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I wrote the first half of the following two years ago for a name-brand Web magazine that decided not to run it. You can guess why. I later turned it into a shorter piece for Wharton‘s Future of Advertising collection. For this post I took out some cruft and added a new second half. As usual, if I had more time, I could have made it shorter. But I’m in a hurry between meetings in London and want to get something up.


For most of its history, we knew what advertising was. As a metonym, “Madison Avenue” covered the whole thing.

Madison Avenue’s specialty was brand advertising: big companies (Coca-Cola, Kodak, Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble) hiring big agencies to familiarize consumers by the millions with their brands. While most advertising didn’t come from Madison Avenue, or practice big-budget branding methods, it was still simple and straightforward: companies buying time and space to send messages across to target groups. As consumers we knew that too. Here’s the key thing to remember today: none of it was personal.

The personal stuff was called direct marketing. In The Economics of Online Advertising, Magid Abraham, Ph.D., the co-founder and CEO of comScore, respects the distinction this way: “while the Internet may have been a boon for direct response advertisers, it has been a mixed blessing for brand advertisers…” (The bold-face is mine.)

If the taxonomy of business were like that of biology, direct response and brand would not only be different species, but different classes under the marketing phylum. Yet Dr. Abraham, along with everybody else today, calls both advertising. Thus the original distinctions are lost.

To find them again, let’s start by giving respect to the elder species: advertising itself.

“The great thing about advertising is that no-one takes it personally,” Richard Stacy says. Direct response, on the other hand, wants to get personal. And, because it values response above all else, it has been data-driven ever since it started out as direct mail. (Or, in the vernacular, junk mail.)

The holy grail of direct response has always been perfect personalization: getting the right message to the right person at the right place at the right time. Back in the offline world that wasn’t possible. Online, at least conceivably, it is. Thanks to tracking and big data analytics, individuals can be understood to a high degree of specificity, in real time, and addressed accordingly. This is the boon Dr. Abraham is talking about.

Yet this boon comes with costs that are hard to see if your view is anchored on the supply side. If you look at it from the receiving end, all you know is that the ad is there, and that maybe it’s meant to be personal (or even too personal). How it gets there is a mystery for the recipient and often for the medium as well. For example, the ad for SmellRight deodorant placed next to a story on a newspaper’s website may not be placed by SmellRight, its ad agency or the newspaper. It may have arrived via some combination of ad networks, ad exchanges, demand side platforms (DSPs), dynamic auctions with real time bidding (RTB), supply side platforms (SSPs) and other arcane mechanisms of the new direct response advertising business. And, in many cases, none of those entities has the whole picture of how any given ad gets placed. Worse, you don’t know whether or not some algorithmic robot, or an ad hoc committee of them, thinks you have B.O.

In The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth, Joseph Turow says direct response advertising today is “increasingly customized by a largely invisible industry on the basis of a vast amount of information that we likely didn’t realize it is collecting as a result of social profiles and reputations it assigns us and never discloses, and about which we are largely ignorant.”

And yet the ironic purpose of these mechanisms is to make the ad personal — just for you — even if all they know about you is some unique identifier, or a combination of them. Confusing? Of course. But then, it’s none of your business. Neither is brand advertising , but at least you’re not ignorant about the system, or why the brand thought it was important to advertise.

That’s because brands and brand advertising send what economists call signals. Each signal is a sign of substance that says much without saying anything at all. The feathers of a peacock send a signal. So do the songs of birds, the antlers of an elk, your haircut, your college degree, your jewelry and the clothing you wear. So think of brand advertising as clothing: something a company wears, just like it wears buildings.

Like clothing and buildings, advertising’s brand signal is impersonal and non-conversational, by design. It is pure statement. In “Advertising as a Signal” (Journal of Political Economy, 1984) Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explain, “When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered.”

Direct response advertising does little if any of that. But, because we call it advertising, we need to look at the trade-offs. Don Marti has done a lot of that. He writes, “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?”

In fact, the main signal sent by direct response advertising is personalization itself. By being different for everybody, all the time, there’s not much “there” there, besides the ad. There’s not even an obvious “platform” for the ad, since it could have come from anywhere.

Brand advertising doesn’t do that. Nor does Main Street or a shopping mall. When you go into a store, it doesn’t shape-shift to put hats in front of you because you glanced at hats in a store window you passed on the street a minute ago. Yet shape-shifting is now standard with online retailing, with search, and with every site and service that works to “deliver a personalized experience” in real time. The result is a virtual world that is made to look different all the time for everybody, based on surveillance and data-driven guesswork. It’s also creepy, because you don’t know what’s personal and what’s not, or what’s based on surveillance of your activities and what’s not. And opt-out “solutions” from the industry, such as AdChoices only serve as a paint job over the surveillance required to make ads personally relevant (which, nearly all the time, they are not).

The historic shift we’re experiencing here is one from the static Web to the live one — a development I visited in a 2005 essay in Linux Journal titled The World Live Web. It begins,

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”.

At the time (see herehere and here) I saw the Live Web as a branch off the static one, starting with RSS and real-time search of RSS feeds, which at the time was done only by Technorati and its competitors. (The only survivor in that category is Google blogsearch, which lets you isolate postings in the past ten minutes, the past hour, the past 24 hours and so on.) What I didn’t expect was for the Live Web to become pretty much the whole thing. But that’s where we’re headed today. Except for domain names, logos and other persistent, impersonal graphics and structures, the Static Web is becoming a lost signal as well.

And yet “brand” and “branding” are hot topics on the live Web, and have been ever since marketers began advancing on the Internet’s wild frontiers. (This Google Ngram graph traces the popularity of the word “branding” in books from 1900 to 2008. Note how the word starts to hockey-stick in 1995, when the commercial Web was born.)

Back in early 2000, when The Cluetrain Manifesto came out, among the first companies we heard from were Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and other established consumer goods companies that had actual “brand managers.” They bought the premise that “markets are conversations” (Cluetrain‘s first thesis, and the title of one of its chapters). But they were flummoxed by the oxymoronic challenge of making a brand talk. Why should it? They were also baffled by first-generation Net-native marketing types talking about “brands” and “branding” as if these concepts translated easily and instantly to the networked world. Real brand managers knew, in their bones, that the solid and durable substance of a brand wasn’t personal. It was pure signal.

I think this is one reason Dr. Abraham calls the Internet a “mixed blessing” for brands. The static and durable substance of a brand can still be communicated on the Web the same old-fashioned way it is in print and on radio and TV, but the temptation to get personal with advertising irresistibly high, especially since there are now hundreds of companies and countless experts and technical means for doing that.

So the new stuff is marginalizing the old stuff in a huge way. For a crash course on how this is going, read Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian blog, watch this speech, and read this one. From the latter:

First, that an astounding amount of what the experts, the pundits, and the geniuses have told us about advertising and marketing and media in the past 10 years has turned out to be bullshit.

And second, that the advertising industry has become the web’s lapdog – irresponsibly exaggerating the effectiveness of online advertising and social media… glossing over the fraud and corruption, and becoming a de facto sales arm for the online ad industry.

The online advertising he’s talking about here isn’t traditional brand advertising, but the direct response stuff that wants to get personal with you.

But, because brand and direct response advertising are now fully conflated, the brand baby gets thrown out with the direct response bathwater. That’s why we have, for example, Ethan Zuckrman‘s The Internet’s Original Sin. Writes Ethan, “The internet spies at us at every twist and turn not because Zuckerberg, Brin, and Page are scheming, sinister masterminds, but due to good intentions gone awry.” The good intentions were around making advertising better — something Ethan himself worked on, back in the last Millennium.

But Ethan’s main issue is with the whole business model of advertising on the Web, which includes both the brand and the direct response stuff: “20 years into the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It’s time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us—the users and our attention—as the product.”

But the ads won’t go away, because the Web will always be a wide open publishing space. So the question becomes, What’s best?

After Ethan’s piece came out, Don posed Ethan’s position against Bob’s and looked for a solution that respects what both bring to the table:

But Hoffman and Zuckerman are both right. Web advertising has failed. We’re throwing away most of the potential value of the web as an ad medium by failing to fix privacy bugs. Web ads today work more like email spam than like magazine ads. The quest for “relevance” not only makes targeted ads less valuable than untargeted ones, but also wastes most of what advertisers spend. Buy an ad on the web, and more of your money goes tointermediaries and fraud than to the content that helps your ad carry a signal.

From Zuckerman’s point of view, advertising is a problem, because advertising is full of creepy stuff. From Hoffman’s point of view, the web is a problem, because the web is full of creepy stuff. (Bonus link: Big Brother Has Arrived, and He’s Us )

So let’s re-introduce the web to advertising, only this time, let’s try it without the creepy stuff. Brand advertisers and web content people have a lot more in common than either one has with database marketing. There are a lot of great opportunities on the post-creepy web, but the first step is to get the right people talking.

Can we make that happen? Or do we just have to wait for the creepy bubble to burst? I predicted the burst in The Intention Economy, which came out in May 2012. It hasn’t happened yet. But it’s looking a lot closer since PageFair published 2104 Report: Adblocking Goes Mainstream last week. Summary findings:

  • There are about 144 million active adblock users around the world.
  • Adblock usage grew by nearly 70% between June 2013 – June
  • Growth is driven by Google Chrome, on which adblock penetration nearly doubled between June 2013 – June 2014.
  • Adblock usage varies by country. In some countries nearly one quarter of the online population has it installed.
  • Adblock usage is driven by young internet users. 41% of 18-29 year olds polled said they use adblock.
  • Adblock usage is higher with males, but female usage is still very significant.
  • A majority of adblockers expressed some willingness to receive less intrusive ad formats (however they strongly rejected intrusive ad formats such as interstitials and popovers).

Often we hear it said that we have made a “deal” with online advertising, trading our privacy for advertising that pays for the content we consume. We didn’t. (As I said here, four years ago.) We just put up with it.

But we actually do make a deal with the brand advertising that supports the print and broadcast content we also consume. We give them time and space in our lives. Sometimes we skip over ads on our cable DVRs, or page past the ads in magazines. But we are conscious of the good those ads do, even if some of the ads annoy us. They support the paper, the magazine, the radio or television program, and the creative people behind them.

It should be the same on the Web. But it’s not, because an unknown but obviously high percentage of the ads we see are aimed by unwelcome spying on our personal lives. If Don’s right, and we subtract the creepy stuff out, and respect brand advertising for the good it does (while putting up with the annoying stuff, which will probably never go away), we might keep the free stuff we like, or at least reduce the price of it.

 

 

Not want.

Need.

If a site has one of these…

social-signin

… what is the least information they need from the user?

Seems to me that “social” login buttons like these are meant for the convenience of the user. But too often liberties are taken with them.

For example, here is what one company says in its terms & conditions:

Certain functionality may enable you to log-in using Facebook Connect, a Facebook, Inc. application, which is intended to provide interconnectivity between the Services and your Facebook.com profile. By using the Connect feature, you permit us to access your facebook.com profile, including without limitation,  information about you, your friends and privacy settings. When you use the Connect feature, you also agree to allow Facebook, Inc. to use information about your activities on our site and to access your facebook.com cookies.

This is an otherwise respectful (and respectable) company, which is why I’m not naming them here. They are also a retailer, and not supported by advertising. Nor is their offering “social” in the “social media” sense.

And, while the company might want Facebook profile stuff to better understand their customers, do they need it?

In answering the question, What do fully respectful sites need from social login?, it helps to ask another question: What does the individual need from that button, other than to log in with one click?

I’m asking these questions because this button here…

respect-connect-button

… needs definition of what respectful login is.

As I said in Time for Digital Emancipation, the definition (via the Respect Trust Framework) is that the user and the site respect each other’s boundaries. So we need to say what those boundaries are, or what they might be under different conditions. But a good place to start is by asking what the bare minimum needs of a site are.

So, what are they?

Here in the temperate zones, summer is beaches and picnics and biking and dinner on the deck outside. It is also thunderstorms and airport delays.

Right now a line of thunderheads  is sliding northeastward across New Jersey. Here is how it looks to FlightAware‘s map of aviation and weather activity for Newark Liberty Airport:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.46.14 PMNotice how the incoming flights are threading through and around the heaviest rain, which is where the nasty winds are. I’m sure the approaches are still bumpy, in spite of the avoidings.

You’ll notice, if you click on the map above, or this link, it says,

Newark Liberty Intl (KEWR) is currently experiencing:

  • inbound flights delayed at their origin an average of 4 hours 38 minutes due to low clouds
  • departure delays of 1 hours 46 minutes to 2 hours (and increasing) due to weather

For a national context, here is FlightAware’s MiseryMap

miserymapThat’s just a screen shot. Go to the actual map and hit the blue play button. Impressive, huh?

I also like Intellicast’s map of lightning strikes:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.59.25 PMThe lightning is striking the ‘hood right now, and the rain is coming down hard.

I also like Intellicast‘s maps and phone and tablet apps. Check ‘em out.

And now my phone just went off like a smoke alarm. The first time I’ve ever heard a sound that grating. The screen says this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.13.57 PM

A flash flood warning.

Dark Sky, I should add, is another good app. Tells you how many minutes will pass before it rains, and then how long it will likely last.

iTransNYC is also the best of the New York transit apps. “Incident” is, I gather, a euphemism. If the problem is a police action, a sick passenger or a derailment, they say so. If it’s a worse casualty, they call it an “incident.” Averages about one a week.

Tags:

Quantified toilets.

Seems to be a project out of @CHI2014, going on now in Toronto.

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.

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

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

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

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

That’s what I’m here for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the Rose Bowl?”

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

“Oh yeah.”

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

“Is that where the Hollywood sign is?”

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

“Where was the Whittier Earthquake?”

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

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

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

“Where are you from?”

“New Jersey, like you.”

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

“I study maps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Last Saturday evening I was walking up Wadsworth Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks north of 181st Street, when I passed a group of people sitting sitting on the steps of an apartment building. They were talking, drinking, eating snacks and listening to a boom box set to 94.9FM. A disc jockey chattered in Spanish, followed by music. I noticed the frequency because I’m a lifelong radio guy, and I know there isn’t a licensed station on that channel in New York. The closest is WNSH, called “Nash,” a country-music station in Newark, on 94.7. Given the disc jockey and what little I heard of the sound of 94.9, I was sure the station was a pirate and not just somebody with one of those short-range transmitters you can jack into a phone or a pad.

Before I started hanging at this end of Manhattan I thought the pirate radio game was up. After all, that was the clear message behind these stories:

But where I mostly hang is a Manhattan apartment that is highly shadowed from FM signals coming from the Empire State Building and 4 Times Square downtown. (That’s where all New York’s main licensed stations radiate from.) Between those transmitters and our low-floor apartment are about a hundred blocks of apartment buildings. Meanwhile, our angle to the North and East (toward The Bronx both ways) is a bit less obstructed. From here I get pirate signals on all these channels:

  • 88.1
  • 88.7
  • 89.3
  • 89.7
  • 91.3
  • 94.5
  • 94.9
  • 959
  • 98.1
  • 98.9
  • 99.7
  • 102.3
  • 103.3
  • 104.7 (Same as the busted one? Sounds like it.)
  • 105.5

I can tell most are pirates because they tend to disappear in the morning. Nearly all are in Spanish and most play varieties of Caribbean music. (Which I wish I could understand what the disc jockeys say, but I don’t.)

As for 94.9, here’s how it looks on the display of the Teac 100 HD radio in our kitchen:

Estacion Rika

RDBS is the standard used for displaying information about a station.  The longer scroll across the bottom says “OTRA ESTACION RIKA.” Looking around a bit on the Web for that, I found this page, which says (among much else) “La administración de Rika 94.5 FM  Rikafm.com)…” So I went to RikaFM.com, where a graphic at the top of the page says “‘FCC Part 15 Radio Station’.” Part 15 is what those tiny transmitters for your mobile device have to obey. It’s an FCC rule on interference that limits the range of unlicensed transmissions to a few feet, not a few miles. So clearly this is a claim, not a fact. I’ve listened in the car as well, and the signal is pretty strong. Other links at RikaFM go to its Facebook and Twitter pages. The latter says “3ra Radio en la cuidad de New York Rika fm una estacion con talentos joven cubriendo toda la ciudad de NY musica variada 24hrs.,” which Google Chrome translates to “The 3rd Radio in the city of New York RikaFM a station with young talents covering all the varied music NYC 24hrs.”

To me this phenomenon is radio at its best. I hope somebody fluent in Spanish and hip to Caribbean music and culture will come up here and study the phenomenon a bit more closely. Because the mainstream media (thus far — consider this a shout-out, @VivianYee :-) ) is just coving a few minutes of the authorities’ losing game of whack-a-mole.

@BlakeHunskicer has a kickstarter project, Fleeing the War at Home: An interactive documentary introducing the crisis in Syria through the personal histories and dreams of Syrian refugees, with a few days and a few thousand dollars left to go.

Blake is one of the graduate students I got to know this last year as a visiting scholar in @JayRosen_NYU‘s Studio20 (@Studio20NYU) class at NYU. He’s a terrific journalist and photographer already, and will put both skills to good use for a good cause. Join me in helping him make it happen.

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