hope that it evolves into much more than that.

Me too. While Ron traverses The West, I’ll be heading to France for much of June and July. But I’ll keep up with him and enjoy vicarious digging of hard rock landscapes, many of which I already know but haven’t seen. Sez Ron,

The response to my blog posts two weeks ago using excerpts from John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World has inspired me to attempt to GigaPan at least four more of his I-80 geologic localities on my way out to San Francisco. Tentatively, and subject to tight restrictions imposed by the vagaries of weather and the need to arrive at the conference on time, I’m aiming to GigaPan the Gangplank/Summit area of the Laramie Range, roadcuts in the Rawlins, WY area, something in the Rock Springs/Overthrust area of western Wyoming, the Wasatch Front/Great Salt Lake, the Golconda Thrust, and an ophiolite in the Sierra Foothills.

The only thick book I’ve picked up nearly as often as McPhee’s Annals is Tolstoy’s War and Peace (though the latter not in the last couple of decades, I regret to admit). The Gangplank and the Overthrust sites I have visited dozens of times in re-readings of Rising from the Plains, my favorite of the four prior books that Annals combines (with a bonus section called Crossing the Craton). The Wasatch, Salt Lake, Golconda thurst and Sierra Foothills ophiolites star in Basin and Range and Assembling California, which Annals also includes. Been to all of those many times as well.

Ron is a Gigapanner of the first water. Here’s the latest, shown with a Canon 5D like my own (though with a better lens than any that I have). Can’t wait to see what he shows. (Some samples from his professional work as a geology professor.)

Good to see by his tweets (he’s @rschott) that he’s still cruising the West Coast (after getting some gigapans in Utah en route ). While he’s still out there, here a few possible side trips I’d like to suggest :

  • Love Ranch, where David Love grew up. Love was the geologist who guided McPhee through Wyoming. The title of the resulting book, Rising from the Plains, comes from a diary of David’s mother, Ethel Waxham Love, a writer whose prose was equal to McPhee’s, and who carries much of the book’s narrative burden. Dr. Love and the ranch buildings are all gone, but not the landscape, nearly all the features of which were named by the Love family.
  • Red Bluff Ranch, near Lander and west of the Gas Hills, amidst red Triassic features raised to weather when the Wind River Range, said David Love to John McPhee, “just pooched out.” Red Bluff Ranch is where Ethel Waxham (years away from becoming a Love) arrived when she — as McPhee loves to put it — came into the country by stagecoach.
  • The Powder River Basin strip coal mines, where the land celebrated by “Home on the Range” is classed as “overburden” and peeled off by the square mile to extract coal. This is featured in the “Coal Train” chapters McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers.

I can think of many more, but those are a start. I’ll add more later. Right now I gotta take the kid to the dentist.

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I came late to love math. Not sure why, but my grasp of the concepts (which is far from great) is not matched by skill or speed at calculation. There always seemed to be teeth missing in the gears of my mind. Give me a short column of two-digit numbers and I’m likely to give you three answers in three tries.

Still, I’ve long appreciated what the human mind could do with math (which is approximately everything, if you want a working civilization), thanks not to any teachers of the subject, but rather to Martin Gardner of Scientific American. He made math fun, even when I didn’t get where he was going with it. He even played a small role, I think, in getting me my first (and pretty much only) writing gig for a major magazine.

Alas, he died yesterday, at age 95. Here’s a profile of him, from 1995.

Thanks to @dpentecost for the heads-up.

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I’ll be giving a talk by the title above, at 4pm in the conference room of the Berkman Center, 23 Everett Street in Cambridge. The occasion is the regular bi-weekly meeting of our Infrastructure Group — an informal collection of folks interested in the topic. The group was gathered by Christian Sandvig, an authority on the topic. (Christian gave a great talk last week in the Berkman luncheon series. Check it out.)

Infrastructure has long been a focus of my work as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology & Society at UCSB, although at this stage I’m still more of an observer of the topic than an authority on it. You’ll find lots of photos tagged with “infrastructure” in my Flickr stream (now more than 34,000 shots long), plus more at the Berkman Infrastructure Group’s own Flickr site. I’ll be leveraging some of those, and putting what I’ve gathered into the helpful contextprovided by Stewart Brand‘s great book, How Buildings Learn — What happens after they’re built (which was later made into a BBC series you can watch on Google Video).

Look forward to seeing some of ya’ll there.

At 11:30pm on April 22, 1978 Saturday Night Live opened with Paul Schaffer, made up to look like music promoter Don Kirshner (whose show ran in most markets right after SNL). What followed was a lesson in branding that we’re still learning. Here’s  how it looks in the show’s transcript (sorry, the original isn’t on YouTube):

Don Kirshner…..Paul Shaffer
Jake Blues…..John Belushi
Elwood Blues…..Dan Aykroyd

[ open on Don Kirschner ]

Don Kirschner: I’m Don Kirschner, and welcome to “Rock Concert”. In 1969, Marshall Checkers, of the legendary Checkers Records, called me on a new blues act that had been playing in a small, funky club on Chicago’s South Side. Today, with the help of Jerry Erdegan, and the staff of Pacific Records, their manager, Morey Daniels, and with the support of fellow artists Curtis Selgado and the Cray Band, they are no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product. So now, let’s join “Joliet” Jake and his silent brother Elwood — The Blues Brothers.

[ pan down and dissolve to Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, performing on the stage below ]

That was the first the world saw of the Blues Brothers: two actors who parlayed ironic comedy into a successful movie, in which the layers of irony piled higher and higher. All those layers speak volumes about “branding” — the reality, not the buzzword. What they say (or can’t un-say) is that the Blues Brothers are a commercial product.

Coming off my flight to London the other day I was caught in the crunch to leave the plane, in that spot near the door where the two aisles squeeze into one for the jetway. There I found myself in the passing company of two passengers talking about “personal brands” and how “social media” is good for them. I wanted to say “brands are boring” to them, but decided to blog about it instead. Hence the post by that title at the last link.

Since then I’ve been pointed to various writers and posts that put nice paint jobs on the cattle-burning practice that “branding” was originally — and still, in spite of all marketing spin to the contrary, remains. This here cartoon for example, which got me boiling again.

So I decided to have another go at it, partly because I don’t want the topic to die (until “branding” is exposed for the shallow thing it too often is), and partly because I just read Brand Rehab, the Schupeter column in the April 10, 2010 issue of The Economist. Like too much of everything else, it’s about Tiger Woods. But, being the Economist, it’s about the money, which always focuses matters. For example,

Tiger Woods’s penchant for cocktail waitresses and porn actresses ended up costing an astonishing amount of money: two economists at the University of California, Davis, have calculated that his biggest corporate sponsors, such as Nike and Gatorade, saw as much as $12 billion wiped off the value of their shares in the wake of the scandal.

That’s twelve billion. With a B.

One company that took a huge hit, of course, was Accenture. Dig Guanabee’s Worst Tiger Woods Accenture Ads for a reminder of what all of us heavy travelers saw printed on back-lit plexiglass displays in airport concourses over the years leading up to revelations about Tiger’s personal life, after which they all disappeared. (Except, of course, on the Web.) One sample:

Accenture failed here by assuming that Tiger wasn’t human. Which is close enough to true, if you’re just looking at Tiger as a golfer. The man is not only the closest any golfer has ever come to walking robotics, but his whole golf persona has always been remarkably mechanical as well.

Turn a person into a brand, and what do you get? Something incomplete at best, and fake at worst. Borrow that human brand to represent your company, and you take some risks. Your branded celebrity might actually be a fine human being. Or they might be a philandering scumbag. Either way, the brand is a paint job. It’s not real except in the commercial dimension, and only in a narrow way even there.

The only advertiser that has stuck with Tiger since the bimbo bombs started going off is another landmark brand: Nike. The latest Nike/Tiger ad features the golfer’s sad face, staring at the camera, while the voice of his dead father speaks. “I want to find out what your thinking was,” Earl Woods says.”I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.” Well, one thing the rest of us learned was that Tiger was with one of his mistresses on the night he got word that his father had died.

Nike, the brand, famously supports its sponsored athletes because the company is about athletes and athletics. Which is all fine. What matters is what the athletes do on the field, on the court, on the golf course. Sure. But what matters more is what these companies actually do.

Here in Reality, companies buy Accenture’s services. Individuals buy Nike’s shoes. None of what customers buy from either company gets an ounce of substantive worth from Tiger Woods, or from anything those companies do with their “branding” strategies, no matter how much those strategies serve to help sales and stock prices.

We live in an age when we can kick tires hard. Accenture’s and Nike’s tires are not Tiger Woods. And Tiger Woods, even if he’s long been a lying sack of shit, isn’t a tire either. He’s a human being, and that’s what makes him interesting. Not what his golf game says about companies that pay him.

In his comment below my Brands are boring post, Chris Carfi pointed to this post on BlogHer in which Yvonne, a blogger there, unloaded on people who insist she act like a blogging brand, rather than the human being she’s been all along:

Blogging as I know it has changed.

Woman with Mouth Stitched Shut

And I just can’t keep up. Because this blog isn’t a business. My blog is personal.

I just want to keep writing about my life. About my kids. About my struggles with health and weight and body image. I just want to write.

I feel like a complete misfit in blogging, which is so weird because I’ve been doing this since 2002 and what the hell?

Blogging is a business! Build your brand! YOUR BRAAANNNNNDDDD!

There’s no denying that I’ve been given some pretty amazing opportunities through blogging. (Interviewing the cast of New Adventures of Old Christine. Meeting Tony Hawk.) And that still amazes me. But that’s not WHY I do it. That will never be why I do it.

And suddenly, it feel like — if that’s not why I’m doing it, why even bother?

I used to be able to sit down and write a post about the most trivial things — like my trip to the doctor’s office yesterday, for example — hit publish, enjoy the comments and move on to the next post. Now I doubt every post. “This isn’t good enough.” “No one will care about that.” “People are writing about HEALTH CARE REFORM AND YOU’RE WRITING ABOUT PEEING WHILE YOU SNEEZE YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.”

I also used to be able to write about important things, like depression or body image and feel safe. Feel like it mattered. Like by writing my story I was helping people and that people were helping me by reading, by sharing their stories. I know that is still true, but sometimes? I feel like the stories aren’t being heard because we’re all too busy about traffic and page views and twitter followers and OUR BRRRANNND.

And that’s fine! It’s wonderful that women are finding success because of their blogs — I mean it, it makes me so proud. But also? A little sad. Sad that those of us who are just here for the writing, for the stories, for the good content are feeling so out of place and irrelevant.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore other than to say I’m struggling with blogging right now and I hope that by writing this out I will be able to make some sort of peace with it all and stop over thinking this shit and JUST START WRITING AGAIN BECAUSE I MOTHER FUCKING LOVE TO WRITE.

Amen, sister.

I just learned by Eric Martindale’s comment to my Borg’s Woods post in February that the March 13 storm knocked down many of the trees in the old growth urban forest that was our neighborhood playground when I was a kid. For more here’s a post in the NJUrbanForest blog, and here are some pictures as well.

Storms are as much a part of nature as old growth forests, even when the former reduces the latter. Sad to read, however, that mosquito abatement has involved the draining of the woods’ pond, where generations of kids learned to skate in a beautiful setting.

For perspective perhaps it is helpful to note that the boggy parts of Borg’s Woods are among the few vernal remnants of glacial Lake Hackensack, which pooled over most of the Hackensack River watershed when the last ice age began to end around 15,000 years ago. The lake lasted several millennia, then drained around 11,500 years ago, when the terminal moraine near Perth Amboy broke. Back then the sea was still far outside the current borders of New York and New Jersey. Only when the rest of the ice cap melted did the oceans reach their current level — which, as we know, is still rising.

There is an ad running during the NCAA basketball playoffs that’s so creepy and surreal that I decided to take some screen shots of it, as a kind of public service to the company spending money on it.

The scene is a guy’s hairy armpit. (Do they have armpit models? Guess so.) As if this weren’t icky enough, all of a sudden a rectangle of flesh drops down, opening a grave, right there, in his sparse forest of hair. It’s like watching that eyeball get sliced in Un chien andalou. Creepy as shit. And you wonder, where did the missing block of pit go?  Is it down by the rib cage somewhere? Packed around his rotator cuff? Or is he hollow? And why no blood?

Then this white triangular thing rises out of the same hole.

You wonder, what the fuck is that? before seeing that Oh, okay, it’s a Matterhorn. But it’s not like the real thing. It’s more like a toy Matterhorn, with a little Swiss Chalet at its base, flanked by a few trees, looking like a snow-globe scene, without the globe and the snow.

By the time it’s over you’ve witnessed two awful things you don’t want happening to your body: Having your armpit turned into a deep hole — and then having it replaced by a piece of broken kitsch. It’s so disturbing that you don’t even notice, much less remember, the name of the advertiser.

Not my cup of meat. Or whatever that dude is made of.

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Four years and one day ago, we took a trip aboard a sailboat captained by our friend John Pfarr (who a few days later would later sail the same vessel to Hawaii, the South Seas and back — the dude is a serious sailor). Our modest destination was the string of oil platforms that rise above the coastal waters off Santa Barbara. These are now familiar landmarks, and are regarded with both loathing and affection, the latter especially by he sea (most obviously seal) life that abounds on the platforms’ pylons and girders, above and below the waterline.

As always, I took a lot of photos, one of which now also graces the poster for Oil + Water: The Case of Santa Barbara and Southern California, which will take place April 8 – 10, 2010 in the McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB, at UCSB. Specifically,

This conference will explore the ways in which oil and water have created and transformed the history and culture of Santa Barbara and Southern California. Topics will include the Santa Barbara oil spill; the impact of oil on Hollywood; agriculture and marine life; the Owens River Valley; the Salton Sea; cars and car culture; and environmental histories and their lessons.

Important stuff, and highly recommended.

Correction

Roundabout dogs:

Consider your taste made.

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I submit to your interest two speeches that challenge acceptance of status quos by which our collective frogs are slowly boiling.

First is Freedom in the Cloud, by , given at the Internet Society in New York on 5 February.

Second  is Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity, by . Given on 13 March at SXSW. One teaser quote:

A teaser quote from Eben:

…in effect, we lost the ability to use either legal regulation or anything about the physical architecture of the network to interfere with the process of falling away from innocence that was now inevitable in the stage I’m talking about, what we might call late Google stage 1.

It is here, of course, that Mr. Zuckerberg enters.

The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.

Because he harnessed Friday night. That is, everybody needs to get laid and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, “I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time”. And it works.

A teaser quote from Danah:

It’s easy to think that “public” and “private” are binaries. We certainly build a lot of technology with this assumption. At best, we break out of this with access-control lists where we list specific people who some piece of content should be available to. And at best, we expand our notion of “private” to include everything that is not “public.” But this binary logic isn’t good enough for understanding what people mean when they talk about privacy. What people experience when they talk about privacy is more complicated than what can be instantiated in a byte.

To get at this, let’s talk about how people experience public and private in unmediated situations. Because it’s not so binary there either.

First, think about a conversation that you may have with a close friend. You may think about that conversation as private, but there is nothing stopping your friend from telling someone else what was said, except for your trust in your friend. You actually learned to trust your friend, presumably through experience.

Learning who to trust is actually quite hard. Anyone who has middle school-aged kids knows that there’s inevitably a point in time when someone says something that they shouldn’t have and tears are shed. It’s hard to learn to really know for sure that someone will keep their word. But we don’t choose not to tell people things simply because they could spill the beans. We do our best to assess the situation and act accordingly.

We don’t just hold people accountable for helping us maintain privacy; we also hold the architecture around us accountable. We look around a specific place and decide whether or not we trust the space to allow us to speak freely to the people there.

They’re talking about different things, but they overlap. They both have to do with a loss of control, and both set out agenda for those who care. Curious to know what ya’ll think.

After visiting the Titan Missle Museum in Arizona, Matt Blaze wrote, How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years?

Good question.

Take a listen the next time you hear somebody say “Good question.” It means they don’t have the answer. Maybe it also means the best questions are unanswerable.

But maybe we also need to keep asking them anyway, for exactly that reason. This was a lesson I got a long time ago, and reported in 2005, in this post here:

About ten years ago I took a few days off to chill in silence at the New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur. One of the values the White Monks of the monastery share with Quakers in Sunday meeting is confinement of speech to that which “improves on the silence”. (Or, in the case of the monks, fails to insult the contemplative virtues of silence.) It was there that I had an amazing conversation with Father John Powell, who told me that any strictly literalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings “insulted the mystery” toward which those teachings pointed — and which it was the purpose of contemplative living to explore. “Christ spoke in paradox”, he said. Also metaphor, which itself is thick with paradox. Jesus knew, Father Powell said, that we understand one thing best in terms of another which (paradoxically) is literally different yet meaningfully similar.

For example, George Lakoff explains that we understand time in terms of money (we “save”, “waste” and “spend” it) and life in terms of travel (we “arrive”, “depart”, “fall off the wagon” or “get stuck in a rut”). For what it’s worth, George is Jewish. Like Jesus.

The greatest mystery of life, Father Powell explained, isn’t death. It’s life. “Life is exceptional”, he said. For all the fecundity of nature, it is surrounded by death. Far as we can tell, everything we see when we look to the heavens is dead as a gravestone. Yet it inspires the living. “Life”, he said, sounding like an old rabbi, “is the mystery”.

I was a kid in the fifties, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were busy not talking to each other while planting thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs  in the ground, pointed at each other’s countries. They were also sending thousands of additional warheads to sea in nuclear submarines. Every warhead was ready obliterate whole cities in enemy territory. Our house was five miles from Manhattan. We had frequent air raid drills, and learned how to “duck and cover” in the likely event of sudden incineration. Like many other kids in those days, I wished to enjoy as much of life as I could before World War III, which would last only a few hours, after which some other species would need to take over.

I was no math whiz; but I was an authority on adults and their failings. I could look at the number of missles involved, guess at all the things that could go wrong, and make a pretty good bet that something, sooner or later, would. I wasn’t sure we would die, but I was sure the chances were close to even.

In his new book The Dead Hand, Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffman explains exactly how close we came:

At 12:15 A.M., Petrov was startled. Across the top of the room was a thin, silent panel. Most of the time no one even noticed it. But suddenly it lit up, in red letters: LAUNCH.

A siren wailed. On the big map with the North Pole, a light at one of the American missile bases was illuminated. Everyone was riveted to the map. The electronic panels showed a missile launch. The board said “high reliability.” This had never happened before. The operators at the consoles on the main oor jumped up, out of their chairs. They turned and looked up at Petrov, behind the glass. He was the commander on duty. He stood, too, so they could see him. He started to give orders. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He ordered them to sit down and start checking the system. He had to know whether this was real, or a glitch. The full check would take ten minutes, but if this was a real missile attack, they could not wait ten minutes to nd out. Was the satellite holding steady? Was the computer functioning properly?…

The phone was still in his hand, the duty ofcer still on the line, when Petrov was jolted again, two minutes later.

The panel ashed: another missile launched! Then a third, a fourth and a fth. Now, the system had gone into overdrive. The additional signals had triggered a new warning. The red letters on the panel began to ash MISSILE ATTACK, and an electronic blip was sent automatically to the higher levels of the military. Petrov was frightened. His legs felt paralyzed. He had to think fast…

Petrov made a decision. He knew the system had glitches in the past; there was no visual sighting of a missile through the telescope; the satellites were in the correct position. There was nothing from the radar stations to verify an incoming missile, although it was probably too early for the radars to see anything.

He told the duty ofcer again: this is a false alarm.

The message went up the chain.

How many other events were there like that? On both sides?

I think there lurks in human nature a death wish — for others, even more than for ourselves. We rationalize nothing better, or with more effect, than killing each other. Especially the other. Fill in the blank. The other tribe, the other country, the other culture, the other religion, whatever.  “I’ve seen the future,” Leonard Cohen sings. “It is murder.” (You can read the lyrics here, but I like the video version.)

Yet we also don’t. The answer to Matt’s question — How did we keep from blowing ourselves up for all those years? —is lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, and others like him, unnamed. Petrov had the brains and the balls to say “No” to doing the crazy thing that only looked sane because a big institution was doing it.

We’re still crazy. You and I may not be, but we are.

War is a force that gives us meaning, Chris Hedges says. You can read his book by that title, (required reading from a highly decorated and deeply insightful former war correspondent). You can also watch the lecture he gave on the topic at UCSB in 2004. The mystery will be diminished by his answer, but not solved.

Still, every dose of sanity helps.

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Advertising is a bubble. If that’s a true statement, Google is a bubble too. And if that’s true, many of the goods we take for granted on the Web are at risk. Let’s run down some evidence.

Thus begins The Google Exposure, my column in the February issue of Linux Journal. Read the rest there. (And hey, feel free to subscribe.)

weathermap

The mudslides we feared in Southern California didn’t materialize when I posted about the topic on January 21st. Now they are feared again, as a new wave of winter rainstorms passes through. Some slides have already happened. More will. Count on it. (And if you’re at serious risk, really please do GTFO.)

Meanwhile, back here in Boston, a winter snowstorm is headed our way, after treating D.C., Maryland and the surrounding regions to another heavy layer of snow, atop the deepest in memory, which hasn’t had a chance to melt. (One relative there went for many hours without power, looking out on a scene where his car appeared only as a low hill in snow through which only trees and houses protruded.)  We’ve mostly been spared this winter, as have the ski areas to the north. Those will probably be spared again, since this storm is expected to do its heaviest dumping south of here. Bummer, that.

On Friday we fly back to Santa Barbara for The Kid’s winter school break. There are mudslide risks there too, though not as severe as in Los Angeles. (Our hills are mostly rock. L.A.’s are mostly dirt. Think of L.A.’s hills as sponges — because that’s what they are. Place a dry sponge on a steep incline, drip water on it, and see what happens when it fills.)

Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll miss the rain there, and get treated to some of those sunsets we’ve been missing. Hope so.

[Later...] I just got a call from my wife, awakened at 3:3oam in California by a call from the school here. A snow day has been declared. Doesn’t look like it yet, though. There are details in the clouds, like scales on a mackerel. But, as we can see from the radar, it’s coming.

[Later still...] It’s now 2:30 in the afternoon, not long before school gets out, and there has been approximately no snow at all. Just a mix of light flakes and drizzle. Good, I guess.

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spypondhockey

For most of Winter in the Northeast, skating is possible only during the somewhat rare times when the ice is thick and not covered with snow or other unwelcome surface conditions. And bad skating has been the story, typically, for most of this Winter around Boston. After an earlier snow, there were some ad hoc skating rinks cleared by shoveling, but those were ruined by rains, more snow, more rains, and intermittent freezes that made a hash of the surface. But recent rains and hard freezes have formed wide paths between remaining islands of ruined snow. On most ponds there aren’t enough open spaces for real hockey games, but there’s plenty enough for skating, and for hockey practice, anyway. (A note to newbies and outsiders: nearly all lakes here are called ponds. Dunno why yet. Maybe one of ya’ll can tell me. Still a bit of a noob myself.)

Hockey practice is what I saw when I paused to take a sunset shot with my phone at Spy Pond, which I passed it late this afternoon on a long walk along the Minuteman Bikeway, which is one of my favorite walking paths (and thoroughfares — at least when it’s warm and clear enough to bike on). As it happens, Spy Pond ice has some history. There was a period, in the mid- to late-1800s, after railroads got big, but before refrigeration came along, when New England was a source for much of the world’s shipped ice. And Spy Pond itself was one of the most productive sources. This picture here…

spypond_history2

… shows ice being harvested for storage in ice houses beside the railroad which is now the Bikeway. I stood near the left edge of this scene when I took the picture at the top, and the boy and his dad playing hockey were about where at the center left, where a horse is shown pulling what looks like a man with a plow. (That last shot is from this historical display alongside the bikeway.)

The brainfather of Boston’s ice industry was Frederic Tudor, about whom I have learned a great deal from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Highly recommended, if you’re into half-forgotten New England history. The book came as a bonus with membership in Mystic Seaport, a terrific maritime museum down the road on the Connecticut coast.

[Later...] The industry you see depicted above can also serve as a metaphor. For that a hat tip goes to Robin Lubbock (@RLma), New Media Director of WBUR, who pointed me to this piece by Michael Rosenblum. Nails it. (I also love Rosenblum’s Maybe monetizing is not the answer and Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms, also via Robin.)

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Hospitality story

We tested Santa Barbara before moving there, by taking a small apartment near the beach. The apartment was at the uphill (northwest) end of Burton Circle, on Natoma (a paved tangent of Burton’s circle), on the second floor of the keystone-shaped building in the center of this map here. At the time we had no idea that we had plunked ourselves at a kind of Ground Zero of the city’s history.

The first clue came under the apartment across the street. The place was for sale, so we went over to take a look during an open house or something. Our tour paused in the basement laundry room, next to which was an open crawl space floored by loose sand. When I ran my hands through the sand, my skin was blackened by ash. This was a familiar experience for me, since I grew up spending summers in New Jersey’s pine barrens, a sandy expanse of pitch pine and scrub oak that had burned so often since the Pleistocene that the top layer of sand was tinted gray with ash. So I said to the real estate agent, “there’s been a fire here.”

“Oh yes,” he replied. “A huge one. This was the site of the Potter Hotel. It burned down in the Twenties.”

When I dug into local history, I found that our apartment not only sat across the circular driveway of the grand hotel’s entrance but at the crest of Burton Mound, which had been the very center of the Chumash settlement displaced by the Spanish after serving as the closest thing to a native city for perhaps thousands of years before.

All this comes to mind again reading historian Neal Graffy’s excellent article in Edhat on the Potter Hotel and the city that grew up around it. Continue reading there.

[Later...] Note to selves: the Potter Hotel deserves a Wikipedia entry. Let’s make one.

Anybody who refuses to leave a mudslide evacuation area needs to watch this video:

It’s a live recording of the slide that killed ten people in LaConchita, California, on January 10, 2005. We know people who knew people who were killed in that slide. The story of the Wallet family is especially tragic. Jimmy Wallet was walking back from a corner store with some ice cream for his family when the mudslide in the video above destroyed his house before his eyes, burying his wife and three little daughters. Only he and his teenage daughter, who was out with friends, lived. Six others also died.

And this wasn’t  an especially big slide — or the first to strike that little community. Here’s one from five years earlier. That killed people too.

I’ve been listening to KNX, which has been reporting on the heavy weather in Southern California, and I’m amazed to hear that a large percentage (40%, I think the reporter said) of evacuees are waiting it out.

Here’s the deal, folks: mudslides are inevitable. If you live below a steep hill or mountain slope in a part of Southern California that’s getting heavy rain, and you’re under an evacuation order, get out. Right now (5:45pm Pacific), Acton. La Crescenta, La Cañada-Flintridge, Glendale, Tujunga Foothill and Sierra Madre all have a total of nearly 2000 homes under evacuation order. (So says the official speaking at a news conference on KNX right now.)

Yesterday I shared some of what John McPhee wrote in The Control of Nature about a mudslide (in Glendale — in the same area under evacuation orders now. Here is the whole passage, courtesy of  this page on Los Angeles provided by United States Geological Survey:

In Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains, it is not always clear which side is losing. For example, the Genofiles, Bob and Jackie, can claim to have lost and won. They live on an acre of ground so high that they look across their pool and past the trunks of big pines at an aerial view over Glendale and across Los Angeles to the Pacific bays. The setting, in cool dry air, is serene and Mediterranean. It has not been everlastingly serene.

On a February night some years ago, the Genofiles were awakened by a crash of thunder — lightning striking the mountain front. Ordinarily, in their quiet neighborhood, only the creek beside them was likely to make much sound, dropping steeply out of Shields Canyon on its way to the Los Angeles River. The creek, like every component of all the river systems across the city from mountains to ocean, had not been left to nature. Its banks were concrete. Its bed was concrete. When boulders were running there, they sounded like a rolling freight. On a night like this, the boulders should have been running. The creek should have been a torrent. its unnatural sound was unnaturally absent. There was, and had been, a lot of rain.

The Genofiles had two teen-age children, whose rooms were on the uphill side of the one-story house. The window in Scott’s room looked straight up Pine Cone Road, a cul-de-sac, which, with hundreds like it, defined the northern limit of the city, the confrontation of the urban and the wild. Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on Earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. Kimberlee Genofile called to her mother, who joined her in Scott’s room as they looked up the street. From its high turnaround, Pine Cone Road plunges downhill like a ski run, bending left and then right and then left and then right in steep christiania turns for half a mile above a three-hundred-foot straight-away that aims directly at the Genofiles’ house. Not far below the turnaround, Shields Creek passes under the street, and there a kink in its concrete profile had been plugged by a six-foot boulder. Hence the silence of the creek. The water was not spreading over the street. It descended in heavy sheets. As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street. When it crashed into the Genofiles’ house, the shattering of safety glass made terrific explosive sounds. A door burst open. Mud and boulders poured into the hall. We’re going to go, Jackie thought. Oh, my God, what a hell of a way for the four of us to die together.

The parents’ bedroom was on the far side of the house. Bob Genofile was in there kicking through white satin draperies at the paneled glass, smashing it to provide an outlet for water, when the three others ran in to join him. The walls of the house neither moved nor shook. As a general contractor, Bob had built dams, department stores, hospitals, six schools, seven churches, and this house. It was made of concrete block with steel reinforcement, 16 inches on center. His wife had said it was stronger than any dam in California. His crew had called it “the fort.” In those days, 20 years before, the Genofiles’ acre was close by the edge of the mountain brush, but a developer had come along since then and knocked down thousands of trees and put Pine Cone Road up the slope. Now Bob Genofile was thinking, I hope the roof holds. I hope the roof is strong enough to hold. Debris was flowing over it. He told Scott to shut the bedroom door. No sooner was the door closed that it was battered down and fell into the room. Mud, rock, water poured in. It pushed everybody against the far wall. “Jump on the bed,” Bob said. The bed began to rise. Kneeling on it — on a gold velvet spread — they could soon press their palms against the ceiling. The bed also moved toward the glass wall. The two teen-agers got off, to try to control the motion, and were pinned between the bed’s brass railing and the wall. Boulders went up against the railing, pressed it into their legs, and held them fast. Bob dived into the muck to try to move the boulders, but he failed. The debris flow, entering through windows as well as doors, continued to rise. Escape was still possible for the parents but not for the children. The parents looked at each other and did not stir. Each reached for and held one of the children. Their mother felt suddenly resigned, sure that her son and daughter would die and she and her husband would quickly follow. The house became buried to the eaves. Boulders sat on the roof. Thirteen automobiles were packed around the building, including five in the pool. A din of rocks kept banging against them. The stuck horn of a buried car was blaring. The family in the darkness in their fixed tableau watched one another by the light of a directional signal, endlessly blinking. The house had filled up in six minutes, and the mud stopped rising near the children’s chins.”

Note that these flows don’t happen only when it’s still raining. Here’s one that happened along the Hayward Fault, in Fremont, that I remember watching from across the South Bay when we lived in Emerald Hills, California, in the late Nineties. It moved slowly and didn’t take out any houses; but it almost did, and was dramatic to watch. It wasn’t raining at the time. The mountainside was saturated with water from earlier rains, and chose its own time to give.

In terms of Geology, California is new. If you were to run a short video of the last few hundred thousand years in Southern California, you’d see a riot of mountains forming, sliding sideways and collapsing. If you were to do the same for the mountains of Arkansas or North Carolina, you’d see almost nothing happening.

Living anywhere is a game of russian roulette with nature: a bet that grand geologic or weather events will not occur within our brief lifespans. In communities like La Conchita, and others placed below dirt sure to move, there are many more bullets in the chambers.

But denial is a powerful force. When I first moved to Santa Barbara, and drove past La Conchita on Highway 1, I was astounded that anybody would chance to build there, because big landslides had obviously happened already, and more were sure to come. Since the mudslide of 2005, many people continue to live in La Conchita, and insist that the county “fix” the mountain above them — even though geologists have studied the region closely and said this:

The 1995 and 2005 landslides in the 200-m high sea cliff above the community of La Conchita, California, are known to be part of a reactivated Holocene prehistoric landslide. We propose that the prehistoric Holocene slide is part of a much larger, several hundred million cubic meter late Pleistocene slide complex composed of upper slumps and lower flows, informally termed as the Rincon Mountain megaslide.

On the positive side, rain on SoCal’s low elevations in winter means snow on the high peaks. If the air clears, Los Angeles will be flanked by white alps. I guarantee great skiing on Mt. Baldy when this thing is over. Provided there isn’t a debris flow blocking the road going up there.

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rotenboden_sleds

I grew up on our town’s best hill for sledding. After a good snowfall, the town would sometimes block the steet so kids from all over could ride down the hill. The top was steep, but there was a long flat straight-away at the bottom. We used to compete to see who went fastest, and who coasted farthest.

But this was in Maywood, New Jersey, a small hunk of suburb that was closer to Manhattan than parts of Queens. And, this being where it was, Winter weather was not always snow. In fact, most of the time forecasts were the dreaded “snow, mixed with and changing to rain.” Now they call this “wintry mix.”

We also have weather radar now, showing densities of rain and snow. My own favorite is Intellicast, which produced this image here:

As you see most of Boston was under the pink “mixed” yesterday morning. It started with rain in the wee hours, changed to snow, and then a mix of snow, rain and sleet until the storm passed after sunrise. The result is a layer of white slush atop an ugly uneven mostly-worn-out half-thawed and re-frozen snow from the last storm, which was around two weeks ago.  What we’ve got now is not stuff you’d want to sled on, much less drive. So I stayed in most of the day.

I know they got about a foot of snow up in the ski areas of southern Vermont and New Hampshire. Maine too, I guess. Wish I could go there today, but duties call and the kid’s in school. If we’re lucky we’ll get another storm just before the weekend.

As for sledding, when we were in Zermatt after Christmas, I became fascinated by the kinds of sleds they use in Switzerland, shot in the pic at the top. They looked nothing like the American sleds I grew up with, the most popular of which were Flexible Flyers. I see here — and on hills around Boston, anyway — that the Flexible Flyer has passed out of fashion. In fact, I see few steerable sleds at all. Mostly just plastic shells that go where they will.

Samuel Leeds Allen, inventor of the Flexible Flyer (the world’s first steerable sled) has his own Wikipedia entry at that last link. But alas, the Flexible Flyer itself does not. (Where are your obsessives when you need them?)

Wow, I just discovered that I took a movie of sledding from the the top of the run alongside the ski slopes of Gornergrat, facing the Matterhorn, starting at the Rotenboden/Rifflesee rail stop, and added a link to it behind the still frame I lifed from it and put at the top of this post. It shows pretty well how the local sleds look and work there. Most of the crowd noise you hear there is Italian. In fact Italy is not far away. The Matterhorn, aka Monte Cervino, is half-Italian.

Looking at the white slush outside, I wish we were still there.

By the way, it’s snowing outside now. Rain is expected later.

I posted a lot today, but nothing matters more — or has been more on the front of my mind — than Haiti. What hell that such an already troubled country should be hit by an earthquake so bad, and so close to its most dense population centers.

So, as I try to get my head around the situation, here’s a list of links, in the order that I visit them:

I’ll add more as time goes on.

Also please read the comments below. The three (so far) from Andrew Leyden are excellent.

Markets are Headlocks

Where Markets are Not Conversations is my latest post over at the ProjectVRM blog. It was inspired by the “experience” of taking a fun little personality test at SignalPatterns, followed by SP’s refusal to share the results unless I submitted to a personal data shakedown.

Bottom lines:

  1. I’d rather track myself than have somebody else track me, thank you very much.
  2. This kind of marketing is about as conversational as a prison PA system — and calling any of it “social” makes it not one syllable less so.

There’s a lot to talk about here. Or there. Meanwhile, I’m off to see Avatar a second time with my son, this time in IMAX 3D. Have a fun weekend, kids.

Back in the late ’70s I worked for awhile at the Psychical Research Foundation (whoa, it still exists), which lived in a couple of old houses — now long gone — on the campus of . The PRF was spun off of what was then called the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, or the Institute for Parapsychnology, and since re-branded as the Rhine Research Center. All of it began with Duke botanist J.B. Rhine’s work toward understanding what he called extrasensory perception, or ESP. This work eventually veered outside Duke’s comfort zone, so it spun out in such a way that it was at Duke but not of it.

The PRF’s work had to do with academic study of the possibility of life after death. Far as I know it never found much evidence, but it was fun helping them try, and even more fun writing about it, which was my job there.

In the midst of that work, I produced a fake research paper, as a joke, put a big pile of copies in the midst of other papers offered at a psychical research convention (yes, they had those, and they were quite serious), and waited for nature to take its course.

The paper was called “Psi Burn,” and claimed that psychical research itself caused fun forms of harm. (Psi is a catch-all term for paranormal powers) I wish I had one in front of me, but I don’t. Omni 1978_12 - DecemberI do remember that the sources included titles such as “Twenty cases suggestive of intoxication” (or maybe it was “Twenty copies suggestive of reproduction”), “A second report on Mrs. Veeble’s smart dog,” and “A wave theory of death.” Somehow (I think Martin Gardner of Scientific American was involved) the paper found its way into the hands of James Randi (aka “The Amazing Randi”), then a famous opponent of parapsychology in its many forms. Randi loved the piece, and caused it to come to the attention of the science fiction writer Ben Bova, who was then on his way to becoming an editor at a new magazine called OMNI. Bova wanted “Psi Burn” for an early issue, and offered to pay me good money ($800, which was 4x my rent at the time). I accepted, and my very brief career as a contributor to OMNI began.

A second humorous piece followed. It was about how NASA budget cuts forced the agency to confine its explorations to the third planet from the Sun, and to job out the rocketry to custom van builders. The only line I remember from it was, “The presence of yeast in the atmosphere suggested not only the presence of life, but of food and drink as well.” After that I got very ambitious about my writing career and hired an agent who managed to get me nothing (shot down by Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon and others) while also screwing my relationship with OMNI. The money that paid for my work at the PRF also ran out, and I decided to pursue a remunerative and relatively stable opportunity: co-founding a new advertising agency where I would be creative director. That agency (Hodskins Simone & Searls) took off and eventually moved to Silicon Valley where it did quite well. That agency work launched me into the tech world, where I still live.

Anyway, all this comes back after reading In 2010, We Will Live on the Moon: Remembering the giddy futurism of Omni magazine, by By Paul Collins, in . “…with equal parts sci-fi, feature reporting, and meaty interviews with Freeman Dyson and Edward O. Wilson, Omni‘s arrival every month was a sort of peak nerd experience,” he writes. Indeed, it was — on the supply as well as the demand side.

What’s weird, looking back on OMNI‘s ambitious fantasies (robots, space travel), is that the less flashy stuff is what really happened. Collins:

It was in a 1981 Omni piece that William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace,” while the provoking lede “For this I spent two thousand dollars? To kill imaginary Martians?” exhorted Omni-readers to go online in 1983–where, they predicted, everything from entire libraries to consumer product reviews would soon migrate. A year later, the magazine ran one of the earliest accounts of telecommuting with Doug Garr’s “Home Is Where the Work Is,” which might have also marked the first appearance of this deathless standby of modern reportage: “I went to work in my pajamas.”

I’m not in my PJs now, because I don’t have any. But it’s 2:30 in the afternoon in the attic warren where I write on the Net through a 20Mb symmetrical fiber optic cable, and where I’m finally about to take today’s morning shower. Close enough to utopia, if you ask me.

[Later...] Hey, does anybody know if any of the old OMNI stuff is up on the Web anywhere? I haven’t been able to find any. When I’m back at the house in California next month I’ll see if I can find those two issues, scan them and put my pieces up on the Web. If not, no loss. But it’ll be fun to try.

And thanks to Brian Benz’ comment below, I found omnimagonline.com, including the above copy of the cover of the December 1978 issue with my “Psi Burn” piece.

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matterhorn_by_moonlight

There are mountains, and there is the Matterhorn. It’s all a matter of sculpture and presentation. Great art, great framing.

The Matterhorn is ice sculpture. It was carved by ice out of rock pushed to the sky by a collision between Italy and Europe that’s still going on. The ice was as high as the mountain, or higher, and the carved off parts are scattered all over the Alps and its alluvial fans, discarded by water and wind when the ice cap melted, only a few millennia before the Pyramids showed up. Go back to when the ice was at high tide, and the Alps looked like the near-buried parts of Greenland do today. (See here, here and here.)

The shot above was what the Matterhorn looked like by moonlight on our way back to the hotel tonight. There’s hardly a thing on Earth more impressive than that.

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‘Smart’ Electric Utility Meters, Intended to Create Savings, Instead Prompt Revolt is a New York Times story that perhaps suggests a deeper truth: People don’t want their utilities to get smart on them. Except, occasionally, on request. Like, when a bill one month is strangely high.

These paragraphs encapsulate several problems at once:

At the urging of the state senator, Dean Florez, Democrat of Fresno and the chamber’s majority leader, and others, the California Public Utilities Commission is moving to bring in an outside auditor to determine whether the meters count usage properly.

In response to a wave of complaints from the Bakersfield area in the Central Valley, Pacific Gas & Electric has been placing full-page advertisements in newspapers in the area promising benefits from the new meters. It says customers will save money not only by paying rates based on hourly fluctuations in the wholesale market, but also eventually by displaying real-time rates.

To reduce their bills, customers could cut back at pricey peak times and shift some activities, like running a clothes dryer or a vacuum cleaner, to off-peak periods. Utilities will then have lower costs, the argument goes, because the grid will need fewer power plants as demand levels out.

Customers will become “structural winners,” said Andy Tang, senior director of the company’s Smart Energy Web program.

The first problem is that some customers (enough to cause a stink, and cause newspaper stories) think their new “smart” meters are cheating them. Let’s say the meters are fine. (And I’m betting they are.) What’s this say?

The second problem is that the meters complicate usage. Who (besides people paid to care) are interested in wholesale energy market price fluctuations? And how many customers are ready to modulate usage based on fluctuating real-time demand?

The third problem is cultural, normative, and to some degree explains the first two: We’re not used to caring about this kind of stuff. Much less about being “structural winners,” whatever those are.

What’s being called for here is not just new gear that helps users use less electricity, water and gas. And what’s proposed is not just the need for all of us to “go green” and care about wasting resources and cooking the planet. What’s proposed is re-conceiving what a utility is.

Utilities, at least to the end user, the final customer, the one paying the bills, are simple things. They are dumb. Their availabiliy is binary: it’s there or its not. When it is, you want to hold down costs, sure; but you expect it to be there full-time. There should be enough gas or oil to run a furnace, to boil an egg, to produce hot water. There should be enough electricity to light bulbs and keep appliances running. There should be enough water pressure for people to take showers and wash dishes. More than enough doesn’t get noticed. Less than enough is a problem. That or none requires a call to the utility company or the landlord.

“Smart” so far looks complicated. And most people don’t want complicated, especially from their utilities.

Now, what we’re talking about here is making all utilities digital. That is, computerized. Again, complicated. True, for a mostly good cause. But entirely good? I gotta wonder. When I see big companies like GE and IBM talking about making our power “smart,” I think they’re talking about making it smart their way. Which is not like other companies’ ways. And selling “solutions” to utility companies that are different than the next company’s “solutions,” and lock the customers into proprietary systems that can cause more annoyance than convenience down the road.

I haven’t studied any of this, so I don’t know. I’m just saying what I suspect. And I invite correction on the matter. If there are standard ways to smarten power, so that customers can swap out one company’s gear for another’s, that’s fine. But again, I dunno.

Meanwhile, let’s table that and look at the Internet. This is a place where we have a degree of intelligence in a utility. Customers in many places have choices about variables such as bandwidth, and “business” versus “home” levels of support.

But I think what we want out of the Internet is what we already have with water, gas and electricity: it’s just there. Nothing more complicated than that.

I hope that’s where we end up. But my fear is that old-fashioned utilities will get smart the way the phone and cable companies have made the Internet smart. And that would be dumb.

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I just posted Rupert Murdoch vs. The Web, over at Linux Journal. In it I suggest that the Murdoch story (played mostly as Bing vs Google) is a red herring, and that the real challenge is to free the Web and ourselves from dependencies from giant companies I liken to volcanoes:

We’re Pompeians, Krakatoans, Montserratans, building cities and tilling farms on the slopes of active volcanoes. Always suckers for stories, we’d rather take sides in wars between competing volcanoes than build civilization on more flat and solid ground where there’s room enough for everybody.

Google and Bing are both volcanoes. Both grace the Web’s landscape with lots of fresh and fertile ground. They are good to have in many ways. But they are not the Earth below. They are not what gives us gravity.

I think one problem here is a disconnect between belief systems about markets, and the stories that arise from them.

One system believes a free market is Your Choice of Captor. In this camp I put both the make-it/take-it mentality (where “winners” are rewarded and “losers” punished) of the Wall Street Journal (which a few months ago looked upon the regulated duopolies for Internet access as the “free market” at work) and those who see business (or corporations, or capitalism, or all three) as a problem and look to government — another monopoly — for remedy from these evils in the marketplace. In other words, I lump both the left and the right in here, along with the conflicts between them.

The other system sees markets as settings for human activity: the locations, both real and virtual, where people and their organizations meet to do business, make culture, and build civilization. Here I put nearly everybody who contributed the structural agreements that made the Internet possible, and who truly understand what it is and how it works, even if they can’t all agree on what metaphors to use for it. I also include all who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the free and open code bases with which we are building out our networked world. While political beliefs among members of this system may sort somewhere along the right-vs.-left axis, what they do to build the world is orthogonal to that axis. That’s one big reason why that work escapes notice.

The distinction I see here aligns well with Virginia Postrel‘s contrast between “stasists” and “dynamists”. The difference is that much of what gets done to make the networked world (and to support its dynamism) isn’t “dynamic” in the active and dramatic sense of the word — except in its second-order effects. For example, SMTP and IMAP are not dynamic. (Being mannerly technical agreements, protocols don’t do that.) But on those protocols (and related ones) email happened, and the world hasn’t been the same since.

With that distinction in mind, I suggest that too much oxygen suckage is wasted on “wars” between the stasists (some of whom are also into the superficially dynamistic attention-suck of vendor sports — here’s an oldie but goodie that still makes my point), and not enough on constructive work done by geeks and entrepreneurs who quietly build the original and useful stuff that serves as solid infrastructure on which countless public goods (including wealth creation beyond measure) can be generated.

We have the same problem in most net neutrality arguments. The right hates it, the left loves it. One looks to protect the “free market” of phone and cable companies (currently a Your-Choice-of-Captor system) while the other looks to government (meet your new captor) for relief. When in fact the whole thing has happened all along within what Bob Frankston calls The Regultorium.

The primary dynamism of the Internet — what gave us the Net in the first place, and what holds the most promise in the long run — doesn’t just come from those parties, and can’t be found in the arguments they’re having. It comes from low-box-office geekery that supports enormous new business opportunities (along with many public benefits, with or without business).

It’ll take time to see this, I guess. Just hope we don’t drown in lava in the meantime.

Bonus red herring: A lot of news really isn’t.

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Happy Birthdays

– to Colette Searls, JP Rangaswami, Chris Locke, Neil Young. Two of whom will join me on stage at Defrag shortly.

Three days ago Jonathan MacDonald witnessed an altercation in the London Underground at the Holborn Station, between — as Jonathan reports it — a uniformed Underground staffer an elderly man whose arm had just been released from doors that had closed on it while he was leaving.  The staffer was loud and rude, while the passenger was calm and gentlemanly. Jonathan also recorded the last of the event on video — and blogged the event, video and all.

Next blog post:

Fast forward 24 hours and the story has run as the leader on Sky, BBC, LBC, ITN (see sample news coverage here) and on the front page of the Evening Standard. This followed thousands of Tweets and Re-Tweets (including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, getting involved), 65,000 video views yesterday alone on YouTube and hundreds of comments on this and many other blogs. Plus, the guard has been suspended and is under investigation.

All I did was see something that shouldn’t be tolerated and used the ammunition we have in our hands – video/blogs/network.

I blog almost every day so this wasn’t any different. The content of this one seemed to grab attention though, and it was this attention that made things spiral. Hence, the main reason this story has flown is due to what happened on camera. We must remember that. It’s not me. I didn’t ‘invent the story’. I just blogged, like I do, and the Twitterverse powered the rest. Although charming to be the focus of the viral activity – I actually had the smallest part.

In that post Jonathan shows, with photos, how the story was played by the mainstream media. His summary:

The Twitterers, Bloggers and commentators were the only people who played this right. The stories were shared and eventually the press picked it up.

What we need is for Industry to learn the key techniques of Involvism that the Twitterers, Bloggers and commentators already implement.

So far there are seventy comments, including pros and cons about what Jonathan (jMac there) did, and his replies.

Most interesting to me about this are the stories being told, because those have always been the stock-in-trade of journalism, especially in newspapers. As I put it here,

The basic job of newspaper reporters is to write stories. In simplest terms, stories are interesting arrangements of facts. What makes stories interesting are: 1) protagonists (persons, groups, teams, “issues” or causes); 2) a struggle, problem or conflict of some sort; and 3) movement forward (hopefully, by not necessarily, toward a conclusion). Whether or not you agree with that formulation, what cannot be denied is the imperative.

Jonathan did his best as a witness. He also had a story to show and tell: the abuse of a passenger. That’s what he reported. As it happened, Jonathan caught the name (Ian) and the face of the Underground staffer, but only the back of the passenger (a man with gray hair in a business jacket carrying a leather bag). There are other stories to be told, of course. Read them in Jonathan’s comment thread

In the old media world, freedom of speech belonged to companies that bought ink by the barrel. In the new media world, it belongs to everybody with a cell phone or a keyboard. Get used to it. Or, as Jonathan did, put it to use.

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boreray

Painted Cave. Lava Falls Trail. Uinkaret Volcanic Field. Nat Friedman. Denver International Airport. Sarah Lacy. Rainsford Island. Dorney Lake. David Boies. A peak above a glacier. Rim of the World Highway. Elena Kagan. Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Lake Havasu. Berneray, North Uist. Spectacle Island. San Gorgonio Mountain. River Nith. Paul Trevithick. Dumont Dunes. Tunitas Creek. Steve Gillmor. Boreray, North Uist. Guido van Rossum. Nunavut Shadows. Bristol Dry Lake. Brunswick Nuclear Generating Station.

All shots I’ve taken. All put in Wikimedia Commons, and (in nearly all cases above) in Wikipedia, by persons other than myself.

All I did was post them on Flickr, label and tag them well, so they could be found and used, via the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.

That’s just some of them, by the way. Lots more where they came from. One hundred and five, so far.

I’m on the East Coast for the rest of the current fire season in California. Which is cool, literally. I miss Santa Barbara, but not the fear of destruction (which I generally don’t have there, but I need my rationalizations). Speaking of which, here’s The Mania of Owning Things, my EOF column for August 2009 issue of Linux Journal. I wrote it during the Jesusita Fire, the second fire-bullet we dodged this year.

The column title refers to the last line of this bit of Whitman:

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals.
They are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied.
Not one is demented with the mania of owning things.

(For some reason most of those lines didn’t make it into the published piece. So, when you look at it, bear in mind that the top text is part of Whitman and none of me.) Some exerpts (from me, not Whitman):

Ambition and industry in the face of inevitable destruction is the job of life…

I believe in ownership—not for economic reasons, but because possession is 9/10ths of the three-year-old. We are all still toddlers in more ways than we’d like to admit—especially when it comes to possessions.

We are grabby animals. We like to own stuff—or at least control it. Where would a three-year-old be without the first-person possessive pronoun? No response is more human than “Mine!” And yet possessions are also burdens. I have a friend whose childhood home was burned twice by the same nutcase. He’s one of the sanest people I know. I can’t say it’s because he has been relieved of archives and other non-negotiables, but it makes a kind of sense to me. I have tons of that stuff, and I’ve thought lately about what it would mean if suddenly they were all cremated. Would that really be all bad? What I’d miss most are old photos that haven’t been scanned and writing that hasn’t been digitized in some way. But is my digital stuff all that safe either?…

I’ve just started backing (it) up “in the cloud”. But how safe is that? Or secure? Companies are temporary. Servers are temporary. Hell, everything is temporary.

When I was young, I acknowledged death as part of the cycle of life. Now I think it’s the other way around. Life is part of the cycle of death. Life generates fuel for death. It’s a carbon-based refinery for lots of interesting and helpful stuff.

Think about it. Marble. Limestone. Travertine. Oil. Gas. Coal. Wood. Linoleum. Cement. Paint. Plastics. Paper. Asphalt. Textiles. Medicines. Even the heat used to smelt iron and shape glass comes mostly from burning fossil fuel. The moon has abundant aluminum ores. But how would you produce the heat required for extraction, or do anything without the combustive assistance of oxygen? Ninety-eight percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere is produced by plants. Most of the sources are now dead, their energies devoted to post-living purposes.

The Internet grows by an odd noospheric process: duplication. In “Better Than Free”, Kevin Kelly makes an observation so profound and obvious that you can’t shake it once it sinks in: “The Internet is a copy machine.” As a result, the Net is turning into what Bob Frankston calls a “sea of bits”. This too is an ecosystem of sorts. Is it, like Earth’s ecosystem, a way that death makes use of life? I wonder about that too.

Anyway, the rest is here.

What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later...] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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I like sports, and I enjoy sports talk radio. That’s one reason I have five car radio buttons set on stations carrying games or sports talk: four on AM (WRKO/680, WEEI/850, WAMG/890, WZZN/1510) and one on FM (WBZ-FM/98.5). The other is that sports talk is about 50% advertising, so I like to punch around.

But I wasn’t surprised to read ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate set to sign off, by Chad Finn in the Boston Globe. It begins, “ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate, WAMG-AM 890, will go off the air Monday after four years plagued by a weak signal and limited local programming.” In fact, “weak” doesn’t cover it. By day WAMG’s 25,000-watt signal covers the Boston metro pretty well. But at night the station drops to 6,000 watts and a pattern that excludes the whole north side of the metro. The map at that last link doesn’t show how much like a headlight that pattern really is.

Yet that’s not the worst of it. WAMG was able to “drop in” to the market from nowhere in 2005, thanks to a change in FCC rules that protected what were once called (literally) “clear channel” stations. Because signals on the AM band bounce off the ionosphere at night, powerful ones can be heard up to thousands of miles away. Since there were then only 106 channels (every 10KHz from 540 to 1600KHz), a handful were granted “clear channel” status, making them the only stations on those channels at night. Thanks to this rule, I could hear KFI/640 from Los Angeles in New Jersey and WBZ/1030 from Boston in Palo Alto. Here’s the whole list of “clears” as they stood when their status still held.

Since long-distance listening had mostly gone away by the late 1970s, the FCC in 1980 reduced protection for the old “clears” to 750 miles from their transmitters. WLS/890 in Chicago was one of those clears. So you might say that WAMG appeared through a new loophole. Problem was, WLS had not gone away. It often still reached Boston quite well at night, pounding WAMG’s already-weak signal.

This last week I was down in the South portion of Cape Cod, where WAMG puts no signal at all. As a result I could hear WLS quite well on a portable radio, along with other Chicago giants.

The Globe story suggests that WAMG will probably go dark. Given the coverage realities, that might not be the worst thing.

A thought. WAMG is licensed to Dedham, not Boston. It might not be the worst thing for Clear Channel (the name of the company that owns WAMG and a zillion other stations) to sell the licesnse to somebody in the Dedham community, who could cut the power back (to save electricity) and just try to serve the local community itself. Provided, of course, that local radio of the AM sort (which has changed little since the 1920s) still makes sense.

[Later...] Following up on 10 October 2009, WAMG has been off the air for several weeks.

Same date, new sphere

On 9/11/2001 I had already been blogging for nearly two years. It’s interesting to see what I wrote this day, back then. Since my blog then was not on local time, my first four posts were actually the last from the day before. My first 9/11 post was this one.

A declaration of peace was my second post. Longer and more thoughtful posts came on 9/12, 9/13, 9/14, 9/16 and so on.

Kinda sad to see how many links now go nowhere, or to blogs that have since been abandoned. My blogroll on the right side of those pages has a lot of rot in it too.

In August 2007 I moved my blog here. Thanks to Dave Winer, the old blog archives live.

The Net is different too, especially around the Web. Google is the new Microsoft. Facebook is the new AOL. Twitter is the new CB radio. Much of what used to be on TV and in print have moved to the Web in new forms. Much of education too.

One year ago we were in the midst of a financial collapse. That’s ending now, maybe, sort of.

The whole world is in a transitional state, between many old institutions that aren’t yet dead and many new ones that are not yet formed. That includes Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

The attack on the World Trade Center was followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have not ended. In Iraq, which has a working government and a degree of peace, an agreeable end can be imagined. Less so in Afghanistan, which George Will, America’s top conservative columnist, thinks we should now abandon.

Terrorists have not attacked the U.S. directly again. At least not that blatantly, or to the same great effect. Interpret that any way you like.

Bonus link.

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redwoods

Why do mature redwood trees have trunks that rise two hundred feet before branches commence, live for centuries and have bark that’s a foot thick? Because they are adapted to fire.

zaca

Why does the silver-green chaparral that covers California’s hills and mountains burn so easily? Because it’s supposed to.

calpoppies

Why, other than its color, is the California Poppy such an appropriate flower for the Golden State? Because it is adapted to both fire and earthquakes. Says Wikipedia, “It grows well in disturbed areas and often recolonizes after fires”.

Of course, so do we. That’s why it’s not weird to find humans colonizing hillsides and other “disturbed areas” of California. Case in point: I am writing this in a house sited on an former landslide, not far from the perimeters of two wildfires that claimed hundreds of other houses in the past few months.

Every spot on Earth is temporary, but California is a special example. As permanence goes, California is a house of cards.

For example, take a look at some of the animations here, prepared by geologists at UCSB. Watch as a sheet of crust the size of a continent gets shoved under the western edge of North America. Debris that piled up in the trench where that happened is what we now call the Bay Area. Submerged crust that melted, rose and hardened under North America — and was just recently exposed — we now call the Sierras. Take a look at the last 20 million years of Southern California history. It’s a wreck that’s still going on. One section of that wreck is a bend along the boundary between plates of crust. Mountains pile up along that bend, like snow in front of a plow. The biggest of these ranges we call the San Gabriels. Those are on fire right now. Add up all the Southern California wildfires over the last twenty years and you’ll get a territory exceeding that of several smaller states.

My point is perspective. The human one is so brief that it can hardly take in the full scope of What’s Going On, or what our lives contribute to it. In a geological context, what we contribute are carbon and fossils. We do that by dying. Other planets have geologies as well, but none have marble, limestone, coal or oil. Those are all produced by dead plants and animals. It would be hard to make heat on Mars because — as far as we know — there is no dead stuff to burn.

Humans love to make structures and produce heat, which means we have an unusually strong appetite for dead stuff. Even cement and steel require dead stuff in their making.

If you fly a lot, as I do, you start to notice black lines on the landscape. These are coal trains that move like ant trails from mines in the West to power plants all over the country. The largest of these mines are in Wyoming, more than 50% of which has coal to burn. This coal consists of dead stuff that has been buried for dozens of millions of years, and took at least as long to form. In Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee says the largest power plant in Georgia, Plant Sherer, “burns nearly thirteen hundred coal trains a year—two thousand miles of coal cars, twelve million tons of the bedrock of Wyoming.”

Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless you’re not human.

From any scope wider than our own, we are a pestilential species. Since the human diaspora began spreading out of Africa only a few thousand generations ago, we have chewed our way through land and species at a rate without equal in the history of the Earth, which began 4.567 billion years ago, or more than a third of the way back to the start of the Universe. We are distinguished by our intelligence, our powers of speech and expression, our ability to use tools and to build things, our ability to learn and teach, and our diversity (no two of us, even twins, are exactly alike). There are 6.781 billion of us now. Few of us will live more than a hundred years, and fewer still will have more than a few decades to contribute more than carbon to the world.

Among the many recent developments in civilization, two stand out. One is a widespread realization that the effects of human activity on the planet are non-trivial. The other is a growing ability to connect with each other and communicate over any distance at very little cost. What will we do with this knowledge, and the ability to share it? Will we follow the model of civilizations that waste the places where they live? Or will we prove to be creatures who can change their nature and stop doing that?

The former is the way to bet. The latter is the way to go.

Bonus read: John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. A third of it is called “Los Angeles vs. The San Gabriel Mountains.” While it is mostly about “debris flows” — slow motion landslides — that happen during winter rains, the important part for today’s discussion involves a primary condition for those flows: mountain slopes denuded of vegetation by fires. This means you can count on many mudslides this coming winter.

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Following Tristan LouisFauxpenness, I posted Open vs. Fauxpen at Linux Journal. Includes hat-tipping toward Dave‘s recent work on URL shortening (the latest of which is here).

Mostly I work like a hermit:  in an attic with two window air conditioners fighting the heat and providing an endless source of dull noise that furthers my sense of productive isolation. For the last few days of record-high temperatures, the AC units have been losing the fight. Today they’ve been winning, so I haven’t been paying any attention to the world outside.

Then, one minute ago: Boom! A crack of thunder. Sure enough, Wunderground says a storm is moving in. It doesn’t look big, but it’s bowling a strike right across Boston:

stormtrack

A perfect excuse to take a snack out on the back porch for a front row seat on the best of nature’s summer theatre. (One of the things I miss when I’m in Santa Barbara, though I’ve been missing Santa Barbara mightily during the heat wave here.) And sympathizing with the passengers that are surely soon delayed on approach to Logan.

[One hour later...] Well, that was a case of wishful blogging. The storm cell passed over Boston but missed most of Cambridge. I see here another small one is on the way (right now it’s over Ashland, between Hollston and Framingham), but it might be pooped out by the time it gets here.

[Next morning...] The small patch of rain never got here. In the evening I went to a barbeque in a Cambridge backyard and the place was still soaked by the rain that missed my place. This morning it’s hot all over again.

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Suspicious white man reported in minority neighborhood:

Rock legend Bob Dylan was treated like a complete unknown by police in a New Jersey shore community when a resident called to report someone wandering around the neighborhood.

Dylan was in Long Branch, about a two-hour drive south of New York City, on July 23 as part of a tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp that was to play at a baseball stadium in nearby Lakewood.

A 24-year-old police officer apparently was unaware of who Dylan is and asked him for identification, Long Branch business administrator Howard Woolley said Friday.

“I don’t think she was familiar with his entire body of work,” Woolley said.

I know how he feels.

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I love this:

despair_socialmedia

… and I hope the good (or evil, depending on your perspective) folks at Despair.com don’t mind my promoting their best t-shirt yet. (If it helps, I just ordered one.)

You’ll notice that blogging isn’t in the diagram (though Despair does feature it in four other purchasable forms). I bring that up because I think there is a difference between the social media in the Venn diagram and blogging, and that difference is akin to that between weather and geology.  The former have an evanescent quality. I’m still haunted by hearing that users get a maximum number Twitter postings (tweets) before the old ones scroll off. If true, it means Twitter is a whiteboard, made to be erased after awhile. The fact that few know what the deal is, exactly, also makes my point. Not many people expect anybody, including themselves, to revisit old tweets. The four names in the diagram above are also private corporate walled gardens. Blogging itself is not. True, you can blog in a corporate walled garden, but blogging is an independent category. You can move your blog from one platform to another, archives intact. Not easy, but it can be done. More importantly, your blog is yours. That’s why I dig Dave’s Scoble, your blog still loves you post. And why in the comments I said,

FriendFeeds and Facebooks and Microsofts will come and and go. They can be bought and sold, because they’re not human. Robert is human. Companies can’t be charming and lovable. They can, sometimes, for awhile. Ben & Jerrys did. Zappos did. But they got sold. You know, like slaves.

The only publication on Earth that’s all Robert’s is his blog. That’s where his soul is, because he can’t sell it.

It was while pondering the difference between social media and blogging that I posted this tweet today:

Thanks, @dnm54 But I still feel like my posts lately have the impact of snow on water. Too wordy? Not tweety enough? Not sure.

That got some reassuring responses, several playing with the snow-and-water metaphor. That’s one I’ve used often ever since first hearing “Big Ted”, by the Incredble String Band (from their Changing Horses album), played by the great Larry Josephson on his morning show on WBAI, back in the earliest 70s. “Big Ted” was a dead horse, about which the band sang, “He’s gone like snow on the water. Good bye-eeee.”

For a long time I harbored a fantasy about writing a history of radio, titled “Snow on the Water,” because that was its self-erasing quality. It was like unrecorded conversation that way. You get meaning from it, but you don’t remember everything verbatim, for such is the nature of short-term memory. Eight seconds later you might remember what somebody said, but not exactly. Tomorrow you might remember nothing more than having talked to the person.

Now I’m thinking “snow on the water” applies to social media as well. They’re conversational in the literal sense. They’re weather within which tweets fly and fall like flakes, and disappear into the collective unconscious.

On the other hand, blogging is geology. A blog’s posts may be current and timely, and constitute one person’s contribution to conversation around a subject or two, but each post is built to last. It has a “permalink”. Over time posts accumulate like soil deposits. You can dig down through layers of time and find them. What do tweets have? Temp-o-links?

From the beginning I’ve thought of blogging as journalism in the literal sense: Blogs are journals. Yet much of traditional journalism seems to have, on the whole, not much respect for its archives on the Web. Editorial “content” scrolls behind paywalls, doesn’t keep durable URLs, or disappears completely.

Which brings me to this comment by Tom Matrullo, left under this post about advertising. It’s way too deep to leave buried there:

There is no question that advertising requires us to be in the here and now, and not in the there and then, because it seeks to influence our desires and actions. Active repression of time, history, the past is basic to most commerce and commercial speech.

But I’d go further, because this is a large and important topic. Broadcast itself as a medium tends to put the past at a distance, even when it is about the past, because it makes it into spectacle. Something we watch from our NOW, the big now of advertising and current media.

And yet further: no media are more dis-attuned to the past than news media. It is all about the next story. That one last week that was entirely wrong? Ancient history. To be current, in news-speak, is to develop a sort of targeted Alzheimer’s in a certain direction.

Maybe this is one reason why the news media — on the whole, seems to me — have embraced social media of the temporary sort while continuing to put down blogging. Yes, they’ll set up blogs for their writers, but there’s often a second-class quality to those blogs, and the blogs willl get erased after the writer leaves — or even while the writer is still there. Dan Gillmor’s blog at the San Jose Mercury-News disappeared a number of times. Now it’s gone permanently. Dan’s columns are there, if you’re willing to pay $2.95 apiece for them.

It still blows my mind that, on the Web, newspapers give away the news but charge for the olds. Why not charge for the news and give away the olds? That would be in alignment with what they do with the physical paper. People will pay a buck for today’s paper, and nothing for one three days old. In the physical world, old papers are for wrapping fish and house-breaking puppies. If papers gave every old story a true permalink, search engines would find them, could sell advertising on them, and progressively elevate the whole paper’s authority.

I think they don’t do it for two reasons. One is that they’ve always charged for access to “the morgue.” Another is that embalming old papers has always been expensive. For many decades they bound them up like books for storage in libraries. I still have three of these, each for a whole week of New York Times papers from the ’50s and ’60s. The library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill sent them out for recycling in 1975. The whole huge pile was rescued by buddies of mine who ran the recycling operation. The newspaper and the library at the time were modernizing by putting everything on microfilm. At the “Will Newspapers Survive” forum at MIT a couple years ago, I asked the panel (which included Dan Gillmor) about why papers charge for the olds and give away the news. Ellen Foley of the Wisconsin State Joural replied,

Speaking for the nation’s regional papers, one of our biggest problems is that today’s issues are all on microfilm tomorrow, not online. It would cost more than a million dollars to digitize our archives. It’s hard for me to make this argument to our publisher, who is trying to make money and make ends meet.

It’s not in the transcript, but I recall her adding something about how storing archives on disk drives was also expensive. That didn’t sit well with the audience, which knew better.

Anyway, my point is that, on the whole news organizations don’t care much about the past. They care about the present. I think social media tend to do the same thing. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Nor am I trying to elevate blogging into the Pulitzer sphere. (But hey, why not?)  I’m just trying to get my head around What’s Going On.

Here’s my thinking for now. What I write on blogs isn’t just for the short term. I also have the long term in mind. I’m making geology, not weather. Both have their places. The more durable stuff goes here.

Bonus link.

[Later...] Joe Andrieu has a thoughtful response.

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In the mid-1990s, when I couldn’t find anybody to publish my essays (I didn’t want to cover what I still call “vendor sports”, which eliminated most of the tech magazine market ), I followed Dave Winer‘s footsteps and published my own on the Web. One was The Web and the New Reality, written in raw HTML with formatting borrowed from Netscape’s white papers of the time, complete with all-caps H2 headlines and first letters enlarged with +3 font sizes. Funny how mannered that looks now. Like the skull-and-wings on 18th century headstones.

I stumbled over The Web and the New Reality when I went trudging through the nether pages of Google search results, hoping to find more about the disagreements between Jefferson and Franklin over patents and copyrights. I still haven’t found exactly what I was looking for (though Chapter 2 of James Boyle’s The Public Domain gets me off to an excellent start), but did pause to note in my now-ancient essay a list of prophesies that hold up pretty well, especially since the scope of some embraces futures that still aren’t here but also haven’t been disproven in the years that have already passed. It is certainly utopian, and in that mood outlines some of the ideas we expanded in The Cluetrain Manifesto four (and now fourteen) years later. Here is how it begins:

Reality 2.0

The import of the Internet is so obvious and extreme that it actually defies valuation: witness the stock market, which values Netscape so far above that company’s real assets and earnings that its P/E ratio verges on the infinite.

Whatever we’re driving toward, it is very different from anchoring certainties that have grounded us for generations, if not for the duration of our species. It seems we are on the cusp of a new and radically different reality. Let’s call it Reality 2.0.

The label has a millenial quality, and a technical one as well. If Reality 2.0 is Reality 2.000, this month we’re in Reality 1.995.12.

With only a few revisions left before Reality 2.0 arrives, we’re in a good position to start seeing what awaits. Here are just a few of the things this writer is starting to see…

  1. As more customers come into direct contact with suppliers, markets for suppliers will change from target populations to conversations.
  2. Travel, ticket, advertising and PR agencies will all find new ways to add value, or they will be subtracted from market relationships that no longer require them.
  3. Within companies, marketing communications will change from peripheral activities to core competencies.New media will flourish on the Web, and old media will learn to live with the Web and take advantage of it.
  4. Retail space will complement cyber space. Customer and technical service will change dramatically, as 800 numbers yield to URLs and hard copy documents yield to soft copy versions of the same thing… but in browsable, searchable forms.
  5. Shipping services of all kinds will bloom. So will fulfillment services. So will ticket and entertainment sales services.
  6. The web’s search engines will become the new yellow pages for the whole world. Your fingers will still do the walking, but they won’t get stained with ink. Same goes for the white pages. Also the blue ones.
  7. The scope of the first person plural will enlarge to include the whole world. “We” may mean everybody on the globe, or any coherent group that inhabits it, regardless of location. Each of us will swing from group to group like monkeys through trees.
  8. National borders will change from barricades and toll booths into speed bumps and welcome mats.
  9. The game will be over for what teacher John Taylor Gatto labels “the narcotic we call television.” Also for the industrial relic of compulsory education. Both will be as dead as the mainframe business. In other words: still trucking, but not as the anchoring norms they used to be.
  10. Big Business will become as anachronistic as Big Government, because institutional mass will lose leverage without losing inertia.Domination will fail where partnering succeeds, simply because partners with positive sums will combine to outproduce winners and losers with zero sums.
  11. Right will make might.
  12. And might will be mighty different.

The last two sections, titled How It All Adds Up and The Plus Paradigm, are the ones that see a future in which the economics of abundance plainly outperform those of scarcity.

If Paul Saffo is right when he says we overestimate in the short term and underestimate in the long, my out-there prophesies might still be safe. But in our current short run I remain impressed at how little some of our institutions — especially those of journalism — grok how abundance works.

Last week I sat on two panels at the huge 92nd Annual Convention of the Association for Education inJournalism and Mass Communication in Boston. While much of what was talked about there was clueful in the extreme, there was no shortage of top-down stuff like “corporate strategies and consumer responses” — and very little push-back against the apparent decision by many newspapers and magazines to turn like a flock of fish toward the “strategy” of locking their “content” behind paywalls. Again. They clearly aren’t following Chris Anderson’s advice or example.

On the whole Google used to ignore the paywalled stuff, because it couldn’t be indexed, but now the pubs are leaving teasers out there (or maybe Google now has ways of searching archives anyway), and the result for the reader is clunking into registration and subscription doors that are all different and all annoying — especially when one is already a subscriber to the publication in question and can’t remember the login/password required (as is the case for me with The New Yorker, among other pubs).

So the “plus paradigm” ain’t here yet. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to make it happen anyway. There are worse goals than taking care of Jefferson’s unfinished business.

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Seems I with , , , , , and about 1/365th of the world’s population. I also , “the first general-purpose electronic computer“, and I were fired up the very same day in 1947 — ENIAC at Aberdeen Proving Grounds and I at in Jersey City. ENIAC worked until its plug was pulled in 1955. I still feel like I’ve just been plugged in. (Guess ENIAC was a pessimist.)

My birthday present to myself will be getting lots of work done.

Bonus link.

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The kid goes to bed every night lately while treating himself to a classical piece on his bedroom stereo. Tonight, our last (a bonus, thanks to a plane that didn’t fly) in Santa Barbara before returning to Boston tomorrow, he played one of his favorites: The Planets, by Gustav Holst. Noting that Holst only set music to seven of the planets…

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic

… he wondered what ours might be called. “Earth, the Bringer of __ ?”

“Lunch,” I suggested.

A debate followed, at the end of which we agreed that 8. Earth, the Bringer of Lunch was clearly the winner.

A bit of levity. Now sleep. Then another school year back in Cambridge. See ya there.

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One of the best things about living in (or just following) Santa Barbara is reading Nick Welsh’s Angry Poodle Barbeque column each week in the Independent — one of the best free newsweeklies anywhere. This week’s column, El Corazón del Perro, is a classic. One sample:

For those of us without the heart to pursue our own dream, or even the imagination to have one, Jackson provides cold reassurance. If someone so rich, so famous, and so hugely adored could wind up so agonizingly wretched, maybe the moral of the story is that one’s bliss was never meant to be followed.

This, however, isn’t just another knock on the late Jacko. It’s a column about afterdeath effects in Santa Barbara County, which was home to Jackson through his Neverland years:

This past Tuesday, a coterie of key county executives from law enforcement, public works, fire protection, public health, planning, emergency response, and communications spent the better part of the day shuttling from one emergency meeting to the next, trying to figure out what was real and what to do about it. No less than five employees of the Sheriff’s Department spent their day fielding calls from media outlets around the world. Associated Press dispatched a reporter to stake out the County Administration Building all day. By 7 p.m., Tuesday, no actual communication had taken place between county government and the Jackson camp. Instead, Sheriff’s officials relied upon contacts they have with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for whatever vague rumors and rumblings they could get. Somehow through this opaque and osmotic chain of communication, county officials are hoping to persuade the Jackson clan to call it off, if in fact it was they who started something in the first place.

Some in the Sheriff’s Department expressed confidence that the whole thing has been an exceptionally expensive and elaborate fire drill. Personally, I like the idea that the whole thing is a big fake-out, an angry practical joke on the county that prosecuted Jackson. When Paul McCartney’s former wife, Linda McCartney, died several years ago, I remember how rumors were strategically planted that she died in Santa Barbara County. In fact, she did not. The County Coroner complained he spent so much time fielding media calls that he couldn’t get any work done. Cadavers, he said, were piling up in his coolers like firewood. Ultimately, we would discover the whole thing was an elaborate dodge so that the McCartney clan could grieve unmolested by the paparazzi. But not before Santa Barbarans — ever willing to embrace the rich and famous, even if they never lived here — held a solemn and tearful candlelight vigil at the County Courthouse’s Sunken Gardens.

Some of the worries in the piece are stale now (a Neverland funeral appears unlikely), but it’s still a good read.

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Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people. — Eleanor Roosevelt Somebody

I wish to discuss an idea here. It’s an idea about celebrity, and it follows an event that has become a black hole in nearly all media: the death of Michael Jackson.

According to Don Norman, a black hole topic is one that is essentially undiscussable: “Drop the subject into the middle of a room and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape.”

Michael Jackson was more than a celebrity. He was a first-rank contributor to pop music and pop culture. He was also far more weird than anybody else at the same rank, changing his face so radically that he no longer appeared to belong to his original race and gender. This fact alone made his death at 50 unsurprising yet very interesting.

Most of us can’t help falling into conversational black holes. But we can help getting sucked into celebrity obsession.

Unless, of course, we’re making money at it. This is the path down which People Magazine went when it morphed from a spun-off section of Time Magazine into a tabloid. More recently Huffington Post has done the same thing. But that’s the supply side. What about demand?

I submit that obsessing about celebrity is unhealthy for the single reason that it is also unproductive. Celebrity is to mentality as smoking is to food. (I originally wrote “chewing gum” there, but I think smoking is the better analogy.) It is an unhealthy waste of time. And time is a measure of life. We are born with an unknown sum of time, and have to spend all of it. “Saving” time is a rhetorical trick. So is “losing” it. Our lives are spent, one end to the other. What matters most is how we choose to spend it.

The Net maximizes the endlessness of choice about how we spend our time. It also maximizes many kinds of productiveness. Nearly all the code we are using, right now, to do stuff on the Net, was written by many collaborators across many distances. Some were obsessing about what they were producing. Others were just working away. Either way, they chose to be productive. To contribute. To work on what works.

The Net itself is an idea so protean and varied that there is little agreement about what it actually is. Yet it is endlessly improvable, as are the goods and services it supports.

This improvable millieu presents us with choices that become more stark as the millieu itself grows. We can make useful contributions — preferably in ways nobody else can. Or we can coast.

Obsessing about celebrity is a form of coasting. And I suggest that we’ll see a growing distance between coasting and producing.

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This twitter post, from @KNX1070 four minutes ago, says Michael Jackson is dead. Google News‘ latest, from Fox, says he’s being rushed to the hospital. Here’s the latest Google search, as of 3:42pm Pacific:

michaeljackson_search1

A snapshot in time, already changed. (FWIW, the KNX item came up the first time I searched, but not this time. The System That Isn’t, isn’t perfect.) The Twitter results up top are courtesy of a Greasemonkey script.

It is here that we see manifest the split between the Live Web and the Static Web.

I’ve been writing and talking about this split since my son Allen first mentioned the term in 2003.* He saw the World Live Web then as an absence, as unstarted business. Google searched the Static Web of sites and domains that were architected, designed and built like real estate projects. The Live Web would be more alive and human. In it machines wouldn’t answer your questions now. People would.

Now the Live Web is here, big-time. Or, as current parlance would have it, real-time.

I still prefer “live”. Can you imagine if NBC had called its top weekend show “Saturday Night Real-Time”? Or if they announced, “Real time, from New York..”?

Live is better.

If Michael Jackson were still with us, I’m sure he’d agree.

* Here’s the same link: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q… . I’m not sure why, but WordPress isn’t letting me get that link in there. I post the html, find no links in the results, and then when editing find the linked term flanked by partial the letter “a” in angle brackets, sans the slash that closes a link. Not sure what’s up with that. Maybe my tortuously broken connection. Anyway, I have more to add, but won’t bother. Plenty of other reading on the Web anyway. Rock on.

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wasn’t the biggest nonfiction book to come along in early 2000. That would be . I never read that, but I did read what was probably the second-biggest: ‘s . Like Cheese, Tipping is about change. Unpacking one chapter in the book, Malcolm writes, “I think that word of mouth is something created by three very rare and special psychological types, whom I call Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.” It was no accident that at least three of Cluetrain’s four authors combined all three of those types. I also think that those characteristics are not so rare among effective folks in the tech world. Many come to mind: Kevin Kelly, Stuart Brand, Dave Winer, Chris Anderson, Jerry Michalski, Esther Dyson, Tim O’Reilly, Steve Gillmor, Kevins Marks and Werbach, Craig Burton, Clay Shirky, Bruce Sterling… the list, as I think  about it, is quite long. You can drive word of mouth with fewer than all three of those natures, of course. And success in an industry depends on people who are good at many other things. It’s just interesting to me that there are so many in the tech world who are good at those three — and are so confident that they can get things moving.

All this comes to mind when I read ‘s post. It tells the story of how his own life tipped a series of times: when he connected (at some effort) with Chris Locke after Cluetrain came out, when he connected with and the Blogger folks (that’s the same Ev now behind Twitter), when I connected him with Andre Durand of Ping Identity (where Eric was the first employee), and when he helped start , which led to : Eric’s own conference (he does too).

In his post Eric thanks us. And here I’ll thank Eric too, for connecting me to more people, and good stuff, than I can begin to list.

southbostonstorm

They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Gordon Lightfoot, from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

A storm on Lake Superior drowned the Edmund Fitzgerald. From the way it looks now, a storm over the Atlantic destroyed Air France Flight 447 earlier this week.

A book and a movie nailed the “perfect storm” meme in our heads, and I suppose the label might apply here. Flight 447 was crossing through a region known to weather professionals as the intertropical convergence zone. Storms rise quickly there, and concentrate in a band that runs around the Earth like a broad equator of roiling clouds. While lines of thunderstorms familiar to those of us in temperate zones can run for hundreds of miles along a weather front, these intertropical mothers are different in several senses, not the least of which is that it’s harder to avoid getting tossed around while weaving through them in an airplane — especially in the middle of the night over the middle of an ocean. This is due partly to the widespread and rapid-forming nature of the storms themselves, and partly to the absence of navigation guidance from the ground.

There isn’t any ground underneath. The nearest radar is far beyond the horizon. And, in some cases, such as Flight 447′s, guidance from the air is also lacking. According to that first link (a Bloomberg piece by John Hughes), less than one flight per hour takes the route flown by Flight 447, which was last heard from at 2:14am, local time, over the Atlantic appoximately midway between South America and Africa.

That also puts it over the broad Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain range that runs like a baseball seam between tectonic plates. It’s mountainous down there. Go to 3° 34′ 39.72″ N, 30° 22′ 27.84″ W (3.5777, -30.3744) on Google Earth, drop about 12,500 feet below the surface, and you would see approximately this –

flight447_depths

– if it were not also the blacker than the darkest night down there. Good luck finding the flight data and voice recorders. Or anything else that doesn’t float.

My guess is that our best guesses will narrow to some combination of known facts. Chief among these is that the plane was passing through a region of big thunderstorms that had also shown up quickly. I’m guessing that the pilots did their best to avoid the worst of what they could see with their instruments, and failed. Here is a summary of final messages from the plane.

Whether the plane broke up at altitude (we know it depressurized) or went out of control and crashed intact, the terminal moments of the flight must have been frightening beyond description for those on board.

I’m a frequent flyer who loves aviation. I’ve flown enough to be jaded and calm. But thunderstorms still creep me out. One pilot friend told me a few days ago that the last thing you want to do is go through a “hole” between two thunderheads, because turbulence there can be even worse than inside the clouds themselves. When you see thunderheads building, the expansion itself is a kind of wind, and so is what happens to the air pushed aside as the head builds its visible parts.

One wonders if any decisions will be made, based on what we learn from the crash of Flight 447. Will similar Airbus planes be given a new caution? An upgrade to avionics or reporting methods? A new procedural guide for times when scary storms suddenly materialize? Dunno yet. We’ll see.
I’ll be flying back and forth to London next week. I’m looking forward to the flight as well as the work — as I always do. But, like many travelers, I’ll not be quite as calm about the weather.

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As a kid I screwed up in many ways, but none of those ways excluded a central lesson good parents start teaching as soon as kids are capable of conversation: responsibility. The word always sounds reproachful and corrective to a kid, but it matters. It says you can be depended upon to do what is expected of you — and a bit more. Civilization itself depends on that.

The Responsibility Lesson comes to mind as I read this post by Candy Beauchamp. The stand-out section:

Many of you may know that Tom just got his degree from the University of Phoenix. He went there for 3 years and finished his last class in late April. He ended up with 3.67 GPA in Business Marketing. Not too shabby. We are very proud of him and have been eagerly awaiting actually receiving his degree….

Apparently, there’s a problem. From what we can piece together, Wells Fargo – as part of the bail out – sold his student loan to the Department of Education. This means they basically stopped his loan, but didn’t tell him or anyone else. This means that the school is looking at Tom wanting him to pay them, they are basically holding his degree for ransom.

This is inexcusible.

The story goes on, and the lessons Candy and Tom take from the experience are all good ones. What’s remains screwed up, and in need of deeper understanding, is the institutionalization of responsibility-shifting, with hardly any tracks left in the sand. This is what happened in with what Kevin Phillips calls the “financialization” of the economy. When you’re one shell in a giant shell game, it’s not hard to see what’s going on; but it’s easy to ignore the whole thing, because the system is all about moving problems, long after it stops being about moving opportunities. We’re still in the problem-moving stage of This Thing, this financial mess. That’s what Wells Fargo reportedly did in this case. Others too.

Responsibility isn’t about who’s to blame. It’s about who can act, and what they can do.

My optimistic take is that we’ll wake up and smell more than blame cooking. We’ll smell the need to take responsibility for the debts and assets that we’ve taken on. And not just in the financial sector.

Or so it seems to me on a Saturday in New York. Beautiful outside. See ya later.

jesusita_google_modis10

Where most of my earlier shots in this series were of fire detection and spread across time, the one above (and in the larger linked shot, on Flickr) is of “fire radiative power”. If you look at the whole set, you can get an idea of both intensity and spread across time. Again, these are from MODIS, which is an instrument system on satellites passing more than 700km overhead. Still, it finds stuff, and dates it. That’s why this next shot is very encouraging:

jesusita_google_modis11

It will sure spread some more, but we can see the end coming. Here’s the whole photo set.

And here’s the latest update on exactly what burned (addresses and all) from Matt Kettmann (Contact), Sam Kornell , Chris Meagher (Contact), Ben Preston (Contact), Ethan Stewart (Contact) of the Independent.

They also issue a caution:

The bad news is that the fire still threatens parts of Goleta to the west, the Painted Cave community to the north, and, to the east, parts of Santa Barbara and Montecito, where the evacuation order was just extended once again.

Those Indy folks did — and are still doing — an outstanding job, deserving of whatever rewards are coming their way. Great work by everybody else reporting on the fire as well. Kudos all around.

And great work, of course, by the firefighters. They saved the city. If you’ve ever seen a fire this big and threatening (for example, Oakland, which I did see, and which took out more than 3500 homes), you know how hard it is to stop. Around 80 homes were lost in this one. It could have been many more. If Cheltenham, or the Riviera, had gone up, and the sundowner winds kept blowing, it’s not hard to imagine losing the whole city, since the rain of flaming debris would have caused a true firestorm. From the same Indy report:

“The firefighters must have sat in every single backyard and held it off. The fire reached literally the backyards of every single one of them, but I didn’t see a single house burned up there.”

The mountains won’t be as pretty for a couple of years. But the city will also be safer. That’s the upside. 2:54pm Pacific

Here is a great map that shows all three fires in the last year, as well as good information about the ongoing Jesusita Fire.

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jesusita_google_modis8

(Scroll to the bottom for my latest. Not the latest, just mine.)

The shot above looks west from the eastern flank of the Jesusita fire, above Montecito.  The overlays are MODIS (the dots and squares) and GEOMAC (the red line). I think the GEOMAC data is older, but I’m not sure. Both were downloaded at about 4:42am, Pacific time. The newest detections are red and the oldest are yellow. They are from instruments on satellites and may or may not indicate major fire activity. One during the Tea Fire suggested that the fire had spread far down into the Riviera district and toward town. When I checked the spot, it turned out to have been a fire in part of a small isolated oak tree. No fire had spread to or from there.

Still, the data do show changes in the fire’s approximate perimeter over time. Step through this photoset and you can see how the fire has gone over the past few days.

Sean Trek has a way of seeing MODIS with radiative power.

It looks to me now like the next challenge, after saving lives and homes, is keeping the fire from burning for many more days or weeks across the back country. The trick here is to let the fire take nature’s course while also keeping it away from civilization. It is a significant fact that California’s state tree (the Coast Redwood) and state flower (the California Poppy) are both adapted to fire. One might also make the case that the latter is adapted to earthquakes.

I don’t doubt that if any of the three most recent fires — Gap, Tea and Jesusita — had hit fifty years ago, much of Santa Barbara would have been cremated by this morning. Since we are among more than 30,000 current evacuees, that might  have included our house too. Firefighting and team coordination have vastly improved just since the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, when more than 600 homes were lost. Experience from that fire led to many of the improvements that saved homes this past week. (For a history of Santa Barbara’s wildfires, go to Santa Barbara Outdoors, and read the remarkable series that starts here. It covers the eight fires between 1955 and 1990.)

Life everywhere is a losing game with death. We just hope that the substantive things we do and build will outlive us. In much of California, the chance that our homes will outlive us is smaller than most other places. Some homes lost in the Tea Fire had replaced homes on the same property that had burned in 1964 Coyote Fire and again in the 1977 Sycamore Fire. Among disasters that might befall homes in California, only earthquakes are more certain to occur, and in more places. Hence the higher insurance costs.

But still the graces of living here are exceptionally high. Mild, sunny weather. Clean air. Beautiful mountains and beaches. Wonderful people. Excellent university. So we do.

And every day we should thank the heroic work required of the firefighters who keep the worst of nature at bay. Posted 5:38am, Pacfic.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to see the subtitle in Gretchen Miller’s report in the Independent, Fires Burn In Canyon Near Painted Cave: Favorable Weather Conditions Keep Fire Under Control. From around 10pm last night. 6:20am

The LA Times has a story on the fire, dated 10:28pm last night.

Last night on KCLU before going to sleep I heard that the Gane House at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden was destroyed. This confirms it. 6:28am

A news conference is scheduled for 8am. Just heard that on KNX, which has done an excellent job covering the fire.

Okay, the press conference just ended. KCLU, KNX and KTYD (and, presumably, some or all of its four sister stations) all carried it. KCLU bailed before it was over. So did KNX, though they stuck it out a bit longer. Only KTYD stayed until the end. (Bravo for them.)

The news that matters is that the fire is “contained” along the northern border of Santa Barbara. Thus spake SB Fire Chief Andrew DeMizio (who always starts by spelling his name). He was glad to see “that black line” on the new Incident map. Contained does not mean put out. He had another word for that, but I forget what it was.

The language is interesting. A fire is an “indicent”. Police, fire, Red Cross and other personnel are “assets”. Lifting an evacuation order is “repopulation”. My kid just said, “I thought ‘repopulation’ was what you got after the first population has died”.

Inexcusable, if true: No questions about locations still apparently threatened. (Could be that somebody asked and I didn’t hear it.) Specifically, the only two communities up in the Santa Ynez Mountains, overlooking the city: Painted Cave and Flores Flat. I gathered from the Indy story mentioned above that Painted Cave was okay. But the only way I knew that Flores Flat survived was from a little human interest feature that KNX has been running over and over again: comments by a woman who gave advice about what to take and what to leave behind. She said she had resigned herself to losing her home in Flores Flat, but was surprised to find it had survived. Frankly, I’m amazed that Flores Flat is okay. I’ll bet the firefighters gave special attention to that one. Maybe one of the places where the DC-10 laid down some of its 12000+ gallons of fire retardant was between Flores Flat and the fire.

Flores Flat is far up Gibraltar Road, between Gibraltar Peak (where many of Santa Barbara’s FM stations radiate from, including KCLU and KTYD) and the site farther up the mountain face where hang gliders and paragliders launch toward the city when the winds are right.  From the looks of the map and overlays above, the fire movement was eastward away from Gibraltar, and up and over the crest of the ridge near Montecito Peak to the east and LaCumbre Peak to the west.

The Tea Fire surely created a fire break as well. It burned much of Gibraltar road, and up the face of Gibraltar Peak, where it roasted the antennas of KCLU and many of the other stations there. KTYD and its AM sister KTMS are located a few hundred feet above and behind there, so they survived.  To the west of there are some of the main power lines that supply the city. As I recall those lines are draped quite high, and I suppose survived the fire as it approached Gibraltar road this time. Other high power lines coming into the Goleta side of town were hurt in the Gap Fire last summer, knocking out power for much of the city at the time.

The weather is much better now. Cooler, and moist, with marine layer fog moving in off the Pacific Ocean to the south. Vari0us officials cautioned that this could change, and in fact it probably will. Typical late Spring and Summer weather is early morning fog, burning off as the day goes on. Whether hot “sundowner” winds return is still an open question, but various weather sources suggest that won’t happen. On the other hand, if the fire gets into Paradise Valley on the north side of the ridge, the story might be different. The climate there tends to be much hotter and dryer than on the Santa Barbara side of the mountains. 8:50am

We have friends in Worchester who were going to Santa Barbara to see Katy Perry’s last show, in her home town. That last link is from Noozhawk, which I’ve neglected to follow more closely. The reason is that Santa Barbara is being repopulated with a raft of new and improved media sources growing like a ring of redwood sprouts where a mighty tree has fallen. That tree is the Santa Barbara News-Press, a once fine newspaper that was (and remains) in a much better position to survive than papers in other cities that are owned by stressed public companies or private individuals with shallower pockets. The story of the News-Press’s meltdown is not yet the stuff of legend, only because it’s still going on. Kind of like a fallen tree with a few intact roots, staying alive, but barely. For more on that, just look up Wendy McCaw on Google. Or read Craig Smith. It’s his main beat. A sample:

A major fire in town didn’t stop the Santa Barbara News-Press from doing business as usual. In this case, “business as usual,” meant laying people off.

This time, the unlucky employee was Jued Martinez. He was a digital image technician for the paper, the “go-to-guy for Photoshop issues,” as he put it, working in the camera (pre-press) department for many 15 years.

He announced his own layoff via Twitter around 1:40 Thursday afternoon by saying, “Wow! I’m available for Design work now. Just got laid off from the SBNP. Feel a little better now, not worrying about it.”

To witness how retro and self-destructive the News-Press is, go to their Jesusita Fire Coverage page. Click on a story. Say, this one. You get one sentence. Then you’re told to long in. Subscribers only. Hell, even when we were subscribers, we couldn’t get in there. I’m sure it all disappears or scrolls behind a paywall after a few days in any case. Gone like snow on the water.

Except as a source of fodder about itself, the News-Press plays a self-minimized role in the local news ecology. For getting news on the fire, that includes:

  1. Twitter search for Jesustiafire or Jesusita (@latimesfires uses this search)
  2. Google News search for Jesusita (most recent)
  3. The Independent
  4. Edhat
  5. Noozhawk
  6. City2
  7. KNX
  8. KTYD
  9. KCLU
  10. KCSB

With the radio stations, I mean their streams, not their sites.

I’ll add others later (including stream addresses). Gotta go. Here’s a photo pool in the meantime. 9:33am

And here’s one last photo, courtesy of the only commenter so far on this post:

jesusita_google_modis9

Thanks, nathan. 10:19am

They’re “repopulating” at last. The worst is over. 10:48am

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Tristan Louis asks, Is ownershp passe? Or, from his first paragraph, “…our ownership society seems to be started a slide towards a new mode of being: a rental society.” He uses the examples of Netflix, Apple, Kindle and build vs. buy vs. rent choices at the enterprise level, and suggests, “The change in our relationship to media forces us to reassess the value of the physical good.” Except for books, most media are either disposable or self-disposing.

Good points. Got me thinking…

The concept of ownership is embedded in human nature, for the simple reason that we are grabby animals. Our hands are built for grasping. Most languages have a possessive case. “Mine!” (in whatever language) is one of the first words a toddler learns. Possession is 9/10ths of the three-year-old — especially if you try to take something away from the kid.

Yet all possession is temporary, because life is temporary, and our conditions are temporary. Even the things we love change. The physical appeal of our mates changes. Our little sweet babies grow into big hairy adults.

Could it be that the evanescent nature of the Net is in greater alignment with the temporal nature of life than the physical world we also inhabit? Think about it. Do you really “own” your domain name? Or do you rent it? Do you really own your data, or any of the identities you use? You may be able to hide your data, or encrypt it so only you and trusted others can make sense of it. But how valuable is your data in a world that operates as one big copy machine? The words I write here are not mine alone. They are available to everybody with a Net connection. If they repeat what I’ve written, does that make my words theirs? Or is there something in the nature of words that is also beyond the scope of possession — even given that possession as a quality can have great value? (If, however, a temporary one.)

The older I get the less I wish to hold on to anything, other than what is truly worthwhile to hold. (If “holding” is even what I’m doing.) What matters most, it seems to me, is neither possession nor control, but responsibility. There are things only I can, and must, do. I have an unknown budget of time to do it in. Time is something we can only spend, even when we talk about “saving” it. We are born with an unknown sum of it, and we spend it at a uniform rate until it’s gone. We just don’t know what that rate is. We do know we have 100% of what remains.

Today, here on the Net, we have a new world of our own making that is very different than the one our inner three-year-olds know too well. The concept of possession inside a system that works by copying is an odd one to apply. The concept of distance-free connecting is another. At a functional level the Net puts us all at approximately zero distance from everybody else. More than a World of Ends, the Net is a World of Beginnings. Every word we say, every key we stroke, every gesture we commit, is the beginning of something — even as we do those things at the ends of a network comprised of countless other ends.

My grandfather, George W. Searls,  was a carpenter in Fort Lee, New Jersey in the early days of silent movies, when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood. (Lon Chaney was a good friend of his, and lived for awhile in one of the family’s upstairs apartments.) Among other things, Grandpa built movie sets. Here is a picture of one. It appears to be a ballroom with a stage at one end. This is how they did movies back then: on stages. They shot there because theater was what they knew. They did theater on film.

I think we’re still at that stage (no pun intended) with the Internet. We’re doing old media stuff in this new place that’s not really a medium at all. It’s a strange new disembodied environment that doesn’t make full sense to our embodied selves, because bodies aren’t there. I think the Net will only make sense, eventually, to our disembodied selves. These are the selves that require bodies but are not reducible to them. Possession gives us something to do with our bodies. But not with our souls.

The work of life is doing, not having. Even if having is what you’re doing, it’s the doing that matters. Life is process, not product. That process is one of contribution, I think. We want to leave the world with more than it had when we entered it. And with goods that are beyond measure or price. Goods which, like time, we can only give.

With the Net we have invented an excellent place to do that.

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A tip of the asshat

I’m trying not to blog. I really am. Everything I’ve blogged today is finished leftovers or mooshed-together debris thrown off by Actual Work. But not this post here. This is one I have to put up because I can’t help pointing to this post by Chris Locke — cuz it’s good and it made me laugh. Best line:

“Hobgoblins are the consistency of silly putty.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yeah, Chris had some nice things to say about me in there too. But Chris does not kiss ass. But he might make you laugh yours off.

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Thanks to Keith McArthur for clueing me in on Cluetrainplus10, in which folks comment on each of Cluetrain’s 95 theses, on roughly the 10th anniversary of the day Cluetrain went up on the Web. (It was around this time in 1999.)

The only thesis I clearly remember writing was the first, “Markets are conversations.” That one was unpacked in a book chapter, and Chris Locke has taken that assignment for this exercise. Most of the other theses are also taken, so I chose one of the later ones, copied and pasted here:

71. Your tired notions of “the market” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere. Doc Searls @dsearls

Ten years later, that disconect is still there. Back when we wrote Cluetrain, we dwelled on the distance between what David Weinberger called “Fort Business” and the human beings both inside and outside the company. Today there is much more conversation happening across those lines (in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word), and everybody seems to be getting “social” out the wazoo. But the same old Fort/Human split is there. Worse, it’s growing, as businesses get more silo’d than ever — even (and especially) on the Net.

For evidence, look no farther than two of the most annoying developments in the history of business: 1) loyalty cards; and 2) the outsourcing of customer service to customers themselves.

Never mind the inefficiencies and outright stupidities involved in loyalty programs (for example, giving you a coupon discounting the next purchase of the thing you just bought — now for too much). Just look at the conceits involved. Every one of these programs acts as if “belonging” to a vendor is a desirable state — that customers are actually okay with being “acquired”, “locked-in” and “owned” like slaves.

Meanwhile, “customer service” has been automated to a degree that is beyond moronic. If you ever reach a Tier One agent, you’ll engage in a conversation with a script in human form:

“Hello, my name is Scott. How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Thank you for asking. I’m fine. How can I help you today?”

“My X is F’d.”

“I’m sorry you’re having that problem.”

Right. They always ask how you are, always thank you for asking how they are, and are always sorry you have a problem.

They even do that chant in chat sessions. Last week I had a four chat sessions in a row with four agents of Charter Communications, the cable company that provides internet service at my brother-in-law’s house. This took place on a laptop in the crawl space under his house. All the chats were 99% unhelpful and in some ways were comically absurd. The real message that ran through the whole exchange was, You figure it out.

Last week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr wrote Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer. It tells the story of how customers, working as voluntary symbiotes in large vendor ecosystems, take up much of the support burden. If any of the good work of the volunteers finds its way into product improvement, it will provide good examples of what Eric von Hippel calls Democratizing Innovation. But most companies remain Fort Clueless on the matter. Sez one commenter on a Slashdot thread,

There’s a Linksys cable modem I know of that has a recent firmware, and by recent I mean last year or so. Linksys wont release the firmware as they expect only the cable companies to do so. The cable companies only release it to people who bought their cable modems from them directly. So there are thousands of people putting up with bugs because they bought their modem retail and have no legitimate access to the updated firmware.

What if I pulled this firmware from a cable company owned modem and wrote these people a simple installer? Would the company sing my praises then?

The real issue here is that people frequent web boards for support because the paid phone support they get is beyond worthless. Level 1 people just read scripts and level 2 or 3 people cant release firmwares because of moronic policies. No wonder people are helping themselves. These companies should be ashamed of providing service on such a low level, not happy that someone has taken up the slack for them.

Both these annoyances — loyalty cards and customer support outsourced to customers — are exacerbated by the Net. Loyalty cards are modeled to some degree on one of the worst flaws of the Web: that you have to sign in to something before you make a purchase. This is a bug, not a feature. And the Web makes it almost too easy for companies to direct customers away from the front door. They can say  “Just go to our Website. Everything you need is there.” Could be, but where? Even in 2009, finding good information on most company websites is a discouraging prospect. And the last thing you’ll find is a phone number that gets you to a human being, even if you’re prepared to pay for the help.

So the “elsewhere” we talked about in Cluetrain’s 71st thesis is out-of-luck-ville. Because we’re still stuck in a threshold state: between a world where sellers make all the rules, and a world where customers are self-equipped to overcome or obsolete those rules — by providing new ones that work the same for many vendors, and provide benefits for both sides.

This whole issue is front-burner for me right now. One reason is that I’m finally getting down (after three years) to unpacking The Intention Economy into a whole book, subtitled “What happens when customers get real power” (or something close to that). The other is that this past week has been one in which my wife and I spent perhaps half of our waking lives on the phone or the Web, navigating labyrinthine call center mazes, yelling at useless websites, and talking with tech support personnel who were 99% useless.

A Tier 2 Verizon person actually gave my wife detailed instructions on how to circumvent certain call center problems in the future, including an unpublished number that is sure to change — and stressing the importance of knowing how to work the company’s insane “system”. And that’s just one system. Every vendor of anything that requires service has its own system. Or many of them.

These problems cannot be solved by the companies themselves. Companies make silos. It’s as simple as that. Left to their own devices, that’s what they do. Over and over and over again.

The Internet Protocol solved the multiple network problem. We’re all on one Net now. Email protocols solved the multiple email system problem. We don’t have to ask which company silo somebody belongs to before we send email to them. But we still have multiple IM systems. The IETF approved Jabber’s XMPP protocol years ago, but Jabber has been only partially adopted. If you want to IM with somebody, you need to know if they’re on Skype or AIM or Yahoo or MSN. Far as I know, only Google uses XMPP as its IM protocol.

Meanwhile text more every day than they IM. This is because texting’s SMS protocol is universally used, both by all phone systems and by Twitter.

The fact that Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo all retain proprietary IM systems says that they still prefer to silo network uses and users, even after all these decades. They are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.”

Sobriety can only come from the customer side. As first parties in their own relationships and transactions, they are in the best position to sort out the growing silo-ization problems of second and third parties (vendors and their assistants).

Once customers become equipped with ways of managing their interactions with multiple vendors, we’ll see business growing around buyers rather than sellers. These are what we’re starting to call fourth party services: ones that Joe Andrieu calls user driven services. Here are his series of posts so far on the topic:

  1. The Great Reconfiguration
  2. Introducing User Driven Services
  3. User Driven Services: Impulse from the User
  4. User Driven Services: 2. Control

(He has eight more on the way. Stay tuned.)

Once these are in place, marketers will face a reciprocal force rather than a subordinated one. Three reasons: 1) because customer choices will far exceed the silo’d few provided by vendors acting like slave-owners; 2) customers will have help from a new and growing business category and 3) because customers are where the money comes from. Customers also know far more about how they want to spend their money than marketers do.

What follows will be a collapse of the guesswork economy that has comprised most of marketing and advertising for the duration. This is an economy that we were trying to blow up with Cluetrain ten years ago. It’s what I hope the next Cluetrain edition will help do, once it comes out this summer.

Meanwhile, work continues.

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Here’s a job for the Citizen Media’s long tail: find the fist time anybody used the terms “Craigslist killer”, “Craigslist case” or “Craigslist murder”. What the effort will highlight are two issues for journalism. One is the absence of an engine that allows easy first-date or date-range search. (Unless I’m mistaken about that, which I’d be glad to be. [Later... I am.]) The other is the unfairness of turning the name of a business into an adjective that modifies the noun for a crime — essentially re-branding that business as a criminal accessory.

Why “Craigslist killer”? Well, the easy answer is that the killer apparently targeted victims he found on Craigslist, and that’s interesting. Meaning it’s kind of new and different. Murder goes digital. Hey, you don’t hear about “the phone book killer” or “the newspaper killer,” do you? (Well, actually, Craigslist has been called that too.)

My point here isn’t about how natural and easy it is to name a case “Craigslist murder”, but about what that does to Craigslist. I think it’s unfair, as well as a bummer for Craig Newmark and the rest of the Craigslist folks, even if the label is hard to avoid using.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see better chronological search on Google Blogsearch and Technorati, both of which offer it, at least for syndicated sources.

Dr. Weinberger covers this, and adjacent topics.

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I’m bummed that I’m drinking a beer on the deck here in Santa Barbara while Dave is in Cambridge. Would have enjoyed having coffee with him this morning. So instead I’ll raise a glass in his general direction, and post a bunch of loose notes here.

Sez Dave, Doc Searls likes to say that markets are conversations, but people are conversations too. Right. And markets are people, which is our point in this Cluetrain chapter. They are not marketing. The market in marketing is a verb. A synonym for sell, basically. (See definitions 13 to 16 here.)

Which is why I think “conversational marketing” is oxymoronic. Federated Media’s Conversational Marketing Summit, for example, came to my attention by way of a fellow Cluetrain author who attached a promotional email from Federated, adding “yep, looks like our work here is done! Off to find some good stout clothesline and a high enough limb.” Among the speakers is Comcast’s “Director of Digital Care.” Feeling cared for, Comcast customers?

Okay, that was unfair. The director in question is Frank Eliason, who has a fine blog and is running at about 16,000 followed and followers as @comcastcares on Twitter. I’m one of those thousands (on the following side, anyway).

Anyway, here’s just one paragraph from the CM Summit pitch:

CM Summit will provide key insights from some of the world’s largest brand advertisers and the web’s most successful social media properties. Don’t miss this opportunity to look under the hood of conversational marketing and find out what’s driving innovation and success for the publishers, marketers, and consumers who occupy the social Web.

Gag me with a shovel.

Gag Steven Hodson too. He says The wrong people are promoting Social Media. Specifically,

We are increasingly be told that Social Media is about being able to open lines of conversations with corporations and governments. It is supposed to be the new way for us to interact with those in more powerful positions than us. We are increasingly being marketed to about the benefits of being connected to brands – be it personal or corporate ones.

As a result people are beginning to think that social media is nothing more than a round table with corporations, marketers and public relation people deciding on what the conversation is all about. Once more we are finding ourselves being talked to even though it is carefully couched in terms of openness and transparency.

Yep. Later Steven adds,

We have only begun to taste the incredible freedom and personal power that comes with being a part of a social media world. It is this taste that companies fear because it removes them from the top down position. It brings them onto a level playing field where even the poorest person in the world can have an effect.

Social media doesn’t belong to the marketers, the public relation flacks or the corporations so desperately trying to take ownership. It belongs to the people. For the first time the media truly is made up of people for the people.

It is us who should be out there promoting Social Media – not the Facebooks, not the MySpaces, not the Twitter and especially not the marketers and corporations. The sooner we realize that the sooner we can take back our social media from the grasp of those who would bastardize it to their own means.

I’m with him in every respect other than love for the term “social media.” That’s because most people equate “social media” with Facebook, MySpace and all the other conversation containment silos.

Let’s go back to fundamentals. For that I’ll defer first to Larry Josephson, my favorite personality in the history of radio, who naturally isn’t working there any more. Larry once told me, “Radio is personal. That’s my philosophy.” The road radio traveled to hell (where its commercial corner has rotting for the last thirty years or so) was paved with jive like Federated is talking in that pitch. It’s all sell-side shit, and about as conversational as a billboard.

The Net is personal too. So is the Web. Also email, SMS, IM and the rest of it.

And before all of those, so was the telephone. Nothing could be more conversational than that. Back in the 80s, Reese Jones told me that the phone — a tech communications mode that is senior in the extreme, was both the original and the ultimate platform. And now there are close to a billion app downloads for the iPhone. One of the iPhone’s 25 thousand apps is the Public Radio Tuner, which is now passing 1.6 million downloads. That app, plus WundeRadio, have turned my iPhone into my radio. Together they get many more stations than would ever fit in a dial.

Reese’s point: conversation is personal. It’s one-with-one, not one-to-many.  It may be social in the sense that talking with another person is a social act. But it’s not a group thing. Orignally a brain researcher, Reese pointed out that none of us are capable of listening to more than one other person at a time.

In other words, talking may be social, but listening is personal.

Talk “social” and the silos show up. That’s what “social media” are. The good stuff Steven wants us to save, and advocate, are inherently personal qualities of the Net and the Web.

By the way, without Reese schooling me about phones and conversations, I doubt I would have come up with the “markets are conversations” line.

Speaking of which, in Brian Solis’ The Conversation Index, he says this:

<!–
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Communities support each other. Citizens actively help others make decisions, offer suggestions and referrals, proactively share negative experiences, and repeatedly ask question – with or without our participation.

Doc Searls calls this Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). Others refer to it as Customer Relationship Management (CRM). But, as we are quickly learning, “management” and “relationships” are as distant from each other as their intentions. Perhaps it’s better stated as Community Relations or better yet, Public Relations.

Well, VRM is not CRM. Nor is it public relations. It is nothing that the seller does. VRM is something the customer has. It comes from the customer. There will be, in the VRM world, both individuals and user-driven and customer-driven services, which I call fourth parties. More about those distinctions here.

Other stuff…

Mike Arrington’s post about The Cenralized Me and Data Portability is all about VRM, though he doesn’t mention it.

Great interview with Richard Rodriguez, one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Richard’s book Brown foreshadowed Obama’s presidency. This is outstanding, too.

Umair Hague is in high dungeon about The Geithnerconomy, which Umair considers a coup.

Long as we’re down on Obama, Tim Jones of the EFF says In Warrantless Wiretapping Case, Obama DOJ’s New Arguments Are Worse Than Bush’s. That’s on top of Jennifer Granick’s post about a proposed federal take-over of the Net. More centralization and concentration of power, anyway.

Not sure whether or not I’m creeped out by this new biz model for journals and Twitter.

To answer the question “How come you’re not posting your usual giant piles of photos on Flickr?” the answer is that I stupidly somehow signed off Flickr and can’t sign back on, because I have no idea what the hell my ID or password are. (Actually I do, but they don’t work.) I have appealed to Yahoo for help here, and its automatum has thanked me for that. They may not want to thank me for what I’ll say if “one of our knowledgeable and well trained Sign-in & Registration agents” doesn’t get back to me within the promised 24 hours. That’s by tomorrow afternoon. FWIW, I’ve always been vexed by Yahoo’s ID system. Not that it’s much different than anybody else’s but … somehow it has always been a bit of a problem.

The Failure of #amazonfail, by Clay Shirky, is a good read too. What he calls “conservation of outrage” (that is, “finding rationales for continuing to feel aggrieved, should the initial rationale disappeared”) is exactly why I am always slow to get worked about stuff that get crowds excited. In fact, VRM is in part a way not to get outraged at vendors, but rather to engage them constructively. (But we don’t have those ways yet, so go ahead and get outraged anyway.)

Here’s a nice rationale for PayChoice. (Which needs a different name, by the way.)

Okay, beer done. Later, folks. I’m heading in.

Looking forward to Media Logging across many devices and media types. Thinking about this while digging KKFI out of Kansas City. Currently I’m listening over my laptop, but I just added it to my favorites on the WunderRadio tuner (found it by a search there). Other faves are Radio Paradise, KPIG (which is playing the excellent”Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain” by Angela Strehli), KGSR (playing David Bowie’s Fame), WBJB, WERS, WBGO, Cruisin’ Oldies, WUMB, WMBR, KRCL, KUAT, KVMR, Whole Wheat Radio, Missing are WBCR-lp (from Great Barrington, deep in the Berkshires, currently playing the Dead’s Tennessee Jed) and Power106 from Jamaica. Still, a pretty amazing list.

Also digging the tweeter nowplayingon. Is he or she using the Yes thingie to get those 21,525 updates, so far? Not sure.

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Good of Vanity Fair to interview some of the Net’s and the Web’s fathers and sons (alas, no mothers or daughters), in a piece titled How the Web was Won.

On vision:

Leonard Kleinrock: Licklider was a strong, driving visionary, and he set the stage. He foresaw two aspects of what we now have. His early work—he was a psychologist by training—was in what he called man-computer symbiosis. When you put a computer in the hands of a human, the interaction between them becomes much greater than the individual parts. And he also foresaw a great change in the way activity would take place: education, creativity, commerce, just general information access. He foresaw a connected world of information.

The culture was one of: You find a good scientist. Fund him. Leave him alone. Don’t over-manage. Don’t tell him how to do something. You may tell him what you’re interested in: I want artificial intelligence. I want a network. I want time-sharing. Don’t tell him how to do it.

On intellectual property sanity:

Larry Roberts: After we built the Arpanet, lots of people built networks. Everybody was competing. Everyone had their own thing that they wanted to do. So it became very important that the world have one protocol, so they could all talk to each other. And Bob Kahn really pushed that process. And Vint. And it wasn’t licensed. They proved to the world that making something free as a driver would make a huge difference in making it a standard.

Robert Cailliau: We looked for a name for several weeks and couldn’t come up with anything good, and I didn’t want yet another one of these stupid things that doesn’t tell you anything. In the end Tim said, Why don’t we temporarily call it the World Wide Web? It just says what it is.

At one point cern was toying with patenting the World Wide Web. I was talking about that with Tim one day, and he looked at me, and I could see that he wasn’t enthusiastic. He said, Robert, do you want to be rich? I thought, Well, it helps, no? He apparently didn’t care about that. What he cared about was to make sure that the thing would work, that it would just be there for everybody. He convinced me of that, and then I worked for about six months, very hard with the legal service, to make sure that cern put the whole thing in the public domain.

On how markets are conversations after all:

Steve Case: We always believed that people talking to each other was the killer app. And so whether it was instant messaging or chat rooms, which we launched in 1985, or message boards, it was always the community that was front and center. Everything else—commerce and entertainment and financial services—was secondary. We thought community trumped content.

On the dawn of a different democracy:

Wes Boyd: I think the biggest shock for us, and it was from the very beginning, was not: Oh, boy, these big people are paying attention to us. It was that there are no big people; it’s up to all of us. And that’s a very scary thing, you know, when you realize what a vacuum there is in many ways in politics.

On the end of media as usual:

Dave Winer: The press is very susceptible to conventional wisdom. The press buys into certain things being true that really aren’t true. The conventional wisdom was that Apple was dead and there was no new software for Macintosh. Yet I was a software developer making new software for the Macintosh. So I went to bat for Apple.

That was the reason why I got so heavy into blogging—I didn’t want the verdict of the press to be the last word. And I’d argue that the same thing is happening now in politics. Today it’s: Is Reverend Wright really a disaster for the Obama campaign? Well, the press seems to think so, but if we want to get a different story out there we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

It’s far from a Compleat History, but it’s a fun read. Makes me wish The Media (including bloggers) had reported more about What Happened after Gutenberg invented movable type. I don’t think the parallels would be few.

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One of the geeks here at the Berkman Center walked into a room recently and started poking his index finger down on a newspaper that was laying on the table, as if expecting it to do something electronic. “This isn’t working,” he said.

So true, in so many ways.

Take for example the Boston Globe, New England’s landmark newspaper, and one to which we have subscribed since we got here in 2007. Like nearly all newspapers, the Globe is in Big Trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph from today’s bad news story:

The New York Times Co., which has threatened to shutter The Boston Globe, is seeking deep concessions from the Globe’s largest union that could include pay cuts of up to 20 percent, the elimination of seniority rules and lifetime job guarantees, and millions of dollars in cuts in company contributions to retirement and healthcare plans.

The Times may own the Globe in a legal sense, but in a much broader way the Globe also belongs to the people of Boston and New England. Everybody in New England benefits from the Globe, even if they don’t read or subscribe to it. It was in this sense that Scott Lehigh‘s column yesterday was titled, Readers, have a say in saving your paper. Here’s the long gist:

We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model. Troubled times have sent advertising revenues plummeting. Meanwhile, we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense – the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.

…I also doubt we’ll be able to maintain the kind of quality newspaper and website readers expect unless we start charging online visitors who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Newspapers, eyeing several earlier failed experiments, including one by the New York Times, are skittish. That approach has worked for the Wall Street Journal, however. And as someone long wary about giving away our product on the Web even as we sell it in print, I think it’s time to try.

So back to my question: What does the Globe mean to you?

Would you pay to read the paper online? Seven-day home delivery currently costs $9.25 a week in the Boston area. Would it be worth $10 or $12 a month to read Globe content on Boston.com? Another idea under discussion in the news industry is micropayments. You’d give a credit card number once, and then be charged a small amount – a nickel, say – for each story you clicked on. Which would you prefer, a subscription or micropayments?

Some think charging for Web content will only deter readers, while keeping links to our website from appearing on other sites. Any payment system must be voluntary, they say. I’m dubious. But tell me, if we nagged you incessantly – ah, make that, politely prompted you at frequent intervals – would you make a voluntary payment of some sort?

Finally, can you think of better ways to have online readers pay for Globe offerings?

Yes, I can. It’s the fifth item in the series of posts below:

  1. Newspapers 2.0 (October 5, 2006)
  2. Still at Newspapers 1.x (August 15, 2007)
  3. Toward a new ecology of journalism (September 12, 2007)
  4. Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. (September 19, 2007)
  5. PayChoice: a new business model for newspapers (February 5, 2009)

PayChoice (later re-named EmanciPay) will be an easy way for listeners to pay stations for public radio programming. It is in the early stages of development, aimed toward appearing later this year in the Public Radio Tuner on iPhones. At last report, downloads of the tuner were moving past 1.5 million, so far.

We could do PayChoice for newspapers as well.

Informing PayChoice on the Public Radio Tuner will be a Listen Log, which is one form of Media Logging. We can do a Read Log as well, at least for the electronic versions of newspapers. Among the many things I’d like the log to perform is what I call ascribenation. That is, the ability to ascribe credit to sources — and to pay them as well. Among other things, this addresses the Associated Press’ concerns about ‘misappropriation’ of its role as the first source for many stories for which it goes uncredited.

Jon Garfunkel also has a good idea worth considering. It’s called PaperTrust.

The bottom line here is that a lot of good people are working on solutions. These solutions are not the same old stuff in new wrappers. They’re original ideas, some of which the papers will have no control over.

But they can help. They can tune in to tech development efforts like the ones I descibe here, and welcome their geeks’ participation in them. They can write and post linky text. (The Globe is better than some in this respect, but still link-averse on the whole.) They can finish following the other recommendations they’ll find here (the first of which isn’t too far from what Scott would like to do).

And, it might still be impossible to save the paper.

The question comes down to living without advertising. Can it be done? If so, how? I guarantee that the answer to those questions will come from the outside. From geeks, mostly.

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garanti-obamaStephen Lewis has an excellent post from Istanbul on the occasion of President Obama’s visit to Turkey, which was completed this morning.

Steve explains, “Yes, that’s Garanti with an ‘i’ and not a double-’e', as in Garanti Bank, one of the largest banks in Turkey.  For the last two months Garanti Bank has mounted these advertisements on billboards throughout Istanbul — with text offering low interest loans set below an image looking convincingly like Barak Obama and printed in a very Islamic green.  Actually, the face is that of a local actor and Obama look-alike.  The choice of an Obama-like image for the ads might imply a guarantee of stability in a time of instability and a recognition of vox populi rather than the very real and desperate need of the US economy for low-interest capital.”

More of Steve’s thoughtful postings at his alterblog, Hak Pak Sak.

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In response to Can Journals Live on Subscriptions, Mimi Hui asked a number of questions, which I would rather answer here, where more people are likely to read them. Here goes…

Mimi: …it’s largely infrastructure, and not editorial, that is costly.

This is true, and much overlooked in debates on the topic.

Mimi: …what exactly do you like about The Globe? Meaning, if it is purely for the content, which is arguably generated by the writers, would you still love it as much if their content was not aggregated by The Globe as a brand?

First, I don’t think of what I read in the Globe as “content.” Instead I’m with John Perry Barlow, who said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business started going away”. I’m a writer. I write posts, editorials, tweets, emails, columns, essays and books. (Or parts of some… but just wait.) Those all have a worth that exceeds their sum of pixels or ink. To me “content” suggests a pure commodity — or worse, packing material.

Second, I don’t think of the Globe as a “brand.” Nor, I suspect, does anybody on the editorial side of the paper. The word “brand” was borrowed from the cattle industry, and I never liked it, even when I worked for many years in the advertising industry. I have a relationship with the Globe. The paper is part of my life. So are my wife, kids and friends. I don’t consider any of them “brands” either.

Mimi: Why can’t a publishing house eliminate all of the physical portions and switch to a pure digital play?

First, printing on paper costs more to produce and distribute, but advertising on paper makes more money. Many publications will cease printing on paper when the cost outweighs the income. But there will be existential costs to doing that. The Washington Post is a newspaper, not just a news site.

Mimi: Perhaps one question to ask is, is it possible to trim infrastructure in such a way as to provide valuable content to readers in a cost competitive way? And if so, what are methods for readers to discover the same content in a time efficient way?

Well, this is already being done. Writing online has none of the space limitations of writing on paper, and is far cheaper. And discovery systems improve every day.

But it’s still very early in the course of the Internet revolution.

This was put in context for me by a participant in a  breakout session at an event this past weekend. He said something like, “Here’s the idea. We’ll cut down forests in Ontario, turn them in to giant rolls of paper, use barrels of ink to print news articles and advertisements onto that paper, and hire people to drive around and deliver the results to people’s doorsteps, fresh every day — but only once a day. Whaddaya think?”

Such an idea is absurd, but only in fully modern context. Equally absurd are other institutions central to our civilization, including television, telephone and automobile industries.

In fact we are only at the beginning of a great transition caused by the presence of the Internet in our midst. Here’s how Clay Shirky describes some of what happened during the last Great Disruption, and what it teaches us during the current one:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today.

While there is much that can be done on the supply side, I think there is much left to be done on the demand side. We need much better tools for expressing demand, and for crediting sources of the editorial goods that enlarge our minds and help us inform others.

Meanwhile, the breakage continues.

Kathy Moran has a great line — “Blogging about productivity began to feel like drinking about alcoholism” — that somehow comes to mind as I point to The Free Beer Economy, which I just put up at Linux Journal, in advance of SXSW, where I’ll moderate a panel titled Rebuilding the World with Free Everything. The panel will happen next Tuesday, right after the keynote conversation between Guy Kawasaki and Chris Anderson, whose book Free: The Future of a Radical Price is due out this summer, and who will join our panel as well.

The gist:

So we have an ecosystem of abundant code and scarce imagination about how to make money on top of it. If that imagination were not scarce, we wouldn’t need Nicholas Carr to explain utilities in clouds with The Big Switch, or Jeff Jarvis to explain how big companies get clues, in What Would Google Do?

More to the point for us blogging folk, I’ll add Dave’s How I made over $2 million with this blog.

His point: He made money because of it. As I have with mine. Neither one of us, more than coincidentally, has advertising on our blogs. Neither one of us burdens our blogs with a “business model”. Nor do we feel a need to hire some outfit to do SEO for us. Good blogs are self-optimizing. That can go for their leverage on income as well, even without cost to one’s integrity.

As with so much on the Net, it’s still early. Much future is left to unfurl. The millipede has many more shoes to drop. So there is much fun left to be had, and much money to be made, even in a crap economy.

But hey, I’m an optimist. What else can I say?

Look forward to seeing many of ya’ll in Austin. I fly down tomorrow, back on Wednesday.

[Later...] I tweeted a pointer to the post earlier, and did something I’ve never done before, which was ask people to digg the piece. It’s kind of an experiment. Curious to see how it goes.

I’ve only had one post dugg to a high level before. It was fun for the few hours it lasted, but I’m not sure it did anything substantive (other than drive traffic to Linux Journal, which was more than agreeable). What I mean is, I’m not sure it drove a conversation about its subject. Hence, the next experiment. Applied heuristics, you might say.

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Sitting by Gate 88 at SFO, waiting to board United’s next Boston flight. I just took my chances and ordered a short dry decaf cappuccino. I figured I had a good chance of getting what I wanted because the coffee shop at the gate is Peets, of which I am quite fond because more often than not they make them right.

Not this time. Even with careful instruction (“just some foam and a tiny bit of milk on the espresso”), I got what remains the default for coffee shops everywhere, and which I’ve complained about before.

It’s cool. I just met Tony Mamone, founder of Zimbio, who introduced himself after he heard my name called for an upgrade. Fun coincidence.

So now I’m sitting in seat 1a: a biz class window on the shady side of the plane with no obstructions. The window could be cleaner, but it’s not too bad. The shooting should be good.

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Window blobs

Form the inside of a de-iced plane, it looks like they poured clear syrup all over it. Or so I was reminded when waiting to take off from O’Hare on Saturday night after a snowstorm. What I found, when I tried to shoot pictures through this rippled ooze, was some fun photographic effects. The shot above is one example among many.

Lights outside were optically exploded into large spongy-looking blobs that resembled models of the universe, cooled meteorites, series of vertebrae, asteroids from old video games…

Anyway, I shot a lot of them.

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Oft-rode vehicles

Back in the summer of ’05, I put up a post that ran down a list of all the cars I’ve owned. Since then I’ve added one more car to that list. Since it’s giving me trouble lately I thought I’d copy over and update the original vehicular C.V. and add a few more words of woe. Here goes…

On my 58th birthday, I find myself thinking, for no reason other than sleeplessness (it’s 12:30am), about all the cars I’ve owned. In rough order, the are:

  1. Black 1963 Volkswagen ragtop beetle. Rolled it in the Summer of ’66, when I was turning 19. That one had a 1200cc engine. A friend had a new ’66 with a 1300cc engine, and we were out doing time trials to see the difference. Mine lost, of course, but I didn’t roll it while racing, or anything close. Instead it was when we were just driving around the North Carolina countryside. Right after I realized that I couldn’t keep up with my buddy’s car, I slowed down, closed the cloth (actually, vinyl) sunroof, and entered a curve that bent right where a dirt road came in from the left. Gravel had migrated onto the pavement, and when the car hit the curve, the rear end spun out. As Consumer Reports said of the car (as best I recall), “slight understeer changes abruptly and unexpectedly to unstable oversteer, to the limits of tire adhesion.” The pavement came up to my window and disappeared overhead three times before the car came to a rest, right side up, I was a bit banged up, but okay. Oddly, both shoes were next to each other on the road, also right side up, also facing the forward direction, looking like I had just stepped out of them — about 80 feet behind where the car had come to rest.
  2. Black 1961 English Ford Consul II sedan. Piece of crap. Leaked oil from everywhere.
  3. Midnight blue 1958 Mercedes 220S sedan. Fast and solid. Had seats that reclined to make the whole interior a bed. Had a bizarre “Hydrack” transmission: four on the column, no clutch on the floor. Sold it after the Hydrack died.
  4. Blue 1963 Chevy Bel-Air 4-door sedan. 283 V8. Automatic. Great car. Sold it when the transmission began failing.
  5. Yellow 1966 Volvo 122s sedan. Straight 4. Stick. Solid car. Sold it because I needed a wagon.
  6. Dark green 1966 Peugeot 404 wagon. Stick. Would hold anything. Had screw-on hubcaps, among other design oddities. Rusted to death.
  7. Snot-green 1969 Chevy Biscayne sedan. 287 V8. Automatic. Looked like an unmarked cop car. Drove it into the ground. It was this Chevy, more than any other car I’ve owned, that made me a shadetree mechanic of GM V8 cars.
  8. White 1970 Austin America, with a black stripe down its middle. Belonged to my sister, then my father, then me, then my father. Brilliant design, front wheel drive, transverse 4-cylinder engine, manual-automatic transmission, quirky and way ahead of its time.
  9. White 1970 Pontiac Catalina sedan. 327 V8. 4 door. Automatic. Leaked water into the trunk. Failed often without reason. Real beast of a car.
  10. Dark red 1974 Datsun pickup. Straight 4. Stick. Father’s car. Had use of it for a year or so. Seat was so bouncy your head hit the roof. Had two sets of points in the distributor: a vintage Datsun “feature.”
  11. Sky blue 1974 Ford Pinto wagon. Straight 4 that was flat on one side and looked like half an engine. Stick. Piece of shit. Moved kind of crabwise, due to an earlier accident, before I got the car.
  12. Blue 1980 Chevy Citation fastback. V6. Automatic. Bought it from my aunt after her stroke. Like the Pinto, but more comfortable.
  13. Sky blue 1970-something Volkswagen squareback. Had to crawl under the back of it with a hammer to hit the starter. Parked on hills so I could start it by rolling a ways and then popping the clutch. Was found burned to the metal on a side road a few months after I sold it.
  14. Blue 1978 Honda Accord fastback. Straight four. One of the first “good” Hondas. Though this one wasn’t, turned out. Bought it from a dishonest mechanic, which I didn’t find out unti the engine failed after I sold it. The new owner came after me, however. I was then in California and they were in North Carolina. We settled, but both felt burned.
  15. Dark red 1985 Toyota Camry. Straight 4. Stick. First and only new car I ever bought. Also the best, by far. Towed everything I owned in a U-Haul to California in August ’85. All but failproof. Eventually gave it to my daughter, who finished driving it to past 300,000 miles, I think. Only car I ever had where the AC actually worked.
  16. Sand-colored 1992 Infiniti Q45a. Wife’s car. Got it almost new in 1994. Best-performing, most enjoyable car I’ve ever driven. More about it here.
  17. Dark red 1988 Subaru wagon. Transverse 4. Stick. Front wheel drive that goes to 4WD, which requires four tires of identical circumference, so it has never worked quite right. Bought it from Buck Krawczyk in ’94. Handy for hauling stuff. I beat the crap out of it, but it won’t die. If I need a nice car I rent one or drive my wife’s 1995 Infiniti Q45a, which is a good car but not the equal of her 1992 Q45a, which it replaced and I still miss.
  18. Black 2000 Volkswagen Passat wagon. 1.8 Turbo engine. Tiptronic automatic transmission. Comfortable. Outstanding handling. Great for hauling stuff around, too. Got this in 2006, I think. Bought it from a friend who was leaving the country. Cost me $5k. Had 111,000 miles on it, and needed a bit of work. I put about $3k into it before taking it across the country to Boston in September 2007. Since then It has had about another $10k of work.

Anyway, the Passat lately has not been turning off when I take the key out. The engine keeps running. Weird. For that I had the ignition switch replaced. That helped for less than a day. Meanwhile it often thinks I’m breaking into it when I’m not, going into honking no-start mode.

I’ll be leaving it with the mechanic while I head to Atlanta next week. Hope they can figure it out.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a car that was so completely well-made and trouble-prone. My old ’85 Camry was a thin-metal plastic-filled thing, and all but failproof. This Passat has great fit & finish, it’s tight mechanically, and drives like new. But man, it costs a pile to run.

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Great memories

Ruth Dwyer was married long and happily to my father‘s cousin Jack Dwyer. Even though she was Pop’s cousin-in-law, we still called her Aunt Ruth. Jack was Uncle Jack too, as was his father, who was married to my grandma Searls’ sister Florence.

I pulled this picture of Ruth from this family shot here. She’s in this one too. (So are both Uncle Jacks. The younger is on the far right, shot before he grew his signature handlebar mustache). I’m sure I have a few shots from a family gathering a few years ago at Big Brook, my Aunt Grace’s place in New Jersey.

Ruth died two days ago, surrounded by her family, at age 85. (More details in her obituary.) I haven’t seen her, or any of her kids (my second cousins) much since the years I was growing up in New Jersey. Looking at these pictures, and remembering the good times, I regret the distance that grows as families fan out acrosss time and generations. (Ruth and Jack had six kids and ten grandkids.) I’m also glad that we’ve at least been able to catch up and hang out with Aunt Grace (now in Maine and going strong at 96) and other East Coast Searls-side family, since coming to live (at least during the school year) in Boston.

Tom Brokaw called Ruth and Jack’s “The Greatest Generation”. It might be a stretch to lay that label on any generation, but I agree with it. And now most of them are gone. My generation –  boomers the Greatest produced in abundance — are aging to become the next round of geezers walking the plank of life.

Life is short. That’s why it’s important to pause in the midst to remember those who live it well.

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Updike at rest

John Updike was a writer of astonishing gifts, discipline and scope. The sum of his work — novels, essays, poetry, criticism — is enormous. Besides his sixty-one books (including 23 novels), for more han half a century he was a reliably frequent byline in The New Yorker. Sourcing the magazine, USA today says Updike contributed “862 pieces, including 154 poems, 170 short stories and 327 book reviews.” His latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, came out last October in hardcover and still graces tables by the front doors of bookstores. I’ve picked it up and read parts of it several times, declining to buy it because I’d rather read its prequel, The Witches of Eastwick, first. I’ll guess I’ve read at least half of his novels, but neither of those two.

I picked Widows up again last night while paying a visit to Kepler’s Bookstore with JP Rangaswami (a book lover of the first water) and Martin Geddes. As usual with books in stores, I opened to several sections at random, just to sample the writing. And, as always with Updike, I could hardly stop, no matter where I turned. His descriptive precision, the forward motion of his dialogue, the troubled yet charming depth of his characters — blew my mind, and made me grateful that he was with us so long. And yet I’m also pissed that he’s gone at just seventy-six years old, and in apparent full vitality before a lung cancer diagnosis in November.

He died in a hospice, not far from where we live in Massacusetts. Both these facts bothered me. A hospice is so anticlimactic, so plotless. (Did he write in those last two months? Did he record his thoughts in full knowledge that he was due to expire soon? He must have. I cannot believe otherwise. He wrote too well and long about death.) And I had always wanted to meet him.

How odd that lung cancer is what got him. The assumption, naturally, is that he was a lifelong smoker, like so many in his generation, especially writers. The picture in his Wikipedia entry, from 1955, when he was twenty-three years old, shows a skinny kid with a thoughtful expression, sitting on a bench, a burned-down cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. In Self Consciousness, a memoir published in 1989, he recalls with amazement that he had been a smoker as a young man, and how he barely remembered what that was like.

And yet he could describe anything, regardless of whether not he had experienced it first-hand. In The Coup and Brazil, he inhabited the minds of casually murderous protagonists utterly unlike himself — or most readers — with a veracity bright as daylight.

Most of Updike’s characters had strong libidos, or so it seems in retrospect. Of all his sexual passages, one line stands out: “Masturbation! Thou saving grace note upon the baffled chord of self.” From A Month of Sundays. (I got that quote here. I remembered it as “… thou grace note on the tortured chord of self.” Not sure which is right.)

The depth of his understanding probed constantly and sometimes creepily toward the absolute. Look at the opening of The Widows of Eastwick. The first paragraph ends with “Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits creation, yes, but with inferior goods.” And then continues, “Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel — as if the world at large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the fruitful aggravation of having a mate.”

Strunk and White advise us to put the emphatic words at the ends of sentences, and to make “every word tell.”

Goods. Mate.

Omit needless words, they also advise. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Ah, but Shakespeare was no hack, and Rembrandt was no cartoonist. If the machine does complex work, you build a complex machine. Updike, trained originally as an artist, did that. His books, his stories, his paragraphs, were all machines of precision and force. And yet they were not machines. They were, and remain, living things.

I only have two literary heroes, both Johns. Updike is one. McPhee is another. Both are, or were, about the same age. And fixtures at The New Yorker. I hope to read the rest of both before I rest myself. I’ve read eighteen of McPhee’s twenty-nine books, including all the most recent ten.

As with Updike, I read McPhee partly for the joy of running great writing through my mind, and partly because I always feel improved and enlarged by it.

It’s a small thing, but I still hold a small hope of one day meeting McPhee. Meeting Updike will have to wait, hopefully for as long as possible.

Here’s a collection of brief posts about Updike by other writers, at The New Yorker. Great stuff.

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Comment du jour

I dunno if this is a spam or not, but I got a chuckle out of it, so I let it fly.

The perils of publicity

I’m pretty good at getting buzz when I want it. The irony of running ProjectVRM, however, is that I don’t want much of that. Not yet, anyway. About a year ago I did promote it a bit, got a lot of great response, and also spent a lot of time debugging bad understandings of what VRM is and what’s going on with it.

Since then I’ve kept a pretty low profile with it, and encouraged others to do the same. That way we get fewer people showing up, but a better chance that they’re the right people.

But still, the buzz is out there. And, since it’s a new and as yet unproven idea, it attracts detractors as well. Here’s one that lays out “four fallacies” of VRM, all based on wrong understandings of what it is, and what its roles will be. So, I just tried to debug those understandings with this post here.

As I said there, I urge folks to hold off on their judgement until we’ve got working code and actual stuff that does what VRM is supposed to do. Trust me, it’ll come.

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Peelings

The Onion on the Inauguration:

Funny shit.

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Changes at Whitehouse.gov are the top item on Techmeme.

My tweets watching The Event:

Say Amen.
search isn’t working too well at http://whitehouse.gov
This may be the greatest speech ever given about the United States.
“We are willing to extend a hand if you will unclench your fist.” What is this form of homiletics called? “This, then that…”
“the lines of tribe will soon dissolve…” whoa.
“We reject as false the distinction between our safety and our ideals.” Another great one-liner.
“the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Well put. Hope it’s even partly true.
Wow. Check out http://whitehouse.gov. Change has come. Here’s the blog: http://tinyurl.com/6tdmhy
World’s greatest orator flubs the oath. O well. It’s cool. Roberts didn’t look like a teleprompter, I guess.
My attorney, to my right, says “It’s the end of an error.”
We’ll all remember where we were for this. The place is Together.
Those people have faith. Which he called “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” In this case, next 8 years.
The view up the mall… Stunning.

Not sure if that beats blogging it, but it sure was easier.

And I’m still glowing, three hours later.

[Later...] Apparently I topped the retweet radar list for a moment there. And Twitter itself peaked without pique.

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The soft white silence is settling outside on a cold winter mornng. I’m guessing about two inches so far, atop the eight or so that remain from last week’s storm.

The above is from Intellicast, my fave new online weather toy.

Talked to a friend in San Diego last night. He was taking a break from playing tennis. Back home in Santa Barbara, it’s been in the 80s lately. At one point a couple days ago, the temperature difference between there and here was close to 80 degrees.

Still, this is a kind of loveliness I grew up with. There’s still a 10 year old inside me who sees this and wants to go outside, go sledding down the hill, build snow forts and not do a damn thing that isn’t fun.

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Afterposts on (more popularly, just )…

Bio of the pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger, aka “Sully”, the captain of flight USA1549 yesterday afternoon. Via TheSmokingGun.

Charles Bremer, pilot and editor for the London Times, on the flight. Includes interesting background, such as why Airbuses can float “in the unlikely event of a water landing”. Expect Boeing planes to be fitted retrofitted soon with the same feature. Hat tip to Andrew Leyden for that one. (Note: This comment says I have my facts wrong here, and offers corrective details. Interesting stuff. Go read it.)

Airbus 320 fact sheet. Includes interesting safety record info.

Sully’s Facebook fan page.

Nice series of photos and a graphic from one commenter on this FlightAware discussion page.

Most books come and go. Others stay — meaning that you’re likely to find them in most bookstores. Big ones, anyway. Quotable books have staying power. Especially the quotable ones that express unattainable ideals.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, it turns out, is one of those. The book hit the streets in January 2000, just in time, somebody said, to cause the dot-com crash. (I’d like to say we intended that, but if it were true I would have sold my dot-com stocks, which I didn’t. Instead I waited until their purpose in selling was reduction on captial gains for selling a house. This was back when houses could still be sold.)

I’m a born optimist, so I did expect Cluetrain to sell well. I just didn’t expect it to keep selling ten years after we first nailed up its 95 Theses on the Web. Nor did I expect writers to keep writing about it. But they have. And they do. More, it seems, than ever.

The most remarkable of the current crop is Alex Hillman’s Cluetrain-A-Day 2009, at his blog, Dangerously Awesome. His latest unpacks Thesis #5, People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice. (Context: this thesis follows #3 Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice and #4 Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.) In the post Alex answers a question that too often flummoxes me: “Name one good example of Cluetrain’s lessons put to work.” Alex offers Zappos:

Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) is the proverbial “Tweeting CEO”. Beyond