Personal

You are currently browsing the archive for the Personal category.

themodernA couple weeks ago I took a walk around the historic neighborhood in Fort Lee where my extended family had a home — 2063 Hoyt Avenue — from the turn of the last century into the 1950s. It’s where my parents lived when I was born, and where my aunt and grandmother sat for my sister and me (taking us often for walks across the George Washington Bridge, which my father helped build) and held big warm Thanksgiving dinners.

It was all erased years ago, and the parts that aren’t paved over are now turning into high-rises, starting with The Modern (there on the left), a 47-floor mirror-glass monolith that towers over the George Washington Bridge, and straddles what used to be Hoyt Avenue, exactly next door to the old house, which was paved over by Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. A twin of The Modern will go up nearby, as part of the Hudson Lights project. The whole thing is freaking huge and will change the New Jersey skyline and Fort Lee community absolutely.

It’s also where “Bridgegate” happened.

Anyway, I shot a bunch of pictures. More in the captions.

I only met Robin Williams once, at a trade show, back in ’03 or so. I was walking across the floor when I ran into my old friend Tom Rielly. Tom grabbed my arm and said, “Come here. I want you to meet somebody.” He pulled me though a small crowd to the guy in the middle. It was Robin. I almost said, “Hey, you look like Robin Williams, only shorter,” but I didn’t. Tom said to Robin, “This is Doc. He’s like, the number five blogger in the world.” I said, “No, I’m more like number twenty,” then added, “but most of the others are duplicates.” Then Robin said something about being at the show to collect swag (he had two bags’ full at that point). So we exchanged quips about going on a swag hunt, and how most of it is crap — or something like that. I don’t remember. Mostly I just recall what a thrill it was to play joke jazz with the greatest master of all time. Which Robin was, hands down.

To me he wasn’t just the greatest comedian ever, and the greatest comic actor as well. He was the best improv comic. (For a sample, check out what he improvised for the Genie role in the movie Aladdin, starting at about 6:36 here.) If I hadn’t taken a couple of turns toward sanity, that’s what I would have done too. (I’ve done stand-up a few times; and though it always well, I repressed—or sublimated—the urge to stick with it.) Still, Robin was a model for me. His fearlessness and versatility cleared the way for countless others to take the same risks, and to flex muscles they didn’t even know they had.

But enough about me, and about comedy. As Tom Rielly says, this is a day of tears. And of loss forever.

Since my old blog (still running, amazingly, on an old server somewhere within Verisign) will some day be Snow on the Water, and conversation about radio has commenced below that post, I decided to re-post March 21, 2001. Here goes…


Blast from the past

Tune in here right now to catch Larry Lujack on KNEW, the Top forty station in Spokane, Washington, in the summer of 1963. Lujack later became a legend on Chicago radio.

Such memories. I’ve been grooving back over my first visit to The West when I was a teenage radio freak with a Zenith Royal 400 transistor radio glued to my ear as my family spent the summer driving all over the country. I was a city & suburban boy from New Jersey. (Seen The Sopranos on HBO? Crank the locality back forty years and that was pretty much the environment.)

The Real Don Steele
The Real Don Steele on KHJ/930

I had never been West before, and it was a mind-blower. I remember driving through Santa Barbara, where I’ve been living now for less than a week, and looking up in amazement at the buff-colored mountains, with its layers of rock shaped like fish scales or the plates on the spine of a stegasaurus, lined in dark green chapparal.

But while I loved the geography and the geology, I couldn’t get away from the radio. The land would always be here, but the golden age of Top 40 would not. In fact, it would begin to end with the assasination of JFK only three months later, then the Beatles, then FM and everything else that made The Sixties what they were. Great Top 40 was a Fifties Phenom, even though it didn’t really end until WABC went talk in the mid-Seventies.

The Summer of ’63 was the peak.

The songs: Surf City, by Jan & Dean. More, by Kai Winding. Wipe Out, by the Surfaris. Candy Girl, by The Four Seasons. Sally Go Round the Roses, by the Jaynettes. Memphis, by Lonnie Mack. Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes. Just One Look, by Doris Troy. One Fine Day, by the Chiffons. What a hook that song had:

Doobie doobie doobie do wop wop…

And all the great stations! In my head I can still hear KAAY/1090 out of Little Rock, which covered the midwest like a blanket every night. KIMN/950 out of Denver, which I picked up somewhere in Kansas, and listened to all the way to Colorado Springs, never closer than a hundred miles to the station itself. The signal was weak, but the ground out there was so conductive that a signal that wouldn’t go forty miles in Massachusetts carried hundreds of miles. (Check out all the higher numbers on this map here and you get the idea… there’s nothing in the East like it.) Others: KMEN/1260 in San Bernardino. KFWB/980 and KRLA/1110 in Los Angeles. KEWB/910 out of San Francisco.

I loved hearing Dick Biondi on KRLA when we got to Los Angeles in late July. This was after Dick was famously fired by WLS/890 in Chicago, a station you could hear over half the country every night (my cousins listened to him, along with everybody’s Cousin Brucie on WABC/770 from New York, every night). Right now this stream is playing the Real Don Steele, who later became huge in Los Angeles radio on KHJ/930. (Steele died not long ago and is remembered beautifully here.)

I got to looking into all this because I still cant get Dave Dudley’s Six Days on the Road — another hit from the Summer of ’63 — out of my head.

God, I love the Web.

Back to work, accompanied by Wolfman Jack on XERB/1090 (“… studios in Los Angeles” even though the transmitter was down in Rosarita, south of Tijuana in Mexico… it still booms into Santa Barbara, where it was THE Top 40 station for decades).

All your Net are belong to us

Thanks to Ev for clueing us in on the most telling paragraph in the Microsoft Hailstorm White Paper:

Microsoft will operate the HailStorm services as a business. The HailStorm services will have real operational costs, and rather than risk compromising the user-centric model by having someone such as advertisers pay for these services, the people receiving the value – the end users – will be the primary source of revenue to Microsoft. HailStorm will help move the Internet to end-user subscriptions, where users pay for value received.

Key phrase: move the Internet.

I was finally able to get to Jacob Levy’s post at the MS-Hailstorm list at YahooGroups. In case it’s as hard for you to get in there as it was for me, here are Jacob’s summary paragraphs:

The most telling part of this is that none of the protocols are currently open. Of course they’ve sprinkled some magic fairy dust on the whole business by repeatedly saying the XML and SOAP buzzwords. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Microsoft to publish the protocol they’re implementing between the PassPort server and the American Express payment clearance server, for example. Doesn’t matter what its written in, XML and SOAP or ancient greek on papyrus, it’s not going to be open.

Methinks its time to move on beyond this venting and think what we’re going to do about this. As I said in the start of this thread today, we don’t need Microsoft to implement any of this.

Okay, so here’s an idea: let’s talk with IBM, which is busy declaring its love for Linux and its development community. They’re spending a $billion this year on Linux (not clear exactly how, but never mind). Why not plug into the larger surrounding community that embraces the Net as something that’s ours, and doesn’t need to be “moved” anywhere — least of all to a place where only one company can intermediate services (that can only be fee-based) between users who happen to be enabled exclusively by that company’s software?


Postscript: Larry Lujack died last year. Microsoft Hailstorm failed not long after I wrote this post. Dick Biondi, now 81, is still on the air in Chicago. Cousin Brucie still holds forth on SiriusXM’s Sixties on 6. KAAY fell in to disrepair and is barely on the air as a religious station. Every other mentioned station has gone through numerous format changes. Wolfman Jack died in ’95, though I didn’t make clear above that I was listening to him on the Spokane station’s stream.

allen-searls

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

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

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

Bootstrapping

 

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

Today’s DaveNet is about bootstrapping. Dave says:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addenda…

      My sister Jan writes:

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

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

And a bonus link.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just ran across this item below, which ran almost fourteen years ago in my original blog, and think it’s worth re-running today. The characters have all changed, but the issues have not. In fact they are more present and worth debating than ever. — Doc

An Open Letter to Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman
President and CEO
eBay

7 October 2000


Dear Meg,

Since The Cluetrain Manifesto came out (first on the Web, then as a book), I am often asked to name “clueful” companies. Usually I give eBay as a prime example of a market in the true sense of that word: a place where people gather not only to buy and sell, but also to make culture.

Now I read in The Wall Street Journal (“EBay to Launch Promotions to its Users,” October 2, p. B6*) that eBay wants to be a medium as well as a market. Specifically, the company has hired AOL’s sales force to sell advertising on eBay pages. A piece in The Standard (“The Ad Man Cometh for eBay“) says the same thing. Here are the key paragraphs from the Journal piece:

The arrangement with AOL marks eBay’s first major effort to sell its audience to advertisers. Masses of users visit eBay everyday to buy and sell everything from antiques to autographs. EBay, the largest trading community on the Web, is the 15th most-visited Web site and the second most-visited shopping site, according to measurements by Netratings Inc. It attracts upwards of 14 million users a month, traffic that remained largely untapped until now.

“The management team is recognizing that there is a significant opportunity to monetize the site to a greater degree than we have in the past,” says Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman.

This is a move to the dark side, and it’s a mistake. There is a difference between a trading community and an audience. It is a massive difference in kind.

EBay was conceived and has grown entirely as a marketplace, not as a medium. Members visit eBay to buy, to sell, to shop, to compare, to talk, to grow their communities. Not for advertising. Not for “messages,” however “targeted” those messages may be. The the fact that eBay’s consituency is huge (MediaMetrix ranks it as 16th in the U.S., with 12,675,000 unique visitors per month) doesn’t make that contituency an “audience.”

Reconceiving your constituency as an audience requires a change of mentality on your part. You have to start thinking like a medium, with all the delusions that involves. And believe me, the whole media profession is grounded in some very fundamental delusions, all born of a distance from what markets are all about.

I worked in advertising for much of my adult life, and I must tell you a dirty secret problem the whole industry would rather not face: there is no demand for messages.

The advertising business, which includes the commercial media, doesn’t want to face the fact that their “audiences” would never pay for advertising’s goods. Even the term “audience” is a delusional metaphorical conceit. Book a theater to show nothing but advertising and see who shows up, even if it’s free.

The “targets” advertising seeks to “impact” and “penetrate” with “campaigns” that “deliver messages” is tired of being attacked. Their lack of demand for advertising’s ordnance is a brutal reality that the advertising industry cannot bear to confront.

In fact, “absence” doesn’t begin to cover the kind of non-demand we’re talking about here. If demand could be metered, most advertising would peg to the negative.

For evidence, let’s ask the most awful question commercial television could possibly hear: What would happen if MUTE buttons on TV remote controls delivered “we don’t want to hear this” messages directly to the advertisers who pay for commercial television? Advertising as we know it would be dead in a day.

Now let’s go to a tougher question: What would happen if television could facilitate the conversations that constitute real markets? The answer is that television would be a lot more like eBay. Which is why AOL-type advertising on eBay is a retrograde move.

I don’t know Bob Pittman or Steve Case. They seem like nice guys. And they’ve managed to make the Web more like TV than anybody else ever could. Maybe they deserve some kind of congratulations for that. But they’re media guys, and ultimately the Web is less a medium than a place.

Ask yourself this: Would AOL gladly provide its users with a MUTE button? Would it support selective ad-blocking by its customers, who already pay to use the service? No way. AOL may be an online service; but it thinks, walks and talks like a media company — a shipper of messages. The customers it clearly cares most about are its advertisers, not its users.

That “there’s no other way to pay for the content” is meaningless in your case. EBay’s content is the social system we call a marketplace — one that can only be diminished in value by advertising. Or at least advertising as we know it — by which I mean the kind of advertising AOL sells. Creating better ways for buyers and sellers to find each other and do business in eBay’s marketplace is a good thing. In fact, that’s your business. But it isn’t advertising.

No amount of “targetting,” “narrowcasting,” “personalization” or any other technique will make advertising’s messages any more appetiizing to people who just don’t want them, and never have. The online successes of AOL, Yahoo and a very few others are the exception, not the rule. They also have not been proved in the long run. I believe that in time their successes will speak far more eloquently of tolerance than of demand.

Markets — real markets like the ones that thrive at eBay — have been proved for thousands of years, in every culture on Earth. Please remember that. And remember why people fill them. Remember what they truly demand. It isn’t advertising, and it never will be.

EBay’s marketplace isn’t a medium with a 2 in the middle of it. It’s a place where people do busines with each other. Not to each other. Nor is it a performance center. Nobody is there as an “audience” wishing to have somebody “deliver an experience” to them.

People come to eBay for something far more active, involved, participatory and precious than the “aggregated eyeballs” that media machines like AOL and Yahoo lust after. Call it a constituency, a community, a web of trust or just a good place to do business. But please. Don’t call your members an “audience,” Or “traffic.” Or “consumers.” And don’t sit still while others call eBay marketplaces “sticky.” Traffic jams are sticky too, and good for nothing but billboards.

Trust me (or better yet, trust your millions of other members): you’ll make enough money without a retrograde move into the Second Wave world of advertising. The Journal piece sources a Goldman Sachs analyst who says your advertising sales could amount to “as much as 10% of total revenue, expected to top $415 million this year.” Think for a moment of how little this really is, and what you’re really selling — or worse, having AOL’s sales “force” sell — to advertisers. Think about what’s being said, literally, in the very first line of that same piece:

The Internet’s biggest flea market, eBay Inc., has something new for sale: advertisements on eBay.com.

What you’re selling isn’t just advertising. It’s us: our time, our attention, and our trust that you won’t waste either. You have always valued that trust more highly than anything else. That’s because eBay has the soul of a marketplace. Not a medium. That fact — and our trust in it — is worth a helluva lot more than whatever you’ll get from the companies who pay you for the privilege of aiming “messages” at us.

Appreciatively,

Doc Searls

2014_02_26_shots_2

I’ve been having fun shooting panos — panoramas — with my phone. While the one above isn’t especially artful, it does show off what can be done if you let the subject move while you stand still. In this one I’m looking toward the opposite platform in a New York subway station.

This has to be done when the train is going slow enough: when it is starting to depart, or finishing an arrival. My son also pointed something else out: you have to move too, just a tiny bit, so the accelerometer in the phone thinks you’re shooting a normal pano.

Most cameras in new phones have the pano feature. Mine is an iPhone 5s. You just bring up the camera and choose the pano format. It’s the one all the way to the right. Then you can choose panning left to right or right to left. (It reverses when you tap it.) Pretty easy. Play around and have fun with it.

I’ve been asked how EULAs — End User License Agreements — might affect the Internet of Things, now becoming better known as the IoT. Good question. The topic is hot:

google-iot-trend

Development, however, is another story. There we are headed straight into a log-jam that Phil Windley calls the Compuserve of Things. In the 80′s and early ’90s, Compuserve was as close as any of us could get to experiencing the real Internet (which was available only to a limited selection of governments, universities and big companies). Compuserve’s competitors were AOL (originally America OnLine), Prodigy, MSN and a few others not worth mentioning.

The problem was that all online services were closed and proprietary. Communication between them was difficult or impossible. Your Compuserve email only worked with other Compuserve members. Same with your Prodigy and AOL mail. Same with instant messaging (which retains its old proprietary problems even to this day.)

Where we are headed today is not the Internet of Things, but the Google of Things, the Apple of Things, the Microsoft of Things, and low-effort sports and war stories in the media misdirecting attention away from the real Internet and toward fights between giants.

Also evolving away from the Net will be the Every-BigCo-of-things, and their suppliers of proprietary platforms. (Let’s call that one EBCoT.) Every one of these, of course, will have its own EULA.

The Internet has no EULA. It just has an A, for Agreement. That’s because the Internet is defined by protocols, which are manners — agreements — among the things it connects.

For the trillions of things in the world to work in the actual Internet, they need be subject to that same agreement (and others like it, tuned for things other than computers), but not licenses from controlling parties, because that would not be the Internet.

EULAs suck already anyway, for two legacy reasons: 1) they are one-sided and coercive; and 2) nobody reads them other than the lawyers who write them. Let’s unpack both problems.

Most EULAs are what legal folk call “contracts of adhesion.” That term was coined by Friedrich Kessler in 1943, at the apex of the Industrial Age (when Industry was causing, fighting and winning WWII). Adhesive contracts, Kessler said, were the only way any one company could achieve legal scale with masses of customers and users.

But what worked as an upside for industry had a downside for everybody else, because adhesive contracts came at a cost. Freedom of contract, long a form of vernacular law in everyday life, was shoved aside by industrial expedience.

What Kessler saw as both an efficient hack and a moral drag became more of both in the Information Age in which we live today. And it be a far bigger drag if it encumbers every Thing we want to put on the Internet.

Most of us don’t read EULAs, or the privacy policies that often accompany them, because to do so is both useless and time consuming. They are useless because they exist mostly to scrape off liability and other inconveniences on the customer or user. And they suck up time because they are written in legalese, by and for lawyers, rather than the rest of us.

So: what can we do? I’ll take that up in the next post.

Bonus link: Tony Faddel on Nest’s independence from Google and why he doesn’t like “Internet of Things” as a label.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

« Older entries