Transhumanist Salvation or Judgment Day?



We're starting to brush up against real robots, real nanotech, and maybe even the first real artificial intelligence. But will emerging technologies destroy humankind — or will humankind be saved by an emerging transhumanism?

And which answer is more liberating?

If anybody knows, it's R.U. Sirius. The former editor in chief at Mondo 2000 (and a Timothy Leary expert) has teamed up with "Better Humans LLC." They're producing a new transhumanist magazine called h+. (And R.U. is also one of the head monkeys at 10 Zen Monkeys.) But can he answer this ultimate question? Terminator Salvation played with questions about where technology ends and humanity begins.

But what will we do when we're confronting the same questions in real life?

10 Zen Monkeys: Isn't this whole idea of real transhumanism kind of scary?

RU SIRIUS: Everything's scary. Human beings weren't born to be wild so much as we were born to be scared, starting on a savanna in Africa as hunter-gatherers watching out for lions and tigers and bears (oh my... Okay, maybe just lions), subjected to the random cruelties of a Darwinian planet. I would say that the transhumanist project is probably an attempt to use human ingenuity to make living in this situation as not scary as possible, and in some theories, to actually change the situation, to create a post-Darwinian era.

Of course, that — in itself — is scary. Our favorite narratives — our favorite movies and stories and comics tend to involve humans being altered by our own technologies to dramatically bad ends. Most of those stories are silly in the particular, but the broader fear of unintended consequences or the use of advanced technologies by intentionally destructive people isn't silly.

For instance, we explored the very rapid development of robotic technologies for warfare during the web site's Terminator Week. That's viscerally scary. Logically it can also mean less civilian casualties, less harm to soldiers, and so on. And on the other hand, it can also mean less hesitation to use violence against others, or a possibly objectionable system of total control in which revolution is permanently rendered impossible. And on the other hand... I can do the "on the one hand and on the other hand" until the Singularity or at least until the Mayan apocalypse of 2012.

But seriously, what really scares the crap out of me is that we might not make radical technological problem-solving breakthroughs — that we might stop, or that the technologies might fall short of their promises. What scares me is the idea of a 6 billion-strong species finding itself with diminishing hopes, resource scarcities, insoluble deadly pandemics, and global depression based on the delusions of abstract capital flow resulting in increases in violence and suffering and territoriality and xenophobia.

10Z: But how does transhumanism resolve these problems? How does a bunch of rich people living longer solve any of this?

RU: Let's take this one at a time. The technological paradigm that has grown out of transhumanist or radical technological progressive circles that I'm most fond of is NBIC. Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno. The promise of nanotechnology — which has become much more tangible just in the last few months (thanks to developments we recently covered on our site) — is basic control over the structure of matter. This should eventually solve most of our scarcity problems, with the possible exception of physical space. (And there are ways we might deal with that, but I'm trying to keep it short.)

Nanotechnology, of course, has enormous potentials in terms of health as does biotechnology. People can find these details just about anywhere so I won't go into it. Anyway, sickness is perhaps our greatest source of misery and our greatest resource sink... particularly if you contrast sickness not just with the absence of disease but with the possibilities of maintaining a high level of vitality.

Then... information technology allows us to organize the data for distributed problem solving and — to a great degree — democratizes it. (More eyes and more brains on the problem, working with and through more intelligent machines.) IT is at the heart of all the breakthroughs and potential breakthroughs in nano and bio — and all this is leaving aside the further out projections of hyper-intelligent AIs.

You know, getting back to what's scary, I agree with Vernor Vinge that the greatest existential threat is still nuclear warfare. But next in line is the possibility of a major plague... a rapidly spreading pandemic. And already we can see that the tools for dealing with that come down to intelligent systems and biotech. There's biotech medical solutions using intelligent systems married to global mapping and communications and organized distribution. Human behavior has a role too, of course... but not as much as romantics might wish.



Which perhaps brings us to cogno — getting control and better use out of the brain for greater intelligence, greater happiness, less misery... hell, maybe even cheaper thrills! Why not? A lot of our problems are self-created... or they're created by particularly unstable or irrational people. As a veteran of the psychedelic culture, the potentials and problems of cognition are a particular area of fascination for me — and also as a nonconformist who is suspicious of the tendency of society to be hostile towards what we might call creative madness. So I do have some ambiguities, but it's just a huge area of intrigue as far as I'm concerned.

Now, all of this is just the prosaic stuff, without imagining Singularities, or say hyperintelligent humans who aren't needy... happily living on converted urine and nutrient pills while entertaining one and other in ever-complexifying virtual spaces. Lots of energy savings there, Bubb.

10Z: President Obama is reconstituting his bio-ethics panel. Just how high are the stakes, in the here and now, regarding U.S. political policy governing future research?

RU: You know, I think the bioconservatives who dominated Bush's bio-ethics panel and opposed stem cell research were just pissing in the wind... but that stuff can hit you in the face. Really though, I think that the discourse in opposition to embryonic stem cells will some day be seen as every bit as absurd as Monty Python's "every sperm is sacred."

More broadly, I don't think the stakes are very high because I don't think you can get the federal government today to be terribly functional... and I'm not a knee-jerk anti-government guy at the level of economics or investment in research. I just think there's a certain all-American "can't do" thing going on there and there's no effective strategy for changing it.

Sometimes I think that the people who really control America — the corporate oligarchs and finance kleptocrats, the national security apparatus and so forth — realize that the Titanic has already hit the iceberg. And laughing up their sleeves they said, "Quick! Put that charismatic black guy behind the wheel!"

10Z: I'm surprised to hear that you're not a knee-jerk anti-government sort of guy. I read that you were an anarchist.

RU: I've read that too. I have an anarchistic streak, but I can't even begin to believe in it. I do think that being an anarchist is an excellent choice though, because it's never going to be tried by any large group on a highly populated planet with advanced technology. So you never have to witness or experience the consequences of your belief system being enacted. It will remain forever romantic.

On the whole, though... I should try to be diplomatic. Let's just say that anarchists and pure libertarians are the most anti-authoritarian, and I like to be anti-authoritarian. It would be more convenient and more consistent to believe, but I don't think ideologies work in the real world.

10Z: Let's get back to those ambiguities you mentioned. That seems like a rare trait in the community represented by h+ magazine.

RU: Hardly. But I'm probably more richly ambiguous than most other human beings. My only ideology is uncertainty. Although you'll see it if you explore transhumanist-oriented discussion groups and blogs like Michael Anissimov's Accelerating Future or the writings of Nick Bostrom ad infinitum. They're rife with complexity and argumentation, and concern about existential threats, inequalities in the distribution of positive results from scientific achievement, and on and on. The reality is there's a rich and varied discourse within the techno-progressive movement just as there is between the progressives and the bio-conservatives.

10Z: It's hard to see where longevity and immortality fits into your vision of social responsibility.

RU: First of all, I emphasized problem solving to respond to your question about fear. And in essence my answer was I'm more afraid of standing still or going backwards than I am of moving forward. But man... and woman... cannot live by social responsibility alone. (We don't go around now asking people to die so we can spare resources or whatever.)

And I think that our humor columnist Joe Quirk had the best response to people who are against hyper-longevity... holy crap! These people want me to die!

Can we allow people to be the owners and operators of their own experiences and decide for themselves how to answer the Shakespearian question — to be or not to be? I think it's doable. There's a very substantive discussion from Ramez Naam in our first issue about why hyper-longevity should not create big resource problems. It has to do with demographics and the tendencies of educated, comfortable people to make less kids, and a fairly high percentage of inevitable deaths even if we cure aging and most illnesses.

10Z: But won't this exacerbate already extreme class distinctions? Won't we have a wealthy race of immortals and then everybody else?

RU: That's plausible, but very unlikely. And it always surprises me that that's the first thing you usually hear, since a great portion of the human species already has access to universal health care. Even left to the market, the investment that's being made in this should eventually lead to a need to sell to a large consumer market. In our first issue, we have a chart that shows billionaires who are investing in revolutionary science projects... and a few of them are investing in longevity. Well, they're going to want to take their product to market and get a big consumer share. John Sperling isn't going to be sitting in some mountain retreat rubbing his hands together and saying, "Foolish mortals, I shall use this only for myself and my beautiful blonde cyborg bride Britney!" That's the movie version, not the reality.



The reality is actually sort of comical — the wealthy are the early adapters of new technologies, but those new technologies usually don't work very well at first... they tend to fuck up. Now, I think you can imagine that as a potential movie that can satisfy everybody's need for schadenfreude.

10Z: Francis Fukuyama wrote some critiques of the transhumanist vision. In one essay he writes: "Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome." How would you respond?

RU: This gets us to the cover story on so-called designer babies in the current Summer Edition of h+ magazine. There's hugely intriguing and potentially controversial issues about enhancement in this edition. And that's not only around parents pre-selecting traits for their children, but there's also a portrait of Andy Miah in the issue. He's a British professor who — for all intents and purposes — is pro-sports doping.

Before I go into this, I want to take a bit of a detour. When I wake up in the morning and start working on h+, I'm not thinking "How can I spread propaganda for the glories of transhumanism?" or anything like that. I'm thinking: "How can I do a totally cool-ass website and magazine with the transhumanist idea and sensibility at the center of it." That's my charge, and I'm approaching it as a craftsman. So I'm looking at this first as a magazine writer and editor — I want it to be accessible, exciting and fun, and I want it to look great. I want it to ride along the boundary between being a pro-transhumanist magazine and being more of a balanced and very hip generalist geek culture magazine. That, for me, is the sweet spot in this, and I think, along with other contributors, we've pretty much nailed it.

So I'm first of all an editor and writer. And secondly, I'm a curious editor and writer. This isn't necessarily all good or all bad. It's interesting. And that's how I'd hope and expect most readers would approach it.

And there's one more thing coming in a very distant third. In the context of an overarching commitment to my philosophy of uncertainty — or meta-agnosticism — I'm an advocate of the radical technological vision. I've thought long and hard about politics — and about consciousness unassisted by radical technology — and I've concluded that radical technology is the only bet that has a chance of winning not just a sufferable but a generally positive and enjoyable human future. But I'm not a stoical defender of the cause or anything like that.

So what Fukuyama proposes is interesting — that altering a few alleles to create some characteristics could iterate into monstrous or unhappy consequences further down the road. And I think that the general consensus among geneticists is that this is very unlikely with the small kinds of changes that are being discussed now (for example, selections of eye and hair color). Beyond that point, I say... let the arguments rage on! One of the assumptions among advocates is that by the time we're able to make significant incursions into germ line engineering (to affect people's intelligence or make them more or less aggressive or sexier or whatever), we'll have significantly advanced measurement and predictive tools...plus, a really good understanding of what we're doing.

And there's another argument: we change stuff all the time in the "natural" evolution of human beings — and we reap both positive and negative consequences. But generally we gain more than we lose by proceeding with technological advances. There's this idea called the "proactionary principle" which came from Max More, one of the originators of transhumanism. He basically argues that we measure the potential negative consequences of a technology, but we also need to measure the negative consequences of not developing a technology. What do we lose by its absence?

Anyway, I sort of want to punt — in the specific — on the issue around choosing traits for babies. I prefer to acknowledge that it's a controversial area, but I'm excited to present the articles that are favorable towards these activities and hope they generate lots of interest and discussion.



10Z: Before I let you go, let me ask you about the politics of h+ magazine and the transhumanist movement. Ronald Bailey, who writes for the libertarian magazine Reason, criticized another transhumanist — James Hughes — who apparently advocates democratic socialism. Where do you come down on all this, and what are the politics of h+?

RU: First of all, the magazine has no explicit politics. Having said that, I think we have an implicit politic that both Ron Bailey and James Hughes agree with. It's the idea that human beings have a right to a high degree of autonomy over their minds and bodies, and that the trend towards transhuman technologies makes those rights all the more important and poignant. So human beings would have the right not just to choose their sexual preferences, or to control their birth processes, or as consenting adults to take whatever substances they like, or to eat what they like. We would also have the right to control and change our biologies, to self-enhance, to alter our bodies through surgery and on and on. So let me be oh-so-diplomatic, by emphasizing our points of agreement.

I'll give a bit of my own perspective in terms of the great late second millennium debate that puts an unfettered market at one end of the spectrum and communism at the other end of the spectrum; that puts competition on one end of the spectrum and cooperation at the other end; that puts decentralization at one of the spectrum and centralization on the other end of the spectrum. I'd have to say I'm horribly centrist. I'm dead center. It's not a mainstream centrism, but without going into a long explication, I'm almost embarrassingly moderate.

But while I think these arguments are still lively and vital today — and I have my own cheers and jeers over each day's political issues — from a near-futurist transhumanist perspective, the debate seems really tired. For about a decade I've been arguing that the future I see emerging is witnessed by the open source culture, Wikipedia, and file sharing. And in another decade or two the dominant economic mode will not be the market or socialism or the mixed economy that we actually have pretty much everywhere — it will be voluntary collaboration. And yes, that's kind of an anarchist view... but I'm saying it will become the dominant mode, not the only mode. (The market and the state will continue to be factors.) I hear Kevin Kelly just figured this out. :)... although his use of loaded words like socialism and collectivism are somewhat unfortunate.

People sometimes wonder how wealth will get distributed in a future economy that will likely require close to 0% human participation and that still presumably requires people to hustle themselves up some proof of value. But I think there's a good chance that an advanced "file-sharing" culture hooked up to advanced production nanotechnology will render the question moot.

Free lunch for everybody!

See Also:
Latest issue of h+ magazine
Read the first issue
R.U. Sirius on "Terminator/Robot Week"
"Is the Future Cancelled?" Spring 2009 Edition
HPlus Magazine's main site
R.U. Sirius's editor's blog

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The Great Google Rebellion



Thursday Google unveiled a new design for its iGoogle homepage service. Unfortunately (according to one geek), it's "a big unwanted piece of crap."

In an email interview today, Google defended the changes. But Google won't let users switch their home pages back to the way they used to be, which has sparked a furious revolt, online activism, and even some homegrown fixes.

22 million people visit iGoogle each month (according to January figures from Comscore), but Thursday Google foisted their changes onto every user in the United States. The same day, Johnson Rice created an online petition urging Google to allow a rollback option — and found nearly 1,000 people to sign it. Then he expanded his crusade on a nationally-syndicated radio show, and launched a Facebook Group protesting "forced website redesigns." Its goal? Fighting for the best-loved sites "if the corporate committees start trashing them."

iGoogle's product manager, Jessica Ewing, emaield us today arguing Google is "constantly thinking about how to improve our products for our users. Then, we take our ideas, prototype them, and put them through a vigorous set of usability tests and experiments to make sure we are doing the right thing for users.

"The iGoogle features we launched went through this exact process and we've made changes along the way based on feedback from users and developers."

But some users clearly aren't satisfied. One thread in Google's discussion groups "is full of thousands of complaints about this sudden and unannounced change," according to Slashdot. In fact, one commenter posted that "Google has gone evil," joining a chorus of other negative threads.
What were you thinking????
How do I complain to Google?
Please return the hijacked horizontal space
I agree that the new igoogle changes are crap

Within 24 hours, disgruntled users had gotten even more aggressive, and resorted to posting email addresses for iGoogle's developers. One commenter claimed they'd also contacted a Google employee, "and they said they agreed that the new layout is horrible and was surprised that it was distributed to everyone at this point in time.

"They also said that as soon as they saw it, Google would be bombarded with complaints."



Soon the fierce discussion had identified several unsanctioned workarounds, which include logging into Google's Australian, British or Irish home pages or running a Greasemonkey script in Firefox. (The script's name? "Old Google Ig...") Other protesters used Google's discussion group to tout Google's competitors, including Netvibes and Protopages. Another blogger located a Firefox add-on which "disappears" the unwanted column, and one user even bragged they were accessing their Google Gmail account using Yahoo's home page service.

Comscore's January figures suggest Google has more than a quarter of all personalized home page users, and one iGoogle user says it's corrupted Google's philosophy. "Notice that the more powerful Google becomes, the more they take away our choices....once they reached the status of monopolistic stardom they suddenly fling off the sheep's clothing and out comes the wolf."

"Welcome to the future of cloud computing," warns a commenter on Slashdot. "This is what it means to give up control of your software for the convenience of a net-based service."

Information Week iGoogle's senior product manager, Jessica Ewing, defended the new column added in the re-design. "The left navigation allows users to go from canvas view to canvas view of the new gadgets with one click, which we think is important as we see more and more great canvas view gadgets that require a scalable navigation model." Jessica says Google was careful to narrow the column because "We realize it does take up some screen real estate, particularly on small monitors," and adds that "We'll continue to monitor user feedback and usage and adjust accordingly." But angry users on Google Groups were already posting her phone number, along with a number for Google's "User Experience" Vice President Marissa Mayer, urging "flood her inbox people!" One user even posted that "After trying the phone number and getting the 'error' hangup — I sent her a fax!"

The new iGoogle features "were designed to make it more powerful," according to Google's official blog, saying the redesign will "bring more information to the homepage." Besides the new column (which re-lists the homepage's links), iGoogle now also offers a new "canvas view" expanding RSS feeds to fill the screen. (And another option condenses that view to a Gmail-like list of the feed's headlines.) The changes will simply "bring more information to the homepage," argues Google's blog. But some critics see it differently.

"They forced users to a hideous new format today with no method to opt out," complained a blogger named Merry Goose Mother. "Everyone on the interwebs is roaring about how much it sucks and how inconsiderate it is to make changes to a page that users customize to their own preferences without providing them a medium to give feedback or revert." She titled her post "Google has officially become evil." (Ironically, she posted it on Blogspot — a service owned by Google.) And she asked her users for the ultimate solution.

"I need a new homepage, does anyone use Netvibes?"



Lifehacker posted another Greasemonkey script which eliminates Google's new design changes, telling readers that "over half of you gave it the thumbs down. Your main complaint: The new sidebar eats up a substantial chunk of screen real estate." And Information Week reported that "Almost all of the 80 comments posted on Information Week since Thursday express unhappiness about the new iGoogle," adding that "The situation is similar on other sites. Almost all of the 149 comments posted on the Google Operating System blog express displeasure with the iGoogle changes."

But statements from Google suggested the easiest workaround — of logging into a foreign version of iGoogle — may not last forever. Google's blog announces cheerily "Don't worry. We'll also be rolling out this updated version in other countries very soon."

Google isn't the only offender, according to Johnson Rice. "Facebook has done the same thing to all their users," he argued in his radio diatribe. "They just changed the design, and so what has happened is people are starting to get angry, because this is an egregious use of force on these people..." Today Slashdot reported that Yahoo "decided to massively screw up their entire userbase by changing all user profiles to blank, while Friday Thomas Hawk noted a thread on Flickr complaining about changes to Flickr's "Recent Activity" page. (Hawk sardonically headlined the post "Flickr Changes Most Popular Page on the Site, Users Go Bonkers," and in three days the thread has racked up over 3,700 posts.)

Johnson Rice argues the web services are committing a clear injustice. "Both Facebook and Google, while they offer a free service, make their money on advertising," he told the radio show's hosts. "Which means that their users and their community are the people who are in fact paying them by using their service." But despite his best efforts, he hasn't succeeded yet in rallying everyone to his cause.

The radio show's host responded, "I'd like to go on record as not giving a crap."

See Also:
Google Heard Me: Now What?
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
Google Stalker Reveals Secret Project
Google is Trying to Get In Your Pants
Thomas Hawk Vs. Rent-a-Cops

Read More

Thomas Hawk Versus Rent-a-Cops




An art museum just issued a statement condemning the "harassing" and "inappropriate" manner of Thomas Hawk's photographing of a museum employee Friday, and defended a staffer who confronted and ejected Hawk to "ensure the safety" of the employee.

But how was the employee's safety jeopardized? What was the harassment, and what was inappropriate about it?

The six-sentence statement on their web site "is the only comment that the museum is making on this matter," the museum's Communications Director told me minutes after posting the announcement. The employee at the center of the controversy was out of the office, but it's his normal day off, the museum assured me.

Has he been fired? I asked.

"Oh, no no no..."

I also spoke with a security guard who was fired after a confrontation with Thomas Hawk in 2006, an unwilling participant in the war over photographer's rights giving his first interview. Is there a new controversy over photography itself — and the blogger at the center of the issue? And has Friday's incident snowballed into a larger debate about technology, privacy, and the conduct of security guards?

"I realized how insane this was," one user posted on FriendFeed, "when people found the guy's Facebook profile and implored everyone to harass him there, and when people charted the vacation schedules of the guy's bosses."


WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

For years San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art has maintained a "no photographs" policy for their permanent collection, according to Hawk's popular blog — but he's been taking photographs there anyways. "I've actually got a bunch more of what I'm calling renegade photography... I believe that as a non-profit for the general public's artistic enlightenment, that the SF MOMA should have a more tolerant photography policy and I believe that renegade photography is a good thing and will create a more vibrant and beautiful world for us all to share in."



Ironically, that visit in November was without incident, according to Hawk's blog. ("Several times I was asked not to photograph and I'd comply when asked only to whip out the camera and begin shooting again in the next gallery...") Instead it was Friday — after the museum lifted their ban — that Hawk reported an altercation. And within 24 hours, Hawk's story about the visit had made the front page of Digg, receiving a whopping 4,000 votes. ("After purchasing my family membership and visiting the museum today I was forcibly thrown out of the museum by two museum security guards at the direction of the Director of Visitor Relations Simon Blint.")

Blint told Hawk he needed to protect his employees, according to Hawk's post about the events. ("He accused me of using a 'telephoto' lens to spy on his staff from the public staircase on the second floor," Hawk elaborated in the comments on BoingBoing.) An anonymous comment on his blog post claimed a female ticket employee "was sitting directly below where he was taking pictures and that she felt uncomfortable (especially when other VISITORS of the museum notice)." Another (also anonymous) commenter argued that "He was repeatedly asked to stop taking pictures of her (at least 10 that I counted) and was then walked out by my co-worker and I. We didn't even touch him."

"I offered to show my photographs to Blint and he refused to examine them," Hawk responded in the comments. "[A] simple review of my photographs which I offered would have easily cleared up any confusion. I was not provided this opportunity as I requested. I was simply ejected from the museum." Hawk added that he asked to speak to Blint's superior — and was refused. "I told him he was going to look foolish when I published the photo that I was taking, and gave him every opportunity to take a more rational approach to the situation."

It soon morphed from an incident to a full-blown internet phenomenon. Digg's commenters had located the email address for the museum's director (noting she was apparently on vacation, and speculating that "Mr Blint was acting out while the bosses where gone.") Five more email addresses were posted for the museum's PR staff (in a comment which got 37 Diggs) — and then someone located his Facebook profile. The comments capture the excited response.

"I'd like to wipe that smile off his face,"

"I just wrote him a nice little note: 'Looks like you F'd with the wrong guest...'"

"Wow, he's going to feel like crap the next time he Googles himself..."

The "Travel/Places" section of Digg had become ground zero for a discussion about ways to respond. "I probably would've snapped a picture of him just to piss him off, but that's how I roll," one user suggested. And Hawk seemed to be considering something similar while addressing an anonymous commenter on his blog.
By the way anonymous security guard, are you the one that made the "jerk off" gesture at me after evicting me from the museum or was that the other goon working with you? Maybe I should publish the photo of that. Not a nice gesture for a security guard to make to a paying member. I've largely left you two out of it because as far as I was concerned you two were just following Blint's orders. I'd be happy to publish photographs of you both as well though if you'd like me to.


A BACKLASH?

Hawk was accused of mean-spirited vengefulness by an anonymous commenter, who remembered Hawk's 2006 run-in with another San Francisco 24-year-old security guard which led to the guard's firing. In his first interview, the security guard describes being on the receiving end.

"Because of 9/11, everybody was afraid of people taking pictures of their buildings, especially in the financial district," he remembers. He was told repeatedly during his training to tell visitors that pictures were not allowed. "It's just the policy of the company," he says. "You should approach the person and tell him that you're not allowed to take pictures of the building. Can you please stop? And that's exactly what I did about three times at least before he started going off on me."

Tim Gallen, a spokesperson for the building's owner, makes the same argument. "We all learned a lot of lessons after 9/11 and one of the ways you keep it safer is to try to discourage people taking pictures of the security installations that you've made to make it safer." Though the confrontation occured in April of 2006, "There's still a very big fear today that people come around and snap pictures of buildings that have been securitized."

There's just one problem. "You can't stop people from taking pictures of a building," says Neville L. Johnson, a lawyer specializing in media and privacy at the Beverly Hills law firm of Johnson & Johnson. "We can take a picture of the CIA's headquarters." The building may have its own policies, but "If there was no trespass, I don't see anything involved in taking the picture."

But the security guard was uncomfortable for another reason. "He was not taking pictures of the building. He was taking pictures of me."



Hawk has said that he hopes to take a million pictures over his lifetime — and he's leery of those who impose restrictions. "Increasingly we are living in a world where photographers are routinely harassed again and again by authority figures overstepping their authority..." Hawk argued on his blog. "While the 'photography steals your soul,' superstition seems to be long gone, a whole litany of replacements have taken it's place. I've seen people branded as pedophiles for shooting at public parks or their neighborhood swimming pool. I've seen people claiming 9/11 makes checking photography necessary..."

There was a heated discussion, remembers the security guard, when he spotted Hawk taking pictures. "I asked him not to, and then he started talking smack to me," says the security guard, whose first name is Alex. 'Don't tell me what to do. I'm going to do this anyways, and take pictures of you and the building and some other stuff.' I can't remember everything about it right, but at some point he got so angry that he used profanity, too. 'I'm going to fucking put your picture online and you're going to get in trouble and I'm telling you just go back into your building.' I don't remember exactly how he said it. The F-word was there."

The 24-year-old security guard had immigrated to America from Eastern Europe in 2002, and then learned the language — but in this situation, he felt helpless. "I knew I couldn't leave the premises of the building, so I got real angry. I just felt like a dog on a leash." Hawk captured the moment when the angry security guard flipped him the bird. "I know that I was not supposed to do it," says Alex. "It was wrong on my side. But I was kind of provoked into doing that."

Alex says that within 24 hours, the pictures were online, and Hawk had emailed the links to his employers. He was fired, and "I was out of a job after that for almost a year. I did part-time jobs, but I wasn't able to get a full-time job at the time. Plus, I had a lot of studying to do."

With his accent, he explained that he's never told his story "Because after reading the blog I understood that everyone that blogged was against me. There was not one word defending or saying something — 'Hey, maybe he's not right. Maybe this guy's defending himself'... There were at least two or three other cases where this or maybe some other photographers were taking pictures of security guards on purpose and making fun of them."

Eventually Alex obtained his degree, and got an IT job doing networking. He says now that "The security industry is not the best job if there's others. These other people try to make you look bad... I don't think it's right."

Thomas Hawk didn't return our request for a comment on the incident, but on BoingBoing he posted a response to one of Alex's friends.

"I'm sorry your friend got fired. Maybe next time he'll think twice about flipping off a photographer and trying to challenge their right to shoot in public. I suppose the better thing in your opinion to have done would have simply been to allow him to dictate where public photography can take place and where it can't because security guards deserve that power in our society.

"By the way, I later ended up with an apology from building management over that issue."

The building's current manager was also out of the office Wednesday, but calling their guard today, you get a more accommodating answer. "If you're not on our property, you can snap photos.

"We can't control that."


LEGAL ISSUES

Alex says he even thought about suing Hawk, but "I was overwhelmed with stuff going on in my own life — school, trying to pay my bills, the usual stuff... I don't have family here who help me out with money or anything else." Attorney Neville Johnson thinks it's a pretty weak case. "The rule is there has to be an expectation of privacy. Was there a reasonable expectation of privacy, and was the conduct basically outrageous? But with respect to somebody in the business world, that's not applicable." He says if Hawk antagonized the guard, he could be "castigated morally" but "It does not appear that there is any legal claim."

Though he adds that "It sounds like they both could use some schooling in etiquette."

Hawk is a CEO of Zooomr.com (a competitor to Flickr) but this latest high-profile incident has provoked a discussion about photography's changing role in an increasingly technological world. "[O]ne possible reason people are jumpy is the way that photographs routinely wind up widely circulated online," wrote one commenter. "I won't be surprised if within a year or two 'no video - no photography' signs are much more prevalent. Which is sad because a few of the jerks may ruin it for everyone who can photograph responsibly." Hawk himself has even posted his memory of a sidewalk debate with a cigar store owner in Los Angeles who didn't want his shop photographed.

But according to Hawk's latest blog post, his confrontation at the museum also included a discussion about the specific the type of lens he was using — and a commenter on Digg sees a bias against specific equipment. "As a Nikon D80 DSLR user, I find so many people consider a pro-looking camera a threat, while the point and shooters have no problems usually getting their cameras into concerts for example, or shooting people out on the street..." Attorney Neville Johnson notes that there are some specific anti-photography laws that only apply to certain types of photographic equipment. "There is a law in California that prohibits the taking of pictures with the use of a telephoto lens if someone is engaged in some personal or family-type activity... But you could use a regular lens."

Last month Thomas Hawk's photography led to yet-another confrontation with a security guard — this time at a Hyatt Hotel in Bellevue. "My wife and I were taking a few photographs in the lobby when we were approached by hotel security who informed me that taking photographs in the hotel was not allowed," Hawk wrote on his blog. "I argued with him a bit and told him that I was only taking pictures of bamboo. He still pressed on with his no photography policy. I finally got him to relent that if my wife were in the photo that I could still take the photo. As soon as he went the other way I started taking pictures again. Illegal, renegade photography."

Hawk titled the post "Boycott Hyatt Hotels," demanding an apology and a change in policy.

So I placed a call to Richard Walter, the hotel's Director of Rooms. "I read the blog, and certainly we apologize for what seems to be the overassertiveness of the security person," he told me. Professional photographers do have to get advance permission from the hotel — and to sign an agreement — and Walter argues that the appearance of the camera may also have contributed to the incident. "But I've spoken with the director of security at the hotel, and he's going to be conducting some sensitivity training in making sure his staff recognize the difference between recreational and professional photographers."

The photography controversy has stirred up strong feelings ("Photography is the skateboarding of the new millennium," one commeter joked on Digg — responding to Hawk's headline that "Photography is not a crime.") And the incident at the Museum of Modern Art prompted at least one particularly aggresive response: "My company is a big institutional donor to SF MOMA and I'm going to recommend they reconsider."

Hawk is not without his detractors. ("You are trying to carve out special rights for yourself," one commenter argued on Flickr, "because you feel entitled to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.") But according to his blog, Hawk makes no apologies about using his platform on the internet to highlight obstacles in his way while practicing the art of photography.

"When I asked Blint for his last name his response to me was 'Why, so you can blog it?" to which I answered 'yes.'"

See Also:
Is Yahoo/Flickr DMCA Policy Censorship?
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Art or Bioterrorism: Who Cares?
Should YouTube Hear Me?
Twittering the Twitter Revolution

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Google Stalker Reveals Secret Project


Can Google Hear Me?


It was an exciting moment. After a year of development, they were finally going to release their secret project online. Aaron Stanton and his team had been up 26 hours, according to a Boise newspaper, "broken only by a 4 a.m. trip to WinCo for more Red Bull energy drink."

Aaron had already made headlines when he flew to Google's headquarters last year without an appointment, vowing he'd wait in their lobby until they heard him out. He wasn't allowed to camp in the lobby, but eventually he got his meeting and began cobbling together a prototype. Now Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have all peered at Aaron's big idea, and last week Boise's 26-year-old entrepreneur finally revealed it to the world.



Unfortunately, a year ago the world had already guessed Aaron's secret. Or at least, some commenters on Digg deduced that it was related to "the Novel Project," Aaron's abandoned venture from 2002.

His newest version also analyzes books. But instead of delivering book-writing suggestions to authors, it delivers book-buying suggestions to readers. (Aaron calls it "a Pandora.com for books.") In a December interview, Aaron told us he felt big companies would be more willing to listen to him now that he had something to show them. He'd already begun filing a patent, and "I still get e-mails on a regular basis wishing me luck."

But has he already received a rejection from Google? When we contacted Aaron twice last week with that question — we received no reply. Aaron's latest video announces instead that "This isn't just about Google any more. It's also about Yahoo, who reached out to us early in this adventure." So how did it go at Yahoo? "It was bad timing," Aaron later told Wired News. "We got down [to Silicon Valley], and two days later they had a bunch of layoffs."

He's also added more big names to his list of potential partners. "It's also about Microsoft and Amazon.com," he hedges in the video, saying they complete the list of "the four companies that we think are in the best position to look at what we're doing and say okay, that's genuinely pretty cool." But of course that depends on what "being about Microsoft" means. "If you happen to work at either one of those two companies and you see this, would you pass this on?" Aaron asks hopefully. "Because we have something we'd like to say to you."

"We do actually own 'Can Amazon Hear Me .com'," he says in the video, "but at this point (he smiles) that seems a little cliche."

Aaron rose to fame with an online video blog chronicling his quest to get that first meeting with Google — called "Can Google Hear Me?" But his enthusiastic updates had always adopted a fierce silence about one topic: his secret entrepreneurial project. Last week that mystery finally ended with the beta release of BookLamp.



Here's how it works. When a user pick a book, Aaron's system quickly "reads" it — every page — and calculates a score based on five criteria. (Its pace, the level of dialog and action, the amount of description and the density of its prose.) A slick interface then generates a graph showing how the book scored, page by page, on each criteria — and identifies other books with a similar profile.

In the next version, his interface will even let users adjust the algorithm themselves, and it may even become a self-learning system. (For example, it might tweak its scoring based on patterns like recurring "theme" words that the user may not even be aware of.) "The idea is that over time the system will be able to recommend books on data that you yourself would never think to look for on a keyword search," Aaron explains in a video.

He also thinks hopeful authors might be able to use the system to identify publishers who'd appreciate their style, using the system's analysis of the publisher's previous books. And he sees other potential advantages for readers. "Ultimately we could tell you don't give up on this book until you reach page 50 at least because then it's going to get a lot more action packed!"

So far they've analyzed 207 books — though its mostly science fiction, listed alphabetically by the author's first name. There's seven by Isaac Asimov, and five more set in Isaac Asimov's fictional world, plus two books by Michael Crichton and two by L. Ron Hubbard. There's even three by James Doohan, who played Scotty the engineer on the original Star Trek. James Doohan's Privateer rates low on description.

"I had a heavy date last night. I overslept," the spaceman replied, yawning loudly...

"We're late for Strong's meeting over at the Academy," Bret snapped. "Get up! We've got to leave right away."


But the algorithm does give it a high rating for "action" (as well as pacing).

Quent Miles looked at the other man, his black eyes gleaming coldly. "I'll get up when I'm ready," he said slowly.

The two men glared at each other for a moment, and finally Brett lowered his eyes. Miles grinned and yawned again.


If you liked The Privateer by James Doohan, BookLamp suggests eight other books — including Independent Command, by James Doohan.

They've plotted 729,000 data points across 30,293 scenes, but there's one big problem: it still doesn't return enough matches. "There's no real way around this," Aaron acknowledges, "short of adding books to our database." He estimates that delivering comprehensive results would require a database of at least a million books. "Luckily for us, we live in a time when there are a number of such large scanning projects currently underway!" And his team is even thinking about building their own scanner.

In the mean time, they've tucked a couple practical jokes into the system. Searching for George Orwell's 1984, the system returns a 98% match for the USA Patriot Act.

The book's description? "A bad idea."



A celebratory video touted the project's journey — a year of twice a week meetings for the five core team-members and 13 more working remotely. ("They worked in coffee shops and living rooms, via Skype and instant chat. They've become friends....") Though they'd originally aimed for an August prototype, it took about seven months longer. And yet it wasn't until last month that the three Boise developers met the other two core members, Matt Davenport from England and the mysterious Evan from Southern California. Dozens more programmers offered to help, the video notes.

It's been a heady ride. Aaron began receiving thousands of emails a day after launching his video blog. When his father was hospitalized in November of 2006, "I realized that if I was going to do anything with my idea I couldn't put it off any more," Aaron says.

But today he's at a crossroads. "So far, this project has been balanced against other things in our lives — we've been working on this in our own time, in our living rooms, normally after hours. And it's time for us to decide what we want to do with BookLamp."

Microsoft still hasn't opened its doors, according to Aaron's blog. But there's still one glimmer of hope. Earlier this month he posted optimistically that "our presentation materials are still being bounced around Amazon.com. We've received word on Friday that our work is being positively received, and we should be cautiously optimistic.

"Being one to celebrate whenever the opportunity arises, I immediately went out and bought myself a $1 fudge sundae from McDonald's.

And Aaron now seems to be considering other less entrepreneurial options. He told a Boise newspaper that "It could be money driven, but when you run out of money it's over. Or it could be fun driven, and you never run out of fun." He's considering simply releasing the algorithm as an open source project, and he's asking for input from the online community that's been so supportive. "It's not quite a 'choose your own adventure' project," Aaron posts in the forum at BookLamp, "but your feedback will absolutely influence our decisions."

And even if you don't like his idea, Aaron has a message for you: "thank you again to the thousands and thousands of people that have sent us good luck e-mails over this last year." He says their good will helped keep the project fun.

At the end of the day, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon at least took a look at his idea. And even if he doesn't make any money — he's still getting a chance to make his dream come true.

See Also:
Closing Pandora's Box: The End of Internet Radio?
Google Heard Me, Now What?
Should YouTube Hear Me?
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes

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There Won’t Be Blood

There Won't Be Blood

When Lisa Bloch opened the drawer at San Francisco General Hospital that should have housed the trauma center’s blood supply last month, a lonely single pouch of type O-negative plasma tumbled in the empty space.

Bloch, director of communications at Blood Centers of the Pacific, was seeking to draw attention to the city’s dire shortage of blood by depicting it in graphic terms. The shortage got so bad early in the month that BCoP asked local hospitals to hold off on lesser-priority surgeries.



All across the country, large cities are struggling to keep supplies at sufficient levels. The reasons are a classically tragic conflict of supply (only about five percent of adults donate blood) and demand (day-to-day trauma center crises, national emergencies, the Iraq war).

Unfortunately, agencies that collect blood are fighting the battle to keep local and national blood supplies adequate with at least one hand tied behind their backs, because a sizable percentage of the population is barred from donating blood – gay men.

If you’re a man who has had sex with another man even once since 1977, you are not allowed to donate blood. The ban was instituted during the height of the '80s AIDS outbreak, before proper testing existed that could screen out infected blood.

But despite the leaps and bounds that have been accomplished in testing blood for HIV/AIDS, the Bush administration still doesn’t think the blood of gay males is good enough.

In San Francisco, given its higher-than-average gay male population, this keeps many who would like to donate from being able to help out in what has become a day-to-day crisis situation, let alone in the event of a local or national emergency.

But San Francisco proper has just more than 1 million people. Larger cities with a large gay male presence like Los Angeles and New York City (both of which have suffered from blood shortages recently) are also affected by the inability to tap into its gay males as a blood resource.

“We have gay men come in and are surprised the ban is still in effect,” said Bloch. “They’re ready to give blood, and it’s very frustrating that we can’t use it.”



BCoP was the very first organization imploring the government to soften its stance. In 2006, the Red Cross finally joined in the effort to get the Food and Drug Administration to implement the male-to-male (MSM) deferral.

“Today, we know much more about HIV,” the center wrote to the FDA. “The development of highly sensitive genetic tests for the virus has greatly reduced the “window” of transmission. Therefore, Blood Centers of the Pacific – along with the three national blood banking organizations: America’s Blood Centers, American Association of Blood Banks and the American Red Cross – believes that a 12-month deferral would adequately prevent transfusion-transmission of HIV.”

A 12-month deferral is consistent with other high-risk activities that may exclude someone from donating blood, including sexual contact with a prostitute, getting a tattoo (for hepatitis C) and traveling to a region endemic for malaria.

But the FDA not only refused, it didn’t even dignify the request with a response.

State Assemblyman Mark Leno, an openly gay male, is convinced the Bush administration is letting its obvious agenda against gays influence public policy on an issue that not only involves public health, but national security.

“There is indeed homophobia at work, and it’s not even very subtle,” said Leno. “None of this (the FDA’s inflexibility) is scientific.”

Like many, Leno was unaware of the policy until he tried to donate blood when he was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“When I was on the board I got an invitation to participate in a blood drive, and was surprised to learn that as a gay man I wasn’t allowed to participate,” he said.



Leno likened the FDA policy to that of the Catholic church, which officially is “okay” with homosexuals, as long as they don’t actually do anything gay.

Ironically, heterosexuals who engage in high-risk sexual behavior are allowed to donate blood. Some feel the whole process needs to be revised to screen out high risk groups accordingly.

“They’re asking the wrong questions,” said Leno. “Ask what behaviors individuals are engaging in, not with whom.”

The issue is expected to go before the FDA again next month, though there doesn’t appear to be much hope that the current administration will implement the MSM deferral that blood centers are counting on.

Leno chuckled bitterly at the prospects, choosing instead to look forward. “With a Democratic administration, which I believe we’ll have next year, I’ll be working with House Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi to not only reverse this dangerous policy, but to address the shortage and the screening process.”

“I don’t know how much longer they can keep stalling,” said Bloch, who agreed that a change of administration might be necessary before the FDA takes any action.

With gay men in San Francisco making up somewhere between five and 10 percent of the city’s population, a change in policy could produce noticeable results.

“I think it could make an impact on local blood shortages,” said Bloch. “Any help is a good thing, especially in times like this.”

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Dead Woman Blogging



Theresa Duncan committed suicide in July.

But on New Year's Eve, five months after her death, she updated her blog.

January's Vanity Fair had already trumpeted "The New York Art World's Bizarre Double Suicide" in a cover story this month. (One week after Theresa's suicide, Jeremy Blake, her partner of 12 years, removed his clothes and walked into the ocean at New York's Rockaway Beach.) Morbid interest in her blog was only exacerbated when, three months after her death, a new post suddenly appeared on her blog just two days before Halloween. Its title?

"Basil Rathbone's Ghosts."



It's a weird final twist for the A-list blogger and game designer. In the last year of her life, Theresa's apartment was in a New York rectory "allegedly haunted by the ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe and Harry Houdini," according to Vanity Fair, and she'd developed an apparent intrigue in at least one ghost story.

Unfortunately, the entire 423-word post was written by Dick Cavett. On his own blog at the New York Times site, the former 70s talk show host had promised his readers ghost stories. In February he'd told a story about the actor who'd played Sherlock Holmes in the 1940s. (Moments after Rathbone's friend is killed in a car accident along with his beloved hunting dogs, the actor receives a phone call from a psychic who says she's received a ghostly message. "Traveling very fast. No time to say good-bye. There are no dogs here.")

Theresa wrote a post scheduled to appear at the end of October, quoting the entirety of Cavett's last six paragraphs.
The next time I saw Rathbone...more years had gone by, and he was in the act of receiving a summons for letting his dog Ginger off the leash in Central Park. I thought he might have decided, looking back, that it had all been some sort of bizarre coincidence, or maybe a highly original prank. He said, "At the time, of course, I was quite shaken by it." And now? "I am still shaken by it."

A note below the post warned that a second one would appear on New Year's Eve — the final blog post of Theresa Duncan.





And increasing the tension was another dark story lingering after her death — the couple's belief that Scientologists were secretly harassing her. Vanity Fair reports that her boyfriend Blake "wrote a 27-page document encapsulating their claims, which he planned on using as the basis for a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology." (They also report Tom Cruise's denial that he interfered with her negotiations to direct a modern version of Alice in Wonderland, which her agent says was blocked for "budget considerations.")

Theresa's fear of Scientologists had already led to bizarre confrontations with their Hollywood neighbors, according to the article.
"Theresa said to me, 'Jeremy and I have started a club where we've found a bunch of old men and we're letting them fuck us in the ass, and we wanted to know if you wanted to be a part of it.' I asked Theresa if she was joking. She said 'no' and repeated herself..."

In July, when O'Brien came home and picked up her mail, she wrote, Duncan "shrieked 'cult whore' and 'cult hooker' repeatedly. She was very frightening."

Both incidents appeared in a letter supporting the couple's eventual eviction from their bungalow in Venice, California in August of 2006.

But a strange mystery lingers over one detail of Theresa's story — the fact that rock star (and Scientologist) Beck pulled out of Theresa's Alice movie. New York Magazine found a curious inconsistency in Beck's statement to Vanity Fair that he'd "never met to discuss doing her film." Blogger Emmanuelle Richard says she found an Italian interview where in fact, Beck gushes excitedly about preparing for his upcoming movie debut. ("It will be full of energy and full of characters: some kind of Alice in Wonderland set in the 70s... The director is a friend of mine and it will be her directorial debut. We will begin shooting in the Fall.")

Or was their fast lane life simply catching up to them? Vanity Fair reports Blake sometimes took a hip flask of whiskey to his job at Rockstar Games, while Theresa "drank champagne by the bottle."

"It was starting to show in their faces; they were looking haggard."

After the couple's twin suicides, the New York Times ran an article about prowling through Jeremy Blake's computer, assembling his final artwork from the PhotoShop folders he'd left behind.

Other bloggers searched for a logic in the death of the two New York artists. "The same anxieties that underwrite Ms. Duncan's nightmare visions are to be found in the economic and technological circuitry that surrounds all of us," reads one post on the blog Jugadoo, "an erosion of stable modes of identity and selfhood..."
It isn't hard to imagine a future scenario when people will be able to generate AI-controlled virtual selves who will stroll around digital worlds like Second Life, having conversations with grief-stricken friends and family after their living counterparts are dead. That a person on the brink of suicide might leave a new kind of note.

And then Theresa's final blog post appeared.





It spoke of "twenty largely wasted years," saying trying to write is a failure "because one has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it."

Theresa is quoting T.S. Eliot, but she'd skipped the first four passages of "East Coker" to focus in on the fifth. "With shabby equipment always deteriorating in the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion..."

Her final mysterious post was another long quote, arguing wearily that the great truths have already been recorded and "There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions that seem unpropitious."
"But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying.

The rest is not our business."


See Also:
Scientology Fugitive Arrested
Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death
Robert Anton Wilson 1932 - 2007
Death? No Thank You
Miracles

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What If Ben Were One of Us?

What If Benjamin Franklin Were One of Us, CNN Editor Asks

Would Ben Franklin be a blogger? It's a serious question pondered by news "gatekeeper" Walter Isaacson, once the managing editor at Time magazine and the chief executive officer at CNN.

Isaacson shared some startling insights about technology and media, both past and present, at a symposium last year at the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center (which studies "invention and innovation.") Isaacson told the audience that Ben Franklin was influenced by both the mechanics of 18th-century printing presses and a fickle American public. But as an afterthought, Isaacson noted that today the internet creates lots of publishers. "It's turned us back to the days when technology allowed low barriers of entry into the information transmission market."

So are we all Ben Franklin? Or, to put it another way — if Ben Franklin were alive today, would he be one of us? The National Archivist of the United States, Allan Weinstein, had suddenly asked the question.


Isaacson, who'd written a 608-page biography of Franklin, insisted that the answer was no — "not a blogger." The distinction was that Franklin "polished every word." But the question was too provocative to leave without more discussion. Ben Franklin would have a web site, Isaacson speculated. "It would be carefully crafted. It would be more like Andrew Sullivan than your normal blogger in pajamas."

"And he would charge!" added archivist Weinstein.

Yes, Ben Franklin would put his content behind a pay wall. "He would definitely charge for it," Isaacson agreed, "because he believed that if you weren't tested by the marketplace..." But then America's National Archivist cut him off with an important observation about the state of the media today.
Look, you have life going in two directions, as far as technology and democracy is concerned.

In one direction, you have the centralization of mass media to a great extent. You still have the three networks getting — not as much of the audience they did, but it's something...

But at the same time you have so many decentralizing elements in the mass media, the bloggers being just one of the major ones, that there's no coherence any longer.

It's wonderful. There's this great blooming, buzzing confusion in the media world which I think is, by and large, an asset to democratization.


In a poignant moment, the National Archivist remembered his childhood in New York, when there were twelve different newspapers. "That dozen became the three or four that we have now, by 1950." And former newsman Isaacson saw an even harsher reality. "Having three newspapers in New York — however you want to count it — that's unusual. In Los Angeles now you're not going to have three, and the Chicago Sun-Times is about to go under."

But ultimately this discussion led to one inescapable conclusion. Maybe inspired by Benjamin Franklin and America's history of a decentralized media, Isaacson made one irrefutable observation about our media landscape today. In the great American city of New Orleans, yes, there's one monopoly newspaper. "But there's about twenty web sites, and probably a thousand bloggers, all attacking the mayor of New Orleans at any given moment!"

The bloggers and other new decentralized media outlets are "a wonderful asset," Isaacson added. And he pointed out that a decentralized media is almost an American tradition. "Ben Franklin arrives in Philadelphia, and it's a town of what — 12,000 people? It's got four newspapers. So what does Ben Franklin do? Get a fifth!"
All the way through our life as a country, almost, you have low barriers of entry to the technology of information. People could become printers, they could have newspapers, they could be pamphleteers, they could — whatever.

When radio hits, something else happens — a monopolization of newspapers... For a variety of reasons — classified ads, everything else — it was better to have one newspaper in town than seven newspapers, so you started seeing consolidation in the newspaper market. And the barrier to entry into the broadcast world was very hard. You couldn't become an NBC just sitting in your pajamas in your attic or something, because there were public airwaves, there were monopolies. There were three networks.

So for a very brief period in our country's history, approximately from 1940 to the year 2000 — for just that sixty-year period — you have a concentration of media where it's a higher barrier to entry. You can't start a newspaper in town, you can't start a TV network.

Then the internet blows all that away, and everybody can start web sites, blogs, email newsletters, that sort of thing, until you'll see us reverting back to the free flow of information that's more democratized.



Would Ben Franklin really fit into all this? Isaacson thinks it's unmistakable. In his book he identifies Franklin as "A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity.

"He would have felt right at home in the information revolution."

See Also:
Is The Net Good For Writers?
Monkey v. Dog v. Wikipedia
The Furious Passions of Norman Mailer
When Cory Doctorow Ruled The World
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes
How Gay Were the Hardy Boys?

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Catching Up With an Aqua Teen Terrorist

Mooninite Terrorist Zebbler
January 31, 2007: a day that will live in infamy. The great city of Boston was brought to its knees by the appearance of unexpected L.E.D. placards in places where they didn't belong. Alert to potential connections between terror and anything a wee bit unusual, stout citizens and government officials alike in the land of the free and the home of the brave peed their metaphoric pants. The L.E.D. character was described in a CNN report as "a Mooninite, an outer-space delinquent… greeting passersby with an upraised middle finger." Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was quoted in the same piece as saying, "It had a very sinister appearance." The horror. The horror.



A pair of young Bostonians were arrested for perpetrating this dastardly act as hired guns in a guerrilla marketing campaign to promote the upcoming movie, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie. The two lads, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens were charged with "placing a hoax device in a way that results in panic," a felony, and disorderly conduct. At a news conference, Berdovsky and Stevens refused to talk about the case but expressed a willingness to opine at length on '70s hairstyles. They were not taken up on their generous offer by the gathered media.

Berdovsky, known popularly as Zebbler, has plenty of hair to think about – long dreadlocks down to his waist. He also has a reputation in Boston — and increasingly around the world — as a popular VJ, video artist, performance artist and painter. Sentenced to 80 hours community service for his crime, he made the most of it, painting a delightfully trippy mural for Spaulding (physical) Rehabilitation Center. He was also recently voted the #12 VJ in the world by London-based DJ Magazine and was named Boston's Best Artist by Improper Bostonian Magazine. Zebbler also recently appeared in Berkeley, Caliifornia where his surround sound HD projection set was part of the opening reception for RIP.MIX.BURN.BAM.PFA at the Pacific Film Archives — an exhibit that "celebrates the cultural and artistic practice of remix."

Meanwhile, the film that brought down the city, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie was, undeservedly, a commercial flop. (Maybe if they'd shut down more cities, people would have noticed.) But it is now out on DVD, so don't wait to discover what happens when Carl gets strapped into the insane-o-flex. Like the cartoon, the movie is, at times: ridiculous, stupid, hilarious, clever, and – of course – composed of cheesy bad animation. Rent it. You can't go wrong.

I interviewed Berdovsky aka Zebbler by email.

RU SIRIUS: Most people who read this will probably just know you as the guy with the long dreads who got caught up in the big Aqua Teen Terrorist scare of 2007. Were you in any way prepared to get caught up in anything that absurd?


ZEBBLER: Well it depends. I never expected anyone to freak out over the L.E.D. placards. However, I recognize people's perceptions of me. I behaved in a manner that was consistent with my knowledge of how I am perceived, although there were definitely a few unknowns. I have never seen a guy with long dreadlocks in a situation like mine. People's reactions were pleasantly positive. On the streets, in airports, stores, events — people who recognize me are generally very positive and curious.

RU: I've known a couple of people who have wound up in situations with Homeland Security basically around technologies that were not understood. They found themselves facing a veritable platoon of armed agents and various other types of hostility. How was your treatment at the hands of law enforcement, homeland security and so forth? Did anybody on that team say or do anything particularly bizarre or interesting?

Z: Yeah, there were lots of interesting statements from them. My interrogator gave me nothing but carrots to eat. I cooperated fully — since I had nothing to hide — but at times it was uncanny as to how convincing he was. He made me want to tell him my deepest secrets — a genuinely weird feeling. I had to snap out of it a few times. He promised to give me back all of the mooninites they have confiscated from me. It was a lie and I knew it as he was saying it.

The biggest surprise was from one of the older state police person. On the way out of the holding cell where we were held in overnight, there were whispers about us being famous as a result of what happened. One of the higher-ups came up to me as I was being led away in shackles and said: "My daughter is a huge fan of you. She watches the show and knows all about what happened. She was so excited that I get to see you." He paused for a second and added: "So... did you really mean to blow up Boston?" I think I just growled with disbelief after that statement and walked out to face the press staking out the holding cell in the bitterly cold morning.

RU: You're a pretty well known video artist and VJ. What do you try to do with the medium and tell us about a few high points in your career?

Z: I am moving more and more in the direction of solo surround sound custom HD video performances. I have spent several years creating custom psychedelic content in my resolution. To my mild surprise, it's starting to be recognized by the fine art community. I recently performed solo at Berkeley Museum of Art (California) as part of their RIP.MIX.BURN.BAM.PFA. There are also talks about performing for the Anchorage Film Festival (AK).

I tend to get physical in my performances. I am known for wearing costumes and masks during performances and potentially more than other VJs I have been mistaken for DJs during many shows.

Right after graduating from Mass College of Art, I went on a major US tour providing custom video projection performances for Ozric Tentacles. That was pretty great. A lot of work (25 shows in 30 days all over US) — but a great introduction to the industry and craft of live performance in big venues.

RU: You also worked recently with Alex Grey, the painter who is much known and admired in psychedelic circles. How have psychedelics influenced your work... and do you think your experiences helped you maintain your sense of humor throughout the whole Aqua Teen Terror crisis? You guys were pretty gracious and disarming when you went on Fox with Geraldo.

Z: Mmm... that's a big question. Psychedelics were a major part of my inspiration to create art. As a teen, I read a lot about human psychology and heard about the sensory deprivation experiments, where people are faced with nothing but their inner world. It inspired me to seek similar experiences. Probably, it was my desire to seek the unexplained, the otherworldly. It was a yearning to prove to myself that there's something outside the box. I have since learned to differentiate between genuine revelations and delusional mind tricks. I am not as intensely into mental experimentation these days — instead I'm trying to recreate a lot of the feelings, concepts and sensations through my art.

A life-changing psychedelic experience is an honest slap in the face with a realization of our own arbitrary position in the universe. Regular societal roles become unglued. Personal impulses reveal their egotism. It did not seem to offer a path to salvation, just a widening of perspective.

One doesn't need psychedelics to achieve those kinds of realizations however. While it helped my sense of humor to a degree — I think ultimately it's my personality that's responsible for my sensations and behavior during the Aqua Teen Boston Bomb Scare. When I am faced with an uncontrollable situation, I let go of trying to control what's beyond reach, and focus on what I can change. Both Sean and I didn't want this case to intimidate or frighten people. We were sick of media spinning stories to make them scarier. So we came up with a way to disarm the media — first with our press conference.



RU: Tell us about your video show, "I Wash My TV in Fear"

Z: It was my reaction to seeing so many fear-inducing messages constantly on our TV screens. Since the news became a business, they realized that fear creates the need to watch. The TVs at my performance were literally awash in fear. I recorded a day or two of television news and selected the most frightening messages to create a hyper saturated barrage of FEAR that I then perform live on multiple screens with custom music/edits/animations.

RU: So what did you think of the Aqua Teen movie? I thought it was pretty hilarious nonsense but you may disagree. And do you think it's weird that all the publicity didn't create any curiosity for the flick?

Z: I thought it held up strong with a hilarious start and beginning/middle. But, ultimately I was hoping for a more intelligent ending. Instead, it all just went to hell. But so be it — I had a good time. And it was a little strange that it didn't get that much attention. I attribute some of it to the execs freaking out and backing off from the promotional opportunity that this event gave them.

See also:
Is It Fascism Yet?
Burning the Man with Hunter S. Thompson
The Great Wired Drug Non-Controversy
10 Worst Spiderman Tie-Ins
Art or Bioterrorism: Who Cares?
Lost "Horrors" Ending Found on YouTube
Homeland Security Follies
Prior Permission Required by Government Before Each Flight

Read More

Is The Net Good For Writers?

Gutenberg and the Internet

"Writing as a special talent became obsolete in the 19th century. The bottleneck was publishing."

That bold statement came from Clay Shirky when I interviewed him for the NeoFiles webzine back in 2002. I never got around to asking him if that was an aesthetic judgment or a statement about economics and social relations.

But here's a contrasting viewpoint. Novelist William Burroughs met playwright Samuel Beckett, and after some small talk, Beckett looked directly at Burroughs and said, propitiously, "You're a writer." Burroughs instantly understood that Beckett was welcoming him into a very tiny and exclusive club — that there are only a few writers alive at any one time in human history. Beckett was saying that Burroughs was one of them. Everybody writes. Not everybody is a writer. Or at least, that's what some of us think...



Now the web — and its democratizing impact — has spread for over a decade. Over a billion people can deliver their text to a very broad public. It's a fantastic thing which gives a global voice to dissidents in various regions, makes people less lonely by connecting other people with similar interests and problems, ad infinitum.

But what does it mean for writers and writing? What does it mean for those who specialize in writing well?

I've asked ten professional writers, including Mr. Shirky, to assess the net's impact on writers. Here are their answers to the question...

Q: Is the internet good for writers and writing?


Mark Amerika

The short answer is yes, but as I suggest in my new book, META/DATA, we probably need to expand the concept of writing to take into account new forms of online communication as well as emerging styles of digital rhetoric. This means that the educational approach to writing is also becoming more complex, because it's not just one (alphabetically oriented) literacy that informs successful written communication but a few others as well, most notably visual design literacy and computer/networking literacy.

As always, RU, you were ahead of the game — think how easy it is to text your name!

It helps to know how to write across all media platforms. Not only that, but to become various role-playing personas whose writerly performance plays out in various multi-media languages across these same platforms. The most successful writer-personas now and into the future — at least those interested in "making a living" as you put it — will be those who can take on varying flux personas via the act of writing. (And who isn't into making a living... What's the opposite? Conducting a death ritual for the consumer zombies lost in the greenwash imaginary?)

Think of this gem from Italo Calvino.
Writing always presupposes the selection of a psychological attitude, a rapport with the world, a tone of voice, a homogeneous set of linguistic tools, the data of experience and the phantoms of the imagination — in a word, a style. The author is an author insofar as he enters into a role the way an actor does and identifies himself with that projection of himself at the moment of writing.

The key is to keep writing, imaginatively. As Ron Sukenick once said: "Use your imagination or else someone else will use it for you." What better way to use it than via writing, and the internet is the space where writing is teleported to your distributed audience in waiting, no?

Mark Amerika has been the Publisher of Alt-X since it first went online in 1993. He is the producer of the Net-Art Trilogy, Grammatron. His books include META/DATA: A Digital Poetics and In Memoriam to Postmodernism: Essays on the Avant-Pop (coedited with Lance Olsen). He teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder.



Erik Davis

In the face of this complex, hydra-headed query I'll simply offer the evidence and narrow perspective of one writer in a moderately grumpy mood: me.

I began my career as a freelance writer in 1989, and by the mid-90s was a modestly successful and up-and-coming character who wrote about a wide number of topics for a variety of print publications, both esoteric (Gnosis, Fringeware Review) and slick (Details, Spin). I got paid pretty good for a youngster—generally much better than I get paid now, when my career sometimes looks more and more like a hobby, but also less driven by external measures of what a “successful” writing career looks like.




I cannot blame my shrinking income entirely on the internet. My own career choices have been largely to write about what I want to write about, and my interests are not exactly mainstream. The early to mid-1990s was a very special time in American culture, a strange and giddy Renaissance where esoteric topics freely mixed and matched in a highly sampledelic culture. So I was able to write about outsider matters in a reasonably mainstream context.

My first book, Techgnosis, which was about mystic and countercultural currents within media and technological culture, fetched a pretty nice advance. But once the internet bubble really started to swell, leading to the pop and then 9/11, that era passed into a more conservative, celebrity-driven, and niche-oriented culture, a development that relates to the rise of the internet but cannot be laid at its feet.

Many of the changes in the book industry and print publications are more obviously related to the rise of the internet. One of the worst developments for me has been the increasing brevity of print pieces, something I do blame largely on the fast-moving, novelty-driven blip culture of the internet and the blogosphere. When I started writing for music magazines, I wrote 2000-plus-word articles about (then) relatively obscure bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Now I write 125-word reviews for Blender. I don't even try to play the game of penning celebrity-driven profiles in mainstream music mags anymore, where feature lengths have shrunk all around and the topics seem more driven by the publicists.

Shrinking space has definitely worked against my job satisfaction. I'm basically an essayist, though I often disguise myself as a critic or a journalist. Either way, it means that I am a long writer guy. I like to develop topics, approach them from different, often contradictory angles, and most of all, I like to polish the shit out of them so that the flow and the prose shine and bedazzle. On and offline, I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection. I do enjoy writing 125-word record reviews though!

I also like to read and try to produce really good prose — prose that infuses nonfiction, whether criticism or journalism or essay, with an almost poetic and emotional sensibility that ideally reflects in style and form the content that one is expressing. But nonfiction discourse online is almost entirely driven by Content — which includes not only news and information, but also opinion, that dread and terrible habit that is kinda like canned thought. People have reactions, and yet feel a need to justify them, and so reach for a can of opinion, pop the lid, and spread it all over the bulletin board or the blog.

I'm really sick of opinions and of most of what passes for online debate. Even the more artful rhetorical elements of argument and debate are rarely seen amidst the food fights, the generic argumentative “moves,” the poor syntax, and the often lame attempts to bring a “fresh take” to a topic. This is not an encouraging environment from which to speak from the heart or the soul or whatever it is that makes living, breathing prose an actual source of sustenance and spiritual strength.

But it's all about adaptation, right? Though I'm still committed to books, I now write more online than off. I've been enjoying myself, although my definition of “making a living” has continued to sink ever farther from anything halfway reasonable. I've enjoyed writing for online pay publications like Slate and Salon, but the rates are depressing. As for my own writing at my Techgnosis.com, I'm still struggling to develop traffic in an environment that rewards precisely the kind of writing I don't really do. Some people really love the stuff I write there, but I take a lot of time on my posts and generally don't offer the sort of sharp opinions and super-fresh news and unseen links that tend to draw eyeballs.

At the same time, it's been enormously satisfying to find my own way into this vast and open form, and to elude the generic grooves of the blog form and really shape it into a medium for the kind of writing I want to do. (Don't get me wrong—some of my favorite writing and thinking anywhere appears online; BLDGBLOG is just the first that springs to mind.) It's been delicious to explore possibilities in nonfiction writing that all but the most obscure and arty print publications would reject, and to do so in a medium that is bursting with possible readers. I'm not into “private” writing; I write for and with readers in mind, and I think its great how the web allows linkages and alliances with like minds and crews (like 10 Zen Monkeys, or Reality Sandwich, or Boing Boing). And I know that readers who resonate with my stuff now stumble across it along myriad paths.

At the same time, I find it tough to keep at bay the online inclinations that in many ways I find corrosive to the type of writing I do — the desire to increase traffic, to post relentlessly, to write shorter and snappier, to obsessively check stats, to plug into the often tedious and ill-thought “debates” that will increase traffic but that too often fall far short of actually thinking about anything. I've met amazing like minds online, and participated in some stellar debates, but frankly that was years ago. Today things seem to be growing rather claustrophobic and increasingly cybernetic.

For example, I chose to not have a comments section on Techgnosis.com, because I didn't want to deal with spam. Plus I find most comments sections boring and/or tendentious and/or tough to read for one still invested in proper grammar. I figure that folks who wanted to respond can just send me emails, which they do, and which I have long made it a rule to answer. I'm pleased with my choice, though I also feel the absence of the sort of quick feedback loops of attention that satisfy the desire to make an impact on readers, and that, in an attention economy, have increasingly become the coin of the realm. But that coin—which is certainly not the same thing as actually being read—is a little thin.

Especially without some of the old coin in your pocket to back it up.
Erik Davis is author of The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape and Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information.

He writes for Wired, Bookforum, Village Voice and many other publications. He posts frequently at his website at techgnosis.com



Mark Dery

Who, exactly, is making a living shoveling prose online? Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds? Jason Kottke? Josh Marshall? To the best of my knowledge, only a vanishingly tiny number of bloggers are able to eke out an existence through their blogging, much less turn a healthy profit.

For now, visions of getting rich through self-publishing look a lot like envelope-stuffing for the cognitive elite — or at least for insomniacs with enough time and bandwidth to run their legs to stumps in their electronic hamster wheels, posting and answering comments 24/7. As a venerable hack toiling in the fields of academe, I love the idea of being King of All Media without even wearing pants, which is why I hope that some new-media wonk like Jason Calacanis or Jeff Jarvis finds the Holy Grail of self-winding journalism — i.e., figuring out how to make online writing self-supporting.

Meanwhile, the sour smell of fear is in the air. Reporting — especially investigative reporting, the lifeblood of a truly adversarial press — is labor-intensive, money-sucking stuff, yet even The New York Times can't figure out how to charge for its content in the Age of Rip, Burn, and Remix. To be sure, newspapers are hemorrhaging readers to the Web, and fewer and fewer Americans care about current events and the world outside their own skulls. But the other part of the problem is that Generation Download thinks information wants to be free, everywhere and always, even if some ink-stained wretch wept tears of blood to create it.

Lawrence Lessig talks a good game, but I still don't understand how people who live and die by their intellectual property survive the obsolescence of copyright and the transition to the gift economy of our dreams. I mean, even John Perry Barlow, bearded evangelist of the coming netopia, seems to have taken shelter in the academy. Yes, we live in the golden age of achingly hip little 'zines like Cabinet and The Believer and Meatpaper, and I rejoice in that fact, but most of them pay hen corn, if they pay at all.

As someone who once survived (albeit barely) as a freelancer, I can say with some authority that the freelance writer is going the way of the Quagga. Well, at least one species of freelance writer: the public intellectual who writes for a well-educated, culturally literate reader whose historical memory doesn't begin with Dawson's Landing. A professor friend of mine, well-known for his/her incisive cultural criticism, just landed a column for PopMatters.com. Now, a column is yeoman's work and it doesn't pay squat. But s/he was happy to get the gig because she wanted to burnish her brand, presumably, and besides, as she noted, "Who does, these days?" (Pay, that is.) The Village Voice's Voice Literary Supplement used to offer the Smartest Kids in the World a forum for long, shaggy screeds; now, newspapers across the country are shuttering their book review sections and the Voice is about the length (and depth) of your average Jack Chick tract and shedding pages by the minute.

So those are the grim, pecuniary effects of the net on writers and writing. As for its literary fallout, print editors are being stampeded, goggle-eyed, toward a form of writing that presumes what used to be called, cornily enough, a "screenage" paradigm: short bursts of prose — the shorter the better, to accommodate as much eye candy as possible. Rupert Murdoch just took over The Wall Street Journal, and is already remaking that august journal for blip culture: article lengths are shrinking. Shrewdly, magazines like The New Yorker understand that print fetishists want their print printy — McLuhan would have said Gutenbergian — so they're erring on the side of length, and Dave Eggers and the Cabinet people are emphasizing what print does best: exquisite paper stocks, images so luxuriously reproduced you could lower yourself into them, like a hot bath.

Also, information overload and time famine encourage a sort of flat, depthless style, indebted to online blurblets, that's spreading like kudzu across the landscape of American prose. (The English, by contrast, preserve a smarter, more literary voice online, rich in character; not for nothing are Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens two of the web's best stylists.) I can't read people like Malcolm Gladwell, whose bajillion-selling success is no surprise when you consider that he aspires to a sort of in-flight magazine weightlessness, just the sort of thing for anxious middle managers who want it all explained for them in the space of a New York-to-Chicago flight. The English language dies screaming on the pages of Gladwell's books, and between the covers of every other bestseller whose subtitle begins, "How..."




Another fit of spleen: This ghastly notion, popularized by Masters of Their Own Domain like Jeff Jarvis, that every piece of writing is a "conversation." It's a no-brainer that writing is a communicative act, and always has been. And I'll eagerly grant the point that composing in a dialogic medium like the net is like typing onstage, in Madison Square Garden, with Metallica laying down a speed metal beat behind you. You're writing on the fly, which is halfway between prose and speech. But the Jarvises of the world forget that not all writing published online is written online. I dearly loathe Jarvis's implication that all writing, online or off, should sound like water-cooler conversation; that content is all that matters; that foppish literati should stop sylphing around and submit to the tyranny of the pyramid lead; and that any mind that can't squeeze its thoughts into bullet points should just die. This is the beige, soul-crushing logic of the PowerPoint mind. What will happen, I wonder, when we have to write for the postage-stamp screen of the iPhone? The age of IM prose is waiting in the wings...

Parting thoughts: The net has also open-sourced the cultural criticism business, a signal development that on one hand destratifies cultural hierarchies and makes space for astonishing voices like the people behind bOING bOING and BLDGBLOG and Ballardian. Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it's an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they're a critic, to a minus effect. We're drowning in yak, and it's getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter's Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.

Also, the Digital Age puts the middlebrow masses on the bleeding edge. Again, a good thing, and a symmetry break with postwar history, when the bobos were the "antennae of the race," as Pound put it, light years ahead of the leadfooted bourgeoisie when it came to emergent trends. Now even obscure subcultures and microtrends tucked into the nooks and crannies of our culture are just a Google search away. Back in the day, a subcultural spelunker could make a living writing about the cultural fringes because it took a kind of pop ethnographer or anthropologist to sleuth them out and make sense of them; it still takes critical wisdom to make sense of them, but sleuthing them out takes only a few clicks.

Do I sound bitter? Not at all. But we live in times of chaos and complexity, and the future of writing and reading is deeply uncertain. Reading and writing are solitary activities. The web enables us to write in public and, maybe one day, strike off the shackles of cubicle hell and get rich living by our wits. Sometimes I think we're just about to turn that cultural corner. Then I step onto the New York subway, where most of the car is talking nonstop on cellphones. Time was when people would have occupied their idle hours between the covers of a book. No more. We've turned the psyche inside out, exteriorizing our egos, extruding our selves into public space and filling our inner vacuums with white noise.

Mark Dery is the author of The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. His 1993 essay "Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of the Signs" popularized the term "culture jamming" and helped launch the movement.

He teaches media criticism and literary journalism in the Department of Journalism at NYU and blogs at markdery.com



Jay Kinney

It's a mixed blessing.

If the hardest part of writing is just making yourself sit there and write, and what used to be a typewriter and a blank sheet of paper has been transformed into a magical portal to a zillion fascinating destinations, then the internet can be a giant and addictive distraction.

On the other hand, it's a quick and simple way to do research without ever leaving your chair, and that can be a real time-saver.

So, on those counts at least — color me ambivalent.

Jay Kinney is the author of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (with Richard Smoley), and The Inner West: An Introduction to the Hidden Wisdom of the West. He was the editor of CoEvolution Quarterly and Gnosis magazine.



Paul Krassner

For me as a writer, the internet has become indispensable; if only in terms of researching it saves so much time and energy. Google et al are miraculous.

Word processing has changed the nature of editing, and without the dread of typing a whole page again; I can change things as I go along, surrendering to delusions of perfection.

I have become as much in awe of Technology as I am of Nature. And although I blog for free, occasional paid assignments have fallen into my lap as a result.

Better than lapdancing.

Paul Krassner was Publisher/Editor of the legendary satire magazine, The Realist.

He started the classic satirical publication The Realist, founded the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and has written billions and billions of books including his most recent: One Hand Jerking: Reports from an Investigative Satirist. Krassner posts regularly at paulkrassner.com



Adam Parfrey

The internet has made research much easier, which is both good and bad. It's good not to be forced to go libraries to fact check and throw together bibliographic references. But it's bad not to be forced to do this, since it diminishes the possibility of accidental discovery. Physically browsing on library stacks and at used bookstores can lead to extraordinary discoveries. One can also discover extraordinary things online, too, but the physical process of doing so is somehow more personally gratifying.

The internet has both broadened and limited audiences for books at the same time. People outside urban centers can now find offbeat books that personally intrigue them. But the interest in physical books overall seems diminished by the satiation of curiosity by a simple search on the internet, and the distraction of limitless data smog.

The internet has influenced my decision as a publisher to move away from text-only books to ones with a more multimedia quality, with photos, illustrations and sometimes CDs or DVDs.

I like the internet and computers for their ability to make writers of nearly everyone. I don't like the internet and computers for their ability to make sloppy and thoughtless writers of nearly everyone.

Overall, it's an exciting world. I'm glad to be alive at this time.

Adam Parfrey is Publisher with Feral House and Process Media, and author of the classic Apocalypse Culture, among many other books.



Douglas Rushkoff

I'd say that it's great for writing as a cultural behavior, but maybe not for people who made their livings creating text. There's a whole lot more text out there, and only so much time to read all this stuff. People spend a lot of their time reading text on screens, and don't necessarily want to come home and read text on a page after that. Reading a hundred emails is really enough daily reading for anyone.

The book industry isn't what it used to be, but I don't blame that on the internet. It's really the fault of media conglomeration. Authors are no longer respected in the same way, books are treated more like magazines with firm expiration dates, and writers who simply write really well don't get deals as quickly as disgraced celebrities or get-rich-quick gurus.

This makes it harder for writers to make a living writing. To write professionally means being able to craft sentences and paragraphs and articles and books that communicate as literature. Those who care about such things should rise to the top.

But I think many writers — even good ones — will have to accept the fact that books can be loss-leaders or break-even propositions in a highly mediated world where showing up in person generates the most income.

Douglas Rushkoff is a noted media critic who has written and hosted two award-winning Frontline documentaries that looked at the influence of corporations on youth culture — The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders.

Recent books include Get Back in the Box: How Being Great at What You Do Is Great for Business and Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism. He is currently writing a monthly comic book, Testament for Vertigo. He blogs frequently at Rushkoff.com/blog.php


Clay Shirky

Dear Mr. Sirius, I read with some interest your request to comment on whether Herr Gutenberg's new movable type is good for books and for scribes. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the newly capable printing press, and though the invention is just 40 years old, I think we can already see some of the outlines of the coming changes.

First, your question "is it good for books and for scribes?" seems to assume that what is good for one must be good for the other. Granted, this has been true for the last several centuries, but the printing press has a curious property — it reduces the very scarcity of writing that made scribal effort worthwhile, so I would answer that it is great for books and terrible for scribes. Thanks to the printing press, we are going to see more writing, and more kinds of writing, which is wonderful for the reading public, and even creates new incentives for literacy. Because of these improvements, however, the people who made their living from the previous scarcity of books will be sorely discomfited.

In the same way that water is more vital than diamonds but diamonds are more expensive than water, the new abundance caused by the printing press will destroy many of the old professions tied to writing, even as it puts in place new opportunities as yet only dimly with us. Aldus Manutius, in Venice, seems to be creating a market for new kinds of writing that the scribes never dreamt of, and which were impossible given the high cost of paying someone to copy a book by hand.

There is one thing the printing press does not change, of course, which is the scarcity of publishing. Taking a fantastical turn, one could imagine a world in which everyone had not only the ability to read and write but to publish as well. In such a world, of course, we would see the same sort of transformation we are seeing now with the printing press, which is to say an explosion in novel forms of writing. Such a change would also create enormous economic hardship for anyone whose living was tied to earlier scarcities. Such a world, as remarkable as it might be, must remain merely imaginative, as the cost of publishing will always be out of reach of even literate citizens.

Yours,

Clay Shirky, Esq.

Clay Shirky consults on the rise of decentralized technologies for Nokia, the Library of Congress, and the BBC. He's an adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he teaches a course in "Social Weather," examining ways of understanding group dynamics in online spaces.

His writing has appeared in Business 2.0, New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Wired, among other publications.


John Shirley

The internet has some advantages for writers, which I gladly exploit; it offers some access to new audiences, it offers new venues... But it has even more disadvantages.

A recent study suggested that young people read approximately half as much as young people did before the advent of the internet and videogames. While there are enormous bookstores, teeming with books, chain stores and online book dealing now dominate the book trade and it may be that there are fewer booksellers overall. A lot of fine books are published but, on the whole, publishers push for the predictable profit far more than they used to, which means they prefer predictable books. Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.

And in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.

I know people earnestly involved in producing dramas for iPod download and transmission to iPhones. Obviously, productions of that sort are oriented to small images in easy-to-absorb bites. Episodes are often only a few minutes long. Or even shorter. Broadband drama, produced to be seen on the internet, is also attention-deficit-oriented. I've written for episodic television and have known the frustration of writers told to cut their "one hour" episodes down to 42 minutes, so that more commercials can be crammed in. Losing ten minutes of drama takes a toll on the writing of a one hour show — just imagine the toll taken by being restricted to three-minute episodes. Story development becomes staccato, pointlessly violent (because that translates well to the form), childishly melodramatic, simple minded to the extreme.




All this may be an extension of the basic communication format forged by the internet: email, chatrooms, instant messages, board postings, blogs. Email is usually telegraphic in form, compact, and without the literary feel that letters once had; communication in chatrooms is reduced to soundbites that will fit into the little message window and people are impatient in chatrooms, unwilling to wait as a long sentence is formulated; instant messages are even more compressed, superficial, and not even in real English; board postings may be lengthier but if they are, no one reads them.

Same goes for blogs. They'd better be short thoughts or — for the most part — few will trouble to read them. The internet is always tugging at you to move on, surf on, check this and that, talk to three people at once. How do you maintain long thoughts, how do you stretch out intellectually, in those conditions? Sometimes at places like The Well, perhaps, people are more thoughtful. But in general, online readers are prone to be attention challenged.

Reading at one's computer is, also, not as comfortable as reading a book in an armchair — so besides the distractions, it's simply a drag to spend a lot of time reading a single document online. But people spend a great deal of time and energy online, time and energy which is then not available for that armchair book. Occasionally someone breaks the rules and puts long stories online, as Rudy Rucker has done, admirably well, posting new stories by various writers at flurb.net. But for the most part, the internet is inimical to stretching out, literarily.

The genie is out of the bottle, and we cannot go back. But it would be well if people did not misrepresent the literary value of writing for the internet.

John Shirley was the original cyberpunk SF writer, but he also writes in other genres including horror. He wrote the original script for The Crow and has written for television including Deep Space Nine, Max Headroom, and Poltergeist: The Legacy.

His books include the Eclipse Trilogy, Wetbones, The Other End and his latest — a short story collection Living Shadows: Stories: New & Preowned. He writes lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult. Shirley's own online indulgence is his site Signs of Witness.


Michael Simmons

Concerning the internet, yes, many thoughts. None of them good.

The advent of personal computers has been ruinous. Empowering, my ass. Suddenly everyone's a writer. As someone who's been a professional writer my entire life, I now sit for hours every day and answer e-mails. I don't mind if the subject has substance, like this, but the onslaught of e-media, e-spam, e-requests for money, stupid e-jokes, e-advertisements, etc., is painful. I'm chained to a machine. Editors say they simply can't respond to all the e-mails they receive. Telephonic communication was quicker and easier.

Used to be I sat at an alphabet keyboard (called typewriters in my day) when I had an assignment or inspiration. Now it's all I do. Go to a library? Why? You can get what you need on the internet. Which means I've been suffering from Acute Cabin Fever since 1999 (when I tragically signed up for internet access). Sure, I could get off my ass and go to a library, but the internet is like heroin. Why take a walk in the park when you can boot up and find beauty behind your eyelids or truth from the MacBook? (Interesting that the term 'boot-up' is junkie-speak.)

I only got a word processor in 1990. I used a typewriter until then. My writing was no different before I could instantly re-write. I had to think about what I was going to write before applying fingertip to key. Now I'm terribly careless. I make mistakes that I never made pre-processing. Certainly literature hasn't improved (nor has art, music, film or anything else). Instead of reading Charles Olson or Rimbaud or Melville or Voltaire or Terry Southern, now people spend all day playing with their computers and endless varieties of applications.

I hear my friends — all smart — kvelling about some new piece of software. You'd think they'd cured cancer. We're a planet of marks getting our bank accounts skimmed by Bill Gates and Steven Jobs. Gates and Jobs (and yer pal Woz) ought to be disemboweled — yes, on the internet — and their carcasses left to rot on www.disemboweledcyberthieves.com.

Furthermore, I get nauseous thinking of the days, weeks, months I've spent on the phone with tech support. All these robber baron geeks are loaded, yet they can't even perfect the goddamn things.

The world of LOL and iirc and this hideous perpetual junior high language has not encouraged quality-lit. Have you looked at my former employer the L.A. Weekly lately? It's created by illiterates promoting bad and overpriced music, art, film, etc. There's a glut of so-called writers and if they're 22 and have big tits, many editors will give them work before I get any. It's no coincidence that my payments and assignments for freelancing have diminished in the last 8 years.

I was a happy nappy-takin' pappy 'fore the advent of these glorified television sets. Now my eyes hurt at the end of every day from the glow of the monitor. RU, I'm not happy that you — a brilliant man who has kept Yippie spirit alive — promote these contraptions. I didn't even have a phone answering machine until 1988 when I was 33. Everything was better before this glut of machinery entered my life. It's quadrupled my monthly bills and swamps me with useless information.

No, it hasn't fired my imagination but, yes, I can't get no satisfaction.

Michael Simmons edited the National Lampoon in the ‘80s. He has written for LA Weekly, LA Times, Rolling Stone, High Times, and The Progressive. Currently, he blogs for Huffington Post and he and Tyler Hubby are shooting a documentary on the Yippies


Edward Champion

The Internet is good for writers for several reasons: What was once a rather clunky process of querying by fax, phone, and snail-mail has been replaced by the mad, near-instantaneous medium of e-mail, where the indolent are more easily sequestered from the industrious. The process is, as it always was, one of long hours, haphazard diets, and rather bizarre forms of self-promotion. But clips are easily linkable. Work can be more readily distributed. And if a writer maintains a blog, there is now a more regular indicator of a writer's thought process.

The stakes have risen. Everyone who wishes to survive in this game must operate at some peak and preternatural efficiency. Since the internet is a ragtag, lightning-fast glockenspiel where thoughts, both divine and clumsy, are banged out swifter with mad mallets more than any medium that has preceded it, an editor can get a very good sense of what a writer is good for and how he makes mistakes. While it is true that this great speed has come at the expense of long-form pieces and even months-long reporting, I believe the very limitations of this current system are capable of creating ambition rather than stifling it.

If the internet was committing some kind of cultural genocide for any piece of writing that was over twenty pages, why then has the number of books published increased over the past fifteen years? Some of the old-school types, like John Updike, have decried the ancillary and annotated aspects of the Internet, insisting that there is nothing more to talk about than the book. But if a book is a unit transmitting information from one person to another, then why ignore those on the receiving end? For are they not part of this process? Writing has been talked about ever since Johann Gutenberg's great innovation caused many classical works to be disseminated into the public consciousness, and thus spawned the Renaissance.

What we are now experiencing may have an altogether different scale, but it is not different in effect. The profusion of written thoughts and emotions is certainly overwhelming, but the true writer is likely to be a skillful and highly selective reader, and thus has many jewels to select from, to be inspired by, to be wowed by, and to otherwise cause the truly ambitious to carry forth with passion and a whip-smart disposition.
Edward Champion's work has appeared in The LA Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and Newsday, as well as more disreputable publications.

His Bat Segundo podcast — which you can find at his website at edrants.com — has featured interviews with the likes of T.C. Boyle, Brett Easton Elllis, Octavio Butler, John Updike, Richard Dawkins, Amy Sedaris, David Lynch, Martin Amis, and William Gibson.

Contributor Books

Mark Amerika
Erik Davis
Mark Dery
Jay Kinney
Paul Krassner
Adam Parfrey
Douglas Rushkoff
John Shirley


See Also:
How The Internet Disorganizes Everything
When Cory Doctorow Ruled The World
David Sedaris Exaggerates For Us All
How The iPod Changes Culture
Thou Shalt Realize the Bible Kicketh Ass

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Rodney Brooks’ Robots are Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

On September 8 the world's geekiest geeks gathered at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts to talk about what happens if/when we make machines that are smarter than we are. 10ZM.TV was there just in case The Singularity came early, though as far as we could tell, things are more or less the same as they were a few weeks ago. So we think it's still safe to flip off your TV when Geraldo comes on.

We captured several of the guest speakers on video, as well as several esteemed members of the audience, and we'll present them here over the next few weeks. For our first presentation we snared Rodney Brooks, a Professor of Robotics at MIT and co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of iRobot Corporation.



Professor Brooks strolled into the Singularity Summit with a headful of robots. For the last twenty years there's been a squadron of 1,000 one-kilogram robots in his head, capable of doing the work of NASA's two-ton Mars Explorer robots. In the decades that followed his influential paper — "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control" — he's grappled with a coming robotics revolution — and its implications for humanity.

Will robots be weaponized? Will their personalities adhere to the Geneva Convention? And what about the dangers of nanotechnology machines?

10ZM.TV captured Brooks' thoughts on artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and the ultimate question — what makes something alive?


See Also:
Rudy Rucker on Computation
"Dear Internet, I'm Sorry"
Why Chicks Don't Dig The Singularity
How the Internet Disorganizes Everything
Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death
Whatever Happened To Virtual Reality?

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The NoSo Project: No Social Networking

NOSO - No Social Networking

Does all this so-called social networking crap make you wish people would stop being so fucking friendly? Do you long to disconnect? Artists Christina Ray and Kurt Bigenho, and web developer Gilbert Guerrero, joined me on the RU Sirius Show to talk about their art project, NoSo (short for No Social Networking), which is here to fulfill your need for greater social isolation. This is how they describe it on their video introduction on the NoSo website:

Welcome to NoSo. NoSo is a real-world platform for temporary disengagement from your social networking environment. The NoSo experience allows you to create No connections, by scheduling No events, with No friends. You may be asking yourself, "Why do I need NoSo?" As someone who's online 24/7, you have a lot to keep up with. When you're not blogging, your vlogging. When you're not vlogging, you're podcasting. When you're not podcasting, you're Skyping, texting, IM-ing, dating, trading, sharing, subscribing, downloading, updating, linking, approving, adding, checking, sending... I think you get the picture.

Sometimes, you need a break. Sometimes, you need NoSo.


Ray and Bigenho checked into the show via Skype from New York City and Guerrero joined us live from our studio in San Francisco.

To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.


RU SIRIUS: Please explain the basics of what happens, or what not happens, in a NoSo.

CHRISTINA RAY: We invite people to take a break from their every day experiences carrying around laptops and cellphones, and give them the chance to just disengage from the noise, the social network, the constant communication that's going on around us all the time. We let them just experience the absence of that — the feeling of being without all those distractions. And a NoSo could happen in a number of different places. It could happen on a street corner, or in a cafe, or in an installation in a gallery setting.



KURT BIGENHO: In a NoSo, you schedule a time when people will be in a destination through our web site, but you're not meant to engage with anyone while you're there. You're meant to have your private experience within this larger social thing.

RU: This is sort of an anti-flash mob. But at the same time, it's sort of like a flash mob, isn't it?

KB: Yeah. People have termed it an inverted flash mob or an anti-flash mob. Because we do allows people to schedule an experience — and then we kind of call it a non-experience. We're playing with metaphors of connectivity versus non-connectivity. And it's sort of a network that is there but also is not there at the same time.

RU: Are any of you familiar with Brian Eno's concept of a nightclub where everybody just goes and sits in silence?

CR: Yes. (Laughs) There may be some similarity there.

KB: Brian Eno is definitely a personal hero. I love that concept.

RU: So Christina, aside from making fun of social networking, do you also do it?

CR: Oh, absolutely. (Laughs) We're a highly connected unconnected project, if you will.

RU: So you'd say that you're ambivalent about social networking?

CR: Yes. I think you could say that.

RU: I think I read in Christina's biography that all your artwork is really involved with exploring space — sort of exploring urban space. Can you talk about some of the ways in which you've done that, and how they connect to the current project?

CR: Through street photography, I became interested in the concept of psycho-geography, which relates to how your urban environment affects you and vice versa.

I was doing that for several years — looking for new ways to explore the city. So I came across experiments that people were doing using alternative mapping techniques — maps that they created on their own. People were doing sort-of map mashups and creating interesting ways to explore the city.

It started because I was looking for new places to photograph. Since then, I've done a number of public space projects that deal with mapping and collaborating — sort of using the people who are on the streets to participate in a project or instigate actions. It's created a number of different collaborations. And this is really just the most current one, because what we're trying to do is use the space of the city to allow people to have a new experience.

RU: It all sort of reminds me of the Dérive going back to the Situationists. They sponsored these sort of freeform wanderings all over the urban terrain, many years ago. Gilbert, describe your experience with NoSo.

Gilbert Guerrero: Well, NoSo headquarters is sort of at the Southern Exposure gallery here in San Francisco. And we had a zone there that was kind of blocked off or cordoned off as a place to disconnect. Once you walked into that zone, you have to turn everything off. The experience was actually sort of amazing.

I'm a contractor, so I spend a lot of my time working in cafes — you know, changing environments, working on my laptop. And at Ritual Cafe here in San Francisco, you'll walk in and see fifty people in there all facing their laptops and nobody is talking to anybody else.

CR: Environments like that were part of the inspiration for this project. For example, at the South by Southwest conference or other technology conferences, you'll have two or three hundred people sitting in a room together, and everyone is listening to a presentation, texting, chatting, sending emails... all at the same time.

KB: …Blogging about it....

CR: ...IMing — everything! All at the same time! While they're trying to listen to a presentation! So there's this meta-level of connection going on, even when you're sitting in a crowded room full of people. I think that's funny. And at the same time, it points to a lot of larger issues about how technology is affecting us.

RU: Do you get a lot of participants in these events… or not-events?

KB: We've had a pretty good number of registrants. A lot of people write in saying, "Hey, we're in Toronto" or "We're in Mexico City. Can we do a NoSo there?" We set it up so that it's local. It was launched in San Francisco, and all of the NoSo's take place in San Francisco. So we've had interest from around the world. People want to collaborate and open it up and allow other people to have NoSos. Everyone's talking about social networking, and websites are being relaunched incorporating video, podcasting, and what have you. So I think by taking the antithesis of that — providing a sort of a counterpoint — we hit a nerve.

RU: There's this odd thing about the economics of "Web 2.0." It's very convenient for the people who own all these companies. Because basically, they set up a thoroughfare and then people pay to provide the content that they then pay to experience. Are you, in some ways, parodying that economic relationship?

CR: In a way. The project has kind of an emptiness about it. You have a user profile with not much information in it. You have a social network with no friends. You have a photograph that's not you. So it's sort of the opposite of a lot of these social networking sites. There's no money to be made from it. It sort of subverts the common Web 2.0 experience.

RU: Do you get interesting responses from people about the experiences that they've had as a result of going to these?

KB: Yeah. Some people felt sort-of refreshed or energized. They came out and they wanted to chat about their experience. They wanted to talk to people, and made a few phone calls. It's almost a Zen-like experience for people.

GG: I know a few people who actually felt intimidated by the experience. It's not quite snubbing someone else, but it's close to that. Maybe it's aggressive to not say something to somebody.


CR: I got feedback from some people who said they felt it was like being in an elevator. It's sort of awkward, and you're not really sure what to do. You want to look at your phone, or do something. That awkward experience was common.

RU: Kurt, tell us about your earlier projects — The Sams and The Organizers. Is there a relationship between those ideas and what you're doing with NoSo?

KB: The Sams was a project that Christina and I did at something called Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006. We formed a group called The Organizers to develop a project that involved participation, organization, and getting people into interesting interactions with an audience, in real time and real space — out in the world. The idea for the project was essentially to clone Samuel Keller, who is the director and the most ubiquitous figure in the event. So we created a series of kits — a hundred kits that we handed out at a cloning ceremony in a gallery. And they allowed you to sort of transform yourself into Sam Keller. And the kit included a t-shirt, instructions, a fake badge, and a bald cap — because Samuel is bald. So it was kind of a humorous concept that involved creating a group — kind of an instant army who could go out into the social scene of Art Basel, which is very much about going to the right parties and the right events… getting on the list. So we wanted to have some fun with that. We were encouraging people to infiltrate the scene, in a sense, and to do it as this kind of shared identity.

RU: So everybody could say that this fellow who was popular on the scene was at their party tonight, no matter where their party was. I think Andy Warhol used to do something like that in New York City.

KB: Exactly. Yeah.

RU: We had V. Vale from ReSearch Publications on The RU Sirius Show a couple of times. And his main theme was that we no longer have interior lives because we're so completely mediated. Is this part of what you guys are trying to challenge as well?

GG: That's something I've been doing a lot more thinking about. I know that I get tons of spam in my Inbox. I work full time in San Francisco as a developer and as an artist. I'm constantly promoting all kinds of things, and associating myself with other organizations. So if you type my name into Google, there are pages of stuff about me. That's kind of scary. So I want to go backwards now and reverse that whole thing about the importance of identity on the internet — to try to squash that.

In a way, NoSo is doing that, because you can be anonymous there. You can participate without letting anybody know who you are or why you're there.

RU: Do a lot of people sit there and read books, by any chance? V. Vale is very adamant that people need to read more books. Of course, he sells books!

CR: Sometimes when you're in a NoSo, you're not actually sure who else is there. If you have a profile on our calendar, you can schedule a NoSo. So if you decide to have your NoSo at a Cafe, you'll show up and you might be reading a book. But it's unclear who the other participants are, and what they're doing.

That was one of the original inspirations for the project — a kind of hiding in public space. Not only are you not using your devices, but you're also not sure who else is in on the joke, or in on the secret. So you might be reading a book, you might be just sitting on a park bench lurking on the corner, window shopping — whatever it is — all the while you're participating in a NoSo.

See also:
The NoSo Project website
The Sams
How The Internet Disorganizes Everything
A Conversation with Justin Kan of Justin.tv
Twittering the Twitter Revolution
Good Griefers: Fortuny v. Cook

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Web Fight: Wikipedia, YouTube vs. Perverted Justice


Von Erck Their name is "Perverted Justice" — and something strange happens when you follow hyperlinks to their site from Wikipedia.

"Hello Wikipedia Visitor!" it announces. "We've listed Wikipedia as a Corporate Sex Offender for quite some time..."

The site's server re-directs any visitors from the online encyclopedia to a page warning that "there's a few facts you should know about Wikipedia as a foundation itself." Then it lays down an inflammatory attack.
Each article on Wikipedia that deals with any issue relating to pedophiles or internet predators has been heavily targeted and edited by the online pedophile activist movement... Our own article on Wikipedia, which you have likely come from, has been edited by known and outed pedophile activists dozens and dozens of times.

NBC's Dateline works with "Perverted Justice" to create an ongoing series of reports exposing pedophiles (called "To Catch a Predator.") But the group has apparently broadened its list of targets. Their site notes that Wikipedia remained ungrateful when Perverted Justice helpfully pointed out which Wikipedia editors they thought were pedophiles. So the group launched an online campaign to raise public awareness...
"With Wikipedia continuing to try to get their project used in classrooms across the world, it's important to note the danger inherent in the public accepting the project as being factual considering their acceptance of even extremist special interests such as pedophile activists as legitimate editors of their 'encyclopedia.'"


Sunday Wikipedia reacted to the announcement — though not without a tremendous debate.

"I've just gone through Perverted-Justice and removed all outbound links to their site..." announced a Wikipedia administrator named Sarah. (After temporarily locking the entry from being edited.) Another editor pointed out that the site was clearly an attack site, and "There's no place for ideological witchhunts on Wikipedia," while a third editor suggested a temporary blacklisting of the site.



But more viewpoints joined the discussion. A fourth editor asked "Is there some reason why we're trying to hide criticism from a legitimate and active organisation?" Noting that Wikipedia does accept pedophiles as editors, they asked "Why are we trying to hide this fact and label the site that respectfully and politely points that out as some kind of vicious attack site?" Another editor shared an interesting detail. One week ago, Perverted Justice founder Xavier Von Erck was blocked indefinitely from any editing of Wikipedia articles

The discussion continued over the next 48 hours...

"Ten thousands people are being slandered because we refuse to acquiesce to his point of view in our articles and policies? Wonderful."

"[T]his is America, and P-J has every right to criticize Wikipedia in general for what they see as failings of the project."

"I just don't see how this can be treated any differently than a rant on some mildly successful blog."


One editor even posted an email about the controversy, saying it came from Xavier Von Erck himself. The email lent a fierce new perspective to the debate.
We're quite pleased with the links being removed from Wikipedia. This will do two things. One, it will reduce the Google relevancy of the Wikipedia article about us, an article rife with error and editors whose sole purpose is to try to use Wikipedia to attack us. Secondly, having the article without links to our organization but links to other organizations that attack us will make the average person, unaware of the problems of Wikipedia, wonder why the hell the article has such a overt bias.

Lastly, the idea that websites cannot "respond" to a Wikipedia article by redirecting is quite curious. The policy itself is nonsensical. It is Wikipedia saying that their editors, no matter who they are, can write whatever they wish about a subject and that subject has no right of response. 'Tis an unjust, silly policy and one we have no interest in cooperating with.

Ultimately, Wikipedia compromised. They kept all of their pointers to the Perverted-Justice site — but not as hyperlinks. This meant Wikipedia's readers would have to cut-and-paste the URLs into their browser to access the Perverted-Justice site — which would pull up the requested page rather than re-directing the users to an anti-Wikipedia announcement.


But Perverted Justice left their announcement online anyways, pointing its readers to another site called "Corporate Sex Offenders .com."

In fact, Wikipedia was the sole reason that Perverted Justice created their "Corporate Sex Offenders" site in February, according to their announcement. The site lists two web companies as "aggressive corporate sex offenders" — YouTube and LiveJournal. While applauding YouTube for removing some "advocates" of pedophilia, their page argues that YouTube "is still rife with pedophiles and predators on their service." (And they add that YouTube has yet to clarify their policies for pedophiles.) LiveJournal's offense is similar, according to the site — they've failed to delete the accounts of pedophiles. "LiveJournal is as welcoming of pedophiles as they are kids, adults and teens."

Their Wikipedia page also alleges that one pro-pedophile activist labelled Wikipedia's pedphilia page an "important platform for us," since it's Google's top search result. (And that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales once personally banned a pedophile editor.) It concludes with a condemnation of Wikipedia for having a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy about pedophilia.

And then it includes their list of Wikipedia's suspected pedophile editors.

See Also:
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
The Perversions of "Perverted Justice

Read More

Monkey v. Dog v. Wikipedia

Battle of the Bulldog and the Monkey

A monkey versus a dog. Who would win in a fight?

Wikipedia has the answer, but sometimes being a source of such answers comes at a price.

As with seemingly every other topic on the site, an anonymous expert sprung from the grass roots to detail the fascinating, hidden history of prizefights between dogs and monkeys. "A quite unusual fight between two animals was staged in Worcester," read his description of one fight, taken from an obscure magazine article from 1799.

The wager stood at three guineas, according to which the dog would kill the monkey in at most six minutes. The dog's owner agreed that the monkey would be allowed to defend itself with a stick about a foot long.

Hundreds of spectators gathered to witness this fight and the odds stood at eight, nine and even ten to one in favour of the dog, which could scarcely be subdued before the fight. The monkey's owner took a stick, about twelve inches long, from his coat pocket, tossed it to the monkey...


There's even an illustration — titled "Battle of the Bulldog and the Monkey" (above) — from 1799.

So who won the fight?

The monkey.

The monkey was amazingly nimble, jumped about three feet high in the air and when it came down landed directly on the dog's back, bit firmly in the dog's neck, grabbed his opponent's left ear with his hand thereby preventing the dog from turning his head to bite him.

In this totally surprising situation the monkey now began to work over the dog's head with his club and he pounded so forcefully and relentlessly on the dog's skull that the poor creature cried out loudly...


Eventually the dog's corpse is carried from the ring. ("Yet, the monkey was only of medium size....") Yes, it's a cruel fight-to-the-death. What's more surprising is that someone in 1799 went to the trouble of carving an engraving to commemorate the event. (Hey, 18th-century dog-fighters — get a life!)



Then again, back here in the 21st century, Wikipedia editors would pick apart a description of the event sentence by sentence in a dog-fight of their own. Reading the article's "History" page ultimately offers its own morbid spectator sport. In a six-part, 1400-word entry, user SirIsaacBrock (according to his user page, a Canadian MBA) first described recreational "monkey baiting" in March of 2006 — and was unaware that his status as a Wikipedia editor would soon come to an end.

"Monkey-baiting is a blood sport involving the baiting of monkeys," his original entry began — linking the words "blood sport," "baiting," and "monkeys." Within two weeks another Wikipedia user had tagged the article with a warning flag.

It is proposed that this article be deleted, because of the following concern:

this seems like nonsense


The user was later reassured by Sir Isaac's involvement in another full-scale WikiProject — documenting various forms of animal baiting — and left an apology on Sir Isaac's own Wikipedia discussion page. (Six days later, another user would also add: "Thanks for the correction in Badger Baiting...") In fact, there's a whole series of Wikipedia articles, on everything from duck baiting to rat baiting and donkey baiting.

"Badger-baiting is a blood sport involving the baiting of badgers."

"Donkey-baiting is a blood sport involving the baiting of donkeys...."

But the monkey-baiting page remained controversial. Sir Isaac presented an 1820 description of a second monkey/dog fight — this time between a dog and Jacco Macacco, "a celebrated monkey gladiator" who could dispatch opponents in 3 minutes.

"What a monster!" said a greasy butcher, who sat there with open mouth, a red nightcap on his head, pointing at Jacco Macacco. "I bet a leg of mutton on the monkey! You could strike me down if I ever saw such a thing before in my life... "


"It is amazing how many owners would send their dogs to almost certain death," Sir Isaac had written.

"This strikes me as unwiki," another editor complained, saying it was not objective fact, and adding, "I personally do not find it 'amazing.'"

Another user complained about the article's "wholy innapropriate origional research [sic]." Of course, research about 18th-century animal fights is hard to find — and a year later, the article remains online, a testament to one user's dedication to his personal topic of interest.

Within four months of creating his page about monkey/dog fights, a warning appeared on his user page saying he'd been identified as "the puppet master of one or more abusive or block/ban-evading sock puppets." (Sock puppets are deceptive online identities.) He has since been banned from Wikipedia.



In a way, it's ironic. SirIsaacBrock was a man who could tell you who'd win in a fight between a hunting dog and a rage-filled monkey — but he couldn't stay online against a handful of Wikipedia editors. Will he be hard to replace? How many amateur historians are available with an interest in monkey-baiting?

We can only hope that his obsessive and self-destructive work will inspire a new generation of Wikipedians to continue to monitor this deserving subject matter. Or, better yet, perhaps there's another sock puppet out there at this very moment, waiting to ambush us with the latest and greatest in monkey-baiting.

See Also:
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
John Edwards' Virtual Attackers Unmasked
Dear Internet, I'm Sorry
10 Video Moments from 2006
Worst Vlogs of 2006
The Cartoon Porn Shop Janitor: Carol Burnett vs. Family Guy

Read More

Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks


Steve Wozniak in the Mondo Studio

Steve Wozniak showed up at our San Francisco studio riding in fine style… on a Segway. He had told me via email that he would just park anywhere in the city, and I imagined this multimillionaire going to some exclusive garage where he has a permanent spot and then flagging down a taxi. But since he was the Segway's first customer, I imagine that his riding skills – by now – would allow him to easily beat a Yellow Cab across town, particularly on a day that featured a gay pride parade and a Giants game.

The legendary Apple inventor was much in circulation this winter and spring, promoting his hit autobiography, written with Gina Smith, iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It. When we had Smith on our NeoFiles podcast a few months back to talk about the book, she told us that all Wozniak ever wanted to talk about was the pranks he'd pulled. So we figured we'd give him his big break and invited him to come on the show to talk pranksterism.



We did get to talk a bit about technology as well. But, sorry to say, that other Steve apparently never gave him a free iPhone to play with, and this was prior to his heroic crowd management stint during the iPhone release at the Apple store in Santa Clara, so Wozniak had little to say about the greatest thing since… the Segway? (OK. That was uncalled for. Sorry.)

Futurist Jamais Cascio joined me in conversing with Woz. Cascio helped to start WorldChanging, a site dedicated to Open Source problem-solving that often focuses on solutions to global warming. After the show, they started talking about that situation and it transpired that Wozniak is, in Cascio's words, "a bit of a climate-change denialist." Cascio and Wozniak have agreed, in theory, to a brief email discourse on the topic for 10 Zen (although it seems that we have more enthusiasm for this than they do.) We hope that this will be forthcoming.

To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.


"I Took Him (Colbert) Down!"

RU SIRIUS: You've been touring and appearing on behalf of your bio. You even got to face Colbert…

STEVE WOZNIAK: Not only did I get to face him, I boasted to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter two days before the show that I was going to take him down. I'm usually pretty witty about turning conversations my way. Anyway, she quoted me in her blog. So now I'm heading out to Stephen Colbert's show with a blog on the internet saying I'm going to take him down. Man, I played so many good pranks on him backstage.

And I took him down on the show! I didn't plan it. I figured, I'm going to be a punching bag. This guy is good. But I knew they were going to treat me with kid gloves by the pre-interview they did over the phone. He asked one wrong question. He asked, "Have you pulled any pranks lately?" I said, "Well, I take my steak knife onto airplanes." And that was the line that caught him wavering — "Do I go my way, or do you I go your way?" And he sort of went my way a bit. He said, "I'll get you on a list." I said, "I want to be on the list! Anyone who knows me knows I'd love to be on all the lists there are." And I managed to pull these thin metal credit cards that are thin as a knife out of my pocket. And I do cut steak on airplanes with 'em. And I think he sat there just twiddling his hand without anything to say because he was worried that we had crossed over into homeland security… you know, a crime reported on television!

RU: He definitely looked confounded. And you say you were goofing on him in the green room as well?

SW: Oh my gosh! I was sort of trying to let him know my personality. So you know how at the Presidential Press Corps Dinner, Stephen Colbert was the host and he came on and said, "Oh my god, I got to sit right next to the man! President Bush!" So I walked up to him and I said, "Oh my god! I get to meet and touch the man himself! How nice to meet you, Mr. Stewart." And then I pulled out some two dollar bills that I always carry around...

I have pads of sheets of these bills. They're perforated like green stamps. You can tear 'em off in ones, or twos, or threes or fours. And he grabbed it out of my hand and ran out to the hallway where there was more light. He held it up to the light. He was so concerned! I'm thinking, "Why is he so concerned about something that I just use as a prank here and there?" And he's looking at it for the longest time, feeling the paper and analyzing the different pages. So he tells me that his brother works for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where they print the money on 14th street in Washington, D.C., which is where I buy these.

Woz Punks the Secret Service

RU: Now this is legitimate money that people assume is...

SW: It meets the specs of the U.S. government, so by law, it is legal tender. The Secret Service has approved it three times. Why would they approve it if it's not legal? I don't even know if it has the right President's face on it. And the serial numbers — there's something very suspicious about them. The bills — you can smell the ink is still fresh so don't get it on your finger. And I'll sell a sheet of four of them — that's $8 — for $5. But not very many people buy them from me. I start saying, "Since they cost me three, you're really buying $12 worth for $5. (ed: we don't understand it either.) Only an idiot would turn that down." And that's about the time they start thinking, maybe I won't buy them. And they won't buy 'em. I give myself a point if they don't buy 'em, because they are legal tender.

The Secret Service read me my Miranda rights once. And when they asked for an ID, I pulled out this ID that I'd used for every airplane flight for five years of my life. It says "Laser Safety Officer, Secretary of Defiance" (instead of Secretary of Defense) on the card, and in the photo I'm wearing an eye patch. (laughter) And the Secret Service didn't catch that it was a phony card! They figured out that the bills were good and legal tender, too. Gina (Smith) didn't put this one in the book! A lot of my good prank stories didn't get in the book. That's the third book that I have planned.

RU: Good lord. The things you can get away with when you're Steve Wozniak.

SW: You know, I think any actor and comedian that can just act like they're in the right can do it — that's mainly what it takes.

RU: Bluffing is the main thing. Bluffing is social engineering, basically.

SW: Yeah. The attitude is, "What I'm doing is right," you know? And then it's real easy. People get real nervous and try to hide stuff when they think what they're doing is wrong.

RU: Gina said some people buy the two dollar bills and don't think that they can use them.

SW: Sometimes they buy them and think they should cash them in a real dark place, so they don't get caught.

RU: Why do you think you wound up being such a prankster?



SW: It's because I was so shy in middle school and high school. I had to kind of have a way to have a presence. Everyone's born with an energy to socialize — to mix with other people. And when you're shy and can't talk to them; and they start to talk weird language that you don't want to be part of; and they're snooty about the people who are "in" and "out"; and you aren't part of that "in" group — it's very intimidating. So one of the ways I communicate is with pranks.

RU: So, if you're at a party, do you do a prank to get attention? Or...

SW: Oh no no...

RU: Or just to get (laughs) vengeance on the snobby people?

SW: No, its not that. But in my school days, I wasn't in the group that would ever get invited to a party. But I was kind of friendly with a lot of druggies back in the late 60s at our school. And they were "out"-ies and techies and all that. But I didn't go to their parties either. The way I thought about it — I looked at church, and I said, "You know what? Everybody goes to church and they're saying those same words together, and they're singing the same songs together. And they're just following the exact same ligature. Everybody's doing the same thing. I don't want to be a follower like that. I've got a brain! I'm going to think out what is right and what's wrong, to do in the world. I don't need to be like everybody else and just follow their lines. Well, I extended that to parties and to that druggy peer group. We always talked about, "Don't conform!" Don't conform to the values of your parents.

RU: Right. But on the other hand, everybody must get stoned.

SW: All the peers in our high school – everybody was going to the parties and doing the same things. And they were drinking because other people were. That's conforming. So I thought, if I'm going to drink, I'm going to drink all alone because I think it's something I want to do. And it kept me kind of clean, because I wouldn't just go out and do something because my group's doing it.

RU: So there's an iconoclasm there.

SW: Yeah!

RU: Back to pranks…

SW: I have these professionally printed stickers that I've had made. They're done with this sort of foil-type stuff in the exact OSHA style and the OSHA colors. And it says, "Danger: Do Not Flush Over Cities." And I put 'em in the bathrooms on airplanes...

RU: (Laughs) I think I've seen that, actually. Do you fly Jet Blue?

SW: Yes, I have done it on Jet Blue.

RU: I remember thinking about it and wondering what that was!

SW: They're red with a black-shadowed airplane picture. The bathroom has a little seat fold-down. I fold that up and there's a sign in the middle of it saying, "Don't throw trash here." And I put my two little stickers behind it, so the stewardesses won't notice it right away. If they notice it right away they might realize that somebody put that there. But after a while, if they slowly get used to it, they'll stay on for years.

I have another sticker that I made in OSHA style and colors. It's a yellow one. I put it in the backstage bathroom at the "Colbert Show." It has a little graphic of a butt with a poof coming out and it says, "Keep our air fresh."

RU: In Robert Anton Wilson's book, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, there's this character, Markoff Cheney, who leaves weird bureaucratic commands in offices and places like that just to sort of boggle people's minds.

SW: That's almost like what I read about in the The Pentagon Papers — the psychological warfare. You kind of put out a message saying one thing, but it implies that something horrible is going to happen just because you're saying that it isn't going to happen. It triggers bad thought in people's mind.

RU: Cognitive dissonance...

SW: Yeah!

RU: ...is a great weapon of war, and also of...

SW: … comedy!

RU: …guerilla pranksterism, and all those things. I guess you're indicating that pranks challenge conventional behavior.

SW: Absolutely. I've always very much wanted to be a rebel, and against authority. Because if we just sort of accept authority, and never question it — we just go through a life without knowing what truth really is — thinking we know it all. Everybody reads the same headlines and sees the same seven-second soundbites on TV. And because they all know the same thing as everyone else, they're all in the right. "We are all intelligent." They're not intelligent. They just saw the same things and repeated it. You know? They're the ones who aren't intelligent. I mean, the definition of intelligence in schools is pretty much being able to know what every other kid in the school that has studied the book would say... and not to have original thought of your own.

When Woz Convinced the Waitress He was "a Pavarotti"

RU: Speaking of getting an education and then getting a shitty job, Gina told me a story about a prank on a waitress.

SW: Yeah... I did a prank on a waitress recently. And I put a lot more energy, time, and even money into my pranks than most people. I don't want all my pranks to be just the normal duds you play every day. You know, every comedian will have one gem of a joke for every ten duds. So I play little dinky pranks all day long.

But in this case, it was based on the fact that I have season tickets to Warriors' games and I had special passes for a special parking lot. So one time, I took a friend in the back seat of my car who didn't know I had the pass. And as I got to the window, I tell the guy there that we have the guy with us who's going to sing the national anthem. And then to embarrass him (the guy in the back seat), I'd say, "Sing a line for him!" and the guy can't sing but they let us in anyway, and...

So I had done this sort of prank a few times. And then I was at a restaurant in San Francisco, and I knew that I had four tickets for Saturday's game but I wouldn't be there. So I asked the waitress, "Hey, you going to the game on Saturday? I'm singing the national anthem!" And she looked at me like I was the most important person she'd ever waited on. I didn't expect that, but now I had to play with it. When someone's mind is thinking something weird, or in a… I call that a creative state. You don't want to inhibit creativity. You want to keep it going. So you always say yes. So I said, "Oh! I could probably get you some tickets from the Warriors staff — you know, if you want..." And then I said, "You want to hear me sing?" And she says, "Yes!" And I go (half-speaking) "Oh say can you see." And that's the best I can sing. Everyone at the table started laughing. So I figured the jig was up. But then I heard from Gina later on that this waitress had come over to Gina, and asked privately, "Does he really sing the national anthem?" And Gina said, "Oh, he's a famous opera singer! He's got the voice of an angel!" (laughter)

So now I had to follow through. I had to take this one further. So I came back to the restaurant one day and left two tickets for the waitress. And I set up a story that my friend Jim would have my other two tickets. And he was supposed to tell her I got food poisoning at the restaurant. I was a Pavarotti, and in the hospital they had mixed me up with somebody else and taken my kidney out. They'd discovered the mistake, switched operating teams and gloves and they'd put my kidney back in. (I always love to throw in the glove line. Like they'd really switch gloves.) And I'm the first person to ever get a kidney transplant [from myself]. Great story.

The Zaltair Prank: Two Pranks in one

RU: You make really elaborate schemes and stories. Talk about some of the pranks that were left out of your book. Maybe go back to the early hacker days, or Apple times?



SW: Early hacker days? There's the prank that I did when we introduced the Apple II. At this time, all these people were using Z words based on the new Z80 Microprocessor from Zylog. So I had these fake brochures for "the Zaltair" made. It was this two-sided brochure that had all the fakest hype I could think of using, like – "Imagine a car with five wheels!" You know, stupid little things that were inspired by the worst ads I'd ever read. It had comparison charts to things like the Apple and it looked so phony — but it was against the Apple and this and that. It said you could send your own computer in and get a $120 discount. It was really jamming MITS Corporation, but that's another story.

I took thousands of 'em in a box and put it out in front of The Civic Auditorium (in San Francisco). After a while, my friend called me. He said, "Somebody took the box. It was gone!" But MITS — the company that I was making fun of — wasn't there. So who did it? It turns out, they had a rep there. So we went to the hotel and brought another box and set it down. After a while a guy goes up, he spots it and takes the box away. So then, we took tons of them underneath our coats and went around and started shuffling them into packets. Our green ones would go into packets of green handout fliers, and our blue ones would go into packets of blue fliers. We were careful about it but we got thousands of 'em distributed. I mean, all the members of the Homebrew Computer Club were waving copies in the air.

And I'd put a stupid made up quote from Ed Roberts — the President of MITS — at the top. And if you took the first letter in each word in the quote, it spelled P.R.O.C.E.S.S.O.R T.E.C.H.N.O.L.O.G.Y. You always get two pranks for one if you frame someone else.

And sure enough, Gordon French, who was one of the Homebrew club members, came by Apple in the early days, and I asked him, " Did you hear about that Zaltair prank?" And he said, "Oh yeah, it was a hoax. I know who did it! Gerry Egram of Processor Technology!... because he's got a weird sense of humor." I'm laughing my head off at this point. And I pull one out and said, "There was supposed to be a cipher in here." And they started reading the cipher, and everybody read the letters "Processor Technology." Steve Jobs did the final 'Y'. For 12 years, everybody "knew" that this guy at Processor Technology had done the prank.

RU: When did you 'fess up?

SW: Twelve years later. I actually framed a copy and gave it to Steve Jobs as a birthday present. He opened it up in a restaurant and he just started laughing out loud. And that's unusual.

Ethical Pranking

RU: Your most famous prank, which is in the book, was when you called the Pope at 5 am pretending to be Henry Kissinger. What was going through your mind as you were doing that?

SW: I used one of the blue boxes... the blue boxes were an exciting time in my life — around 1971.

RU: Was John Draper with you when you did the call?

SW: No, he wasn't. I read articles about him. He had stimulated my interest. I had quickly tried to whack together a blue box but it didn't work. I finally designed a great little digital box. It worked every single time. And Steve Jobs said, "Let's sell 'em." So we built some and sold them. We gave door-to-door demonstrations in the dorms. Can you imagine doing that and not getting caught?

RU: Right. That was the perfect time for phone phreaking. Everyone was interested.

SW: By the end of that year, I was worried that they had methods to catch 'em, so I never did 'em after that year. And during that year, I was careful that I didn't use the blue box for personal calls. I paid for them. It was partly out of fear, but also I wanted to be honest, as I thought Draper and others were. We only want to explore the system, and fix it, and find its little flaws, and tell other people. That's a great thing to a technical person — to know a few little flaws. It's like finding a few little Easter eggs in a program — little secret surprises. Since I was very shy, it gave me one area of life that I wasn't shy about.

I was the demonstrator. I was the emcee. I would demonstrate the blue box for an hour or two. We sold one every time we did a demonstration!

RU: I'm sure lots of other people just used them to get free phone calls.

SW: Yeah, and ethically, when I look back...

RU: I think that was part of the spirit of the early '70s.

SW: Yeah, but when I look back I have a problem with that.

RU: Well, phone phreaking was associated with The Yippies and a kind of anti-corporate radicalism. You didn't quite get into that...

SW: I wasn't in there. Sure, I admired all those thinkers…

RU: Right. I mean, Abbie Hoffman had that kind of stuff in Steal This Book.

SW: He had a black box schematic in Steal This Book. I bought Steal This Book. I had his black box schematic! Same year! But Ramparts magazine — which was like the Mother Jones of its day — came out with a nice clear, easier-to-follow one that year as well and they kind of got put out of business for a while. I made copies of that and spread 'em around to everyone. So I was helping everyone else do this even when I wasn't selling it. And that was probably wrong. I just sort of wanted to show off that I knew things that most people didn't know. That was my real motivation.

JAMAIS CASCIO: So what do you think are the rules for being an ethical prankster?

SW: Ethical prankster? It's tough. I don't think there's 100% ethical. In theory, you have agreements with society not to do things that are going to be disruptive — to not do things that are gonna be different. And yet, practically, all of us have to do things that are a little bit different. And there's always some weird little laws that are written to catch you just for being different.

Ethical hacking today is largely finding flaws in major computer systems, or possibly the phone systems. And to be ethical, you don't use it to harm anyone. And generally, that means you don't want to keep it secret forever. You want to boast that you're the one who found it. There's a young kid, I forget his name right now – and he would find these flaws and then tell the companies: "Here's the flaw. You have two weeks to fix it, and then I'll make it public." And he wound up in jail. I met him, and he was just so pure that he was going to keep searching no matter what they did to him. He was going to keep on this track of finding the flaws and notifying the people what the flaws were and giving them a certain time to fix it before he made it public.

RU: You didn't mind tweaking the Pope! How far might that have gone?

SW: Yeah. I said we were at the summit in Moscow. Someone said, "Here's the Bishop, who's going to be the translator." And I said, "Yes, I'm calling from a United States number. But you can call me back." He said, "I just spoke to Henry Kissinger." I said, "I am Henry Kissinger. You can phone me back now." And I gave them a United States number to call. And I figured they would think, "Oh, we've got his number!" I figured they knew it was a hacker. But I had given them a loop number, so they dial one number and I dial another and we get connected. There are really no records.

RU: Right. A great phone phreak trick.

SW: Calling the Pope was just a weird idea that was kind of fun.

RU: Did you have a plan, if you actually wound up talking to the pope? Did you have a narrative for the exchange?

SW: No. I should've!

RU: Did you grow up watching "Candid Camera"?

SW: Yeah! I did. Guess what? My son was pranked on by "Candid Camera." He got into an elevator in a hotel and headed down to his car early in the morning. And when the elevator door opens to let him out, instead of finding himself in the garage with cars, he's in a room. And he looks back and the elevator had no button. He played with it for a while, and somebody popped out and said, "You're on Candid Camera." But they didn't put him in the show. He probably wasn't animated enough for them.

RU: He was probably not too easy to surprise, after growing up with you. I hope you go ahead and write this book about pranks.

SW: I have forty years of pranks. That's going to be the third book. I'm thinking that for my second book, I'm going to publish my "manuscript." You've heard about Einstein's manuscript — it sounds really impressive. Well, I'm the only one who ever wrote this much code — I made the Apple II by hand. I couldn't afford what's called a rental system, where you can type it into a computer, and you type in your program, and it will give you back the 1's and 0's. So I figured out the 1's and 0's in my own head, and wrote them down on the piece of paper. Everything for the Apple II was done by hand.

Apple II was Coded by Hand

RU: So you'd publish the code in book format?

SW: I plan to publish the code and the schematics with some explanations of what I was thinking. It would be one of those things that you don't sell very many of.

JC: With a visual machine language editor, you could basically drag and drop 1's and 0's into a window.

SW: (Thinks) Visual machine... oh! Now, that's a good idea. That's a clever idea. Yeah! That would be the modern version of what I did.

The best things I did were because I didn't have money. I couldn't afford the computer system to type my programs into. They were written in machine language — real geeky computer stuff for the microprocessor I used, and I couldn't afford it. But because of that, I got very intimate with the programs that I wrote by hand. Every step of the way, it was easy for me to be a very careful and thorough checker. And I would dream the programs! I would wake up with ideas about how to save one little step by doing something different, or I'd think of something I could get for free. Always believe in that — getting things for free. The next house I'm going to build is going to be built with that in mind.

Building an Energy Efficient House

I was out judging a History Channel invention contest. And David Pogue, who is the technology writer for the New York Times, and the guy who owns the National Inventors Hall of Fame, were also judges. And we all decided we wanted to build this project that was the winner. The designer is a Civics Engineering Professor at Brigham Young — a very credible guy. And basically, he uses Southern Yellow Pine, the most energy-efficient wood that there is. It has a resin inside. And the resins — wood with resins – melts and freezes at 71 degrees. So if there's any impetus in the house for the temperature to get hotter than 71 degrees, it melts a little of the resin, which actually absorbs the heat and cools the house. It serves as your air conditioner. At nighttime, if it starts to freeze, it emits heat, and warms the house up to 71 degrees. And the houses can be built with another structure. They actually take dirt out of the ground... where they're going to build the house. They take the dirt out, they put it in machines, compress it into these tight bricks and then they heat it for about a week. Then they leave it out in the sun for about a week and they have these grooved parts that they slide together. And it's the cheapest, lowest energy, most green way to build a house that's going to last 500 years.

RU: Jamais, that sounds like something you might have heard about at WorldChanging.

JC: Yeah. BASF makes a thermal wax wallboard that does exactly what you described. They found that they could make houses in Germany 90% energy efficient.

On DRM, Open Source, & the iPhone

RU: Before I let you go, I should ask a few contemporary geek questions — to satisfy those in the audience who are going to say, "You had Steve Wozniak on, and all you talked about was pranks!" That was pretty much my intention, but I should ask a few. What do you think about Steve Jobs' decision to embrace DRM-free music in iTunes?

SW: I think it's a step towards the future. I mean, it doesn't make much sense if these things are going to have DRM forever. There's this whole problem that you can't trust everyone, but you can do a good enough job.

Look at newspapers. Nothing stops me from buying a newspaper and passing it around to 20 other people. But, you know, you just kind of get used to what's easy to do. Only six of my purchased music songs so far, though, are from (DRM-free) EMI.

RU: The whole idea of Open Source has been a long running dialogue in computer culture. Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation see it as a crusade. Is it necessary? Or can you have Open Source and proprietary stuff going on at the same time?

SW: A lot of people think that Open Source means "free." It was never intended to mean free and it shouldn't mean free. People should be able to develop software and market it and have control over what they build. But when you sell a product that has a lot of software in it, being Open Source means you publish your source. And if somebody else wants to take your product and make a specialized version of it that does their few special things for their application; or does something a little different; or leaves pieces of it out; they can do that and they don't owe you a license fee. It just means they were able to improve either your mistakes, or the things that you left out that they want.

RU: Sure. But do you consider that a moral necessity, or...

SW: I consider it a moral right-ness. I don't know how to speak for everybody in society about necessities. But I think it's very honorable and it's very good for the customers.

RU: Speaking of Open Source issues, have you ever hung out with Bill Gates?

SW: I haven't. I've only spoken with him briefly a couple of times. I admire him, he admires me. Good lord, I'd never written a computer language when he had written a BASIC in the early days of hobby computers. And I thought, "Oh my gosh — a computer with BASIC finally makes a computer that people can use for things." And so I said, I've got to write a BASIC. My goal was to be the first in the world to have a BASIC for the 6502. And I did it, but it was horrible because, in doing it, I left out one thing that could save a month — floating point...

RU: That's in your book, actually.

SW: And before we wrote our floating point BASIC, Bill Gates popped in the door and he'd done Microsoft. And my attitude was, "Oh, good, it'll save us the time." Of course, when our five-year license on it ran out, the Apple II was pouring gadzooks of money into his company. So they had us under the barrel. I like being the first at things. I had written my first syntax chart with floating point. In the Apple II ROMs, I even stuck in my own floating point routine. It wasn't incorporated into the BASIC, but I just didn't want the world thinking I couldn't write floating point routines.

JC: Jobs actually related that story when he appeared onstage with Bill Gates.

SW: And Jobs got it pretty right. He said it was because I hand-wrote everything. And handwriting it, I couldn't just type an extra part into a program. I had to move addresses around. All my addresses were fixed by hand. And I couldn't expand my syntax table easily to add the floating point back in before we shipped the Apple II. Otherwise I would've.

RU: Do you have a current technology project, outside of building your home?

SW: Yes I do! I have a bunch. My favorite idea right now… they're making flexible display materials now and showing them off. I would love to build a globe that's all a display. Maybe it would use Google Earth. And you could be zooming in on portions of this globe -- you can just look for Africa, for instance. And as you zoom in, the little dots are lit up like those programs that show you where all the volcanoes and all the webcams of the world are. You'd zoom in on blue dots, and zoom and zoom and zoom, and on a blue dot, you'll see a webcam right there in Africa; or right there in Amsterdam, or near the hotel you're gonna stay at in Greece. I would love that.

RU: People would want that.

JC: Yeah. And if you do it with Google Earth, you have all those KML layers so you can throw into it webcams and weather and traffic flows. There's all sorts of things you can do with that.

RU: Last question. What do you think of the iPhone and do you think it will be a success?

SW: I don't know. It will be a big hit off the bat, but after people have the iPhone it will truly be judged and compared. Will word of mouth kill it or make it a hit? Who knows? I can't even give my emotional feelings until I have a production unit for a while.

See also:
Wonderful Wizardry of Woz
Hype Smackdown: iPhone v. Paris Hilton
iPhone Debate: I'm a Mac v. Bill Gates
5 Sexiest Apple Videos
How the iPod Changes Culture
Counterculture and the Tech Revolution

Read More

Expect Trouble Activating Your iPhone


While fans with bulging wallets crowd the Apple stores, Apple already knows they're doomed. Apparently, they fully expect iTunes to choke on all the traffic from iPhone activations.

Apple wants to dissipate as quickly as possible the crushing mobs at their retail stores, so they've promoted the first-of-its-kind online activation heavily:

Activating iPhone takes only minutes as iTunes guides the user through simple steps to choose their service plan, authorize their credit and activate their iPhone, Apple said. Once iPhone is activated, users can then easily sync all of their phone numbers and other contact information, calendars, email accounts, web browser bookmarks, music, photos, podcasts, TV shows and movies just like they do when they sync their iPods with iTunes. --AppleInsider.com


The only problem is that all those requests at the same time will put a huge strain on Apple's iTunes servers. But, at least then, they don't have to deal with a lynch mob at the retail level.



10 Zen Monkeys has received an anonymous tip from an Apple Store employee -- and he wasn't afraid to admit he's not happy about the fact he hasn't been with Apple a year and therefore isn't getting a free phone -- outlining a memo that was sent around, informing managers on how to deal with surly iPhone customers who can't connect to iTunes, which is the only way to activate their phones.

In the memo, employees are told to expect some customers to return to stores in person to complain, though it should be a small number.

"We've been told to be courteous, polite, and even apologetic. And then suggest that they go home and try again an a little while. And under no circumstances will they be allowed to activate their phones in-store." So if you're thinking that -- think different.

"Another important little tidbit," said the anonymous Apple employee, "Good luck calling Apple or AT&T to complain. Both companies' customer support lines will probably be massively busy."

The best strategy is to wait until later in the weekend to activate your phone, he said. We say to Apple, "Good luck with that."

See also:
Paris Hilton v. iPhone
I'm a Mac v. Bill Gates
5 Sexiest Apple Videos



This article is satire

Read More

Hype Smackdown: iPhone v. Paris Hilton


iPhone v. Paris Hilton

It's a battle of pop culture titans as two empires -- one high-tech, one high-rise -- clash in explosive PR fury. Since these two heavyweight memes have climbed into the competitive media ring of their own volition, we thought we'd size them up for you. As Stephen Colbert would say: "Pick a side -- we're at war!"


iPhone: Simple to use.
Paris Hilton: Simple.

iPhone: Well-protected against viruses.
Paris Hilton: Has herpes.

iPhone: Critics complained battery life too short.
Paris Hilton: Critics complained prison life too short.

iPhone: Provides driving directions.
Paris Hilton: Knows how to drive. (Sort of.)

iPhone: Responds to touch from multiple fingers at once.
Paris Hilton: Responds to touch from multiple fingers at once.



iPhone: Wants to be held by everyone.
Paris Hilton: Wants to be held by her mother.

iPhone: Sexy footage leaked onto the net.
Paris Hilton: Sexy footage leaked onto the net.

iPhone: Appeared in multi-million dollar ad campaign.
Paris Hilton: Appeared in House of Wax.

iPhone: Everyone wants what's in the box.
Paris Hilton: Everyone knows what's in the box.

Feel free to make your own comparisons in the comments...

See also:
Expect Trouble Activating Your iPhone
I'm a Mac v. Bill Gates: iPhone debate
5 Sexiest Apple Videos
How the iPod Changes Culture
Wonderful Wizardry of Woz


Read More

Anarchy for the USA: A Conversation with Josh Wolf

Josh Wolf (photo by Steve Rhodes)
Photo by Steve Rhodes

Josh Wolf spent more time in prison than any other American journalist in U.S. history for protecting his source materials — videotapes taken at an anti-globalization demonstration in San Francisco. He was finally released on April 3 of this year. Press reports about Wolf have described him as an anarchist, and he has described himself as an anarchist sympathizer.

Wolf has been all over the media talking about his free speech struggle with the U.S. Government. He was on "Democracy Now!"; received a now-traditional media hazing on "The Colbert Report"; and even had a brief but fairly sympathetic interview in Time.

While we conversed about his case, we also wanted to delve more deeply into the issues that motivated the case in the first place: anti-globalist activism, anarchism, and his new projects to "Free The Media" and give prisoners a voice in the blogosphere.

Scott J. Thompson, Director of Research at the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate, and Jeff Diehl joined me in this conversation, originally recorded for The RU Sirius Show.

To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.


RU SIRIUS: There's been plenty of talk about your case, so we're going to go into some other things, but I think we should talk a bit about the conclusion. I think people found it a bit confusing and anti-climactic.

JOSH WOLF: It was a bit anti-climactic. And it was also reported incorrectly all over the place in the press. The stories ranged from things like: "The government decided they have no interest in Josh Wolf and therefore they are letting him go" (that would've been nice) — to "He finally caved under the pressure." Both of those are factually inaccurate.

Basically, there were two things that the government wanted. One of those things was that tape. I felt that I shouldn't have had to turn that over to the government, but at the same time there was absolutely nothing sensitive or confidential on it. So it was worth fighting for, but once I had lost my fight in the district court level in the 9th circuit, there wasn't really any reason not to publish the tape and simultaneously turn it over to the government. I mean, yeah, those shots of my shoes are a bit embarrassing but they're not worth going to jail over. So once we had exhausted our appeals, we offered to turn over the tape in exchange for my release. But the U.S. Attorney said he wouldn't accept anything but full compliance with the demand of the subpoena. That would have involved testifying before a grand jury and turning over my documentation for my video-editing software... there was a pretty exhaustive list of demands in the subpoena. But on February 14, the judge suddenly ordered the case into mediation with a magistrate judge. During the course of two mediations, we came to an agreement – I would publish the tape and then turn it over to the federal government, and they would not object to my release. And they decided to call this full compliance with the subpoena, although it wasn't full compliance at all.



So that's where we stand right now. The government still has the option to re-subpoena me to try to make me testify about the content of the tapes or what I saw there that night. But I don't think they're going to because they know that I'm not going to testify. I'll go back to jail and it will be an even bigger public fiasco for the U.S. Attorneys office. And they're not really short on public fiascos right now.

RU: You got a fair amount of support from the mainstream press on this. I assume that the government figured you were some punk blogger, and they could yank you out of all social circumstances and throw you deep into the hole, and there would be very little discussion about it. But quite a few journalists expressed their concern in terms of the protection of journalists. Did this surprise you at all?

JOSH: The reception from the journalistic community has been very much mixed — especially in the mainstream journalist community. Even from the alterna-press, there were some mixed receptions. Some journalists realize that if they're coming after me — they're next. And they realize that this whole concept of objective journalism is kind of a misnomer. You can never be objective. But some get very offended by the idea that I should be protected, because protecting me makes it easier for them to be attacked as being part of the same group. And I think that's one of the things at the crux of the public's reception to protests in general. I mean, in this particular protest, there was one violent incident where one police officer was injured probably by one protester. And because of that. the 150 people that were there now get described as terrorists.

RU: The big mainstream media question is "Can bloggers be journalists?" In fact, you wrote an essay with that name. And I think the counter-argument would be that nearly everyone could become a blogger, and then everyone would be protected from giving evidence. So a group could conspire to break laws and members who blog could be protected. Karl Rove could become a journalist and make the same kind of claim!

JOSH: That argument's flawed, because if you are involved in a criminal activity, you don't have to testify because you're protected by the Fifth Amendment.

RU: Good point!

JOSH: But it's true that in Grand Juries they like to get rid of the Fifth Amendment. They say, "Here's a waiver. You no longer have the Fifth Amendment." But I've been reading the Constitution over and over again, and I can't find any section on giving waivers to the Fifth Amendment. And consider the First Amendment — freedom of speech. Why doesn't that include freedom of silence? Why does the freedom to speak not include the freedom not to speak? And so, yes — journalists should be protected in order to protect the act of journalism. But in a larger context, why do we have coercive custody to force people to testify? I mean, it's really a form of very low-grade torture — we're going to hold you in custody until you break down and speak.

RU:: It's definitely something we don't accept from gangsters, but we do seem to accept it from the state. Tell us a little about your prison experience. What kind of prison were you in and what kind of interactions did you have with the prisoners?

JOSH: I was in a federal detention center, which is sort of like a…

RU: (jokingly) It's a country club!

JOSH: It wasn't a country club but it was kind of like being in a really, really low-rent camp. But you can never leave. I kept waiting for the fishing trip, like when you're at camp, you're thinking about the fishing trip. It never came.

SCOTT THOMPSON: That's torture.

JOSH: It was kind of like being in a college dorm, except there were fewer choices. There weren't any girls. Unlike college, there was not much in the way of drugs or alcohol. The guys were all pretty cool. They were mostly a combination of bank robbers, drug dealers, a few white-collar criminals.

The most interesting segment of the prison population are the "Piezas." (A "Pieza" is a Mexican Roadrunner. The term has been adapted to those that are here from Mexico.) Most of these guys had no prior criminal history. They were in jail for crossing the border — an imaginary line. We've decided that's a felony. And they've been getting between three and five years in jail. And while they're incarcerated, they have to work. And they're often fined for their crime. They're fined an amount that just happens to add up to the 12-cents-an-hour that they make while they're incarcerated. So our government has time-share slaves. Instead of getting our slaves from Africa, we're getting people that come to America to build better opportunities for themselves. And they end up spending three-to-five years building government furniture.

RU: This kind of slavery or serfdom becomes even more interesting when you have privately-owned prisons. I imagine that you were in a state-controlled prison.

JOSH: It was a federally-owned prison. I think there's somewhere between three and five privately-contracted prisons in the federal system. A lot of states, particularly in the south, have more private prisons than public prisons. It's very disturbing that we have contracted out our prisons because there's a certain public oversight that's expected — or at least should be expected — when it comes to a government-run operation. But when you give prisons to the Wall family to run, it becomes a private business. And lots of things that are private in private businesses remain private. When that involves controlling human movement, it becomes really dangerous

RU: I think having a profit interest in incarceration is about as skeevy as you can get. Although I certainly know some libertarians who would disagree with me. Did you wind up finding any compatriots in prison? Did people discuss politics? And did people there know why you were there?

JOSH: Most everyone was aware of it. Of course, the level of understanding varied. In its simplest terms, I was there for refusing to cooperate with the government. I was going to jail for not being a snitch. Having not committed a crime and then also "not snitching" – that's pretty respectable in the prison hierarchy. I think the only person above that was probably Greg Anderson because he's a friend of Barry Bonds. Not snitching on Barry Bonds… that was like… "Whoa! And he's a trainer! And people in prison are into working out so that's a sort of demigod-like position.

In terms of the politics, I found compatriots at different levels. I spoke about political activism. I had a few books about anarchism that were sent to me that were passed around the prison. It's kind of interesting that those got in. They didn't try to censor it.

RU:: They didn't understand what they were, probably.

JOSH: They weren't going to allow a press release to come out that the prison was censoring reading material.

RU: Tell us about the project you are developing involving prisoners.

JOSH: I've started prisonblogs.net. We want to pair up individual prisoners with sponsors on the outside who agree to type up what they have to say and post it on their own blog. There are lots of military blogs, which the government's currently trying to crack down on. So now we'll have prison blogs. The media oftentimes can't get access to what goes on behind those walls. And the people I've encountered have amazing stories about prison culture and their oppression at the hands of the guards – stories that don't get out to the public.

RU: Are they ever allowed to blog at all? Also, wasn't there a law passed against interviewing prisoners — a sort of blockade against prisoners communicating to the media?

JOSH: It can be different between the states and the feds. In federal prisons, you can interview prisoners — I've seen prison interviews. At the facility I was in, they refused any filmed interviews, but they permitted phone interviews. I don't know exactly what the state rules are, but I know Schwarzenegger just vetoed a bill that would've opened the gates a little further. But I'm dealing with what prisoners can do, in terms of self-publishing. I know they can't get publish with a byline and they can't get paid for it. Now I don't know whether a blog counts as publishing with a byline, but...

RU: …Is there evidence that this will be allowed?



JOSH: There's no evidence so far to indicate that they won't allow it. Some prisoners have blogs right now. We've found about a couple-of-hundred. But there are no avenues for prisoners who want to blog but don't necessarily come from tech-centric backgrounds or families. They don't have a chance to get their voice and artwork out there. So this will sort of democratize the media for a class and a group of people who are cut-off and denied all the opportunities that, say, middle-class Americans have – people who already have their YouTube, MySpace, and Flickr accounts.

RU: There's been a lot of talk about your case in the media, but there hasn't been a lot of discussion in the media about the demonstration that lead to the case. How would you characterize the issues that were at stake at the demonstration and your interest in that?

JOSH: The demonstration was against the G8 Summit that was going on in Gleneagle, Scotland at that time. I happen to align myself philosophically against globalization. With The WTO, the G8 and these other sort of private groups, large governments plan how to exploit smaller governments and small helpless communities and individuals. It's a winner-takes-all, king-of-the-hill sort of approach to planning our future. So I'm opposed to that. And I did take to the streets with my camera in order to document this demonstration that I knew wasn't going to get a lot of attention. In terms of the activities that were used in this demonstration, I think most of them were not necessarily tactically sound. I think there's a time and a place for people to drag newspaper stands into the streets in order to stop, say, a threatening stream of riot cops that are about to attack. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to drag a newspaper stand in the street when the cops have already called off the riot squad. So there were numerous things going on there that I felt were not tactically sound. I wouldn't have engaged in them myself. But I do support a diversity of tactics. And I feel there should be balanced between the privacy of those involved and the need to expose the news of what they're doing to the world.

RU: Some of these tactics have been associated with a concept or a group that's called "black bloc." Basically, the idea seems to be what we used to call "trashing" back in the early 70s – when I did it. (Laughs) The idea is violence against property. Is it ever effective? Was it effective in Seattle? And isn't it stupid to keep doing the same thing over and over again?

JOSH: Any discussion about the effectiveness of tactics that involve breaking the law becomes very sensitive. Just describing what is effective is opening the door to conspiracy to commit terrorism. So it's a very shaky topic to get into.

I think it's not effective to try to cause economic damage to large corporations, because the amount of isolated damage that is done at these sorts of protest is really a rounding error. It's like, "Oh, we had to spend $500 to fix this window and cover up this spray paint."

RU: It's sort of embarrassing, really.

JEFF DIEHL: It's the public exposure. It suddenly gets the media eye looking at this movement or…

RU: It worked once in Seattle, maybe.

JOSH: I think if a Starbucks is coming into your town, and it's the first Starbucks, and some people who don't like it decide, "We're going to do something to prevent this Starbucks from being built" — then I think that could be tactically sound. I'm not saying that people should do it, but it does make some tactical sense.

But to simply go and hit all these windows — you know, smash up a few Starbucks — it can create some attention. In the post 9/11 world, that attention is too easily connected to groups like al-Qaeda. So I don't think it's going to further the cause of trying to achieve a non-hierarchical, mutually fair, non-capitalistic society.

RU: That's the question. Do these tactics have any place at all in successfully changing things, or are they really just getting their rocks off?

SCOTT: Around 1987 - '88, on Haight Street, there was an attempt to build a Walgreens. That nascent structure was dynamited by malcontents. And it turned into...

RU: We're not getting a confession here, are we? (Laughter)

SCOTT: No, I was living in Chicago at the time. Anyway, they realized that the community really doesn't want a Walgreens.

JEFF: There was a philosophical argument after the Battle of Seattle. That action basically got the mainstream — and the public's attention around this whole anti-globalization issue. Hardly anybody had even heard about it. Some would argue that there wasn't much of an anti-globalist movement before Seattle

JOSH: Not in America, no.

JEFF: And some would argue that the spectacle of the damage created the success there, so the damage was necessary.

RU: But it was also mixed with the fact that a lot of demonstrators showed up. That – in itself — was unusual. But a peaceful demonstration definitely could've been ignored, like many other large protests.

JEFF: Right.

JOSH: Look at what the Weather Underground was able to accomplish during the Vietnam war. They had a tactical place and were somewhat effective. But the enemy has been changed from communism to terrorism. So acts that the government can easily label as terrorism can very quickly become counter-productive. I think that's part of the reason that we have this vague war on terrorism — anyone that does anything disruptive can be treated as a terrorist.

SCOTT: Right now, the government is attempting to label any oppositional show of force of any kind as terrorism.

We're surrounded by cops of all stripes. We're surrounded by security guards of all kinds. We're surrounded by all sorts of military people, and they are the only ones that are allowed to use brute force against an unarmed populace that dare not even organize on a premise without a permit. It's just completely a violation of the whole idea of the right of freedom of assembly in the United States

JEFF: Josh, obviously it's not to your benefit to be thrown in jail again. But if we can't even talk about tactics, then the authors of the Patriot Act have won, right? This whole area has been bracketed off for people who are involved in opposition. And historically, this has been the only type of activity that has ever caused any significant social change – confrontation, destruction of property, or violence.

JOSH: Our founding fathers were engaged in terrorism or direct confrontation during the Boston Tea Party. That would be labeled terrorism now. If the Boston Tea Party happened last week, what do you think George Bush would say about it?

RU: They'd be in Guantanamo.

It's interesting that you brought up the Weather Underground, because there are two things to think about with their tactics. Number one: historians show that the reason Nixon didn't nuke Hanoi during the Vietnam war was because he was frightened of what the anti-war movement would do to America. He wasn't thinking of the Quakers. He was probably thinking of the Weather Underground; the freaks who burned down the Bank of America and stuff like that.

But on the other hand, fear is a very effective tactic for organizing reaction. We see it now, particularly, under the guise of terrorism. Basically, the current unofficial Republican slogan is "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

The Weathermen sort of had this theory that youth was a class that could be excited and organized for revolution. It was possible to believe that in the early 1970s. I don't know if there's even a receptive audience for this kind of thing any more.

SCOTT: I think there's actually a very receptive audience. I think that many people might be experiencing a real disappointment and disaffiliation from the "mainstream left" — these people that organize some of the mass demonstrations that are always held in the same place. And we all get together and we all get photographed by the same helicopters flying overhead. They've seen us all before. Nobody ever thinks, at the last minute, let's change tactics. Let's hold it n front of "The Chronicle" building, and scare the hell out of those people.

JEFF: Well, you wouldn't have a permit for that.

SCOTT: Of course. You must have a permit. The populace dare not spontaneously get together and show its discontent with the powers that be.

JOSH: Protests have been reduced to nothing more than processions. They have a cathartic effect. Everyone feels like they're doing something. And in a sense you're doing more than just voting. But civil engagement begins at voting, it doesn't end there. And protests are just one step further. But in order to really make a change, people have to actually really get their hands dirty and do something. That could involve writing a law, and then working your butt off to actually get it passed, if that's the course of action that you choose. Or you could make a blockade around a business that you think needs to be shut down; you could start a picket line and yell at people when they cross it and make it so that business can't continue its enterprise. Or maybe you think it's most effective to burn down the bank like they did at U.C. Santa Barbara in the late '60s. All of these tactics have limitations and they all have values. It really just depends on what you think is going to work and why you think it's going to work.

RU: I question whether any of these things — demonstrations, riots — are really effective anymore. And you've been involved recently in trying to work with the system. You've been helping to create a law to protect journalists. Do you see any contradiction between being an anarchist sympathizer and trying to get the federal government to create a law to protect journalists?

JOSH: I'm sure many other people do. My political philosophy is that the best society would be one where the precepts that we followed were formed through consensus. But we don't live in that society. We live in a system of laws made by people who claim to represent us, but so often don't. For instance, on the night Nancy Pelosi was elected, her own constituents passed a law saying that they want the President impeached. And Pelosi immediately made a statement that impeachment was off the table. So clearly, these people don't represent us. But at the same time, they still make the laws that we live under. If I can help pass a law that would've prevented me from going to jail for seven months — a law that defines journalist as anyone who's gathering and disseminating information (with a very limited exceptions that involve imminent harm to human life) — then why shouldn't I work for that? Sure, it's a band-aid. It doesn't deal with the fact that we have a repressive grand jury system that needs to be abolished. It doesn't deal with the fact that the right to a fair trial just doesn't exist.

RU: I agree with you because I'm a reformist. The way I view human nature — I don't think that the anarchist ideal is very likely to work in the foreseeable future. But still, any attempt at change is a discussion of tactics. I mean, Nancy Pelosi's argument is about tactics too, really. She's saying, "Well, I'm actually in the Congress and in order to pass laws, I have to use these tactics. I have to take impeachment off the table because it's not going to be accepted in mainstream discourse and if I go for it, I'm not going to be able to change anything."

JOSH: But whether impeachment is accepted or not, she's elected as a representative. And this is one of the clearest cases where the city she represents voted for a resolution to impeach George Bush on the very day she became Speaker of the House? Is she a representative of the Democratic Party? Is she a representative of San Francisco? It doesn't look like it. How indirect is this representation, and how indirect should it be?

RU: She's either sold out or she considers herself wiser, tactically, than the people she's representing. And you can have either interpretation.

SCOTT: I think this highlights the bankruptcy of representational government in this particular time. I think you can count on one hand the number of representatives who actually pay attention to their constituency. These people in Congress are only taking orders from very wealthy donors or powerful corporate people. They don't really listen to the people that don't make a certain amount of money, or don't have any money. They don't listen to the people they should be listening to. It seems to me that that there's no sense of civic responsibility in this country. We're not taught civics. People have a tendency to think, "Well I just don't really want to think about that. I don't want to worry about that. I elect X, and he or she will take care of everything for me." And he or she is actually totally in the hip pocket of the powerful interests.

JEFF: Josh, you had this thing happen where you got a lot of attention. And this was maybe a big chance to publicize a lot of the views of the circles that you were in before the protests – people with certain shared goals related to anarchism and so forth – stuff that doesn't get much publicity in the mainstream media. I could see some of them being a little bit disappointed that you're focused on passing a law.

JOSH: The way I see it — there are a lot of things you can and should do. And to embrace as many of them as possible really can't hurt. I mean, maybe you can say, "Hey, we shouldn't pass a law because these band-aids – these reforms – because they are going to make the system more livable, more tolerable. And we should actually do things to increase suffering in order to foment a revolution." A lot of people take that view. But I don't see it that way. I think anything that reduces suffering shouldn't be ignored.

RU: Some people might not object from that old "heightening the contradictions" argument. They may just make the argument based on decentralization. Don't ask for the protection of the federal government. (Of course, as we know from the medical marijuana situation, the federal government trumps everyone else.)

JOSH: I think it would be a great thing if San Francisco absolved itself from the federal government. It didn't work in the Civil War, but that was fourteen states trying to go. If San Francisco said, "Yo. We're sick of the Patriot Act. We're sick of you raiding medical marijuana clinics. We're sick of the fact that two people that love each other don't have the right to get married. We're doing our own thing now, what would the federal government's response be?

RU: Armed invasion?

SCOTT: The federal government will soon be dealing with that and not just from California. Many states are going to move away from a federal system. Or that's always a fear…

RU: I think that's going to be a while. (ironically) The Balkanization of America could take a few days. It might happen someday.

SCOTT: But you know, in 1986 - 87, if you had suggested the Soviet Union would not exist in three years, people would've said you're out of your gourd. That's not possible. Now look at it.

RU: I just saw Chalmers Johnson on PBS yesterday. He has a book out that is basically about the fall of America. It's apparently coming up next Tuesday, right after you listen to the R.U. Sirius Show.

SCOTT: The fall of America's coming up next Tuesday?

JOSH: Let me put it on my calendar.



RU: Tell us a little bit about your Free The Media project.

JOSH: I'm trying to build something called the "Free the Media" coalition. It will be at MediaFreedoms.net. (There's an alpha site up right now.) Basically, I'm trying to create an environment for discussing issues of media literacy. I'm planning a sort-of Open Source forum as well as meat-space satellites at various college campuses. We'll get into the role of the news media. We’ll talk about how independent or alternative media – along with established media — really fill in the marketplace of ideas. So we're trying to build a dialogue with independent journalists, establishment journalists, and then everyday viewers to try to shape the future of the media. And we'll look at what sort of protections and new formats and new ideas should exist. And it will also involve raising public awareness of issues and gathering funds for worthwhile stuff. The next time, a journalist in a legal situation like the one I found myself in might not have the backing of The Chronicle or the New York Times.

RU: There seems to be a sort of techno-anarchist paradigm, if you will, that has emerged over recent years. You might call it the decentralization of the means of production of reality. You have democratization through open source and Wikipedia and blogging and all those kinds of things. Do you see the use of this technology as a tactically effective way of bringing about a post-hierarchical society or is it peripheral?

JOSH: Well, that breaks into all sorts of schisms very quickly. I mean, we have blogs that allow people to post their own radio shows and put up their own videos. And that really does democratize the information. But then, simultaneously, we have these large corporate constructs coming in and controlling and censoring much of that dialogue. When Digg decided that they weren't going to permit the copyright code for the HD-DVD...

RU: Well, their was a popular revolt and they backed down.

JOSH: They did back down. But how often do things get censored without any revolt happening at all? Flickr was deleting someone's comments, at some point, because they said they were combative in nature.

RU: Well, wait a second! You just deleted somebody's comments.

JOSH: I actually never deleted any comments...

RU: Oh. But you kicked somebody off your site, didn't you?

JOSH: Someone made a particularly vile comment, and I said I'm reserving the right to delete comments that look like this.

JEFF: Did you set a principle about what type of comments you would allow in the future?

JOSH: I basically set a principle that I was reserving the right to remove comments, rather than saying what I would allow. I haven't actually removed anything. But when one commenter attacked another commenter with a sexually vile comment about sand in her vagina with no provocation – I start to wonder. I mean…

RU: Well, was it consensual sand, or... (laughter) forced sand. [Awkward silence] Errr… let's move on.

JEFF: What more is there to say, really, than "sand in the vagina?"

See also:
A Conversation with Justin Kan of Justin.tv
Dispatch From a Surrealist Autocracy
Dear Internet, I'm Sorry
The Perversions of "Perverted-Justice"

Read More

YouTube, the 20-Year-Old, and Date Unknown



YouTube will share ad revenue with 20-year-old Brandon Fletcher. Thus the stage is set for a flood of copycat bum-rushers who will no doubt lay siege to the YouTube/Googleplex armed with nothing but their media and their Gen-Y audacity.

It's just 46 days after Brandon's YouTube show launched, and he sent me an email this morning. It had a link to the breaking story, and a single emoticon.

;-)


"The deal is basically sharing ad money," Brandon tells me. "They place banners on my video pages and we split the revenue." (Though he adds that he "can't give specifics on the splits.")

"YouTube is going to place ads on the video pages of everyone in the program," he adds. "I didn't even ask about joining, they offered it to me!"

I feel like a chump now. Nine weeks ago I'd been skeptical when Brandon flew from New York City to Silicon Valley just to pitch YouTube his video show. He'd vowed he'd stay in YouTube's lobby until they agreed to put his video on their front page. "How did it go?" I'd asked cynically in April.

"Went really well," he wrote back cheerily, saying that an employee "took me out to eat, gave me some YouTube shirts and told me to come back!" But when he went back to camp in YouTube's lobby, a security guard stopped him at the elevator. Eventually, Brandon flew back to New York City. But he'd made some crucial contacts...

So what was his big idea? I did some sleuthing, and discovered it would be a web reality show. (Couples who met online would have their first real-life date -- and Brandon would film it.) But a few weeks later, my skepticism started to melt, and I fired off an email to our editor.



So that guy who didn't get past YouTube's security released his online dating show anyways. And I have to say -- I think it's really good.


They're both from MySpace -- nice twist! -- and there's genuine, real-life odd moments. (When the guy suggests that when they play pool, it should be "strip pool," his date thinks for a second. Then says, "I'm glad I wore a lot of layers... I think YOU should just strip.")

He just now sent out the press release...


And it was a good press release. "Behind the production, a story of determination and perseverance," announced one section's title. It said Brandon "funded the project on his own, and then filmed, edited, and scored and produced music for every episode..." It even referenced his "gutsy mission" to get YouTube to feature it.

But he hadn't achieved any results yet. The only happy ending I'd found was that Brandon hadn't given up. On his blog he'd written "I will not stop trying until I reach my goal."After the May launch of his secret video project, Brandon had seemed excited. "I feel great right now!" he told me. "I'm just going to keep on working hard, and trying to spread the word about this site as much as I can."

But he added: "I feel like I've created something great here, though."

He told me he hoped a TV network might show interest in the show, "but for now, as long as I'm enjoying this -- I will continue to handle it on my own." And the show continued -- mostly fueled by his raw enthusiasm.

Brandon planned to release a new episode every Monday, with extra videos throughout the week showing outtakes or on-the-street interviews about online dating. But within a week there was good news. "[S]omeone from YouTube placed the first episode on the 'Featured Directors' column, which appears on the right side of the website when you browse videos. It gets around 1 million impressions per day, so we're at about 10,000 views for episode one in less than a week!"

And I had to admit it was entertaining.
"Does it take you a lot to get wasted?" asks the guy in the red t-shirt that says "IDIOT!"

"No," his date answers. "I'm a light weight...."


That first episode was eventually viewed over 20,000 times. The YouTube channel seemed erratic -- episode 2 drew just 6,741 views, and episode 3 just 3,885. But Brandon told me there were more views on the web site, and "a few investors have been contacting me about the project." Three weeks ago he sent me an update -- that he was "Working on a sponsorship / cross-promotion." Eight days ago he told me that the last episode jumped to 25,000 views in one week. Maybe that was because its title was "Pee on me," I thought -- since the next episode racked up only 1,053 views in its first three days on YouTube.

But then today, the big news came.

YouTube had heard him, and YouTube had signed him.

And Brandon's email was both the last word, and maybe also a call to his peers...

;-)


See also:
YouTube’s 5 Sorriest Questions for the 2008 Presidential Candidates
The 5 Sexiest Apple Videos
Should YouTube Hear Me?
The Cartoon Porn Shop Janitor: Carol Burnett vs. Family Guy

Read More

YouTube’s 5 Sorriest Questions for the 2008 Presidential Candidates

What if my President was selected by MySpace? It's the nagging concern raised when young video bloggers lob questions at the Presidential candidates. In July when the Democrats gather in Charleston, they'll find CNN has swapped in questions that were uploaded as videos to YouTube.

At least that was the hope when the CNN/YouTube "debate" was announced. Unfortunately, no one cared about the announcement (except the commenter who added "omg the youtube guy is fucking HAWTT!!!"). Nearly a week later, YouTube has managed to assemble just over 120 questions to choose from. And five of them are the dogs below.

Yes, for years we've dreamed of an interactive democracy — a giant techno-village wired into a real, two-way discourse. Why shouldn't our lawmakers get the same crowd-polling technology that's available to contestants on 1 vs. 100? (Answer: because the wisdom of the crowd is matched only by the buffoonery of the individual.)

While it's morbidly amusing to imagine candidates groveling for LonelyGirl15's endorsement, YouTube is slyly attempting to appear democratic without actually accomplishing anything. But maybe that's YouTube's cynical comment on democracy itself. Maybe they're imagining the event's slogan as: "It's participatory! It's YouTube! And it's stupid! Just like voting..."

1. Headzup



This question comes to us from "HeadzUp", who specializes in badly-animated cartoons of jabbering heads — in this case, George W. Bush.

The cartoon President starts a familiar gotcha question — if a dirty nuclear bomb killed millions, and a second bomb risked millions more lives... But never mind. It's a joke.



"you are totally a moron," replied an irate YouTube commenter, "and if youtube had a star rating for the DUMB FUCKS, you would most certainly qualify, hands down LMAO,FOAD."

We've elevated the discourse already.

2. We are not alone



A user named "DickGhostmoon" wants to ask the candidates "a very, very serious question...about aliens." He's titled his video "alien autopsy CNN YOUTUBE Debate," and includes footage of a 2001 press conference seeking the declassification of secret government information about extra-terrestrials.

And there's also some footage of Santa Claus.



Interestingly, the question comes from England, and YouTube also received questions from Spain, Canada, Australia, and Malaysia.

We're guessing these questioners aren't even voting. They're just mocking our hopelessly compromised electoral system while enjoying their universal health care.

3. "88% of Californians..."



Imagine the next President of the United States fielding questions from "The Wine Kone." His YouTube channel identifies him as a Canadian, and promises "video responses and who knows what else (probably lameness)."

His self-described "very important question" concerns Arnold Schwarzenegger, his re-election as governor of California, and... No wait. It's another joke, this one about cyborgs and the plot of Terminator III.

"YouTube didn't put me up to this," adds a superfluous title at the end. (Really? Because it's hard to believe that YouTube would allow something so edgy unless they had an ironical hand in it.)

Maybe one day, with enough help from biting Canadian jokes like this one, Americans will penetrate the haze of our Puritan, bi-polar system and, like Maplestan, finally see how ultra-silly it is to elect actors as politicians.

4. "Hi, Hillary..."



OMG! It's a cartoon animation of Hillary Clinton! Asking a question to Hillary Clinton! My head is about to explode!

The question — read by a speech synthesizer — presents scenarios about access to health care. By the way, did I mention it's read by a Hillary Clinton avatar? "Give us a nice answer," it asks, "so you look good — and I look good!"



Video hides the face of the American asking, but maybe it reveals a deeper truth — that the real appeal of politics is the opportunity to preen and pose. "Please advise me on your future vision for addressing our health care crisis," the video seems to say...

"And also, check out my cool new widget!"

5. "So cool..."



16 people have rated this video. It's average score? One star. YouTube user Netram59 summed up the response. "You say YouTubers have a lot to say but it seems you don't."

But the uploader — "GoodNeighbor" — is actually part of an L.A. based sketch comedy crew. "They all like to draw," reads their YouTube profile, "and make music and movies and stuff!!" Hooray!

Is it better or worse that "GoodNeighbor" skipped the chance to question our next President for a quick laugh? I'm honestly not sure. YouTube may have empowered a generation, but maybe it's a good thing that the giant internet corporation hasn't been able to channel them all into a specific, YouTube-directed activity.

Maybe the revolution was never meant to be televised...


See also:
YouTube, the 20-year-old, and Date Unknown
Should YouTube Hear Me?
John Edwards' Virutal Attackers Unmasked
Iraq Battle Footage
The 5 Sexiest Apple Videos

Read More

How the Internet Disorganizes Everything

The internet disorganizes information for you, so you can organize it for yourself — alone or with friends. That is the distilled essence of David Weinberger's theory about how we create meaning and understanding for ourselves in these times. Weinberger's provocatively titled new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, has been widely praised and may take it's place alongside The Long Tail as an epoch-defining tome.

Weinberger was also a co-author of the notorious boom-era best seller, The Cluetrain Manifesto. A fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, Weinberger is now doing a regular podcast for Wired News called The Berkman/Wired Miscellaneous Podcast.

The interview was originally conducted via Skype for NeoFiles.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: When I first saw the title of your book — Everything Is Miscellaneous — I immediately thought of my old friend Ted Nelson. He had a saying: "Everything is deeply intertwingled." Sure enough, as I got into the book, you beat me to it. You actually deal with this quote in the book. How does Nelson's idea relate to your idea?

DAVID WEINBERGER: Nelson's idea is that the world is intertwingled. That's just a great, made-up word that says that things don't come in neat categories. Sometimes we need to put things into very strict categories, and we manage to do that. If you're working at the Department of Motor Vehicles and somebody comes in with a boat trailer, you've got to decide: Does it or does it not belong in the category of licensed vehicles. We have to make these sorts of decisions. But that's not the normal case. The meaning of most things is linked, loose and ambiguous. The category systems that we've had in the past, the taxonomies – each with its experts — have not generally reflected that intertwingularity. But the web, with its link structure, and with its messy, ungoverned, permission-free link structure, perfectly represents the intertwingularity.



RU: In the world of atoms as opposed to the world of material stuff, it's easier to make all that intertwingling available. It seems almost like we're in a virtual "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon" world. Everything is six clicks away.

DW: Yes. The internet works that way. And there are so many different links and ways to get to things because the significance of our world works that way. That's why things on the web have accumulated so many messy, unpredictable links. Lots of people have seen lots of ways in which things are related, and we can express that on the web. We don't have to minimize it.

You know, in a library, a physical book has to go on only one shelf under one category. That's not a natural restriction; a single book is about many different things. But even when you try to make up for that restriction with the catalog card, which is a very reduced form of meta-data for the book, the size of the card is dictated by the inconvenience of atoms. The size of the card means that you can't put in very many of those references. But on the web, everybody can put in his or her own references. We can have hundreds or millions of references and links and connections of meaning linked to a single resource. There's no limit. So, in some ways, the web reflects better the complexity of the linked nature of the world.

RU: The massive hyperlinked web of correspondences and information that Nelson talked about with his Project Xanadu in the 1960s is happening, but it's sort of self-assembling. There's a sentence in your book that's unobtrusive — or you might say it's miscellaneously in the middle of a paragraph somewhere — but I picked it out because it seems to go right to heart of what you're saying. This is the quote: "A big part of miscellaneous information contains relationships beyond reckoning." I think it's the "contains relationships" part that's important – because although everything is miscellaneous, we're not just talking about noisy chaos.



DW: No, we're not. I'm admittedly using the word miscellaneous in a slightly extended sense. The value is not that it stays miscellaneous, and we can never find or make sense of anything. Quite the opposite. It's all there as potential. We can mine knowledge and information from it. But I don't think that's all that interesting. What's interesting is that we can also discover meaning and its significance — stuff that actually matters to us. So every time we sort through the stuff, we cut through it and see the connections that are interesting to us. And depending on what we're trying to do, we see the world in a new way. We can now do this quite fluidly, and we'll get even better at it over.

RU: The order is found by the end user. A friend of mine has a business and his slogan is "living à la carte". That seems to be kind of what we're doing with information, and so many other things.

DW: Yes, but when you order à la carte, everybody orders individually, based upon their tastes. I wouldn't want to leave it there! The most exciting and important advances in how we're making sense of this miscellaneous soup is that we're doing it socially. We're doing it through social networks; through recommendations from our friends, from sites that do that more formally; and from what shows up in our inbox. So this is not the Daily Me constituting the world based on our own individual interests. It's the "Daily Bunch-of-Us." It's loosely defined groups of people making this happen.

RU: So this is not the wisdom of the individual or the wisdom of the crowds, but the wisdom of small social networks?

DW: Yeah. It's the wisdom of the group. The crowd actually turns out to be quite lumpy. We know some people better... I know that this person over here is really useful and knowledgeable about FCC rulings, but I wouldn't ask about cars! But this other person loves talking about cars.

RU: In Ethan Zuckerman's blog post about your book, he asks: "If knowledge is a pile of leaves instead of a tree, how does the shape of knowledge change?" Do you have an answer for that?

DW: Yeah! First, there's the tree-like structure of knowledge, in which categories are carefully arranged. So there's a root and then there are branches, and every thing has to be neatly on one branch and only one branch. Each thing has a special spot and only one spot. And that shape is very useful for some types of thinking. It's certainly the shape that you use to divide up your laundry. You divide it by person, and then by body part and so forth. So you are constructing a tree. It represents how we sort and order physical objects and it's very useful.

But when we make things miscellaneous, we get to shape it the way that we want. And frequently, the shape is going to be a tree. And sometimes the shape is going to be a cluster in which there is overlap. It's every type of human relationship. It's every possible shape and so there isn't a shape. It's this potential we have before us that we can shape in ways that make sense to us at the time. And the "us" is — in fact — a social group.

RU: You refer to this miscellany as a "third order." Can you explain a little bit about this idea?

DW: In the First Order, you organize the things themselves. An example would be the physical books on the shelves.

In the Second Order, we do something that we've gotten very good at over the past couple thousand years — we separate meta-data about the stuff in the First Order. So we're still dealing with physical objects. In terms of books, it's the card catalogue. We're separating the meta-data. We've reduced the amount of information we're dealing with to what fits on the 3 x 5 card. It's much less than all the information about the book. But with the Second Order, you now have a few different ways of sorting (or categorizing). For instance, you can sort by author, title, and subject.

In the Third Order, everything becomes miscellaneous — both the data and the meta-data; the content and the information about it. The principles that guided the organization of the first two orders no longer hold.

RU: So are you saying that the first order is basically pre-taxonomy? And the second order brings that into being. And then, the third order changes how taxonomy operates – or are we leaving taxonomy behind?

DW: We're not leaving taxonomy behind. Rather, we are embracing every possible way of organizing — every shape of organization that works. And sometimes taxonomies are exactly what we need. So we have taxonomies, we also have playlists. Playlists are not really taxonomies. They're just lists. (I guess you could say they're the edge case of a taxonomy.) Playlists are really useful for some things. They're really useful for music, for example, or for syllabi. But they're not a very good way of organizing a complex library, because the list gets too long. We will use every type of organization we need, including taxonomies, when they make sense.

RU: I guess if you label your iPod music lists — say, "anti-War songs" or something like that — then that becomes a sort of taxonomy. A little mini-taxonomy. In some ways, it seems like we're really obsessed with classification these days. You have things like the human genome project. There are various projects to catalogue biological life forms. And apparently Edward O. Wilson is now doing some kind of an encyclopedia of all life. Where do those types of projects fit into your schemata, if they do?

DW: They do, because we are developing knowledge out of a pre-existing taxonomy. We make links!

Let's just limit the discussion to tags — we are not doing that because we have an existing taxonomy, but we may be able to generate a taxonomy based upon the set of tags. In fact, the most important thing is that you can generate lots of taxonomies based on a single set of tags. So it is useful to have an order of species. And scientists have been arguing about the nature of species and how you cluster them since Darwin. The argument over what constitutes a species continues among biologists still.

Sometimes you'll define a species, and thus a set of categories; and then the relationship of those categories, because you're interested in the history of their actual descent. But sometimes you'll be interested in how populations — within isolated areas separated from each other — work. At that point, their common ancestry may not be as important to you in your categorization scheme. So sometimes it will be more useful to cluster things in ways that look at their functionality as opposed to their DNA. So there are all these potential ways of organizing species. The great thing is that now we can have them all. It's all miscellaneous. If we're doing epidemiology work, one sense of species may be more important to us than another. We can have it all!

RU: Can you conjecture about the personality changes that might happen with people whose ability to organize the chaos of information is being democratized? Is there any danger of a sort of virtual narcissism?

DW: I'm a little less concerned about that than some other are because I think this activity is as social as language is. In fact, it's very closely related to language. Actually, the old idea that you could sit down and organize the universe by creating a taxonomy seems to me far more narcissistic than the bottom-up stuff that we're doing now, which is more democratizing.

RU: Do you think people are empowered by it? Do you think it might be a sort of evolutionary step for human beings?

DW: I do think it's an evolutionary thing and I do think that people are being empowered by it. But I sort of think those two things separately.

Taxonomies are power. With a centralized top-down taxonomy, one problem is that somebody gets to say what you are. And lots of people will inevitably disagree with the categorization. A really bad example of this is what happened to a popular musician living under apartheid in South Africa, By the time he was fifty, he had become a different race five times because the law had changed. And once, he had to leave his wife and family because of it.

So taxonomy is power. It's not always that gross. But let's say you're trying to decide where Scientology or Jews For Jesus or Baha'i goes in the category of religions. Are they at the same level as the big ones? Power resides in that decision. Now that we can create local clusters of meaning, local taxonomies, categorizations — a lot of that power dissipates. That's a good thing.

RU: Not only can we democratize the taxonomies that are created, we can locate new taxonomies, in a sense. We can have lots of them, as per Wikipedia.

DW: Yes. And furthermore, what works about Wikipedia is the fact that just about every other word is linked. That's more important than the categories. The categories of Wikipedia are really more like tags – and that system totally sucks! It's broken! It's barely usable. (Maybe they'll fix it.) But the fact that every article is penetrated by link after link after link going everywhere says that this messy web of meaning is more important than coming up with a nice set of categories.



RU: How would you compare what you're saying with Everything Is Miscellaneous to the two big tech business memes of the times — Web 2.0 and The Long Tail? Do you feel you're extending that? Are you taking it a little further out? How would you relate to all that?

DW: Well, from a point of view of authors' narcissism, I started working on this before either of those things came along. So I've watched them, and I do think there are relationships among all three of them.

Clearly, the long tail is about how content and ideas and stuff is spread out rather than centralized. If you're doing long tail economics or long tail business, you've got to wonder how you are ever going to provide a single categorization scheme for your products that is going to work for the entire long tail. Because, in terms of big topics, the long tail isn't actually interested in anything. The consumers on the long tail are interested in their own quirky individual things. That's the power of the long tail. So I think you want to move towards a miscellaneous way of thinking through how your customers are going to find what you want. So it's a good match.

Web 2.0 is, of course, a notoriously free term. In some ways, it's a set of examples, things that you point too. You say, "Blogs are happening, and Wikis are happening, and APIs are opening up, and there are greater mashups of information." Many of those things enable the representation and use of miscellaneous data so it all pretty much fits the miscellaneous model.

See Also:
SF Writer Rudy Rucker: Everything Is Computation
How The iPod Changes Culture
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
Counterculture and the Tech Revolution

Read More

The Scientific Laws of Romance

Romance?

About the Author: Ethan Todras-Whitehill is a freelance writer who covers technology, travel, and subcultures. He contributes regularly to The New York Times and several national magazines. He also blogs at crucialminutiae.com.

In high school, and particularly college, I was The Guy Friend. You know, the one who has all those cute girls that he’s not dating whose friends don’t understand why he’s not trying to hook up with them. I was always more comfortable with girls, having grown up effectively with three sisters. And for those girls—and I think they would agree—I was great at demystifying the male-female interaction.

Well, I had help. My father’s scientific mind had concocted a simple set of laws that relationships seemed to follow. And with my own scientific mind, I developed these laws further. So without further ado, I present to you:

Whitehill’s Law of Constant Distances

The Law: In a relationship, there exists a Constant Distance (CD) between two people that must be maintained at all times.

I. CD Equilibrium
There are not one but two CDs in any given relationship, one for each party. When the two people’s CDs are the same, congratulations: you have CD equilibrium. You may copulate in peace.


I.1. Changes in CD Equilibrium
Once a CD Equilibrium has been established, it is still possible for it to change. But it must change gradually, over time. Sudden attempts to change the distance, especially when initiated by only one party, will result in the other person instinctively moving to re-establish the CD, likely using Pushes or Pulls.





II. CD Disequilibrium
If the two CDs in a relationship are not the same (i.e. one person wants to be closer than the other), or if the CD Equilibrium is disrupted (i.e. one person wants “more” from the relationship or “less”), you have a CD Disequilibrium. If a CD Disequilibrium lasts for too long, the relationship will inevitably end, possibly on Jerry Springer.


II.1. Causes of CD Disequilibrium
Constant Distances are not merely determined by the affection of the two parties. Love and compatibility play a strong role, but so does circumstance. Two primary circumstances have a substantial effect on CDs: Life Plans and Schedule.


II.1.a Life Plans
Life Plans are any exogenous factors that a person puts above the relationships. If a person does not believe in marriage, for instance, or in long term commitment, that Life Plan creates a greater CD with a person who does not share those Life Plans. Desire or the lack of desire for children are another factor. Preternatural attachment to sauerkraut is yet a third.

II.1.b Schedule
A person’s schedule can have a substantial, if temporary effect on CDs. If one person in the relationship is exceptionally busy for a certain period of time, and their free time is inhibited, their CD may appear to change for their partner. It does not necessarily change for that person themselves—they may still wish to spend 50% of all their free time with their partner—but since the total time and attention paid to the partner changes, it appears to be a change in CD. This will usually result in the partner enacting Pulls or False Pushes.


III. Pushes and Pulls
There are two primary ways in which people behave in a CD Disequilibrium. The general principle is that both parties will seek to change the other person’s CD to match their own.

Typically, the person who has the greater CD (i.e. the person who wants “less” from the relationship) will only use one tactic: the Push. The Push is any action or behavior intended to distance oneself from the other person. It may involve ignoring phone calls, delaying response to text or email messages, or shying away from previously established patterns of affection (sex, cuddling, or verbal affirmations).

The person with the smaller CD is the more vulnerable one in the relationship and as such has more at stake. This person will generally employ both Pulls and False Pushes. The Pull is the opposite of the Push. It is any action or behavior designed to bring the other person closer, like an increase in patterns of affection, demands for stronger commitments, or puncturing condoms with a needle.


III.a. The False Push
When the person with the smaller CD employs a Push, it is typically a False Push. The action or behavior will have all the hallmarks of a real Push but will be disingenuous. The false Push is enacted in order to make the person with the greater CD believe that he or she is in fact the person with the smaller CD. The hope is that this will then cause the person with the greater CD to behave as described above, enacting Pulls of his or her own. The danger in this strategy, of course, is that sometimes a false Push can engender another false Push, which might create such large perceived CDs that the relationship simply ends. If it were not for False Pushes, romantic comedy screenwriters would be out of business.




IV. Case Study: Yolanda and Howard
Yolanda and Howard have been dating for three months. Yolanda is a lawyer, and Howard is a painter. They meet for dinner a few times a week, see the occasional movie, and sleepover at one or the other’s house on Sunday and paint each other’s toenails. They are in CD Equilibrium (I).

Yolanda and HowardYolanda is happy with the relationship, but she’s starting to want more. Her CD is starting to shrink, but she does not sense the same happening with Howard. So she begins to Pull (III) on Howard’s CD, dropping hints about rings and babies and puppies. She begins buying toothbrushes and storing them in random nooks of Howard’s house. Howard notices this behavior, and subconsciously begins to push back, trying to lengthen Yolanda’s CD to match his own. He stops returning her calls as quickly and leaves copies of Playboy out in his bathroom. (See Fig. 1.)

But then something strange happens. Yolanda gets hit with a big case at work. Although her feelings about Howard do not change, her time available for him does. Their dinners dwindle to once a week—her only free night. They stop seeing movies together. Howard’s bottle of Fire Engine Red crusts shut from disuse. Yolanda’s Schedule (II.1.b) has changed her CD, and he now finds himself the vulnerable one. He tries Pulling, sending her flowers and giving her foot massages. (See Fig. 2)

Yolanda’s big case lasts several months. She enjoys Howard’s extra attention but can’t find the time to give him what he needs. But over time, Howard’s CD slowly changes (I.1). By the time Yolanda’s case ends, Howard’s CD is the same that Yolanda’s was before the case. And since her CD never really changed—it just appeared to do so to Howard—when the case ends their two CDs match, putting them in blissful CD Equilibrium (I) (Fig. 3).

See Also:
Girls Are Geeks, Too
Why Chicks Don't Dig the Singularity
Drugs and Sex and Susie Bright
When Lego Goes to War
Crucial Minutiae blog

Read More

A Conversation with Justin Kan of Justin.tv



Photo by Scott Beale

It all started with Andy Warhol. He took a look around at the equipment available during the 1960s – tape recorders, video cameras, 8mm film – and realized that it wasn't necessarily about producing new narratives in the traditions of theater, opera and so forth. In fact, this was the stuff for documenting life right up to the point of tedium and beyond it, and it would be increasingly democratically accessible. This was, in fact, the context for his most famous quote: "In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes."

Warhol was, of course, excoriated by both art traditionalists and committed political artists for presenting every day banality as art. But since he approached it all with such deadpan irony, others viewed his approach as the epitome of cool.



Today, Socrates' famous dictum, "the unexamined life is not worth living" has been surgically altered to read, "the undocumented life is not worth living." By the time Justin Kan clipped a mobile camera onto his cap on March 19, 2007, opening justin.tv, it was just another step along the way to the inevitable – the fully mediated life.

On arrival, justin.tv caught a media buzz. Justin appeared on "Nightline," "The Today Show," and "MTV News," and various blogs, newspapers and magazines covered his occasional travails (pranks, evictions, etc.) Not wanting to miss our chance at some justin.tv camera time, we coaxed him into appearing on The RU Sirius Show.

Justin Kan showed up at our former studio in San Francisco's lower Haight with a small entourage that included his brother (who contributed a funny and cool rap song to the show). He proved to be funny, smart, self-aware, and entirely likeable.

Since we interviewed Kan last month, justin.tv has started to spread its franchise. "Justine," a cute blonde freelance graphic/web designer and video editor from Pittsburg seems to keep the camera pointed mostly at herself, for obvious reasons. And "Parrris Harris," who calls himself a "fashion conductor" has also been added to the roster.

Pretty soon, there may be hundreds of people broadcasting their lives 24/7 via justin.tv; or through some other "channel." Watching them must be somebody's idea of a good time.

Futurist Jamais Cascio and Jeff Diehl joined me for this conversation with Justin Kan.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: You're sort of a walking security camera — the democratization of surveillance. Have you thought about the implications of that?

JUSTIN KAN: I've thought a lot about the implications of where we're moving as a society. We're losing our privacy, whether we like it or not, right now. It's partially voluntary — through blogs and things like justin.tv, or through exposing your life on social networks like Facebook or MySpace. And it's partially involuntarily, through the prevalence of closed-circuit TV cameras everywhere. Camera technology and cameras in cellphones are getting so cheap that they're everywhere, and people are taking pictures of everything.

I guess the question in my mind is: how do we want to move to that? I think the worst thing that could happen is that there's a huge power disparity, with certain people having access to all these video cameras, and the large majority of people not having access.

JAMAIS CASCIO: I've written about "The Participatory Panopticon." David Brin refers to that as "reciprocal accountability."

RU: Brin also says "Privacy is dead, get over it." We are Big Brother!

JAMAIS: Indeed. You don't have Big Brother; you have scores of Little Brothers and Sisters.

JUSTIN: Exactly.

RU: So Justin, you're planning a sort of franchise thing.

JUSTIN: Exactly. I want everyone out there to be broadcasting their lives online!

JAMAIS: It's Justin.NN — The Justin News Network.

JUSTIN: Yes. (Laughs) I don't know if it counts as news.



RU: What's the most interesting thing that's happened to you since you strapped on the camera?

JUSTIN: One of the weirdest and maybe the worst was, right when we started, a couple days in, our viewers called the police on us. They used VoIP to spoof our phone number. The cops burst in, guns drawn, expecting to see this horrible crime going down when actually it was just three guys on laptops. I think they were a little disappointed!

JEFF DIEHL: You can do some horrible crimes on a laptop! Didn't they realize?

JUSTIN: They did not, actually. When we were trying to explain how someone spoofed our number with relay, one of them said, "I don't understand technology. I just shoot people!" (Laughter)

JAMAIS: Since you mentioned the police activity, what immediately strikes me is: you will, at some point, record a crime in progress. Whether it's somebody being mugged on the street, or something like that...

RU: You are such a pessimist! (Laughter)

JAMAIS: It's just the real world! You do this long enough, you will eventually record something that's illegal! And then you're therefore a witness — or more to the point, your archives become a witness to this crime. And the question then becomes: can the recordings be subpoenaed by the police? Have you given any thought to that?

JUSTIN: I expect they'd be able to subpoena our archives, just like the prosecution can subpoena archives of a security camera. They call in the surveillance company — or whoever is responsible for the tapes — as the witness, to testify how the camera was set up. I'd probably be in a similar position.

JAMAIS: Right.

RU: There's so many weird and interesting events going on in San Francisco. You could go to insane performance art stuff where people are putting nails through their organs, or...

JEFF: What?!

RU: I guess that was in the 90s – people like Mustafar were always performing. Or you could go to underground sex clubs and stuff like that. Are you staying away from the really weird stuff? Does it just not appeal to you?

JUSTIN: I kind of go for the weird-but-fun San Francisco stuff. Like there was that Lombard Street Big Wheel race, so I participated in that. You got to see the Big Wheel view of me, tearing down Lombard Street, ramming into people...

RU: Your greatest controversy was when you switched off your gear when you were with a young lady. This is, of course, the thing everybody was waiting to see! And it sparked much debate about whether you sold out on your promise to keep this justin.tv thing going, consistently and constantly. How do you view that?

JUSTIN: Well, the bottom line is, it's my life, and I'll do whatever I want!

RU: (Laughs) Opportunity struck, and...

JUSTIN: Opportunity strikes, and... You know...

JEFF: "What's more important: this camera or getting laid?" If she's not going to do it with it on, then...

RU: But if you look around the net, there's obviously a lot of women who want to show off for the camera. Have you been approached by, uh, you know... women who want to make a reputation?

JUSTIN: I don't know. We're still trying to figure out what we can show and what we can't show. And I think that, right now, the safe play is definitely being family-friendly. We always like to encourage advertisers to approach us. And something like that might be a little over-the-top from a corporate perspective.

JEFF: Can't you just make an immediate fuzz filter, so — you know, the guy on the control just hits a button and it goes fuzzy. But you still see stuff moving around...

JUSTIN: We might be able to do that, actually. We'll have to hire an intern to sit there and move the little bubble around.

JEFF: The naughty bits.

JUSTIN: Yeah.

JEFF: Isn't there going to be a big scandal for your franchise when the first person starts broadcasting themselves naked or having sex or something that's considered obscene? How do you regulate that?

RU: I thought that was the idea! (Laughter)

JEFF: Well, of course it is! But nobody's done it yet! I'm surprised nobody's done it publicly yet. I'm surprised you haven't done it publicly…

JUSTIN: Justin.tv has been R-rated at best, so far.

JEFF: But isn't that going to be a problem? It will probably become some kind of a free speech issue. You'd have to force people through some channel where whatever they're going to be webcasting — it's okay. Because otherwise, anybody can just load up their browser and watch people having sex!

JUSTIN: Well they can already do that. Just not on justin.tv!

JEFF: You're going to make it a lot easier...

RU: So whatever people are going to do with their Justin franchises is OK to you?

JUSTIN: Well honestly, justin.tv shouldn't be a platform for the (sort of) "bad stuff" out there on the internet. Whether it's hate speech or obscenities of whatever. So we'll almost definitely do some censorship. If someone's using their channel to broadcast themselves committing a crime – well, that's not something we want to promote. You know? We would definitely shut that down.



JAMAIS: Have you run into any intellectual property disputes — recording something that someone else claims as their own copyrighted material?

JUSTIN: Not yet. I guess if we were issued a takedown notice from someone who's music I listened to… but we haven't gotten anything.

RU: It seems like the one thing that you need to avoid is watching a lot of other media.

JUSTIN: Well, I don't go to movies. And I think I've watched TV like one time in the past 56 days, and the camera wasn't pointed at the screen. But honestly, the quality from the justin.tv camera (recording other media) is such that you're probably better off BitTorrenting it anyways.

JAMAIS: That doesn't matter.

JUSTIN: I understand that it doesn't matter from a legal perspective. But, for instance, I've been invited by ClearChannel radio stations to come in the station and listen to music. I think they view it more as a promotional tool.

RU: But the music industry might start displaying their hunger for reward as this gets more distributed — just like they're doing with internet radio. A lot of people who use your equipment are going to be listening to music all the time — or else they're going to have to change their lifestyles.

JUSTIN: Right. But I wouldn't be surprised if the music industry realized that this is something more along the lines of radio.

RU: Yeah, but they're attacking internet radio right now!

JEFF: It's the same thing as people using it for sex. As soon as you democratize it and make it available for everyone to use for free — they're going to start going to concerts, and they're going to start going to movies. How do you police that?

JUSTIN: That's something we'll have to figure out as we go along.

JAMAIS: And how do you control it? Right now the camera that you're wearing is maybe the size of a small Mag-Lite. Within the next few years, you'll be able to wear something the size of a lipstick tube. Or maybe even something that's smaller than that.

JUSTIN: You can already do that. There are glasses that have built-in cameras that you could actually use with this. We made the conscious decision to make the camera visible; partly, to promote the celebrity of it, but also to let people know they were on camera. I think that's much more ethical than the alternative.

RU: Have you had anybody become upset about being on camera? I remember when I was walking around in the 1970s with a video camera — one of those ancient Portapacks that you strapped to your back. Some guy got really paranoid and upset that I was randomly videotaping people.

JUSTIN: I got kicked out of the Gap. That was probably the worst response. And some people request… you know, "Oh, I don't want to be on camera." So I kind of turn away and don't talk to them. And that's generally been okay. Most people — I'd say 29 out of 30 — have been really excited or positive about it.

RU: They want to be on camera.

JUSTIN: Yeah.

RU: They think what you're doing is a cool thing. It's interesting.

JUSTIN: Exactly. And I think part of it is my attitude about it. I'm not an investigative reporter! I try to approach people in a way that makes them comfortable. I'm not "in your face" about it.

RU: Do a Mike Wallace trip on people! That would be a sudden turn for Justin!

JEFF: I was just imagining flocks of skaters downtown wearing these things and going around and pulling Mike Wallaces all over the place.

RU: Did you go to that movie that you were advertising?

JUSTIN: Disturbia. Yeah, we went to the movie. We took the camera off and played the trailer while I was in the theatre. So there was another two-hours where you didn't get to see of Justin's life. Mostly I was sitting in the theatre.

JAMAIS: So you say.

JUSTIN: So I say.

RU: I would think that the company that made the movie would've wanted you to sit there and view...

JUSTIN: I don't think they wanted the recording of video out there. I guess they could've turned the camera on me or something. That would've been cool.

JAMAIS: It would've been interesting to have a recording of your reaction to the movie.

JEFF: That's something that you could do during sex, too!

JUSTIN: (Laughs) Just put the camera on myself, like this, I guess...

JEFF: Just her view! Yeah!

RU: Justin's smiling face...

JUSTIN: It'll be like [makes a face]. (Dryly) Yeah, that would be great. I'm sure the viewers would appreciate that...

JEFF: Your "O face," close up.

RU: From what I understand, quite a large majority of your viewers are male. Does that...

JUSTIN: I don't know if that's true. A surprising amount of our viewers are outside the demographic that I thought they would be in — which was 13 to 35-year-old males. They seem to be… everyone. Mothers, fathers, older women, girls in their 20s... It's amazing that we've hit all over the map like that.

RU: What do you think is appealing to them? And do you think it can continue to be appealing over a long period of time?

JUSTIN: Well, I think the appealing thing about something like justin.tv is that you get an inside view into someone's life. It's kind of a low-commitment way of having a real relationship. And you know, people want to talk to other people, and people like watching other people — fundamentally.

JAMAIS: It's very primate.

JUSTIN: Exactly. It's something everyone does, instinctually. So being able to just go to a web site and automatically have video of one guy — day after day — and you can see what he's doing and check up on him – that's something that appeals to a lot of people.

RU: It's like an extra relationship.

JUSTIN: Exactly. What's cool is the way that communities have formed around the video. People log in the chat room, and talk with each other. People with the same faces show up and they recognize each other. It's cool. After the first week, I stopped going to the chat room much. And then when I came back, maybe three weeks later, I was like the outsider. In my own chat room!

RU: Do you monitor what viewers like, what some of their favorite moments are?

JUSTIN: I get viewer updates every fifteen minutes to the cellphone so I can see —"Oh, this caused a spike." I was at the Halo 3 premier, and we plugged the live feed of us playing it into the transmitter. And we instantly got around 80 viewers. Everyone wanted to check out the demo!

RU: There has been some note that your viewership has been going down.

JUSTIN: (Joking) It might be because I'm not attractive enough!



RU: Do you have plans to do some things to bring people back? Or are you just going to let it flow...

JUSTIN: Well, we had this huge spike after we were on Nightline and The Today Show. Now after a huge press wave, we've basically stabilized. So we're working on viral tools to let people share their videos more easily; and to access the archives. We have this huge library of content. But am I going to do some horrible stunt? We'll have to see.

RU: If you get this franchise going, and there are a bunch of people doing this — are you going to want to watch a lot of them? Or are you going to be like me? I never really listen to other podcasts...

JUSTIN: You know, I don't watch justin.tv. For one reason, it's...

RU: (Laughs) Can't watch that damn thing!

JUSTIN: Yeah. (Joking) Everyone on it is irritating!

JAMAIS: It gets a bit recursive.

JEFF: The infinite regress is disconcerting...

JUSTIN: People don't want to see me watching myself. Over and over.... I guess when we do launch a bunch of other channels, I won't watch those very much either. I'll just get feedback from other people — let them tell me who's interesting and who's not.

RU: Rake in the percentages!

JUSTIN: Yeah, something like that.

JEFF: (Joking) Just don't give Josh Wolf your technology. God knows what kind of trouble he'll get into with it.

JUSTIN: He'll be back in jail, two months later!

JEFF: Do you ever want to unplug?

JUSTIN: That's a very common question. It's just like anything. There are times you want to and times you don't.

RU: Do you ever feel deeply depressed, and feel "Oh shit! What did I get myself into?"

JUSTIN: No, that hasn't happened yet. We're saving that for when we need some good drama!


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Read More

Give Me Immortality Or Give Me Death!

Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death!

According to transhumanist Michael Anissimov, there's an even chance that we're looking at immortality or existential destruction in the next 20-40 years. Anissimov is only 23-years-old but he's already become an important figure in the transhumanist movement. While still in high school, he became founder and director of the Immortality Institute. He's been active with the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), and he is currently Fundraising Director, North America for the Lifeboat Foundation.

Lifeboat Foundation describe themselves as "a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI as we move toward a technological singularity."

Anissimov also blogs regularly at Accelerating Future.

I interviewed him for my NeoFiles Show. Jeff Diehl joined me.

To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.


RU SIRIUS: Let's start off talking about immortality. And let's talk about it personally. Do you want to live forever?

MICHAEL ANISSIMOV: Oh, absolutely! For sure!

RU: Why?

MA: Because I have at least a thousand years of plans already. And in those thousand years, I'll probably make another thousand years of plans, and I don't see any end to that cycle.



RU: Do you see the quality of life improving for yourself and for most human beings?

MA: Yes, I do.

RU: Because I don't know if I want to live forever under Darwinian conditions. It gets tiring.

MA: I agree. It does. We need to take control of our own evolution before this would be a planet really worth living on. I don't think that thousands of years of war would be good for anyone. So things do need to improve.

RU: Yeah. Even having to pay… who can afford a thousand years?

MA: (Laughs) Well, you'll work for a thousand years...

RU: It's very expensive!

MA: Yeah, people are dying to retire. So it would help out if we had the robots doing a little bit more of the work.

JEFF DIEHL: So what's your itinerary for the next thousand years?

MA: I want to go spelunking in every major cave. I want to climb the highest peak on every continent. I want to write, like maybe at least ten nonfiction books and ten fiction books. Mmmm…

RU: Some people have done that in a lifetime.

MA: I know!

JD: Yeah, you're not very ambitious, man — come on!

MA: (Laughs) Think of ten possible lives you could live, and then think that you don't necessarily need to choose between them. You could live them back to back.

RU: On the other hand, you could pop your consciousness into several bodies and have them all living simultaneously for only a hundred years. Would that be the equivalent of living a thousand years?

MA: I don't think so. I think that would just be like having kids. Copying yourself would give rise to multiple independent strains of consciousness.

RU: Maybe there could be some kind of central person who could be taking in all of the experiences.

MA: There could be some information exchange, but...

RU: Aubrey de Grey, of course, is the hacker-biologist who has become very well known for saying that this is quite plausible in the near future. Is there any progress that he's pointed to, or that you can point to, since he really proclaimed the plausibility of immortality some time around the beginning of this century?

MA: Yeah. Recently Peter Thiel, former CEO of Paypal, offered three million dollars in matching funds for projects related to this. And they've started coming up with ways to actually use over a million dollars, I believe. They have the MitoSENS project and the LysoSENS projects.

RU: What are these projects about?

MA: Well, with LysoSENS — lysomal junk is this stuff that builds up between cells. And our natural metabolism doesn't currently have any way of breaking it down. So researchers are trying to exploit the law of microbial infallibility — the notion that no matter what organic material you're talking about, you're going to be able to find a microbe that can eat it. So they're searching for microbes that are capable of breaking down this junk. And they've been looking in places like... next to a Burger King, because people throw burgers on the ground and stuff like that. So there are special bacteria there that learn how to break down these organic compounds. And some of these researchers have even gotten permission to get soil samples from the people that run graveyards because that's where you'd expect to find the bugs. Basically, they're looking for specialized microbes that can dissolve that lysomal junk.

RU: IBM recently announced a naotechnology breakthrough. They said that "the breakthrough marks the first time chips have been made with a self-assembling nano-technology using the same process that forms seashells or snowflakes." This sounds like a really big deal.

MA: Yeah, it is! It's not the same thing though as molecular manufacturing, where you basically have a molecular assembly line that places each atom, one by one. It's not quite as intelligently controlled or productive, but it is a large breakthrough.

RU: Yeah, the word jumps out at me — "self-assembling." That sounds... you're not too excited?

MA: (Skeptically) Ehhh. I mean, it's pretty exciting but people have been playing around with this stuff for a while

RU: OK. Let's move on to your current work — The Lifeboat Foundation This foundation is focused on existential risk, which is a board game, I think: Camus v. Sartre.

MA: (Laughs) Not exactly!

RU: I don't know how you win. It's probably like Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts — the board game never arrives.

Anyway, in the discourse currently going around among people who are part of the transhumanist schemata and transhumanist world — there seems to be a turn from optimism towards a dialogue that's sort of apocalyptic. And the Lifeboat website seems to reflect that. Do you think that's true?

MA: I think it is true to a small extent. I think it's actually reflective of the maturing of the transhumanist movement. Because it's easy to say…

RU: "It's gonna be great!"

MA: Particularly when the dotcom boom was happening, everyone was, like, "Oh, the future's gonna be great. No problems." You know... "We're making shitloads of cash. Everything's going to go well."

Now, we've had seven years of George Bush. We've been involved in two wars. We understand that reality isn't always peachy keen and we're going to have to deal with the consequences.

RU: So are people in the transhumanist world as worried as they sound, or is it partly political – trying to be responsible and ease concerns among people who are perhaps more paranoid than technophiles like yourself?

MA: No, it's very genuine. The more you understand about powerful technologies, the more you understand that they really do have the potential to hose us all, in a way that nuclear war can't.

RU: Give me your top two existential risks.

MA: Well, as Dr. Alan Goldstein pointed out on your show a couple of weeks ago, Synthetic Life is a huge risk because life is inherently designed to replicate in the wild. So life based on different chemical reactions could replicate much more rapidly than what we're accustomed to, like some sort of super-fungus. I think that's one of the primary risks. And the second risk would be artificial intelligence — human-surpassing artificial intelligence.

RU: So you're concerned about the "robot wars" scenario — artificial intelligence that won't care that much for us? Do you have any particular scenarios that you're following?

MA: Well, I'd like to caution people to be careful what they see in the movies. Because this is one of those areas where people have been speculating about it for quite a few decades, and so much fictional material has been built around it...

RU: Actually, I believe everything in .

MA: (Laughs) If you really look through those shows in a critical way, you see that they're full of blatant holes all over the place. Like, they can send a guy through time, but they can't send his clothes with him through time? (Laughs) In reality, I think that artificial intelligence is potentially most dangerous because it might not necessarily need to have a robotic body before it becomes a threat. An artificial intelligence that's made purely out of information could manipulate a wide variety of things on the internet. So it would have more power than we might guess.



RU: You've written a bit about the idea of Friendly AI. (We had
Eliezer Yudkowsky on the show quite a while back, talking about this.) Do you see steps that can be taken to ensure that A.I. is friendly?

MA: Yeah! I'm totally in support of Eliezer and the Singularity Institute. I think that they're one of the few organizations that has a clue. And they're growing. I think that you've got to put a lot of mathematical eggheads working together on the problem. You can't just look at it from an intuitive point of view. You can actually understand intelligence on a mathematical level. It's a lot to ask. I think that friendly A.I. will be a tremendous challenge because there's just a lot of complexity in what constitutes a good person. And there's a lot of complexity in what constitutes what we consider common sense.

RU: Do you think the breakthrough might come through reverse engineering the human brain?

MA: It's possible but probably not.

RU: Good, because I don't think human beings are that friendly. I think the friendly A.I. has to be friendlier than human beings.

MA: It definitely does. And one way we could do that is by creating an A.I. that doesn't have a self-centered goal system. All creatures built by Darwinian evolution inherently have a self-centered goal system. I mean, before we became altruistic, we were extremely selfish. A reptile has eggs, and then the eggs hatch and he just walks off. He doesn't care about his kids. So this altruism thing is relatively recent in the history of evolution, and our psychology is still fundamentally self-centered.

JD: Isn't trying to plan for the nature of these future AI's kind of absurd because of the exponential superiority of their reasoning... if they even have what we would call reasoning? Can we really plan for this? It seems like once you hit a certain threshold, the Singularity, by definition is incomprehensible to us.

MA: I initially had the same issue. It seems impossible. But ask yourself, if you could choose, would you rather have an A.I. modeled after Hitler or would you rather have an A.I. modeled after Mother Teresa?

Regardless of how intelligent the A.I. becomes, it starts off from a distinct initial state. It starts off from a seed. So whatever it becomes will be the consequence of that seed making iterative changes on itself.

JD: But maybe in the first nano-second, it completely expunges anything that resembles human reasoning and logic because that's just a problem to them that doesn't need to be solved any more. And then beyond that — we have no fucking clue what they're going to move onto.

MA: It's true, but whatever it does will be based on the motivations it has.

JD: Maybe. But not if it re-wires itself completely…

MA: But if it rewired itself, then it would do so based on the motivations it originally had. I mean, I'm not saying it's going to stay the same, but I'm saying there is some informational similarity — there's some continuity. Even though it could be a low-level continuity, there's some continuity for an A.I. Also, you could ask the same question of yourself. What happens if a human being gains control over its own mind state.

RU: How we understand our motivations might be distinct from how we would understand our motivations if we had a more advanced intelligence.

MA: That's true.

RU: I'm going to move on to something that was on the Lifeboat web site that confounded me. It's labeled a News Flash. It says, "Robert A. Freitas Jr. has found preliminary evidence that diamond mechanosynthesis may not be reliable enough in ambient temperatures to sustain an existential risk from microscopic ecophagic replicators."

JD: (Joking) I had a feeling that was the case. (Laughter)

RU: What the hell does that mean?!

MA: Robert's a bit of a wordy guy, but maybe I can explain it. You have an STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscope.) It's like a little needle that's able to scan a surface by measuring the quantum difference between the two surfaces. Diamond mechanosynthesis would just be the the ability to have a tiny needle-like robotic arm that places a single or perhaps two carbon atoms onto a pre-programmed place. So, in life, we are all based on proteins. Carbon isn't slotted in like in a covalent sense, which is the way that people that are working on nanotechnology are thinking of working. They're thinking of putting together pieces of carbon, atom by atom, to make a covalently bonding carbon. Robert's saying that it might be that the ambient temperature of the environment is too hot for that needle to work. So you'd need to have it in a vacuum or super-cooled environment for it to work.

RU: You did a good job of explaining that. Moving on, there's some talk on your site of the idea of relinquishment, which is deciding not to develop technologies. Is that even possible?

MA: Instead of relinquishment, I like to talk about selective development. You can't really relinquish technology too easily. But you can develop safeguards before technologies reach their maturity. And you can develop regulations that anticipate future consequences instead of always taking a knee-jerk reaction and saying: "Oh, this disaster happened; therefore we will now regulate."

RU: Of course, it's not really possible to regulate what everybody everywhere on the planet is doing.

MA: No, it's not.

RU: Are you familiar with Max More's Proactionary Principle?


MA: (Skeptically) Mmmm I'm...

RU: Too obvious?

MA: No, I don't fully agree with it. I do think that the Precautionary Principle has a point.

RU: Maybe I should say what it is. Basically, the Precautionary Principle says that with any technology we're developing, we should look ahead and see what the consequences are. And if the consequences look at all dire, then we should relinquish the technology. And Max More argues that we should also look at the possible consequences of not developing the technology. For instance, if we don't develop nanotechnology, everybody dies.

MA: Well, I don't think that would happen.

RU: I mean, eventually… just as they have for millennia.

MA: Oh — everyone will age to death!

RU: Right

MA: No, I agree that the balanced view looks at both sides of the equation. The Precautionary Principle's kind of been tarnished because there are people that are super-paranoid; and people who use it as an excuse to rule out things that they find ethically objectionable like therapeutic cloning.

RU: Well, you could take anything as an example. Look at automobiles. If we had looked ahead at automobiles — we could debate for hours whether they were a good idea. There would probably be less humans on the planet and there would probably be less distribution of medicine and food and all those things. On the other hand, we might not be facing global warming. It might be nice that there are less humans on the planet.

MA: Yeah, but in practice, if some invention is appealing and has large economic returns, then people are going to develop it no matter what.

RU: On the Lifeboat site, you have a list of existential risks. And people can sort of mark which existential risk they want to participate in or work on. I'd like to get your comments on a few of the risks that are listed. But before I go down a few of these things on the list, what do you think is up with the bees?

MA: The bees?

RU: The honeybees are dying off. Einstein said we wouldn't survive if...

JD: … there's some contention about whether he actually said that. I heard that somebody tried to find that quote, and they weren't able to find it.

MA: What does this have to do with the bees?

RU: Einstein said that if all the honeybees died off, we'd all be dead in four years, or something like that.

JD: Yeah, because of the natural cycles that they support. Somebody else debunked that.

RU: Well, he was no Einstein. You better look into the bees because that could be an existential risk.

So here's one of the risks – or the risk aversion possibilities — listed on the site: Asteroid Shield.

MA: Well, someone once said that we're in a cosmic shooting gallery and it's only a matter of time before we get nailed. I wouldn't consider this to be a high priority, but in the interest of comprehensiveness, it would be a good idea if we had a way to deflect asteroids. Serious scientists have been looking at this issue and they decided that knocking it out with a nuclear bomb wasn't really going to work so well. It's too expensive and too unpredictable. So they're talking about attaching small rockets to slowly pull an asteroid off course.



JD: I recently read one idea — collect a lot of space junk and create one big object to alter the gravitational...

MA: Or you can put a little electro-magnetic rail gun on the surface and progressively fire off chunks of the asteroid, which will also alter its course. Even if you altered the trajectory of an incoming asteroid by a tiny amount, it would probably miss because earth is just kind of like a tiny dot in space. But right now, we don't have the capability. So if an asteroid were coming next year, we would be screwed.

RU: Right. And people have started talking about it. I mean, there has been sort of an advance in the level of paranoia about asteroids that come anywhere near us in recent years.

MA: One asteroid came about half of the way between us and the moon a while ago.

JD: Was it big enough to kill us?

MA: No. It was a hundred feet across, though — not bad.

RU: So how much chaos would that cause? I guess that would depend on where it landed.

MA: Measured in megatons, I think it would be about one Hiroshima.

JD: Oh, okay. We can handle that… as long as it doesn't land in San Francisco.

MA: (Laughs) Exactly! So I don't think the asteroids are an immediate concern. But it helps people comprehend the notion of extinction risks.

RU: The former NASA astronaut Rusty Schweickart has become involved in fighting off the asteroids. He used to be part of the L5 Society. I think Ronald Reagan would say it's a way of uniting all the people of earth to fight against an enemy.

MA: Yeah!

RU: I think he talked about that in terms of aliens, not in terms of asteroids.

MA: Well, I think all existential risks, including the more plausible ones, do serve a function in uniting humanity, and I think that's a nice side effect.

RU: The particle accelerator shield — what's that about?

MA: Some people think — as we engage in increasingly high-powered particle accelerator experiments — something bad could happen. One standard idea is a strangelet, which is similar to an atom but much more compact. If a strangelet could absorb conventional matter into itself, and do so continuously, it could absorb the entire planet.

RU: Sort of like a black hole.

MA: Yes, very much like a black hole. It's another one of those situations where we want to instill a sense of caution in the minds of scientists. We don't want them to just dismiss these possibilities out of hand because it potentially threatens their funding. We want them to actually give it a little bit of thought.

RU: OK, what about "seed preserver."

MA: Oh, yeah! Well that's actually being done right now! The Norwegian government built a seed bank on some far north Arctic island. They're shoving some seeds in there, so I guess when the nanobots come, or the nuclear war comes and 99% of humanity is all gone, then we'll be able to go there, withdraw the seeds, and create life anew.

RU: You seem to be a believer in the Singularity. For me – maybe yes, maybe no. But I find it amusing that Vernor Vinge could give a talk titled "What if the Singularity Does NOT Happen", the implication being that the idea that it might not happen is a real stretch. Do you ever feel like you're in a cult — that people who believe in this share a peculiar reality?

MA: The word Singularity has become a briefcase word. People kind of want to put their pet ideas into it, so the actual idea has become kind of unclear in the minds of many people. To me, the Singularity is just the notion of an intelligence that's smarter than us. So if you say that you don't believe in the Singularity, it means that you believe that human beings are the smartest possible intelligence that this universe can hold.

RU: I guess what I don't believe is that it necessarily becomes a complete disjunction in history.

MA: But don't you think that homo sapiens are a quite complete disjunction from, say, homo erectus or chimps? We share 98% of the same DNA. So what if you actually used technology to surpass the human mind? I think you'd have something substantially more different from homo sapiens than homo sapiens was from their predecessors.

RU: Do you think it's more likely that we'll develop machines that are more intelligent than us and keep them exterior to us; or will we find some way of incorporating them into us? It seems to me, if you look at the passion that people have for being on the net, and being able to call up and get and link to all the information and all the intelligence on the planet, people are going to want this inside themselves. They're going to want to be able to have as much information and as much intelligence as everybody else. They'll want to unite with it.

MA: I think that would be a great thing, as long as people don't go using their intelligence for negative ends.

JD: Do you think this would happen gradually. Or do you think there would be this point in time where lots of people make choices like whether or not to merge? And then, maybe, the people who are afraid of that will want to stop people from doing it, and conflict...

MA: I think it could actually be somewhat abrupt, because once you have a superior intelligence, it can create better intelligence enhancement techniques for itself. So it could be somewhat abrupt. But I think that these smart entities could also find a way of keeping humanity on the same page and not making it like: "Oh, you have to choose… If your brother or your sister is not going into the great computer, then..."

RU: I think if it happens soon enough, it will be viewed as just another way of going online. You know, to young people, it will be just… "Yeah, this is how everybody's going online now."

MA: But if you had implants in your brain, it would be permanent.

RU: Do you think chaos is built into life? As the Artificial Life people have been saying, life happens on the boundary between order and chaos. If chaos is an element of life, can machines include chaos?

MA: Well, uh — hmm. I think that people overestimate the power of chaos.

RU: As a Patti Smith fan, I have to disagree.



MA: (Laughs) Well, it's such an appealing idea — chaos. But if you take a look at human blood and compare it to some random bit of muck you find in the ground, you'll see that it's highly regulated, and there are huge complements of homeostatic mechanisms in bodies that are constantly ordering things. Relative to the entropy in the air array outside; inside my body is a very orderly place, Life forms are very well organized pieces of matter.

RU: Right, but if you achieve complete homeostasis, then nothing happens.

MA: That's true. Life does have to be on that boundary so it is challenging

RU: Here's a quote from an interview with you: "The idea of the Singularity is to transcend limitations by reengineering brains or creating new brains from scratch, brains that think faster with more precision, greater capabilities, better insights, ability to communicate and so on." OK. That sounds good, but what about pleasure, play, creativity, eroticism… and whatever it is you get from magic mushrooms? Where does all that go?

MA: (Laughs) I think all that's very important. I think about all those things.

RU: So you think that can be built that into the singularity?

MA: Yeah. Oh, for sure…

RU: David Pierce is the one person who really sort of deals with those ideas.

MA: Well, it's not really too PC to talk about it. But when you take a psychedelic, you've changed your brain chemistry. With mushrooms, you flood your brain with this one psilocybin chemical. With technologies that let you actively change your own mind, it would be less of a shot in the dark. More precision modifications would be possible. And you could turn it on and off like a light switch, too. You could have much more control over it.

RU: Looking forward to it!

See Also:
Create an Alien, Win A-Prize
Why Chicks Don't Dig The Singularity
Death? No, Thank You
Prescription Ecstasy and Other Pipe Dreams

Read More

Keith Henson Back in Jail – Space Elevator Will Have To Wait

Keith Henson

On April 26, 2001, Keith Henson was convicted of interfering with a religion — a misdemeanor under California law — for picketing outside Scientology's heavily armed, razor wire-enforced base, outside Hemet California. He split for Canada, becoming the world's first "Scientology fugitive," and he's back in the U.S. dealing with a variety of court cases related to Scientology.

Henson was just thrown back in jail. As best as I can make out from the limited information currently available, Henson and his lawyers were scheduled for a hearing at 1:30 pm on Tuesday, May 8th. They were apparently unaware that warrants had recently been signed by the Governors of California and Arizona, and after the hearing, Henson was handed over to the Yavapai County Sheriff Department for incarceration until a hearing on Wednesday May 9th at 9 a.m. (A note received this afternoon — May 9th — from Henson's wife, Arel Lucas, says that he will remain in the lockup at least until Monday, May 13th. She invites people to write to him at: Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, Howard Keith Henson, 255 E. Gurley St. Prescott, AZ 86301. She also reminds you that the prison authorities read the letters before passing them on.)



Henson's travails in his ongoing battle with Scientology and the law have been amply covered here.

I heard about Henson's renewed captivity as I was editing this interview I did with him for The RU Sirius Show on March 29th. While we talked about scientology a bit, the main focus was on another one of Henson's interests. Just before he was originally arrested in his conflict with the Scientologists, he was scheduled to talk at a European Space Agency conference on how Space Elevators could completely solve the carbon and energy problems.

Keith Henson has been a space buff since he was eight years old. Back in 1975, he and others — including nanotech guru K. Eric Drexler — founded the L5 Society. They promoted space colonies and solar power satellites built out of metals extracted from moon rock. The L5 Society eventually became the National Space Society.

Jeff Diehl joined me in interviewing Keith Henson on the show.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: So what's your favorite Tom Cruise movie?

KEITH HENSON: (Laughs) None of them. My dislike for the cult has spilled over into everything that's associated with it. But I do have to admit Tom has been very effective at taking Scientology down. He certainly did more damage to their image in a year than I did in ten. And he and Katie aren't done yet, I betcha.

RU: He played a creepy head-fucker quite effectively in the film Magnolia. It's worth seeing if you decide to break your Cruise fast.

It's been said that you fear the Scientologists will get to you in jail. Some people who are otherwise sympathetic have expressed skepticism about this. Do you have any evidence, any reason to fear the thuggery of Scientologists in the tank?

KH: I sure do. I have evidence that I accidentally acquired a few weeks ago that the Riverside courts themselves were engaged in outright criminal acts — that is, using the power of the courts to entrap me into a crime.

RU: That's a pretty heavy charge. Can you substantiate it?

KH: You can find a letter I wrote about this back in 2001 on my website. I just never imagined I would get paper evidence pulled out of the county's court files. Well, recently, I was handed a paper out of the Riverside court files that had never been listed as part of the files. Obviously somebody went looking for a warrant to send over to Arizona and pulled it out without looking at the date. I know now, of course, that Riverside Court illegally keeps secret documents that are not listed in the docket. So I accidentally found out that it's the very warrant that would've been used to arrest me at that deposition. It's dated September 15, 2000, and sure enough, they listed the charge of "Failure to Appear" on it. And that's just not a crime that happened on September 15. So the arrest warrant could not possible have been filled out that day. It was most likely filled out weeks before the date on it. And by issuing a warrant for a crime that never happened — the court itself was complicit in a serious criminal act. If a person were convicted of this, they could spend many years in prison.

RU: Well, obviously the Scientologists are very well-connected. But you've received a lot of public support. Does that make you safer?

KH: Yes it does. I was treated fairly roughly until hundreds of phone calls came into the jail. And then they realized that this was not a person they could just shove down a hole and forget.

RU: Have any establishment figures come to your side?

KH: Mostly, no. It's amazing how some people who are considered really brave heroes get terrified by the Scientology cult. I hesitate to say which one of them panicked when I asked him to make a phone call for me to keep me in Canada. But if you think about it, you could probably figure it out.



RU: Well, I'm sure it's not Jerry Brown, who used to be an L5-er and is now the Attorney General of California. Did you ever have any interactions with him?

KH: Not directly. I've got an email from his office that says that I should essentially file a complaint against the District Attorney and the courts.

RU: Did you have any interactions with him back when you were in L5?

KH: I'd never met Jerry back in those days. I met other people in his administration like Rusty Schweickart, who was a good buddy with Jerry Brown.

RU: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about your upcoming case.

KH: (Laughs) Which one? I've got three of them open at the moment. There's a motion to correct an injunction the Riverside court was not permitted to issue; a bankruptcy case that has got tangled up recently with O.J. Simpson's; and this extradition business in Arizona. That last one requires the California governor to sign an extradition warrant, and there's been enough complaints to him about it that I don't think he's going to do it. (ed: He did, on May 1)

RU: It's weird to hear O.J. Simpson's name come up. I don't suppose you can talk any more about your connection with OJ. There could be a book contract in there for you — the book industry loves OJ!

KH: Well, I can give you a quick thing. It turns out that that the lawyer for the other side in a bankruptcy case involving my bank worked against OJ Simpson – I think it was for the Goldbergs. So he asked for a delay in my case.

RU: We will contemplate all aspects of your possible connections with the OJ case over the coming weeks and months and maybe get back to it. "If the e-Meter doesn't fit, you must acquit" or something.

You've been working on ideas for power satellites recently. What is that, and how old is the idea, and how did you wind up back in the space engineering area again?

KH: Well, it's actually connected to the Scientology cult. I couldn't be employed while I was trying to hide out from them. They have agents inside the IRS, so when you use your social security number, they just pull it and come and get you. So I spent a lot of the time in the past year working on a post-Singularity novel. I didn't want to write about wars and violence, which is in the cards if we don't solve the energy crisis. So I had to make the people in the novel able to solve that. There are only a few ways to get the amount of power needed to replace the fossil fuel sources that we've been using up — and power satellites are one of them. Power satellites are a way to put solar power collectors where the sun shines more of the time, and no clouds are in the way. They're just giant solar collectors in orbit with microwave transmitters and gigantic receivers on earth. They're an old idea. It's been 38 years since Peter Glazer invented them. I revived the idea to cope with energy and global warming for this novel. It's one of the few ways you can deal with both.

RU: So, just to be really clear: how does it resolve energy and global warming problems?

KH: Well, there are a few approaches that are big enough to replace the energy that we get from oil and coal. Power satellites are one of them, and if you have the capacity to build power satellites, you can build planetary-scale sun shades as well.

RU: Aren't there terrestrial energy alternatives to this?

KH: The only ones I know about are fusion and fission plants — a lot of fission power, huge fusion plants. But they both suffer from a really nasty problem. It's just too easy to divert neutrons toward making high-quality plutonium — like 99% plutonium 239. And with that, it becomes very easy to make terrorist nukes. I wrote about it.

RU: OK. So apparently these things could be a threat. Let's get back to the power satellites. Tell us more about those.

KH: Okay. There are three parts to the power sat. Making the energy out of sunlight in space — there can be enormous structures — lightweight structures in geosynchronous orbit. And you would probably use solar cells on the thing, but you could even use steam turbines. And then you have a big transmitter to turn the power into a microwave beam of huge size. And then you need a gigantic antenna on the ground that converts the microwaves back to electricity.

RU: How big would it be?

KH: Well, if you could fit one in an area of forty square miles — that's the size of a medium city — the ground antenna would be about 50 miles. That sounds like a lot of land, but the receiving antenna is just light mesh. It doesn't block the sunlight, so you can put it over farmland and still farm underneath it. Terrestrial solar power takes a lot more land.

RU: Might this not kill off all the bees or something? Might not living under this antenna do something else strange to people?

KH: Well, yeah...

RU: I mean, for instance, people are talking about cell phones killing off all the bees.

KH: Well actually, that's ridiculous. Cell phones were around a long time before the bees started disappearing.

RU: That's too bad, because I'm putting, like, a dozen cell phones on my front porch...



KH: (Laughs) But I'll tell you this — the power level that you get in a power satellite, out in the middle of the thing, isn't any more power than you get to your head when you've got a cell phone running. It's pretty low.

JEFF DIEHL: So could you fly through this beam?

KH: Well, yeah. I propose that we use much higher-powered beams, and then we just have a restaurant on wheels, where you put the thing in a duck flyway. And you just move the restaurant around to the north side in the spring and the south side in the fall, and the ducks just fall out of the air completely cooked. (Laughter.)

RU: So you and a number of people have been talking about this for a long time. Why haven't we moved in this direction?

KH: Well, the big holdup is the transport cost to orbit. Rockets are just terrible, efficiency-wise. I mean, you see this enormous blast of … well, you've seen the launches of the Apollos. It's just terribly wasteful. But using nanotubes, we can build a space elevator.

JD: Getting the stuff up there is just a one-time expense, right?

KH: It is, sort of… and it isn't, sort of. You have to power these things because there's no free lunch. But you can probably haul up a couple of hundred tons of material at a time. You have to push it clear out to geo-synch, and then you have to unreel it in both directions. Anyway, once you've built one of these things, it only costs you to run it. Now, for a long time, people working on a related idea have been hung up on a pathway that was just plain wrong. They've been trying to use, design, figure out how to use climbers that use beamed power — mostly lasers — to beam the materials up there. The idea there is to have electric driving wheels on the things, powered by lasers. That's better than rockets, which are around maybe 1% efficient. But the best estimates I've gotten from the people that are working on it are that they would be around 7%, which is still just terrible.

So working on this novel, I came up with a moving cable design, because — if you're going to try to solve the energy problem, the traffic you need going into space is enormous. It's a couple of thousand tons a day.

Anyway, the idea is an elevator that runs on a bunch of pulleys up into space and you just power the thing from the bottom.

RU: So how fast is this baby gonna take me up into space?

KH: I'm not sure. The faster you go, the more throughput you get. I think you can run it maybe as high as a thousand miles an hour. At that speed, it's 22,000 miles out there, so at that speed it would take you 22 hours to get to geo. You've got to bring your lunch and dinner… and I guess even breakfast.

Of course, we're not transporting people, and I think you'd actually want to run faster than that. But remember, I'm driving this thing as an endless loop from the ground. So that means the lowest part of the thing is in the atmosphere. And running up through the atmosphere at a thousand miles per hour is all sorts of supersonic shock waves and everything else like that.

RU: Now you have to use nanotube cable to do this, right? So is this cable technically plausible at this point?

KH: They've actually measured the strength of nanotube cable, and it's strong enough to do the job. If you can get it up to 63 gigapascals, you can just run it over a pulley at geosynch. But if you can't do that, there's a way that you can run intermediate stepped pulleys in the thing where you can get a constant diameter cable, and a stepped number of strands in parallel on it. It has to be nanotube. Steel isn't anywhere near good enough. With nanotubes — they've measured it as handling almost 6 million pounds per square inch. And it's only 30% denser than water, so it's strong enough and light enough — but it's a bit expensive.

RU: How expensive is it?

KH: (Laughs) Carbon nanotubes, if you buy them at $75 million a ton...

RU: So you can actually buy these now?

KH: Oh yeah.

RU: I could… wait a second, what if I just wanted one nanotube.

KH: (Laughs) Well, one nanotube, you'd blow away with your breath. In fact, you'd blow away an entire pound of the things. Anyway, the elevator takes about a hundred thousand tons, so unless the price comes down, that's $7.5 trillion worth of elevator cable. But my guess is that the stuff will come down to cents per kilogram. There's a neat method that's not really been sufficiently investigated. If you can figure out how to get metal solvent to precipitate nanotubes...you're in business!

RU: How long would it take the power satellite to pay back the energy that it takes to get itself into orbit?

KH: It takes roughly a gigawatt of power to drive the motors that drag all this stuff up into orbit. You wind up with a five gigawatt power satellite. It takes one day for this thing to re-pay the energy. When it comes online, it's generating 5 gigawatts every day.

After you account for everything on it — all the energy to refine the metals and make the solar cells, or whatever else you're using — it may well take something like a hundred days. But you get 24-hour sunlight, unfiltered by clouds, and no night. And you can really use much lighter structures for it.

The idea is that the cable would bring up enough materials to build one. So if you're talking about building 60 or 70 power satellites in a year's time, that would displace all the existing coal plants in the U.S. And if you keep doing it, in a few years you displace all of them in the entire world.

RU: Is there anything you can imagine that might go wrong with these solar panels?

KH: Oh, tons of things can go wrong with it. One of the nasty problems is you've got to clean all the stuff out of lower orbits.

RU: Space junk.

KH: Yeah, you've got to clean up the space junk. So part of the project is 50 or 100 ion tugs that are capable of running around and gathering up all this stuff.

RU: Sounds like Pac-Man.

If I remember correctly, you're talking about 50 square miles, the size of a medium-sized city? And where might we try locating this thing, on the ground?

KH: You gotta put it on the equator, or really close. There's only one place that the U.S. owns that's on the Equator — it's called Baker Island. It's right smack out in the middle of the Pacific. It's 13 miles north of the equator, but if you put a ship anchored 12 miles south of there, it'd still be in U.S. territorial waters. And guess what we use for a ship?

RU: Yeah?

KH: The Enterprise.

RU: Well, that belongs to the Navy. So you get the Navy's cooperation? Is that in the plan?

KH: I think so.

RU: The US government is going to give up a perfectly good island that they could put prisoners on?

KH: (Laughs) The point is to put it under U.S. law, maybe. That's the trick. I don't know whether you want to do that or not, but if you do — that's the place you can do it. You actually need the Enterprise, because you need the initial power to get the thing up there. The Enterprise puts out about two-tenths to the gigawatt. So you can bootstrap this thing. The Enterprise is due to be decommissioned in seven years. So we've got seven years to put the business plan together.

JD: It's nuclear-powered, right?

KH: Yes, it's the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

RU: In seven years, the carbon nanotubes can perhaps come down in price a little bit. I imagine that once they start being used more, the price on those should come down quite a bit. Is there stuff being made out of this now? What are likely to be some of the first products that will be made from these before we build a space elevator?

KH: There are a few things that are being made out of them now. They're used for the scanning probes on scanning/tunneling microscopes, for instance. But they're going to be useful for all kinds of things. A quarter-inch cable made from carbon nanotubes can pick up a 150-ton locomotive up with these things.

JD: When can I hold a carbon nanotube in my hand… something made out of carbon nanotubes?

KH: If it was a really fine tube stretched really tight — like, say a thousandth of an inch in diameter — and you ran your hand through the thing, you'd have two pieces of hand.

RU: Let's go back to your origins. You've been interested in space for a really long time. Three decades ago we had the L5 Society. I've heard that the guy who now runs NASA Ames is sort of into the Gerard O'Neill concept of space colonies, so maybe that will come back. What do you think has happened with the movement towards space, and do you see some hope in the civilian programs? What do you think about human beings moving up there?

KH: I don't think it's going to happen.

RU: Never?

KH: No. Not to any serious extent. And the reason is… Second Life.

JD: Virtual reality?

KH: By the time we have the ability to get into space cheaply, it's going to be late 2030s or early 2040's. We may well be so far into the Singularity time that there won't be hardly any population left.

RU: Really?! So that's your analysis. You think that human beings will have been replaced? Or we'll have a Singularitarian disaster of some sort?

KH: I don't know. Even a singularity that isn't a disaster could easily wind up removing people's desire to go into space. Space was an adventure.

RU: There's also the idea that humans need a frontier. You think that disappears into cyberspace?

KH: It could easily happen. I was amazed by the fact that there are 300,000 people in Second Life, a year after it started.

RU: Yeah, I actually suspect that this is the Second Life, and that's the Third Life. And each version of it seems a little worse than the previous one.

Returning to our creepy friends in Scientology, there's a religion written by a science fiction writer. Rumor is, that L. Ron Hubbard started the religion to prove that he could. But it's sort of a science fictional religion. And certainly the areas that you've dealt with in your life have sort of a science fictional aspect also. So it's like some science fictional battle. There seems to be a great novel in there somewhere.



KH: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. My own connection with it started clear back when I was in 7th grade, and my mother read me Farmer in the Sky.

RU: Which is not by Hubbard, it's by Robert Heinlein.

KH: Heinlein. Hubbard was, at best, a third-rate science fiction writer. But he did manage to latch on to a technology that indeed works — it parts people with their money. By the way, if you want to find my theory paper on why this occurs, just Google sex drugs and cults.



See also:
"Scientology Fugitive" Arrested
Great Moments in the War Against the DMCA
California Cults
Thou Shalt Realize the Bible Kicketh Ass
Keith Henson on Memetics, Scientology and Evolutionary Psychology

Read More

Closing Pandora’s Box: The End of Internet Radio?


Internet Radio has become a powerful resource for people looking for greater musical diversity when they tune in. Now that diversity is threatened by a draconian rate increase for every copyrighted tune that these stations play.

In a ruling that was made public just after this article was initially published, the Copyright Royalty Board has extended the deadline for implementing the new rate structure to July 15th. According to the AP: "Webcasters can file a notice to appeal the decision in federal court, something they have said they plan to do."

Tim Westergren is one of the leading spokespeople for SaveNetRadio.org, the organization that is fighting back against the new regulations.

Westergren is also founder of the Musical Genome Project and Pandora Internet Radio. Coincidentally, Pandora has just hit a snarl with international licensing. On Wednesday, Pandora sent an email to its 6.5 million subscribers with bad news — they would now be forced to curtail access to subscribers in most non-U.S. countries. ("[W]e are deeply, deeply sorry to say... It is difficult to convey just how disappointing this is...")

I recently interviewed Westergren on NeoFiles. Jeff Diehl joined me.

To listen to the full interview in MP3, click here

RU SIRIUS: Let's start with the basics. What has the Copyright Royalty Board done?

TIM WESTERGREN: It's pretty simple. We pay a licensing fee for every song that we stream, which was determined by the Copyright Royalty Board. And the royalty board just voted to almost triple those fees within the next couple of years. So overnight, they've made webcast radio pretty much impossible. It's impossible, at these new rates, to really operate a radio station online.



RU: So who is the Copyright Royalty Board and how did they become so empowered?

TW: They're members of the copyright office in D.C. They were empowered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Its purpose was, sort of, to govern webcasting; to provide a structure, both in terms of the constraints and the licensing structure. There were three judges assigned to this case.

RU: So there are no existing checks and balances at this point other than to try to go back to Congress?

TW: It looks like our only recourse is to get some legislative help. So in the last couple of weeks, under the "Save Net Radio" coalition, we've tried to organize as many webcasters and musicians and other folks to put pressure on Congress. There was such an uproar in the first week following this ruling that a bill was just introduced on Thursday of last week to roll it back, and to further alter the basic structural problem that really discriminates against internet radio.

RU: Who's sponsoring the bill?

TW: Representatives Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington, and Don Manzullo, a Republican from Illinois, are the lead sponsors. Many co-sponsors are signing up as we speak.

RU: Tell us a bit about the bill.

TW: It's called the Internet Radio Equality Act. As the title indicates, it's trying to establish parity between internet radio and satellite radio. Right now, internet radio is treated differently and worse than satellite and much worse than terrestrial radio for the same function. We're asking to be treated equally — which means paying a percent of revenue. The bill would void this Royalty Board ruling and establish parity with the percent revenue that's used for satellite radio.

RU: Do people who oppose this equal treatment argue that internet radio is harder to keep track of? Maybe more stations can slip through the cracks because the internet is virtually infinite.

TW: I don't think I've ever heard that argument. Originally, there was some argument that it was easier to copy off the internet because it's digital. But of course, HD radio is digital. Satellite radio is digital sometimes. So that argument is no longer used.

RU: Going way back, we could always slip a cassette in and record directly off the radio.

It's probably pretty difficult to get anything like this through Congress. My impression, for instance, is that the entertainment industry owns many Congresspeople, particularly in the Democratic Party, where a lot of your support would seem likely to come from.

TW: In general, I think that's historically true. When it comes to things like licensing and issues as it relates to media and music, Congress has been the domain of the industry. But I think in the last three or four years, we've started to see a reversal of that leverage. The internet has empowered this huge class of musicians and "participative listeners" now. I think that power is just starting to show and I don't think they're going to take this sitting down. In the end, I hope and believe that Congress is going to react to their constituents. There were hundreds of thousands of FAXes and letters sent to Congressmen within a couple of days of the coalition starting.

RU: Now, there seem to be two dates on this. I understand it's retroactive back to January of 2006 — but then there's another date approaching. Is that correct?

TW: Well, that's D-Day! July 15 is the day. That's the latest date we've heard when these rates are going to become law. And when they do become effective, the payments are retroactive back to the beginning of '06. On that day, every webcaster will be suddenly faced with a fee that they can't afford.

RU: Did they inform people of this in January of 2006?

TW: A plan for this rate to be readjusted was announced at the end of '05. It took a long time for them to set the rate, but I think what they came up with was a shock to everybody.

RU: But technically, you're playing songs in January of 2006 for one price, and then they're coming along and charging you more money. That doesn't sound legal to me.

TW: Well, I don't know about the legality of it, that's not my expertise. But I can tell you that on that day, the bills will be due from everyone from college radio to non-profits to small webcasters. For folks like us at Pandora, the costs are going to be astronomical.

I think that this ruling has virtually no constituents.

RU: Well, there's the RIAA

TW: I would argue, though, that if they really thought this through, they would recognize that this is a bad decision. It's crushing a promotional channel.

JEFF DIEHL: Did they give a rationale for such a huge hike in the rates?

TW: Well, Sound Exchange is the organization that pushed for it. And their rationale is that it's fair, and that if you can't run a business on it, you shouldn't be in business.

RU: That's not much of an argument.

JD: But why that amount of a hike? An incremental increase would be one thing, but this is exponential. They don't give any reason for that?

TW: All I can do is take at face value what I hear, in terms of press releases and commentary. And it's all been, "It's fair, and if you can't run a business on it, then you shouldn't be in business."

RU: Who does Sound Exchange work for? They're supposedly representing musicians, right?

TW: That's an interesting question. Sound Exchange is meant to represent all musicians. And their board is comprised of artists, and representatives of the small labels and the large labels. And I'm a musician myself. I used to play in bands. I spent ten years living in a van and doing that whole thing. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a dozen musicians who — if they got fully educated on the subject — would actually support this ruling that is ostensibly supposed to help them.

RU: It's sort of mysterious how this could emerge from an artist's organization rather than from the music corporations. I mean, obviously radio had promoted music for several generations. It's baffling.

TW: There were two sides in the discussion – the webcasters and some artists were on one side; and then Sound Exchange, the RIAA, and these various constituents were on the other. They argued in front of the Royalty Board for different solutions. And the Royalty Board, in a very flawed ruling, went all the way in one direction. So my guess is that the ruling surprised even Sound Exchange, although they've defended it since.



RU: I'm still trying to figure out whose interests are being served...

TW: Well, if this goes through, it basically ruins internet radio. But maybe a small handful will continue to stream – folks who can somehow continue. And in order to continue, they'll be forced to sign direct licensing agreements with labels. When they do that, there's a big difference in the way the royalties are divided up. In the current DMCA statute, all the royalties get split half with the artist, half with the label. In the world where you're dealing directly with a label, it virtually all goes to the label. So that could be one incentive.

RU: Okay, I'm beginning to see some interests who would like to monopolize Internet radio and who could be behind this.

On the Save Net Radio web site, there's talk about a 300% - 1200% percent increase. That's a big difference. How is all that mapped out?

TW: That's a good question. The reason for the difference is that in the previous rate structure, there was two ways stations could pay. Smaller and non- commercial webcasters could pay a percent of their revenue. And if you got beyond a certain size, you had to pay per tuning hour rate. The new ruling creates one rule for everybody, and it's all just "per song." So if you take someone who's paying a percent of revenue, and then translate that to what they would be paying in this new rate, in some cases it's over a 1,000% increase.

RU: Stations that have very little revenue had a way of functioning before and now they won't.

TW: And I think that's important. Pandora is all for paying musicians. We completely believe in that and we've done that since the very beginning. But the rate that they're paid needs to make sense in this business as it exists right now. And it's all about promotion. Online radio is the only hope that your average indie musician has for getting any kind of exposure.

RU: It's become common knowledge that most people hate terrestrial radio. They hate the radio stations and what the corporations have done to them. And people are looking all over the place for alternatives.

TW: The growth in internet radio is certainly partly because folks are looking for alternatives. And it's an alternative for musicians too.

RU: Of course, it took a while to work out an agreement where internet radio stations were legally allowed to play music that's owned. I think it was really after the DMCA in 1998 that some agreements were worked out. Do you know anything about that history?

TW: I'm not a perfect historian on this, but basically in 2002, that whole legislation that you're talking about was re-considered. And that's when new language was inserted into the bill that changed the standard for rate setting for internet radio. It's called the "willing buyer, willing seller" standard. It's a standard that's only applied to internet radio — it's not applied to satellite and it's not applied to terrestrial radio. It opened up a doorway for this kind of crazy rate-setting to come along.

RU: Many people have observed that the smallest webcasters are the ones that are really going to get screwed by this. Most college stations stream on the web, and they will be among the first to go. Where is Pandora in this?

TW: Pandora's a large webcaster…

RU: Are you guys going to survive?

TW: Not at these rates. Pandora can't make it work at these rates.

RU: That's very honest of you. Your investors must be...

TW: Yeah… they read a quote in the news from me one morning saying, "We're dead if this stays." It wasn't hyperbole. Larger webcasters like Pandora… we're actually a viable alternative for independent musicians. We have 6.5 million listeners right now, and that figure is growing fast. That's the kind of critical mass that's really going to allow you to build a new independent artists' foundation. And I'm a huge fan of indie, but even indie musicians need scale. They need to support the growth of large internet companies that do this, as well as the small ones.

JD: What role do the record labels really play for the artists anymore — marketing, getting musicians on the radio? Isn't it possible that an outfit like yours could connect directly with artists and say, "We'll support you"? Is there a chance to get rid of that middleman?

TW: Well, I think that the industry is starting to bifurcate. There is still the sort of "hit" industry that is the traditional business. And the stations that play that are largely marketing vehicles, like you said. But with some good software editing tools and good recording chops, you can make a CD now without borrowing half a million dollars, which was the whole premise for the record deal in the beginning. So technology has now allowed musicians to make professional-sounding CDs, and make them available globally, virtually for free. The record labels won't go away. They're going to change and consolidate more and more, which they've already been doing.

RU: There are some startups that are trying to do that — to eliminate the middleman.

TW: Oh yeah. There's a whole industry growing up around the "new label" — which is more like a quasi-management/distribution/promotions company. I think that's going to play a bigger and bigger role.

RU: And then some rock stars who have enough of a reputation can also...

TW: … do it on their own.

RU: Prince has done some of that.

TW: Pandora is not going to go into the label business. We really need to separate the radio from having any kind of agenda related the music we play. I think that's really important.

RU: Does it bug the music industry that people can make their own radio stations with companies like yours? It was always a dream of mine that I could just run down a list of all my favorite artists, and just have some station regurgitate their entire catalogues in some randomized fashion.

TW: I think that one of the debates around internet radio, is: is it promotional or is it substitutional? When it gets really interactive and you can choose at any time to listen to "Dark Side of the Moon" from front to back — chances are you're not going to buy the album. And when that happens, whoever is doing that is providing something that's kind of in lieu of buying a CD or buying a single. They would need to charge something different for that.

RU: It seems like you guys are pretty close to that boundary compared to, say, a station where DJs spin tunes that they choose.

TW: To me, the real bright line is that we're not offering songs on demand. On Pandora, you won't know when a song's coming, just like on terrestrial radio. I think that makes it fundamentally different. And Pandora's a wildly promotional service.

RU: The big broadcast stations also have streaming on the internet. Are you getting any support from any of them?

TW: Yeah. The National Association of Broadcasters is with us too. Every radio company wants to be part of the online world.

RU: So what's in it for us podcasters? When do we get a voice in Washington?

TW: Well, I think this is a great bill for anybody who wants to include music in their programming because it's acknowledging the internet format as radio. So I think it's a step in the right direction for podcasters too.

RU: Good! Do you think we could grandfather ourselves in under this? We could just say, "Hey, this applies to us!" and maybe make a test case out of it.

TW: Well, I think the one difference between podcast and radio is that you create and post copies of your shows. So you create a copy of a piece of music that you can replay, rewind, and so on. So it's in a different category. And I think that if you're making a copy of a piece of music that can be used and re-used, it's legitimate to worry that people won't buy the music. So it's different.

RU: Before I let you go, tell us a little something about your own work. How was the Musical Genome Project conceived and how does it work?

TW: It's something that we started about seven and a half years ago in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. It's an enormous collections of songs that we have been analyzing, musicologically, one song at a time to try to capture their musical DNA. A team of musicians literally listens to songs — one at a time — and analyzes them for their attributes. We have 50 musicians working for us now. We've been at it for seven and a half years, so it's really been a long path to create enough music in one collection to power the radio service. It takes between 15 and 30 minutes to analyze each song.

RU: I was trying to think about whether music can really be broken down into its component parts. So I tried your station. I combined Brian Eno, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles and Sonic Youth and it worked pretty well. But then I was thinking, if I added my absolute favorite band, which would be The Rolling Stones circa 1966 – 1972, I'd wind up getting lots of stuff that sucks like Aerosmith and Guns 'N' Roses.

TW: Musically, there's always going to be some stuff that's great that you can't quite put your finger on. I think that's part of what makes music so great. But yeah… it works most of the time, but there are going to be some situations where you're not going to be happy with what you hear.



RU: Give folks a final pitch for how they can get active to save net radio.

TW: Go to SaveNetRadio.org where we're keeping all the news and recommendations on what to do and we’ve got the latest news on the bill. But the basic call to action is for folks to call their Congressperson to urge them to support this bill, which is called the Internet Radio Equality Act, and it's House Resolution 2060. Call your Congressperson for your district. You can look it up on the web just by typing in your zip code. All that information's at SaveNet Radio.org. Make a call and say "Support the bill!"

See Also:
Dear Internet, I'm Sorry
Is Yahoo/Flicker DMCA Policy Censorship?
Detention and Torture: Are We Still Free, or Not?
How the iPod Changes Culture

Read More

Create an Alien, Win A-Prize!


We won't discover the first alien lifeforms out amongst the stars, says Dr. Alan Goldstein. We will create them in our own laboratories.

Goldstein is a professor of bio-materials at Alfred University (currently on leave). He writes about nanotechnology and biotechnology for Salon and other publications. Goldstein recently conceived of The A-Prize, which is “awarded to the person or organization responsible for creating an Animat/Artificial lifeform with an emphasis on the safety of the researchers, public, and environment OR the person or organization who shows that an Animat/Artificial life form has been created." Goldstein's concept has been brought to life under the sponsorship of The Lifeboat Foundation.

So if you know about any Artificial Life forms, you can now win $26,300. (Or you may want to hold out until the cash winnings increase.)

I interviewed Dr. Goldstein over two episodes of NeoFiles
To listen the full interviews in MP3, click here and here.

See video here.

RU SIRIUS: You've convinced the Lifeboat Foundation to offer an A-prize for creating an "Animat" — or as I read it — for noticing that one exists. So what's an Animat and why are you offering a prize for making one?

ALAN GOLDSTEIN: Well, The X Prize was offered to induce people to achieve space flight. The capitalist concept is that private enterprise can do it better and more cheaply than the government. But there was another purpose – to make people consider the possibility that going into space wasn't actually that hard. Private people and private companies could get it together and make a vehicle and get into space.

So we designed the A-Prize to make people aware that creating synthetic lifeforms is not that hard either. Many people in many labs are working on it right now, and it will probably occur in the near future. So the A-Prize is broken up into two parts. You can win the A-Prize by being the first person or scientific group to invent a synthetic lifeform, or you can win the A-Prize by blowing the whistle on a person or group that has invented a synthetic lifeform. Many researches are afraid to be associated with the creation of a synthetic lifeform. So they might be making it, but they're not going to tell you. It could go unnoticed, and it probably will go unnoticed.

RU: And by your definition, an Animat is an artificial organism.

AG: In the article "I, Nanobot", I define lifeforms. And the central idea there is that a lifeform is any entity capable of executing a sequence of chemical or physical activities that result in the perpetuation or propagation of itself.

Why bother to define the difference between a biological lifeform and an artificial lifeform? So we will know one when we see one. It's like SETI, right? We're scanning outer space for signs of intelligent life, but who's scanning inner space? Who's watching for the invention of the first self-replicating, non-biological molecule? The answer is: no one. So the person who invents it might report it and they might not report it. If it's invented inside of a bio-defense laboratory, they probably won't report it.

RU: There are two things — there's secrecy, and there's also the possibility that somebody might not even think of it in those terms, and you think it's important enough to...

AG: Exactly! They're not looking for it. So it's really very simple. If you can accomplish everything you need to accomplish to go through your life cycle and the information for all of your activities can be stored in DNA and/or RNA, you are biological. In other words, if all of the code for your life processes can be stored in DNA — our genetic material – or RNA, the genetic material for some viruses and other organisms... you're biological. If you use any other form of chemistry to get through your life cycle, even one step of your life cycle, then you're something that has not been on earth for four billion years.

You know, most people think that DNA is the basis of life. In my opinion, that's not the correct way to look at it. DNA is the chemical programming language that evolution selected, so it's a chemical programming language that biological life forms use to replicate. But there's nothing special about DNA. It just won that particular evolutionary race.

RU: In the A-Prize statement, you write, "Considerable advancement in synthetic biology has been made recently." Can you point at anything particularly?

AG: In Berkeley last year, there was a synthetic biology meeting. It was called Synthetic Biology 2.0. Now, Synthetic Biology is supposed to be where we build biological life forms from the ground up. So we make the DNA. We make the genome, essentially — one base at a time. It's synthetic because we build it one molecule at a time, but in the end, we have a biological lifeform that works the way biological lifeforms (like us) do. But if you go to the website for Synthetic Biology, you will see that their logo is a single bacteria cell full of lasers and nano-wires and all kinds of synthetic, non-biological materials. So they've already violated their own definition in their logo. These people are so confused that they don't even know what they're talking about now!



RU: Let's back up a bit. The first discussions of Artificial Life that I was aware of popped up in the late 1980s. And at that time, people were really talking about stuff that was happening digitally on computers. They were talking about digital stuff that could imitate the way life evolves.

AG: That's the key to the problem! Nearly all the people interested in artificial and synthetic life come out of systems engineering and AI research. They don't understand that it's about the chemistry. Again, biological life is not based on DNA. DNA is just a particular chemical programming language that we happen to use. So when other chemical programming languages become available for replication, we will have non-biological lifeforms. And a non-biological lifeform, as I define it, is an artificial lifeform. Or an alien lifeform – we're actually talking about creating an alien lifeform. So the first alien lifeform will not come from the stars, right? It will come from ourselves. We will make it!

Imagine that I create a self-replicating silicon molecule that is a clot buster. It works just like some of the blood thinners that people take, but it is self-catalytic. When it binds to a biomolecule, it assumes a replicative form and makes a copy of itself. So it can be only one molecule — 45 atoms. But because it is self-replicating, it's a silicon-based life form. So if you're only interested in systems, in things that are complex enough to be AI, the fact that a self-replicating molecular entity that is not biological is a lifeform would slip right by you! You wouldn't even notice it. Why would you? You're not looking for it.

RU: The people behind the X Prize offered the prize because they actually want people to build vehicles that will go into space. Is the A-Prize really about raising public awareness or are you actually interested in seeing somebody create an Animat?

AG: It's inexorable. Artificial life forms will be generated. People are working on them right now. So the question is, should they be generated in secret? Should they be generated randomly? Should they be generated by whoever has enough money to generate them? Or should we formulate an organized, coherent set of definitions and guidelines, and work within those, just like we did with recombinant DNA? I'm not against this research — I do this research. But it needs to be regulated. And right now, it is completely unregulated.

RU: Well, why do you do the research? What can be accomplished by Animats?

AG: Well, it's just another form of chemistry, right? Until it begins to self-replicate, it's just an interesting way to build things. Molecular manufacturing and molecular self-assembly are the manufacturing systems of the future. There is a new industrial revolution coming – the molecular manufacturing revolution. And if we don't get on board, someone else will do it. It's not going to go away because America doesn't participate or because Alan Goldstein doesn't participate.

RU: So you're basically talking about the same sorts of promises and dangers that people have been talking about in terms of nanotechnology.

AG: Nanotechnology has become a completely meaningless term. What is really happening now is molecular engineering.

RU: Well, that's what Eric Drexler meant by nanotechnology.

AG: I advise calling it what it is: molecular engineering. And if you start mixing molecules from living organisms with molecules from non-living organisms, you create molecular hybrid entities. And if these things have the ability to self-replicate, what have you made? And if we don't have a set of definition, what do we even call it?

RU: One prize is for creating a safe Animat. How can you tell?

AG: The purpose of the A-Prize Is to draw attention to this question and then develop coherent guidelines under which to proceed. I was on the National Research Council Committee that reviewed the National Nanotechnology Initiative. It was a Congressionally mandated review of our government's nanotech program. We published the report on December 8. It became public property and sank without a trace. And one of the reasons why it sank is that it was completely sanitized. If you look at the section called "Responsible Development," it's just a bunch of fluff. There's nothing in there. All of the hard recommendations that I made essentially got lost in the editing process.

The bottom line is that molecular engineering is viewed by many as the next industrial revolution. So to certain people in government and in industry, responsible development of nanotechnology means we can't afford to lose the nanotechnology war. We can't let China beat us to the next industrial revolution. We can't let Korea beat us to the next industrial revolution. If we get beaten, we're irresponsible. We've lost our leadership. That's what responsible development means to these people. They're not worried about safety. In their minds, chemical safety plus biotechnology safety equals nanotechnology safety. But that's not true.

RU: So why is this development a threat to life?

AG: Because the behavior of an entity that is capable of using non-biological mechanisms of replication can't be predicted. We have experience with biohazards, which are biological organisms that are dangerous. And we have experience with chemical hazards. But we have no experience with Animats. So it's the apex of hubris for us to sit here and say, "Well, we know how this thing's going to behave." Because we have no bloody idea how this thing's going to behave.

RU: Do you have a vision of how things could go awry? There seem to be many science fictional possibilities.

AG: No, no — it can be very simple. For example, the most probable scenario is a viral nano-biotech weapon that goes out of control. Imagine a viral weapon that has added to it the capability to coat itself with diatom-like silica structures that would make it highly aerosolizable, and then to disperse it. And then, make it also highly resistant to chemical corrosion – to digestive acids. We've never seen a virus that can coat itself in spiky glass nano-particles. And no matter what anybody says inside the government or in industry, we don't know how to deal with that. And yet, that could be made — right here, right now. A large enough facility – a major pharmaceutical company or DARPA or the DOD could make it right now if they wanted to.

RU: Say I get an animat — what advantages might I wind up having?

AG: These synthetic forms of chemistry — the products of nanotechnology, if you want — will start off as therapies that let you live longer and healthier. But once these forms of chemistry are in your body, they can talk to your body in the language of chemistry. And they can learn. I mean, with genetically modified crops, people fear that the DNA we put in is going to learn a new trick. And the people that make GMOs say, "No, we taught this gene. This gene is only like a gene that's in the second grade." Or, "This gene has been intentionally blinded."

The bottom line is that DNA is a smart molecule. It's a smart material. It is capable of talking to the rest of the DNA, and talking to protein and other molecules in the cell, and maybe learning new things. With DNA we call that a mutation.

RU: So aside from getting rid of blood clots, suppose I wanted to make something really strange and amazing happen inside my body. Is there any potential there that you can think of? Can I grow a third arm?

AG: You know, I talked to a guy from UCSF that's doing what's called deep brain stimulation. They put electrodes deep inside your brain. And he's a wonderful person who is helping people that are in a lot of pain. But if they put electrical stimulation in the wrong place, then you can get other effects. Maybe you can induce depression or make someone hyperactive. Maybe if they put it in the right place, you could have a perpetual orgasm.



Once we learn where these connections are, we won't want to do anything as crude as putting electrodes in there. We will want to go in and bridge these circuits with carbon nanotubes or something like that. Right now you can tailor carbon nano-tubes to specifically block certain types of ion channels in the cell.

RU: How do you get that into the brain?

AG: You can have people breath it. Or you put in genes that will encode the bio-synthesis of carbon nano-tubes, which I'm sure will be happening in the near future.

Now, think about a bio-weapon that's a combination of nano/bio material. It gets into your body and the first thing it does is it runs a quick PCR assay on your DNA. It checks out genotype — finds out your ethnicity. If you have one of its targeted ethnicities, it releases carbon nano-tubes that block the neurotransmitter ion channels in the pacemaker cells of your heart. Bang. Instant heart attack. And our body doesn't know what to do with carbon nano-tubes. We have no natural defense against it. They're too big to be taken up by macrophages. If you haven't seen them before, you won't have antibodies against them.

RU: So this could be put into an aerosol spray….

AG: Right. Then you put the silicon coating on the surface...

RU: Then it just gets all the white people or all the Arabs or whatever…

AG: Yeah. Exactly. How about a bio-nanotech weapon that just makes your enemy so suicidally depressed they kill themselves?

RU: I think it's called "American Idol."

AG: Given the enormous potential for controlling the chemistry of biology with non-biological chemistry, it's inconceivable that people will not build these things.

RU: I thought it was kind of funny that Stewart Brand's Long Now Foundation sponsored a lecture by Vernor Vinge titled "What if the Singularity Doesn't Happen?" And 99% of the American people probably don't know what the fuck the singularity is and then a substantial segment of the scientific community thinks its bullshit. But for this one group, it's like a total stretch to imagine that it might not happen.

AG: The only Singularity that matters is the carbon barrier. Do you know what Ray Kurzweil's biggest problem is?

RU: That he blinks his eyes when he speaks…

AG: He still can't get outside the box enough to stop thinking like a human. And his Singularity is based on the idea that, even though we are no longer human beings, we will still want human things. That's a mistake. As we become more integrated with our technology, our psychology is going to change. So the idea that humans as we know them are going to hang around long enough for his type of Singularity to occur is specious. The real Singularity is breaking the carbon barrier. The day that we create a life form that requires a non-biological form of chemistry to propagate is the day that biological evolution changes forever.

RU: It would be pretty hard to develop a fiction narrative with nothing anthropomorphic about it. Can you think of anybody who's done that?

AG: Yes. James Tiptree Jr. wrote a beautiful story called "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," where she inhabited an insect mind, I think, very well. Read that story. I think she does a great job.

RU: So do you have any thoughts about what the Animat might want? Or about what we — in combination with the Animat — might desire?

AG: What if I was able to put a small form of self-replicating chemistry into you that homed to your epidermal cells and started generating photovoltaic energy for you; feeding it to your cells so that you could in effect harness the energy of the sun so you would feel better. You'd have more energy. You'd be a more high-powered individual.



Not only is that going to change the way your body metabolizes energy; it's going to change the way you feel. It's going to change the way you think. And if you start adding all of these non-biological enhancements over time, they will have a cumulative effect. This is something like a mutation. You don't see a biological mutation immediately. It has to be selected for. I use heat resistance as an example. Say some organism at the top of the Sierras gets a mutation in a crucial enzyme that allows it to operate in the Mojave. It doesn't say "Whee! I've got a great mutation! I'm going to run down to the Mojave and start propagating!" Over a few generations, it spreads down the side of the mountain and ends up in the Mojave. You don't see it until it gets there. You say, "Oh, there's a heat-tolerant version!" But you've got to backtrack to the original mutation to know when that actually happened.

So if we're not looking for molecular events — the implantation of synthetic chemistry into biological organisms — we're not going to know it when it happens.

See Also:
SF Writer Rudy Rucker: Everything Is Computation
Why Chicks Don't Dig The Singularity
Death No Thank You
There Won't Be Blood
The Mormon Bigfoot Genesis Theory


Read More

New Tool for Bloggers: Technorati Incoming Links Visualizer

Finally, a way to visualize a web page's new referrers. What's your "Incoming Link Rate?" Try it!

Technorati provides a nearly real-time tracking of incoming links — but the one thing they've always lacked is a way to visualize it. Now entering a URL below will generate a bar graph representing a site's last 100 incoming links. (Don't forget to include http://www )

It's possible the date of an incoming link could be in a different time zone (since that web page's server may be far away).

This means Technorati appears to see mysterious incoming links arriving from the future.

Other caveats: I limited the display to links from the current year. (And not all web sites are tracked by Technorati - so there's a chance they may not have a record of your web site, or other sites which linked to it.)
But the patterns offer strong visual clues about a site's popularity...

Many sites are so popular that displaying only 100 incoming links won't even cover a single day.

Their bar graph is one vertical line that could just as easily be labelled "part of today."

Other sites show a reassuring consistency. Suck.com, which stopped publishing in 2001, lives in the memory of enough web surfers to draw an ongoing trickle of new incoming links.

Most popular sites fall somewhere in between.
                         

Though some older sites have nearly been forgotten...


Technorati likes to say they reflect the "live" web -- an "always-updating" sample of the most recent links. They describe the value of their database as "Who's saying what. Right now." But if so, these graphs reflect the pace of that conversation -- or how loudly the crowd is whispering.



Technorati now tracks 74.7 million blogs, but most bloggers are only interested in one statistic: how many of them are linking to me? I like to think these visual graphs provide a fun answer, in the form of a digital pH strip.

When your site is popular, it turns black!

See Also:
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
When Lego Goes to War
Sex For Meme's Sake

Read More

Should YouTube Hear Me?


Brandon Fletcher





Last week YouTube got a visit from a 19-year-old New Yorker who wanted his video on their front page. Brandon Fletcher says he tried emailing YouTube, but when that failed, he bought an airplane ticket to Silicon Valley. "If you believe in something — do whatever it takes to make your dream come to reality," Brandon announced grandiosely on his MySpace page. But he's also keeping a video blog of the journey — which of course puts additional pressure on YouTube.

Is this the latest craze — storming a corporation's headquarters and demanding that they listen to you?



Brandon says he was inspired by Aaron Stanton, a 25-year-old developer who pushed and shoved his way into a meeting with YouTube's owners last month. Aaron chronicled his surprise visit in a video blog called Can Google Hear Me?, and ultimately the company invited him in to hear his big idea. It was only a matter of time before someone else tried the same trick. One of Aaron's newly-recruited programmers even emailed Brandon to offer him encouragement.

But not everyone condones the tactic. After wishing him luck, Rocketboom's Joanne Colan added cynically (but ever-so-sweetly) "Try not to freak them out or anything." And one reporter even asked Brandon, "Why should you get special treatment?" (Brandon responded that his video has "a substantial amount" of subscribers, "so I'm basically getting to the bottom of it to see why it hasn't been featured yet.")

Does Brandon have "a substantial amount" of subscribers? He refused to identify his special video for ZDNet, acknowledging only that it's a reality show. But searching on the name of Brandon's enterprise pulls up a casting call for an online dating show, an ad for that dating show on CraigsList, and a page for the dating show on YouTube. (Which someone named Brandon has submitted to Digg.) And more importantly: that show has just 71 subscribers.

Nevertheless, Brandon appears undeterred. After touching down at the San Francisco airport, Brandon's first order of business was hiring a videographer to make sure his march on YouTube was documented. "I'm staying with a friend from high school," he told us at the time, and he spent over a week in the Bay Area before he was finally ready to make his move. "I woke up to a barrage of negative e-mails and comments full of criticism," Brandon wrote on his blog, "which only fueled my desire to succeed even more." Last Thursday the glorious moment came, and he posted the results in his video blog.

"'Security' doesn't let us off the elevator."

Brandon writes that "people from the YouTube office recognized me, and let me know that EVERYONE knew about the site and were waiting on my arrival..." He talked to two employees who gave him some t-shirts, some advice, and some free bottled water. But they both refused to be filmed.

Brandon says he showed them his idea, and they loved it. But he still hasn't made YouTube's front page. Which means he'll have to decide his next move for promoting the show: either creating another campaign — or pestering YouTube some more.



It's surprising that there's been such tolerance of what is now a de facto open-door policy for anyone who wants to use guerrilla tactics to tap into the rock star-making power of GooTube. Sure, Brandon was met by security and there's no indication that his gambit is gonna get his video on the home page of YouTube, but nonetheless, to anyone who hears or sees his story, it can only be encouraging that he got as far as he did without being man-handled by surly armed guards.

In his video blog he announces that "the mission isn't complete yet. I guess the journey never ends."

Good luck, Brandon.

But try not to freak them out, or anything.



See Also:
YouTube, the 20-Year-Old, and Date Unknown
Google Heard Me, Now What?
Worst Video Blogs of 2006
How the iPod Changes Culture
Jimmie Wales Will Destroy Google

Before...

After...

Read More

Homeland Security Follies

Bruce Schneier
According to the sleeve of his latest book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security, "in an Uncertain World, Bruce Schneier is the go-to security expert for business leaders and policy makers." If only the policy makers would listen, we'd be safer, happier and still free.

Other books include Applied Cryptography, described by Wired as "the book the NSA wanted never to be published."

Beyond Fear deals with security issues ranging from personal safety to national security and terrorism. Schneier is also a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and many other fine periodicals. He also writes a monthly newsletter, Cryptogram.

I interviewed him on The RU Sirius Show.

RU SIRIUS: First of all, why did you become a security expert? Were you a secure child? Did anybody steal your lunchbox at school?

BRUCE SCHNEIER: I don't think I had any defining security episodes in my life, but I think you're right that security is something you're born with. It's a mentality. I remember as a kid walking into stores and figuring out how to shoplift — looking where the cameras were. You're born with a mindset where you look at security in terms of a system and figure out how to get around it. It's a hacker mentality. So doing security just was natural for me.



RU: I want to get right into the political area of security against terrorism. You wrote that security works better if it's centrally coordinated but implemented in a distributed manner. Tell us a little bit about that and maybe say a bit about how that might work.

BS: In security — especially something as broad as national security – it's important that there be a lot of central coordination. You can't have people in one area doing one thing, and people in another area doing another thing, and then not have them talking to each other. So sharing information across jurisdictions and up and down the line of command is important. When things happen, you need a lot of coordination and you can see coordination failures again and again. In the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina there was a lot of replication of effort. A lot of things that were obvious… everyone thought someone else was doing. But the other half of that is distributed implementation. You can't be so rigid that your people in the field can't make decisions. In security today, we see smart people being replaced by rules. A great example is the Transportation Security Administration. They will blindly follow the stupidest rule rather than using common sense. Security works much better when the individuals at the point of security — the guards, the policemen, the customs agents — are well-trained and have the ability to follow their instincts. Think about how September 11 could have been prevented. A field agent in Minnesota was really first to put her finger on the plot, but she couldn't get her voice heard. And she didn't have the power to do anything herself. When you look at the real successes against terrorism at the borders, it's not custom agents following rules, but noticing something suspicious, and then following their instincts. So security works best when it's centrally coordinated, but distributedly implemented. A great example is the Marine Corps. That's their model. There's a lot of coordination, but individual marines in the field have a lot of autonomy. They're trained well, and they're trusted. And because of that, it's a good fighting force.

RU: You're talking about de-centralization, basically — the organizations making decisions on the local level.

BS: Right. Another analogy is the human body. There's a lot of coordination, but it's a very distributed organism. The pieces of our body do things autonomously, without waiting for approval. There's a lot of communication back and forth, a lot of coordination, but different pieces have their job, and they're empowered to do it. And it's robust and reliable because of that.

RU: What about radically democratized security, like Open Source kinds of efforts involving citizens?

BS: It's good and bad depending on how it works. I like Open Source intelligence. I like Open Source information gathering and dissemination. There's a lot of value in that. The downside of that is something like Total Information Awareness — TIA — where you have citizens basically spying on each other. And there you get pretty much nothing but false alarms. People will turn each other in because their food smells funny or they don't pray at the right time. Done right, a radically democratized, distributed security model works. Done wrong, you get East Germany where everyone spies on their friends.

RU: They were trying to get the postmen to spy on us for a while.

BS: Right. They were going to have postmen and the meter readers. That will work well if the postmen are properly trained. Where that will fail: if you tell a bunch of postmen, "Report anything suspicious." Because honestly, they don't know what "suspicious" looks like in this context. So the question is: given all the police resources we have, what should they be doing? I don't want the government chasing all the false alarms from the postmen and meter readers when they could be doing something more useful. So that's a bad use. If you train them properly, you'll have something better. But then you don't have a postman any more. You have a security officer.

Think of a customs agent. They're going to watch people, and they're going to look for something suspicious. But they're trained in how to do it. So they're less likely to be overtly racist or a fool for dumb profiles. They're more likely to look for things that are actually suspicious. So it's a matter of training. And that's pretty much true of Open Source security models. Think of Open Source software. Having a bunch of random people look at the code to tell you if it's secure won't work. If you have well-trained people who look at the code, that will work! Open Source just means you can see it, it doesn't guarantee that the right people will see it.

RU: Even with trained security people, it seems like they make an awful lot of errors. It seems like America, over the past few years, really has that "Can't Do" spirit. Is there anything you can tell us about trained security people, and how they could improve their efforts.

BS: Well, they're always going to make errors. Fundamentally, that's a problem in the mathematics called the base rate fallacy. There are simply so few terrorists out there that even a highly accurate test, whether automatic or human-based, will almost always bring false alarms. That's just the way the math works. The trick is to minimize the false alarms.

You've got to look at the false alarms versus the real alarms versus the real attacks missed — look at all the numbers together. But terrorist attacks are rare. They almost never happen. No matter how good you are, if you stop someone in airport security, it's going to be a false alarm, overwhelmingly. Once every few years, it'll be a real planned attack… maybe not even that frequently.

With training, you're less likely to stop someone based on a dumb reason. When airport security stops a grandma with a pocketknife, that's a false alarm. That's not a success. That's a failure. It's, of course, ridiculous. So the trick is to alarm on things that are actually suspicious so you'd spend your time wisely. But the fact that almost everybody will still end up being a false alarm — that's just the nature of the problem.

RU: Most of us experience the so-called "War on Terror" in one place, and that's at the airport. What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong at the airports? Are they doing anything right?

BS: (Laughs) Since September 11, exactly two things have made us safer. The first one is reinforcing the cockpit door. That should have been done decades ago. The second one is that passengers are convinced they have to fight back, which happened automatically. You can argue that sky marshals are also effective. I'm not convinced. And actually, if you pretend you have sky marshals, you don't even actually have to have them. The benefit of sky marshals is in the belief in them, not in the execution.

Everything else is window dressing — security theater. It's all been a waste of money and time. Heightened airport security at the passenger point of screening has been a waste of time. It's caught exactly nobody; it's just inconvenienced lots of people. The No Fly List has been a complete waste of time. It's caught exactly nobody. The color-coded threat alerts – I see no value there.



RU: A recent BoingBoing headline read "TSA missed 90% of bombs at Denver airport." (Obviously they weren't talking about real bombs, but a test.)

BS: And the real news there is it wasn't even surprising. This is consistent in TSA tests both before and after 9/11. We haven't gotten any better. We're spending a lot more money, we're pissing off a lot more fliers, and we're not doing any better.

There's a game we're playing, right? Think about airport security. We take away guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. So we take away box cutters and small knives, and they put explosives in their shoes. So we screen shoes and they use liquids. Now we take away liquids; they're going to do something else. This is a game we can't win. I'm sick of playing it. I'd rather play a game we can win.

RU: The reactive thing is terribly absurd. The whole shoe-bomber thing — my ongoing joke is that if he were an ass bomber, taxpayers would now be buying a lot of Vaseline.

What do you think about John Gilmore's court fight — that he shouldn't have to present an ID to fly inside the country. Do you think that's a legitimate goal?

BS: I don't know the legal and constitutional issues. I know they're very complex and he unfortunately lost his case on constitutional grounds. For security purposes, there's absolutely no point in having people show a photo ID. If you think about it, everybody has a photo ID. All the 9/11 terrorists had a photo ID. The Unabomber had one. Timothy McVeigh had one. The D.C. snipers had one; you have one; I have one. We pretend there's this big master list of bad guys and if we look you up against the list, we'll know if you're a bad guy and we won't let you on the plane. It's completely absurd. We have no such list. The no-fly list we have is full of innocent people. It catches nobody who's guilty and everybody's who's innocent. Even if your name is Osama bin Laden, you can easily fly under someone else's name. This isn't even hard. So there is absolutely no value to the photo ID check. I applaud Gilmore based on the fact that this is a complete waste of security money.

RU: So if you were in charge of airport security, are there any things that you would implement?

BS: I think we should ratchet passenger screening down to pre-9/11 levels. I like seeing positive bag matching. That's something that was done in Europe for decades. The U.S. airlines screamed and screamed and refused to do it, and now they are.

Really, I would take all the extra money for airport security and have well-trained guards, both uniformed and plainclothes, walking through the airports looking for suspicious people. That's what I would do. And I would just give back the rest of the money. If we secure our airport and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, we've wasted our money. I dislike security measures that require us to guess the plot correctly because if you guess wrong, it's a waste of money. And it's not even a fair game. It's not like we pick our security, they pick their plot, we see who wins. The game is we pick our security, they look at our security, and then they pick their plot. The way to spend money on security – airport security, and security in general — is intelligence investigation and emergency response. These are the things that will be effective regardless of what the terrorists are planning.

RU: You emphasize intelligence. Is there any truth to the claims made by various agencies that intelligence people couldn't do things that they should have been able to do to protect us because of the Church Committee rules in the mid-1970s?

BS: I think that's overstated. The controls that the Church Committee put in place made a lot of sense. The purpose was to stop very serious abuses by law enforcement — by the police, the NSA, and the CIA. If you look at the failures of 9/11, they weren't based on the Church Commission restrictions. So I think we're making a mistake by dismantling those protections. In effect, those are also security measures that protect us from government abuses. Unfortunately, those abuses are far more common than terrorist attacks.

RU: Do you ever watch the TV show Numb3rs?

BS: I don't. People tell me I should, and I do see plot summaries occasionally — but no, I'm not a big TV person.

RU: It's pretty amusing. But it makes it look like if you combined data mining with some complexity theory, you could predict everything anybody will do, and exactly when and where they'll show up.

BS: If that was true, there'd be a lot more people making money on Wall Street, wouldn't there?

RU: Right. What are the limitations of data-mining? You find data mining pretty much useless in the case of terrorism, but you find it useful in other areas.

BS: Data mining is a really interesting and valuable area of mathematics and science, and it has phenomenal value. The data mining success story is in credit cards. The credit card companies use data mining to constantly look at the stream of credit card transactions, and find credit cards that have been stolen. It works because credit card thieves are relatively numerous. There's some percentage of credit cards that are stolen every year and credit card thieves tend to follow standard profiles. When mine was stolen, the fraudster bought gas first (you do that to test that the card is valid), and then went to a large department store — they went to Canadian tire — and bought a bunch of things that were easily fence-able. So my credit card company caught that immediately. So there are a lot of thieves with a well-defined profile and then also the cost for false alarms isn't that great. Most of the time, the company calls us to check, and we're happy to receive the call. Or in extreme cases, they cut off the card, and you have to call and get it reinstated

It doesn't work well looking for terrorists. The number of terrorists, with respect to the general population, is infinitesimally smaller than the number of credit card fraudsters to the number of credit cards. Also, there is no well-defined profile. You know, you hear all sorts of things that are supposed to profile terrorists — people who move suddenly — one-fifth of the population does that. Or who you talk to and communicate with. Lots of people have weird friends. In a lot of ways, a surprise birthday party looks like a terrorist attack. The only difference is how it's executed. So you don't have this large database of existing events that you can data-mine for a profile.

The other problem is that false alarms are expensive! For a credit card, they're cheap — a phone call, or you turn off the card, and they have to reinstate it. In looking for a terrorist plot, a false alarm costs maybe three weeks work from a handful of FBI agents? It's an enormous amount of money and an enormous amount of effort. So when you apply the math to looking for terrorist attacks, you have no good profile; there are so many false alarms you'll never find a real attack; and the false alarms are so expensive that they divert resources from what could be actually useful anti-terrorist activities. So I don't think it's ever going to work. The numbers are just not on your side.

It is far more valuable to do traditional police investigative work. Think of what caught the London liquid bombers. It wasn't data mining. It wasn't profiling at the airports. It wasn't any of these new-fangled ideas. It was old-fashioned detective work — following the lead. It was smart investigators investigating. It's not sexy, but it's effective. Before diverting resources from that, you better have something really good. And data mining isn't.

RU: I guess the idea of Total Information Awareness would seem sexy to some portion of the geek population. That's where it came from!

BS: We're so desperate to find ways to harness technology to solve the problem. We're used to that working in other areas of society — just apply more computing power, you get better results.

This is fundamentally a human problem. It's not a data problem. It's a problem of human intelligence connecting the dots. If I'm looking for a needle in a haystack, throwing more hay on the pile isn't going to solve my problem.

I need a better way to methodically follow the lead into the haystack to the needle. Another lesson of the liquid plot is that if they got to the airport, it would've gotten through. It would've gotten through all the enhanced screening; it would've gotten through all the enhanced profiling. The reason it failed had nothing to do with airport security.

RU: Moving on from terrorism, but still thinking about haystacks — you have a bit in "Beyond Fear" about learning about security from insects, which I found really fascinating. What can we learn from insects?

BS: There's a lot to be learned from security from the natural world in general. All species have evolved as security beings — we need to survive enough to reproduce. We need to be able to protect our offspring so they can survive. We need to protect our food supply. We attack other creatures to kill them and eat them. There's so much security interplay in the natural world. And it's a great source of strategies and anecdotes. I find insects particularly valuable, because they evolve so quickly. You see so many interesting strategies in the insect world, because of the wacky evolutionary turns they take. Evolution doesn't give you the optimal security measure. Evolution tries security measures at random, and stops at the first one that just barely works. So you tend to get really weird security in the insect world. You do get some real neat examples of distributed security measures. Think of the way ants protect their colony. There are ant species that just wander around randomly, and if they hit a predator or a threat, they run right back to their colony to alert everybody. Individual ants are very cheap and very expendable, so if you have cheap resources, you just sort of do random things.

The lima bean plant is interesting. Effectively, when a certain mite attacks it, it calls an air strike. It releases a chemical that attracts a predator mite that will eat the mite that's attacking it. Very clever.

RU: We are moving into a society very much like the ones that have been written about in various cyberpunk novels in the early 90s. We can imagine people running around with suitcase nukes and bioterror or nanoterror weapons that are extraordinary. This kind of destructive power is moving from the government to the small group to the individual. Does that imply a need for a Total Surveillance society — basically, we need to watch everything everybody is doing, all the time?

BS: I don't think it implies that. It does imply we need some kind of different security. I think society is inherently good. Most people are inherently honest. Society would fall apart if that weren't true. In a sense, crime and terrorism is a tax on the honest. I mean, all of security is a tax. It taxes us honest people to protect against the dishonest people. The dishonest people are noise in the smooth running of society. The attacker gets a lot more leverage when the noise becomes greater – so in a complex society, a single person can do a lot more disrupting. But I don't believe that surveiling everybody will solve the problem. We have to start thinking about different ways to cope with these problems. But I sort of discount massive surveilance as ineffective. I don't even need to say: "I don't want to live in a society that has that."



RU: So let's say President Obama asks you to be the Homeland Security director. If you accepted, what would you do with it?

BS: If I was in charge of Homeland Security, I would spend money on intelligence investigation and emergency response. That's where I'll get the best value. And I think there is security inherent in civil liberties, in privacy and freedom. So I wouldn't be messing with that.

RU: Before I let you go, what are you exploring now?

BS: In the past, I've done a lot of work in the economics of security. Now I'm researching the human side of security — the psychology of security. I'm looking into how people make security decisions, how they react to security. Why is it that we're getting security wrong? Why is it that people fall for security theater instead of doing what makes sense? And it turns out there's a lot of very interesting things about how the brain works, how we process security trade-offs. I'm researching that. There's an enormous body of research that hasn't really been applied to the technological community. I'm really new to this research, but there's a lot there to look at.

See also:
Is Iraq Really THAT Bad?
Catching Up with an Aqua Teen Terrorist
20 Secrets of an Infamous Dead Spy
Detention and Torture: Are We Still Free Or Not?

Read More

Prescription Ecstasy and Other Pipe Dreams

Ecstacy pills

Are psychedelic drugs medicinal? Can you picture yourself walking into the neighborhood pharmacy with prescriptions for ecstasy (MDMA) and psilocybin?

If MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) has its way, the days of prescription psychedelics may not be too far away. For those who know the history of psychedelic research, this eventuality has been a long time coming. But others — who may only be familiar with the intense emotions and activities around the "War On Drugs" over the past several decades — may be surprised to learn how much progress MAPS has made.



Jag Davies is the Director of Communications for MAPS, a non-profit research and education organization that assists scientists to design, obtain approval for, fund, conduct and report on research into the healing and spiritual potentials of psychedelics and marijuana. He joined Steve Robles, Jeff Diehl and myself on The RU Sirius Show.

Let it be said that Mr. Davies has the patience of a saint (and a sense of humor). Despite the fact that we were unable to resist the urge to crack drug jokes throughout, Jag managed to convey vast quantities of important information about psychedelic research.

DRUG I: MARIJUANA

RU SIRIUS: We should all drink a toast! You have some good news about marijuana research. Why don't you share some of that stuff with us?

JAG DAVIES: Sure. We just found out on February 12 that a DEA administrative law judge ruled in favor of MAPS in our lawsuit against the DEA.

MAPS would like to design and fund and do the FDA clinical trials necessary to get marijuana approved as a prescription medicine. It's never been put through the FDA clinical trials to see if it meet the standards for safety and efficacy of any other drug under certain conditions.

The reason that hasn't happened is because the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana. It's the only Schedule 1 controlled substance where the federal government has a monopoly on the production.

So what MAPS has been trying to do for the past six years is start an independent medical marijuana production facility. We're working with professor Lyle Craker, who's the director of the medicinal plant program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He had no history of working with marijuana, but he's a very well rounded botanist. In 2001, we sent NIDA an application, and first they took a year to tell us they had lost it. Their primary strategy is delay. (Laughs) And then they took another three years to reject it. And when they reject an application, there is a formal process where you can request a hearing with a DEA Administrative Law Judge. But the DEA's power is so unchecked that even once the ruling is decided in your favor, they can reject it. So there was this two-year hearing. We were represented by the ACLU and some Washington D.C. law firms. And the case took about two years for the judge to rule on our side. But now the DEA can still decide whether to accept or reject the recommendation. So there's still a lot more work to be done. But it was an 87-page recommendation. The judge rebuked all of the DEA's arguments and explained why NIDA needs to stop obstructing legitimate scientific research. So it's very exciting.

RU: The DEA is famous for ignoring their administrative judges. I remember their Administrative Judge made a strong ruling against making Ecstasy Schedule One in the '80s. And they proceeded to completely ignore it. The DEA is the Politburo of America.

It sounds like you guys are trying to unhook a little Catch 22 there. You can have marijuana experiments, but you can't have the marijuana to do the experiments.

JAG: Yeah. Well, you can't do FDA-approved research without the legal supply, and the only legal supply for research would come from NIDA. So once you get a study approved by the FDA, then you have to go through an entirely separate review process, through NIDA and PHS (Public Health Service),which is part of Health and Human Services. They have three to six months to respond. By contrast, the FDA has thirty days to respond. And there's no formal appeals process. So they basically can arbitrarily decide what they want to do.

JEFF DIEHL: Is it MAPS policy that marijuana should only be available through a prescription?

JAG: Not in the long-term. Our long-term goal is to regulate all drugs for different uses, because we don't think drug prohibition works. It's not sound public policy. But our strategy for the foreseeable future—at least for the next five to ten years—is working only on these medical cases, because that's what the public is most comfortable with. It's really a strategic decision. But we don't think marijuana should be illegal for recreational purposes either.



STEVE ROBLES: But the problem is—going through agencies like NIDA is kind of like being in Germany in 1939 and asking Hitler for Passover off. I mean, they're beyond resistant — they're hostile.

JAG: But Congress does control their funding. So if there was a major political push from Congress… if they felt that there was really going to be a political backlash... In 1989, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young recommended that marijuana be re-scheduled to Schedule 3. And they didn'tdo it. But that would have been much more drastic measure than what we're trying to do. We're just trying to get them to allow for a research supply. What we're asking for is so conservative, really.

JEFF: Are these DEA judges appointed? How do they get in their positions?

JAG:: They're appointed by the Department of Justice. The DEA is part of the Department of Justice.

RU: There doesn't seem to be much percentage in being reasonable about pot for a politician. Even though a lot of people smoke marijuana, there doesn't seem to be a lot of people who feel strongly about it as an issue at the national level.

SR: I always say it needs to be "Datelined" to appeal to the public. Say somebody like Bob Dole is begging for medical marijuana while he's rotting away from cancer.

RU: You guys got support in this recent case from the Senators from Massachusetts—Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. And we all know about John Kerry. (OK, we don't. But I've heard rumors that Kerry still tokes.)

SR: Which explains how he fucked up in the last election. I love pot, but…

JEFF: "Whatever, man. It'll all work itself out." (Laughter)

SR: "I'm not gonna let him kill my buzz." (Laughter)

JAG: We got 38 representatives to sign on to a letter of support before the judge made the ruling. We're headed for a bigger sign-on support letter in the Senate and we've got a few months to formulate a political response. In the '80s when Francis Young made his recommendations, there was hardly any political support. The only organization doing any work was NORML, and they were small and had some issues. There's much more of an infrastructure now behind all of these different drug policy organizations that are going to help us. And there are already 160 congresspeople that voted in favor of the Hinchey Medical Marijuana Amendment. And there's a former conservative Republican representative that is going to be lobbying in support of this case. I can't say who it is. We can't announce it for about a month.

RU: Bob Barr!

JAG: (Laughs) I can't say anything.

RU: Bingo! (Laughter)

JEFF: We got it first! Isn't it the case that everybody is taking all these high-grade mood-altering pharmaceuticals now—all the anti-depressants—stuff that really has a strong effect on your daily functioning. So it seems like it's a little bit more difficult to be against even the study of marijuana as a possible prescription substance.

JAG: Yeah, it's like people are used to the concept.

JEFF:: … of "dosing," basically.

RU: As a culture, we're pretty conscious of chemical mind alteration.

DRUG II: ECSTASY (MDMA)

RU: Let's move on to ecstasy. We're going to do one drug at a time.

JEFF: Should've done that first! It takes too long to kick in, man.



RU: So a while back, MAPS got approval for a study in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Where are we at with that?

JAG: It's almost over. They've treated 15 out of 20 patients. It's very slow. There are lots of pre-conditions for the study because it's such a controversial substance. But the results are ridiculous. Their CAPS score—(CAPS is the Clinician Administered PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] Scale) is about five times higher than in treating chronic treatment-resistant patients with Zoloft. It's very likely that we're going to be able to go on to do our next set up studies—Phase III studies. And there are a whole other slew of studies that are sort of copying this one that we're doing in a bunch of other places like Switzerland, and Israel, just to be sure.

JEFF: So does it look like MDMA is going to become something that's used pharmaceutically?

JAG: After careful analysis, we decided that MDMA is probably the most likely of any psychedelic drug to get approved. First of all, it has a very gentle sort of pharmacological profile.

But the other reason is sort of interesting. People ask us, "Why don't you try MDE or MDA, drugs without the same cultural connotation." It would be easier politically. But because it was so demonized by the government in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been hundreds of millions of dollars of research done into its risks. So they've done all the work for us!

RU: You mentioned a comparison to Zoloft, the implication being that MDMA could be an effective anti-depressant.

JAG: The difference is that MDMA is not used on a daily basis. That's why there's not a profit incentive.

RU: But what would the prescription be — once a month? Or ten sessions?

JEFF: They didn't dose them daily in the study?

JAG: No, not at all. They do about 15 regular psychotherapy sessions. And then with two or three of them, depending on the study, there are sessions where the person takes either a placebo or the MDMA. It's very methodologically rigorous. It's double-blind and you don't know if you got the placebo or not.

With something like Ritalin, you have to keep taking it every day or every week or whatever. With MDMA, or a psychedelic drug that you use in conjunction with therapy, which is how we're trying to get it approved, you would only use it maybe five times at the most. So the incentive to make money isn't there.

JEFF: What kind of dosage did they use? Was it comparable to a street hit?

JAG: Actually, it's a bit larger than a street hit. It's 125 milligrams pure. And then we actually got approval about halfway through the study to make a couple of changes. One of them was to take a booster dose, basically, although we call it a "supplemental" dose. They take another 60 milligrams about an hour and half into it.

JEFF: You're not calling it "a bump"? (Laughter)

RU: It's been easier to do studies in Europe for a while, hasn't it? I seem to remember that stuff was happening in one of the Scandinavian countries in the early '90s.

JAG: There's been work in Switzerland, although not with psychotherapy. And we just got a study that's already ongoing in Switzerland with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. And then there's another study that's about to get approved this year for LSD-assisted psychotherapy for end-of-life anxiety. And that would be the first LSD psychotherapy study, or the first real study looking at LSD's benefits at all, anywhere in the world.

RU: Most of the countries in Europe don't have a drug war at the level of intensity that we have here. There have been some experiments allowed, and there have been various levels of drug decriminalization in a lot of countries. In Amsterdam and London, you can buy mushrooms quasi-legally. So why aren't we hearing about how their societies have been changed by the relative freedom to experiment with psychedelic drugs? Why aren't we hearing, "Wow. Look at what's happening here. Everybody's so enlightened!"

JAG: Well, things are better. At least as far as drug prohibition-related harm goes, it's a lot better. Their prison populations are incredibly lower. But I think more people use marijuana and psychedelics in the U.S. than in those countries. Just because they're legal, that doesn't mean more people are using them.

RU: A few days ago, I saw an item in the newspaper which said that people are now abusing more prescription drugs than illegal drugs in America. That's a result of the war on drugs.

JAG: Yeah, vastly many more people die every year from prescription drugs in America than from illegal drugs, even despite the harm that's caused by all the misinformation about illegal drugs.

SR: I've heard that Spain was doing some Ecstasy research.

JAG: The first MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study in the world was sponsored by MAPS and approved in 2001 in Madrid. It started but was shut down by the Madrid anti-drug authorities after there were positive reports in the press.

RU: There's nothing worse than good news to the medical establishment.

JAG: We've been trying to start a study up there again. In the mean time, we've got studies approved in Charleston, South Carolina, at Harvard, in Switzerland, and in Israel. So we think it's a bit more politically feasible now. Spain might be able to swallow it… so to speak.

RU: I interviewed (MAPS President) Rick Doblin about a decade ago about the relationship between MAPS and the FDA. And there was a loosening up about psychedelic research within the FDA that hadn't occurred since the 1960s. It started actually under Bush I in the '80s and continued under the Clinton administration. Has the relationship with the FDA changed?

JAG: The FDA continues to be very supportive. Since 1990, the FDA has been supportive of our protocols. The problems have really come more from the DEA and NIDA. In order to do any study, you need approval from the DEA to have a schedule 1 license to actually possess the drug for the study. It's usually been the DEA that has held everything up, because the FDA is more based around science, and the DEA is based more around criminal justice and law enforcement.

RU: Very few people know that in the middle of all the drug hysteria, the FDA had started to allow these kinds of experiments to begin. It's kind of amazing.

When I skim the MAPS site, I see all this stuff about approved protocols and activities that are going to lead up to tests, and then maybe an occasional test. But has there been any results?

JAG: Well, yeah, there have been some results. We finished the Phase I MDMA studies. There's three phases to FDA approval. The Phase I studies are the safety studies, and those took quite a long time. The Phase II studies aren't finished yet, though. And we did studies with vaporizers and marijuana. For example, we found that water pipes are worse for your lungs than smoking a joint.



SR: When that news came out I just about cried.

JAG: We've done all sorts of background research too. We did survey studies about LSD and cluster headaches and about what happens when you hook people on Ayahuasca up to EEGs.

The background research sort of assembles the literature needed to get these drugs approved as prescription medicines. That's really our main focus — getting the drugs approved rather than just doing basic science.

DRUG III: PSILOCYBIN

RU: The big news item last year was about results from psilocybin experiments conducted at John Hopkins. A New York Times headline read: "Mushroom Drugs Produce Mystical Experiences." Next they'll be telling us that bears shit in the woods.



SR: "Beans cause gas in humans."

RU: You guys weren't directly involved in this one, right?

JAG: No, we didn't sponsor that study. That study was amazing. This team of researchers has a different approach than MAPS. They kept their entire protocol secret and kept it totally hidden from the media right until the day of publication. This was sort of basic background science research on mystical experiences. And they actually used grant money from NIDA for the study. NIDA disavowed the study afterwards. The former director of NIDA, Bob Schuster, wrote one of the commentaries for it. He said it was great. He loved it, but of course the current director of NIDA couldn't go along with that. So they sort of issued a rebuke saying, "Don't listen to this."

RU: Do you hear about this a lot? Has this changed the culture around moving this work forward? It was all over the media.

JAG: Yeah, I think it definitely helped legitimize psychedelic research.

RU: They were basically doing one of Timothy Leary's studies from the early 1960s over again.

JAG: It was the follow-up on a study that was done in the 1960s called "The Good Friday Experiment" where they gave psilocybin to divinity students at a chapel somewhere in Boston. And they had them fill out all these questionnaires and asked them about whether or not they had any mystical experiences. They found that most of them had the most mystical experience of their lives. So the John Hopkins Study actually sort of repeated that same methodology with a new group of subjects who weren't familiar with the drug.

RU: But they weren't divinity students were they?

JAG: No, I think they were a more general population.

DRUG IV: IBOGAINE

RU: On this show a few weeks ago, we were talking about Ibogaine as a cure for heroin addiction. What data do we have now about Ibogaine?

JAG: We have a study approved that's just starting right now. It has full government approval in Vancouver. Ibogaine is illegal in the U.S., but it's legal in Canada and Mexico. So we're sponsoring an observational case study of patients treated at the Iboga Therapy House in Vancouver. No one's actually done the long-term follow-up research to see whether – six months or two years later — people relapse into using opiates or not, and whether they relapse in a way that's dangerous. All we have at this point are various anecdotal reports. We're doing a similar study at a clinic in Mexico.

It lasts, like, 24 to 36 hours. The last 12 hours people report feeling sort of physically paralyzed. It's a very intense experience so you have to really want to do it to do it.

RU: If you think Ayahuasca is not fun...

JAG: The government hasn't really had to fight it off because it hasn't spread recreationally.

JEFF: I heard a story on "This American Life" about a guy who was administering Ibogaine treatments to junkies that he knew, because he himself had been a junkie. And it was underground. He wasn't a doctor. He didn't have any medical training. He just started a program and tried to develop it but somebody died under his treatment. And he kind of went off the deep end because he felt so guilty about encouraging this guy to take Ibogaine who died.

Is Ibogaine dangerous?

JAG: Compared to other psychedelics, it does interact badly with certain dangerous pre-conditions because it lasts for so long. People with heart problems shouldn't take it — people with really high blood pressure. But there are tons of people like that all around the country – these sort of underground therapists who have been practicing with Ibogaine. A lot of the people support MAPS. They want to be able to use it above ground as part of their practice.

JEFF: Unfortunately, this guy wasn't even a therapist or anything. He was just kind of an ex-junkie who'd gone straight and wanted to…

RU: ...help his friends. How many of those people would have died from heroin overdoses?

DRUG V: KETAMINE

RU: Speaking of dangerous drugs, I was watching cable news one day when one of those screen crawls went by, and it said something like "Research finds low doses of ketamine effective for depression." Do you know anything about this?

JAG: Yeah. A study that was funded by the National Institute on Mental Health showed very promising results for ketamine as an anti-depressant. I think the media portrayal was a bit over-optimistic because Ketamine has its drawbacks – some people see drawbacks in daily dosing because it can cause dependence. But then again, so do the psychiatric drugs that are being approved today. And ketamine was showing much better results than those.

RU: Do you know what the dosage level was on those experiments?

JAG: I know it was very low. They were functioning doses, not K-Hole doses.

DRUG VI: LSD

JAG: Most other psychedelics we study don't have... like, no one's ever died from an LSD overdose.

SR: And believe me.... (Laughs)

JAG: I'm sure some people have tried!

RU: Do you ever watch the TV show "House"? This doctor is always taking all kinds of drugs. He's a vicodin addict for one thing. On one episode, he gives himself a cluster headache and then injects acid to cure it. The show is actually very smart about drugs. Anyway, what's up with LSD and psilocybin as a cure for cluster headaches?

JAG: I'll give you a bit of background. Cluster headaches are a type of migraine that lasts for weeks at a time. They're really difficult to treat. I've read that up to a fifth of people with cluster headaches end up committing suicide because it's so difficult to treat and so painful.

A few years ago, people started noticing that taking threshold doses of psilocybin and LSD at regular intervals would break their cluster headache cycle. And it was the only thing that would do it. So we did a survey study that's finished and now there's a study that's been approved at Harvard. So all these people who wouldn't use psychedelics otherwise have been using the drug to treat their cluster headaches.



JEFF: Do they feel any psychedelic effect?

JAG: Yeah, some people do it in slightly sub-psychedelic doses but it can still have the effect.

RU: Do they start believing in UFOs?

JAG: (Laughs)

See Also:
The Great Wired Drug Non-Controversy
Hallucinogenic Weapons
Paul McCartney On Drugs

Read More

Google Heard Me, Now What?


Can Google Hear Me?

Aaron Stanton rose to online fame after vowing in a video that he'd fly to California and pitch an idea to Google. After they refused to let him camp in their lobby, he hovered nervously at a friend's house, recording anxious video updates at a web site — CanGoogleHearMe.com. On Valentine's Day, the story took a thrilling turn when he received a late-night email.
We can hear you : )

But what happened next? After his meeting with Google, 25-year-old Aaron returned mysteriously to his home in Boise and started rounding up programmers.

"It's related to the idea that I originally took down to Google," he told 10 Zen Monkeys. Does that mean Google rejected him? "That's a very premature assumption."

In fact, he notes that no one ever clearly identified his original expectations. "No one — to this day — has ever asked me what I wanted Google to do with my idea." Now the bright-eyed dreamer has entered the realm of hush-hush corporate prototype development. Or has he? "It's possible I wanted to partner with them, or see if I could negotiate some sort of access to their resources." Whatever it is, Aaron says that between July and August, "I hope to be through beta testing and be able to return to Silicon Valley — for a variety of reasons."

"I am very pleased with the outcome of the trip, and it falls very much in line with one of the hoped for outcomes before I started."



And when he returns, it doesn't look like he'll be waiting for a late-night invite again. "The return has fewer question marks about it than the original quest did," Aaron tells us. "I'll be going knowing what to expect, this time." But when it comes to the most important question, he's still maintaining the mystery. Where do things stand with Google?
Sorry, I can't really talk about Google's reaction at all. : )

One thing he will talk about is what a great experience it's been. "Independently of the actual project, I've had so many interesting opportunities that have opened up as a result of the adventure..." he tells us. When you ask him what the best part was, he says without hesitation: "The people I've met..."

And his email now ends with a grateful signature line.

"Sometimes when you say, 'Hello, World,' the world says hello back."

Aaron is filming more video updates as he puts together his team. Inspired by the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, he looked for programmers at a computer science club at Boise State University. Saying it went "Different than I expected," Aaron described the experience in another video. "They spent 1.5 hours teaching me how to play Magic: The Gathering." Calling it "a positive meeting," Aaron ultimately teamed up instead with Brandon Zehm, a self-taught programmer who'd sent him an email. In the video he introduces the new programmer, who he adds can also play keyboards and make his own chain mail.

"And then there were two," the video concludes.

Aaron won't say what his big idea is, but one Digg poster speculates it was tied to an old venture of Aaron's called the Novel Project
By analyzing published novels and breaking them down into detailed statistics, then graphing those statistics scene-by-scene, we allow authors to better understand their craft in a way never before possible. You already know to start your book with a high interest scene, but do you know what to do with the scenes after that?

Another Digg poster claimed that "I e-mailed him, and he sent back a note saying that it was related, but much more than that, that it had actually branched from that into separate projects."

In February Aaron himself joined the discussion, posting on another site. "The idea was actually developed (in a simple form) in 2003 and then grew and branched, but it didn't become an obvious match for Google for a while after that."

The mystery may be agonizing, but "The problem is that the Internet is a fast medium," Aaron writes, "and it's covering what can sometimes be a slow medium, which is life. Life sometimes takes time."



But even if it doesn't work out, Aaron has a reponse to people who ask: what if Google hadn't agreed to hear you out? The bright side, he said, would've been all the encouragement he received — which would give him the strength to keep trying again later. In fact, he's already collected all the encouraging emails into a keepsake book that he's titled "We Can Hear You :)"

The homemade cover identifies its author as "Aaron Stanton and 2000 friends."

See Also:
Google Stalker Reveals Secret Project
Should YouTube Hear Me?
Google is Trying To Get Into Your Pants
Lost "Horrors" Ending Found on YouTube
YouTube, the 20-Year-Old, and Date Unknown

Read More

Official Launch: 10ZM.TV

One of the reasons for the "video apology" term in the settlement agreement with Michael Crook is that we were already planning to launch a video property. Having Crook's apology in video seemed an appropriate format, and its wide viewing would help get some visibility for this new effort. We figure he owed us that much. There are a few things we're going to experiment with in the show, called 10ZM.TV, and hosted on the Blip.tv video sharing network. First, we'll be collecting video commentary from web figures on stories and themes we explore on our various other properties, such as this site, The RU Sirius Show, NeoFiles, Destinyland and Pastor Jack. Second, we'll record bits from our own writers and commentators. And finally, we're going to publish hot little bits from the continuous series of mind-blowing interviews conducted by RU Sirius. Rudy Rucker's interview is the first one we videotaped, so you'll see several clips from that in the coming weeks. So stay tuned, subscribe via RSS or iTunes, or watch Rudy Rucker now:
Science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, author of the book, Mathematicians In Love, claims that any natural process can be regarded as a computation, and that computers are not "digital."

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Twittering the Twitter Revolution

The new messaging service for status "microblogging" was recognized as this year's best blogging tool at the SXSW festival. But all the excitement provoked a surprisingly sudden backlash, and now Twitter is the application people love to hate.

I had to know. Is Twitter the next big thing? Or the answer to a question that no one asked. Knowing there's only one way to find out, I sought to brave the unknown phenomenon, create an account on the service, and describe the results.

In Twitter-speak.

Using Twitter...


Creating a Twitter account!

Noticing Twitter won't let me edit my past updates without an add-on program.

Deciding to write an article called "Five Things I Hate About Twitter."





Realizing Twitter will let me delete past updates if I click on its trash can icon.

Thinking they should have tool tips explaining what their stupid icons do.

Noticing that Twitter doesn't recognize linebreaks in updates.

Adding it to the list.
Thinking "That's it?"

Thinking this reminds me of IRC in the 90s.

       /away getting more beer
       /away so what are you wearing?


Deciding to give Twitter a second chance.
Reading the public Twitter timeline.

Noticing "mrjonnypantz" has typed 11 hours!!!!!!!

Deciding these updates are boring at best, illiterate at worst.

Wondering if Twitter will really send these messages directly to my pager.

Wondering how incredibly annoying that would be.

Thinking Twitter is one step above MySpace status icons.

What I'm Doing: Playing Music.
Current Mood: Depressed.
Changing my "Friends" icon.
Still depressed.


Reading the Twitter FAQ.

Not finding anything cool.

Leaving.



Coming back.

Deciding I must have missed something.





Noticing Stephen Colbert has a Twitter feed.

"Anthrax (my goldfish) isn't feeling well. He's resting at the surface of his tank"



Noticing John Edwards has a feed too.

About to make remarks at the Int'l Assoc. of Firefighters. Then remarks at the Boilermakers conference.

Deciding a campaign feed would be excruciatingly boring.


Noticing Robert Scoble is heckling John Edwards.

"how are you going to get your campaign carbon neutral when you have to fly jets around the country so much?"


Noticing the Edwards campaign was goaded into replying.

"will fund alternative energy production that will offset the carbon generated from campaign travel."

Wondering if John Edwards is cheating.

Reading blog coverage of Twitter-mania.

"To me it's just something that has got some SHORT-term popularity and will eventually fade back into a neat tool people don't really use anymore."

"if I were a Scoble fanboy, I would love that he posts every event in his busy life to his Twitter channel"


Snorting derisively.
Envisioning the rise of Twitter consultants creating fake updates for Hollywood clientele.

Imagining Paris Hilton junkies loving Twitter. Because of the illusion that they're stalking her.

Wondering if Twitter is like that scene in Scary Movie where the heavy-breathing stalker taunts his victims with updates. "I'm in your house, watching you undressing."

Thinking Twitter probably isn't like that.
Wondering if you can hack someone else's Twitter feed?

"I'm in your kitchen, lying about your updates."

Thinking Twitter users have already heard that joke.



Reading that Robert Scoble thinks Twitter is the new black.

Realizing what he actually said -- that hating Twitter is the new black.

Thinking Twitter should let users publish these entries on MySpace and LiveJournal.

Realizing they're doing that already.

Wondering if it's a generational thing.
Predicting Arianna Huffington's ego will compel her to join Twitter.

Predicting Norman Mailer will be too technophobic.

Wondering if there will be promotional feeds for TV characters.

Dwight Schrute is scanning the Office ventilation system for vampire bats.

Thinking that would be lame.
Speculating about the future.

Will all TV shows be forced to adopt real-time microblogging to reach the emerging Twitter demographic?

Noticing Robert Scoble has 1380 followers. And 1041 friends.

Realizing I don't know the difference between a "friend" and a "follower."

Noticing one of Scoble's friends is Irina Slutsky.

Noticing she responded to BloatedLesbian.

Reading the Bloated Lesbian feed.

waiting for the shower to stop smelling like George Bush so I can shower then goto my conference

CC is having a vagina for lunch?????

lying to someone with a big dick



Noticing that for "Bio:" she just wrote "fat."

Being intrigued that she linked to The Karen Carpenter Story, told entirely with Barbie dolls.

Watching The Karen Carpenter Story.

Realizing it's 44 minutes long.

Being glad I'm unemployed.






Reading the Twitter blog. Noticing they have a Twitter shirt. It says "Wearing my Twitter Shirt."

Laughing at the comments. ("so I finally understand the business model....")
Reading Scoble's blog.

"I'm fascinated that so many people hate the service... They contribute more to the hype than anything else."


Reading web coverage about Twitter web coverage.

"Is Twitter the RSS for people with not much to say?"

Realizing I've wasted an hour playing with Twitter...

...when I'd meant to write about how uncompelling it is.

See Also:
iPhone Debate: I'm a Mac vs. Bill Gates
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
John Edwards' Virtual Attackers Unmasked
10 Worst Spiderman Tie-Ins

Read More

“Dear Internet, I’m Sorry”


Crook on Fox News

Even while delivering a video apology "to all bloggers, webmasters and other individuals" as part of a settlement agreement with 10 Zen Monkeys, he somehow seems determined to be the most hated man on the internet — if he could just get people to stop ignoring him. (You'll find that video further down on the page.)

But, let's back up a bit first...
I'm writing a new story for 10zen tonight.

Dana Plato?

Nah, the piece is about that Michael Crook guy.

That's how it started last September. We'd already written about a Seattle prankster named Jason Fortuny, who'd pretended to be a woman on Craig's List and then published horny male respondents' private info on the internet. In the fateful 27th comment on that story, a new site popped onto our radar.
He's inspired a website that exposes people nationwide — craigslist-perverts.org

That web site was registered to Michael Crook, and to this day I'm convinced Crook himself left the comment, hoping to skim off some of the attention. Sure enough, the site showed that Crook had duplicated Fortuny's stunt; he'd posted a fake ad on Craig's List pretending to be a young woman seeking sex in Syracuse, New York. But no one even noticed; according to Crook's own blog, he only got a few dozen responses. He tried posting more fake ads in more cities — Las Vegas, Dayton, South Jersey, Kansas City, and Anchorage — and created a web site with the results.



We noticed, but we weren't impressed. The original title for our article about Crook was "wannabe asshole," although we later changed it to In the Company of Jerkoffs, calling Crook "another sad member of the 'griefer community'... not only pathetic, but a pathetic copycat."
As an after-thought, I'd sent Jeff Diehl, our editor, a screenshot from Crook's appearance on Fox News to accompany the story. ("I think the bad hair and stiff tie and collar say a lot about the guy...")

We knew Crook wouldn't like it — but that's life on the internet. (I'm sure the men who answered his fake Craig's List ad didn't like it when he called them at work, either.) Life continued at our up and coming webzine — our next story questioned the press coverage about Willie Nelson's September arrest for possession of mushrooms. And then something weird happened...

Our internet service provider got a nasty email from Michael Crook. Crook wanted the embarrassing picture taken down, and to make that happen, he was pretending he had a copyright over the screenshot from Fox News, citing the "Digital Millenium Copyright Act" (or DMCA). I suggested a new headline for Jeff. "Syracuse jerk uses heavy-handed DMCA mumbo-jumbo to try to intimidate web pages he doesn't like."

We were clear that Crook had no legal claim. But his amateurish legalese spooked our spineless (pre-Laughing Squid) ISP, who asked Jeff to remove the image anyways. Jeff knew there was something wrong. In the world we live in, internet services can absolve themselves from future legal liability — if they quickly remove the suspect material. This means if someone wants an embarrassing picture taken down, simply masquerading as its copyright holder can be enough. So Michael Crook was pretending he owned a copyright on someone else's picture of his face.



Crook's legal interpretation was as laughable as the Batman comic book where the Joker claimed a copyright on a fish that looked like him.

But deep within the DMCA law is a counter-provision — 512(f), which states that misrepresenting yourself as a copyright owner has consequences. Any damage caused by harmful misrepresentation must be reimbursed. In 2004 the Electronic Frontier Foundation won a six-figure award from Diebold Election Systems, who had claimed a "copyright" on embarrassing internal memos which were published online. So not only was Jeff Diehl legally free to publish Crook's picture; Crook was in violation of the law for pretending he owned a copyright.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation now agreed to represent us. Crook hadn't just issued a copyright notice to 10 Zen Monkeys; he'd sent them to other web sites, again pretending to own the copyright on Fox News' image, to trick the sites into taking his picture down. (There were even cases where he served DMCA notices to websites that published Fair Use quotes from his blog.) Crook was a serial abuser of the copyright law — and so far his misuse of it had been rewarded every time. Some webmasters and bloggers obeyed the takedown notices without considering the counter-claim process, to avoid having to give Crook their identifying information — which he'd publicly demonstrated he enjoyed using maliciously.



But it was a mistake to try his stunt anywhere near Silicon Valley, where people closely follow how technology is evolving, and care deeply about protecting free speech online. Local web stars cheered on the lawsuit at sites like BoingBoing and Valleywag (where Nick Douglas wrote, "This Emo Kid is Getting Sued," and later begged Crook for a DMCA takedown notice of his own — which he got and displayed proudly). Someone had finally noticed Michael Crook — but for all the wrong reasons. Web sites were now re-posting even more copies of the picture he hated.

Crook tried hiding from the delivery of the legal documents — then later blustered on his web site that he'd successfully re-structured his business holdings to make it hard to collect. In a futile go-for-broke strategy, he then sent even more bogus DMCA notices — to other web sites which were reporting on his original bogus copyright notice. "I wonder if this is another one of his stunts for 'bad attention,'" I asked Jeff. "Everyone online hates the DMCA; maybe he's deliberately abusing it, the way Andy Kaufman used to bait professional wrestling fans."



For a brief moment it was Michael Crook versus the internet — until Michael Crook lost in a blow-out. Ignoring Crook's amateurish legal posturing, Fark.com users created over 50 versions of the supposedly-forbidden photo, photoshopping Crook's face into even more embarrassing poses. Someone tracked down Crook's high school yearbook photos (which, ironically, ended up being mocked in the blog of the original Craigs List prankster, Jason Fortuny.) Someone even uploaded the photo into the virtual gaming world Second Life. (Crook then tried unsuccessfully to issue a DMCA notice against a photo of that photo.) The ongoing mockery became a kind of online seminar, reminding web surfers to stand up to copyright law abusers, and to never pay attention to the Michael Crooks of the world.

In November, web writer Tucker Max called out Crook for an online debate. Crook accepted — though he only made three short posts, apparently caught off guard when Max refused to take Crook's weird positions seriously and instead attacked Crook himself. "You are desperate for attention," Max wrote, "and the ability to feel something, anything, you are willing to be the most ridiculed, hated person on the internet. Look at yourself dude. Look at your life." Max even claims he used his contacts as a law school graduate to guarantee that Crook, who says he wants to one day be a lawyer, will never pass the bar.

But abusing copyright law was only Crook's latest attempt at provoking attention. He'd previously claimed to hate the military, Jews, gays, immigrants, non-whites and children. Max noted that Crook tried to join the army, and had been rejected; and that Child Protective Services had taken his children away. Were Crook's attacks just a misguided lashing out over his own bitter failures?

The online world was faced with the griefer paradox: that griefers want bad attention, and the only real answer is ignoring them. Behind the scenes, the EFF was working to establish the only true point of the case — that web sites didn't have to buckle in the face of bogus copyright threats, and that abusing the DMCA would bring consequences.



Because Crook proved himself to be legally indigent, and was representing himself in an incompetent way that would likely have lessened the impact of an official judgment, it was decided that a settlement agreement could accomplish just as much, possibly more. Crook eventually signed such an agreement. It requires him to 1) take a course on copyright law basics; 2) never again file any cease and desist notices concerning the image of him on Fox News; 3) withdraw each and every DMCA notice he served regarding the image; 4) refrain from filing any DMCA notices for 5 years unless the material in question is personally authored, photographed or originated by him; 5) include in any DMCA notice during that 5 year period, URLs pointing to the EFF's web page summarizing this case; 6) turn over ownership of any domain names to Jeff Diehl and 10 Zen Monkeys if he is caught violating any of the terms of the agreement.

And, finally, he had to formally apologize to those he harassed. In video. Here now, is that video:




Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Subscribe now to MondoGlobo's new video show, 10ZM.TV!

In the San Francisco Bay Area? Celebrate free speech and the EFF: Free Speech Ain't Free!

See also:
EFF's Jason Schultz Explains the Crook Case
EFF's Diehl v. Crook page
Settlement Agreement
In the Company of Jerkoffs
The Case Against Crook
Crooks of the World Hurt Copyright, Free Speech
Craigslist Sex Troll Gets Sued

Read More

Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality?


Max Headroom

If you weren't there, you probably wouldn't believe it. But way back at the start of the 90s, people at the edge of the emerging digital culture talked about Virtual Reality (VR) — the idea that we would soon interact in shared 3D worlds — as much as, if not more than, they talked about the internet. (Of course, we were talking about it on the internet, so I guess sometimes you just don't notice your immediate surroundings.)

These 3D worlds would be accessed through head-mounted displays. The idea was to put the user literally inside computer-created worlds, where she could move around and see and hear the goings on in a fully dimensional alternative reality and have the sensation of being in another world. The eyes were the primary organs of entrance into these other worlds, although touch, motion and sound were all also involved.

(Second Life is a timid sampling of what was then envisioned.)



There were dozens of conferences about VR and lots of national media coverage in every major outlet. There were movies and TV shows that revolved around VR and there was even one arcade game. But VR quickly disappeared from public consciousness.

Virtual Reality developer Jaron Lanier was generally accepted as the public face of VR during this heady period that lasted from about 1989-91. This interview was performed in 2002 and I have selected it as an excerpt from my new book, True Mutations: Conversations on the Edge of Technology, Science and Consciousness.


Imagine Jaron Lanier

I first met Jaron Lanier in the mid-1980s. His work in Virtual Reality was just getting noticed and it was clear to those who knew him that this bright and gentle young man was destined to do great things.

In the late 1980s Lanier's team at VPL (Virtual Programming Language) developed the first implementation of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays. The work was applied to surgery and television production, among other things. He also led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications. During the late 90s, Lanier served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet 2. The Initiative demonstrated the first prototypes of tele-immersion in 2000 after a three year development period.

Lanier is also a musician. He has a remarkable collection of eclectic instruments from all over the world and has worked with Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Vernon Reid, George Clinton, and Sean Lennon among others. Additionally, his paintings and drawings have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe.

While most computer programmers and tech engineers display some degree of interest in art and aesthetics, Lanier is really an artist who happens to work in technology some of the time.

"Videobrain" and I sat with Lanier at a Mexican cafe in Marin and had a fragmented conversation that was frequently interrupted by waiters who wanted to please us, and Lanier's own incessantly ringing cell phone. Nevertheless, the conversation proved to be largely coherent.

RU SIRIUS: There was an extraordinary level of hype and excitement about Virtual Reality (VR) back in the late eighties and early nineties but it failed to live up to the expectations, presumably for technical reasons. I saw your The Top Eleven Reasons VR has not yet become commonplace. But why would you say there was that excited response to VR? What were people hoping for from it? What desires were raised?

JARON LANIER: Well, first of all, I personally think that a lot more could have happened with Virtual Reality than has happened. I feel that what went wrong with VR was that decent software standard platform didn't happen. The ones that were most in the forefront like VRML just didn't work well enough. So to get back to your question: what were people looking for? I still believe that what people really want from VR is to be able to touch upon the feeling of being able to share a dream with someone else — to take a little step away from the sense of isolation that people feel today. I think this is a universal and very healthy desire. (VR isn't the only way to address it obviously.)

But in VR, at some point, you would be able to be inside this place with other people where you were making it up as you went along. What people really wanted was a kind of intimacy where you're making up a dream together with other people. You're all experiencing it. I was calling it post-symbolic communication. The basic idea is that people thought that with VR they would be able to experience a kind of intense contact with imagination, some sort of fusion of the kind of extremes of aesthetics and emotional experience you might have when you open up the constraints of reality.



You can divide the requirements of the technology that will give you that into two pieces. You can call one piece the production quality or production standards — how detailed is the resolution? How realistic do surfaces look? That boils down to fast computers, high quality sensors and displays: the tech underpinnings of it all. But then there's this other side; the software side, which involves how you can get a virtual world to do things. My feeling is that even a low-res virtual world can get people the kind of experience that I was just describing. And I think we did have some great moments and great experiences in the '80s, even with very low-res systems that were available then. I think that the failure since then is that the software that's been developed is very rigid.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One was that there was a bizarre alliance between people doing military simulation and people doing recreational gaming. There are a lot of different kinds of games, so I don't want to put them all under one critical tent here. I think a lot of them are OK. But one of the dominant ideas is that a person who is playing is capable of being in the location, moving, shooting, or dying [laughs]. That's pretty much it. You might pick up an amulet or something, but it doesn't give you a lot to do.

RU: But in fairness, don't those kinds of simple applications come up because they're easier to code — so that they're steps along the way?

JL: Yeah, well it's precisely right that it's easier to code, especially when you get into a networked thing, but who said coding was supposed to be easy!? This brings up a little rant. I love to support the free software movement... I totally do. But just doing a piece of software in some political or economic context that's progressive like the Linux movement isn't enough. The software itself also has to be good [laughs]. That's sort of stating the obvious, but there are very large numbers of programmers in this newest, youngest generation of programmers who seem to feel that writing something that has existed for 20 or 30 years is somehow cool if you do it as part of a free software movement. And there is something to that, I don't want to say it's nothing but come on. So I think we have an epidemic of almost tautological coding. It's the same old stuff. There's no surprise. It's like ham radio or something. And that's been the worst problem for VR, because VR really needs a different attitude. Even today, you see people starting up a VR program and after some months they'll have a cube rotating or maybe a videogame where you're moving through a space and shooting at things. It's been done for decades! Do these people not know the meaning of boredom? How can people bear that?

RU: Well, you have the same thing in publishing. But the difference is that you can write something really dull or you can write something really amazing and it requires the same bandwidth. The tools are already available. But to do something really original in Virtual Reality — the steps are not so obvious. Do you visualize a huge project with lots of people working in parallel or how should it work?

JL: The case I want to make — and I can't prove it; it's speculation but my belief — is that even a really low-res system that's sort of manageable by a small group of people could be done that would be much more exciting and bring out more of this feeling of transcendence than what we're seeing now. Of course, anybody could ask me; "So, Mr. Snooty Oldtimer, if you feel that this can be done why don't you just go ahead and do it?" It's a reasonable question and I always think about it. I'm in this sort of bizarre quandary. The code that I really like the best for creativity is my old VPL code. I still use it for my own creative work but I'm not allowed to really work on it because it ended up being owned by Sun Microsystems. That would be a good resource for developing the open source treatment. And occasionally, when I give a talk at some university there will be some students who want to take it on as an open source challenge and make a new generation of something like that. Maybe it'll happen. It's definitely getting harder to use that code because it's old. There are a few things that we now know about how visible systems work that aren't really doable on it. It's hard to keep it running on the new generations of machines; it's really quite a challenge. How do you keep a twenty-year-old piece of software running without re-compiling?

RU: In your opinion, have there been fundamental changes in computer hardware that could make VR software more optimal in the intervening years?

JL: Not much. Just speed. More polygons.

RU The slowness in moving towards more creative forms of VR is a commercial problem also. If there was an obvious immediate market for it, a company with money would be working on it. You'd be working on it.

JL: Capitalism has proven really wonderful and optimal in encouraging certain kinds of improvements in technology but it seems to have these blind spots where it just hasn't been able to give support to other ones which are — at least by my value system — just as important. So for instance, the Moore's Law effect of processor speed going up — capitalism has been really good at that. It probably would not have happened under a command economy. So that's worked out pretty well. But with tools, if there's already an established market, like video editing or sound editing then you have production suites and there's a market. But if it's for something new and the market doesn't already exist, you get caught up in a sort of chicken-and-egg situation even though one can see that if all the pieces were in place there would be an incredible market. Capitalism can't serve as its own starter in a lot of places.

RU: Well, it seems that the contravening force to capitalism in the digital world is the gift economies of open source enthusiasts, which has the added charm of being non-coercive.

JL: Yeah. Well if I can find the personal focus for it I might try to start an open source movement for making VR tools. I should probably do that. It would be courageous.

RU: You've always seen VR in terms of play and sharing visions and so forth. What about the utilitarian aspect?

JL: Virtual Reality is already a success as an industrial technology. It just hasn't hit yet as a communications technology. But it's become absolutely essential. One of the stories I tell is the story of the oil supply. If we go back twenty or thirty years, most people thought that the oil would be running out about now. And the reason it's not is because computers allowed people to find and extract oil more efficiently...and from old fields. Ultimately, there's an illusion — created because of computers — that the oil supply is expanding instead of running out. The underlying reality is that the oil supply is running out, so, in a way, this is a dangerous situation. At any rate, VR was used to visualize oil fields and to visualize machinery to extract oil more efficiently from old fields. Similar things happened in medicine. We understand more about large molecules, we understand more about how the body heals from surgery through VR simulations.

RU: Is there a utilitarian aspect to the visionary ideal of VR?

JL: Whether one sees meaning as having utilitarian value is a matter of personal taste. I think the most important things can't be expressed in utilitarian terms because to be utilitarian you have to have a frame to refer to, and the most important things are the frames. You can't say that your values are utilitarian; you have to have smaller things that are utilitarian within your values. (Of course, some of our values are tautologically unavoidable like survival.)

One way of arguing that there is a utilitarian value is that people who are tinkerers ought to be able to find a fascination in tinkering with such things as aesthetics and communications, which are the most intense things to tinker with, after all. Because if we tinker with anything else, we'll destroy ourselves. My notion is that people are somewhat dangerous to their own survival because we're too creative. The metaphor I sometimes use is that people on planet earth are like a bunch of really technically bright teenagers without any supervision hanging out all summer in a chemistry lab [laughter].



I like to think of VR as an alternative way of thinking about a ramp of technological progress in the future where instead of making bigger and faster things, you make more intense experiences and more interesting forms of human connection. And if you think of that ramp, which is more of a McLuhanesque ramp than an Edward Teller ramp, that alternative ramp is the one that we can survive with. So in that sense, all this business about aesthetics and communications is a survival strategy. I really think it's the only imaginable future.

RU: You just said, "If we tinker with anything else we destroy ourselves." That's a pretty extreme statement! Aren't at least some kinds of tinkering convivial? In fact, don't we need to keep tinkering in order to evolve some of our current technologies into a more convivial state?

JL: I spoke poorly. I'm not against tinkering but against the idea of tinkering for the purpose of increasing human power as opposed to the purpose of increasing human connection and experience. If your only value is increasing technological power according to some extra-human definition, you will eventually hurt yourself. If that was the only possible form of tinkering I would have to be anti-tinkering, but I think I've articulated and practiced a different kind. I'm not even anti-power-oriented tinkering — it's fantastic for improving our lives; medicine and all that. I only become opposed to it when it is the only guiding value, which it ultimately is for a the totalists, as well as the goodness-of-the-immanent-singularity folks.

RU: The closest thing we have to shared dreaming right now is when people gather together in the movie theater.

JL: The movie theater is Stalin's version of a dream because somebody dictates a dream.

RU: You have a pretty strong critique of the transhumanist.

JL: Well, for instance, little nanomachines, little molecular machines can absolutely transform the world. We've seen that happen once. It's life on earth and it took billions of years. So the real question isn't whether there is the possibility that there could be another family of molecular machines in billions of years, the question is whether there is some alternate family of molecular machines that can do something interesting in a much shorter period of time that's relevant to any planning horizon for us. So in order for them to go faster than evolution did the first time, there has to be some other ingredient that evolution didn't have. And my illustrious colleagues, the "totalists" would say that evolution didn't have the benefits of their genius, and evolution is going to happen really fast this time.

RU: But you can make a distinction between say Ray Kurzweil's claim that somewhere in the foreseeable future we're going to infuse the lifeless parts of our universe with intelligence, and saying that we can build molecular machines adequately to particular purposes that can, for instance, go into the human body and maintain health, or can produce enough wealth to end material scarcity.

JL: This issue really comes down to the complexity ceiling problem. And that comes down to how well we can model really complicated things like the interactions of molecules so that we can design something. That's one of the big scientific unknowns right now. It may be that there is this complexity ceiling beyond which you cannot go, so that no matter how fast your computer is designed at the nano level, the level of complexity you need to calculate how to make that machine do certain things really does take billions of years to calculate, and evolution on earth was already optimized. Or it might turn out that we really can do something smart and come up with a way to do it in maybe 10 or 40 years because it turns out that evolution wasn't optimized and evolution wasted a lot of time on — oh, I don't know — snails [laughs]. So the single greatest question might be; how optimized was evolution from the point of view of wanting to design complicated things really quickly?

RU: We have this fairly ubiquitous view now that all the important systems in life come from basically very simple programs that iterate and accumulate complexity. We have currently the theory that the universe is just that; and then we have genes and memes. This works for me, but I also suspect that there's something else going on. I don't have the scientific language or knowledge to say what that is; it may be related to dimensionality; quantum physics... I'm not sure, but I do have that suspicion.

JL: It's tricky. I think there's something else too. This is a subtle difficult question. And there are alternative theories. There are a lot of different kinds of propagating programs we could be talking about like the Wolfram programs that are supposed to propagate a reality that is very different from the Darwinian set of programs. I have a feeling that the sense in which we find these theories to be true reaches a final point where they're tautological and therefore useless. Yes, of course you can conceive of it that way. But I think the question is whether this way of thinking about the world as a bunch of competing programs really gets you anywhere. Is it of any use? Does it make it easier and faster to think about anything? It's an open question but I'm a little skeptical. I think a lot of the meme-gene people are really drunk on their little metaphor but it's pretty short on substance. You end up with the "just so" problem. There wasn't any falsification potential, so all the stories were equally good.

The problem I worry about, which I expressed in my essay "One Half a Manifesto" is that you have this sort of trickle down effect. You have this big metaphor that starts to influence the way you think about little things. You start to think that things are made out of simpler algorithms than they really are and you sort of dumb yourself down. You start thinking of yourself and other people as simpler than they really are because you want it to fit nicely, potentially into a computer.

RU: Do you think big theories that try to explain everything are a waste of time?

JL: No, I don't reject explanation. I just think it's really hard to do.

This was an excerpt from True Mutations: Conversations on the Edge of Technology, Science and Consciousness by RU Sirius. The book includes interviews with Cory Doctorow, Robert Anton Wilson, DJ Spooky, John Markoff, David Pescovitz, Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson, David Duncan, Genesis P. Orridge, Danel Pinchbeck, Howard Bloom and many others.

See also:
John Edward's Second Life Attackers Unmasked
Who Are Second Life's "Patriotic Nigras"?
Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes

Read More

Who are Second Life’s “Patriotic Nigras”?



They're brash, articulate and unapologetic; and they have a message for America. Mudkips Acronym is co-founder of "the Patriotic Nigras," the group who attacked John Edwards' virtual headquarters in Second Life, and Wednesday he agreed to an email interview.

Talking about Second Life and the blogosphere, Mudkips explains how his group operates and their pranksterish motivations, and insists that... no, they're aren't Republicans.

LOU CABRON: Why did your attacking avatars wear "Bush '08" buttons?

MUDKIPS ACRONYM: Everything we do is for laughs, and we thought "Bush '08" would be interpreted as humor — as I'm sure you know, Bush obviously can't be re-elected in '08.



However, the resulting aftershock from the "blogosphere", particularly on the left, has been enormous, when they thought the raiders were Republicans. This was completely unexpected, and frankly hilarious. I'm a bit disillusioned with my own party after this event, actually, as someone who did read blogs like the Daily Kos and expected some honest and truthful journalism. However, it seems as if everyone played a giant game of telephone, taking the Republican assumption and adding on more and more anger and hostility as it went on.

While I felt Kerry was a bit wishy-washy, I voted for him in 2004. I'm sort of conservative on economics but very, very liberal on anything else. I'm all for Bush impeachment over the Iraq war and all that jazz. I'm currently rooting for Obama, but that doesn't mean we won't raid him or anything. We'll hit anyone if it's funny, and if the guy I want to be president in 2008's campaign provides the lulz, we'll certainly not cross him off our list.

I'm not going to deny Patriotic Nigras is a troll group. We exist primarily to make people mad. Unlike most trolls, however, the attention is not the biggest concern. However, the reaction to this whole mess has been a troll's DREAM. An "attack," placed in an unofficial spot on an unofficial blog, has been a large story if only because the political persecution factor was tacked on to it.

While a few of us might be racist or something (who knows with this group), that's completely irrelevant to our cause. N3X15, our webhoster guy and acting Second Life leader, is a Republican. I probably disagree with him on a lot of things. But we're willing to overlook that in the fact that we all are allied to the same goal. I think laughs transcend party lines.

I think this whole incident is telling of where our priorities lie (and by "our" I mean America, if you happen to be outside the U.S.). But let's not make this too much of what it isn't.

Returning to the Bush thing, my answer would be "for the lulz". Claiming to be from the Republicans, we thought, would just add some irony to the whole thing. We didn't know that it would become the centerpiece of the event.

LC: Can you tell me about your group? How many people are in it?

MA: We have around 70 members on the forums. Of those, maybe 35 are active and confirmed.

The first attack was somewhere in December or January. I don't remember exactly when, but it was around Christmas-time. Like it says in the Encyclopedia Dramatica article, though, the first attacks were somewhat sparse. Me and a couple other guys, doing random crap.

As for hating John Edwards himself...nah. He (actually, the camp seems to be unofficial, so rather whoever set it up and posted the news on the blog) was simply a high-profile target exploitable for maybe a day or two of chuckles, maybe more, at least we thought at first.

It was only when we'd become able to get to a critical-mass of sorts of members that the "attacks" become organized and large-scale. I'd put that around the time of the third Fort Longcat, the middle of January. Once we got that set up, we were able to organize efficiently and had a place to retreat and regroup when things didn't go right.

The planning for the Edwards attack was actually fairly minimal. We have experience doing this sort of thing with the furry and gorean sims. However, and without trying to be too dramatic, we did have "spies" in and around the physical Edwards campaign HQ.

Our original plan was to arrive in a bunch of Black Hawk helicopters and have sniper areas. We had it planned out for a while, but a couple people from the organization decided to go in prematurely. Like I've said, it would have caused much more of a hubbub had the original plan went through!

LC: What do you tell people who say your group is racist?

MA: As an organization, we have no racist, sexist, or political bias, except in the case of when it serves our interests. The "nigra" thing could be seen as a racist remark at first glance, but Encyclopedia Dramatica explains it well

"Since the Internets is largely Anonymous and because the term was invented by a /b/tard (a cyber being of indeterminate and irrelevant sex/age/heritage) in the virtual, 'colourblind' environment of Habbo Hotel as a way to say 'nigga' without alerting their dirty word Department of Habboland Security feds, any suggestion that the word 'nigra' is racist is not only completely without merit, it's racist against the inhabitants of Internets."

LC: So how are you able to operate in Second Life?

MA: Even though Fort Longcat was deleted by the landowner, we're still setting up small scale forts to organize. Since our forts are usually deleted within the week by landowners, we're constantly on the move, and the fact we have permanent forums (no ProBoards free stuff that can be taken out from under us) now has helped keep us together. Our webmaster has engineered a half-working separate Second Life server/sim as well, where we can meet up independent of the main grid.

As to who we are, all I can say is that we're big-A Anonymous.

LC: So what kind of people are in the group? Are you high school students, middle-aged geeks...?

MA:The stereotype of us being high school geeks with acne is funny. Most of our members are well in their twenties and even thirties. The site where we originated from from has an active no-under-18 policy.

As for the site's identity, I have to clarify two things:

1. We're not from Something Awful.

2. Ebaumsworld is a cover, and we're not from there. Rule one in our book is "do not mention the site we come from." Anyone caring to analyze the content (signs, things we say, the "nigras" part of our name) of our raids, however, should be able to figure it out with a little Googling. However, while we originated from that board, we're a separate entity and do not organize there.

LC: Is your group worried about getting busted?

MA: Nah. As far as bans go, IPs can be changed, we can spoof MACs, we can change or send gibberish HD IDs. Thanks to our resident programmers, and Linden Labs' generous open-sourcing of the client package, we have tools that can do most of that already.

As for getting in trouble in general - no. First off, cases involving prosecution on Internet sites require tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, are often dragged out for years, have little evidence to support their claims, and so forth. Add that with the fact that everything being done is according to the game world's own mechanics, and I'm not too worried about anything serious going on.

I think if someone were to be sued (even in a civil court) for putting giant phalluses on somebody's Internet lawn, they'd be laughed out of court. If anything, Linden Labs is attracting more attention to Second Life thanks to this incident. Nevertheless, you're still going to have people like intLib threatening us with obscure felonies to try to dissuade us. At that point, the best way to deal with them is to ignore them.

LC: You sound very libertarian.

MA: I don't support all libertarian causes, but I am of the opinion that people should be able to do what they wish unless it negatively impacts someone else. I'm anti-drug but completely for the legalization of marijuana (though I don't use it), as well as completely against the Patriot Act and things that I feel invade American liberties.



LC: So what happens next? What do you think the Edwards camp should do?

MA: Good question. I'll assume you mean the campaign and/or the people supporting it, not the physical location itself.

The fact is, Second Life is not a credible or effective way to make a campaign statement. Whether or not the headquarters was officially sanctioned by the Edwards campaign, having something like this is a waste of time. Second Life's actual membership numbers are vastly inflated, as is the more literal artificially inflated Second Life economy. The bubble will burst eventually.

Anyways, if the Edwards campaign wants to try to get more public support, they need to take less time trying to be edgy and Web 2.0 and more time focusing on issues and traditional publicity. It's nice when someone takes the trouble to make a video on YouTube explaining their campaign goals, but half the time they're recycled or just plain corny. If anyone in the campaign wants to bring the young demographic in, they need to actually care about their potential constituents, not just put out a video of old campaign meets with cheesy background music, set up a fort in Second Life, and be done with it.

LC: What are your plans for the future?

MA: Well, we'll keep bombing the furry sims, but other than that, who knows?

If I say anything else, there might be some lockdowns, but other candidates in Second Life are a possibility. Anything high-profile is fair game.

See also:
John Edwards' Virtual Attackers Unmasked
Craiglist Sex Troll Gets Sued
Thomas Hawk versus Rent-a-Cops
20 Wildest Reactions To Obama's Victory
The 5 Faces of Bush

Read More

John Edwards’ Virtual Attackers Unmasked



The attackers have been identified — and they're alive and gloating.

"Guess what: we're not Republicans. In fact, I'm one of the most hard-core liberals I know."

A post on the John Edwards blog claimed credit for an attack on his campaign HQ in Second Life — saying that "We simply did it for the lulz... The fact you were so bent out of shape to make a blog post on the OFFICIAL JOHN EDWARDS BLOG about how some people placed a bunch of shittingdicknipples on your lawn is mighty telling."



The post was deleted from Edwards blog. (Its last line was "Enjoy your AIDS!") But the poster used the name Mudkips Acronym, which also turns up in a January entry on Encyclopedia Dramatica, identifying him as a member of a longstanding Second Life "invasion group." Its name is given as "Patriotic Nigras: e-terrorists at large," and Saturday the entry was updated to claim credit for the Edwards attack.

This would make the Edwards attack just the latest installment in a longer history of random assaults. The page describes the group's first attacks as griefing pranks on Second Life's "Gay Yiffy" virtual nightclub — blocking the exit doors on a disco's private rooms, and filling its dance floor with an annoyingly large box. They returned to build a wall with a swastika of American flags, and eventually acquired a "Doomsday" weapon that creates endlessly replicating cubes.

The group also claims weapons like "the Dong Popgun" (which fires a barrage of penises), and the "Cosby Block" (a profilerating posters of the Jell-o pudding pops spokesman). One Second Life blogger accused the group of distributing the infamous Goatse picture, a tactic confirmed by a Second Life newspaper. And the group's ultimate weapon — the "Mario mosh pit" — even floods an area with images of Nintendo's Mario character.

YouTube footage apparently captures the attacks, set to musical soundtracks like "America: Fuck Yeah", or the soundtrack to Star Wars. A climactic January attack targeted another night club in Second Life, according to their Wiki page — followed by a permanent ban of the group's members. (They believe Second Life had successfully identified their computer hardware, according to the web page.) It claims the group is now armed with an "unbanning" tool, and having grown to at least 15 members, now hides in a secret base somewhere in Second Life's virtual sky.

On the Edwards blog, Mudkips Acronym also posted that "we had something much bigger planned, and the actions of a few in the organization sort of spoiled it." Even then, he was amused by the online coverage and wrote that "If this sort of hilarity is getting out after something rather routine, we can only dream of what would happen later."

John Edwards had been running a flawless online campaign, with a web site promising Edwards will "ensure America's greatness in the 21st century." The candidate assembled an impressive online outreach effort, with pages on all the major social networking sites. (Although his LiveJournal site still sports embarrassing ads for cheap flights to Las Vegas because the campaign didn't pay the $2.00 a month for an ad-free account.) Last month an Edwards volunteer decided to create a campaign headquarters in Second Life — prompting mixed reactions. ("Edwards To Pin Down Crucial Techno-Savvy Shut-In Vote," joked Wonkette.) But other Edwards volunteers were clearly excited. "Excuse me, your netroots are showing!" gushed a poster on the Edwards site. "The Edwards campaign once again proves its Web 2.0 credentials..."

It was barely more than two weeks before the attackers struck — setting off an interesting discussion about the state of the online world.

"This is the modern-day equivalent of hippies freaking out the squares," wrote a blogger at Wired. "You see countless news stories about this, over and over again: the gray humorless drones of political parties or corporations rushing to establish a presence in Second Life because it's the thing to do, only to find themselves staring directly into the collective Goatse.cx of the Internet's soul."

One of the attackers struck the pose of a manifesto writer. "[T]he truth is, there is something terribly wrong with Second Life, isn't there...? [W]here once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have IP bans and hypocritical labelers coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission."

But their real motivation seems to be the thrill of griefing. "You don't have to have furries to be a target," notes another comment, "all you have to be is so full of yourself that you freak out over an attack. Freak out once and they'll come back because the more you struggle and complain, the funnier it is."

And one poster goes even further. "The thing is... griefing is pretty much the only way to make Second Life fun if you aren't a furry or a pedophile or something."

Second Life's creators, Linden Labs, were compelled by the incident to issue a middle-of-the-road response ("At Linden Lab we do the utmost to ensure the protection of creative expression, within certain bounds. Ultimately, instances in which residents engage in vandalism will have to be taken on a case by case basis according to our terms of service.") And Second Life boosters had already been sharing their tips for dealing with griefers. But perhaps the best summation came from a comment at the Game Politics site.

"Why does everyone think that this was political? This is what happens in Second Life."

According to the Second Life Herald, the Edwards virtual HQ had already been targeted by a pesky next door neighbor who insisted on touting the presidential candidacy of John Edward — the psychic host of TV's "Crossing Over."

Q: Will Edward be making a visit to SL?
A: He's already here. He's inside all hour hearts and minds. Because he can read them.
Q: how can he concentrate?
A: I imagine he just squints his eyes really hard

In an unpredictible online environment, political campaigns will face situations that are new and unexpected. (The Huffington Post went to the trouble of pointing out that while Edwards had a virtual headquarters, there were "scantily clad vixens nearby.") One observer even found their way to Edwards' blog and posted "John, welcome to the internet. If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen, but if you are willing to laugh at the insanity you'll find many friends there."



As a kind of confirmation, the online pranksters themselves updated their Encyclopedia entry with a link to an apparently-related web page. Accessing the page plays the dramatic finale to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture while showing a picture of a giggling anime girl — and a five dollar bill with John Edwards' face.

"Sorry we broke your intertube campaign, Mr. Edwards," it says.

"So here's 5 bux."

See also:
Who Are Second Life's "Patriotic Nigras"
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Thomas Hawk versus Rent-a-Cops
Craigslist Sex Troll Gets Sued
Is Yahoo/Flickr DMCA Policy Censorship?

Read More

SF Writer Rudy Rucker: Everything Is Computation


Rudy Rucker's novels are fun and funny romps. Rucker leads us through complex, technology-rich, multi-leveled worlds that teach us about how the universe works through the eyes of a mathematician, a scientist, and a humorist. His characters are usually young, hip and unsinkable. But lurking inside all of the playfulness, Rucker's examinations of the characters and characteristics of our time always have satirical bite and a moral center.



Aside from that, he's a great fuckin' guy. I know, because he worked with me on Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge. His novels have included The Hacker and the Ants: Version 2.0, Master of Space and Time, and Frek and the Elixir. The most recent of his many non-fiction works was Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy. And then there's his delightful new novel, Mathematicians in Love and his new science fiction webzine, Flurb. We talked about these projects in this two-show conversation for NeoFiles.
To listen to the full interview Part 1 in MP3, click here.

To listen to the full interview Part 2 in MP3 click here.

RU Sirius: Here's an early quote from Mathematicians in Love: "The key new insight is that any given dynamical system can be precisely modeled by a wide range of other dynamical systems." And that seems to be central to the mechanism of your novel.

RUDY RUCKER: Yeah. That's a sort of dream of mathematics that emerges every few years. It's emerged as the idea of catastrophe theory. And then again as chaos theory. And then as dynamic systems theory — complexity theory — Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. Basically, there are only a few possible forms that underlie the things that are happening in the world. And the feeling is that if I can sort of strip something like the weather down to its rawest mathematical form, I can then look at that form and I can find another system that actually shares the same pattern. Because if there's only a few little patterns and yet there's so many diverse things in the world — lots of things are actually going to have the same pattern. So a cup of tea can be a perfectly good model for a hurricane. And then, to predict what the hurricane's going to do, all you have to do is prepare your cup of tea so it's in the same state as the hurricane. Then you watch it for a minute and read out where the hurricane's going to be. So you begin to use nature as a kind of computing system. And that's the key idea in the novel. The characters take this gimmick and they're able to make a device that perfectly predicts the future.

RU: As I understand it, the idea is basically that computation is implicit in everything. And we learn how to use that.

RR: Yeah. A lot of the ideas in my recent novels come from Stephen Wolfram's work. Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul was largely about his work. And the basic idea is that any natural process can be regarded as a computation. We define computation in a fairly broad sense to mean any deterministic system that obeys definite laws. And it doesn't have to be digital.

The digital thing is sort of a red herring. We have this idea that being a computer is about being digital. But computers aren't actually digital, OK? They're made of a bunch of electrons. And the electrons are fuzzy analog wave functions.

So you can look at a brook or an air current and you can say, "That's doing something complex." And if you look at the natural world, there are four kinds of things that you see. Where something is sort of stable — not changing — it's static. Or else it's doing something periodic. Or it's completely fuzzy and like totally skuzzy and screwed up. Or it's in the Interzone — what I call the gnarly zone, between being periodic and being completely skuzzy.

Life is gnarly. Plants are gnarly. Air currents are gnarly. Water currents are gnarly. Fire is gnarly. In Wolfram's view, every one of these actually embodies a universal computation, similar to a universal Turing Machine or a personal computer, and in principle they can compute anything that you want it to. I agree with him.

RU: I've never really been quite able to understand Wolfram's stuff. But I've heard that he shows that there can be types of evolution that differ from Darwinian evolution.

RR: He does talk about evolution a little bit. People will say, "How could a butterfly have evolved that precise pattern on its wings? Or how could we evolve the exact shape of our body." And he makes the point that natural systems are actually fairly robust computations. They like to do things like make spots on butterfly wings or grow limbs from animals. The genetic code doesn't have to be as finely tweaked as people sometimes imagine. You could actually perturb it quite a bit and you would still get plants and animals that look pretty similar to the way we look now. So it's not so much that things evolve to perfection. They just get to a level of functioning well enough. In fact, we aren't tuned to complete optimality.

RU: Functioning "well enough" plays into your novel. There's the development of a technology that makes the lead character mathematician's theory into something that's usable as a prediction machine. And the guy who's marketing this machine — his attitude is good enough is good enough. And he starts putting it out there.

RR: That's right. Computer scientists proved that all sorts of things are impossible to do. And then someone backs off and says, "Well can't I get something working reasonable well?" And it turns out not to be such a difficult problem.

RU: I'd venture to say that this novel is even more playful than your last one, Frek and the Elixir. Both books are satirical and there are recognizable dark forces based on current culture. But with this one, your main characters are pretty much consistently fun and they seem to exist in a somewhat more pleasant universe. Would you agree with that?

RR: Yeah, although the book actually starts in one universe, and then the characters are in a second universe, and then in a final third universe, which is our universe. I've described it as being like different drafts of a novel. If you're a novelist, you think, "Why wouldn't God do successive drafts of the universe?" And once he's finished one version, that draft would still exist and there'd be people living in it.



RU: Like your giant Jellyfish goddess in the novel. This sort-of parallel universe or metaverse is important in the story.

RR: There's sort of control room that's based on Micronesia — it looks a little like Micronesia. It's called La Hampa, which is Spanish for "the underworld." But it's not underworld in the sense of Hades. It's more underworld in the sense of gangland.

And the idea is — if you're going to meet people from all over the galaxy, the one way that you might be able to talk to them would be with math. Mathematicians, at least, like to believe that mathematics would be the same pretty much everywhere. Though if you delve deep enough, you can call it into question.

Anyway, in La Hampa, the cockroaches are oriented towards logic. And there are giant slime creatures that are oriented towards studying infinity. The lizards are into analysis, and there are these cone shell snails. This would dovetail with some of your interests, RU...

RU: Conotoxins! I'm searching around for a source.

RR: The cover of Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul is a picture of a textile cone shell. I did that because of Wolfram's work with cellular automata. There are these interesting, gnarly, irregular patterns that form into textile cone shell. It looks like this space-time track of a one-dimensional cellular automaton. It's a lot of little triangles. So I thought I should have giant cone shell snails as the aliens in my next science fiction book. And then, sometimes you get one of these gifts from the gods that happens when you're writing — something appears that's exactly what you need. So I discovered this article in Scientific American about these innocent-looking sea slug type snails that are actually very vicious. They send out this long snout with this little tiny tooth that's filled with this very potent venom called a conotoxin. And some scientists recently found a way to start using those conotoxins on humans. It's the ultimate painkiller. But it's such a powerful drug that you can't inject it. It has to be dripped directly into your spinal column. If it gets into your bloodstream, you have a heart attack. And as a side effects, people started hallucinating so much they have to be kept in straightjackets. It's not a light recreational drug, by any means.

RU: Although people do ingest some in your story, or they claim to have ingested some.

RR: At least at one point, my main character thinks he might have snorted some. It's going around.

RU: There's been some talk about parallel universes within the context of science and math and so forth. And I'm sure you have some thoughts and can tell us a little bit about how people have thought about this in the actual world.

RR: There are a number of theories. A theory that I've drawn on recently comes from a scientist named Lisa Randall. She wrote an interesting book called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions. There's this problem in physics with the fact that gravity is weaker than the other kinds of natural forces. Its basic intensity is dialed down really low. And physicists wonder — why isn't it similar? And she has this explanation. Maybe there's this other brane, as they call it — there's a membrane, and part of reality is over there. And somehow it's siphoning off some of our gravity. I like that idea of parallel universes. It's sort of a specialized physics use of the parallel universe idea. The one that's used in more fiction is the old quantum mechanical model that whenever something could randomly go this way or that way, maybe it goes both ways, and then both the universes exist.

RU: It keeps on splitting off

RR: Yeah. But I've never liked that model. I don't want every possible universe to exist because then nothing matters. You know? It's like you say, "I want a sculpture" and they give you the block of marble and they say, OK, the Venus de Milo's in there. Big fucking deal.

RU: Do you think we're in an infinite universe; or an approximately infinite universe; or a quite finite universe?

RR: I think there's a finite number of parallel universes. I think there are successive drafts of the universe that have been worked on. And they're getting better.

RU: Like the jellyfish.

RR: But is our universe infinite? It's interesting — fifteen years ago it seemed like the physicists had it all wrapped up — you know, we had a big bang, our universe is so-and-so large. It's going to collapse back. It's a hypersphere. End of story. Now, all their theories are going down the toilet. Supposedly 70% of the mass in the universe is dark energy.

RU: I keep hearing 90%.

RR: Well, there's 10% matter, 20% dark matter, and then the rest of it's dark energy. And they don't even know what dark energy is. But supposedly the universe is expanding faster all the time and it will never stop. That also means that it's been infinite all along, oddly enough. That's interesting. And if you have this idea that the universe is physically infinite, you sort of don't need parallel universes. Because if you say there's infinitely many stars, then you can sort of get into a law of probability kind of thing. You say, well look, all we need to do is hit the roulette wheel 10 to the 300th times, and the 10 to the 300th time, I'll get a planet that looks exactly like earth, except me and my social security number will be slightly different.

RU: Sometimes I suspect that other dimensions are leaking into ours and that's where some strange, unexplained experiences come from.

RR: I'm amenable to the idea of there being different levels of reality. I've always liked that idea.

RU: Moving on... let's not forget that this book has sex, drugs, math and rock and roll.

RR: If I'm writing a novel, my hero might as well have more fun than I do. (Laughter) So he's a guitarist in a sort-of punk rock band but in this world they're called dreggers



RU: I love the way the main, young character in your book keeps on getting into more complicated and difficult and weird and life-threatening situations. But he pretty much keeps on grooving. He keeps on grooving on the mathematics of things. It seems sort of like his way out of pain and depression.

RR: Yeah. That's my life story.

RU: Let's talk briefly about the politics of the novel. These guys are mathematicians. They have a powerful concept. And they have to decide, on graduating from college, about getting gigs and dealing with a particular corporation that turns out to be deeply tied into a political organization that is sort of a mirror world for the Bush administration.

RR: That's right. People often said cyberpunk was political, but I've really been putting more politics in my books in the last four years or so, because I feel that it's such a dark time in American politics. We have this completely illegitimate government. Bush didn't even really got elected. And it's doing such harm every day.

In the sixties, when the Vietnam War was raging, we had underground comics to cheer us up. So I want to write science fiction that support people and gives them more hope about the future. So I have an evil President called Joe Doakes who is with the Heritagist party, and a much more evil vice president named Frank Ramirez. And one of the highpoints for me, in writing the book, is when they do this giant punk-metal rock concert at this baseball stadium in San Francisco that has recently been renamed Heritagist Park, because the Heritage Party has bought the naming rights. And they manage to bring down the regime with that concert, which is sort of cool.

RU: Talk a little bit about the role of vlogging in the novel.

RR: Yeah, I myself blog a lot. And I'm interested in the idea of vlogging — video blogging. I put a lot about it into Mathematicians in Love. And this is one of those times where I was a little bit ahead of the future curve because in the year that it took for the book to come out, YouTube got big and vlogging really caught on. I push it a little further in the novel. There are people that are wearing a kind of camera called a vlog ring. You just wear this thing all day long, and it basically uploads everything you're doing, 24/7. And people compete over whose life is the most interesting. It's sort of like an "American Idol" thing.

RU: It's called "One in a Million." (Laughs)

RR: Right. And they're giving the vlog rings away at McDonalds so everybody will join. And, of course the Heritagists are combing through the data and using it.

RU: Right. People are doing the NSA's job for them.

RR: Yeah! The better to manipulate us.

RU: So tell us a bit about your SF webzine FLURB. What motivated you to start a science fiction webzine?

RR: Well, now and then I'll write a short story and I'll think, "Where can I publish this?" There aren't a huge number of short fiction markets in SF. There are two or three mainstream magazines. There's Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. There's Analog Science Fiction and Fact. And in England, there's Interzone. And then there are also some online zines. But most of the online zines don't actually pay you anything. So I thought it would be fun to gather some stories that are to my taste from my old friends and colleagues; and maybe some new people that I can contact and get interested. It's a little zine that comes out maybe three or four times a year. It's not a big deal, but it's another place to put my stories out there.

RU: On John Brockman's webzine Edge, they asked a bunch of famous scientists and thinkers and digerati types a question: "What are you optimistic about and why?" And a lot of people answered that they were optimistic because people were giving up on the idea of God — "the God delusion" as Richard Dawkins says. And your answered popped out at me because it was completely different and very much the opposite of what many people were saying.

RR: At the time I wasn't actually feeling optimistic. But I'm usually optimistic about my science fiction. So these ideas that I'm describing here are things that are going into some novels that I'm working on now. I would actually call this section "Universal Telepathy." But Brockman titled it "Unknowable Gaian Mind."
Read Rudy's brief Edge entry: click here. No, really, to continue the interview, read Rudy's entry.

RU: So I think Richard Dawkins and the Amazing Randi are right now having telepathic communication about how to shut Rudy Rucker up! It's a pretty risky statement to make in a forum that's full of major science heads.

RR: (Laughs) Well, yeah. The thing is — I think of myself as a science fiction writer now. So I no longer feel that I have to be reputable or responsible in what I say. (Laughs) You know? A lot of times, when people are asked to speculate about the future, they'll simply repeat the ideas that are in the air. It's like sheep standing in their stable, and they're urinating on the floor. And then they're lapping up the urine. And they're saying, "Gee, this sure tastes like piss, doesn't it?"

RU: (Laughs) Speaking of colorful images, you have a film in pre-production with Michael Gondry, based on Master of Space and Time. And I heard Dan Clowes was hired to write a script. Is that still happening?

RR: I'm less optimistic about that now. I haven't heard anything from Michael for, oh, almost a year. And I think the option expires next month. And my agent asked him if he wanted to renew it, and they said they didn't want to renew it. So I think they're not going to make the movie. I love Michael's work. He's a brilliant man.

RU: Before I let you go I want to ask you one more question. It's the same question that I asked Cory Doctorow on The R.U. Sirius show a couple of weeks ago. Your thought processes in your material is very science fiction-y. What novels outside of the science fiction genre do you read, and what do you really love?

RR: Well, recently I was re-reading some of the stories by Luis Borges. He's maybe my favorite writer of all. Just this week I'm reading a book by Charles Portis called Gringos. That's a really great book. It came out in the nineties. It's really fun to read. A bunch of hippies go down to Mexico for a harmonic convergence while the world's coming to an end. The saucers are landing. The usual kind of thing. He has this very jaded, dry tone. And, of course, I'm also reading Pynchon's new book, which seems like a drop-off in quality.

RU: Did you read Gravity's Rainbow as soon as it came out?

RR: I did. I read it — I read it for about five years. I kept re-reading it. It had a huge influence on me. I learned a lot about writing from reading Pynchon. He's such a beautiful stylist.

RU: It was very difficult to get started. I started it myself about four or five times before actually reading it all the way through. And I found that I had to make notes to read the entire book.

RR: Yeah. In a way it reproduced the experience of how you find out about things when you're growing up. You get a piece here, a piece there, and it takes a while to fit it all together into the whole narrative.



RU: But you would love puzzle types of novelists.

RR: Up to a point I like puzzles, but I also like a story that keeps you turning the pages. Stories that kick ass. I don't like to get too arty.

See also:
When Cory Doctorow Ruled The World
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes

Read More

When Lego Goes to War


LEGO Star Wars minifig


Legos have changed. The CEO Of the Lego Group claims they're now "very open source," re-oriented to lovers of the Lego brand. Of course, he's "adjusted" the business costs, but mostly they've made a return to their traditional emphasis on "the joy of building and the pride of creating things."

I'm not convinced. As an educator who's been using Legos to teach kids for over a decade (advance high school stuff, like how to build catapults and the physics it demonstrates), and despite the CEO's new interview, I feel an urgent need to express where Lego has gone wrong.



1. War toys

I can remember when the owner of Lego promised they would never promote or create war toys. For me this was a big selling point: a toy that wasn't destructive, and in fact didn't promote destructive behavior in their advertising! Sure, kids might build a tank or a mock gun, but it was a product of their own imagination, not the building plans! Our motto in the after school centers was: "Peaceful, Positive and Practical."

Over the last decade, I've seen Lego's themes take them gradually to war. It started with minor "minifig" characters and then fully developed violence-based pirates/soldiers/knight themes. Then there was a shift to Galidor's "Defenders of the Outer Dimension" tie-ins, and Bionicle fighting the evil Makuta. Now there's full-fledged futuristic mecha-war machines in Exo-Force!

When Lego first started down this road — with knights — the owner of Lego explained they were highlighting the "romance of the knights," and not emphasizing violence. With the wave of new themes, this isn't really true anymore.

Years ago, there was a brouhaha about an artist who created a Lego kit based on holocaust scenes. Lego would never produce such kits. However, I do predict that Lego will continue to produce war-based themes, and it's only a matter of time before they produce "tank" models or other modern war machines.

2. Merchandizing and commercialization

Lego always seemed to be something greater than a retail product. I attended a conference at MIT where I heard it argued that Lego should be considered a new category of Froebel's Gift. (The "free play" educational toys designed for kindergartens in 1840.) The boxes were always fairly generic, and emphasized interesting constructions for different age groups. But over the last decade we've seen countless movie tie-ins and multiple product spin-offs.

Lego has unleashed waves of comic books, candy, movies, video games, and waffles. Children will refer to a kit as "Batman Legos." It used to be that I could walk into a toy store and immediately identify the Lego section. Today, they're interchangeable with other popular construction toys.

A related trend is the rapid phase-in and phase-out of kits. Lego's goal seems to be to whet the appetites of collectors by producing hosts of special kits, and then promptly discontinuing them. This is frustrating when a particularly well-done or interesting kit suddenly becomes unavailable.

3. Specialized and decorative elements

Part of the beauty of Lego was that you could keep adding to your collection of generic interchangeable elements, to build larger and more complex projects. We've seen a trend towards specialized decorative elements, likely as a result of movie and TV tie-ins. We've seen Lego move to smaller elements — perhaps in an effort to save money by using less plastic. In any case, any retail Lego collection fills rapidly with gobs of sorta-useable decorative elements. It's a far cry from the construction kits of the past.

4. They moved their manufacturing

I admit I am biased, and I understand that because of globalized production, the world is flat. Yet, there was a romance with Lego. They were made in Denmark. (Though some bricks were produced in the United States.) Now they have moved manufacturing to Eastern Europe and China. This undoubtedly saves them money, but it destroys some of the romance. What's the difference between a knock-off brick made in China and a Lego brick made in China? Lego even let many of their U.S. developers go! There was the "farmhouse" — in Connecticut I think — where Lego geniuses planned new kits and themes. They were all let go. It makes me wonder if the pseudo-move to open source is really a way to keep overhead down by not having any developers on hand.

Lego still has a variety of wonderful kits and themes. The RCX/NXT trends are awesome! That said, they are a shadow of the fantastic constructive elements I worked with a decade ago.

There was a day when other constructive toys were not even in the same league with Legos as a tool for education. Lego has debased, diluted, and devalued their product to such an extent that other constructive toys are becoming far more attractive.



In his interview, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp described how Lego started producing cars that required less construction...and they have come back to creating kits that require much construction. That spoke to me.

But the website says the interview is at the company's "Innovation Centre" in Billund, Denmark. It reminded me of that website where someone took images from porn movies and removed the people, leaving generic, almost sterile rooms.

I think that says something about Lego.

See Also:
Rodney Brooks' Robots are Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control
Google Stalker Reveals Secret Project
Catching Up With An Aqua Teen Terrorist
What If Ben Were One of Us?
Is The Net Good For Writers?

Read More

How The iPod Changes Culture


Shit happens fast in the world of Apple and Steve Jobs. For example, Steven Levy's latest book, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness, was out for the Christmas season. While it was percolating out into the book-buying public, Jobs introduced the model for the iPhone to ecstatic Mac heads at MacWorld 2007, introducing a whole new "i" paradigm.

Steven Levy is the chief technology correspondent for Newsweek and the author of such seminal tech culture books as Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything. Levy loves his iPod. And I love mine. But when I sat down to interview him for NeoFiles, I realized that most of the questions I'd prepared were about my ambiguities — my ambiguities about Steve Jobs; and my ambiguities about how the new medium for music and other stuff that you can stick in your ear changes what we listen to — and how.



Finally, there was a brief discussion in this interview about the iPod being a closed system. And even there, Jobs yanked the rug out from under us just a little bit. In a letter posted on the Apple site, he said he would "embrace DRM-Free music in a heartbeat" if the music companies would come along. I tried to get back to Levy for a quick update, but he was unavailable.

Hopefully, Jobs won't make any other major announcements in the next five minutes.

John Sanchez, an economist and investment advisor who earns his primary income trading Apple stock, joined me in this interview.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: Some of our listeners inevitably have an iPod plugged right into their little ears at this very moment while they're listening to NeoFiles. Say a bit about why you think their experience is particularly cool or maybe even profound.

STEVEN LEVY: Before the iPod, you could go around listening to music, obviously. There was the Walkman. But before the iPod, there was no really amiable device that you could use to carry around your entire music collection, let alone podcasts like this, and movies, and TV shows. As it sort of makes a habit of doing, Apple took something that had been possible before — and had actually been tried before — and transformed the experience so much that, for the first time, it became something that the masses could do and enjoy. MP3 players had been available before, but they were really tough to use, unpleasant, and they didn't hold much music. Apple made it into something that was a really great experience,

RU: Being able to hold a lot of music is key. And, in the book, you really go into your love for the Shuffle. It's a daydream that everybody has had — where you can have all your favorite music and have it randomly spit back out at you almost like the DJ knows exactly what you liked. I have to say I'm a little bit dissatisfied though because I can't really get enough songs together to make myself continuously feel surprised. After a period of time, I no longer feel surprised. I wonder what you think about the expense of tunes on iTunes as compared to a subscription model like Rhapsody?

SL: First of all, you're absolutely right about the Shuffle. That is what really got me very excited about the iPod. For the first time, you could take your whole music collection and just re-order it — Pow! With just one little flick of your thumb, you have your songs fed back to you in a way that is totally novel. You might hear songs you hadn't heard for months or even years. If you have a big CD collection, then you have a big collection of songs on your iPod. But I disagree with you saying it's really expensive to fill up your iPod. There's plenty of free music legally available — or more or less winked at benignly — from the music industry. A lot of bands give out samples of their songs for free. And then, a lot of music blogs are operating pretty much in the open, and you can find those pretty easily. Particularly if you're looking for novelty, you could find bands you like and download their music. And you'll get a lot of novelty and enough interesting music over time fill up your iPod

RU: I've found it a little bit difficult, even with the free sites that we won't mention, to get a lot of my favorite stuff. Also, when I had a PC for a while (it pretty much crashed), I subscribed to Rhapsody and I was able to get a much more satisfactory collection. One of the things about owning a Macintosh — Steve Jobs doesn't want me to be able to get any of the subscription services.

SL: You're right. He doesn't believe in the subscription model — at least he hasn't embraced it so far. And I agree with you. Rhapsody is the one I've played with the most. And I think it's a great idea to pay a monthly fee and listen to all the music you could possibly like. Just a few months ago, they finally started releasing mp3 players that were able to take advantage of the subscription service in a smart way. You could listen to a channel; you could pick the kind of music you wanted or just pick the albums you wanted that would download into your mp3 player; and you could take them around with you. I think eventually we're all going to have all the music we want and maybe pay a few dollars for a subscription. That'll make perfect sense. I think even Apple is going to come around. At one point in the next five years, I fully expect to have an interview with Steve Jobs where my first question to him will be, "Steve, you've always talked about what a bad idea subscription services were. How come you're doing it now?" And I expect his answer will probably be like: "Well, nobody ever figured out how to do the subscriptions right before." So I think eventually even Apple will come around to the idea that subscription is a good idea.

RU: And to his credit, he may well wind up doing it better than anybody else has done it before. He does tend to do that. You express a certain admiration for Jobs and find him a charismatic figure. And you describe him in some ways as a sixties person. We had an interview with Gina Smith, who co-authored the autobiography of Steve Wozniak that sort of has a different vibe about whether Jobs was the cool dude between the two of them. Talk a little bit about how you see him as sort of this idealistic sixties figure; or as a figure who has some contradiction but is sort of hip.

SL: Woz — who I wrote about in Hackers — was also shaped by the sixties. But his demeanor and his personality are shaped more by the idea that he's a hacker. That's the way he views the world. Jobs also was definitely shaped by the sixties. I mean, here's a guy who went to Reed College and then dropped out for months during that time period. I think he lived on carrots or something like that for a while, you know? He went to India — definitely a lot of his tastes were shaped by the sixties. And certainly, his irreverence was shaped by the sixties. He's this sixties guy who now runs a company. Sometimes at Apple, he'll walk into the boardroom in cut-off shorts and sandals and just plop himself down, put his feet up on this giant table and start talking. You can see a lot of the cheekiness that we had, and admired, during the sixties in Steve Jobs. On the other hand, he's certainly a no-holds-barred capitalist. He's not an egalitarian. Some of his tastes are certainly elitist in the sense that he has very strict views on what taste is.



JOHN SANCHEZ: One of the most interesting stories about Steve and Steve in the seventies was the way they introduced the Captain Crunch box that allowed free international phone calls into the Berkeley underground market. And now it's sort of come full circle — you have Apple introducing the iChat platform — video chat software — that basically allows free international communications (aside from the cost of getting on the network). And now, there's the iPhone. Do you see the iPhone as a direct connection to the idea that Jobs and Woz had in the seventies of free communication?

SL: I'd love to see it that way. But I've asked Jobs about all this directly and unfortunately — at the moment —there's no plan to introduce a Skype-like application, and there's no iChat on the iPhone. They have an application that looks like iChat but actually passes messages using SMS. Depending on the billing system, it might end up charging you a few cents every time you send a message. I'd say that's not the Captain Crunch spirit.

RU: The iPhone came out after the book came out. I'm wondering what you think about it. It seems that, from a business perspective, a lot of people are calling it (to use an old Al Gore favorite) "a risky scheme."

SL: Well, Apple's really based on pursuing risky schemes, but essentially doing it so well that the risk gets minimized and the pay-off could be big. That was certainly the case with the iPod. A lot of people thought the iPod was a crazy idea for a company like Apple. It wasn't their expertise. They weren't "sticking to their knitting" — that kind of thing.

It was sort of a foregone conclusion that Apple would get into the phone world.

I've played with the iPhone a couple times now and there's some incredibly impressive stuff built into it. They've put a lot of imagination into solving some of the big problems that come with surfing the web on a device that you can hold in your hands and that has a relatively small screen. The same is true about the phone. And there's a new kind of iPod interface. So I think it's an exciting product. I'm planning to write a new chapter about the iPhone in the paperback version of The Perfect Thing.

RU: Did you get to experience it with the completed design? Because as you amply cover in the book, part of the big kick of the iPod is the look and feel — it gives your neurons a kind of a rush of pleasure. Is the iPhone design up to par?

SL: The design is incredible. Part of what has people ooh-ing and ah-ing is that it is so beautiful. In the book, I talk about how Jobs is obsessed with putting as few buttons and controls on his devices as possible. In this one, he's down to one button! (Laughs) You look at the iPhone, and it's just one button on the front. Of course, there are a lot of controls you can get on the touchscreen in there. But this is his wet dream — to have one button. I guess the ultimate is to have no buttons, and somehow you control it with your mind. But right now, he's down to one button, which is a personal high for him — a personal love.

JS: Do you see the user interface of the iPhone moving to other devices?

SL: I would assume that we would see this on a future version of the iPod, because it is a really enhanced, revamped interface that works with the iPod — there's complete iPod functionality in the iPhone. And certainly, the full screen that you have on the iPhone would make a lot of sense for the video versions of the iPod. It's a bigger screen. And you can do nice things. Like if you're watching a movie — with a double tap on the screen you change the format from a full screen size to the widescreen format. I would expect to see that on some versions of the iPod sometime in 2007.

JS: Also, the trackpad on the laptops and on the Mighty Mouse have two-finger gesturing, similar to the user interface of the iPhone. And the Mighty Mouse gives you some semblance of having a fingertip on the screen of a desktop. Do you see this UI as being one of the secret features of Leopard?

SL: That's a good comparison. Right now, a lot of people discover it almost by accident. They find themselves scrolling as opposed to moving a cursor. You know, apparently the concept for the iPhone came when Apple was exploring the idea of some sort of tablet PC with a touchscreen. So I'm wondering whether that's dead or not.

RU: At the edge of the digital culture — the sort of people you've covered in Hackers and other books — the main interest is in the idea of community. Many of these people wouldn't even bother with an iPod; they would just view it as a consumer product. Some even say that it isolates people. Do you see it as having a community-like function?

SL: Look, from the very beginning, hackers loved play, and they loved music. So I think the classic, canonical hackers of yore would like the iPod except for the fact that it's not an open system. It's a pretty closed system. You can't write your own software to go directly in it.

RU: John Gilmore mentioned that as one reason why he wasn't interested in coming on a podcast show.

SL: Well, you know, what can you say? You can't make comments on CBS either, but that doesn't mean you don't go on 60 Minutes — at least, for me, personally. But John has his own rules and I totally respect them.

As for the isolation thing, I'm not really bothered by that. To me, I use my iPod, for instance, when I'm on the subway. The subway is not where I do my social networking. But I'm actually looking forward to the first mp3 player — whether it's an iPod or something else — that allows you to scan the music collections of nearby devices, like you can sometimes do in iTunes with laptops. I think it would be super cool to be on the subway and be able to say, "Hmm, what are these other people listening to? That woman over there: Is she the one who's listening to Hank Williams?" And "Oh my god! There's early punk Rezillos over there. Who's doing that?" I think that would be great.

RU: You already have this sort of culture of identity built around the iPod, where people very much want to show off what's on their iPod or want to see what's on other people's iPods. It's an interesting form of communication. In a sense, every person gets to identify as a DJ.

SL: That's right, yeah. I have a whole chapter about identity. You are your playlist. It's fascinating how people have this hunger to know what's on your iPod. And conversely, people take a pride in the songs they have on their playlists. Sometimes when they know a lot of people are watching they'll actually filter their tastes. They'll take out their guilty pleasures, knowing that someone is going to be scanning their playlists.

RU: That's kind of a weird aspect of it, isn't it? I mean, in one sense, it's a very interior, private experience. Most people listen to their iPods through buds. And then, at the same time, someone may choose music based on status as opposed to what gives them pleasure. That seems peculiar.

SL: My theory is that you gotta fill up with what's going to bring you pleasure into your own ears. But the iPod — and digital music in general — makes transparent your needs and your affections because all the stuff is listed there. In a few of the interviews I've done about the book, I handed over my iPod to the interviewer. And if the interviewer has an iPod, we exchanged them. And then, we scanned for the embarrassing songs, as well as to see what impressed us. It's your musical fingerprint.

RU: What do you think about the quality of sound that comes out of digital music as compared to CD or vinyl? We're building up these libraries of music, but is the quality the same as we got from mediums?

SL: I think that is a problem. The current quality of music we're downloading now isn't up to the CD level. As the storage gets bigger and bandwidth gets higher, I think that'll be more easily addressed. I also think that when that does happen, we should be able to upgrade to higher quality at a very cheap price for the songs we've already purchased. We shouldn't have to buy them again. I think the era of buying music again and again should come to an end.

JS: What's interesting about the whole movement to the iPod and then to subscription is that the iPod creates the possibility of a new model for music distribution of new artists. A band could distribute their music in podcasts, for instance.

SL: Recently, we saw one of the first download-only songs hitting a best-seller list. And I think we're going to see more of that. Eventually I think it will be a plausible career route for a band to do very few CDs or launch their career without a record label. More than likely, I think we're going to see the formation of new record labels that concentrate on digital music, with maybe a minimal CD presence.

JS: We already see record labels that are primarily positioned to put artists onto the iTunes music store.

SL: That's right. I'm waiting for some of the smartest people in the music business to get together and say, "We want to do a new kind of business model. We want to be the new kind of record company." And actually this would be a very good time to do it because there have been huge layoffs at the music labels. They've been getting rid of some of their smartest people and I'll bet some of those people are going to start a new venture

RU: You talk a little bit in the book about how iPod — and digital music in general — is changing how people perceive music as a package. We went from the LP — 20 minutes to a side — to the CD, where bands were expected to come up with 60-70 minutes worth of worthy stuff (which generally they failed to do). And now, it's completely fragmented. And most people are just interested in picking up on this tune or that tune. Talk a little bit about how that's changing people's perceptions of music and how it's affecting the artist.

SL: I think we're just beginning to see how this translates into different modes of how music gets composed and gets released. The medium has always affected the work itself. We had the era of singles, when all the creative force went into creating one song that stood on its own. Then we went to the world of LPs, where you have these two 20-minute sets, so to speak. Later we move to CDs and you had about an hour to fill. Very few artists were actually able to fill that in one coherent package. A lot of people never even listen to the end of a CD. Now, there's no limit. You could do one song and that's great. You could release a three songs set. If you want to do one piece that is 20 minutes long, you could do that too. Eventually, it will sink in to artists that they don't have to limit what they do to formats. It's a total open slate. That can be a little scary, because previously everyone was operating in the same timeframe. They started off knowing what they had to fill in to create coherent works of art. Now I think it's going to be trickier.

RU: Yeah, we're in a completely freeform world but I think the audience expects artists to keep it short. It's like they don't want to be told how to deal with the presentation of music. Lou Reed came out with a CD a few years ago where he wrote something on the sleeve that said basically, "Stop listening to one song at a time. Sit down, put on your headphones, and listen to my whole god-damn album the way it was intended." And he was very much ridiculed for doing that.

JS: And James Brown said, "Leave 'em wanting more."



SL: I think there's going to be new forms. People are going to release more live concerts. You're starting to see this on the music blogs — some bands have caught on to this. I think bands could really satisfy their fans by releasing the bulk of their concerts. If I'm a fan of Arcade Fire and I know they played two nights ago, I'd like to hear that. Let me just download that. There's nothing to stop them from charging me $4 or $5 to hear the whole show they did a couple nights ago.

See Also:
Steve Wozniak v. Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
The 5 Sexiest Apple Videos
iPhone Debate: I'm a Mac vs. Bill Gates
Wonderful Wizardry of 'Woz'

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Is Yahoo/Flickr DMCA Policy Censorship?


Mashup of Michael Crook by Thomas Hawk

Reflections about the Michael Crook affair will surely be all over the web soon. People will look back in anger, although the prevailing sense of outrage may be tempered by many notes of caution — it's not all fun, being hassled by a griefer. I probably leaned more towards that sense of outrage in this recent conversation with Thomas Hawk, popular community photographer, prominent blogger and all-around evangelist for the digital revolution.

Jeff Diehl: So I guess the first thing is to offer you a chance to disclose some stuff.

Thomas Hawk: I'm CEO of Zooomr. We would be considered a competitor to Yahoo's Flickr photo sharing site. I've been very active on Flickr both before and after joining Zooomr.

JD: Explain precisely what happened when Crook DMCAed you.

TH: I posted a photo of Michael Crook on Flickr. I've got a reasonably popular Flickr photostream and so I posted an image of him there using a mashup that I made with the image of Crook. After posting these images of Crook I received DMCA take down notices from Crook for the images on Zooomr and thomashawk.com. Flickr also received a DMCA notice and used it to take down my mash up of Crook.



I don't so much have an issue with Yahoo taking down the image (at least temporarily until the legitimacy of the claim could be investigated) but I do have a problem with Yahoo taking down all of the conversation and meta data around the image and permanently deleting it. There was a long conversation on the image by many different people about Crook and this case. Public discourse, opinion, ideas, etc. that was just wiped out by Yahoo without telling me first.

After they took it down they sent me a threatening email. I responded back to Yahoo staff about it and pointed them to a Boing Boing link where Fox News in fact had given Boing Boing, and anyone else, permission to use the images, but that email went unanswered. They never did put my stuff back up and now an important discourse is permanently lost.

JD: Do you feel the discourse is especially "important" because it's about free speech? Or does that just make it ironic?

TH: This is most certainly about free speech in my opinion. It sucks that all anyone has to do to kill a conversation at Flickr is to claim a DMCA violation. Irrespective of the fact that Yahoo should have done a better job actually investigating the claim before deleting the image, there was no reason to delete the words and comments associated with the image.

I'm a strong advocate of free speech. Especially on a community based photo sharing site. Especially one like Flickr where people frequently use their photostreams to express opinions, thoughts and ideas.

JD: It seems that Yahoo has an extreme policy regarding DMCA takedown notices; even beyond what the law stipulates.

TH: I don't know how many photos of Crook Yahoo wiped out but there was no need to wipe out the metadata, comments, descriptions, posts, etc. And there was no need to permanently delete this stuff. Yahoo went way beyond what the DMCA requires and I don't like that anyone can just send in a bogus DMCA notice on my Flickrstream and have hundreds and thousands of lines of text deleted that might be associated with an image.

Yahoo needs to change their policy on this.

JD: Do you know of any other community sties (other than Zooomr!) that have a different, more reasonable approach?

TH: Unfortunately I'm not as familiar with other sites so I'm not sure how they would handle all this. Eventually Yahoo sent me a notice after Crook rescinded his bogus DMCA notice. But when this happened they didn't put my old photo and all of the commentary and dialog that went along with it back up, they merely said I could reupload it if I wanted because he rescinded. He held the power. Not me, not Yahoo. And he largely succeeded at least there because he wiped out tons of negative personal criticism about him and his behavior. This is censorship to me.

JD: I know my host, Laughing Squid, handled it brilliantly, but it's a small company; it's more complicated with a behemoth like Yahoo, isn't it?

TH: Well yeah, Scott Beale handled it really well. But Yahoo's being big and corporate and all that shouldn't be an excuse. I pay them money for Flickr. Lots and lots of people pay them money for Flickr. If they need to hire a few more people to better review DMCA takedown notices I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. They are a billion dollar company and certainly have the resources to do the right thing here. In any case, irrespective of investigating the bogus claim there is simply no — zero — reason to kill the text that accompanies an image. Ideas are important and ought to be protected.

JD: You say in your comments: "My biggest problem is that they destroyed *my* metadata associated with the image." That's a powerful way of putting it.

TH: Well some of it was mine. The post that accompanied the image for instance. And lots of comments that I made in a public discussion about this. The metadata also belongs to others at Flickr as well though. In fact anyone that commented on the photo and expressed their thoughts and opinions had their metadata destroyed.

The biggest distinction between my vs. Yahoo's, though, is that I consider the stuff I post on the site to belong to me. They are profiting from my data no doubt, but all of the images, text, comments, thoughts, ideas expressed on Flickr don't belong to Yahoo, they belong to the users and the users should be treated with more respect than I was when I just had my stuff unceremoniously deleted.

JD: I'm not sure when exactly the take down and safe harbor provisions of the DMCA were drafted, but it seems possible that sites like Flickr, where original images are intertwined thematically with original words, weren't on anyone's radar.

TH: Maybe not, and I certainly understand that Yahoo can find itself in a dilemma and feel that they don't have much choice about it. But they still shouldn't allow just anyone to kill speech attached to an image. I've posted many many images on Flickr that are political. Images where I've run into harassment from security guards while shooting out in SF. Images associated with what I've considered child abuse. Images of a sleazy camera retailer that almost ripped me off, etc. In these cases, like the Michael Crook case, the commentary that accompanies the image is super important and should be protected. There is no way that Yahoo could be held liable for free discussion. They take things too far by deleting all of the commentary with the image.

I'm not concerned with any kind of retribution on this. I'd just like to see Yahoo apologize, admit the mistake, put my old photo and the commentary back up if they can (if they still have backups, hopefully). And I'd like to see them change how they handle DMCA stuff in the future by only taking down the image (not the commentary, metadata, etc.) and doing it temporarily so that someone could dispute it.



JD: Did you have any final thoughts?

TH: No, but just want to say thanks to you for really being a catalyst around this entire issue as it relates to Crook and his behavior. You played an important role in bringing up a very important issue, DMCA abuse. The conversations around this are important ones and have important implications for both free speech and democracy.

Details of a settlement will be announced on this site soon. Also, there will be a party and fundraiser for EFF in San Francisco on March 22nd.

See Also:
"Dear Internet, I'm Sorry"
The EFF's Diehl v. Crook page
The Case Against Crook
Craigslist Sex Troll Gets Sued
Thomas Hawk versus Rent-a-Cops

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The 5 Sexiest Apple Videos

Are Mac users sexier than other people? Or are they just flaunting their computer's superior video editing capabilities? Either way, these videos should bring a smile to your favorite Mac-loving gal or guy. Self-obsessed egotists — or sexy valentine's day surprise? You make the call!

1. Setty Smooth wants to iChat with your four hot friends.



Armed with an iSight camera, a Santa Monica player/wannabe dubbed himself "Setty Smooth," then created an earnest music video about how the Mac enables him to cajole women into stripping online. ("20-inch screens, we can be seen. Live our fantasy, it will feel like a dream....") It's a world of sexy online possibilities, which he demonstrates — five times — culminating with an unforgettable chorus.
The Mac, the Mac. Thanks to the Mac,
We can have fun while we layin' on our back...

There's a whole album of unreleased love ballads, Setty promises. But you can bet that in online chat rooms of Mac enthusiasts, he's already a superstar.


2. Plug it, play it, zip, unzip it (NSFW)



Silhouettes dance with their iPods — then strip, grind, and start screwing each other. Apparently they've been trapped in iPod-silhouette land too long, and they've finally snapped. Gone is the harmless breakdancing from the iPod + iTunes ad — replaced with a variety of sexual positions, pole dancing, and a collar and leash. (For those who think really different.) But at least they're getting it on while wearing their iPods, and the song remains the same.

"Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, trash it, change it, melt, upgrade it..."




3. Japanese iPod bikini dance (NSFW)



Reon Kadena, Japanese model, shares her unique perspective on enjoying an iPod. (Hint: flesh-colored lingerie.) A series of fast cuts show the delight that only an iPod can bring, along with several gratuitous closeups of Reon's young body. (For those special moments when watching an iMac dance just isn't enough.)

The three-minute video of Reon tapping her toes would probably be rated PG-13 — despite the fact that the cameraman apparently lay on the floor trying to see under her bikini. (And at one point, the iPod makes her jeans disappear.) But Apple-loving YouTube viewers were divided in their reactions, with one posting an enthusiastic "marry me please," and another complaining that "we don't see enough of her ipod."


4. Say Hello to the Ibuzz



Its manufacturer says this music-activated sex toy will allow Apple-loving couples to "share the music, share the love," and sure enough, the iBuzz connects your mp3 player to two bullet-shaped vibrators. (So besides scrolling through your playlist, you can also cycle through its collection of vibrating patterns.) And yes, it can also vibrate in time to the music — or, as British TV host Jonathan Ross puts it, "the tempo controls the rhythm of the night.")



But does this mean your libido is subject to copyright law? One grumpy YouTube poster asks if the iBuzz is hobbled with DRM. Meanwhile, another video shows women hand-testing yet another vibrator — called, appropriately, the OhMiBod. And Apple's trademark lawyers have already gone after a Japanese man marketing a similar device called the G-Pod.


5. "You're Beautiful, It's True"



Ultimately using a Mac means you've joined a community, and YouTube user HappySlip celebrates it with an alternate version of James Blunt's song "You're Beautiful." Singing and playing the piano, she sadly mourns the fact she'll never be with the gorgeous 24-inch display she saw at the Apple Store.

From around the web, cute Mac-loving guys were drawn to respond, including a fan in England, Fmanfer in France, and a user named spaghettio (who obsessively remixes her into his 10-second art film trailer).

Whether or not Apple's user-friendly technology will revolutionize our lives, our hearts, and the way we express our passions — at least Mac users know they'll never be alone. In Indiana an Apple enthusiast named Melchiorus was even inspired to lip-synch Weird Al Yankovich's parody version of the song in a response he directed to his Dell laptop.

"You're pitiful, you're pitiful... It just sucks to be you."

See Also:
iPhone Debate: Bill Gates vs. I'm a Mac
Steve Wozniak vs. Stephen Colbert
Girls Are Geeks, Too
Why Chicks Don't Dig the Singularity
Libertarian Chick Fights Boobs With Boobs


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When Cory Doctorow Ruled the World


Interviewing Cory Doctorow is easy. You just flip the on switch by asking the first question, and he emits a constant stream of brilliant, insightful stuff. Editing interviews with Doctorow is easy as well. He generally speaks in coherent, whole sentences and frequently expresses complex ideas for some length that don't get lost mid-paragraph.

So it's a pleasure to present this conversation. For those of you have been living in a non-digital cave (actually, I rather respect that type of non-conformism), Doctorow is a science fiction writer, Boing Boing contributor, and the former European Affairs Director for the EFF from 2001 - 2006. His novels include Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

Jeff Diehl joined me in this conversation with Doctorow about Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present — his new collection of short stories.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: You make quite a prominent point about the fact that Over-Clocked is available for free under a Creative Commons license. You also write about the good experience you've had with this, as a writer who does want to get paid for his work. Do you think this good experience is universal? Do you know if this has been studied at all?

CORY DOCTOROW: Well, I don't know that anyone's done any kind of systematic study. But my anecdotal study finds that everyone I know who's tried giving away free books as a way of selling printed books has done it again with their next book. So, I think that's a pretty good sign, right? It worked well enough for people to do it a second time. I guess the definition of insanity is doing something twice and expecting a different outcome. Presumably people were happy with that first outcome.



RU: About how many people do you hear from who are doing this sort of thing?

CD: At least ten or fifteen writers who've done this with their novels. And, of course, a lot more musicians. In a certain sense, I kind of live in the bubble of people who've done this, right? I mean, all my friends are the people who have done this. But it seems like it works pretty well. And that makes a certain amount of sense, especially for printed material. My thesis regarding printed material is that the basic thing that keeps people from getting long-form works off the screen isn't the screen quality — it's that computers are really distracting. It's really hard to concentrate on one thing for a long time while you're sitting in front of a computer. So as a result, I think people who get a novel over the wire tend to read some of it and get distracted. But they like it well enough that they're willing to go out and buy it and read it on paper, which is a lot less distracting.

RU: You were saying you were in kind of a bubble with a certain group of people. When I thought about this, it did strike me that people who were fans of Cory Doctorow would probably be like the #1 group of people who would want this to work.

CD: Sure!

RU: I wonder if somebody like Chuck Palahniuk would have the same response from his readers, or if they wouldn't just be happy to grab the free stuff.

CD: Well, you know, like all good pirates, I steal all my best ideas. So I'll steal some good ideas from Tim O'Reilly. He wrote this great paper called Piracy is Progressive Taxation. That's where another aphorism — "The problem for artists isn't piracy, it's obscurity" — comes from. But the best aphorism is the title. And I think a lot of people miss what that means.

O'Reilly publishes books that get really widely pirated on the internet, because, they publish techie books, right? If there's a form that's well-suited to being published digitally, this is it. You get it digitally, and then you can scan it and search it and so on. And you can find just the right bit at the moment that you need that technical advice. And the people who are in a position to nick it electronically are already pre-qualified. That's the audience, right? They're all geeks. So O'Reilly says, "We monitor the trafficking in infringing copies of our work, and what we find is that the works that are most profitable are also the most pirated." So that means — for most of our works — they're not even popular enough for anyone to want to steal them. And for the works that are really popular, we're already making tons and tons of money off of those works. So a little bit of piracy at the edge is just a form of progressive taxation on them.

RU: One of the fun things about getting material online in this form is that you can go in and mess around with it. Have you gotten any interesting remixes of your own work?

CD: Yeah, tons. The stuff I've really liked the most has been the illustrations and visual things. But I've also gotten tons of really good, geeky, machine-readable remixes. It seems like it's kind of like writing a "Hello, world" program — it takes a story and makes a kind of Burroughs-Gysin-esque cutup. I've had lots of those.

There's one that I really like. People have tried out a speed-reader with my works. The speed-read shows you one word at a time, and it shows them at a speed that's determined by a little slider. And it pauses a little after a comma, and longer after a period, and longer after a paragraph break. And you can crank it way up and it just rockets past. And you're getting every word. It's kind of meant for very small screens, and it really feels like you're doing something weird to your brain. It really feels like you're tweaking your cognition in ways that it was not intended to be tweaked. It's very transhuman.



JEFF DIEHL: I would imagine you could adjust the speed of the words to reflect different emphases in the phrasing.

CD: Sure, although the nice thing about this is it's all machine-driven, right? I mean, someone could go in there and fix it, but the fact that this is just a purely automated conversion is exciting. And you can't believe that your brain is understanding the words. People have come up with all kinds of little mixes. And I get a lot of fan translations too. That's very exciting. There's a guy who just emailed me to say that he didn't like one of the official translations (I think it was the German translation) very much. So he was going to do his own translation to compete with it. I think that's awesome.

RU: Let's move on to this collection. My favorite piece in there, and it's deservedly the longest piece, is called "After the Siege." Talk a bit about the theme of that piece.

CD: Well, I went to a little family reunion in St. Petersburg, Russia. My grandmother was born there, and her family still lives there. When I was growing up, she always used to tell me about the war, and about being a kid living through the Siege of Leningrad. And she would tell me how I would never understand the terrible horrors she'd faced. I didn't know much about the Siege of Leningrad, but my understanding was... it wasn't anything like Auschwitz, right? Like, "Boy, how bad could it have been? You were a civil defense worker. You weren't in a death camp." And a couple of years ago, on one of those long St. Petersburg days, my grandmother walked us through the streets of St. Petersburg and told us about what she saw and did during that period. It really changed my perception of it. I went out and read some books, most notably The 900 Days about the Siege of Leningrad. The privation and terrors of the Siege of Leningrad can't be overstated. It was a nine hundred day siege. And Stalin bungled it so badly that people in Petersberg were also in bad shape. There was starvation and cannibalism and lots of people freezing to death. And my grandmother — this 12-year-old girl — was digging civil defense trenches in the frozen ground; and hauling bodies and throwing them out of fifteen story windows because they were too weak to haul them down the stairs. She was going to apartments where people had died and throwing them down, and then scraping them up off the ground. And she was seeing people who'd been rendered by cannibal black marketeers — who had parts of their body sliced off to sell on the black market.

They were the most amazing, incredible stories. And it got me thinking about writing about this as an allegory. At the same time, I've been doing all this work on copyright and related rights with developing nations, and with what they call emerging economies like the former Soviet territories. And these countries are getting really shafted in international copyright negotiations. They're being forced to sign on to these regimes that are totally out of step with what they need.

America became an industrial power by being a pirate nation. After the American revolution, America didn't honor the copyrights or patents of anyone except Americans. If you were a European or British inventor, your stuff could be widely pirated in America. That's how they got rich. Only after America became a net exporter of copyrighted goods did it start to enter into treaties with other countries whereby American inventors and authors would be protected abroad in exchange for those foreign authors being protected in America. But now you have these countries in Africa, in Asia, and in Eastern Europe, who are signing on to trade agreements with the U.S. where they basically promise to just take huge chunks of their GDP and export it to the U.S. It's a kind of information feudalism, you know? Info-serfs.

RU: Within the context of this book, and with the issues you're raising, you're not just talking about information. I think you're also talking about material wealth. You're also talking about AIDS drugs and stuff like that.

CD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Russia just signed onto this free trade agreement with the U.S. trade representative in which — among other things — they promised that from now on they would license all their digital media presses and subject them to government inspection. So America, which fought a revolution over not wanting to have licensed presses, has just gone to Russia, where they've just had a revolution over licensed presses. And they've imposed a requirement that they license their presses. This is staggering, awful, apocalyptically bad policy-making on the part of both the U.S. and Russia. Frankly, as someone who pays taxes in the U.S., I'm embarrassed.

So I wrote this story from the point of view of a little girl. She's in a utopia where they've done what the U.S. did after the American Revolution. They've abandoned all international copyright and patent and trademark and knowledge goods treaties and they're just pirating everything. It's in a kind of nanotech world, so if they don't care about respecting the rights of the inventors who created it, they can make pretty much anything. As a result, they've become an incredibly wealthy nation in a very short period of time.

They've been driven to this piracy by a disease that turns people into a kind of zombie. It's this terrible infectious disease. And the drugs for it were very expensive. And they had these ineffectual leaders who were co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies. So eventually they took the last of these leaders, put them in a barrel and drove nails through it and rolled it down a hill. (This is, in fact, how the Hungarians killed the priest who converted the animists to Christianity.) And they put in a new Parliament that broke all ties with the industrial world and decided to pirate everything.

But a siege is laid against them. And in the siege, the enemy infects their computers and other devices with a virus that shuts down all their nano-assemblers. They all start to starve to death, and the zombie-ism comes back, and so on. And it's all told from the point of view of this little girl who comes of age in this world. It was a fun and hard story to write, and I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's been picked up for a couple of the "Year's Best" anthologies, and I've done a podcast of it. And I'm talking with someone about a film deal for it. It seems to be a lot of people's favorites.

RU: Yeah, I thought it was particularly cinematic as well. And the point of view of the 12-year-old girl always seems to be particularly affecting. I remember the book, Let's Put the Future Behind Us.

CD: Jack Womack! Yeah, I'm a big Jack Womack fan.

RU: Yeah. Incredibly powerful.

CD: There was that one. And there's the one about the young girl in Brooklyn — Random Acts of Senseless Violence. That's a hell of a book.

RU: Oh yes. Yes! That's the one I was thinking of.

CD: And then there's Parable of the Sower. There are so many of these. It's a real good point of view, as you say.

RU: Actually though, my favorite part in that story is the role played by the wizard and his crew which, I think, explores the ambiguities of being in the media. And I must admit I sort of identified with them. And I wonder if you did, too.

CD: Yeah. So, in the story, there's this guy who's identified only as The Wizard who seems to be in better shape than everyone else. He's got access to working technology. And it turns out that he's kind of a documentarian. He's working for foreign media — just recording what's going on. And I think that also reflects one of the roles that bloggers and technical people have. We often find ourselves as kind of reporters on what goes on in the rest of the world, and at the same time, we have a certain reporterly distance from what goes on in the rest of the world.

That character is really based on the character of The King in King Rat. It's based on the American black marketeer in the Changi prison — the Japanese prisoner of war camp — who has access to all the stuff that it takes to be human. And so he's the only one who's kind of fit and healthy in this camp of dysentery-ridden skeletons.

RU: You have two riffs in this book that play off Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. One is called "I, Robot," and the other one is called "I, Rowboat." I would say that you have some fun at the expense of Asimov's three laws of robotics.

CD: I got to think about what it would take to make this "I, Robot" Asimovian world, where there is only one kind of robot for sale on the market that can only function in one way; and there's only one company that's allowed to make it. And it struck me that there are some parallels there with the kind of totalitarian world that I think the Motion Picture Association would like to conjure up where no one's allowed to have a general purpose device because that general purpose device might be used to attack their business model. So I decided I would write a little about that, and write about what it means to a free society when someone says that tools have to be constrained so that they can only do good, and never do evil.

So I wrote two stories. The first one, "I, Robot" was nominated for the Hugo award and won the Locus award. It's a story about a guy who's a police detective in a kind of 1984 version of Toronto. They're fighting off "Eurasian" artificial intelligences that are millions of times more powerful than the constrained robots that they live with. And this guy's wife has defected to Eurasia. So he's trying to cope with the fact that his colleagues see him as a potential traitor, and don't like him very much.

The other story is "I, Rowboat." It's a story about an artificially intelligent rowboat in the Coral Sea in Australia that's an Asimov cultist. So although it's not an Asimov positronic brain, it voluntarily adopts the three laws of robotics as a kind of religion. It picks this up from a roving, trademark-violating, sort-of John The Baptist for Asimov-ism who calls himself R. Daniel Olivaw. (Of course, that's one of the characters from the "I, Robot" books.) So Olivaw cruises the world, and something called the "New Sphere," looking for artificial intelligences that will loan him some of their processor space. And when he can run in the same processor as them long enough, he proselytizes Asimovism to them. And then, when he converts them to Asimovism, they join the message boards in the Asimovist Yeshiva and talk about their faith.

So the main character, Robbie the Rowboat is an Asimovist. He tends to these two meat puppets called Isaac and Janet — you know, Isaac Asimov and his wife — who are just empty human shells. He rows them out into the reef, and they go in and they go scuba diving and then they come back out again. And every now and again, uplifted humans who live in a new sphere in these sort of super-cool computer clusters out in Plutonian orbit download themselves into one of these meat shells for a holiday on earth. One day, Robbie The Rowboat is rowing out with one of these meat shells that has recently become inhabited. And he encounters a coral reef that has just been "uplifted" — it's been augmenting with silicon and software and made artificially intelligent. The coral reef has woken up very cranky and has declared war on humanity and all that it represents. And so Robbie has to resolve his Asimovist leanings with his sympathies for this new intelligence — this baby intelligence. That's kind of how this story unfolds.

RU: I love the way the coral reef is responding to the sort of Singularitarian notion of seeding the galaxy with something like our idea of consciousness as a kind of colonialism.

CD: Yeah!

RU: It's definitely the weirdest of the stories in the book.

CD: And fittingly enough, it was originally published on Rudy Rucker's weird science fiction webzine Flurb. It also has been picked up for a "Year's Best" anthology.

RU: There are also a couple of apocalypse stories in the book. I really enjoyed "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth." I don't want to give away any plot points, but I really found the protagonist's response to the death of his wife interesting. I mean, in the Hollywood movie version of this, your protagonist would have left his safety zone behind and rushed out there to save her. He has sort of an interesting, rational, nerd response. Do you have any thoughts on that?

CD: Yeah. I actually started that story on July 6 — the day before the London bombings. I actually put it aside for a while after the London bombings. It was a little too freaky. I was living in London at the time, but I was teaching in Michigan that week. The bombs went off — it was the bus I took every day and it was the train my girlfriend took. If she was ten minutes later, she would have been on that train.

Anyway, in "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth", a non-specific apocalypse takes the earth about an hour after a terrible killing worm takes down the internet. So all the sysadmins of the earth are in these hermetically-sealed, independently-powered, environmentally-controlled network cages when the world outside essentially comes to an end. So they can't go outside but they're able to continue communicating with each other. And they have to figure out what to do. So they have this kind of raging debate, because it seems to them that the internet is likely being used to engineer these terrible attacks. They wonder if they should bring the internet down.

And, you know, there is this persistent myth — depending on who you talk to it's true or it isn't true — that the internet was designed to withstand a nuclear war. One of its design objectives was certainly to be decentralized. And one of the reasons people wanted decentralized networks were because a nuclear war or other form of disaster might cut out a centralized core. What would you do if the world came to an end, and you were still in the cage trying to make the network work? What would it be like there? I once visited the NORAD Headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain — the hollow mountain in Colorado where people are supposed to live after the nuclear strikes take out everywhere else. They were supposed to launch that last retaliatory strike against the Soviets from there. And they had, like, a half court and a snack bar. It was really odd to consider that all this stuff had been built to keep people entertained while the cobalt poisoning did its work after they'd launched that last retaliatory strike.



So I've been thinking about the future a lot lately — about whether or not the future is inherent, or is it something that was invented? I tend to think now that the future is an artifact. We created the idea of futurism. I just bought this axe head in this anthropology store in New York — Evolution. It's a 200,000-year-old axe head. And they were telling me that it's indistinguishable, in many ways, from the axe heads that are 100,000 years old and the axe heads that are 300,000 years old. Apart from carbon dating, you can't really tell the difference. For at least 200,000 years, hominids made axes the same way — right? There was no technological progress.

So over this period that's much longer than the sweep of recorded history — you know, ten times longer than the sweep of recorded history, at least — one imagines that these people didn't even have the idea of the future. I mean, there was "tomorrow." There were kids. Maybe you'd be fighting with someone different tomorrow. But fundamentally, the way that you lived didn't change. And at some point, we invented the future, and we invented a whole bunch of different kinds of future. We invented the Lapsarian future — you know, the fall from the garden where things get worse and worse and we're coming further and further from purity. A friend of mine who's an orthodox Jew told me that in his tradition, rabbis aren't allowed to supercede the rabbis that came before them because — by definition — a rabbi of a generation before you is closer to the Garden of Eden and, therefore, to moral perfection. So you can interpret a rabbi, but you can't overturn a rabbinical ruling. So that's that Lapsarian view.

There's this apocalyptic view of the world coming to an end. And then there's a progressive view of the world getting better. And then there's the Singularity, which is kind of a hybrid, right? It's an apocalyptic, progressive world where things get so much better that they stop. (Laughs) Which is pretty freaky!

RU: Now are you implying a sort of criticism of the idea of a technological inevitability when you say that we invent the idea of the future; or would you say — as a result of having invented it — we are now pretty much stuck with it.

CD: Well, that is the philosophical question I'm asking myself. Are we stuck with the future, now that we invented it? Or can we un-invent it? So I've been writing all these stories that have the same titles as famous stories. In Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, I have "I, Robot" and "Ander's Game," which is a rip on Ender's Game. And I'm going to write "A Man Who Sold The Moon" for that Heinlein story. And I think it's going to be about a guy who makes his fortune solving the Year 10,000 problem. It's 10,000, and the computers are functionally equivalent to the computers we have today. No future has happened in between now and then. And he decides he'll be the first man to go to the moon, because he's forgotten — we've all forgotten. He gets there and he discovers the golf ball. And in so doing, he invents the future. He invents the idea of the future, because he realizes that they must have lapsed. And if they lapsed, it's possible to have progress. And so he's the kind of genetic freak who invents the future.

RU: Your ideas are richly complex and completely science fiction-y. Do you read novelists outside the science fiction genre, and who do you like?

CD: Well sure! I mean, you mentioned Chuck Palahniuk. I'm a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. I love Lynda Barry's novels. I read a lot of non-fiction. I'm just looking at my shelf here at all the non-fiction I've read lately. There's this book I love, Fire and Ice. It's a longitudinal demographic comparison of Canadians and Americans. There's History of Men's Magazines, Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear, James Gleick's Faster. And the new Stephen Johnson book. I read a lot of non-fiction!

RU: Is there a particular piece of non-fiction that has recently changed your view of the way the world works?

CD: I read a couple of really good books in the last year or so. One is Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's a serious economic, or ethnographic analysis of the underground economy in Chicago. He's mentioned in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. He's the anthropology grad student who goes and lives with crack dealers in Chicago's South Side and writes up how the underground economy works. And that economy goes from the ladies who make sandwiches and sell them without charging sales tax or declaring it on their income statement; to the loan shark, the homeless guy who will sleep in your doorway and make sure that graffiti kids don't tag it, to the crack gang and everyone in between. It's a fascinating book.

The other one that I really liked was by Yochai Benkler. It's called The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. It's such a good title! It may just be the best tech book title of the last twenty years. It's a book about common space peer production — the stuff that happens on Wikipedia and on blogs and with free and open source software. It's about how to understand that in economic terms, not as a gift economy per se, and not as an industrial economy, and not as volunteerism. He shows it as a third mode of industrial production that is neither the kind of gift economy or volunteerism that characterizes people who volunteer at a church; nor capitalism as we understand it, where people invest. Rather, it is an entirely different mode of industrial production. And I found that book really fascinating.

RU: If he describes this as a sort of alternative mode of production, does that imply that it will always co-exist with the other modes of production? Or do you envision the sort of Creative Commons/open source idea ever becoming a dominant mode?

CD: Well, it may not be the case that Creative Commons/open source/free software becomes the dominant mode — although I can imagine worse futures. But I think it's very true that knowledge goods, by their nature, have a different economic reality from other goods. It's very hard to enforce exclusive rights — the right to prohibit or the right to authorize knowledge goods. As the Motion Picture Association is discovering — in a world where we have ubiquitous networks and cheap and fast hardware — it's really hard to stop people from copying. I don't know whether it's moral or immoral to copy things — we can talk about that all day long. I just think that it's hard to stop it. So if you're a business person, your business can't be built on what you think people should do. It should be built on what you think people will do. And what people will do with information is copy it. So now that we're living in an information economy, I think we will have different kinds of production. It may not all be sharing, Creative Commons-oriented, but I don't think they're going to be based on exclusion or proprietorship. I just don't know how you could make that work; it just doesn't seem plausible to me. Bruce Sterling says, "The future composts the past." I think he's right. I don't think that the future makes things disappear; I think it builds on top of things.

RU: Once you have material wealth being reproducible as a form of information that becomes rather hard to stop as well.

CD: Yeah. I think that one of the test beds for this is virtual online worlds like Second Life. I've just written a paper for a scholarly book about virtual worlds and games, in which I talk about what it would take to make a democratic virtual world. Not because democracy is morally superior to the kind of benevolent dictatorship that characterizes, say, Second Life, but because these places are becoming wellsprings of wealth. I mean, obviously, there's some kind of economic activity happening in Second Life, where it's encouraged, and even in worlds like World of Warcraft, where it's prohibited. In many ways, that in-game wealth is meaningless unless it's bankable in a system that's responsive to democratic principles. In other words, you can accumulate a lot of money in apartheid-era rand, or Soviet-era rubles, but it doesn't really mean anything because you can't really export your wealth — because the state controls access to it. And even if you can, you can't export the source of your wealth, right? Say you managed to accumulate a lot of wealth in the former Soviet Union because you built a factory and the relationships to keep it running. Even if you can get your rubles out by converting them to something that you can smuggle out of the country like diamonds, you're going to lose your factory and you're going to lose those relationships. Those are all stuck in this kind of totalitarian state. So if we're going to say that these places are where we're going to live our life — or our second or third or fifth life — for that to be meaningful — those places need to be responsive to democratic principles.

See Also:
Neil Gaiman has Lost His Cloths
Thou Shalt Realize The Bible Kicketh Ass
Is The Net Good For Writers?

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Keith Henson Talks about Memetics, Evolutionary Psychology & Scientology


I interviewed Keith Henson for the NeoFiles Website (disbanded in favor of the NeoFiles Podcast Show) back in 2003. I figured with Henson's recent arrest on charges related to his battle with Scientology, people would be interested in a broader view of Henson. In this interview, we talk about a range of topics, finally ending with a discussion on his thoughts about his problems with Scientology at that time. The interview appears below in full, including the title and introduction:

Exile On Meme Street: Keith Henson Interview

Keith Henson is sort of an ur-transhumanist. In the 1970s - '80s, he was one of the founders and leaders of The L5 Society, an organization dedicated to building homes in high orbit using raw materials from the lunar surface. The L5 group attracted the interests of those seeking practical solutions to predicted resource scarcities, among them K. Eric Drexler. Henson formed a friendship with him, and was among his contacts as Drexler was conceiving nanotechnology



Once Henson was convinced that nanotech was feasible, he became a member of Alcor, an organization advocating and providing cryonic services. In the late 1980s, he became associated with the much-storied Extropy Institute, a transhumanist organization that was the subject of substantial media coverage during the cyberculture hype of the 1990s.

But none of this work brought Henson as much notoriety — or heartache — as his conflict with the Scientologists.

It all started when the Scientologists tried to close down alt.religion.scientology, a newsgroup that fostered open discussion of the church and its activities. When Scientology sued critic Grady Ward, Henson responded by posting a secret church document, "NOTs 34," which Henson claimed was an instruction manual for criminal acts, including the practice of medicine without a license. He was successfully sued by the church who also got an injunction preventing Henson from supplying law enforcement agencies with a copy.

Protesting the death of two women in 2000 — Ashlee Shaner and Stacy Moxon — at the church's headquarters, Henson picketed that location. As a result, in April 2001, he was convicted in a California court of "terrorizing" the Scientologists. Henson was forbidden by the court (motions in limine) from bringing up either why he was picketing or Scientology's vindictive "fair game" policy. (The same kind of motions were used to forbid Ed Rosenthal in his more famous case from telling the jury he was acting for the City of Oakland growing pot for sick people.)

While visiting Canada — in bankruptcy and facing a year in prison as the result of court decisions — Henson made a spontaneous decision to seek refuge from our "neighbor to the north." His request for refugee status is still pending in the Canadian refugee processing system.

I interviewed Henson via email about his personal evolution within the context of transhumanist philosophy.

RU SIRIUS: When did you first realize that you were a novelty-seeker?

KEITH HENSON: When I was about 8 years old. My mother read Robert A. Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky to me. I was enthralled and eventually read every published Heinlein (and many other SF authors) I could find. She could not have imagined that 25 years later I would be giving a paper at Princeton University, "Closed Ecosystems of High Agricultural Yield," that was partly based on descriptions in Farmer in the Sky.

RU: What are some of the qualities that people can notice perhaps even in children that might indicate a progressive, neophiliac potential?

KH: That's a hard one because most kids are interested in new things. The rare person is still interested in new advances when they are adults. There is possibly a correlation with intelligence. In any case, you have to be fairly bright to keep learning and changing attitudes as you get older.

RU: The L5 society received a lot of attention in the 1970s; after that, public interest or at least media coverage dissipated. Can you briefly tell my audience what the L5 society was about and what has happened with it in the intervening years?

KH: L5 was a group set up to promote space colonies and solar power satellites. It eventually merged with von Braun's National Space Institute forming the National Space Society, which still exists today...though the fire has certainly gone.

RU: How did your participation and leadership in the L5 society come about?

KH: It was indirectly related to "Limits to Growth" memes that were so active in the early 70s.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins discussed anxiety-provoking memes such as the hellfire meme — linked to the western religious memes by natural selection among memes. (The linking came about simply because the combination is more successful in gaining and keeping active meme spreaders for both memes.) Something like this happened to me linking the Limits to Growth (LTG) meme to the space colony meme. Dr. O'Neill's writings and early issues of the L5 News made the link explicit. (Princeton physics professor Dr. Gerard O'Neill generated the space colony concept with the assistance of his undergrads)

Personally, I found that the distasteful worldview implied by the Limits to Growth meme raised my anxiety level much like good hellfire sermon affects conventionally religious people. (It was much worse for the people in whom the LTG meme first arose. Rumor has it that one of them boarded himself up in a cabin in the remote woods and waited for the food riots to start and, for all I know, he may be there yet.)

Disaster memes like Limits to Growth capture the imagination and spread well. But only a small fraction of the population actively responds to threats as remote and indirect as those of the LTG meme. At that time, joining the Zero Population Growth organization and having a vasectomy were some of the few possible responses.

A small subset of those who were concerned, however, took the step of searching for a meme — or of creating a meme — that would counter the bleak LTG meme. Eric Drexler, for example, hunted down Dr. O'Neill in 1973 by asking questions of his professors at MIT about who was working on the exploitation of space resources. A copy of the first widespread space colony publication (the 1974 Physics Today article) was in my hands within hours after reaching Dan Jones (Ph.D. in Physics and occasional rock climbing partner) who knew of my interest in this topic.

The space colony meme reduced anxiety about the long-term future by providing an alternative, but it raised anxiety too. It was apparent from the start that we would have to work hard to bring about a world that included space colonies. Our beginning point was to infect all the people we could with the space colony meme. Inducing people to spend effort in spreading a meme, as well as successfully spreading itself in competition with innumerable other memes, is the definition of a successful meme. In this sense, the space colony meme was moderately successful. (Though it didn't lead to colonies in space.)

As for leadership, I am the kind who leads reluctantly and more by example than anything else. Someone had to be on the incorporation papers as president. After two years I fobbed it off on my former wife. In the sense that my thoughts on the subject had a lot of influence, I was a leader.



RU: I think you have to agree that the "Space Colony" meme lost some of its currency in terms of media coverage and general cultural excitement after the 1970s. Would you care to reflect on why that happened?

KH: In 1975 we expected a program (such as Solar Power Satellite) leading to space colonies would start by the early 80s, and that we could disband by about 1995. By 1985 it was clear nothing leading in that direction in space was likely to happen for a long time. The problem was mainly one of cost. Had the cost to get into space been proportional to the Pilgrims or the Mormon migration, we would have been there on our own, but it was about 10,000 times too expensive.

Memes lose their intense hold on people with the passage of time, especially when the promise of the meme is at great variance with reality. The Society carried on from inertia for a while before merging with the National Space Institute.

RU: Does cyberspace in some ways satisfy some of the needs and desires raised by space colonization?

KH: Perhaps. Games provide a lot of previously unknown "area" to explore. You can't live there yet though [ed. Today, we have Second Lives.]

RU: Do you still believe that the L5 plans laid out by O'Neill are the best bet for moving into space?

KH: Based on old technology, that of the middle of the last century, yes. I suspect that when people actually move off the planet they will do it with the awesome powers of nanotechnology.

RU: Many advocates of space colonization seem to have changed their focus to nanotechnology which, in turn, would make colonization less expensive and more feasible.

KH: I don't know that's the right way to put it. Nanotechnology will give us vast wealth in terms of control over the environment. It also might completely destroy us at either a physical level or just from giving us so much synthetic enjoyment we never bother going into space. Reducing cost or increasing wealth, colonizing space will become something an individual or a small group can do, provided we maintain the desire to do so.

RU: Moving forward a bit in time, did you consider yourself part of the Extropian movement and do you agree with their principles?

KH: I contributed to the early private extropian mailing list and seem to have had some degree of influence there, i.e., what Extropians and related transhumanists consider important is very close to what I consider important. I knew Max More through Alcor before he started the movement and was the (not very active) memetics editor for the magazine when it was in paper. I don't disagree with the principles, though they are perhaps a bit optimistic. On the other hand, my view is certainly colored by being driven out of the US.

RU: Do you consider yourself a utopian?

KH: No. I can't think of anyone who is up on evolutionary psychology and related areas who is deluded enough to be called a utopian. I think most of us consider staying out of ugly distopian states is about as good as we can get — pre-Singularity, anyway. After that who knows?

RU: How did you enter into your epic battle with the Scientologists?

KH: It's a well-documented story.

I had mentioned scientology in an article or two but had taken no serious interest in it before January 1995. At that time Helena Kobrin, a lawyer for Scientology, issued a command (rmgroup) to remove the Usenet news group alt.religion.scientology from the Internet, apparently thinking that this "denial of service" attack on the Internet would end critical discussion about Scientology.

This attack on free speech backfired, having somewhat the effect of a gang of thugs riding into town and burning down the newspaper. This attempted censorship drew in dozens of Internet free speech advocates, me among them. A Google search on Kobrin rmgroup turns up hundreds of pages.

RU: How would you define the boundary between an organization that constitutes a "cult" and a group that simply shares a set of intentions and an overall memeplex?

KH: There isn't a clear-cut boundary. Humans evolved in tribes and our reward circuits are still set up to reward behaviors that aided reproductive success in tribes. People still do things that reward them, such as socializing with others and doing things which gain the respect (and attention) of their associates just like they did 100,000 years ago when such behaviors were more directly connected to gaining the status needed to reproduce (i.e., obtain a wife or two...or three). Cults tap into this reward mechanism, but so does every other rewarding activity from local sports clubs to the Nobel Prize.

Still, you can say that some groups are cults. LaRouche's bunch, Moonies, scientology, Heaven's Gate, etc. There are published scales to measure how much some group is a cult.

RU: From your experience, do all organizations (like L5 or the Extropians) tend to accumulate cult-like behaviors over time?

KH: No. If anything, L5 lost the cult kind of intensity as it aged. I don't think the Extropians ever had even the level of the early L5 Society, but then I was not deeply involved with them.

If a group stays around long enough, it tends to lose its cult aspects. Religious cults tend toward main stream religions. Calvinism started as an intense cult. Heck, Calvin had a dozen and a half people publicly executed, something the scientology leadership would drool over, but 300 years later the Methodists are as mellow as you could ask for.

RU: Would you agree that there are quasi-religious overtones in the belief that we are headed towards a singularity; in the sense that it promises to resolve so many problems and existential dilemmas (sickness, death, material scarcity, other limits) that Salvation isn't too strong a word for the hopes that it evokes?

KH: It definitely has the potential to be the techno-rapture. It is deeply connected to SETI and the searches for planets around other stars. Oddly, the worse things look out there, the better they look here. The logic runs this way, if planets with life (and particularly life that eventually becomes technologically capable the way we are headed) are common then it looks really dire for us, because we don't see any evidence of a "tamed" universe. Everywhere we look there are massive wastes of energy and matter. If technophilic civilizations are common, then something happens that removes them from the observable universe. Contrary wise, if the universe doesn't harbor any others inside our light cone, then we are looking at an unknown future instead of a deadly one. There isn't much hope for controlling the final stages; all we can do is build in as much good will as we can.

RU: How would you compare life in Canada to life in the US?

KH: Colder. :-)

The cult seems to have less influence here. I suspect going back would be as disorienting as coming here in the first place. I understand the money doesn't look the same now and the US is talking about reinstating the draft. Plus there have been lots of changes — few of them good — since 9/11. If anyone wonders why the airlines are not doing well it is because flying has been made such an unpleasant and degrading experience.

NF: How can people help you to defeat this attack on your liberty and everyone's freedom of speech?

KH: It's really hard to do anything effective. The problem is that the individuals in law enforcement agencies know they will be targeted personally if they take steps against the cult's abuses and corruption. Not only by private investigators stealing their trash and stalking their children, but if they take action against the cult, Scientology will turn a scary part of the government against them by suing them in the courts. This fact of life was picked up in an episode of Millennium:
Peter: The Millennium Group's not interested in publicity.
Frank: No, no, it's not about us: in fact, he's working on a case that could be of great interest to the group. This Selfosophist was found...
Peter: Whoa, Selfosophy? No, no ...
Frank: What is going on, Peter? We've never backed away from anything. We've even faced evil incarnate.
Peter: Evil incarnate can't sue. All I'm saying is be careful about what you say around your writer friend.

Starving Scientology of new members is perhaps the best we can do. To do that, inform yourself, inform your friends. If you really want to help, picket them.

Scientology has this "chosen people" status they got by intimidating or perhaps even blackmailing IRS management. A Jewish guy name of Sklar tried to get the same deal for his religious practice and was turned down. The judge in the appeal said that if what Sklar claimed about the IRS's treatment of Scientology was true, the IRS was violating the law and that someone should file a suit to put an end to that practice. It has been nearly two years and nobody has stepped up to file this invited lawsuit. The few lawyers who used to go up against Scientology will no longer do so because Scientology is just too good at using lots of money to pervert the courts. Put Rosen Exhibit 185 in Google to see a listing of $35 million they spent over a few years to destroy critics. (Over a million on me.)



And if you want to understand how cults use the same brain reward pathway that drugs activate, go here to look at my paper on the subject.

See Also:
"Scientology Fugitive" Arrested
Keith Henson Back in Jail — Space Elevator Will Have To Wait
California Cults
Adopt an African Hottie's Clitoris

Read More

Girls Are Geeks, Too


Annalee Newitz

I didn't plan it this way at all. But around mid-week, I realized that I'd scheduled the NeoFiles interview with the editors and contributors to a new book collection, She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, immediately after a very controversial interview with Joe Quirk that looked at gender and geeks from a sociobiological (and some might say all male) perspective.

I didn't push this interview with book editors Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, and contributor Quinn Norton in the direction of nature versus nurture. I wanted to talk about their book. Nevertheless, the interview seems kind of like a counterpoint — or alternative — to Quirk's views regarding women and technology. But are women geeks the exception that proves the rule, or the vocal edge of a phenomenon that gets suppressed or ignored?



She's Such a Geek offers evidence for the latter view. It's full of personal tales from brilliant women: scientists, technologists, and gamers — and most of them recount situations in which they were discouraged, harassed, put down, and underestimated because of their gender.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that this book is a long whine. The pieces are irreverent, sharp, frequently funny, and filled to the brim with true edge-seeking geekiness.

Oh, by the way...yes, we do sometimes get silly on these shows. Get over it.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: I seem to remember that there were a lot of girl nerd books in the '90s. How did we get from nerd to geek?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Actually, that was a huge debate. We originally wanted to call it "Female Nerds" and people complained. They felt like "nerd" was too negative, and that geek had been re-claimed as a badge of pride — kind of like "queer."

RU: "Nerd" is more negative than "geek"? So, is biting the heads off of chickens...

AN: I know! I pointed that out in another interview.

RU: ...I always thought that was cool!

AN: Yeah. I mean, Ozzie Osborne really made it cool. So maybe we're bringing back Ozzie — bringing back the cool-ness of geeks.

RU: I'm going to show my age now, but I remember when hippies started calling themselves freaks. It sounded more extreme, and it also meant you didn't have to do that "peace and love" stuff any more. You could defend yourself as a freak.

AN: And I think geeks do the same thing, you know? It's sort of — you can use the beaker! You can smash the beaker against the table, and use it as a weapon.

CHARLIE ANDERS: Plus Nerds are like a really yucky candy, aren't they?

AN: I like Nerds! They're sour and they're yummy, and they always come as a mash-up. You get two flavors at once.

RU: So the first thing this anthology does, right in the title, is raise the question: Why is it necessary? Why is the gender of the geek an issue?

CA: In an ideal world, it wouldn't be. But we feel that our experiences — and lots of other people's experiences — show that female geeks tend to become invisible in the larger geek cloud. So we need to highlight their visibility so that there will be more of them. And then, other women who are thinking of becoming geeks will think, "Oh! There are role models in the cloud. I can see them!"

AN: It's also about highlighting the fact that women geeks have always existed, even though the stereotype of the geek is some pale boy sitting in front of his computer monitor and not getting laid. Actually, all along, there have been tons of female geeks who are also pale, staring at their computer monitors and not getting laid. Or maybe getting laid.



RU: Lady Ada Lovelace was an early female geek.

AN: It's true. And she was right there at the inaugural moments of inventing the computer. And she was writing the first computer languages, so... In fact, our guest Quinn named her daughter Ada! [Laughter]

RU: Annalee, why don't you go ahead, and — you're going to read to us from the book... in dulcet tones.

AN: I will try, yes. People think of dulcet when they think of me. I'm going to read from the introduction that both Charlie and I wrote:
We didn't realize how sorely needed this book was until we emailed a few people asking if they knew any women who might want to write stories about their lives as nerds. Our request got passed from mailbox to mailbox, and soon it was getting blogged — BoingBoing.net posted it, and so did StarWars.com. We were excited to see a blog full of Swedish with the words "submit essays to She's Such a Geek" in the middle. Canadian Public Radio even did a feature on the buzz we'd created. Everyone seemed to share our sense that there were zillions of female geeks out there who just needed to stand up and be counted.

After the blog-storm of attention, we found ourselves with over 200 essay submissions for this book. We started joking about what we'd call the sequel. She's Even More of a Geek? The Wrath of She-Geek?

We heard from programmers at Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, and women who'd worked in nuclear power plants and flew airplanes. We read about what it was like for women to study genetics in graduate school, teach mathematics, write science fiction, and design video games.

What we found as we read these women's stories wasn't just a common love of dorky Star Trek jokes, though there was quite a bit of that. We began to see a tragic pattern to many women's lives of nerd-dom. Growing up, many of our geeks fell passionately, even orgasmically, in love with math, astronomy and life science. But as they aged, many of them found that their undergraduate degrees in science didn't lead to jobs in science — or, when they went on to graduate programs, that they found themselves isolated and unhappy in male-dominated departments.

In fact, statistics show women flourish in geeky fields — until they hit a wall. The National Science Foundation reported in 2001 that 56% of U.S. Bachelor's degrees in science and engineering went to women. But women hold only 25% of jobs in science and engineering. More women than men are graduating in the sciences, but a hostile job market and chilly graduate programs are keeping them from achieving their goals.

So we were thrilled to see so many success stories. Women had battled stereotypes and their own insecurity to become formidable gamers or leading programmers. Some, like Kory Wells, managed to toggle between their careers and families, and even teach their own daughters not to let anyone tell them what they can do.

RU: I'm interested in the percentages of women who graduate in these fields. And I've also read reports recently in newspapers that women, in general, are doing better in school than men. And I wonder, is this is a cultural thing? Men are being encouraged to be lunkheads in the current culture. There's a culture of macho stupidity. [Ironically] Men are being held back, dammit — by the culture!

CA: There might be something to that. I talk about this in my essay — like the way some of our leaders seem to equate asking too many questions — or thinking too deeply about things — with not being manly enough or not being decisive. If you're "the decider", you're not the thinker. And you're not the studier.

RU: That goes from the top of the society to the bottom — "Keeping it real." That's kind of about being stupid too, actually.

CA: I thought "Keeping it real" was just sort of about keeping the walls up and the surreality out. Like, the surreal is always at your door, and you just sort of have to...

AN: ...keep turning it away

RU: You have to keep the surrealism away?

AN: Surrealism doesn't come in unless you invite it, actually. It's like a vampire, you know? So it stays outside.

RU: You can keep surrealism at bay pretty easily by not listening to The R.U. Sirius Show.

At the beginning of the book intro that Annalee read from, she wrote about being at a conference, on a panel that included another woman [ed: Wendy Seltzer, a contributor to the book]. And Annalee, when you came on stage, the announcer said, "The only chick's here." And there were, in fact, not many women at the conference. The guy we had on the show last week, Joe Quirk, was saying he did a head-count at an "Accelerated Change" conference and there were 15% women there. And he also knew some of the people who were there; and a lot of the women were girlfriends of guys who were obsessed with this stuff. So how do you account for this? And is it fair to comment on it? Because you kind of ripped into the announcer guy for making a joke about it. But it is fair to comment on what you observe.

AN: Well, there's obviously a difference between saying, "Gee, there's only 20% women at this conference, we need to change that"; versus saying, "Dude! You guys are the only two chicks at the conference!" In fact, there were about 20-30% women at that conference. So it's sort of like what we were saying earlier. Women who do exist in technology get sort of made invisible by statements like that. And why call attention to our gender at all? Why is it even remarkable, given that we were among the 20-30% of women who were there?

RU: But at the same time, you're calling attention to the issue of gender in technology with this book.

AN: Yeah. But I think saying there's 20-30% of women here — or even saying that there are 20-30% of women in science and technology — is different from saying, "There's only two women at this conference," when, in fact, there were far more.

RU: So he was lying.

AN: He was lying! And what he was doing...

RU: ...he was making a joke through exaggeration.

AN: Well, if you'd been there and seen the looks on the faces of the women in the audience, it didn't come across like a joke. When you've heard "jokes" like that, time after time, and every single joke somehow manages to erase you from the room — at a certain point, it stops being funny.

RU: All right. I'll hang with that. Charlie, in your piece, "I am wonk, Hear me wrong" errr... roar!" [laughter]

CA: I think it's actually, "Hear me prognosticate," or "Hear Me Analyze"

RU: The piece opens like this: "I became a wonk the same time that I became a woman, so the two transitions have always been inseparable for me." Talk a little bit about those two things — becoming a woman, and becoming and wonk.

CA: I was working as a journalist at a business newspaper, and it was a very macho kind of place to work. It was very Decider-y.

RU: They were all Deciders?

CA: Yeah, it was very much, "Give me: 'Here's what's going on' in five seconds, in black-and-white...."

RU: [imitating Walter Cronkite... poorly] "And that's the way it is!"

CA: Yeah. I was covering health care, and I got really obsessed with all the minutia and all the ins and outs of the healthcare industry. I became increasingly fascinated, and it clashed with the sort of macho ethos of this newspaper, where you weren't supposed to look into things too deeply. So I got this other job where I was encouraged to be more wonky and at the same time I was able to work from home some of the time. So I started cross-dressing more and exploring a different facet of my personality. And so the love of exploring really insanely detailed topics and policy issues dovetailed with my female persona and eventually led me to become who I am today.



RU: Your piece connects wonkiness with women. And I always thought of bow-tied guys in political think tanks as being wonks. But you claim that there's a big connection between wonkiness and women.

CA: There are a lot of women who really love to crunch statistics and analyze. I talked to Nadine Strossen and she definitely felt that there was a significant female wonk culture.

RU: Now there have been controversies at — like, women's festivals about allowing...

CA: ...about wonks? They're not letting wonks in to the Michigan Womyns' Festival? [Laughter]

AN: "No Wonks Allowed!"

CA: They're going to come in and analyze our policies in detail! They're going to do all the ramifications and the feasibility tests.

AN: Actuarial tables...

RU: Exactly. They didn't want wonks in their all-women festivals... No, I read a piece in The Believer...

CA: Michelle Tea's article.

RU: Yeah. It was about how this group didn't want transsexuals at their all-women's festival. Have you taken any crap from anybody about your inclusion in this book, or do you expect to take any crap from anybody?

CA: It hasn't been an issue at all, so far, maybe partly because I'm one of the editors. I don't know many people who don't just accept that trans-women are women. So any place that's explicitly including women should and will include trans-women. That just hasn't even come up as an issue at all.

AN: I also think that geeks are more accepting of transgender women.

RU: Exactly.

AN: It's because geeks are so into science. So they're really interested in this whole notion — it's like, "Oh I see! You've surgically altered your body and taken hormones. Why, how interesting! Now you're a woman!"

RU: It's very trans. Transmutation, transhuman... all those things.

AN & CA: Yeah!

RU: ...self-experimentation, all that stuff. Good! Speaking of trans, we're going to bring in Quinn Norton. Quinn, could you read a segment from your piece?

QUINN NORTON: Sure. Most of the essays in this book are about women who are making amazing contributions in science and engineering. And mine is about tabletop role-playing games. [Laughter]. The section I'm going to read though isn't actually about tabletop. It's about live action, which is like tabletop but more publicly embarrassing. And this is from a time when I was wandering around playing "Vampire." So I was out in the middle of the city, pretending to be a vampire:
One night I was wandering around downtown San Juan Capistrano early in Chaot's career. I hadn't run into any other players, and I was getting a bit bored. I thought I heard my fellow gamers' voices above me in a parking garage and decided to join them. Instead of the stairs, my little trench-coat-wearing Malkavian took to the trees. I climbed up and over to the second floor of the parking garage and threw myself quietly over the wall, coat flying behind me. I landed surprisingly silently. Turned out the voices came from two families of movie-goers — parents talking while young kids ran bored orbits around them. I, in all my weirdness, appeared out of nowhere and walked quickly by them. The parents never noticed me, but the kids did. They looked at where I'd come from, and then at me. They crouched in close to their parents and clutched one another. I looked over at them, opened my eyes wide, and gave them a slightly snarled smile.

They followed me with their eyes as I walked down the stairs. They never saw Quinn; they never even saw Quinn playing Chaot. All they ever saw or knew was Chaot, mad vampire, coming from and going to nowhere. With a mysterious grin, Chaot had given the lie to the boring world their parents described, where everything stays the same in the dark as it does in the light. I knew whatever make-believe they played next, I was going to crop up.

That moment is why I gamed.

RU: They will be thinking and dreaming and hopefully becoming vampires before you know it. Vampires have always been attractive to geeks of all genders. I guess it's the sense of otherness and being different. Do you think there's a special attraction for women?

QN: It's interesting, because Vampire is one of the first games I played that seemed to have a better gender balance than most of the others. But I don't feel like it was about vampires per se. It was because the gaming system was so geared towards role-play, and not so much about trying to figure out how to make the rules work. So it was open to a lot more people who just wanted to try out different roles.

RU: Your piece emphasizes how — in a lot of games — your interactions were with men, and that it got weird not just around gender, but also around sex itself, and around jealousy.

QN: [Laughs] Well, I don't know if this is a universal experience for geek girls, but for me there was a "Kiss me, kick me" kind of thing.

RU: Well, guys are drawn to a chick with a magnet in her finger. Inexorably. It's science! (We'll have to explain this later.)

QN: [Laughs] Ferromagnetic guys, certainly. In gaming — and in other geeky areas I've been in — it seemed like there were a lot of men who were very interested in being with a woman who could share their interests, and also very threatened by that. And so a lot of times people would be very interested in me and also slightly abusive towards me.

RU: And that kind of pushed you away from gaming. But you're back again. She's baaack!

AN: It's true! She's our dungeon-master in our current D&D game.

QN: I am. I'm doing First Edition AD&D... kicking it old school.

RU: I've heard this is somehow EFF related.

QN: Well, it's mostly EFF people — former and current people who are taking a break from fighting for our civil liberties to defeat the slave lords of the pit.

RU: Far more important!

AN: Yeah! I mean, come on. The RIAA, slave lords of the pit — it's all of a piece!

RU: So Quinn, you have a magnet implanted in your finger. Tell people about that and what happened with that?

QN: In 2005, I had a small rare earth magnet that was coated in gold, and then put in a bio-neutral silicone sheath, implanted in the tip of my ring finger. This was to give me a sense for EM radiation when I was near, say, a live power cord or a phone cord — that sort of thing. There are a few bodymodders out of Phoenix who had come up with the idea. It worked! And it was really interesting. For a while, I had a sixth sense for EM radiation. It wasn't incredibly strong. I usually had to be holding something or had to be very near it. Occasionally I would go near a phone box or something like that and it would startle me. And then the bio-neutral sheath that it was in broke. And my body attacked the magnet and it shattered in my finger.

RU: Did that hurt?

QN: Well, it infected when it broke. That hurt. My doctor tried to pull it out, and it shattered a lot more. That hurt. But my doctor was able to give me a lot of Vicodin, which made that all better.

RU: In fact, it made it fantastic!

QN: Unlike the bodymodders who just gave me a bit of ice. [Laughter] And then it was kind of all done. I didn't have the sense any more. The magnet was shattered. But then, over the course of the next few months, the magnet in my finger pulled back together again... because it's a magnet.

RU: Really? It self re-organized?

QN: Well, it's bits of magnet in close proximity. What are they going to do? And now, at this point, I can occasionally pick up other magnets. But the sense is gone because it's pretty much encased in scar tissue. When it was in a bio-neutral sheath, it was free floating, and there was a gesture I could do — I could hold up my finger and circle it with a magnet, and I could feel the magnet in my finger spinning as I did that.

RU: And you could feel other things beyond that.

QN: Yeah. I could feel bits of my computer right before I could feel the hard drive spinning.

RU: And of course you could feel the CIA tapping into your brain.

QN: [Laughs] I could feel that before the magnet!

AN: That only stops when you put the tin foil on.

RU: Annalee, you also have an implant.

QN: Yeah, we're both mutated.

RU: What did you put in?

AN: I have an implantable radio frequency identifier, which is basically a pet tag.

RU: So if somebody buys you and brings you home...

AN: ...right, they can read my serial number.

RU: But if they steal you, then they're in trouble.

AN: Right. Well, if they cut off my arm, they've got my ID number! Actually, this terribly ridiculous company called VeriChip was marketing them as secure access devices. The idea, basically, is that they're like keys that you put in your arm.

So a friendly hacker in Boston figured out a way to read the ID on the RFID that was implanted in my arm, and then re-broadcast that ID — basically steal my keys literally out of my arm without cutting it off. So we demonstrated that the whole idea that this would be a secure access device is completely ridiculous and stupid.

QN: I'm going to do an extremely mild defense of VeriChip here, because they're coming out with a thing right now that I'm really excited about. It's basically the same thing Annalee has, an RFID implant. But it also has a glucometer that gives continual readings when it's inductively powered.

AN: Well, that's fine, right?

QN: I know. That's cool!

AN: That's cool, and I'm happy for the company to be marketing its chips for all kinds of things. But claiming it's a secure device is really wrong. And that's what they were trying to do. It would be used in prisoners, and as keys, and in all kinds of situations where you wouldn't want people to be able to read your ID. And the fact is that there's no security on these chips at all. This hacker was able to literally go up to me with a homemade antenna, brush up against me, get the ID off of my allegedly secure chip, and turn it into a set of keys to break into something else.

Now, aside from the implant, I actually have a version of the RFID reader and cloner device. It was a big adventure bringing it through the airport last week.

RU: Did it set things off?

AN: It did! Apparently it looks exactly like one of the forbidden devices that you can't bring on a plane. If you could see the device, you would see why. It's basically a tiny chipboard attached to a really long, phallic antenna. And it has a bunch of white silicon slopped all over them — and a pipe horn. When I showed it to people since coming back here, they've said, "I can't believe they actually even let you put this in your suitcase and bring it on the plane!" It looks so dangerous. But it's just an antenna.

RU: Annalee, I really liked your piece talking about Wonder Woman. You write, "She's smart, commanding, and sexually appealing at the same time. As anyone familiar with mainstream culture knows, such a woman is not supposed to exist." But hasn't there really been a trend towards women who kick ass in movies and TV over the last ten or fifteen years?



AN: That's true. And what I was trying to point out in my essay — which is sort of about coming of age through geeky pop culture — is that you really only see those kinds of images in pop culture. Images of real women who are both smart and sexually appealing are rarely disseminated. But we get those images with Wonder Woman; so people like me grew up believing that, somehow, we could be both smart and attractive. But in our jobs, in our daily lives — many women feel that they're kind of given this choice — either you can be hot or you can be smart. And there's not a lot of room for women who are both. And women who are both are very threatening. Often, in media coverage of successful women who are good-looking, there are weird comments like: "Oh! And she's also so attractive!" Like, "How unusual it is that this scientist is also attractive!" And you'd never have somebody saying, "Wow! Linus Torvalds. He's kind of hunky!" You know, who cares, right?

RU: [Laughs] Is he?

AN: Linus Torvalds is kind of hunky, right?

QN: Yeah. Yeah. I'd go with that.

RU: We're establishing something here?

AN: Now we have established here, on NeoFiles — "Linus Torvalds: Hunk."

RU: The big news bullet out of this program: "Linus Torvalds is kind of hunky."

QN: And really, that's the only thing I ever noticed about him, right?

AN: I mean, when I saw him speak, I was like, "What is he?" [Laughter]

QN: "But doesn't he program or something? I don't know."

AN: Yeah. " 'Blah blah blah' about Open Source, but whoa. Check out that ass!" [Laughter] I mean, that's sort of the weird stereotype that we'd love to get away from.

RU: And then you have a section where you compare Cronenberg's The Fly with the film She's All That. (Any discussion of Cronenberg gets an A in my book.) Tell people a little bit about that. About all that.

AN: I talk about how there's this trend in films toward portraying women as either smart or sexy. And so this movie from about seven years ago, She's All That, is about this geeky high school girl. This popular boy takes up a dare to turn her into somebody who can go to the prom with him at the end of the year. He does that by taking her away from her geeky life and getting her to wear Gap clothes; and getting her to look "hot" in the terms of the film. (She actually looks way less hot later. She's just sort of a Gap clone.) But I think that's sort of a general trend in films about women who are smart. There's sort of this moment where they take off their glasses, and suddenly they're this glamorous, attractive woman.

RU: Oh, yeah. And the guy swoons.

AN: And the guy swoons, and she's no longer talking about rocket science. Instead she's just like: "Oh, well what do you want to do tonight? Shall we go to the dance?" So I was sort of protesting that. And I compared it to The Fly, because in The Fly you have a male scientist who basically wants to absorb a woman at the genetic level. It's such a great movie. I can't do it justice in two seconds.

RU: And she's a smart female journalist.

AN: She's a science journalist. Just like me!

RU: And a lot of people read into his films a horror of femininity, because everything that's gooey and soft and that you can sink into...

QN: Well, I do think there is space for the smart, pretty woman in the media — as long as she's evil.

AN: Right. That's an interesting point. As long as she's evil — or if she's being absorbed by a man. [Laughter]

RU: We need somebody like that to join our show as a co-host!

AN: I know! Maybe you could have a smart, evil, beautiful woman; and then have a smart, good, beautiful woman. And then, like, mud wrestling or something.



RU: That would be totally hot.

AN: And maybe they could be hackers too.

See Also:
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes
Steve Wozniak v Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Why Chicks Don't Dig the Singularity
Author Slash Trickster "JT Leroy"
What If Ben Were One Of Us?

Read More

Jimmy Wales Will Destroy Google


Jimmy Wales with Rachael Ray and Stephen Colbert | Courtesy: Craig Newmark
Jimmy Wales, Rachael Ray and Stephen Colbert | Photo courtesy: Craig Newmark

We contacted Wikipedia mainman Jimmy Wales for The RU Sirius Show interview via Skype. I began my introduction: "According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales was born to a Parisian whore named 'Babette' during the French Revolution..." The line went dead. "Oh Christ," I thought. "Jimmy Wales doesn't have a sense of humor. He's just hung up. It took me six months to arrange this interview and now I don't have a show for this week." But it turned out to just be one of those Skype hiccups. When contact was re-established, Wales said, "The internet really sucks.' He does have a sense of humor!

This is how I introduced him on the show:

"According to Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales was born to a Parisian whore named 'Babette' during the French Revolution... Oh no, wait. That's the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, Jimmie Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and remains the man in charge of what is essentially an Open Source encyclopedia. The official titles are President of Wiki, Incorporated and Board Member and Chairman of Wiki Media Foundation."

Later in the conversation, Wales corrected me, saying, "I am no longer the chairman of the Wiki Media foundation, I am now the Chair Emeritus. I'm still a board member, but I've stepped aside and now Florence Devouard is the chair. So now I'm one of seven board members. I'm still very active and have a special role within the English Wikipedia, but in general it's important that people begin to think of us as a bigger organization that's not really focused on me as a single person doing things."

Diana Brown joined me in interviewing Jimmy Wales.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: No good deed goes unpunished. Do the number and intensity of controversies that have arisen around Wikipedia surprise you?

JIMMY WALES: There are a few controversies here and there. Most I would call well-manufactured controversies. But you know, whenever anything gets popular, I guess people pay attention.



RU: So are there any critiques or complaints that you've found particularly compelling?

JW: A lot of the complaints have some basis in fact. Since Wikipedia is a live work in progress, at any time, if someone complains that they found a particular error at a particular moment, there's not much that we can say to that. Yeah, there are errors in Wikipedia. But I think those kinds of criticisms sort of miss the point of what it is we're trying to accomplish here.

RU: And what you're trying to accomplish, as you've stated before, is to make all human knowledge available to all human beings. Do you still feel that same sense of idealism as when you made that statement? And how's it going with that?

JW: We're doing pretty well. The big picture goal has always been to have a free encyclopedia in all languages. We're doing pretty well if you're looking at English, German, French, Japanese, Dutch — some of the major languages where there are a lot of articles. But there's still a lot of work left to do in a lot of the languages of the developing world. In the last year, we've seen a lot of activity in the Indian languages, but none of the developing countries are even up to 100,000 articles yet. The largest is closing in on 20,000 articles. So, you know — pretty good, but there's still a lot of work to do.

RU: When you look at Wikipedia, there's everything — really arcane scientific material and historical material, and there are biographies of people's favorite rock and roll bands and stuff like that. What do you follow there personally? What do you find most compelling?

JW: Well, I'm really deeply involved in the community. So I end up spending a lot of my time working on the social processes and policies to try to help generate good quality articles. So that's what I spent most of my time following — the meta-discussion within Wikipedia of how we can make things better.

RU: Do you have sort of a micro-collective, a smaller group of people who you lean on in terms of understanding this process and making decisions about it?

JW: Oh yeah, definitely. The core community is several hundred to several thousand people, depending on how you measure it. And those are the people who are really making decisions. When people talk about Wikipedia, it seems they think that it's ten million people, each adding one sentence each. That's not really the way it works. It's really about the core volunteers maintaining and monitoring everything.

RU: It seems that you're very reliant upon people who want to maintain the quality of certain areas. If certain people started falling away, could that turn problematic?

JW: I don't think so. [Laughs] That's not something I worry about!

RU: Other people will come in to replace them?

JW: Yeah. I mean, if anything, we have the problem of too many volunteers (not that there can ever be too many) — but it gets really hard to communicate the values and the mores to newcomers in a reasonable period of time. Managing the organization or self-organization of all the different activities can be difficult.

RU: When I see stuff from people who really just hate Wikipedia, it's usually either someone with a really strong ideological agenda; or someone with ego problems who doesn't like the specific entry about them. It seems like they're sort of blaming the radio waves for something they don't like on the radio, and they don't get that. Can the idea of the open channel simply not be explained to some people?

JW: I think that's definitely right. I think that there are people whose view of the world is so fixed that they're unable to accept alternatives — or that alternatives should be discussed. Such people are very difficult. Fortunately, they're very rare. It's really pretty hard to find someone who truly hates Wikipedia. I mean, that's a pretty small number of people. Certainly people have criticisms, or think we could do this or that better, and that's perfectly fine. It's pretty hard to hate the project itself. It's a pretty benign thing we're trying to do here.

RU: What about the people at Encyclopedia Britannica. [Laughter] Do they feel threatened?

JW: You know, it's funny. We have good relations with people at Brockhaus which is the German equivalent of the "Britannica" — in other words, a traditional, mainstream, old-fashioned encyclopedia. I won't say we're best of friends or anything, but we've had meetings with them and they seemed OK. "Britannica" — we've never had any meetings with them. They pretty much try to pretend we don't exist most of the time, except occasionally they lash out in the press.

RU: Well, you did say, at some point, something pretty provocative about them. I think you, more or less, said you were going to wipe them out in about five years!

JW: You know, I wrote that...

RU: ...you were thinking of Khrushchev at the time?

JW: It's getting close to five years ago now, and I have to confess, I wrote that on Slashdot. I was kind of pandering to the crowd. It seemed like a fun sort of thing to say, and it's sort of come back to haunt me because "Britannica" is hardly gone.

RU: So you were getting all the Open Source people all wound up.

JW: Yeah, exactly.



RU: Have you been interested in the open source movement for a long time? Are you a fan of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation?

JW: Oh yeah. We really owe Richard a debt of gratitude for all that.

RU: Before you were doing Wikipedia, you were involved in a project called Nupedia, which was more of an expert-based system. And speaking of UFOs appearing over Chicago, we had Joe Firmage on our show a little while ago. He's creating something called the Digital Universe. And he also promises to organize the sum total of human knowledge and make it available to everybody. It's a collaborative effort, but it's limited to academic specialists. It seems almost a step back to Nupedia. Are you following this at all, and what do you think about that?

JW: I'm following, yeah. You know, I don't know very much about what they're doing over at Digital Universe. I actually met Joe back when he had hired Larry Sanger to work for him. I went and visited them and — you know, it's sort of big plans, I just haven't seen very much come out of it yet.

RU: You have a history with Ayn Rand's Objectivism. And then, thinking in terms of my friend Jaron Lanier's recent articles about Wikipedia — you may be the first objectivist (or person even vaguely associated with objectivism), to also be accused of Maoism.

JW: [Laughs] I did think that was quite amusing. I said, "Well, I must be doing something right if I get called such wildly different things. I'm somehow mysterious, even though I'm pretty simple, actually."

That essay was a good example of a critique that had some very interesting and good points. I mean, you could certainly say some of the specific practical problems he identified are things that we have to deal with and struggle with. At the same time, his sort of view of the ideology of us — of our group — as being, Maoists or collective intelligence people, or something like that, was really wide of the mark.

RU: He does raise an interesting point about the wisdom of crowds. The first time I heard that phrase used by a friend in a positive way was about a year ago on my NeoFiles program. We were talking to Jon Lebkowsky, and he was very positive about this idea of the wisdom of crowds. I have to admit; it almost knocked me right over, because in my personal experience, crowds were always the people going to the pep rallies, or the Nuremburg rallies... or whatever. People I associated with were trying to get away from crowds and think for themselves. What do you think about the idea of the wisdom of crowds?

JW: In general, I'm pretty skeptical of the idea. And I'm very skeptical of it being applied to Wikipedia in particular. But I think you can pick out elements of good sense from ideas in that general neighborhood — like the idea that given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. That's kind of a wisdom of crowds idea. It says that lots of different people have lots of different contexts and information. And if they can come together in a way that productively aggregates or shares that information, you can end up with a pretty high quality of work that will be far better than what an individual or a small team could produce. But I think, when a lot of people talk about the wisdom of crowds, they're thinking of some kind of mystical collective intelligence. And they're thinking in terms of some sort of trust that somehow the averaging out of lots of ideas will end up being correct. And I'm a lot more skeptical about that.

If you've ever seen the film 12 Angry Men; it's the story of a jury that's trying to decide in a murder case. And there's one guy who disagrees with everyone else. He thinks that the evidence does not prove that the defendant is guilty. He argues for two hours, and one by one he slowly convinces people that there are holes in the evidence. And in the end, they acquit. Well, that's what happens sometimes in a really great Wikipedia debate. You may have eleven people on one side and one on the other. But if that one person is reasonable and thoughtful and deals with the criticisms one-by-one, people will actually change their minds and we end up with a strong product. That can't really be described as the wisdom of crowds, in the way most people use it. So, I'm a little skeptical of that rhetoric.

RU: In the Wikipedia editing process, it's not like a big throng. It's actually one individual after another.

JW: And typically, most of the articles will have a pretty small number of authors and they'll have a fairly small number of people in discussion on the Talk page. So it isn't about hundreds of people writing most of the articles. Now there are, of course, anomalous articles that are very heavily edited by large numbers of people. Those are interesting too, but they're not typical.

RU: I want to come back to your history with Objectivism. And you can tell me whether you're still an Objectivist or not — but it seems to me that the Open Source movement is perfectly left libertarian idea — the ideas is voluntary collaboration. Do you feel there's any contradiction there? Or was there a process of conversion from looking at the world from an Objectivist perspective to looking at the world from an Open Source perspective?

JW: No, not for me personally. I'm still very much an objectivist to the core. I think that a lot of the tension people imagine really comes from their not having a deep understanding of some of these ideas. I think I do a better job — than a lot of people who self-identify as Objectivists — of not pushing my point of view on other people. And I find ways to collaborate with people, even if we don't agree on everything. And I think that's a big part of what works in Open Source software. I mean, you have people using these license tools for wildly different motives, from people who do it for very ideological reasons — say left libertarian kinds of motives — to people who do it because it makes good business sense. And that's fine. We're working together on something that isn't t necessarily ideological.

RU: In July of last year, the New York Times reported a change in the anyone-can-edit policy. You said that they had gotten the news precisely upside down. Did you have a change in policy at all?

JW: Basically what they were reporting on was the introduction of a new feature called semi-protection of articles. What was ironic about their coverage was that they made it seem like — for the first time, we were locking down some articles. In fact, we've always locked down articles, and we were actually moving away from locking down articles towards only partly locking them down. So it was a subtle story that involved a software change that they completely missed. Typical. I spend a lot trying to get the media to correct stories.

DIANA BROWN: Have you been sued for content by anyone who didn't like an article about them?

JW: No, we haven't. We've had a couple of little things in Germany, based on German privacy law. But even in Germany, they've never managed to sue the right people. But in terms in the U.S., so far, knock on wood; we haven't been sued at all. It's a little bit shocking to me. We try really hard to deal with customer service complaints. We don't allow libel. We're not a wide-open free speech forum that allows people to post whatever. We're happy to delete rants and things like that as necessary. I think that's part of the reason why we haven't been sued. Nonetheless, this being the U.S., it's a little bit shocking we haven't been sued. It's the national sport — suing people.

RU: Do you have any other plans to expand Wikipedia from what it is now? For instance, Google has plans to conquer the world. Do you have projects that are pushing out beyond Wikipedia?

JW: Well, I am also the chair of Wikia, which is another organization. It's my other company. And at Wikia, we are pushing forward in lots of different ways simultaneously. We're pouring a lot of investment into improving the wiki software so that more people can edit. We've now got some 2500 Wiki communities. And then we just recently announced our new search engine project. That's what I'm spending most of my personal time and what I'm really most excited about. We're basically trying to apply the Open Source and transparent ideals of Wikipedia to a search project. We've got lots of developers. We're going to have a search engine where we publish all the algorithms and make everything completely open and transparent and also completely controlled by the community. It's a big idea — a fun idea. I'm not sure if we're actually going to figure out how to do it but at least it's going to be fun to try.



RU: I think you'll do it. It's interesting that I mentioned Google in the last question. Now we can predict Google will be dead in five years.

JW: In five years! [Laughs]

See Also:
Steve Wozniak v Stephen Colbert — and Other Pranks
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes
Counterculture and the Tech Revolution
Closing Pandora's Box: The End of Internet Radio?
Secrets of The Perry Bible Fellowship

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Why Chicks Don’t Dig The Singularity


Joe Quirk may be the world's first evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology) comic. That's not a big audience share yet, but his entertaining book, Sperm Are from Men, Eggs Are from Women: The Real Reason Men And Women Are Different, has been well received. By focusing on sex and relationships, Quirk is broadening the audience for the study of the genetic roots of human behaviors.

Quirk recently spoke at the Future Salon about the relationship between "The Singularity" and "sociobiology."

A few days before his talk, he joined me on my NeoFiles podcast to talk about this very same subject. Jeff Diehl joined me in asking Mr. Quirk some questions.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: How did you get interested in The Singularity?

JOE QUIRK: One of my friends, Steve Potter, a neuro-engineer used to tell me about this one guy, John Smart — about how he was a visionary, and he organized "Accelerated Change" conferences.

So about five years after hearing about him, I'm at Burning Man, and I'm riding my bike around. And at Burning Man, there are so many things competing for your attention — wonderful visual art and explosions and so forth — but it's sort of a non-verbal place. There isn't much intellectual stuff going on. And as I'm riding my bike around, and all these things are competing for my attention, over my left shoulder I hear the word "gene;" I hear the word "memes," and I stop. And there's this very unassuming white tent with a bunch of people sitting around on chairs as if they were at a lecture hall. And there's this good-looking guy in a woman's nightie. And I'm thinking, "How full of crap is this guy going to be? I know about this kind of stuff." So I stopped my bike to listen.

RU: How were his legs?

JQ: Very sexy. Maybe I'm revealing too much here. People do things at Burning Man that are not supposed to get out!



So I listened to this guy, and I knew just enough about what he was talking about to realize that he wasn't completely insane. And he was the one, at that time, drawing exponential curves [ed: see Ray Kurzweil's explanation of The Singularity] and describing the exponential nature of change. It was the first time I'd heard about that. So I listened to the lecture and thought, "That's a fascinating guy!" It turned out he was doing a lecture every day, so I kept coming back. The third time I came back, I was on a hallucinogen. I think that did influence me.

RU: He became more impressive? Kind of like the Grateful Dead?

JQ: Yeah, he became even more impressive and he had three heads. Anyway, I came back to talk to him, and we started talking about the different books we'd both read and eventually I found out he was the guy Steve Potter had told me about.

RU: So you just recently gave a lecture yourself at the "Future Forum" in Palo Alto titled "Why The Singularity Won't Work Without Sociobiology." So, why not?

JQ: All these ideas are founded on some assumptions about human nature. And I think some of the assumptions about human nature that we make in the futurist community are wrong. For instance, I've noticed chicks don't dig the singularity. For instance, I went to a recent Accelerated Change conference, and I actually counted up the people, and I found that less than a fifth of the presenters were women, and less than a sixth of the attendees were women.

RU:That sounds like a high count of women compared to some geek stuff that I've been to!

JQ:Yeah, when there's actual machinery, it's like 1% women. But I knew a lot of the women who were there, and they were there because it was their guy's primary interest. So Ray Kurzweil got up there and Moira Gunn was interviewing him, and everybody got to submit a question. And Moira would pick her three favorite questions. So there were all these technical questions about how will the singularity do this, how will the singularity do that. And my question was, "How will the Singularity get laid... err help me get laid?" So she picked my question as an extra one as a way of dismissing it. She said, "Somebody put a joke question in here, and can you believe that there are people here who would write something like this? It's 'how will the Singularity help me get laid?'" And then she throws it aside and tries to move on to another question. But Kurzweil says, "Hang on. Hang on. I want to answer that." And then he goes into this long technical description...

JEFF DIEHL: ...and then he got out his slide rule, and straightened out his bow tie. [Laughter]

JQ: Exactly! It was stuff like, "You can wear body suits." He was talking about tactile things and about how people can caress each other from far away. And it was so funny. It's too bad this wasn't filmed, because Moira Gunn's face was getting more and more skeptical, the more he kept talking. She kept saying things like, "Well, what about intimacy? You know, what about actual interacting with a real human being?" And Kurzweil wasn't picking up on what she was talking about. You could tell he enjoys the subject, but he gave a long-winded technical explanation for how to get off. And she was talking about sex as a medium for connecting to another person's soul. So right there, you're seeing this divergence between men's priorities and women's priorities. My wife doesn't care about the Singularity. When I talk about it, it doesn't resonate for her. It doesn't sound exciting to be able to put a machine inside your brain or something like that.

JD: What about the real prospect of an indefinite life span? I think that appeals to women!

JQ: I think it does, but I don't know anyone outside the futurist community...

RU: You look young for a much longer period of time. Women are early adopters of youth technology in terms of looks.



JQ: My wife is actually in the business of making women young and beautiful. She's what's called an aesthetician. She makes people beautiful. So if I could convince her that people can live forever and be young as long as they want, she might be into it. But my explanation ends up being sort of technical and attenuated. There are so many other things you need to know that it tends to become like religion — the rapture for geeks.

JD: There's not a big female fan base for science fiction, right?

JQ: Right. So guy geeks are always talking about how you can connect to more people and form more networks with people you never met. And my research tells me women's brains are just more interested in face reading and voice reading and reading all the messages you get beneath the words. Guys tend to concentrate more on the abstract ideas behind the words. So email is unfulfilling for most women. They want to get together at lunch with their friends and make eye contact and stand way too close to each other.

RU: I like to see that, too.

But I'm still not quite getting the Sociobiology/Singularity hook-up here. You had an interesting Freudian slip earlier. You said, "How will The Singularity get laid?" It could be like that, couldn't it? Couldn't it be more like sex with the singularity as opposed to sex within the singularity? Couldn't the singularity be this great, singular mechanistic Borg-like entity, and it's going to need something to have sex with?

JQ: Right! And I think that's sort of Kurzweil's vision — that we'll be able to make our fantasies real. Why would you actually need another human being?

JD: From my reading of Kurzweil's book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, I suspect, on some level, he's OK with the prospect of evolving beyond sexuality altogether in order to achieve immortality. And I imagine those two probably go hand in hand. If you remove the mortal aspect of existence, you're kind of eliminating the evolutionary reason for having sex. You know as a living being you're going to die, and that drives you to reproduce — and that's where all that sex stuff happens. Right?

JQ: Yeah, but I'm convinced that we inherit this suite of desires, and whether we die or not, we're going to keep them, unless we find some hormonal way to change it.

JD: But that's part of it, right? Kurzweil is changing himself hormonally with all of his nutritional stuff. He already claims to have reprogrammed his own biochemistry.

JQ: Right. He keeps saying his biological age hasn't changed. You know, I saw a picture of him from twenty years ago, and he did look younger.

RU: I'm still trying to get at the connection between the Singularity and sociobiology.

JQ: I think male geeks in the futurist community assume that human nature is the same as the nature of male geeks in the futurist community. And it's kind of become a little religion; we have our own Rapture and our own eschatology and all that sort of stuff. But I think the idea of merging with machine intelligence is not appealing to lots of different kinds of people. And so when we talk about it, we talk as if this tiny sector of human experience — and the kinds of enhancements male geeks want — is all that there is. But when you describe these kinds of things to most people, they're not necessarily enthused. They're more often afraid. So I think we need a clearer idea of what is universal in human needs to be able to explain The Singularity.
Reader Martine comments: The Singularity is the best thing to happen to sex since some final stages of primate-homonid pelvic evolution enabled face-to-face intercourse among hominids (without losing the ability for rear access).

RU: I always wonder — can an artificial intelligence understand what it feels like to dance to James Brown? You know? Maybe it can, eventually. I don't know.



JD: There's also this question of individuality versus networked intelligence. It seems like we're heading towards a networked intelligence that might not have a need for — or a concept of individuality. And individuality certainly encapsulates most current impulses and needs and desires that we think make us human. But once we're post-human, all that goes out the window. So how do you even talk about discreet entities and individuals and desires and stuff like that? Certainly Kurzweil wants us to think that we can carry that humanness with us, but it might all just go away! And something else will be there, and it won't be what we are now. So there's kind of a good reason to be afraid of it, because you don't know what the hell that means.

JQ: Yeah. It's hard to distinguish some descriptions of The Singularity from Armageddon. And I think the pretense; the assumption of the hardcore pro-Kurzweil futurists is that all these things — dancing to James Brown — are reducible to computation.

RU: It's the "good" aspect of it that I wonder about. Is "feel good" reducible?

JQ: Singularitarians are assuming that it is, but it's a deep mystery — sentience! I can understand why there would be all the complexity of animal life interacting, competing, and behaving exactly the way it behaves. But I don't think anything in science so far has answered the question, "Why is it like something to be alive?" When I poke myself with a pin, I don't just react like a robot; I have an external experience that I also experience inside. This causes us to be natural dualists. It doesn't seem to be a real dualism — I'm a materialist — but I feel like, once a machine passes the Turing test, we don't really know whether it has sentience or not. Of course, I don't know if you have sentience. I assume you have sentience because you act like I act.

RU: Well, I'm a solipsist, so I don't even think you're here. [Laughter]

JQ: So even if my enjoyment of James Brown is reducible to some kind of binary computation, it's not clear to me that that's going to give rise to the epi-phenomenon or the emergent property of self-aware consciousness sentience.

RU: Assuming we are headed towards the Singularity, or at least towards some kind of post-human future, it sounds like you're trying to keep some of the human relation alive within it, and some of the sexuality alive within it. That's a project — making sure that this future does contain these things that we value. Is that part of what you're trying to do?

JQ: When we talk about the Singularity, it should be grounded on universal things about human nature. Everyone should look at Donald Brown's list of human universals. And I think when we talk about it now; we talk about it as California computer nerds — which represents a narrow range of human experience.

RU: So as California computer nerds, we don't have all of the qualities on Mr. Brown's list of natural human universals?

JQ: It's the qualities that all tribes in every culture everywhere share. And one of them is a belief in spiritual beings that care very much about how we behave.

RU: Of course there were attempts to eliminate that in China and other places, but it continued.

JQ: I don't think you can eliminate something like spiritual belief, in a top-down way. But certainly most people in the Scandinavian countries are atheists. There's a lot of atheism in the world now. But still, there are no cultures that don't have some people who believe that there are invisible beings who care passionately about how they behave.

RU: You're using the word sociobiology, and currently the trendy term is "evolutionary psychology." And actually, some people make a distinction between the two of them and say sociobiology was more completely enthralled by genes, whereas evolutionary psychology sort of combines genes with environment and other factors. Talk a little about your interest in sociobiology, which is the older term that came from Edward O. Wilson's amazing book.

JQ: I'm trying to steal back the word sociobiology, because sociobiology, strictly defined, is the biology of behavior of all animals. It got in trouble, back in the early 70s, because human beings were included among the animals. E. O. Wilson's one of my heroes. The last 1/30th of his book, Sociobiology, deals with human nature.

RU: And then he put out On Human Nature. And a leftist feminist threw a pie at him, even though he was a liberal environmentalist, basically for looking at human behavior as having certain predispositions, just like all other animals do.

JQ: Someone dumped a bucket of water over his head while he was coming for a lecture. And so the word sociobiology got demonized. I know a lot of academics at Berkeley, and they're so pre-inoculated against any biological illumination of human behavior that they can't even talk about it. It's so emotional.

RU: Oddly, just as sort of a weird side note, Huey Newton from the Black Panther Party was into sociobiology in the 1970s and studied it. For whatever odd reason, he found it interesting.

JQ: That is an interesting side note! And that term became so demonized that the people who continued to research it sort of quietly started calling it evolutionary psychology. Interestingly, evolutionary psychology is specifically about the biology of human behavior. Sociobiology is a more general term about the biological roots of all animal behavior. You know, it's like when the creationist movement switched to "Intelligent Design" — they were being defensive. And when we switched from sociobiology to evolutionary psychology, we were being defensive.

RU: But a lot of the same people still hate it, basically for the same reasons.

JQ:Yeah. And I strongly recommend Steve Pinker's book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. He pretty much devastates all the good-hearted but misguided arguments against sociobiology. To put it in simple terms, if I'm speaking to a social academic about my biological beliefs that I think illuminate human nature and answer a lot of deep questions about human nature, they invariably bring up Hitler or the eugenics movement.

RU: And certainly all this stuff can be exploited by people.

JQ: But then again, on the other side — among the people who say that the human mind is ultimately malleable by culture and has no genetically controlled tendencies at all — you have Mao and the Khmer Rogue. Both sides have their holocausts. Pol Pot... all those guys believed that you take the baby, you take it away from its mother, and...

RU: It's a blank slate.

JQ: Right. You can create humans that only care about serving the state.

RU: If you acknowledge that every other living animal group has certain inherent forms of social organization, it's fundamentally absurd to say, "Well no, human beings don't." And certain people on the left remind me of fundamentalist Christians. It's kind of a denial of evolution. They're not denying Darwin, but they're denying something that is a logical extension of Darwin.

JQ: Right. And the sort-of social science academics on the left are the only ones who have a problem with this stuff. When I speak in front of most women, they're trying to understand their husband and they're all over it. They want to understand why does he do the things he does; why does he communicate the way he does? People on the street assume that there's something fundamentally different about men and women.

RU: What happens with people in the process of a sex change — like a guy who's taking a lot of estrogen and that sort of thing? Have you looked into that?

JQ: Sure, I'm fascinated with that stuff. If a woman gets a sex change operation, and she starts taking injections of testosterone, different genes that are suppressed are turned on in her, and she finds herself feeling more aggressive; she finds it harder to cry; she finds it easier to get angry; and she can't get sex out of her mind. I talked to one woman who was in the midst of this process, and she said, "God, I suddenly understand how guys feel."

RU: So let's distribute some of this.

JQ: Yeah. [Laughs.] Slip it into drinks?

JD: Except that all of a sudden, she's got facial hair.



RU: You can get over that.

JQ: I remember she was describing her experience to me. She was like: "I'm on the BART, and I'm looking at shapely women, and I just wanted to get into their bodies. I mean, it's like it's all about that body." To her that was a foreign experience. She's like, "Wow. So this is how men see the world." Especially young men.

RU: I wonder when people start to alter people at the genetic level — germ line engineering.

JQ: Yeah. That's a thorny issue.

RU: I wonder how that will affect all these kinds of relations. I wonder if that might change some of this.

JQ: It's hard to pull off, because it's very rare that you get a gene corresponding to one particular trait. Genes all interact with each other, so if you choose a certain gene to give your kid a mathematical ability, that gene cascades through all the different traits in the person and has other unpredictable effects.

RU: But some people think that, in not too much time, even with all the complexity, we'll be able to do this kind of manipulation.

JQ: I think we will be able to do this kind of manipulation, but we'll start having the kinds of problems we have with our domesticated dogs. We can take a dog and we can breed it for a particular quality — like, I want my dog to be a pug, so I'm just going to concentrate on breeding it for a big face and big strong shoulders. By the time I've created my perfect dog, it has cataracts; it has heart problems; it has breathing problems. Out in nature, all these genes are interacting with the environment at once.

RU: The theory is that we wouldn't start doing it until we could be pretty sure of the effects. Although I don't necessarily believe that.

JQ: It's so hard to control because genes only turn on in an environment that triggers them to turn on. So if you're an identical twin, and you're gay, there's only a 50% chance that you're identical twin is going to be gay.

RU: But if he is, you can have an awful lot of fun together!

JQ: I'm sure — they even shared a womb together. So if you can't even predict something like your sexuality based on what genes you have, and you also have to sort of control an environment that's going to trigger certain things to turn on...

RU: [Frivolously] Yeah, but Kurzweil's super-intelligent machines will figure out how to perfect this technology for us in 2035, right?

JQ: Well, that's the prediction, but, uh...

RU: So what do you really think? Are you fundamentally a believer in "The Singularity" or are you a skeptic?

JQ: I'm a scared skeptic and a hopeful skeptic. Most people who hear about it think it's whacko, so I find myself defending it more often than criticizing it. And I think Kurzweil's actual arguments in his two most important books are more compelling than the counter-argument from Incredulity, which is just a knee-jerk reaction — "C'mon, this is Rapture for the geeks." Every group makes up some kind of mythos, and this is a mythos for the geeks. I keep thinking of other examples of Singularities. I've never heard anyone talk about the Singularity that's already happened. Let's see if you guys can point it out.

RU: Language?

JQ: That's one, but I've never heard anyone talk about the Singularity of techneme — the singularity of tools. Imagine a Homo habilis playing with his stone axe, and his buddy says to him, "Grok! These stone axes are not going to change for millions of years, because we're on the flat part of an exponential curve. But this has an abstract design within it, which means it contains information that can be passed down through the generations. And in another 3 million years, we're going to have a feedback loop of information, and pretty soon our tools are going to cover the world; they're going to be on our bodies; and we're going to go from a few thousand of us to a few billion of us. Everything we touch will be a tool. Our tool designs are going to inhabit matter and build our dreams around us. Everything we look at is going to be a manifestation, an embodiment of an idea."

RU: Right, and all that would be unrecognizable to that person. So in that sense we've been through at least one Singularity. It's kind of like the Arthur C. Clarke idea that advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

JQ: And if you think about this, there's almost nothing I touch in my day that isn't created by humans. Even the food is bred by humans.

Steve Potter says, "Maybe The Singularity already happened." Why would we know about it? Does bacteria know that they're on a giant naked ape?

RU: Kurzweil is a believer in the soft singularity — a process where we might not even recognize that we've slipped into a different kind of reality when it happens. All I know is that friends of mine are still dying at this point from diseases related to aging. That would be one change that would be interesting.

See Also:
Girls Are Geeks, Too
Death? No, Thank You
Sex for Memes' Sake
Counterculture and the Tech Revolution
California Cults 2006

Read More

Kneecaps, Eyeballs and Livers for Sale: The World Organ Trade


The World Organ Trade

Hey there, First Worlder! Worried about bodily decay? If you're starting to notice the effects of beer, grease and couch-potatohood on your longevity potential, no need to wait around for human cloning. Emaciated slum-dwellers the world over are eager to sell the body parts you need to maintain your gluttonous Western existence as long as humanly possible. And thanks to the magic of warfare and endemic poverty, the cost to you can be less than treatment on a dialysis machine.



Sure, Turistas tells a morality tale of twisted Brazilian justice resulting from needs like yours, but hey — that's just a dumb splatter flick. Don't let its terror and graphic violence sway you.

"What you can get is the cornea — and often the whole eyes are removed — you can get skin grafts, you can get heart valves that are used in various operations, you can get pituitary glands, whatever," says Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the organ trade.

And that list only applies to corpses that are looted for organs in South Africa, Argentina and, most famously, China. For other items, such as the much-coveted kidney, you'll want to hook up with a live seller in Brazil, or even Iraq. But the real heavyweight is that notorious cesspit of human organ-farming — India.

On January 5th, the Indian national paper The Hindu ran a cover story about the gruesome killing of young children for their kneecaps! "[T]he bodies appeared to have been cut up by skilled hands. The person who cut up the bodies may not necessarily be a doctor, but was skilled enough not to damage the vital parts," Dr. Vinod Kumar was quoted as saying.

Nonetheless, don't think your quest for fresh bits will be an easy one. You'll want to stay under the radar of American do-gooders such as Scheper-Hughes and her Berkeley compatriot Lawrence Cohen. Staunch foes of the organ trade, they even try to put the kibosh on media reports they consider disrespectful. Cohen once ordered a journalist not to "write one more groovy story about how gross India is."

Unfortunately for Cohen, India really is gross. The country became famous in the mid-90s for a vigorous organ trade patronized by wealthy Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians. In certain regions known as the "kidney belt," poor villagers regularly sell that organ. The Madras slum of Villivakkam is widely known as "Kidney-vakkam" due to the role organ sales play in the local economy.

India recently banned the organ trade, but that hasn't kept an entrenched class of brokers from continuing their operations on the black market. Visitors to Villivakkam can still see women with large, curving scars peeking out from under their sari tops. Residents of the slum may not know how to read or write, but they're savvy about blood types, tissue-matching factors and going rates.

Those rates are hard to pin down thanks to the black-market nature of such sales. One estimate puts the profit at $10,000-20,000, of which the broker takes a cut of about $6,000. Another puts the seller's take at more like $1,000. One of the most common uses for the money is to fund that other emblem of Third-World backwardness, the dowry. In many "kidney belt" villages, Cohen says, it's common for girls to go under the knife in exchange for dowry money.

Still, it's hard to peg the number of people selling organs. The Voluntary Health Association of India estimates that more than 2,000 people in the country sell their organs each year, but that figure defines "sale" to mean "exchange for money." Countless other transactions are "soft barters," with body parts being traded for some vaguely-defined reward.

"They aren't asking for a fixed fee, they're asking, maybe, for help with getting a daughter married or help with buying a house or a down payment or some other form of exchange," Scheper-Hughes says. She encountered one case in which a woman donated a kidney to her wealthy uncle in exchange for a fancy suburban home.

So how is an out-of-towner supposed to hook up with a donor? The Internet might seem an obvious research source, but would-be online brokers — such as the individual who recently attempted to peddle his kidney on eBay — are quickly traced and shut down. Instead, you'll want to scan Brazilian newspapers for classified ads placed by people claiming they want to be of help. "People say they're willing to be anonymous donors and that they want to be helpful," Scheper-Hughes says. "That's the language that's used, but often what that really means is [they want money]. Very few people who are poor really want to be anonymous donors."

In India, you can try a more direct route — simply visit a clinic and ask if the doctor knows anyone who can hook you up with a donor. Throughout the '90s, journalists found that the most casual inquiries bore immediate fruit. This method doesn't work in Brazil, but you can at least rely on the transplanting surgeons not to ask too many questions about your donor. Which isn't to say they won't wonder.



"I don't want to know what kinds of private exchanges have taken place between my patients and their donors," one Brazilian doctor told Scheper-Hughes. "But obviously you do have to suspect something when the patient is a wealthy Rio socialite and her 'donor' is a poor, barefoot 'cousin' from the country."

See Also:
World Sex Laws
Venezuela: Dispatch from a Surrealist Autocracy

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Robert Anton Wilson 1932-2007


Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson enjoyed his first death so much; he decided to try it again. As Wilson himself wrote in his 1995 book, Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death:
According to reliable sources, I died on February 22, 1994 — George Washington's birthday. I felt nothing special or shocking at the time, and believed that I still sat at my word processor working on a novel called Bride of Illuminatus. At lunch-time, however, when I checked my voice mail, I found that Tim Leary and a dozen other friends had already called to ask to speak to me, or — if they still believed in Reliable Sources — to offer support and condolences to my grieving family. I quickly gathered that news of my tragic end had appeared on the Internet in the form of an obituary from the Los Angeles Times: "Noted science-fiction author Robert Anton Wilson was found dead in his home yesterday, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Mr. Wilson, 63, was discovered by his wife, Arlen.

"Mr. Wilson was the author of numerous books... He was noted for his libertarian viewpoints, love of technology and off the wall humor. Mr. Wilson is survived by his wife and two children."

This time around, it appears that Mr. Wilson has actually left corporeality, appropriately on 1/11 (at 4:50 am — you hardcore number freaks can get to work on the meaning of that one... I do see a five in there!).



For this cosmic cub scout, Bob Wilson was the motherload. Books like The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Cosmic Trigger, and Coincidance killed most of what little dogmatism I had left in me, and opened me up to a world of possibilities as large as space travel and as small as quantum physics. He also had a razor sharp wit that he skillfully aimed at those who abuse power and wealth. And he was a delightful story teller, whose love of language was evidenced not only by his own novels, but by his ability to quote virtually everything James Joyce and Ezra Pound ever wrote — backwards, while explaining what evolutionary level of primate behavior the author was elucidating.

I had the great pleasure to know Robert Anton Wilson and our intersections were sometimes strange — his Mondo 2000 check hadn't arrived; or I weirded him out by kneeling down before him like he was the pope and kissing his ring (I thought it was funny.) I also have great memories of sitting with him while he expounded expansively on everything from the rights of the Irish to the genius of Orson Welles. Over the past several years, as his polio returned, and as death started to hover nearby, Wilson sent out funny email messages of the "not dead yet" variety to those of us on his mailing list. There was never a trace of self-pity in any of his messages.

As the result of medical expenses and problems with the IRS, Wilson found himself in a financial squeeze towards the end of his life. Word went out and the internet community responded by sending him $68,000 within the first couple of days (and undoubtedly some more after that). This allowed RAW to die with the comfort, grace and dignity that he deserved. Special props go to Douglas Rushkoff and the folks at Boing Boing (and to all the individuals who contributed) for making that happen.

Robert Anton Wilson taught us all that "the universe contains a maybe." So maybe there is an afterlife, and maybe Bob's consciousness is hovering around all of us who were touched by his words and his presence all these years. And if that's the case, I'm sure he'd like to see you do something strange and irreverent — and yet beautiful — in his honor.

See Also:
A Selection of Obscure Robert Anton Wilson Essays
Robert Anton Wilson Tribute Show
Robert Anton Wilson Website
Is The Net Good For Writers?
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes

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iPhone Debate: I’m a Mac vs. Bill Gates

Hello. I'm a Mac...
And I'm Bill Gates, here to rain a little gloominess on your euphoria over the iPhone.
Oh, come on, the iPhone is revolutionary! It's an iPod, a phone, and a "breakthrough internet device."
And what makes it a breakthrough device, exactly? As far as I can tell, that just means the iPhone can sync with your email and bookmarks — just like any other PDA since 1999. Oh, and it has built-in icons for a bookmarked weather page.
You forgot the built-in camera capabilities. Plus, you're missing the point. A lot of ordinary applications — like maps, search engines, and yes, weather — are exponentially more useful when they're elegantly available on a handheld mobile device.
It's all hype over nothing. Apple's web page describes the iPhone's supposedly high tech features, and it turns out they just mean it has OS X and a touchscreen.
And an accelerometer! And quad-band GSM...




What if I want to rotate my pictures 90 degrees. Will the iPhone keep "correcting" its display, forcing me into a contest to see which of us can rotate the image faster?
And you're also overlooking the built-in proximity sensors and ambient light sensors to save power.
That's another thing. I can't believe Apple is bragging that they got a whopping five hours of web browsing/phone usage/video time. But don't worry, if you only listen to music at work, you can go a whole two days without recharging.
Yes, without a recharge there's 16 hours of audio playback. And the Zune does, what — 14 hours?
Just because the Zune is crap doesn't make the iPhone a paradigm shift...
The reaction from the press has been phenomenally positive. Eat the Press says it will be remembered by history as one of three products that revived Apple and "hastened the end of Microsoft" — the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone.
And Apple's market share now is, what, 5.7%?
For PC's, yeah — something like that. But don't you see what's happening? PC's are 1990, man! Handheld devices are approaching the processing power of PCs — and everyone has at least one. Either a cellphone or an mp3 player, if not a PDA. It's like Microsoft just cornered the market on Univacs.
So if I say Microsoft has an overwhelming installed base, you'll just wish that into the cornfield and say the future belongs to Apple?
It's not wishing. Apple's market share for digital music is 75%. The iPod's market share is 62%. And as we pointed out Tuesday, Apple sells almost as much recorded music as Target — and more than Amazon.
Help me out here. That's significant why, exactly? Is this the point where you yell "Steve Jobs has a magic third eye that sees into the future?"
A hand-held future is already here. The U.S. is already behind the rest of the world in terms of wireless and cellphone adoption - and the cool services that go along with them. 40% of Japanese adults already browse the web with their cellphone.
In Japan it's nearly impossible to get an internet connection in your home! Plus, people there spend something like four hours a day commuting. I'm sick to death of people touting regional anomalies as some harbinger of the future. They should make an ad where there's three actors representing devices — a Mac, a PC, and a teenaged Japanese girl representing the ability to send text messages on a Hello Kitty cellphone.
Well, Solutions Research Group determined that 40 million Americans consider the iPhone "a great idea" for themselves personally. They also predicted a 50% increase in the number of Americans owning an Apple product just 18 months after the product is released.
That's another thing. "When it's released" isn't until sometime around this summer. (Which means your adoption study is talking about the year 2009!) I thought Microsoft was supposed to be the ones announcing Vaporware.
Are you really accusing Apple of pre-announcing a new product just to dampen interest in a competitor?
Apple unveiled a plastic box with some make-believe pixel images of buttons. MacWorld's rabid gadget-o-philes were kept at bay by a plastic cylinder. It was like Maxwell Smart invented a "cone of non-disclosure."
It's real. Technology reporters saw it.
You just want to believe. It's still just a pretend phone until June. The last iPhone I saw was made out of cardboard because some guy printed out a picture that he found on the web.
Doesn't that prove consumers are hungry for this device?
It proves Mac users have too much time on their hands. Here's a prediction. 12 months from now, Apple releases a new iPhone that's tangerine colored — and Mac-heads will buy 20 million of them.
Who's living in the future now?
Or a "Blue Dalmation" pattern....
Now that would be pretty sweet.
iPhone may not even be its name! About 18 hours in, Cisco filed a lawsuit claiming they owned the trademark. I can see the ad campaign now. "Say hello to the — no wait, don't." Maybe they'll call it the Tangerine-o-Phone.
Why are you so bitter?
Because I bought a Newton in 1997.
Ha ha. And yet, despite the fact that it was discontinued, there's still tremendously loyal user groups. Doesn't that prove that Apple forms strong and lasting relationships with its customers?
No, it just proves Mac users are crazy.


See also:
Expect Trouble Activating Your iPhone
The Wonderful Wizardry of Woz
How to Use Your Blackberry Pearl as a Bluetooth Modem on a Mac


Read More

Hallucinogenic Weapons: The Other Chemical Warfare


Nurses and Subjects

There were many acid tests happening in the 1950s and 1960s. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters dosed sometimes-unsuspecting proto-hippies. The CIA was dosing unsuspecting mainstreamers. Leary dosed fully cognizant artists, therapists and students. But meanwhile, over at Army Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, psychiatrist James S. Ketchum was testing LSD, BZ and other psychedelic and deliriant compounds on fully informed volunteers for the U.S. military.

As an Army psychiatrist just out of residency, Dr. James E. Ketchum was assigned to Edgewoord Arsenal's Medical Research Laboratories, first as a research psychiatrist in 1961. He became Chief of the Psychopharmacology Branch in 1963, and then became Acting Chief of Clinical Research in 1966. After a brief hiatus at Stanford University, he returned as Edgewoods' Chief of Clinical Research in 1968, staying there until 1971. Dr. Ketchum and his team were looking, primarily, for non-lethal incapacitating agents, and he was central to many of the experiments with these compounds that took place during that time.



Now, Dr. Ketchum has released his fascinating self-published memoir, Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten, primarily detailing his times at Edgewood. The book boasts charts, graphs and experimental reports — a veritable goldmine of information for those who are interested in psychedelics, deliriants, or chemical warfare. It's also a funny, observant, and reflective personal memoir, casting a light not only on Ketchum and his work, but on a decade that saw 60s counterculture and the military share an oddly intersecting obsession with mind-altering drugs.

Dr. Ketchum himself has remained intrigued by these chemicals, as reflected in his ongoing friendship with Dr. Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, who wrote a foreword for this book.

I recently interviewed him for The RU Sirius Show. Steve Robles joined me.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.

RU SIRIUS: Tell us about the research you did at Edgewood Arsenal with various substances as weapons. What was the political environment?

JAMES KETCHUM: It was during the Cold War and there was great concern about what the Soviet Union might be plotting. It was known that they were investing a lot of money in chemical warfare research — about ten times as much as we were. And at the same time, there was an interest in the U.S. in developing weapons that might be called more "humane" as opposed to "conventional" weapons. In 1955, Congress was entertained by Major General Creasy, who described what LSD could do. At the time, that was the latest drug of interest. And as he described it to Congress, they became very enthusiastic, and voted in favor of doing research into LSD as a possible incapacitating agent that would be life-sparing. Congress passed a resolution with only one vote against it, which is perhaps indicative of the philosophy of the times.

So money was allocated to build a project at Edgewood Arsenal, the army chemical center. And over the next few years the budgeting increased, supported by John F. Kennedy, among others. I was given the opportunity to go there after my residency in psychiatry in 1961, and I thought it would be interesting. I ended up spending about ten years there. When I arrived, the program was just in its nascency. There had been some work done by others there with LSD, but they had never had a psychiatrist. And they'd run into a few problems that made them think they ought to have one. So I was given pretty much a free hand over the next few years to develop a program that would be safe and also provide the information that was being sought, not only about LSD but about drugs like BZ, and others.

RU: So you actually ended up having a long strange trip of your own. You had some very interesting experiences with it.

JK: I enjoyed it very much. Unfortunately at the time, classification of that research was so great that very little of the information we found was leaked out to the public or allowed to be spread among the public. And as is the custom in the army — or was the custom — classified papers usually remained classified for 12 years before they'd be downgraded and made available. By that time, most people had gone separate ways. The program itself had been pretty much terminated. No one really wrote the history of that decade. I thought, later, that was a serious omission. And that's what led me to write this book.

STEVE ROBLES: Did you find any evidence that the Soviets might have taken this tack in their own chemical warfare research?

JK: There was information indicating that, around 1960, the Soviet Union was importing vast quantities of contaminated rye from the satellite countries. This was interpreted as being indicative of their interest in producing LSD, since there's not much use for contaminated rye except that it contains ergot, which is a form of contamination [ed: ergot is used to prepare lysergic acid, the raw material for LSD]. That made us think maybe they were having a big LSD development program of their own.

SR: So there was a different kind of space race going on at the same time.

JK: That's right. Inner space.

RU: The meat of this book, and the fun part, is descriptions of people undergoing the experiments. I wonder if any moments in particular pop into your head showing the way that human beings behave under the influence.

The Volunteers

JK: I watched a number of people — actually, more than a hundred — going through the experience of having BZ, which is a long-acting atropine type compound. It produces delirium if given in a sufficient dose. Half-a-milligram is sufficient in the case of BZ, as compared with about 10 milligrams of atropine. To describe the tripping in detail would take some time. In the book, I've documented an entire BZ trip over a hundred-hour period, including everything that was said and done.

RU: You had a man watching an entire football game on his fingernail or something?

JK: It was a tiny baseball game on the padded floor. The hallucinations were "real" hallucinations. I'd like to make a distinction between BZ hallucinations and LSD so-called hallucinations, which are really not hallucinations — they're more illusions. People generally know that they're not real, but produced by the drug. Whereas with BZ, the individual becomes delirious, and in that state is unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and may see, for instance, strips of bacon along the edge of the floor.

RU: Belladonna would probably be the most common deliriant among drug experimenters.

JK: Right. Loco weed. Belladonna, in the form of Asmador, for example, was used for asthma and contains atropine. People were getting high on this in the 60s. My brother described one young man trying to crawl across a street in New York City and grabbing onto the pants leg of a police officer. People don't know what they're doing when they're under the influence. They mistake people for objects and objects for people. They'll salute the water fountain or bump into a nurse and say, "Excuse me, sir," and the like.



RU: Were you guys doing a lot of chuckling while this was going on? You're trying to maintain a certain degree of decorum, but...

JK: Yes. I would tell the technicians that it wasn't nice to laugh at these things, even though the subject probably wouldn't remember it later. It was sometimes hard to suppress it. Like when one individual asked another, in the same padded room, if he could have a cigarette. And then, when the other individual held out an empty hand that looked like it was holding a pack, he said, "Oh, I don't want to take your last one." So it was fully "out there" on a fantastic scale.

RU: I had a friend who took belladonna at a rock concert. And about halfway into it, he thought he was back in his own room and that the music on the radio really sucked, and he was going to turn it off. That basically involved twisting this girl's kneecap until he got kicked out. Fortunately, it was just the kneecap.

JK: One young man tried to straighten out my arm, as if it were a pipe of some sort! He tugged on it, and pulled it, and didn't seem at all aware that I might be discomforted by that.

RU: So this book, which is about a very serious subject, is actually quite an amusing read.

JK: Yeah, I tried to keep it from being too heavy, and included a number of anecdotes about people who weren't delirious that were equally funny.

RU: Some of the inter-office activity was amusing too. Describe what happens when soldiers try to deal with mock-up battle conditions under the influence of BZ.

JK: Well of course, commanders wanted to know what would happen if this stuff were ever used in the field. So at first we set up an indoor type of situation, a sort of simulated command post with four soldiers in it. One of them was given a full dose of BZ while the others were given either small doses or none at all, in order to have some possibility of maintaining order. So this one individual would continually go to the door and try to get out. He'd turn around and say, "I'll see you later," but it was locked, and he finally concluded that he was trapped. When the cameras, which were behind these sliding plywood doors, were opened, he came over to one and looked into it as if it were the eye of a Martian. And then he tried to climb out through the medicine cabinet. Then he went over to the water bag and yelled, "Hey, this broad just committed suicide." It took quite a bit of help from his teammates to keep him from hurting himself. But fortunately, nothing serious happened.

RU: You write that nobody was really injured or permanently damaged by these experiments, and you make a distinction between the work that you did at the arsenal and work done by the Central Intelligence Agency.

JK: I tried to dissect out the work done by the army from the work done by the CIA. The CIA, of course, was the first to undertake studies of LSD. They did it without any real scientific structure; and they took liberties that they shouldn't have taken, giving it covertly to American citizens and the like. This was the MK-ULTRA program. Unfortunately, Edgewood Arsenal acquired a reputation for being somehow involved in the MK-ULTRA program — being somehow underwritten by the CIA. And this was not true. There were a couple of individuals who had a secret connection to the CIA, but the program itself was transparent, at least within the military, and there was none of the hijinx that the CIA carried out in San Francisco and other places. [ed: they gave LSD to customers in a house used for prostitution and watched them through a two-way mirror.]

RU: You recently gave testimony about the CIA program. Tell us a little bit about that.

JK: I testified on behalf of Wayne Ritchie, a deputy U.S. Marshall who had been an ideal officer — four years in the Marines, a year at Alcatraz as a guard. He was regarded as perfectly stable — normal. After a Christmas party, where people from the CIA office next door were present, he came back to his office and began to believe that everyone was against him. And then he went out on the street and walked home for the first time without his car, and was convinced that his girlfriend was against him; and the bartender was against him. So he decided to hold up a bar and get enough money for his girlfriend to fly to New York, and then he'd be arrested and they would kick him out of the US Marshal Service and everyone would be happy. So this is what he did, and this is what happened. And when he came to and realized what he'd done, he felt terrible. He wanted to commit suicide. He asked for a bullet to save the state some money, and he submitted a letter of resignation.

From that point on, he was regarded as a pariah and he spent the rest of his life believing he had committed a serious crime for which he'd never be forgiven. Then Sidney Gottleib — who was the head of the MK-ULTRA program — died. And in his obituary, it mentioned that he was supervising the administration of LSD to unwitting American citizens. [ed: The CIA also dosed unsuspecting attendants at office parties, as documented in Acid Dreams and elsewhere.] And so the light went on in his head at that point, and Wayne realized, or believed, that that's probably what happened to him. So a case was eventually brought to court, and I was asked to testify on behalf of Wayne. I spent two-and-a-half days on the witness stand, mostly answering questions from CIA lawyers. Ultimately the outcome was not favorable, unfortunately. The judge didn't feel convinced, and neither did the Appeals court. The judge said, in effect, "If you can explain this man's criminal behavior with LSD, then I suppose you could blame anyone's criminal behavior on LSD." And this really wasn't very logical and didn't fit the facts, but that's how it ended up. It was a rather unhappy ending to an unhappy story.

The Ward

RU: A number of your volunteers in the LSD experiments expressed feelings of having had a profound experience. More frequently than not, they expressed a sort of regret in coming down and having the experience end.

JK: Yes. We were primarily interested in measuring performance on a systematic basis. But, of course, clinically it was pretty hard to ignore the differences in the responses to LSD that we observed. Some individuals would become very frolicsome and laugh a great deal. Some would become depressed and withdrawn; some became paranoid. Seeing the spectrum of responses in otherwise normal young men was quite interesting. One individual in particular, I believe, actually had a therapeutic experience. He was in a group of four, and we held a televised discussion after the test, and he admitted finally under pressure from his buddies that he had had some unacceptable erotic thoughts about the nurses that he was reluctant to reveal. And they told him that was all right, there's nothing wrong with that. And when he went back to his unit, I heard indirectly that his personality was different. He became more sociable and outgoing. I have to give LSD some of the credit in that case.

RU: Also a frequent response from some of the volunteers was to find the tests just silly and absurd and to just laugh at the things they were asked to do.

JK: Yeah, under LSD, they perceived the absurdity of being asked to solve as many arithmetic problems as they could in three minutes. Sometimes they refused to do it all together. But in other cases they did their best, but couldn't do as well as they did before the drug. I took it once and I had precisely the same difficulty solving arithmetic problems, but I didn't have any of the wonderful visions and fantasies. I guess because I was thinking of the psychopharmacology of the LSD going through my raphe nucleus and so forth.

RU: You took 80 micrograms. It's a little bit shy of a trip.

JK: Yeah. But it was chemically pure, U.S. Army-grade, 99.9 percent...

RU: Got any of that stuff left?

JK: Well, there was 40 pounds left in my office one day in a big black barrel...

RU: Oh yes! Do tell the story of the canister.

JK: I was chief of the department at that point. When I came into work one day, I noticed that there was a big, black, sort of oil barrel-type drum in the corner of the room. And no one said anything, or told me anything about it. So after a couple of days, my curiosity overcame me. After everyone had gone home, I opened it up and pulled out a jar. And I looked and saw that it was about 3.41623 kilograms of LSD. And so were the rest of the jars.

RU: Drop that baby on Iran and see what happens.

JK: But after another couple of days, the barrel was gone! I never heard anything; I never got a receipt for it. The LSD there was probably worth about a billion dollars on the street. And it just stayed there for a few days and went away.

SR: Speaking of getting onto the street, I've never heard of BZ, I guess it didn't penetrate the black market?

RU: That's really not the sort of thing people tend to want to take.

JK: Well, as I say, it's similar to atropine or belladonna, which some people have taken for trips, and it's been used through the ages for ceremonial purposes, for various purposes.

RU: I remember Durk Pearson saying it was interesting.

JK: It lasts about 72 hours in a dose that is just sufficient to incapacitate someone. It can last longer if you take more, but we kept the doses as low as we could. Delirium is not something that anyone particularly wants to go through. It's more of a shipment than a trip, I would say.

RU: You don't remember much. It's probably more fun to watch other people take it.

JK: Right. Not too much intelligent insight emerges under its effects.

RU: Let's get back to the purpose of this research. What you were hoping for?



JK: I felt I was working on a noble cause because the purpose of this research was to find something that would be an alternative to bombs and bullets. It could also be helpful in reducing civilian casualties, which have increased ever since the Civil War from almost zero percent to the eighty percent now or maybe higher — 90 percent perhaps in Iraq, because you can't really avoid "collateral damage" if the enemy is going to hide among the civilians. Perhaps it's a good time to rethink our use of incapacitating agents as a humane alternative.

The Russians did very well with this. When the Chechnyan terrorists took over an auditorium filled with attendees at a Moscow concert and held them captive for three days, the Russians brought in an incapacitating agent. It happened to be a morphine derivative of high potency, and they pumped it in through the ceiling and the floor, waited for a while, and then rushed in. And those terrorists did not detonate the bombs they had strapped to their bodies; they did not fire their weapons; they were all down on the floor unconscious, as was most of the audience. They were able to save about 80% of the audience.

RU: Do you feel that maybe they could've used a better incapacitating agent that would've allowed them to save everybody or nearly everybody?

JK: No, I don't think there was anything better they could've used. This was a quick-acting drug, which is what it had to be. If they'd used BZ or some drug like that, the effects would have come on too gradually. The terrorists would have had time to figure out what was going on. So this was a knockout effect, and it worked very well. And I credit the Russians for doing this, although they seem to be embarrassed about giving out the details, because in the United States and the rest of the world in general, chemical warfare in any form is a no-no.

RU: It's illegal internationally, isn't it?

JK: A number of treaties were drawn up, the last of which was the chemical warfare convention. And it's now illegal to use any drug that can either cause death or seriously disturbed behavior. And I think it's unfortunate that we went in and agreed to this treaty because we're now in a different kind of war from anything we've been in previously.

SR: I wonder what effect of LSD would have in either dislodging — or maybe even reinforcing — the beliefs of real serious believers, like fanatical Islamists, for example.

JK: Well, LSD was discarded pretty early on as an incapacitating agent when it was realized that it produced highly unpredictable effects and that people could still retain the ability to fire a rifle or push a button on a bomb-release mechanism. So I'm pretty sure LSD would not be used. It would have to be something in the opiate category, like what was used in Moscow; or perhaps one of the rapid-acting belladonna-like drugs. Incidentally, although BZ was adopted briefly and even packed into munitions, as far as I know, it was never used, despite rumors to the contrary. And later on we found rapid-acting compounds in the same category — short-acting, rapid-acting compounds that would've worked much better. But by this time, the whole notion of militarizing incapacitating agents had lost its window of opportunity. That's one reason that all this research was kind of left in file cabinets.

RU: We've talked about psychedelics, and we've talked about deliriants. But what about disassociatives like ketamine and PCP? Do those hold any potential in your opinion, and do you know if they were looked into at all?

JK: A little work was done with PCP before my arrival. They had a complication. One individual became psychotic and required hospitalization. And this kind of scared them. In fact, that's one reason I was asked to go there. So PCP would probably be an unacceptable drug.

SR: That's not an uncommon reaction to PCP, right? Violence...

JK: It definitely can produce aggressive and resistant behavior that's very hard to overcome.

RU: The 1970s was a time of great revelation of government crimes, and Edgewood Arsenal and your work got roped into the general attitude in the media towards the establishment, towards the military and so forth. Talk a little bit about how you feel the media misinterpreted your work.

JK: It grew out of the Congressional hearings, the most famous of which was the Kennedy hearings. The CIA was investigated. Congress attempted to find out just what they did with LSD in the early 50s. The CIA had destroyed all their records and the people who were still around claimed they couldn't remember anything. But as a result of that, the army was asked to look at its work with similar agents. The Inspector General held a very comprehensive review, the National Academy of Sciences was asked to do a review of the work with BZ, and although they produced follow-ups finding no harm, somehow in the public mind, the CIA work and the U.S. Army work became interwoven. I believe that's an unfortunate thing.

Another mistake was that the media characterized BZ as a super-hallucinogen, which really is not a good way to describe it. It's a deliriant, basically — pure and simple.

RU: You've indicated the effects of some of today's potential chemical weapons have been exaggerated in the media. You've spoken about the potency of VX, for example

JK: That's right. This is in relation to nerve agents. I wasn't an expert on that — that work was going on next door. But people have been told that a couple of drops of VX on the floor of Macy's would wipe out the entire customer population. And things of that nature have been represented in programs like 24. (It's a great series but...). People have a morbid fear of anything chemical, which has been encouraged by the media. Many inaccuracies have been brought out. As a matter of fact, ironically, nerve agents are a good antidote for drugs like BZ, and vice versa. Atropine's used to treat nerve agent poisoning, and nerve agents can be used to treat atropine or BZ poisoning. We found this out in the lab. Of course anyone who heard that they were going to be treated with a nerve agent for their atropine or BZ poisoning would probably be very unhappy and nervous. But it works very well!

RU: So tell people how they can get a hold of this book. It's an independent publication, with a unique design. It's almost like a coffee table book.

SR: I thought you were going to say, "Tell people how they can get a hold of that black barrel!"

RU: Yeah. Where did you hide that black barrel?

JK: Here.

See Also:
Excerpts from Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten
Prescription Ecstasy and Other Pipe Dreams
The Great Wired Drug Non-Controversy

Read More

The Web 2.0 Guide to Loving Neologisms


Sam Jackson

Have you ever been talking shit with friends and heard someone scream, "I hate that fucking word!" (Probably right after they themselves have just said, "Web 2.0”). Hipsters. That's why I've become a proud neologophile. I hereby challenge the rest of you neologophobes to explore and embrace the rich ecology of made-up words, because otherwise, you're just living in the past. Don't be afraid; we'll go at a nice, leisurely pace...



Let's look first at words that are used to describe the realm of neologisms itself:
  • Protologism — a neologism that is not yet widely-accepted. It could be argued that the word itself is a protologism, which makes for some interesting pretzel-symantics. As compared to a neologism, which enjoys some popularity.

  • Metaneologism — a true protologism, since I could find no use of it on the Web. It is the class of words we are defining right now in this paragraph, so my official definition is: a word that describes the class of newly-coined words. Like protologism, it falls into the class of words it is used to describe, i.e., metaneologism is a metaneologism; so are protologism and neologism.

  • Neologophobophobe — a foreseen smart-ass attempt to mock me by creating a ridiculous protologism, but which I am hereby revealing as the fraud that it is (so don't even try it, or I'll tell everyone you're a neologophobophile).
Before we continue, we should consider an important point. Sometimes rejection of a given neologism is simply the right thing to do, like when marketing dorks start abusing it to sell a product. This makes "Web 2.0” — the most cited Wikipedia entry of 2006 — an interesting case study. The term was coined in 2004 as the title for a series of tech conferences, and such conferences are little more than marketing bonanzas. But just because big business co-opts something doesn't make it invalid, just as some words that business will never co-opt are never considered valid. (Example: Synergism.)


OK, with all that out of the way, we can move on to our vocabulary list of neologisms and protologisms. Study the following thoroughly:
  • Blogosphere — used ironically, except not, since everyone knows exactly what it means.

  • Folksonomy — the spontaneous cooperation of a group of people to organize information into categories; not to be confused with the protologism, folktsunami — the wave of global usage which swamps the language, leading ultimately to a folksonomy.

  • Diary-a — the act of passing off self-indulgent journal-style entries as informational weblog entries.

  • Hyperclink — a URL possessing an obvious mistake.

  • Linkpimping — shamelessly emailing bloggers with "tips" on link-worthy posts you "discovered" (i.e., wrote), to boost your Technorati ranking.

  • Re-coining — the act of adding to or replacing the definition of a neologism whose meaning is, despite its youth, varied and muddy.

  • Netrosexual — I'm re-coining this one out of historical necessity. Its new, protologistic definition is: a person whose corporeal being is so devoid of sexuality that they overcompensate online in horrific and often malicious ways.
  • Tail-o-vision — the long tail of the coming internet video economy, poised to supplant the dominance of television. (Can be shortened to tailvision for aesthetic purposes.)

  • Flickle — the emotional state of a Netflix user who is no longer sure they want to watch the movies they have added to their account, ushering in a frantic session of queue re-ordering.

  • Goothenasia — the phenomenon of Google attempting to perfect the Web, and instead swallowing and digesting it. Can also be called, "Grey Google," after grey goo, the runaway nano-replicator doomsday scenario.
See how fun that can be? Your turn. Use these words in a sentence in the comments, or define some of your own.

Destiny contributed to this article.

See Also:
iPhone Debate: I'm a Mac vs. Bill Gates
Pulp Fiction Parodies on YouTube

Read More

Ten Video Moments from 2006


The past year saw new issues around sex, privacy, media and politics — sometimes, all at the same time. But with TV on the web, and web users on TV, the boundaries melted into a swirl of media — ours, mine, and theirs. Accidental stars discovered they were soaking in it, at the center of a spinning globe that likes to watch.

And everyone else had a lot of fun.

1. Carl Monday is watching you masturbate


A 23-year-old masturbates with the public library's computer — but when he gets outside, there's someone waiting for him. It's Cleveland investigative reporter Carl Monday! "For some, pursuing the porn sites is a favorite past time at local libraries," Monday warned somberly in a news segment broadcast in May. (Monday even follows the "unemployed porn site user" to his parents' home, where he asks for their opinion on their son's public masturbation.) Video of Monday's disturbing ambush interview brought him interent fame, with one entrepreneur selling t-shirts with Monday's dour face (along with the words "Carl Monday is watching you masturbate.") Ultimately even The Daily Show got involved, leading to a surreal encounter in which Carl Monday interviewed Jason Jones interviewing Carl Monday. (Jones turns the tables by asking Monday the same question Monday asked the hapless library masturbator.)



And what happened to the library masturbator? He was sentenced to one year's probation and a promise to avoid all public libraries — and Carl Monday was there in the parking lot to ask for a comment.

Not surprisingly, the comment turned out to be: "Get the hell away from me."

2. "If I were one of those sick-o's..."


"We track library books better than we track pedophiles," Congressman Mark Foley told America's Most Wanted, adding "If I were one of these sick-os I'd be nervous with America's Most Wanted on my trail."

"Maybe this was an overt cry for help," John Walsh later told Larry King.

Shortly after running his last campaign ad (which touted "a record we can be proud of...") it was discovered that the Republican Congressman had been sending cybersex messages to underaged male Congressional pages. When the first hints of scandal surfaced, Foley tried brazening it out. ("Congressman Mark Foley's office says the e-mails were entirely appropriate," reported an ABC News blog, "and that their release is part of a smear campaign by his opponent.") But the flood of evidence was overwhelming, eventually revealing that Foley once even held up a vote on Emergency War Time supplemental appropriations for cybersex with a high school student. (A commenter on the gay South Florida blog
asked
: "Where's Ken Starr, now that he's really needed?") Foley resigned — although his name remained on the ballot for the November elections. (He came within 1% of beating his opponent, though all votes for Foley were transferred to a replacement candidate.) While bloggers wondered whether Foley would ultimately be prosecuted under sex predator laws that he helped pass, the U.S. Attorney's office now appears unlikely to press charges. But the episode still left politicians stunned by the changing rules for privacy in an information-hungry world.

3. The head-butt heard round the world


Zinedine Zidane had already announced his retirement from the French soccer team after completing a five-year, $66 million contract. His last game would be the infamous match against Italy in the final round of the 2006 World Cup tournament. With the score tied after two hours of hard soccer, and the teams headed for a shootout of penalty kicks, Zidane got into an argument with Italian defender Marco Materazzi. From various news accounts their conversation went something like this.
Zidane: "If you're going to grab my shirt, why don't you just take it?"

Materazzi: "I'd rather have your sister."

There followed a fierce headbutt from Zidane — whose position, ironically, was "attacking midfielder". He was thrown from the game (which Italy ultimately won 5-3), achieving a second notoriety for his final-game foul. According to Wikipedia, French President Jacques Chirac congratulated Zidane for being a national hero and a "man of heart and conviction".

And inevitably, footage of Zidane's attack found it's way to the internet, where the career culminating moment was re-mixed again and again and again.

4. The yin and yang of Comedy Central


Virtually every news story of 2006 drew sardonic commentary from both Jon Stewart and his former correspondent Stephen Colbert. But in April they made a rare joint appearance to present the Emmy award for best reality TV.

"It's a pleasure to be here tonight," Stewart says innocuously.
"Good evening, godless sodomites," Colbert offers as a counterpoint.



The event gave a rare glimpse into a comedic yin and yang which challenges the way media outlets cover politics. While both men target the echo chamber of news shows, Stewart simply shares how bewildered he is by foolish politicians and the correspondents who cover them — while Colbert creates a walking caricature of the rabid ideologues he's targeting. (On the Emmys Colbert said he was reading from the teleprompter in his heart.)

In a final irony, both men have been given cable TV shows to attack other cable TV shows. But while their popularity continues to grow, this clip shows that there may be a limit. Colbert and Stewart's final jokes note that The Colbert Report lost earlier in the evening after being nominated as "best performance in a variety or music show". The ultimate winner? Barry Manilow.

5. Special comments


Keith Olbermann was entering his fourth year as an MSNBC prime-time commentator — but in August he discovered large audiences would tune in for his "Special Commentary" segments. Since the first one aired in August, his ratings have nearly doubled, and Olbermann is now reportedly asking MSNBC for a multi-million dollar increase in his contract.

In a memorable segment on September 11, Olbermann remembered working near Ground Zero and seeing fliers for colleagues who had perished in the towers. "All the time, I knew that the very air I breathed contained the remains of thousands of people, including four of my friends..." he said sternly. "For me this was, and is, and always shall be, personal.

"And anyone who claims that I and others like me are soft, or have forgotten the lessons of what happened here, is at best a grasping, opportunistic, dilettante, and at worst, an idiot — whether he is a commentator, or a Vice President, or a President."

6. The legend of Jihad Jerry


Meanwhile Devo shocked the world in March by joining Disney to create a new incarnation of their pioneering geek band using cute pre-teen Disney kids. ("If you're not upset...we haven't done our jobs," Devo's Gerry Casale told The New York Daily News.) But while the children sang and eventually toured as "Devo 2.0," 58-year-old Casale was plotting fresh subversions. Soon a mysterious new band appeared called "Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers" (including all the current members of Devo). The liner notes explain that a young Jerry turned to music when the Ayatollah declared his secular high school "evil" and he was "unwilling to finish his education without girls."

"You have the right to remain naked..." he sings in "Army Girls Gone Wild,"a subversive political commentary in the guise of a music video. "What happens in Abu Ghraib stays in Abu Ghraib."

Casale also surprised the online world in 2006 by paying a visit to two video blogs.


7. Code Monkey


Movie attendance is still lower than it was in 2004, partly because geeks would rather spend time playing massively multi-player games. One glorious moment combined everything into a shiny package — work, games, and music videos. Musician Jonathan Coulton had been writing a new song every week, and hit the jackpot with his ballad about an under-appreciated computer programmer who is also a monkey. When the song was released for a re-mix contest, Adobe employee Mike "Spiff" Booth then envisioned its evolution into a music video created with in-game footage from World of Warcraft. With poignant echoes of a real-world workplace, the gorilla stoicly endures his deskbound manager-goblin Rob, and pines for the company receptionist, a green-haired night-elf who is watching her weight. Besides being one of the best music videos of the year, it's playful proof that the online world is still curiously exploring new possibilities for collaborative creativity. And best of all: "No monkeys were harmed in the making of this film."

8. "This is NOT a joke!"


When you're being filmed in the Web 2.0 era, the worst thing you can do is over-react. Jason Holt, the student body vice president at the University of South Carolina, was the target of a standard-issue college prank. In April he returned from an appearance before Congress to discover his office filled with colorful balloons. His dramatic outburst was surreptitiously videotaped, capturing Holt's furious eyes burning with undergraduate intensity as he yells "It's not a joke! Look at me being serious...! I want to go to bed and you fucked up my office!!" Within two weeks the video had found an audience online at its new home — Look At Me Being Serious.com. And Holt had become a perfect example of how privacy is changing in a technology-enabled world.



The video was eventually broadcast on VH-1, and in a July letter Holt called the aftermath "bitterly painful". Saying he'd received over 100 "negative and demeaning" emails he wrote that he'd learned "humility" and the abiliity to "admit a mistake."

"[M]y actions in the video were rude, arrogant, and inconsiderate," he continued, wondering if his tantrum would cost him a career in public service, and asking for the student body's prayers "as I continue to deal with the consequences."

9. Brokeback Brady


At the Oscars in March, the most-nominated film was Brokeback Mountain — but overall movie receipts had fallen by six percent, with finicky consumers enjoying new entertainment choices which also included new gaming consoles and personal video recorders. This means Americans probably were more likely to discover a sympathetic same-sex relationship when they played back the May episode of That 70s Show where Greg and Peter Brady played a gay couple. Two actors from the 1970s family sitcom The Brady Bunch were transported back to the decade one more time as the new neighbors for hard-nosed Red Forman.

This snapshot of the way we were in 2006 was followed two weeks later with another TV-sized message of acceptance. That 70s Show culminated its eight-year run with a finale showing class-conscious Jackie falling for foreigner Fez.

10. The last joke of Louis Rukeyser


A television legend flashed his last smile — but not before getting the last laugh. In 2002 the producers of Wall Street Week ousted Louis Rukeyser for someone younger. But the wily 69-year-old used his last show to encourage viewers to follow him to a new network. "I'll let the market decide," the Wall Street commentator joked, knowing his audience would stay loyal after 32 years. His new show premiered with CNBC's highest ratings ever, while the old PBS show lost 84% of its audience, and was eventually canceled altogether.

Louis Rukeyser died on May 2 of a rare form of blood cancer at the age of 73. But if he could see how the web continues forcing old media to evolve, I'm sure he'd be smiling.

Just like the rest of us.

See Also:
Worst Vlogs of 2006
2007 Re-Mixed
Lawrence Welk vs. The Hippies
Five Druggiest High School Sitcom Scenes

Read More

Has Michael Crook Harassed You?


Note: The above screen capture is from a 2005 Fox News Channel appearance. The image has been re-inserted on November 15th, 10 business days after filing a counter-notice (PDF) in response to a DMCA takedown notice filed by Michael Crook which forced its removal soon after it was originally published.

Are you a blogger or webmaster who tried to cover the story of DMCA fraudmeister, Michael Crook, only to be served a DMCA takedown notice by him? Maybe you covered the antics he's performed with websites he owns such as forsakethetroops.orginfo, craigslist-perverts.org, racismworks.com, or denytheholocaust.com.

Did you choose to comply with his DMCA notices in order to avoid the possibility of legal action? If so, then your story could help 10 Zen Monkeys and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in our civil lawsuit against Crook.

Please take some time to tell us your story. It's the best way to help ensure that nefarious griefers like Crook are no longer able to use the DMCA to violate Free Speech and silence critical commentary.

We would also ask that you post a link to this page on your website(s) to help broadcast our call as far as possible. Below is a graphic and HTML that you can put on your site:

Crook vs. the Internet

<a href="http://www.10zenmonkeys.com/2006/12/27/crook-harass/"> <img src="http://www.10zenmonkeys.com/images/crookdork.jpg"> </a>

For all the latest on the lawsuit and related events, start here.

Please contact us now with the details of your Michael Crook experience!
{mailform}

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Worst Vlogs of 2006


1. Dogs Barking in Cars.com

Dude, you're not even trying.

Vlogger Kyle MacDonald presents a series of canine captives embodying that existential truth that we're all tragicomic prisoners in the parking lot of life. Either that, or it's just footage of barking dogs. The site's clever tagline — "Dogs + Cars = Barking" — signals its minimalist approach. (Short clips, no commentary.) The dogs are the stars, and the site's reason for existence — whether they're bravely frightening potential intruders or just lunging in impotent fury towards the defrosting grill.

Maybe it's an absurdist parody of the vlogging experience itself, with each entry necessitating prosaic tags like "one dog," "three dogs," or "even barking people". (Who, it turns out, are barking at dogs.) Video titles add their own meaningless epitaphs to the sound and fury. Two girls laughing at a dog becomes "ha ha bark bark"; a cab-ful of huskies becomes "so many dogs. so much barking". And finally completing the circle, an upload page invites viewers to contact "Barkly McBarkalot" to share their own footage of more barking dogs.



Behold the future of multimedia. It's a terrible idea for a video blog — or is it? Just remember that the site's creator is the far-thinking genius who parlayed a paper clip into a house in Saskatchewan.

2. Father doesn't know best


In January, Josh Johnson decided to film his kids talking about Hoodwinked. Then he dubbed them "the Cinekids," and made them do it over and over again.

Young Nick fidgets morosely, his eyes darting in that surreal helplessness every child feels before a parent with a videocamera, while his sister Kayla babbles on.
"Superman is very good excepting when — especially when he caught, he was flying through the, he — this is Superman. (Holds up finger.) He was flying through the air, and caught an airplane. (With fingers) Like, VVVVVVVMmm. And that airplane had a rocket ship! And he was like, VVVVVVVVVMmm to the rocket ship. And they went into outer space. That was probably my favorite part."

And here's Kayla on Santa Clause 3.
"I give it 30 thumbs up because it's so funny and goofy and laugh la-yadda yadda yadda."

15 episodes later, and it's still painful to watch. The children — who look around 8 years old — offer their mangled commentary on movies like RV, Godzilla, and Nacho Libre. The preening father adds a credit for himself at the end of each of "their" shows, apparently hoping to ride the "cute" train to a 6-figure development deal from the Lifetime network. (He's already pressed his kids into a family-friendly short he directed, then included its trailer before one of "their" reviews of Tim Allen's Zoom.)

Unfortunately, exactly one person has subscribed to Dad's YouTube feed, where episode 1 was given three ratings by YouTube viewers — all one star. The clip was favorited 0 times, and commented on twice. ("crap!" 5 months ago and "Shit!" 1 month ago.)

3. Vlogs 4 Peace


Next time someone tells you "I wish all the vloggers would just shut up," send them to Vlog4Peace — a Twilight Zone world where video bloggers say absolutely nothing.

Pete Rahon urged video bloggers around the world to submit one-minute movies of "silence and peace" in an effort to create "a collective sound energy" which would bring transformation and communication to a troubled world. Rahon believed this could ultimately lead to the impeachment of President Bush ("Impeachment is so close to being mispronounced as in-peace-men!") and he called for "a million minutes for peace" — that is, nearly two years of amateur YouTube footage of people meditating.

He apparently abandoned the project 7 weeks later, leaving behind a Yahoo group with exactly two members and an unnoticed post on Blogger titled "Vloggers of the World Unite! Let us Vlog4Peace!" ("0 comments; 0 links to this post.")



It also drew mixed reviews when it was uploaded to YouTube, including commenter ShotgunVinny, who wrote "fucking load of shit!"

Apparently world peace has not yet been achieved.

4. Rocketboom


Rocketboom is like a broken robot that keeps dispensing dispatches from an entirely insulated world. For two weeks in November, every news tip viewers sent was bounced back five days later after their server refused to accept it. But what's even more significant is they didn't notice.

While bad amateur vlogs can at least be endearing, Rocketboom uses an alienating professionalism, dividing the world into talking heads and the rest of us. Their formula is simple (despite the "Web 2.0-speak" in the above interview clip). It's like a newscast, but shorter, with a token wisecrack for each story delivered with artificial sauciness by a 20-something British woman. Day after day Rocketboom plows ahead with preciously pretentious topics, in a slick yet uninspiring crusade to turn the web's grand global conversation into a one-way TV show.

Interactivity is reduced to a few dozen comments left on their web page, many of them one word. ("Hee-larious!" "AWESOME") with no shout-outs to other video bloggers. In a December stunt they displayed URLs for other non-Rocketboom sites which they'd suddenly discovered existed elsewhere on the web — but only for one 24-hour period. Now it's back to business as usual.

There's nothing particularly original or ennobling in filming an attractive young female reading news stories. (Over six years ago another video blog adopted a nearly-identical formula, with an even more commercial twist. It was called The Naked News.) Ultimately it was Ze Frank who summarized the popular reaction to Rocketboom in a series of vlogs which made the argument that they couldn't possibly be as popular as they claim — because they're so horribly, horribly lame.

Besides, everyone knows British accents are just a giant conspiracy to feign superiority over Americans.

5. Rocketboom Lite



Even after two shows, it can only be described as "Like Rocketboom, but with ads. And not as good." Before viewers can even watch the clunky transitions of former Rocketboom newscaster Amanda Congdon, they discover that there's a mandatory commercial from the food and beverage division at Procter & Gamble. (During which her corporate overlords have decreed that pause buttons shall be disabled.) Immediate gratification from fast-paced video stimulation will have to wait until ABC-Disney is through shilling coffee — and even then, they've also decreed that a mandatory second ad shall be displayed at all times. ("Garlic Chicken pizza with punch! Now in your grocer's freezer...")

Also, no rewinding is allowed, ever. I know you can just start the program over from the beginning, but — guess what? That means watching another ad!

It's painful to watch Amanda feign enthusiasm for pre-scripted jokes which aren't funny with a voice that's not resonant, and a personality that's not engaging. Bad acting, a lack of charisma, all under the mistaken belief that she's talented. ("Congratulations! I've arrived! You're welcome!" she seems to say.) It's an infuriating self-satisfaction which violates the web's original promise that online communication is open to everyone, and you don't ascend to a ruling class because you're cute and perky. (This week's crappy episode even appeared over the self-congratulatory and wordy headline "You Want Sexy and Irreverent? You Got It!")

"Try a new stomach-friendly coffee," urges the Folgers ad to the right.

While Amanda retains her trademark spin-to-camera-two move, she's jettisoned Rocketboom's lightning cuts, along with background music, outdoor interviews, and a sense of excitement. Now she's just going through the motions, possibly out of spite (according to some half-understood posts I skimmed on Valleywag). I can't think of anything less exciting than watching Andrew Baron feuding with Amanda Congdon, unless the whole thing took place on a Yahoo group. Maybe next they can argue in a comments thread on MySpace.

But it does offer a nice counterpoint to her show's smug, smirking cadence with its unmistakeble whiff of ha-ha-I'm-on-ABC-and-you're-not. And just as her delivery seems to be picking up some excitement, the show ends, to be immediately followed by yet-another ad! And then ABC News immediately shoves viewers into a non-consensual second video from their back bench of crappy video news stories.

Amanda Congdon's new show is the equivalent of deciding that Lite Beer isn't bland enough, and asking for a LITE lite beer. Is it unfair to compare Amanda Congdon's new video blog to footage of dogs barking in cars? No — because I hate it that much.

I will give her credit for breaking away from the formula, and taking chances in an attempt to find a new voice. I like how she plays video comments from other bloggers on her laptop during her own show. And to her credit, Amanda is acknowledging other weblogs and actively soliciting input from her viewers and the online community.

But as 2006 ends there are just 19 vlogs, according to a badly-researched category on Yahoo. (And one of them is just a Wikipedia page defining the word vlog.) In a weird way this proves the medium is genuinely new, and gives even the worst blogs the honor of being a pioneer. The worse they are, the more they prove that the medium is still wide open, and as Howard Rheingold used to say, what it is...is up to us.

See Also:
10 Video Moments from 2006
ABCNews Amanda Congdon - Rocketboom = Whuh?
2007 Re-Mixed
The Simpsons on Drugs: 6 Trippiest Scenes

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Atheist Filmmaker Issues ‘Blasphemy Challenge’


The God Who Wasn't There

"The War on Christmas" is an absurd fantasy concocted by the Religious Right. But it doesn't have to be. If Brian Flemming has his way, we'll get a real War on Christmas, complete with atheistic shock troops (called "Rational Responders") confronting believers with the non-logic of their dearest religious beliefs. His "Rational Response Squad" is encouraging young people to take The Blasphemy Challenge — to commit blasphemy and post the results on YouTube.

It's all part of the continuing promotion for Flemming's worthy documentary film, The God Who Wasn't There. The film, in the words of Newsweek, "irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed." Uber-athiests Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins appear, helping Flemming make his sacreligious point.



Besides interviewing Flemming on this year's RU Sirius Show Christmas Special, we had him on in April of this year, when he was gunning for Easter. We've combined the two conversations to create this interview. Flemming fielded questions from an extended RU Sirius Show family that included Blag Dhalia from The Dwarves, Steve Robles, Jeff Diehl and Diana Brown.

RU SIRIUS: Tell us what the Blasphemy Challenge is and how we might participate.

BRIAN FLEMMING: It's a challenge to you to commit the Christian unforgivable sin, on video, and upload it to YouTube for all the world to see. And if you do that, you can get a free DVD of The God Who Wasn't There.

STEVE ROBLES: Did you just say the sin? Are you speaking of a particular sin?

BRIAN: Yeah, there's one unforgivable sin. Mark 3:29 says, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven." So that is the one sin that, if you commit it, you can never ever be saved. So one benefit of taking the Blasphemy Challenge is that if any Christians come up to you and try to convert you in the future, you can just say, "Oh, no, I'm done. You can't help me any more."

RU: So you could jizz on a picture of the Virgin Mary, but this would be worse.

BRIAN: Right. You can do anything else. You can kill all the people you want; you can rape and murder and whatever; and Jesus will forgive you. But this is the one thing that he won't forgive you for.

STEVE: Actually, you won't be forgiven for suicide, either.

BRIAN: Oh, that's true.

JEFF DIEHL: Do we get a free DVD if we commit that blasphemy?

BRIAN: If you were to deny the Holy Spirit, and then kill yourself, you'd definitely be guaranteed to meet Satan for it.

STEVE: It gets into some tricky Catholic dogma because you have to blaspheme specifically against the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit being a part of the Holy Trinity. That means that if you blaspheme against Jesus or god, you're okay.

BRIAN: Yeah. In fact, Jesus says that specifically in another passage. He says, "Whoever speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven" — but if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can't be forgiven.

RU: You particularly want young people to participate. You advertised in Boy Scout Trail and Tiger Beat.

BRIAN: Yeah. We chose a bunch of sites online that specifically appeal to young people to advertising on. In fact, many of the people that are uploading videos to YouTube are in their teens.

RU: So are you trying to exacerbate right-wing paranoia?

BRIAN: My goal is definitely to provoke conversation. We rarely discuss religion on the same terms as we discuss any other aspect of our culture such as science or math or politics — any subject at all. People are allowed to make religious claims, and there's a taboo in our culture against actually questioning those claims the way we would anything else. The Blasphemy Challenge is designed to examine that. "Okay, Christianity makes this claim. Let's talk about it. Let's talk about whether there's any support for it at all." And Christians are welcome to demonstrate that hell exists and demonstrate that the Holy Spirit exists and demonstrate that insulting the Holy Spirit will send you to this place called hell.

RU: You claim to have a 21,000-member activist group. What are you guys planning? Should we be frightened of atheist fanatics?

BRIAN: We've done some interesting things. We hid copies of the movie in Christian churches and in other items. One thing we did during Easter — we put fliers with cartoons into plastic eggs at egg hunts for Christian children. They read, "Here's a fun game. Ask your Mom and Dad, 'Is the Easter Bunny real?' Now ask them, 'Is Santa Claus real?' Now ask them, 'Is Jesus real?' And remember this for the rest of your life. The answer to these three questions will always be the same."

RU: So you're hiding these mind-fucks in Easter eggs. Do you feel that up to this point, you've been preaching to the unheavenly choir, and now you have to reach people who are believers and get them to think? Do you have any evidence that people have been affected by your message?

BRIAN: I get emails all the time. The movie has not worked alone but has worked in concert with other things, like Sam Harris's book The End of Faith. I know my film has been principally involved in the de-conversion of many Christians including one Baptist minister. It definitely is possible to reach Christians. It's astonishing what they don't know. And when you tell them, their jaws just drop. When I see Christians after a screening of The God Who Wasn't There, I can see the looks on their faces. I can tell they've just never been exposed to this stuff

RU: Do you anticipate any rumbles with Jack Chick's guys?

BRIAN: I'm sure.



BLAG DHALIA: Look, it doesn't bother me that you're trying to debunk Jesus, and it doesn't bother me that you hate the Easter Bunny. But I'm not going to sit here and listen to you talk about Santa! I'm just fuming about Santa. I think you're really pushing it.

BRIAN: Well, I'm hoping to reach out and have a dialogue with the Santa believers. Maybe we can come to some understanding.

RU: Is there evidence that Santa wasn't really born?

BRIAN: Actually, the thing is that Santa is more real than Jesus. Santa was an actual saint. In fact, I saw statues of him when I recently visited Amsterdam. He's the patron saint of Amsterdam. That's where the myth originated. So Santa is actually far more real than Jesus. A real human became the Santa legend.

BLAG: Santa is a scary fuck. He wears an animal skin that's bloody. That's where the whole red Santa suit came from — this guy with an inside-out animal skin that was still bleeding on his back. But a jolly, jolly man anyways.

RU: Tell us a bit about your film, The God Who Wasn't There.

BRIAN: It's a documentary that makes the case that Jesus Christ never existed. I interview some people who rarely get their theories aired in the mainstream media. They're very credible people who have looked at the early evidence for Jesus and found that it was sorely lacking. And then the film goes on to examine how Jesus is used in our culture and the effect that this dogma that Jesus existed and is our savior has had in our culture.

RU: How did you research the film? Did you start with your conclusion?

BRIAN: I started out thinking the theory that Jesus never lived must've been a crackpot theory. I'm into crackpot theories and into crackpots. I like to look into what makes them tick.

STEVE: That's why you're talking to us.

BRIAN: I started looking into it. And I came to realize that the evidence did stack up and the real crackpots were people who could look at early Christianity and determined that the early Christians believed in a human Jesus. When I realized how few people knew about this, I decided it was a good focus for a documentary.

JEFF: In college, I was challenged by a piece of writing called Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches by Marvin Harris. He claims that there were a lot of self-proclaimed Messiahs back in Jesus's day. And a lot of them were crucified, and they were basically terrorists. They were trying to overthrow the Roman government. In many cases they were assassins. They carried daggers in their robes. And there's a good chance that Jesus himself was a dagger-carrying assassin.

BRIAN: I have heard that theory. With Jesus stories — you can speculate anything that you want about Jesus, because there is no writing whatsoever about him from the time. All we have is this sort of invented history of Jesus that was improvised over the decades immediately following the apostle Paul, who never claimed to have met Jesus. So there's no direct evidence, at all, that Jesus ever existed. And there's a lot of evidence indicating that he was just kind of improvised into existence, first as a mythical savior and then later on, historical details were added.

RU: You used to be a fundamentalist Christian. Why did you stray from the flock?

BRIAN: I went to a fundamentalist school called Village Christian School in Sun Valley, California. That's where I got the doctrine pounded into my head. I was a fundamentalist Christian then. Once I got out of that school, I began to think for myself a little bit more and learn about science. Going to college kind of opened my eyes to the absolutely false things that I believed were true. I gradually became an atheist. I just deduced and learned my way to atheism.

RU: Did you preach in neighborhoods?

BRIAN: No, I didn't. I never had the nerve to witness. I practiced it. They would take us out on the playground and we would practice-witness to each other. And then we were supposed to do what we practiced with people in our lives, particularly Jews. I had Jewish friends, and every time I visited them at their house I was just wracked with guilt because I wasn't witnessing to them. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Something felt wrong about telling them that Jews were going to hell.

RU: You left us to rot in hell! So your film makes the case that Jesus never existed. What's the evidence? How do you prove a negative?

BRIAN: There's a more positive case to be made. The early Christians, the very first Christians, did not believe in a human Jesus. It took decades before they started adding history into their writings. They created this Jesus who wasn't just this mythical god like most gods at that time were — but in fact a man who walked around on earth.

If you look at the beginning of Christianity, for at least forty years there was no human Christ. Nobody was mentioning Bethlehem or Jerusalem as the place where he was crucified. Basically, nothing that you and I would call the story of Jesus was told then. He was a savior who lived up in another realm. He had died and had risen back up to be with his father. All of this took place in an upper realm, not down on earth. Bit by bit, they added historical details.

RU: This story had been told many times before, right? There were various versions that were nearly exactly the same.

BRIAN: Yeah, there were versions of the story both before the time that Christianity started and particularly right around the time that Christianity started. The dying and rising savior is probably the oldest story in the world. But there were specifically other gods who were remarkably like Jesus in the time preceding the invention of Jesus. There was the Attis cult and the Mithras cult. They had saviors who died, stayed dead three days, and then rose up to sit with their fathers as the eternal judge on mankind. It's pretty clear that's where the Jesus story came from.

DIANA BROWN: You're calling for an atheist activist movement. Do you believe it could make a difference if enough people got on board?

BRIAN: Oh, definitely. I think there is an atheist activist movement. I'm trying to contribute to it as much as I can. I think there's a gradual realization among atheists that just sitting at home, not believing, and watching the world go to hell isn't really a very viable strategy.

DIANA: People are being kind of politically correct — not wanting to talk to people about their religion because it's polite.

BRIAN: Exactly. Religious tolerance really has to go, if religious tolerance means we let people talk baby talk in public and elect them as politicians who control our policy. If that's religious tolerance, then we can't really be tolerant because it's just too dangerous.

DIANA: What would you say to an agnostic?

BRIAN: I think an agnostic is really just an atheist who hasn't thought about it enough.

RU: The reason I'm an agnostic — I just don't assume that as a human being I have the equipment, the nervous system and the brain to be quite certain about everything that is going on. To me, atheism is a belief system just like faith is.

BRIAN: I would disagree with that. I don't think that atheism is a belief system. It's simply, as Sam Harris puts it, "The inability to be unreasonable." Basically, everyone is an atheist. It's just that religious people are atheists about every other god except their own. So even a Christian is just one god away from me. I don't believe in Zeus. I don't believe in Poseidon. The Christian is also an atheist in regard to Zeus and Poseidon. The Christian has just selected one of those books of mythology, pulled it down off the shelf and said, "This one is real." As an atheist, all I've done is to not do that.



STEVE: But this still leaves at least the possibility that you might discover something. The problem with atheism is that it doesn't allow for anything beyond what we perceive now to be our physical reality.

BRIAN: I admit that there's a possibility. I take a scientific approach.

DIANA: Ha! So you're an agnostic.

STEVE: Outed!

BRIAN: It's a misconception that you can only be an atheist if you declare absolutely that you have the answers and that you know there's no god. An atheist has just looked at all the gods available and determined: no — none of these could exist, so probably there is no god. That's not agnosticism. That's really atheism.

BLAG: Mr. Fleming, I gotta be on your team with this. If you don't believe in slavery, you can either sit at home and say, "I don't believe in slavery," or you can be an abolitionist and say, "Wait a minute. We have this thing and I am going to actively be against it." So let's kill god. We're atheists. Fuck 'im.

DIANA: If we can kill him, we can prove something... You think knowledge is the enemy of faith, so you're basically encouraging people to seek knowledge. Correct?

BRIAN: Exactly. Doubt is the enemy of certainty. What I want to do with the War on Christmas is have Christians come across information that they're not getting, because only one version is told. No one's allowed to present another view. If you really start examining what most faiths are based on, you can't deduce your way into believing in it, so you eventually have to let it go.

STEVE: Don't humans need to believe in myths? Even if Jesus never really existed, don't people need to believe?

BRIAN: Humans need to band together in groups that have an identity. They like to get together and experience stories and some of them go too far and love the story to the point that they believe it. That's all true. Certainly there is something about humans that caused religions to develop. There has to be something in us that makes us want that. But I see no reason that anyone's ever articulated that we should have it today. Two thousand years ago, I kind of get why they thought the way they did. They didn't have science. They were answering questions that we've answered since then. They thought that demons caused disease.

RU: They don't?

STEVE: You've never had shingles.

JEFF: There was a study recently that showed that belief in god or religion makes people happier. Assuming they can actually measure something called happiness, might there not be a benefit to believing, just to be happy?

BRIAN: Yeah. I would say it has the same benefits as heroin.

BLAG: Now you're talking my language!

JEFF: You're killing your case here, Brian. (Laughter)

BRIAN: There's a cost to being rational. There's a cost in looking at the world in a sensible way and not falling prey to fantasy stories that make you feel better. It's not easier — I'll admit that. It certainly takes more courage. So people who are afraid and want to trick their minds into being happy should turn to religion and drugs, because you do have to be strong to deal with the world as it is.

JEFF: It's kind of like that brain-in-a-vat story, though. If you could climb into a chamber and never experience reality and just be told that this is reality, would you do it? What's the difference? If you've convinced yourself that you're happy, you're happy.

RU: The blue pill or the red pill?

BRIAN: Maybe before we die, we'll have that. We'll be able to jack into the matrix. I think part of the reason we haven't done it already is because religion has held back science so much. Literally for centuries, it has prevented progress. So, ironically, religion has kept us from having eternal life.

RU: There's some talk about a cluster of neurons in the brain that tap people into their feeling of belief in god; or their sense of god. Have you looked at that at all?

BRIAN: No, but Sam Harris, who's in my movie, is devoting his PhD thesis to exactly that. He's studying the brain basis of belief with an FMRI — Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology. He hasn't published yet, but I know he's discovered some things. I can't wait to find out what they are.

RU: Do you think we're headed into a theocracy? Kevin Phillips, the Republican who hates the Bush family, wrote a book about how America is becoming a theocracy. How close do you think we are? And do you think we'll go the rest of the way?

BRIAN: I think that we will go the rest of the way if we don't take action to stop it. That's going to require people to go out on a limb. The time to act is now, before we reach a point of no return.

RU: Today, most everyone is screaming about the Koran and Islam. How would you compare the memetic nastiness of Islam to the memetic nastiness of Christianity?

BRIAN: The Koran is certainly more vicious; more clear about the killing that has to be done. It is, in general, a more dangerous book. It's got all sorts of stuff about what you must do to infidels; how they must be treated — cut them into pieces and throw them into a fire. The Bible has some of that stuff, but it also has Jesus making all this happy talk. The Koran is just really clear. If you believe in Islam, you believe the place of the infidels in the world is either to be subjugated or killed. So I do think Islam is potentially more dangerous than Christianity. But any religion — particularly any monotheistic religion, if it gains enough power — they all could be extremely dangerous.

See also:
The Satanic cosmology of Jack Chick
Thou Shalt Realize the Bible Kicketh Ass (Rushkoff interview)
Death at Christmas
They're Dreaming of a Boobs Christmas

Read More

5 Retarded Online Christmas Videos


1. Sam Brown's New York Christmas



Gritty New Yorkers know that dirt doesn't vanish on December 25. Comedian Sam Brown takes a realistic look at the city's holiday sights — panhandlers, domestic disturbances, losers cruising singles bars, and seasonal affective disorder — then sets it all to music. He's teamed up with Frank Santopadre, editor of New York's Jest magazine to create five slickly-produced, if off-key videos with an unsentimental twist.



A peaceful lawn full of Christmas lights turns into an episode of Cops, as the handcuffed man doing the faceplant sings his version of Silent Night. (Which becomes Violent Night.) Christmas Day requires an acknowledgment of the losers trapped in Singles bars, Singles bars, surrounded by other losers hoping to get laid. But the most demented video of all is probably The Worst Noel. It captures the magical Christmas that comes when you discover your girlfriend has been having sex with the entire neighborhood.

Yes, there's a music video, and yes it has Santa — plus an angel, a nun, and a fire-breathing midget.

2. Christmas With Janice Dickinson's Modeling Agency



Also celebrating Christmas is Janice Dickinson, the over-exposed star of The Surreal Life, America's Next Top Model, and a recent Los Angeles traffic accident.

By the first week of December a Christmas video had already turned up, and according to the New York Post, after you've heard it, "You'll be begging to hear the mellifluous sounds of second-graders singing 'Silent Night.'" Dickinson sings the familiar gift-counting song about the 12 Days of Christmas, but when you're a former supermodel who's slept with Mick Jagger and Sylvester Stallone, your taste in gifts runs beyond simple turtle doves. A fast-paced music video shows Janice claiming her Christmas booty, including "five naked man, four Italian suits, three former husbands, two giants breasts..." (Remember, she's also the author of the book Everything About Me Is Fake . . . And I'm Perfect.) In true supermodel fashion, the 12 gifts are received while wearing 12 different fashion ensembles - but the whole she-bang was just created by the Oxygen network as a promotion for her upcoming special and regular series.

If the New York Post is right, and it makes you want to hear the song sung by amateurs, video #3 offers a simple solution.

3. We Are the YouTube



From England, Canada, New York, and Pittsburgh, they answered a call to sing on your virtual doorstep. Transcending geography, "The YouTube Community Choir" celebrates Christmas like it's never been celebrated before.

It starts with Geriatic1927, the 79-year-old British widower who became one of YouTube's most popular users in August. He's followed by a 19-year-old in Utah named Mrspassic, who joined in June, and a 55-year-old named "PositiveSue" from England.

Nearly 30 YouTube users were chosen for the five-minute presentation, and nearly one million more have watched them, making it, amazingly enough, one of the site's most-viewed movies.



It all started with Matt5413, a 22-year-old in Boston who joined the site last July. In November he uploaded his idea for collaborating on the song, and 56-year-old Zipster08 loved the idea, From his home in Pennsylvania he uploaded an enthusiastic response called "THIS IS WHAT YOUTUBE IS ABOUT!" (explaining the video would be edited by together by "this dude from Kansas" named Silent Whistle.) YouTube users magically appeared, uploading their auditions in hopes they'd be edited into the final cut. "Proudyke" even sang a line from a remote island in the South Atlantic.

Not all the responses were positive. "Fungus the Boogeyman" simply uploaded a looping animation over a profanity-filled song by an Australian comic named Kevin Bloody Wilson. ("Ho ho, fucking ho, what a crock of shit..." Current average rating: 5 stars.)

But like a real Christmas card, it gives a glimpse into the YouTube community. Nearly all of the participants joined within the last four months, and many of the same figures turned up in the "OneTube For Orbvious" video — a more serious feel-good project lending moral support to an Australian couple grieving a child custody ruling by "the facist regime currently at work behind the scenes in the Australian illegal system."

"It is the beauty of the internets," joked one viewer, marvelling at how 2006 became the first collaboration-enabled Christmas. Whether you love it or hate it, Matt says he hopes to do another collaborative video soon. Oh, how we love sequels.

4. Revver Strikes Back


In a disturbing parallel universe, Revver users have recorded the song Jingle Bells in an apparent attempt to have each video played at the same time. Each holiday ham brings a twist to their individual recording.

There's one by smiley Rocketboom correspondent Steve Garfield. User "Imanartist" imagines a second verse of alternate lyrics by space alien Zandor. There's the Shatner-esque stylings of MarkDayComedy, and Marquisdejolie re-engineered the song into an echo-y, static-y, slowed-down Satan voice. TraveTV uses hand puppets, and three members of the "Revver Community Department" even wrote a skit which involved bouncing on a couch while throwing paper wads. But while some of the individual videos may be lame, they're all participating in a grand experiment, as the videos are blended together into a single cacophonic chorus of Christmas-y noise. A healthcare marketer and video collector apparently got the idea that all the videos should be hosted on a single web page — his. "We were founded to make money," says Kevin Nalty in a video parodying his site's origins. "Why else would you start a company?" Then he appears again as an another employee saying the site was founded "to make people laugh." Maybe it's both. Or maybe it's neither.

Lockergnome's Chris Pirillo ultimately came up with an even more deconstructive version of online carolling. He made one video, but then uploaded it to nine different video-sharing sites. (YouTube, Revver, iFilm, Soapbox...) "The idea is to press play so that they all stream at the same time," he writes. In the video he sings the first two lines of "Jingle Bells" over and over again while shaking the collars of two admirably-disinterested puppies. As each subsequent video loads, it's either an additional voice for the choir — or a round-like counterpoint.

Or a test of your computer's random access memory, and it's limitations for multiple video playbacks.

5. Herpes for Christmas


Ginger Kearns, who played "Pierced Girl" on The Sopranos, appears in the heart-warming classic from RagTag Productions called Merry Christmas, I Got You Herpes. Though it starts at an innocuous casual Christmas party with cookies, presents, and a Christmas tree, the title gives a strong hint of what the first plot twist will be. ("I didn't have to wrap it.") Two onlooking couples (and the lucky gift recipient) react with varying degrees of extremity. ("Next thing you know he'll be dry humping our furniture with his open sores!") Will it find its way to a happy ending, maybe a reminder that Jesus loves all the little children — even the little children with STDs?

Shake That Fro productions has also joined the fun, creating their own eight-minute film seeking a cathartic release from the purity of the season. After showing the snowfall on a white-bread suburban home, Best Christmas Ever cuts to a young couple innocently swapping gifts on the couch. (Let's just say the music changes when the vocalist sings "night of passion and light"....) Complications include a father who mutters obliviously "You better watch your manners with my daughter, there," but after five minutes of set up, it culminates with one bizarre twist after another.

And what Christmas would be complete without a condom joke?

See Also:
A Christmas Conspiracy
Christmas 2.0: Subverting the Holidays With Re-dubbing
Death at Christmas
They're Dreaming of a Boobs Christmas

Read More

ABCNews + Amanda Congdon – Rocketboom = Whuh?


Her first story: "Only Folgers has the aroma-sealed cannister."

Wait, what? Oh. It's an ad. Before the video blog. (I'm sorry Amanda, but I'll have to deduct a point for that.) At least the ad refreshes every time you watch her show. The second time it was plugging a Chase Bank credit card. The Rolling Stones sold one of their earliest songs to the monolithic financial institution. (Ironically, they sing "I'm free to do what I want, any old time.") Everyone has their price, I'm thinking — just as ABC's official four-note news jingle introduced their newly acquired video blogger.

"Hello and welcome!" she coos — and the historic moment has arrived. "I'm Amanda Congdon, videoblogging for ABC News! Each week, take a little break, a little trip with me."



Each week? Whoa. I guess any breaking news on Thursday will have to wait until next Wednesday. That's very Web 1.0. I really think they should've hired kidnapped, tortured, and "re-educated" Ze Frank, and given the show to him.

Amanda is the show's co-producer, which raises the question of whether her show will get too self-indulgent. The first impression wasn't promising. "One of my favorite things to do is explore, online and off," she begins, "so that's just what we're going to do!" She then stops the show to acknowledge co-producer Jason, adds that he doesn't want to come on camera, and teases him for being "such a big baby." My first thought was that she doesn't have the stage presence to carry off this kind of empty banter without the fast edits they'd augmented her with at Rocketboom (and even then...).

But I was grateful that the tone turned quirky and peremptory. "As I was driving to work today [footage of Amanda driving to work], I thought about just how much JavaScript sucks."

Hooray! I'm thinking. Something geeky, and esoteric!

"Yeah! Let's go with JavaScript for my new show at ABC News.com," she says. Later I'd ask myself why the vlog's script specifically included this segment? I can only guess they're trying to show us one of two things.

1. Amanda dreams up her own ideas, spontaneously.
2. They're teasing mainstream viewers by pretending it's going to be very geeky — before abandoning the premise altogether.

"ABC News.com," Amanda continues, arriving at work. "An appropriate place to start the day." Okay, now you've said "ABC News.com" twice. Don't make me deduct another point for flagrant corporate fellating.

"After scanning the headlines I followed an advertiser link to NYT.com, where I found—"

Bzzt! Okay, that's it. Apparently this show is just a way to pimp paid sponsors on the web site of Amanda's new broadcast network overlords.

She swings that rubbery neck in her signature style (what a move!) and summarizes the New York Times' story about spam, makes a single wise-crack, and then moves on to another story she found on their site — people surfing in Cleveland.

She included a video question from her "discovery," vlogger William Hung — a kid in serious need of a brisk slap to the side of the head for that affected non-accent.

"I want you to be seen and be heard," she says later. "Every week I release a new episode and I think it would be so much more fun to do it together. Let's re-invent the host viewer relationship and truly make this a two-way street." That's very "Web-me-too point oh" of her. Let's see if she can pull it off.

Out of all the amazingly cool videos on the web, the one she found was a woman using her Wii and doing some karate-like dance moves. Maybe the message here is that Amanda really is open to showing your home movies. If she truly opened her doors to a flood of user-submitted videos — that could be interesting. Maybe.

There are times where her enthusiastic cadence actually does add something to the story, but mostly she has to artificially synchronize it with the words in her script — like the one for virtual snowflakes. ("It's so cool," she reads, "how you can drag your cursor across them, and read and comment...") If Robert Altman were directing this, he'd have her bantering spontaneously about the sites with her co-producers, then edit together moments of genuine spontaneous enthusiasm. (Both this vlog and Amanda's work at Rocketboom were the polar opposite of spontaneous.)

Rocketboom's stories were always mildly interesting, but maddeningly lacking in real drama or excitement. Now at ABC, Amanda's story choices were reasonably interesting — the new blood substitute she covered had been overlooked by nearly every other news site. It was nice to see footage of Tori Spelling's infamous garage sale, along with some appropriately cynical commentary about how "it blurs the lines between reality and fiction." Her detachment can work against her efforts to welcome user submissions, but it does position her to offer a counter-commentary. (Or as the New York Times puts it, "The news, it seems, kind of grosses her out.") But I was disappointed that the show wasn't geekier. ("In case you're wondering, we are working on the whole JavaScript thing," Amanda says at the end.) I'm guessing she doesn't really know much about technology. She's no Gina Smith — who successfully made the transition from technology journalist to ABC on-air talent before becoming a technology CEO.

The show doesn't really end. There's an ad, and then another clip of Amanda, and then another ad, and then another clip of Amanda. ABC hits you with everything in their multimedia vault, like a malfunctioning jukebox. Although I appreciate that Amanda recorded two separate pleas for user-submitted content.

Then she included a special report by Kenny Munich, who doesn't shine until he's had his Folgers. Then he bakes muffins.

Oh wait. That's another ad....

See also:
Worst Video Blogs of 2006
Interview With Valleywag Nick Douglas
Where in the World is Nick Douglas?
Don't Go There: 20 Taboo Topics for Presidential Candidates
Is Iraq really THAT bad?

Read More

The Crooks of the World Hurt Copyright, Free Speech



Note: The above screen capture is from a 2005 Fox News Channel appearance. The image has been re-inserted on November 15th, 10 business days after filing a counter-notice (PDF) in response to a DMCA takedown notice filed by Michael Crook which forced its removal soon after it was originally published.

Michael Crook claims to be a "friend" of copyright law, but he takes his twisted notion of friendship to a dangerous extreme. On his "Facts vs. Fiction" page, he says that, while he supports free expression, "copyright holders have stronger rights than the idiots whining about 'free speech.'"

However, his recent abuse of the DMCA has not only jeopardized free speech rights, but also the rights of copyright holders on the Web. In addition to being a blatant attack on the free expression of critical commentary, Crook's false DMCA filings may make it harder for Webmasters with legitimate copyright issues to resolve them efficiently and effectively.



Crook's antics, in the long run, may even lead to new legislation that will make it more difficult to fight scraping, content theft and plagiarism.

Safe Harbor Abuse: A Brief History

The safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, when compared to the anti-circumvention provisions, have largely escaped controversy. However, abuses of the provisions via the notice and takedown procedure Crook is so fond of, did not begin with Crook.

The most famous case of DMCA abuse involved the Church of Scientology (COS) who, in 2002, filed a DMCA notice with Google to get many of their critics delisted from the search engine. Though the content was re-listed following counter-notices, the issue drew a great deal of attention to the potential for abuse that came with the safe harbor provisions.

Sadly, the Church of Scientology's abuse of the DMCA has continued since then. At least one site was the recipient of a DMCA notice in September 2005 and the Church has sent so many that they have been nicknamed “Avagrams” after Ava Paquette, the COS attorney that signs most of them. There is even a song spoofing Avagrams.

The potential for safe harbor abuse was brought to light again in November of 2005 when the University of Southern California released a study (PDF) that claimed 30% percent of all DMCA notices “presented an obvious question for a court (a clear fair use argument, complaints about uncopyrightable material, and the like).”

Though the study had several flaws in it, especially in regards to its sample, it raised several questions about the viability of the safe harbor provisions and was widely circulated in copyright circles.

When put in this context, it appears that the Michael Crook notices are just another in a long string of DMCA abuses. However, as the EFF lawsuit shows, this is no ordinary case of safe harbor abuse — it is something much larger and much more dangerous.

Extreme Abuse

The Michael Crook notices are not a simple matter of a copyright dispute that should be settled by a court. He didn't just omit information on the DMCA notice or make an honest mistake in the complicated world of copyright law. There are with Crook no intricate fair use debates, or nuanced questions about complicated copyright issues. It's about as cut and dry as copyright law gets.

Michael Crook does not own the copyright to the image in question. It is that simple. With photographs and videos, copyright law protects the photographer, not the model. It even says so on the United States Copyright Office Web site in plain English. Despite his claims of holding a “copyright interest” in the work, its copyright belongs squarely to Fox News, who has given clearance to use it.

However, even if Michael Crook did own said copyright, the use is almost certainly fair. Transformative uses, uses which are for a different purpose than the original, are almost always protected as fair use, especially if they are for commentary/criticism and do not impact the potential market for the original work. It's almost impossible to imagine any judge deeming this use to be infringing.

The problem with such a flagrant abuse is that it creates a backlash that, while understandable, often goes too far. While there is certainly a need to change the DMCA to add protections against false notices and hosts should be more intelligent about how they handle DMCA notices, there is still a need for hosts and copyright holders to work together to fight cases of infringement that go beyond what is generally considered acceptable on the Web.



Without cooperation, the Web becomes even more ripe for spam blogs, massive content theft, plagiarism and other abuses of the liberal ideas about sharing that have become the norm on the Web. However, the Michael Crooks of the world only breed mistrust, making hosts more hostile, instead of merely skeptical, about copyright infringement claims. This can prompt them to reject potentially valid complaints, leading to both headaches for Webmasters and legal troubles for the host.

It can also prompt both hosts and users to move their servers to countries with weak copyright laws, even if they have no plans on engaging in copyright infringement. Though the EU, Canada and Australia all have some form of safe harbor legislation, many other nations do not and if false DMCA notices become a problem major hosting operations might shift to or start up in those countries, meaning that no recourse will be possible for those with legitimate concerns.

This could recreate the lawlessness that was common when the Internet first started, making the Web not just easier for those that wish to infringe copyright, but also for those that want to peddle scams and generally pollute the Web.

However, the greatest problems with these false notices might start at home.

The Voters Are Restless

Free speech is probably the most valued right in the United States. Though both free speech and copyright are protected by the U.S. Constitution, it's the first amendment that most, including myself, hold the closest to their hearts.

When free speech rights are attacked, people respond. If false DMCA notices become enough of a problem, it is only a matter of time before voters take notice. If that happens, then politicians will take notice and the law will likely be rewritten.

However, the United States safe harbor provisions already provide a great deal of protection against false notices, especially when compared to the EU system (PDF). If hosts were wiser about how they handled notices rather than simply rubber stamping them as they crossed their desk, false notices would be much less of an issue.

Still, some changes to the DMCA would be welcome. However, there is always a risk that Congress will make things many times worse on the second try. If they slip up either way, throwing up too many roadblocks or offering too little protection, the effect on the Web could be catastrophic.

Copyright is a delicate balance and it is a balance generally best set not by lawmakers, but by public consensus and market forces. Those with smarter copyright policies will go farther than those with bad ones.

However, dramatic shifts in the law might make it impossible to find such an equilibrium. The current system isn't perfect by any stretch, but individuals and organizations have done a great job expanding on it to find a more realistic balance.

For that kind of building to continue, copyright law cooperation and consistency, both in law and practice, will be key.

Conclusions

The best possible outcome for this case would be a swift victory by the EFF and Diehl. Hopefully that will deter future abuses of the safe harbor provisions and encourage hosts to develop more intelligent processes for handling DMCA complaints.

Fortunately, that outcome seems all but certain. The copyright issues