In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


1.   Green Fire:  Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time - July 7
2.   Visit the population clock - see how many bodies added per second
3.   Reinventing Our Cities, Fridays, July 8 - 29 in Mountain View/energy efficiency upgrade in Menlo Park
4.   Sunday Streets on Great Highway and GGP July 10/then hear free SF Symphony in park
5.   FDR has advice for present financial crisis
6.   Otter communicates with Mary Oliver
7.   Feedback:  Mostly on Doonesbury cartoon
8.   Report on 2011 SF Butterfly Count
9.   The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You
10. Solitariness - the great human characteristic of our age?
11.  Great moments in bureaucratic history

1.  California Native Plant Society monthly meeting - free and open to the public
Steve & Ann Dunsky: Green Fire:  Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time 
July 7, Thursday, 7.30 pm
San Francisco County Fair Bldg
9th Av & Lincoln Way in Golden Gate Park

Steve & Ann Dunsky return for another program, following last year's popular Butterflies and Bulldozers.  Aldo Leopold is an icon among environmental heroes, and his Sand County Almanac is one of the most read and quoted by those awed and humbled by the forces of nature.  The Dunskys have written, produced, directed, and edited dozens of films over twenty-five years.  As the primary production team for the U.S. Forest Service, many of their films deal with conservation issues.  Their productions are shown in visitor centers from Washington, D.C., to Washington state and from Alaska to Indonesia. Several of their programs have been presented on television, and the pair has won numerous awards for their work.

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.  A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

"A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and of the arts."    Aldo Leopold


2.  Population Institute -

The Population Institute is an international non-profit that educates policymakers and the public about population, and seeks to promote universal access to family planning information, education, and services.  Through voluntary family planning, we strive to achieve a world population in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.

From contribution acknowledgment letter I received from Population Institute:
"...Almost all of the global challenges that we face, from climate change to regional conflicts to environmental disasters, are made worse by rapid population growth and the growing demands we are placing on the planet. 

World population will exceed 7 billion in 2011, just twelve years after the 6 billion mark was reached, and unless more is done to boost support for family planning, world population could exceed 9 or even 10 billion by midcentury." (Emphases mine.)

During the few moments I was at the website, the clock was registering the increase in population that happened during my site visit:  6,946,693,0__  The figure was moving so fast that I couldn't register the last two digits.  I arbitrarily caught a number--987--and stopped.  That was the number by which the world population had grown in the few seconds I was visiting the site.

N.B.  Shortly before visiting the Population Institute website, I was reading another newspaper clipping that contained this sentence:  "It's simply a matter of a rapidly growing 5.2 billion people managing one not very large planet together."  I jerked to attention and looked at the date:  November 6, 1989.  What does it take to shock the world into action?  We're headed for a cliff, we know it, and we are incapable of action.


3.  Reinventing Our Cities - Free Film Series
Fridays, July 8 - 29
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Fenwick and West, Silicon Valley Center
801 California Street, Mountain View [map]

As we look to the future, what kind of city do we want? How can we make our cities livable and sustainable?

This FREE film series will explore how creative planners in the U.S. and around the world are reinventing cities and towns to be more livable and sustainable. Each film will be followed by discussion and light refreshments.

For more information, please visit the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning website.

Enjoy a Free Lunch and Help Your Menlo Park Neighbors Save Energy and Money (and the Planet!)
Saturday, July 16  - 9:00 am
Trinity Church 330 Ravenswood Ave, Menlo Park [map]

Put on your walking shoes and join us as we take flyers door-to-door to share how homeowners can save up to $4,000 with the NEW State home energy efficiency rebate program, Energy Upgrade California. The County of San Mateo is partnering with Acterra to help spread the word in Menlo Park on Saturday July, 16.

Walkers will gather at 9 AM at the Trinity Church, 330 Ravenswood Ave, Menlo Park. Over coffee, there will be a short information session on the Energy Upgrade California Program before hitting the streets. We will make our best effort to assign your neighborhood to you if you wish. If you can't make it at 9 AM, please feel free to drop in as soon as you can to pick up flyers to distribute at your convenience.  Lunch will be served afterward, thanks to generous donations from SDI Insulation and Building Efficiency.

For more information contact Beth Ross at or (650) 521-4938


4.  Sunday Streets invite you to come play in the streets in Golden Gate Park and the Great Highway!
It's time to enjoy car-free streets at the Great Highway once again! Sunday Streets is returning to Golden Gate Park/Great Highway on July 10th for the second time in 2011. Join thousands of Bay Area residents, families and visitors from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. to walk, run, bike, skate, or move freely through the open streets. There will be all kinds of fun activities for kids of all ages, including Circus Bella, who will be at Lindley Meadow for a show beginning at noon!

The Sunday Streets 2011 season has five remaining dates: Civic Center/Tenderloin (Aug 14), Western Addition/Fillmore/North Panhandle (Sept 11), and a new route in Chinatown/North Beach (September date pending- stay tuned).

Free San Francisco Symphony Concert in Golden Gate Park

Join the Symphony at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, July 10 at 2pm — for free! Bring a picnic, your family and friends, and experience the classics in a casual, inviting outdoor setting. Head over early to get a great spot on the lawn, enjoy the Symphony’s instrument petting zoo and pre-concert activities an hour before the concert. Learn more.

5.  The National New Deal Preservation Association

"We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics."
    Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address

The New Deal saved capitalism from itself.  A market economy can, as the theorists like to say, produce a great deal of good for a great many people, and it does indeed have self-correcting mechanisms, but sometimes it gets so badly out of balance that the corrections become unacceptably cruel.  By placing a value on people, the New Deal counteracted the heartless and mindless aspects of the market, ameliorated the cruelty, and enabled capitalism to recover and thrive in America when many other parts of the world were sinking into one form or another of totalitarianism.  
     It was a stroke of genius that the New Deal accomplished much of its work by unleashing a wave of creativity, leaving a legacy of art, architecture, engineering, literature, parks, forests, museums, monuments, and public amenities beyond description.  It was a stroke of insight that gave rise to our organization to ensure that these things and the lessons of history they embody may be preserved for the public benefit.  Now, as the pendulum of capitalism once again swings toward extremes, ignoring the cruelties and endangering the system itself, those lessons become more and more important.  The work of the National New Deal Preservation Association is serious stuff.  Jerry L. Rogers, retired National Park Service executive


Almost a Conversation

I have not really, not yet, talked with otter
about his life.

He has so many teeth, he has trouble
with vowels.

Wherefore our understanding
is all body expression —

he swims like the sleekest fish,
he dives and exhales and lifts a trail of bubbles.
Little by little he trusts my eyes
and my curious body sitting on the shore.

Sometimes he comes close.
I admire his whiskers
and his dark fur which I would rather die than wear.

He has no words, still what he tells about his life
is clear.
He does not own a computer.
He imagines the river will last forever.
He does not envy the dry house I live in.
He does not wonder who or what it is that I worship.
He wonders, morning after morning, that the river
is so cold and fresh and alive, and still
I don't jump in.

~ Mary Oliver ~



7.  Feedback - mostly on the American Revolution and the Doonesbury "Teaching is dead"
On Jul 2, 2011, at 8:29 PM, Hans U Weber wrote
Dear Jake: "WHEN things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."

This is attributed to Mencken (first paragraph after Preface).
Thanks, Hans.  I knew it rang a bell; however, for some unknown reason it was in my computer w/o attribution.  After receiving your email I looked it up in my Mencken file, and sure enough, there it was.  I should have done a search in my computer, but didn't think of it.

Alexis Gonzales:
Dear Jake, I've really enjoyed the 4th of July excerpts in the newsletter and also the Special Edition. The piece missing attribution is the beginning of "Declaration of Independence -- in American" composed by H.L. Mencken in 1921 and first printed in the Baltimore Sun. Mencken said (tongue-in-cheek) that the original document was difficult to understand and ought to be translated into the common speech of the times!  It still works ninety years later, doesn't it?

Thanks, Jake and wishing you a Happy Independence Day!
Sincerely,Alexis Gonzales

James Grant:
Hi Jake, You'll find the rest of this article in H.L. Mencken's "Essay in American"It was his satirical translation of 18th century proper English to 20th century Hillbilly.

On Jul 2, 2011, at 7:00 PM, ML Carle wrote:
He never asked for their opinion.
Care to expand a bit?
Yes, In observing classes of high school history and political science, I saw kids with glazed eyes as their teachers lectured. I saw other classes where students were asked to question, explain their thinking and participate actively. Not near so many glazed eyes. Engagement makes a difference. I think it makes a difference in retention, too.
ML:  Why aren't these questions considered engaging?

First off, he was asking them to write an essay on independent thought.

He asked for discussion of Jefferson's lack of conviction regarding basic rights.
He challenged them on the validity and importance of the Bill of Rights.  (BTW, many of the founders questioned its necessity, thinking it was duplicative.)

The Constitution is a dangerous document and should never have been ratified.
They are. I only read the one cartoon, and I gather, carelessly. I can't find the cartoon on your e-mail for some reason. it just says, "Doonesbury041jpg".  I  can't tell how appalling my errror was. But my comment does shed some light on why young people may be brain-dead when they arrive in college, and how old people are questionable witnesses on the stand.

Mary Keitelman:
Nice timing!

Researching poems today, I just read a bit about Walt Whitman, and how he cared so much for Lincoln's path -- how much they both cared for the Union.  Their (and others') passion and words took us to our next step, after the revolution, past the 'civil' war.

I sometimes wonder so much if their thought, so focused and passionate and read, is lost to current generations - even I, who care, have not (yet!) read either.
Thanks for this, Mary.

There is a treasure trove of good reading containing wisdom we sorely need now.  Just to skim the surface of this treasure house is a lifetime's work; however, we manage to ignore or be unaware of its existence.

I am embarrassed by my own ignorance.  As a history major--and one of the more privileged in today's world--I think I should know more than I do.  Most of what I have learned has been only in recent years.  The complexity and pace of modern industrial society militates against knowing ourselves, not to mention that people of self-knowledge reasonably content with their existence don't make good consumers--a fact well-known to the advertising industry and the folks who hire them.

How often have I read of persons who in their lifetime I took for granted, or possibly disliked and disapproved--only to come to realize later what they had to struggle with and the contribution they made to the world.  It makes a long list.

Electronic technology has given the coup de grace to our ability to immerse ourselves in our past.  We can't even keep up with the latest email and the latest events.  Forget the past - it's history.

I can't for now -- as an enviro trying to make a difference, I am so curious what the opposition is.   sigh!
I knew when I posted this remark that my intention wouldn't translate.  It was partly ironic/sarcastic--"look what electronic media has done to our ability to remember".  It was also a double entendre for the way 'history' is used today with a sarcastic edge:  It's over; get used to it.

So why do I say things that email can't carry?  I don't know.  I do stupid things frequently.

On Jul 2, 2011, at 6:40 PM, Charles Marsteller wrote:
Hi Jake, I agree--the recent scores on the history tests are shocking.

I'm a Cincinnati, representing my great, great, great, great, great, great grand-uncle who died in service without issue.   Cincinnati is at Anderson House on Mass Avenue, in Washington, a building as large as the White House.   Cincinnati claims to have the largest collection on the Am.Rev.   I have donated several items to them as I have my own collection, and I have made provisions in my will as well.

The DAR Library and Museum is also in Washington.  So I wrote your group in Philadelphia and suggested a joint effort so these folks are bidding against one another.

There are 3,000 Cincinnati and it is well-endowed since it was founded in 1783.   The Mansion which houses the museum as well as the museum itself is open to the public; DAR is as well last I knew.
Charley:  You have me thoroughly confused.  I know Cincinnati only as a city.  I googled it but couldn't find anything else under that name.
Hi Jake, I saw your post on the Am.Rev. museum projected for Philadelphia, and how teaching on US History is Dead.   I'm originally from the DC area where they have two major Am.Rev.War museums, one DAR and the other Society of the Cincinnati (a group founded by the officers of the Cont'l Line--George Washington).    Membership is inherited--so the membership was passed down to me.  The benefit is not only that we support the museum, but we have in essence an early prototype of a Social Security system:  it takes care of members and their family (widows/orphans).   It is written up in Wikipedia and you can check the website too under Society of the Cincinnati.    I am not a Daughters of the American Revolution but a Member of the Sons of the American Revolution, but they took their museum in DC to KY.

My point in mentioning this is that Am.Rev.War artifacts are fairly rare and too many museums might not be very tenable.   And since you are interested in the concept, I thought I should let you know about the other museums.

Jenny T:
Jake, I am against organic farming because of its inefficiency and its necessity to use more land to produce the same yield an engineered crop could on a much smaller amount of land.  Habitat for animals.  As far as "native" verses unnative species, as the world as changed through out millions of years, species of everything from microbes to mammals work their way everywhere either killing out other species, or not, and life goes on.  All this talk of wind and solar power is wonderful, however, how to dispose of the the billions of equipment that has been made and used to generate our current power?  And as gentle as solar energy sounds, what about the components that go into making the panels?  And the vast amount of new manufacturing outfits that will have to be built to accomodate such change, and have you ever considered what goes into disposing of solarpanels that become defunct?  And what of all the equipment that will have to be made to implement solar/wind power on a large scale for the nation.  It is mind boggling.
 I compost, have a veggie garden,  recycle, and recently built a tree house for my son entirely out of scrapwood from other people's home renovation projects and am growing a living roof on top of it, so please, do not think of me as some uncaring, screw the planet person.  But really, your blog is too much for me to stomach. Please remove me from the mailing list.  I do enjoy your bits of poetry, and the format is really engaging. You are a talented motivator.
Jenny:  I share some of your concerns about organic farming and solar energy.  These are all complex subjects that need further exploration.  Our society tends not to give much thought about where it's going, so most of the pluses and minuses will never be given the consideration they deserve.  We just lurch from one attempted solution to another.

Agribusiness-produced food also has serious problems, not least of which is that weeds have adapted to the herbicides used on genetically-engineered crops.  Now the herbicides don't work and scientists admit they're at a dead-end in regard to that particular route.  If you were paying attention at the time, there was no shortage of people telling them this technique would work for only a short time until the weeds adapted to the herbicide.  Now they're up shit-creek without a paddle.  There's something to be said for organic and/or sustainable agriculture.
As far as "native" verses unnative species, as the world as changed through out millions of years, species of everything from microbes to mammals work their way everywhere either killing out other species, or not, and life goes on.
"Life goes on."  Indeed it does, but not necessary with humans and human needs in mind.  You're skating over a deep topic that unfortunately can't be dismissed so easily.  What motivates people who are trying to save evolved organisms (the native species) is primarily self-interest.  We are selfish creatures and necessarily must look out for ourselves.  We have depended on the heritage, the largesse of billions of years of evolution to provide goods, services, and processes that took that long to evolve.  So clever and so powerful are we that we have upset this system so thoroughly that it now threatens our well-being--possibly our very existence.

Your dissatisfaction on those topics doesn't explain why "your blog is too much for me to stomach.  Please remove me from the mailing list."  Perhaps you don't care to expand on that--and there's no need to if you don't feel motivated.  I'm always curious how people perceive and react to items I post.  Jake

"Nature is what she is--amoral and persistent."  Stephen Jay Gould

On Jul 5, 2011, at 2:16 PM, Linda Erickson wrote:
Hello Mr. Sigg,
In the June 30 Nature News, item #5 was a head shaker.  Not shaking our heads as a negative sign, but shaking them to try to figure out what it is talking about.
I’ve pasted the item below, at the end of the message.
Perhaps this item was a continuation of something that has been addressed in previous Newsletters, but we (my husband and I) have obviously missed something, because it just didn’t make any sense to us.  We have no idea what it is about, really.  Then to add to our confusion, it refers to an “accompanying video”, but there is no link to a video.  And finally, Erik Mills asked that we send him blind copies of any emails, but there is no email address for Erik Mills.  Not sure why we need to send letters to the editor or make complaints – complaints about what? 
See why it was a head shaker? Just left us confused, with question marks floating around our heads.
I doubt that it is a subject that is particularly relevant for us, but I just thought you should know that it was unclear and that the links were missing.
We always enjoy the bounteous info we get from your Nature News.  Thank you for the tremendous amount of work that must go into the whole process.
Thank you for the feedback, Linda.  I apologize for the understandable confusion.

I receive a lot of unprocessed items in emails--almost half of them fliers that I must retype or process in some way.  In the back of my mind is the question:  Will readers know what this is about? What have I left out that they need to know?  Often that happens at the end of the day when I'm tired and just want to get this newsletter out; at those times it's easy to convince myself that it is intelligible.  I had difficulty making sense of this, too, but on third or fourth reading it made a little sense.  Further, Eric sends me stuff regularly, and I figured that most of my readers who are interested in his issues already know where to go.  Yes, I certainly should have given guidance to how one takes action or obtains further information.

Eric is Eric Mills, who honchoes Action for Animals in Oakland.  (I googled AFA, and got into a strange thing that I couldn't spend more time on, so I quit before I found anything.)  I post most of his stuff, as I like what he does and his dogged determination in the face of often overwhelming powers.  (He does win a few.)  Editing his material is problematic for me, and sometimes I just throw up my hands and think:  I hope interested people will understand this.
Yes, I assumed it was something you were passing along and the “unclearness” just snuck under your radar.   I wouldn’t have even given it a second thought if not for the fat that there were links missing that I figured you were unaware of. 
I can’t imagine the number of emails, announcements, articles, etc, etc, etc  that you must sift through constantly to end up with the important stuff you put in the newsletters.  I know I couldn’t do it!  It is clear that you have some serious talent in this area of sorting and processing information – I’m not sure what you’d call it, maybe Information Whittling? Importance Gleanification Skills?  Sift and Concisification Abilities?  =]      Whatever it is, please recognize that not all are blessed with those skills, and therefore your newletters are immensely valuable.  Any little oopses like the Item #5 thing are totally understandable. 
I won’t even try to look up AFA – as I would inevitably get carried off by the “strange thing” that came up when you googled it.  That is a particular dysfunction of mine – I look something up and everything is so interesting that I end up spending far too long clicking and reading and clicking and reading, ending up dangling on some obscure tangent that is so far from the original subject that I don’t even recall where I started!  Which, again, is why I find your newsletter so helpful!  So much less for me to sift through, I don’t have to risk getting lost on tangents so much!


8.  Report on 2011 San Francisco Butterfly Count, by Liam O'Brien (I didn't edit his typos)

As any of the Count Leaders throughout the country can attest, we don't sleep particularly well the night before...will anyone show up? Will the butterflies appear? Will I get proper coverage for my circle? And those of us who run coastal counts (this one, San Bruno, Monterrey and Point Reyes) are always fighting our Arch Villain for the Day: the Marine Layer. This nemesis already crush my first planned date for this count a month ago, so here we went in July...and the results were...stupendous!
10 parties (we had 14 parties last year) of 34 participants (exact same number of people as last year) sent out on this last Sunday July 3, 2001 throughout our fair county and beyond the following: Western Tiger Swallowtail (P. rutulus) -- 43 (three times the amount from last year), Anise Swallowtail (P. zelicaon) --110! ( Just less than double last years #. I predict this will be the New Record High seen-in-a-day for this species from the over-386 counts held national. A phenomenal distinction: with 44 hills in San Francisco, it being  a hill-topping species, lots of fennel...makes perfect sense.), Pipevine Swallowtail (B. philenor) - 14, Cabbage White (P. rapae) -- 378, Orange Sulphur (C. eurytheme) -- 5, Gray Hairstreak (S. melinus)-- 2, Spring Azure/Echo Blue - (C. ladon echo) -- 57, Acmon Blue (P. acmon) -- 6, Gulf Fritillary( A. vanillae) -- 7, Mylitta's Crescent (P. mylitta) - 5, *California Sister (A. bredowii) - 5, +Satyr Anglewing (P. satyrus) -- 5, American Painted Lady (V. virginiensis) -- 11, Painted Lady (V. cardui) - 1, West Coast Painted Lady (V. annabella) -- 46 (double last year's #), Red Admiral (V. atalanta)-- 47 (triple last years #), Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) -- 6, Monarch (D. plexippus) -- 3, ' California' Common Ringlet (C. tullia californica) -- 45, *Common Wood Nymph (C. pegala) -- 55, *Mournful Duskywing (E. tristis) -- 12, Common Checkered Skipper (P. communis)-- 44 (4x last's year #), Fiery Skipper (Hylephilia phyleus) -- 13, Sandhill Skipper(Polites sabuleti) - 5,  Umber Skipper (P. melane) -- 32. Unidentified Ladies: 5 , Unid. Nymphalidae: 17, Unid. Hesperiidae: 11.
 Total species: 26 (old record/last year-24), Total individuals: 967 (old record/last year 775) .
Observations: Delaying the count by that month gave us the huge #'s in many broods: Anise, Tiger, West Coast Lady, Red Admiral, Echo Blues, Com. Checkered Skippers. We lost two species we normally get: Field Crescents and Variable Checkerspots. Large Marbles were a surprise missing sp. since I'd observed them a week earlier still on San Bruno.
* These species came to the count by the first party (Bill Shephard and his wife Ginger) ever to venture to Angel Island, which has always been in the count circle (established by Harriet Reinhard in 1984), but we've never had the coverage for. Technically not San Francisco Co, but the count even incorporates some of the Marin Headlands below the Golden Gate. We took leaps in bolstering our species by exploring there this day and hope to send a party there every year from now on. Thank you Bill.
+ My favorite moment of the day: looking down at the summit of Brooks Park and seeing this species: a Satyr Anglewing (Polygonia satyrus) -- a first in the 17-year-history of this count ...and a photo to boot! ! Then an even more of a thrill to learn later in the day that 3 parties had this species as well. Because she hosts on Stinging Nettle, it can be ellusive in San Francisco.
A most heartfelt thank you to all my Party Leaders: Amber Hasselbring and the SaveMcLarenPark folks (welcome), Matt Zlatunich at the Presidio, Jerry Powell on Yerba Buena Island,Ginny Stearn and her crew at the Marina Houseboats, Wendy Dreskin in Glen Canyon. Paul Johnson and the Johnsonettes: Nathan and Robin, for combing the bushes in the relentless heat of Candlestick Point and India Basin.
Deepest thanks of all to Opal Essence who kept up with me all day with a clipboard as this ectomorphic Boarder Collie swang a net and shouted out Latin. You can ride shotgun with me any day, Opal.
Oh, and first-year-ever that compilers convened at Pascales Pizza in the Inner Sunset: thanks for the great suggestion Barbara Duetsch. We missed you this year.


9.  The dangers of the internet

Invisible sieve
Hidden, specially for you

Jun 30th 2011 | from The Economist print edition

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. By Eli Pariser.

ELI PARISER is worried. Why? Call a friend in another city or a foreign country, and ask them to Google something at the same time as you. The results will be different, because Google takes your location, your past searches and many other factors into account when you type in a query. In other words, it personalises the results. As Larry Page, the chief executive of Google, once put it, “the ultimate search engine would understand exactly what you mean, and give back exactly what you want.” Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, muses that someday it might be possible for people to ask Google which college they should apply for, or which book to read next.

This is only one example of internet personalisation. Mr Pariser, an internet activist best known as a leading light at, a progressive online campaign group, sees this as a dangerous development. Netflix, Amazon and Pandora can predict with astonishing accuracy whether you will enjoy a particular film, book or album, and make appropriate recommendations. Facebook shows you updates from the friends you interact with the most, filtering out people with whom you have less in common. “My sense of unease crystallised when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page,” Mr Pariser writes. The result is a “filter bubble”, which he defines as “a unique universe of information for each of us”, meaning that we are less likely to encounter information online that challenges our existing views or sparks serendipitous connections. “A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn,” Mr Pariser declares. He calls this “invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas”.

It all sounds scary. Mr Pariser concedes that there is a good reason for all this personalisation and filtering. When so much information is available, it makes sense for websites you visit to filter it using information about you, your interests and your friends. Essentially, you trade personal information in return for more useful results. But this neuters the internet’s potential to break down social barriers between people or groups who might otherwise not connect with each other. “We’re getting a lot of bonding but very little bridging,” Mr Pariser worries. Worse, as the internet becomes an increasingly important source of information (it is now second only to television as a source of news in America, and is already the main source of news for the under-30s) people will be invisibly steered away from important issues that are unpleasant or complex, such as homelessness or foreign policy. Mr Pariser is concerned, in short, that because of personalisation, the internet is failing to live up to its “transformative promise”.

The question of whether the internet is inherently pro-democratic has become a hot topic lately, particularly in the light of the Arab spring, which has provided ammunition for those on both sides of the argument. In “The Net Delusion”, which came out in January, Evgeny Morozov attacked what he called the “cyber-Utopian” view of the merits of the internet as a force for liberation and empowerment, pointing out that it can just as easily be used as a tool of repression. Mr Pariser’s thesis is noteworthy because in contrast with Mr Morozov’s gleeful iconoclasm, he is critiquing the internet from an openly progressive starting-point.

Mr Pariser’s book provides a survey of the internet’s evolution towards personalisation, examines how presenting information alters the way in which it is perceived and concludes with prescriptions for bursting the filter bubble that surrounds each user. Some of the author’s suggestions make sense: there is unquestionably a case for internet firms to give users more control over the personal information being held about them. You can also turn off personalisation in many cases. And if you are still worried about filter bubbles, you can favour sites that are transparent about the ways in which they filter and present information (though that rules out Facebook and Google, Mr Pariser’s main villains, both of which regard their filtering algorithms as trade secrets).

Some of Mr Pariser’s other ideas, however, are less convincing. He proposes that big internet companies appoint independent ombudsmen, like those at newspapers. He advocates systems to promote more serendipity (by which he seems to mean randomness)—Amazon could recommend books outside your usual genres, for example, just in case you like them. Another suggestion is that filtering algorithms could be complemented by human editors who show you worthy things you ought to see, as well as things the algorithms calculate you will want to see. That will simply open internet firms, like news providers, to accusations of bias. Strangest of all, Mr Pariser calls for an “active promotion of public issues and cultivation of citizenship” by big internet firms. Whether or not you agree with Mr Pariser’s prescriptions, however, there is no doubt that his book highlights an important and easily overlooked aspect of the internet’s evolution that affects everyone who uses it.


10.  Review extract by Jeremy Paxman in Observer of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Johnathan Coe (GW 28.05.10)
If someone asked you to identify the great human characteristic of our age, what would you say?  Gender equality?  Wealth?  Social mobility?  Sexual freedom?  It seems to me the answer could just as easily be solitariness.  This, surely, is one of the oddities of the present:  at a time when there have never been more of us Britons crowded on to a small island, it has never been easier to be isolated.

The biggest household change mapped by sociologists is the steady growth in single-occupancy dwellings.  You can travel to work alone, spend your day communicating with others only by screen or telephone, eat a solitary lunch in your workplace (if you have one), and then return home for a ready meal for one and a screen in a darkened room.

Communal travel on trains or buses is for losers, the mechanised bubble of the motorway for the successful.  And it is not just that the automobile is superior to the omnibus.  Autolatry is the religion of the age, autoeroticism its romance, autocide the freedom we cry out for.  Being alone may not be the same as being lonely.  But it sure as hell makes it a lot more achievable….


11.  Great moments in bureaucratic history

"He's trying to take the decision out of the hands of twelve honest men and give it to 435 Congressmen!"
-- Representative Charles Vanik of Ohio, when he heard that the indicted Spiro Agnew was asking to have his corruption case tried by the House instead of in a regular court

(Honestly spoken.)

"The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it's only the people who make them unsafe."
-- Frank Rizzo, ex-police chief and mayor of Philadelphia
"I didn't say that I didn't say it. I said that I didn't say that I said it. I want to make that very clear."
-- Michigan Governor George Romney (father of Mitt Romney)

(Got it.)



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