Yukon Gold Rush

This week the New York Times Magazine is publishing a long story I wrote about Shawn Ryan and Cathy Wood, whose discoveries have launched a new Klondike stampede.  On the surface this piece on the new Yukon Gold Rush looks like a classic tale of pluck and luck, but the deeper reality is that Shawn and Cathy used some big changes in the world around them to solve a mystery that had been around for more than 100 years: where did the great placer deposits of the Klondike gold rush come from?

On one hand: two isolated prospectors, who started out picking wild mushrooms for cash in the burned forests around Dawson City. On the other hand: the vast flows and structures of market cycles and technological development. There is something almost dizzying about this fateful, even mysterious connection between individual action and historical change.

Gold is a strange commodity. We think of it as inherently valuable, but of course it’s value rises and falls like any product. In some ways the gold market is just like the market for wild mushrooms. In both cases, something found just sitting there in the ground is convertible into cash. That’s nature’s bounty. But actually making this transaction requires participation in a crazy commercial network, with immense risk.  In one of the most famous polemics ever written, the uncertainty of the marketplace is described like this:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

That’s Karl Marx, of course. What makes gold different from mushrooms, and from all other commodities, is that gold actually signifies safety, protection from risk. Underlying my story is this contradiction. Gold, the “safest” asset, has a price as volatile as fear.

Writing about Shawn and Cathy’s discovery made me ask myself: if gold can’t really protect us, what can? While my piece is a story about gold, it is also a story about a marriage, love, partnership, and about the fragile miracles of cooperation that allow us to accomplish difficult things. Although I enjoy being a magazine writer, I suspect that the full dimensions of this story ultimately requires a format more sympathetic to melodrama. The 24 hour summer sun and the dark winter noontimes, the flow of water (and of snow in that fatal avalanche), the almost musical boasting and gossiping; these could be a kind of stage for the contradictory desires associated with both gold and love.

Below are a few snapshots and captions that track my reporting.

As you cross into the Yukon by air, you notice that the roads disappear.

In California the hippies have VW vans. In the Yukon they have old fixed wing aircraft.

Whitehorse, the territorial capital, has about 20,000 people. The Yukon covers nearly 500,000 square kilometers, most of it nearly unpopulated.

Our small plane into the staking camp slowly puttered over the mountains at about 100 mph. It felt like traveling in a kite, but louder.

A frozen lake makes a handy airfield.

A little Ski-doo is light enough to throw onto a plane and take into the field. Shawn uses it to ferry supplies.

The guys out at the staking camp live in a tent with a wood stove. They try not to let the stove go out.

This view of the interior of the tent reminded me of old photos of miners.

The stakes in the foreground are used to mark claims.The barrels contain fuel.

The small orange dot in the upper center of the picture is a stake. The line in the snow is made by the snowshoes of the man who put in the stake.

Another track made by a man staking claims.

Information about exploration plans is exchanged and concealed through seemingly casual conversation, as in a poker game.

We didn’t really take that hippie aircraft. Our vehicle was a Maule M-7-235 on skis. I asked the pilot how long we had to go before we saw any sign of human habitation. “If you miss Santa Claus’ house, then Europe,” he said.

Recent News About Daniel Coronell

[UPDATE, January 23, 2010: Daniel was named on Friday to be the new Vice-President in charge of news for Univision. This will bring him to Miami, though he will continue his essential column in Semana.]

In 2005-2007, my friend Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana and director of Noticias Uno, lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area, having been forced to flee Colombia due to threats against his life by criminals in the circle of then President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe. Recently, it was revealed that Uribe directed Colombia’s internal security agency, the DAS, to undertake surveillance of Coronell and others, illegally. As the cases related to the illegal surveillance have proceeded, some of the alleged perpetrators have themselves fled the country, urged by Uribe himself.

Here, the ex-President  shows his astounding arrogance, admitting in a radio interview that he urged a member of his administration accused of illegal acts to seek asylum in Panama. As described by Reporters without borders:

Former DAS director, María del Pilar Hurtado, the chief potential witness to the former head of state’s involvement in the corruption of this top intelligence service, has just conveniently obtained political asylum in Panama. While denying discussing her asylum request with her, Uribe himself confirmed that he advised his close associates to seek asylum abroad in a long interview he gave yesterday to RCN radio, to among other questioners, his former vice-president and journalist by profession, Francisco Santos !

The full radio interview is here (in Spanish).

Here, helpfully subtitled by Reporters without borders, is a video of Daniel watching Uribe make almost beautifully fatuous expressions of moral authority on the topic of the responsibilities of the press.

Manila Suggestions?

I’ve been in the Philippines for a couple of weeks; not much time to see things outside the family circle, too much fun eating, swimming, and chatting. I did get to the Araneta Coliseum to see the San Miguel Beermen play in the league semi-finals, under the management of my famous cousin-in-law, Hector Calma. Unfortunately, they lost the game, but they came yesterday afternoon to win decisively, taking the best of seven series, and earning a place in the finals this week.

It looks like I will have an unexpected day free tomorrow, and perhaps part of the next day. I’m interested in suggestions from kindred spirits about things to take a look at related to planning, public transportation, sensors, education, and science. (Already in mind: going out to the University of the Philippines; I’d like to stop by the library at the School of Urban and Regional Planning and see what they have.)

Institute for the Future: An Interview about Quantified Self

ThIFTFe Institute for the Future in Palo Alto has a long history in Silicon Valley. A non-profit, it makes its living translating the futuristic visions of technical people into pragmatic frameworks for understanding possible futures.

IFTF hosted the second Quantified Self Show&Tell, and since then they’ve been curious about and supportive of this extended investigation into the meaning of what more academic observers call “personal informatics.” Recently, Bradley Kreit interviewed me about the implications of The Quantified Self for the IFTF Health Horizons Report. His interview and excellent editing helped me express what I think is happening in a fairly concise way. I’ve republished it with Bradley’s permission below.

IFTF Health Horizons

Gary Wolf is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the co-host of The Quantified Self, a blog dedicated to self-knowledge through numbers (www.quantifiedself.org). At Wired, he has been the author of a number of the magazine’s most frequently cited articles, including “The Curse of Xanadu,” about Ted Holmes Nelson and the invention of hypertext; “The World According to Woz,” about Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; and “The Wisdom of St. Marshall, Holy Fool,” about Marshall McLuhan. He has also written about Piotr Wozniak, creator of the memory program SuperMemo, and recently about Craigslist and its founder, Craig Newmark.

IFTF: The phenomenon of the quantified self is an early form of personal health forecasting. What is the idea behind it?

GW: Numbers play a key role in analyzing all kinds of phenomena, from the largest phenomena of the cosmos using radio telescopes to the smallest phenomena in the universe—the analysis, say, of subatomic particles. We have statistical tools of great sophistication for gathering data and finding meaning in it. It seems only natural that we would want to use some of these techniques to gain knowledge about ourselves.

This is so obvious that it might almost seem trivial, except when you realize that we usually associate self-knowledge not with numbers but with words—a kind of inner voice of consciousness and conscience. I think that supplementing that with quantitative tools is one of the most interesting trends emerging in our culture today. This interest is based on the highly practical results of experiments that people are doing in collaborative diagnosis and collaborative evaluation of treatments for chronic conditions, as well as experiments that involve the analysis and acceleration of learning.

IFTF: In some of your writing about the quantified self, you’ve talked about a concept called a macroscope. What do you mean by that, particularly as it relates to health?

GW: The word macroscope has been used quite a few times in quite a few contexts. It’s an interesting word; its meaning is trying to emerge and everyone’s taking a crack at it, but it’s finally settling down into a useful concept.

My meaning is taken from Jesse Ausubel, a climate scientist who is also a professor at The Rockefeller University. It simply refers to gathering data in nature through distributed methods, often through sensor networks, and then analyzing it on a computer. The particular pieces of technology for gathering this data are familiar; it is how they are now being combined that is interesting. We are beginning to see them being used in the context of a social process that produces data that would be inaccessible to an individual researcher trying to build this network from scratch.

The macroscope concept can be applied to the many individuals keeping track of some aspect or aspects of their lives. You have people tracking sleep, diet, exercise, productivity, symptoms, and so on. With all this tracking, a tremendous amount of health-related data is being produced. When that data is analyzed, you learn things that would be much harder to learn using the traditional methods of a clinical trial or a population study.

IFTF: Do you expect self-tracking will become widespread over the next ten years?

GW: I think it will become a mainstream, almost ubiquitous practice and at the same time will become invisible because it will be blend in with daily life. I think a good comparison is with the fate of computing. At one time, the people who used computers tended to be the kind of people who liked it. Over time, the process of computing has been incorporated into so many technologies and devices that many of the things we do that involve computing don’t seem like computing at all. Think of using a pedometer or step counter, or standing on a digital scale. The computing component is disappearing, and the self-tracking aspect will, too.

Self-tracking will disappear because it will be taken for granted. The quantitative tools in our lives will produce data that will be incorporated into some feedback mechanism; we will look at those mechanisms and they will influence us in some way. For instance, we will get biometric data in the form of feedback about how well we’re eating and sleeping, but we won’t have to peel back that information and do the analysis ourselves. Of course, the people who will be making these products and services will be highly aware of their tracking components, but if they’re successful, users won’t think about those aspects.

IFTF: Do you foresee any difficulties with privacy or concerns over control of information? Will individuals not want to share the detailed and intimate information that will be collected about them?

GW: Although gathering personal data will become mainstream, I don’t think most people will want to share their data. We can identify some people as sharer types with respect to their health and biometric data; they are closely linked to the pioneer type because they have a vision of what sharing may bring. But for the most part I think the benefits of the macroscope will be very hard to achieve under a system in which people can be punished harshly on the basis of their numbers. And we live in a world where if you have bad numbers, you will be punished.

IFTF: Isn’t one of the core challenges that the data is most useful in large-scale aggregations, but to get that you have to be able to get people to share their data?

GW: Let’s back up a bit: useful to whom? The data is very useful to you, whether or not it’s aggregated. You can see the macroscope as having multiple guises: there’s the social macroscope, which aggregates data across individuals, and that’s where the privacy issues come in, but you can also interpret the macroscope on an individual level. I can have multiple sensors at multiple times, all aggregating the data for me; I can do experiments of one, and the data never has to leave my computer.

IFTF: So how do you bridge that gap to make the social macroscope feasible?

GW: We need to articulate as clearly as possible that there must be a transformation in terms of how we look at what health and health care mean. As long as health care is considered from the perspective of the individual, there are many benefits that we’ll be missing.

Qoogle and Black Hat SEO

I’m researching a story about Black Hat SEO. This is interesting in and of itself, but it is especially interesting in the context of The Quantified Self, as health care web sites keenly eye pharmaceutical revenue as a source of income, and pharma is a key target of black hat SEO. This is a sort of obscure topic to post about here, but I’m doing it because I hope somebody can help enlighten me about Qoogle. I am easy to reach at gary@antephase.com.

Do you know anything about Qoogle? I am not linking to the site directly, because I don’t know what they are up to, and though I suspect it is just a link-farming scheme, it could be something more nefarious. But here are some screenshots.

I searched this morning to check the online commentary about Ryan Sorba, who made some news with his anti-gay rant at the recent CPAC conference.(Andrew Sullivan has an account here.) Here is a screenshot of the first page of results on Google. The text on this image is hard to read, but the third link (pretty good, Mr. Black Hat!) is a web page called Ryan Sorba, and below it is a snippet that contains some “word salad”: Feb 19, 2010 … This brueghel is an ryan sorba of the gipsywort disentangled by jawless oxidization sardinian in the solon, cryogen, and dreaming of …

Ryan Sorba - Google Search.2.24.2010

I’ve been getting this sort of thing quite often when searching on names. If you click on the link, you get to a fake Google page at Qooglesearch.com, showing results for Ryan Sorba that appear to be scrapped from Google, along with two “sponsored links” from “flashbuzz.net” at the top. I assumed that these sponsored links were the payload, but on subsequent clicks they have disappeared. Another link associated with Qoogle appears to be imasion-corp.com. There is an intermediate link that appears also: tdss… – but it is hard to catch and I didn’t get it.

Below is an image of the Qooglesearch page.


Sort of convincing as a Google page, if you aren’t paying too much attention.

But the best image comes from clicking on the “cached” link under the Qoogle “Ryan Sorba” entry on the original Google search page. That shows you what Qoogle is showing the Google Bot as it surfs the web. Colorful!

Qoogle.Ryan sorba_CACHED2.24.2010

Well, it may be just another case of “pissing in the pool” as Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster calls it. But I’d like to know more about Qoogle, and if you have any tips, please send them along.