Silencing the infernal internal combustion engine

A few years ago I visited my family in Florida for the holiday season. My sister and her family also flew in, and to their credit, her children were more interested in a family vacation to see the marine hospital in Clearwater than they were in Disney World (this is the home of Winter and Hope, the real life dolphins with prosthetic tails who starred in Dolphin Tale).

While I was there I took my first ride ever on a Wave Runner (Yamaha’s Jet Ski) and had a revelation. The ride was exhilarating. I did 54 mph in the bay. Apart from a gorgeous co-pilot, the only thing that would have improved the experience would be to eliminate the roar of the internal combustion engine. Silent jet skis.

I’ve sailed a few times and the experience is divine. It feels like flying, even though motorboats travel much faster. Technically, the sail’s propulsion operates on the same principle as a wing. But what I remember most was the quiet. Quiet enough to play music, have a conversation and hear the waves.

That same trip I also test drove a Tesla Model S for the first time. Pure power. You could be stopped at red light, in the left-most lane of a five lane road, and still make a right turn. You would be two car lengths ahead of all the other cars before they even start moving. Driving a Tesla feels like playing a game of tetris – the car is so powerful and the handling so accurate that I could put myself anywhere on the road. I began to dream of an electric jet ski.

The thing about an electric jet ski is that it need not merely be a toy for the rich. It could also be the center of a campaign to catalyze adoption of electric vehicles.

Consider for a moment – Who are Tesla’s main competitors? It’s not the Prius, or the BMW i models, or the Volt… it’s the internal combustion engine! And, with decades of marketing creating Pavlovian conditioning between the hum and the thrum of an internal combustion engine and sex and power, it’s going to be a tough nut to crack.

How does the middle class learn what’s trending with power elite?  Through the media, to be sure.  And, on vacation ????????????

Picture the scene. Vacationers arrive at the docks greeted by solar panels charging a new line of electric jet skis. They will be skeptical about their safety, power and sex appeal. Electric batteries in the water? We’ve been powering electric boats and submarines for over a century. Plus, how did we ever become convinced that detonating a bomb between our legs a few hundred times a minute while sitting on top of gallons of flammable fluid was safe? If the electric jet ski is anything like the Tesla Model S, power and sex appeal will speak for themselves. One short ride and they will be signing up to purchase an electric vehicle as soon as they return home from vacation.

Doubtful I’m going to get to this idea in this lifetime, but I would love to see it happen.

The case of the missing Barnes paintings

Dr. Albert Barnes was a chemist who made a fortune at the turn of the 20th century developing a treatment for infant blindness. He became interested in art and befriended the painter William Glackens. The two began collecting modern paintings in Paris in 1911, and Barnes eventually developed a private collection of paintings that today is valued at $50-60 Billion. Amazingly, he collected the works of the masters before they were masters, almost the equivalent of buying the Mona Lisa off Da Vinci in a dark Venice alley for twenty bucks. While he never got his hands on Mona, he amassed a world class collection of Renoirs, Picassos, Matisses, Modiglianis, Van Googhs, and more.

Barnes was a quirky character. He hated the establishment, and couldn’t stand museums, high society or the 1%. He had this crazy idea that art was best appreciated by living with it, as opposed to viewing it in crowds for three second doses. He kept his collection of paintings in his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, and opened a school where people could learn about art while surrounded by it. He hung his paintings thematically, and each wall was a unique montage, what came to be known as an ensemble. He was constantly rearranging these works, and he rooms were often developed as a part of a curriculum — there were rooms featuring colorwork, brushwork, nudes — and, since he owned them, I imagine he occasional pulled down a Van Gough from the wall and let his students feel it to teach them about brushwork. He had an idiosyncratic sense of humor, and would often position large wooden chairs beneath paintings of big-bottomed subjects.

Barnes was quite cantankerous, and he was picky about who he admitted to see the collection. He once rejected someone from seeing the collection and signed the letter as his dog. He was also close friends with John Dewey, and invited Bertrand Russel to teach at his foundation. A few biographies have been penned about him, and The Devil and Dr. Barnes recounts many of the battles he engaged in during his life.

He was married for decades, but (spoiler alert) he died childless in 1951. During his lifetime he created the Barnes Foundation, and his will left crystal clear instructions that his collection was bequeathed to the foundation and should never leave his home. The documentary film The Art of the Steal tells the story of the greatest heist of the 20th century. According to the filmmakers, the City of Philadelphia and private foundations conspired to effectively eminent domain the collection. It took them a few decades, but they were eventually able to make the case that the environmental conditions of the Barnes home were jeopardizing the paintings. The proposed creating a brand new building in the middle of downtown Philly modeled after the wing of the Barnes estate that held his collections. They promised to preserve the unique curatorial layout of his rooms, recreating them within the new building. In 2012 the Barnes collection was moved to it’s new home in downtown Philly. The website describes the collection as:

… the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early-modern paintings. Explore more than 3,000 masterpieces, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modigli­anis, and 7 Van Goghs, plus textiles, metalwork, decorative objects, African sculpture, Native American ceramics and jewelry, and Pennsylvania German furniture.

Moving the collection to downtown Philly certainly made the collection more accessible, and the issues around moving the collection are undoubtably more complex than the Art of the Steal portrays. Rather than take these questions up in this post, I am far more interested in another question:


How did Barnes know which paintings to buy?

Barnes had a demonstrably amazing knack for investing in value. Suspiciously good, from my perspective. As far as I can reason, there are four primary hypotheses that can account for Barnes’ hit rate:

  1. Null hypothesis: Blind luck. Or, if you like, had a great aesthetic sensibility and was able, with Glackens help, to identify the masters well before most others had.
  2. Arbitrage: Maybe Barnes wasn’t so great at picking winners, but was a great art trader. Perhaps he bought up just about everything he could get his hands on inexpensively, and then got rid of the crap.
  3. Trend setter: Barnes hated the establishment, and much of the establishment resented Barnes. Perhaps Barnes’ collection became so valuable precisely because he kept it under lock and key, selectively allowing people to view it.
  4. Time Bandit: (a) Barnes was a time-traveller. Or, at the very least (and somewhat more likely) (b) was receiving messages from the future, providing him with tips on which artists to invest in.

If we consider the Time Bandit explanation (4b), mostly because it’s the most fun, these follow-up questions immediately present themselves: Who sent these messages to Barnes, and why? What would they get out of it?

Starting with the motive, what if the following deal was struck? The tipster would exchange this information with Barnes in return for a reply from Barnes, back to the future. What if Barnes agreed to stash some of his collection, perhaps in a country house, a beach house or a château? He could leave behind a treasure map directing the messenger to the lost Barnes paintings, completing the exchange without creating a vicious tear in the fabric of space-time.

What if I told you that I think I have found this treasure map, and that it’s encoded in one of the rooms of the Barnes collection?

Wanted: A few good art historians and treasure hunters to help me track down the missing paintings.

I <3 compliance!

Onkyo CompliesLast month I bought an amazing gadget that is easily my most favorite of the decade. Before last month, I was barely aware this product category existed until I browsed the “Home Audio” section at PC Richards while looking for a replacement vacuum cleaner. I noticed that many of the receivers had ethernet jacks and also supported wi-fi, bluetooth, hdmi and USB. They boasted compatibility with internet audio streaming services, home media libraries, as well as any bluetooth-enabled media collection. Brought to all of us thanks to Free and Open Source Software.

The Onkyo TX-NR626 looks almost identical to a stereo receiver you could have bought from Onkyo in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the chases is the same, save for a few extra buttons, and the form factors of the inputs/outputs in the back. A 95W per channel, supporting 7.2 channels, this sucker packs a meaner punch than my UWS apartment (or, more accurately, my neighbors) can stomach. But don’t let it’s outer shell fool you. But, the guts of this gadget have been updated for the 21st century, with flair.


I love traveling and I travel alot. In the past few years I have added a fun toy to my travel kit – a small, portable bluetooth speaker. I am currently using the Logitech UE Mini Boom, which sounds so much better than the tinny, built-in laptop speakers it’s worth lugging along. Normally, I plug a cheap audio wire into my phone to connect it to the speaker, but the wire connection started acting flakey and I bluetoothed while vacationing in Florida, Philly and the Hudson Valley. I really enjoyed dialing up my entire music collection from across the room over the would-be miracle that bluetooth promised. So much so that I started wondering why I couldn’t do the same at home.

For the better part of the last decade my home workstation, a mac mini, has been my media hub and jukebox. Back in ’98, I started ripping my CD collection even before I owned an MP3 player, anticipating the day when my digital collection would pay off in spades. Every night I would connect to the internet over my dial-up modem, pull down the album metadata from CDDB, and would typically digitize one or two CDs per night. Maybe a few more over the weekend. After a year my collection was digitized.  My first MP3 player was a Rio Diamond 500 with a paltry 64MG of storage. I hated selecting playlists, and dreamed of the day when my entire collection would be at my fingertips. Inevitably, I would neglect to load new music on my Rio, and be stuck listening to the wrong music.

In recent months I have become increasingly frustrated with my home jukebox setup. I’ve installed CrashPlan on my Mac, a java based backup programming that is incessantly hogging resources and causing frustrating delays in my access to music. I’m also disgusted with Apple’s oppressive policies, and have begun to second guess my decision to make my workstation my media hub. Last year I ditched my iPod in favor of a SanDisk Sansa Clip running the open-source RockBox, but a few months back I upgraded my HTC phone to a model that takes an microSD card, and have been enjoying my entire collection on my phone.

I can now send music to my new stereo receiver from my phone, tablet and computer. I can also connect to the internet, and I love it. Sometimes, you just want an appliance with an old fashioned  remote control, not a general purpose computing device.


onkyo_front_largeThe new line of home audio components manufactured by folks like Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo, look alot like their predecessors but are actually network-enabled computers. When I opened up my new receiver I was amazed to find 11 pages of Free Software licenses included along with the warranty and instructions. Onkyo has respectfully complied with the LGPL and GPL licenses, and includes this pamphlet along with their hardware. The documentation references many familiar libraries, including OpenSSL, curl, ntp, image libraries and video transcoding libraries.

For years, Eben Moglen has been claiming that hardware manufacturers have embraced FLOSS, but this device crystalized for me the obvious advantages. Onkyo is a stereo component manufacturer. The last thing they want to deal with is hiring an army of developers to wrestle with SSL to support wifi passwords or develop boilerplate settings interfaces. The sheer quantity of software required to create modern consumer electronics is staggering, and I am fairly certain that without free software this receiver would have easily cost 1.5-2 times the price, and probably had fewer features.

From automobiles to DVD players, computers are being grafted onto every device we interact with. The better ones are being reimagined and built around computers, instead of vice-versa. There are an awful lot of protocols and standards to support. It makes me really happy to know that we all have friends in embedded places – greasing the nooks and crannies of 21st century electronics.

Audio experiments and the rise of Scuttlebutt

by Jonah Bossewitch and Rob Garfield

ouroboros_Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_14While chipping away at my dissertation this summer I found myself faced with the daunting task of transcribing about a dozen hours of video. I desperately wanted to believe that, in 2014, transcription was a machine’s task, so I took a minor detour through the state of the (consumer) art in voice recognition.  One of my computers runs OSX which includes Dictation (since Mavericks), the same voice recognition software that powers Siri. Following these instructions I used the Soundflower kernel extensions to send the audio output from Audacity into Dictation’s input.

Dictation did such an awful job understanding my video that I actually found it easier to transcribe the videos manually rather than edit Dictation’s vomit. I found some decent software called ExpressScribe to assist in the manual transcription.  ExpressScribe makes it easy to control the playback speed, and can be configured to play a segment, automatically pause, and then rewind the video to moments before it paused.  The pro version can be rigged up to foot petal controls, but I was able to do my transcription using the crippleware.

This summer I visited my friend Rob’s country house, affectionately dubbed Snowbound and located on the transcendental Baptist Pond, NH. Rob was gracious enough to invite me up for a writing retreat, though we managed to fit in some canoeing, hiking, cooking and drinking. We also gave birth to one of the most creative constructive procrastinations of my dissertationScuttlebutt.

After all that time playing with transcription tools we began to wonder if OSX could understand itself.  For years, OSX has been able to turn text to speech, and even ships with dozens of voices, with names like Vicky and Alex.  What would happen if we fed OSX’s text-to-speech into it’s own Dictation software?

Dealing-with-Workplace-Gossip6Originally we thought Scuttlebutt might analogize and highlight the way that we humans misunderstand, mishear and misremember, in particular, the lightning quick messages that we receive on a daily basis through personal interaction, social media and emailoften deeply changing the message, generalizing it, and recontextualizing it.  Although voice recognition software begs us to “train” it, we thought we might have better results interacting with its infant state.

We needed a reliable benchmark and settled on the first chapter of Genesis. We were curious if the voice recognition software would improve, with successive iterations of feeding it it’s own output back to itself using text-to-voice. There was one way to find out.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the rest anything is left without things we think are funny face of the deep and just give it to Scott moved upon the face of the waters…

The results were surreal and absurd. Successive iterations degenerated, and we realized that Dictation was trying to adapt and learn, and would never reach a stable state. In fact, the system wasn’t behaving deterministicallywe were seeing different interpretations when reading the exact same text. As you can see from our lab notes, zaniness ensued.

One of the things we found most beautiful about the initial Scuttlebutt experiments was watching the mechanisms think in real time, going back in the text to reevaluate previous approximations in the face of new material, yet rarely, if ever, arriving at a more humanly coherent whole.  With Soundflower enabled, the text-to-voice was inaudible and my laptop appeared possessed as the words flowed spectrally into the text editor. At times Scuttlebutt would pause, as if pondering, and burst forth with an entire paragraph. Other times it corrected itself, backtracking as if reconsidering it’s previous composition. What we saw was an unthinking machine actually thinking in a way so foreign to us that we could only find it charming and amusing.  The analogy to human misprision began to erode and the phantasm of an alien intelligence emerged to take its place.

Did Scuttlebutt care about Genesis?  Did it care about cogency, grammar, narrative, character?  Was it looking for a climax?  Was it acting like an alien parrot trying to please us with its ability to mirror the sounds it heard and fool us into thinking it had at least an unsteady foothold in human (English) linguistic competence?  Would it have passed a Turing test altered to determine whether an alien mind was conscious?  Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on free/open source software (a question we’ve pondered previously in: Playing doctor)?

What next for Scuttlebutt? A tweeting preacher-bot?  Transrealist poet?  Mechanical Burroughsian cut-ups?

The sheriff and the pretty woman

spitzer-dupreI just read a provocative essay in the Atlantic that draws a connecting thread between many of today’s top news stories.  What do the ISIS beheadings, the NFL domestic abuse scandals, the Fergeson riots and nude celebrities all have in common?  Pics or didn’t happen: The new crisis of the connected camera describes the emergence of the “networked lens” and the ethical questions this new(ish) medium raises.

I’ve been writing and thinking about these themes for years under the heading of The End of Forgetting. The Atlantic piece explicitly separates the bulk of NSA  surveillance from this analysis “This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is.”  This whole discussion reminded of a pet theory of mine that I’ve never written up, but seems more relevant than ever.

What would the NSA do with a time machine?  Not one of those fanciful machines that transports matter through time, but the more plausible wormcam variety that only transmits information through time. I described this capability in my post on yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers, but never elaborated an early example of this kind of power in action.

Consider this questionWho protects the president against character assassinations?  I am pretty sure it’s not his secret service detail, and I seriously doubt his PR team is up to the task. As far as I can tell Michelle is one of Obama’s last lines of defense against a humiliating scandal that would destroy what remains of his disappointing presidency. If JFK were alive today you wouldn’t need a magic bullet to take him out. Hacking into his (or better yet Marilyn’s) Snapchat account would end his political career. Just ask Anthony Wiener.

How clear a picture can metadata paint? In the Atlantic piece, Robinson Meyer quotes Susan Suntag, who once argued that While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”  To this I would add the caveat that (meta)data in the right hands can be used to paint a vivid picture, and ruin someone’s image as readily as an HD photo.

Let’s travel back in time to winter ’08. Elliot Spitzer was one year into his first term as governor of New York after a earning a reputation as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street’s white-collar criminals.  He certainly had many enemies, from slimy CEOs to dirty politicians. But not too many people remember what Elliot was working on the night before he ordered out in DC. Exhibit A is posted on web for anyone curious enough to search:

Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime, By Eliot Spitzer. Thursday, February 14, 2008

To summarize, Spitzer’s Op-Ed in the Washington posts describes how 49 State Attorney Generals had identified the threat of predatory lending years before the sub-mortgage crisis and he accuses the Bush administration of intervening to prevent any regulation of the banks. He blames the Bush administration, by name and all the way to the top, for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the worst recession in a generation.  And two weeks later he was assassinated. At least, his political career was summarily killed and he resigned from office in disgrace.

As an aside, I find it curious that Spitzer’s Op-Ed was published on Valentine’s Day. I sometimes wonder if he seized the occasion of his Op-Ed publication to combine work and play, as many busy professionals might. Was Spitzer in love with Ashley Dupré? How exactly did they originally meet?

While the scope of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs was only speculation in Feb ’08, they were fully operational at this time and I believe that Spitzer may have been one of the first causalities of the NSA’s metadata time machine. Spitzer was taken down by telephone metadata  Client 9’s calls to the DC Madam was they key to the case that eventually led to the release of phone transcripts which included unnecessary graphic detail, like his preference for protecting his feet from the cold during sex and his shunning of all other forms of protection. These images were etched in the minds of the public and were as decisive as the images of Wiener’s junk.

I personally had a conversation with a developer from White Oak Technologies (now renamed Novetta) who coyly described his firm’s involvement in the Spitzer case. Founded before this newfangled craze of facebook-era indirection through venture capital funds, White Oak was a good old fashioned intelligence front, a data mining and analysis company that worked exclusively on government contracts. The developer I spoke with described how his firm got the contract on Spitzer and how they had been hired to dig up some damning dirt. In retrospect, it’s now easier for me to imagine the kinds of data they were mining.

The Snowden revelations provide evidence of warrantless phone wiretapping as well as the collection of data from numerous internet providers through the PRISM program.  While Obama has deceptively maintained that metadata is innocuous, Spitzer’s character assassination a potent example of the power of this kind of data.

What would you do with a time machine that let you peer into anyone’s past?

peddling platforms

7175132773_dc83a2d1f2_bNew York City’s bike share program is flourishing, and I recently signed up for a membership even though I live outside the range of any Citibike stations. I find it convenient and fun to use the bikes to cross town, as well as zip from place to place when I am downtown. Since my first ride on the Parisian Vélib’, I’ve become a huge fan of bike shares, and have enjoyed rides in Paris, DC, Denver, Miami, and Toronto.

The other month I had a great conversation with a local bike shop owner about the new program, and he conveyed the anxiety that many bike shops are feeling around Citibike. Understandably, many are concerned that the bike share will cut into their rental and retail sales, although I think it is likely that an increase in  biking will generate more interest and awareness, and generally increase the demand for bikes and bike services.

Our discussion helped me recognize was how the city bike shares can be viewed as a platform for innovation, in the same sense that the iPod/iPhone is platform. And, just as the iphone-as-platform enabled a large ecology third-party  hardware and software businesses, bike shares present an analogous opportunity to creative entrepreneurs. Platforms can support entire ecosystem, and city bike shares provide an opportunity to build a new ecosystem around them.

Cases and Chargers

Let’s start with the hardware. I don’t need an MBA to understand that the real money in retail is made by selling accessories. For the iPhone this includes cases, cables, and a range of other devices, but retailers like Amazon and Best Buy have invested in incredibly complex systems to track the relations between products and their compatible accessories.

Consider this. What New Yorker wants to be mistaken for a tourist while riding their Citibike? What they need is a way to (fashionably) express themselves, and make the generic bike their own. Starting with an appropriate pannier bag, Citibikers need an easy way to transport their helmet, gloves, music, and personal belongings. Bike shops currently have entire walls devoted to these kinds of accessories. With some focused curation bike shops can begin assembling “MyCitiBike” kits that are segmented and suitable for the demographics of their customers, no custom manufacturing required.

Bags and accessories are just the start. Helmets should be as ubiquitous as umbrellas—inexpensive ones sold by street vendors, and maybe more durable ones available in vending machines, for a refundable deposit. You would just need to bring your own liner, which you could conveniently stash in your pannier bag.

Turn on the lights

Consider the explosive proliferation of bike lights that are poised to transform New York City into Black Rock City. Bike lights are being sold in  increasingly dizzying arrays of frequencies and patterns, but the arms race for visibility and attention may soon devolve into visual noise and distraction as the density of bikers grows. Imagine you are a biker who wants to communicate your intentions to a motor vehicle. During the day, there is a system of hand signals for signaling your intent. But currently are are’t any well established  standards for bike lights, other than white in the front and red in the back. Some of the standards that could help are obvious—more red when I’m braking, and left and right blinkers when I’m turning.  Others, like wireless control of helmet mounted lights, still need to be worked out.

Some European bike manufacturers have begun introducing signaling innovations, but without standards these efforts will likely stall. Standards can emerge from the top-down, by mandate or regulation, or the bottom-up, by convention and adoption. I believe that bike share fleets present a powerful opportunity to innovate on bike safety and standards in a way that could lead the rest of the market.  Admittedly, it would be difficult to convince municipalities to devote the resources to underwrite these features. However, I dream of a day when stakeholders such as Transportation Alternatives and Critical Mass work with the Mayor’s office to hold Citibank’s feet to the fire. Instead of just a marketing campaign designed to whitewash their reputation, the Citibike program could be used to spearhead safety initiatives, such as lighting standards and open APIs, that could eventually make their way across the rest of the biking industry.

Computational Cycles

The iPhone has the app store, and bikeshare apps could be just as expansive. From quantifying yourself for fitness and health, to turning the city into one big arcade game, the possibilities are really wide open. It’s easy to imagine apps which bring traditional “pedal-for-charity” campaigns into 21st century, as well as casual team games like capture the flag or even frogger.  Some of these games could be powered by apps that run on smartphones, or fitness trackers (e.g. fitbit),  but once again, the bike-share platform offers an opportunity to standardize data formats and open apis for ride tracking. RiderState is an early example of a competitive social game for bikers, but more will surely follow.


It’s an exciting time for cyclers. US cities are finally embracing bike lanes and bike shares are spreading across the country. Bike safety continues to be a pressing issue, as projects like crashmapper vividly demonstrate. Creativity is spinning around gorgeous projects like Monkey Electric, and revolights brings brakelights to your wheels. There is a huge opportunity to coordinate some of this activity around platforms like the Bixi bike, and build a thriving ecosystem around bike shares.


too sexy for my phone

bling_bejeweled_cell_phone_kandee_fashion_weekThe other week I thought I lost my phone and I visited a local Best Buy to find out what a temporary substitute would cost me.  I asked the salesperson for the dumbest phone they had, and was struck by its feature/price ratio. Thankfully, my phone turned up, but I was reminded of the power of Moore and his law.

The phone I looked at was a BLU Tank, which you can find online for ~$25 (it retails for $32.99) . This phone is so dumb that it has an FM Radio, can capture images, audio, and video, has 2 sim card slots, and a replaceable battery. There is no built-in browser, but it does comes with facebook and twitter apps. It even comes in different colors!

Not only would this phone make fabulous burner, but it really got me thinking. Imagine if you wrapped that phone in metal – aluminum, silver, gold?  You could probably sell it for twice the price. Easy. What about a wood case – maple, oak, teak?  Double again?

But, if you really wanted to make some serious money you would have to put the right initials on there.  Maybe G for Gucci, or LV for Louise Vuitton?

It really hit home that as tech becomes ubiquitous, it’s becoming fashion. Products like Google Glass are starting to make this more obvious, but companies like Crated are taking this a step further by designing unobtrusive, intelligent wearables as well as focusing on improvements to the manufacturing process.

If only we could figure out how to tap the vanity of the 1% and redirect wealth back to the rest of us.

Makers, Burners and Pedagogy Transformers

Last Thursday, I managed to further integrate my personal/professional/hobbiest identitites, and me and two of my esteemed colleagues (Therese and Jon) presented Burning Man and Hacker/Maker Spaces at the weekly CCNMTL staff meeting.

The rosetta stone for our talk was Fred Turner’s seminal paper Burning Man at Google: a cultural infrastructure for new media production (published by New Media and Society, the same journal that published my and Aram’s paper on The End of Forgetting (preprint)), which Turner also presented at Google, where his talk was recorded.

We tried to connect Burning Man to a central question in education — the question of transference.  Do skills learned under simulated conditions transfer over to real world settings? We started out with the grand question, “What Educates?”, and tried to narrow that down to the question of how we can view commons-based peer-production in an educational context?  What can Burning Man, and crucially, the Maker Spaces that make Burning Man possible, teach educators about teaching and learning?


Our talk:

And our slides:

Now that we have presented this to CCNMTL, some of the librarians have gotten wind of our talk, and have invited us to re-present it at a tech brownbag lunch later this Fall 😀

To the evolution!


Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.


“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

Water pressure

WaterImage_1Happy blog action day!  Last year I highlighted some of my previous posts on climate change, and its frightening how far we’ve regressed since last October.

The best segue I can make between climate change and water is the  amazing film Sun Come Up . Its (one of) the first to document climate refugees, giving pacific islanders a platform and a voice to share the story of their sinking homes, soon to be swallowed by the oceans. I think that powerful human narratives like these are the most likely to influence our deeply ingrained habits of mind.

Riding these waves, I meant to catch On Coal River this week at IFC’s Stranger Than Fiction series this past Tuesday, but I missed it and will have to wait for it to circle back again.

In the meantime I’m wondering about seismic cultural shifts – I don’t really believe in sharp historical discontinuities, but some changes look quick in retrospect, even if they don’t feel quick as they are happening.

This summer I attended an Evolver spore on the Spirit of Water. Although it covers almost three-quarters of the planet and fills nearly 70% of our own bodies, this precious and seemingly boundless substance is becoming increasingly scarce? Food and Water Watch was tabling, and the movie Flow seems to have made some impact, but the prospect of water shortages and wars is dismal and depressing.

Irrespective of the clinical repeatability Dr. Emoto’s experiments (as featured in What the Bleep), his work on water, consciousness, and intent is quite beautiful and inspiring.  Its the note, and the drop, I choose to complete these free associations:

Imagine the structures we could construct by focusing and harnessing our collective intension.

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