Nature and the Internet both came without privacy.

The difference is that we’ve invented privacy tech in the natural world, starting with clothing and shelter, and we haven’t yet done the same in the digital world.

When we go outside in the digital world, most of us are still walking around naked. Worse, nearly every commercial website we visit plants tracking beacons on us to support the extractive economy in personal data called adtech: tracking-based advertising.

In the natural world, we also have long-established norms for signaling what’s private, what isn’t, and how to respect both. Laws have grown up around those norms as well. But let’s be clear: the tech and the norms came first.

Yet for some reason many of us see personal privacy as a grace of policy. It’s like, “The answer is policy. What is the question?”

Two such answers arrived with this morning’s New York TimesFacebook Is Not the Problem. Lax Privacy Rules Are., by the Editorial Board; and Can Europe Lead on Privacy?, by ex-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Both call for policy. Neither see possibilities for personal tech. To both, the only actors in tech are big companies and big government, and it’s the job of the latter to protect people from the former.

What they both miss is that we need big people. We can only get those is with with big tech for each of us.

We got it with personal computing and with the Internet itself, which was designed to make everyone an Archimedes. We also got a measure of it with the phones and tablets we carry around in our pockets and purses. None are yet as private as they should be, but making them fully private is the job of tech.

I bring this up because we will be working on privacy tech over the next four days at the Computer History Museum, first at VRM Day, today, and then over next three days at IIW: the Internet Identity Workshop.

On the table at both are work some of us, me included, are doing through Customer Commons on terms we can proffer as individuals, and the sites and services of the world can agree to.

Those terms are examples of what we call customertech: tech that’s ours and not Facebook’s or Apple’s or Google’s or Amazon’s.

The purpose is to turn the connected marketplace into a Marvel-like universe in which all of us are enhanced. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of laws follow.*

But hey, let’s invent the tech we need first.

*BTW, I give huge props to the EU for the General Data Protection Regulation, which is causing much new personal privacy tech development and discussion. I also think it’s an object lesson in what can happen when an essential area of tech development is neglected, and gets exploited by others for lack of that development.

Also, to be clear, my argument here is not against policy, but for tech development. Without the tech and the norms it makes possible, we can’t have fully enlightened policy.

Bonus link.

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 or experience), and no blood valving by the publishers who bare those readers’ necks, who knows what the hell actually happens to the data?

Answer: nobody can, 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 reporting 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 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 its readers’ data 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 EU citizens wherever they risk having it sucked in the digital world.

To explain more about how this works, here is the (lightly edited) text of a tweet thread this morning, posted 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 go 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.”

Going back to real advertising is the easiest fix in the world, but so far it’s nearly unthinkable because we’ve been defaulted for more than twenty years to an asymmetric power relationship between people 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 to 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 blood bags. We can be 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 the editor-in-chief. The first of those terms will say “just show me ads not based on tracking me,” and is hashtagged #DoNotByte.

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.

I just unsubscribed from Quora notifications.

Reasons:

  1. With my new full-time gig as editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, I have close to no time for anything else, even though many other obligations do take time. Some of those also pay, and so require that I cut out as many distractions as I can.
  2. The filter bubble thing works a bit too well. Two topics I’ve answered a lot—about IQ and radio—seem to bring an avalanche of others that beg to be answered, which I do too quickly, again and again. As a result I’ve said the same damn thing, or the same kinds of damn things, too many times.
  3. I’m not sure writing there does much good. But then, the world is now so thick with “content” that I’m not sure writing anywhere does as much good as it used to.
  4. It’s time now to look for effects. Except for up and down voting, which say almost nothing to me, I have little if any sense that anything I write on Quora means much, if anything, to other people.
  5. It’s not my space. It’s Quora’s

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve slacked off here, at doc.blog and other bloggy places of mine online, other than in Linux Journal. And even there a lot of what I do there is behind the scenes.

Even for people like me, whom marketers call “influencers” (and is nothing to brag about), writing to effect is getting harder and harder. Even if something gets a lot of notice, the news cycle is hardly longer than Now, and the sense of having done something quickly disappears.

So, while it’s a small thing, I’m moving on from Quora and focusing on stuff I know matters, whether I sense effects or not.

Life in the Fast & Vast Lane, I guess.

Power of the People is a great grabber of a headline, at least for me. But it’s a pitch for a report that requires filling out the form here on the right:

You see a lot of these: invitations to put one’s digital ass on mailing list, just to get a report that should have been public in the first place, but isn’t so personal data can be harvested and sold or given away to God knows who.

And you do more than just “agree to join” a mailing list. You are now what marketers call a “qualified lead” for countless other parties you’re sure to be hearing from.

And how can you be sure? Read the privacy policy,. This one (for Viantinc.com) begins,

If you choose to submit content to any public area of our websites or services, your content will be considered “public” and will be accessible by anyone, including us, and will not be subject to the privacy protections set forth in this Privacy Policy unless otherwise required by law. We encourage you to exercise caution when making decisions about what information you disclose in such public areas.

Is the form above one of those “public areas”? Of course. What wouldn’t be? And are they are not discouraging caution by requiring you to fill out all the personal data fields marked with a *? You betcha. See here:

III. How we use and share your information

A. To deliver services

In order to facilitate our delivery of advertising, analytics and other services, we may use and/or share the information we collect, including interest-based segments and user interest profiles containing demographic information, location information, gender, age, interest information and information about your computer, device, or group of devices, including your IP address, with our affiliates and third parties, such as our service providers, data processors, business partners and other third parties.

B. With third party clients and partners

Our online advertising services are used by advertisers, websites, applications and other companies providing online or internet connected advertising services. We may share information, including the information described in section III.A. above, with our clients and partners to enable them to deliver or facilitate the delivery of online advertising. We strive to ensure that these parties act in accordance with applicable law and industry standards, but we do not have control over these third parties. When you opt-out of our services, we stop sharing your interest-based data with these third parties. Click here for more information on opting out.

No need to bother opting out, by the way, because there’s this loophole too:

D. To complete a merger or sale of assets

If we sell all or part of our business or make a sale or transfer of our assets or are otherwise involved in a merger or transfer of all or a material part of our business, or participate in any other similar business combination (including, without limitation, in connection with any bankruptcy or similar proceeding), we may transfer all or part of our data to the party or parties involved in the transaction as part of that transaction. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that we and any purchaser of our business or assets may continue to collect, use and disclose your information in compliance with this Privacy Policy.

Okay, let’s be fair: this is boilerplate. Every marketing company—hell, every company period—puts jive like this in their privacy policies.

And Viant isn’t one of marketing’s bad guys. Or at least that’s not how they see themselves. They do mean well, kinda, if you forget they see no alternative to tracking people.

If you want to see what’s in that report without leaking your ID info to the world, the short cut is New survey by people-based marketer Viant promotes marketing to identified users in @Martech_Today.

What you’ll see there is a company trying to be good to users in a world where those users have no more power than marketers give them. And giving marketers that ability is what Viant does.

Curious… will Viant’s business persist after the GDPR trains heavy ordnance on it?

See, the GDPR  forbids gathering personal data about an EU citizen without that person’s clear permission—no matter where that citizen goes in the digital world, meaning to any site or service anywhere. It arrives in full force, with fines of up to 4% of global revenues in the prior fiscal year, on 25 May of this year: about three months from now.

In case you’ve missed it, I’m not idle here.

To help give individuals fresh GDPR-fortified leverage, and to save the asses of companies like Viant (which probably has lawyers working overtime on GDPR compliance), I’m working with Customer Commons (on the board of which I serve) on terms individuals can proffer and companies can agree to, giving them a form of protection, and agreeable companies a path toward GDPR compliance. And companies should like to agree, because those terms will align everyone’s interests from the start.

I’m also working with Linux Journal (where I’ve recently been elevated to editor-in-chief) to make it one of the first publishers to agree to friendly terms its readers proffer. That’s why I posted Every User a Neo there. Other metaphors: turning everyone on the Net into an Archimedes, with levers to move the world, and turning the whole marketplace in to a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

If you want to help with any of that, talk to me.

 

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

In this case, a good microphone in a bluetooth headset.

Specifically, the Bose Soundsport Wireless:

I’ve had these a day so far, and I love them. But not just because they sound good. Lots of earphones do that. I love them because the mic in the thing is good. This is surprisingly rare.

Let’s start with the humble Apple EarPods that are overpriced at $29 but come free with every new Apple i-thing and for that reason are probably the most widely used earphones on Earth:

No, their sound isn’t great. But get this: in conversation they sound good to ears at the other end. Better, in my judgement than the fancy new AirPods. (Though according to Phil Windley in the comments below, they are good at suppressing ambient noise.) The AirPods are also better than lots of other earphones I’ve used: ones from Beats, SkullCandy, Sennheiser and plenty of other brands. (I lose and destroy earphones and headphones constantly.) In all my experience, I have have not heard any earphones or headphones that sound better than plain old EarPods. In fact I sometimes ask, when somebody sounds especially good over a voice connection, if they’re using EarPods. Very often the answer is yes. “How’d you guess?” they ask. “Because you sound unusually good.”

So, when a refurbished iPhone 7 Plus arrived to replace my failing iPhone 5s two days ago, and it came with no headphone hole (bad, but I can live), I finally decided to get some wireless earphones. So I went to Consumer Reports on the Web, printed out their ratings for Wireless Portable Stereo Headphones (alas, behind a subscription wall), went to the local Staples, and picked up a JBL E25BT for $49 against a $60 list price. I chose that one because Consumer Reports gives it a rating of 71 out of 100 (which isn’t bad, considering that 76 is the top rating for any of the 50 models on the list)—and they called it a “best buy” as well.

I was satisfied until I talked to my wife over the JBL on my new phone. “You’re muffled,” she said. Then I called somebody else. “What?” they said. “I can’t hear you.” I adjusted the mic so it was closer to my mouth. “What?” they said again. I switched to the phone itself. “That’s better.” I then plugged the old EarPods into Apple’s Lightning dongle, which I also bought at Staples for $9. “Much better.”

So the next day I decided to visit an Apple Store to see what they had, and recommended. I mean, I figured they’d have a fair chance of knowing.

“I want a good mic more than I want good sound,” I said to the guy.  “Oh,” he replied. “I shouldn’t say this because we don’t sell them; but you need a Bose. They care about mics and theirs are the best. Go to the Best Buy down the street and see what they’ve got.” So I went.

At Best Buy the guy said, “The best mic is in the Bose Soundsport Wireless.” I pulled my six-page Consumer Reports list of rated earphones out of my back pocket. There at the top of the ratings was the Soundsport. So I bought a blue one. Today I was on two long calls and both parties at the other ends said “You sound great.” One added, “Yeah, really good.” So there ya go.

I’m sure there are other models with good mics; but I’m done looking, and I just want to share what I’ve found so far—and to implore all the outfits that rate earphones and headphones with mics to rate the mics too. It’s a kindness to the people at the other end of every call.

Remember: conversations are two-way, and the person speaking has almost no idea how good they’re sounding to the other person over a mobile phone. So give the mics some weight.

And thanks, Bose. Good product.

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.

Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map by the United States Geological Survey:

That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.

Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”

But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?

The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independent reports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]

My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)

One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.

What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.

To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:

I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.

I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.

We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 809 Ashley Road
  6. 809 Ashley Road (there are two at one address)
  7. 747 Indian Lane
  8. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  9. 590 Meadowood Lane
  10. 830 Rockbridge Road
  11. 800 Rockbridge Road
  12. 790 Rockbridge Road
  13. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  14. 1261 East Valley Road
  15. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  16. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  17. 1254 East Valley Drive
  18. 1255 East Valley Road
  19. 1247 East Valley Road A
  20. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road A
  22. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  23. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  24. 1221 East Valley Road A
  25. 1221 East Valley Road B
  26. 369 Hot Springs Road
  27. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  28. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  29. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  30. 355 Hot Springs Road
  31. 335 Hot Springs Road A
  32. 335 Hot Springs Road B
  33. 333 Hot Springs Road (Not marked in final map)
  34. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  35. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  36. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  37. 340 Hot Springs Road
  38. 319 Hot Springs Road
  39. 325 Olive Mill Road
  40. 285 Olive Mill Road
  41. 275 Olive Mill Road
  42. 325 Olive Mill Road
  43. 220 Olive Mill Road
  44. 200 Olive Mill Road
  45. 275 Olive Mill Road
  46. 180 Olive Mill Road
  47. 170 Olive Mill Road
  48. 144 Olive Mill Road
  49. 137 Olive Mill Road
  50. 139 Olive Mill Road
  51. 127 Olive Mill Road
  52. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  53. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  54. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  55. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  56. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  57. 82 Olive Mill Road
  58. 1308 Danielson Road
  59. 81 Depot Road
  60. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek—
  1. 601 San Ysidro Road
  2. 560 San Ysidro Road B
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 1689 Mountain Drive
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane C (all the Lane addresses appear to be in San Ysidro Ranch)
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  14. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  15. 900 San Ysidro Lane E
  16. 900 San Ysidro Lane F
  17. 900 San Ysidro Lane G
  18. 900 San Ysidro Lane H
  19. 900 San Ysidro Lane I
  20. 900 San Ysidro Lane J
  21. 900 San Ysidro Lane K
  22. 900 San Ysidro Lane L
  23. 900 San Ysidro Lane M
  24. 900 San Ysidro Lane N
  25. 900 San Ysidro Lane O
  26. 900 San Ysidro Lane R
  27. 900 San Ysidro Lane S
  28. 900 San Ysidro Lane T
  29. 888 San Ysidro Lane A
  30. 888 San Ysidro Lane B
  31. 888 San Ysidro Lane C
  32. 888 San Ysidro Lane D
  33. 888 San Ysidro Lane E
  34. 888 San Ysidro Lane F
  35. 805 West Park Lane B
  36. 799 East Mountain Drive
  37. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  38. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  39. 771 Via Manana Road
  40. 899 El Bosque Road
  41. 771 Via Manana Road
  42. 898 El Bosque Road
  43. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  44. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  45. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  46. 559 El Bosque Road (This is between Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek)
  47. 680 Randall Road
  48. 670 Randall Road
  49. 660 Randall Road
  50. 650 Randall Road
  51. 640 Randall Road
  52. 630 Randall Road
  53. 619 Randall Road
  54. 1685 East Valley Road A
  55. 1685 East Valley Road B
  56. 1685 East Valley Road C
  57. 1696 East Valley Road
  58. 1760 Valley Road A
  59. 1725 Valley Road A
  60. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  61. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  62. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road A
  67. 1705 East Valley Road B
  68. 1705 East Valley Road C
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  70. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  71. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  72. 1707 East Valley Road A
  73. 1685 East Valley Road C
  74. 1709 East Valley Road
  75. 1709 East Valley Road B
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  77. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  80. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  81. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  82. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  83. 1715 East Valley Road A
  84. 1715 East Valley Road B
  85. 1719 East Valley Road
  86. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  90. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  92. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  93. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  94. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  96. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  97. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  100. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  101. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 670 Lilac Drive
  6. 658 Lilac Drive
  7. 2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
  8. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1000 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  4. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  7. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Below Toro Canyon—

  1. 876 Toro Canyon Road
  2. 572 Toro Canyon Park Road

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 163* 178† among the destroyed alone.

[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]

[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions. Additional note: on March 22, the resident at 809 Ashley Road asked me to make sure that address was also added. There are two homes at that address, both gone.]

Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. Or even there at all.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among nature’s most casual methods for revising landscapes. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The stack of rock strata under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, while erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)

So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?

Here’s why:

One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)

This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile we strive on.

In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of these by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.

To understand the challenge involved, it helps to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which takes its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.)

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

 

Tags: , , , ,

When I flew out of California on the 14th, this blog was still working. When I went here to post about the Thomas Fire on 15th, it wasn’t. (Somebody later told me Harvard was moving servers around, so maybe that was it.) But then the fire looked to be under control. It wasn’t.

On the 16th it blew hard down across the mountain flank of Montecito and Santa Barbara, straight toward our house.

So I posted reports, throughout the day, on the #ThomasFire, which is still burning—and will continue burn after it becomes the largest in California history, which will likely happen soon—over at Doc.Blog, which has the old-fashioned blogging virtue of being extremely easy to post on and to edit in real time, and in a WYSIWYG way.

Here are my posts there, in chronological order:

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 9:35am PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 9:55am PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 10:37am PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 11:26am PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 11:58am PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 1:09pm PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 6:02pm PST

#ThomasFire 2017_12_16 8:54pm PST

As you can see in the two screenshots above (taken from this NCWG.gov map), the fire is still active, but the red dots are fewer, and not right next to civilization.

There is a lot of finishing work for the firefighters to do. Considering the size of the fire, and the rocky and wooded locations of so many homes that they saved, we owe them largest possible tip of the largest possible hat. If the fire had its way, the city would certainly have been ruined. And our house would very likely be gone.

There are two more stories that need to be told here.

One is how, exactly, this fire was fought. I gather that there was none other like it in the country’s history, and that there is a great deal ordinary folks don’t know about how fires are fought now, especially in “urban interfaces” (as the pros call them) like the ones we have here.

The other is about the coal in Santa Barbara’s stocking this Christmas. Already the most common sign on storefronts downtown was “For Lease.” State Street, the retail and cultural artery through the city’s heart, seemed half abandoned well before the fire and almost completely abandoned when the fire reached its worst point yesterday. Now, with most of the population evacuated, it seems in places like most of the remaining customers are off-duty fire personnel. It’s hard to imagine how, with both residents and visitors staying away, economic damage will not be very large.

I’m interested in any of the research and writing that may be happening around that right now.

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The term “fake news” was a casual phrase until it became clear to news media that a flood of it had been deployed during last year’s presidential election in the U.S. Starting in November 2016, fake news was the subject of strong and well-researched coverage by NPR (here and here), Buzzfeed, CBS (here and here), Wired, the BBC, Snopes, CNN (here and here), Rolling Stone and others. It thus became a thing…

… until Donald Trump started using it as an epithet for news media he didn’t like. He did that first during a press conference on February 16, and then the next day on Twitter:

And he hasn’t stopped. To Trump, any stick he can whup non-Fox mainstream media with is a good stick, and FAKE NEWS is the best.

So that pretty much took “fake news,” as a literal thing, off the table for everyone other than Trump and his amen chorus.

So, since we need a substitute, I suggest decoy news. Because that’s what we’re talking about: fabricated news meant to look like the real thing.

But the problem is bigger than news alone, because advertising-funded media have been in the decoy business since forever. The difference in today’s digital world is that it’s a lot easier to fabricate a decoy story than to research and produce a real one—and it pays just as well, or even better, because overhead in the decoy business rounds to nothing. Why hire a person to do an algorithm’s job?

In the content business the commercial Web has become, algorithms are now used to target both stories and the advertising that pays for them.

This is why, on what we used to call the editorial side of publishing (interesting trend here), journalism as a purpose has been displaced by content production.

We can see one tragic result in a New York Times story titled In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen (@davidwchen). In it he reports that “The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”

This calls to mind how Saturday Night Live in 1977 introduced the Blues Brothers in a skit where Paul Shaffer, playing rock impresario Don Kirshner, proudly said the Brothers were “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.”

To be viably commercial today, all media need to be in the content production business, paid for by adtech, which is entirely driven by algorithms informed by surveillance-gathered personal data. The result looks like this:

To fully grok how we got here, it is essential to understand the difference between advertising and direct marketing, and how nearly all of online advertising is now the latter. I describe the shift from former to latter in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:

Advertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.

Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.

Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.

First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.

Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making brands sponsoring a game familiar to everybody watching it.

In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375–390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. Thus branding is about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative one.

Plain old brand advertising also paid for the media we enjoyed. Still does, in fact. And much more. Without brand advertising, pro sports stars wouldn’t be getting eight and nine figure contracts.

But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.

In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.

See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.

Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.

Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.

And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.

So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.

Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

It is now an article of faith within today’s brain-snatched advertising business that the best ad is the most targeted and personalized ad. Worse, almost all the journalists covering the advertising business assume the same thing. And why wouldn’t they, given that this is how advertising is now done online, especially by the Facebook-Google duopoly.

And here is why those two platforms can’t fix it: both have AI machines built to give millions of advertising customers ways to target the well-studied eyeballs of billions of people, using countless characterizations of those eyeballs.In fact, the only (and highly ironic) way they can police bad acting on their platforms is by hiring people who do nothing but look for that bad acting.

One fix is regulation. We now have that, hugely, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s an EU law, but it protects the privacy of EU citizens everywhere—with potentially massive fines. In spirit, if not also in letter (which the platforms are struggling mightily to weasel around), the GDPR outlaws tracking people like tagged animals online. I’ve called the GDPR an extinction event for adtech, and the main reason brands (including the media kind) need to fire it.

The other main fixes begin on the personal side. Don Marti (@dmarti) tweets, “Build technologies to implement people’s norms on sharing their personal data, and you’ll get technologies to help high-reputation sites build ad-supported business models ABSOLUTELY FREE!” Those models are all advertising wheat, not adtech chaff.

Now here’s the key: what we need most are single and simple ways for each of us to manage all our dealings with other entities online. Having separate means, each provided by the dozens or hundreds of sites and services we each deal with, all with different UIs, login/password gauntlets, forms to fill out, meaningless privacy policies and for-lawyers-only terms of service, cannot work. All that shit may give those companies scale across many consumers, but every one of them only adds to those consumers’ relationship overhead. I explain how this will work in Giving Customers Scale, plus many other posts, columns and essays compiled in my People vs. Adtech series, which is on its way to becoming a book. I’d say more about all of it, but need to catch a plane. See you on the other coast.

Meanwhile, the least we can do is start talking about decoy news and the business model that pays for it.

[Later…] I’m on the other coast now, but preoccupied by the #ThomasFire threatening our home in Santa Barbara. Since this blog appears to be mostly down, I’m writing about it at doc.blog.

 

 

 

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