Essay Jukebox: Playlist #1

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy, their two children Clara and Simon, and their cats Ron and Nancy. 

In this post I asked boingboing readers what mini-essays by me they would want to read, and now it's time to pay the piper. Here are the votes tallied from the first 103 comments, in descending order, followed by the goods. Since some interest was expressed in all of them, I'll hit them all with at least a line or two. The top vote-getter was "D) Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures," with 35 votes. I guess it's true! Anyway, for those interested, thank you for your interest! Read the rest

Replace Hardcovers with a Bunch of Big Signs

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco. 

My friend Andy's literature blog recently pointed to this essay by Pat Holt, about how book publishers lose tons of money printing hardcover books. Publishers see them as expensive promotional copies that they need to print in order to get the reviews and interviews that sell profitable softcovers later.

But to use a trite formulation, publishers of hardcover books must realize that they aren't in the printing printed object business, they're in the talking-stick business. We have a shared general public dialog, but because there are more people with things to say than the public has time to hear, we need some object to confer attention-- like the talking stick around a campfire. In our culture, this object is the hardcover from a major publisher, which ideally makes a single timely point to inject into the public discussion.

Here's something less expensive that I think could replace hardcovers. Each publishing house puts a video billboard in a protected, shared area of Times Square or similar that's dedicated to showing the authors/books currently being promoted. I know outdoor advertising in NYC is expensive, but one sign has got to be cheaper than thousands of hardcovers plus distribution. If the signs are properly imbued with significance, which the industry could easily do, they would accomplish everything that a hardcover run does. Read the rest

NuRide for mobile devices?

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco. 

I love the idea of NuRide, although I've never used it myself. Anyone have some first-hand experience? It's a ridesharing system that hooks up drivers with passengers via the web, and it's running now in a few cities. The way they get past the axe-murderer problem is by having participants sign up via their employers or schools. Maybe the reasoning there is that if employees or students do go psycho, at least they'll be traceable?

Two things that would help would be to put it on mobile devices and get rid of the requirements for joining. I expect that when API's for mobile phone services come out, which someone told me should happen within a couple of years, an open system like this will be written that anyone will be able to use. This would mean way more people using it, which means way more rides offered-- and at some point it would reach a tipping point where people use the service casually, without planning ahead, figuring that they'll be able to get a ride back from wherever they are pretty easily. You could just rely on it the way people in some cities rely on being able to catch a cab.

If so, some custom would likely bubble up to make it worthwhile for the person giving the ride, probably some system for estimating gas and toll expenses. Read the rest

Essay Jukebox

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco.

I have just a few days left of guestblogging and more ideas than I can fit, so here's a list of some. For all of them, I'm thinking super-short here, just a few paragraphs each, outlining the "and here's why..." part. If you want to read any of these, please post in the Comments, and I'll write them up. Just one reader's expression of interest is enough to put me to work, and if no one cares, I'll pick myself.

A) What is a crackpot?

B) My cynical Public Service Announcement campaign idea to get more people to major in Science and Engineering.

C) Was Jesus a comedian?

D) Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures.

E) We need a communications language standard for networked devices, and why this is more of a social/political problem than a technical problem.

F) Control vs. Love: breadth-first, top-down vs. depth-first, bottom up search strategies that work in opposition.

G) Some countries "get" rock 'n' roll better than others.

H) Poetry will become popular again.

I) "Method" acting changed the role of celebrity in all cultural disciplines, starting in the late 1940's.

J) The 6th-8th Century Iconoclast Controversy in Eastern Europe has fantastic dramatic potential.

K) Where there is vice, there is connoisseurship.

L) Laughter and crying serve to carve new cognitive pathways in a hurry. Read the rest

Big Tent Atheism

Guest blogger Paul Spinrad first wrote about meme warfare in Adbusters #11. 

In politics, I think there are two competing motivations for voters to support a cause publicly. One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples'. These two motivations generally cause people to act in similar ways, but I've found some "tells" that reveal the underlying elitist motivation:

Leaving up losing campaign stickers and signs long after the election is over. (I passed a Ron Paul window sign today...) Dressing and behaving at political demonstrations in a non-respectful way (partying, trying to "shock people out of their complacency," etc.). Saying that it requires superior knowledge or compassion to arrive at the views you hold. Saying that it makes you "uncomfortable" or "scared" that a group you don't identify with actually agrees with your view.

Under a democracy, the elitist motivation is self-defeating: If your true aim is to distinguish yourself from the masses, you really don't want your side to win-- your aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples' stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

With religion, I think atheists have the same dissonance going on. If they really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn't hate religion and call believers fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it's replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility. Read the rest

The Diggers

Guest blogger Paul Spinrad just some nice leftover pasta for lunch. 

As discussed, language is a lossy compression scheme. I think the most data of all is lost when language is used as a linear narrative, storytelling, to make the generalizations that we call history.

I read Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden in high school and haven't looked at it since, but the thing that stayed with me (and I may be distorting here) was his description of how mammalian intelligence originated. While dinosaurs dominated the landscape, our shrew-like ancestors survived underground. The dinosaurs could see and hear over distances, so they didn't need to create persistent models of reality-- they just recognized and reacted. But "we" had to build and navigate underground tunnel networks and rely on internal mental maps of them. Our survival also depended on everyone sharing the same map and agreeing on how to maintain and build out the tunnels.

Today, when we turn this strategy towards empirical pursuits like scientific discovery or engineering, the behavior of physical reality itself helps to keep people in agreement on the tunnel questions, except at the margins. But when it comes to historical or moral "reality," there's no external anchor, and our species fights and dies over its conflicting compressions.

We also develop a primary, exclusionary narrative for culture, which is inevitably influenced by politics. So in a world full of creative expression, we learn formulations like, "after World War II, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York."

Last year I was on my bike, stopped at a red light, and saw a busker whom I guessed had no fixed address playing a nice old accordion. Read the rest

Emotionally Unavailable Until Famous

Boingboing guest blogger Paul Spinrad is enjoying listening to the rain. 

Timothy Leary said "The universe is an intelligence test." This line captures the attitude I had well into my 30's (I'm 43), and I'm happy that it doesn't anymore. Around that age, I started thinking more about mortality and failure and accepting their inevitability-- which in turn made me appreciate the preciousness of life. What did I want to do with my time here on Earth? Did I want to occupy myself playing a big version of Solitaire to prove I could win, or did I want to open up and love? Another famous quote began to make sense to me: E.M. Forster's "Only connect."

If it sounds like I'm leaving out a primary actor in this transformation, you're right. During our courtship, my wife Wendy challenged me again and again, with firmness and understanding, to engage with her honestly and completely, no matter what it meant. She led me to the promised land where we could be ourselves fully while delighting in and being committed to each other-- all those things that people wisely recite as their wedding vows. If you want more detail, buy me a beer.

An essential part of this happy destiny is that Wendy is not what I had hoped for, i.e. not simply a hot girl version of the man I wanted to be. I've read memoirs by successful men where the chapter on love runs: "I met the girl who was obviously perfect for me, and then I applied all my power and craft to win her over. Read the rest

Re-Engineering Fundamentalism

Guest blogger Paul Spinrad is not unacquainted with the grape. 

After our distant ancestors developed language, everyone could benefit from the experiences of others. But the bandwidth of speech is so low compared to one's own senses that it required huge compression and decompression at each end of the communication. This process of describing and interpreting was enabled by detailed world models that everyone carried in their heads.

Because these world models vary from person to person, the codec is lossy, and misunderstandings are inevitable. But the imprecision also makes words more timeless and intimate. If the impressions that some words convey to you resonate with you, it's because they are literally built out of the way you view the world.

Words can also lie, but along with interpreting words, we automatically assess the trustworthiness of their source. We can learn not to believe everything we hear, or to distrust certain people, and we can also set the Bible trust level to 100. No such counterpart exists for visual communication-- cameras, television, and Photoshop haven't been around long enough.

That's all background, and here's my point: It seems to me that every so often, the dominant political and cultural machine grows so large and incestuous that it loses its connection to people and makes them feel powerless and irrelevant. When this happens, in the West anyway, there's inevitably a revolution of words, of back-to-basics and idealism, against the image-conscious, superficial, wealth-obsessed Babylon. Because it's based on words, people can place their trust in it fully and spread it, and it will continue to make sense over time. Read the rest

We are Fractal Sheep

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is married 

When my friend John started going to the Bronx High School of Science, he was surprised to find that it contained the same cliques that his former, neighborhood school had had-- the jocks, the geeks, etc. He figured that because the student body consisted of all the geeks taken from other schools, he would only find geeks there. But no-- and when he got to know the school's Chess Team, the geeks among geeks, he saw that they paralleled the same divisions.

Humans and human groupings always seem to break down into the same archetypes, and this also seems to happen at all levels of granularity, from national character to impulses within an individual. Maybe they're the elements from some periodic table of strategies that game theorists haven't yet discovered. Maybe we all intuitively know this table and overlay it with our changing estimations of what niches are open and where we can fit in.

If so, it's a great blueprint for survival, for a group intelligence that reaches into every corner and processes everything. Imagine a prehistoric tribe suffering through a series of cold winters. The conservatives argue to stay, the malcontents argue to go someplace new, the physical risk-takers scout out unknown territories, and so on. Advocates on all sides try to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the middle, who make their own observations and assessments, but also want the tribe to stick together. Consensus is usually found, but when differences become too great, the group splits. Read the rest

Cultural Speculation

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy, their two young children Clara and Simon, and their cats Ron and Nancy. 

People are always looking do diversify their investments, and I'd like to see a mechanism for directly investing in culture rights. For cultural products that exist already and are protected by copyright, you need to get a specialist lawyer to negotiate with the various offices that handle rights, and it's all opaque. Maybe rightsholders could make more money off of their properties by opening the process up and forming a public exchange.

Not only would a rights exchange make it easier to buy rights for actual use, like for the songs and recordings in Sita Sings The Blues, it would also support speculation. If you know about some other forgotten but amazing recording or movie that you're sure people will want to re-issue, sample from, derive from, or whatever, then great-- buy away, or pool with others who want a piece. Even if you think something is lame but feel many others would go for it, speculate!

A market like this is an obvious idea, and I'm guessing it's been discussed many times, so I wonder what the barriers have been. Some professional rights handlers would lose their jobs-- are they a powerful lobby? Did anyone ever consider using Max Keiser's Hollywood Stock Exchange as a funding vehicle? Read the rest

The Video-Injected Hive Mind

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy and their two young children Clara and Simon.

Some communications need to be ambiguous in order to work. Like, if you consciously or unconsciously don't like an idea in a meeting, rather than voicing disagreement explicitly, you might exhale slightly or turn away a bit and then see what others do, also consciously or unconsciously. I think this is one reason teleconferencing is difficult. These channels by their nature need to operate at the edges of perception, and unless your A/V is super high resolution, they're blocked. (Eye contact is another conferencing issue.)

The same goes for flirting-- that next glance should have a plausible other function besides showing interest, and no current online representation can convey this ambiguity. There's no "did he just send a winking smiley to me, or did he accidentally push the button while going to pet the cat?" (Although you could design this in by introducing a chaos filter that wiggles the action just enough to provide plausible deniability for isolated events.)

Live audiences bristle with such liminal communications. As an audient, you don't just hear the applause and laughter-- you also pick up on body language, breathing, attention, and emotional state. You're part of one enormous brain that, among other things, is working out the problem of how people in the surrounding culture and at the present moment react to things, and what reactions are and are not appropriate. Read the rest

Russian Eco-Cult Community in California

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor with catholic interests. He is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy. 

If you're looking for a way to get back to the land and enjoy an integrated life while society collapses, The Shambhala-Shasta Anastasia Eco-Settlement Project has 466 acres of land and is looking for settlers. It sounds nice! I've long fantasized about this kind of thing. Maybe now's the time.

The "Anastasia" in their name refers to the heroine of the "Ringing Cedars" series of books by Vladimir Megre, which came out in Russia during the mid-1990's and started being translated into English beginning in 2004. If numerous websites are to be believed, the series has a large following not just in Russia, but around the world. "Ringing Cedars" refers to the books' claim that when a Siberian Pine tree (sometimes translated as "Cedar") reaches 500 years of age, it becomes a sort of cosmic energy-channeling antenna. And so also rings the New Age BS detector, but please stay with me here...

I read and enjoyed Anastasia, the first book in the series, and I hope to read the rest. On one level, the book is a male midlife-crisis fantasy-- a first-person account of a spiritually empty entrepreneur who finds a stunningly beautiful and brilliant native girl in the forest, and she changes his life forever. Read the rest


Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor with catholic interests. He is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco. 

I'm thrilled to be guestblogging here and looking forward to learning a lot. I have many half-baked notions that I want to share, mostly in areas I'm fairly ignorant about, and so I am thankful for the opportunity to drink from the firehose of boingboing's collective knowledge. There are many books I haven't read in areas that I'm interested in, even ones that everyone else has read. The Wisdom of Crowds comes to mind here. I can't think of an online community that I'd rather tap into for diverse knowledge and pointers, and by the end of my two weeks I'll have an amazing new reading and check-out list.

Another thing I want to do is process ideas for a new belief system, something like a new religion or philosophy, that will be beneficial to all and resistant to being corrupted. I think people are ready for the next level of consciousness, taking more responsibility for human behavior-- not through some passive mystical transformation, but through actively assembling an empowering and resonant outlook that grows out of the major existing belief systems, fulfilling their prophecies wherever possible, but taking them into a new direction. Let's try!

That's a tall order, I know, but I believe it is possible-- many of the pieces are already here, and the timing's good. Read the rest