history

You are currently browsing the archive for the history category.

I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Center

fortirwin

—in the Mojave Desert, amidst the dark and colorful Calico Mountains of California, situated in the forbidding nowhere that stretches between Barstow and Death Valley.

Here and there, amidst the webwork of trails in the dirt left by tanks, jeeps and other combat vehicles, fake towns and other structures go up and come down. So, for example, here is Etrebat Shar, a fake town in an “artificial Afghanistan” that I shot earlier this month, on June 2:

etrebat-shar1

And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself:

etrebat-shar2

Look to the right of the “town.” See that area where it looks like something got erased? Well, it did. I took the two shots above earlier this month, on June 2. Here’s a shot of the same scene on June 25, 2013:

etrebat-shar3

Not only is the “town” a bit bigger, but there’s this whole other collection of walls and buildings, covering a far larger area, to the right, or east.

I also see in this shot that it was gone on December 8, 2014.

Now I’m fascinated by this town and the erased something-or-other nearby, which I also shot on June 2:

othertown

It appears to be “Medina Wasl,” which Wikipedia says is one of twelve towns built for desert warfare training:

One of the features of the base is the presence of 12 mock “villages” which are used to train troops in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) prior to their deployment. The villages mimic real villages and have variety of buildings such as religious sites, hotels, traffic circles, etc. filled with foreign language speaking actors portraying government officials, local police, local military, villagers, street vendors, and insurgents. The largest two are known as Razish and Ujen, the closest located about 30 minutes from the main part of the post. Most of the buildings are created using intermodal containers, stacked to create larger structures, the largest village consists of 585 buildings that can engage an entire brigade combat team into a fight.

Now I’m slowly going through my other shots over the years to see if I can find Razish and Ujen… if they haven’t been erased.

It would be cool to hear from military folk familiar with Fort Irwin, or veterans who have worked or fought mock battles in those towns.

doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.

In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?

Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.

All due respect, but: bah.

There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.

Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.

I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example. Hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.

Some questions…

Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?

Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?

Hell, would the four of us have written The Cluetrain Manifesto? Would David Weinberger and I have written World of Ends or New Clues if the Internet had lacked upper-case qualities?

Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?

Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net we do have)?

I think the answer to all of those would be no.

In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”

Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect many of us pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”

How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?

I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.

If you care at all about this, please dig Archive.org‘s Locking the Web open: a Call for a Distributed Web, Brewster Kahle’s post by the same title, covering more ground, and the Decentralized Web Summit, taking place on June 8-9. (I’ll be there in spirit. Alas, I have other commitments on the East Coast.)

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil in the water is one of the strange graces of life on Califonia’s South Coast.

What we see here is a long slick of oil in the Pacific, drifting across Platform Holly, which taps into the Elwood Oil Field, which is of a piece with the Coal Oil Point Seep Field, all a stone’s throw off Coal Oil Point, better known as UC Santa Barbara.

Wikipedia (at the momentsays this:

The Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, California isa petroleum seep area of about three square kilometres, adjacent to the Ellwood Oil Field, and releases about 40 tons of methane per day and about 19 tons of reactive organic gas (ethane, propane, butane and higher hydrocarbons), about twice the hydrocarbon air pollution released by all the cars and trucks in Santa Barbara County in 1990.[1]The liquid petroleum produces a slick that is many kilometres long and when degraded by evaporationand weathering, produces tar balls which wash up on the beaches for miles around.[2]

This seep also releases on the order of 100 to 150 barrels (16 to 24 m3) of liquid petroleum per day.[3] The field produces about 9 cubic meters of natural gas per barrel of petroleum.[2]

Leakage from the natural seeps near Platform Holly, the production platform for the South Ellwood Offshore oilfield, has decreased substantially, probably from the decrease in reservoir pressure due to the oil and gas produced at the platform.[2]

On the day I shot this (February 10), from a plane departing from Santa Barbara for Los Angeles, the quantity of oil in the water looked unusually high to me. But I suppose it varies from day to day.

Interesting fact:

  • Chumash canoes were made planks carved from redwood or pine logs washed ashore after storms, and sealed with asphalt tar from the seeps. There are no redwoods on the South Coast, by the way. The nearest are far up the coast at Big Sur, a couple hundred miles to the northwest. (It is likely that most of the redwood floating into the South Coast came from much farther north, where the Mendicino and Humboldt coastlines are heavily forested with redwood.)
  • National Geographic says that using the tar had the effect of shrinking the size of Chumash heads over many generations.
  • There are also few rocks hard enough to craft into a knife or an ax anywhere near Santa Barbara, or even in the Santa Ynez mountains behind it. All the local rocks are of relatively soft sedimentary kinds. Stones used for tools were mostly obtained by trade with tribes from other regions.

Here’s the whole album of oil seep shots.

JohnLeeHooker1997(This post is reblogged from this one, posted on June 11, 2001.)

The best live performance I’ve ever attended was John Lee Hooker playing St. Joseph’s AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Durham, North Carolina.

It was around the turn of the 80s, and in those days I went to pretty much every interesting act that came through town. I had no idea this was going to be anything unusual.

When I walked in the door, John Lee was standing near the entrance looking old and beat in his orange jacket. He also smelled pretty bad, frankly, and I felt guilty for noticing it. As usual, I took a seat in the front pew (I hate sitting in the back of anything). In a few minutes John Lee came in and grumbled “Stand up!” in a gruff voice. Everybody obeyed. He then launched into a series of songs that made it impossible for anybody to sit for the next several hours. It was a Rock & Roll Gospel Event of the first order. After that I knew a lot more about John Lee and the hard-driving boogie blues genre he pioneered.

For the last few years John Lee has lived down the hill from my house, which overlooks the Bay Area from Redwood City. He has a small ranch house on a cul-de-sac off Alameda de las Pulgas, the main drag at the base of the hill. There is usually a Caddy parked out front with a vanity plate that makes clear who’s home.

Recently we also came to share the same barber. So now I’ll share the story our barber once told me about his most famous customer.

It seems that John Lee liked to have his hair cut at home, and the barber was glad to oblige. 240px-KeithR2Then one day, when he came over to John Lee’s house, there was a corpse in the front parlor, laying on the couch. When the barber went over to have a closer look, the corpse — which belonged to a gaunt white man — appeared to have been dead for some time. When the barber went into John Lee’s bedroom, where the old man liked to sit to have his hair cut, the barber said, “Did you know there’s a dead guy in your living room?” “Aw,” John Lee replied, “That’s just Keith Richards. He always looks like that.”

Yesterday we drove past John Lee’s house on our way out of town. I wondered, as I always do, about how the old guy was doing. It turned out our barber was losing his customer on the same day.

So: is it true? Whether or not, it’s a great story.

Tags: , , , , ,

davy1

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I’m not sure if Gandhi actually said that. Somebody did. My best human chance of finding who said it — or at least of gaining a learned enlargement on the lesson — would have been David Sallis. “Big Davy” didn’t know everything, but he came closer than anybody else I know, and he was a living exemplar of Gandhi’s advice.

Davy’s answer would have been knowing, clever and enlarged by a joke, a wild story or both. Alas, I can’t ask him, because he died last Friday of a stroke he suffered a few days earlier. He was just 56, and is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Rosie —

mararet-and-rosie

— both of whom he adored absolutely — and by countless friends and colleagues who remain shocked and saddened by his passing.

I caught a telling example of how much Davy knew when he was visiting in Santa Barbara for the first time a couple years ago, and we took a long walk downtown. Observing the distinctive typeface of the city’s street signs, he described in depth its origin and design elements. I don’t remember what he said, except that the typeface, like the town, was of regional Spanish provenance. Now when I look online, all I can find about the typeface is that it’s called “Mission,” and lives in no standard font library. Whether or not Davy knew more than the rest of the world on the subject, it was totally in character that he might.

Davy didn’t like it when I told other people he was a maths genius. A stickler for accuracy, he said he was taught by some real ones, at Imperial College and elsewhere. But while he might not have been their equal, he was wickedly smart on the topic. One evening I saw that demonstrated at a bar in Silicon Valley. Davy was sitting at a table with another maths whiz, talking about how to solve some particularly vexing problem. Pausing in the midst of the conversation, Davy folded a napkin several ways at various angles and pushed it across the table to the other guy, who said “That’s it!” and looked back at Davy in amazement. Davy returned a look of agreement with one raised eyebrow and a wry smile. It was an expression that at once said both that he had won and this was all in fun — and “Isn’t it great that we’re both learning something here?” Here’s a photo I shot of the scene:

davy2

Davy was also a lover and player of music. Here he is on a guitar he brought to our house on a visit:

davy3

Davy’s tastes were wildly eclectic and refined. That guitar is an Erlewine headless Lazer — the same one played by Johnny Winter. At the time it was on its way to joining Davy’s extensive collection of vintage saxophones and guitars of every kind, any of which he might pick up and wail away on at a moment’s notice. He could hold forth on Bach and punk with equal authority, and had forgotten more about Frank Zappa than all but a few will ever know.  Here he is with our friend Robert Spensley (another fabulous musician), in their Zappa shirts:

davy-robbie

Davy became instant friends with my wife and I when we met in London in May 2013, at a lunch with a handful of colleagues at Visa Europe, which employed his consulting services for many years. It was Davy who brought VRM (subject of my work with the Berkman Center) to the company’s attention, and who had been the main instigator of the gathering.

Suspecting that we might be among the few who would know a world-changing business and technical hack when we saw one, he shared with us plans for Qredo, an architecture for sending and sharing data securely and privately between parties who could also, if they chose, connect anonymously — and then selectively disclose more information as purposes required. Qredo eventually became a startup, and I served through its formative months on the company board, visiting often to Richmond, Davy’s beloved home town. Here he is, describing how Qredo fit into some VRM contexts :

davy-whiteboard

Yet what I love and remember best about Davy was how much fun he was as a companion — at work on Qredo, in conversation at pubs and in other convivial settings, on walks in Richmond and around London, and over countless meals in places both fun and fine. To all those occasions Davy brought the most irrepressible inner child I have ever known in an adult human being. Here is a small collection of shots that show our boy at work and play:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.00.49 PM

Since he left I haven’t gone ten minutes without lamenting how much his absence lessens the world. The one solace I find is knowing how much larger he made the world when he was with us.

For those able to attend, a ceremony and burial will be held on Monday, 30 November, 11 AM at Richmond Cemetery.

trainor-biz-cardThis is about visiting my great-great grandfather, Thomas Trainor, dead since 1876 and reposing in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. Thomas and a friend bought the Trainor family plot, two graves wide, in 1852. It now lies roughly in the center of what’s called “Old Calvary,” the oldest section of the largest cemetery in the country. More than three people are buried there.

Calvary is familiar as the vast forest of monuments and headstones flanking the intersection of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I-278) and the Long Island (I-495) Expressway. Also as the place where the Godfather got planted in the movie.

Thomas was himself one of seven children. His parents were Thomas (or John) and Hanna (née Hockey) Trainor, said to be of Letterkenny, County Donegal, Ireland. He was born in 1804 and sailed to Boston at the height of the 1819 typhus epidemic at age 15, accompanied by his uncle, also a Trainor. By one account the uncle died soon after arriving, but by another he lived long enough to marry and widow the old aunt Thomas buried first in the family plot.

There is a gap in the record between the time Thomas arrived as a teen and when he came to own land in New York (around Poughkeepsie), meet Mary Ann McLaughlin, and established the saddle and carriage-building business described on his business card above. The family home, we know, was at 228 East 122nd Street in Harlem, at a time when most of the city’s roads were still dirt. (Here’s the Streetview today.) His business, at 124 West Broadway, was at the corner of Duane on the east edge of what is now Tribeca. Mary Ann did the carriage interiors when she not also producing children. Family lore also has it that Thomas trained first as a servant indentured to Mary Ann’s dad. Also that this is false.

What I found at Calgary, after a long search (having been given bad instructions at first by an otherwise helpful guy at the cemetery office), was this headstone:

trainor-headstoneClearly this is the Trainor plot: Section 1W, Range 6, Plot U. (Nice of some stones to have that engraving. Most don’t.) And I know Margaret Mayer was Thomas’s youngest daughter, known to us kids growing up as Grandma Searls’ “Aunt Mag.” Here she is:

auntmagGrandma Searls was the third of five children, all daughters, of Henry Roman Englert and Catherine “Kitty” Trainor, the fourth of Thomas and Mary Ann’s seven kids. Henry was the head of New York’s Steel and Copperplate Engravers Union, and the family home was in the South Bronx at 742 East 142nd Street. When Kitty died at age 39, Aunt Mag became a second mom to Kitty’s four surviving daughters.

But who was Grace F. Adams? And why are there no dates, or names other than those two, neither of whom died with the Trainor surname?

Some answers came when I got home and looked through the typed records of Catherine Burns, daughter of Florence, Grandma Searls’ younger sister. These were scanned by Catherine’s son Martin (my second cousin), and shared along with many other pictures I’ve put up on the Web.

There I discovered that Grace Adams is the granddaughter of Aunt Mag, who was born in 1855, two years before her mother died, and lived for another 89 years. She married Joseph Mayer in 1881, the year before Grandma Searls (née Ethel F. Englert) was born. (Joseph, who died in 1927, is buried elsewhere at Calgary.) Mag and Joseph’s daughter Frances, born in 1888, married George Shannon. (After Geroge died in 1923, she married John Heslin, who also predeceased her without fathering more children.) Frances and George produced Gertrude Doris Shannon and Grace Shannon. Gertrude, born in 1918, married Thomas Doonan in 1937, and had four kids: Thomas Jr., Margaret, Rosemary and John. They and their descendants are third, fourth and fifth cousins of mine.

But the connection to the headstone is Grace Shannon, born in 1919. She married an Adams (first name unknown), and produced two daughters, Candice and Denise, born respectively in 1953 and 1957. They are third cousins of mine (sharing great-great grandparents). Candice married Joseph Flasch and produced two known children, Joseph and Shannon Marie.

So Grace Shannon is the Grace F. Adams on the headstone. Since died in 1966 at just 45 years old, and the headstone (or monument, in the parlance of the cemetery business) is clearly of relatively recent vintage, I am guessing it was was placed by one or both of Grace F. Adams’ daughters. I am also guessing that they knew this was a Trainor plot, with lots of Trainors in it, but didn’t want to go into the details, especially since some of them are hazy. Hence the names of the two ancestors they knew and cared most about, under the Trainor heading.

I’m saying all this in hope that one or more of them will find this post and fill us in.

What the only headstone at the Trainor plot understates is that bodies of nine family members (and perhaps one other) are stacked in just two graves:

all-the-trainor-deadTheir order of burial also recalls a series of tragedies. First in the ground was an elderly aunt, apparently the widow of the uncle who came over with Thomas from Ireland. Next was Thomas’s wife, Mary Ann, age 36. Then went three of their seven children: 1 year old Thomas Jr., 16 year old Charles, and then 31 year old Hannah Crowley. Not included is an infant daughter, Ella, buried elsewhere.

The story of Charles is family legend, but accounts differ. They agree that he ran away at 16, twice, to fight in the Civil War. One report says he was killed carrying a flag. Another says he was wounded and died in an army hospital. By that story he was visited by his father after a search made long and difficult by Charles’s decision to register under an assumed name that only he and the Union Army knew. When Thomas found Charles, the boy was almost unrecognizable behind a full red beard. According to that story (the one in which Charles wasn’t killed in battle), the doctors promised Thomas that his boy would be home by Christmas. There seems to be agreement that Charles died on Thanksgiving Day, and arrived home in a box. Grandma Searls (a niece of Charles through his sister Catherine) said Charles arrived home on Christmas Day.

All family accounts agree that Charles was planted in the Trainor plot at Calvary. The Cemetery records do not agree. Instead it lists Hannah Kennedy as an occupant of the Trainor plot. According to that listing, she was Charles’ age when she died the same year. So there are three possibilities here. The first is that Hannah was a family acquaintance who just happened to die at the same age as Charles and in the same year. The second is that the cemetery made a mistake in recording the burial. The third is that both are buried there, and only Hannah’s burial is recorded. I favor the second possibility because it’s the most plausible. Today we’d call it a data entry error.

When I asked the guy at the Calvary office how burying stacked bodies in a single grave worked in an age when they didn’t use vaults, he said something like, “They just dig down until they find the top of the coffin below. Or they stop when they find remains or what they suspect are remains, and set the next coffin on top.”

What they find, if a coffin is absent, would depend on the soil. In the red-dirt South, where there is a lot of acid in the soil, I am told there tends to be nothing left after a few years but buttons and shoelace grommets. But in other soils, such as in France, where they relocated all the remains in all of Paris’s cemeteries into quarries under the city (now called the catacombs) from the late 1700s to mid 1800s, all the bones stay in perfect shape. (I visited there in ’10. Amazing place.)

When I was in Letterkenny a few years ago, I thought I would try to find some trace of the Trainors who stayed behind. Turns out Trainor is a fairly common name that roughly means laborer, or strong man, in the original Gaelic Thréinfhir. There are also many variants, including Armstrong. So I took my curiosity to the Parochial House across from St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny, and was rebuked by one of the priests there. Didn’t I know the Irish Catholic Church was underground in the early 1800s, while all of Ireland was under England’s thumb and enduring one famine and plague after another? In other words, “Don’t bother askin’.”

He did at least point me to a graveyard near Old Town, across the River Swilly. It was in use two centuries ago, when Great-great Grandpa Thomas was growing up there, and might contain some Trainors or Hockeys, he said. When we went by, however, it was raining heavily, and there was a funeral underway — one of the first there in a long time, we were told by one of those attending. So we gave up.

For what it’s worth, I’ve looked a bit into Donegal genealogy records for evidence of Trainors, or Thréinfirs, and found nothing. But the Trainors may not have been from Letterkenny, or Donegal. I’ve heard variously that they were from County Monaghan, or Cork. A search here brings up 85,651 birth records for Thomas Trainor in Monaghan. Seems mighty high, but maybe I’m doing it wrong.

Last year I took my wife on what she called “a really bad idea for a date” (as was the Letterkenny side trip): visiting the graves of other relatives on Grandma’s father’s side:

    1. Christian Englert (my great-great grandfather, same generation as Thomas Trainor), his wife Jacobina (née Rung) Englert, and five others in the next generation, including four who died young (aged 33, 29, 1 and 10 months). Only three of those are marked on the headstone. Here they are in roughly 1869.
    2. Christian’s son, Henry Roman Englert, his wife Kitty Trainor (one of the sibs not buried in Calvary), Henry’s second wife (Teresa Antonelli), and three from the next generation, all of whom died young and are stacked into three graves in one plot below a small wedge-shaped headstone that identifies Henry alone.

I couldn’t find a third grave site, possibly not marked, containing Henry’s brother Andrew and (stacked atop him) a daughter or niece, Annie Englert. This one may not be marked.

Martin tells me that the four Englert sisters and others of their generation would often visit the graves of their mother and siblings, even before their father, Henry, died in 1943. I am sure that none of those graves would have been marked. It also seems strange to me that they (or somebody) only marked Henry’s after he died, without mention of the five others below.

Anyway, I’ve shared documents and pictures of Trainors here, Englerts here, and Dwyers (Martin’s family) here.

All of this inquiry also has me thinking about what cemeteries are for. Clearly the idea of organizing the dead under plaques, stones and monuments is to honor and host those who miss them, or who wish at least to respect them, as I did for all those piled-up Trainors last Saturday.

I suppose the original purpose of burial was to hold the stink down, or to recycle nutrients where the process can’t be seen. (Beats watching vultures and less grand creatures do the job.) Whatever it was, it seems kind of wasteful and obsolete at this point.

Over dinner a few years ago, Kevin Kelly told me that nobody we know, including ourselves, will be remembered in a thousand years — or even a hundred or two. Each of us at most is an Ozymandias, or a Shelley, who wrote his famous sonnet before drowning at 29. Here it is:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I was the traveler on Saturday. New York was, for that day, my antique land. Around the Trainor graves Calvary seemed boundless, though hardly bare, covered by ranks of headstones, statues and thick granite houses for the above-ground dead: lifeless things, all. Lone it also seemed, since I saw not one other pedestrian (and just one other car) during the hours I wandered there, on a day that could hardly have been more sunny, mild and welcoming.

All of it seemed to certify, as does the hand of Ozymandias’ sculptor, the full depth of departure: that all will be forgotten, and only stone pedestals for absent memories will remain.

The job of the living, I believe, is to leave the world better than we found it. That’s all. Whether we do that job or not, we are still obliged to leave. That’s a lesson I learned from my mother, after she died:

So many times I think about something I’d love to share with Mom or Pop, then remember they’re gone. Often I hear Mom’s voice: firm, instructive and loving as ever. Give to the living, she says. That’s what love is for. Her lesson: Death makes us give love to the living. She was a teacher. Still is.

And so are they all, even if now we know next to nothing about them.

 

prague-balls-question

One of the things that fascinates me about Prague are the skewers atop the spires of its many iconic buildings, each of which pierces a shiny ball. It’s a great look.

I am sure there’s a reason for those things, other than the look itself.

I am also sure there is a word for the ball. The skewer too.

I know it’s not spire, because that labels any conical or tapered point on the roof of a building. Prague is said to be the city of a hundred, or a thousand, spires. Most of those have these balls too, and I’ve become obsessed, while I’m here, with finding out what the hell they’re called.

I’m sure more than a few people out there on the lazyweb know. So tell me.

Thank you.

ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

What I’ve always loved most about the Web† is how it allows each of us to publish on our own, as individuals, for the whole world. I started doing that as soon as I could get a dial-up account with a nearby ISP (the late Batnet of Palo Alto) in 1995.

Here is one of my first pieces, published in Reality 2.0, a directory within my self-hosted Searls.com site. I’m resurrecting it here because it does a good job of explaining how easy it is to automate journalism by framing a story in terms of war or sports (and tees up some future posts). So here ya go, copied from HTML 1 and morphed on pasting by WordPress into HTML 4:


MICROSOFT + NETSCAPE
WHY THE PRESS NEEDS TO SNAP OUT OF ITS WAR-COVERAGE TRANCE

By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995

Outline

Web Wars?
What are the facts?
Let’s give a big AND to the Web
So, what IS Microsoft doing?
How to win users and influence developers
A new breed of life

Web Wars?

Am I wrong here, or has the Web turned into a Star Wars movie?

I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With a boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.

The galaxy’s only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreesen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape’s mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.

Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music — dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)…

  • “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”
  • “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape.”
  • “MICROSOFT, SUN FACE OFF IN INTERNET RING”
  • “MICROSOFT STORMS THE WEB”

The mind’s eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft’s new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.

But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”

And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”

Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?

What are the facts?

After reading all these alarming headlines, I decided to fire up my own copy of Netscape Navigator and search out a transcript of Bill’s December 7th speech.

I started at Microsoft’s own site, but got an “access forbidden” message. Then I went up to the internet level of the site’s directory, but found the Netscape view was impaired. (“Best viewed with Microsoft Explorer,” it said.) I finally found a Netscape-friendly copy at Dave Winer’s site. It appears to be the original, verbatim:*

MR. GATES: Well, good morning. I was realizing this morning that December 7th is kind of a famous day. (Laughter.) Fifty-four years ago or something. And I was trying to think if there were any parallels to what was going on here. And I really couldn’t come up with any. The only connection I could think of at all was that probably the most intelligent comment that was made on that day wasn’t made on Wall Street, or even by any type of that analyst; it was actually Admiral Yamomoto, who observed that he feared they had awakened a sleeping giant. (Laughter.)

I see. The “veiled threat” was Bill’s opening laugh line. Even if this was “a veiled threat,” it was made in good humor. The rest of the talk hardly seemed hostile. Instead, Bill showed a substantial understanding of how both competition and cooperation work to build markets, and of the roles played by users, developers, leaders and followers in creating the Internet. In his final sentence, Bill says, “We believe that integration and continuity are going to be valuable to end users and developers…”

Of course, I wish he’d pay a little more attention to Macintosh users and developers, but I don’t blame him for avoiding them. I blame Apple, which dissed and sued Microsoft for years, to no positive effect. Apple played a zero-sum game and — sure enough — ended up with zero. Brilliant strategy.

Think how much farther along we would be today if this relationship was still Apple plus Microsoft, rather than Apple vs. Microsoft.

The truth is that the Web will be better served by Microsoft plus Netscape than by Microsoft vs. Netscape. Plus is what most of us want, and it’s probably what we’ll get, regardless of how the press plays the story.

Let’s give a big AND to the Web

So what is the best way to characterize Microsoft, if not as the Heaviest of Heavies?

I think Release 1.0‘s Jerry Michalski gets closest to it when he says: “Microsoft thinks more broadly than any other company about what it’s doing. Its plans include global telecommunications, information creation, applications — even community building.” That tells us a lot more than “Microsoft goes to war.”

Markets are more than battlefields. The OR logic of war and sports get us excited, but tells us little of real substance. For that we also need the AND logic of cooperation, choice, partnership and working together. What we all want most — love — is hardly an OR proposition. Imagine a lover saying “there’s only room in this relationship for one of us, baby.”

But the press is caught in an OR trance. Blind to the AND logic that gives markets their full color, the press reduces every hot story to the black vs. white metaphors of war and sports. Why cover the Web as the strange, unprecedented place it is, when you can play it as yet another story about two guys trying to beat the crap out of each other? Especially when the antagonists are little good guy and a big bad guy?

Look, the Internet didn’t take off because Netscape showed up; and it wasn’t slowed down because Microsoft didn’t. It took off because millions of people added their creative energies to something that welcomed them — which was mostly each other. Death-fight competition didn’t make the Web we know now, and it won’t make the Web that’s coming, either.

That’s because every site on the Web is AND logic at work. So is every vendor/developer relationship that ever produced a product or created a market. So is the near-infinite P/E ratio Netscape enjoys today.

So, what IS Microsoft doing?

“Embrace and extend,” Bill Gates called it in his December 7 talk. That’s what he said Microsoft will do with products from Oracle, Spyglass, Compuserve and Sun. Is this an AND strategy? Or is it yet an other example of what Gary Reback, Judge Sporkin and other Microsoft enemies call a “lock and leverage” strategy, intended to drive out competition and let Microsoft charge tolls to every traveler on the Information Highway?

We’ll see.

It should be clear by now that the Web does not welcome OR strategies. Microsoft Network was an OR strategy, and it didn’t work. If history repeats itself (as it usually does with Microsoft), the company will learn from this experience (as Apple learned earlier from its eWorld failure) and move on to do the Right Thing.

Not that most of the press would notice. To them Microsoft is The Empire and Bill is its gold-armored emperor. But reporters are the ones putting clothes on this emperor. To the people who make Microsoft’s markets — the users and developers — “billg” is as naked as a newborn.

Take away the war-front headlines, the play-by-play reporting, the color commentary by industry analysts, the infatuation with personal wealth — and you see Bill as an extremely competitive guy who’s also trying to do right by users and developers. And hiding little in the process. Is he a bully? Sometimes. Is this bad? No, it’s typical of big companies since the dawn of business. It looks to me more like a personality trait than a business strategy. And what makes Microsoft win is far more strategic than personal.

George Gilder puts it this way in Forbes ASAP (“Angst & Awe on the Internet“):

Blinded by the robber-baron image assigned in U.S. history courses to the heroic builders of American capitalism, many critics see Bill Gates as a menacing monopolist. They mistake for greed the gargantuan tenacity of Microsoft as it struggles to assure the compatibility of its standard with tens of thousands of applications and peripherals over generations of dynamically changing technology.

How to win users and influence developers

How does Bill express that tenacity? As Dave Winer puts it in “The Platform is a Chinese Household,” Bill “sends flowers.” Bill courts developers and delivers for customers, who return the favor by buying Microsoft products.

Markets are conversations, and there isn’t a more willing conversational participant than Bill. That’s why I’m not surprised when Dave says “the only big company that’s responsive to my needs is Microsoft.” And Dave, by the way, is a pillar of the Macintosh community. To my knowledge, he hasn’t developed a DOS-compatible product since the original ThinkTank.

Users and developers don’t need to hear vendors talk about how much their competition sucks. No good ever comes of it. Is it just coincidence that Microsoft almost never bad-mouths its competition? Though Bill is hardly innocent of the occasional raspberry, he’s a long way from matching the nasty remarks made about him and his company by leaders at Sun, Apple, Netscape and Novell, just to name an obvious few.

It especially saddens me to hear competition-bashing from Guy Kawasaki, whose positive energies Apple desperately needs right now. As a customer and user of both Apple and Microsoft products, I see Guy’s “how to drive your competition crazy” rap as OR logic at its antiproductive worst.

At the opposite end of the diplomacy scale, I like the way Gordon Eubanks of Symantec has consistently been fair and constructive in his public remarks about Bill and Microsoft (and has reaped ample rewards in the process).

What makes markets work is a combination of AND and OR processes that deserve thoughtful and observant journalism. They also call for vendors who can drop their fists, open their minds and look at opportunities from users’ and developers’ points of view. This is how Microsoft came to change its Internet strategy. And this is what makes Microsoft the most adaptive company in the business, regardless of size. No wonder the laws of Darwin have been kind to them.

A new breed of life

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance…
Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity… always distinction…
Always a breed of life.
—Walt Whitman

Where the language of war fails, perhaps the language of Whitman can succeed.

By the great poet’s lights, the Web is a new breed of life. An original knit of identity. Its substance increases when opposite equals like Netscape and Microsoft advance out of the dimness and obey their procreant urges — not their will to kill.

The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.

*A week after this experience, I went back to Microsoft site and found its whole Internet Strategy directory much more Netscape-friendly and nicely organized. Every presentation is there, including all the slides. Though the slides are in PowerPoint 4.0 for Windows, my Mac is able to view them with the Mac version of the program. [Back to *]

George Gilder’s Forbes ASAP article archives are at his Telecosm site.

Dave Winer’s provocative “rants” come out every few days, and accumulate at his DaveNet site. Check out “The User’s Software Company,” which inspired this essay.


† [Added on 8 September 2015] While the Web began as a hypertext project proposed to CERN by two employees there (Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Calliau) on 12 November 1990, it did not turn into the Web we know today (and one I could access through an ISP) until it opened for commercial activity on 30 April 1995. That was when the NSFnet (one of the Net’s many backbones, and the only one forbidding commercial use) stepped aside.

10-17-Love— is John McPhee‘s Rising From the Plains.

It’s one book among five collected in Annals of the Former World, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. In all five, McPhee follows a geologist around; and all five of the geologists are interesting characters.

None, however, is more interesting than J. David Love, who grew up on a hardscrabble ranch in the center of Wyoming and became one of the most accomplished geologists in the history of the field.

And yet Love is still less interesting than both his parents — one an endlessly resourceful Scottish builder and re-builder of the family ranch (also possibly, McPhee suggests, a one-time member of Butch Cassidy’s gang), and the other one of the finest diarists ever to put pen to paper in a time and place that was still the Old West.

I’ve read and re-read Rising From the Plains so often that the pages are browned at the edges, simply because I love the writing and the characters in the stories that braid through the text (which is actually about geology, though you can ignore that).

I bring all this up because last night, on my sister’s Netflix, we watched Episode Eight (1887-1914), of The West, a Ken Burns documentary that ran on PBS so long ago that the picture is in 3×4 low-def, shaped to fit old vacuum-tube TV screens. In the episode is a section titled “I Will Never Leave You,” which is about the trials endured by the Love family at their ranch. It features photos of the Loves I had never seen, along with interview footage of David Love, then in his 80s, telling stories I had read countless times, yet loved to hear again, straight from The Man Himself.

The old ranch house was still standing when Love and McPhee visited it for a last time, sometime before the mid-80s, when Rising From the Plains was published. John Perry Barlow, who knew Love, told me a few years ago that the place is now long gone. Google Earth says the same.

But Wyoming, which the Loves loved, and which David knew more deeply than anybody, lives. And visiting that ranch site is one of the very few to-dos on my bucket list.

A few bonus links:

 

« Older entries