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

—Emily Dickinson
(via The Poetry Foundation)

While that poem is apparently about a hummingbird, it’s the one that comes first to my mind when I contemplate the form of evanescence that’s rooted in the nature of the Internet, where all of us are here right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading this.

Because, let’s face it: the Internet is no more about anything “on” it than air is about noise, speech or anything at all. Like air, sunlight, gravity and other useful graces of nature, the Internet is good for whatever can be done with it.

Same with the Web. While the Web was born as a way to share documents at a distance (via the Internet), it was never a library, even though we borrowed the language of real estate and publishing (domains and sites with pages one could author, edit, publish, syndicate, visit and browse) to describe it. While the metaphorical framing in all those words suggests durability and permanence, they belie the inherently evanescent nature of all we call content.

Think about the words memorystorageupload, and download. All suggest that content in digital form has substance at least resembling the physical kind. But it doesn’t. It’s a representation, in a pattern of ones and zeros, recorded on a medium for as long the responsible party wishes to keep it there, or the medium survives. All those states are volatile, and none guarantee that those ones and zeroes will last.

I’ve been producing digital content for the Web since the early 90s, and for much of that time I was lulled into thinking of the digital tech as something at least possibly permanent. But then my son Allen pointed out a distinction between the static Web of purposefully durable content and what he called the live Web. That was in 2003, when blogs were just beginning to become a thing. Since then the live Web has become the main Web, and people have come to see content as writing or projections on a World Wide Whiteboard. Tweets, shares, shots and posts are mostly of momentary value. Snapchat succeeded as a whiteboard where people could share “moments” that erased themselves after one view. (It does much more now, but evanescence remains its root.)

But, being both (relatively) old and (seriously) old-school about saving stuff that matters, I’ve been especially concerned with how we can archive, curate and preserve as much as possible of what’s produced for the digital world.

Last week, for example, I was involved in the effort to return Linux Journal to the Web’s shelves. (The magazine and site, which lived from April 1994 to August 2019, was briefly down, and with it all my own writing there, going back to 1996. That corpus is about a third of my writing in the published world.) Earlier, when it looked like Flickr might go down, I worried aloud about what would become of my many-dozen-thousand photos there. SmugMug saved it (Yay!); but there is no guarantee that any Website will persist forever, in any form. In fact, the way to bet is on the mortality of everything there. (Perspective: earlier today, over at doc.blog, I posted a brief think piece about the mortality of our planet, and the youth of the Universe.)

But the evanescent nature of digital memory shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how to take better care of what of the Net and the Web we wish to see remembered for the world. This is why it’s good to be in conversation on the topic with Brewster Kahle (of archive.org), Dave Winer and other like-minded folk. I welcome your thoughts as well.

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.

 

I want to point to three great posts.

First is Larry Lessig‘s Podcasting and the Slow Democracy Movement. A pull quote:

The architecture of the podcast is the precise antidote for the flaws of the present. It is deep where now is shallow. It is insulated from ads where now is completely vulnerable. It is a chance for thinking and reflection; it has an attention span an order of magnitude greater than the Tweet. It is an opportunity for serious (and playful) engagement. It is healthy eating for a brain-scape that now gorges on fast food.

If 2016 was the Twitter election — fast food, empty calorie content driving blood pressure but little thinking — then 2020 must be the podcast election — nutrient-rich, from every political perspective. Not sound bites driven by algorithms, but reflective and engaged humans doing what humans still do best: thinking with empathy about ideals that could make us better — as humans, not ad-generating machines.

There is hope here. We need to feed it.

I found that through a Radio Open Source email pointing to the show’s latest podcast, The New Normal. I haven’t heard that one yet; but I am eager to, because I suspect the “new normal” may be neither. And, as I might not with Twitter, I am foregoing judgement until I do hear it. The host is also Chris Lydon, a friend whose podcast pionering owes to collaboration with Dave Winer, who invented the form of RSS used by nearly all the world’s podcasters, and who wrote my third recommended post, Working Together, in 2019. That one is addressed to Chris and everyone else bringing tools and material to the barns we’re raising together. The title says it all, but read it anyway.

Work is how we feed the hope Larry talks about.

 

The original pioneer in space-based telephony isn’t @ElonMusk (though he deserves enormous credit for his work in the field, the latest example of which is SpaceX‘s 7,518-satellite Starlink network, and which has been making news lately). It’s the people behind the Iridium satellite constellation, the most driven and notorious of which was Ed Staiano.

Much has been written about Iridium’s history, and Ed’s role in driving its satellites into space, most of it negative toward Ed. But I’ve always thought that was at least partly unfair. Watching the flow of news about Iridium at the time it was moving from ground to sky, it was clear to me that Iridium would have remained on the ground if Ed wasn’t a tough bastard about making it fly.

My ad agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, worked for Ed when he was at Motorola in pre-Iridium days. He was indeed a tough taskmaster: almost legendarily demanding and impatient with fools. But I never had a problem with him. And I believe it’s a testimony to Ed’s vision and persistence that Iridium is still up there, doing the job he wanted it to do, and paving the way for Elon and others (including @IridiumComm itself).

So hats off, Ed. Hope you’re doing well.

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I had a bunch of errands to run today, but also a lot of calls. And, when I finally got up from my desk around 4pm with plans to head out in the car, I found five inches of snow already on the apartment deck. Another five would come after that. So driving was clearly a bad idea.

When I stepped out on the street, I saw it was impossible. Cars were stuck, even on our side street.

So I decided to walk down to the nearest dollar store, a few blocks north on Broadway, which is also downhill in this part of town, to check out the ‘hood and pick up some deck lights to replace the ones that had burned out awhile back.

What I found on Broadway was total gridlock, because too many cars and trucks couldn’t move. Tires all over spun in place, saying “zzzZZZZzzzZZZ.” After I picked up a couple 5-foot lengths of holiday lights for $1 each at the dollar store, I walked back up past the same stuck length of cars and trucks I saw on the way down. A cop car and an ambulance would occasionally fire up their sirens, but it made no difference. Everything was halted.

When I got back, I put the lights on the deck and later shot the scene above. It’s 10pm now, and rains have turned the scene to slush.

I do hope kids got to sled in the snow anyway. Bonus links: Snow difference and Wintry mixing.

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We live in two worlds now: the natural one where we have bodies that obey the laws of gravity and space/time, and the virtual one where there is no gravity or distance (though there is time).

In other words, we are now digital as well as physical beings, and this is new to a human experience where, so far, we are examined and manipulated like laboratory animals by giant entities that are out of everybody’s control—including theirs.

The collateral effects are countless and boundless.

Take journalism, for example. That’s what I did in a TEDx talk I gave last month in Santa Barbara:

I next visited several adjacent territories with a collection of brilliant folk at the Ostrom Workshop on Smart Cities. (Which was live-streamed, but I’m not sure is archived yet. Need to check.)

Among those folk was Brett Frischmann, whose canonical work on infrastructure I covered here, and who in Re-Engineering Humanity (with Evan Selinger) explains exactly how giants in the digital infrastructure business are hacking the shit out of us—a topic I also visit in Engineers vs. Re-Engineering (my August editorial in Linux Journal).

Now also comes Bruce Schneier, with his perfectly titled book Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World, which Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times sources in A Future Where Everything Becomes a Computer Is as Creepy as You Feared. Pull-quote: “In our government-can’t-do-anything-ever society, I don’t see any reining in of the corporate trends.”

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, a monumental work due out in January (and for which I’ve seen some advance galleys) Shoshana Zuboff makes both cases (and several more) at impressive length and depth.

Privacy plays in all of these, because we don’t have it yet in the digital world. Or not much of it, anyway.

In reverse chronological order, here’s just some what I’ve said on the topic:

So here we are: naked in the virtual world, just like we were in the natural one before we invented clothing and shelter.

And that’s the challenge: to equip ourselves to live private and safe lives, and not just public and endangered ones, in our new virtual world.

Some of us have taken up that challenge too: with ProjectVRM, with Customer Commons, and with allied efforts listed here.

And I’m optimistic about our prospects.

I’ll also be detailing that optimism in the midst of a speech titled “Why adtech sucks and needs to be killed” next Wednesday (October 17th) at An Evening with Advertising Heretics in NYC. Being at the Anne L. Bernstein Theater on West 50th, it’s my off-Broadway debut. The price is a whopping $10.

 

 

Let’s start with Facebook’s Surveillance Machine, by Zeynep Tufekci in last Monday’s New York Times. Among other things (all correct), Zeynep explains that “Facebook makes money, in other words, by profiling us and then selling our attention to advertisers, political actors and others. These are Facebook’s true customers, whom it works hard to please.”

Irony Alert: the same is true for the Times, along with every other publication that lives off adtech: tracking-based advertising. These pubs don’t just open the kimonos of their readers. They bring readers’ bare digital necks to vampires ravenous for the blood of personal data, all for the purpose of aiming “interest-based” advertising at those same readers, wherever those readers’ eyeballs may appear—or reappear in the case of “retargeted” advertising.

With no control by readers (beyond tracking protection which relatively few know how to use, and for which there is no one approach, standard, experience or audit trail), and no blood valving by the publishers who bare those readers’ necks, who knows what the hell actually happens to the data?

Answer: nobody knows, because the whole adtech “ecosystem” is a four-dimensional shell game with hundreds of players

or, in the case of “martech,” thousands:

For one among many views of what’s going on, here’s a compressed screen shot of what Privacy Badger showed going on in my browser behind Zeynep’s op-ed in the Times:

[Added later…] @ehsanakhgari tweets pointage to WhoTracksMe’s page on the NYTimes, which shows this:

And here’s more irony: a screen shot of the home page of RedMorph, another privacy protection extension:

That quote is from Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You, by Brian X. Chen and Natasha Singer, and published on 17 February 2016 in the Times.

The same irony applies to countless other correct and important reportage on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica mess by other writers and pubs. Take, for example, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and the Revelations of Open Secrets, by Sue Halpern in yesterday’s New Yorker. Here’s what RedMorph shows going on behind that piece:

Note that I have the data leak toward Facebook.net blocked by default.

Here’s a view through RedMorph’s controller pop-down:

And here’s what happens when I turn off “Block Trackers and Content”:

By the way, I want to make clear that Zeynep, Brian, Natasha and Sue are all innocents here, thanks both to the “Chinese wall” between the editorial and publishing functions of the Times, and the simple fact that the route any ad takes between advertiser and reader through any number of adtech intermediaries is akin to a ball falling through a pinball machine. Refresh your page while reading any of those pieces and you’ll see a different set of ads, no doubt aimed by automata guessing that you, personally, should be “impressed” by those ads. (They’ll count as “impressions” whether you are or not.)

Now…

What will happen when the Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking data about their readers to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides “interest-based” advertising? And what happens when the EU comes down on them too? It’s game-on after 25 May, when the EU can start fining violators of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Key fact: the GDPR protects the data blood of what they call “EU data subjects” wherever those subjects’ necks are exposed in borderless digital world.

To explain more about how this works, here is the (lightly edited) text of a tweet thread posted this morning by @JohnnyRyan of PageFair:

Facebook left its API wide open, and had no control over personal data once those data left Facebook.

But there is a wider story coming: (thread…)

Every single big website in the world is leaking data in a similar way, through “RTB bid requests” for online behavioural advertising #adtech.

Every time an ad loads on a website, the site sends the visitor’s IP address (indicating physical location), the URL they are looking at, and details about their device, to hundreds -often thousands- of companies. Here is a graphic that shows the process.

The website does this to let these companies “bid” to show their ad to this visitor. Here is a video of how the system works. In Europe this accounts for about a quarter of publishers’ gross revenue.

Once these personal data leave the publisher, via “bid request”, the publisher has no control over what happens next. I repeat that: personal data are routinely sent, every time a page loads, to hundreds/thousands of companies, with no control over what happens to them.

This means that every person, and what they look at online, is routinely profiled by companies that receive these data from the websites they visit. Where possible, these data and combined with offline data. These profiles are built up in “DMPs”.

Many of these DMPs (data management platforms) are owned by data brokers. (Side note: The FTC’s 2014 report on data brokers is shocking. See https://www.ftc.gov/reports/data-brokers-call-transparency-accountability-report-federal-trade-commission-may-2014. There is no functional difference between an #adtech DMP and Cambridge Analytica.

—Terrell McSweeny, Julie Brill and EDPS

None of this will be legal under the #GDPR. (See one reason why at https://t.co/HXOQ5gb4dL). Publishers and brands need to take care to stop using personal data in the RTB system. Data connections to sites (and apps) have to be carefully controlled by publishers.

So far, #adtech’s trade body has been content to cover over this wholesale personal data leakage with meaningless gestures that purport to address the #GDPR (see my note on @IABEurope current actions here: https://t.co/FDKBjVxqBs). It is time for a more practical position.

And advertisers, who pay for all of this, must start to demand that safe, non-personal data take over in online RTB targeting. RTB works without personal data. Brands need to demand this to protect themselves – and all Internet users too. @dwheld @stephan_lo @BobLiodice

Websites need to control
1. which data they release in to the RTB system
2. whether ads render directly in visitors’ browsers (where DSPs JavaScript can drop trackers)
3. what 3rd parties get to be on their page
@jason_kint @epc_angela @vincentpeyregne @earljwilkinson 11/12

Lets work together to fix this. 12/12

Those last three recommendations are all good, but they also assume that websites, advertisers and their third party agents are the ones with the power to do something. Not readers.

But there’s lots readers will be able to do. More about that shortly. Meanwhile, publishers can get right with readers by dropping #adtech and going back to publishing the kind of high-value brand advertising they’ve run since forever in the physical world.

That advertising, as Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian) and Don Marti (@dmarti) have been making clear for years, is actually worth a helluva lot more than adtech, because it delivers clear creative and economic signals and comes with no cognitive overhead (for example, wondering where the hell an ad comes from and what it’s doing right now).

As I explain here, “Real advertising wants to be in a publication because it values the publication’s journalism and readership” while “adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them.”

Doing real advertising is the easiest fix in the world, but so far it’s nearly unthinkable for a tech industry that has been defaulted for more than twenty years to an asymmetric power relationship between readers and publishers called client-server. I’ve been told that client-server was chosen as the name for this relationship because “slave-master” didn’t sound so good; but I think the best way to visualize it is calf-cow:

As I put it at that link (way back in 2012), Client-server, by design, subordinates visitors to websites. It does this by putting nearly all responsibility on the server side, so visitors are just users or consumers, rather than participants with equal power and shared responsibility in a truly two-way relationship between equals.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Beneath the Web, the Net’s TCP/IP protocol—the gravity that holds us all together in cyberspace—remains no less peer-to-peer and end-to-end than it was in the first place. Meaning there is nothing about the Net that prevents each of us from having plenty of power on our own.

On the Net, we don’t need to be slaves, cattle or throbbing veins. We can be fully human. In legal terms, we can operate as first parties rather than second ones. In other words, the sites of the world can click “agree” to our terms, rather than the other way around.

Customer Commons is working on exactly those terms. The first publication to agree to readers terms is Linux Journal, where I am now editor-in-chief. The first of those terms is #P2B1(beta), says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me,” and is hashtagged #NoStalking.

In Help Us Cure Online Publishing of Its Addiction to Personal Data, I explain how this models the way advertising ought to be done: by the grace of readers, with no spying.

Obeying readers’ terms also carries no risk of violating privacy laws, because every pub will have contracts with its readers to do the right thing. This is totally do-able. Read that last link to see how.

As I say there, we need help. Linux Journal still has a small staff, and Customer Commons (a California-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit) so far consists of five board members. What it aims to be is a worldwide organization of customers, as well as the place where terms we proffer can live, much as Creative Commons is where personal copyright licenses live. (Customer Commons is modeled on Creative Commons. Hats off to the Berkman Klein Center for helping bring both into the world.)

I’m also hoping other publishers, once they realize that they are no less a part of the surveillance economy than Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, will help out too.

[Later…] Not long after this post went up I talked about these topics on the Gillmor Gang. Here’s the video, plus related links.

I think the best push-back I got there came from Esteban Kolsky, (@ekolsky) who (as I recall anyway) saw less than full moral equivalence between what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did to screw with democracy and what the New York Times and other ad-supported pubs do by baring the necks of their readers to dozens of data vampires.

He’s right that they’re not equivalent, any more than apples and oranges are equivalent. The sins are different; but they are still sins, just as apples and oranges are still both fruit. Exposing readers to data vampires is simply wrong on its face, and we need to fix it. That it’s normative in the extreme is no excuse. Nor is the fact that it makes money. There are morally uncompromised ways to make money with advertising, and those are still available.

Another push-back is the claim by many adtech third parties that the personal data blood they suck is anonymized. While that may be so, correlation is still possible. See Study: Your anonymous web browsing isn’t as anonymous as you think, by Barry Levine (@xBarryLevine) in Martech Today, which cites De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks, a study by Jessica Su (@jessicatsu), Ansh Shukla (@__anshukla__) and Sharad Goel (@5harad)
of Stanford and Arvind Narayanan (@random_walker) of Princeton.

(Note: Facebook and Google follow logged-in users by name. They also account for most of the adtech business.)

One commenter below noted that this blog as well carries six trackers (most of which I block).. Here is how those look on Ghostery:

So let’s fix this thing.

[Later still…] Lots of comments in Hacker News as well.

[Later again (8 April 2018)…] About the comments below (60+ so far): the version of commenting used by this blog doesn’t support threading. If it did, my responses to comments would appear below each one. Alas, some not only appear out of sequence, but others don’t appear at all. I don’t know why, but I’m trying to find out. Meanwhile, apologies.

Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs. The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the worst she has ever seen, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January

 

This post continues the inquiry I started with Making sense of what happened to Montecito. That post got a record number of reads for this blog, and 57 comments as well.

I expect to learn more at the community meeting this evening with UCSB geologist Ed Keller in the Faulkner Room in the main library in Santa Barbara. Here’s the Library schedule. Note that the meeting will be streamed live on Facebook.

Meanwhile, to help us focus on the geology questions, here is the final post-mudslide damage inspection map of Montecito:

I left out Carpinteria, because of the four structures flagged there, three were blue (affected) and one was yellow (minor), and none were orange (major) or red (destroyed). I’m also guessing they were damaged by flooding rather than debris flow. I also want to make the map as legible as possible, so we can focus on where the debris flows happened, and how we might understand the community’s prospects for the future.

So here are my questions, all subject to revision and correction.

  1. How much of the damage was due to debris flow alone, and how much to other factors (e.g. rain-caused flooding, broken water pipes)?
  2. Was concentration of rain the main reason why we saw flows in the canyons above Montecito, but not (or less so) elsewhere?
  3. Where exactly did the debris flow from? And has the area been surveyed well enough to predict what future debris flows might happen if we get big rains this winter and ones to follow?
  4. Do we need bigger catch basins for debris, like they have at the base of the San Gabriels, above Los Angeles’ basin?
  5. How do the slopes above Montecito and Santa Barbara differ from other places (e.g. the San Gabriels) where debris flows (and rock falls) are far more common?
  6. What geology-advised changes in our infrastructure (especially water and gas) might we make, based on what we’ve learned so far?
  7. What might we expect (that most of us don’t now) in the form of other catastrophes that show up in the geologic record? For example, earthquakes and tsunamis. See here: “This earthquake was associated with by far the largest seismic sea wave ever reported for one originating in California. Descriptive accounts indicate that it may have reached elevations of 15 feet at Gaviota, 30 to 35 feet at Santa Barbara, and 15 feet or more in Ventura. It may have even shown visible effects in the San Francisco harbor.” There is also this, which links to questions about the former report. (Still, there have been a number of catastrophic earthquakes on or affecting the South Coast, and it has been 93 years since the 1925 quake — and the whole Pacific Coast is subject to tsunamis. Here are some photos of the quake.)

Note that I don’t want to ask Ed to play a finger-pointing role here. Laying blame isn’t his job, unless he’s blaming nature for being itself.

Additional reading:

  • Dan McCaslin: Rattlesnake Canyon Fine Now for Day Hiking (Noozhawk) Pull-quote: “Santa Barbara geologist Ed Keller has said that all of Santa Barbara is built on debris flows piled up during the past 60,000 years. Around 1100 A.D., a truly massive debris flow slammed through Rattlesnake Canyon into Mission Canyon, leaving large boulders as far down as the intersection of Alamar Avenue and State Street (go check). There were Chumash villages in the area, and they may have been completely wiped out then. While some saddened Montecitans claim that sudden flash floods and debris flows should have been forecast more accurately, this seems impossible.”
  • Those deadly mudslides you’ve read about? Expect worse in the future. (Wall Street Journal) Pull-quote: “Montecito is particularly at risk as the hill slopes above town are oversteepened by faulting and rapid uplift, and much of the town is built on deposits laid down by previous floods. Some debris basins were in place, but they were quickly overtopped by the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of water and sediment. While high post-fire runoff and erosion rates could be expected, it was not possible to accurately predict the exact location and extreme magnitude of this particular storm and resulting debris flows.”
  • Evacuation Areas Map.
  • Thomas Fire: Forty Days of Devastation (LA Times) Includes what happened to Montecito. Excellent step-by-step 3D animation.

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