The Marshall Fire: Driving Around the Map

If you were watching TV on December 30, you may have seen this:

Image Credit: Patch.com

If you checked back the next morning you could have seen this:

Marshall fire aftermath
Image Credit: Denver Post

The Marshall fire, driven by Category 2 hurricane-force winds, burned more than 6,0000 acres, destroyed 1,000+ buildings (homes + commercial), cost well over a half-billion dollars in damages, and – miraculously – only killed two people.

Yesterday, finally, I drove up to look around. Here, in no particular order, are some observations.

Marshall Fire Map_wS

The Marshall fire map, with some personal annotations.

1: Close to home. We often use the phrase. In this case, though…

See that little blue house icon the green number one is pointing to? I lived there for a year when I moved back to Colorado in 2007 or so. It’s untouched. But the red to the right shows the burned homes between it and the Home Depot. The one next door is where my landlord Tom lived.

This was the biggest shock of the day. Based on what I had seen and heard, I thought all the houses along that road were okay.

I don’t know if Tom sold everything or if these were still his properties. He was a nice guy, and I hope he’s okay.

2: Rock Creek. I know wildfires can be capricious, and as you can tell by looking at this map, this one was no exception. The big blue area noted by the number two is a huge residential subdivision. My good friend Anders and his family used to live in there, and for a while our company offices were in the basement. When I look at how the fire was behaving, I have no idea how it avoided that section.

3: Davidson Mesa. I used to take my dog walking in the park on Davidson Mesa every morning. It’s hard to see that all those houses down the hill on the west side are gone. Likewise, everything across McCaslin to the east and along the northern side of Centennial Parkway…

I remember watching the fire coverage on TV and trying to visualize where some of this activity was taking place. But I haven’t lived there in a while, and almost none of the reporters had any clue where they were or what they were looking at. So yesterday was the first chance I had to really get the map straight in my mind.

4: By the skin of our teeth. I think one of my biggest surprises yesterday was realizing how much didn’t burn. I’m sure the people who own houses further east along Via Appia were terrified. Had the wind not died down there was a lot more waiting to be burned. And had it jumped S. Boulder Rd. to the north…

5: Old Superior. The fire was disaster for … well, just about everybody. But it was great news for the developers who have been trying to buy out the old Superior neighborhood for years. There was a core of old, run-down historic homes owned by people who liked it that way and who were. Not. Gonna. Sell. Meanwhile, progress built up around them.

The fight may not be over, but the holdouts have certainly lost a lot of leverage.

6: WTF? No, seriously. Look towards the bottom where the number six is. Look at that small line of fires along Coalton Road. Then look at all the real estate to the north that’s untouched. I’m not a fire expert or a weather expert. I know these things behave strangely.

(My first thought was that I could imagine a suspicious fire marshall looking at the map, scratching his head, and going out to the west end of that line and snooping around for signs of opportunistic arson.)

I used the phrase earlier – close to home. The reason we were watching this portion of the area so closely is the the spot indicated by 6a. That’s where my girlfriend’s best friend lives. That the fire didn’t jump Coalton was a massive relief at my house (also hers, I imagine).

She can look out the back window and see ruins. She can see just how close the inferno got. And she’s grateful for the fire crews that lined their trucks up along the road and, in a scene a little bit like Gandalf facing down the Balrog, said to the fire you shall not pass.

My people are mostly okay, although I now know there a thing called survivor’s guilt, and I imagine there are thousands of cases in the area now.

FishCountingWater

The Trump years brought out the worst in me. And maybe you.

A war is being waged against everything decent in life, and dealing with the daily onslaught was eating me alive. The battles still have to be fought and won, but at some point I accepted that I had to look after myself. More importantly, in a world of creeping gloom, maybe I’d be more useful as a spot of light.

What emerged was FishCountingWater, a small book about Zen. Or, more accurately, about “Zen,” since I really know nothing about the practice at all. It covers a lot of ground for something that’s under 15k words. The residents of my imaginary monastery talk about enlightenment, of course, and also the wastefulness of consumer culture, the emptiness of corporate life, art and lit, and quantum mechanics (I know, but it’s fun). There’s an old master, a biz world dropout, a former college soccer player, a retired DARPA contractor, a “crazy” old lady, and an always-on cattle dog.

And it’s funny. Don’t take my word, either. Friends and relatives assure me they’re laughing when I’m not around.

Anyway, as part of the project I started a new web site: FishCountingWater.com. It’s where I’m spending most of my online energy these days. It features ancient Zen wisdom, art, photography, and excerpts from the book. Like “Dingo & the Road to Bliss,” the last story I wrote for it. If you’ve heard the old story about “does a dog have a Buddha nature?” this is my response.

I invite you to stop over and spend a few minutes in the light…

19th Century Day

On 2.2.22, this guy, who was born in ’61, turned 61. (I’m not sure, but this may make me the antichrist.)

That’s 22,314 days. 22,314 days before that it was New Years Eve, 1899, and people were living the final moments of the 19th century.

For generations of Smith

As my birthday approached, I got to thinking. It’s probably common enough, once you reach a certain age, to reflect on all that has happened in the world during your lifetime. Something made me ask the next question: what about the 61 years before that? Take my birthday as the center-point, and compare the span before with what’s come after.

In 1899, William McKinley was president. Joe Biden would be born 21 years later. My great-grandfather Charlie was eight.

A majority of Americans lived in rural areas. 44,628 days later, there are very real questions about whether the damage we’ve done to the environment is fixable.

Indoor plumbing, telephones, and cars were rare. Only the well-off could afford an automobile, for instance, and the manufacturer options included a variety of household names:

1899 Mobile steam car

Steam: Century, Grout, Kensington, Keystone, Kidder, Leach, Liquid Air, Locomobile, Mobile (pre Stanley Steamer), Strathmore, Victor Steam, Waltham Steam; electric: American Electric, Baker, Columbia (taxi), Electric Vehicle, Quinby, Stearns, US Automobile, Van Wagoner, Woods; internal-combustion: American, Black, Bramwell-Robinson, Gasmobile, Gurley, Holyoke, International, Media, Oakman-Hertel, Packard (Ohio), Quick, Sintz

Ford wouldn’t be incorporated until 1903.

Top tech innovations in the last decade of the 1800s included the escalator, the zipper, the Cinematographe, and the motor-driven vacuum cleaner. The zeppelin and the air conditioner were right around the corner. The first successful radio transmission happened in 1901. Now we engineer genomes and know a staggering amount about the first seconds after the Big Bang. Don’t get me started on quantum mechanics.

The Wright Brothers also weren’t due up until 1903. Last week, a Chinese spaceship crashed into the dark side of the moon.

On Dec. 31, 1899, the US was closer to the Civil War than World War II.

I was lead writer on a “future of cybersecurity” guide recently published by my company. In it, I talk about artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cryptography, deepfakes, a trillion-IoT device world, hackable pacemakers and insulin pumps, flying taxis, autonomous killbots, an “i-condom,” and lots more fun stuff to keep you up at night. Some of it is very near-future (as in, less than a decade). Some of it is already happening.

Why is this important?

Heck if I know. It probably isn’t. We all know things have changed, are changing, and will keep changing. We know the pace is vertigo-inducing, we know the scale is epochal, and we may feel it’s all we can do to hang on.

And we all have our own frames for thinking about it. For managing it.

This is mine, and it’s been a fascinating exercise in personal perspective.

In case you’re wondering, 22,314 days from today is April 9, 2083. It will be a Friday.

AI Amok: Calling Gen. Neo Ludd

“AI will probably most likely lead to the end of the world, but in the meantime, there’ll be great companies.” – Sam Altman, Chairman of OpenAI

Our dalliance with artificial intelligence hit a major milestone last week. OpenAI, a research organization “with the stated goal of promoting and developing friendly AI in a way that benefits humanity as a whole,”* announced the release of GitHub CoPilot, which… Read more

What Would Grandmother’s Job Be?

My grandmother, Helen Marshall Smith, was born in 1914. Like most women of her generation her career opportunities were limited, and like nearly all women in her socio-economic stratum – Southern working class – her educational opportunities were nearly non-existent.

One more fact to note: she had polio as a child and that, plus some sort of hip issue I never fully understood, meant she spent most of her life on crutches.

I thought about Grandmother the other day as I wandered around Denver Botanic Gardens with my Nikon. Read more

From Sand Creek to the Table Mesa King Soopers: Here’s What I Think

king-soopers shooting

Welcome to Colorado, the Shoot-’em-Up State

We do have a bloody history, don’t we? The latest breaking news happened the other day at the Table Mesa King Soopers in Boulder. At least three or four good friends live nearby and shop there regularly. And I used to shop there two or three times a week – I lived maybe a mile up the hill toward NCAR during grad school. Read more

The Soul-Sucking Ur-Obsidian Ceiling

I posted this to Facebook yesterday.

billionaires

Got some interesting comments, but came away feeling like I needed to elaborate a bit.

Chris Rock explained to us the difference between rich and wealthy. Shaq is rich. The rich white man who signs Shaq’s check is wealthy.

That’s what I’m thinking about – the wealthy, not the rich. Because you can become a millionaire a lot of ways, including by being smart and working hard. Yeah, it helps if you aren’t born into poverty, but you can be a wonderfully moral millionaire. I’m lucky to know a few myself. I sometimes wish I were one.

But there’s a point where it’s not clear a person with a soul can pass. It’s like a glass ceiling, except maybe it’s made of some kind of humanity-sucking ur-obsidian. I’ll never forget Michael Milken in the ‘80s – a hypermillionaire cheating little old ladies out of their social security checks. Pure pathology.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway used to have an argument. Hemingway believed the “very rich” were more or less regular people with a lot of money. Fitzgerald disagreed. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” he said.

They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

William Gibson took it a step further: first with the Tessier-Ashpools in Neuromancer and then with Virek in Count Zero, his argument was that they weren’t really human at all anymore (or that they won’t be in the relatively near future).

I look around the world today and wonder just how human our billionaire overlords really are.

Maybe this is why the idea of lizard people doesn’t scare me.

Inauguration Day: Dignity Returns to the Oligarchy

Biden-inauguration

I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for four years.

But today the relentless assault on truth, on justice, on fundamental human decency comes to an end. At least, the portion of it originating in the Oval Office does.

I know I’m imagining it, but it’s almost like I can feel my blood pressure dropping.

Of course, I know we haven’t really won anything, and I hope you know it, too. January 6 was just an amuse bouche, and even if we make it through the day without running street battles our various fascist terrorist cells still exist. Maybe not in sufficient numbers to take down the government (fingers crossed), but there are certainly enough of them to wage a disruptive campaign of terror of the sort we tend to associate with the Middle East or Northern Ireland.

Even if that doesn’t happen – even if the Proud Boys and the Boogaloos and Lauren Boebert lay down their arms and assimilate into civil society – Joe Biden ain’t the messiah. Along with the Clintons, Obama, Chuck Shumer, Cory Booker, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Kamala Harris, and the entire Colorado Senatorial delegation, he’s the face of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party. His administration will be friendly enough to the various causes of social progressivism – up to a point. Our racist, militarized police problem, for instance, will get a sparkly Band-Aid at best.

And while he won’t fluff Wall St. in public the way any member of the GOP would, he won’t be putting them out of business, either.

In essence, President Biden will restore dignity to the oligarchy.

“Better than Trump” isn’t the same as “better.” So my expectations are tempered by my basic habit of paying attention and thinking about what I observe.

Still, while Better than Trump isn’t everything, it isn’t nothing, either. So if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to mark today by exhaling.

In the morning we all need to take another deep breath and get back to the barricades. Because losing less isn’t winning.

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