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Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs. The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the worst she has ever seen, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January


Take a look at this chart:

CryptoCurrency Market Capitalizations


As Neo said, Whoa.

To help me get my head fully around all that’s going on behind that surge, or mania, or whatever it is, I’ve composed a lexicon-in-process that I’m publishing here so I can find it again. Here goes:::

Bitcoin. “A cryptocurrency and a digital payment system invented by an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It was released as open-source software in 2009. The system is peer-to-peer, and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Since the system works without a central repository or single administrator, bitcoin is called the first decentralized digital currency.” (Wikipedia.)

Cryptocurrency. “A digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure the transactions and to control the creation of additional units of the currency. Cryptocurrencies are a subset of alternative currencies, or specifically of digital currencies. Bitcoin became the first decentralized cryptocurrency in 2009. Since then, numerous cryptocurrencies have been created. These are frequently called altcoins, as a blend of bitcoin alternative. Bitcoin and its derivatives use decentralized control as opposed to centralized electronic money/centralized banking systems. The decentralized control is related to the use of bitcoin’s blockchain transaction database in the role of a distributed ledger.” (Wikipedia.)

“A cryptocurrency system is a network that utilizes cryptography to secure transactions in a verifiable database that cannot be changed without being noticed.” (Tim Swanson, in Consensus-as-a-service: a brief report on the emergence of permissioned, distributed ledger systems.)

Distributed ledger. Also called a shared ledger, it is “a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data geographically spread across multiple sites, countries, or institutions.” (Wikipedia, citing a report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser: Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain.) A distributed ledger requires a peer-to-peer network and consensus algorithms to ensure replication across nodes. The ledger is sometimes also called a distributed database. Tim Swanson adds that a distributed ledger system is “a network that fits into a new platform category. It typically utilizes cryptocurrency-inspired technology and perhaps even part of the Bitcoin or Ethereum network itself, to verify or store votes (e.g., hashes). While some of the platforms use tokens, they are intended more as receipts and not necessarily as commodities or currencies in and of themselves.”

Blockchain.”A peer-to-peer distributed ledger forged by consensus, combined with a system for ‘smart contracts’ and other assistive technologies. Together these can be used to build a new generation of transactional applications that establishes trust, accountability and transparency at their core, while streamlining business processes and legal constraints.” (Hyperledger.)

“To use conventional banking as an analogy, the blockchain is like a full history of banking transactions. Bitcoin transactions are entered chronologically in a blockchain just the way bank transactions are. Blocks, meanwhile, are like individual bank statements. Based on the Bitcoin protocol, the blockchain database is shared by all nodes participating in a system. The full copy of the blockchain has records of every Bitcoin transaction ever executed. It can thus provide insight about facts like how much value belonged a particular address at any point in the past. The ever-growing size of the blockchain is considered by some to be a problem due to issues like storage and synchronization. On an average, every 10 minutes, a new block is appended to the block chain through mining.” (Investopedia.)

“Think of it as an operating system for marketplaces, data-sharing networks, micro-currencies, and decentralized digital communities. It has the potential to vastly reduce the cost and complexity of getting things done in the real world.” (Hyperledger.)

Permissionless system. “A permissionless system [or ledger] is one in which identity of participants is either pseudonymous or even anonymous. Bitcoin was originally designed with permissionless parameters although as of this writing many of the on-ramps and off-ramps for Bitcoin are increasingly permission-based. (Tim Swanson.)

Permissioned system. “A permissioned system -[or ledger] is one in which identity for users is whitelisted (or blacklisted) through some type of KYB or KYC procedure; it is the common method of managing identity in traditional finance.” (Tim Swanson)

Mining. “The process by which transactions are verified and added to the public ledger, known as the blockchain. (It is) also the means through which new bitcoin are released. Anyone with access to the Internet and suitable hardware can participate in mining. The mining process involves compiling recent transactions into blocks and trying to solve a computationally difficult puzzle. The participant who first solves the puzzle gets to place the next block on the block chain and claim the rewards. The rewards, which incentivize mining, are both the transaction fees associated with the transactions compiled in the block as well as newly released bitcoin.” (Investopedia.)

Ethereum. “An open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality, which facilitates online contractual agreements. It provides a decentralized Turing-complete virtual machine, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), which can execute scripts using an international network of public nodes. Ethereum also provides a cryptocurrency token called “ether”, which can be transferred between accounts and used to compensate participant nodes for computations performed. Gas, an internal transaction pricing mechanism, is used to mitigate spam and allocate resources on the network. Ethereum was proposed in late 2013 by Vitalik Buterin, a cryptocurrency researcher and programmer. Development was funded by an online crowdsale during July–August 2014. The system went live on 30 July 2015, with 11.9 million coins “premined” for the crowdsale… In 2016 Ethereum was forked into two blockchains, as a result of the collapse of The DAO project. The two chains have different numbers of users, and the minority fork was renamed to Ethereum Classic.” (Wikipedia.)

Decentralized Autonomous Organization. This is “an organization that is run through rules encoded as computer programs called smart contracts. A DAO’s financial transaction record and program rules are maintained on a blockchain… The precise legal status of this type of business organization is unclear. The best-known example was The DAO, a DAO for venture capital funding, which was launched with $150 million in crowdfunding in June 2016 and was immediately hacked and drained of US$50 million in cryptocurrency… This approach eliminates the need to involve a bilaterally accepted trusted third party in a financial transaction, thus simplifying the sequence. The costs of a blockchain enabled transaction and of making available the associated data may be substantially lessened by the elimination of both the trusted third party and of the need for repetitious recording of contract exchanges in different records: for example, the blockchain data could in principle, if regulatory structures permitted, replace public documents such as deeds and titles. In theory, a blockchain approach allows multiple cloud computing users to enter a loosely coupled peer-to-peer smart contract collaboration.(Wikipedia)

Initial Coin Offering. “A means of crowdfunding the release of a new cryptocurrency. Generally, tokens for the new cryptocurrency are sold to raise money for technical development before the cryptocurrency is released. Unlike an initial public offering (IPO), acquisition of the tokens does not grant ownership in the company developing the new cryptocurrency. And unlike an IPO, there is little or no government regulation of an ICO.” (Chris Skinner.)

“In an ICO campaign, a percentage of the cryptocurrency is sold to early backers of the project in exchange for legal tender or other cryptocurrencies, but usually for Bitcoin…During the ICO campaign, enthusiasts and supporters of the firm’s initiative buy some of the distributed cryptocoins with fiat or virtual currency. These coins are referred to as tokens and are similar to shares of a company sold to investors in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) transaction.” (Investopedia.)

Tokens. “In the blockchain world, a token is a tiny fraction of a cryptocurrency (bitcoin, ether, etc) that has a value usually less than 1/1000th of a cent, so the value is essentially nothing, but it can still go onto the blockchain…This sliver of currency can carry code that represents value in the real world — the ownership of a diamond, a plot of land, a dollar, a share of stock, another cryptocurrency, etc. Tokens represent ownership of the underlying asset and can be traded freely. One way to understand it is that you can trade physical gold, which is expensive and difficult to move around, or you can just trade tokens that represent gold. In most cases, it makes more sense to trade the token than the asset. Tokens can always be redeemed for their underlying asset, though that can often be a difficult and expensive process. Though technically they could be redeemed, many tokens are designed never to be redeemed but traded forever. On the other hand, a ticket is a token that is designed to be redeemed and may or may not be trade-able” (TokenFactory.)

“Tokens in the ethereum ecosystem can represent any fungible tradable good: coins, loyalty points, gold certificates, IOUs, in game items, etc. Since all tokens implement some basic features in a standard way, this also means that your token will be instantly compatible with the ethereum wallet and any other client or contract that uses the same standards. (

“The most important takehome is that tokens are not equity, but are more similar to paid API keys. Nevertheless, they may represent a >1000X improvement in the time-to-liquidity and a >100X improvement in the size of the buyer base relative to traditional means for US technology financing — like a Kickstarter on steroids.” (Thoughts on Tokens, by Balaji S. Srinivasan.)

“A blockchain token is a digital token created on a blockchain as part of a decentralized software protocol. There are many different types of blockchain tokens, each with varying characteristics and uses. Some blockchain tokens, like Bitcoin, function as a digital currency. Others can represent a right to tangible assets like gold or real estate. Blockchain tokens can also be used in new protocols and networks to create distributed applications. These tokens are sometimes also referred to as App Coins or Protocol Tokens. These types of tokens represent the next phase of innovation in blockchain technology, and the potential for new types of business models that are decentralized – for example, cloud computing without Amazon, social networks without Facebook, or online marketplaces without eBay. However, there are a number of difficult legal questions surrounding blockchain tokens. For example, some tokens, depending on their features, may be subject to US federal or state securities laws. This would mean, among other things, that it is illegal to offer them for sale to US residents except by registration or exemption. Similar rules apply in many other countries. (A Securities Law Framework for Blockchain Tokens.)

In fact tokens go back. All the way.

In Before Writing Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform, Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes, “Tokens can be traced to the Neolithic period starting about 8000 B.C. They evolved following the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming…The substitution of signs for tokens was the first step toward writing.” (For a compression of her vast scholarship on the matter, read Tokens: their Significance for the Origin of Counting and Writing.

I sense that we are now at a threshold no less pregnant with possibilities than we were when ancestors in Mesopotamia rolled clay into shapes, made marks on them and invented t-commerce.

And here is a running list of sources I’ve visited, so far:

You’re welcome.

To improve it, that is.

thIn The American Dream, Quantified at Last, David Leonhardt in The New York Times makes a despairing case for a perfect Onion headline: American Dream Ends When Nation Wakes Up.

Like so much else the Times correctly tries to do, the piece issues a wake-up call. It is also typical of the Times’ tendency to look at every big social issue through the lenses of industrial age norms, giving us lots of stats and opinions from Serious Sources, and offering policy-based remedies (e.g. “help more middle- and low-income children acquire the skills that lead to good-paying jobs”).

It should help to remember that the ancestors who gave us surnames like Tanner, Smith, Farmer and Cooper didn’t have “jobs.” As a word, “jobs” acquired its current meaning after industry won the industrial revolution—and began to wane in usage after personal computing and the Internet showed up, giving us countless new ways to work on our own and with each other. You can see that in the rate at which the word “jobs” showed up in books:

jobsI’m not even sure “work” was all the Tanners and Smiths of the world did. Maybe it was what we now call “a living,” in an almost literal sense.

Whatever it was, it involved technologies: tools they shaped, and which also shaped them. (Source.) Yet for all the ways those ancestors were confined and defined by the kind of work they did, they were also very ingenious in coping with and plying those same technologies. Anyone who has spent much time on a farm, or in any kind of hardscrabble existence, knows how inventive people can be with the few means they have to operate in the world.

This is one reason why I have trouble with all the predictions of, for example, robot and AI take-overs of most or all work. For all the degrees to which humans are defined and limited by the tools that make them, humans are also highly ingenious. They find new ways to make new work for themselves and others. This is why I’d like to see more thought given to how ingenuity shows up and plays out. And not just more hand-wringing over awful futures that seem to be linear progressions out of industrial age (or dawn-of-digital age) framings and norms.

Note: the spear point above is one I found in a tilled field north of Chapel Hill, NC. It is now at the Alamance County Historical Museum.



I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Center


—in the Mojave Desert, amidst the dark and colorful Calico Mountains of California, situated in the forbidding nowhere that stretches between Barstow and Death Valley.

Here and there, amidst the webwork of trails in the dirt left by tanks, jeeps and other combat vehicles, fake towns and other structures go up and come down. So, for example, here is Etrebat Shar, a fake town in an “artificial Afghanistan” that I shot earlier this month, on June 2:


And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself:


Look to the right of the “town.” See that area where it looks like something got erased? Well, it did. I took the two shots above earlier this month, on June 2. Here’s a shot of the same scene on June 25, 2013:


Not only is the “town” a bit bigger, but there’s this whole other collection of walls and buildings, covering a far larger area, to the right, or east.

I also see in this shot that it was gone on December 8, 2014.

Now I’m fascinated by this town and the erased something-or-other nearby, which I also shot on June 2:


It appears to be “Medina Wasl,” which Wikipedia says is one of twelve towns built for desert warfare training:

One of the features of the base is the presence of 12 mock “villages” which are used to train troops in Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) prior to their deployment. The villages mimic real villages and have variety of buildings such as religious sites, hotels, traffic circles, etc. filled with foreign language speaking actors portraying government officials, local police, local military, villagers, street vendors, and insurgents. The largest two are known as Razish and Ujen, the closest located about 30 minutes from the main part of the post. Most of the buildings are created using intermodal containers, stacked to create larger structures, the largest village consists of 585 buildings that can engage an entire brigade combat team into a fight.

Now I’m slowly going through my other shots over the years to see if I can find Razish and Ujen… if they haven’t been erased.

It would be cool to hear from military folk familiar with Fort Irwin, or veterans who have worked or fought mock battles in those towns.


Dogs flew spaceships.The Aztecs invented the vacation. Men and women are the same sex. Our forefathers took drugs. Your brain is not the boss. Yes, that’s right: everything you know is wrong. — Firesign Theatre

In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman says most of what we know will be replaced, eventually, by new and better facts.

Let’s not argue Arbesman’s case either way. Instead let’s admit that there is at least some truth to it — a rightness: something we can agree on, even if we believe he’s wrong in some ways. After all, he’s talking about science.

Science is both a body of knowledge and a formal approach to growing it. In science, settled knowledge is organized into piles of agreements, many of which are about truths that are lacking in facts, or supported by facts that will be replaced with others, no less provisional than the originals.

In this sense science is a belief system; but hardly a religious one, since every belief might be less than a matter of faith than an operating assumption that will have to do for now.

On the whole we tend to believe scientists who have earned their greatness, or come close enough. What we grant them is authority.

It is interesting to approach the subject of authority by looking at the noun information, which is derived from the verb inform, which in turn is derived from the verb to form.

If you tell me something I didn’t know, and it becomes part of what I know — my own belief system — you haven’t just “delivered” to me a sum of unseen substance called “information,” as if it were container cargo. You have formed me. I am not exactly as I was before. I am larger, at least in the sense that humans are learning animals, best improved by learning until the moment they die. (“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,” Gandhi is said to have said.)

Therefore authority is the right we grant others to form us. Put another way, we are all authors of each other.

Yet even our idols walk on clay feet when that’s the only way to get around. In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee reports that the geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes once asked his friend and colleague W. Jason Morgan what he would do for an encore to Rises, Trenches, Great Faults and Crustal Blocks, Morgan’s landmark paper in the founding canon of plate tectonics. “Morgan said he didn’t know,” McPhee writes, “but possibly the most exciting thing to do next would be to prove the theory wrong.”

Though it be canon, the theory of plate tectonics is provisional, even to its primary authors. But for now it’s the working model we call a paradigm.

Before plate tectonics, the encompassing paradigm for geology — its canon — was the geosyncline. It was, in a three word phrase that will be with geology forever, “not well understood.” Plate tectonics is better understood than was the geosyncline, but there are still lots of gaps in it, filled mostly with working assumptions, about which there are plenty of disagreements.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher (in that order) says science moves toward its settled facts by a process of creative guesswork that relies far more on tacit rather than explicit forms of knowing. His only quotable line, “We know more than we can tell” summarizes what he means by tacit. But that ain’t enough.

To unpack it a bit more, tacit knowledge is how we can far more easily recognize a person’s face than describe it.

We rely on tacit knowing when we make things explicit as well. Consider this: we usually don’t know know how we will end the sentences we start, or remember how we started the sentences we are ending, yet we somehow communicate meaning anyway. That meaning is mostly tacit as well.

All these things are high on my mind because lately I have been entering discussions on science, and feel a need to dump my brain (or what little I can make explicit of my tacit knowing on the subject). I also feel compelled to add one observation and a one story — about my own guessing on the subject of how the Rockies got there.

Here is the observation: There is no urge more human than the one to alter a permanent structure. Think about it. The first thing anybody moving into a new house wants to do is change it. Enclose the porch. Move a door. Change the flooring. Put in a new bathroom off the back hall. The best book ever written on this subject is Stewart Brand‘s How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built. It came out in 1994 and is no less brilliant now than it was then. Get it if you’re even thinking of buying, building or remodeling a house.

(Less great but no less useful to my wife and I, when we were remodeling our first place in the mid-’90s, was Your New House, by Alan and Denise Fields, now available for 1¢ on Amazon. I don’t have it with me, and the “look inside” thing doesn’t reveal the whole text, but here’s what I remember from it: “Your builder is not Bob Vila. Your builder is a crew of drunks, ex-felons and misfits who show up on alternate Thursdays.” While not true, it’s close enough.)

Now for the Rockies. In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee writes, “Plate tectonics theorists have been more than a little inconvenienced by the great distances that separate the mountains from the nearest plate boundary.”

At the time McPhee wrote that, it was generally assumed that when one plate subducted under another, it was at a deep angle. Flying over the Rockies many dozens of times after first reading that in the ’80s, I developed my own theory: that the Farallon plate (a former Pacific sea floor) didn’t dive under the western edge of North America, but instead slid under it at a shallow angle, like a piece of plywood under a rug. So I felt pretty smart about that until I later read that real geologists, William R. Dickinson and Walter S. Snyder, had theorized “flat subduction” (perhaps best explained here), in 1978, as an explanation of the Laramide Orogeny, which produced roughly the Rockies we know, within a few dozen million years.

(It’s actually messier than I thought. Or seems to be. Here’s what NASA says has become of the subducted Farallon, now deep in the mantle. By the way, what got scraped off the top of the plate as it went into the trench is what we call the Bay Area. Or, in geo lingo, the Franciscan assemblage.)

My purpose with this isn’t to brag on something I thought up (and turned out not to be original) but rather to point to contributions of greater substance I’ve been making to geology ever since, in the form of aerial photographs that geologists can use. Many do. So do Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

“Make yourself useful,” Mom used to say. So I do.

To sum up, my provisional conclusion about science is that it’s all provisional: as functional and temporary as scaffolding. And now, thanks to the Internet, we can all take part in raising scientific barns of a countless kinds, and then re-raising more and better ones as we gather more facts, learn more stuff, share more knowledge, and better author each other in the process.

Bonus link: David Weinberger‘s Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. My short review: it formed me.

Here’s what the current geomagnetic storm looks like right now, data-wise:

k indexThe visuals are in the sky, in the form of brilliant auroras, visible all over Canada and as far south as Michigan. The near-full moon doesn’t help, but the show is there to see. (Alas, I’m in North Carolina, so it’s a longer shot.)

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Got big rain today in Santa Barbara, and across all of California, or so it appears:

Rain in CaliforniaRainfall records were broken. As expected, there were mudslides. One friend going to Malibu was smart to avoid the Pacific Coast Highway.

The drought persists, of course. We’ll need many more storms like this to make up for the water shortage.

Two things the news won’t mention, though.

One is the dropped wildfire danger. We care about those here. Two of the last four wildfires took out over 300 homes. One came within a dozen homes of where I’m sitting now.

The other is the greening of the hills. When California gets a good winter soaking, it turns into Ireland — at least until the fire season starts again.

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I’m listening to WGBH on 93.7 from Boston on my kitchen radio, on the low floor of an apartment building in Manhattan, thanks to an atmospheric condition called tropospheric bending, or “tropo” for short. Here’s my section of the current map of tropo at work right now:


Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 9.28.58 AMThe same map shows bigger “ducts” running from Florida to Iowa and Missouri to California. The map is by John Harder, aka @ng0e. Other maps by meteorolgist William Harper abound here.

I would have loved the same thing back when I was (like John) a “DXer” who logged about a thousand different FM stations from my house in the woods north of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late ’70s. “Tropo” showed up in the mornings, and another more dramatic form of long-distance propagation called “sporadic E” would appear in the afternoon and evenings, mostly in the late spring and early summer. Here’s a map source for that one.

One entertaining thing about sporadic E was how it affected channels 2-6 television. I picked up every Channel 3 in a circle that ran from Louisiana, across the prairie states, southeastern Canada, the Maritimes, and then around to Cuba. That whole band is now abandoned in the U.S. TV stations with those channel numbers actually radiate on other ones, while still occupying their old channels virtually. Also, we have the Internet, so watching and listening to faraway stations lacks the old thrill.

Still, it’s fun to hear that faraway stuff showing up every once in awhile.

Here in the temperate zones, summer is beaches and picnics and biking and dinner on the deck outside. It is also thunderstorms and airport delays.

Right now a line of thunderheads  is sliding northeastward across New Jersey. Here is how it looks to FlightAware‘s map of aviation and weather activity for Newark Liberty Airport:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.46.14 PMNotice how the incoming flights are threading through and around the heaviest rain, which is where the nasty winds are. I’m sure the approaches are still bumpy, in spite of the avoidings.

You’ll notice, if you click on the map above, or this link, it says,

Newark Liberty Intl (KEWR) is currently experiencing:

  • inbound flights delayed at their origin an average of 4 hours 38 minutes due to low clouds
  • departure delays of 1 hours 46 minutes to 2 hours (and increasing) due to weather

For a national context, here is FlightAware’s MiseryMap

miserymapThat’s just a screen shot. Go to the actual map and hit the blue play button. Impressive, huh?

I also like Intellicast’s map of lightning strikes:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.59.25 PMThe lightning is striking the ‘hood right now, and the rain is coming down hard.

I also like Intellicast‘s maps and phone and tablet apps. Check ’em out.

And now my phone just went off like a smoke alarm. The first time I’ve ever heard a sound that grating. The screen says this:

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.13.57 PM

A flash flood warning.

Dark Sky, I should add, is another good app. Tells you how many minutes will pass before it rains, and then how long it will likely last.

iTransNYC is also the best of the New York transit apps. “Incident” is, I gather, a euphemism. If the problem is a police action, a sick passenger or a derailment, they say so. If it’s a worse casualty, they call it an “incident.” Averages about one a week.


Aral Balkan is doing a bang-up job getting Indie rolling as an adjectival meme. He’s doing it with his Indie PhoneIndie Tech Manifesto and a talk titled Free is a Lie.

To put the Indie movement in context, it helps to realize that it’s been on the tech road at least since 1964, when Paul Baranone of the Internet’s architects, gave us this design for a network:

Meaning the one on the right. The one on the left was common in those days and the one in the middle was considered inevitable. But the one on the right was radical. First, it reduced to one the “attack surface” of the network. Take out one node or one link and the rest stayed up. Second, it also served as the handy design spec for the protocols that now define the Internet. Aral, the Indie Phone and the IndieManifesto are all about the one on the right: Distributed. So, for that matter, is The Cluetrain Manifesto. For example:

That was Chris Locke’s line. “Markets are conversations” (one of my lines) and “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” (one of David Weinberger’s) also come from the same spot.

Marketing comes from A and B. Never C. Thus, as Jakob Nielsen told me after Cluetrain came out, “You guys defected from marketing. You sided with markets, against marketing.” Meaning we sided with individual human beings, as well as society in general. But certainly not with marketing — even though all three of us made a living in marketing. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cluetrain became, and remains, a favorite of marketers, many of which continue to defect. (Bonus link.)

Independent, sovereign, autonomous, personal and heterarchical are all adjectives for what one gets from a distributed network. (This may call forth an acronym, or at least an initialism.) By whatever name it is an essential camp, because each of us is all six of those things (including distributed). We need tech that enables those things and gives us full agency.

We won’t get them from the centralizers of the world. Or decentralizers that don’t go all the way from B to C. We need new stuff that comes from the truly personal side: from C. It helps that C — distributed — is also central to the mentality, ethos and methodologies of hacking (in the positive senses of the word).

Ever since the Net went viral in the mid-’90s, we’ve built out “solutions” mostly on the models of A and B: of centralized and decentralized. But too rarely all the way to C: the fully personal. This is understandable, given the flywheels of industry, which have the heft of Jupiter and have been spinning ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

But one fully personal exception stands out: the browser. It was born to be the best instrument of individuality we could have, even though it has lately become more of a shopping cart than a car. (That was one point of Earth to Mozilla: Come back home.) If we want the browser to be fully personal (e.g. private) again — as it was in the first place, before commercial imperatives were laid upon it, and the Web looked like a library (which one would browse) rather than a shopping mall — Mozilla is our best hope for making that happen. There are no other candidates. And it’s clear to me that they do want to work toward that goal.

We won’t get rid of centralization and hierarchy. Nor should we, because there are many things centralization and hierarchy do best, and we need them to operate civilization. Our personal tools also need to engage with many of them. But we also can’t expect either centralization or decentralization to give us distributed solutions, any more than we can get government or business to give us individuality, or for hierarchy to give us heterarchy. The best we’ll get from them is respect: for us, and for the new tools we bring to the market’s table.

Aral is right when he tweets that Mozilla’s dependence on Google is an elephant in the room. It’s an obvious issue. But the distributed mentality and ethos is alive and well inside Mozilla — and, for that matter, Google. I suspect it even resides in some corner of Mark Zuckerberg’s cerebrum. (He’s too much of a hacker for it not to be there.) Dismissing Mozilla as a tool of Google throws out babies with bathwater — important and essential ones, I believe.

Meanwhile we need a name for the movement that’s happening here, and I think Aral’s right that “Indie” might be it. “Distributed” sounds like what happens at the end of a supply chain. “Heterarchical” is good, but has five syllables and sounds too academic. “Sovereign” is only three syllables (or two, depending) and is gaining some currency, but it more commonly applies to countries than to people. “Personal” is good, but maybe too common. And the Indie Web is already catching on in tech circles. And indie itself is already established as a nickname for “independent.”  So I like it.

I would also like to see the whole topic come up at VRM Day and IIW, which run from 5 to 8 May in Mountain View. The links for those: (register at

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