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highmountainI’ve long thought that the most consequential thing I’ve ever done was write a newspaper editorial that helped stop development atop the highest wooded hilltop overlooking the New York metro. The hill is called High Mountain, and it is now home to the High Mountain Park Preserve in Wayne, New Jersey. That’s it above, highlighted by a rectangle on a shot I took from a passenger plane on approach to LaGuardia in 2008.

The year was 1970, and I was a 23-year-old reporter for a suburban daily called Wayne Today (which may still exist). One day, while at the police station picking up copies of the previous day’s reports, I found a detailed plan to develop the top of High Mountain, and decided to pay the place a visit. So I took a fun hike through thick woods and a din of screaming cicadas (Brood X, I gather—the same one that inspired Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locust”) to a rocky clearing at the crest, and immediately decided the mountain was a much better place for a park than for the office building specified in the plan.

As it happened there was also a need for an editorial soon after that, and Jerry Fuchs, who usually wrote our editorials, wasn’t available. So I came off the bench and wrote this:


That was a draft proof of the piece.* I ran across it today while cleaning old papers from a file cabinet in my garage. I doubt anybody has the final printed piece, and I’m amazed that the proof exists.

I left for another paper after that, and didn’t keep up with Wayne news, beyond hearing that my editorial derailed the development plan. No doubt activists of various kinds were behind the eventual preservation of the mountain. But it’s nice to know that there is some small proof that I had something to do with that.

*Additional history: Wayne Today published in those days using old-fashioned letterpress techniques. Type was set in lead by skilled operators on Linotype machines. Each line was a “slug,” and every written piece was a pile of slugs arranged in a frame, inked with a roller and then proofed by another roller that printed on blank paper. That’s what we marked up (as you see above) for the Linotype operators, who would create replacement slugs, give them to the page composers in layout, who could read upside down and backwards as they arranged everything in what was called a forme. The layout guys (they were all guys) then embossed each page into a damp papier-mâché sheet, which would serve as a mold for the half-cylinder of hot lead that would eventually do the printing. So the whole process went like this: reporter->Linotype operator->editor->Linotype operator->page composer->stereotype operator->printer. Ancestors of robotics eventually replaced all of it. And now in the U.S., exemplars of big-J journalism (New York Times, Washington Post) are tarred by the President as “fake news,” and millions believe it. My, how times change.

More High Mountain links:


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A photo readers find among the most interesting among the 13,000+ aerial photos I've put on Flickr

This photo of the San Juan River in Utah is among dozens of thousands I’ve put on Flickr. it might be collateral damage if Yahoo dies or fails to sell the service to a worthy buyer.

Flickr is far from perfect, but it is also by far the best online service for serious photographers. At a time when the center of photographic gravity is drifting form arts & archives to selfies & social, Flickr remains both retro and contemporary in the best possible ways: a museum-grade treasure it would hurt terribly to lose.

Alas, it is owned by Yahoo, which is, despite Marissa Mayer’s best efforts, circling the drain.

Flickr was created and lovingly nurtured by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, from its creation in 2004 through its acquisition by Yahoo in 2005 and until their departure in 2008. Since then it’s had ups and downs. The latest down was the departure of Bernardo Hernandez in 2015.

I don’t even know who, if anybody, runs it now. It’s sinking in the ratings. According to Petapixel, it’s probably up for sale. Writes Michael Zhang, “In the hands of a good owner, Flickr could thrive and live on as a dominant photo sharing option. In the hands of a bad one, it could go the way of MySpace and other once-powerful Internet services that have withered away from neglect and lack of innovation.”

Naturally, the natives are restless. (Me too. I currently have 62,527 photos parked and curated there. They’ve had over ten million views and run about 5,000 views per day. I suppose it’s possible that nobody is more exposed in this thing than I am.)

So I’m hoping a big and successful photography-loving company will pick it up. I volunteer Adobe. It has the photo editing tools most used by Flickr contributors, and I expect it would do a better job of taking care of both the service and its customers than would Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or other possible candidates.

Less likely, but more desirable, is some kind of community ownership. Anybody up for a kickstarter?

[Later…] I’m trying out 500px. Seems better than Flickr in some respects so far. Hmm… Is it possible to suck every one of my photos, including metadata, out of Flickr by its API and bring it over to 500px?

I also like Thomas Hawk‘s excellent defense of Flickr, here.


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Hey, this is cool: CoolLAj Magazine includes this shot in La La Land at It’s Best: Photos of LA:

It was near the end of a series of flights from Copenhagen to Santa Barbara, and easily the best of the bunch.

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Until her Supreme Court nomination turned Elena Kagan into big-time news fodder, there was not an abundance of great pictures of her to be found on the Web. Among the better ones to be found were a couple I had posted on Flickr a couple years ago, when she was still Dean of Harvard Law School. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The second of those (cropped a bit) was put up on Wikimedia Commons, and for awhile accompanied her Wikipedia entry, and continues to be used in a number of places.

Both shots have a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 license, meaning anybody can use it, and should also give me credit for having shot it. And both shots have appeared since then in many publications. Some, like Wikipedia, do a good job of following the license. Some, for example Outside the Beltway — in this piece stirring the shit about Ms. Kagan while accusing CBS and other news organizations of bad journalistic practices — do not.

None of that is troubling, or even very interesting. Instead what prompts this post is a comment under one of the two photos, from an entity called TEA PARTY LEADER. It’s a diatribe that verges on hate speech, but (in my amateur judgment) doesn’t quite cross the line. The question for me, when I saw the comment, was Should I kill it?

My photo pile on Flickr isn’t a public space. It welcomes comments to the degree that it simply allows them. It has no rules (of my own or defaulted by Flickr) regarding comments, beyond the ability Flickr provides for editing or deleting them.

I asked fellow Berkman Fellows list for their thoughts, and those went both ways. Some said the space is mine to manage, and if somebody is rudely spamming the premises I should feel free to delete their icky work. Others said doing so indeed would violate free speech principles, even if I would be within my rights in doing so. I was also probed with questions about whether I would delete the comment if its positions were more agreeable to me — though with manners just as rude.

I’ve been inclined from the start toward leaving it up, and that’s where I’m staying. But in the meantime I thought I’d pass along the same questions.

What would you do, and why?

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David Siegel, author of the excellent new book Pull, shares with me an abiding frustration with all major camera makers — especially the Big Two: Canon and Nikon: they’re silos. They require lenses that work only on their cameras and nobody else’s. In Vendor Lock-in FAIL David runs down the particulars. An excerpt:

If you have a Canon body, you’re probably going to buy Canon lenses. Why? Not because they are the best, but because they are the only lenses Canon bodies can autofocus. Canon keeps this interface between body and lens proprietary, to keep Canon owners buying more Canon lenses and prevent them from using third-party lenses. A company called Zeiss makes better lenses than Canon does, but Canon won’t license the autofocus codes toZeiss at any price, because Canon executives know that many of their customers would switch and buy Zeiss lenses and they would sell fewer Canon lenses. The same goes for Nikon. And it’s true – we would.

I didn’t know that Canon froze out Zeiss. Canon doesn’t freeze out Sigma and Tamron, both of which make compatible lenses for both Canon and Nikon (many of them, in fact).  Zeiss makes three lenses for Sony cameras but none for Canon and Nikon. I had assumed that Zeiss had some kind of exclusive deal with Sony.

In any case, photographers have long taken camera maker lock-in for granted. And there is history here. Backwards compatibility has always been a hallmark of Nikon with the F-mount, which dates back to 1959. Would Nikon photographers want the company to abandon its mount for lens compatibility with Canon and others? I kinda think not, but I don’t know. I’ve been a Canon guy, like David, since 2005. I shoot a lot, but I don’t have a single lens that a serious photographer would consider good. For example, I own not one L-series lens. (Those are Canon’s best.) All my lenses I bought cheap and/or used (or, in one case, was given to me).  I was a Nikon guy back in the 70s and 80s, but my gear (actually, my company’s gear, but I treated it like my own) all got stolen. Later I was a Pentax guy, but all that stuff got stolen too. Then I was a Minolta guy, and which I stayed until Minolta went out of business (basically getting absorbed into Sony, a company that could hardly be more proprietary and committed to incompatibility). I decided to dabble in digital in 2005, with a Nikon point-and-shoot (the CoolPix 5700, which had great color and an awful UI). I went with Canon for my first (and still only) SLR, an EOS 30D. (I also use a full-frame EOS 5D, but I won’t consider it mine until I’m done paying for it. Meanwhile none of my old lenses work right on it –they all have vignetting — another source of annoying incompatibility.)

Anyway, I do sympathize with David here:

While Nikon and Canon will both say they need to keep their proprietary interfaces to make sure the autofocus is world-class, they are both living in an old-world mentality. The future is open. Some day, you’ll be able to put a Canon lens right on a Nikon body and it will work fine. And you’ll be able to put a Zeiss lens on and it will work even better. But that day is far off. It will only come when the two companies finally realize the mistake they are making with their arms race now and start to talk openly about a better long-term solution.

Stephen Lewis (who is a serious photographer) and I have talked often about the same problem, [later… he says I got this (and much else) wrong, in this comment)] and also look toward the future with some degree of hope. As for faith, I dunno. As companies that are set in their ways go, it’s hard to beat the camera makers.

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For most of Winter in the Northeast, skating is possible only during the somewhat rare times when the ice is thick and not covered with snow or other unwelcome surface conditions. And bad skating has been the story, typically, for most of this Winter around Boston. After an earlier snow, there were some ad hoc skating rinks cleared by shoveling, but those were ruined by rains, more snow, more rains, and intermittent freezes that made a hash of the surface. But recent rains and hard freezes have formed wide paths between remaining islands of ruined snow. On most ponds there aren’t enough open spaces for real hockey games, but there’s plenty enough for skating, and for hockey practice, anyway. (A note to newbies and outsiders: nearly all lakes here are called ponds. Dunno why yet. Maybe one of ya’ll can tell me. Still a bit of a noob myself.)

Hockey practice is what I saw when I paused to take a sunset shot with my phone at Spy Pond, which I passed it late this afternoon on a long walk along the Minuteman Bikeway, which is one of my favorite walking paths (and thoroughfares — at least when it’s warm and clear enough to bike on). As it happens, Spy Pond ice has some history. There was a period, in the mid- to late-1800s, after railroads got big, but before refrigeration came along, when New England was a source for much of the world’s shipped ice. And Spy Pond itself was one of the most productive sources. This picture here…


… shows ice being harvested for storage in ice houses beside the railroad which is now the Bikeway. I stood near the left edge of this scene when I took the picture at the top, and the boy and his dad playing hockey were about where at the center left, where a horse is shown pulling what looks like a man with a plow. (That last shot is from this historical display alongside the bikeway.)

The brainfather of Boston’s ice industry was Frederic Tudor, about whom I have learned a great deal from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Highly recommended, if you’re into half-forgotten New England history. The book came as a bonus with membership in Mystic Seaport, a terrific maritime museum down the road on the Connecticut coast.

[Later…] The industry you see depicted above can also serve as a metaphor. For that a hat tip goes to Robin Lubbock (@RLma), New Media Director of WBUR, who pointed me to this piece by Michael Rosenblum. Nails it. (I also love Rosenblum’s Maybe monetizing is not the answer and Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms, also via Robin.)

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Last month The Kid and I went to the top of the Empire State Building on the kind of day pilots describe as “severe clear.” I put some of the shots up here, and just added a bunch more here, to share with fellow broadcast engineering and infrastructure obsessives, some of whom might like to help identify some of the stuff I shot.

Most of these shots were made looking upward from the 86th floor deck, or outward from the 102nd floor. Most visitors only go to the 86th floor, where you can walk outside, and where the view is good enough. It costs an extra $15 per person to go up to the 102nd floor, which is small, but much less crowded. From there you can see but one item of broadcast interest, and it’s so close you could touch it if the windows opened. This is the old Alford master FM antenna system: 32 fat T-shaped things, sixteen above the windows and sixteen below, all angled at 45°.

From the 1960s to the 1980s (and maybe later, I’m not sure yet), these objects radiated the signals of nearly every FM station in New York. They’re still active, as backup antennas for quite a few stations. The new master antennas (there are three of them) occupy space in the tower above, which was vacated by VHF-TV antennas (channels 2-13) when TV stations gradually moved to the World Trade Center after it was completed in 1975.

When the twin towers went down on 9/11/2001, only Channel 2 (WCBS-TV) still had an auxiliary antenna on the Empire State Building. The top antenna on the ESB’s mast appears to be a Channel 2 antenna, still. In any case, it is no longer in use, or usable, since the FCC evicted VHF TV stations from their old frequencies as part of last year’s transition to digital transmission. Most of those stations now radiate on UHF channels. (All the stations continue to use their old channel numbers, even though few of them actually operate on those channels.) Two of those stations — WABC-TV and WPIX-TV — have construction permits to move back to their old channels (7 and 11, respectively).

That transition has resulted in a lot of new stuff coming onto the Empire State Building, a lot of old stuff going away, and a lot of relics still up there, waiting to come down or just left there because it’s too much trouble to bother right now. Or so I assume.

For some perspective, here is an archival photo of WQXR’s original transmitting antenna, atop the Chanin Building, with the Empire State Building in the background. The old antenna, not used in many years, is still up there. Meanwhile the Empire State building’s crown has morphed from a clean knob to a spire bristling with antennae.

Calling the Fat Tail

I think I’ve figured out a lot of what’s up there, and have made notes on some of the photos. But I might be wrong about some, or many. In any case, a lot of mysteries remain. That’s why I’m appealing to what I call the “fat tail” for help.

The “fat tail” is the part of the long tail that likes to write and edit Wikipedia entries. These are dedicated obsessives of the sort who, for example, compile lists of the tallest structures in the world, plus the many other lists and sub-lists linked to from that last item.

Tower freaks, I’m talking about. I’m one of them, but just a small potato compared to the great , who reports on a different tower site every week. Among the many sites he has visited, the Empire State Building has been featured twice:  January 2001 and November 2003. Maybe this volunteer effort will help Scott and his readers keep up with progress at the ESB.

This Flickr set, by the way, is not at my home pile, but rather at a new one created for a group of folks studying infrastructure at Harvard’s Berkman Center, where I’m a fellow. I should add that I am also studying the same topic (specifically the overlap between Internet and infrastructure) as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB.

Infrastructure is more of a subject than a field. I unpack that distinction a bit here. My old pal and fellow student of the topic, , visits the topic here.

Getting back to the Empire State Building, what’s most interesting to me about the infrastructure of broadcasting, at least here in the U.S., is that it is being gradually absorbed into the mobile data system, which is still captive to the mobile phone system, but won’t be forever. For New York’s FM stations, the old-fashioned way to get range is to put antennas in the highest possible places, and radiate signals sucking thousands of watts off the grid. The new-fashioned way is to put a stream on the Net. Right now I can’t get any of these stations in Boston on an FM radio. In fact, it’s a struggle even to get them anywhere beyond the visible horizons of the pictures I took on the empire State Building. But they come in just fine on my phone and my computer.

What “wins” in the long run? And what will we do with all these antennas atop the Empire State Building when it’s over? Turn the top into what King Kong climbed? Or what it was designed to be in the first place?

Infrastructure is plastic. It changes. It’s solid, yet replaceable. It needs to learn, to adapt. (Those are just a few of the lessons we’re picking up.)

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It’s almost 3am in Zermatt, which turns into one huge party town for New Years. First we rode in from a nice day in Lausanne on a train packed with rowdy party-goers. Then we found Zermatt turned into one wild-ass place. Fireworks — big ones — were set off from everywhere all over the town, and up on the steep mountain sides. It looked and sounded like a war was going on. The fireworks started before midnight, became a solid cacphony when the cellphones (not very evenly) struck midnight, and went on, solid, for at least an hour more. Meanwhile, on the ground, we were soaked, repeatedly, by shaken bottles of champagne squirted everywhere. Another one was dropped and exploded like a grenade at my feet. I’m surprised I wasn’t cut by it. Bottles, butts and debris are everywhere. Hate the be the ones cleaning the mess up in the morning.

The shot above was looking straight up from in front of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof. Guys set off these boxes of fireworks, only a few feet from the crowd of spectators. Very different from the more cautious U.S. stafety procedures.

That’s the full moon on the right, by the way. Earlier it was partially eclipsed. That’s about as full as it gets.

Tomorrow is our last full day here. Looking forward to another day in the mountains. Meanwhile it’s still yesterday if you live in the Americas. Welcome to the New Year, everybody.

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There are mountains, and there is the Matterhorn. It’s all a matter of sculpture and presentation. Great art, great framing.

The Matterhorn is ice sculpture. It was carved by ice out of rock pushed to the sky by a collision between Italy and Europe that’s still going on. The ice was as high as the mountain, or higher, and the carved off parts are scattered all over the Alps and its alluvial fans, discarded by water and wind when the ice cap melted, only a few millennia before the Pyramids showed up. Go back to when the ice was at high tide, and the Alps looked like the near-buried parts of Greenland do today. (See here, here and here.)

The shot above was what the Matterhorn looked like by moonlight on our way back to the hotel tonight. There’s hardly a thing on Earth more impressive than that.

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New England is full of ruins. Woods everywhere are veined with stone walls, relics of an agrarian age that ended when the industrial one began. Shipping canals, which were thick with horse-drawn cargo when the Thoreau brothers rowed past them up the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, were abandoned once railroads did the same job better. Mills along canals and rivers have long since been torn down or turned into museums, stores or condos. Bypassed by cars and trucks on highways, old railroad beds have lost their easements or turned into bike trails.

So now what happens to radio and TV — two more old industries with landmarks on landscapes? I visited the subject to some degree over in Linux Journal yesterday, with What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came? Here I want to go farther, and look at an industry we know is going to die — and to start doing it well before the end arrives.

AM radio, which operates on such low frequencies that signals are radiated by entire broadcast towers, are built as single or multi-tower “arrays” sitting on buried conductors: “ground systems” that can take up more space in soil than their towers occupy in the air above. Most of these facilities were built between the 20s and 80s. Since then scarce land and environmental restrictions have slowed their spread. I would add that available frequencies are also scarce, but that hasn’t stopped the FCC from easing rules, over and over, turning the band at night (when signals bounce off the sky to reach hundreds of miles from their transmitters) into wall-to-wall hash.

FM radio has only been around in a serious way since the 1950s. Operating on a VHF band, where the antennas themselves don’t need to be large (as they do on AM), FM does best when radiated from altitude, meaning the tops of mountains, buildings and high towers. Some of the latter grow to the legal limit of 2000 feet.

With its VHF and UHF signals, television also requires transmission from altitude. When you see a very high tower standing on landscape, or a bristle of short towers atop mountains and skyscrapers, you’re looking at sources of TV, FM or both. A huge percentage of the world’s tallest masts (a category that includes buildings and towers) stand in the U.S., and many are the full 2000-foot height. Most were built for TV stations. (Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of these. Also of tower collapses — a remarkably long list.)

The first set of these to go the way of ship canals is low-band VHF TV. That is, channels 2-6. After June 12, no antenna broadcasting on those channels in the U.S. will continue to operate. Most high-band VHF TV channels — ones operating on channels 7-13 — will also be abandoned, though a few will continue to transmit digital signals. All stations that formerly occupied channels 2-6 will move to a UHF channel (14 to 50).

Old analog TV transmitters are mostly worthless and can’t be re-purposed. (Here’s an excellent piece on that subject, from The Current.)

What I’m wondering about are the towers. The Current’s story suggests that they’re too expensive to take down (not worth enough in scrap), and that most will be re-purposed in any case.

I don’t think so.

It might be easy enough to re-purpose a few former Channel 2 or Channel 4 towers. But what happens when AM and FM transmission is obsoleted by webcasting? This hasn’t happened yet. There are many architectural and UI challenges, plus the added legal burden of copyright restrictions, which are much tougher on music broadcast on the Web than on the air (at least in the U.S.) But the end will come. The brightest writing on the wall right now is the Public Radio Tuner, a project of CPB and several public radio organizations. Last I heard (disclosure: I’m involved in the project), downloads of the free tuner for iPhone were past 1.6 million. This and other tuners, on the iPhone and other portable devices, will account for more and more listening, especially as more cell phone data plans take the ceilings off data consumption — as AT&T has already done for the iPhone.

Some have suggested that TV and FM towers can be re-purposed for cellular use, and to some degree that’s true. But cellular coverage requires many sites at low elevations, rather than a few at high elevations. As one Cisco guy told me, “they might be able to lease out the bottom 200 feet” of a tower.

Still, ends always come, and The End is in sight for over-the-air radio as well as TV. Then what?

Bonus linkage: Scott Fybush‘s amazing series of visits to broadcast towers, over many years; and a few of my own photos of transmitting sites, many shot from altitude. Also the blog and tweets of George Clark, both of which led to this digression.

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