A Talent for Bricolage… File

A Talent for Bricolage…

File under rageboy, bricolage, alexa, and burma shave…

I woke up this morning with the sense that – far from mere bricolage – a lot of what goes into blog publishing is intentional, elaborate, and complex.  There’s an emerging quasi-journalistic, epistolary genre the importance of which is amplified by its collaborative nature.  And as the genius bloggers like Turner and Golby or Weinberger and Professor Adam riff off each other, their creations exist in a fragile network bounded by technology… if the material is being preserved future afficionados might get off on re-playing some of the sequential consequent prosodic interactions that we call blog postings, but like jazz musicians jamming, the recording will undoubtedly lose some of the spirit of the live rendition.

Well, I googled the terms “intentional elaborate complex bricolage” and what should pop out but this sweet Joshua Knobe interview with Richard Rorty, excerpted below (added links are my own):

Rorty: I think that the academic left has made sort of an ass of itself and has given easy targets for the conservatives, but basically I think that the conservatives are just either jealous of the soft life that we professors have or else working for the Republicans and trying to underm~ne the universities the same way they undermined the trade unions. I mean that the universities and colleges are bastions of the left in America, and the closest thing we have to the left is roughly the left wing of the Democratic Party, and if you look at the statistics on what kind of professor votes for what, the humanities and the social science professors always vote overwhelmingly democratic, and obviously the youth that is exposed to courses in social sciences and humanities is going to be gently nudged in a leftward direction. The Republicans are quite aware of this fact, and they would like to stop it from happening. Any club that will beat the universities is going to look good to them. The more the English depanments make fools of themselves by being politically correct, the easier a target the Republicans are going to have.

Int: Is that what you meant by “making asses of themselves”?

Rorty: I think that the English departments have made it possible to have a career teaching English without caring much about literature or knowing much about literature but just producing rather trite, formulaic, politicized readings of this or that text. This makes it an easy target. There’s a kind of formulaic leftist rhetoric that’s been developed in the wake of Foucault, which permits you to exercise a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust. It’s sort of an obviously easy way to write books, articles, and it produces work of very low intellectual quality. And so, this makes this kind of thing an easy target from the outside. It permits people like Roger Kimball and D’Souza to say these people aren’t really scholars, which is true. I think that the use made of Foucault and Derrida in American departments of literature had been, on the whole, unfortunate, but it’s not their fault. Nobody’s responsible for their followers.

Perhaps St. Andrew’s Cross… Frank…

Perhaps St. Andrew’s Cross


Enjoyed your Ryan Irelan interview…as always….must admit that I have a slightly different take on the higher education thing….having studied, worked, and taught in the “space” at different times in my life I guess I’ve formed an opinion or two…I think the notion of noble purpose vs. serving the customer is in a state of crisis.


Steve MacLaughlin


Thanks for the kind words Steve. How would you feel about sitting still for a Sandhill interview in a few weeks? If you could clear some time the first week of June, I’d enjoy the chat.



SM: Sure….fire away….I’m on the east coast…Charlotte, NC to be exact. ;-)

FP: After seeing the picture of you in your ethnic garb, I’m reminded to ask: Boxers or briefs?

SM: Ha. Of course the answer to the age old question of what does a Scotsman wear under his kilt is……his shoes.

FP: Okay.

FP: I think of Steve McLaughlin as a “hidden” A list blogger. You show up on many blog rolls Your work is universally admired. But you’re not in the middle of the foaming blog culture of conventions and conferences and lots of link swapping/blog rolling.

SM: Thank you. If that’s the perception you get, then I must be actually doing something right.

I never really sat down and thought about what kind of blogger I wanted to be. That’s not my style and I think that sets you up for failure. I just write the way I feel like writing and we’ll see what happens. So if your take is that I’m a “hidden A list blogger” then I take that as a great compliment because I guess that’s really a reflection of my approach to my writing. Given the choice of being an NBA star, to pick a random analogy here, I would rather be Steve Kerr than Allen Iverson.

The reason I choose not to get wrapped up in the frothing confab of bloggerdom is because I honestly do not believe there is that much to say about blog culture. I believe that there has been less debate over Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” or “Waiting For Godot” by Samuel Beckett than there has been over what blogging is or what it means in some larger social context. History always repeats itself and blogging is the latest iteration of personal journals, which is not a new concept to say the least. Go back and read some Samuel Pepys or James Boswell and you will quickly get a much less haughty golly-gee-whiz attitude about blogging’s originality or special powers.

I also avoid the conventions and conferences because I honestly think most of them are…well…silly. I think most of them are just networking events or circle jerks where [insert technology here] experts talk with fellow [insert technology here] experts to a crowd of [insert technology here] experts all on someone else’s dime. To take a recent example, you had a conference about blogging’s impact on the business world where bloggers sat on panels with other bloggers, some of which were blogging what was said, while other bloggers sat in the audience blogging about all of the blogging discussions.

Yawn. Meanwhile business people elsewhere were getting some real business done.

FP: How long have you been engaged in personal publishing on the web?

SM: I started blogging back in early August of 2024 after getting some helpful prodding from Doc Searls. But I had been doing a lot of personal publishing for years, so doing it online was the next logical step I guess. My first post was simply, “Here we go. Let’s see where it goes. Stay tuned…” For me, writing has always been one of those things I have derived a lot of pleasure out of as some kind of release I guess. Back in high school a bunch of us started a renegade student newspaper that ended up trouncing the official one. I actually had a column back then called “From the Bleacher Seats” where I opined about crowded parking lots and other seemingly monumental issues. A portent of things to come I suppose.

So I guess the stage was set many many many years ago to do writing from a personal perspective. When I was working in the interactive services world I started up a monthly printed newsletter that had book reviews and other business focused columns, and eventually I transitioned that to an online version. A lot of Saltire’s first content was my recent book reviews and columns that went beyond my usual topics.

FP: What kind of tools do you use and what influenced your choice?

SM: I use Weblogger’s service which uses Manila. It’s not the most sophisticated blogging tool out on the market, but I think the fact that I still remember how to get under the hood and tweak the code has helped. I think that in my exuberance, or more likely my impatience, to get started blogging I didn’t look very far. At the time Weblogs.com just stopped adding users to their service so Weblogger was next on my list. I am however keeping my eyes on what TypePad is up to, and so who knows if I will decide to trade horses one of these days. I also use Weblogger for my satellite radio blog at


FP: McLaughlin isn’t like an Asian name, is it? Where did you get the inspiration for “Saltire?”

SM: That’s MacLaughlin not McLaughlin you numpty! ;-) Well I have a wee bit o’ Scots in me and at the same time I was looking for something to call my blog that was a bit off the beaten path. I have a thing for choosing words, phrases, analogies, or whatevers that are somewhat surreptitious. If you know the word or reference, then it opens up a few new angles on the subject. If you don’t know the word or reference, then you either gloss over it or you take the time to figure out the sub-rosa part of it.

FP: Some bloggers, for example Dave Winer, are unashamed blogging evangelists. Some, like Chris Locke, have extended their personal publishing into blog space. Some, like AKMA, find blogging to be an online community building opportunity. Other’s like Eric Norlin post brief journal entries that keep us abreast of what’s up with [Eric]. Reading Saltire, I get a clear sense of the blogger as journalist. No question of is blogging journalism. I get that Steve MacLaughlin is a writer and Saltire is one of his vehicles. What can you share about your sense of journalism and how blogging fits in?

SM: I have never really stopped much to think about what my blogging style is, but I think your observations are pretty spot on. Alfred Hitchcock once said that “self-plagiarism is style” and I think Saltire’s style is to present a polished form of journalism. Now from time to time I have toyed with capital-J Journalism, like a piece I did on satellite radio, and I think my blogging over the past few months about Formula One might fall into that category in a sense. For better or worse I have never been interested in evangelizing a particular belief or focusing too much on my personal life. I suppose that goes back to the whole journalism versus journal approach to blogging. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading Eric Norlin’s blog because you always get the raw feed of what he’s thinking. That’s just not my style. Although I have given a lot of thought recently to starting a personal journal that is more of a view on what’s going on in my mind that particular day, but I haven’t jumped over the ledge on that one just yet.

My whole life I have always enjoyed the articles or news stories that took you behind the behind the scenes of a particular story and gave you the details about the details. So in a sense that is the kind of journalism I wanted to explore with Saltire. That also probably explains why I do not do a lot of off the cuff posts. I want to know the facts, figures, and mother’s maiden names of the things I write about. I typically won’t post something unless I know that information is correct and I have seen it backed up in a few different places. Paul Boutin told me a while back that the downfall of most bloggers is that they don’t have editors, and that has always forced me to try and be my own editor.

I think the whole debate of bloggers as Journalists has long since exhausted any new meaningful thoughts. At the end of the day we are all just adjunct journalists. We have other jobs that in theory qualify us to comment on particular subjects, but our blogging does not pay the bills. We may occasionally break a story or force a correction in print or topple a politician, but we are always going to be amateurs in the eyes of the professional Journalists. This is a lesson that I have gleaned from another profession. Unless I am mistaken the only bloggers making a living from their blogging are those that were Journalists to begin with. When someone crosses over from the minor leagues then I will be pleasantly surprised.

Bloggers are the barbarians at the gates of the Journalism world, and there is some real apprehension about our presence, but they figure they can wait out any siege. Their hope is that we get bored and find someone else to pester. Journalists do not fear bloggers, but they do have some concerns about how blogging will change their profession.

The constant navel gazing over the journalism versus Journalism and bloggerdom’s importance is one of the reason I’ve gone cold turkey about writing about any of it. After getting a lot of attention for my coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, and the mixed reaction to my “Blogger Sells Out” attempt at satire, I decided that I just needed to go off in a whole new direction for a while. I had covered Formula One for an online site last season, and so I decided to see if I could focus on a single topic and do it some justice for a while. It’s been hard not to comment on a few things, and I have written one or two non-F1 articles, but I am resisting the urge to blog on anything else. In particular there’s one piece that I’ve written, but haven’t published about the world of academia. Initially my readership dropped, but it’s since come back to pre-F1 levels. I think I have brought some new readers on board from a different audience, and I still get a lot of readers who stumble across some of my older stuff. It’s a strange dynamic.

FP: How about some Steve MacLaughlin biographical background? Born when and where? Family? Training? Ever done hard time? That kind of thing…

SM: Sure, no problemo.

Born in ’75 in Jamestown, New York. It’s a small place, though technically a city, in Upstate New York near Lake Chautauqua. The area is most famous for giving the world Lucille Ball, political satirist Mark Russell, Chautauqua Institution, and the 10,000 Maniacs. My father has worked in law enforcement for 30 years and my mother used to write ads for radio before becoming a high school English teacher. I have an older sister who is married and they have a rapidly growing child that has recently learned how to chase their dog.

As a kid I used to listen to the radio at night to fall asleep. To this day I need some kind of background noise when I hit the hay. And so I used to listen to a lot of old school talk radio which, for better or worse, would put me out. I would listen to the Larry King Show back when he wasn’t on CNN. I am talking about his late night radio talk program that really launched his career. Anyhow, I remember back around 1985, I must have been 10 or so at the time, and the Titanic had just been found. Larry had Walter Lord, author of “A Night To Remember” on his show, and I got up the nerve to call in and ask a question that was on my mind. So I dialed in and and actually got put on the air, and I asked, “Who actually owns the Titanic?” and hung up the phone. Larry seemed very surprised and intersted in the question himself and pressed Lord by reasking him, “Yeah, who does the Titanic?” I’m a bit fuzzy on Lord’s exact response, but I got the impression that he really couldn’t say for sure who it was.

After high school, I took the first train out of New York and spent nine years in Indiana. Went to Indiana University as an undergrad, and at the time thought I would go to law school. I was a political science major who picked up English as a second major because I figured it would force me read all the classics. As it turned out that decision really got me to focus more on my writing more than anything else. I remember coming in as an incoming freshman and I wanted to take a course on argumentative writing instead of the vanilla introductory required course. The English department told me the course was only open to upper classmen, but I managed to plead my case to get into the class. The instructor told me on the first day that if my first paper wasn’t up to snuff I was out. Needless to say I ended up with an “A-” in that class.

Then in 1994 I was sitting in a computer lab on campus, reading through some email, and I asked the person next to me what the heck Mosaic was, and the rest is history. I would end up spending the next eight years of my life living and working with all things Internet. By 2024 I had done a lot of things, worked on some amazing projects, picked up a few awards, and managed to get my name into print, but I needed a break. It had become the closest thing to hard time I have done in my life. I keep telling people I am going to write a book about those years, but that the lawsuits for being too revealing and honest would probably squash idea pretty quickly.

So I accepted an invitation to teach at my alma matter on subjects they couldn’t have taught when I was a student. A pretty interesting turn of events in a very short period of time. Along the way I went back to grad school to get my “union card” with a MS degree in Interactive Media. Then I started blogging later that year and here we are. But where is here?

For the past year my wife and I have lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. We started dating as undergrads in college and we were married in Fernie Castle, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland three years ago. We moved down South when she finished medical school, and she is starting her second year of residency at the top emergency medicine program in the country. I am overly

humble about myself, but I have not qualms being immodest about her. She is the most amazing women in the world I have ever known, and most days I scratch my head wondering how I got so lucky. I just wrapped up a year of teaching at UNC Charlotte, and I am back working in the technology scene. But even that twist in my life has a complicated story behind it.

FP: How do you manage to blog the F1 circuit real-time without a huge travel budget?

SM: Ah, that’s the beauty of the Internet. I have access to some real-time timing feeds and enough content sources to keep me buried in information. I think it actually helps that most of the races are held overseas. The time difference lets me get up early enough in the morning to catch what is going on, and in most cases get something published before my work day begins.

FP: How are you connected to the sport?

SM: I had been a fan for many years and in 2024 I decided to try my hand at reporting for a site called Racing News Online. During that time I got to know Dan Knutson, who is the only full-time American journalist covering Formula One. Dan travels to each race and writes for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. He told me just how difficult it is to get press access to the F1 Paddock so something tells me this is as close as I will ever get to the real thing. Who knows though? I did just have a race report republished by one of the teams. It’s a random universe and anything can


FP: I know Ferraris are red. Golby and Turner say so. Are there still cars on the track colored British racing green?

SM: Jaguar’s current livery is about the closest you will get to British racing green these days. The cars themselves these days are nothing short of works of art. Both visually and technically speaking. There is so much time and money spent on each inch of carbon fiber or exhaust valve or break duct to get the car to perform on the highest possible level, but when you just stand back and look at one of them up close you cannot help but be amazed at the unique curves, lines, and profiles each team has come up with.

FP: How many of these grand prix events have you attended in person?

SM: I have been to the United State Grand Prix for all three races that have been held so far at Indianapolis. My work schedule has always been pretty hectic but I have always found a way to get to the circuit. I would really like to get up to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal as soon as next year. And if I can convince my wife to go I would like to go to Monaco in the next few years or so.

There is just something about the sound of that first engine note as the cars literally scream coming down the pit lane towards the exit. The way you can almost feel the strain of the breaks and tires as the car slows to whip around a corner. The smell of the exhaust fumes when a group of cars pass by or the haunting echo of gear changes at 18,000 RPM. You honestly have to hear it, feel it, smell it, and see it to understand it.

FP: Isn’t there something a little nihilistic about a sport that will claim your life if your competitor makes a slight error?

SM: Well jousting, sword fighting, and pistols at dawn have gone the way of the horse drawn carriage, but I suppose these is the element of danger in all sports. In the past year we have had football and baseball players drop dead all in the pursuit of higher performance. Formula One has always been a leader in motorsports safety, but I do not believe you can ever completely eliminate risk from the equation.

I think Imola 1994 changed everything in the world of motorsport. That weekend Roland Ratzenberger and Aryton Senna, arguably the sport’s greatest driver, were both killed in separate accidents during the grand prix weekend. Although it had been 12 years since Riccardo Paletti’s death at the start of the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix the sport was operating on a whole new level. Up until that time there were a lot of safety improvements, but Imola was a wake-up call for Bernie Ecclestone and everyone else in Formula One. You had a tremendous amount of money pouring into the sport and millions of viewers at this point in time, and the simple truth was that sponsors do not want stars dying in races. There was nothing romantic or heroic about Senna’s death at the Tamburello curve. Knock on wood…there have not been any fatal crashes in Formula One since that fateful day, but sadly many other racing series did not heed the warnings.

I do think that there is something captivating about how Formula One drivers must push themselves and their cars to the absolute limit to find their limits, and just how unforgiving the circuits are on the slightest mistakes. I know that a lot of people bash F1 as being a bunch of follow-the-leader racing. The reality is that if you take a corner too slow or too fast or your break late or too quickly that all adds up over the course of a lap to a few hundredths of a second or more. There is the need to make as few mistakes as possible while going as fast as possible, and at the same time you have 19 other cars on the track all trying to do the same thing at the same time for 60+ laps in the heat, cold, wet, or dry. And that’s just the race. Add to that the testing schedule between races, Friday pratice and quals, and Saturday practice and quals.

FP: You’re in Chapel Hill. [ed. note: We pay this guy too much. The subject has already told us up front that he's in CHARLOTTE for gawd's sake. Doesn't this FP have any commitment to the trade, or do you think it's a mental defect?] Do you ever run into Ryan Irelan in person? Ryan commented in his Sandhill Interview that his “experience in grad school has really cut me off from many other things and people I enjoy, and it has narrowed my viewpoint or angle, especially when reflecting back upon my own accomplishments and myself. The whole nature of graduate work … squelched my creativity, strained relationships and just made me simply less happy than I was before.” Is Ryan’s experience typical do you suppose?

SM: I’m actually in Charlotte. Chapel Hill is about two hours east of here, but close enough for government work. We’ve traded some emails after your interview with him, and his observations are pretty spot on. I think the one difference between Ryan’s graduate school experience and mine was that I was still working full steam ahead when I went back to graduate school. I had gone back to get a MS in Interactive Media at Indiana University because my undergrad degree from there really didn’t fit with what I had been doing professionally, and I was told that if I ever wanted to get a full-time teaching job I would have to earn my “union card.”

I think still working actually helped me from being completely sucked into the academia abyss. But it’s true that the courses are usually so limited to whatever the professor has focused their research on that you usually end up getting less freedom of movement. I remember sitting in theory classes about cognitive psychology and human computer interaction and I thought I was going to self-combust. The theory is great and all but I was always getting spiteful responses for wanting to talk about the practical application of any of it. Some days you really forgot what the rest of the outside world really looked like.

FP: As an adjunct instructor yourself, do the students you get to know share some of the experience Ryan describes?

SM: Well I taught grads and undergrads at IU, graduating seniors at the University of Indianapolis, and undergrads and continuing students at UNC Charlotte and I think different types of students have vastly different experiences. Graduate students are either there because they want to pursue an academic career or they want to get some skills that are hard to get access to as undergrads. So they are typically a little worldlier, but they also realize that pretty soon they’re going to need to get a job. Undergrads are so hypnotized by the whole college experience at times that getting them to think about life after college makes you feel like the Dean who’s coming by to shut down the party. But I think I had street cred with them because I was one of the few instructors they had who could tell them exactly what it took to get a job. Continuing students were in-between because a lot of them needed these skills to move up in their careers or to give themselves an opportunity to move in a new direction. I will probably miss the students more than anything else now that my teaching days appear to be over.

FP: What are the strengths of the American system of higher education? The weaknesses?

SM: I will preface my response by saying that I am probably one of the few people who have been an undergrad and grad student, worked in the administration, and served as a member of the faculty. So I think that has given me a pretty broad perspective on the state of higher education.

Some of the strengths are clearly choice and affordability. I mean there is more choice now than ever before about the type of place you can have a great college experience, and for the most part Uncle Sam will always loan you the money to pay the tab. Though that might mean you pay off your house before that piece of vellum on the wall.

I think the weaknesses all center around the issue of who is the real customer in higher education. Is it the students? Is it the alumni? Is it the taxpayers? Is it the business community? Is it the research community? Whichever one you choose, and I contend it’s the students, the problem is that higher education serves only one true master and that’s the faculty.

Whoever coined the term “ivory tower” hit the bull’s-eye dead center. The whole process of getting hired in higher education defies any logic, and once you get into the club you are not going to let someone upset the apple cart. Then to reward you for towing the line they give you this amazing thing called “tenure” that makes you bulletproof from getting canned no matter what you do, or better yet, don’t do. Who wouldn’t love that kind of job security… err… academic freedom?

What they don’t tell you is that higher ed has over produced union card holders to the degree that there are five or six applicants for every one full-time position. That makes it an employers market where the inmates run the asylum. I have actually written an as yet unpublished article about my own adventures in trying to get hired in higher ed. My lawyer says I might want to consider keeping it that way.

FP: I’m engaged in a searching review of postmodernism and trying to identify what came next when that movement became moribund enough to be taught at the university level. Do you have any insights on that subject for me?

SM: A long time ago I issued an open challenge to anyone who could define “postmodernism” in five words or less that your average person could understand. That challenge has yet to be met. I think I will pass on that one. ;-)

FP: This question of “who is the real customer?” I find troubling. What do you think “the product” is, who produces it, and who consumes?

SM:  Well the product should be well rounded individuals who not only have the hard skills to actually do the work, but the soft skills and experiences to function in a dynamic work environment. For a very long time the attitude by those in higher ed has been to say that it’s not their job to make sure Johnny and Suzy can get a job. It was knowledge for the sake of knowledge type of approach. Do not dare to taint the well of wisdom with the ills of the corporate world. I do not think that argument holds water anymore.

Now I know that not everyone who comes out with a degree is actually employable. We all had a roommate or a friend who was better at using organic chemicals than attending organic chemistry lectures. A lot of BS degrees are just that and Harvard churns out its fair share of baristas. But for professors to say they have no accountability or responsibility for what they produce is as morally bankrupt as some of the folks at Enron.

When it comes to the arts and humanities I will buy the argument that English, history, folklore, and political science departments cannot reasonably be expected to be held to that threshold. There is an argument to be made that those subjects enhance the culture of humanity, and I am will to give them a pass. But when it comes to computer science, business, or new technology disciplines I think there should be a higher expectation. The problem is that most people teaching the stuff have never had to go out and prove their worth. Yet when you ask students, or better yet their parents who are more than likely mortgaging the house to pay the tuition, that is what they hope a degree will enable them to do.

That probably explains why for the past three years my end of the semester lecture on how to get an internship or how to get a job is such a big hit with the students. I go through everything from building a network of contact to how to follow-up on resumes and portfolios to how to prepare for interviews. And every time I gave that lecture I was also told that they never heard this kind of valuable information before, and they opening questioned why no one addressed these topics before.

Another way of looking at it as well is that the products of the higher ed system are talented, employable individuals, not just robots with a piece of paper, and the end customer is the job market. Despite the bursting of the technology bubble there is still a work shortage. When there is a shortage of application developers and a computer science department is teaching its students an antiquated language, because they invented it, then there is a huge disconnect going on. The customer ends up buying something they can’t use, but the department gets to keep playing bait and switch.

Now this kind of talk really drives the academia folks crazy because there is the belief that you are overstepping your bounds, and they fear that the business world will always be changing their list of wants. The reality is that departments and programs that have partnered up with the private sector to understand what they are looking for are the same programs that are the best in the country. That is not by coincidence.

FP: Do you read the Why Higher Education Is Gonna Come Crashing Down“ 

that really echoes a lot of these points. My boiled-down take is that some sacred cows are gonna have to be made into hamburger.

FP: On this matter of “the customer….” I think some make the argument that the sponsor of research has an interest. An investor can be thought of as a customer, nicht wahr? And then there is the matter of society as the customer. This argument develops better in the context of public funded institutions, but here matter are complicated because there are plenty of “private schools” with public funding, particularly funding for research. (And of course plenty of private funding for research is given to public institutions.) How does our capitalist market model of higher education play into these investment markets?

SM: Well research sponsors could be viewed as active investors and public funds could be viewed as passive investors. Although most of the research funding comes from government sources which means it really comes from the passive investors. Research is such a huge part of the ecomics of education because the institutions need to find money to make up for the drop in state and federal funding. In most major research institutions the reality is that research dollars pay for the folklore department, just like football pays for the lacrosse team. I think the passive investors take the attitude that at least someone else is picking up the tab, but in the end it’s their kids who get shafted.

FP: A year or so ago I asked this of Dorothea Salo: “I think the PhD is the most expensive product that a University has in its suite of offerings. A masters degree is usually less expensive than a PhD but to get either you have to own a bachelors degree. Bachelors degrees aren’t cheap, but prices do vary. How do you relate to this perspective of students as consumers shopping for appropriately inscribed vellum? What do you think of this approach to comparison shopping for an education?”

SM: I think there are two perspectives here. One, that terminal degrees beyond the bachelors degree only help to further the academia species. With the exception of professional degrees (M.D., J.D., M.B.A.) most of the PhD, MS, and MA programs really only help you if you plan on staying in the academic world. The problem is that for the past few decades there has been an overproduction of these degrees compared to the number of actual available jobs. Graduate programs are cash cows at most insitutions, especially when students are teaching undergrads, and so you’ve got this vicious cycle going on.

Second, that most students really are never told what they can or cannot do with a particular degree. For example, if you want to save the world and decide that a BA in psychology will allow you to do that, then you’re sadly mistaken. The reality is that you really need to go on to get an MD or PhD to really do anything in the field. A BA gets you nowhere, a BS is just that, and an MS is more of the same. I think someone should sit these kids down early on and explain what you really need in order to do what you want in life. Too many professors or counselors set people down the wrong path because they don’t want students dropping out of their programs.

FP: Can you tell me a little about the life of a lecturer? How do you get the gig? How do you keep it? What are the prospects for advancing a career?

SM: My perspective comes from someone who worked in the technology world, and was then asked to teach because the department really didn’t have anyone who could teach from practical experience. So it is not as though I went after a career in academia from the get go. When I started teaching at Indiana University word spread pretty quickly about some of the topics that I was covering, and that led to other invites to teach. When I began teaching at UNC Charlotte it was all about being at the right place at the right time, and I knew that there would actually be a full-time position opening for the following fall semester.

A wise man once told me that the world of academia never makes a rational decision when it comes to hiring. There are a whole lot of intangibles like ego, insecurity, and politics that always come into play. My short answer is that I honestly have no idea how someone gets hired or advances their career in academia. It usually has more to do with what the faculty wants than what is good for the department, the institution, or the students. Hence the whole customer problem.

FP: In your current blogging, I find the F1 statistics a little dry, but I read your Bernie Ecclestone piece today and it got me hungry for more. The article is labeled “Part 4.” What happened to parts 1, 2, and 3?

SM: 1 and 2 were in March….3 was in April sometime. I suppose I should post some links to those previous parts. I’m also working on an upcoming piece about the F1 Paddock Club and some explanations of the technology in the cars.

FP: Do you think Ecclestone and big tobacco will move the sport to America, keeping only a few non-North American venues (Monaco) alive?

SM: I think Bernie’s recent actions show that he’s interested in opening some new markets. For example the Chinese Grand Prix is all but certain to be on the calendar for 2024 and they are building an amazing circuit at Shanghai. It is being designed by Hermann Tilke, who also did the new circuit in Malaysian circuit, and should include facilities for 200,000 spectators. Turkey and Bahrain are also vying for a race as well. The clock is ticking on tobacco advertising in F1, and the clock expires in 2024 when the worldwide ban goes into effect. You have already started to see a shift by many teams away from tobacco sponsorship and planning for the future is always a good idea.

I think there are some huge opportunities for the sport in the US, but a lot of it depends on some marketing dollars being spent and some American involvement. For the past few months a lot of rumors have been flying around, the latest that Ecclestone is trying to but a grand prix on the streets of NYC. At the end of the day there needs to be a lot more promotion of the United States Grand Prix, but at the moment Ecclestone is leaving that to the folks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I honestly do not think they have the horsepower or the wallet to make it work on their own. And that’s a real shame. Give me a camera crew and some voice over talent and I could put together a bunch of spots that would definitely get people interested.

FP: In high school basketball, I notice the most talented kids sometimes suffer “handicapping” on the part of the referees: Fast whistles, dubious fouls, overlooked infractions by the small guy trying to guard the big guy… Do you see some of the same going on F1? An unwillingness to let the fast drive fast? Perhaps an attempt to level the field between the rich teams and the poor teams by denying use of advanced and expensive technology?

SM: I think the rules changes for this year have made a very positive impact on the sport. Everyone thinks it was simply an attempt to Schumacher-proof the sport, but that’s a very myopic view. The financial issues in Formula One are the same issues faced by most major sports worldwide at the moment. Soccer in Europe is going through some strains, baseball and hockey in the US, and a few other sports point to the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Right now you have 10 teams in the sport and two of them, Minardi and Jordan, have just been thrown a lifeline to survive. While the top teams might not want to share revenue with the smaller teams I think there’s awareness that the good of the sport outweighs the interests of individual teams.

As for some of the rule changes to take away some of the technological advantages I guess the jury is still out on that one. Traction control was brought back because the FIA all but admitted they couldn’t police whether or not teams were using it. Some of the other changes like automatic gearboxes will not really make a huge difference to be honest. The cost

cutting moves like eliminating the spare car and longer-life engines are really not cost cutting at all. We have already seen this season several cases where teams could use the spare car, and typically because they could afford to anyhow. The whole longer-life engine debate might get scuttled anyhow, and it really only shifts the costs to the bigger manufacturers.

What they really need to look at is pushing for the manufacturers to provide engines to smaller teams, and Mercedes-Benz has already stepped up to the plate on that front. I also think you will soon see a new Concorde Agreement between Bernie Ecclestone and the teams to avoid the whole GPWC rouse. That will mean more TV revenue for the teams and a rising tide lifts all boats.

FP: We haven’t discussed blogville much. You showed up early and often on the blogrolls of people I read, people like Doc Searls, Eric Norlin, and of course Chris Locke. What is your connection to these Clue Trainistas?

SM: Well I believe someone once wrote that “markets are conversations” and it all started with some electronic conversations. I was working on a piece called “The Viral Economy” and I asked Doc Searls for some feedback on it. That led to a bunch of other discussions and eventually got to know Eric Norlin. He and I share a lot of similar views on the business and technology world, and so it’s always good to know someone’s got your back. I got to know Locke through doing reviews of his two most recent books. I guess I was just at the right place at the right time with some fresh thoughts to add to the conversation.

FP: If somebody said, “There’s no such thing as a blog… blogging was a fad and a facet of e-publishing,” what you tell them?

SM: Whether blogging is a fad like pet rocks remains to be seen, but I suppose all publishing is just a facet of Gutenberg’s little invention. The desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s really probably set a lot of this in motion. The tools out on the market for blogging just lower the technology barriers even more. I am not one of those people that think blogging is some huge cultural tectonic shift. It’s evolutionary not revolutionary as I believe Eric Norlin likes to say.

FP: How does your writing fit in your daily life? What advice would your wife have for someone whose significant other is a writer?

SM: Over time I think I have actually started doing less writing, but I would like to think the quality is better. When I first started blogging I had pretty regular posts on this or that along with book reviews and articles. After the first year I made a decision to only blog once per day on a single topic. It was getting too easy and too disruptive to be firing off a thought on anything that happened to cross my mind’s eye. I suppose my F1 coverage has focused things even more on a specific timetable. I can schedule things out and do some advance writing like a publication format as opposed to just a journal.

I suppose that I have tried to fit writing into my demanding schedule. Which explains why I have had to adjust how often I actually post something. For better or worse a lot of things that I think about never make it to the blog these days. I think my wife’s first piece of advice would be to have them remind their “significant other” not to quit their day job. Her father is a published author so I think she has a much more realistic perspective on what it takes to succeed.

FP: How long have you been a writer? When did it first hit you that writing per se is a huge part of your life? (You’re not in denial about this I hope).

Some people do yoga. Some people paint miniature figurines. I write. It is a cathartic release for me while at the same time letting me have a voice. I would say that I am in denial only in the sense that if you asked me if I was a writer I would probably say no. Though I suppose that through the course of this interview I have found that I have actually been writing a lot longer than I thought. But by that same token if I chose to become a writer for a living then it would probably loose some its medicinal benefits.

FP: It has been said that there isn’t a decent living to be made writing, but that you can make a fortune. Does that make any sense to you?

SM: For every J.K. Rowling there are a million hacks who all believe they have the next blockbuster novel in the works. Having done a lot of peer reviewing and editing in the past few years I can tell you that a lot of authors realize that they still need to keep their day jobs. It’s a way to share some knowledge and increase your visibility, but the publishing market is pretty tight these days and publishers want to weed out irrelevant books before they hit the press.

FP: When you’re blogging, do you have a desire to “scoop” the blog-world, to publish the latest stuff earliest?

SM: I think I got over that approach pretty early on. I got the “scoop” on some things like AT&T’s whole “M Life” campaign, but it’s not as easy as you would think. Not only do you have to have the goods, but you also have to get someone to notice what you’re even writing. It is interesting to note that in all of the hype over the multitude of voices that have been unleashed by blogging the first reaction is to start ranking the most legitimate sources of information. I am not saying that’s a bad thing, but for all the voices some are going to be louder than others.


Isaac Newton, by James Gleick

Isaac Newton, by James Gleick

Looks promising so far… . By page 29 the substantial thought of the English man of science is counterposed against the effete descriptions of the universe by the French mathematician, Descartes – a girly man with a girly first name – Renee if you can believe that, a man whose seminal thinking and girly-man haircut preceded Voltaire’s famous line about sex with young boys (Voltaire, who after visiting a French establishment with a friend and enjoying himself famously replied in the negative when asked if he would like to go there again, “Mais non,” he said, “Once, a philosopher — twice a pervert…” although who knows how the French spell it… probably perverte with an effete little “e” appended… gawd I’m glad I changed my name from Frank to Freedom back in the day when US foreign policy was helping us all draw that line in the sand between “old Europe” and the modern world)… regardless, it is clear where the roots of all this French postmodern theory are sunk and I’m damn glad that we have an English man of science to look to when it comes to something as fundamental as gravity.

We are all Newtonians.

Stolen Property…

My friend George Partington interviewed me last summer and published the interview in his blog, High Water.  George recently announced that High Water is on its way down the drain, so I rescued this post from his blog and stuffed it here.  It’s an “about Frank” piece that made me happy.  George is a pro and I hope he isn’t too pissed off that I lifted his work and put it here. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2024

The Frank Paynter Interview, by George Partington

It’s all good…there is no one situation that is better than
another…it is a part of the continuing musical journey that I’ve been
blessed to be a part of in this life.
–Alphonso Johnson

In reading Frank Paynter’s Sandhill Trek, we get a good sense of a unique personality that revels in the fun to be had with this latest tool for self-expression. HeÂ’s always right there in the thick of it, pointing to the best of the blogs, adding pith and wit to the issues swirling in and out of the blogosphere, publishing great blogger interviews (and setting a standard I tried to live up to), and sharing his thoughts on culture and politics. Now’s your chance to get to know Frank even better. YouÂ’ll probably agree after reading this interview that although the accompanying photo doesnÂ’t show it (what with the sunglasses), thereÂ’s gotta be a twinkle in those eyes.

Okay, ready? Need a beer? Redhook okay? Okay, let me turn the stereo down a little bit.

No beer, thanks. I joke about booze and drugs but I’m really all show and no go where intoxicants are concerned. I’ve abstained completely from alcohol and drugs since 1985. Haven’t had a cigarette since 1986. Moistened a cigar in the early ’90s and just about passed out where I sat. The cigar was Cuban, a baby celebration freebie, and I didn’t want to turn it down. I still drink caffeinated beverages and use refined sugar, that most deadly of white powdery substances. So pass me a Co’cola if you’ve got one and let’s get started.

First, some basics: Where do you live? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have and what are their ages? And what are they up to?

My wife and I are in our fifties. We have a little farm surrounded by Nature Conservancy (Waubesa Wetlands) just outside Madison, Wisconsin. This morning we woke up to see a flock of three hen turkeys and more than a dozen youngsters in the back yard! It’s a twenty-minute drive to the Capitol, a twenty minute drive to the University, hell… no place in the Madison area is much more than twenty minutes from anyplace else. I have two grown boys from a prior marriage. Matt has graduated from UCLA with honors. He had a double major in Spanish and Economics. Matt’s in Mexico right now… says he plans to spend the next year or so in Spanish speaking countries. Ben, Matt’s twin brother, has a semester left before he graduates with a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. He’s working as a white water raft guide in the Sierras right now and returns to school in late August. Earlier this summer he had an internship at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC. Matt’s a personal fitness nut, into free weights and running. He played for the UCLA Rugby Club and was on a championship volleyball team in high school. Ben is a surfer, and a mountain biker, and a climber. He racked himself up in a fall his Senior year in high school… spent a lot of time in a wheelchair. Then when he was healed up, he went out there and got right back into his thing. My lesson from this? Detachment, big-time detachment.

Let’s start with the first question people usually ask upon meeting: So what do you do?

I’m a project manager and an IT consultant. I compete with Cap Gemini and the-Company-Formerly-Known-as-Andersen-but-now-with-a-name-like-a-japanese-import-automobile. I compete with EDS for contracts. And I compete with other Ronin like myself. I have a long and deep networking background. I have an MBA. I managed a project to implement Portal Software as a billing system for one of the countries largest ISPs four years ago. I specialize in strategic technology planning services for mid-size financial institutions. Part of my challenge in that kind of work is fighting off the jackals from the telcos, all of whom have vested interests and a story to tell. As this market shakes out, that job will be easier because I’ll be able to point to specific well known cases of foxes given free range in the chicken coops of American business.

In 1997 I started Sandhill Technologies, LLC because my sense of the market was this: if you worked in a salaried position as I did (I was IT Director for a large Credit Union) you were generally undervaluing yourself, because people were buying the same services from outsource providers at much higher prices than it cost them to keep you on staff. But if you look at the contractors, the outsource staff people were hiring, they weren’t making any more than the in-house people. The difference [the money] was going to the body-shop. So my business plan was pretty simple. I would make myself available through my own company at market rates. My overhead would be lower than the body-shop’s so I could pocket the difference and make more money, cultivate the illusion of independence, and gain greater control of my time. This was working very well until March this year. When my most recent long term contract lapsed, I discovered that finding the next one in this market was a little harder than it had been for the last four or five years. I made a decision to stick with my plan and not to take the salaried position they offered me as they cut down on their contracted services budget. For the last six months I’ve been puttering around providing short term support services — installing wireless LANS, doing clean up on a klez virus problem, that kind of thing.

Meanwhile, I’m working up a couple of concepts on spec. One is a fusion of knowledge management, professional journalism, and intranet services…hmmm, sounds a lot like k-logging doesn’t it? Also, I have a chance to use this time to do some work in my community. I have two things going on that eat up a lot of time. I belong to an “unprogrammed” Quaker Meeting and they asked me to be the Clerk. I won’t go into the details, but there is a lot of work involved.

Since I’m out about my Quakerism, it won’t surprise you to hear that I also work actively with peace groups in Madison. Today I received the following much circulated e-mail that reflects pretty much where I stand:

“Beam me up, Scotty. This is so surreal, I feel that I have become delusional. A right-wing oil gang, having stolen the election, is now being exposed as corrupt and is faced by a serious stock-market decline and a severe recession.

To stay in power, they are preparing to launch a first-strike war, even though the top military is so uncomfortable, it is giving leaks to the press of the impending war plans.

They might drop an atomic bomb on the enemy capital to gain an unconditional surrender, justified to save the lives of thousands of troops before a total invasion and occupation of the country which might last 20 years.

If I have read Gibbons’ Decline of the Roman Empire correctly, I would say I was in the last days of a Republic about to be destroyed by a right-wing coup that is willing to destroy democracy to launch a new global empire.

Beam me up, Scotty. Nobody believes me down here anyway.”

So you came of age sometime either right before, during, or right after the whole countercultural movement. How did that affect you (then and now)? What were you like during those heady times?

So there we were, the baby-boomers. There were more of us than there were of them, and we were all wired into the same pop cultural currents: Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, the Dead, acid and pot and bad shit that will kill you. But THEY were in power, and THEY were hanging onto their racial segregation and oppression of women and sexual minorities. They were killing KennedyÂ’s and Black Panthers and Dr. King and promoting their shitty colonial war in South East Asia, and THEY were scumbags and liars and thieves on a par with the most recent hatch that’s crawled out of the political slime and now infests the White House and the House of Representatives and has laced the Senate with anthrax and laid its eggs beneath the Jefferson Memorial and on a dark night you can hear the vermin in there skittering and chittering and chewing at the foundations of our once-proud democracy and nobody is even beginning to wake up to it except for the stalwarts at the Village Voice, some dreamers at Common Dreams, and of course the open throttle freedom loving lunatics of Indymedia

But where was I when the madness went down in the sixties and seventies? Right there, fucked up and alienated and marching in the streets and I learned a profound respect for the monster that is the mob. When you get 10,000 people mobilized in the street there is no such thing as leadership, regardless of what the paranoid right was thinking about leftist cadres and all. The mob mind is all that exists, and the mob knows where it’s going and it can be dispersed, but it’s like kicking over a nest of fire ants and the glass companies will have a profitable week when the tear gas grenades start flying.

Where was I? Alienated. Profoundly weird as I look back on it. There were more of us, but THEY had the power… and some of us dropped out and detached and lived life off the grid, and some of us copped out and got a haircut and a suit and went to work down on Montgomery Street, and some of us held onto our dreams and provided some continuity for the counter-cultural movement that has never died out and is now re-emerging to address the issues of war and globalization, and the disrespect of the planet that has led to global warming, sheets of plastic in the shrubbery at the high-water line of every river and stream world-wide, accelerated destruction of habitat and mass extinctions, and on the television public polling that allows the question of whether or not we, Americans, should torture our prisoners to gain some information, public policy hearings on whether or not we, Americans, should launch a first strike against a country we suspect has weapons of mass destruction of a type if not in volume to match our own.

I guess I haven’t changed much except I’ve put on weight steadily over the years since I quit smoking cigarettes. Did I mention I also smoked a lot of pot in those days too? I did all those things — dropped out, copped out, hung on and hung in. I got my Honorable Discharge from the US Marine Corps in 1966. My best friend Steve was a Marine radioman who was on tour in Vietnam during that time. He saw it all come together: the Buddhist self immolations, the ARVN incompetence, the US reluctance to support forward
troops fully, the scary nights when monkeys in the jungle would set off one-sided firefights because what did these kids know about who was out there anyway? Steve died of pancreatic cancer a year ago January. I was a government trained killer, but fortunately I never saw any action in uniform. My brother went to Vietnam with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. He came back mostly unhurt physically, but he was just a wee bit grim for many years.

It’s great to talk to someone who was THERE in the 60s. I mean, it’s slipping further and further into history. We, or at least I, need to hear this firsthand, not watered down and sold back to us by madison avenue.

“laid its eggs beneath the Jefferson Memorial” — the PODS! so you too realize that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was actually a documentary.

I gotta ask, were you at Woodstock?

Nope. Missed it. I had a media view of many of the defining events of my generation. The next summer, after Woodstock, the Dead did an open air show on a farm in Wisconsin… I have no remembrance of who the other acts were, only that the concert was a GENUINE Grateful Dead concert… it went on for hours and we were all right there with them. I get a kick out of my fellow deadheads who can tell you “We’ve attended 39 Grateful Dead concerts.” As Paul Krassner said about the 60s… “If you can remember, you weren’t there.” Here’s some jokes on usÂ…

There’s a media riff welling up here. “The Other Ones” appeared in their current incarnation at the Alpine Valley venue. I’m not gonna get into how local promoters were ripped off by the Clear Channel marketing model, but there’s a story there too. Rather, I’d like to observe something about the publicity for this show. Since Jerry Garcia died in 95 (I think), the Other Ones have appeared in several incarnations. They had a tough time finding a sense of themselves with the lead guitar wizardry of Garcia missing.

They tried a couple of different things, and a couple of different styles. Bobby (“Ace”) Weir (rhythm guitar), Phil Lesh (bass), and Mickey Hart (percussion), formed the core of the other ones. The keyboards have been a problem since Ron (Pigpen) McKernan died and getting both drummers, Mickey Hart AND Bill Kreutzman, together has sometimes been an issue. They were together for the tour in 2024, but Phil Lesh stayed behind. Alphonso Johnson played bass that summer. Here’s more about Alphonso Johnson

So now comes the summer of 2024 and finally all four survivors of the six who started this whole thing as the Warlocks in San Francisco in like 1964 decide that they can take the show on the road again. Mark Karan and Steve Kimock had been doing good lead guitar work, sacrificing none of their personal style to the “tradition” of the Greatful Dead reprtoire that the Other Ones settled into. This year at what was publicized as “The Grateful Dead” family reunion, Rob Barocco was on keyboards and Jimmy Herring was onlead guitar. They got good reviews.

But this takes me back to where this whole rap started… “The Grateful Dead Family Reunion.” The publicity on this event led the general public to believe that this was the first time that the band had been back on the road for six years, and of course they’ve never stopped performing. This was definitely the first time that Hart, Kreutzman, Lesh, and Weir had all been able to be on stage together, but the Other Ones have been performing in various combinations since they lost their lead guitar and laid down the Grateful Dead.

Ray was telling me about your comment that you would never see Dylan at Newport….how come?

Logistics. I admire Sheila Lennon for blowing out of there if she didn’t enjoy it. I probably would stick it out like some slavish fan or something. But I’ll never see Dylan at Newport because he’s done it twice in 35 years and he might be able to afford the growth hormone and stem cell therapy that will have him doing it again in 2024, but I’m thinking unless it’s a cool day and I have wheels on my walker, I won’t be there. Just had a flash…you know those handle bar streamers that kids have on their bikes? That will look great on my walker! Jazz it up. Go fine with my Linux Penguin bumper sticker. Nobody will remember the latter but everybody will enjoy the streamers. I’ll be styling. Do they still say that?

Okay, let’s turn to Da Boy, who was THERE as well. Here you guys are now, on the Net, stirring things up, giving us some alternative ideas…how would you characterize what Chris Locke has meant to what I think is still-nascent Internet culture? And what does his work mean to you personally?

I can’t say enough about Chris Locke. He is an authentic voice in the business world, where there are far too few of those. He is a visionary and a bellwether regarding Internet potentials and realizing them. He is always out there ahead of the pack, leading us to make the next right moves. He knows how to recreate himself and keep himself alive. And on top of that, I consider Chris to be one of the emerging important voices in post-modern American literature.

Go to Chris’ website and scroll down past all the EGR hype and Callahan Dog Piss advertisement, past the Operating System Manuals (three different dictionaries), to the acknowledgements. It’s in these acknowledgements that we find our true commonality of experience with Chris Locke, the author. There are some names that you might not recognize. How many people besides feminist scholars know the work of Julia Kristeva? And Walt Kelly has been dead for a while and Pogo pretty much died with him. But the point of this list for me is the cultural baseline it sets. What it says to me about Chris Locke is that his promethean creativity rises out of an immersion in popular culture, classical culture, literature and philosophy. I value that.

This latest edition of Entropy Gradient Reversals, Locke’s ‘zine, will also give you a hint about a common bond I feel with him: Locke’s ‘zine is important and we, his loyal readers are waiting for the next issue. If you don’t subscribe yet, you can subscribe from his website and you can find back issues at yahoo lists:

In the short time that I’ve gotten to know you through your blog writing — on both yours and others — I sense that you have an avid cultural curiousity. True? Or would you characterize “it” differently?

Like a salmon I am driven by urges I do not need to understand. One of these is probably an urge to hep myself — is an apostrophe missing there?…a dropped “el” or is it a vowel transformation… when did hep get hip and has it slipped back again and why? Quick! call an etymologist, or an entomologist if this answer bugs you.

“Avid cultural curiosity…”. “Pop cultural” I think. I’m pleased to be aware of classical roots in the cultural artifacts that surround us, but pop culture is my focus. And I’m not sure that “curiosity” is the motivation. I have always been a pleasure seeker, if somewhat conflicted about it; and the artifacts of popular culture give me great pleasure. Understanding the context and effect of work I find pleasing is another layer of enjoyment or, sometimes, frustration. Sharing this understanding with others is similarly enjoyable (or frustrating).

Pop culture is everything. It’s the media reports of the eruption of Mount Pinetubo, it’s the Boss in concert with the E Street Band on the tide flats of New Jersey, it’s frozen one-person Michelina’s pasta meals, and it’s burning the cardboard with your oven ready pizza. It’s the burning oilfields of Kuwait and it’s the earnest discussions of that batty old Thatcher woman with the Alzheimer’s patient presidente about whether or not we should have a policy of acknowledging global warming.

When I “get it,” I find that I need to share my understanding. (Like, did the US drop a huge explosive in the pipe at Mt. Pinetubo just as the Clark Air Base lease expired? Wow! What a concept… if we can’t have it nobody can.) Most people don’t have the surreal/absurdist slant I do, so they don’t necessarily know how to digest what I’m sharing with them.

If you could recommend one work of fiction and one work of nonfiction right now, what would they be? Why?

The Internet. That’s the short answer. Why? Because everything is there, or pointed to from there, or if it’s missing there, then the gap is obvious and someone will soon research and fill it in. Seriously, I had a college job in a huge library and was awed by the mathematical impossibility of ever absorbing its contents. The net is so much bigger, but linking gives us a way to fly through the information in a way that makes it all accessible. The daunting mathematics of a number of volumes with sequential pagination arranged in rows of shelving across multiple floors of the stacks has given way to an intellectual anti-gravity that makes me welcome the volume and complexity of published content. Keeping track of what is fact and what is fiction is always a careful reader’s job, and the Web blends fact and fiction so cunningly that it isn’t always easy.

But you would probably like a straight answer. “Russian Spring” by Norman Spinrad tells an interesting story about an isolationist paranoid United States in an ever more Euro-centric world culture. So I’d recommend that book here at 19:20 CST on the ninth day of the eighth month of 2024. Oops, time’s up. New recommendation: “Cryptonomicon,” by Neal Stephenson. Oops… I mean “Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon. Oops, I mean “The Compleat Works of Wm. Shakespeare.” See why it’s hard to answer the fiction question? It’s all good.

As far as non-fiction is concerned, well… one should follow one’s own interests. There’s an interesting book called “The Redneck Manifesto” by Jim Goad, not for the faint of heart, nor for children of privilege really. The London Yearly Meeting’s “Quaker Faith and Practice,” (1994). The dictionary, you should always have at least two to refer to. Sorry I can’t pick just one nonfiction book to recommend. Web site designers might prefer the “XSLT Programmer’s Reference” to the “Quaker Faith and Practice.” Or to
“The Redneck Manifesto.” You might want to read Bates’ “Optical Switching and Networking,” but I doubt it. Probably one of the most important non-fiction books I’ve read in the last few years is A.B. Cambel’s (that C has a cedille) 1993 work, “Applied Chaos Theory – A Paradigm for Complexity,” Academic Press, Harcourt Brace. See, the thing is, I could tell you how much I enjoyed the biography of [Richard] Feynman that I read, but there is another book right around the corner that is sure to knock my socks off,
and I don’t even know what it is yet! It’s all good.

And what are some of your cultural touchstones? What movies, music, visual arts have spoken directly to Frank Paynter? How so?

I finally saw “A Beautiful Mind” last night with Beth. Great movie, even if the Nash equilibrium has been over-valued as an economic construct… (see, in the Prisoner’s dilemma, Bonnie would never rat out Clyde, nor vice versa, so the whole thing goes down the shitter in the face of human behavior based on emotion (love) instead of rational economic behavior… but it makes for some interesting algebraic matrices and Russell Crowe did a great job, and we cried).

I’m reacquainting myself with Walt Whitman, and necessarily then those other New Jersey poets, William Carlos Williams and Whitman’s true successor, Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg has always been terribly important to me. My boy Ben is more of a Kerouac aficionado. When I worked for Wang Laboratories I took a cool picture of Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts… people still leave roaches and empties and butts there, burnt incense and candle wax and Stella’s epitaph to Ti jean: “He honored life.”

I have long loved the French Impressionists and our own Abstract Expressionists for different reasons. I also like beautiful nudes of realistic and masterful painters from Renaissance until today. I appreciate the work of installation and/or performance artists like Joseph Beuys (hell, here in Wisconsin it’s all sausage and felt), but it doesn’t call to me like a serene and beautiful landscape by Monet. Like Denise Howell, I have come to enjoy California Plein Air paintings, but they’re still in second place behind the French impressionists. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of our favorite destinations, and no matter what else is being shown, we will wander through their excellent impressionist collection.

My affinity for the earlier and middle work of the Grateful Dead is well known. I used to enjoy hanging in bars like the Matrix or venues like the Family Dog listening to the Dead, and later in bars all over the Bay Area listening to some incarnation of the Jerry Garcia band… Merle Saunders, John Kahn, Bill Vitt, and others played with Garcia and you knew that they loved being there and making the music and it wasn’t some strange attenuated stardom trip like the stadium concert scene. I think it may be time for me
to re-visit that club scene. We have some good musicians here in Madison, and I haven’t paid enough attention since I eliminated intoxicants from my diet. The complete oeuvre of Zimmerman is very important to me of course. And the Byrds. John Lennon will always have been my favorite Beatle (with appropriate bows to George Harrison, Ringo, and Paul, in that order.)

My simple appreciation of sculpture includes all those beautiful Hellenistic nudes, the recapitulation of same in Rome, the Renaissance, and again in the romantic period. Henry Moore always appealed to me, but Beniamino Bufano speaks more directly to my simple mind. The Bingham Gallery website says this about Bufano: “Henry Miller wrote of Bufano, ‘He will outlive our civilization and probably be better known, better understood, both as a man and artist, five thousand years hence.Â’ His work, simple in style and monumental in scale, includes smoothly rounded animals in granite and icons sheathed in stainless steel.”

There was a Bufano bear on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Ross, California, that I always thought of as my own when I lived near it. That bear was an exceptional piece of public art. There was a long running of Bufano’s work at the Alcoa Building in San Francisco that I visited whenever I had time for a relaxing walk among the bears and the seals. My boy Matt turned me on to the sculpture garden at UCLA. They have fantastic variety including some real masterpieces. Usually for public art these days, we’re gifted with
cor-ten steel monstrosities that speak to the artist’s desire to control large masses and impact large spaces, but in the final analysis they’re no more interesting than the cor-ten retaining walls that gracefully edge the hilly paths outside the Getty in Malibu. (And no, I have nothing against Calder, but many of his contemporaries sucked big dollars out of the public trough and didn’t give us a fair return). The Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis has several of these pieces I’m bitching about, but the variety of work and the sheer imagination that some of it displays makes it worth the trip.

It’s all good.

When did you start blogging and why?

Spring, 2024 or summer sometime. But I didn’t surface with it. I was isolated, and if you ran across me it was a random event. Rebecca Blood had inspired me quite a while ago, and I was stumbling around with it, then in November Rageboy made me do it, I got on blogger with a “gang blog, then in January moved it to my own domain and left blogger pro for Radio Userland. “Blogging, the new journalism… accretions of bloggers forming micro-markets… brash voices of old innovators in this newest online community.”

What do you think of it (both as an activity and as a cultural phenomenon), and has that changed since you started?

First let me say that I started thinking that blogging was new and different and I’ve come to believe that there’s no such thing as blogging. I think there’s personal publishing, journaling, content management and like that, but blogging is something we made up so we could traffic in U Blog merchandise over at Cafe Express. In the fourth grade I had this cool little rotary press, with rubber type that you set a line at a time in a metal tray. Transcribing my stories to that press was a son-of-a-bitch and it came to me quickly that it would never make me rich. It’s much easier to use my Radio Userland software to create a post and upload it to my domain server and get a worldwide distribution but it will still never make me rich. (Stop the presses! Meg Hourihan is proposing PAID blogging positions!)

What’s cool about blogging is that I’m not limited in distribution like I was on the old rotary press. Carl and Bruce and Jeff used to get a kick out of my short-short-short stories. They lived nearby and those three copies plus one for me and a few extras pretty much defined the market for my writing.

When I first started blogging, I was feeling my way, getting to know what the technology would do. I’ve been a member of OASIS for a while, and have been a minor XML geek since early 2024. But I’d much rather write words than write code, and it takes a lot of effort on either side of the fence. People who do good work on both sides, good writers and famous code choppers, like Shelley Powers, really have all my respect.

How does it intersect with your professional life?

Good question. I have come to recognize when something is an energy sink, a time drain, an obsession… and of course blogging for me can be all three. But I try to maintain my balance. Beth was gone for two weeks recently and I wrote a lot while she was gone. Much of what I wrote ended up in posts and comments all across Blogistan. If I lived alone, I’m sure I would just let go and let blog.

We live in a postmodern world, yet no one can agree on what that means…what does it mean to you?

Straight answer? Postmodernism for me is just an attempt to set some temporal discontinuity in what is otherwise a clear and understandable record of cultural progress from the early 19th century romantics, through the “moderns” of the first third of the 20th century to the pop-cultural iconography of the period following “high modern” when no academic worth his salt would dare study anything because it hadn’t been tested yet by time. The labels emerged in the late sixties and were pretty much in place in
academia by the 80s. I remember a NYT Magazine article on deconstructionism at Yale that was so difficult for me to understand that I figured there must be some smoke and mirrors there.

If “modernism was shading out by the seventies and postmodernism was firmly entrenched by the mid-eighties, I have to submit that the differences are one of date rather than substance. The progress in science and technology has permitted instrumentation and gadgetry that wasn’t available in World War II, but had begun to be imagined in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm. Postmodernism… right now we can genetically engineer a herd of cows to yield specific medically useful protiens in their milk, but the methods of protein isolation that will permit mass production have yet to be developed. We’re still using pipettes and small centrifuges like we did in the seventies, only the DNA we’re isolating today has exciting intentionally recombinant attributes that were only imagined in the seventies.

So we’ve made progress, and people need to label eras so they can pinpoint achievements and philosophical attributes of a given era, and it wouldn’t be smart to call this period from 1970ish to 1997 premodern since it follows rather than precedes what we all agree was the modern period (contrary to postmodern thought which might cavil at the concept that we all can agree on
anything.) It has yet to be discerned by our heavy thinkers what this period that we live in today that follows the postmodern period should be called, but I’m sure if we give academia about twenty years they’ll label it for us.

Here’s a good link to an accessible discussion of postmodernism.

And the following definition (from Glossary Definition: Deconstructionism) also flesh out a common understanding of what postmodernism might be if we were all to agree that in English at least (unlike French) shared vision and values can be achieved through a common understanding expressed in our language.

“A term tied very closely to postmodernism, deconstructionism is a challenge to the attempt to establish any ultimate or secure meaning in a text. Basing itself in language analysis, it seeks to “deconstruct” the ideological biases (gender, racial, economic, political, cultural) and traditional assumptions that infect all histories, as well as philosophical and religious “truths.” Deconstructionism is based on the premise that much of human history, in trying to understand, and then define, reality has led to various forms of domination – of nature, of people of color, of the poor, of homosexuals, etc. Like postmodernism,
deconstructionism finds concrete experience more valid than abstract ideas and, therefore, refutes any attempts to produce a history, or a truth. In other words, the multiplicities and contingencies of human experience necessarily bring knowledge down to the local and specific level, and challenge the tendency to centralize power through the claims of an ultimate truth which must be accepted or obeyed by all.”

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries
to understand its own particular and personal reality.

“The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning.”

(editorÂ’s note: during this interview, I posted some text from a book I was reading, Think on These Things by Krishnamurti, including the following

“We must create immediately an atmosphere of freedom so that you can live and find out for yourselves what is true, so that you become intelligent, so that you are able to face the world and understand it, not just conform to it, so that inwardly, deeply, psychologically you are in constant revolt; because it is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition. It is only when you are constantly inquiring, constantly observing, constantly learning, that you find truth.”

Frank saw this as dovetailing nicely with our discussion of postmodernism, and said so in the comment box for that post. He said, in part, “The part about seeking and creating each our own truth seems to me to be really central to that [our] discussion. This may be the first time in human high cultural history (since we renounced hunting and gathering and settled in cities) when significant numbers of us who are not children of privilege have the opportunity (without mortal risk) to go for it — to seek what we love and find it — to renounce the job/survival, (serf/master) pattern and seek fulfilling work instead. This indeed is a positive aspect of post-modernism.”)

Now back to the interview in progressÂ…

What’s been the most satisfying thing you have accomplished in the last six months?

My work is more process oriented than spiked with achievements. At the beginning of this “last six months” I presented a collaborative workgroup demonstration to a public agency that consists of a central authority, regional administrations, and local departments… about 100 players in all. I showed them how they could use an existing database system, weblogging tools (“gang blogs” with commenting subsystems), and instant messaging to negotiate contracts among themselves in a win-win context. That demonstration was very satisfying, but nothing has emerged from it so far. Meanwhile, I’ve developed a course that integrates some principles of personal publishing with legal constraints to same, and I’m flogging it about at the University Extension and whatnot. One of the whatnot’s was a local distributor of famous products… our end of the Wintel “supply chain.” They have some nice well-equipped classrooms, but I hesitate to partner with them because this is a platform independent set of tools we’re using. Oh, I also got the weeds in the north pasture cut before the town sent me a noxious weed notice. I’m not usually that proactive.

Who does most of the cooking around your house (I’m guessing you’re a grillmaster)? Or do you guys eat out a lot? What are your favorite things to cook/eat?

My spouse is an original second wave feminist. She led a group in San Francisco called Women Organized for Employment. She taught me the punch line to the joke:

“How many feminists does it take to replace a light bulb?”
Answer: “That’s not funny.”

Imagine my embarrassment then that she is also a gourmet cook. We do best when we put meals together together. I do do the grilling from time to time, either on the gas grill out back or on the Farberware electric in the kitchen. What we both prefer to make for dinner is reservations. Madison has more and more good eating spots, so we have a lot of choices, but besides some fine dining spots we enjoy from time to time, there’s a ribs place that we like a lot, a Japanese place where I order sushi and Beth gets tempura or something, a Mexican Restaurant, and one special place we enjoy Sunday brunch. Net/net we do eat out quite a bit. We do things as a pair much more often than in large groups.

What’s your idea of a fine evening?

A very fine evening starts at dinner, continues through a show, maybe a dance performance — Madison has serial culture — there’s quite a bit to do, a lot to see, but you have to take it as it comes. Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, and the Twyla Tharp Companies will definitely never be in town at the same time, but over a year you’ll have a chance to see two out of three and several more besides.

After the show, on to dessert, then home to let the dog out and snuggle down under covers with my sweetie and whatever trash novels we’re each reading.

What attracted you to Quakerism?

Wisconsin counties are laid out in townships like New England. We live in a rural township, the Town of Dunn. In 1991, at the Town of Dunn Arbor Day potluck dinner, an emeritus professor of soil science, Francis Hole, joined us and played his violin and put on a one man puppet show for the children of all ages there assembled.

In those days I had a 14.4 modem on a 80286 chipset, running MS/DOS 5.0 (I think) and Windows 3.1. and I subscribed to the Prodigy online service. Prodigy provided me an email account, some okay reference material (if not Compuserve quality) and some online community hook-ups, including a writers’ BBS. In that group, I met a woman named Susan Shaughnessy who has written a book called “Walking on Alligators.” Everything Susan said was so correct, so right, so true. Turned out she was a Quaker. I thought I could use some of that, and I’d always flirted with meditative discipline but never wanted to wear weird orange robes and shave my head and clink little finger cymbals.

In 1967 I had a professor of Southeast Asian History, Gene Boardman, whose wife Betty went to North Vietnam with a shipload of medical supplies. These people were Quakers and they had left a big impression on me. When war-jerks pissed and moaned about Hanoi Jane Fonda, I could remember that there are plenty of people of conscience who are not in the public eye and whose motives are direct. Nothing against Jane. I always admired and respected her for her principled stands, but as a public person, she was perhaps less than ideal for packaging a message of peace.

So, it’s ‘91-‘92 and I’m corresponding with Susan, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran (Marine officer), and I ask her about Quakerism and she basically says check it out yourself, Frank. There’s not a lot of proselytizing she intends to do. Works for her. If it works for me, fine. So I try to find the Quakers and there is a listing in the phone book for Friends Meeting, and I call and contrary to the joke, the answering machine is NOT all silence, rather it tells me briefly when there are meetings for worship. Well, I think, I’ll check this out on a Wednesday night, and who do I find there but Francis Hole, the soil scientist, fiddler, and puppeteer! The guy has an honesty, and a quiet certainty and a peace about him and I want some of that. So I just kept going and maybe three years later Beth and I inquired about membership and there you have it. I’m now a card carrying Quaker.

What’s a good, succinct statement that sums up your approach to life?

This changes, but right now I’d have to say, “It’s all good.”

I keep the subject

I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings
open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.
–Isaac Newton

Ladies and germs, Ms. Betsy Devine!

It had been a long time since I did a Sandhill Interview. I asked some friends if they could help me get back into it. Elaine “Kalilily” Frankonis introduced me to Betsy Devine and it felt good. Ever an acolyte to the ‘if it feels good do it” school of thought, I eased into an interview with this charming, bright, and witty woman. I sent her a few questions, then waited impatiently for her reply:


Hello, hello?? Are we doing it?

Let me know if we’re doing it or if we’re not doing it. I used to know the difference but I am much older now. Perhaps you’re older now too.


Hi Frank–Yes, sorry, I started a reply and then dropped it into unfinished drafts and ran off elsewhere. Yes she said yes she said yes she said yes she said at least I think it will be fun. I am going to be in Chicago in late May for Alex Golub’s conference, will you be there too? 
– Betsy

Betsy and David Weiberger at DGI lunch

Betsy Devine and David Weinberger at Digital Genres Conference

Frank Paynter:

Yup. I’ll be there. Where are you in New Hampshire? Were you depressed when the Old Man slid off the mountain?

Betsy Devine: I think of myself as “New Hampshire” because I grew up there, in Manchester, now home of the Segway. But I now live in Cambridge, MA, and wake up each morning enchanted with the idea that I live in a really big city with ethnic foods and trolleys and lots of bookstores. (Friends from NYC think this is funny.)

Yes, I was very sad about the Old Man–I sent off my blogpost to the New York Times, hoping to nudge them into saying more about the event. They published my edited post as a letter, even adding nice gfx in their print edition. I’m glad I’ll get to meet you in Chicago; I like meeting bloggers! Betsy

Old Man of the Mountain: The Spirit Lives

May 7, 2024

To the Editor:

Re “Iconic Rock Face Succumbs to Age and Gravity” (news article, May 4):

Last week, a few tons of granite fell down a New Hampshire mountainside, injuring nobody. This heap of granite used to be special. It was New Hampshire’s landmark stone profile, our Old Man of the Mountain.

Daniel Webster wrote a poem about it. It was the subject of amateur sketches and watercolors before anybody invented the camera. Every New Hampshire kid was dutifully taken to admire the craggy stone face.  After you looked at it for a while, you looked at the upside-down version reflected in Profile Lake. Then you and your folks could all go to drink local birch beer and hike in the Flume.

I grew up in New Hampshire, and though I don’t live there now, I took my two daughters to see the Old Man.  Now I’m having a lonely feeling, thinking of generations stretching ahead who won’t see what I saw, what Daniel Webster saw.

I also grew up enjoying clean air and clean water, a strong Bill of Rights and a sense of being part of one human family.  There wasn’t a thing I could have done to save the Old Man, but I’m going to keep working to pass that other stuff along.

BETSY DEVINE Cambridge, Mass., May 5, 2024

FP: What do you do in Cambridge Betsy? Are you a full time professional writer, or what? How long have you been writing professionally?


Well, here’s a little blurb I wrote for my book proposal that does and doesn’t answer some of your questions:

“Betsy Devine has parlayed a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton into a high-powered 30-year sabbatical. She is the C++ programming genius behind “Funny Bits From Your Talking Chips,” whose free shareware version delighted Mac users worldwide and whose $25 version has sold exactly one copy. Her enormous collection of jokes, barely tapped by this book, is founded on years of nerd symbiosis in Princeton, Cambridge, and on the World Wide Web. Other distinctions include making microwave popcorn in Einstein’s kitchen and two years as captain of the Princeton Eulers–the world’s most mathematical softball team, and probably one of the few teams in history to have a Fields Medalist playing second base and a MacArthur Prize winner at shortstop (Betsy was worse than either.) Her weblog “Funny Ha-Ha Or Funny Peculiar?” is universally granted to be both.”

FP: Was that you on Niek Hockx blog? You maybe make a little money modeling?

BD: I was as surprised as anybody to learn I’d been having alien sex on Niek’s blog. Still, I can’t help feeling honored by such attention from an International Babe Magnet like Niek.

FP: I googled you a little and discovered that besides the humor, there’s a serious side of Betsy… “Longing for the Harmonies“… How long have you been writing professionally? Can you give me a bibliography?

BD: I’ve published two books, and I’m at work on a third, which will be even better!

* Absolute Zero Gravity: Science Jokes, Quotes, and Anecdotes (Betsy Devine and Joel E. Cohen, Fireside/ Simon and Schuster, 1992) was published at $8. It is now out of print–used paperbacks (when available) sell for about $25. Three reader reviews at Amazon.com describe it as “addictive,” side-splitting,” and “hilarious.”

* Longing for the Harmonies (Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine, WW Norton, 1987) was a NY Times Notable Book of the Year

FP: I our daughter Amity just started her own blog,

thanks to Dave Winer’s project over at Harvard.

I love Gary Larson and chocolate ice cream, not necessarily in that order. I look forward to reading more Mark Morford someday when I have more time to read more things I’m thinking about reading someday!

FP: It’s almost dinner time here… as I think about dinner (pot roast with cucumber/tomato salad) I’m led to wonder how you might deconstruct the humor in Chris Locke’s recipe posted today… funny ha-ha or funny twisted?

BD: I adore pot roast with any kind of salad. Some of the folks I admire (e.g. Jeneane Sessum) admire Chris Locke. But what would be the point of all his rage if he didn’t offend anyone? Wouldn’t he be disappointed if we all just chucked him under the chin and said “Aw, you’re so transgressive?” So I am fulfilling a useful cultural role when I admit I’m offended by a joke whose punchline is basically “battered women.”

FP: When you were in New Jersey did you ever run into any of the multi-talented Dysons, Esther or her dad or her brothers? Freeman Dyson and Gerard O’Neill informed my tech-imagination as a youngster through the science fiction writers that cribbed their ideas… colonies at Lagrange points, extraterrestrial civilizations with planetary spheres built around entire stars, atomic propelled space craft…

That Princeton scene is rich in food for thought. Lucky you to have spent so much time there!

I’m pretty curious about who you played softball with. Princeton Eulers is a delicious name for a sports team. I suppose you all went down to Bernoulli’s pizza for refreshment after the games. Care to name drop a little about some of the people you met on the softball diamond at Princeton?

BD: I *love* Esther‘s dad Freeman Dyson. I did get to know him at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), though he was not on my softball team. My Fields Medalist was Enrico Bombieri, who also designed a great team T-shirt. Our MacArthur Prize winner was my own husband Frank Wilczek–who despite his honors was a pretty darn good player. Frank’s T-shirt had number 88, the number of keys on a piano.

Okay, let me tell you two reasons that I love Freeman Dyson:

1) He and his wife Imme loved little children. They went out of their way to make friends with everyone’s kids in the most intelligent and sympathetic way.

2) When I started producing a (volunteer) newsletter for the IAS, he volunteered to write a monthly astronomy column. And then he wrote it, monthly, carefully, wittily, fascinatingly, always on time–and for zero dollars per article. Bear in mind, at this time Freeman could easily command huge lecture fees, huge book advances, and was regularly winning $100,000 prizes.

I never met Esther or George Dyson, but I often heard about how they were doing from Freeman.

FP: Can I ask just one question about living with Frank Wilczek?… is the Lorentz medal solid gold?

I’m thinking about humor and Locke’s offensive, tasteless joke. I had thought to link it in the “cat pictures and recipes” section of my blog, but I’m not sure I want the odor leaking over into my own often tasteless blogspace. Early in my relationship with Beth, my wife, I ran across a feminist joke: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny!” I asked Beth the question and she didn’t miss a beat with the right answer. We were soon laughing together about it…. I’m sure there’s a point here. I guess one point would be the difference between awareness of what’s offensive and taking offense.

BD: Frank Wilczek is a lot of fun to live with, and I try very hard not to blog about him.

I love lots of jokes whose punchline is basically “women!” (or basically “men!”), including the feminist light bulb joke. It was the “battered” part I didn’t like, though I forget now what grumpy thing I said, and I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings. We women are joke-wise much better off than lawyers–those guys are the subject of some really dark punch lines.

A lot of what humor does is create shared spaces. It invites you into a warm and primitive circle of people laughing together.

Some people use jokes as a weapon, to create a small circle all laughing at someone who just got pushed out of the group. That’s what I think of as offensive humor–humor that’s meant to hurt someone while others laugh. You’re right that it’s better to be aware of offense, not consumed by it.

FP: How harmful do you think offensive material is to us as individuals and as a culture?

BD: Divisive humor (think of Rush Limbaugh) can be an ugly thing. Banning rude humor would do much more harm. Besides, can you think of a joke that would never offend anybody in any way?

I had fun writing about offensive and meta-offensive jokes in the “Learn To Write Funny” department

and there are a lot of good jokes in there too!

FP: Here’s a joke I’ve always wondered about:  Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Why the long face?”

What’s so funny about that? It cracks me up every time.

BD: Joke theorist walks into a bar, says “I have a theory about why we laugh at the horse joke.” Bartender says, “That’s not funny!”  Admitting the bartender probably has it right, here are some thoughts:

  • When we hear “walks into a bar”, we know it’s a joke, and the mental image of a horse (or a sandwich, or a neutrino) walking into a bar already makes us smile.
  • If punch lines work by “congruity plus surprise”, this joke has both.
  • Congruity–The punch line is something you’d expect a bartender to ask a normal customer.
  • Surprise–The punch line is a pun–and when you finish doing the work of figuring out which meaning of “long face” applies to a horse, you feel kind of pleased with yourself.
  • Surprise–The joke is so short–part of your surprise is that it’s over so fast.

Halley has a fun page of Internet jokes.

FP: You’re quite supportive of Dr. Howard Dean’s candidacy. Many of us on the left have walked away from the Democrats, looking for more progressive alternatives. How do you feel about the prospects for re-awakening the Democratic Party and pulling it back away from the center into more of a choice for the American voter?

BD: The 2024 elections made it clear Democrats don’t win as a party of “me too!” We need our own distinct people-friendly vision, and a candidate of stature to represent them. I guess you can tell by looking at my blog, I think Dean’s the one!

FP: Do you blame Ralph Nader for the debacle of 2024?

BD: No….. the last place I want to pin blame is on a bunch of idealists who hoped to make things better.

FP: How do you feel about Dennis Kucinich then? Is his outspoken peace advocacy an asset or a liability in the current climate?

BD: I admire Kucinich’s ideas and his courage–but he needs to work on some presentation skills until he sounds confident and competent. I like Dean not just for his ideas, but because I think he can go out and win the election. Remember, I’m a practical, engineer type!

FP: What do you think of John Kerry? Is he too close to the center to benefit the party? Will the Kerry and Lieberman forces hold the power and assure Democrats another loss in 2024? How can that be prevented?

BD: Mmmm, (gazing into my crystal ball)–I predict–that sensible readers would skip right over my inexpert responses, even though it would take me an hour to write them. I am glad Howard Dean has a lot of smart people who know a lot more than I do advising him on issues like those you raise!

FP: Over the years have you always found a political candidate who made sense, or is Dean exceptional in your opinion? Perhaps those aren’t mutually exclusive.

BD: Have I always found a candidate who made sense? I wish! Dean is exceptional in lots of ways, e.g.: 

  1. Dean tries to make his ideas very clear–even though most politicians try to make their ideas very vague.
  2. Dean fights for what he believes–he doesn’t apologize for it. 
  3. I think Dean is the Democrat most likely to beat Bush.

FP: In Israel and Palestine there is a terrible conflict. A nation with security policies informed by the horror of World War II, and a post-war “survival of the fittest” UN policy faces a displaced people who have come to believe that the only clean acts in the face of their own oppression are nihilistic. The Bush administration backs the Israelis. My own consciousness was shaped in that World War II context and I still think of Israel as an underdog surrounded by countries that would wipe it out. Yet there are Palestinian humanitarian issues that are ever more compelling. Is there a “right path” for the Democrats to follow that is different from the Bush approach to middle eastern foreign policy?

BD: My history of attitudes looks like yours. I wish I knew what a good solution was–even a not-so-good-but-better-than-now solution. Professor Issawi of Princeton had this to say of the Middle East. “God sent Moses, and Moses couldn’t fix it. He sent Jesus, and Jesus couldn’t fix it. He sent Mohammed and Mohammed couldn’t fix it. You think you are going to fix it?”

FP: Do you think Syria will be next on the list of countries we invade over there?

BD: I hope we aren’t going to invade any more countries–I think even Congress now feels Bush has had two bites at that apple.

FP: I feel a certain chill on my rights to free speech even discussing these matters. Do you share that concern?

BD: Not yet, as you can tell by the Bush jokes on my website.

FP: I’ve been a pop-physics fan for years. As an undergraduate I was a beater in the bubble chamber jungles, helping the quark hunters flush their prey. I scanned and edited film from Argonne labs for a few years as a part time job.

BD: What a great job–or more accurately, what an inspiring description of an interesting job. Did you think of it that way then, were you inspired at the time? My undergrad part-time jobs were far less grand–waitress and art-class model. In my mind, I am now reconfiguring that waitress job as “feeding hungry people,” and realizing that if I’d thought of it that way I probably wouldn’t have slopped ice water onto one very annoying customer..

FP: Art class model? So that MAY have been you on Niek’s blog? Around the time your book was published, there was a burst of pop-physics publishing. A couple of books that I read then come to mind. “Dancing Wu Li Masters” and “The Quark and the Jaguar.” Chaos theory, fractals, and non-linear math was big then too in the pop-smart category. We seem to have absorbed that information from a pop cultural perspective and moved on to other themes with which I am less in touch. Anyway, have you read some of these other pop-physics books?

BD: Frank, I regret to say I haven’t read any of the books you mention. I’ve read all the Feynman books though–he was a cool guy!

FP: At Sterling Hall on the UW campus where the High Energy Physics research was done, there was a quantum improvement in restroom graffiti compared with other campus venues. There was, I remember, an ongoing interchange between faux-Abelard and faux-Eloise. But my favorite message from that rest room wall was: “Raisins are physics.”   Do you think feminism and the more egalitarian access to advanced degree programs has improved the quality of graffiti in campus women’s rest rooms?

BD: In early-seventies Princeton, biology department women’s rest room graffiti was written on yellow legal pads, taped to the wall. People would write paragraphs–or more–about what the surprises of being vastly out-numbered by men everywhere you went. (The grad school had just started admitting women, and the undergrads were still exclusively male.) It was funny, not angry stuff. I guess it spoiled me for later rest-room graffiti experiences, though I admit being charmed by NH rest-room graffiti, very heavily into the theme of “Annie loves Bill.”

FP: Tom Veatch says, “Humor is pain that doesn’t hurt.” Do you ever blog in the nude?


Do I blog in the nude? Don’t we all? Sometimes I wear clothes on top of the nudity, of course–New England weather can be unforgiving….


Here’s a link to over 100 clichéd expressions. What would it take to make them funny?

BD: What a fun question! The list of annoying cliched proverbs is fun to read–but not funny.  Part of the problem is that lists aren’t funny. Even jokes are less funny when stuck in a list of jokes. IMO, that’s because real laughter is an involuntary response, a kind of release of tension built up by the joke. Picture the joke itself as–errrr–something like foreplay? So if jokes in a list of jokes get read too fast, and you rush through them double-time, joke after joke after joke–you are shortchanging the anticipation that makes any punch line funny–then you are shortchanging the afterglow of savoring the one you just enjoyed.

Stand-up comedians work hard on their timing. If a comic rushes into a brand-new joke when the audience hasn’t stopped laughing at the first one, Robert Provine claims that such “premature ejokulation” creates disappointing “laftus interruptus.”

As for cliches, there are lots of jokes made from cliches. They take the familiar basis and add a surprise. Lots of pun jokes (mostly groaners) build up to some mangled cliche punch line–”The squaw of the hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the squaws of the other two hides” for example.

Even less PC, but one I like is this use of “horticulture” in a sentence: You can lead a horticulture but you cannot make her think.

FP: What’s your earliest recollection of this abstracted interest in humor?

BD: I was writing poems and songs meant to be funny when I was in second grade. But I didn’t start thinking about how humor “worked” until I found myself under contract to Simon and Schuster to deliver a book of math-and-science jokes. Because my contract required me to deliver a certain number of words by a given date, worrying about how to make those words work better was a distraction from my actual job-at-hand. All my life, I have worked hardest at things I was not required to work at–most especially during those times when I was supposed to be working at something else.

FP: As a younger person, were you one of the ones people looked to “make it funny?”

BD: Yes, I always loved being a funny girl. I re-told or invented jokes, wrote funny lyrics to popular songs, designed funny birthday cards, wrote funny skits that I got all my family to act in–and this is all before I turned 13.

FP: Did you perhaps one day “bust a gut laughing” and decide to be on the look-out for dangerous situations?

BD: I see funny things everywhere in the world around me–just the way someone who loves to draw sees beautiful lines and shapes everywhere in the world. My nerdy interest in humor is thinking of ways to convey the funny thing I saw, in the funniest shape it could have, to somebody else.

FP: Betsy, you’re nerdy. I’m nerdy too. Some would say geek-like. I always thought nerdy girls were hot. Many were also funny.

BD: Thanks–and I always fancied nerdy guys.

FP: So do you think we should just…

BD: Not right now. Halley and I did a chick thing yesterday, going to a matinee of Down With Love. So much fun, and Halley is a wonderful person to sit next to in the darkness…

FP: No doubt!

BD: …laughing in the darkness. I thought nerdy David Hyde Pierce was sooo appealing. Halley writes brilliantly of the joy of Alpha males, and I’ve defined the kind of guys I like as “Alephs.”

FP: “When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.”

In 1962 when Tom Hayden and friends were crafting the Port Huron Statement (excerpted above), I had just finished my Junior year in high school and was looking forward to a summer job here in Madison at the Legislative Reference Bureau library. Nerdy? Some would say that. I think I also pedaled an ice cream bike that summer. By this time my first real girl friend and I were on again/off again. She was dating an Airman 3rd class from the local airbase – a boy not much older than me, but infinitely more worldly and experienced. It would be a long time before I lost my virginity, and at least four years until I smoked any pot.

Where were you in ’62?

BD: Ah, 1962 was the year I got thrown out of my first prep school, the Mary C. Wheeler School of Providence, RI. I have to say the headmaster was sweet about it. This had something to do with a naughty composition I wrote on the topic “The Pause That Refreshes,” about a guy named Joe who liked to enjoy said pause with his wife Meg. My friends were suitably shocked and amused by this piece, and a girl named Posy liked it so much she decided to turn it in as her own work to an English class. Posy showed her originality by changing the names “Joe” and “Meg” to “Rick” and “Barbara”–the names of her twenty-something English teacher and his fiance. Posy was sent home on the next train, and I followed soon after I confesssed. I was not interested in politics when I was 15, but I was interested in kissing, and I spent a lot of time kissing two very nice boys (one in June, one in August), both of them, as I recall, excellent kissers.

FP: Three years later, in April 1965, we put tens of thousands of people on the street in the first anti-Vietnam War march in Washington. Were you out of high school then? Maybe first year of college? How was this social ferment affecting you?

BD: By April 1965, I was a freshman at Bennington, and still more interested in love than politics. Let me apologize for this by explaining that I have a very beautiful younger sister, and I spent my whole skinny childhood being reassured that I must be “the intelligent one.” So when I got to the age and shape and size where boys noticed me and thought I was pretty cute–I was soooooo delighted. In my spare time, I wrote Zen poetry, drank jasmine tea, and learned how to drive.

FP: Later still, from the summer of ’67 through the end of 1969, SDS matured as an organization, tossed the old Progressive Laborites out, allied themselves with the Black Panther Party, and perhaps for the first time since the Whiskey Rebellion armed revolt becomes a possibility in the United States with the formation of Weatherman. Where was Betsy Devine and what was she doing?

BD: In the summer of 1967, I topped my previous records of bad judgment by marrying a cute giant boy of 25 (five years older than I was) who had sexy motorcycle boots and could really play folk guitar. He and I then moved to London, where he studied at the London School of Economics and met Danny the Red, while I worked for minimum wage in a little deli, a job I really enjoyed. After David got a masters in political sociology, we went to Cornell, where all political hell was about to break loose. It was then I got involved in SDS–I had been opposed to the Vietnam war since ‘late ’65 tho without doing much about it. David was preoccupied by his work, I was on fire with a brave new world that my lefty friends and I were about to create. Finally, during one of many fights, I jumped out of the car at a red light and moved into a hippy crash pad with my pals. I have never regretted that, and I bet David doesn’t regret it either. Later in the spring of ’69,

SDS broke up, my buddies went off to the West Coast to be Weathermen, and I decided to go finish college. I was going to be an obstetrician in Alaska, flying in with my seaplane to deliver babies, or maybe a famous inventor–I wasn’t sure which.

FP: That next summer there were strikes and bombings and the tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio. In San Francisco there street riots when Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, the Vietnamese leader visited. Did that overt violence have an effect on your political perspective?

BD: Even the noblest cause will attract some people who want to hurt or kill naysayers. The most violent guy I knew in SDS slept with a loaded shotgun so that if the FBI came to get him he could blow some of them away. He had joined us directly from the American Nazis. Frankly, he was a lot more excited about his guns than about any political idea we held in common. I joined SDS and the IWW (“Wobblies”) because they talked convincingly about making people’s lives better. (I loved the Port Huron statement.) When I went back to college, I continued to write letters and march against the war, but I couldn’t see any clear way to create wider social justice and racial harmony.

FP: It took us another three years to see that war ended and Henry Kissinger actually won a Nobel Peace Prize. Do you think the war protests and the movement were effective in bringing the war to an earlier close, or were we deluded when we thought we could make a difference?

BD: I think our protests made a difference by opening more people’s minds to the strange idea that our government might not be telling us the truth.

FP: The sixties were much like this decade, providing a context of alienating political circumstances and an urgency to change things to save the world. How have your political beliefs changed since then?

BD: I graduated from 8th grade in 1960. My parents were warm, idealistic Democrats–and I believed everything they told me because I knew what they said was what they believed. (Example #1, when I asked about 1950s civil rights marches on TV: “Long ago, there were some people who believed colored people weren’t as good as other people–but of course nobody really thinks that now.” Example #2, just before I was sent away to boarding school, 3 months before my 14th birthday: “You’ll hear other girls talking about sex–if they say stuff that’s scary or awful, just tell them your mother says that that is not true.”)

In “the sixties” I was a typical youthful idealist of my own era, believing that truth and justice would soon prevail, bringing peace, love, and brotherhood all around the world.

Now, in 2024, I still long for peace, love, and brotherhood–but I would gladly settle for more justice, tolerance, and an improved environment.

Can o’ worms… Marek

Can o’ worms…

Marek cleared up my confusion about what is the current “age of arts” (namely, “Unblinking Eyeball’s Lust For Manufactured Concerns”)  with an adroit reference to Jerry Springer.  Amazed at the synchronicity that today’s students would be sunk in the slough of post modernism AND blithely cite Jerry Springer as a cultural referent, I posted a bit on “Cultural Incompetents.”  I really was only toying with the spelling and the sound of the word, “vive la differance” as they say, but Slim Coincidence, aka Krista read my posting and decided the label was directly aimed at her.  As a “student of post modern theory” she disagrees with what I wrote, but as a student of discourse and rhetoric, I would hope she could give it a more careful reading and understand that I wasn’t necessarily criticizing Saint Foucault, indeed any criticism would fall on a cultural context that did not accept and understand the egalitarian distinctions that the post modernists labor so hard to make.  I just think there are better things to do with the too brief time in class than work on things that are so fundamental.  Anyway, poor flatulent Krista said: 

Frank Paynter thinks I’m culturally incompetent. So be it.

He wonders why courses like the current Foucault Reading Seminar and last fall’s Queer Theory course (Language, Culture and the Queer Identity) are allowed to clutter up the academic landscape. I have only a brief response to his post, since I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this matter.

1. Yes, both of these classes are graduate-credit courses at a fully accredited university.

2. You’re right, there shouldn’t be a need for women’s studies, or ethnic studies, or queer studies. But until courses with more general themes stop ignoring the full spectrum of history, and until I can discuss these issues in a non-culturally-centered class as easily and fully as I can in special-topic classes, I’m going to keep on taking topic-related courses.

3. Even if there shouldn’t be a need for these classes, there will always be a place for them. I am a Rhetoric student with an interest in Gender Studies. My taking a class like Queer Theory is no different than a History student taking a course in Colonial Latin America or Early Modern Europe. It’s simply an opportunity to further explore a specific area with students who share an interest. It is not a symptom of any greater ills in the academic system.

4. I suspect that nothing I say here will convince you of the validity of postmodern theory, just as I won’t be convinced to abandon it. You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m entitled to mine.

5. Since I do study postmodern theory, I’m happy to be in the Foucault seminar. And since one of the overriding themes of his work is the way that we categorize people, discourse and knowledge and then interlink those categories, it’s only natural that queer and gender issues enter the discussion.

Thank you and good night.

Mike Golby rode to my rescue in the comments.  His first paragraph echoes my sentiment regarding Krista’s post nicely.  His last paragraph also highlights something that’s nagged at me.  In between he introduced this old lightweight to Jean Baudrillard.  I found Baudrillard to be interesting indeed, and will read more.  Can’t say that for the Sainted Michel F.  Anyway, Mike G said: 

Talk about ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’. Frank’s asking questions on several levels. I don’t think you get it, Krista. Your studying the subject is not at issue. That the subject is on offer, is.

A non-intellectual thug, unlike Marek [the bloody Poles always vault to conclusions], I’m taking my time to think this through. There’s a lot of crap about [Frank's blogroll and millions of others excepted] and it’s finding the good stuff that intrigues me.

“All this cerebral, electronic snobbery is hugely affected – far from being the sign of a superior knowledge of humanity, it is merely the mark of a simplified theory, since the human being is here reduced to the terminal excrescence of his or her spinal chord. … All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us – and this itself is a superstition.”

Yes, Jean Baudrillard. Right now, reading around several of his essays is teaching me a great deal.

Re: Marek. I watched De Niro in ’15 Minutes’ [2002] last night. Panned by the critics, it might not have been rubbished at the time of ‘Natural Born Killers’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’ [early 90s]. Now we have ‘reality’ TV and virtual wars and ’15 Minutes’ bores. Read Baudrillard’s ’92 essay, Rise Of The Void Towards The Periphery, to which Chris pointed two weeks ago. Bada-bing, as my sainted Polish friend would say. Baudrillard offers a hyper-hyperlink to a future we have imagined for ourselves, a catastrophe already about us.

Read what JB says at the foot of this page of extracts. The sense of it forms the basis of my American myth, no matter what anybody [post-modern or otherwise] thinks, does or says. It’s great stuff. To my mind, Baudrillard is ‘On The Road’.

Then again, what would I know? I’m just an unqualified South African thug. To me, ‘teaching’ blogging at Harvard is a sick joke.

Notice above Golby’s use of links and his courteous attempt to draw the reader along and introduce her/him to matters important to the blogger.  Too few of our blogging friends take advantage of the medium this way.  Thanks Mike.

But Mike’s and my effrontery in criticizing any of the pantheon of the rhetoriically promiscuous was not to be so easily dismissed.  Out of left, well RIGHT field, left field being too closely asscoiated with distasteful socialist and cooperative analyses of the common weal… out of right field rides another Quixote, Jeff Ward, lance lowered and eager for a little intellectual jousting.  Well, perhaps not intellectual since that would imply an egalitarian respect for those with whom he would like the conversation to continue, but an urge to debate has overcome our gen-xer, and that’s for sure.  Viz…

The “topic at hand” is a reading seminar in Michel Foucault. The arena is a university, and the topic is a legitimate critic/historian.

The reaction here (no offense) reads like so much wank– a personal agenda impressed (or inserted, if you prefer) into a rather juicy crevice and stroked.

The “topic” of a rhetoric department is discourse. People writing about discourse (including Baudrillard, who is an incredibly shallow thinker compared to Foucault, in my opinion) is a large part of what we study. Not poets. Not politics.

Discourse. Not literature. Not exclusively theory. There are few dominant “canons” to defend or attack. Just ideas about how discourse impacts us. Discourse impacts gender construction, power relations, and criteria for what is judged to be real.

Why [whatever label] studies? Because they produce discourse. Studying discourse (I think, anyway) is important– far more important than studying an ossified canon of dead white guys.

I would simply add that it may be an incomplete study of “discourse” if one ignores the “ossified canon of dead white guys.”

I think it is also a mistake to drive socialist alternatives out of any discussion of repression associated with sexuality, particularly the cultural oppression that gays, bisexuals, lesbians and the transgendered continue to suffer in a market economy that doesn’t put adequate funding into AIDS research and treatment.  I think I may prefer a more organized and unified approach to describing and facing our social and political problems than MF promotes.  I’m curious about what Jeff Ward actually perceives as my personal agenda.  I’m thinking it has something to do with engagement, and I hope I’ve kept my voice and style cordial enough to encourage a continued conversation and that I haven’t said ”bullshit” or ”motherfucker” too much. 


Jeff Ward takes a swing… 

Jeff Ward takes a swing…  and a miss!

There’s a fine aesthetic afoot here in blogaria, and people like Ward and Woods reflect a lot of truth and beauty here.  A few days ago however, Jeff Ward let his critical sense, or perhaps “non-sense,” get in the way of his creativity and presentation. 

One of the topics of discussion in the Foucault Seminar this week was: “What does Foucault mean by sexuality?” I found a fairly concise answer from Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermenutics.

The historical form of discourse and practice which Foucault labels “sexuality” turns on an unmooring of sex from alliance. Sexuality is an individual matter: it concerns hidden private pleasures, dangerous excesses for the body, secret fantasies; it came to be seen as the very essence of the individual human being and the core of personal identity. It was possible to know the secrets of one’s body and mind through the mediation of doctors, psychiatrists, and others to whom one confessed one’s private thoughts and practices. This personalization, medicalization, and signification of sex which occurred at a particular historical time is, in Foucault’s terms, the deployment of sexuality. (171)

Prior to “rationalization,” sex was tied primarily to issues of property rather than identity. Customs regarded as kinship— alliances, inheritance, matters of bride-price, etc.— reflect concern over economic exchange, rather than the constitution of identity. Thinking about this opposition, it occurred to me that there is a quality to “sexuality” which neither of these attitudes deals with— the persistence of the entertainment value of sex.

I think Jeff and Michel (or at least Michel’s acolytes) are a little slipshod here in the service of “rhetorical discourse.”  Besides offering sweeping generalizations that aren’t particularly meaningful or true, they seem to be confusing sex with marriage.  Then Jeff drives on to confuse sex with “entertainment.”  Burp.  Is this a case of a blogger stroking it in the service of post modern conformity?

I recently posted in its entirety Florian Cramer’s interview with Connie Sollfrank.  As an effort to add value, I provided a lot of links that will hopefully add context for the person who hasn’t been following the emergence of cyberfeminism over the past six or eight years.   

A critical reading of Sollfrank shows that she’s comfortable enough around self absorbed and emotionally distanced critics, but that she sees a lot of humor in the attempts to classify her work in such an outmoded context as so-called post modernism.  At every turn, when Cramer tries to impose the tired old aesthetics framed by these latter day sophists, you can see Sollfrank politely dodging his inept and blunt attempts to pull her into the tent.

Jeff is a gen-x student of rhetoric so he is tied to a curriculum that requires a sensititivity to the recently deceased post modern movement.  I hope he moves beyond it in time to advance his understanding.  

I suppose the main way

I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see
the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to
the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an
author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own
offspring, yet monstrous. But the child was bound to be
monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting,
slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really
-~Letter to a Harsh Critic~, Gilles Deleuze

Post modern theory…

The Nazis, among others, burned books.  This image of a pile of burning books horrified the bourgeois intellectuals of my parents’ generation.  That horror lends a certain radical appeal to the practice of book burning.  In the sixties and/or seventies William Burroughs did cut-ups.  His destruction of the book to generate a new form was accepted.  It’s been asserted that the computer could do a better job than Burroughs in the cut-up genre, but lacking the visual, spatial-temporal, and tactile cues associated with the paper form, I find it hard to understand how a computer could do this job as well as a man with a scissors and a glue pot.

The interview posted below is lifted from a morass of links that are rotting even as we speak.  The research around Burroughs’ cut-ups led me into this evaporating swamp of disjointed bits and dreaded 404′s… will someone in Toronto please go snap an image of a highway 404 road sign that we can use as replacement for the more conventional dead end?  TYVM, now on with the shew!

Hacking the art operating system

Cornelia Sollfrank (D) cornelia@snafu.de is an artist, lives in Hamburg/Berlin/Celle, is lecturing at the University of Oldenburg. Central to her conceptual and performative works are the changing notions of art, the advent of a new image of the artist in the information age, gender-specific handling of technology, new forms of disseminating art, and communication and networking as art.
She was a member of the women artist groups ‚women and technology‘and ‚-Innen+‘ and initiated the cyberfemininist organisation ‚Old Boys Network‘. Her project FEMALE EXTENSION (1997) (http://www.obn.org/femext) was a hack of the first net.art competition initiated by a museum, in which she flooded the museum’s network with submissions by 300 virtual female net artists. Her net.art generator (http://www.obn.org/generator) automatically produces art on demand. She published the readers “First Cyberfeminist International” (1998) and “Next Cyberfeminist International” (1999). Sollfrank is currently producing work on the subject of female hackers. http://www.obn.org/hackers)
homepage of Cornelia Sollfrank with further information: www.artwarez.org


Cornelia Sollfrank interviewed by Florian Cramer, December 28th, 2024,
during the annual congress of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin.

[Lifted from text file at this location, and marked up with Hyper-text by the Phantom Flash.]

FC: I have questions on various thematic complexes which in your work seem to be continually referring to each other: hacking and art, computer generated, or more specifically, generative art, cyberfeminism, or the questions that your new work entitled ‘Improvised Tele-vision’ throw up. And of course the thematic complex plagiarism and appropriation

CS: It’s the relationship between these complexes that is so interesting and difficult – and which I often find myself arguing about. To keep an eye on how these various activities link together is not easy, all the more since I am sometimes more involved in one field and then more in another.

FC: We’re here at the annual convention of the Chaos Computer Club.  Is hacking for you art and does hacking have something to do with art?

CS: Both. I’ve come increasingly to the conclusion over the last four, five years in which I have been involved in hacking, that hacking culture always has something bordering on a national…(laughter) flavor.  That’s why it is interesting for me to visit other countries and especially Italy, where it appears as if there does not exist the slightest fear of contact between artists, activists, philosophers etc.  They coexist there naturally, dialogue with each other and create a common language in which they can communicate (laughter), which is something I haven’t experienced in Germany. As a female artist in the Chaos Computer Club, I have come face to face with some of the worse preconceptions, accusations and verbal abuse of my life (unfortunately).

FC: You said: as a ‘female artist’ in the Chaos Computer Club. What do you put the emphasis on? Being an ‘artist’ or being ‘female’?

CS: On both. As far as gender goes there is a basic frankness involved.  When one deals with the same themes identically and speaks the same language, gender means less hurdles to cross. (laughter) Since that is seldom the case it becomes one. The bigger problem however is art. That left me utterly dumbfounded. I was having a nice chat with someone at one or other of the Chaos Computer Club’s parties and was asked what I do.  When I replied “I am an artist”, the reaction I got was a hoarse exclamation: “I hate artists”.

FC: You did an the interview with a female hacker at a Chaos Computer Congress in 1999.

CS: …Clara SOpht

FC: …right. And you are working on a comprehensive video documentation of this theme!

CS: I’m making a five part series. Due to my experience in the CCC, I narrowed my research down and tried to find women who see themselves as hackers. However they just didn’t exist. That’s when I switched from the journalist-research modus to the artistic-modus and said to myself, I have to try and reshape this boring reality. And that’s why I did the interview with Clara SOpht for example, who doesn’t really exist. (Laughter) I just started to invent female hackers.

FC: Oh, I see! (laughter) Great!

CS: I gave a talk at the CCC congress on women hackers and showed the interview with Clara SOpht. It was pretty well attended, including a lot of men, who watched everything and then attacked me for not defending sufficiently Clara Sopht’s privacy, because she had stressed that she did not want details about herself being publicized. At the end of the event
I mentioned casually that the woman did not exist and that I had invented her. Some people were gobsmacked. Quite unexpectedly they had experienced art, an art which had come to them, to their congress, and talked in their language. I found that very amusing. These little doses of ‘pedagogy’ can trigger off a lot and no doubt help CCC to develop itself further.

FC: In the early nineties the art critic Thomas Wulffen coined the phrase ‘art operating system’.  Can you relate to that in any way? Or do you find it problematic? Your artistic hacks that you’ve mentioned do not engage directly with the art operating system!

CS: I can relate to that in a big way because what interests me most in art is it’s operating system, the parameters which define it, and how they can be changed and what the possibilities of new media contribute to this change. What also belongs to the operating system is the concept of the artist, the notion of an artistic program, an artist’s body of work, and last but not least the interfaces – who and what will be exhibited and who will look at it. This system is actually what interests me most in art. To intervene and be able to play with it I have to know how it functions.

FC: But then isn’t it difficult to be a net artist as well? In the example of net art, one could see how in the very moment in which no new objects were being produced which lent themselves to being exhibited, that it (net art) lost its footing and was not given proper recognition in the
art world. I still find it astonishing how much net art has to fight against this in order to be taken seriously in the first place by the art operating system. Is that not difficult for you, as an artist, to want to try and hack the art operating system, and to do as a net artist?

CS: First of all I do not see myself solely as a net artist, but rather as a kind of concept artist. I find the net indeed very interesting, and to be active in it fulfills many of my wishes, but that aside, I also work with video, text, performance and whatever else is required for a
particular project. That net art is not recognized in the art world and has problems there is primarily due to the fact that, in my opinion, there are no pieces/objects which can be exchanged from one owner to another in a meaningful way. An art which is not compatible with the art market is hardly of any interest, because in the last analysis the market is the
governing force in the art operating system. Another further difficulty is the ability to exhibit. What justification is there to show net art in the ‘White Cube’?

In that way all curators have to ask themselves: why should we actually show net art here in our museum? Some net artists quickly understood that they wouldn’t get far with their non-commodifiable, difficult to represent art in the market, and expanded to working with installations. That has worked well – just as it did with video art. It is not a new phenomenon
that is happening to net art. Before it, there was also ephemeral art, Fluxus and performance art for example, or technically perfect reproducible art forms such as video and photography. All these art forms had enormous problems at the beginning, but then opportunities
surfaced in the market and certain intermediaries really supported them and managed to create a space for them. And when everything becomes too much, another decade of ‘new painting’ is heralded in order to let the market recuperate.

Nevertheless I think there is an interest regarding net art in the art world. For a long period it was given a lot of hype, and at the moment I see a kind of consolidation. Ultimately there are a few big institutions like the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery or the Walker Art Center that commission new works. What goes wrong in net art is that artists – I’m talking mainly about the group net.art and that scene – have not developed collective strategies as to how they should deal with the art system – which was one of the great strengths of the Fluxus artists. There is missing a willingness to accept that a problem even exists in the first place.

In 1997, a further symptom of this occurred in the form of the first competition for net art a museum has launched: EXTENSION by the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Like the introduction of net art at the documenta x, artists here were very uncertain and didn’t know how they should deal with the idiotic and incomprehensible conditions. And so they contributed half-heartedly. This was the time when it would have been easy to hack the art operating system. It was definitely a missed opportunity.

FC: I ask myself whether for you in ‘Female Extension’ – where you submitted several hundred art websites under different female artist names to the net art competition EXTENSION, and which were in fact generated by a computer program – the generative is simply a vehicle, a means to an end. ‘Female Extension’ was also a ‘social hack’, a cyberfeminist hack of the net art competition. How your generators were programmed was actually pretty irrelevant!?

CS: In principle, yes. (laughter) At the start I intended to make all the web sites manually, using copy and paste, because I was not capable of programming them. The programming happened more by chance through an artist friend of mine. I was very happy with the results; the automatic generated pages looked very artistic. The jury was definitely taken in by it, although none of my female artists won a prize. Through ‘Female Extension’ and the social hack I got caught up in the idea to conceptualize the generators in even more detail. Three versions have now been around for some time now: one, which works with images, one which combines images and texts in layers on top of each other, and one that is a variation of the ‘Dada Engine’. This one is specialized in texts and invents wonderful word combinations, sometimes even with elements from different languages. Two more are in development for
particular applications.

FC: Is it then necessary to use labels like ‘net art’ at all when the medium is not so relevant?

CS: I think it makes sense to use such labels in the beginning, when a new medium is being introduced, and actual changes come along with it; in the phase where the actual medium is explored like jodi did for example with the web/net, or Nam June Paik with video.

FC: Looking at your art, isn’t it the case that projects like the net.art generator develop their concept, their systems of ‘social hacks’ from the media?

CS: That’s true in this case. But it is not necessarily the way I work. The term ‘net.art’ functioned also as a perfect marketing tool. And it worked until the moment it gained the success it had headed for. Then everything collapsed. [laughter]

FC: In your new work ‘Improvised Tele-vision’, you are referring to Schöneberg’s piece ‘Verklärte Nacht’, its recoding by Nam June Paik, who let the record run at a quarter of its normal speed, and then its recoding by Dieter Roth, who restored Schönberg’s music to it original tempo by speeding up Paik’s version. That immediately reminded me of the literary theory by Harold Bloom, his so-called influence theory, according to which history of literature is the product of famous writers, who each in turn adopts to his/her predecessor as an oedipal super-ego (laughter) … and who then again manages to free him-/herself from the predecessor.

CS: Oh really? The sub-title for ‘Improvised Tele-vision’ originally was ‘apparent oedipal fixation’, which I then discarded again. (laughter) And it was the ‘apparent’ which was important to me.

FC: That is what I assumed. There are – from my point of view – these tremendous artists, like Schönberg, Paik and Roth, who take each other down from the pedestal in order to put themselves on that very pedestal. 

CS: Exactly. [Laughter.]

FC: But is that not the tragedy of every anti-oedipal intervention, that it automatically – whether it wants to or not – becomes inscribed in the oedipal logic again? That’s what I see in this piece!

CS: If that is the case, then that’s definitely tragic. Probably that’s the reason why I’ve made it into such a theme. I find the public’s reaction amusing, which was partly very aggressive. I received such accusations as: “You don’t want to be any different than they are”. (laughter) What it is actually about, however, is showing the processes involved, how it functions. That I cannot extract myself from it, if I want to be part of the system, is logical.

Another example for this, which once again leads us back to the market compatibility of net art, is the invitation of a five-star hotel to partly decorate their interiors. Actually I was always fairly sure that I was the last possible artist anyone would invite for such a task. But it did
interest me and I began to experiment with this. Fortunately I have the net art generators which endlessly can produce for me, which meant I just had to find a way to materialize the ‘products’ being created. I ended up making prints on canvas or paper and frame everything. That’s how I create a series, series of images, and it is astonishing what actually transpires. It is through the arranging however that I manage to tell stories, which of course is massive manipulation. In that way I find the idea of the rematerialization of net art interesting – by packing it into accessible formats and then seeing what happens.

FC: Is that still concept art?

CS: Yes, of course. At least for me it is. First of all the money on offer is interesting. But over and above that, this will be the first sale in the history of net art that is worth mentioning! [laughter].

FC: I want to try to make the jump from here to cyberfeminism, which is difficult… Perhaps I should begin like this: what always troubled me with the term ‘Cyberfeminism’ was less the ‘feminism’ than the prefix ‘cyber’. Does that have to be?

CS: [laughter] That’s amazing! If the feminism had troubled you I could have related to that. (laughter) But you seem to be pc… (laughter).  The theme ‘cyber’: that is “what it is all about”. I first heard about Cyberfeminism rolling off the tongue of Geert Lovink, and I said to him:
what kind of nonsense is that? That was back then when everything went ‘Cyber’: ‘Cybermoney’ ‘Cyberbody’ etc.

FC: Yes, that’s the point.

CS: There was not much available on Cyberfeminism in 1995/96. Geert Lovink sent me sure enough a reference from Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix - and ‘Innen‘, which was a female artist group which I was involved in myself. He sent me back quasi my own context as a reference. That was a real little surprise. That he had done this was definitely no coincidence. So I thought to myself, OK, I assume he knows [laughter] which references he sent to me. I kept mulling over that in my mind. Then came the invitation to ‘Hybrid Workshop’ at the documenta x. Once again Geert was involved. He wanted me to plan a week or block – not on Cyberfeminism, but rather on one or other female/feminist issue. And this invitation was the catalyst for me to start working on the term ‘Cyberfeminism’. By then I had found real pleasure in it and discovered that there was an enormous potential involved and which both Sadie
Plant and VNS Matrix had not capitalized on. They had only dabbled in a few areas.  Taking a pre-fix that has popped up out of a good deal of hype, and what’s more using it and attaching it to something else, creates a real power.

FC: The difficulty I have with this no doubt stems from an academic point of view. We are in the midst of a discussion about net culture, which includes mailing lists like Nettime and other forums, where one no longer has to discuss the absurdity of ‘cyber’ terminology. That’s been done. Then along comes something that one knows is not to be taken completely seriously. However when I set foot in academic circles, I found myself being criticized – like I was at the Annual German Studies Convention – for debunking dispositively the terms  ’cyber’/'hyper’/'virtual’ which are still used there as discursive coordinates. These terms have gathered their own dynamic and have been written down and canonized for at least the next ten years. And it is precisely here that ‘cyberfeminism’ fits in, as a term which does not sound so experimental or ironic when one puts it into the context of something like Cultural Studies.

CS: But what do you mean? Is that actually a problem?

FC: Well, isn’t it the problem that one thereby creates a discourse which in academia can gather its own dynamic and then no longer…?

CS: …in that case, yes. I fully support you there. 

Our main idea was not to formulate a content with a concrete political goal. Instead we considered our organizational structure as a political expression. To be a cyberfeminist also makes demands on us to work on the level of structures and not just to turn up at conferences and hold a seminar paper. On the contrary, it means to tend to financial matters, or to make a website, a publication or create an event – hence to engage in developing structures. And ‘Politics of dissent’ is a very important term.

FC: In 1997 Josephine Bosma asked you in an interview: “Do you think there are any specific issues for women online?” – and you answered: “No, I don’t think so really”.

CS: [Laughter.] I still believe that.

FC: Yes? – That was my question.

CS: After four and a half years of Cyberfeminist practice and contexts such as ‘Women and New Media’, and a series of lectures and events, I’ve come to the conclusion that one can divide this topic into two areas. One is the area of ‘access’, meaning, whether women have access to knowledge and technology, and which is a social problem. The second area is if the access exists, and the skills are there, what happens on the net or with this medium? What factors determine WHAT is made? About that there’s very little which is convincing. Mostly it is a lot of arid ill-defined essentialist crap, with which I want to have little to do with because it reaffirms the already existing and unfavorable conditions rather triggering something new…

There are not that few female artists whos’ approach is the idea that women have to develop their own aesthetics in order to counteract the dominant order. But I’ve always had problems with that and didn’t know what that could be without predicating myself again in strict roles
and definitions. That is the problem with essentialism. The claimed difference can easily be turned against women – even when they defined it themselves. That doesn’t take you anywhere and is just another trap.  Besides one of the miseries of identity politics was that the identities certain communities and groups had developed seamlessly got incorporated,
for example by advertisement, what meant a complete turn around of its actual intentions.

FC: What I have noticed is that women are amply represented in the code-experimental area of net art.

CS: Really?

FC: From what I’ve seen, yes. Jodi for example is a masculine-feminine couple, the same goes for 0100101110111001.org. Then  springs to mind mez/Mary Anne Breeze or antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova, which we now know has a woman from New Zealand forming the core figure.

CS: No!!!

FC: Yes!

CS: I’m currently working on an Interview with Netochka Nezvanova in which she tells me everything! What she thinks about the world – and especially about the art world. [laughter]

FC: That is someone then who also fascinates you?

CS: I find it extremely interesting as a phenomenon, and ask ‘her’ things such as…  how much does her success have to do with the fact she is a woman… Ultimately though there are several people involved in forming the charactero. I have asked so many people about her, and everyone had contradictory information about her. The last theory that I heard led me
to the media theoretician Lev Manovich as the core of N.N.  It is great what Netochka Nezvanova triggers in the minds of other people. Therefore, it is a good concept. But I am working on finalizing this concept. I want to kill ‘her’ by doing an interview in which she reveals all of her strategies – something she would never do anyway.

FC: Would it be possible for you to work in any context? We met here at the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club. But would it also be possible to meet at the annual congress of stamp collectors, and this would be the social system you would intervene?

CS: Theoretically, yes. [laughter] I think anyone who managed to get along with the hackers, the hacker culture doesn’t shrink back from anything – not even stamp collectors or garden plot holders.

FC: … or hotel corridors.

CS: No, theoretically a lot is possible, but not practically. My interest is not just formal and not only directed towards the operating system. It is an important aspect, but when the arguments and the people within the system are of no interest for me, I can hardly imagine to work there.

FC: That would mean at the hacker’s convention your reference would be that people here play with systems, and critically think about systems?

CS: And what’s also interesting for me is the fact that hackers are independent experts, programers, who work for the sake of programming, and are not in services of economy or politics. That’s the crucial point for me. And that’s also the reason why hackers are an important source of information for me.

FC: But that takes us straight back to the classical concept of the autonomous artist coined in the 18th century, the freelance genius. He is no longer employed, and gets no commissions, but is independent and does not have to follow a given set of rules.

CS: Maybe you’re right, and my image of a hacker has in fact a lot to do with such an image of the artist. But reflecting upon the role of art in society in general, I would prefer to consider art as autonomous, to considering the individual artist as autonomous – given that the
idea of autonomy per se is problematic. The idea of art as observing, positioning oneself, commenting, trying to open up different perspectives on what is going on in society is what I prefer. And that is exactly what is endangered. The contradictory thing about autonomy is that someone has to protect/finance it. And it is most comfortable when governments do so, like it was common here in Germany over the last decades. I think this ensures the most freedom. Examples which illustrate my theory are Pop Art and New Music; in the 60s and 70s artists from all over the world came to Germany because here was public funding, and facilities
to work which existed nowhere else. I consider it as one of the tasks of a government to provide money for culture. And the development we are facing at the moment is disasterous.

A short time ago somebody asked me how I would imagine the art of the future, and after thinking for a while I got the image of an open-plan office, packed with artists who work there, all looking the same and getting paid by whatever corporation; the image of art which is completely taken over and submitted to the logics of economy. This does not mean that I would reject all corporate sponsoring, but it should not become too influential.

FC: Doesn’t the new media artist make the running for the others, because they are so extremely dependent on technology?

CS: Absolutely, and I think this is really a major problem. They make the running for the others…

FC: … but in a purely negative sense.

CS: Basically yes. It is a difficult field to play on. Some artists are thinking of work-arounds, like low-tech, and as another example,I would highly appreciate if ars electronica, which obviously suffers from a lack of ideas and inspiration, would choose the topic of Free Software. They could do without their corporate sponsors, and only give prizes art works which are produced with the use of Free Software. It would be really exciting to see what you can do with it.

[At his point we switched off the tape recorder and kept on talking about the necessity of doing things on the one hand side, and discarding them again on the other hand. During that the conversation turned to Neoism and its internal quarrels.]

CS: Such quarrels can become very existential, very exhausting, and weakening. Things tend to become incredibly authentic – something I try to avoid otherwise.

FC: But this is important. When I hear standard accusations, saying that dealing with systems, disrupting systems through plagiarism, fake, and manipulation of signs, is boring postmodern stuff, lacking existential hardness, my only answer is that people who say this, never tried to
practise it consequently. Especially, on a personal level, it can be deadly. You have mentioned the group `-Innen’ before, a group you have obviously been part of in the early 90s, before the days of net.art…

CS: Yes, this was in ’93-96.

FC: And, if I get it right, it was also a ‘multiple identity’ concept.

CS: Yes, and although we handled it very playful and ironic, it started to become threatening – so much that we had to give it up. We had practised the ‘becoming one person’ to an extreme by looking exactly the same, and even our language was standardized. And then we felt like escaping from each other, and not meeting the others any more.

FC: Is this the point where art potentially becomes religious or a sect?

CS: Maybe, if you don’t quit.

FC: Designing such systems also has something to do with control and loosing control, right? In the beginning you’re the designer, you define the rules, but then you get involved and become part of the game yourself, and the time has come to quit.

CS: Well, certainly I do have my ideas and concepts, but the others might have different ones. The whole thing comes to an end when the debates and arguments aren’t productive any longer. With the ‘Old Boys Network’ we are currently experimenting with the idea to release our label. To think through what that actually means was a painful process. You think:”Oh god, maybe somebody will abuse it, do something really awful and stupid with it. That’s shit.” But if we want to be consequent, we have to live with that. One big trap for us was, that we called it ‘network’, although it actually functioned as a group.

FC: But this seems to be a very popular self-deception within the so-called net cultures. I also say that also ‘nettime’ and the net culture it supposedly represented was in fact a group, at least until about 1998.

CS: And that is the only way it works. There’s no alternative way how a network can come into being. At some point there have to be condensations, and commitments. And ‘networks’ don’t require a lot of commitment.

FC: So, how do network and system relate in your understanding?

CS: I think a system is structured and defined more clearly, and has obvious rules and players. A network tends to be more open, more loose.

FC: One could claim that purely technical networks as well as purely technical systems do exist. Your work alternatively intervenes in social and technical networks. But, in the end, your intervention always turns out to be a social one. Can you think of networks and systems – referring to the definition you just have given – without social participation?

CS: Not, not at all. Because the rules or the regulating structure always is determined by somebody. Like computer programs are often mistaken as something neutral. ‘Microsoft Word’ for example. Everyone assumes it just can be the way ‘Word’ it is. But that’s not the case. It could be completely different.

FC: There’s also earlier experiments within art, on designing self-regulating systems. Hans Haacke has built in the 60′s his ‘Condensation Cube’, made of glass. On it’s side-walls water condensates corresponding to the amount of people who are in the same room. Such a
thing would not be of any interest for you?

CS: No, I don’t think so. It is also typical for a lot of generative art that one system simply is being transformed into another one. I find this totally boring. For me, it is important that the intervention sets an impulse which results in – or at least aims for a change.