The show is over. Biden won. Trump lost.

Sure, there is more to be said, details to argue. But the main story—Biden vs. Trump, the 2020 Presidential Election, is over. So is the Trump presidency, now in the lame duck stage.

We’re in the epilogue now.

There are many stories within and behind the story, but this was the big one, and it had to end. Enough refs calling it made the ending official. President Trump will continue to fight, but the outcome won’t change. Biden will be the next president. The story of the Trump presidency will end with Biden’s inauguration.

The story of the Biden presidency began last night. Attempts by Trump to keep the story of his own presidency going will be written in the epilogue, heard in the coda, the outro, the postlude.

Fox News, which had been the Trump administration’s house organ, concluded the story when it declared Biden the winner and moved on to covering him as the next president.

This is how stories go.

This doesn’t mean that the story was right in every factual sense. Stories aren’t.

As a journalist who has covered much and has been covered as well, I can vouch for the inevitability of inaccuracy, of overlooked details, of patches, approximations, compressions, misquotes and summaries that are more true to story, arc, flow and narrative than to all the facts involved, or the truths that might be told.

Stories have loose ends, and big stories like this one have lots of them. But they are ends. And The End is here.

We are also at the beginning of something new that isn’t a story, and does not comport with the imperatives of journalism: of storytelling, of narrative, of characters with problems struggling toward resolutions.

What’s new is the ground on which all the figures in every story now stand. That ground is digital. Decades old at most, it will be with us for centuries or millennia. Arriving on digital ground is as profound a turn in the history of our species on Earth as the one our distant ancestors faced when they waddled out of the sea and grew lungs to replace their gills.

We live in the digital world now now, in addition to the physical one where I am typing and you are reading, as embodied beings.

In this world we are not just bodies. We are something and somewhere else, in a place that isn’t a place: one without distance or gravity, where the only preposition that applies without stretch or irony is with. (Because the others—over, under, beside, around, though, within, upon, etc.—pertain too fully to positions and relationships in the physical world.)

Because the digital world is ground and not figure (here’s the difference), it is as hard for us to make full sense of being there as it was for the first fish to do the same with ocean or for our amphibian grandparents to make sense of land. (For some help with this, dig David Foster Wallace’s This is water.)

The challenge of understanding digital life will likely not figure in the story of Joe Biden’s presidency. But nothing is more important than the ground under everything. And this ground is the same as the one without which we would not have had an Obama or a Trump presidency. It will at least help to think about that.

 

For many decades, one of the landmark radio stations in Washington, DC was WMAL-AM (now re-branded WSPN), at 630 on (what in pre-digital times we called) the dial. As AM listening faded, so did WMAL, which moved its talk format to 105.9 FM in Woodbridge and its signal to a less ideal location, far out to the northwest of town.

They made the latter move because the 75 acres of land under the station’s four towers in Bethesda had become far more valuable than the signal. So, like many other station owners with valuable real estate under legacy transmitter sites, Cumulus Mediasold sold the old site for $74 million. Nice haul.

I’ve written at some length about this here and here in 2015, and here in 2016. I’ve also covered the whole topic of radio and its decline here and elsewhere.

I only bring the whole mess up today because it’s a five-year story that ended this morning, when WMAL’s towers were demolished. The Washington Post wrote about it here, and provided the video from which I pulled the screen-grab above. Pedestrians.org also has a much more complete video on YouTube, here. WRC-TV, channel 4, has a chopper view (best I’ve seen yet) here. Spake the Post,

When the four orange and white steel towers first soared over Bethesda in 1941, they stood in a field surrounded by sparse suburbs emerging just north of where the Capital Beltway didn’t yet exist. Reaching 400 feet, they beamed the voices of WMAL 630 AM talk radio across the nation’s capital for 77 years.

As the area grew, the 75 acres of open land surrounding the towers became a de facto park for runners, dog owners and generations of teenagers who recall sneaking smokes and beer at “field parties.”

Shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the towers came down in four quick controlled explosions to make way for a new subdivision of 309 homes, taking with them a remarkably large piece of privately owned — but publicly accessible — green space. The developer, Toll Brothers, said construction is scheduled to begin in 2021.

Local radio buffs say the Washington region will lose a piece of history. Residents say they’ll lose a public play space that close-in suburbs have too little of.

After seeing those towers fall, I posted this to a private discussion among broadcast engineers (a role I once played, briefly and inexpertly, many years ago):

It’s like watching a public execution.

I’m sure that’s how many of who have spent our lives looking at and maintaining these things feel at a sight like this.

It doesn’t matter that the AM band is a century old, and that nearly all listening today is to other media. We know how these towers make waves that spread like ripples across the land and echo off invisible mirrors in the night sky. We know from experience how the inverse square law works, how nulls and lobes are formed, how oceans and prairie soils make small signals large and how rocky mountains and crappy soils are like mud to a strong signal’s wheels. We know how and why it is good to know these things, because we can see an invisible world where other people only hear songs, talk and noise.

We also know that, in time, all these towers are going away, or repurposed to hold up antennas sending and receiving radio frequencies better suited for carrying data.

We know that everything ends, and in that respect AM radio is no different than any other medium.

What matters isn’t whether it ends with a bang (such as here with WMAL’s classic towers) or with a whimper (as with so many other stations going dark or shrinking away in lesser facilities). It’s that there’s still some good work and fun in the time this old friend still has left.

You don’t walk around wearing a name badge.  Except maybe at a conference, or some other enclosed space where people need to share their names and affiliations with each other. But otherwise, no.

Why is that?

Because you don’t need a name badge for people who know you—or for people who don’t.

Here in civilization we typically reveal information about ourselves to others on a need-to-know basis: “I’m over 18.” “I’m a citizen of Canada.” “Here’s my Costco card.” “Hi, I’m Jane.” We may or may not present credentials in these encounters. And in most we don’t say our names. “Michael” being a common name, a guy called “Mike” may tell a barista his name is “Clive” if the guy in front of him just said his name is “Mike.” (My given name is David, a name so common that another David re-branded me Doc. Later I learned that his middle name was David and his first name was Paul. True story.)

This is how civilization works in the offline world.

Kim Cameron wrote up how this ought to work, in Laws of Identity, first published in 2004. The Laws include personal control and consentminimum disclosure for a constrained usejustifiable parties, and plurality of operators. Again, we have those in here in the offline world where your body is reading this on a screen.

In the online world behind that screen, however, you have a monstrous mess. I won’t go into why. The results are what matter, and you already know those anyway.

Instead, I’d like to share what (at least for now) I think is the best approach to the challenge of presenting verifiable credentials in the digital world. It’s called KERI, and you can read about it here: https://keri.one/. If you’d like to contribute to the code work, that’s here: https://github.com/decentralized-identity/keri/.

I’m still just getting acquainted with it, in sessions at IIW. The main thing is that I’m sure it matters. So I’m sharing that sentiment, along with those links.

 

The goal here is to obsolesce this brilliant poster by Despair.com:

I got launched on that path a couple months ago, when I got this email from  The_New_Yorker at e-mail.condenast.com:

Why did they “need” a “confirmation” to a subscription which, best I could recall, was last renewed early this year?

So I looked at the links.

The “renew,” Confirmation Needed” and “Discounted Subscription” links all go to a page with a URL that began with https://subscriptions.newyorker.com/pubs…, followed by a lot of tracking cruft. Here’s a screen shot of that one, cut short of where one filled in a credit card number. Note the price:

I was sure I had been paying $80-something per year, for years. As I also recalled, this was a price one could only obtain by calling the 800 number at NewYorker.com.

Or somewhere. After digging around, I found it at
 https://w1.buysub.com/pubs/N3/NYR/accoun…, which is where the link to Customer Care under My Account on the NewYorker website goes. It also required yet another login.

So, when I told the representative at the call center that I’d rather not “confirm” a year for a “discount” that probably wasn’t, she said I could renew for the $89.99 I had paid in the past, and that the deal would be good  through February of 2022. I said fine, let’s do that. So I gave her my credit card, said this was way too complicated, and added that a single simple subscription price would be better. She replied,  “Never gonna happen.” Let’s repeat that:

Never gonna happen.

Then I got this by email:

This appeared to confirm the subscription I already had. To see if that was the case, I went back to the buysub.com website and looked under the Account Summary tab, where it said this:

think this means that I last renewed on February 3 of this year, and what I did on the phone in August was commit to paying $89.99/year until February 10 of 2022.

If that’s what happened, all my call did was extend my existing subscription. Which was fine, but why require a phone call for that?

And WTF was that “Account Confirmation Required” email about? I assume it was bait to switch existing subscribers into paying $50 more per year.

Then there was this, at the bottom of the Account summary page:

This might explain why I stopped getting Vanity Fair, which I suppose I should still be getting.

So I clicked on”Reactivate and got a login page where the login I had used to get this far didn’t work.

After other failing efforts that I neglected to write down, I decided to go back to the New Yorker site and work my way back through two logins to the same page, and then click Reactivate one more time. Voila! ::::::

So now I’ve got one page that tells me I’m good to March 2021 next to a link that takes me to another page that says I ordered 12 issues last December and I can “start” a new subscription for $15 that would begin nine months ago. This is how one “reactivates” a subscription?  OMFG.

I’m also not going into the hell of moving the print subscription back and forth between the two places where I live. Nor will I bother now, in October, to ask why I haven’t seen another copy of Vanity Fair. (Maybe they’re going to the other place. Maybe not. I don’t know, and I’m too weary to try finding out.)

I want to be clear here that I am not sharing this to complain. In fact, I don’t want The New YorkerVanity Fair, Wred, Condé Nast (their parent company) or buysub.com to do a damn thing. They’re all FUBAR. By design. (Bonus link.)

Nor do I want any action out of Spectrum, SiriusXM, Dish Network or the other subscription-based whatevers whose customer disservice systems have recently soaked up many hours of my life.

See, with too many subscription systems (especially ones for periodicals), FUBAR is the norm. A matter of course. Pro forma. Entrenched. A box outside of which nobody making, managing or working in those systems can think.

This is why, when an alien idea appears, for example from a loyal customer just wanting a single and simple damn price, the response is “Never gonna happen.”

This is also why the subscription fecosystem can only be turned into an ecosystem from the outside. Our side. The subscribers’ side.

I’ll explain how at Customer Commons, which we created for exactly that purpose. Stay tuned for that.


Two exceptions are Consumer Reports and The Sun.

Cruise ends

In Your favorite cruise ship may never come back: 23 classic vessels that could be laid-up, sold or scrappedGene Sloan (aka @ThePointsGuy) named the Carnival Fantasy as one those that might be headed for the heap. Now, sure enough, there it is, in the midst of being torn to bits (HT 7News, above) in Aliağa, Turkey. Other stories in the same vein are herehere, here, here, here and here.

I been on a number of cruises (here’s one) in the course of my work as a journalist, and I’ve enjoyed them all. I’ve also hung out at a similar number of colleges and universities, and have long found myself wondering how well the former might be a good metaphor for the latter. Both are expensive, well-branded and self-contained structures with a lot of specialized staff and overhead. Both are also vulnerable to pandemics, and in doomed cases their physical components turn out to be worth more than their institutional ones. John Naughton also notes the resemblance. But it’s Scott Galloway who runs all the way with it; first with Higher Ed: Enough Already, and then with a long and research-filled post titled USS University, featuring this title graphic:

Those three schools are adrift across a 2×2 with low value<—>high value on the X axis and high vulnerability<—>low vulnerability on the Y axis. At the lower left are the low-value/high vulnerability schools in a quadrant Scott calls “challenged,” meaning “high admit rates, high tuition, low endowments, dependence on international students, and weak brand equity.” Among those are—

  • Adelphi
  • Brandeis
  • Bard
  • Dickenson
  • Dennison
  • Hofstra
  • Kent State
  • Kenyon
  • LIU
  • Mt. Holyoke
  • Old Dominion
  • Pace
  • Pacific
  • Robert Morris
  • Sarah Lawrence
  • Seton Hall
  • Skidmore
  • Smith
  • St. John’s (Maryland & New Mexico)
  • The New School
  • Union
  • UC Santa Cruz
  • U Mass Dartmouth
  • Valparaiso
  • Wittenberg

— plus a plethora of mostly state-run “directional” schools (e.g. University of Somewhere at Somewhere).

The Hmm here is, How many have more value as real estate than as what they are today?

I started wondering in the same direction in May, when I posted Figuring the Future and Choose One. Both pivoted off this 2×2 by Arnold Kling

On Arnold’s rectangle, D (Fragile/Inessential) is Scott’s “challenged” quadrant. What I’m wondering, now that school is in session and at least some results should be coming in (or at least trending in a direction), if any colleges or universities in that group (or in the other quadrants) are headed already toward their own Aliağa.

Thoughts? If so, let me know on Twitter (where I am @dsearls), Facebook (here) or by email (doc at searls dot com). I hope to have comments working again here soon, but for now they don’t, alas.

It bums me out that Gail Sheehy passed without much notice—meaning I only heard about it in passing. And I didn’t hear about it, actually; I saw it on CBS’ Sunday Morning, where her face passed somewhere between Tom Seaver’s and John Thompson’s in the September 6 show’s roster of the freshly dead. I was shocked: She was older than both those guys and far less done. Or done at all, except technically. Death seems especially out of character for her, of all people.

Credit where due: The New York Times did post a fine obituary, and New York, for which she wrote much, has an excellent remembrance in the magazine by Christopher Bonanos (@heybonanos). Writes Bonanos,

Sheehy had an 18th book in the works, and it would have been — or will be, if someone else takes to the finish line — a fascinating one. Instead of reporting amid her peers (she was a few years older than the boomers, but roughly in their cohort), she set out to write a kind of echo of Passages, but this time about the millennial generation. And I can tell you that she was reveling in the immersion among people 50 and 60 years younger than she. She went to clubs with college guys and got out on the dance floor, and (by her account, at least) they were disarmed and amused by her — which is to say that she’d found every journalist’s sweet spot, where people get loose and comfortable enough to reveal themselves. She was constantly offering bits and pieces of her findings as magazine stories and columns. Some would work as stand-alone pieces and others wouldn’t, but all were tesserae in what was clearly going to be a big ambitious swoop of sociology. At New York, we were so taken with this project that we had also begun work on a profile of her…

@Gail_Sheehy is chronologically uncorrected. Her website, GailSheehy.com, also still speaks of her in the present tense: “For her new book-in-progress, she’s a woman on a mission to redefine the most misunderstood generation: millennials. They are struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a crisis in mental health. But this generation of 20- and 30-somethings is also inventing radically new passages.”

Gail Sheehy’s writing isn’t just solid; it is enviably good. BrainyQuotes has 71 samples, which is far short of sufficient. One goes, It is a paradox that as we reach our prime, we also see there is a place where it finishes. (Tell me about it. I’m only ten years younger than she was.)

As it happens, I’m writing this in the home library of a friend. On its many shelves a single spine stands out: Pathfinders, published in 1981. I pull it down and open it at random, knowing I’ll find something worth sharing from a page there. Here ya go, under the subhead Secrets of Well-being:

Like the dance of brilliant reflections on a clear pond, well-being is a shimmer that accumulates from many important life choices, mad over the years by a mind that is not often muddied by pretense or ignorance and a heart that is open enough to sense people in their depths and to intuit the meaning of most situations.

If there is an afterlife, I am sure Gail Sheehy is already reporting on it.

Tags:

Bits don’t leave a fossil record.

Well, not quite. They do persist on magnetic, optical and other media, all easily degraded or erased. But how long will those last?

Since I’ve already asked that question, I’ll set it aside and ask the one in the headline.

Some perspective: depending on when you date its origins, digital life—the one we live by extension through our digital devices, and on the Internet (which, like The Force, connects nearly all digital things)—is decades old.

It’s an open question how long it will last. But I’m guessing it will be more than a few more decades. More likely we will remain partly digital for centuries or millennia.

So I’m looking for guesses more educated than mine.

Since this blog no longer takes comments from outside of Harvard (and I do want to fix that), please tag your responses, wherever they may be on the Internet with #DigitalLife. Thanks.

I spent 17 minutes while exercising the other day, thinking out loud about what @GeorgeLakoff says in his 1996 book Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, (also in his expanded 2016 edition, re-subtitled How Liberals and Conservatives Think). I also tweeted about the book this morning here. In it I explain what pretty much nobody else is saying about Trump, Biden, and how each actually appeals to their voters (and those in between).

Here’s the audio file:

This blog no longer takes comments, alas, so post a response elsewhere, if you like, or write me. I’m doc @ my surname dot com.

This was last night:

And this was just before sunset tonight:

From the Mt. Wilson Observatory website:

Mount Wilson Observatory Status

Angeles National Forest is CLOSED due to the extreme fire hazard conditions. To see how the Observatory is faring during the ongoing Bobcat fire, check our Facebook linkTwitter link, or go to the HPWREN Tower Cam and click on the second frame from the left at the top, which looks east towards the fire (also check the south-facing cam and the recently archived timelapse movies below which offer a good look at the latest events in 3-hour segments. Note to media: These images can be used with credit to HPWREN). For the latest updates on the Bobcat fire from U.S. Forest Service, please check out their Twitter page.

Last night the firefighters set a strategic backfire to make a barrier to the fire on our southern flank. To many of us who did not know what was happening it looked like the end. Click here to watch the timelapse. The 12 ground crews up there have now declared us safe. They will remain to make sure nothing gets by as the fires tend to linger in the canyons below. They are our heroes and we owe them our existence. They are true professionals, artists with those backfires, and willing to put themselves at considerable risk to protect us. We thank them!!!!

There will be plenty of stories about how the Observatory and the many broadcast transmitters nearby were saved from the Bobcat Fire. For the curious, start with these links:

I’ll add some more soon.

On fire

The white mess in the image above is the Bobcat Fire, spreading now in the San Gabriel Mountains, against which Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl (that’s it, on the right) reaches its limits of advance to the north. It makes no sense to build very far up or into these mountains, for two good reasons. One is fire, which happens often and awfully. The other is that the mountains are geologically new, and falling down almost as fast as they are rising up. At the mouths of valleys emptying into the sprawl are vast empty reservoirs—catch basins—ready to be filled with rocks, soil and mud “downwasting,” as geologists say, from a range as big as the Smokies, twice as high, ready to burn and shed.

Outside of its northern rain forests and snow-capped mountains, California has just two seasons: fire and rain. Right now we’re in the midst of fire season. Rain is called Winter, and it has been dry since the last one. If the Bobcat fire burns down to the edge of Monrovia, or Altadena, or any of the towns at the base of the mountains, heavy winter rains will cause downwasting in a form John McPhee describes in Los Angeles Against the Mountains:

The water was now 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.

Three rains ago we had debris flows in Montecito, the next zip code over from our home in Santa Barbara. I wrote about it in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. The flows, which destroyed much of the town and killed about two dozen people, were caused by heavy rains following the Thomas Fire, which at 281,893 acres was biggest fire in California history at the time. The Camp Fire, a few months later, burned a bit less land but killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, including whole towns. This year we already have two fires bigger than the Thomas, and at least three more growing fast enough to take the lead. You can see the whole updated list on the Los Angeles Times California Wildfires Map.

For a good high-altitude picture of what’s going on, I recommend NASA’s FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System). It’s a highly interactive map that lets you mix input from satellite photographs and fire detection by orbiting MODIS and VIIRS systems. MODIS is onboard the Terra and Aqua satellites; and VIIRS is onboard the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) spacecraft. (It’s actually more complicated than that. If you’re interested, dig into those links.) Here’s how the FIRMS map shows the active West Coast fires and the smoke they’re producing:

That’s a lot of cremated forest and wildlife right there.

I just put those two images and a bunch of others up on Flickr, here. Most are of MODIS fire detections superimposed on 3-D Google Earth maps. The main thing I want to get across with these is how large and anomalous these fires are.

True: fire is essential to many of the West’s wild ecosystems. It’s no accident that the California state tree, the Coast Redwood, grows so tall and lives so long: it’s adapted to fire. (One can also make a case that the state flower, the California Poppy, which thrives amidst fresh rocks and soil, is adapted to earthquakes.) But what’s going on here is something much bigger. Explain it any way you like, including strange luck.

Whatever you conclude, it’s a hell of a show. And vice versa.

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