Selling shovels to News diggers

Mad Scientist's UnionI had a fun idea tonight (patent pending) that occurred to me after reading about the Newspaper’s accelerating collapse, the Talking Point Memo’s membership experiment, and the recent report on reconstructing journalism.

I can’t recall ever reading about or debating my new journalistic business model, and I’m not sure if its crazy, brilliant, or evil.

Has anyone ever thought about charging newsreaders to express themselves?

Micropayments for comments, not content?

Seriously, how wild would that be.  Pay to comment. Maybe pay to vote, rate, like/dislike. You could even sell different priced foods for people to throw at the journalists (and at other users), provoking foodfights in the newsroom. People would pay to mad men themselves, if you allow them to customize their avatars so they could rant in style.

Now, I recognize it might sound like a step backwards, or slightly anti-democratic, but not long ago there was no commenting at all.  And folks can pick themselves up and have a conversation anywhere on the Internet if they want to. But, you are offering the readers the spotlight of attention… kinda like, advertising!  The dating sites have finely tuned the market dynamics of charging users to communicate. Would these comment stamps reduce or increase the spam?

Maybe the scales are all wrong – it’s probably something like 1% of readers that ever participate, but if fashion (and flickr and  Second Life) is any indication, people dispose plenty of their income expressing themselves in public.

So, Mr. Murdoch, tear down this firewall.  Everyone knows the real money comes from the souvenir and concession stands. It’s better than free.

Shekhinah Power

ZapIs it possible that our ancestors harnessed the power of electricity?

It’s logically possible that electric motors pre-dated steam engines, and tantalizing writings combined with circumstantial evidence suggest that the ancients understood more than static electricity and simple batteries.

This question is yet another reformulation of the regard we hold for the wisdom of the ancients, and if their models and perspectives might offer anything meaningful to today’s scientists and philosophers. Even the alternative researchers who investigate these claims often feel the need to invoke atlanteans, martians, or time travelers as the deus ex machina to explain their origin.

A recent constellation of events and ideas (MiT6, Intentional Energy, Faith’s Transmission) in my life has brought me back to this question.  If the ancients had developed a theory of everything, how might they have encoded this message for transmission into the future? Would their theory of everything incorporate/integrate subjectivity and consciousness, unlike our generation’s leading contenders?

The following free association provides a glimpse at what a message like that could look like.

Religion is a process of turning your skull into a tabernacle, not of going up to Jerusalem once a year.[*]

I have been investigating spiritual mysteries for decades – I maintain my own personal X-Files, some of which are documented on this blog.  In June ’95 I even traveled to West Africa following up a lead on the descendants of Joseph and the Arc of the Covenant. (I found everything I was looking for, and more, but that’s a story for another post).

Crackpots and scholars alike have recognized the electrical potential of the Arc.  Most famously, Eric Von Daniken has popularized this interpretation of its intrinsic physical properties in Chariots of the Gods.

The blueprints of the Arc are described in intricate detail in Exodus – Gold box/wooden box/gold box.  Gold is one of the best conductors on the periodic table (think stereo cables), so the Arc was an electromagnetic sandwich — conductor/insulator/conductor — the very definition of a capacitor.  A physical device capable of storing electrical charge — a.k.a. a battery.

That the Arc might have held electrical charge is consistent with the stories told about it.  People who touched it died instantly, it was carried by the Levites into battle, and its divine fire even was known to kill the wicked.

Bracketing for a moment the source of this wisdom, if the Arc was used as a battery, the next logical questions are: How was it charged? What did it power?

They Kept Going and Going

The utility of electrical power in ancient times is simple. Even untamed electricity might have been quite valuable in an era when its sparks would have been regarded as miraculous.  Speculative research suggests the some kinds of applications that electricity could have powered – lighting up the high preist’s breastplate, or perhaps even a transmitter or a manna machine.

Charging is a bit more complicated. For years my imaginations has been conceptually trapped inside the holy of holies — struggling to imagine how on earth the high priest might have been able to transform spiritual energy (or information) into energy we could do work with on this planet (e.g. electrical energy).  Recently I realized that the Tabernacle was actually flowing with physical energy.  The priest’s entire system of sacraments and service could have been organized around collecting, transforming, storing, and harnessing electrical energy.

Not only were the priests playing with fire, pouring gallons of blood through intricate piping, and baking bread and cooling in on strange conductive structures (see the Mishkan or watch the movie), but I had an epiphany around the suggestive “potential” of the priest’s very strange uniforms.

The Israelite priests were actually commanded to wear uniforms which juxtaposed wool and linen — a combination of materials forbidden to the laypeople, and also quite capable of holding a static charge (especially with the help of balloons 😉 ). Additionally, they also wore the fringes whose craft has been preserved by Orthodox Jews to this day. Imagine if these fringes were wrapped in wire instead cotton — they could have stepped up/down the voltage of the charge flowing through them.  It is not necessary to demonstrate that these ritual artefacts were ever made to these specifications.  They testify to the fact that the Israelites had the knowledge and skill to braid electrically sound cabling.

Still Suits for Charge

Here is one possible scenario: The priest reports to duty, grounds themselves on the Temple Grid, work all day long, generating a bit of static charge, and then deposits that charge into the power bank of the Arc of the Covenant.

What if all of the activities conducted in the Tabernacle were oriented around collecting, transforming, and storing charge?  Would this scientific/rational explanation for the miracles in the desert denigrate or diminish their significance?  Or, would this kind of explanation elevate their status, and help remind people of how miraculous the world is on a continuous basis?


I am currently in discussions with legal council about the possibility of patenting ideas related to and inspired by my interpretation of the biblical accounts of the tabernacle artefacts and the corresponding priestly activities.  Regenerative living suits might have incredible potential to help raise energy awareness (and in turn, responsibility, and intentionality).  I doubt that I would be able to recapture very much electricity from my everyday motions, but perhaps enough to play a few songs on my mp3 player or talk for a few minutes on my cell phone.   I know if I were camping, this energy would be priceless.

If I pull this off, would the Israelites need to license my patents when they rebuild their temple?  I suppose they could always just relinquish their hold on Intellectual Property entirely… I would be happy either way 😉

I have to admit, I am amused just thinking about the testimony to invalidate my patent based on biblical prior-art. Intriguingly, this historical hypothesis is testable…

See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skilful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship. [*]

The year of the hybrid?

Economies, not cars.

Last night I saw Larry Lessig present “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy” as a part of Evan Korth’s amazing Computers and Society speaker series.  The talk was an improved iteration on the talk I saw him present at Wikimania ’06, but it was much tighter – concentrated, but not too dense. He included a few new examples and anecdotes, collapsed earlier presentations into compact sub-segments, and has incorporated Benkler’s hybrid economies (articulated in The Wealth of Networks) into the Read-Only->Read/Write->Hybrid progression.

It really is a pleasure listening to a world-class orator (he has argued cases in front of the supreme court) deliver an argument, and I was trying to pay attention to his rhetorical style, and the ways he has honed the structure of his argument over time.

First, a small bone – For a while, Lessig has been making a bold and provocative assertion that text has become the Latin of our time, and audio and video are the vulgar. Arguments over the correctness of tense aside, I sure wish he would start using the word ‘vernacular’ instead of ‘vulgar’.  ‘Vulgar’ makes the argument sound, well, a bit elitist to me, and when I repeat this claim, I remix it to ‘vernacular’.

More important than quibbling over this choice of words I was a little thrown off by the direction that Lessig wants to take IP reform. Last night he spent a bit of time outlining a scheme that hinges on the analytic distinction between professionals and amateurs. I think he may have been trying to appeal to an intuitive sense of fairness, or perhaps pragmatics, over how professional creators work might be protected by IP while amateurs should be free to create w/out regulation or restriction.

I thought it was downright odd that in one breath he was persuading us that we live in a hybrid world, and in the next trying to maintain the line between amateurs and professionals.  The line between professionals and amateurs is clearly blurring, as the difficulties in applying shield laws to journalists attests. Nowadays, who exactly is The Press, whose freedoms may never be abridged according to the First Amendment? I am really unclear about the definition of a creative professional in a hybrid economy. Would we need to introduce licenses to certify creative professionals? Even in the example of the baby video with Prince music playing in the background, would the situation change if the mother was making money off of google ad-words aside the video?

To me, if you take Benkler’s argument to heart, in a networked world many everyday interactions will be commodified, and favors will turn into transactions. We’ll all become some hybrid of amateur and professional. This doesn’t sound all good to me, as I am not sure I want to live in a world where everything has an exchange value… This paper by Nigel Thrift, Re-inventing invention: new tendencies in capitalist commodification, paints a grimmer picture than Benkler does about the sophisticated ways that knowledge workers are being exploited in the hybrid world we are hurtling towards.

Speaking in Tongues

Have I ever mentioned how cool these newfangled series of tubes are sometimes?

I just found out that an essay of mine was translated into Italian, which is now the second essay I have written to be translated into a language I don’t even speak. Appropriately, a major theme of the essay was the economics of peer production, and the professor I wrote it for was actually from Italy, so perhaps it resonated strongly with the Italians.

The first was translated into Greek, which is beginning to make me wonder if it might be time for a nice trip out to the Mediterranean.

If any of my friends speak Greek or Italian, I would love to hear how these translations turned out 😉

Costruire la libertà: gli sviluppatori di software libero tra lavoro e gioco (Fabricating Freedom: Free Software Developers at Work and Play)

Η εκστρατεία ZyprexaKills: Ομότιμη παραγωγή και τα όρια της ριζοσπαστικής παιδαγωγικής (The ZyprexaKills Campaign: Peer Production and the Frontiers of Radical Pedagogy)

Libre Lungamente in Tensione!

A panel of prophets?


Last Thursday I participated in a panel at an event entitled “The Future of Digital Media: Predictions for 2008.” The event was recorded and will soon be posted, but in the meantime here is a page about the event with more details and some pictures.

The even was hosted by Ember Media, held at The Armory and featured their CEO Clayton Banks keynoting some predictions for the coming year.

The predictions didn’t contain too many shockers (though I have blogged 1.5 years ago here about where I think the set-top box is headed – hint: straight into your pocket, and Clayton’s legislative prediction about a minimum, symmetrical bandwidth goal is something I find hard to imagine in a country where we can’t get network neutrality, municipal wi-fi, or even rural connectivity right). After the keynote, Clayton asked myself and my fellow panellists – Kay Madati, VP of Community Connect, and Alan Stern, Editor CenterNetworks – a series of smart questions.

It’s been a little while since I’ve hung out with this many entrepreneurs and it was refreshing. I definitely appreciated the opportunities to discuss privacy, the politics of bandwidth, and economics of sharing and test the theoretical chops I have been sharpening in grad school.

Reflecting on the evening, I was a bit frustrated at what seemed like a get-rich-quick entitlement that some of the questions implied. At one point I wanted to shout – 9 out of 10 restaurants in NYC fail – why do you think your digital media company deserves anything different? Micropayments?!? I remember hearing that elusive siren song back in ’99 at MaMaMedia… and smarter folks than I agree that free is a stable strategy… in fact, when copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. Try concentrating on creating real value in the world, and trust me, the wealth will follow. But, I suppose not all of us have incorporated alchemical wisdom into our daily lives.

Thanks to everyone who was involved in organizing this event – it was a great success!

A round trip ticket, out of this world


Since I am total flosstitute I do lots of my work on the beautiful OS X desktop, though the servers I administer are all linux, and on my new thinkpad laptop I finally bit the bullet and wiped the windows partition (it came with vista, so there wasn’t much deliberation). My only encounters with windows nowadays are through virtualization, so I feel like I have that demon safely caged.

One of the things I love about the mac are the little easter eggs you can find if you hunt around long enough (or more likely accidentally stumble upon).

One of these black-ops is the music visualization software that comes with iTunes (at least on OS X). I seem to recall something about a Christian fundamentalist writing it originally, right before joining the navy and serving on a submarine crew. Thing is, he couldn’t get this piece of software out of his head, and winded up leaving the military to work on this software full time. I think Madonna used to use early prototypes at her private parties, and one way or another he started working at Apple, apparently on the iTunes team. (this is all from memory, and I couldn’t find a source, in case anyone has heard this story also).

In any case, I occasionally remember to check in on this tool, and it’s gotten better with ever release of OS X. I think last year I discovered that if you run it in full screen mode it seems to use a much improved rendering engine, and maybe even a different algorithm.

None of this prepared me for the experience that I had Tuesday night. A few months back I learned about a wicked cool piece of software on Alexander Limi (the Plone founder’s) blog. The software is called nocturne, and is pretty friggin cool on its own. It’s not much more than a simple set of macros that invert the hues of your display – to either black and white, inverted color hues, or even submarine red. It’s really nice if you want to use your computer at the end of the day, but don’t want to deal with all the energy of a full backlight.

So anyway, I had this kooky idea (no drugs involved!) to turn on the iTunes music visualizer with nocturne in night mode, and I simply could not believe my senses. I was witnessing the audioloom – an idea I had begun to think about a few years back that originated with the simple question – can synesthesia be learned? I became very interested in the natural relationships between color and sound, noticing that both seem to come in octaves (think of the color wheel – a venn diagram defining 3 singles, 3 doubles, 1 triple, and the background, making 7+1… just like the western musical scale!).

I even remember what sparked this question. I was playing with a new set of Christmas lights, the kind with a remote control that makes the lights dance in different patterns. The important part of this experiment was leaving the lights ordered neatly in the box, instead of making a tangled mess. With this arrangement, when I played music, I could swear that the photons were dancing to the beat 😉

In any case, I was intrigued by the possibility that there might be a fundamental ontological relationship between sound and color, but even with this foray into metaphysics, I thought there might be a natural mapping between these two types of sense data, one that might be empirically determinable.

I did some research on synesthesia, and read a great book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes. My idea began to take shape as a multi-phase project. Phase I was this screensaver on steroids, but Phase II is a musical instrument that plays light instead of sound. As with all fun ideas, there is nothing new under the sun, and many philosophers/inventors ranging from Aristotle to Newton to Benjamin Franklin have taken a crack at this problem (timeline), but the idea was ahead of its time… Until now.

So, back to Nocturne’s night mode. When I went full screen with non-monotone inverted hues, I swear to god it felt like I was entering a wormhole. Right out of that scene in Carl Sagan’s Contact, except without the extraneous seat that the stupid humans built.

I was transfixed, and will freely admit that on this first trip I spent a solid 2 hours staring at the screen and listening to my favorite tunes. Every time a song would end, I would wonder what another of my favorites would look like. I think the difference between day mode and night mode is that the visualizer outputs mostly dark. By inverting the hues, the screen explodes with backlit energy. Enough to keep your eyes working overtime. It was kinda like watching TV, except that instead of being hypnotizing, it was mesmerizing. I mean, I was grooving on my favorite music, but my eyes weren’t jealous of my ears – everyone had their work cut out for them.

Unlike TV, the audioloom experience requires active processing, as your brain frantically struggles to find patters in the sequences and segues. Since I don’t think the shapes and transitions are computed deterministically, there is an element of Art combined with the engineering mathematics displayed on the screen.

It made me wonder if this feeling would normally have required 10 years of devoted study in an ashram to replicate before this technology came along. One way or another, the experience was transcendental, and I just hope I haven’t stumbled upon the Videodrome, or the mysterious plot device in Infinite Jest

In any case, I plan to continue my experiments and keep you posted with updates. It is quite a relief that I might not actually need to implement this invention one day. Just goes to show, ideas kept secret, go stale.

Nostalgia Train

nostalgia_train.jpgYesterday I took a ride on the the S train – not the shuttle, the special. The MTA conducted a vintage run of some 1930s trains this month, including many of the original advertisements and maps.

Amazingly, these trains were not replaced until the late 70s… I must have ridden on some of these as a child. I definitely remember the lights flickering on and off and the wicker seats.

More pictures here.

OLPC Field Repair

466296547_46b55653ce.jpgAt last month’s incredible Teach Think Play Conference I was fortunate enough to borrow an OLPC laptop from a good friend. As usual, the tangible green machine was a Pop Star (though in this educator crowd, most were not familiar with the project), garnering interest and attention wherever it travels.

Sadly, the machine I had borrowed had some serious power issues, and I could not demo Sugar – the linux-based, free operating system developed specifically for the OLPC – to any of the attendees.

Since my employer CCNMTL is a participant in the OLPC developer program (thusfar we have only received a raw motherboard, not a complete laptop), I decided to attempt a field repair of the OLPC in the vain hope I might be able to swap boards and get the unit running again.

I discovered that the OLPC hardware (at least at this stage) is not quite as easy to disassemble as one would hope – you really need more of a clean room than a Third-World repair shop to work on this model. Still, a few iconic cues directing disassembly, like on a Thinkpad or Apple, would go a long way. Amazingly, there were no moving parts!

In any case, I visually documented the disassembly process, but I don’t think I am going to be able to put humpty dumpty back together again any time soon. I guess I owe my friend $100 (well, now $150), since that is the list price of the OLPC.

Teaching, Thinking, and Playing: Day One

Today I attended day 1 of this year’s amazing Cultural Studies conference at Teachers College – Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teach, Think, Play.

The morning kicked off with a Keynote by Taylor Mali, a spoken word philosopher-poet who perpetrates lyrical homicide against those who judge others according to their salary instead of the difference people are making in the world. I highly recommend taking a listen to some of his work, as he is working to inspire 1000 new teachers, and is only up to ~160.
I presented a hybrid of my SXSW talk, Teaching in the New Vernacular, and Chris Blizzard’s OLPC introduction in a session called:

Portable Culture Machines: One Multimedia Studio Per Child (the proposal had been published on OLPCNews).

The talk was well attended, and the conference attendees were very excited to see/touch/feel/smell the XO device I borrowed from a friend.

Ernest Washington gave a great session on teaching w/ hip hop, but for me the real takeaway was a perspective on education as the “cultivation of emotions” – this talk really connected alot of dots I have been working on lately, especially the “chemical swaddling” conversation I have been having with Philip Dawdy of Furious Seasons.
The Media About Youth Consortium, a group print and film journalists (Alissa Quart, Jennifer Dworkin, Maia Szalavitz, Joie Jager-Hyman) spoke about their work and issues they are facing on the publishing front.

Jan Jagodzinski gave a fabulous and fun (but substantive and deeply critical )reading of everything from Borat to South Park, and of designer capitalism through the eyes of a Kynic (not to be confused with a cynic).

Art Spiegelman, the creative force behind Maus gave a wonderful history of the comic strip (and more generally, the genre of narrative storytelling with text and images) and his wife, Francoise Mouly, the Art editor of the New Yorker, gave back to back talks.

Finally, Will Pearson the President of mental_floss (a magazine in the spirit of highlights which entertains while it teaches) closed out the day with a lively talk explaining their history, and why Einstein appears on every cover.
And tomorrow’s schedule is jam packed too!

Wonderful Things

testtaker_main.jpgMonday night I went to the ITP’s end-of-semester show. A friend of mine is in the program and I went to check out the scene. ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program, is part of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. ITP has been around since ’79, and lies somewhere concetually between the MIT Media Lab and Mary Flanagan. When I visited the MIT Media Lab this summer I began to understand how it was really operating as a pooled R & D lab for corporate interests (with plenty of military funding). I got the vibe that ITP is coming from a different place with different priorities, but I don’t really know the full back story.

Here are some of the highlights of the many many projects I saw the other night:

Emerging themes continue to suggest that we are indeed embarking on a era that can be described as “The End of Forgetting“, and that epistemology itself is transforming beneath our feet. That is, the way we know what we know, the kinds of things that we know, and our relationship to knowledge is being transformed by shifts in memory, computational possibilities, simulation, and visualization. Going to a show like this really reinforces these bold predictions.

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