The Deep Water Breaks

Surfing's fictions, metaphysics and culture.

Month: February, 2014

Apple’s Private Beach

This essay was originally published at Themillions.com, and is being reproduced as it appeared on that site, with thanks and appreciation to C. Max Magee and the rest of The Millions’ staff.

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Craig Federighi stands on the minimalist, magic-screen-centric stage at the Apple World- Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco. The stage is a silent reminder of Steve Jobs’s protracted influence over the company’s image. But Federighi, unlike Jobs, or Tim Cook, is young and attractive in the Andersen Cooper silver-fox type of way that forces you to imagine that his house, which must be large and clean, probably smells like sandalwood. (This is, perhaps, the most significant departure from the Jobs-Gates era of computer moguls. The public face of the computer enterprise is starting to get the sleek, dazzling veneer of the yuppie class. Goodbye, Wozniak, helloZuckerberg).

What Federighi is wearing is definitively laid-back: dark wash denim jeans and a long-sleeve pacific blue silk dress shirt, untucked, unbuttoned at the top. And he’s not here to talk about the new iPhone, or the new Macbook, but rather to announce a new thematic era for OS X. The jungle cats have been put out to pasture. Apple has turned away from feline predators as the inspiration for its operating system, and Federighi has instead decided to look homeward, choosing California as the spiritual locus for future software updates.

Perhaps wisely, Apple steered clear of OS X Hollywood, Golden Gate, or the grizzly bear. Instead, as Federighi explains in the keynote, “we went just outside our backyard, just off the coast, to a place with some of the biggest waves and most extreme surfing in all of North America, OS X Mavericks.” The magic screen behind him then comes to life with the beautiful face of an enormous wave, whose white crest and shallow trough place the viewer, in a way, on the wave. And its color is the deepest blue on the bottom, raising up to a dark, though almost transparent, green, the sun shooting through the water. If the wave photographed is, in fact, breaking at Mavericks, it’s got to be one of the most pristine waves ever photographed at the location. For the most part, the monstrous waves that come in with the winter storms are rough, v-shaped forms, top-heavy and ready to collapse on themselves. The wave looks serene, placated — like a desktop background. The audience applauds, Federighi smiles a handsome smile, and we understand why his shirt is such a crisp and saturated shade of blue: everything about the presentation is meant to evoke the California surf life.

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An entire essay could be written about the name “Mavericks” alone. It’s odd enough that it’s the plural form of a word about a person who refuses to conform. We assign it to politicians who break with the party line, or to jet-fighters from the 1980s with good hair and a reckless disregard for their own lives in pursuit of some thrill which makes their lives seem worthwhile. (“That’s right, Ice…Man. I am dangerous.”). As far as Mavericks in Half-Moon Bay is concerned, the spot is named after Maverick, a white-haired German Shepherd that belonged to one of the original three people to surf near the location. They surfed the inside waves, just a quarter-mile offshore, which are much smaller and less deadly than outside waves, which break near a half-mile out to sea, and can get anywhere from thirty to eighty feet. While they surfed, Maverick kept running into the water, and his owner would bring him back to the shore because it was likely that the dog would drown in the water. It was over time, and a result of the spoken-not-written language used by surfers to talk about good breaks, that the name switched from the possessive “Maverick’s” (the property of one sufficiently stoked dog), to “Mavericks,” the collective designating a place as well as anyone brave enough to surf the outside breaks. And now, the name has shifted meanings again, denoting the coolly current operating system of anyone wealthy enough to purchase a new Mac in 2013.

But this name might seem to the average consumer a strange choice. The history of Mavericks, as an icon of California-ness, is relatively new in our psyche. Outside of the surfing community, it’s pretty much unknown. “Mavericks” probably has name-recognition recently because of the Gerard Butler film, Chasing Mavericks. But the movie was such a flop that it seems like a gamble to reclaim the place-name from Hollywood, and reformat it for a different screen. In the lead-up to the film’s release, magazines including Surfer and Surfing ran articles expressing the pains that the film’s creators went to in getting an accurate depiction of surfing. Gerard Butler was professionally trained, and in fact he nearly drowned on set. Unfortunately, the authentication of surfing came at the expense of the plot, which failed to capture any of the truly human aspects of the characters’ lives. In any case, Apple’s serene image of Mavericks runs counter to the entire stigma of the actual surf spot, and it is this stigma that has The Guardian’s Alex Hern’s leash all up in a tangle.

In a recent article — “OS X Mavericks: is Apple’s latest operating system really that lethal?” — Hern asks, “why name software after a surf break that has killed two talented surfers?” Hern suggests that the developing team likely considered the romantic idea of “those timeless, artful shots of breaking waves and rolling barrels,” and he is right to point out that Mavericks cannot be accurately looked at in such a way. Mavericks is not so much the inspiration for a Beach Boys song as it is a symbol of Melvillian existential struggle. At Mavericks there is no endless summer, no beach-blanket bingo. And everyone who surfs Mavericks understands that what is at stake is your life, which could end in any number of miserable ways, ways that might give you a crushingly protracted time to think about what, exactly, went wrong, and why you are there, underwater, listening to a thirty foot mountain of hydrogen-dioxide and salt press down on you; and you look around, into and through but not beyond the ocean’s blue-green screen of impending death.

The cause of any death at Mavericks is always subject to some degree of speculation. When considering the demise of a pro surfer like Sion Milosky, the questions that arise have to do with the moment of death. We know he wiped out on a tremendous wave, but did the initial impact knock him unconscious, or was he alive, unable to discern sea-floor from air, trying to pierce an impregnable surface where the sheer weight and downward force of enormous waves held him down? Maybe he looked for light, or listened for any sound, or just waited one minute, two, three, until his mouth opened, involuntarily, and received no air; maybe he knew that that was it. It all happens beneath the surface, and the whole Greek tragedy of a death at the hands of one’s love takes place invisible to any and everyone. Then the corpse washes up on some distant shore, the board and the body entangled with the leash.

It’s this sort of dark imagery that Hern believes doesn’t gel with Apple’s goals. He claims that “even among surfing’s select group of big-wave riders — maybe 100 in the world — only a handful will take on the winter swells at Mavericks, where waves can reach 80 feet. Those that do need specialist equipment — helmets, sometimes lifejackets, jetski tow-ins and emergency backup. None of which makes for a comfortable marketing metaphor with a mainstream piece of computer software.”  All of which is true. The very nature of Mavericks — open, wild, unpredictable — is ostensibly in direct opposition with the technological environment Apple cultivates in its operating systems. Techies call it the walled garden; to stick with surf metaphors, we might rather term it Apple’s private beach.

The success of Apple is in large part due to the highly restricted user experience. The App Store, OS X, iTunes, and the iPhone eschew third-party developers, and thereby keep at bay the turbulence of the World Wide Web. In a vast sea of freely exchanged information and cat memes, Apple has pioneered the digital private beach. Visitors here don’t have to worry about hobos or broken bottles. And despite being immersed and one with the oceanic Internet, it somehow manages to filter garbage and used needles before they wash ashore. Web surfers don’t have to worry about Hepatitis, and the shark nets keep predators out of snapping distance. You pay your dues, virtually sign on the digital line, kick off your Tommy Bahamas, and enjoy the view.

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The real Mavericks is anything but a safe, closed, sterilized private beach. If Apple really wanted a shoreline simulation of itself, it would have been better off with Malibu or Huntington Beach. Though on further reflection, no place is without its faults. A location like Malibu elicits a sense of elitism that might not be palatable to the typical Apple clientele (Hern notes in his article that “Apple toyed with 10.9 Cabernet and 10.10 Syrah, but apparently couldn’t stomach a wine-related meme”). As for Huntington Beach (recently designated as Surf City U.S.A.), aside from just being a clunky name, it would have been scrapped after this 2013 year’s U.S. Open of Surfing, which devolved into a riot for no apparent reason beyond privileged teenage angst and the Vans corporation’s carnival of anarchy motif that was promoted throughout the event. But beyond these particular issues, I’m willing to bet that Federighi just happens to have the same Northern California prejudice that permeates most Bay Area inhabitants (even, or perhaps especially, those in Cupertino). Southern California is, to northerners, the land of the vapid and superficial.

Apple manufactures its own gated beach community without being able to directly acknowledge this desire. Or rather, perhaps the acknowledgment is that the Mavericks were controlled all along. Federighi stands on the Jobsian stage, in his California Technocrat uniform, the desktop background wave behind him, and the audience applauds, long and sincerely. Because what Apple has done is to once again appropriate a wild and deadly symbol — haven’t leopards and lions killed more people than Mavericks? — and contain it within the confines of binary. The awe-inspiring, near mythical behemoth of the California Coast is now situated, comfortably, behind your desktop icons and muffled by the quiet taps of your fingertips.

Images via Robert Scobleemitya, and dennis/Flickr

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First Thoughts on Bikini Atoll

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I’ve been researching Bikini Atoll recently for class, and it’s begun to occupy a larger part of my time and energy. It’s the seminal U.S. idea of the middle of nowhere, which is why the Eisenhower administration thought it would be an ideal place to conduct the nuclear tests that helped usher in the Cold War era of Mutually Assured Destruction. And though now we don’t think much about this location (despite it being the site of one of the largest human rights violations in U.S. History), it has left an imprint on U.S. culture. 

Anybody curious enough to ask will learn that the bikini is named after the island (the native word being Pikini, which refers to the outer shell of a coconut). And world-travelers speak amorously of the high-quality diving that is the result of vast armadas sunk into the lagoon by nuclear annihilation. My interest is in the world-class breaks found throughout the Marshall Islands. 

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Kelly Slater has a video of him surfing his secret atoll, which I am pretty certain is in the Marshalls. And Quicksilver Crossing filmed their women’s team surfing Bikini Atoll. As the radiation (already allegedly marginal) depletes, tourists in the global era are starting to re-inhabit the Atolls on vacations, meanwhile the displaced indigenous communities of Bikini Island live on subsistence, deprived of their land and out of touch with their old way of life, and the graves of their ancestors. And it’s for this reason that I find troubling a quote from a certain surf-tourism site: The playground will be ours and ours alone.

While Bikini Atoll hasn’t suffered the same tourism problems as Bali or Sayulitas, what little tourism exists seems to simply be a painful echo of those first naive American Soldiers, just as much a victim of experimentation as the displaced islanders themselves.

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Surfers in Sochi might not be Stoked for the Olympics

The winter games have been peppered with stolen surf lingo, if only because snowboarders have a penchant for linguistic theft. This recent article in the Wall Street Journal addresses Sage Kotsenburg’s impressive use of the word “stoked” fourteen times in a single press conference. The Russian translator on hand could only roughly translate the word as meaning “under the influence of alcohol.” What’s interesting is that Sochi is one of the few places in Russia that can actually be surfed. Another recent article at surfertoday.com, titled “The Unexplored Surfing Treasures of Sochi” describes Sochi’s subtropical climate and strings of jetti’s that magnify the swell coming off of the admittedly small fetch of the Black Sea and converts it into clean-breaking rights. 

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So maybe it’s a surprise that a marginal surf town wouldn’t know the word “stoked,” but perhaps there is room in Russia to craft its own culture of surfing. Sochi can enter that handful of locations that might be able to develop a culture with limited intrusion from Australians and the U.S. But it seems that the olympics will limit the chance of that happening. Both the articles cited above were published in the last week. And there are a number more on the subject of surfing in Sochi, while before buzz about the games began it was the type of place you could search and only find minimal information about breaks and surf. 

While the games stand as an exemplar of cosmopolitanism, the pageantry and extravagance of the Olympics is often used to demonstrate a nation’s economic might (as fallacious as the claim might be), and there is a hope that the site of the games will become a future tourist attraction, with some of the buildings repurposed for use en perpetuity. Under these circumstances, Sochi might become another overcrowded surf break, placing stress on both the local economy and the environment. As such, Russia will have imported the same tourist economics that have been so harmful to places like Bali, Indonesia or Hawaii’s North Shore. 

At the same time, Russia has a stigma that has shone through the Olympic games, and that the American visitors have been quick to highlight in their #SochiProblems meme, pointing out the poor quality of local water and the slap-dash construction (all bi-products of laborers who were forced to work and then denied wages, or of large infrastructures that barely supported the people who have to survive by them, let alone the millions of Olympic tourists). It seems likely that people are going to leave Sochi never intending to go back, having smugly proven the power of Capitalism of Socialism when it comes to building bathroom stalls. 

In China, news coverage highlighted the poor air quality in Beijing, and famous photographs have since travelled around the internet displaying the abandoned husks of the multi-billion dollar Olympic endeavor. To be sure, Beijing is not going to crumble under the weight of its Olympic infrastructure, but Sochi will likely be hurt by the way it has been presented in these games. And this, for the local population at least, might have some positive side effects. It’s likely that Sochi locals will have benefitted from the temporary influx of tourist dollars, since the burden of constructing an Olympic Park is shouldered by the state, but perhaps in the end there is a chance that this Russian city (already admittedly a booming tourist destination) to preserve some local integrity. Russians might develop their own, independent expression for the surfer’s “stoked” feeling.

GoPro and Drone On

The GoPro has been a favorite tool of surfers since its introduction to the sports world. The special harnesses and attachments that come with the camera allow people to surf unencumbered by their cameras. The lens becomes an extension of the body, and the films and images produced with these cameras prove it. This camera has ushered in an era where even an amateur photographer can bring a sport to vivid HD life in a way that seems tangible to the viewers.

In the last year, these cameras have followed humans into the most extreme conditions, including Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking leap from a hot air balloon in the stratosphere at 128,000 feet. The GoPro has become the camera of record for the moments when we reach for the limits of human capability.

And now the GoPro has taken flight, becoming attached to the civilian drones that zoom around surfing competitions.

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The word drone often evokes powerful responses in our current society. For some, it is the most recent object used to represent cowardly war tactics, carrying on the legacy of the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-boats of World War One. For others it is the tool which will free future wars from the massive amounts of casualties that have defined war up until very recently. And as a society we question their legality, and the degree to which they should permeate our daily lives. Even those who are comfortable with using drones for surveillance in counter-terrorism operations abroad begin to feel uncomfortable when they find out about the drones flying above our own heads. And I think I’d be hard pressed to find many people who don’t feel the slightest tinge of discomfort upon hearing about amazon.com potentially employing drones for package deliveries. But the fact is that they are here, and they have permeated many aspects of our daily lives.

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Our generation is perhaps the most conscious to the fact that it is much easier to introduce a technology into society than it is to remove it. Once a technology sticks, it is here until something comes along that makes it obsolete. It becomes harder to imagine life without the cell-phone, the computer, air condition, plumbing, agriculture, and going far enough back, writing. Just as we wrestled with the ethics of writing (Socrates thought writing frivolous, dead as soon as it is printed and unable to defend itself. Of course, we only know this because Plato wrote it down), we must also now question the drone. We have come to look at Moore’s Law as a natural law. I expect that two years from now I will have a computer and a cell-phone with exponentially greater power than the one I have now. Likewise, I know that these remote-controlled planes that murder and destroy are here to stay, at least as long as civilization is technologically complex of producing them.

But the other mantra that I believe in is the inherent neutrality of most technology (and I say most because there are highly respected technological historians who claim that machines make history, and they use the nuclear bomb as an example of a technology that demands a dictatorial and hierarchical society for its safe management). A drone is a drone is a drone. And while they shouldn’t be used to assassinate people in other countries or here at home, there is no reason that they can’t be used in the artistic and exploratory capacity that they are now heavily utilized in.

As such, I hold this beautiful drone/GoPro-shot footage of my hometown break, Rincon, as evidence of the neutrality of technology and the potential for drones to be used for good.

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