2020

Dispatch from COVID-19 occupied Tokyo, Feb 28, 2020

[The following is an excerpt of something I sent out to my newsletter. Subscribe to have future updates mailed directly to you.]

I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and with the exception of face masks and hand sanitizer being sold out everywhere which has been the case for a few weeks now, nothing else seemed any different. A few more masks being worn on the street but not enough that you’d notice unless you were looking. This is a stark contrast to the scene about 20 minutes away from here at Shibuya crossing where easily 80% of people are wearing masks, though most of those people are wearing them incorrectly.

And then late last night it was announced that all elementary and high schools will be closed for the several 4 weeks.

This morning people were joking that there was going to be a rush on toilet paper. This afternoon Tara walked over to the neighborhood pharmacy and they were completely sold out, she went to 2 other stores including the one at the train station near our house – all empty. At the train station everyone was wearing masks, and people were staring at her enough that she felt uncomfortable and put on a mask just to blend in.

I remembered I’d put a pack of toilet paper in my shopping cart on Amazon Japan and went to look but it had been removed as it was no longer available from the seller. Searching for toilet paper shows everything is out of stock. Literally everything. There are some 3rd party sellers who will let you pre-order a 4 or 6 pack for the equivalent of about $150 but with the caveat that they don’t expect to ship it until mid April. I bought a 24 pack on Amazon Dot Com for $25 and then paid $50 to have it shipped from the US to Japan. It’ll be here next week, so that’s fun.

Rumors are whispering that China has closed shipping borders and that paper products are coming from there, so this could be the tip of the iceberg – but I haven’t seen any real confirmation of that. Lots of rumors.

We actually have a really well planned emergency kit with fully stocked bug out bags and several weeks worth of supplies. But those are in Los Angeles. In storage. While some other staples like cereal and milk are also selling out, the vegan options seem fully stocked. I was able to order a few cases of vegan ramen delivered next day without any problem, but not sure how long that will last before the regular people get hip to the tasty vegan options.

Moments ago the major of Hokkaido declared a state of emergency and asked everyone to stay in their homes all weekend. Here in Tokyo, Disneyland has closed until mid-March and events are being cancelled left and right but we’re still not in panic mode, at least not outwardly. This evening I walked over to the grocery store and the shelves of perishables are empty. The shelves of disinfectants and cleaners are empty. Everything else is mostly well stocked. It feels weird, like simultaneously on the brink of something but desperately clinging to some semblance of normalcy. A slow motion explosion happening right in front of your eyes. We’re planning to go to a park tomorrow afternoon to see plum blossoms.

We still have power and internet, but if this was a zombie/apocalypse movie they’d cut out soon with no warning.

Feeling parallels to the days back in 2011 just after the Tohoku earthquake. But that was more of an aftermath with a hopeful eye towards the future with thoughts of rebuilding and this is an ominous hesitation about what is coming, but at the same time refusing to acknowledge the inevitable as if that will somehow prevent it.

Talking about Safecast

In 2011 I was living with my family in Los Angeles. We lived in a little grey 2 bedroom 1 bath house once occupied by Henry Rollins, an author & musician whose punk rock/DIY ethics & integrity had already played a formative role in my life. In early March I would celebrate my son’s first birthday, and a few days later a triple disaster on the opposite side of the planet would completely change the course of my life. Over the following weeks and months I’d find myself staying up 24 hours at a time coordinating with people in every timezone imaginable trying to find information and answers for friends and family directly impacted by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown playing out in Fukushima. The government systems had failed, and we thought we could help. Be it art or activism, if you know me you know I’ve spent most of my life pushing against the boundaries of established norms, refusing to just accept the status quo. I would make several trips to Japan to work with others like me, taking our first steps towards a solution to a problem much larger than most of us realized at the time. Eventually the back and forth would become too much, and in 2017 as a family we decided to upend our lives and move around the world so as to better focus on the project that had become Safecast. As we approach the 9 year anniversary, I’m writing from Tokyo to ask you to join me.

Tara, Ripley & Sydney, Los Angeles circa 2011

We began Safecast with a push towards transparency, quickly growing to address the larger issues of trust and openness and forced a reassessment of what we all should expect from environmental monitoring projects. In a world where devices can be bricked anytime a company pivots, where EPA datasets and research disappear overnight, where a single politician can undo decades of work out of spite or where government regulations are written to augment an industry’s financial goals rather than the health of the people or the protection of our environment we stood up and said not anymore. If we can’t trust the companies and governments to look out for us, we’ll do it ourselves without them. We put all of our data into the public domain to ensure everyone can use it, and no one can ever delete it. My son will be able to show his grandchildren this data and it will be just as useful then as it is now. All of the devices we designed are open and futureproof, ensuring they will work as intended for as long as someone feels like repairing them. In a few short years this community built the largest open radiation dataset ever collected, larger than the combined datasets published by every government today. This information reshaped evacuation zones and helped people make life changing decisions. We’ve built a real time monitoring network that lets residents know about changes in their environments in minutes. From Tokyo I was able to see how smoke from brush fires was directly impacting my friends back in Los Angeles because of Safecast air sensors that were up and running. This system was unimaginable a few years earlier when I was in LA worrying about friends in Japan and week or month old data was the best anyone could find. Our global volunteer team has helped us to build a comprehensive map allowing people to see measurements on the streets in front of their houses, all over the world. In addition to the tools and deployments we’ve developed curriculum, lesson plans and tutorials to help people understand how this works, and do it for themselves without relying on us. In a world where companies are trying to find new ways to lock people into their ecosystems, we’ve actively worked to make sure these systems can function even without us. 

In the nonprofit world it’s commonplace to spend half your time fundraising in order to spend the other half doing the work. At Safecast we focus the majority of our time and energy on the work and the funding has come through recognition of our results. We’ve been lucky to have the incredible support of Reid Hoffman, Shuttleworth Foundation, Knight Foundation and others like them with courage, vision and the ability to see the long term picture. Their wonderful donations have covered the majority of our bills year over year. We’ve been able to have the kind of tangible, global, long term impact that we have precisely because we get to spend our time working doing the work without fundraising as a distraction. But that also creates a dependency where our ongoing work relies on a single person or a single donation, which isn’t healthy. We started this project with a recognition that “the way things work” wasn’t working and a belief that we could find a new way, and I think we’ve done that. Similarly, we think the way that nonprofits are expected to survive is broken, and believe there has to be a better way. “That’s the way it’s always been done” is a terrible reason to keep doing something, especially when it’s obviously not working. We reimagined what environmental monitoring could be, and now we are reimagining how to fund it. Safecast is not flashy. We are not a trendy startup looking for a quick exit, we’re not selling data out the back door to jack up our valuation. We aren’t looking for a hockey stick increase in market share. We are a passionate global community committed to a reliable solution that can be counted on today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. While we deeply appreciate the funders who have helped us get this far, if we want to be truly robust our funding needs to come from our community. Rather than relying on one person donating $100k, I want 100 people to donate $1k. A few hundred volunteers with geiger counters built the largest radiation dataset ever amassed while politicians sat around talking about why they couldn’t do it. That’s the proof that a few committed people can do the work that everyone else will benefit from. That’s what I’ve spent the last 9 years of my life focused on. Safecast is deploying sensor networks and building datasets that will benefit us all for generations–we didn’t ask permission or get anyone’s approval to do this, it’s just what we do.

My 45th birthday is at the end of this month. For my birthday I’m hoping to find 100 people to commit to giving $100 a month to Safecast for 1 year. These donations are tax deductible. That money will go a long way towards paying for salaries, servers and sensors. But more importantly, it will prove that a few people who care can positively impact the world. I hope you’ll join me.

Once Upon A Time In Bradenton

While walking home from the office the other day and talking to myself along the way I remembered a story from my childhood that I’d mostly forgotten. This was also when I was in 7th and 8th grade, I started hanging out with this kid named Erik-with-a-k who was as crappy of a skateboarder as I was so I didn’t feel too self conscious around him. We’d skate at a nearby school parking lot and sometimes visit a neighborhood ramp, he’d bring a little portable tape deck and blast Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks tapes. He’d tell me about a good friend of his who was a stupidly famous pro skater and I’d tell him he was full of shit. Then he’d tell me about him in front of his parents and they’d nod agreeingly so I figured maybe it was legit. One day he announced that he’d talked to his friend and this dude was going to be sending a care package of 25 complete boards for free, and Erik-with-a-k said he was going to give me 5 of them. This was huge because I was poor and had a really old really beat up deck, and the expected build was legit. Indy trucks, Slimeballs, Powell Swiss bearings and flypaper griptape. I’m embarrassed that I still remember this. 

Anyway, separately there was a legendarily good skater in our small Florida town named Caleb who could ollie into the back of a pickup truck, you can ask anyone. And this new windfall of skateboard booty had given me an idea. I knew a girl who knew a guy who people said sometimes skated with Caleb and I asked her if she could ask him if he could pass on a letter for me. He said yes, and she said yes. So, 13 or 14 year old me wrote a letter to Caleb. I told him he probably didn’t know who I was but I knew all about him and his pick up truck oillie-ing. I asked him if he’d teach me how to skate, because I sucked and everyone I knew sucked and I just wanted some tips from someone who knew what they were doing. Keep in mind this was 1988 or so and there was no YouTube. Anyway I told him about the skateboards I was about to get, and offered him one of the complete builds in return for his skate tutoring. I gave the letter to the girl, she said she gave it to the guy, but Caleb never replied. 

A year later I’d go to high school and it would be the same high school that Caleb went to, though he was a few years older. Being a punk or skateboarding wasn’t really a cool thing to do in those days, especially not in the middle of Florida. [As an aside that same year I’d run for (and lose) student council Vice President using the slogan Sean B for VP and my campaign posters had a drawing of a kid on a skateboard which I drew and thought was cool, but some other Sean B in my school who was a surfer didn’t take too kindly too and pulled me aside one day and told me to take every last one down or he and his surf friends were going to beat my sorry skater ass because he didn’t want anyone thinking the posters were his implying that he skated.] Anyway, During lunch all 5 or 6 people who were into punk or skateboarding or that kind of thing would end up sitting together at lunch and yes that meant that eventually I’d be sitting with Caleb, who by this time had lost all his mythos and was just a stoner in my mind. To his credit he never made fun of me, though one day he would ask me if I ever got all those skateboards. Which I didn’t, because the story from Erik-with-a-k was bullshit.

Turns out Erik-with-a-k was a pathological liar, the first I’d ever recognized. We’d stopped being friends the previous summer when his mother found a massive stash of porno mags under his bed and he’d played dumb by blaming them on me, saying I’d ask him to hold some things for him but told him he wasn’t allowed to look at them. His mother believed him and called my mother to tell her how I was poisoning the mind of her sweet innocent child and I wasn’t welcome in their home anymore. I got grounded because “you know what you did” though I didn’t know, and it wasn’t until I called Erik-with-a-k to find out what the fuck was going on that I learned what was going on when as he, over the phone, lied to my face about it. I told him to fuck off, he told me he’d kick my ass if he ever saw me again.

A few years later I’d see him again, he’d turned into a cowboy and was hanging out in the back of a pick up truck with some other cowboys in the parking lot of the Denny’s my friends and I would go to. When I say he turned into a cowboy I mean he’d started wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and had developed a very strong southern drawl. I said “Hey Erik-with-a-k what the fuck is up with the cowboy boots and hat and that southern drawl?” and he said “Boy! Whyount you comm’on over ‘ere and you’ll find out!” and I said “No thanks” and went inside the Denny’s. He and his friends drove away pretty quickly once more of my friends showed up and joined me inside. They were probably worried someone would throw a skateboard at their pickup truck and scratch the paint or something. When I got home that night there was a message on my answering machine from him, full hick-accent and with some good-ol boys a hootin’ and a hollerin’ in the background and conveyin’ the message that I got lucky tonight but he’d find me some other time when I didn’t have all my friends and teach me a lesson about respect.

I’m pretty sure I never saw or heard from him ever again though I passed some dude who looked a hell of a lot like him on the moving sidewalk at Denver airport about 5 years ago and I like to think it was him and he got scared because he didn’t have his rodeo clowns with him and ran anyway as soon as he got off the moving sidewalk. True story.

[This story was originally written for my newsletter/mailing list thing which you should subscribe to if you haven’t already.]

MMXIX: The Decade In Review

At the start of 2019 I wrote a blog post called Ten for Twenty Nineteen, which was simply a few things I was thinking about as I began the new year. It was primarily forward looking as opposed to the reflective Year In Review, In Photos posts which I published annually between 2007 to 2013. In 2008, I wrote about the previous year:

“I don’t know if 2007 was as shitty as I’ve been saying it was. It was certainly full of change, and mostly unexpected. It had some very low lows, but also some very high highs. I lost a lot, but I think in the end I’ve gained even more. And standing here looking back over the last 12 months I don’t know how much of it I’d change if I had the chance.”

I found significant value in revisiting the previous year with hindsight perspective and it often helped me appreciate my own narrative in a way that my memories alone hadn’t allowed. I remembered things in the moment, but the blog posts gave me a greater context.

I genuinely regret (unintentionally) abandoning the In Photos series, as I would love to visually revisit 2013-2019 (heres 2010, 2011, 2012). As I’ve mentioned before, when I started it I was actively “life blogging” so at the end of the year it was fairly easy to scroll through the posts over the last 12 months and pull out the highlights. In an attempt to improve my photography skills, I began transitioning from frequent documentarian cameraphone pics to more curated film photos, but I didn’t realize at the time that instead of posting them when I took them (easy to sort by date) they would now be posted when I developed them, sometimes months later. This significantly complicated my previously simple date search – something I learned too late. I also used to say that I moved away from Flickr because a series of unfortunate acquisitions made the future of the site questionable, but to move away would require going somewhere else, which I didn’t do. I had also slowed written blog posts from several a day to one a month, if that. So it’s more likely I was just burned out on it all. That said, this year I’m trying to put Flickr back into my workflow, so we’ll see how it goes going forward.

A friend recently told me that Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov had a thing where every 10 years he’d completely change his focus – arguing anything you can contribute to a field you can do in 10 years, beyond that you are just taking up space. I haven’t found direct confirmation of a hard and fast “10 year” rule, though he did work in many different fields throughout his life. I liked that idea and related to it deeply. I could see parallels in my businesses and wondered if this “10 year” thing applied to other interests and focuses as well? While I might not have the same kind of images to easily allow an almost week to week revisitation of the last 7 years, I can identify some major events and accomplishments. And so, with all that in mind I wanted to look back over the last decade, to put some things into a larger context for myself, as inspiration and motivation as I move ahead into the next, whatever and wherever that might lead. So here it goes.

How I spent The Last 10 Years

Dogtown

I started the decade living in Venice Beach, California (USA) with my wife Tara. With our bedroom windows open, we could hear the waves crashing on the sand all night long. Ten years later I’m living in Shibuya, Tokyo (Japan) with Tara and our 9 year old son Ripley. On a clear day, from our bedroom window we can see Mt. Fuji. It’s my feeling if you spend more than a consecutive month in a single place you’ve lived there, and using that definition, in between there and here, we’ve also lived in Singapore (Singapore), Vincennes (France), Vienna (Austria) and Boulder, Colorado (USA) as well as the Los Angeles (USA) neighborhoods of Silverlake and Atwater Village.

In addition to residing in the aforementioned locales, I also bounced around the world for business and pleasure – several times. Sometimes with my family, sometimes with colleagues, and sometimes alone. I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dublin, Fukushima, London, New York, Paris, Sarasota, and Vancouver. I’ve also spent not a lot of time, but time none the less in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Climping, Costa Rica, Dubai, Florence, Geneva, Honolulu, Iriomote, Jackson, Kagoshima, London, Malta, Manila, Marrakech, Milan, Newark, Oman, Piza, San Benito, Siquijor, Savinja, Toronto, Venice, Winchester, Whistler, and the Yucatan. Among others, that was an incomplete “top of my head” list.

Coffee Common x NYC

For new chapters to start, old ones need to end and with that in mind I decided to walk away from the blogging company Jason Defillippo and I started almost a decade earlier. I started (and ended) a coffee company with Stephen Morrissey, Peter Giuliano, Kyle Glanville, Brian Jones, Brent Fortune and Tim Styles. We built Coffee Common as an educational, inspirational mouthpiece and produced several absolutely insane events, then shut it down to move on with our lives. For a while after that I curated a coffee subscription project as well. As a board member of CicLAvia I helped people Los Angeles connect with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Along with Joi Ito, Pieter Franken and Ray Ozzie and countless volunteers I built Safecast which has become one of the most important citizen science projects ever. We changed the way the public expects to get environmental data, and the expectations researchers have about public projects. Tara and I recently started Street Sheets because most of you have crappy taste and we wanted to improve the aesthetics of the world around us.

Music has remained a constant and important part of my life. In the 90’s I worked mostly behind the scenes, in the 2000’s I embraced just being in the audience. In the 10’s I got on stage. I sang backups for a Strife record, joined Brevi, DJ Muggs and Andrew Kline as part of Cross My Heart Hope To Die, Massacred Saturday Night with Wil Wheaton, contributed a soundtrack to a short film by Uchujin, and dicked around with various other noises. I’ve performed live in front of audiences in Los Angeles and Tokyo. I started 2010 with no musical instruments or know how of any kind and now possess and play a few more than none with a growing fondness for guitar and synths.

All of 'em

In 2010 I sold my first artwork, some music related post-it note sized drawings as part of Giant Robot’s annual exhibition of the same. I have no idea who bought them, but I love that they are out in the world somewhere. The same year, I decided to get a film camera and thought it might be interesting to take photos of people on the streets. Since then my photos have hung on gallery walls and sold to people who buy artwork. I published a photobook of my Tokyo street photos and some of my other images have been published in the Leica published book Leica Myself, Souris Hong’s Outside The Lines, Too, Peter Gilmore’s The Devils Reign and Invader’s Invasion Los Angeles 2.1. While I officially ran away screaming from the world of music design in the late 90’s, I popped out of retirement to design the first Die Antwoord album, in collaboration with Clayton Cubitt and Gary Baseman and a bunch of merchandise for Bad Brains with Glen E Friedman. Yeah sex is cool but have you ever tried making cool art with your friends?

I wrote an introduction to Shepard Fairey’s book Covert to Overt, a few sidebars for Algis Tamosaitis’ Rock Your Travel, and cowrote a book about the future of philanthropy for the Shuttleworth Foundation, with whom I’ve been a Fellow since 2014. Morgen and I wrote books about Zombies and Oklahoma. Either I or my work was written about in books by Colin Harmon, Mike Walsh, Dr. Mamie Lau, James Wynn, Joi Ito, Shaka Senghor, Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, and others.

I gave dozens of talks about various topics to audiences all over the world. A few standouts including talking about minimalism at TEDx in Vienna, about Safecast at 29c3 in Hamburg and at CERN in Geneva, and about my life at Re:Publica in Berlin.

I learned to snowboard and scuba dive. I biked hundreds miles and skateboarded hundreds of feet. I snorkeled with sea turtles and hiked through rain forests.

I’ve lost friends and family to overdoses, diseases, suicides, honest mistakes and dishonest bullshit. I’ll cherish and remember the beautiful moments, and I’ll never forgive or forget the betrayals. I stay in regular contact with friends I’ve had for decades, who amazingly still put up with me. I’ve reconnected with friends and family who are important to me, but I’d lost touch with over the years. I’ve made new friends and new family, and my life is richer and more fulfilling than I ever could have imagined it would be because of them.

Nikko Japan, November 2019

I’ve watched my son grow from a boulbous poop factory into a bilingual, dangerously smart young man with a razor sharp wit. He’s a pleasure to be around, and I can barely wait to hear what he says next. Currently a few months past our 11 year wedding anniversary, this decade was all about my love affair with Tara Tiger Brown. As a muse, she’s woven into everything I do. As a partner she always there to kick my ass or bandage my wounds, depending on what the situation calls for. She’s the architect of our adventures, and wind in our sails.

Even though I never really gave a shit about it and dropped out of college, in the last decade I’ve become a Researcher at MIT and a Professor at Keio University. Conversely, after decades of practice I now have the licenses & certificates to legally prove I’m both a ninja and a Satanic priest, fulfilling all of my 1980’s suburban American teenage dreams.

Not a bad way to spend 10 years if I do say so myself. Can’t wait to see what happens next.