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The show is over. Biden won. Trump lost.

Sure, there is more to be said, details to argue. But the main story—Biden vs. Trump, the 2020 Presidential Election, is over. So is the Trump presidency, now in the lame duck stage.

We’re in the epilogue now.

There are many stories within and behind the story, but this was the big one, and it had to end. Enough refs calling it made the ending official. President Trump will continue to fight, but the outcome won’t change. Biden will be the next president. The story of the Trump presidency will end with Biden’s inauguration.

The story of the Biden presidency began last night. Attempts by Trump to keep the story of his own presidency going will be written in the epilogue, heard in the coda, the outro, the postlude.

Fox News, which had been the Trump administration’s house organ, concluded the story when it declared Biden the winner and moved on to covering him as the next president.

This is how stories go.

This doesn’t mean that the story was right in every factual sense. Stories aren’t.

As a journalist who has covered much and has been covered as well, I can vouch for the inevitability of inaccuracy, of overlooked details, of patches, approximations, compressions, misquotes and summaries that are more true to story, arc, flow and narrative than to all the facts involved, or the truths that might be told.

Stories have loose ends, and big stories like this one have lots of them. But they are ends. And The End is here.

We are also at the beginning of something new that isn’t a story, and does not comport with the imperatives of journalism: of storytelling, of narrative, of characters with problems struggling toward resolutions.

What’s new is the ground on which all the figures in every story now stand. That ground is digital. Decades old at most, it will be with us for centuries or millennia. Arriving on digital ground is as profound a turn in the history of our species on Earth as the one our distant ancestors faced when they waddled out of the sea and grew lungs to replace their gills.

We live in the digital world now now, in addition to the physical one where I am typing and you are reading, as embodied beings.

In this world we are not just bodies. We are something and somewhere else, in a place that isn’t a place: one without distance or gravity, where the only preposition that applies without stretch or irony is with. (Because the others—over, under, beside, around, though, within, upon, etc.—pertain too fully to positions and relationships in the physical world.)

Because the digital world is ground and not figure (here’s the difference), it is as hard for us to make full sense of being there as it was for the first fish to do the same with ocean or for our amphibian grandparents to make sense of land. (For some help with this, dig David Foster Wallace’s This is water.)

The challenge of understanding digital life will likely not figure in the story of Joe Biden’s presidency. But nothing is more important than the ground under everything. And this ground is the same as the one without which we would not have had an Obama or a Trump presidency. It will at least help to think about that.

 

I spent 17 minutes while exercising the other day, thinking out loud about what @GeorgeLakoff says in his 1996 book Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, (also in his expanded 2016 edition, re-subtitled How Liberals and Conservatives Think). I also tweeted about the book this morning here. In it I explain what pretty much nobody else is saying about Trump, Biden, and how each actually appeals to their voters (and those in between).

Here’s the audio file:

This blog no longer takes comments, alas, so post a response elsewhere, if you like, or write me. I’m doc @ my surname dot com.

A few days ago, in Figuring the Future, I sourced an Arnold Kling blog post that posed an interesting pair of angles toward outlook: a 2×2 with Fragile <—> Robust on one axis and Essential <—> Inessential on the other. In his sort, essential + fragile are hospitals and airlines. Inessential + fragile are cruise ships and movie theaters. Robust + essential are tech giants. Inessential + robust are sports and entertainment conglomerates, plus major restaurant chains. It’s a heuristic, and all of it is arguable (especially given the gray along both axes), which is the idea. Cases must be made if planning is to have meaning.

Now, haul Arnold’s template over to The U.S. Labor Market During the Beginning of the Pandemic Recession, by Tomaz Cajner, Leland D. Crane, Ryan A. Decker, John Grigsby, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, Erik Hurst, Christopher Kurz, and Ahu Yildirmaz, of the University of Chicago, and lay it on this item from page 21:

The highest employment drop, in Arts, Entertainment and Recreation, leans toward inessential + fragile. The second, in Accommodation and Food Services is more on the essential + fragile side. The lowest employment changes, from Construction on down to Utilities, all tending toward essential + robust.

So I’m looking at those bottom eight essential + robust categories and asking a couple of questions:

1) What percentage of workers in each essential + robust category are now working from home?

2) How much of this work is essentially electronic? Meaning, done by people who live and work through glowing rectangles, connected on the Internet?

Hard to say, but the answers will have everything to do with the transition of work, and life in general, into a digital world that coexists with the physical one. This was the world we were gradually putting together when urgency around COVID-19 turned “eventually” into “now.”

In Junana, Bruce Caron writes,

“Choose One” was extremely powerful. It provided a seed for everything from language (connecting sound to meaning) to traffic control (driving on only one side of the road). It also opened up to a constructivist view of society, suggesting that choice was implicit in many areas, including gender.

Choose One said to the universe, “There are several ways we can go, but we’re all going to agree on this way for now, with the understanding that we can do it some other way later, thank you.” It wasn’t quite as elegant as “42,” but it was close. Once you started unfolding with it, you could never escape the arbitrariness of that first choice.

In some countries, an arbitrary first choice to eliminate or suspend personal privacy allowed intimate degrees of contract tracing to help hammer flat the infection curve of COVID-19. Not arbitrary, perhaps, but no longer escapable.

Other countries face similar choices. Here in the U.S., there is an argument that says “The tech giants already know our movements and social connections intimately. Combine that with what governments know and we can do contact tracing to a fine degree. What matters privacy if in reality we’ve lost it already and many thousands or millions of lives are at stake—and so are the economies that provide what we call our ‘livings.’ This virus doesn’t care about privacy, and for now neither should we.” There is also an argument that says, “Just because we have no privacy yet in the digital world is no reason not to have it. So, if we do contact tracing through our personal electronics, it should be disabled afterwards and obey old or new regulations respecting personal privacy.”

Those choices are not binary, of course. Nor are they outside the scope of too many other choices to name here. But many of those are “Choose Ones” that will play out, even if our choice is avoidance.

Facial recognition by machines is out of control. Meaning our control. As individuals, and as a society.

Thanks to ubiquitous surveillance systems, including the ones in our own phones, we can no longer assume we are anonymous in public places or private in private ones.

This became especially clear a few weeks ago when Kashmir Hill (@kashhill) reported in the New York Times that a company called Clearview.ai “invented a tool that could end your ability to walk down the street anonymously, and provided it to hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from local cops in Florida to the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.”

If your face has ever appeared anywhere online, it’s a sure bet to assume that you are not faceless to any of these systems. Clearview, Kashmir says, has “a database of more than three billion images” from “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites ” and “goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”

Among law enforcement communities, only New Jersey’s has started to back off on using Clearview.

Worse, Clearview is just one company. Laws also take years to catch up with developments in facial recognition, or to get ahead of them, if they ever can. And let’s face it: government interests are highly conflicted here. The need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ need to know all they can is at extreme odds with our need, as human beings, to assume we enjoy at least some freedom from being known by God-knows-what, everywhere we go.

Personal privacy is the heart of civilized life, and beats strongest in democratic societies. It’s not up for “debate” between companies and governments, or political factions. Loss of privacy is a problem that affects each of us, and calls fo0r action by each of us as well.

A generation ago, when the Internet was still new to us, four guys (one of which was me) nailed a document called The Cluetrain Manifesto to a door on the Web. It said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

Since then their grasp has exceeded our reach. And with facial recognition they have gone too far.

Enough.

Now it’s time for our reach to exceed their grasp.

Now it’s time, finally, to make them deal with it.

I see three ways, so far. I’m sure ya’ll will think of other and better ones. The Internet is good for that.

First is to use an image like the one above (preferably with a better design) as your avatar, favicon, or other facial expression. (Like I just did for @dsearls on Twitter.) Here’s a favicon we can all use until a better one comes along:

Second, sign the Stop facial recognition by surveillance systems petition I just put up at that link. Two hashtags:

  • #GOOMF, for Get Out Of My Face
  • #Faceless

Third is to stop blaming and complaining. That’s too easy, tends to go nowhere and wastes energy. Instead,

Fourth, develop useful and constructive ideas toward what we can do—each of us, alone and together—to secure, protect and signal our privacy needs and intentions in the world, in ways others can recognize and respect. We have those in the natural world. We don’t yet in the digital one. So let’s invent them.

Fifth is to develop the policies we need to stop the spread of privacy-violating technologies and practices, and to foster development of technologies that enlarge our agency in the digital world—and not just to address the wrongs being committed against us. (Which is all most privacy laws actually do.)

 

 

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Journalism’s biggest problem (as I’ve said before) is what it’s best at: telling stories. That’s what Thomas B. Edsall (of Columbia and The New York Times) does in Trump’s Digital Advantage Is Freaking Out Democratic Strategists, published in today’s New York Times. He tells a story. Or, in the favored parlance of our time, a narrative, about what he sees Republicans’ superior use of modern methods for persuading voters:

Experts in the explosively growing field of political digital technologies have developed an innovative terminology to describe what they do — a lexicon that is virtually incomprehensible to ordinary voters. This language provides an inkling of the extraordinarily arcane universe politics has entered:

geofencingmass personalizationdark patternsidentity resolution technologiesdynamic prospectinggeotargeting strategieslocation analyticsgeo-behavioural segmentpolitical data cloudautomatic content recognitiondynamic creative optimization.

Geofencing and other emerging digital technologies derive from microtargeting marketing initiatives that use consumer and other demographic data to identify the interests of specific voters or very small groups of like-minded individuals to influence their thoughts or actions.

In fact the “arcane universe” he’s talking about is the direct marketing playbook, which was born offline as the junk mail business. In that business, tracking individuals and bothering them personally is a fine and fully rationalized practice. And let’s face it: political campaigning has always wanted to get personal. It’s why we have mass mailings, mass callings, mass textings and the rest of it—all to personal addresses, numbers and faces.

Coincidence: I just got this:

There is nothing new here other than (at the moment) the Trump team doing it better than any Democrat. (Except maybe Bernie.) Obama’s team was better at it in ’08 and ’12. Trump’s was better at it in ’16 and is better again in ’20.*

However, debating which candidates do the best marketing misdirects our attention away from the destruction of personal privacy by constant tracking of our asses online—including tracking of asses by politicians. This, I submit, is a bigger and badder issue than which politicians do the best direct marketing. It may even be bigger than who gets elected to what in November.

As issues go, personal privacy is soul-deep. Who gets elected, and how, are not.

As I put it here,

Surveillance of people is now the norm for nearly every website and app that harvests personal data for use by machines. Privacy, as we’ve understood it in the physical world since the invention of the loincloth and the door latch, doesn’t yet exist. Instead, all we have are the “privacy policies” of corporate entities participating in the data extraction marketplace, plus terms and conditions they compel us to sign, either of which they can change on a whim. Most of the time our only choice is to deny ourselves the convenience of these companies’ services or live our lives offline.

Worse is that these are proffered on the Taylorist model, meaning mass-produced.

There is a natural temptation to want to fix this with policy. This is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. Policy-makers are themselves part of the problem. Hell, most of their election campaigns are built on direct marketing. And law enforcement (which carries out certain forms of policy) has always regarded personal privacy as a problem to overcome rather than a solution to anything. Example.
  2. Policy-makers often screw things up. Exhibit A: the EU’s GDPR, which has done more to clutter the Web with insincere and misleading cookie notices than it has to advance personal privacy tech online. (I’ve written about this a lot. Here’s one sample.)

We need tech of our own. Terms and policies of our own. In the physical world, we have privacy tech in the forms of clothing, shelter, doors, locks and window shades. We have policies in the form of manners, courtesies, and respect for privacy signals we send to each other. We lack all of that online. Until we invent it, the most we’ll do to achieve real privacy online is talk about it, and inveigh for politicians to solve it for us. Which they won’t.

If you’re interested in solving personal privacy at the personal level, take a look at Customer Commons. If you want to join our efforts there, talk to me.

_____________
*The Trump campaign also has the enormous benefit of an already-chosen Republican ticket. The Democrats have a mess of candidates and a split in the party between young and old, socialists and moderates, and no candidate as interesting as is Trump. (Also, I’m not Joyce.)

At this point, it’s no contest. Trump is the biggest character in the biggest story of our time. (I explain this in Where Journalism Fails.) And he’s on a glide path to winning in November, just as I said he was in 2016.

black hole

Last night I watched The Great Hack a second time. It’s a fine documentary, maybe even a classic. (A classic in literature, I learned on this Radio Open Source podcast, is a work that “can only be re-read.” If that’s so, then perhaps a classic movie is one that can only be re-watched.*)

The movie’s message could hardly be more loud and clear: vast amounts of private information about each of us is gathered constantly in the digital world, and is being weaponized so our minds and lives can be hacked by others for commercial or political gain. Or both. The movie’s star, Professor David Carroll of the New School (@profcarroll), has been delivering that message for many years, as have many others, including myself.

But to what effect?

Sure, we have policy moves such as the GDPR, the main achievement of which (so far) has been to cause every website to put confusing and (in most cases) insincere cookie notices on their index pages, meant (again, in most cases) to coerce “consent” (which really isn’t) to exactly the unwanted tracking the regulation was meant to stop.

Those don’t count.

Ennui does. Apathy does.

On seeing The Great Hack that second time, I had exactly the same feeling my wife had on seeing it for her first: that the very act of explaining the problem also trivialized it. In other words, the movie worsened the very problem it solved. And it isn’t alone at this, because so has everything everybody has said, written or reported about it. Or so it sometimes seems. At least to me.

Okay, so: if I’m right about that, why might it be?

One reason is that there’s no story. See, every story requires three elements: character (or characters), problem (or problems), and movement toward resolution. (Find a more complete explanation here.) In this case, the third element—movement toward resolution—is absent. Worse, there’s almost no hope. “The Great Hack” concludes with a depressing summary that tends to leave one feeling deeply screwed, especially since the only victories in the movie are over the late Cambridge Analytica; and those victories were mostly within policy circles we know will either do nothing or give us new laws that protect yesterday from last Thursday… and then last another hundred years.

The bigger reason is that we are now in a media environment summarized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage: “every new medium works us over completely.” Our new medium is the Internet, which is a non-place absent of distance and gravity. The only institutions holding up there are ones clearly anchored in the physical world. Health care and law enforcement, for example. Others dealing in non-material goods, such as information and ideas, aren’t doing as well.

Journalism, for example. Worse, on the Internet it’s easy for everyone to traffic in thoughts and opinions, as well as in solid information. So now the world of thoughts and ideas, which preponderate on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are vast floods of everything from everybody. In the midst of all that, the news cycle, which used to be daily, now lasts about as long as a fart. Calling it all too much is a near-absolute understatement.

But David Carroll is right. Darkness is falling. I just wish all the light we keep trying to shed would do a better job of helping us all see that.

_________

*For those who buy that notion, I commend The Rewatchables, a great podcast from The Ringer.

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the character now serving as President of the United States, creating problems and movement around them with nearly everything he says and does.

We have never seen Donald Trump’s like before, and may never again. His genius at working all three elements are without equal in our time—or perhaps any time. So please, if you can, set your politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

Donald Trump spins up stories at least four ways:

  1. Through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames (“Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times”)
  2. By finding or creating problems, and characterizing those too: “witch hunt,” “fake news,” “illegal ballots,” “Dominion-izing the Vote.”
  3. By creating movement via the Roy Cohn and Roger Stone playbook: always attack or counter-attack, sue constantly, claim victory no matter what. (Roy Cohn was a lawyer Frank Rich felicitously called “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character: Cohn was absolutely interesting. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.”)
  4. By playing the ultimate alpha. That’s why he constantly calls himself the winner, no matter what.
  5. By de-legitimizing facts, truths, norms, and those who traffic in them. Key to this is accusing others of what he himself is accused. This is why he labeled CNN and other news organizations “fake news” while turning the generation of it into an art form

As for movement, every new problem Trump creates or intensifies is meant to generate an emotional response, which is movement in itself.

Look closely: the news Trump makes is deliberate, theatrical and constant. All of it is staged and re-staged, so every unavoidably interesting thing he says or does pushes the last thing he said or did off the stage and into irrelevance, because whatever he’s saying or doing now demands full attention, no matter what he said or did yesterday.

There is true genius to this, and it requires understanding and respect—especially by those who report on it.

You can call this trolling, or earned media coverage, meaning the free kind. Both are true. So is comparing Trump to The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (The Mule was a mutant with exceptional influence over the emotions of whole populations. It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adams, expected Trump to win in 2016.)

Regardless of what one calls it, we do have two big fails for journalism here:

  1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.
  2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for  “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible.

I’ll illustrate those points with the killing fields of Cambodia. Those fields are the setting for a story well-known today, about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the Cambodia’s population. And yet that story meant close to nothing until it became about one man with a problem rather than a whole population whose lives had ended.

A measure of how close-to-nothing that genocide meant to journalism at that time was delivered one evening in the late 1970s by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. Rudd said, almost offhandedly, that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant and interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

What matters for our current inquiry is that years went by, with a million or more people dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this was neither the first nor the last time massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, at most you have have statistics that become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of the storyless facts will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Including, unavoidably, the genius in the White House.

_________

*However, if you want good advice on how best to write stories about the guy, you can’t beat what @JayRosen_NYU tweets here. I suggest it also applies to the UK’s prime minister.

Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

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

The big questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below Toro Canyon—

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

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

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.) (In September 2018 a first responder I talked with said the bodies of a least one the two missing victims, a teenage boy and a toddler, were probably carried to the ocean.)

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

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

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

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

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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.

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I have unsubscribed from the DSCC mailing list, which I never joined, multiple times. Here’s a screen shot of my last unsubscribe session, dated 21 October:

That’s the third screen, after others that mute the unsubscribe option. At this point, “Take a break” is their euphemism for what I really want, which is a divorce. Here’s the confirmation:

And here is the confirming email:

I have earlier ones from June, July and August.

But the DSCC emails keep coming. Here’s just the top of the latest:

So here’s a question for the DSCC, or anyone else who knows: Is this deliberate on the DSCC’s part?

I do believe one should never ascribe to __________ what can also be ascribed to incompetence.

But this is a long time for any incompetence to persist. At a certain point this kind of shit gets hard to read as anything other than intentional. That point was passed two unsubscribes ago.

Whatever the reasons, it’s a great way to piss off voters.

I just completed my fifth known unsubscribe attempt. In the text box under “Please tell us why you are unsubscribing (optional), I just wrote,

See what I wrote here http://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2017/10/29/… and tweeted here: https://twitter.com/dsearls/status/92468… This will be my 5th unsubscribe attempt. I have no faith it will work any better than the last four, which all failed.

I have no faith this will work. Please prove me wrong, DSCC.

By the way, I’ve long been a political independent, and have found my ass on political sucker lists from both major parties. The difference with the DSCC is that unsubscribe fails with them. Always.

[Later…] Since some have suggested that I only unsubscribed from one mailing, here’s a screenshot I left out of the post:

By the way, it doesn’t say what “ONTRAPORT” is, and the domain is http://demolinks.us/, which goes to an unready wordpress site by the ONTRAPORT name. Strange.

[Later again…]

I got another DSCC email…

…and decided to go through the unsubscribe routine again, because well, hell, why not.

As you see, the choice to unsubscribe is muted:

Then, instead of unsubscribing me when I hit “No, continue unsubscribing,” it gives me this:

Besides suggesting that the reader’s clear intention to unsubscribe actually means “Receive fewer emails,” they make the option to continue unsubscribing barely visible. But I hit it, and got this:

Hitting the red box then got me this:

No confirming email came this time.

I haven’t received another DSCC email yet, but it’s only been a few hours. I have no faith that they won’t keep mailing me shit.

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