You are currently browsing the archive for the Life category.

An arsonoma

While walking past this scene on my way to the subway in New York last week, I saw that a woman was emptying out what hadn’t burned from this former car. Being a curious extrovert, I paused to ask her about it. The conversation, best I recall:

“This your car?”


“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“Somebody around here sets fire to bags of garbage*. One spread to the car.”

“Any suspects?”

“There are surveillance cameras on the building.” She gestured upward toward two of them.

“Did they see anything?”

“They never do.”

So there you have it. In medicine they call this kind of thing a fascinoma. Perhaps in civic life we should call this an arsonoma. Or, in law enforcement, a felonoma.

*In New York City, we now put out garbage and recycling in curbside bags.

Going west

Long ago a person dear to me disappeared for what would become eight years. When this happened I was given comfort and perspective by a professor of history whose study concentrated on the American South after the Civil War.

“You know what the most common record of young men was, after the Civil War?” he asked.

“You mean census records?”

“Yes, and church records, family histories, all that.”

“I don’t know.”

“Two words: Went west.”

He then explained that that, except for the natives here in the U.S., nearly all of our ancestors had gone west. Literally or metaphorically, voluntarily or not, they went west.

More importantly, most were not going back. Many, perhaps most, were hardly heard from again in the places they left. The break from the past in countless places was sadly complete for those left behind. All that remained were those two words: went west.

This fact, he said, is at the heart of American rootlessness.

“We are the least rooted civilization on Earth,” he said. “This is why we have the weakest family values in the world.”

This is also why he also thought political talk about “family values” was especially ironic. We may have those values, but they tend not to keep us from going west anyway.

This comes to mind because I just heard Harry Chapin‘s “Cat’s in the Cradle” for the first time in years, and it hurt to hear it. (Give it a whack and try not to be moved. Especially if you also know that Harry—a great songwriter—died in a horrible accident while still a young father.)

You don’t need to grow up in an unhappy family to go west anyway. That happened for me. My family was a very happy one, and when i got out of high school I was eager to go somewhere else anyway. Eventually I went all the way west, from New Jersey, then North Carolina, then Calfornia. After that, also Boston, New York and Bloomington, Indiana. There was westering in all those moves.

Now I’m back in California for a bit, missing all those places, and people in them.

There are reasons for everything, but in most cases those are just explanations. Saul Bellow explains the difference in Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

What explains the human diaspora better than our westering tendencies? That we tend to otherize and fight each other? That we are relentlessly ambulatory? Those are surely involved. But maybe there is nothing more human than to say “I gotta go,” without needing a reason beyond the urge alone.

We know more than we can tell.

That one-liner from Michael Polanyi has been waiting half a century for a proper controversy, which it now has with facial recognition. Here’s how he explains it in The Tacit Dimension:

This fact seems obvious enough; but it is not easy to say exactly what it means. Take an example. We know a person’s face, and can recognize it among a thousand others, indeed among a million. Yet we usually cannot tell how we recognize a face we know. So most of this knowledge cannot be put into words.

Polanyi calls that kind of knowledge tacit. The kind we can put into words he calls explicit.

For an example of both at work, consider how, generally, we  don’t know how we will end the sentences we begin, or how we began the sentences we are ending—and how the same is true of what we hear or read from other people whose sentences we find meaningful. The explicit survives only as fragments, but the meaning of what was said persists in tacit form.

Likewise, if we are asked to recall and repeat, verbatim, a paragraph of words we have just said or heard, we will find it difficult or impossible to do so, even if we have no trouble saying exactly what was meant. This is because tacit knowing, whether kept to one’s self or told to others, survives the natural human tendency to forget particulars after a few seconds, even when we very clearly understand what we have just said or heard.

Tacit knowledge and short term memory are both features of human knowing and communication, not bugs. Even for people with extreme gifts of memorization (e.g. actors who can learn a whole script in one pass, or mathematicians who can learn pi to 4000 decimals), what matters more than the words or the numbers are their meaning. And that meaning is both more and other than what can be said. It is deeply tacit.

On the other hand—the digital hand—computer knowledge is only explicit, meaning a computer can know only what it can tell. At both knowing and telling, a computer can be far more complete and detailed than a human could ever be. And the more a computer knows, the better it can tell. (To be clear, a computer doesn’t know a damn thing. But it does remember—meaning it retrieves—what’s in its databases, and it does process what it retrieves. At all those activities it is inhumanly capable.)

So, the more a computer learns of explicit facial details, the better it can infer conclusions about that face, including ethnicity, age, emotion, wellness (or lack of it) and much else. Given a base of data about individual faces, and of names associated with those faces, a computer programmed to be adept at facial recognition can also connect faces to names, and say “This is (whomever).”

For all those reasons, computers doing facial recognition are proving useful for countless purposes: unlocking phones, finding missing persons and criminals, aiding investigations, shortening queues at passport portals, reducing fraud (for example at casinos), confirming age (saying somebody is too old or not old enough), finding lost pets (which also have faces). The list is long and getting longer.

Yet many (or perhaps all) of those purposes are at odds with the sense of personal privacy that derives from the tacit ways we know faces, our reliance on short term memory, and our natural anonymity (literally, namelessness) among strangers. All of those are graces of civilized life in the physical world, and they are threatened by the increasingly widespread use—and uses—of facial recognition by governments, businesses, schools and each other.

Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren visited the same problem more 130 years ago, when they became alarmed at the privacy risks suggested by photography, audio recording and reporting on both via technologies that were far more primitive than those we have today. As a warning to the future, they wrote a landmark Harvard Law Review paper titled The Right to Privacy, which has served as a pole star of good sense ever since. Here’s an excerpt:

Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone” 10 Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life ; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons ;11 and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer.12 The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago, 13 directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits ; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before out courts for consideration.

They also say the “right of the individual to be let alone…is like the right not be assaulted or beaten, the right not be imprisoned, the right not to be maliciously prosecuted, the right not to be defamed.”

To that list today we might also add, “the right not to be reduced to bits” or “the right not to be tracked like an animal—whether anonymously or not.”

But it’s hard to argue for those rights in our digital world, where computers can see, hear, draw and paint exact portraits of everything: every photo we take, every word we write, every spreadsheet we assemble, every database accumulating in our hard drives—plus those of every institution we interact with, and countless ones we don’t (or do without knowing the interaction is there).

Facial recognition by computers is a genie that is not going back in the bottle. And there are no limits to wishes the facial recognition genie can grant the organizations that want to use it, which is why pretty much everything is being done with it. A few examples:

  • Facebook’s Deep Face sells facial recognition for many purposes to corporate customers. Examples from that link: “Face Detection & Landmarks…Facial Analysis & Attributes…Facial Expressions & Emotion… Verification, Similarity & Search.” This is non-trivial stuff. Writes Ben Goertzel, “Facebook has now pretty convincingly solved face recognition, via a simple convolutional neural net, dramatically scaled.”
  • FaceApp can make a face look older, younger, whatever. It can even swap genders.
  • The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI), involves (says Wikipedia) eleven companies and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).
  • Snap has a patent for reading emotions in faces.
  • The MORIS™ Multi-Biometric Identification System is “a portable handheld device and identification database system that can scan, recognize and identify individuals based on iris, facial and fingerprint recognition,” and is typically used law enforcement organizations.
  • Casinos in Canada are using facial recognition to “help addicts bar themselves from gaming facilities.” It’s opt-in: “The technology relies on a method of “self-exclusion,” whereby compulsive gamblers volunteer in advance to have their photos banked in the system’s database, in case they ever get the urge to try their luck at a casino again. If that person returns in the future and the facial-recognition software detects them, security will be dispatched to ask the gambler to leave.”
  • Cruise ships are boarding passengers faster using facial recognition by computers.
  • Australia proposes scanning faces to see if viewers are old enough to look at porn.

Facial recognition systems are also getting better and better at what they do. A November 2018 NIST report on a massive study of facial recognition systems begins,

This report documents performance of face recognition algorithms submitted for evaluation on image datasets maintained at NIST. The algorithms implement one-to-many identification of faces appearing in two-dimensional images.

The primary dataset is comprised of 26.6 million reasonably well-controlled live portrait photos of 12.3 million individuals. Three smaller datasets containing more unconstrained photos are also used: 3.2 million webcam images; 2.5 million photojournalism and amateur photographer photos; and 90 thousand faces cropped from surveillance-style video clips. The report will be useful for comparison of face recognition algorithms, and assessment of absolute capability. The report details recognition accuracy for 127 algorithms from 45 developers, associating performance with participant names. The algorithms are prototypes, submitted in February and June 2018 by research and development laboratories of commercial face recognition suppliers and one university…

The major result of the evaluation is that massive gains in accuracy have been achieved in the last five years (2013-2018) and these far exceed improvements made in the prior period (2010-2013). While the industry gains are broad — at least 28 developers’ algorithms now outperform the most accurate algorithm from late 2013 — there remains a wide range of capabilities. With good quality portrait photos, the most accurate algorithms will find matching entries, when present, in galleries containing 12 million individuals, with error rates below 0.2%

Privacy freaks (me included) would like everyone to be creeped out by this. Yet many people are cool with it to some degree, and not just because they’re acquiescing to the inevitable: they’re relying on it because it makes interaction with machines easier—and they trust it.

For example, in Barcelona, CaixaBank is rolling out facial recognition at its ATMs, claiming that 70% of surveyed customers are ready to use it as an alternative to keying in a PIN, and that “66% of respondents highlighted the sense of security that comes with facial recognition.” That the bank’s facial recognition system “has the capability of capturing up to 16,000 definable points when the user’s face is presented at the screen” is presumably of little or no concern. Nor, also presumably, is the risk of what might get done with facial data if the bank gets hacked, or if it changes its privacy policy, or if it gets sold and the new owner can’t resist selling or sharing facial data with others who want it, or if (though more like when) government bodies require it.

A predictable pattern for every new technology is that what can be done will be done—until we see how it goes wrong and try to stop doing that. This has been true of every technology from stone tools to nuclear power and beyond. Unlike many other new technologies, however, it is not hard to imagine ways facial recognition by computers can go wrong, especially when it already has.

Two examples:

  1. In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which relies on facial recognition and other biometrics, revealed that photos of people were compromised by a cyberattack on a federal subcontractor.
  2. In August, researchers at vpnMentor reported a massive data leak in BioStar 2, a widely used “Web-based biometric security smart lock platform” that uses facial recognition and fingerprinting technology to identify users, was compromised. Notes the report, “Once stolen, fingerprint and facial recognition information cannot be retrieved. An individual will potentially be affected for the rest of their lives.” vpnMentor also had a hard time getting thrugh to company officials, so they could fix the leak.

As organizations should know (but in many cases have trouble learning), the highest risks of data exposure and damage are to—

  • the largest data sets,
  • the most complex organizations and relationships, and
  • the largest variety of existing and imaginable ways that security can be breached

And let’s not discount the scary potentials at the (not very) far ends of technological progress and bad intent. Killer microdrones targeted at faces, anyone?

So it is not surprising that some large companies doing facial recognition go out of their way to keep personal data out of their systems. For example, by making facial recognition work for the company’s customers, but not for the company itself.

Such is the case with Apple’s late model iPhones, which feature FaceID: a personal facial recognition system that lets a person unlock their phone with a glance. Says Apple, “Face ID data doesn’t leave your device and is never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else.”

But assurances such as Apple’s haven’t stopped push-back against all facial recognition. Some examples—

  • The Public Voice: “We the undersigned call for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology that enables mass surveillance.”
  • Fight for the Future: BanFacialRecognition. Self-explanatory, and with lots of organizational signatories.
  • New York Times: “San Francisco, long at the heart of the technology revolution, took a stand against potential abuse on Tuesday by banning the use of facial recognition software by the police and other agencies. The action, which came in an 8-to-1 vote by the Board of Supervisors, makes San Francisco the first major American city to block a tool that many police forces are turning to in the search for both small-time criminal suspects and perpetrators of mass carnage.”
  • Also in the Times, Evan Sellinger and Woodrow Hartzhog write, “Stopping this technology from being procured — and its attendant databases from being created — is necessary for protecting civil rights and privacy. But limiting government procurement won’t be enough. We must ban facial recognition in both public and private sectors, before we grow so dependent on it that we accept its inevitable harms as necessary for “progress.” Perhaps over time appropriate policies can be enacted that justify lifting a ban. But we doubt it.”
  • Cory Doctorow‘s Why we should ban facial recognition technology everywhere is an “amen” to the Selinger & Hartzhog piece.
  • lists 37 participating organizations, including EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), Daily Kos, Fight for the Future,, National Lawyers Guild, Greenpeace and Tor.
  • MIT Technology Revew says bans are spreading in in the U.S.: San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, have outlawed certain uses of facial recognition technology, with Portland, Oregon, potentially soon to follow. That’s just the beginning, according to Mutale Nkonde, a Harvard fellow and AI policy advisor. That trend will soon spread to states, and there will eventually be a federal ban on some uses of the technology, she said at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.”

Irony alert: the black banner atop that last story says, “We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, analyze site traffic, personalize content, and serve targeted advertisements.” Notes the TimesCharlie Warzel, “Devoted readers of the Privacy Project will remember mobile advertising IDs as an easy way to de-anonymize extremely personal information, such as location data.” Well, advertising IDs are among the many trackers that both MIT Technology Review and The New York Times inject in readers’ browsers with every visit. (Bonus link.)

My own position on all this is provisional, because I’m still learning and there’s a lot to take in. But here goes:

The only entities that should be able to recognize people’s faces are other people. And maybe their pets. But not machines.

But, since the facial recognition genie will never go back in its bottle, I’ll suggest a few rules for entities using computers to do facial recognition. All these are provisional as well:

  1. People should have their own forms of facial recognition, for example to unlock phones, to sort through old photos, or to show to others the way they would a driving license or a passport (to say, in effect, “See? This is me.”) But, the data they gather for themselves should not be shared with the company providing the facial recognition software (unless it’s just of their own face, and then only for the safest possible diagnostic or service improvement purposes). This, as I understand it, is roughly what Apple does with iPhones.
  2. Facial recognition used to detect changing facial characteristics (such as emotions, age or wellness) should be required to forget what they see, right after the job is done, and not use the data gathered for any purpose other than diagnostics or performance improvement.
  3. For persons having their faces recognized, sharing data for diagnostic or performance improvement purposes should be opt-in, with data anonymized and made as auditable as possible, by individuals and/or their intermediaries.
  4. For enterprises with systems that know individuals’ (customers’ or consumers’) faces, don’t use those faces to track or find those individuals elsewhere in the online or offline worlds—again, unless those individuals have opted in to the practice.

I suspect that Polanyi would agree with those.

But my heart is with Walt Whitman, whose Song of Myself argued against the dehumanizing nature of mechanization at the dawn of the industrial age. Wrote Walt,

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

Writing and talk do not prove me.I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face.
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The barbaric yawps by human hawks say five words, very explicitly:

Get out of my face.

And they yawp those words in spite of the sad fact that obeying them may prove impossible.

[Later bonus links…]


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

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

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

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

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll believe it when I see it.

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

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

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

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

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

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


A few weeks ago, while our car honked its way through dense traffic in Delhi, I imagined an Onion headline: American Visitor Seeks To Explain What He’ll Never Understand About India.

By the norms of traffic laws in countries where people tend to obey them, vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the dense parts of Indian cities appears to lawless. People do seem to go where they want, individually and collectively, in oblivity to danger.

Yet there is clearly a system here, in the sense that one’s body has a circulatory system. Or a nervous system. Meaning it’s full of almost random stuff at the cellular traffic level, but also organic in a literal way. It actually works. Somehow. Some way. Or ways. Many of them. Alone and together. So yes, I don’t understand it and probably never will, but it does work.

For example, a four-lane divided highway will have traffic moving constantly, occasionally in both directions on both sides. It will include humans, dogs, cattle, rickshaws and bikes, some laden with bags of cargo that look like they belong in a truck, in addition to cars, trucks and motorcycles, all packed together and honking constantly.

Keeping me from explaining, or even describing, any more than I just did, are the opening sentences of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

Shortly after dawn, on what would have been drawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers. In a way it did not matter to a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure. You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part it went in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It has its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

So I will disclaim being right about a damn thing here. But I will share some links from some brilliant people, each worthy of respect, who think they are right about some stuff we maybe ought to care about; and each of whom have, in their own very separate ways, advice and warnings for us. Here ya go:

Each author weaves a different handbasket we might travel to hell, but all make interesting reading. All are also downbeat as hell too.

My caution with readings that veer toward conspiracy (notably Martin’s) is one of the smartest things my smart wife ever said: “The problem with conspiracy theories is that they presume competence.”

So here’s what I’m thinking about every explanation of what’s going on in our still-new Digital Age: None of us has the whole story of what’s going on—and what’s going on may not be a story at all.

Likewise (or dislike-wise), I also think all generalizations, whatever they are, fail in the particulars, and that’s a feature of them. We best generalize when we know we risk being wrong in the details.  Reality wants wackiness in particulars. If you don’t find what’s wacky there, maybe you aren’t looking hard enough. Or believe too much in veracities.

Ed McCabe: “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the possibility of brilliant exceptions.”

We need to laugh. That means we need our ironies, our multiple meanings, our attentions misdirected, for the magic of life to work.

And life is magic. Pure misdirection, away from the facticity of non-existence.

Every laugh, every smile, is an ironic argument against the one non-ironic fact of life—and of everything—which is death. We all die. We all end. To “be” dead is not to be in a state of existence. It is not to be at all. Shakespeare was unimprovable on that point.

To some of us older people*, death isn’t a presence. It’s just the future absence of our selves in a world designed to discard everything with a noun, proper or not, eventually. Including the world itself. This is a feature, not a bug.

It’s also a feature among some of us to, as Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”: always interested, always open to possibilities, always willing to vet what we at least think we know, always leaving the rest of existence to those better equipped to persist on the same mission. So I guess that’s my point here.

Basically it’s the same point as Bill Hicks’ “It’s just a ride.”

*I’m not old. I’ve just been young a long time. To obey Gandhi, you have to stay young. It’s the best way to learn. And perhaps to die as well.

Here’s the latest satellite fire detection data, restricted to just the last twelve hours of the Thomas Fire, mapped on Google Earth Pro:That’s labeled 1830 Mountain Standard Time (MST), or 5:30pm Pacific, about half an hour ago as I write this.

And here are the evacuation areas:

Our home is in the orange Voluntary Evacuation area. So we made a round trip from LA to prepare the house as best we could, gather some stuff and go. Here’s a photo album of the trip, and one of the last sights we saw on our way out of town:

This, I believe, was a fire break created on the up-slope side of Toro Canyon. Whether purely preventive or not, it was very impressive.

And here is a view of the whole burn area, which stretches more than forty miles from west to east (or from Montecito to Fillmore):

Here you can see how there is no fresh fire activity near Lake Casitas and Carpinteria, which is cool (at least relatively). You can also see how Ojai and Carpinteria were saved, how Santa Barbara is threatened, and how there are at least five separate fires around the perimeter. Three of those are in the back country, and I suspect the idea is to let those burn until they hit natural fire breaks or the wind shifts and the fires get blown back on their own burned areas and fizzle out there.

The main area of concern is at the west end of the fire, above Santa Barbara, in what they call the front country: the slope on the ocean’s side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which run as a long and steep spine, rising close to 4000 feet high in the area we care about here. (It’s higher farther west.)

This afternoon I caught a community meeting on KEYT, Santa Barbara’s TV station, which has been very aggressive and responsible in reporting on the fire. I can’t find a recording of that meeting now on the station’s website, but I am watching the station’s live 6pm news broadcast now, devoted to a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (Even though I’m currently at a house near Los Angeles, I can watch our TV set top box remotely through a system called Dish Anywhere. Hats off to Dish Network for providing that ability. In addition to being cool, it’s exceptionally handy for evacuated residents whose homes still have electricity and a good Internet connection. I thank Southern California Edison and Cox for those.)

On KEYT, Mark Brown of @Cal_Fire just spoke about Plans A, B and C, one or more of which will be chosen based on how the weather moves. Plan C is the scariest (and he called it that), because it involves setting fire lines close to homes, intentionally scorching several thousand acres to create an already-burned break, to stop the fire. “The vegetation will be removed before the fire has a chance to take it out, the way it wants to take it out,” he says.

Okay, that briefing just ended. I’ll leave it there.

So everybody reading this knows, we are fine, and don’t need to be at the house while this is going on. We also have great faith that 8000 fire fighting personnel and all their support systems will do the job and save our South Coast communities. What they’ve done so far has been nothing short of amazing, given the enormous geographical extent of this fire, the exceptionally rugged nature of the terrain, the record dryness of the vegetation, and other disadvantages. A huge hat tip to them.



The original version of this ran as a comment under Francine Hardaway‘s Medium post titled Have we progressed at all in the last fifty years?

My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.

In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.

Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim Crow laws and practices emerged, and in still live on in culture if not in law.

The civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties caused positive social, political and other changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started. I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.

Small incremental improvements followed over the decades since, but no leaps forward like we had before those murders. (Even the election of Barack Obama failed to change a terribly durable status quo. Backlash against that election is at least partly responsible for Trump and the Republican Congress.)

We are still stuck with inequality for races, religions and so much else. Will we ever get over that? I think we will, inevitably; but only if our species survives.

One collateral victim of those assassinations in the Sixties was the near-end of non-violence as a strategy toward change. Martin Luther King Jr. used it very effectively, and kept the flame alive and well-proven until violence took him out. Martyred though he was, it was not to the cause of nonviolence or pacifism, both of which have been back-burnered for fifty years. We (in the largest sense that includes future generations) may never find out if non-violence can ever succeed—because violence is apparently too deeply ingrained as a human trait.

Back to tech.

I too was, and remain, a cyber-utopian. Or at least a cyber-optimist. But that’s because I see cyber—the digitization and networking of the world—as a fait accompli that offers at least as many opportunities for progress as it does for problems. As Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that one can easily imagine bad uses of it.

What I’m not writing at the moment are my thoughts about why some of those advantaged by power, even in small ways, abuse it so easily. I’m not writing it because I know whatever I say will be praised by some, rebuked by others, and either way will be reduced to simplicities that dismiss whatever subtle and complex points I am trying to make, or questions I am trying to ask. (Because my mind is neither sufficiently informed nor made up.) I also know that, within minutes for most of my piece’s readers, the points it makes will be gone like snow on the water, for such is the nature of writing on the vast sea of almost-nothing that “social” media comprises. And, as of today, all other media repose in the social ones.

Some perspective:

Compared to that, and its effects on the planet, all other concerns shrink to insignificance.

But, as The Onion said a few weeks after 9/11, A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.

Stupid bullshit is what the meteor of humanity hitting the planet cares most about. Always has. Wars have been fought over far less.

The only fully consequential question is how we end the Anthropocene. Or how it ends without us.



That’s the question asked by Quora here.

I’ve camped on our planet for awhile now, so I wrote a few answers. Here they are:

I doubt people learn the following lessons “most often” or “too late,” but I still hope they help.

  1. The purpose of life is death. Death produces materials that add beyond measure to feed and sustain more life, and add to the abundance and variety of everything that can be named, and far more that can’t. Most of our building materials rely on death. Without death, no limestone, marble, travertine, chalk, chert, peat or coal. No wood, no concrete, no oil, gas or metals smelted and shaped with heat. Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the universe, is produced on Earth only as a byproduct of rotting organic matter. By making use of carbon, life produces even more useful forms of carbon by producing abundances of death. Oxygen in the atmosphere was produced by life forms that bloomed and died two and more billion years ago. Most of the iron mined in the world began as ferric sludge on the floors of long gone seas, and produced by the corpses of the same life forms that gave the world oxygen. Bottom line: death is a grace of life, and both are icing on the cake of existence.

  2. The challenge of life that depends on death is to appreciate the endless tug between certainty and possibility. Gandhi: live as if you’ll die tomorrow; learn as if you’ll live forever. And stay open to the possibility that both can be true.

  3. We are here for others, and not just for ourselves. We come and go with nothing, but we can always leave something. This is also called love.

  4. Humans are learning animals, and among the things we all learn eventually—or should—is that knowledge is provisional, truths are opinions, and our first calling is to learn more and keep our mind open, even though that gets harder as experiences accumulate and prejudices with them.

  5. Everything has deeper causes than the obvious ones. The universe, life, knowledge, language, math and the Internet all changed everything. Each has no other examples of itself. That’s a sign of full depth.

  6. When investing, always buy in the past.

  7. Knowledge is the best investment. And it is best to invest in the most rewarding, useful and durable kinds of knowledge—for example of music, languages, sports and other skills—when the mind and body are still young. They’ll pay interest for the rest of your life.

Two upvotes so far, for whatever that’s worth.

Nobody is going to own podcasting.990_large By that I mean nobody is going to trap it in a silo. Apple tried, first with its podcasting feature in iTunes, and again with its Podcasts app. Others have tried as well. None of them have succeeded, or will ever succeed, for the same reason nobody has ever owned the human voice, or ever will. (Other, of course, than their own.)

Because podcasting is about the human voice. It’s humans talking to humans: voices to ears and voices to voices—because listeners can talk too. They can speak back. And forward. Lots of ways.

Podcasting is one way for markets to have conversations; but the podcast market itself can’t be bought or controlled, because it’s not a market. Or an “industry.” Instead, like the Web, email and other graces of open protocols on the open Internet, podcasting is all-the-way deep.

Deep like, say, language. And, like language, it’s NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it and Anybody can improve it. That means anybody and everybody can do wherever they want with it. It’s theirs—and nobody’s—for the taking.

This is one of the many conclusions (some of them provisional) I reached after two days at The Unplugged Soul: Conference on the Podcast at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which I live-tweeted through Little Pork Chop and live-blogged through at

Both of those are tools created by Dave Winer, alpha dad of blogging, podcasting and syndicating. Dave was half the guests on Friday evening’s opening panel. The other half was Christopher Lydon, whose own podcast, Radio Open Source, was born out of his creative partnership with Dave in the early chapters of podcasting’s Genesis, in 2003, when both were at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center.

One way you can tell nobody owns podcasting is that 1.5 decades have passed since 2003 and there are still no dominant or silo’d tools either for listening to podcasts or for making them.

On the listening side, there is no equivalent of, say, the browser. There are many very different ways to get podcasts, and all of them are wildly different as well. Remarkably (or perhaps not), the BigCo leaders aren’t leading. Instead they’re looking brain-dead.

The biggest example is Apple, which demonstrates its tin head through its confusing (and sales-pressure-intensive) iTunes app on computers and its Podcasts app, defaulted on the world’s billion iPhones. That app’s latest version is sadly and stupidly rigged to favor streaming from the cloud over playing already-downloaded podcasts, meaning you can no longer listen easily when you’re offline, such as when you’re on a plane. By making that change, Apple treated a feature of podcasting as a bug. Also dumb: a new UI element—a little set of vertical bars indicating audio activity—that seems to mean both live playing and downloading. Or perhaps neither. I almost don’t want to know at this point, since I have come to hate the app so much.

Other tools by smaller developers (e.g. Overcast) do retain the already-downloaded feature, but work in different ways from other tools. Which is cool to me, because that way no one player dominates.

On the production side there are also dozens of tools and services. As a wannabe podcaster (whose existing output is limited so far to three podcasts in twelve years), I have found none that make producing a podcast as easy as it is to write a blog or an email. (When that happens, watch out.)

So here’s a brief compilation of my gatherings, so far, in no order of importance, from the conference.

  • Podcasting needs an unconference like IIW (the next of which happens the first week of May in Silicon Valley): one devoted to conversation and forward movement of the whole field, and not to showcasing panels, keynotes or sponsoring vendors. One advantage of unconferences is that they’re all about what are side conversations at standard keynote-and-panel conferences. An example from my notes: Good side conversations. One is with Sovana Bailey McLain (@solartsnyc), whose podcast is also a radio show, State of the Arts. And she has a blog too. The station she’s on is WBAI, which has gone through (says Wikipedia) turmoil and change for many decades. An unconference will also foster something many people at the conference said they wanted: more ways to collaborate.
  • Now is a good time to start selling off over-the-air radio signals. Again from my notes… So I have an idea. It’s one WBAI won’t like, but it’s a good one: Sell the broadcast license, keep everything else. WBAI’s signal on 99.5fm is a commercial one, because it’s on the commercial part of the FM band. This NY Times report says an equivalent station (WQXR when it was on 96.3fm) was worth $45 million in 2009. I’m guessing that WBAI’s licence would bring about half that because listening is moving to Net-connected rectangles, and the competition is every other ‘cast in the world. Even the “station” convention is antique. On the Net there are streams and files:stuff that’s live and stuff that’s not. From everywhere. WBAI (or its parent, the Pacifica Foundation), should sell the license while the market is still there, and use the money to fund development and production of independent streams and podcasts, in many new ways.  Keep calling the convening tent WBAI, but operate outside the constraints of limited signal range and FCC rules.
  • Compared to #podcasting, the conventions of radio are extremely limiting. You don’t need a license to podcast. You aren’t left out of the finite number of radio channels and confined geographies. You aren’t constrained by FCC anti-“profanity” rules limiting freedom of speech—or any FCC rules at all. In other words, you can say what the fuck you please, however you want to say it. You’re free of the tyranny of the clock, of signposting, of the need for breaks, and other broadcast conventions. All that said, podcasting can, and does, improve radio as well. This was a great point made on stage by the @kitchensisters.
  • Podcasting conventionally copyrighted music is still impossible. On the plus side, there is no license-issuing or controlling entity to do a deal with the recording industry to allow music on podcasts, because there is nothing close to a podcasting monopoly. (Apple could probably make such a deal if it wanted to, but it hasn’t, and probably won’t.) On the minus side, you need to “clear rights” for every piece of music you play that isn’t “podsafe.” That includes nearly all the music you already know. But then, back on the plus side, this means podcasting is nearly all spoken word. In the past I thought this was a curse. Now I think it’s a grace.
  • Today’s podcasting conventions are provisional and temporary. A number of times during the conference I observed that the sound coming from the stage was one normalized by This American Life and its descendants. In consonance with that, somebody put up a slide of a tweet by @emilybell:podcast genres : 1. Men going on about things. 2. Whispery crime 3.Millennials talking over each other 4. Should be 20 minutes shorter. We can, and will, do better. And other.
  • Maybe podcasting is the best way we have to start working out our problems with race, gender, politics and bad habits of culture that make us unhappy and thwart progress of all kinds. I say that because 1) the best podcasting I know deals with these things directly and far more constructively than anything I have witnessed in other media, and 2) no bigfoot controls it.
  • Archiving is an issue. I don’t know what a “popup archive” is, but it got mentioned more than once.
  • Podcasting has no business model. It’s like the Internet, email and the Web that way. You make money because of it, not with it. If you want to. Since it can be so cheap to do (in terms of both time and money), you don’t have to make money at it if you don’t want to.

I’ll think of more as I go over more of my notes. Meanwhile, please also dig Dave’s take-aways from the same conference.


amsterdam-streetImagine you’re on a busy city street where everybody who disagrees with you disappears.

We have that city now. It’s called media—especially the social kind.

You can see how this works on Wall Street Journal‘s Blue Feed, Red Feed page. Here’s a screen shot of the feed for “Hillary Clinton” (one among eight polarized topics):


Both invisible to the other.

We didn’t have that in the old print and broadcast worlds, and still don’t, where they persist. (For example, on news stands, or when you hit SCAN on a car radio.)

But we have it in digital media.

Here’s another difference: a lot of the stuff that gets shared is outright fake. There’s a lot of concern about that right now:


Why? Well, there’s a business in it. More eyeballs, more advertising, more money, for more eyeballs for more advertising. And so on.

Those ads are aimed by tracking beacons planted in your phones and browsers, feeding data about your interests, likes and dislikes to robot brains that work as hard as they can to know you and keep feeding you more stuff that stokes your prejudices. Fake or not, what you’ll see is stuff you are likely to share with others who do the same. This business that pays for this is called “adtech,” also known as “interest based” or “interactive” advertising. But those are euphemisms. Its science is all about stalking. They can plausibly deny it’s personal. But it is.

The “social” idea is “markets as conversations” (a personal nightmare for me, gotta say). The business idea is to drag as many eyeballs as possible across ads that are aimed by the same kinds of creepy systems. The latter funds the former.

Rather than unpack that, I’ll leave that up to the rest of ya’ll, with a few links:


I want all the help I can get unpacking this, because I’m writing about it in a longer form than I’m indulging in here. Thanks.


Tags: , , ,

« Older entries