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Paul Spinrad

Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor with Catholic interests, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and

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!

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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.

The book industry would tell book reviewers, talent coordinators, etc. that the signs are the new hardcover. In other words, this is the pool of people we're putting out there to make the rounds in the media, and other people will be covering them and people will be thinking about them at the same time that you are. Meanwhile, aspiring authors should want to see themselves up on one of those signs. They should be framed with appropriate gravitas indicators (marble, columns) and designed by famous artists.

According to Pat Holt, publishers fear that reeducating the audience away from hardcovers is impossible. But I think it would happen quickly if all the major publishing houses unveiled their signs at once with some fanfare and ribbon-cutting. It would be a major cultural event, and would get plenty of free coverage.

The signs would also establish a site for publishers to compete against one another, telegraphing how well they are currently doing, by things like how big their sign is, how well-maintained, how state-of-the-art the display technology, and any other ways of showing off how much money the house can publicly burn on image.

LATE ADD: With the "single timely point" etc. I'm just talking about nonfiction.

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. As the classic 70's dashboard sticker warns, "Ass, Gas, or Grass: Nobody Rides for Free." (NuRide rewards drivers with gift cards from participating retailers-- maybe they get money or tax breaks for promoting clean air.)

As for the axe-murderer problem, I think it's less of a liability and insurance issue if it's freeware tapping into a publicly hosted database, rather than a single company owning and running the system. And on the user side, I think there are enough people out there who would trust their own judgment whether or not to get in the car. But I suspect that it might find trust and acceptance faster if it started out only running on Blackberries.

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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.

M) Styles of dress follow people's differing views of human perfectability.


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. If Matthew 1:1-16 hadn't explained how Jesus' lineage fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-5, it wouldn't have gotten where it is today.

So I put it to declared atheists-- the ones who fly the flag about it, not the ones who are quiet or closeted: Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

I think closeted atheists who participate in other religious activities are the future of atheism. They know that prayer feels good without a needing brain scientist to tell them, and they know you don't need God to want to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and provide homes for the orphaned. What if they simply stopped reciting the words that they didn't agree with during religious services, without calling attention to it? In many places I don't think they would be kicked out or turned upon and beaten just for that.

An atheism that's well-designed for broad appeal wouldn't need miracles. What miracles do for a belief system is ensure greater investment on the part of the adherent. If something's easily believable, it's easy to take or leave, but doubtful claims require a leap and then ongoing mental maintenance. If a group subscribes to some miraculous claim, it demands shared support, repetition, declarations, indoctrination, etc.-- all of which bind the group together. For a new atheism, the miracle-we-believe function would be served by the question of whether the whole scheme could actually succeed. If the "us" people say yes and are excited at the prospect while the "them" people view it as absurd, that's the identical, effective dynamic.

Meanwhile, I'm putting The Crooked Letter on my reading list-- it sounds great!

The Diggers

Flickr photo of short tailed shrew by cotinis

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. I asked him about it, and he immediately told me that he was mentioned on some page of some book-- he actually gave me the page number. Here I was, a complete stranger, and the first thing he tells me is how he's connected into a shared structure that neither of us had anything to do with. Whenever we dig a tunnel, we want other shrews to appreciate it.

Photo from Flickr by cotinis 

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. It was tough going, and she tested me, but I succeeded." That's it. You learn nothing about her, and the guy seems to learn nothing about himself. Yawn! For some men, maybe the pride of that conquest is enough to keep a fire burning, but given what Wendy and I have now, it sounds like dullsville. When I contrast it to the dynamic collaboration that I have with Wendy, who shares my values but is otherwise so fascinatingly different, I just smile at how much we have to look forward to.

I did want to be famous once-- what if I had succeeded and then used that power to win someone to whom this mattered? I would deny that she was just a trophy based on how smart and accomplished people considered her to be, conveniently avoiding the underlying question of her real role in my inner life: a prop for my self-image. I like to think that I'm deep enough that we may have eventually found true intimacy anyway, but I can't be sure. Considering the effort it took Wendy to bring me out, I wonder whether I would have just lived my entire life in fabulous black-and-white, believing that emotional availability meant simply choosing someone rather than taking the ongoing risk of sharing emotional truth. But mastering the art of surfing the truth together is exhilarating, a connection out to the universe that makes me feel alive. Thank you, Wendy, my love, for saving me from a caricature of life!

Re-Engineering Fundamentalism

1522 edition of Luther's 95 Theses

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. It doesn't propagate through image, might, or personal influence. This empowers people again-- perhaps simply by making them feel empowered.

Big examples are the formation of Christianity and Islam, and the Protestant Reformation. Today we see other fundamentalisms. But the inevitable next one doesn't have to be intolerant and destructive. If we engage with the task of developing it, rather than avoiding it and leaving it to others, it can be a nice one.

Photo of 1522 edition of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 


We are Fractal Sheep

Margaret Bourke-White - Leipzig, 1945

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.

Today, a voter might decide at the last possible minute because they want the most accurate sense of how others will vote. A new Supreme Court justice might go against their prior voting record because they're now in a group where they see new niches that need to be filled. Our programming is simple, but the game setup and ever-changing environment makes complexity grow to the limits of our massive processing power.

I remember an illustration, possibly from my high school biology textbook, of a bunch of ants carrying a chunk of food. It showed that the ants don't all pull in the same direction; instead, they pull in different directions and the vector sum of all their efforts points the way home, to their colony.

And so it is with us. What stories inspire you most? The Lord of the Rings? The Matrix? Hey, I know-- it's that one about the ordinary person who gradually finds out, through a series of eye-opening events, that they're actually a pivotal figure in the great battle between Good and Evil, that everything they do matters, and so they step up to their new-found responsibility.

We like these epic tales because they're true. Our survival as a species (a.k.a. Good) depends on each of us fighting for what we believe in. We all have a different perspective that's valuable to the whole, even when (sometimes especially when) we're confused and undecided. If we aren't true to ourselves and don't think we matter, it diminishes the overall survivability of us all, especially during times of change and new threats.

When disaster does happen, this distributed setup is highly fault-tolerant. Honestly, if 90% of the human population were wiped out today, the rest of us would fill in the gaps and carry on. But two constants, true from a small tribe up to a planet of 6 billion, are that we need each other always, and that we must fight with each other always.

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White - LIFE © Time Inc. 

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? Rights are more complicated than stocks, but online stock trading sites have figured out easy interfaces for buying, selling, puts, calls, selling short, and other flavors of transaction. Boilerplate is boilerplate.

A culture market would also be a boon to hipsters whose cultural intelligence and breadth of knowledge would suddenly become a marketable talent. Look for the most successful investment funds to be run by comic book / record / video / book store staff.

The exchange could help fund culture that doesn't exist yet or speed its adaptation to more expensive media. Read a self-published graphic novel lately that you think has great potential, but is not well-known? Invest in its movie rights-- you'll be supporting its original creator, and your investment might pay off. We've been seeing lately that Hollywood producers would rather hear "thousands of people already love this story in comic-book form" than "here's a screenplay-- Gail and Tony liked it, so then I gave it to Marty, and he thought it would do well, especially internationally, so then Louise gave it a read and she said it would work with her ending, so then I gave it to..."

I also think the rights market would be a big win for the U.S. No one has or does culture and information like we do: movies, TV, software, games, etc. Whatever the reasons-- I proudly attribute it to our unique mix of diversity, frontier history, freedom, prosperity, first-mover advantage, and infrastructure-- I think our strength in this will endure.

If you own some rights and do a bad job of exercising them, make a lame product, then you lose your investment, fair and square. If a lot of people own a right collectively, then they can hold shareholders meetings to decide things like who should be offered the female lead role and for how much. Unauthorized use or duplication problems might take care of themselves naturally, through crowd enforcement. The all-seeing eyes 10,000 investors who want to protect their property would sniff out and deal with infringers better than some studio legal department, no matter how hyperactive and well-compensated.

Photo: Yale Joel - LIFE © Time Inc. 

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. The Light Surgeons - True Fictions at BFI

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. Live audiences are where we draw our lines.

Productive settings for comedy always need a live audience, even if it's ultimately for television, and the more worked-up and demonstrative the audience feels free to be, the greater the bandwidth of the internal communications bus of audience-performer interaction. Vaudeville, with short bits and a hook to remove bombing performers, is like speed-dating for culture.

Our expectations and habits around being audience members have atrophied ever since movies became popular, but I think live video will retrain us. Movies taught us to sit together and pay attention to a dead, unchanging recording rather than something living and responsive. Symphony orchestras seemingly do their best to imitate recordings, while the audience sits quietly and obediently. Instrumentalists play someone else's cadenza note-for-note instead of doing something unique and current. (Then the symphony development people wonder how to attract younger audiences.)

Writing The VJ Book got me excited about the possibilities of live video, which supercharges the audience-performer communications bus. Digital projectors, fast laptops, and new software let almost anyone improvise and connect the endless palette of visual meaning for large audiences anywhere. You can see great visual mashups on YouTube, sure, but that's a more alienated setting. Like DJs, VJs connect with fellow human beings who are lucky enough to all be together in a particular time and place.

Although there are loads of VJ applications, the genre is still on the commercial periphery. But I'm convinced that some company will do quite well for itself by being the first to introduce a live video app to a broader market and show people its potential. Beyond music and entertainment, it broadens the arsenal of anyone who performs, speaks, or otherwise presents to audiences. Imagine, for example, being a trial lawyer and using live video (is that allowed?) to present your story to a jury, combining your finely honed sense of timing with seeing-is-believing authority.

I think any of these companies could move into the space, and if so, it would quickly become "real" money-wise:

Ableton Live already has a huge following among musicians, and Ableton Live Video would extend it to their visualist pals. VJs have already cooked up ways of getting Live to run video. Ableton just needs some of Adobe's expertise in handling video.

Adobe Premiere Pro is the standard for video editing and Premiere Express is a fun online video mixing applet, so Premiere Live is a logical extension. Adobe just needs some of Ableton's expertise in building fast, bulletproof performance software.

Lots of VJs use Quartz Composer, which is bundled with OS X 10.4 and above. If they offered a full VJ app that hooked into QC, it would be another reason for people to switch.

From a different direction, PowerPoint is increasingly turning into a live video tool, and unlike the 3 companies above, Microsoft doesn't have to explain to Powerpoint users why they need presentation software (performance software-- same thing). When Japanese company motion dive surveyed the users of its VJ software several years ago, they were surprised to find that it was mostly used for office presentations by younger business types rather than the club visuals mixing that the software was originally designed for.

Existing VJ Software companies
AFAIK, all makers of current VJ apps are small, often side operations. The ones I know about people using the most are ArKaos, Isadora, Jitter (with MAX/MSP), Livid Union, motion dive, Resolume, Modul8, Touch, and VDMX. Maybe some of the big companies listed above will acquire one or more of these? One sign might be that Numark now sells its NuVJ hardware, based on ArKaos, and Edirol/Roland sells its MD-P1, based on motion dive.

The Light Surgeons performance photo courtesy Barney Steel 


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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. 

Anastasia by Vladimir Megre

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. Anastasia runs naked, communicates telepathically with animals, is clairvoyant, and possesses vast wisdom that has been lost to modern civilization. She's the "noble savage," and she's also a virgin who fell in love with the author/entrepreneur during a chance previous encounter that he doesn't remember, and she wants to start a family with him ASAP.

What interests me most about Anastasia (and I know I need to read more in the series to confirm/deny), is how it combines deep ecology with traditional, even conservative family values. There's no sense of hippie "alternative lifestyle" in its back-to-the-land message. It honors Christianity and connects with its audience through their experience gardening in dachas (modest country houses) on weekends. It's a container for hard-core downshifting that I sense would appeal to solid, traditional, family-oriented folks. Meanwhile, the book also has some wacky, unexpected ideas that I liked-- for example, the Anastasia character suggests that pollution from roadways could be mitigated by requiring active air purifiers on every vehicle's front bumper.

Websites that sell the Ringing Cedars books also sell products derived from the Siberian Pine-- nuts, oil, and polished slices of the tree to be worn as pendants. And perhaps the initial bolt of inspiration that Megre had, as an inland shipping entrepreneur exploring the Siberian forest, was how to concoct a new religion that would maximize the commercial value of this common regional tree. A 5 gram pendant (slice of branch on a string) costs $4 plus shipping.

Furthermore, according to the cult-watching Center For Apologetics Research, Megre was forced to admit in 1998 that he made the Anastasia stories up, whereupon psychic healer Olga Anatolevnya Guz began to claim that she is the real Anastasia.

But people can change, eyes can open, and how one comes to create a belief system doesn't reflect on the value it contains. Buddha abandoned his wife and baby son in order to pursue his own spiritual journey, but he turned the deadbeat-dad guilt that he must have felt (although his family was rich, so less damage done) into a philosophy and practice of non-attachment that countless people, including myself, have found valuable. There are numerous paths to insight. (But I've also talked to single women in San Francisco who are sick of all the passive, "hey, babe-- no attachments" Buddhist guys.)

So, Siberian Pine products aside-- not that I've tried any-- the Anastasians seem to be onto something constructive, and although I don't think I'll be joining them, I am "rooting" for them.


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. As above, I can't think of a better group to noodle on this with. I hope to gather whatever time and ideas you can spare. It's a good cause.

But I've been enjoying it at boingboing for so long, thanks to everyone's participation, and I don't want this to be just take, take, take, all about my needs. I do have fun links and other stuff that I'm looking forward to sharing. But honestly, the regulars here are hard to scoop. So many of the wonderful things I know about originally reached me through them!

How do I know the Boingboing gang? In the mid-90's, I submitted the short piece "Do Not Mate With Gentle Vegetarians" to Wired magazine for their "Idées Fortes" section. It wasn't a good fit, but it somehow got to Mark, who emailed me later to ask if he could use it for bOING bOING DIGITAL. Yay! A couple of years later I began working with Bob Parks at Wired, which introduced me to David and Cory, and Mark pinged me when he was looking for writers for the experimental first issue of MAKE. Later, when it turned out they needed more staff to produce the magazine quarterly, I told Mark that I was looking for a job-- lucky timing! I love it-- the Makermedia folks are a uniformly fantastic and nice group, and I really believe in what we're doing, and that it's making a positive difference. I feel very fortunate.