My day with Mark Hosler of Negativland

Of the many fun aspects of my job at Yahoo! managing the “TechDev Speaker Series” is pretty close to the top. “TechDev” stands for “Technology Development,” the group I work in along with Jeremy Zawodny, Simon Willison, Ken Hickman, and now Tom Coates (welcome, Tom!) Bradley Horowitz is our leader. Every Friday, we bring in luminaries and generally interesting people from a wide variety of professions and disciplines to do lunchtime talks for Yahoo! employees. This week, I had the pleasure of hosting Mark Hosler, one of the founding members of the “experimental and sound collage band” (as Wikipedia puts it) Negativland. Negativland is most famous to the world for being sued by U2’s record label for copyright infringement — a suit that they ultimately lost (read the Wikipedia entry for Negativland for an outline of the juicy details). There are most famous to me for two reasons: 1) I used to play Negativland cuts during my brief 2-5am college radio DJ shift way back when, and 2) Negativland sampled paranoid preacher Estus W. Pirkle in one of their songs. (Growing up in a Southern Baptist church back in NC, I was actually subjected to Rev. Pirkle’s scare films on at least one occasion — look here for a peek into the Pirkle mind. Estus Pirkle made Sen. Joseph McCarthy look like a Commie-lover by comparison.)

Mark Hosler of NegativlandWe had Mark in on the heels of an incredible TechDev talk last week by Dr. Lawrence Lessig, who mentioned Negativland in his presentation and said they were “fantastic” when I told him Mark was coming in to speak the following week. Negativland played a key role in authoring the Creative Commons sampling license, as noted on the Creative Commons site:

Creative Commons first considered offering a Sampling License at the suggestion of collagist People Like Us (a.k.a. Vicki Bennett) and Negativland, the appropriationist art collective that has since served as the public discussion lead during the license drafting process.

Mark lives in North Carolina now and his parents live in the East Bay where Mark grew up, so he was staying with them on this trip to the west coast (Mark and Negativland are preparing for two rare live shows at the Great American Music Hall later this month). I picked him up on Friday morning at his parents’ house. His mom (who shares the same relatively uncommon first name as my mom!) met me at the door — beaming with pride — and said that she regretted that she wasn’t going to be able to see Mark speak this time. As we loaded up Mark’s gear, she made sure that he had a healthy breakfast for the long drive to Sunnyvale (a banana, a hard-boiled egg, and some hot tea). Mark told me that when his mom flew to NY for the opening of their big 25th anniversary show (link to the gallery here, and mention on BoingBoing here), she transported carefully-wrapped homemade brownies on the plane. The jaded New York art world was appreciative. Apparently, homemade brownies are a rare treat to New York art-show-goers. Mark’s mom waved goodbye from the driveway and we headed to Sunnyvale. Mark’s mom is really cool.

My biggest regret about our commute to Sunnyvale was that I didn’t record our conversation and make a podcast out of it (I am certain Mark would have been fine with it), but suffice it to say that it was the most engaging commute I’ve had in a while. Normally, I might be listening to a provocative interview on NPR, but this time I was Terry Gross with two hands on the steering wheel. We covered copyright, technology, the U2 lawsuit, and Silicon Valley culture. . . among many other things. I was verging on disappointed when we arrived on the Yahoo! campus for the real talk.

The intial soundcheck was more or less perfect (thanks David!) so I went to the Yahoo! mailroom to get the DVD that Mark had fedexed for his presentation. The sender was Tim Maloney, a former Disney animator who helped Mark and Negativland produce some of their work. (Whew, the DVD was there.)

A little after noon, I introduced Mark briefly, and from there Mark gave a history of his work with Negativland, peppered with various videos and entertaining stories that went on for about an hour and a half. I can’t even attempt to describe the talk adequately — you had to be there. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to Negativland (though I like this description from their recent show announcement: “Okay, but what, you still ask, is Negativland exactly? That’s hard to answer. Negativland definitely isn’t a ‘band,’ though they may look like one when you see their CDs for sale in your local shopping mall. They’re more like some sort of goofy yet serious European-style artist/activist collective – an unhealthy mix of John Cage, Lenny Bruce, Pink Floyd, Bruce Connor, Firesign Theatre, Abbie Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, 1970’s German electronic music, old school punk rock attitude, surrealist performance art, your high school science teacher…and lots more…

After the talk, Mark, Ken Hickman, and I headed to URL’s (the Yahoo! cafeteria), where David Beach joined us for a while for another wide-ranging discussion that would have made a great podcast (note to self: must bring recording gear EVERYWHERE from now on). David recounts the gist of our conversation in his blog:

Subjects included answering machines, cyber kids, ourmedia, oil, war, travel and some other stuff. . .

Lunch was definitely a continuation of the earlier fun. Before we left, I loaded Mark up on some free Yahoo! coffee (photo here) and I dropped him off at a friend’s house in SF (but not before snapping some photos of Mark with the rare Estus W. Pirkle book I picked up a couple of years ago, Preachers in Space. Photos here and here.)

Mark had to leave some Negativland merchandise in my car since he was going to take BART home later that night and couldn’t carry it all. Good news, Mark — I sold $107 worth of Negativland merchandise to my super-hip dog walker on Saturday morning. . . she’s a fan. I’ll drop the cash off with your mom sometime this week.


The Salon redesign

When I walked over to the Argent Hotel today to peek in at Web 2.0, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic when I passed the old offices at 706 Mission Street, right next door to the Argent. It was in that building where we migrated Salon to Linux and built our own CMS (though we used Solaris, Oracle, Apache, and Perl for that. . . SOAP, not LAMP, I guess. MySQL wasn’t quite there yet.) Ah, building a CMS. . . how Web 1.0 of us! logoEarlier tonight, I sent an IM to my friend Mignon (the founding art director at and designer of the Salon logo) to say, “Hey, I was over at the Argent today for Web 2.0 — remember back in early ’99 when I pulled an all-nighter when we rolled out the new CMS and redesign? You bought me breakfast there that morning and I almost feel asleep in my pancakes.” I don’t think I had actually been inside the Argent since then (six years ago!), but that long-forgotten image of my forehead drooping dangerously close to the maple syrup on my plate came to me out of nowhere today when I walked in. (Had I fast-forwarded six years to this morning for my breakfast at the Argent, I probably would have found my droopy head propped up with a stack of VC cash.)

Strangely enough, Mignon IM’ed me back to say, “We’re pushing out a redesign right now!” I took a quick glance and it looks great. Nearly five years after I left Salon, I’m still proud to have been a part of it and remain a big fan. A big congrats to the folks over there who made this redesign happen. . . . nice work.

Bill Gates: The Udell Interview

Dan Farber offers high praise for Jon Udell’s recent podcast interview with Bill Gates, saying that “it really shows the geeky Gates, and is one of the better interviews I have read/heard in covering Gates for more than two decades.” I agree (though I haven’t been following Gates for two decades yet myself). I listened to the podcast and enjoyed exchanges like this one (a big thanks to Jon for putting up a transcript — but you should listen anyway because a transcript doesn’t do justice to the palpable geeky excitement in Gates’ voice):

JU: Yeah, somebody had a nice quote that RSS is the human face on Web services. I kind of like that a lot and related to that is something that I’ve said a few times, which is that human beings are the exception handlers in all workflows. And so…

BG: Absolutely. That’s a really good way of capturing something I was saying about the boundary between structured and unstructured. Eventually you’ve got to know who in what role and how to communicate to them, because if software could just talk to software, we could get rid of all the humans. Everything that’s real, eventually there’s a human involved in. And there is a little bit of tension between very interpretive, simple-to-create stuff, like REST or POX, and very structured, tight stuff like Web services. And if the industry is smart, we can get the best of both worlds, where things that are not very complex, you just want to go get a stock quote, a weather thing, fine. Use REST. Even, you know, go to Wordpad and type in the ugly URL.

If this interview was a book, it would be much closer in spirit to an O’Reilly title than the relative fluff we got from Bill Gates in The Road Ahead, a book that surely helped thousands of businessmen achieve deep sleep on airplanes back in the day.