I’ve been looking for this article for a long time. This particular quote was really important for me:
My old school got me in a few times to do “careers advice.” I was the token writer, and people would come up to me and say “How do I get to be a writer?” and I said “Well, first of all, if you can do anything else, do that. You know, there are lots of other things you can do that are an awful lot more fun, pay a lot better, will let you sleep far easier.” [laughs]
I also really like this bit:
Your fans are known as serious gift-givers. Jill Thompson says you’ve probably gotten more tapes than any writer at Musician magazine.
NEIL: Most of the tapes I’m given are terrible. You know, Scandanavian death-metal or whatever. You know: [sings in a deep, slightly American voice] “Oh, Morpheus, come down from the sky and give me good dreams CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG” or one guy accompanies himself on a harmonium or whatever.
Well, that last one sounds interesting…
NEIL: It wasn’t. But I still play them. I had a tape given to me in San Diego a couple of years ago by somebody who said “A friend of mine is a huge Sandman fan, she’s just recorded this, she wants you to have it, she talks about you on one of the songs.” About three weeks later I got around to playing it, and it was terrific. Absolutely stunning. There was an address on it, and I wrote to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful, and thank you very much for mentioning me on the song,” and that was Tori Amos, and that was the tape that later became a number of tracks on Little Earthquakes.
I’d give that same advice to anyone else considering a career in writing. I tried to find something else I could do for living, but I was never able to.
I thought I remembered a part with him talking about deciding to become a journalist, but I guess it was a different interview from around the same time. I did find this interview with him telling more or less the same story:
I’d always wanted to be a writer and I had a really bad night, the kind of long dark night of the soul, one of those nights you only get once or twice in a lifetime and I got one when I was about 20. I remember being unable to sleep and about four in the morning I keep thinking “I keep thinking I’m a writer. I like to think I could write stuff just as good as anybody else out there but I’m not really doing anything about it.” And that’s not the bad thing. What’s the bad thing is that in 50 or 60 years time I could be on my deathbed and I would say to myself, “I could’ve been a writer,” and I wouldn’t know if I was lying or not. It was the long dark night of the soul that genuinely changes everything. So I said “Okay, I’m gonna try and be a writer because even if I’m not, at least I’ll know that I’m not.” So I started writing. I wrote a children’s book, I wrote a bunch of short stories, and a lot of other stuff and sent them out to people . . .and the stories came back. Then I thought, “I’m doing this wrong. Either I’m not a very good writer (which I choose not to believe), or I’m doing this wrong. I want to understand how publishing and all that works. So I got up the next morning and said, “All right, I’m now a journalist. I’m a freelance journalist.” So I got on the phone to editors and pitched them story ideas about things I wanted to write and by the end of the day—by dint of lying cheerfully about previous experience—I now had several commissions and then had to turn them in.
FWOMP: And how did that go?
Neil Gaiman: It actually went fine although I must say as long as I had a typewriter, which was probably the next couple of years, there was a piece of paper taped to it that said, “Don’t let your mouth write no check that your tail can’t cash.” I think that’s a quote from Muddy Waters. And every now and then it would make me think, “I just got myself into a book contract. How the fuck did that happen? What do I do? I’ve never written a book and now I have a book contract.” So I’d write books. But it was good. There’s nothing for getting you good fast like having to be good fast, if that makes any sense.
Vice reports on algorave music — algorithmically generated electronic dance music:
“I’m a live coder, and over the last ten years I’ve been writing code to try to make people dance. That’s my aim,” Alex said. Writing code to make music has been a decade-long interest for Alex and Nick, but the epiphany to transport it into a club environment didn’t come along until a couple of years back. “Nick and I were driving up to Nottingham for an event, and we tuned into a pirate radio station called Rogue FM,” Alex said. “DJ Jigsaw was on, playing loads of happy hardcore, and that sort of influenced our set that night. At that point, it became algorave.”
By their own description, “Algoraves embrace the alien sounds of raves from the past, and introduce alien, futuristic rhythms and beats made through strange, algorithm-aided processes.” Alex attempted to breakdown the function of live coding in simplistic terms: “It’s a bit like making a knitting pattern or something; you come up with this usually quite simple way of describing patterns—this is my approach—and then use this as a sort of language for describing your music.”
Trying to get contraband into a prison is nothing new, but there is a new method. This week, some creative crooks tried to get tobacco to South Georgia prisoners by using a remote controlled helicopter, but they didn’t get away with it.
A lieutenant from the Calhoun State prison noticed a small helicopter flying over the gates of and a search began. Sheriff Josh Hilton says about an hour later deputies noticed a suspicious black dodge car with Gwinnett County tags on Edison Street.
It was 1983 and Davis was playing country western music in an (informally) all-white lounge. He was the only black musician in the place and when his set was over, a man approached him. “He came up to me and said he liked my piano playing,” says Davis, “then he told me this was the first time he heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” Davis, somewhat amused, explained to the man: “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine. He told me himself where he learned to play.” At first, Davis says, the man was skeptical that Jerry Lee Lewis had been schooled by black musicians, but Davis went on to explain in more detail. “He was fascinated,” says Davis, “but he didn’t believe me. Then, he told me he was a Klansman.”
Most people in this day and age probably would have turned and ran right out of that good ol’ boy’s bar, but not Davis. He stayed and talked with the Klansman for a long time. “At first, I thought ‘why the hell am I sitting with him?’ but we struck up a friendship and it was music that brought us together,” he says.
That friendship would lead Davis on a path almost unimaginable to most folks. Today, Davis is not only a musician, he is a person who befriends KKK members and, as a result, collects the robes and hoods of Klansmen who choose to leave the organization because of their friendship with him.
My latest column for TechCrunch looks at one of the weirdest political subcultures on the web:
Many of us yearn for a return to one golden age or another. But there’s a community of bloggers taking the idea to an extreme: they want to turn the dial way back to the days before the French Revolution.
Neoreactionaries believe that while technology and capitalism have advanced humanity over the past couple centuries, democracy has actually done more harm than good. They propose a return to old-fashioned gender roles, social order and monarchy.
You may have seen them crop-up on tech hangouts like Hacker News and Less Wrong, having cryptic conversations about “Moldbug” and “the Cathedral.” And though neoreactionaries aren’t exactly rampant in the tech industry, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has voiced similar ideas, and Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, says he’s been influenced by neoreactionary thought. It may be a small, minority world view, but it’s one that I think shines some light on the psyche of contemporary tech culture.
Great article from a couple weeks back by Adrian Chen about Perry Fellwock, the original NSA whistleblower:
He was tasked with analyzing Soviet air force activities. Though the American public at home was terrified by the Soviet threat, Fellwock said his access to raw intelligence made him feel safer—even if he had once anxiously tracked a flight of nuclear-armed Russian bombers heading straight toward Istanbul, pulling a U-turn just short of the line that would have set off a nuclear war.
“I thought we were keeping World War III from happening, I really thought that was what our job was,” Fellwock said. “Because we knew everything that was going on, and as long as we knew everything that was going on, there was a possibility of preventing everything.”
Fellwock’s faith in his mission was shaken within a year. In 1967, the Six-Day War between Israel and a number of neighboring Arab countries erupted. Israeli forces attacked an NSA spy ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, while it was on an eavesdropping mission off the coast of Egypt. Thirty-five crew members were killed, and 171 wounded.
Israel claimed that in the fog of war it had misidentified the ship as Egyptian. But James Bamford, in his book Body of Secrets, has made a strong case that the IDF knowingly attacked the spy ship in order to cover up their massacring of hundreds of Egyptian POWs in a nearby town. Whatever the case, the incident sparked outrage within the NSA, especially after Lyndon Johnson’s administration covered it up so as not to embarrass the U.S.’s strongest ally in the Middle East.
For Fellwock, the intrigue surrounding the Liberty incident opened up new, dark possibilities. “It made begin to wonder what the heck is going on in the world,” he said. “This is not the way things are supposed to be.“
Having glimpsed the chaos of a war the U.S. wasn’t even a party to, Fellwock began to wonder about the ongoing American war in Vietnam. In 1968, his curiosity overcame his aversion to combat and he volunteered for Vietnam. “I had to find out why things were going this way,” he said.
Peter Turchin (the Cliodynamics guy) has a piece in Bloomberg today:
Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.
Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions. Consider the Antebellum U.S.
While I can understand how intra-elite conflict destabalize society and lead to ever more disaparity between the elites and everyone else, I still don’t quite understand how elite overproduction causes this. If most of these wannabes are locked out of the elite positions, how is it that they’re causing trouble?
This essay is part of 5 Viridian Years, a series of reflections on the Viridian Design movement.
Revolution is depressing.
The U.S. turned deep red after the 2002 mid-term elections. Any hope of a Democratic rebound after George W. Bush’s contentious inauguration vanished. Not that the Democrats were any better. Only one senator had voted against the Patriot Act, and in 2003 congress approved the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest — some of the biggest in history. Meanwhile, poverty was on the rise and the Kyoto Protocol was going nowhere.
On a personal level, the a local homeless shelter was on the verge of being pushed out of downtown Olympia, WA out to the outskirts of town. The campaign to save it, which I had volunteered for, was going badly.
It was hard to take the idea of meaningful political change seriously. Things were fucked up at every level of government. Nor could I take seriously the right-wing punk, “fuck-up the system from the inside” idea. Writer Grant Morrison put it this way: “For every McDonald’s you blow up, ‘they’ will build two. Instead of slapping a wad of Semtex between the Happy Meals and the plastic tray, work your way up through the ranks, take over the board of Directors and turn the company into an international laughing stock.”
Sounds nice in theory. But I knew corporations were more resilient than that. Sabotaging the system from inside was as much a pipe dream as changing it through politics and protest.
Outnumbered and out-gunned, armed insurrection seemed pointless. The only viable solution seemed to be outsmarting the enemy.
In early 2003, not long after the start of the Iraq War, I read The Headmap Manifesto, a document written by Ben Russell and first published in 1999. Russell described a future filled with location aware mobile internet devices, augmented reality, reputation systems and digital payment systems. He anticipated nearly every major mobile and geolocative innovation of the following decade, but the heart of the text was a vision of a new society that these technologies could bring about. He called the social economic system that would emerge from these technologies “augmented capitalism.” Today we might call it the “sharing economy.”
A few months later the green tech and social enterprise blog WorldChanging launched with the mission of spreading the message of the “bright green” movement, a design movement closely aligned with Sterling’s Viridian Design concept. “The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green,” Sterling announced in the movement’s manifesto. “A Viridian Green, if you will. The best chance for progress is to convince the twenty-first century that the twentieth century’s industrial base was crass, gauche, and filthy.”
In other words, maybe we instead of protesting McDonalds, or joining the board, we could convince people that it was just really uncool to eat there.
Discovering Headmap, Margin Walker and WorldChanging was for me what discovering The Whole Earth Catalog or Mondo 2000 must have been like for previous generations. These were the people I was looking for, and the vision I was seeking. An alternative to both the hopeless outsiderdom of left-wing activism and the nihilism of yuppiedom. A glimmer of hope that I could spend my post-college career making money and making a difference.
Looking back it all seems hopelessly naive.
Last year I saw Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey give a talk at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Dorsey, who got his start in tech by writing taxi dispatch software just for fun and still name drops Hakim Bey, is the most “Headmap” tech executive out there. I don’t know if he lurked on Margin Walker or the Geowankers mailing list, but he would have fit right in. He was “one of us.” And there he was at this major tech conference, dressed in a Prada suit, talking about “revolution” while homeless people slept under the bridge right across the street. I guess it could have been either a dream come true or a disillusionment had those particular dreams not already rotted in my heart.
Today we have garbage continents and ocean acidification. The latest ICC report tells us that even if we do manage to gouge our emissions, we’re still in for some rough climate change. And cutting emissions still looks as unlikely as it did to me in 2003 and as it did to Sterling in 1998.
Any sane person would look at the evidence and say the Virdian/Bright Green movement failed miserably. But here’s the thing: The Viridian Design movement may have failed in its goals, but accomplished its objectives.
Green is hip. Green is sexy. And the more affluent you are the greener — and therefore hipper — you can afford to be. “The task of this avant-garde is to design a stable and sustainable physical economy in which the wealthy and powerful will prefer to live,” Sterling wrote.
Virdians eschewed politics. “CO2 emission is not centrally a political or economic problem,” Sterling wrote. “It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.”
In other words, it was a “solutionist” movement, meaning that it tried to “route around” politics and provide purely technical solutions to hard problems. The term has been popularized by Evgeny Morozov in the context of tech pundits who, but its origins are, appropriately enough, in architecture.
But in a capitalist society, an aesthetic movement is ultimately a consumerist movement. That’s why punk ended up as a lifestyle you can buy at the mall. It’s why the sharing economy is anything but. And just as the personal computer business became just another consumer electronics industry and the internet became an ad network with an NSA backdoor, Bright Green became just another way to move product. Worse, it became an excuse to use consumption as an alternative to politics and self-discipline. It’s the forfeiture of environmentalism to the market.
This bastardized version of Virdian was best stated by Arnold Vinick, told the world the fictional presidential candidate on The West Wing: “In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems.”
But as it turns out, 15 years on, that the environment is political problem after all. We need global emissions treaties. We need federal funding for research. We need to adjust our lifestyles and expectations, but we don’t want to. Down shifting is for “hair shirts.” Bright Green has become the left’s version of right-wing transhumanism: an excuse to not solve today’s problems, because tomorrow’s technology will fix them for us.
That’s not to say many of the people involved in those communities didn’t end up doing important work. And to be fair, Margin Walker was always more political and more skeptical than certain other “social responsible design” communities (if that’s even what Margin Walker was). And of course this green washed consumerism isn’t what Sterling, Alex Steffan and company had in mind in the early days. But even the political strains of that era — the so-called “emergent democracy” movement — have been co-opted by commercial forces.
Hopefully there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the next generation of activists, designers and social entrepreneurs. Don’t give up on the political, and don’t be so smug as to think you can route around it.
Tehrani discovered that “Little Red Riding Hood” seems to have descended from the more ancient story “The Wolf and the Kids” — but so did African versions that independently evolved to look like “Little Red Riding Hood.”
“This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations,” Tehrani explained in a statement. “The fact that Little Red Riding Hood ‘evolved twice’ from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.”
The analysis also suggests that the Chinese version of “Little Red Riding Hood” derives from ancient European tales and not vice versa as other researchers have suggested.
“Specifically, the Chinese blended together ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘The Wolf and the Kids’ and local folktales to create a new, hybrid story,” Tehrani said.
Unfortunately this will go behind a paywall in about 15 hours, read it while you can (It now seems to be permanently accessible):
Mark Ames and Yasha Levine Yasha Levine write:
The world knows very little about the political motivations of Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who is founding (and funding) a quarter-billion-dollar journalism venture with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. What we do know is this: Pierre Omidyar is a very special kind of technology billionaire.
We know this because America’s sharpest journalism critics have told us.
In a piece headlined “The Extraordinary Promise of the New Greenwald-Omidyar Venture”, The Columbia Journalism Review gushed over the announcement of Omidyar’s project. And just in case their point wasn’t clear, they added the amazing subhead, “Adversarial muckrakers + civic-minded billionaire = a whole new world.
The authors then launch into an examination of what the Omidyar Network has funded, which includes:
-SKS Microfinance, the microlending company that terrorized its debtors into committing suicide in India
-DonorsChoose, a fundraising site for public schools that was aligned with the makers of the anti-teacher union propaganda film Waiting for Superman
-Hernando de Soto, the “Hayek of Latin America” who was once drug czar for Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru now in prison for crimes against humanity.
And the reason that matters, of course, is because Pierre Omidyar’s dystopian vision is merging with Glenn Greenwald’s and Laura Poitras’ monopoly on the crown jewels of the National Security Agency — the world’s secrets, our secrets — and using the value of those secrets as the capital for what’s being billed as an entirely new, idealistic media project, an idealism that the CJR and others promise will not shy away from taking on power.
The question, however, is what defines power to a neoliberal mind? We’re going to take a wild guess here and say: The State.
So brace yourself, you’re about to get something you’ve never seen before: billionaire-backed journalism taking on the power of the state. How radical is that?
The autonomist critique of authoritarianism and Stalinist bureaucracy is something that we shouldn’t forget. Any credible leftist politics now has to take the problem of anti-authoritarianism very seriously. At the same time, however, we have to recognise that the situation is very different from the context in which autonomist ideas first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, the Communist Party and the trade unions were very powerful; Stalinism was still an oppressive presence.
None of these things are true today. Whatever the merits of autonomist anti-statism, it has to be acknowledged that anti-statism is now hegemonic. There’s a congruence between the language of neo-anarchism and David Cameron’s Big Society, which is not to say that the discourses are identical. But one problem with anti-statism — particularly when coupled with localism, as it often is — is that it makes any defence of institutions like the NHS very difficult. The drive of the original autonomists was to escape existing institutions, whereas I think our aim today should be to produce new institutions.