On renting cars


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

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

All of that, of course, applies only Continue reading "On renting cars"

Idea: Woodstock vs. TED.


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So I just read about “a 50th anniversary Woodstock celebration that would include TED-style talks.” Details here and here in the Gothamist.

This celebration doesn’t have the Woodstock name, but it does have the place, now called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Since the Woodstock name belongs to folks planning the other big Woodstock 50th birthday party, this one is called, lengthily but simply, the Bethel Woods Music and Cultural Festival.

The idea of Woodstock + TED has my head spinning, especially since I was at Woodstock (sort of) and I’m no stranger to the TED stage.

So here’s my idea: Woodstock vs. TED. Have a two-stage smackdown. Surviving Woodstock performers on one stage, and TED talkers on the other, then a playoff between the two, ending with a fight on just one stage. Imagine: burning guitars against a lecture on brain chemistry or Continue reading "Idea: Woodstock vs. TED."

We can do better than selling our data


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fruit thought

If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?

Well, no.

Nor is there much if any evidence that businesses will want to buy personal data from individuals, on a per-person basis, especially when they can still get it for free. (GDPR withstanding, alas.)

Yet there is lately a widespread urge to claim personal data as personal property, and to create commodity markets for personal data, so people can start making money by selling or otherwise monetizing their own.

There are many problems with this, beside the one I just mentioned.

First is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Here’s a table that may help (borrowed from this Linux Journal column):

Excludability Excludability
YES NO
Rivalness YES Private good: good: Continue reading "We can do better than selling our data"

Geology answers for Montecito and Santa Barbara


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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 Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s him 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 because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, simultaneous debris out of multiple canyons 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 3 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in at places unknown in the fresh fanglomerate, sought

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What happened to nonviolence?


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Two graphs tell some of the story.

First is how often “nonviolence” and “non-violence” appeared in books until 2008, when Google quit keeping track:

Second is search trends for “nonviolence” and “non-violence” since 2004, which is when Google started keeping track of trends:

Clearly nonviolence wasn’t a thing at all until 1918, which is when Mohandas Gandhi started bringing it up. It became a big thing again in the 1960s, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led during the Vietnam war.

Then, at the close of the 60s, it trailed off. Not that it ever went away, but it clearly retreated.

Why?

Here’s the part of the story that seems clearest to me, and to the late Bill Hicks:

Spake Bill, “We kill those people.”

I was only a year old when Gandhi was shot, so I don’t remember that one; but Continue reading "What happened to nonviolence?"

Props to Pop on Memorial Day


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pop Thinking today, with great appreciation, about my father, Allen H. Searls, who served twice in the U.S. Army, first in the Coastal Artillery and again in the Signal Corps, during World War II. As I put it in the caption under that photo,
Pop hated not fighting in The War. So he re-enlisted even though he had already served in the Coastal Artillery. Grandma wrote on the back of this picture… “Pvt Allen H. Searls, 42103538, Camp Croft, S.C., Spartanburg, March 1, 1944.” He was promoted to corporal thanks to having served once already, and assigned to the Signal Corps in part because he scored 159 on the Army’s IQ test. He never bragged on that, by the way. (Though I will.) It was also very hard to get it out of him. Not that we needed to. We all knew how smart Continue reading "Props to Pop on Memorial Day"

Where the nickname came from


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docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story. Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.) As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 Continue reading "Where the nickname came from"

Have we passed peak phone?


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2017-03-27_subwayphones I should start by admitting I shot this picture with my phone. Also that on my rectangle with the rest of these people through most of this very typical subway trip yesterday. I don’t know what they were doing, though it’s not hard to guess. In my case it was spinning through emails, texting, tweeting, checking various other apps (weather, navigation, calendar) and listening to podcasts. We shape our tools and then they shape us. That’s what Marshall McLuhan’s main point was. And then we shape society, policy and the rest of civilization. People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground, Quartz reports. In less than two years, most of the phones used by people in this shot will be traded in, discarded or re-purposed as iPods or whatever. And most of us will be tethered to Apple, Google and
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Saving High Mountain


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  highmountainI’ve long thought that the most consequential thing I’ve ever done was write a newspaper editorial that helped stop development atop the highest wooded hilltop overlooking the New York metro. The hill is called High Mountain, and it is now home to the High Mountain Park Preserve in Wayne, New Jersey. That’s it above, highlighted by a rectangle on a shot I took from a passenger plane on approach to LaGuardia in 2008. The year was 1970, and I was a 23-year-old reporter for a suburban daily called Wayne Today (which may still exist). One day, while at the police station picking up copies of the previous day’s reports, I found a detailed plan to develop the top of High Mountain, and decided to pay the place a visit. So I took a fun hike through thick woods and a din of screaming cicadas (Brood X,
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… and crime travel


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I didn’t have a passport until I was approaching my 23rd birthday. But that didn’t stop me from travelling far and wide. Calcutta was a truly cosmopolitan city in those days; people from many cultures would pass through. While one generation of people, rooted in empire, left to find those roots, another, younger generation came … Continue reading "… and crime travel"

Desert warfare training in live ghost towns, seen from the sky


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I’ve been fascinated for years by what comes and goes at the Fort Irwin National Training Centerfortirwin —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: etrebat-shar1 And here is a broader view across the desert valley east of Fort Irwin itself: etrebat-shar2 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
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The Internet deserves its proper noun


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doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.

In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough Continue reading "The Internet deserves its proper noun"

Oil and Water on California’s South Coast


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Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil from the Coal Oil Seep Field drifts across Platform Holly, off the shore of UC Santa Barbara.

Oil in the water is one of the strange graces of life on Califonia’s South Coast. What we see here is a long slick of oil in the Pacific, drifting across Platform Holly, which taps into the Elwood Oil Field, which is of a piece with the Coal Oil Point Seep Field, all a stone’s throw off Coal Oil Point, better known as UC Santa Barbara. Wikipedia (at the momentsays this:
The Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, California isa petroleum seep area of about three square kilometres, adjacent to the Ellwood Oil Field, and releases about 40 tons of methane per day and about 19 tons of reactive organic gas (ethane, propane, butane and higher hydrocarbons), about twice the Continue reading "Oil and Water on California’s South Coast"

A tale of two stars


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JohnLeeHooker1997(This post is reblogged from this one, posted on June 11, 2001.) The best live performance I’ve ever attended was John Lee Hooker playing St. Joseph’s AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Durham, North Carolina. It was around the turn of the 80s, and in those days I went to pretty much every interesting act that came through town. I had no idea this was going to be anything unsual. When I walked in the door, John Lee was standing near the entrance looking old and beat in his orange jacket. He also smelled pretty bad, frankly, and I felt guilty for noticing it. As usual, I took a seat in the front pew (I hate sitting in the back of anything). In a few minutes John Lee came in and grumbled “Stand up!” in a gruff voice. Everybody obeyed. He then launched into a series of
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Remembering Big Davy


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davy1

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I’m not sure if Gandhi actually said that. Somebody did. My best human chance of finding who said it — or at least of gaining a learned enlargement on the lesson — would have been David Sallis. “Big Davy” didn’t know everything, but he came closer than anybody else I know, and he was a living exemplar of Gandhi’s advice. Davy’s answer would have been knowing, clever and enlarged by a joke, a wild story or both. Alas, I can’t ask him, because he died last Friday of a stroke he suffered a few days earlier. He was just 56, and is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Rosie — mararet-and-rosie — both of whom he adored absolutely — and by countless friends and colleagues who remain shocked and saddened by
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Where the dead receive guests


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trainor-biz-cardThat’s what cemeteries are, presumably: places where the dead await those who miss them, or who wish to honor and respect them. I suppose the original purpose of burial was to hold the stink down, or to recycle nutrients where the process can’t be seen. (Beats watching vultures and less grand creatures do the job.) Anyway, I found myself thinking about that when I decided to visit my Irish ancestors at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. Long familiar to drivers as a vast forest of monuments and headstones flanking the intersection of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (I-278) and the Long Island (I-495) Expressway, it is also the largest cemetery in the country, with more than three million idle occupants. Nine of them are relatives, most of which died more than a century ago. The main one is Thomas Trainor, my great-great-grandfather, one of seven children of John or
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What are the the balls on Prague’s spires called??


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prague-balls-question One of the things that fascinates me about Prague are the skewers atop the spires of its many iconic buildings, each of which pierces a shiny ball. It’s a great look. I am sure there’s a reason for those things, other than the look itself. I am also sure there is a word for the ball. The skewer too. I know it’s not spire, because that labels any conical or tapered point on the roof of a building. Prague is said to be the city of a hundred, or a thousand, spires. Most of those have these balls too, and I’ve become obsessed, while I’m here, with finding out what the hell they’re called. I’m sure more than a few people out there on the lazyweb know. So tell me. Thank you.

An old lesson in how to automate journalism with war and sports metaphors


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What I’ve always loved most about the Web† is how it allows each of us to publish on our own, as individuals, for the whole world. I started doing that as soon as I could get a dial-up account with a nearby ISP (the late Batnet of Palo Alto). Here is one of my first pieces, which I published in December 1995 at my self-hosted publication, Reality 2.0. I’m running it here because it does a good job of explaining how easy it is to automate journalism by framing a story in terms of war or sports. (It also tees up my next post.) So here ya go, copied from HTML 1 and morphed on pasting by WordPress into HTML 4:

MICROSOFT + NETSCAPE
WHY THE PRESS NEEDS TO SNAP OUT OF ITS WAR-COVERAGE TRANCE

By Doc Searls
December 11, 1995

Outline

Web Wars?
What are
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The greatest western I’ve ever read


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10-17-Love— is John McPhee‘s Rising From the Plains. It’s one book among five collected in Annals of the Former World, which won a Pulitzer in 1999. In all five, McPhee follows a geologist around; and all five of the geologists are interesting characters. None, however, is more interesting than J. David Love, who grew up on a hardscrabble ranch in the center of Wyoming and became one of the most accomplished geologists in the history of the field. And yet Love is still less interesting than both his parents — one an endlessly resourceful Scottish builder and re-builder of the family ranch (also possibly, McPhee suggests, a one-time member of Butch Cassidy’s gang), and the other one of the finest diarists ever to put pen to paper in a time and place that was still the Old West. I’ve read and re-read Rising From the Plains so Continue reading "The greatest western I’ve ever read"

The Giant Zero


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The Giant ZeroMany years ago, Craig Burton shared the best metaphor for the Internet that I have ever heard, or seen in my head. He called it hollow sphere: a giant three-dimensional zero. He called it that because a sphere’s geometry best illustrates a system in which every end, regardless of its physical location, is functionally zero distance away from every other end. Across the nothing in the Net’s hollow sphere, every point can “see” every other point, and connect to it, as if distance were not there. And at no cost. It doesn’t matter that the Net’s base protocol, TCP/IP, is not perfect, that there are costs and latencies involved in the operation of connections and routers between end points — and that many people in the world still do not enjoy the Net’s graces. What matters is that our species’ experience of the Net, and of the world Continue reading "The Giant Zero"