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Binaural Beats with SbaGen Developer Jim Peters – Technoccult Interview

Binaural Beats

Jim Peters is the developer of the cross-platform, open-source binaural beat generator SbaGen. Although the application has been available for free online since 1997, an commercial application called I-Doser, which used SbaGen’s source code without permission, has been in the news lately. I took the opportunity to ask Jim a few questions about binaural beats and his program.

Jim Peters

Can you tell us a bit about binaural beats and how they work?

The mechanism behind binaural beats is very simple — on the face of it, at least. Two pure sine-wave tones are fed to the brain, one in each ear. For example, you could play a 200Hz tone to the left ear, and a 210Hz tone to the right ear. The end result, as far as the listener is concerned, is that they hear a tone of 205Hz but pulsating or ‘beating’ at a frequency of 10Hz. This 10Hz stimulation is what leads to the entrainment.

This could be viewed as simple wave interference, but actually it is a lot more complex than that because the sound waves never get to mix in the air. They do not meet until they have already been converted into
signals in the nervous system of the brain.

Our hearing centres do a lot of complex processing on the sounds that we hear, especially to determine the direction and distance of objects in our environment. If an object is to our left, then sounds from that object arrive first at the left ear, then slightly later at the right ear. There is a part of the brain dedicated to detecting these delays which gives us our sense of sound direction.

When the brain is fed tones of slightly differing frequency, this is interpreted as a sound with a delay that is constantly changing. The direction-detection part of our brain reacts to this sound, resulting in the beating effect that we perceive.

Directional hearing is a very low-level, primitive function of the brain, and the centres dedicated to it are right on the brain stem (the ‘superior olivary complex’). This means that causing a beating stimulation here with binaural beats has the potential to cause entrainment effects quite different to those produced by light glasses or other methods of entrainment. Certainly it is valuable tool.

Binaural Beats diagram

Binaural beats diagram from Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Binaural Beats

How did you first learn about binaural beats?

I first heard about binaural beats through attending a workshop with Ken Eagle Feather (Kenneth Smith), a Toltec teacher. He had been a test subject in the labs of Robert Monroe.

Why did you decide to create SbaGen?

I wanted to experiment with binaural beats, so the obvious thing to do was to create a tool to allow me to do that. However, I now realize that I am not a genius like Robert Monroe! It is one thing to build a tool that generates tones to a high standard, but quite another to have the inspiration to create sequences that take people to other places. This is like the difference between a musical instrument maker and a virtuoso player. So, whilst I’ve been able to create the tool, I have to leave it to others to create interesting sequences.

SbaGen screenshot
SbaGen screenshot

What programming language is it written in?

It was originally written in C for Linux /dev/dsp, a long time ago when a fast machine was a 75MHz Pentium and I was still thinking like an assembler programmer. So, apologies for any poor style! Over the years it has been adapted for Windows and Mac, and even things like Blackfin boards. It uses integer-only arithmetic, even for MP3 and OGG decoding, which is an advantage when porting to ARM, for example.

However, modern processors are capable of a lot more and if I were to rewrite it today, I’d consider the use of other techniques.

What happened with I-Doser and SbaGen’s source code?

As far as I can gather, the guy behind I-Doser calls himself Christopher Canavan, based on messages to the SBaGen list and WHOIS data. It seems that he had a bright idea of how to make lots of money from binaural beats, and he contracted some programmer “for hire” to develop a GUI wrapper around SBaGen that added encryption and some means of packaging sequences. However, he did not pay any attention to SBaGen’s GPL license — he just took what he wanted.

As it happens, he violated the SBaGen license by modifying it and not redistributing the source code of the changes, as required by the GPL. With a little more care, he could have got what he wanted without any
license trouble or payment.

For a long time I knew nothing about this. Then I started getting E-mails from SBaGen users bringing the problem to my attention. I could see that I was dealing with someone who was a bit shady, and I really didn’t look forward to having to negotiate with him, especially as I am based in the UK and he is based in the US. Eventually the pressure from users was so much that I had to act and try to resolve the issue.

I’m sure that Christopher Canavan (or whoever he really is) is making huge amounts of money from I-Doser — I’ve heard stories of individuals spending hundreds of dollars. I’m also sure that with enough money spent on lawyers I could have had a large slice of his cake. But in our discussions he gave me the impression of being completely evasive and untrustworthy. I considered the stress and cost of protracted legal action in a foreign country, and decided on something symbolic instead. On moral grounds, I’m not sure that I would have wanted a slice of his cake in any case.

So I settled for putting the source code in order, and him paying me $1000 (which he paid without hesitation), and having a link from his site to mine so that there was a ‘way out’ for people looking for more information.

I-Doser has gone global — I’ve heard reports of worried parents and officials from as far away as Russia and Korea. What I-Doser has done is very clever from a business and marketing point of view, but also quite corrupt (in my eyes). But then you could say the same of Coca Cola or McDonalds. You can see why I am not a successful businessman!


Coil – “Methoxy-N, N-Dimethyl,” from their album Time Machines

Do you believe that I-Doser can actually deliver on their promise of providing a variety of discrete recreational psychoactive experiences? My own experience working with SbaGen, Brainwave Generator, and sound and light machines is that it does feel like “something happens,” but I haven’t found that the specific experience each one is aiming for (“relaxation,” “creativity,” “stimulation,” etc.) In fact, I actually conducted some controlled experiments with classmates as a research project in college. We investigated whether the “intelligence enhancement” setting of a particular sound and light machine was effective at improving MENSA test exam scores. We didn’t get statistically significant results.

No, I don’t believe that I-Doser can deliver on their promise. If I hit you over the head with a mallet you will see stars, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve had a marvellous journey through the universe. However with a good enough sales pitch maybe I can make you believe that you have.

I-Doser uses quite high-amplitude binaural beats, much higher than is recommended by organizations such as The Monroe Institute or CenterPointe, where the beats are generally only just audible under the soundtrack.

I guess you could compare I-Doser’s use of binaural beats to typical teenagers’ use of substances like alcohol — i.e. excessive. Actually, I think that this may be the key to it. For some reason people of that age are attracted to self-destruction in various forms, and I-Doser are tapping into that with their fantastical and exaggerated descriptions of their sessions’ properties. It is on about the same level as teenage experimentation with alcoholic drinks.

Whether listening to high-amplitude binaural beats does any harm, I really don’t know. But would the harm be more or less than the harm done by getting completely intoxicated with alcohol? Who knows.

In some ways I am sad to see binaural beats used in this way, but on the other hand it does raise interest in a tool that is very valuable for people who are past their teenage self-destructive phase and who are looking to do something rather more constructive.

There is great potential for new research combining binaural beats with other techniques such as biofeedback or EEG. By a happy accident, nature has provided us with a direct signal feed into the brain stem without any surgery required!

The applications of binaural beats are varied, but they will never be a ‘silver bullet’ to instantly give you high MENSA scores or whatever.

I’ve heard from Buddhist monks who found that binaural beats took them to places in consciousness that required years of meditation to reach by normal means. But again this sounds better than it is — they were
practiced meditators, so they could follow the guide provided by the beats to reach those places. Someone who is not practiced in meditation would fall asleep or pop out of entrainment under the same conditions. Meditation takes time to learn, but binaural beats can be used as a guide for practice.

The late Robert Monroe used binaural beats, sometimes combined with flotation chambers and sensory deprivation, to guide people to places he knew from his journeys out-of-body. This could be seen as another
form of meditation.

Then there are organizations such as CenterPointe who see binaural beats as a means of emotional cleansing. They use both carrier frequency and beat frequency to plot a 2-D map, which they traverse slowly, session by session, stimulating and clearing blocked emotions. I can testify to the strength of some of these clearing effects through my own experiments with similar sessions. ‘Overwhelm’ is a condition where you have stimulated too much emotional material, and you feel half-crazy and a bit on the edge. The advantage that binaural beats have in this application is that they are 100% under your control. You choose how often to listen, or when it is time to have a few days break to let things calm down again.

I have even heard from someone who lives in constant pain due to a spinal injury who found that binaural beats of a certain frequency allowed him to sleep. He appreciated the way that he could tune the frequency very precisely to meet his needs.

Again, it is the precision, controllability and repeatability of binaural beats compared to other means of influencing the organism that give them a real advantage here.

Are you still working on SbaGen? Will there ever be a GUI?

Unfortunately I don’t have time to work on new features due to having to earn a living. Whilst I would love to write a GUI, I think that realistically other things are going to get my attention before that in the limited free time that I have. So, unfortunately probably not.

Have you considered creating an iPhone or Android app?

No, sorry.

Further Resources

I-Doser doses reverse engineered for SbaGen

Monroe Institute entry on WikiPedia

Gnuaral Another cross-platform, open-source binaural beat application

Technoccult interview with HipGnosis, an electronic musician who uses binaural beats in his work.

Social Physics with Kyle Findlay – Technoccult Interview

Kyle Findlay

Regular readers of this site may have noticed a large number of posts on this site credited to “Social Physicist” – the Twitter handle of Kyle Findlay (and yes, you could be forgiven for confusing our names). Kyle works for a group within one of the world’s largest market research companies, which he describes as a “mini-think tank” with the purpose of exposing people to new ways of thinking and doing things. Having enjoyed his Twitter stream for the past year or so, I got in touch with Kyle Findlay to ask him about the practice of “social physics.” He talked to me by instant message from from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

Klint Finley: What, as a “social physicist,” do you actually do?

Kyle Findlay: Well, at the moment I’m on my own in this “field,” if you can call it that. It just seems like the best description of what I do and what interests me so hopefully it sticks.

Basically, my interest is in understanding how people act as groups. As emergent entities that have their own (hopefully) predictable and describable topological forms. That’s the lofty idea anyway. And the tools of chaos theory, systems theory, network theory, physics, mathematics, etc. help describe this.

Do you have a background in physical sciences?

None at all. I studied “business science” at the University of Cape Town. My first job was for a company with a strong academic background, started by a professor of religion and a statistician. They used a 5-dimensional catastrophe cusp model to describe people’s relationships with ideas.

The moment I was exposed to this thinking, something clicked. A lot of contradictions that I saw in the world around me were resolved. Ever since I have had an insatiable desire to understand these areas. Which led me to interact with experts in many disciplines from neuroscience to economics, math, physics, AI, ecology, biology, etc. Every field has a piece of the puzzle. I am lucky to work in an environment that gives me free rein to indulge my passion.

Fractal Zoom
Sketch: Fractal Zoom by Kyle Findlay

Do you think what you do is different from systems thinking or social cybernetics?

They are definitely components. Systems thinking is a broad umbrella term. Cybernetics definitely helps us to understand and describe the patterns and multi-dimensional shapes that society creates. But I think that you need the hard sciences like math and physics to really get at the heart of it. Which is why I am feverishly trying to catch up on many years of missing education.

Do you think there are any dangers in applying models designed for physical systems to human behavior?

Yes there are – you will always be at least slightly wrong. There are a lot of parallels between the way people act in groups and other types of particles. But you also have the same problems of predictability in complex systems: sensitivity to initial conditions, 3-body problem, etc. It’s kind of the paradox of it all, something I am still trying to come to grips with.

What’s the most surprising insight you’ve discovered since you started studying this?

Everything is the same and everything is just information. The universal nature of nature is astounding. You see the familiar signs everywhere: from the atomic through to the cosmic level. It makes me think that there really is only one true science or line of inquiry and that most specialised fields are just facets of this. The more fields I delve into, the more commonalities I discover. It’s become par for the course for me now I think. But in the beginning, it really blew my mind.

Man's Part in the System
Sketch: Man’s Part in the System by Kyle Findlay

Have you been able to apply this stuff in any interesting ways? For example, I know you’ve prepared presentations on network theory and power laws for work.

Those have gone down really well within the silos I work in. People have really been amazed when I’ve shown them these kinds of things. It gets their minds racing.

I’m also doing some work applying systems theory to sports science, which can really benefit from changing the way they view the human body. Music is another area that makes a lot more sense from this point of view.

One of my favourites is understanding how human attention works and how to synchronise communication so that it becomes internalized, but that is very theoretical and could be seen as slightly Machiavellian so I won’t go there.

Also, I’ve been having some interesting chats with a neuroscientist around decision-making, attention, etc. The applications are really endless, it’s just where you choose to focus you own attention.

How would you suggest someone interested get started studying social physics?

Well, considering I’m not 100% sure what falls into the bounds of the field myself, it’s difficult to say. There’s no university course for it as far as I know. I would say that you need to have an intense desire to understand why people do what they do. And a slightly perverse fascination with the human condition. Looking at life from a systems perspective is a good start. Understand that patterns are formed internally, that change is the only constant. You can then use tools like network theory, noise analysis, entropy, etc. to understand these ebbs and flows.

Are you familiar with Stephen Wolfram? He wrote a book called a New Kind of Science.

Yes, I know of Stephen Wolfram from his software and Wolfram Alpha. I’ve been intimidated by the size of his book, though. I struggle justifying devoting so much time to one book, which probably says more about me…

Yeah, I haven’t picked it up yet either.

He sounds like a really bright guy. I think I watched a talk of his at the Singularity Summit or somewhere similar, but to be honest, can’t remember much of it.

Most of my reading is in the scientific literature, interspersed with a good book or graphic novel.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Speaking of which, do you know of any works of fiction that demonstrate the principles you’re interested in?

Good question. Not too many spring to mind. A classic is Flatland by Edwin Abbot – the quintessential metaphor for perceiving multiple dimensions. The guy wrote a book about perceiving multiple dimensions in the 1800s! Impressive.

A recent book that blew my mind was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He has a great worldview but his insights were more in terms of extrapolating the directions technology is going in.

Yourself? Any suggestions?

Snow Crash seems like it might be relevant. Or the film Run Lola Run.

I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read Snow Crash. Why do you say Run Lola Run? Time? Sensitivity to initial conditions?

Yep. It shows how tiny changes in a system can have far-ranging results. A starting delay of only a couple of seconds radically changes things for several characters in the different timelines.

True. I’m not going to mention Back to the Future 2 or The Butterfly Effect (although I just did).

Have you heard of the 1990 film, Mindwalk?

No.

It was co-written by Fritjof Capra and consists of several characters discussing the nature of the world from a systems perspective. I have to admit that i fell asleep during it… but I was very tired.

That sounds pretty amazing though.

Yeah – good credentials right there.

My personal favourites are any films or books that push society’s limits. Subversive materials rule in my book (no pun intended). Anything that helps me push back my pre-conceptions and shatter my expectations. They were great at that in the 70s, in music, film and literature. Probably a side-effect of the 60s experimentations. I’m a big fan of exploitation flicks.

Let’s see, what else… I haven’t read Alan Moore’s Big Numbers. But Moore seems to have a pretty good grasp on complexity, judging by Watchmen and From Hell.

I haven’t read Big Numbers either. What elements do you think he draws on in those books?
Watchmen

Watchmen itself seems to be very mathematical – the use of symmetry and so on. In terms of themes, maybe it doesn’t touch on this stuff much, apart from some of Dr. Manhattan’s comments.

Yeah, he definitely weaves a non-linear richness into his tales that is admirable. The way he weaves the various threads of a story together.

I forget why I thought From Hell was relevant. Maybe it’s not.

Also, he calls himself a chaos magician. Watching an interview with him a while back, I could actually identify with a lot of what he was saying.

I wasn’t going to go there, but… have you studying chaos magic or the occult at all?

No I haven’t. That Moore interview is probably as far as I have gone. It’s just not a direction I feel I can go in and remain “grounded” if I want other researchers to take me seriously. But I can definitely see how he got there.

Well, I have and I think you’re better off studying natural sciences, systems, and complexity IMHO.

[Laughs] Cool, thanks for the advice.

But the book Techgnosis by Erik Davis examines a lot of parallels between information theory and cybernetics and mysticism and the occult. I think it stands up pretty well, even if you’re not interested in magic.

I think you have to have a certain detachment to take a step back and observe the world. And when you start seeing everything as inter-related and part of the same thread it becomes easier to start imagining that you can define the tapestry with your perceptions. I guess I don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. In my view it untethers you. Again, talking from an inexperienced point of view in this area.

Davis’ book sounds interesting though.

From an interview with Manuel DeLanda (who you might be interested in) -conducted by Davis, incidentally:

As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.

Yeah exactly. I find that the concepts I deal with in my day job challenge me enough, and that’s all based on empirically grounded ‘fact’ in the scientific literature.

Most people work very hard to maintain their reality, but I do think that you have to have an affinity towards detachment. A certain world view that is open to having your illusions shattered and actually enjoying that experience. And the cutting edge of science delivers those experiences in spades.

Kyle Findlay

More Info

Kyle on Twitter

Kyle’s Slideshares

Kyle’s Flickr

Cult of Zir and Ogo Eion – Technoccult Interview

Cult of Zir with Ogo Eion Shortwave Ministry for Theatre Noir

<a href="http://cultofzir.bandcamp.com/album/shortwave-ministry-for-theatre-noir">south by cult of zir</a>

For the past decade, Nolon Ashley (aka Cult of Zir) and Ogo Eion (aka An Exquisite Corpse) have been gracing the pacific northwest with their audio experiments. Now the two have release an album together: Shortwave Ministry for Theatre Noir (available for free, I might add).

The duo talked to me from an undisclosed porch in Portland. Hit play on the embedded album above, kick back and do whatever you do to get into that special headspace, and read what they have to say about their latest work.

Cult of Zir and Ogo Eion
Left: Nolon Ashley. Right: Ogo Eion. Photo by Gabriel Schroder

Klint Finley: How did this collaboration come about?

Nolon: The material itself was requested by a man named Nathan HG who is putting together some theatre noir pieces with a troupe of dancers he’s assembled. He came to me and wanted the central theme to be “white” noise, and the first thought that hit my head was Ogo’s impeccable shortwave radio toys. It was an easy decision. Ogo and I have been friends for years and have worked together in several different ways.

Ogo: Yeah – Nolon asked me to bring my shortwave radio over to the Octopus Templi (his house) and we sat down and he recorded some samples.

Nolon: I did a bunch of work for other performance troupes last year, probably more than I did as Cult of Zir itself, and this time I meant to at least make sure more folks heard it than those who just went to the performances.

What equipment and/or software did you use? How was it recorded?

Nolon: We used a lot of SCIENCE. It’s all done in Ableton. No plugins.

Ogo
Photo by Gabriel Schroder

Ogo: I brought my “trademark” shortwave radio, which i scored at a thrift store some ten years ago maybe – it’s seen much use since then. It’s a Sony FM/AM multi-band receiver ICF-5900W. It never breaks and keep battery charge for years. And I’ve always been quite impressed by the variety of sounds I can conjure up from this little beast.

Nolon: For this volume of the Shortwave Ministry, I gave the radio sounds the lead, and all my synth/vocal/guitar work is more or less there to reinforce the textures that came from that. Volume 2 will be more focused on abrasive sounds, with pianos instead of guitars.

Is the shortwave radio modified in any way?

Ogo: It’s not circuit bent, no. Though it’s seen some wear over the years that has seemed to affect it.

Nolon: I ran it through the same filters and delays and reverbs as everything else. There was some ham radio christian we tapped that night a few times. Something about homosexuality, a real bigot.

Ogo: Right. Mostly I ride those “sweet spots” between channels – static frequency sweeps and whatnot. But there’s some real interesting stuff that happens when a channel starts to bleed through and intermix with that. Sometimes I swear it’s channeling alien transmissions.

Nolon: He’s playing it right now, in fact! I thought we were listening to the album. I went “Wow it sounds so different than it does thru my system!”

Ogo: It’s the remix.

Was it recorded on the porch?

Ogo:It was recorded on the porch inside Nolon’s bedroom.

Nolon: Chez Cephalopod is a porch inside a bedroom built into an attic, in the bottom of the ocean, floating in space…

Zero
Ogo as his character Zero in Bogville. Photo by Chrisopher Perez

Some of it reminds me a lot of Bogville [a live musical that Nolon, Ogo, and several other PNW artists were a part of].

Ogo: Well, the radio made its theatrical debut in the Bogville series. It was both a ‘prop’ and an instrument for the Prophets of Doom contingent of the swamp.

Nolon: I loved that. He used it to find the dead reverend at one point, like Ghostbusters. ‘Cause his character was blind.

Ogo: Recordings of it appear on the Bogville soundtrack compilation for chapter one.

Nolon: Yes, please buy that. Several copies.

Actually, my wife and I each bought a copy of it not realizing that the other was buying it, so our household has 2 copies. I hadn’t realized his character was blind. So he used the radio as both a means of expression, and as a way of sensing the world.

Ogo: Right. That and the static noise emitted had a forceful sonic quality, so it was used to intimidate/indoctrinate our “cult followers” (in the play, not the cult in “real” life).

Nolon: I’m pretty sure it worked in real life, too, right? Like, my character didn’t, but I certainly joined the cult of doom, at least privately.

Yeah, it convinced me too. I’ll sign up for the Prophets of Doom.

Prophets of Doom
The Prophets of Doom. Photo by Chrisopher Perez

Nolon: The Prophets have their pitch down damn well.

Ogo: Heh. I think we disbanded last year. But feel free to start your own Doom Cult, please.

That’s sad, so we won’t be seeing the Prophets of Doom on stage any more? That was a great outfit.

Ogo: Well, I suppose I can’t really say anything with certainty. But the myriad of creative creatures involved in that outfit have sort of gone different directions now. I mean, some of the stars of the show don’t even live in Portland anymore.

We’re all still collaborating together though, in different forms and times. Myrk and I have some experiments we are conducting.

I was hoping Prophets of Doom would do more shows independent of Bogville, actually.

Ogo: Oh totally. We did toss that idea around. Scott’s up in Olympia these days and seems pretty busy revitalizing Hall of the Woods at the moment.

Nolon: I’d like to see them take over city hall

Then the state building!

Ogo: P.O.D. initially came about as sort of a theatrical parody of pre-existing projects at the time anyway. There was also this real life cult that inspired a lot of our imagery: Do Not Seek the Light. Though I don’t really know much about the group’s origins or extensive history.

Ogo, you and Scott were working on another project together weren’t you?

Ogo: I performed with Scott, and at times other collaborators, as Blood Seeks Blood for a time, yeah.

Nolon Ashley aka Cult of Zir
Nolon Ashley. Photo by Petr Sorfa

I thought the first track from Shortwave Ministry had a distinct krautrock flavor. Was that deliberate or did it just happen? (Or am I crazy?)

Nolon: I’m not going to say you’re not crazy. I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m a mad artist. The album kind of made itself. I’m inspired by that movement though, yeah. Terribly. It’s the first time I’ve used a guitar on a Cult of Zir recording if that’s what you mean.

Was it actual guitar or was it sampled?

Nolon: There’s actual guitar. The shortwave really lended a sort of analogue synth and/or theremin feel that reminds me of early psychedelic stuff, and I balanced that with some virtual analogue synth work in the software domain.

It also reminded me a lot of musique concrete, and that was definitely the radio.

Nolon: Yes.

Sonic Terror
Photo by Gabriel Schroder

How did the two of you meet? What was your first collaboration?

Nolon: Oh shit, I guess it was the first CACOPHONY. I was in a band called Autism for a minute.

Ogo: I booked Nolon’s first show (right?) as Cult of Zir for CACOPHONY. After getting to know him over various porch sits at Doll House.

Nolon: Oh that too!

Ogo: Oh right, I forgot about Autism.

Nolon: It was porches, whatever it was.

Ogo: That was really the first CACOPHONY, in the vacant space that became Someday Lounge.

Nolon: Autism. It was spearheaded by Guy Tyler who had done work with John Zorn and still plays with the Portland Opera. He’s an incredible cracked academic musician and Autism was his way of shrugging that all off in favour of getting out of his brain. A kind of throbbing sound. He played bass and sang. Noah Mickens played scrap metal in Autism, and Andrew of Sonic Alchemy and Stalking Jane played synths.

Ogo: Then later you played the first CACOPHONY as Cult of Zir, in Someday Lounge once it had become an actual legal venue and everything. So you were there “at the beginning”, both times.Cult of Zir at Pocket Sandwich in Portland 7/11/08

Nolon: Ogo lured Cult of Zir out of the basement.

Ogo: Totally, that was one of the goals of the series: luring noise musicians and other audio/performance experimenters out of their basements and getting them out in front of people.

Nolon: That show was on Friday the 13th of October, the anniversary of the Knights Templar execution (at least mythically,) and Maya Deren’s death as well.

2006?

Ogo: Autism played May of 2005. Then Cult of Zir was October (Friday the 13th) of 06.

With this album in the can, what’s next for the two of you?

Nolon: There’s another two on the way. This is a series. If you notice, the tracks mark out the major cardinal quadrants on the compass. The next one will fill in the other four: SE, NE, NW, and SE. And the third release will be above, below, and center. I basically want to get Nathan as much material to choreograph to as possible and exhaust my need to obsess on these gorgeous shortwave samples ever again.

Cult of Zir has two more records in the works too, now that I have lots of free time. One is the material I made in the last two years, mostly experienced on stage. The other is a release of all the other stuff I’ve already done for performance troupes. One being the Bogville material, perhaps reworked a bit, and Meghann Rose’s Mirror Milk being the other. Lots of great stuff got made outside of Cult of Zir last year, as I was saying.

Cult of Zir live
Cult of Zir live at the Seattle Occultural Music Festival

So it will be released as a Zir record?

Nolon: With appropriate hat tips to the projects the material was made for.

Ogo: I’m trying to put out a solo album as An Exquisite Corpse this year, but I said that last year too.

What about live work? Will both you be performing, or are you focusing on studio work?

Nolon: Nothing booked right now. I’m unemployed and taking advantage of the time I can spend creating. Thanks mostly to only having time to perform outside of the office grind, I’m pretty prepared to record the material that mostly only Portland has heard now. Seattle and Olympia seem to like it though.


Exquisite Corps at the Oceans Within event at Christoff Gallery in Seattle, 11/16/07.

Ogo: My process has always been focused on performance. Getting out there and making something in the moment. It’s only recently that I’ve even thought about studio work. But it’s a definite goal, though a different yet useful process. More mediated. Spontaneity vs process of Refining. Actually, all the recorded tracks I have released have been one-take recordings.

Nolon: Seems the “responsible” thing to do, anyway, no? For that matter, Shortwave Ministry was done pretty one-off. Every track was done in one take. It took a single evening to produce, once the samples were taken down.

So the radio samples were recorded before that session?

Ogo: Yes. I sat down with Nolon and we spent maybe an hour recording samples, I gave him some different dynamics. Slow sweeps and more active spastic channel switching. How he put it all together, up to its release date, was all a surprise to me.

Nolon: Yeah, there were some minor directional cues or whatever but mostly I wanted Ogo to do his thing. The production process happens pretty naturally at this point. I mean, you can map any function to any knob you want then get into an altered space and intuit the direction in the moment. That’s pretty much how it all happened, an immediatist process.

Ogo: Totally. Like the hardware as a sensory extension of your body.

Nolon: The album made itself, I almost want no fucking credit for it.

Ogo: Nolon gets all the credit.

Nolon: But I’ll take the money, all zero dollars the record costs. I think it’s just that we’re that comfortable with the process at this point this is the way we live, we breathe this stuff. It’s second nature.

More Info

Cult of Zir official web site

Cult of Zir on Bandcamp

Cult of Zir Technoccult TV interview

An Exquisite Corpse

Tessellate (Ogo’s clothing designs)

iokaos (Ogo’s graphic design)

Cult of Zir and Ogo Eion

Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz – Technoccult interview

David Pescovitz
Photo by Bart Nagel

David Pescovitz (aka Pesco) is an editor of Boing Boing, research director with the Institute for the Future, and editor-at-large for MAKE. Perhaps the most mysterious of the Boingers, Pesco joined me by instant message to talk about his lifelong interest in the weird and wonderful.

Klint Finley: How did you get involved with Boing Boing? Were you a contributor to the original magazine?

David Pescovitz: I read Boing Boing when I was in college in the early 1990s. When I moved to San Francisco in 1993 and started working at Wired, I met Mark because he had just started as an editor there. Mark took me downstairs to meet his wife Carla Sinclair who was running the ‘zine out of a basement office. We quickly became very close friends and I started writing for the print ‘zine. From there, we took it online and the long strange trip continued. Back then, the print ‘zine had maybe 10,000 readers if that. Now the blog has 5 million.

A journalist once asked Timothy Leary what people should do after they “turn on.” Tim said, “Find the others.” Every day, I feel incredibly fortunate that Boing Boing helps me do that.

I’ve noticed that most of the time there’s something about the occult on Boing Boing, it’s posted by you. Sometimes Mark, but mostly you. How did you get interested in the occult? What attracted you to it?

Well, I’ve been interested in weird phenomena and fringe ideas since I was a child. I was always looking up Bigfoot, UFOs, and telekinesis at the library. Now, I realize of course that the Occult doesn’t necessarily connect to those things, and those things don’t necessarily connect to each other. But in my head at least it’s all related as a curiosity about the strange.

Yeah, I think that’s how it starts for a lot of people. It was exactly the same way for me.

Much later, I discovered Robert Anton Wilson and Cosmic Trigger became a port of entry for me. Or maybe a “port of exit.”

Are you now, or have you ever been, a practicing magician or are you just interested in the history, the culture, etc.?

The latter. I find the history, the “characters,” and the aesthetic to be fascinating. I guess I’m a bit of a poseur in that regard.

It reminds me of something that Rudy Rucker once said about the psychedelic side of the early cyberculture. He said he liked reading about people’s drug trips, and hearing what they learned, but didn’t have much interest in taking drugs himself.

That’s how I am now, actually. I tried a lot of magical experiments over the years, but now I’m mostly interested in history and how ideas from the occult have ended up penetrating science and other areas.

Exactly! The historical connections between science, technology, art, and the occult are fascinating. In many ways, it seems that people were using different metaphors to describe the same amazing, wonderful things.

I could be wrong, but it seems like occult related posts on BB have actually increased over the past couple years – you had Mitch Horowitz guest blog there, for instance. Has this raised any eyebrows, elicited any significant negative response?

My interest in the subject, in any subject, ebbs and flows, probably based in part on the people I encounter in the “real world.” And perhaps it’s been flowing again recently.

Boing Boing is a group blog, and we have as many opinions as we do contributors. We usually don’t discuss what any of us are going to post about, and we certainly don’t judge what each other may be interested in at the moment. The only filter I need to have when determining whether to post something is if it’s interesting to me.

Now, we also post a great deal about traditional science on Boing Boing. And are often critical about organized religion. So some commenters who may be Rationalists or Skeptics (note the capitals) might experience a disconnect when a post about James Randi is followed a few days later by an essay by my friend Jacques Vallee. But in my opinion, that perceived dissonance is part of Boing Boing’s magic. Or rather, magick. ; )

As my friend Jody Radzik of Guruphiliac pointed out to me, Boing Boing as a whole appeals to the full spectrum of “geekdom.” And that spectrum includes scientists, conspiracy theorists, hardcore rationalists, diehard skeptics, New Agers, Forteans, paranormal investigators, cryptozoologists, etc. And I appreciate that diversity!

And while there may not be enough evidence, in my opinion, to support a far-out idea that someone is presenting on Boing Boing, I still enjoy pausing for a moment and saying “What if?”

What is the most far-out, fringe or incredible idea that you think might actually be correct?

From the very first time I encountered Jacques Vallee’s idea that we’re living in a Control System, and also read similar ideas from John Keel, Hans Moravec, Rudy Rucker, and others, I’ve always gone back to that notion whenever I want to blow my own mind.And this was decades before The Matrix.

Could you elaborate on that idea?

In recent years, mathematicians, phlosophers, and physicists like Nick Bostrom, Ed Fredkin, Stephen Wolfram, Seth Lloyd, and others have explored the idea that we’re living in a simulation or that the universe is a quantum computer.

Now, I don’t pretend to understand the physics or math underlying these theories, and I recognize that they are just theories and difficult to prove, but the very fact that so many brilliant people from a variety of disciplines are seriously asking these questions delights me to no end.

You’re the lowest profile of the Boingers. You don’t have any books that you’re promoting on the site, or anything like that. Do you have any books or anything like that coming out?

I don’t have any books in-the-works at the moment. I’ve written several proposals over the years, but was burned out on the ideas by the time I finished the outline. To me, that’s a good sign I haven’t found the right topic yet.

Also, I’m happily busy with my other work outside of Boing Boing, as a research director at Institute for the Future.

The Institute for the Future just finished up its 10 year forecast, correct?

IFTF does a 10 Year Forecast every year. Each year, my colleagues look at the technological and societal trends — from demographics to disease, sustainability to science — most likely to have a large impact on the way we live.

I’m not directly involved in IFTF’s Ten Year Forecast research program, as my work is more focused in the Technology Horizons program.

Are there any interesting trends you’re researching now that you can tell us about?

Actually, my research in the last year or so is related to what we just discussed about life in a “control system.”

My colleagues and I were exploring what a world might look like if “everything is programmable.” As we have access to more data about ourselves and our environment than ever before.

Sensor networks, bio-monitors, pervasive computers, and a host of other new technologies have given us unprecedented insight into the chaos and patterns underlying our world. Once we understand what the data means, we can act on it. We live in a control system and are developing new techniques — from social software to gene therapies to geoengineering — to tweak the dials and see the results in real-time.

And so we’re using genetic engineering to reprogram DNA, drugs to reprogram our brains, digital media to reprogram our social networks, etc.

Pesco with a Dreamachine
Above: Pesco with a Dreamachine

So instead of a control system controlled externally, we’re building a control system of our own design?

To some degree. More that it seems useful as a metaphor, to look at the world through a computational lens. And that metaphor raises huge questions and dilemmas, of course.

How do you make sure it’s not just an elite group that knows how to do the programming? What unintended consequences might emerge when you start fiddling with the knobs of reality?

That reminds me of Burroughs’s idea of the Reality Studio, which reminds me that you’re a fan of Burroughs – would you say his thinking has influenced your own, or do you just find him interesting?

Indeed, Burroughs and Brion Gysin both had a big impact on me. Burroughs’s notion of Control and finding ways to derail it are tremendously provocative. And I think their work with cut-ups predated much of the language of media used by MTV, Madison Avenue, and even the hyperlinked Web.

And as a futurist, I have to love this Burroughs quote: “When you cut into the present, the future leaks out.”

Burroughs also had a terrific sense of humor, of course.
I have art by both Burroughs and Gysin hanging above my desk and it inspires me every day.

Whenever I start to feel a bit too complacent I end up thinking of Burroughs’s writings about control. That usually fires me up a bit.

He was a master at shifting your perception with just a single sentence.

Vale of RE/Search Publishing once told me that Burroughs advised him to always look up a lot when you’re wandering around a city. It’s amazing the things you can see by just looking in non-obvious places.


Pesco on The World as a Wunderkammer at TEDx SoMa

Participatory medicine with Jon Lebkowsky – Technoccult interview

Jon Lebkowsky

Jon Lebkowsky is a social media consultant and cofounder of the Society for Participatory Medicine. He was also the co-founder of FringeWare, Inc. and EFF-Austin, co-edited Extreme Democracy, and is a regular contributor to WorldChanging. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.

Klint Finley: Let’s start off by defining what “participatory medicine” is.

Jon Lebkowsky: There’s a good definition on Wikipedia:

Participatory Medicine is a model of medical care in which the active role of the patient is emphasized.” It can be patients coming together in communities dedicated to a specific disease or condition, or it can be patients being considered peers within treatment teams that are treating their conditions.

The Internet makes it more possible, in that patients can find much more information about their conditions online, and they can find each other.

You’ve been involved with online communities for many years, how did you get involved with participator medicine?

Through my relationship with Tom Ferguson. Tom was a participatory medicine pioneer. He had edited the health section of the Whole Earth Catalogs, and published a magazine called Medical Self Care. We started talking and hanging out in the early 90s – he found me via EFF-Austin. He could see the potential for the Internet to provide patients access to more and more information, and he had always advocated for patients to be as informed as possible, and to have a role in treatment… and do as much for themselves as possible.

He had a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to do a white paper on e-patients (See e-patients.net), and he knew that blogs and social technology would be relevant. He wanted me to join his team of physicians and others because I was involved in the evolution of social technology, what some now call social media.

I started working with the e-patients working group and became a founding member of the Society of Participatory Medicine.

How long this movement had been afoot? I’ve read that things like this were going on as far back as the 80s in places like the WELL.

Yes, there’ve been a lot of patient conversations and communities over the years in various contexts. The WELL has always had an active health conference, and patient communities like ACOR have been around for a while.

Other than there being a lot more people involved now that the Internet has become mainstream, is there any big difference between what’s going on now and what was going on way back when?

In a way, yes. With higher adoption of the Internet, you have so many more patients getting active online. And the tools are evolving so that it’s easier to create contexts for conversation. Also, partly thru Tom’s work and the Society, and other orgs like PatientsLikeMe and the Health 2.0 conference, you have a lot more interest, activity, and potential for innovation. And there’s more information coming online, so patients can theoretically be better informed. There’s also new tools for people to manage their health records online, and track aspects of their health. More hospitals and healthcare professionals are starting to use social media to connect with patients and for community engagement.
We have a whole movement forming around patient demands for access to their complete health records.

Can you give any examples of “success stories” in participatory medicine – anything that really stands out? Like a situation where you could say “Wow, that recovery could never have happened otherwise.”

Dave deBronkart. He had 4th stage terminal cancer, is now in remission. If he hadn’t been an e-patient, he might never have found the treatment that made him so much better.

Here’s what the Wikipedia article about him says:

His kidney was removed laparoscopically and he was treated in a clinical trial of high-dose interleukin-2 (HDIL-2), ending 7/23/07, which was effective in reducing the cancer, although his femur ultimately broke from damage caused by the disease. Visible lesions on follow-up CT scans continued to shrink for a year and have been stable since, and are presumed dead.

He learned of the treatment through his e-patient activiites and research. No one had told him about it. If a healthcare provider can’t offer a treatment, they don’t necessarily know about it or tell you about it.

ePatient Dave
Dave deBronkart aka E-patient Dave/em>

Is there a downside? Increased “cyberchondria,” or decreased trust in physicians?

Jon L. Part of the power of participatory medicine is in patients collaboratively researching and discussing various treatments. More powerful than a single source of information. There’s a potential down side – a physician has a different context for assessing information, and may make different judgements. But it’s good for patients to be more informed. For the physician, there can be an issue of having to spend more time with patients explaining why something they’ve found online might be inaccurate or inapplicable.

Physicians who believe patients should be empowered can be pretty good about that, though.

And there are physicians who don’t assume they necessarily have the answers, and are very willing to listen to patients who’ve been researching, and consider what they have to say.

The patient has a strong vested interest in outcomes, and will sometimes dig more deeply and thoroughly than the healthcare professional has time to do.

Here’s another downside to consider: some patients may become more knowledgeable about their conditions than their doctors. There’s a tendency for people, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, to sort of double-down on their position if their expertise is questioned- especially if that expertise is questioned by an amateur. A physician might not want to admit they were wrong about something and their patient, who might not have ever even been to college, was right.

Yes, that’s definitely a concern. The solution is to create a culture where patients can be seen as peers. (Though not all patients will want that… many will.)

Not to be too personal, but have you been an e-patient yourself?

Jon L. Yes, but not with anything life-threatening, at least no so far. I have psoriasis and have researched it online, and was on a psoriasis email list for a while. I left it. My general sense was that the list was dominated by people who had strong feelings about what would or wouldn’t work – e.g. would vehemently oppose other patients who felt there was a potential to see results through changes in nutrition. I had a feeling they were being defensive – didn’t want to change their eating habits. So not all communities will be functional, or will work for all members.

I also had a problem with arrhythmia that seems to have been treated effectively by cardioversion and a round of drugs. I researched the drugs and decided I felt they were too toxic to continue, so I stopped after a year and a half. The cardio would have preferred I continued at least another six months.

Do you have any recommendations for potential e-patients for finding resources and communities, or places to avoid?

I would counsel proceeding with caution until you’ve felt your way into it, and got a good sense of the online landscape for your condition. It’s so easy to be misled, to get the wrong info. There are some communities that are well-established, and are the best places to go for specific conditions – like ACOR for cancer.

Also in researching your condition, remember that you’re not a physician or health researcher, so you don’t have the same context for assessing the information you find. Don’t assume your physician is wrong if you find contradictory information online.

You can get a sense of the landscape by reading e-patients.net and Journal of Participatory Medicine (the latter is the journal that the Society for Participatory Medicine started). There are also a lot of bloggers and tweeters in the e-patient space. Here’s a blogger on patient advocacy: Every Patient’s Advocate

Ed Bennett has resources for healthcare professionals.

Is there anything of note in the recent health care overhaul regarding participatory medicine?

It’s more of an insurance overhaul than a healthcare overhaul. I don’t think it has a lot of impact on what we’re talking about.

One thing specifically mentioned on the Society for Participatory Medicine’s web site is a need to address the digital divide’s impact on participatory medicine. Do you know of anything being done, or do have any ideas for solutions?

I don’t think there’s a specific project to address digital divide in this context. In fact, the community network / digital divide efforts in general seem to lack steam. Part of that is because Internet adoption is so high, it seemed that the issue was resolving as we had more and more ways for people to get online, and more incentives for them to do so. However I know there’s a significant number of adults who don’t have the kind of access they should, especially considering that so infrastructure for services is moving online.

State and smaller governments, for instance, are moving services online for the efficiency.

It’s not just a matter of access either, there’s also a matter of online literacy.

And when we get to the point where all healthcare data for everyone is available digitally, not just as an electronic health record but as a personal health record, only those who have the right degree of digital literacy will be able to have that as a factor in managing their health. To me the digital divide is more about knowing how to use computers than actually owning the hardware, so I’m with you 100%.

augmented reality medical app
Metaverse One’s augmented reality anatomy education app

Bruce Sterling, in the State of the World conversation you moderated, suggested the possibility that individuals, informed by various web based instructional materials, could start doing amateur medical operations. It was clear that what he was talking about wasn’t what you were talking about in terms of participatory medicine at the time, but have you thought anymore about that scenario?

I think it’s pretty unlikely – he was seeing that as the ad absurdum where participatory medicine could go, but I think that’s a real misunderstanding (and I don’t think he seriously believed it would go there). That’s really not what “participatory medicine” and “empowered patient” is about… when we talk about being better informed and being part of the conversation about your own health, it doesn’t follow that anyone would necessarily want to be an amateur surgeon.

Maybe not in the global North, but I can imagine it happening elsewhere, where access to professional health care is worse. Or even here in the States if economic conditions worsen.

You have a point there, but it’s not really what participatory medicine is about.

I could imagine someone learning how to do just one or two particular procedures really well and just doing doing those.

We are near a point where only the elite can afford adequate care. Yes, very possible.

Right, so the “participatory” in participatory medicine means more participating in the decisions, not doing surgeries.

Right… participating in the knowledge, and in the decisions.

Well, I think that about wraps it up. Do you have any closing thoughts?

My focus has always been on the Internet and its impact on culture, so participatory medicine is just one of a set of related interests. I’m still thinking about what’s really happening and how what’s happening in various sectors relate – participatory medicine to the changes in journalism and in politics, for instance.

Virtual reality veteran FSK1138 talks about his new low-tech lifestyle – Technoccult interview

FSK1138

Electronic musician and artist Donald Baynes, aka FSK1138, spent 10-12 hours a day exploring 3D virtual worlds in 1996 and 97. But now he spends less than 3 hours a week online. He spent an hour of his weekly Internet time chatting with me from a park to tell me why he decided to unplug.

Klint Finley: You say you were “addicted” to virtual reality in the late 90s. How did you get started with VR and what were you doing with it?

FSK1138: During that time – I was what you would call cyberpunk – I spent days plugged into a body suit, data glove, and HMD [head mounted display]. I explored virtual worlds and was surfing the web in 3D. Searching, always searching, for others and A.I out there in the sea of information.

What sort of equipment were you using?

Virtual io HMD, Nintendo Powerglove, dual cpu pPRO.

Did you have broadband back then or was this on dial-up?

I was using dial-up but I moved to Toronto because there was faster Internet – this thing called ISDN.

I remember ISDN. Basically it was using two phone lines to achieve faster speeds, right?

Yes. It was a dream – so much faster. It made 3D surfing VRML [Virtual Reality Markup Language] a reality.

So you were surfing VRML sites then? What were those virtual worlds like back then?

Low rez – like Quake or the first DOOM but at the lowest settings. There was a whole underworld of VRML BBS sites at the time.

And what did you typically do on the BBSes? Chat, socialize?

Chat, socialize, share data – much like what people are doing right now but like the Sims or SecondLife.
FSK1138

Are you still using VR?

No – I think it is a very bad thing. Even back then 3D was considered bad for your eyes and brain. I don’t think we were made for this type of input.

What makes you say that?

The reaction of any one who has seen avatar – when people who have seen it talk about it they always seem to have a smile on their face – the same smile…

He later sent me this article mentioning health concerns surrounding prolonged 3D gaming in children

FSK1138

You say now use the Internet for less than 3 hours a week and do not own a TV, phone, or stove. What brought you to the point that you decided you had to unplug like that?

I lived in Guyana for 4 years. You can have days when you have no power, and I survived. I feel that people think that the Internet will always be there. I feel it will not and the day is coming soon. I have seen the Internet change over the years – it has changed alot. The day is coming, I feel, that the can not remain a free utility.

Life really is not hard without technology if you learn to live without it. But if you’re addicted – what then?

When did you decide to cut back your use of technology?

When I realized it was taking up so much of my time – 2007 – I started closing down websites that I was using. I cut back to Myspace and YouTube – there were so many. And I cut my surfing – I use RSS now, I do not surf. By 2008 I did not have a landline or cell or Internet at home.


Above: Video FSK1138′s “Catch the Man,” a cover of Front 242′s “Headhunter.”

It looks like you use a lot of technology to make your music – have you thought about going towards a more low-tech approach to making music?

I am in a way back to where I started with making music. When I could not get a sampler or computer I used found objects – metal and glass and things you could bang together to make noise.

So you’re not using computers for music music any more?

I am using computers still – I just did a track for The 150-Years-of-Music-Technology Composition Competition.

Do you have any opinions of augmented reality? Have you used any AR applications?

I think is a cool concept. I just hope it doesn’t become the next form of spam.


Above: Video for FSK1138′s “Digital Drug”

Beyond Growth – Technoccult interviews Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller

Duff McDuffee
Above: Duff McDuffee

Eric Schiller
Above: Eric Schiller

Duff McDuffee and Eric Schiller run the blog Beyond Growth, a site dedicated to bringing some much needed criticism to the modern “personal development” business. Duff and Eric joined me via instant message from Boulder, CO and Belingham, WA respectively to answer some questions about the field.

Klint Finley: I suppose we should begin by first talking a little bit about “personal development” – what is it, how did this business emerge?

Duff McDuffee: You mean the field itself?

Klint: Right. Personal development as a business.

Eric Schiller: Duff is probably a bit more of an expert on that particular question, but I’ll add my thoughts to his response.

Napoleon Hill holding a copy of his book Think and Grow Rich
Napoleon Hill holding a copy of his book Think and Grow Rich

Duff: Ok. Well, from what I understand it largely emerged in the early 20th century when New Thought religious ideas became popular and were applied to worldly success. The basic idea was contained in such books as Think and Grow Rich and As a Man Thinketh.

The notion was that you could create stuff with the power of your mind. The correlary is that if you aren’t getting what you want, you need to do a kind of mental hygeine and clean up your stinkin’ thinkin’ (to quote Zig Ziglar).

So you have people like Napolean Hill, who died broke by the way, writing books on how to get rich by visualizing and affirming one’s future wealth.

Eric: In Douglas Rushkoff’s book Life Inc. he argues that ‘personal development’ or self help found its place in corporations, in order to help the remaining staff become more efficient after job cuts.

Thus personal development has deep capitalistic roots, based in becoming more useful for society, and or your particular corporate persuasion.

The Bobs

Duff: Yes, an excellent point Eric. Books like Who Moved My Cheese encouraged employees to “embrace change” and stay positive while they were being downsized for no fault of their own to make short-term profits for stakeholders. Barbara Ehrenreich covers this too in Bright Sided.

Whether or not this was intended, personal development functions as a perfect religion for capitalism. Pray for money and consumer goods and social status, and take 100% responsibility even when your circumstances are largely determined by social structures and institutions that are not in your direct control.

Eric: The early gurus cherry picked from Maslow and Jung – whatever ideas sounded good at the time.

Duff: Today’s gurus still do

Klint: OK. So how does this – or does it – tie into other areas like “self-help,” “lifehacking,” and, most recently, “lifestyle design”?

Eric: Personal development and self help are effectively the same, personal development is a more recent name for the same thing.

Duff: They are all synonyms as far as I’m concerned, rebranding.

Eric: Life hacking is different, but I think it is in effect, part of the same trope. Life hacking is a branch of hacking culture, it is really technologically based, but is all about “bettering oneself” so it has taken on the goal of PD or self help.

Duff: “Lifehacking” seems to me to be another name for geeking out on consumer gadgets and software for the most part. I mean if you really want to hack your life, do Vipassana meditation, or read Hegel, or take acid (not my preference, but that will seriously hack some stuff up).

Tim Ferris
Above: Tim Ferris goofing off while his employees do all his work.

Eric: The strange place is where the lifestyle designers and the life hackers collide, there you get people like Tim Ferris

Duff: Lifestyle design is interesting because only the privileged count as designing their lives. When a Mexican immigrates to the U.S. in order to have a better life for himself and his family, it isn’t lifestyle design. In fact, most lifestyle design focuses on 1st world young men with laptops who do freelancing living in developing nations to get a good exchange rate.

Eric: Yeah, lifestyle design itself is very priveledged, and only high-end consumers tend to get into it. They believe it is not consumption, but in reality it functions as a higher almost more evil form of consumption.

Duff: Part of the lifestyle design ethos involves an “escape from corporate jobs” which is of course nonsense. The first thing a lifestyle designer does is create an LLC in his or her own name, then engage in personal branding, and often exploit cheap overseas labor. The corporate ethos has been driven deeper, not avoided.

Klint: Well, it’s been escaped for the person doing the designing – but not for anyone who’s being outsourced to.

Duff: Right. So lifestyle design is really in the same boat as those business books on how to think like a CEO. But it plays off a countercultural branding.

Klint: Well, let me ask you guys this: is there anything so wrong with wanting to escape the corporate 9-to-5? Are they really hurting anyone by bringing business to these countries?

Eric: I think that question isn’t really getting at what is going on on these blogs. Tim Ferris offers to his readers “escaping the 9-5″ but in reality, he hasn’t done it himself. To him, “work” is doing stuff you don’t like, and the rest is fun. To him, a lot of the “fun” makes him money. Ferris works his butt off on his image and his books.

Klint: You’re right, becuase most of what’s actually going on, so far as I can tell, is these guys are going around having a blast and selling shady “info products” to marks with the promise that they can do what they do.

Eric: Ferris is offering a facade to his readers, that they can “make it” by doing very little work. This is really not a new idea, and has been offered in a multitude of self-help/business bookis.

Duff: What’s remarkable about Tim Ferris is that in his book he openly brags about cheating at Tango and martial arts. He used a radical dehydration technique to enter a much lower weight class, then pushed his opponents out of the ring and won on a technicality. This is the kind of business sense he is teaching–how to exploit loopholes in the rules for personal fame and profit.

It’s not really that surprising that Ferris is therefore the guru’s guru when it comes to shady internet marketing schemes that promise get rich/lifestyle quick.

Jonathan Mead
Jonathan Mead. What a rebel!

Eric: Additionally “escaping” is an extension of the American dream, of beating capitalism and making it your bitch. It isn’t an emancipatory dream like Ferris likes to pitch it. Someone I’m critical of, Jonathan Mead took Ferris’ ideas further and claimed that he was part of a “revolution.” This is a bigger problem.

Chris Guillebeau is also guilty of ‘revolutionizing’ lifestyle design. The problem is that it makes business as usual capitialism seem like a new revolution to the consumers, thus making it impossible for a real anti-capitalist movment to take hold. People are mesmerized by the same old promises.

Seth Godin

Duff: The revolutionary rhetoric really goes all the way back to Seth Godin, the ur-guru of personal development bloggers. Godin encourages marketers to use the techniques and rhetoric of grassroots political organizing to sell your info products to 1000 true fans. Instead of white papers, you get these PDF “manifestos” which are all a variation of a neo-liberal capitalist manifesto.

While there is nothing necessarily wrong with selling stuff on the internet and making a living doing it, to pretend that this is a revolutionary political act is ludicrous.

In more than one PDF white paper “manifesto” that I’ve read, the authors have specifically said that one should not vote or engage politically in any way. Steve Pavlina has said similar things. Most personal development bloggers advocate for avoiding the news because it is “negative.” All these things combine to destroy our political power by solely focusing on personal power.

Klint: I always thought that militant apoliticalism was a way of appealing to more people by avoiding taking any controversial political stance.

Duff: Could be, yes. But within that apparently apolitical view, when you scrape past the surface, is a radical neo-liberalism.

Eric: Klint, have you read the Porto Davos essay by Zizek? His notion of liberal communism fits perfectly to these lifestyle design gurus.

Klint: I haven’t read that essay, no.

So it sounds like it’s a pretty greasey business. Is there any value at all in it – is there anyone out there in that business worth commending?

Duff: Sure, there are some. I like Scott H. Young for the most part, although I don’t agree with him on a lot of points.

Eric: There are some people we like, but it really isn’t cut and dry to derermine who. I think it is important for individuals to develop themselves, but there is a lot of merit to the idea that you cannot just read what someone is telling you to do, and then directly apply it to your life. There is some barrier there, that prevents the ideas from becoming real habits.

Lucy from Peanuts

Klint: OK. So where does life coaching fit into this?

Duff: Life Coaching is interesting. I was a life coach for a while.

Life coaching feels really good for both coach and client. It’s really easy work and you get paid really well. It’s like being a therapist with only sane clients.

Klint: And without having to get a master’s degree. Or any degree for that matter.

Duff: Honestly, I think people really benefit from coaching, probably because we are so alienated that many people never have any meaningful conversations in their lives at all. But it is waaaaaaaaaay too expensive, and quickly becomes a massive ego trip and a huge financial scam. I don’t think there is any significant difference whatsoever between a $40/hour life coach and a $5000/hour life coach.

Another potential problem with coaching is that it outsources our meaningful conversations to specialists. If you have a Big Win in your life, who do you share this with first–your wife, or your life coach? Maybe your wife is stressed out and not that good of a listener anyhow. It is more efficient to share with your coach who will celebrate you unconditionally. But this takes away intimacy from your marriage, increasing your alienation.

Klint: So you don’t think that life coaching should be regulated like professional counseling?

Duff: Not really, no. I don’t like regulating meaningful conversation.

Eric: “Life coaching” is very broad. Most “life coaches” in reality are business coaches.

Duff: Yup.

Eric: Overall few focus on personal problems like getting along with others, self-esteem etc. These people are in it for the money.

Duff: The field overall is highly problematic and structured like a pyramid scheme. The most “successful” coaches are meta-coaches, i.e. they coach coaches on building their practice.

But within that, there are some really great people who are very helpful to their clients.

Eric: I asked a coach recently what the breakdown was of his clients, and a lot of them were bloggers and life coaches themselves. Very masturbatory.

Duff: To be fair, many healing professions are circle jerks. Massage therapists often have many massage therapists as clients

Klint: I can imagine if you spend all day giving massages, you’re really going to want a massage at the end of the week.

Duff: Yeah, my lady is a massage therapist. She needs her own bodywork to do bodywork on others. You get really sore.

BTW, my life coach is currently in jail for running an illegal Ponzi scheme.

Pyramid scheme

Klint: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that Duff, in relation to regulation Because if this guy is found guilty and sentenced and goes to prison – he could come right out and go right back to life coaching.

Duff: Sure. But he wouldn’t go to prison for life coaching fraud, but securities fraud. If he robbed a house he shouldn’t be barred from driving a car. Two different fields.

Klint: Yeah, but do you really think someone who goes to prison for securities fraud should being giving life advice?

Duff: I actually have a blog post in the works about this. The issues are complex and the facts aren’t all in yet. I’m not sure anyone is qualified to give life advice. But some people are pretty good at listening and asking poignant questions.

Eric: Who should be giving life advice anyway? It all comes down to the dispersion of a variety of ideologies.

Duff: Agreed.

Eric: Securites fraud just means that they broke the rules of capitalism.

Duff: The funny thing is his “Dharma Investments Group” was making similar errors as the big wigs. Who’s fault was the bubble anyway? Certainly fraud is fraud, but when the conservative bankers are doing similar things, all the normal rules go out the window.

Eric: Capitalism encourages people to stretch the rules, some people just get caught. I’d consider a full-of-air guru to be a worse person than someone comitting securites fraud.

Duff: It’s a spectrum of fraud and we’re all on it. Personally I think we can’t go much longer with interest-bearing currency before the whole monetary system collapses.

Klint: I don’t know the details of what that guy got himself into, but it’s hard for me excuse a guy who’s getting normal people to fork over their savings for some investment and then basically stealing their money. It doesn’t really matter what level he’s playing on…

Duff: I understand. It looks really bad for him! I certainly won’t be receiving his services anymore. But I stopped going to him about 5 years ago anyhow.

Klint: …that sounds like someone who’s pretty ethically challenged, y’know?

Duff: Or manic. Making impossible promises.

Klint: But yeah, he could get out of jail, move to another town, assume an alias, never have to disclose any of this… It’s very problmatic I think.

Eric: My point is that gurus do similar things. They take lay people and promise them all sorts of things, lead them on, and then leave them with nothing. James Ray was convincing his followers to go into debt to pay for his $10,000 seminars.

Klint: But to be honest, I don’t think there’d be a decent way to regulate life coaching anyway.

Duff: I don’t think so either. Some fields like coaching/healing and miracle cure supplements will always consistute the wild west …that and spirituality, faith healing, charismatics, etc. And yet, that is what is beautiful about these things too. You get these really wild characters with amazing insights or healing abilities or compassion etc. in the same arenas with the psychopaths and scam artists.

A total shitbag
Above: a complete and total shitbag

Klint: So it kind of leads me to another question – does it really matter that much? If people are willing to shell out obscene amounts of money for whatever – personal development products, life coaching, snake oil… are they basically getting what they deserve?

Duff: Well, personal responsibility does come into play to some extent, but we don’t want to go as far as blaming the victim.

Eric: I think they’ve been effectively brainwashed. So I suppose the question is, does a brainwashed person deserve the consquences of things they did not initiate?

Duff: I went to this particular life coach out of my own greed to be a wealthy life coach, for example. But his investors in his scheme retain their legal rights to sue. One of the reasons I like living in Colorado is that there is little regulation over healing practices and therapies. You can practice as an unlicensed psychotherapist here. So we have tons of innovative approaches to healing and changework. Yet the flipside is we have tons of new wage snake oil and BS. It goes together.

So…I’ve got to run now as I’m meeting up with someone. Hope that is ok. You guys can continue chatting if you’d like. I enjoyed this and would be happy to do it again. Let me know when it is posted, Klint!

Klint: OK, thanks for your time Duff!

Duff: Thanks to you too for the suggestion.

Klint: Do you guys have any further plans or is Beyond Growth winding down?

Eric: We’ll see. A lot of the reason we haven’t been posting much lately is that we are bored of where the field is going, and it is difficult to get excited about the same old. Both Duff and I had dreams of writing books and being guru-like long before we started BG.

I’ve thought about opening it up to more authors, or changing the scope a little. Once we start writing again we’ll definitely be taking a different direction. Less harsh criticism, more covert, careful writing with perhaps a few more ideas for people to ponder. Just going after gurus gets a bit tedious after a while.

Considering how harsh we are, we’ve been recieved very well by the community though.

Recommended Beyond Growth posts

The 4-Minute Mile and the Myths of Positive Thinking

Social Media: Moving Towards A Brave New World? (Here are my comments on this post)

The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens

Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio – Technoccult interview

Mika Vainio

Pan Sonic, originally known as Panasonic until the electronics company made them change their name, was a collaboration between Finnish electronic musicians Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen. The pair recently announced that their new album Gravitoni, now available from Blast First Petite, will be their last. Mika spoke with me by phone about the reason for the split, the new album, and his plans for the future.

Klint Finley: I guess I’ll start with, just to get it out of the way, the announcement has been put out that Pan Sonic has split up, so was this an amicable split?

Well, let’s say that we don’t have any plans to start again, but maybe we do one day. It’s still open, but I don’t think, at least for a couple years, we will not do it.
Pan Sonic

So are you willing to talk anymore about the reasons behind the split or do you want to leave it at that?

Yeah, why not. There has been no argument or bad spirit or anything like that. It’s just that after, we’ve been doing this for over 15 years, it’s time to stop and concentrate on our own solo things.

So is that what you’re going to be concentrating on now, solo work?

Yes. Solo work, then I work with a couple of other people also. There are lots of projects going on.

Will Jari Lehtinen still be working with you and/or Ilpo?

Not really, not for a long time actually.

Pan Sonic Gravitoni

What can listeners expect from the new Pan Sonic album?

Compared to the one before, it’s more minimal and basic. We kind of wanted to go back to the old style, minimal tracks with quite strong sounds.

Are there any guest artists on it or is it only you and Ilpo?

It’s only me and Ilpo this time, yes. It’s quite basic.

Did you collaborate long distance on this album, with you working in Berlin and him working in Finland, or did you get together in the studio to work on it?

No, we were working here in my studio in Berlin.

Pan Sonic is known for recording live instead of using overdubs and sequencers. Has that changed at all?

Well, since the last album before this new one we’ve been using multitrack, so we’re doing overdubs now.

Have you experimented with using software – like software synthesizers or sequencing – or are you still using only hardware?

I’m using only hardware. I don’t really want to do any computer thing. I think it would change my whole approach to the music. It feels quite boring for me, I don’t want to go for that.
Pan Sonic live

The record business has been going through a lot of transitions lately through music piracy through the Internet and there’s also the economic crash that makes it harder for people who might want to pay for music to actually pay for music. Has than been affecting you at all? Do you have any thoughts on that?

No it’s not affecting me that much, I think it’s only a problem of the record labels and big major artists. But for smaller artists and people like me we get very little money from the record sales altogether. The main source is playing live, that’s where the income is coming from. And I possibly think the music is available on the net because there are a lot of people, for example in South America, who could not afford to buy any CDs but this way they can hear the music, the music is available.

Mika playing live at In Touch Festival, Minsk. 2009-02-28

So you say most of your money comes from playing live, so will be touring solo to support your new work?

Yes, and I’ve been doing different things also. I’ve been working with a dance company making music for them. And I do sound installations too from time to time, so there’s income coming from that also.

Can you tell us about some of your sound installations?

Yes, sure. I would like to do them more often now that Pan Sonic is over, if I have more time. My last piece was in Brussels in November. It contained 6 off-tune radios. And I created the sound in the gallery with these radios.

Do you have any advice for new experimental musicians who are just starting out?

I would say they should just trust themselves and not think too much about what others think.

More Info

Video interview with Mika from Brainwashed.com. Mika talks about the history of Pan Sonic.

Unofficial Pan Sonic site from Phinnweb. Most complete resource for everything Pan Sonic.

Mika Vainio page from his booking agent. Watch here for tour dates.

Justin Landers of The Steven Lasombras – Technoccult interview

Steven Lasombras

Front: Justin Landers Back: Ben Blanding. Photo by Tony Vu.

Justin Landers is Portland based artist and musician who records and performs under the name The Steven Lasombras. His new EP A Diamond Eye Shines in Failing Light was released today on To the Neck Recordings. You can download the EP for free here or buy it here. Disclosure: I’m opening at the CD release show 4/30/10.

Klint Finley: What’s the meaning of the name Steven Lasombras?

Justin Landers: Oh Jesus… Should have seen that one coming! “Steven Lasombra” was a fictional character in a long-running Vampire: The Dark Ages campaign. When I originally started recording songs I labeled them Steven Lasombra Recordings, right around when a lot of “The” bands were getting big (The Strokes, The White Stripes, etc. etc.) so taking the name The Steven Lasombras was a really satisfying goof. I always meant to change it when I found a better name, but after a couple years it became a thing where nothing else fit.

Basically, it started out as a really stupid in-joke.

So he was one of your characters or one from a published series of books?

Sighh… it was my first character.

C’mon, do you think SPIN is going to be any easier on you?

“LOL”! It’s true.

How would you describe The Steven Lasombras to someone who’d never heard your music?

I would say I write and illustrate stories in the form of “songs”, and that they usually end up big and loud and dark, with lots of different parts. And I would feel like a pretentious ass. But that’s the quickest way to put it.

You’re also a visual artist. How has that impacted your approach to making music?

I have no training as a musician or anything, all my training is in visual arts. So I approach recording in the same way I would a painting – begin with the initial idea (whether it’s a half-finished story, imagery from a dream or a movie, a phrase, something from “real life”), then flesh it out and heap on as much detail as I can.

Moving forward, the visual element will be a bigger part of it. I’ve always made all the accompanying artwork for SLs releases but the new thing I’m working on which should be finished by the end of the year) is a bit more involved, the visual and sound elements are equally important. In that way, The SLs should become less of a “band” and more… I don’t know, something else.

That probably answers my next question – You spent some time last year studying wayang kulit in Indonesia, will that find its way into your work?

YES, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The new EP is a transition between my way of working before going there and the way I’m going about it now. The next project I mentioned definitely has some elements of wayang, especially in the visual side. I started compiling ideas for a wayang show to try here, but I am not sure if that’s ever going to happen. Not only would it be insanely expensive, I was a severely mediocre dalang.

A Diamond Eye Shines In Failing Light

So The Steven Lasombras is just you in the studio, and you work with various musicians for live shows, is that right?

Correct. The live line-up has shuffled a bit, mostly between friends or relatives who I’d played with in other bands (my brother Alex, our cousin Chris Ryan, who I played with in Animal Beard, Jevon Cutler from Chevron and Animal Beard, Michael Ferguson, Ben Blanding…) and who I was comfortable giving orders to. Since I’ve been back, everyone’s schedules were hectic enough that I just ended up playing alone live, and I think that’s been reasonably successful. With a guitar/bass/drums band the songs come across as a little more straightforward, the one-man versions pull them to a slightly weirder place.

How long have you been performing and recording under the name?

I believe the earliest four-track recordings date back to 2001 and the first proper live performance was March of 2006.

We don’t play live too often since a lot of the songs are tricky to learn. The parts themselves are simple enough (I think), but getting them practiced to a point of being really presentable is a challenge, especially when everyone has a job/school/wife/whatever.

(I should find some unemployed believers and then get comfortable giving them orders.)

It shouldn’t be that hard to find unemployed musicians in Portland.

How did you get your first gig?

First gig was by request! It was the release party for the Dragging An Ox Through Water record “Rebukes!”

Brian Mumford is actually one of the first people who really seemed to like the SLs stuff when he heard it, going back to like 2003. He had a CD-R label for a while called Publisher’s Clearinghaus that put out an Animal Beard record. He was going to put out another SLs record in 2004 but the project folded or he lost interest or something… He was really nice about it, though. He apologized to me for years.

Steven Lasombras

Left: Justin Landers. Right: Alex Landers. Photo by Tony Vu.

So were you passing recordings around to friends or actively seeking local labels?

Just to friends, and barely that! At that time Chris Ryan was still living in Eugene and was friends with Brian and the other guys in (the sadly now-defunct) Chevron, I believe that’s how he heard it, probably by accident. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve been comfortable actively sharing this music with people outside of my immediate circle of friends. That might be a mental thing on my part, but I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m much better now and know what I’m trying to do.

When were you in Animal Beard? Was that before The Steven Lasombras?

Yes! Animal Beard started when Chris was still living in Eugene, during my two terms at U of O, late 2000. That also started as a bedroom four-track recording project, but… in more of an indie-rock style. Chris wrote perfect little pop songs and then sang them in a bizarre, often kind of ugly way. I played bass with him, when he was in town Jim Edwards played drums and keyboard (often at the same time)… We played a lot and made some really nice recordings that just fell flat. We played a fair amount, the line-up changed (added upright bass and Brian Mumford on theremin) but people just didn’t know what to do with us. To this day, I still think Animal Beard was solid gold and everyone else was crazy.

There’s an Animal Beard full-length that’s 99.9% finished that I think I’ll be able to put out this summer. It’s weird and lovely.

Was that your first band? You said you don’t have any training as a musician, how did you get started?

I bought a bass in 2000, I think because I thought it would easy to teach myself. Outside of aimless “jamming” with friends I think Animal Beard might have been the first “band” situation, where we were focused on writing and making something good.

Was bass easy to teach yourself?

It definitely was! I mean, it’s not easy to play *well*, but it’s not too hard to figure out.

WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0 with David Forbes – Technoccult interview

David Forbes

Photo by Jonathan Welch

David Forbes is an Asheville, NC based journalist and blogger. He’s a senior journalist at The Mountain Xpress, a regular contributor to Coilhouse (both print and online), and runs his own blog The Breaking Time. You can find him on Twitter here. As a fellow media-geek I asked David to chat with me about WikiLeaks, the future of journalism, and Government 2.0.

Klint Finley: Personally I don’t think there’s one single future for journalism, but many different futures. I think WikiLeaks is one of journalism’s futures – what do you think?

David Forbes: I would agree that there’s not one single future, just as there’s not one single past for journalism — is made up of many different methods of pursuing and conveying information. WikiLeaks represents that raw, juicy information aspect, and there is a role for that, though it’s more limited in impact that some of its apostles may think.

There’s also a desperate thirst for analysis and context, for putting information together in ways that Wikileaks can rarely do.

Above: short version of the “Collateral Murder” video

Well, it seems like they’re trying to do more of that now, with the collateralmurder.com site and all.

A bit yes, but it’s still not their strength, and I don’t think it ever will be. As the release of that video shows, their strength is in finding what others can’t find. Ironically enough, the best analysis of that video has been done by some of the more traditional journalists (in their training at least) who’ve moved well into new media and can use their own contacts and info to put all of this into context.

I’m not sure, but it seems like they were initially trying to be a resource for journalists instead of an actual source of journalism. But they weren’t get the response they were hoping for so they’re doing journalism themselves now.

Jay Rosen called them a “stateless press” which I thought was really interesting.

It is, and does play to that part of journalists’ minds that sees themselves as an investigative society beyond borders.

On a side note, journalism is a capricious field, and what wisdom there is remains usually of the least conventional. For example, this week news emerged that NPR has doubled its market share over the last ten years, to the point where it exceeds network TV news. By a lot of the narratives about “new media” radio’s a dinosaur, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. But it has.

NPR Fast Company chart

Above: NPR’s market share visualized by Fast Company via Peltier Tech Blog

Oh wow, that’s interesting. I knew they’d been growing for the past few years. I wonder if that has to do with increased commute times for American workers.

Partly, yes, but moreso I think it’s that they’ve moved fairly aggressively into new media, enough not to get left behind, and people are thirsty for succinct analysis of the glut of information out there.

So let’s imagine for a moment a scenario in which virtually all professional news organizations have gone out of business. There’s just no business model for them, and all that’s left is “citizen journalism.” (I don’t think it will come to that, but let’s just pretend.)

As a professional journalist yourself do you think “citizen journalism” could step in to fill that gap? Do you think out of work journalists would keep doing journalism on the side, for instance?

Ah, a good hypothetical. No, I don’t think they could, much as plenty of professional journalists are salaryman hacks and plenty of citizen journalists are quite good.

The value of professionalism is underrated, and most news orgs don’t help themselves by having become extremely stodgy, but investigative skills don’t come overnight, and the sort of combined knowledge and contacts some sort of organization has is invaluable.

I think, in that hypothetical, it would quickly “re-professionalize” The best citizen journalists would find backers or form organizations and another system – perhaps bounties for really valuable pieces- would come along to provide the resources.

Yeah, that’s part of why I think it’s an impossible scenario – at least a few people are going to make money some how.

How much investigative work do modern journalists do? It seems a lot of the leg work is actually done by non-profits, advocacy groups, people like that, before journalists even get started.

It depends on the modern journalist. Sadly, a lot of more corporate papers have ditched much of their investigative arms, but plenty, especially locally owned papers or alt weeklies (like the one I work for) are actually going into it more heavily because there’s a hunger for it. Sure, non-profits and advocacy groups will usually do some of the legwork, especially in the initial stages, but at best they’ll only have a piece of the puzzle. Even on basic news stories, plenty of journalists still spend a lot of time chasing down statistics, facts, harassing contacts. A lot of this doesn’t get seen outside, because what the public sees is a very small chunk that’s been battered into a coherent narrative.

A mentor of mine put it best “investigation is following up 10 leads and having  nine of them go nowhere.”

Can give any examples from personal experience of doing investigative work.

I’ll use one of the older, higher-profile stories I’ve worked on. Back in 2007 a Buncombe Sheriff’s deputy, using a North Carolina law that had been struck down in the ’60s, arrested a couple for flying a large, upside-down American flag in front of their house.

activists Mark and Deborah Kuhn arrested in Asheville

This was a case where the investigation had to be done extremely quickly. So I ended up heading to neighbor’s houses, talking to them, getting them to make introductions to others. Turned out one of them had snapped some pretty gripping photos of the arrest. I then uncovered the ruling striking down the old flag desecration law, and found out that the deputy shouldn’t have been responding to a call within the city anyway. The charges were dropped, but it’s an example of how investigative journalism works: the information was there, some of the neighbors had pieces of it, but it still had to be pulled together, put into a whole, added to, etc.

I don’t know if you can speak to this, but how is Mountain Xpress doing through this period of… adjustment… for the newspaper business? Alt weeklies have been amongst the hardest hit. Are you/they doing anything interesting to adapt and weather the storm?

We’re weathering it fairly well. That’s in part because the paper has a lot of loyalty in the area and a lot of support from the communities here. But we’re also adapting from the news end. Now when a news story breaks we’ll have it up on Twitter ASAP, and we’ve worked on building our news hashtags and put those feeds up on our main site. Then we’ll have a blog post, then an in-depth print article

Hell, I’m Twittering news from local government meetings (as my outside Asheville followers are no doubt weary at me for). But I think that “all of the above” approach is necessary to survive. Media changes, the need to deliver stories doesn’t.

Right – I think the hard part though is figuring out how to monetize new media. It’s obvious that you’ve got to be everywhere these days – but paying the bills gets harder and harder.

Are there any particular journalism start-ups or experiments that you find particularly exciting?

Well, you mentioned Wikileaks, and that’s one. I find some of the hybrid experiments interesting: the all-online Seattle Pi has developed a pretty extensive stable of “neighborhood bloggers” I think using Twitter for that quick-hit news (and feedback) is fascinating.

I think, in Seattle, the West Seattle Blog is even more interesting. But the PI is interesting in that it’s a very well established paper daily making a huge change in how they operate.

I’ll have to check that out: good local media is priceless, and I’m glad it seems to be making something of a comeback. The future of the PI will be interesting to follow too: they’re making some interesting steps, but I wonder if a corporate-owned paper can be as adaptable as they need to be.

I’m also really interested to see how the NY Times semi-permeable pay-membrane works out.

Ah, the NY Times. The journalism nerd in me loves them, though I gritted my teeth at the “pay membrane stuff.” Last year, I think someone found that for what it costs to supply all their subscribers, they could buy every last one of them a Kindle.

You mean all their print subscribers?

Yes.

Ah, it’s actually twice as much as buying every subscriber a Kindle, pardon me.

New York Times Kindle

One of the problems I see with monetization… even if you can get people to pay monthly fees for access or whatever, I don’t know if that will cover the sorts of expenses newspapers have. Newspapers have typically lost money on subscriptions and made up for it with ads.

Indeed they have. One of the problems, I think, is that corporations began buying newspapers and seeing them as just another asset. Newspapers, except for rare boom-times, aren’t meant to make huge amounts of money; they make slow, steady profits instead. Also, many got used to being the only game in town and alienated a lot of smaller advertisers, instead of finding ways to build them into a network that could better endure shaky times.

Ironically, a similar thing happened in the banking industry: this pursuit of massive profits inspired a lot of  dumb, risky decisions because parts of the economy apparently can’t work unless they’re making ridiculous amounts of money.

I actually really like the idea of the pay membrane – I hope it works out. But I don’t think it will be their only or even main source of revenue.

Government 2.0

So shifting gears a little bit. You’ve been following the “Government 2.0″ debate on your blog. First of all, can you sum up what “Government 2.0″ is concisely?

Basically it’s technologists looking to revolutionize government with, as one might expect, technology. Gov 2.0, in theory at least, would be more accessible, transparent and allow people and government to better coordinate to solve problems and get needed information. And that “in theory” absolutely has to be stressed.

How do you think that fits into what you do as a journalist?

This is one of those areas where it affects me at multiple levels. As a journalist, I know how difficult needed information can be to get and obviously freeing that up would be a major boon to my profession, and most citizens. The political observer in me — which is informed in part from seeing government up close as journalist — has some major criticisms of Gov 2.0.

And what are those?

Oh my, where to start. The Gov 2.0 people for the most part genuinely want to do good, and they’re brilliant. Some of this stuff — like making case law and legislation massively more accessible — will be a big boon. But they’re largely well-heeled business and government types. These are people for whom government’s already working pretty well.

I would’ve killed at the Gov 2.0 conference to see one community organizer up there, talking about how this could help people who aren’t remotely linked in to all this shining technology. Transparency’s great, but there’s already more information out there than ever before about how government operates. There need to be ways to connect people to actually use that information and to press for needed change — basically tomorrow’s political  machine. Politics is a fight, it is always and only a fight, whatever form it may take and whatever people may tell you otherwise. I don’t think most of the Gov 2.0 people really comprehend that yet and until they do, we’ll see some fancier tools and more info, but government will continue to be largely as it is now.

I’ve gotten very cynical, myself, about how much transparency and all that actually matters. We know so much about what happened during the Bush administration, and yet nothing was done about and nothing is being done about it.

Well it ended up playing a major role in routing his party in the elections and has led to the reversal of many of their policies (though not nearly enough, by many counts). But yes, it’s a stark example of the limits of transparency when not backed up by the power to make it count.

Hm, well, let’s try to wrap this up with something a little more positive.

Surprise musical number? I’m a terrible singer.

Yeah, I’m only good at making noise so that’s out.

OK, so let’s try and end with this question… If you could tell everyone who reads this to go out and do one thing after reading this, what would it be?

Pay attention to as much of the world around you as you can for one day. That means politics, art, fashion, weather, everything. Then pick a definite course of action to improve things from where they are right now. That’s vague, I know, but basic observation is a good start. I think there’s a grand world coming and we’re fortunate to live in very interesting times. But that same potential means upheaval and uncertainty. We’re going to need everyone engaged and ready to fight like hell in their own way, and taking a good look around is the best first step.

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