[Update: 11:20 AM Wednesday 18 January] Well, I woke this morning to hear all the signals from Gibraltar Peak back on the air. I don’t know if the site is on generator power, or if electric power has been restored. This pop-out from a map symbol on Southern California Edison’s Power Outage Awareness Map suggests the latter:

However, I am listening right now to KZSB/1290 AM’s FM signal on 96.9 from Gibraltar Peak, where the show hosts are detailing many road closures, noting that sections of Gibraltar road are “down the hill,” meaning not there anymore, and unlikely to be fixed soon. I think I also heard them say their FM transmitter is on generator power. Far as I know, they are the only station covering local road closures, buildings damaged, farms and orchards damaged, and related topics, in great detail. It’s old-fashioned local radio at its best. Hats off.

Looking at the power requirements up there, only two stations are high-power ones: KDB/93.7’s transmitter pumps 4.9kW into a stack of five antenna bays that yield an ERP (effective radiated power) of 12.5kW, and KDRW(KCRW)/88.7 uses about 5.9kW to produce 12kW ERP through a stack of four antenna bays. Those are on the poles at the right and left ends of this photo, which I shot after the Jesusita Fire in 2009:

All the other stations’ transmitters require less wattage than a microwave oven. Three only put out ten watts. So, given typical modern transmitter efficiencies, I’m guessing the site probably has a 20kW generator, give or take, requiring about 2.5 gallons of propane per hour. So a 500-gallon propane tank (a typical size) will last about 200 hours. Of course, none of that will matter until the next outage, provided electrical service is actually restored now, or soon.

[Update: 3:34 PM Monday 16 January] Two news stories:

  1. Edhat: Gibraltar Road Damage., by Edhat staff, Januraly 11, 2023 12:30 PM. It’s a collection of revealing Gibraltar Road photos that I wish I had seen earlier. Apologies for that. This is the text of the whole story: “A resident of Gibraltar Road shared the below photos from the recent storm damage. A section of the road appears to be washed out with a Tesla trapped under some debris. The Tesla slide is located approximately a quarter mile past the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead and the washed road is about a mile past the radio tower before reaching the west fork trailhead.” If “mile past” means going uphill toward East Camino Cielo on the ridge, that means travel was (and is) impeded (at the very least) in both directions from the transmitter sites. The photos are dramatic. Please check them out.
  2. NoozhawkSeveral Radio Stations Still Off the Air After Storm Knocks Out Power to Gibraltar Transmitter Site by Giana Magnoli, by Managing Editor Giana Magnoli, January 16, 2023 | 1:47 pm

From the Noozhawk story:

  • “… they’ve helicoptered up a new battery and 600 gallons of diesel fuel to the site’s backup generator, but they haven’t been able to get it to work.” I believe this is for lack of the expected banjo valve. (See below.)
  • “Southern California Edison, which supplies power to the transmission towers site, first reported an outage for the Gibraltar Road area at 2:34 a.m. Jan. 9, the day of the big storm.” That was Monday. At least some stations would have switched over to generator power then.
  • “Repair crews haven’t been sent to the site yet, according to the SCE Outage Map, but Franklin said he heard there could be new poles installed this week.” That’s John Franklin, who runs the whole Gibraltar Peak site.
  • “KCLU (102.3 FM) went off the air on Wednesday and was still off as of Monday.KCLU (102.3 FM) went off the air on Wednesday and was still off as of Monday. KJEE (92.9 FM) went down for several days but came back on the air on Thursday.” Note: it’s not on now—at least not on the radios I’m using.
  • “Santa Barbara County spokeswoman Kelsey Gerckens Buttitta said there are cell and radio station towers off Gibraltar Road that requires fuel to operate, and Gibraltar Road and East Camino Cielo Road are closed because of slides, debris and slipouts.” Fixing those roads will be very difficult and time-consuming.

The story also lists signals I reported off as of last night. One correction to that: K250BS/97.9, which relays KTMS/990, is on the air. This I presume is because it’s at the KTMS/KTYD site. All the signals from that site (which is up the road from Gibraltar Peak) are still up. I assume that’s either because they are fed electric power separately from Gibraltar Peak, or because they are running on generator power.

[Update: 11:40 AM Monday 16 January] In a private group discussion with broadcast engineers, I am gathering that a stretch of Gibraltar Road close to the Gibraltar Peak site has collapsed. The location is 34°28’05.2″N 119°40’21″W, not far from the road into the transmitter site. This is not the section marked closed by Santa Barbara County on its map here. It is also not an easy fix, because it appears from one photograph I’ve seen (shared on a private group) that the land under the road slid away. It is also not the section where power lines to the site were knocked out. So we’re looking at three separate challenges here:

  1. Restoring electrical service to Gibraltar Peak, and other places served by the same now-broken lines
  2. Repairing Gibraltar Road in at least two places (the one marked on the county map and the one above)
  3. Getting generators fueled and fixed.

On that last issue, I’m told that the site with most of the transmitters can be powered by a generator that awaits what is called a banjo valve. The KDB facility requires propane, and stayed up longer than the others on the peak while its own supply held up.


Gibraltar Peak isn’t the highest landform overlooking Santa Barbara. At 2180 feet, it’s about halfway up the south flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains. But it does provide an excellent vantage for FM stations that want the least obstructed view of the market’s population. That’s why more local signals come from here than from any other site in the region.

Except for now: a time that began with the storm last Tuesday. That’s when power lines feeding the peak were broken by falling rocks that also closed Gibraltar road. Here is a list of signals that have been knocked off the air (and are still off, as of the latest edit, on Sunday, January 15 at 11:15PM):

  • 88.7 KDRW, which has a studio in Santa Barbara, but mostly relays KCRW from Santa Monica
  • 89.5 KSBX, which relays KCBX from San Luis Obispo*
  • 89.9 K210AD, which relays KPCC from Pasadena by way of KJAI from Ojai
  • 90.3 KMRO-FM2, a booster for KMRO in Camarillo
  • 91.5 K218CP, which relays KAWZ from Twin Falls, Idaho
  • 93.7 KDB, which relays KUSC from Los Angeles (down after running on generator power for 5 days)
  • 96.9 K245DD, which relays KZSB/1290 AM in Santa Barbara
  • 97.9 K250BS, which relays KTMS/990 AM in Santa Barbara (and is on a KTMS tower, farther up the slope)
  • 98.7 K254AH, which relays KPFK from Los Angeles
  • 102.3 KK272DT, the FM side of KCLU/1340 in Santa Barbara and KCLU/88.3 in Thousand Oaks

KTMS/990AM, KTYD/99.9FM, and K231CR/94.1, which relays KOSJ/1490AM, are still on the air as of Sunday night at 11:15pm. Those are are a short distance farther up Gibraltar Road. (In the other box in the photo above.)

Here is a guide to substitute signals for some of the stations:

  • KCRW/KDRW can be heard on KCRU/89.1 from Oxnard (actually, Laguna Peak, in Pt. Magu State Park)
  • KDB can be heard on KDSC/91.1 from Thousand Oaks (actually off Sulphur Mountain Road, south of Ojai)
  • KCLU can be heard on 1340 AM from Santa Barbara and 88.3 FM from Thousand Oaks
  • KPCC can be heard on KJAI/89.5 from Ojai (also transmitting from Sulphur Mountai Road)
  • KSBX/KCBX can be heard on 90.9 from Solvang (actually Broadcast Peak)
  • KPFK can be heard on its home signal (biggest in the U.S.) from Mount Wilson in Los Angeles at 90.7
  • KZSB can be heard on 1290 AM from Santa Barbara
  • KMRO can still be heard on its Camarillo main transmitter on 90.3

The two AM signals (marked green in the top list above) are strong in town and most of the FMs are weak but listenable here and there. And all of them can be heard through their live streams online.

Published stories so far, other than this one:

The Independent says the site is a “relay” one. That’s correct in the sense that most of the stations there are satellites of bigger stations elsewhere. But KCLU is local to Santa Barbara (its anchor AM station is here), and the ratings reflect it. I wrote about those ratings a few years ago, in Where Public Radio Rocks. In that post, I noted that public radio is bigger in Santa Barbara than anywhere else in the country.

The most recent ratings (Spring of 2022), in % shares of total listening, are these:

  • KDB/93.9, classical music, relaying KUSC/91.1 from Los Angeles: 7.9%
  • KCLU/102.3 and 1340 in Santa Barbara (studios in Thousand Oaks), public broadcasting: 7.3%
  • KDRW/88.7 in Santa Barbara (main studio in Santa Monica, as KCRW/89.9): 4.6%
  • KPCC/89.9, relaying KJAI/89.5 and KPCC/89.3 in Pasadena: 1.3%
  • KSBX/89.5, relaying KCBX/90.1 from San Luis Obispo: 0.7%

Total: 21.8%.

That means more than a fifth of all radio listening in Santa Barbara is to noncommercial and public radio.

And, of all those stations, only KDB/KUSC and KCLU-AM are on the air right now.

By the way, when I check to see how public broadcasting is doing in other markets, nothing is close. Santa Barbara still kicks ass. I think that’s an interesting story, and I haven’t seen anyone report on it, other than here.


*Turns out KSBX is off the air permanently, after losing a coverage battle with KPBS/89.5 in San Diego. On December 29, they published a story in print and sound titled Why is 89.5 KSBX off the air? The answer is in the atmosphere. They blame tropospheric ducting, which much of the time makes KPBS come in like a local signal. Also, even though KPBS’s transmitter on Soledad Mountain (really more of a hill) above the coast at La Jolla is more than 200 miles away, it does pump out 26,000 watts, while KCBX puts out only 50 watts—and less in some directions. Though the story doesn’t mention it, KJAI, the KPCC relay on 89.5 for Ojai, is audible in Santa Barbara if nothing else is there. So that also didn’t help. By the way, I’m almost certain that the antenna identified as KSBX’s in the story’s photo (which is also one of mine) is actually for KMRO-2. KSBX’s is the one on the left in this photo here.

2005 Landslide at La Conchita

Most of California has just two seasons: rain and fire. Rain is another name for Winter, and it peaks in January. In most years, January in California isn’t any more wet than, say, New York, Miami or Chicago. But every few years California gets monsoons. Big ones. This is one of those years.

The eighteen gallon storage tub in our yard is sixteen inches deep and serves as a rain gauge:

Yesterday morning it was less than half full. While it gathered rain, our devices blasted out alerts with instructions like this:

So we stayed home and watched the Web tell us how the drought was ending:

Wasn’t long ago that Lake Cachuna was at 7%.

So that’s good news. The bad news is about floods, ruined piers and wharfsdowned trees, power outages, levee breaches. The usual.

It should help to remember that the geology on both coasts is temporary and improvisational. The East Coast south of New England and Long Island (where coastal landforms were mostly dumped there or scraped bare by glaciers in the geologic yesterday) is a stretch of barrier islands that are essentially dunes shifted by storms. Same goes for the Gulf Coast. The West Coast looks more solid, with hills and mountains directly facing the sea. But Pacific storms in Winter routinely feature waves high as houses, pounding against the shores and sea cliffs.

Looking up the coast from Tijuana, within a few hundred years Coronado and Point Loma in San Diego, La Jolla, all the clifftop towns up the coast to Dana Point and Laguna, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Malibu and Point Dume, Carpinteria, the Santa Barbara Mesa and Hope Ranch, all of Isla Vista and UCSB, Pismo and Avila Beaches, all of Big Sur and the Pacific Coast Highway there, Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula, Aptos, Capitola and Santa Cruz, Davenport, Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, the headlands of San Francisco, Muir and Stimson Beaches and Bolinas in Marin, Fort Bragg in Mendicino County, and Crescent City in Humbolt—all in California—will be eaten away partially or entirely by weather and waves. Earthquakes will also weigh in.

The photo up top is of La Conchita, a stupidly located town on the South Coast, west of Ventura, four days after a landslide in 2005 took out 13 homes and killed 10 people. All the land above town is a pile of former and future landslides, sure to slide again when the ground is saturated with water. Such as now or soon.

So that’s a long view. For one that spans the next week, visit windy.com and slide the elevation up to FL (flight level) 340 (34000 feet):

That yellow river of wind is a jet stream hauling serious ass straight across the Pacific and into California. Jet streams are why the headwinds and tailwinds you see on seat-back displays showing flight progress on planes often say 100mph or more. Look at Windy before you fly coast to coast or overseas, and you can guess what the flight path will be. You can also see why it may take as little as five hours to get from Dulles to Heathrow, or more than seven hours to come back by a route that touches the Arctic Circle. Your plane is riding, fighting or circumventing high altitude winds that have huge influences on the weather below.

To see how, drop Windy down to the surface:

Those eddies alongside the jet stream are low pressure centers full of the moisture and wind we call storms. They spin along the sides of the jet stream the way dust devils twist up along the sides of highways full of passing trucks. Those two storm centers are spinning toward California and will bring more wind and rain.

Beside the sure damage those will bring, there will be two benefits. One is that California will be as green as Ireland for a few months. The other is that wildflowers will bloom all over the place.

The Death Valley folks are hedging their bet, but I’d put money on a nice bloom this Spring. Watch for it.

Bonus link: There’s An Underground City Beneath Sacramento In Northern California That Most People Don’t Know About. Excerpt: “…Old Sacramento was built up during the time of the gold rush, but the frequent flooding of this area obliterated its first level time and time again, until finally, the city abandoned that level altogether. It’s both fascinating and creepy to tour the abandoned level…”

Tags: , ,

We live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by the influence of one species over everything else, including the planet itself. That species is ours, and we are a pestilential one, altering, consuming, and wasting everything we can.

Specifically, our civilizations have advanced on the planet like a cancer, parasitically metabolizing materials we call “resources” (without their permission) as if their sums were not finite. Oil and coal will be gone in a few hundred years. Uranium, titanium, tungsten, helium, lithium and other members of the periodic table may be gone far sooner, thanks to our boundless appetites. And yes, we can raise crops of corn and other plants to make fuel for cars and jets, but only at the many costs of monoculture on the biodiversity required for sustaining every form of life.

Vinay GuptaI bring all this up because we’ll be talking about it on Monday at this month’s Ostrom Workshop salon at Indiana University and live on the Web. Our speaker will be Vinay Gupta (@leashless), inventor of the Hexayurt refugee shelter, founder and CEO of Mattereum, a progenitor of Ethereum, and source of wisdom on all that and much else. The title of his talk is the headline above. His case is that we have to get our per-person environmental consumption down by about 10x. Or else.

It helps that there are people and regions in the world providing living examples of how that is done. Vinay is deeply familiar with those and will share what he knows in ways that help us co-think and work to save the planet’s butt, along with our own.

The salon is at 2 PM Eastern time. It is also free, but you need to register first, here.

If this follows the pattern of our prior salons—all with the theme Beyond the Web—the presentation and discussion will be lively, informative, and productive. See you there.

When Clouds Crash

Rackspace is in a crater right now, on fire.

So are many of its customers. I’m one of them.

What happened, Rackspace says, was “the result of a ransomware incident.” Damaged, lost or destroyed is its Hosted Exchange business. On that cloud platform, companies and individuals around the world run their email and much else.

It’s quite a saga.

The first report from Rackspace came at 11:49pm Pacific (where I am) on Thursday, posted on its Incidents page:

We are investigating an issue that is affecting our Hosted Exchange environments. More details will be posted as they become available.

Updates got more wordy as the outage continued. About a day later, a long posting said,

We proactively powered down and disconnected the Hosted Exchange environment while we triaged to understand the extent and the severity of the impact. After further analysis, we have determined that this is a security incident.

They also offered a lifeline of sorts:

At no cost to you, we will be providing access to Microsoft Exchange Plan 1 licenses on Microsoft 365 until further notice. At no cost to you, we will be providing access to Microsoft Exchange Plan 1 licenses on Microsoft 365 until further notice. To activate, please use the below link for instructions on how to set up your account and users.

For reasons not worth going into, this was useless to me. But I’m also just one guy, and almost all of Rackspace’s customers are businesses with more to lose.

Getting help from Rackspace quickly became difficult or impossible, while details about the situation were minimal, until this morning (6 December), when they said it was a ransomware incident. Which countless tweets had been suggesting from the start.

Here is what Rackspace said it was doing about it:

Alongside our internal security team, we have engaged a leading cyber defense firm to investigate. Our investigation is still in its early stages, and it is too early to say what, if any, data was affected. If we determine sensitive information was affected, we will notify customers as appropriate.

No FBI? CIA? NSA? DHS? Police? My guess is that at least two of those have been notified because it would make sense for them to be involved. But I’m sure abundant caution on Rackspace’s part is the reason we’re not hearing about any of that.

As for notifying customers, good luck. In a posting two days ago, Rackspace said,

For those who are finding the process challenging and are awaiting support, we ask for your patience as we increase staff to help every customer. Since our last update, we have mobilized roughly 1000 support Rackers to reduce wait times and address ticket queues. We will continue to accelerate and deploy even more resources to further help customers.

Search for Rackspace+wait on Twitter to see how that’s going.

Yesterday morning I chose the “we’ll call you back asap” option at the Rackspace support number, after calling them fruitlessly before that. Since then, crickets. Meanwhile, I’ve been working almost non-stop on moving my email hosting to Hover, which answers the phone quickly and is always helpful.

Of course, I haven’t been able to export anything from Rackspace, and I have growing doubts that I ever will. If the failure is total, many details of my life in the digital world will be lost forever.

One bit of good fortune is that my wife and sister, who both also have searls.com email addresses, were on Rackspace’s basic non-Exchange email service. Since that was still working today, we could export their mail archive from Rackspace as .mbox files, and start new accounts for them on Hover. (Ironically, I moved to Rackspace’s Exchange service because I punched through the basic service’s 25Gb limit on storage, and they sold me on the Exchange service’s better security.)

Ramsomware is bad shit. If you’re Rackspace or one of its customers, there is plenty to fear.

But the larger story here isn’t about Rackspace or its customers. It’s about the cloud business, which is beyond massive.

I’ve been looking for examples of cloud failures that are bigger than this one. Here’s a list from five years ago. Here is one from July of this year. Here is one from August. Most list disruptions lasting hours. This one has been going on for five days with no end in sight.

So let’s imagine that Rackspace and its customers are stuck in that crater, and it just keeps burning. For years. What are the lessons from that?

[Later, on 10 December…] This report by Kevin Beaumont on the Rackspace catastrophe (which continues) is long on technical and administrative details that nobody else seems to be reporting, and is damning to Microsoft as well.

That was Bill Swindaman on the last day I saw him: June 2nd of this year, at a gathering of friends from the best community I’ve ever known: a real one, of friends living in a place. The place was called Oxbow, and it was a collection of mismatched houses on a short dirt road that skirted a pond off Mt. Sinai Road, north of Chapel Hill, in North Carolina. I lived or hung out there, and with friends who called themselves Oxbovines, from 1974 until I moved to Silicon Valley in 1985. After that, we got together once a year at a beach house until the early ’90s. One thing that kept me coming back was a letter Bill wrote called “Where the hell is Searls?”

Since then we’ve all stayed good friends and in touch. And sometimes rogue planets in our little solar system, such as I, would come through town and we’d get together. That’s what happened in June. It was great to see everybody, but there was bummage in the house, because we all knew Bill had ALS: an awful and fatal disease, diagnosed six months earlier. It was a disease that had claimed David Hodskins, my business partner and a friend for nearly as long, just three months earlier. (I remember David, and some of our business adventures, here.)

At Oxbow, Bill and I would often play one-on-one basketball (he was bigger and better), and shoot the shit about everything. I remember one story he told about his dad, a family doctor in Toledo, Ohio. When his car caught fire on the road for no obvious reason, Doctor Swindaman calmly pulled over to the side, got out, lit a cigarette, and calmly watched the thing burn down. Bill too was known for his calm and love of irony. On one of his long cross-country trips alone, Bill sent me a postcard from Tijuana. All he wrote was “Where the liquor flowed, and the dice were hot.” (Those less elderly that Bill and I might not know the reference.)

As I recall, Bill went to Wittenberg College and got his masters in (I thought it was urban planning, but have heard it was something else) at UNC Chapel Hill. After that, he had a series of jobs that he used to accumulate savings for funding long trips. His last job, as I recall, was working for UNC doing something or other that doesn’t matter as much as the other vocation he took up in recent decades: nature photography. You can see his work at BillSwindamanPhotography.com. Here he is, on the job:

I recognize so many places when I look through his photographs—Death Valley, Comb Ridge, Monument Valley, Arches, Canyonlands—less because I’ve been there than because I’ve shot them from commercial flights zooming by overhead. I envied Bill’s ability to get out and explore these places, while I was too committed to other things. I also respected the quality of Bill’s work. It was, and remains, primo.

We did talk for a while about his maybe coming up to New York, from which we could go out to tidelands and photograph wildlife and other outdoor scenes. I lacked gear and skills to equal Bill’s, but it would have been fun. Alas, as John Lennon said, life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.

When I saw Bill in June, I asked if he was still in shape to keep shooting. He said no, and that he had already sold off all his gear. Yet he was still in good humor, considering the obvious fact that he was done with pretty much everything other than persisting at being his good self.

This morning came an email I hadn’t expected this soon. It was from Jackie Strouble, the wild dear with whom he hooked up back in our Oxbow days. With her permission, I’ll later add here what she wrote. Meantime I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing the photo above, which came with her letter.

And I just hope Bill’s memory for us Oxbovines will be a blessing to the rest of the world.

On Twitter 2.0

So far the experience of using Twitter under Musk is pretty much unchanged. Same goes for Facebook.

Yes, there is a lot of hand-wringing, and the stock market hates Meta (the corporate parent to which Facebook gave birth); but so far the experience of using both is pretty much unchanged.

This is aside from the fact that the two services are run by feudal overlords with crazy obsessions and not much feel for roads they both pave and ride.

As for Meta (and its Reality Labs division), virtual and augmented realities (VR and AR) via headgear are today where “Ginger” was before she became the Segway: promising a vast horizontal market that won’t materialize because its utilities are too narrow.

VR/AR will, like the Segway, will find some niche uses. For Segway, it was warehouses, cops, and tourism. For VR/AR headgear it will be gaming, medicine, and hookups in meta-space. The porn possibilities are beyond immense.

As for business, both Twitter and Facebook will continue to be hit by a decline in personalized advertising and possibly a return to the old-fashioned non-tracking-based kind, which the industry has mostly forgotten how to do. But it will press on.

Not much discussed, but a real possibility is that advertising overall will at least partially collapse. This has been coming for a long time. (I’ve been predicting it at least since 2008.) First, there is near-zero (and widespread negative) demand for advertising on the receiving end. Second, Apple is doing a good job of working for its customers by providing ways to turn off or thwart the tracking that aims most ads online. And Apple, while not a monopoly, is pretty damn huge.

It may also help to remember that trees don’t grow to the sky. There is a life cycle for companies just as there is for living things.

I wrote this more than a quarter century ago when Linux Journal was the only publication that would have me, and I posted unsold essays and wannabe columns at searls.com. These postings accumulated in this subdirectory for several years before Dave Winer got me to blog for real, starting here.

Interesting how much has changed since I wrote this, and how much hasn’t. Everything I said about metaphor applies no less than ever, even as all the warring parties mentioned have died or moved on to other activities, if not battles. (Note that there was no Google at this time, and the search engines mentioned exist only as fossils in posts such as this one.)

Perhaps most interesting is the paragraph about MARKETS ARE CONVERSATIONS. While that one-liner had no effect at the time, it became a genie that would not return to its bottle after Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I put it in The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. In fact, I had been saying “markets are conversations” to no effect at least since the 1980s. Now join the conversation” is bullshit almost everywhere it’s uttered, but you can’t stop hearing it. Strange how that goes.

MAKE MONEY, NOT WAR
TIME TO MOVE PAST THE WAR METAPHORS OF THE INDUSTRIAL AGE

By Doc Searls
19 March 1997

“War isn’t an instinct. It’s an invention.”

“The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”

“Conversation is the socializing instrument par excellence.”

-José Ortega y Gasset


Patton lives

In the movie “Patton,” the general says, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” In a moment of self-admonition, he adds, “God help me, I love it so.”

And so do we. For proof, all we have to do is pick up a trade magazine. Or better yet, fire up a search engine.

Altavista says more than one million documents on the Web contain the words MicrosoftNetscape, and war. Hotbot lists hundreds of documents titled “Microsoft vs. Netscape,” and twice as many titled “Netscape vs. Microsoft.”

It’s hard to find an article about the two companies that does not cast them as opponents battling over “turf,” “territory,” “sectors” and other geographies.

It’s also hard to start a conversation without using the same metaphorical premise. Intranet Design Magazine recently hosted a thread titled “Who’s winning?? Netscape vs. Microsoft.” Dave Shafer starts the thread with “Wondering what your informed opinion is on who is winning the internet war and what affects this will have on inter/intranet development.” The first respondent says, “sorry, i’m from a french country,” and “I’m searching for economical informations about the war between Microsoft and Netscape for the control of the WEB industrie.” Just as telling is a post by a guy named Michael, who says “Personaly I have both on my PC.”

So do I. Hey, I’ve got 80 megs of RAM and a 2 gig hard drive, so why not? I also have five ISPs, four word processors, three drawing programs, and two presentation packages. I own competing products from Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, Adobe, Yamaha, Sony, Panasonic, Aiwa, Subaru, Fisher Price and the University of Chicago — to name just a few I can see from where I sit. I don’t sense that buying and using any of these is a territorial act, a victory for one company, or a defeat for another.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have those perceptions when we write and talk about companies and the markets where they compete. Clearly, we do, because we understand business — as we understand just about everything — in metaphorical terms. As it happens, our understanding of companies and markets is largely structured by the metaphors BUSINESS IS WAR and MARKETS ARE BATTLEFIELDS.

By those metaphors we share an understanding that companies fight battles over market territories that they attack, defend, dominate, yield or abandon. Their battlefields contain beachheads, bunkers, foxholes, sectors, streams, hills, mountains, swamps, streams, rivers, landslides, quagmires, mud, passages, roadblocks, and high ground. In fact, the metaphor BUSINESS IS WAR is such a functional conceptual system that it unconsciously pumps out clichés like a machine. And since sports is a sublimated and formalized kind of war, the distances between sports and war metaphors in business are so small that the vocabularies mix without clashing.

Here, I’ll pick up the nearest Business Week… it’s the January 13 issue. Let’s look at the High Technology section that starts on page 104. The topic is Software and the headline reads, “Battle stations! This industry is up for grabs as never before…” Here’s the first paragraph, with war and sports references capitalized: “Software was once an orderly affair in which a few PLAYERS called most of the shots. The industry had almost gotten used to letting Microsoft Corp. set the agenda in personal computing. But as the Internet ballooned into a $1 billion software business in 1996, HUGE NEW TERRITORIES came up for grabs. Microsoft enters the new year in a STRONG POSITION TO REASSERT CONTROL. But it will have to FIGHT OFF Netscape, IBM, Oracle and dozens of startups that are DESPERATELY STAKING OUT TURF on the Net. ‘Everyone is RACING TO FIND MARKET SPACE and get established…'”

Is this a good thing? Does it matter? The vocabularies of war and sports may be the most commonly used sources of metaphors, for everything from academic essays to fashion stories. Everybody knows war involves death and destruction, yet we experience little if any of that in the ordinary conduct of business, or even of violent activities such as sports.

So why should we concern ourselves with war metaphors, when we all know we don’t take them literally?

Two reasons. First, we do take them literally. Maybe we don’t kill each other, but the sentiments are there, and they do have influences. Second, war rarely yields positive sums, except for one side or another. The economy the Internet induces is an explosion of positive sums that accrue to many if not all participants. Doesn’t it deserve a more accurate metaphor?

For answers, let’s turn to George Lakoff.

The matter of Metaphor

“Answer true or false,” Firesign Theater says. “Dogs flew spaceships. The Aztecs invented the vacation… If you answered ‘false’ to any of these questions, then everything you know is wrong.”

This is the feeling you begin to get when you read George Lakoff, the foremost authority on the matter of metaphor. Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at UC-Berkeley, the author of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things and Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. He is also co-author of Metaphors We Live By and More than Cool Reason. All are published by the University of Chicago Press.


Maybe that’s why they didn’t give us the real story in school. It would have been like pulling the pins out of a bunch of little hand grenades.

If Lakoff is right, the most important class you ignored in school was English — not because you need to know all those rules you forgot or books you never read, but because there’s something else behind everything you know (or think you know) and talk about. That something is a metaphor. (And if you think otherwise, you’re wrong.)

In English class — usually when the subject was poetry — they told us that meaning often arises out of comparison, and that three comparative devices are metaphorsimile, and analogy. Each compares one thing to another thing that is similar in some way:

  • Metaphors say one thing is another thing, such as “time is money,” “a computer screen is a desktop,” or (my favorite Burt Lancaster line) “your mind is a cookie of arsenic.”
  • Similes say one thing is like another thing, such as “gone like snow on the water” or “dumb as a bucket of rocks.”
  • Analogies suggest partial similarities between unalike things, as with “licorice is the liver of candy.”

But metaphor is the device that matters, because, as Lakoff says, “We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor.” And, more to the point, “Metaphors can kill.” Maybe that’s why they didn’t give us the real story in school. It would have been like pulling the pins out of a bunch of little hand grenades.

But now we’re adults, and you’d think we should know how safely to arm and operate a language device. But it’s not easy. Cognitive science is relatively new and only beginning to make sense of the metaphorical structures that give shape and meaning to our world. Some of these metaphors are obvious but many others are hidden. In fact, some are hidden so well that even a guru like Lakoff can overlook them for years.

Lakoff’s latest book, “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know and Liberals Don’t,” was inspired by his realization that the reason he didn’t know what many conservatives were talking about was that, as a Liberal, he didn’t comprehend conservative metaphors. Dan Quayle’s applause lines went right past him.

After much investigation, Lakoff found that central to the conservative worldview was a metaphor of the state as a strict father and that the “family values” conservatives espouse are those of a strict father’s household: self-reliance, rewards and punishments, responsibility, respect for authority — and finally, independence. Conservatives under Ronald Reagan began to understand the deep connection between family and politics, while Liberals remained clueless about their own family metaphor — the “nurturant parent” model. Under Reagan, Lakoff says, conservatives drove the language of strict father morality into the media and the body politic. It won hearts and minds, and it won elections.

So metaphors matter, big time. They structure our perceptions, the way we make sense of the world, and the language we use to talk about things that happen in the world. They are also far more literal than poetry class would lead us to believe. Take the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR —

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attach kis decisions and defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies… Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.” (From Metaphors We Live By)

In our culture argument is understood and structured by the war metaphor. But in other cultures it is not. Lakoff invites us to imagine a culture where argument is viewed as dance, participants as performers and the goal to create an aesthetically pleasing performance.

Right now we understand that “Netscape is losing ground in the browser battle,” because we see the browser business a territory over which Netscape and Microsoft are fighting a war. In fact, we are so deeply committed to this metaphor that the vocabularies of business and war reporting are nearly indistinguishable.

Yet the Internet “battlefield” didn’t exist a decade ago, and the software battlefield didn’t exist a decade before that. These territories were created out of nothingness. Countless achievements have been made on them. Victories have been won over absent or equally victorious opponents.

In fact, Netscape and Microsoft are creating whole new markets together, and both succeed mostly at nobody’s expense. Netscape’s success also owes much to the robust nature of the Windows NT Server platform.


The war stories we’re telling about the Internet are turning into epic lies.

At the same time Microsoft has moved forward in browsers, directory services, languages, object models and other product categories — mostly because it’s chasing Netscape in each of them.

Growing markets are positive-sum creations, while wars are zero-sum at best. But BUSINESS IS WAR is an massive metaphorical machine that works so well that business war stories almost write themselves. This wouldn’t be a problem if business was the same now as it was twenty or fifty years ago. But business is changing fast, especially where the Internet is involved. The old war metaphor just isn’t doing the job.

Throughout the Industrial Age, both BUSINESS IS WAR and MARKETS ARE BATTLEFIELDS made good structure, because most industries and markets were grounded in physical reality. Railroads, shipping, construction, automobiles, apparel and retail were all located in physical reality. Even the phone system was easily understood in terms of phones, wires and switches. And every industrial market contained finite labor pools, capital, real estate, opportunities and natural resources. Business really was war, and markets really were battlefields.

But the Internet is hardly physical and most of its businesses have few physical limitations. The Web doesn’t look, feel or behave like anything in the analog world, even though we are eager to describe it as a “highway” or as a kind of “space.” Internet-related businesses appear and grow at phenomenal rates. The year 1995 saw more than $100 billion in new wealth created by the Internet, most of it invested in companies that were new to the world, or close to it. Now new markets emerge almost every day, while existing markets fragment, divide and expand faster than any media can track them.

For these reasons, describing Internet business in physical terms is like standing at the Dawn of Life and describing new species in terms of geology. But that’s what we’re doing, and every day the facts of business and technology life drift farther away from the metaphors we employ to support them. We arrive at pure myth, and the old metaphors stand out like bones from a dry corpse.

Of course myths are often full of truth. Fr. Seán Olaoire says “there are some truths so profound only a story can tell them.” But the war stories we’re telling about the Internet are turning into epic lies.


Describing Internet business in physical terms is like standing at the Dawn of Life and describing new species in terms of geology.

What can we do about it?

First, there’s nothing we can do to break the war metaphor machine. It’s just too damn big and old and good at what it does. But we can introduce some new metaphors that make equally good story-telling machines, and tell more accurately what’s going on in this new business world.

One possibility is MARKETS ARE CONVERSATIONS. These days we often hear conversations used as synonyms for markets. We hear about “the privacy conversation” or “the network conversation.” We “talk up” a subject and say it has a lot of “street cred.” This may not be much, but it does accurately structure an understanding of what business is and how markets work in the world we are creating with the Internet.

Another is the CONDUIT metaphor. Lakoff credits Michael Reddy with discovering hidden in our discussions of language the implication of conduit structure:

Your thinking comes through loud and clear.
It’s hard to put my ideas into words
You can’t stuff ideas into a sentence
His words carry little meaning

The Net facilitates communication, and our language about communication implies contuits through which what we say is conveyed. The language of push media suggests the Net is less a centerless network — a Web — than a set of channels through which stuff is sent. Note the preposition. I suggest that we might look more closely at how much the conduit metaphor is implicit in what we say about push, channels and related subjects. There’s something to it, I think.

My problem with both CONDUIT and CHANNEL is that they don’t clearly imply positive sums, and don’t suggest the living nature of the Net. Businesses have always been like living beings, but in the Net environment they enjoy unprecedented fecundity. What’s a good metaphor for that? A jungle?

Whatever, it’s clearly not just a battlefield, regardless of the hostilities involved. It’s time to lay down our arms and and start building new conceptual machines. George Lakoff will speak at PC Forum next week. I hope he helps impart some mass to one or more new metaphorical flywheels. Because we need to start telling sane and accurate stories about our businesses and our markets.

If we don’t, we’ll go on shooting at each other for no good reason.


Links

Here are a few links into the worlds of metaphor and cognitive science. Some of this stuff is dense and heavy; but hey, it’s not an easy subject. Just an important one..

I also explored the issue of push media in Shoveling Push and When Push Becomes Shove. And I visited the Microsoft vs. Netscape “war” in Microsoft + Netscape: The Real Story. All three are in Reality 2.0.

Let’s say you want to improve the Wikipedia page for Clayton Indiana with an aerial photograph. Feel free to use the one above. That’s why I shot it, posted it, and licensed it permissively. It’s also why I put a helpful caption under it, and some call-outs in mouse-overs.

It’s also why I did the same with Danville, Indiana:

Also Brownsville, Indiana, featuring the Brickyard VORTAC station (a navigational beacon used by aircraft):

Eagle Creek Park, the largest in Indianapolis, and its Reservoir:

The district of Indianapolis charmlessly called Park 100:

The White River, winding through Indianapolis:

Where the White River joins and the Wabash, which divides Southern Indiana from Southern Illinois (which is on the far side here, along with Mt. Carmel):

Among other places.

These were shot on the second leg of a United flight from Seattle to Indianapolis by way of Houston. I do this kind of thing on every flight I take. Partly it’s because I’m obsessed with geography, geology, weather, culture, industry, infrastructure, and other natural things. And partly it’s to provide a useful service.

I don’t do it for the art, though sometimes art happens. For example, with this shot of salt ponds at the south end of San Francisco Bay:

Airplane windows are not optically ideal for photography. On the contrary, they tend to be scratched, smudged, distorted, dirty, and worse. Most of the photos above were shot through a window that got frosty and gray at altitude and didn’t clear until we were close to landing. The air was also hazy. For cutting through that I can credit the dehaze slider in Adobe Photoshop 2021. I can also thank Photoshop for pulling out color and doing other things that make bad photos useful, if not good in the artsy sense. They fit my purpose, which is other people’s purposes.

In addition to Adobe, I also want to tip my hat toward Sony, for making the outstanding a7iv mirrorless camera and the 24-105mm f/4 FE G OSS lens I used on this flight. Also Flickr, which makes it easy to upload, organize, caption, tag, and annotate boundless quantities of full- (and other-) size photos—and to give them Creative Commons licenses. I’ve been using Flickr since it started in 2005, and remain a happy customer with two accounts: my main one, and another focused on infrastructure.

While they are no longer in a position to care, I also want to thank the makers of iView MediaPro, Microsoft Expressions and PhaseOne MediaPro for providing the best workflow software in the world, at least for me. Alas, all are now abandonware, and I don’t expect any of them to work on a 64-bit operating system, which is why, for photographic purposes, I’m still sitting on MacOS Mojave 10.14.6.

I’m hoping that I can find some kind of substitute when I get a new laptop, which will inevitably come with an OS that won’t run the oldware I depend on. But I’ll save that challenge for a future post.

Tags: , , ,


In July 2008, when I posted the photo above on this blog, some readers thought Santa Barbara Mission was on fire. It didn’t matter that I explained in that post how I got the shot, or that news reports made clear that the Gap Fire was miles away. The photo was a good one, but it also collapsed three dimensions into just two. Hence the confusion. If you didn’t know better, it looked like the building was on fire. The photo removed distance.

So does the Internet, at least when we are there. Let’s look at what there means.

Pre-digital media were limited by distance, and to a high degree defined by it. Radio and television signals degrade across distances from transmitters, and are limited as well by buildings, terrain, weather, and (on some frequency bands), ionospheric conditions. Even a good radio won’t get an absent signal. Nor will a good TV. Worse, if you live more than a few dozen miles from a TV station’s transmitter, you need a good antenna mounted on your roof, a chimney, or a tall pole. For signals coming from different locations, you need a rotator as well. Even on cable, there is still a distinction between local channels and cable-only ones. You pay more to get “bundles” of the latter, so there is a distance in cost between local and distant channel sources. If you get your TV by satellite, your there needs to be in the satellite’s coverage footprint.

But with the Internet, here and there are the same. Distance is gone, on purpose. Its design presumes that all physical and wireless connections are one, no matter who owns them or how they get paid to move chunks of Internet data. It is a world of ends meant to show nothing of its middles, which are countless paths the ends ignore. (Let’s also ignore, for the moment, that some countries and providers censor or filter the Internet, in some cases blocking access from the physical locations their systems detect. Those all essentially violate the Internet’s simple assumption of openness and connectivity for everybody and everything at every end.)

For people on the Internet, distance is collapsed to the height and width of a window. There is also no gravity because space implies three dimensions and your screen has only two, and the picture is always upright. When persons in Scotland and Australia talk, neither is upside down to the other. But they are present with each other and that’s what matters. (This may change in the metaverse, whatever that becomes, but will likely require headgear not everyone will wear. And it will still happen over the Internet.)

Digital life, almost all of which now happens on the Internet, is new to human experience, and our means of coping are limited. For example, by language. And I don’t mean different ones. I mean all of them, because they are made for making sense of a three-dimensional physical world, which the Internet is not.

Take prepositions. English, like most languages, has a few dozen prepositions, most of which describe placement in three-dimensional space. Over, around, under, through, beside, within, off, on, over, aboard… all presume three dimensions. That’s also where our bodies are, and it is through our bodies that we make sense of the world. We say good is light and bad is dark because we are diurnal hunters and gatherers, with eyes optimized for daylight. We say good is up and bad is down because we walk and run upright. We “grasp” or “hold on” to an idea because we have opposable thumbs on hands built to grab. We say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure” and careers are “paths,” because we experience life as travel.

But there are no prepositions yet that do justice to the Internet’s absence of distance. Of course, we say we are “on” the Internet like we say we are “on” the phone. And it works well enough, as does saying we are on” fire or drugs. We just frame our understanding of the Internet in metaphorical terms that require a preposition, and “on” makes the most sense. But can we do better than that? Not sure.

Have you noticed that how we present ourselves in the digital world also differs from how we do the same in the physical one? On social media, for example, we perform roles, as if on a stage. We talk to an audience straight through a kind of fourth wall, like an actor, a lecturer, a comedian, musician, or politician. My point here is that the arts and methods of performing in the physical world are old, familiar, and reliant on physical surroundings. How we behave with others in our offices, our bedrooms, our kitchens, our clubs, and our cars are all well-practiced and understood. In social media, the sense of setting is much different and more limited.

In the physical world, much of our knowledge (as the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi first taught) is tacit rather than explicit, yet digital technology is entirely explicit: ones and zeroes, packets and pixels. We do have tacit knowledge of the digital world, but the on/off present/absent two-dimensionality of that world is still new to us and lacks much of what makes life in the three-dimensional natural world so rich and subtle.

Marshall McLuhan says all media, all technologies, extend us. When we drive a car we wear it like a carapace or a suit of armor. We also speak of it in the first person possessive: my engine, my fenders, my wheels, much as we would say my fingers and my hair. There is distance here too, and it involves performance. A person who would never yell at another person standing in line at a theater might do exactly that at another car. This kind of distance is gone, or very different, in the digital world.

In a way we are naked in the digital world, and vulnerable. By that I mean we lack the rudimentary privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter, which protect our private parts and spaces from observation and intrusion while also signaling the forms of observation and contact that we permit or welcome. The absence of this kind of privacy tech is why it is so easy for websites and apps to fill our browsers with cookies and other ways to track us and report our activities back to dozens, hundreds or thousands of unknown parties. In this early stage of life on the Internet, what’s called privacy is just the “choices” sites and services give us, none of which are recorded where we can easily find, audit, or dispute them.

Can we get new forms of personal tech that truly extend and project our agency in the digital world? I think so, but it’s a question so completely good that we don’t yet have an answer.

 


Beyond the Web salon with Nathan Schneider

It’s one thing to move off centralized online spaces run by corporate giants, and another to settle the decentralized frontiers where we create new communities. As those communities get organized, forms of governance emerge. Or are deliberately chosen. Either way, the subject could hardly matter more, if those communities wish to persist and thrive.

At this Beyond the Web salon, Nathan Schneider (@ntnsndr), a professor in media studies at the University of Colorado and a leading authority on cooperative governance, will present two prototypes that address what and how questions about governance, both online and off. In the manner of all our salons, a productive discussion will follow. So please come and participate. Register here.

« Older entries