NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Mark Frauenfelder: The Algorithm of Geek

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

He was that kid in the fourth grade and you could always get the answers from him on a test; he knew what made the mood ring work (“Thermochromism,” of course: “They use it in baby bottles, so your little brother doesn’t scald his lips if yer Mom loads it too hot…y’know, just because she’s yer Mom doesn’t mean she knows everything…”).  By high school, he’d be able to give advice to the cheerleaders as regards relative efficacy (and side effects) of IUDs vs. The Pill: Just because he read a lot.

You’d see him from time-to-time—on a lacrosse field, where he was probably team captain (and you were only sitting nearby, killing off a beer and getting a tan); or after graduating…he’d be cutting up ClipArt for a ‘zine he was making in a tony loft high above the stank of Skid Row, and you’d bump into him on the way to score acid from another flat-mate in the next room.  He’d always smile.

You knew he’d hit it big—and he did, like when he got a gig writing for Playboy magazine…for five or six years; that he married the prettier sister of Christy Canyon was just to be expected.  He’d get you backstage passes to the O’Farrell Theater, too—but he couldn’t join in for that Board Meeting in Palo Alto or Menlo Park or wherever.  Something in his DNA, was what you had always suspected.  As drinks the Irishman, Mark Frauenfelder just always had it: The Algorithm of Geek.


Todd Brendan Fahey: You seem to be that kid who brought something new to school every week, and whom other kids grouped around to check out the New, Cool & Weird.  Am I off in my assessment?  If not, tell us about when you first began becoming aware of this aspect of your being; what “new shit” were you discovering before any of your other youthful peers were?  And how did this lead to the novelty bent that is bOING bOING/Boing Boing?

Mark Frauenfelder: Probably 1974, when my dad brought home an HP, I think it was an HP 65 program called “Calculator”—it was a calculator that used these magnetic cards to load programs into it, and I remember it came with a moon-landing program—a simulation—and you would enter the amount of fuel that you wanted to use up as you were trying to land a lunar lander on the moon without having it crash into the surface of the moon…in other words, to get a soft landing.  I was just fascinated by that.

I think around that same time was when the first issue of Kamandi, by Jack Kirby, came out, and that’s when I started falling in love with comics.  Before that, I was just reading things like Richie Rich and Archie and wasn’t really that interested in superhero comics, and then when Kamandi came out it changed my whole view of what comic books could be and what they could accomplish.  I really loved it.

And so those two things, I think—computers and comics—that kind of steered my life in that direction.  After that, I was really into things like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Frank Frizetta; uh, shortly after that I started working at a comic book store and discovered underground comics at a pretty early age, loved the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and everything that Robert Crumb did, and that was, ah, you know, that was the beginning of a long love of alternative media and technology and other geeky things.

The craze of “‘zines” [Definition: Largely pulp, but sometimes embedded on floppies, indie journals, which ran the gamut of interests and fetishes] was the rave amongst twentysomethings of the early- to mid-1990s.  One of the standouts, surely, was bOING bOING, which you created and which I was turned onto by a pal who was living in downtown Los Angeles at the time, while I was living in Santa Barbara.  What inspired you to “start your own magazine” and what differentiated bOING bOING from the dozens/hundreds of other ‘zines which became assembled in the seminal ‘zine-list magazine Factsheet Five?

I learned about zines from an article in a 1987 issue of The Whole Earth Review ( This issue was themed “Signal” and it was edited by Kevin Kelly. It was basically the prototype for Wired magazine, which Kevin co-founded in 1993. I was a mechanical engineer in San Jose at the time, not really liking my job, and this issue blew my mind. One of the articles was about zines written by Jeanne Carstensen. I was astonished by how many zines were out there. from the article I learned about Factsheet Five, a directory of zines. I ordered a copy and when through it was a highlighter, ordering dozens of zines by mail directly from the publisher. When I got them I was hooked. They were funky, and eclectic, and loaded with crazy outsider information. It inspired me to start self publishing. I made one issue of a zine called Important Science Journal, which was really just Crowleyania, Fortean phenomena, and secret societies. Then I did two issues of a mini-comic called Toilet Devil (Koko the talking ape calls people toilet devils when she is mad at them). Later that year my wife Carla and I decided to start a zine about cyberpunk, indy comics, brain technology and high weirdness. We named it bOING bOING because there were a few other zines out there with sound effects for names (HonkBlab, etc) and we liked that.

Can we agree–or, do you feel that, as I do–the advent of the World Wide Web in 1994 took most hipsters minds off of indie print publications and subsequently sucked the life straight out of “the ‘zine movement”?

Yes, I agree. It happened to me, but the full story is a bit more complicated. I was happy running bOING bOING as a print zine, but in 1994 the two largest independent magazine distributors went bankrupt, owing bOING bOING about $30,000. So the Web became a much more attractive option as a way to publish. There are no printing costs, mailing costs, or inventory costs. The zine world still exists, but it’s nothing like it was in the early 90s.

bOING bOING and Mondo 2000 are cited, correctly, as being two of the seminal engines of cyberpunk–that forward-thinking, irreverent vision of “what life can be if we decide to make it so.” Rattle on, if you’d please, about the human crossover between these two great publications. Cast, character, friendships, enemies, alliances. Just go buckwild.

The predecessor to Mondo 2000 was a magazine called High Frontiers. Carla and I came across it when R.U. Sirius and Queen Mu were hawking it at a Timothy Leary stand-up show in San Francisco in 1985 or 1986. It was the poster-size second issue – with a 17″ x 11″ bright pink cover. It had a drawing of Art Linkletter’s head, saying “Kids Do the Darnedest Drugs.” It also had a 3-eared Mickey Mouse holding some blotter LSD with the CIA logo on it. It was one of the coolest magazine covers I’ve ever seen and it still is. RU was this grinning hobbit-looking character with a floppy hat with a Andy Warhol button on it. Queen Mu was a very delicate blond woman with Stevie Nicks clothes and granny glasses and she a permanent blissful smile and didn’t say much. I bought a copy and it made me fall in love with the idea of magazine publishing. Somehow I found out that RU and Mu were hosting something in Berkeley called the High Frontiers Monthly Forum and so Carla and I started going to those. They were great. Rudy Rucker did a reading for his novel Wetware at one event. He was and is one of my favorite authors. He’s the most cyberpunk of all the cyberpunk authors, because he thinks about how technology affects human relationships.


Carla and I eventually became friends with R.U. He started writing for bOING bOING. I also got to know Bart Nagel, the art director, and Georgia Rucker, a designer there (Rudy’s daughter). Georgia designed The Happy Mutant Handbook, a book Carla, Gareth Branwyn, and I edited.

You were the “Living Online” columnist for Playboy magazine from between 1998 to 2002; your bride is–and I’d not be writing this were it not fairly public knowledge–the sister of adult film siren Christy Canyon. That’s a nice recipe for a good time! (laughing)

I got the gig because a fellow Zinester named Chip Rowe, who did a great ‘zine in the late-80s and early-90s called Chip’s Closet Cleaner, was an editor at Playboy magazine, and we ended up kind of becoming pen pals in the pre-email days.  Well, when Playboy started looking for someone who begin reviewing Websites, Chip kindly recommended me and I got a call from Arthur Kretchmer, who was kind of Hugh Hefner’s right hand man for many decades; he did tons of editorial work for the magazine, so Arthur was my editor and we had a couple of phone discussions about what the column should be about, and I really just kind of reviewed all kinds of websites—not really too many sex-related websites.  I was doing things like banking websites and travel websites, those kinds of things…online poker; probably even talked about eBay and Google as being new and cool websites.

And so, once in awhile Arthur would tell me that Hefner would look over my column and have some changes and requests that he wanted to do.  I think that Hefner at that time, and maybe still now, really closely goes over all the content in the magazine, which is pretty astounding.  I thing remember reading, like, a really long time ago that Jann Wenner said that he doesn’t really read too much of what goes into Rolling Stone magazine anymore.  So I think that it’s amazing that Hefner is still doing it.

Have you been a guest at the Playboy Mansion? Got stories that you can tell? How’s Hef?

I never got invited to the mansion.  I don’t think that Kretchmer ever spent much time at the mansion either; he was in Chicago where the office of Playboy were at the time.  So, I never had any of that kind of glamorous lifestyle that, ah, you hear about that celebrities experience when they go there—which is fine; I’m happily married and really wouldn’t know what to do at the mansion.  Um, so it was a great gig and I really don’t have any stories to tell about the place.  Sorry! {laughs}

What have you built/created/devised or otherwise recently of which you are most excited?

The website, which is something I’m doing with [wife] Carla and Kevin Kelly. Each day we review a beautiful print book. I like my Kindle, but there are some books that don’t work as e-books: art books, graphic novels, some how-to books.

So much IT happened in the 1990s; within, say, the past two years, are there any gadgets or systems that you feel will rock our world–or, at least could lend new ways of communicating (broad sense = OK) across physical distance?

Well, you know, I think we are pretty good about having stuff that allows us to communicated over great distances already.  I think that what we see with things like Skype and other video conferencing applications have really changed the way a lot of people live; I don’t have to travel nearly as much as I did before, because I can communicate with people with teleconferencing very inexpensively.  I remember just, like, five or ten years ago when it was, like, tens of thousands of dollars to have a video conferencing system set up in the office so you could communicate with people overseas, but now all you need is a Skype connection.

{Fahey’s note: Loud airport audiocast interrupts conversation…several times; Mark apologies, even though he doesn’t have to…the decent man that he is.}

So when a news channel calls me and wants to have me talk about something, I used to have to go down to to the station and get mic’ed up and sit in a little room while someone across the country interviewed me; but now, they typically just say, “Set up Skype and lets talk to you from your house,” which is great.

The only problem with these systems like Google chat and Hangouts and Skype is, that they’re buggy and they don’t work that well.   But when they do work, it kind of points to what we are going to see in the future—which is, pretty seamless communication with people.  And, yeah, you know, I can imagine things like holography and things like oculus rifts allowing us to have a more immersive communication experience with people.  That’s going to happen.

To me, the most interesting thing about having this kind of mediated communication technology is how much more we are starting to value unmediated communication–where we’re face to face with people; and those experiences are something that you can’t replicate, so they are really valuable and people are willing to pay a lot of money for it.  Like Coachella, for instance: You can’t go to Coachella now with the price of a ticket and meals and lodging and everything for under a thousand dollars, but they sell out in seconds because it’s something that is directly being communicated to you, to your sense organs.

Another example is, my daughter and I participate in a kind of a parent-child Dungeons and Dragons game where we meet every couple of weeks at my house and play Dungeons and Dragons.  It’s great; it’s so much better than playing an online game.  We love it.  So, those kind of things I think are going to become more and more precious—kind of in the same way that people are starting to look at books again as these amazing physical things that can convey a lot more than electronic media can.

How ’bout those Google glasses? Do you own a pair? If not, why not…and give us your take on the ramifications thereof?

No, I don’t own a pair.  I tried one and I wasn’t really that impressed.  But I think the promise of augmented reality is great; I’m really bad with directions, and I get lost easily—and so, having some kind of map overlaying reality so that I can actually, like, see how to get from one place to the other and what direction I’m facing would be really great.  So, I really do like the idea.  I would happily wear glasses that could add information layers on top of what I’m seeing in front of me, I think that would be great.

Shooting video through the glasses of things is not as interesting to me; I can see certain cases where it would be kind of useful.  I went to an Alexander Calder exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art a few months ago, and I was writing about it for Boing Boing, and they didn’t allow photography in there—which I think is crazy.  So I had a little spy pen that someone had sent me to review, and I used that to shoot some video and take some photos of the sculptures.  It was kind of crappy quality, but at least you could what it was that I was talking about.

So, maybe it would be kind of useful to have that video and photography capability.

I’m looking for your honest assessment of the NSA tracking that Edward Snowden reported [Doug Rushkoff calls Snowden a “hero,” in my interview with Mr. Rushkoff for, and I couldn’t fuckin’ agree more]; but with Google allowing NSA to tap into its servers, and then with users wearing Google “glasses,” duh!, everything picked up on said “glasses” goes straight to NSA. Jesus. So, what are your thoughts on this?]

That sucks, obviously! I agree with you and Doug that Snowden is a hero. The NSA is staffed with a lot of people with good intentions but they have some policies that do more harm than good. And it doesn’t seem like congress or the president want to rein them in. After everything Snowden has revealed, there have been no repercussions, and that just emboldens the bad actors in the NSA to continue doing things that damage our country and our reputation as a free country.

(Fahey leans close, whispers: “Just between you and me, right?: How do you go about “monetizing” this gig of yours? Is “product placement” the ticket?  …Like this?:  C’mon, man. 🙂

We make money in a couple of different ways.  One is advertising.  And we do things like regular banner advertising; we have sponsored posts, which we identify as sponsored posts.  We do events, which have been really fun, where we have music and hackathons, we have performances.  And then we also make money form affiliate link posts, where we review things and then, um, if someone buys that thing on Amazon, we get a small percentage of the sales.

We have a disclosure on every page of Boing Boing about our policy of affiliate links, so we’re not trying to hide anything—we’re pretty transparent about the way we make money, and I think that our readers know that and appreciate it, that we disclose all the sources of our income.  We do not accept money for posts, unless it’s a sponsored post that we clearly indicate…I guess what I’m trying to say is, we don’t take money from people telling us to link to something or write about something.  So, yeah, that’s something I think is really important: to maintain our integrity.


Interview Recordings

Communication Technologies

Google Glass



Playboy Living Online


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

RS Newsletter

Related Posts

Reality Sandwich uses cookies to
ensure you get the best experience
on our website. View our Privacy
Policy for more information.