The Best of 2017

Here is my third installment of the best things I’ve found, learned, read, etc. over the past year. These things are listed in no particular order, and may not necessarily be new.

See the 2016 post here!
See the 2015 post here!

This annual “Best Of” series is inspired by @fogus and his blog, Send More Paramedics.

Favorite Blog Posts Read

I end up reading a lot of articles over the course of the year, and cannot possibly remember all of them. Here is a good selection of that ones that I can recall:

Articles I’ve Written for Other Publications

I’ve continued to write for a few different places outside of my own site. Here is a complete list for 2017:

Favorite Technical Books Read

Favorite Non-Technical Books Read

  • Daemon (2006) – Awesome techno-thriller about an autonomous piece of software that slowly starts taking over the world. The book follows those who are trying to stop the daemon program, and those the daemon employs.

Number of Books Read

This year was noticeably disappointing when it came to number of books read. This is likely due to an increase in the amount of podcasts I now listen to.

3

Still Need to Read

Dream Machines, Literary Machines, Design Patterns, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Favorite Music Discovered

Favorite Television Shows

Black Mirror (2011), Game of Thrones (2011) , Mr. Robot (2015), Halt & Catch Fire (2014), Twin Peaks (2017)

Favorite Podcasts

Reply All, TLDR, 99% Invisible, Jason Scott Talks His Way Out of It

Programming Languages Used for Work/Personal

Java, JavaScript, Python,Objective-C.

Programming Languages I Want To Use Next Year

  • Common Lisp – A “generalized” Lisp dialect.
  • Go – Sounds like fun for network-oriented programming.

Life Events of 2017

  • Visited NYC, New York.
  • Visited Nashville, Tennessee.

Life Changing Technologies Discovered

  • PC Engines – I recently got an apu2c4 and am impressed by this single-board computer. While I am just experimenting with it right now, the gigabit NICs should prove to help make a great pfSense router.
  • Orange Pi Zero – Not as fast as a Raspberry Pi, but for $9USD, this little board can be used for many, many small and inexpensive projects.
  • Mastodon – A really nifty federated social networking software package similar to Twitter that I don’t use as much as I should.

Favorite Subreddits

/r/darknetplan, /r/cyberpunk, /r/homelab

Completed in 2017

Plans for 2017

  • Write for stuff I’ve written for already (NODE, Lunchmeat, Exolymph, Neon Dystopia,  2600).
  • Write for new stuff (Do you have a publication that needs writers?).
  • Publish article backlog. I have around 10 articles I have written or partially written that are not online yet.
  • Read more books.
  • Participate in more public server projects (ntp pool, etc.).
  • Continue work for Philly Mesh.
  • Do some FPGA projects to get more in-depth with hardware.
  • Organization, organization, organization!
  • Documentation.
  • Continue rebooting Raunchy Taco IRC (Have one server and a certificate authority configured).
  • Create a new SKS keyserver.
  • Assemble an RC2014.

See you in 2018!

 

On Music, Mondo, & Mayhem: An Interview With R.U. Sirius

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on September 1st, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

I recently wrote an article for Neon Dystopia on Mondo 2000, a cyberculture magazine that helped shape the cyberpunk sub-genre. When thinking of Mondo, the first person that comes to mind for most people is Ken Goffman, better known as R.U. Sirius. While he may be best known for his time at Mondo 2000, Sirius has no shortage of interesting accomplishments. Aside from Mondo, Sirius has had articles published in Artforum International, Rolling Stone, Time, Wired, and Esquire. He has been editor-in-chief at Axcess Magazine, GettingIt.com, and H+ Magazine. He’s hosted two podcasts, started multiple websites, and even had a run for the presidency in 2000 under the Revolution Party. Did I mention he has also authored or co-authored 10 books and appeared in two movies?

R.U. Sirius (Photo by Bart Nagel).

Aside from his accolades, Sirius is known as a knowledgeable, iconic, and somewhat eccentric guy. An acquaintance of his once stated, “[Sirius] once told me he had trouble reading anything written before 1990-it was 1980 at the time.” While Sirius has constantly been seen as being ahead-of-the-curve in a lot of ways, it was never something that hindered him — it only helped him excel. Without R.U. Sirius, we may have had a completely different experience traversing the digital revolution. At a minimum, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

I had the pleasure of interviewing R.U. Sirius for Neon Dystopia over the course of the last few weeks while working on the Mondo 2000 retrospective. Being able to pick his brain was an experience, and after he answered my long series of questions, he started to tell me about his music — something I wasn’t at all familiar with. I had known R.U. Sirius the editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000, but not R.U. Sirius the musician. With a little research, I discovered he was the lead singer and songwriter for the band Party Dogs, which performed in New York in the 1980’s. Later in the 90’s, he would perform in the band Mondo Vanilli, which even signed a record deal with Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records (though there was never an official album release). Sirius recommended two albums to me, and I queued them up as I sat at my keyboard and pulled at the seams of Mondo.

The first album he recommended to me was MONDOtoxicated, a work-in-progress collaboration with psychedelic jamtronica band Phriendz. Sirius does the lyrics and has vocals on all but one song in the collection, “I Hope You Didn’t Dose the Pudding,” which instead features Phriendz’s own Daddy Phriday. The first track on the album, “Speed and Weed” is a great entry point into the unique sound put out by the collaboration. You can feel the funk and electronica elements, and they blend together seamlessly to create something otherworldly. Later in the album are two remixes from Sirius’s Party Dogs days: “On The Beam,” and “President Mussolini Makes The Planes Run On Time.” These songs are very punk-fueled, beckoning back to their original 1982 compositions, but blend well with the new electronic elements in the remix.

The second album, a much longer compilation spanning from 1982-2010+ titled That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Hipper, features songs from Party Dogs, Mondo Vanilli, collaborations with Phriendz, and also songs by band SLT which Sirius supplied lyrics for. Aside from the Phriendz collaborations (which were also featured on the other album) the Party Dogs songs have a great punk rock sound that I could listen to all day. The real standouts on the album are the the techno-rock Mondo Vanilli tracks. “Love is the Product” in particular is a playful, satirical song that will get stuck in your head with its catchy chorus. While the album spans a number of decades and a few different genres, Sirius’ style shines through on each track. You are able to see how his music has evolved over the years, and never loses its power or passion.

While listening to these albums, I got the sense that music was and is an important part of Sirius’ life. I had to rethink my interview and go beyond the Mondo topics I was so focused on. I wrote back to pester Sirius with some additional questions, this time about his musical career.

Below is the full interview, with all of the questions on Mondo 2000, music, and everything else mingled together. Take a ride, and try not to fall off!

Neon Dystopia: Before you started working on High Frontiers, you were in a band called Party Dogs. Was this your first foray into music? How did you get involved in the band?

R.U. Sirius: Party Dogs was my first real foray. I recorded 3 songs before that with a band we called The Spoons as vocalist and lyricist in an analog electronic music room at a State University in Binghamton NY in 1976 – two of them got some local airplay. The song “Reggae Ripoff” caused a minor stir when a DJ who liked to play it realized I was a local white boy and freaked.  The lyrics are here. But there were no live appearances.

I had a few onstage moments after that… I’d go onstage for one song basically… “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (or “Raw Power“, once).  But Party Dogs was the first sustained band that actually performed often. Actually the only band that performed often.

I was in Brockport New York, a small college town. I’d gained confidence in my voice by learning the entire Stones catalogue with a friend who thought he was Keith Richards (RIP, it goes without saying) … and when the neighbors came by saying they thought it was the Stones record and then realized we were doing it … I think that was my breakthrough in terms of confidence. I was already 25.

So I started putting together a band in Brockport. The first one we called Skippy and the Nice Guys. It was raw and confrontational. Everybody hated it.

When Party Dogs started, almost everybody hated that too… but we got good with practice. It was more punk-inflected rock than punk. Among our copy songs we played the Dead Boys, Sex Pistols and Iggy. But on the other hand, we played some Rolling Stones and Bowie. And mostly our own songs, of course. We ended up being kind of popular both in town and in Rochester, New York nearby. The other guys continued being in great bands in Rochester, including SLT, who I wrote some lyrics for a few years ago.

At our last Party Dogs appearance in Brockport, we closed as usual with a noise rock version of “Strangers In The Night.” Some jocks who were tripping on acid decided I was the devil and plotted to kill me. A girl who knew them and knew me talked them out of it!

ND: Music seems to be a big part of your life. Do you see yourself as a musician at heart despite all of the other work you’ve accomplished?

RU: There’s a great line in the TV show Dear White People… “Trust me. Find your label.” I guess I’m kind of too cosmic when it comes to considering myself anything. I’m amused by the way many millennials have this really expansive panoply of labels (particularly for sexuality) but such a constricting need to be codified.

Having said that, to the extent that I made a livelihood, it was mainly as an editor-in-chief and a writer.

I’d love to be known for my lyrics…  like maybe Van Dyke Parks or Bernie Taupin or Pete Brown (Cream)… except I guess mine are much weirder.  I don’t know. Who writes lyrics for avant-garde operas? I’d like to be him or her!

Mondo Vanilli album cover for i.o.u. babe.

ND: Have your influences changed dramatically between Party Dogs, Mondo Vanilli, and your most recent music?

RU: In terms of vocals, I’ve looked to people who work with rhythm and attitude but don’t have a vast range — Lou Reed, Jagger… for some examples.  And just before I embarked on my latest work, I had a cough that lasted for 2 months. I had kind of a recent-Bob Dylan growl befitting of an old man whose done a few naughty things…  but it disappeared. I don’t know if I will ever regain my voice the way I want it.

In terms of lyrics, it’s just whatever comes. I think maybe Frank Zappa is an influence although I’d maybe rather write like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. But I think my stuff is mainly unique and as good as almost anyones…  can I say that? I mean, for permission to go off the map of the usual rhyme schemes… I’d look to Don Van Vliet, Patti Smith and Bowie.

ND: In Mondo 2000, and earlier with Reality Hackers and High Frontiers, I see hippie/yippie influences, such as the work Stewart Brand was doing with the Whole Earth Catalog. I also see some parallels with Ted Nelson’s work, and the sort of general DIY attitude that the punk subculture perpetuated. What would you say were some of the biggest influences that Mondo 2000 drew from?

RU: I view the influences in terms of periodicals more than in terms of hippies or yippies etcetera, although a kind of counterculturalness is intrinsic. For myself, and I think for many others involved in the publication, there was a love of magazines.

Mad Magazine was as much an influence as Whole Earth.

Creem magazine with its irreverence… it’s disrespect for journalistic conventions and lack of rock star worship.

Some Dadaist publications like File (which became Vile after punk rock hit) for its use of allusion and not having to make sense.

The original underground papers of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s for their aliveness – trying to transcend their containment within a printed thing that you can buy and hold in your hand and have expectations towards. Can we make this object explode or dance or shoot off psychedelic sparks?

Interview… because it used interviews without the intrusion of the all-knowing authorial voice.

Omni for the pop science and technology and for recognizing that was the next cool thing.

Evergreen for counterculture in an urbane package with top tier writers like Terry Southern, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Eldridge Cleaver.

Wet for looking cool and feeling futuristic

ReSearch/Search and Destroy for exploring the connection between punk counterculture and various historical/anthropological memes like Situationism, body modification and so on.

That’s off the top of my head.

ND: What was the typical content of an issue, was anything too far out to be included?

RU: There was some relatively straightforward reporting on tech and science developments towards the front, usually … right after the very colorful and strange letters to the editors. Lots of interviews and conversations with people making up the hipper edges of the emerging tech culture but also musicians and just eclectic off-center stuff like an art forger/money counterfeiter. I mean, I can’t really do any issue justice in terms of how ultra-strangeness rubbed up against techie relative-normalcy.

I can’t remember a feeling that anything was too far out to be included. They were different times. The extremes hadn’t been fully weaponized yet, so to speak.

Mondo 2000 issue 2 contents.

ND: The 1980’s saw a big push into science fiction and the development of cyberpunk with Neuromancer and the growing popularity of publications like OMNI. Were you aware of the content in this space?

RU: Yeah we were friendly with Dick Teresi and other editors at Omni. We were excited with SF Eye and some other publications I’ve forgotten since. The excitement over the so-called cyberpunk writers was hitting us when we were still High Frontiers (the magazine we published from 1984-1988, preceding Mondo). Timothy Leary was very excited about Neuromancer, so he kind of led us towards that, but we had people around like St. Jude Milhon who were already trying to call our attention to that.  There were some cool periodicals doing something sort of vaguely similar that came and went. And Boing Boing preceded Mondo technically, although we had already done High Frontiers and Reality Hackers and they were influenced by those.

ND: Mondo 2000 is often cited as a large influence in the development of the cyberpunk subculture. How do you think it has been able to influence cyberpunk over the years?

RU: I think Mondo was more its own thing. Anybody who took cyberpunk too seriously as a movement or a memeplex might have been alienated by our eclecticism, our fancy design, our not-giving-a-fuck about cyberpunk or much of anything mien.  The hardcore nerds and cyberpunk sorts, for instance, hated that we did fashion spreads and girls with circuit boards around their nipples (as did some feminists). Mondo was an art project, really, specific to the people engaged in it, with the idea of cyberpunk or cyberculture in the nose cone but so much else going on behind it. And yet we hit a sweet spot for other eclectic sorts… I guess I’d say hipsters, in a positive sense (that label wasn’t a curse back then.) But also, the sort of person that loved Robert Anton Wilson and Church of the Subgenius.

ND: Tell me about the culture of the Mondo 2000 house. What was a normal day like? How would you describe the parties?

RU: It was a largish house in the Berkeley hills…  looked like a Blue Oyster Cult cover… thus called a “technogothic citadel” in various reports. There was a dead red 1956 MG out front.

The upstairs front room was used as the main office. Three people would roll in and start answering phones at around 9:30 am. Andrew Hultrkans our managing editor tended to come in early too. I slept in a room downstairs with my girlfriend at that time… we made some noise in the morning hours that would “frighten the horses” upstairs. I came upstairs in a silk bathrobe and nothing else usually around 11 am and went into the kitchen to make coffee.  Bart Nagel, Heide Foley and the art department was in a large downstairs room. I don’t know when they started but they often worked far into the night. The place was pretty dedicated to working on the magazine and dealing with the business and publicity on weekdays. Sometimes people would show up…  Jesus Jones (a “rock star” of the ‘90s); Buffy Saint-Marie! She’s awesome by the way. Some kids looking for me… the main dude said his dad was head of the CIA or something like that.

I don’t know that I want to describe the parties.  Some of them were large… lots of people.  I don’t remember any outright orgies – despite hearing rumors about them. Massive psychedelic drug taking was more common during the High Frontiers period in the mid-‘80s.  There was tech being shown off… brain toys, definitely some drugs, sex in private places…   I have this memory from around 1991 of these ravers being really contemptuous that the old folks were “dancing to Bryan Ferry.” But it wasn’t Bryan Ferry. It was Roxy Music and they were way fucking better than anything EDM ever produced!

Editors Rudy, Queen Mu, Ken Goffman, with Bart Nagel, the graphic designer. (Photo by Bart Nagel.)

ND: I often think that Mondo 2000 benefitted from hitting at just the right time, as computers and technology were riding this sociopolitical wave in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Do you think that Mondo 2000 was just as influential at the time as it was reactive? What was the feedback loop like?

RU: I think Wired hit at just the right time to be commercially successful (they were, of course, more accessible to the “normies”). We intentionally teased out the countercultural influences in the early Silicon Valley digital culture and helped make the connections between alternativeness and technoculture. A fellow named Michael Gosney – who had a digital arts magazine called Verbum – sponsored something called the Digital Be-In, timed to the annual Mac gathering in San Francisco, independent of us… so there were other people doing this as well. (We attended those splendid events, of course.)

San Francisco counterculture’s embrace of the celebrations of technology, virtual reality etcetera at that time in the early ’90s is kind of an extraordinary thing that requires a whole other essay.  It was a culture where the people who throw rocks at the Google bus would have been at the same party as Larry and Serge… our party!  Anticipating the future brought people together more than the actual thing.

Cover for Verbum issue 5.2. Click here to read the whole issue.

ND: Why do you think Mondo 2000 was so successful at the time? What did it have that nothing else did?

RU: We had a lot of hype from the mainstream media … an excitement about the superficial stuff like VR and smart drinks… that helped to let people know we existed. But I think the magazine itself was something extraordinary. It was the message from some other planet… some other future… that Wired later claimed to be. And there was an audience that wanted that.  People used to haunt magazine stores, Tower Records, in various towns…  “When will we see another issue of MONDO 2000.”

I mean, it wasn’t that successful. We hit our peak just shy of 100,000 circulation.

ND:  Timothy Leary once said that Mondo 2000 was “a beautiful merger of the psychedelic, the cybernetic, the cultural, the literary, and artistic. It shouldn’t last a long time.” Do you think that Mondo could have gone on for many more years, or was it by nature much more fleeting?

RU: 2000 would appear to be an expiration date. It could have continued. There were some internal problems that I don’t want to air here. Wait for the book, still in progress. We could have charted a new course of outrage. We had a lot of opportunities in terms of advertising that weren’t used… but I’ll leave it at that

ND:  I often look back at the comic “The Guy I Always Was” by Patrick S. Farley and consider how Mondo 2000 was more of a publication that invented the future (in both a dreaming sense, or simply making things up) instead of simply reporting on it. Do you think that would be an accurate way to put things?

RU: Yeah it was saying this thing was happening and then helping it to actually happen. Except for the things that didn’t happen, like universal virtual reality and “sharpies mutants and superbrights” taking over the planet…  I mean, it was a fantasy of the total transmutation of everything… and it’s turned out to be more the total fragmentation of everything, although we always made sure to predict that too (just in case.) I mean, it wasn’t really all that message-driven … there were lots of pages and lots of varying views and visions and just plain fun.

By the way, I love that comic.

H.M. Ludens, from “The Guy I Almost Was.”

ND: A lot of people attack Wired magazine though accusations that they copied Mondo’s style and watered it down for a broader audience. Do you think Wired was ever able to bottle the Mondo 2000 spirit? Was their success just a matter of timing based on when they started?

RU: They used a lot of the same writers and covered some of the same stories at first, but the appeal was more towards the ordinary…  They were genre specific. They didn’t have interviews with Daniel Johnston or Diamanda Galas or gonzo anthropological theorizing about secret cultic uses of tarantula venom as an intoxicant… stuff totally outside the supposed techno genre. They had a conventional approach that hit a bigger audience and was comfortable for advertisers.

They weren’t trying to bottle the Mondo spirit. The writers were told explicitly to steer clear of counterculturalness… Alternativeness was just the colored sprinkles on the corporate frozen yogurt.  Negativland pranks were cute items where for us they were subversive blows against the empire … and the main article. I mean, they were probably right. The empire survived our culture jamming … and now the alt-right establishment is doing a form of it themselves.  None of this is meant to be all negative about Wired. They did what they did well and I enjoyed many of their issues… and even wrote a few bits.

ND: Are there any people from the Mondo 2000 days that you still keep in touch with?

RU: I’m in touch with many of them.  St. Jude Milhon, who I worked closely with, died in 2003. Our business manager, Linda Murman, died of cancer maybe a decade ago. Kathy Acker, who was a friend to all of us, also died of cancer. There have been losses like that. A lot of people have been interviewed for the Mondo history project. I’ve been in touch with many of them.

ND: One person from the M2K staff that has always intrigued me is Michael Synergy, especially with his quick-fire claims of government-toppling knowledge in the Cyberpunk (1990) documentary. Do you know anything about his activities after Mondo 2000? Did he indeed mutate and take over the world?

RU: That’s a complicated and difficult subject. He disappeared after failing to appear at his wedding, more or less. Howard Rheingold swears that he’s Michael Wilson, who was involved in the development of the TV show Burn Notice and that the main character was based on him or at least on his braggadocio.  There are some strange, disturbing scenes with Synergy in the book (yes, still in progress.)

Cyberpunk (1990) documentary cover.

ND: There are a lot of different reasons posed for Mondo 2000’s eventual halt in publication. Is there any one reason that you think was the root cause?

RU: Insanity.

ND: In Synthetic Pleasures (1995) you said that “the way to eroticize the brain is to explore sexuality with new media.” With the popularity of the Oculus Rift and virtual reality in general right now, how do you think the ideas of sex and eroticism will mingle with these technologies going forward?

RU: Did I say that? :–)  Many knew mediums gain their financial foothold via porn. What will virtualized eroticism bring to the party, not just in terms of porn but in terms of real sexual connection? It seems to me that a lot of relationships take place mainly online now. Gender, genital sex, smells…  are these things becoming obsolete?  I don’t know. I can’t get no satisfaction from any sort-of totalist approach, myself…

ND: What’s the current status of the Mondo 2000 History Project?

RU: Negotiating a book deal. Otherwise, close…  Not knowing the format has complicated its completion.

ND: I noticed recently that Mondo 2000 has a new twitter account and an announcement of a website coming soon. What are your future plans for Mondo 2000? Can we expect a Mondo 3000 to come soon?

RU: Mondo2000.com  … it should be operational by the time people are reading this…

ND: While I’m of the belief that Mondo 2000 was something truly unique, is there any organization or publication these days that carries the same spirit?

RU: Dangerous Minds covers some of the territory. Boing Boing covers some of it. Coilhouse was awesome but has apparently disappeared. I don’t think anyone would do Mondo 2000 now in the way we did it. It was – dare I say – radical but politically incorrect in a way that is much more difficult to approach in a playful manner now. I’m still not sure how I’m going to navigate that aspect of our change in the culture with mondo2000.com.

Mondo 2000 hypercard via Boing Boing.

ND:  I’ve noticed in the past that you keep an eye out for articles online that mention Mondo 2000. Are there any websites or other publications that you read regularly?

RU: My morning online commute runs as follows… recent facebook posts, recent Google+ posts, Boing Boing, Vice, RAW Story, Reason, Huffington Post, io9, The Intercept, Washington Post, Dangerous Minds, ego search for R.U. Sirius, Mondo 2000, Timothy Leary, Ken Goffman. My Steal This Singularity twitter. (Now) Mondo 2000’s twitter.

ND: Are there any big things you are working on these days that should be on our radar?

RU: I like doing lyrics and music more than anything else. I have lyrical song cycles – some that have actual songs and some that have just lyrics — that I like as much as anything I’ve ever done. I’ll probably post them on Mondo2000.com. I think some of the new stuff that I will be working on with R.U. Sirius & Phriendz and some other folks will be stunning… It’s hard to get people to check it when they don’t know you for music though. People are real twats about that.  (My bandcamp…)

ND: Do you currently have any plans for more music coming up?

RU: Working on a bunch of songs… some may have my voice others not. R.U. Sirius & Phriendz may see the most production. Another artist who is known in the jazz world but who will be working under a pseud is working with me on some stuff. We’ll see.

I posted this sort of lyrical conceptual thing just recently. I’d love to get that done as a thing. Some of the songs exist already

ND: Many theoretical topics or downright crazy ideas from Mondo 2000 are becoming reality. How do you view the future these days? Where do you believe we are headed?

RU: The blurring of reality – the disbelief in even functional truth —  has entered too deeply into the realm of the political… People grasp for certainties, ideologies, authority… even anarchist authority if that’s their leaning. More chaos. Existential threats like the weather; increases in nationalism and racism and hostility; the spread of nukes…  There’s this sort of quasi-Leninist notion that bad material conditions lead to revolutionary progress.  Not true. They lead towards authoritarianism and reaction.

 

Hallucinations For Accelerated Mutants — A Mondo 2000 Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on August 28th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

It’s difficult to explain Mondo 2000 to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. That’s really what I would call it at the end of the day: an experience. Like a hallucinogenic trip, or a roller coaster ride, or that tingle that you get after a first kiss — it’s something you just don’t really get by having it described to you.

I first became aware of Mondo 2000, the glossy cyberculture magazine which ran from 1989 to 1998, in the much more recent year of 2012. Late to the party, I admit, but sometimes you just can’t get there on time. In 2012, I began to research hacking magazines as I was getting worried that some of them would soon disappear from the world without a trace. Somewhere out there sat old, possibly moldy magazines full of articles and stories that once appealed to the hacking subculture. Nobody was saving them, so I decided to start. I began patrolling. Amazon, eBay, and basic HTML sites that haven’t been updated since the early days of the web became my usual haunts. Between monitoring auctions and mailing old email addresses,  I was able to begin buying these publications. The ones I could find, I would wrap in archival-grade plastic and scan into my computer when I had the time; a slight pit stop before pushing them to the Internet Archive. Now, five years later, I agonize over the magazines that I haven’t even heard of yet. I learned a lot about the technological landscape of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but I didn’t have anything really resonate with my until I came across Mondo 2000. Sitting right on the border between the then-bleeding-edge and the surrealistic not-so-distant future, Mondo fostered a generation of tuned-in misfits who were making their way through hyperculture. This could have been me in a different time, but all I can do now is read the back-issues while wearing a bootleg Mondo t-shirt. Looking back, it feels like some sort of technophilic fever dream for kids with psychedelics and a ‘net connection. Drugs, sex, and the digital revolution dripped from the warm, colorful pages. Would you want to wake up?

Mondo 2000 issue 15 cover.

For many, Mondo 2000 was seen as just the thing a sharp-tongued, budding cyberculture needed. Others saw it as pseudo-intellectual nonsense, fabricated garbage that didn’t really mean anything. To the Mondoids, the dedicated followers, it didn’t matter if the normies didn’t understand. Mondo 2000 was playful, eccentric, irreverent, and brash — it worked on its own terms and it worked well. Yet, Mondo 2000 did always have a built-in expiration date. With a name like that, it could never go on forever. After 14 issues, Mondo ceased publication. The print was dead, but the ideas would live on — the infection would keep spreading. While Mondo hit the scene at an interesting time in the advancement of technology, it has a much more ludicrous origin story. Author Jack Boulware once reported in a famous 1995 postmortem, “Mondo’s history reads as if fabricated on another planet, spewed forth by a sweaty cyberpunk novelist tripping on nasal-ingested DMT.”

He isn’t wrong.

The Edge Of A High Frontier

Mondo 2000 didn’t just pop up one morning out of nowhere. The roots of Mondo go all the way back to 1984. Ken Goffman published the first issue of High Frontiers, your source for “Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art,” in a small run of 1,500 copies. The first issue embraced mind expansion with interviews featuring Terrence Mckenna, Bruce Eisner, Timothy Leary, and even Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD. Goffman, an ex-yippie, former New York musician who had since moved to California, had already adopted his dadaist R . U. Sirius persona when he decided to embark on a publication that combined psychedelic exploration, science, and high technology. The premier issue, published in a newspaper format, featured his moniker on the cover alongside co-conspirator “Somerset MauMau.” The innards were packed with walls of text and tongue-in-cheek photographs that looked like cut-outs from Life magazine. The next issue would need to keep up the energy, and the fun.

R. U. Sirius.

Sirius’ life would change one night as he was distributing the first issue of High Frontiers at a birthday party: he would meet Alison Kennedy. Kennedy, the wife of a UC Berkeley professor and daughter of a wealthy California family, captivated Goffman. Soon, Kennedy would come to join the band of “Marin Mutants” (named for High Frontier’s Marin, California headquarters) that worked on the publication, sporting names like “Lord Nose” or “Amalgum X.” Meeting in a local pizza parlor with oddly-abysmal foot traffic, the High Frontiers staff would plot out their next articles. The second issue of High Frontiers, published a year after the first, would go on to include interviews with physicists, research on hallucinogens, and reviews of art and literature. By issue three, science and technology had become more of a main focus with articles on memory enhancement, psychoactive software, and quantum physics. Of course, drugs were still held in high regard with articles like “MDMA: Safe As Ice Cream,” and Kennedy’s own gonzo-anthropological “Tarantella And The Modern Day Rock Musician,” about hallucinogenic tarantula venom. Kennedy would soon go on to adopt a new persona of her own: Queen Mu, Domineditrix. After issue four of High Frontiers, Sirius and Mu would change the name of the magazine to Reality Hackers, which better represented the mix of articles on mind-expanding drugs and computer-based technology. As the magazine mutated, so did the staff. New additions included anarchist hacker Jude Milhon (who would become known as St. Jude) and the in-your-face Michael Synergy (real name unknown), a cyberpunk keen on toppling all of the powers that be.

High Frontiers issue 1. Read through all of the issues here!

With operations now moved to a large wooden house in the Berkeley Hills, Reality Hackers became a lightning rod for new, more diverse happenings of the psycho-technical fringe. There were articles on smart drugs, virtual reality, chaos theory, and isolation tanks, some featuring leading experts in these new and/or obscure fields.

Distributors, however, had no idea what to do with Reality Hackers and thought it was a magazine about literally hacking people to bits. Sirius would eventually be approached by Kevin Kelly of Whole Earth Review, the magazine spawning from Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Catalog, to work on a new digital culture magazine called Signal. Sirius ultimately declined in order to pursue a new mutation of Reality Hackers, honing-in on the young cyberpunk movement. Sirius and Mu would soon change the name of the magazine again to Mondo 2000 after publishing only two issues under the Reality Hackers name.

Reality Hackers. Issue numbering takes place where High Frontiers leaves off. Read all of the issues here!

At first, Mondo 2000 still resembled Reality Hackers between the cover art and black-and-white interior. After Bart Nagel was brought on as Mondo’s art director, things took a turn as he completely reworked the design of the magazine. Featuring colorful layouts, expert photography, full-page illustrations, and surreal covers, the new magazine was as stylish and beautiful as it was informative. New content went hand-in-hand with the new design; there were articles on cyberspace, computer viruses, and conspiracy theories. Authors that would grace the first issue include Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and John Shirley, each notable for their work in the cyberpunk sub-genre. Gibson, an ex-hippie who had published the ground-breaking Neuromancer in 1984 (the same year the first issue of High Frontiers premiered), particularly resonated with the Mondo style. While Gibson would write about fictional high-tech outsiders who took smart drugs and jacked into cyberspace, the Mondoids were living it.

Mondo 2000 issue 6, featuring cover art by Bart Nagel. Read a selection of Mondo 2000 issues here!

Mondo 2000 embodied the cyberpunk subculture, and often served as the premier source for trends and news within the space. It wasn’t long before the rest of the world was trying to catch up. Sirius was starting to get quoted by mainstream sources like the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune who were dipping a toe into the bizarre cyberpunk waters for the first time. If John Shirley is known as being the “godfather of cyberpunk,” Sirius may have entered public eye as the crazy uncle. The Mondo 2000 house was regularly a who’s who of the eclectic Bay Area characters. Aside from Sirius, Queen Mu, St. Jude, and Synergy, regulars included contributors like subscriber-turned-music-editor Jas. Morgan, psychotropic-explorer Morgan Russell, and the drug-loving bankers Gracie and Zarkov.

Much of the content development for new Mondo articles stemmed from outrageous parties thrown at the Mondo house. It wasn’t uncommon for different rooms to be filled with active interviews, parlour games, or conversation between unlikely guests. A virtual reality expert might discuss politics with a smart drug theorist. Timothy Leary could discuss virtual sex with a computer hacker. Someone might suddenly get up to dance or go to the kitchen to try a 2CB analogue mixed with piracetem. As Mondo helped those on the fringe meet the like-minded, the culture only grew and evolved with each new issue. More and more reporters from publications like Newsweek or The New York Times were flocking to Mondo for a controversial opinion or unconventional view of the future. Before long, zine writers and editors like Gareth Branwyn and Mark Frauenfelder of bOING bOING, and Jon Lebkowsky and Paco Nathan of FringeWare Review started contributing to Mondo. Authors like Rudy Rucker, Robert Anton Wilson, and Douglas Rushkoff began submitting work as well. While the Mondo 2000 parties could only exist locally, articles came in from every corner of cyberspace or alternative plane of existence. Mondo had become a hub of interaction for those beneath the underground.

A Little ReWiring

As Mondo 2000 hit its stride, a new publication was just starting to take shape. Years earlier in 1987, Electric Word (originally launched as Language Technology) became a prominent linguistic technology and computer culture magazine in Amsterdam. White it generally focused on linguistic technology, and computer culture, Electric Word featured such pioneers as Xerox PARC’s Alan Kay, AI expert Marvin Minsky, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, and even Mondo-regular Timothy Leary. After three years the magazine shuttered, leaving editor Louis Rossetto and ad sales director Jane Metcalfe without jobs. Partners in business as well as life, the pair decided to return to the United States and embark on a new magazine about cyberculture and technology. They wanted to call the publication “Millennium” to highlight the new technical revolution, but the name was already taken by a film magazine. John Plunkett, then the creative director, wanted to name it “Digit” (a play on “dig it” and “digital”).Eventually, they settled on Wired and started developing a prototype with a mission to decipher the new digital revolution.

Cover for Language Technology issue 3. Read select issues here!

When Rossetto and Metcalfe arrived in California after shopping the publication around New York, they were soon introduced to the Mondo 2000 team. Things appeared to be friendly enough, and Queen Mu would often visit Wired’s offices and engage Rossetto and Metcalfe in conversation while handing out fresh issues of Mondo. Just starting out, the Wired team did its best to differentiate itself from the madcap, already-successful Mondo 2000. Both the Wired and Mondo groups were well aware of what one another was up to, and there was care taken to not step on any toes. The Wired team didn’t want to compete or be compared, they wanted to come into their own.

Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, via wired.com.

Not all was well within Mondo 2000 at the time. As Mondo grew, celebrities were vying to get into the magazine in an attempt to appeal to a more underground audience. When The Edge, guitarist for rock band U2, wanted to be examined for an article, Sirius recruited his friends from the band Negativland to conduct the interview. Negativland, who U2’s management had recently sued for copyright infringement, was a logical choice for Sirius. During the interview, The Edge didn’t know who he was speaking with and mentioned his views on intellectual property. At that point, Sirius revealed the band and trapped The Edge in his own hypocrisy. This resulted in one of the most well-known Mondo 2000 articles, but at the time it was strongly opposed by editor Queen Mu. After she refused the piece, Sirius had reached a tipping point and left Mondo, stepping down from his position as editor-in-chief. While Queen Mu eventually relented and published the article, Sirius never returned to his previous position. While he did eventually come back as a contributor, he also divested his share of ownership in the magazine.

Photograph of the band Negativland.

Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die

Though Mondo 2000 may have still been holding on to its popularity, there were increasing struggles to draw in advertisers. Mondo’s strong drug-friendly stance didn’t mix well with button-up businesses that had money to spend on product promotion, and the magazine suffered because of it. There was less cash on the table when writers looked to Mondo as a potential place to submit their articles, and many opted to go with other publications. While some continued to contribute to Mondo out of passion, outfits like the new Wired could afford to pay more per word. Looking back, Mondo was never truly run as a business looking to make as much profit as it could. Instead, it resembled an art project assembled by a hodgepodge of culture jammers and social engineers.

Still riding high in 1992, Mondo published Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, a book containing 317 pages of compiled articles and artwork from past issues with new content mixed in. In February of 1993, Time magazine featured a “Cyberpunk” cover story, complete with art from Bart Nagel and numerous mentions of Mondo 2000. Cyberpunk had gone mainstream with Time’s article reaching households all throughout the USA. Much like Ron Rosenbaum’s “Secrets of the Little Blue Box” article published in Esquire in 1971, the Time article inspired hordes of new people to invade a subversive subculture. While Mondo received a boost from the story, it might have been a little too much attention.

Time Magazine’s February 1993 issue. Read the story here!

When Wired’s first issue came out in March of 1993, it was largely dismissed by the Mondo crew. In the eyes of many, it watered down the content Mondo was known for and passed itself off as a sub-par imitator. At the end of the day, Wired was appealing to a largely different audience. They didn’t need the hardcore console cowboys or smart drug pioneers to like them, they could get by with weirdo weekend warriors and flirt with the “normal people.” Mondo may have been a bellwether for the digital revolution, but it was on the decline. Many thought it was circling the drain.

Wired Magazine issue 1, March 1993.

Mondo 2000 was able to survive for another five years under the leadership of Queen Mu and her assistant-turned-editor Wes Thomas, ending with issue 14 in 1998. It may not ever be known if Mondo finally closed down due to infighting, failure to rouse advertisers, dilution of cyberpunk culture, or some perfect storm of those factors. Its legacy and influence, however, cannot be questioned.

Mondo 3000

In 2010, R.U. Sirius announced “MONDO 2000: An Open Source History”, a multimedia-driven Kickstarter project that attempts to capture the history and lore of Mondo 2000 — and all of its previous incarnations. Between a web document, a printed book, and video footage (that may ultimately become a documentary), Sirius hopes to save all of the stories, viewpoints, and ephemera that made Mondo what it was. He is currently in contact with past contributors, and continues to work on the project. In line with Mondo 2000’s whimsical nature, Sirius created a project reward that allowed one backer to be written into Mondo 2000’s history. Some of the events surrounding Mondo may not have happened, but all of them are true.

While we may not see a new issue of Mondo 2000 ever again, Sirius is hard at work. Within the last month, he has re-established Mondo’s Twitter presence and created a brand new website at mondo2000.com featuring reprinted and expanded articles from Mondo’s past, as well as new content.

For those who remember it, Mondo 2000 is something equal parts special and weird. For many, it changed everything, and then it faded into the ether organically as the world changed around it. Browsing the new site, my mind starts to wander. Maybe there is a void left in the world that could only be filled by Mondo 2000 coming back. Maybe the world needs a “Mondo 3000.”

Somewhere out there, hackers and cyber-mystics are typing away furiously on computers in coffee shops and bus stations, creating new virtual worlds and building communities.

Maybe someone else has already created a Mondo 3000.

Maybe this time I’ll be around to catch it.


Keep your eyes bulged and your cybernetic implants on alert for a follow-up article featuring an interview with R.U. Sirius.

 

Recollecting The Future— An Omni Retrospective

This article was originally written for and published at Neon Dystopia on June 28th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

The first time I read anything out of Omni, I probably had a completely different experience than you did. The original run of Omni, the iconic science and science fiction magazine, ran in print from 1978 to 1995, ending when I was just four years old. The first time I eyed the pages was maybe only five years ago — on my computer screen, with issues batch-downloaded from the Internet Archive back when you could find them there. While I didn’t get that feeling that comes with curling, sticky-with-ink pages between my fingers, or the experience of artificial light reflecting off of the glossy artwork and into my retinas, I was able to ingest the rich content all the same. While there is something sterile and antiseptic about reading magazine scans from a computer, there is more to say about reading Omni, in particular, this way; what the readers have been dreaming about since the publication’s inception has become reality. I have a whole archive of Omni issues that I can take with me everywhere in my pocket. To reference an oft-used quote from Ben Bova, previous editor of Omni, “Omni is not a science magazine. It is a magazine about the future.” The future is now, and maybe some things did end up changing for the better.

The iconic Omni logo.

Omni (commonly stylized as OMNI) got its start in a rather interesting way back in the late 1970s. Publisher Kathy Keeton, who had previously founded Viva (1973), an adult magazine aimed at women, and held a high-ranking position at the parent company for Penthouse (1965), proposed an idea for a new type of scientific magazine to Penthouse founder and her future husband, Bob Guccione. Keeton and Guccione would develop the concept of a magazine focusing on science, science fiction, fantasy, parapsychology, and the paranormal. It was a departure from both the over-the-top, pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s and stiff academic scientific journals of the time aimed at pipe-smoking professionals in three-piece suits. Omni was aimed more at the layperson in that its content was accessible yet serious — they bought into their own brand and expected you to as well.

Guccione and Keeton, image via dailymail.co.uk

A strange departure from the pornographic roots of both Keeton and Guccione, Omni was a completely new beast, eccentric and untried. While other science publications looked to ground their content in what was concrete, Omnifocused on the future with wonder and a sense of possibility. An issue may contain irreverent, gonzo articles about alien abductions, chemical synthesis of food, what personality traits should be given to robots, thoughts on becoming a cyborg, or the computer-centric musings of lunatic/genius Ted Nelson. You could find articles on drugs back-to-back with discussions of high-tech surgical procedures or homebrew aeronautics. No topic was off limits, and with decent rates for writers, the weird had a chance to turn pro. Whether it was intentional or not, Omni adopted a laid-back, transgressive west coast culture that praised the strange and favored the “out there.”  For a lot of readers in the late 1970’s, this was the only place to get this type of content. People couldn’t pull out a cell phone and hop online to get the vast swathes of information that we can now – there was an ever-present undertone of information isolation, and Omni filled the void.

Omni‘s premier issue, October 1978.

While the magazine was well known for its articles and comprehensive interviews with the scientific elite such as Future Shock (1970) author Alvin Toffler or astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the most flirtatious quality of Omni was its illustrations. Slick and glossy, Omni never failed to draw a shy eye from a newsstand with bright colors and airbrushed art of feminine androids or lush mindscapes in high contrast. Many notable artists contributed their work to Omni, including John Berkey, H.R. Giger, and De Es Schwertberger. For each issue, the gold-chain-wearing Guccione would be said to personally pick the featured art; each image was part of what he wanted to convey with the magazine, and it might be more than a coincidence that many of the covers featured women. Omni wasn’t the only publication of the time with intricate cover art, as Heavy Metal (1977) featured similarly detailed depictions, and even shared some of the same artists. Where Omni really set itself apart from others was through the use of artwork throughout the periodical as a whole. With sprawling, multi-page illustrations, the art didn’t take a backseat to the articles. Just flipping through, someone might think that they had picked up an art magazine; Omni was never one to skimp on the visuals.

H.R. Giger’s Dune concept art would grace the cover of Omni‘s November 1978 issue.

Above all of the articles and artwork, Omni may have been most celebrated for its short fiction. At its inception, nobody really knew how to react to Omni’s foray into the science fiction ecosphere. The SF community was tight-knit and amiable, but it wasn’t exactly used to sleek publications from groups that had no background in the subject showing up suddenly in bookstores and comic shops. Keeton and Guccione did their homework and hired notable editors, Ellen Datlow and Ben Bova (a six-time Hugo Award winner during tenure as editor of Analog Magazine (1930)), to seek out content for publishing. Like Bova, Datlow was a fan of the genre herself and wasn’t afraid to push the envelope when it came to buying far-out fiction. The magazine came to showcase science fiction for science fiction fans, and didn’t subdue or water down the content for the sake of a broader audience – the bottom line was never sacrificed. With contributors like Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, George R.R. Martin, and William S. Burroughs, there were not only excerpts from larger works but complete short stories introduced to the world for the first time. William Gibson notably published “Burning Chrome” (1982), “New Rose Hotel” (1984), and “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981) through Omni, creating the foundation for the Sprawl that would later host some of his most celebrated novels: Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). Omni helped launch the careers of many science fiction authors, and fostered exposure for countless others over its near three-decade reign.

The first page of William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” featured in Omni‘s July 1982 issue.

Omni thrived for many years as it continued to dazzle readers with exciting and thought-provoking composition. Eventually, Omni would get its own short-lived television show, Omni: The New Frontier (1981), a webzine on Compuserve, and six international editions with varied amounts of both reprinted and original articles. Later in the publication’s life, the articles took a more paranormal slant that left many fans and contributors wondering about the magazine’s direction. Keeton and Guccione had always held a lot of interest in the paranormal and found a kindred spirit in their editor-in-chief, Keith Ferrell, who took up the position in Omni’s twilight years. While Ferrell wanted to shift Omni’s focus towards the vetting of the unexplained, the magazine couldn’t sustain itself for much longer. Omni published its last print issue in the Winter of 1995, citing rising production costs. At the time, Omni had a circulation of 700,000 subscribers, many of whom were left high and dry if they hadn’t already abandoned the publication with the recent shift in focus. While it is unknown whether or not production costs were to blame for Omni’s demise, many surmise Guccione’s strategy of funding Omni via Penthouse’s profits was starting to fall apart. While free Internet pornography flourished in the 1990’s, it put the older print industry in jeopardy. The ship was sinking, and something would need to be thrown overboard before the situation would get any better for the Penthouse empire.

“Some of Us May Never Die,” article by Kathleen Stein, October 1978.

Omni did not disappear completely, and successfully transitioned into an online-only magazine dubbed Omni Internet in 1996. At the time, there were few examples of magazines who could make the jump to digital. Omni embraced the new format which allowed them to play with how content was structured and draw in fans with interactive chat sessions. While a conventional magazine could only be published once a month, Omni could now report on scientific news as it happened, setting a standard in web-based journalism that we still see today. This was a “blog” before Jon Barger coined the term the following year, and it holds a spot as an early example of the format. In 1997, Kathy Keeton died due to complications from surgery and Omni closed down completely just six months later. While Omni was the brainchild of both Keeton and Guccione, Keeton had always been the main driving force that held all of the moving parts together. The publication that always promised to bring the future would now become static, slowly fading into the past with each passing year. While no new content was published, the site remained online until 2003, when Guccione’s publishers filed for bankruptcy.

AOL welcomes you to Omni Online, one of Omni‘s first forays into the web. Image via http://14forums.blogspot.com

While Omni may have ceased production, its strong legacy cannot be questioned. While fans wax rhapsodic about the old days, there are plenty of remnants left over that have diffused the iconic Omni spirit to new generations. Wired (1993) owes just as much to Omni as it does its precursor, Language Technology (1986), as well as Mondo 2000 (1989), bOING bOING (1988), and Whole Earth Review (1985). While Wired didn’t rely on science fiction, it still yearned for a techno-utopian future and even hired on some Omni expatriate short fiction writers to become reporters for the new digital revolution. Later in 2005, a much-unknown omnimagazine.com was launched, claiming to be cared for by former staff and contributors of Omni, including Ellen Datlow, the fiction editor who worked at Omni for nearly its entire run. In 2008, the website io9 was created by Gawker Media (Later a property of Gizmodo) specifically to cover science and science fiction, just as Omni had done decades before. io9’s slogan, “We come from the future,” echoes Ben Bova’s Omni quote, and helps cultivate an image of the site as a spiritual successor.

Wired issue #1 from March, 1993. The cover features an article by science fiction writer and Omni contributor Bruce Sterling.

In 2010, Bob Guccione passed away at the age of 79 following a battle with lung cancer. While Guccione’s death didn’t immediately influence the future of Omni, it set off an interesting chain of events that would ultimately lead to a rebirth of the publication. In 2012, businessman Jeremy Frommer bought a series of storage lockers in Arizona, one of which happened to contain a large amount of Guccione’s estate. Frommer was enamored by his discovery and immediately fell down the strange and multifaceted rabbit hole of Guccione’s mind. With the help of his childhood friend, producer Rick Schwartz, Frommer started building The Guccione Archive in a nondescript New Jersey building. Out of the entirety of Guccione’s life work, Frommer became fixated on Omni and explored the collection of production materials, pictures, 35-mm slides, and original notes generated from the life of the magazine. It wasn’t long before he brought in others to sort the collection and track down original artwork used for Omni that he could purchase and add to the archive. For Frommer, it became a passion to create the most complete collection of Omni-related materials, and he had to get his hands on every bit he could find.

Artwork like this Di Maccio piece showcasing”Psychic Warriors,” by Ronald M. McRae was being tracked down to add to the archive.

Organically, Frommer came to the conclusion that he needed to take the next logical step: he needed to reboot the magazine. When Claire Evans, pop singer and editor of Vice Media’s Motherboard blog, met with Frommer to cover the Omni collection, she was asked if she would be interested in working on a new Omni incarnation. In August 2013, Evans was named editor-in-chief of Omni Reboot and got to work. The new publication was off to a strong start as Evans was able to get submissions and interviews from former Omni alumni and science fiction icons like Ben Bova, Rudy Rucker, and Bruce Sterling. Free scans of Omni back issues were made available at the Internet Archive, and the blood once again flowed through Omni’s withered veins. Nostalgia was in full force as people rediscovered their favorite article or got caught up in the whole journey of the reboot. Quickly though, criticism came in about the quality of the content and what would become of the Omni legacy under the new owners. Not everyone thought the magazine should be rebooted.

An Excerpt from “Hi Everyone. Welcome to the New Omni,” by Claire Evans served as the introductory article to Omni Reboot (August 2013).

While Omni Reboot still conformed to the science and science fiction roots of the original, it did so with a higher dose of cynicism than even the original obtained. When the old fantasies of science and technology started to become reality, it was only natural for people to consider how the world around them could grow to bite its master and send civilization into a negative spiral. In many cases, it already had. In contrast, the zeitgeist 40 years ago slanted more towards the hopeful idyllic; people used to have conversations about how an advancement would influence mankind and drive the world ahead. That’s not to say everything back then was so hunky dory – we always see the past through rose-colored colored glasses, smoothing over the corruptions and jagged edges in our memories. While the world aged and evolved, so did opinions towards its technocentric trajectory. Etherealism was no longer en vogue.

As the reboot grew it started to come under fire from authors as it was discovered that submitted work would become owned by Jerrick Media, Omni Reboot’s new parent, for a year after publication. Further fueling controversy, the back issues of Omni on the Internet Archive were removed in 2015, much to the disappointment of readers. In 2016, Jerrick Media released Vocal, a publishing platform for freelance writers to make money based on article views. Omni Reboot(now just Omni) was re-purposed as one of Vocal’s verticals, serving as an interface for science and science fiction related submissions from the Vocal content network. Browsing Omni now, there is an overwhelming, uneasy feeling of quantity over quality. A name that once stood proudly and represented a home for the weird and futuristic had become just a limb on a larger, alien body.

Omni’s current homepage, via omni.media

A few weeks ago in May of 2017, we got another chance to relive the rich history of Omni as back issues became available once again. Unlike the older Internet Archive scans, these new transfers are in high resolution, with each and every issue accounted for. Also unlike the older transfers, each issue costs $2.99 for a digital copy, though they are free if you happen to be a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. While it’s bittersweet that these issues are now available for pay, profits from their sales are going to a good cause. Omni announced a partnership with the Museum of Science Fiction who receive a portion of the revenue from each purchase.

Cover of Omni‘s February 1987 issue. Just one of many back issues that are now available for purchase.

While Omni has changed many times over the years, it is still remembered as that wondrous and weird, crazy and cool publication delivered to mailboxes month after month. Omni worked best because it didn’t try to fit into an existing space, it pioneered its own; It became a destination that amalgamated the new, the scary, and the unknown. In the true Omnispirit, we have no idea what is coming for the publication as the clock ticks ahead. Will it thrive and continue on, or become another ghost in the machine, slowly obsolescing.

The future is ahead of us, and for now, we can only look to it with hope and wonder.

We can only look to it just like Omni would want us to.

 

Snoop Unto Them As They Snoop Unto Us

This article was originally written for and published at Exolymph on May 15th, 2017. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

Artwork by Matt Brown.

Abruptly returning to a previous topic, here’s a guest dispatch from Famicoman (AKA Mike Dank) on surveillance and privacy. Back to the new focus soon.


The letter sat innocently in a pile of mail on the kitchen table. A boring envelope, nondescript at a glance, that would become something of a Schrödinger’s cat before the inevitable unsealing. The front of it bared the name of the sender, in bright, black letters — “U.S. Department of Justice — Federal Bureau of Investigations.” This probably isn’t something that most people would ever want to find in their mailbox.

For me, the FBI still conjures up imagery straight out of movies, like the bumbling group in 1995’s Hackers, wrongfully pursuing Dade Murphy and his ragtag team of techno-misfits instead of the more sinister Plague. While this reference is dated, I still feel like there is a certain stigma placed upon the FBI, especially by the technophiles who understand there is more to computing than web browsers and document editing. As laws surrounding computers become more sophisticated, we can see them turn draconian. Pioneers, visionaries, and otherwise independent thinkers can be reduced to little more than a prisoner number.

Weeks earlier, I had submitted a Privacy Act inquiry through the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act service. For years, the FBI and other three-letter-agencies have allowed people to openly request information on a myriad of subjects. I was never particularly curious about the outcome of a specific court case or what information The New York Times has requested for articles; my interests were a bit more selfish.

Using the FBI’s eFOIA portal through their website, I filled out a few fields and requested my own FBI file. Creating a FOIA request is greatly simplified these days, and you can even use free services, such as getmyfbifile.com, to generate forms that can be sent to different agencies. I only opted to pursue the FBI at this time, but could always query other agencies in the future.

The whole online eFOIA process was painless, taking maybe two minutes to complete, but I had hesitations as my cursor hovered over the final “Submit” button. Whether or not I actually went through with this, I knew that the state of the information the FBI had on me already wouldn’t falter. They either have something, or they don’t, and I think I’m ready to find out. With this rationalization, I decided to submit — in more ways than one.

The following days went by slowly and my mind seemed to race. I had read anecdotes from people who had requested their FBI file, and knew the results could leave me with more questions than answers. I read one account of someone receiving a document with many redactions, large swathes of blacked-out text, giving a minute-by-minute report of his activities with a collegiate political group. A few more accounts mentioned documents of fully-redacted text, pages upon pages of black lines and nothing else.

What was I in store for? It truly astonishes me that a requester would get back anything at all, even a simple acknowledgement that some record exists. In today’s society where almost everyone has a concern about their privacy, or at least an acknowledgement that they are likely being monitored in some way, the fact that I could send a basic request for information about myself seems like a nonsensical loophole in our current cyberpolitical climate. You would never see this bureaucratic process highlighted in the latest technothriller.

About two weeks after my initial request, there I was, staring at the letter sticking out from the mail stack on the kitchen table. All at once, it filled me with both gloom and solace. This was it, I was going to see what it spelled out, for better or worse. Until I opened it, the contents would remain both good and bad news. After slicing the envelope, I unfolded the two crisp pieces of paper inside, complete with FBI letterhead and a signature from the Record/Information Dissemination Section Chief. As I ingested the first paragraph, I found the line that I hoped I would, “We were unable to identify main records responsive to the FOIA.”

Relief washed over, and any images I had of suited men arriving in black vans to take me away subsided (back down to the normal levels of paranoia, at least). It was the best information I could have received, but not at all what I had expected. For over ten years, I have been involved in several offbeat Internet subcultures and groups, and more than a few sound reason enough to land me on someone’s radar. I was involved with a popular Internet-based hacking video show, held a role in a physical hacking group/meeting, hosted a Tor relay, experimented openly with alternative, secure mesh networks, sysop’d a BitTorrent tracker, and a few other nefarious things here and there.

I always tried to stay on the legal side of things, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t dabble with technologies that could be used for less than savory purposes. In some cases, just figuring out how something can be done was more rewarding than the thought of using it to commit an act or an exploit. Normal people (like friends and coworkers) might call me “suspicious” or tell me I was “likely on a list,” but I didn’t seem to be from what I could gather from the response in front of me.

When I turned back to read the second paragraph, I eyed an interesting passage, “By standard FBI practice and pursuant to FOIA exemption… and Privacy Act exemption… this response neither confirms or denies the existence of your subject’s name on any watch lists.” So maybe I was right to be worried. Maybe I am being watched. I would have no way of knowing. This “neither confirms or denies” response is called a Glomar, which means my information has the potential to be withheld as a matter of national security, or over privacy concerns.

Maybe they do have information on me after all. Even if I received a flat confirmation that there is nothing on me, would I believe it? What is to prevent a government organization from lying to me for “my own good”? How can I be expected to show any semblance of trust at face value? Now that all is said and done, I don’t know much more than I did when I started, and have little to show for the whole exchange besides an official request number and a few pieces of paper with boilerplate, cover-your-ass language.

If we look back at someone like Kevin Mitnick, the cunning social engineer who received a fateful knock on his hotel door right before being arrested in early 1995, we see a prime example of law enforcement pursuing someone not only for the actions they took, but the skills and knowledge they possess. Echoing Operation Sundevil, only five years prior, government agencies wanted to make examples out of their targets, and incite scare tactics to keep others in line.

I can’t help but think of “The Hacker Manifesto,” written by The Mentor (an alias used by Loyd Blankenship) in 1986. “We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek knowledge… and you call us criminals,” Blankenship writes shortly after being arrested himself. Even if I received a page of blacked-out text in the mail, would I be scared and change my habits? What if I awoke to a hammering on my door in the middle of the night? I still don’t know what to make of my response, but maybe I’ll submit another request again next year.

Knock, knock.

 

The Best of 2016

See the 2015 post here!

Here is my second installment of the best things I’ve found, learned, read, etc. These things are listed in no particular order, and may not necessarily be new.

This annual “Best Of” series is inspired by @fogus and his blog, Send More Paramedics.

Favorite Blog Posts Read

Articles I’ve Written for Other Publications

I’ve continued to write for a few different outlets, and still find it a lot of fun. Here is the total list for 2016.

Favorite Technical Books Read

I haven’t read as much this year as previously

  • The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary – Really cool book about early community software development practices (at least that’s what I got out of it). Also covers some interesting history on the start of time-sharing systems and move to open-source platforms.
  • Computer Lib – An absolute classic, the original how-to book for a new computer user, written by Ted Nelson. I managed to track down a copy for a *reasonable* price and read the Computer Lib portion. Still need to get through Dream Machines.

Favorite Non-Technical Books Read

Number of Books Read

5.5

Favorite Music Discovered

Favorite Television Shows

Black Mirror (2011), Game of Thrones (2011) , Westworld (2016)

Programming Languages Used for Work/Personal

Java, JavaScript, Python, Perl, Objective-C.

Programming Languages I Want To Use Next Year

  • Common Lisp – A “generalized” Lisp dialect.
  • Clojure – A Lisp dialect that runs on the Java Virtual Machine
  • Go – Really interested to see how this scales with concurrent network programming.
  • Crystal – Speedy like go, pretty syntax.

Still Need to Read

Dream Machines, Literary Machines, Design Patterns, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Life Events of 2016

  • Got married.
  • Became a homeowner.

Life Changing Technologies Discovered

  • Amazon Echo – Not revolutionary, but has a lot of potential to change the way people interact with computers more so than Siri or Google Now. The fact that I can keep this appliance around and work with it hands free gives me a taste of how we may interact with the majority of our devices within the next decade.
  • IPFS – A distributed peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol. May one day replace torrents, but for now it is fun to play with.
  • Matrix – A distributed communication platform, works really well as an IRC bridge or replacement. Really interested to see where it will go. Anyone can set up a federated homeserver and join the network.

Favorite Subreddits

/r/cyberpunk, /r/sysadmin, /r/darknetplan

Completed in 2016

Plans for 2017

  • Write for stuff I’ve written for already (NODE, Lunchmeat, Exolymph, 2600)
  • Write for new stuff (Neon Dystopia, Active Wirehead, ???, [your project here])
  • Set up a public OpenNIC tier 2 server.
  • Participate in more public server projects (ntp pool, dn42, etc.)
  • Continue work for Philly Mesh.
  • Do some FPGA projects to get more in-depth with hardware.
  • Organization, organization, organization!
  • Documentation.
  • Reboot Raunchy Taco IRC.

See you in 2017!

 

It’s Warm, Like Flesh

This article was originally written for and published at Exolymph on April 28th, 2016. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

As technology evolves, the line between science and science fiction starts to blur. At one point, the thought of space travel or even micro-computing was only a dream of the future, yet it became a reality within or before our lifetimes. More and more, we find ourselves questioning if something is real or only exists in thought — a pie-in-the-sky dream of hopefuls or holdouts. We are starting to find that the future is now, whether we are ready for it or not.

A video about a modular life-form grown from human cells made its rounds on the Internet only a few weeks ago. In the video, you are first presented with a couple of slabs of meat on a stainless steel counter. Cut to a scientist who introduces you to “OSCAR”, a modular human-like organism. We see Oscar get assembled: a brain module (literally a black box of electronic components) is plugged into a heart module is plugged into a lung module is plugged into a kidney module. With each insertion, we see the creature twitch, pulsate, or squirm. Then limb modules are added and Oscar awkwardly crawls around in search of warmth.

This Cronenberg-esque video was both terrifying and fascinating. With imagery straight out of eXistenZ (1999) or Naked Lunch (1991), we watch this organic creature struggle and writhe as it gains access to new organs; this is body horror from our fever dreams and darkest nightmares. It seems real, real enough, and a large number of people believed that the video was legitimate. After making the rounds on Facebook, it was eventually discovered to be content from a science fiction web series — not a promotional video from a medical lab deep in the bowels of some no-name organization.

What does this say about the state of our society? Is it not too far-fetched to believe that someone can grow living organs, link them together, and have the resulting life-form instinctively move around the room? For years we have been influenced by news on advancements in scientific fields such as biomedical and biomolecular engineering. From the infamous WWII Soviet propaganda film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940), where a dog’s head was kept alive independent of a body, all the way up to the famed 1997 Vacanti mouse, with what looks like a human ear on its back, we have been shocked and mystified by the promises of science, especially its perversions. Even today we see cables from the relatively new field of tissue engineering with scientists poring over lab-grown meat cultures to be used as food or refining bioartificial liver devices constructed from animal cells.

Are we going to see this type of work packaged and sold to the consumer in a glossy box anytime soon? I don’t think so. I will admit, it would be incredibly interesting if I could head down to my local Best Buy and pick up Samsung’s new bio-hacking kit so I could grow my own cells and build a life-form as casually as I would order Sea-Monkeys from the back of a comic book. Imagine an organic branch of littleBits, selling you packs of organ and tissue for $99.95. What about a biopunk hacker who wants to grow himself a new eyeball with better night vision? This opens things up to more political and philosophical controversy.

While the video wasn’t real, we may not be lagging too far behind the concept of a modular body, speaking technologically. As the line between fact and fiction flickers and fades, we see the potential for groundbreaking scientific advancements for the human race, and unhinged scientific experiments stemming from the simple question, “What if?”

Our world may not be ready for Oscar.

Not yet.

 

The Best of 2015

As a nod to @fogus and his blog, Send More Paramedics, I’ve opted to start the annual tradition of recapping the year with the best things I’ve found, learned, read, etc.

These things are listed in no particular order, and may not necessarily be new.

Favorite Blog Posts Read

Not a lot here that I can recall, but this handful stood out as good reads. Some of them I plan to refer back to in the future.

Articles I’ve Written for Other Publications

I’ve tried something different this past year and have worked to write more for others than for just myself. This has been really fun, but has reduced the total number of entries I have written this year in general. I hope to find some more outlets to contribute to with like-minded interests. I like working with small teams like this instead of bouncing ideas around with only myself.

  • Finding Forgotten Footage – An article I did for Lunchmeat Midnight Snack #4 (a print zine) about finding strange VHS tapes with home-recorded footage.
  • Automating Site Backups with Amazon S3 and PHP – An article I did for the now-defunct TechOats website (still sad about that one). As the title describes, I automated backups of my websites using Amazon S3 and a simple PHP script.
  • The New Wild West – An article for NODE about how the internet of things and the sort of always-connected culture opens things up again for a wide variety of attacks. I draw parallels to the 1980’s boom of hacker culture where a lot of stuff was just left wide open.
  • How to Run your Own Independent DNS with Custom TLDs – A tutorial I did for NODE after remembering the failure of the .p2p project and the success of OpenNIC.

Favorite Technical Books Read

I’ve been trying to read a lot more this year to cut through my growing pile of books. I’ve mainly focused on technical books, including books I’ve only been made aware of in 2015 as well as ones that have been on my shelf for years.

  • Garage Virtual Reality – An antiquated virtual reality book from the ’90s touches on a lot of interesting technology from the time, including homemade projects and technological dead ends. The perfect amount of technical instruction and cyberpunk ideas.
  • Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering – An amazing book on reverse engineering. I picked this up around a decade ago, and it was completely over my head. At the time I dismissed it because it was already outdated with the popularity of “softmods” for the Xbox, but picking it up again it is really just a good general book on getting into reverse engineering and the focus on the Xbox is a fun nostalgic little bonus.
  • Cybernetics – A dated and likely obscure text, this book deals with the early ideas of cybernetics and expands into theory on artificial intelligence and neural networks.

Favorite Non-Technical Books Read

  • Microserfs – A fun book that follows a group of ’90s Microsoft employees as they start their own company.
  • Crypto – An incredible look into the world of cryptography, following all of the pioneers and the cypherpunk movement.
  • Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age – My favorite book of the year, a wonderfully- detailed look into the rise and fall of Xerox PARC and all of the completely fascinating things they invented.
  • The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing – I love coffee and this book lets you learn about all the varieties, proper brewing techniques, etc.
  • Ready Player One – A fun dystopic sci-fi book about a civilization obsesses with a treasure hunt and ’80s culture.

 

Number of Books Read

12

Favorite Musicians Discovered

  • King Tuff
  • Elle King
  • FFS – Franz Ferdinand and Sparks
  • Devo – Everyone knows “Whip It,” but I’ve been focusing on their first few albums.

Favorite Television Shows

Mr. Robot (2015), The X-Files (1993)

Programming Languages Used for Work/Personal

C, C++, Java, JavaScript, Objective-C, Python.

Programming Languages I Want To Use Next Year

  • Common Lisp – A “generalized” Lisp dialect.
  • Clojure – A Lisp dialect that runs on the Java Virtual Machine
  • Go – Really interested to see how this scales with concurrent network programming.

Still Need to Read

Computer Lib, Literary Machines, Design Patterns, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Life Events of 2015

I became engaged to be married.

Life Changing Technologies Discovered

  • Amazon Dash Button – I hacked a $5 button to email me when I press it.
  • Ethereum – An interesting decentralized software platform. Still not entirely sure what to make of it.
  • Microsoft Hololens – I want one after seeing this video. I’ve already supported Oculus for VR, but this is winning me over for AR.

Favorite Subreddits

/r/homelab, /r/retrobattlestations, /r/cyberpunk, /r/homeautomation.

Plans for 2016

  • Get married.
  • Write more for NODE (if possible!), Lunchmeat, or other publicans I find out about.
  • Write an article for 2600.
  • Find my missing Leatherman.
  • Release a mobile app.
  • Do some FPGA projects to get more in-depth with hardware.
  • Continue to flesh out Anarchivism with videos/print.
  • Organization, organization, organization!

 

See you in 2016!

 

The New Wild West

This article was originally written for and published at N-O-D-E on August 3rd, 2015. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

THE NEW WILD WEST

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to work professionally with low energy RF devices under a fairly large corporation. We concerned ourselves with wireless mesh networking and were responsible for tying together smart devices, like light bulbs or door locks installed in your home, into an information-driven digital conglomerate. You know those commercials you see on TV where the father remotely unlocks the door for his child or the businesswoman checks to make sure she left the patio light on? That was us. At the touch of a button on your tablet, miles away, you can open the garage door or flip on the air conditioner. These are products that are designed to make life easier.

In research and development, we view things differently than the stressed-out, on-the-go homeowner might. We don’t necessarily think about what the user might want to buy, but ask the question, “when we roll these things out, how will people try to exploit and break them?” In the confines of a tall, mirror-glass office building, my packet sniffer lights up like a Christmas tree. Devices communicate in short bursts through the airwaves, chirping to one another for all to hear. Anyone with the curiosity and some inexpensive hardware can pick up this kind of traffic. Anyone can see what is traveling over the air. Anyone can intervene.

wildwest

EXPLORATION

Things weren’t so different a few decades ago. Back in the ‘70s we saw the rise of the phone phreak. Explorers of the telephone system, these pioneers figured out how to expertly maneuver through the lines, routing their own calls and inching further into the realm of technological discovery. We saw innovators like John Draper and even Steve Wozniak & Steve Jobs peeking into the phone system to see how it ticks and what secrets they could unlock. It wasn’t long before people started connecting their personal microcomputers to the phone line, lovingly pre-installed in their houses for voice communication, and explored computerized telephone switches, VAXen, and other obscure machines — not to mention systems controlled by third parties outside the grasp of good old Ma Bell.

This was the wild west, flooded by console cowboys out to make names for themselves. The systems out there were profoundly unprotected. And why not? Only people who knew about these machines were supposed to be accessing them, no use wasting time to think about keeping things secure. Many machines were simply out there for the taking, with nobody even contemplating how bored teenagers or hobbyist engineers might stumble across them and randomly throw commands over the wire. If you had a computer, a modem, and some time on your hands, you could track down and access these mysterious systems. Entire communities were built around sharing information to get into computers that weren’t your own, and more of these unsecured systems popped up every week. It seemed like the possibilities were endless for the types of machines you would be able to connect to and explore.

Today, many will argue that we focus much more on security. We know that there are those who are going to probe our systems and see what’s open, so we put up countermeasures: concrete walls that we think and hope can keep these minds out. But what about newer technologies? How do we handle the cutting edge? The Internet of Things is still a relatively new concept to most people — an infant in the long-running area of computing. We have hundreds if not thousands of networked devices that we blindly incorporate into our own technological ecosystems. We keep these devices in our homes and on our loved ones. There are bound to be vulnerabilities, insecurities, cracks in the armor.

UBICOMP

Maybe you don’t like the idea of outlets that know what is plugged into them or refrigerators that know when they’re out of food. Maybe you’re a technological hold-out, a neo-luddite, a cautious person who needs to observe and understand before trusting absolutely. This may feel like the ultimate exercise of security and self-preservation, but how much is happening outside of your control?

When the concept of ubiquitous computing was first developed by Mark Weiser at Xerox PARC in the late ‘80s, few knew just how prominent these concepts would be in 25 years. Ubiquitous computing pioneered the general idea of “computing everywhere” through the possibility of small networked devices distributed through day-to-day life. If you have a cellular telephone, GPS, smart watch, or RFID-tagged badge to get into the office, you’re living in a world where ubiquitous computing thrives.

We’ve seen a shift from the centralized systems like mainframes and minicomputers to these smaller decentralized personal devices. We now have machines, traditional personal computers and smart-phones included, that can act independent of a centralized monolithic engine. These devices are only getting smaller, more inexpensive, and more available to the public. We see hobby applications for moisture sensors and home automation systems using off-the-shelf hardware like Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. The technology we play with is becoming more independant and increasingly able when it comes to autonomous communication. Little intervention is needed from an operator, if any is needed at all.

For all of the benefits we see from ubiquitous computing, there are negatives. While having a lot of information at our fingertips and an intuitive process to carry out tasks is inviting, the intrusive nature of the technology can leave many slow to adopt. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, it may also become more pervasive. We like the idea of a smart card to get us on the metro, but don’t take so kindly to knowing we are tracked and filed with every swipe. Our habits have become public record. In the current landscape of the “open data” movement, everything from our cell phone usage to parking ticket history can become one entry in a pool of data that anyone can access. We are monitored whether we realize it or not.

FUTURE

We have entered uncharted territory. As more devices make their way to market, the more possibilities there are for people to explore and exploit them. Sure, some vendors take security into consideration, but nobody ever thinks their system is vulnerable until it is broken. Consider common attacks we see today and how they might ultimately evolve to infect other platforms. How interesting would it be if we saw a DDoS attack that originated from malware found on smart dishwashers? We have these devices that we never consider to be a potential threat to us, but they are just as vulnerable as any other entity on the web.

Consider the hobbyists out there working on drones, or even military applications. Can you imagine a drone flying around, delivering malware to other drones? Maybe the future of botnets is an actual network of infected flying robots. It is likely only a matter of time before we have a portfolio of exploits which can hijack these machines and overthrow control.

Many attacks taken on computer systems in the present day can trace their roots back over decades. We see a lot of the same concepts growing and evolving, changing with the times to be more efficient antagonists. We could eventually see throwbacks to the days of more destructive viruses appear on our modern devices. Instead of popping “arf arf, gotcha!” on the screen and erasing your hard drive, what if we witnessed a Stuxnet-esque exploit that penetrates your washing machine and shrinks your clothes by turning the water temperature up?

I summon images from the first volume of the dystopian Transmetropolitan. Our protagonist Spider Jerusalem returns to his apartment only to find that his household appliance is on drugs. What does this say about our own future? Consider Amazon’s Echo or even Apple’s Siri. Is it only a matter of time before we see modifications and hacks that can cause these machine to feel? Will our computers hallucinate and spout junk? Maybe my coffee maker will only brew half a pot before it decides to no longer be subservient in my morning ritual. This could be a far-off concept, but as we incorporate more smart devices into our lives, we may one day find ourselves incorporated into theirs.

CONCLUSION

Just as we saw 30 years ago, there is now an explosion of new devices ready to be accessed and analyzed by a ragtag generation of tinkerers and experimenters. If you know where to look, there is fruit ripe for the picking. We’ve come around again to a point where the cowboys make their names, walls are broken down, and information is shared openly between those who are willing to find it. I don’t know what the future holds for us as our lives become more intertwined with technology, but I can only expect that people will continue to innovate and explore the systems that compose the world around them.

And with any hope, they’ll leave my coffee maker alone.

––
BY MIKE DANK (@FAMICOMAN)

 

Philosophy of Data Organization

I would be a liar if I said I was an overly organized person. I believe that like things should be grouped together and everything is to have its place, but I follow something of a level of acceptable chaos. Nothing is organized completely, and I don’t really believe it is possible to have complete organization on a large enough scale. Complete organization is likely to cause insanity.

When I first started accumulating data, I quickly outgrew my laptop’s 80 gigabyte hard drive. From there I went to a 150GB drive, then a pair of 320GB drives, then a pair of 1TB drives, then a pair of 2TB drives, and from there I keep amassing even more 2TB drives. As I get new drives, I like to rotate the data off of the older ones and on to the newer ones. These old drives become work horses for torrents and rendering off video while new drives are used for duplicating and storing data that I really want to keep around for a long long time. The system is ad-hoc without any calculated sense of foresight. If I had the money and planning, I’d build a giant NAS for my needs. For now, whenever I need more space, I just buy another pair of drives and fill them up before repeating the cycle. This doesn’t scale very well and I ultimately around 25TB of storage scattered across various drives.

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to take a class on the philosophy of mind and knowledge organization. A mouthful of a topic, I know, but it is more simple than it seems. The class revolved around one main concept: classification. We started with concepts put forth by Greek philosophers on how to organize knowledge via the study of knowledge: epistemology. We start out with concepts put forth by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Notably, university subjects were broken into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and later expanded with the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) as outlined by Plato. These subjects categorized the liberal arts, based on thinking, as opposed to the practical arts, based on doing. These classifications were standard in educational systems for some time.

The Trivium

A representation of the Trivium

Aristotle reclassifies knowledge later by breaking everything into three categories: theoretical, practical, and productive. This is again broken down further. Aristotle breaks “theoretical” into metaphysics, mathematics, and physics. “Productive” is broken into crafts and fine arts. “Practical” is broken down into ethics, economics, and politics. From here, we have a more modern approach to knowledge organization. We see distinctive lines between subjects which are further branched into more specific subjects. We also see a logical progression from theoretical to practical, and finally to productive to ultimately create a product.

An outline of Aristotle's classification

An outline of Aristotle’s classification

More modern classifications pull directly from these Greek outlines. We can observe works by Hugo St. Victor and St. Bonaventure which mash various aspects of these classifications together to create hybrid classifications which may or may not be more successful in breaking down aspects of the world.

An interpretation of St. Bonaventure's organization

An interpretation of St. Bonaventure’s organization

What does this have to do with data? Data, much like knowledge, can be organized using the same principles we have observed here. Remember, the key theme here is classification. We are not simply concerned with how to break up knowledge, but anything and everything that can be classified.

Think of all the possible ways you could organize films or musical artists, or even genres of music. It can be a daunting thing to even imagine. As an overarching project throughout the course, we developed classifications of our own choice. I chose to focus on videotape formats, and quickly created my own classification based on physical properties. I broke down tapes into open/closed reel, tape widths, and format families. While it might not be the best classification, I tried to approach the problem in a way that was open to using empirical truth (conformity through observations) in a way which would allow a newcomer to quickly traverse the classification branches to discover what format he is holding in his hands.

An early version of my videotape classification

An early version of my videotape classification

Classifications like this are not uncommon. Apart from the classifications of knowledge put forward here already, classifications have been used by Diderot and d’Alembert to create the first encyclopaedia in 1759. This Encyclopédie uses a custom classification of knowledge as its table of contents. While generalized to an extent (it does fit one page), it could be expanded upson infinitely.

Encyclopédie contents

Encyclopédie contents

A contemporary way to organize knowledge arrives in a familiar area: the Dewey Decimal System. Though Dewey’s system has been adopted globally as the de facto method for organizing print media, can can we apply this same system to our growing “library” of data? The short answer is no, not without some modification, though modifications have plagued Dewey’s system since its inception.

To understand how we can best organize our data, we must first understand the general concepts of the Dewey Decimal System. Within the system, different categories are defined by different numbers. 100 may be reserved for philosophy and psychology while 300 may be used for social sciences, and 800 for literature. the numbering system here is intentional. Lower numbers are thought to be the most important subjects while higher numbers are less important. These numbers are broken down further. 100 might be broken into 110 for metaphysics, 120 for epistemology, etc. with each of these being broken down again for more finite subjects.

This is just another classification, but it has its faults. The size of a section is finite as the system is broken up into 10 classes which are then again broken down into 10 divisions, and finally 10 sections (hence decimal). However, we never really accounted for the growth of new and expanding topics. As subjects emerge like computer science, which Dewey never could have imagined, we throw works like these into unused spaces. Computer science in particular is infamous as it now occupies location 000, which in the system would make it seem more important than any other subject in the entire system. Additionally, we see a loss in physical ties to the system as libraries are intended to to organized along with the system: lower numbers on the first floor, higher numbers on the higher floors. Dewey’s system is constantly being modified as new works emerge and finding any consistency between different libraries could be controlled by one librarian who chooses whether or not to implement a change at any given time.

A simplified example of Dewey's system

A simplified example of Dewey’s system

While a modified version of Dewey’s system might make sense for data (as well as being somewhat familiar), we have to consider another problem which plagues the classification: titles that can occupy more than one section. Suppose that I have a book about WWII music. Do I put this book in music? Does it go in history? What other sections could it fall into? We have few provisions for this.

Data is no different in this sense. Whether I have a digital copy of a book as would be found in Dewey’s system or a podcast or anything else, there is always the potential for multiple areas a work can fall into. If you visit the “wrong” section where you might expect an object to be, you don’t have any indication that it would be somewhere else just as suitable.

What are we to do in this case? While I like to break my data down into type of media (video, audio, print, etc), I find the lower levels to get more fuzzy. Let us consider a subject which I am revisiting in my own projects: hacker/cyberpunk magazines. Even if we only focus on print magazines, we still have problems. We can see the concept of “hacking” coming from more traditional clever programming origins (such as in Dr. Dobb’s Journal), or evolved from phreaker culture (such as in TEL), or maybe from general yippie counterculture (such as in YIPL). Additionally, we can see that some of these magazines feature a large number of overlapping collaborators which make them feel somewhat similar. We also may observe that magazines produced in places like San Francisco or Austin also have a similar feel but might be much closer to other works that have no physical or personnel ties. Further, what about publications that started as print and then went over to online releases? More and more possible subgroups emerge.

At this point, we might consider work put forth by Wittgenstein which is based off of the “family resemblance theory.” The basic idea behind this theory is that while many members of a family might have features that make them resemble the family, not one feature is shown in all the members who have family resemblance. Expanded, we can say that while we all know what something means, it can’t always be clearly defined and its boundaries cannot always be sharply drawn. Rosch, a psychology professor, took Wittgenstein’s concept further and hypothesized that “the task of categorization systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.” She believes that basic-level objects should have “as many properties as possible predictable from knowing any one property.” This means that if something is part of a category, you could easily know much more about it (if you know that 2600 is a hacking magazine, you’ll know there are likely articles in it about computers). However, superordinate categories (like furniture or vehicle) wouldn’t share many attributes with each other. Rosch concluded that most categories do not have clear-cut boundaries and are difficult to classify. This goes on to show the concept that “messiness begins within.” We get a contrast from Aristotelian “orderliness” because messiness shows that we can’t put things in their place because those places are just where things “sort-of” belong. Everything belongs in more than one place, even if it is just a little bit. We see that order can be restrictive.

This raises the importance of metadata: data about data. While my media might be organized in such a classification that doesn’t allow for “double dipping” (going against concepts by Rosch), we can utilize the different properties that pertain to each individual object. Consider many popular torrent sites which utilize crowd-sourced tagging systems. Members can add tags to individual pieces of media (which can then me voted on as a way to weed out improper tags) which allow the media to show up in searches for each tag. We see a similar phenomenon in websites such as Youtube which allow tagging of videos for content, though not in a crowd-sourced sense or the Internet Archive which supports general subject tags as well as more specific metadata fields.

Using this metadata method and my previous example, it’s easy to find magazines by location, authors, subject, contents, age, and a long list of other attributes. We can apply this to objects that aren’t the same format; there are examples of video, audio, and print that pertain to the same subjects, authors, etc. This isn’t an impossible implementation. Considering further the Internet Archive, we see thousands upon thousands of metadata-rich items which are easily searchable and identifiable. However, the Internet Archive also suffers from a lackluster interface. It might be easy to find issues of Byte magazine, but it is a lot more difficult to figure out what issues we are missing or see an organizational flow more akin to a wiki system (though both systems lend themselves well to items being in more than one place). A hybridized system like this would be an option worth exploring, but I haven’t seen an ideal execution of it yet.

While this concept of a metadata-based organizational system isn’t a fool-proof solution, it can certainly be seen as a step in the right direction. We must also consider the credibility of those who decide to make contributions to metadata, especially on a large-scale public system. Consider the chaos and political makeup of how Wikipedia governs editing and then you’ll start to get an idea. While I’d like to implement a tagging system for my own personal media library (with my own tagging at first and the possibility of expansion), I am limited by my current conglomeration of hard drives scattered to different parts of the house, usually powered off. My next storage solution will take these ideas into planning and execution, making my data much easier to traverse. I will however have limitations as I won’t have many people perpetually reviewing and tagging my data with relevant information.

That said, the idea of being able to make my data more accessible is an exciting one, and increases portability of the data as a whole if I ever need to pass it on to others. As my tastes evolve and grow, so will the collection of data I hold.

With any hope, my organized chaos will ultimately become a little more organized and a little less chaotic.

With any luck, you’ll be able to browse it one day.