Uncategorized

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.]

Hello. Remember blogging?

I realized recently that I’ve sent almost 100,000 tweets and that kind of freaked me out. Deconstructed a bit, as one of the first people to sign up for the site which has been online for over 10 years now that’s a little less than 10,000 tweets per year, and not even close to 1000 a month – closer to 200 a week or about 30 a day. Maybe less. Of course that’s not indicative of any actual day, more likely some days I sent 100s of tweets and other days stayed in single digits, but the fact remains I’m approaching 100k. Of from that what do I have to show? Sure I’ve met some cool people and seen some interesting events play out, but I don’t think I can point to any single one of those tweets (except maybe this one) and say “damn, I’m proud of that!” And not that I should, but I’m having a little crisis of faith over here so let me just run with it a bit. So it’s not only a question for me of what I did, but also what I didn’t do. I’ll never know for sure if instead of writing some piece of work that I’d be able to reference time and time again I sent some tweets. Maybe I could have hashed through some of the craziness in my head a little better if I’d spent more time writing longer form thoughts, instead I sent some tweets. I don’t know, and I’ll never know, but at the moment I’m not completely happy with that decision in hindsight. I’ve kicked around the idea of quitting when I hit that milestone, maybe I will and maybe I won’t. But I do know that I’m not getting what I once did from the site and if I’m honest with myself I haven’t for a long time and I need to stop pretending that isn’t the case.

I miss blogging, so I’m going to be spending more time writing here.

Without venturing too far from this reflection go how I’ve spent my time, I’ve been looking at my days and as I approach 42 years on this rock, the acceptance that I may very well have crossed the point where I have more time behind me than ahead of me. And if that’s that case, or even if it isn’t, I’d like to be more conscious of just what I spent my time on. On days when I’m reactive, that is spending all day long responding to inbounds and juggling whatever comes up at the moment, I feel like I get nothing done. Like I’m running too slow on a very fast moving sidewalk and at the end of the day I’m more behind then where I started. On days where I decide ahead of time and put together a structure for what I’ll do and when, I end the day thrilled with all I’ve pulled off and where I’m at. And for whatever reason right now I feel very disorganized mentally, lots of half baked plans and ideas and goals that I don’t know where to start on, or what I need to pull off first to get things in motion, which makes the planning ahead to do X, Y and Z that much more of an effort. Structure helps with this. I’ve been in a super successful routine for a while now where I wake up, make the coffee and the kid’s lunch, get him to school and then stop at the gym on my way home. I start work closer to 10am but I’m in a much better headspace and I can focus on one thing or another noticeably better than if I just roll out of bed and grab my phone or my laptop. The trick of course is exactly that, not grabbing my phone or my laptop. I don’t have email on my phone and I’ve deleted most of the mental itchy notification kind of checking things from it which has helped a lot, but I do work with people all around the world and so no matter what time it is for me its primetime for someone else which means there’s always the potential for the “oh! real quick…” which turns into 3 hours of reacting.

One thing I need to be better at is identifying exactly what I want to do each day, even if it’s just for a little while. Things like reading, or working on music are obvious but because they are obvious they tend to get overlooked. “Of course I want to read every day, that’s a given” isn’t as rock solid of a mandate as “From 8 to 9 every night I’m going to read something, nothing else can interrupt that.” I function well in these kinds of schedules and structures. If you know me then you know I thrive on less options and get caught in loops of second guessing when I have too many, and I think this falls into that part of my head. It’s 8pm, what can I do? Well I have a todo list with hundreds of possible things that I could do which I can’t decide on which is most pressing and so I spent an hour refreshing twitter. And while I knew that before, I don’t think I recognized it as clearly and now that I have my goal is to correct it.

The first step here is finding the things I want to do every day. I used to think that I needed to spend X hours doing something for it to be worth doing, and then I couldn’t find X hours to do it so I didn’t do it, which is a huge fail. I’ve seen the value in spending short time on things and then being able to do them repeatedly. For example spending 15 minutes every day writing is better than not writing all week because I couldn’t find an open hour to sit down and do it. Same for music or anything else. So I’m working on what that daily locked in list might look like.

One of those things is skateboarding with my son. Skating is one of the first things I can remember in my life deciding on my own that I wanted to do and I’ve had a skateboard in one form or another for most of the last 30 years. The summer between 7th and 8th grade sticks out in my head as a notable milestone. I gotten my first skateboard a few years earlier but it was piece of shit mall skateboard that I know I’ve written about before but can’t be bothered to go look up a link to. Anyway, my friends were nice enough to not make fun of me about it and also nice enough to hand me a copy of Trasher and suggest that I get a real skateboard. As a younger kid this wasn’t my choice, but something clicked in my head that summer as we moved back to Florida after a few year stint in Texas and I was determined to not embarrass myself in front of all my potential new skater friends and saved up enough to get my own board. I spent hours obsessing over California Cheap Skates ads and their sweet deals on complete Powell decks that came with Indie trucks and Slimeballs. In my memory I planned out what I was going to get over months but it was likely shorter than that. Anyway, I entered 8th grade with a much better board and didn’t put it down. I lived on it in high school and in college, though admittedly its gathered much dust in the last 15 years. I was never any good at skateboarding, but I always loved doing it. It was fun, and it was this thing I could do on my own without needing anyone else to help or sign off on. I think one of the reasons I stopped was feeling overly self conscious that I wasn’t better at it, especially after all those years. I was always lucky that my friends never made me feel bad about not being better, but I felt increasingly self conscious when I’d be out around people I didn’t know, which made spending time at skate parks or back yard ramps basically impossible. Abandoned parking lots were my jam.

I’ve noticed Ripley talking about some of his friends skateboarding and seen him take an interest when we’ve seen skaters out in public and wanted to nurture that. I’ve also been following the trials and tribulations of Mike Vallely. I knew him from magazines and rode many of his pro models. As a vegetarian turned vegan his animal graphics and themes always struck a chord with me. I met him in person a few years ago through some of our many mutual friends and while I usually try to avoid meeting people whose public persona’s I’ve looked up to because it’s almost always disappointing, in every every interaction I’ve had with Mike he’s been as genuine and authentic as I could have hoped he would be. I’ve tried to keep up with his efforts. I’ve always really liked his message that skating is more than just this activity, that it’s soulful and magic, and that individual fun and enjoyment should be paramount. And so it’s been sad to see a run of business backed ventures not work out. And at the same time, really exciting to see him launch Street Plant, his newest brand with just him and his family driving, so he’s not beholden to anyone elses motivations. And I think this has been the perfect vehicle for him to really evangelize the love of skateboarding as an art, and seeing him talk about it reminded me how much I liked it, and how much I missed it. And that was the perfect impetus to get the kid into it as well. So we’ve been skating together, not a lot, but a little bit every day while he figures out his balance and hits big personal milestones like skating all the way down the street without falling. And it’s been every bit as fun as I hoped it would be. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.

So that’s my stream of consciousness rant for the day. I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.

Bookish

I’ve been progressivly making the move from physical books to kindle versions, I’ve talked about this in the past just from a physical space standpoint but the convenience of having all my books with me at any given moment is hard to downplay as well. And yes it has it’s setbacks as well but for me there’s more on the win side so my physical bookshelf is being whittled down to mostly hardback first editions of books I love and or books my friends have written – with some books even fitting into both those categories. 

 

The ease of buying books for the kindle is great too, but maybe too great. I often hear a friend talk about a book they are enjoying and quickly buy it so that I have it in my library and can read it later on. This has resulted in way too many books sitting unread in my kindle library, which is almost as bad as the way too many books sitting 20-30% read in my kindle library. To the point when I look back I forget why I have a book, or what is going on with it in the part I’ve read. It’s getting to be a problem. I think I’m going to put a moratorium on buying new books for a while to try and get through the ones I have. I know I’m not the only one who has this issue but I’m also not really sure I’m looking for advice on how to deal with it – I just need to focus on finishing books rather than jumping around to new ones all the time. I know some friends have told me they force themselves to finish a non-fiction book and then reward themselves with fiction and still others have moved entirely to audiobooks. Audible is a piece of shit on every level which pretty much rules out the audiobooks for me because of the strangle hold they have on that entire industry. Bastards.

Generation

(originally posted on my secret blog, and then sent to my mailing list, been getting some great feedback on it so posting more widely here too)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between creation and curation recently, or maybe the imbalance between the two. And how rewarding each are for different reasons. For better or worse I’ve spent a lot of my time and life in the curation category – finding cool things and pointing others to them. Be it bands, artists, news stories, whatever. I’ve also had my share of creation of course too – I put designing record covers in that category, and of course writing as well. Photography, music, art are firmly in creation. I’m much more confident about the curation – I know when something is awesome or interesting and I don’t second guess the urge or need to point other people to it. I love doing it – but in the end I’m still pointing to other people’s work and I’m only valuable tomorrow if I find more things to point at. I’m less comfortable with the creation but I find it infinitely more fulfilling. From now for the rest of time I made that, and I can look back on it and people can discover it years later and it still came from me. It’s just as awesome, maybe more so, today when I see someone wearing a t-shirt with a band logo I drew or quoting something I wrote many years ago. These things have a life of their own.

Making music and art now is similarly exciting and I’m looking forward to where that ends up. But it keeps making me think about opportunities I passed up that I didn’t even recognize as opportunities at the time. I was lucky to find punk rock in the mid-80’s and those influences changed my life. I felt like I contributed to the scene by putting out records and booking tours, but looking back now I shouldn’t have passed on the many chances I had to actually be in bands and create things that might have lasted. I don’t feel like I missed out so much as I didn’t get all I could out of it. I love the experiences I had, but I can’t help but recognize that there could have been more. I try to keep this in mind going forward with new ideas.

I have books that I wrote 10 years ago and never published, it feels too late now but I know I shouldn’t have talked myself out of it then. When it’s mine, I want things to be great and perfect. And I’m good at convincing myself that things need more work to be great, work that never gets finished. Real artists ship right? I need to ship more often.

I think a lot about the world right now and my place in it. I still do a lot of curation. I find things and point people to them. A lot of things I’m reading or things that sparked my interest. In turn, people point to me as a filter. But I don’t know that I really want to be a filter. I mean, I am so there’s that, but that’s not my aspiration, and at the end of the day thinking about and saying “Man, I linked to some great stuff today, so proud of that!” isn’t really something that happens. Ever.

And on top of that, the world is fucking depressing right now. The news is all bad all the time. And I think that’s influencing my mood in ways I don’t like. I wake up next to my beautiful wife to the sounds of our amazing kid causing some awesome chaos somewhere in our great house filled with wonderfully handpicked stuff and I smile. And then I see the news and I think we’re fucked. And then I pass that on to everyone else. I don’t want to ruin people’s days anymore.

I don’t know where I’m getting with this line of thought, just that I’m thinking. And I want to make more things. I want to make more music. I want to write more. I want to create more. So that’s what I’m going to do. Said. Done. Stay tuned.

Encryption and Suspicion

Why using encryption is seen as suspicious — the difference between privacy and secrecy.

encryption

(Originally posted on Medium)

Not long ago I discussed some of the steps I was taking to ensure some privacy online and since then have had quite a few conversations with other people about their own efforts to do the same. We most frequently talk about how easy or hard something is to implement and express shared desire to have more of these options baked in as standard features on normal applications used by everyone. If encrypting an email was as easy as CCing some for example, it’s safe to assume more people would encrypt their emails.

These discussions also inevitably note that the simple act of encrypting your email is more likely to draw the attention of folks like the NSA because to some people this is seen as suspicious behavior. But I don’t buy it — if encrypting your email is suspicious that’s only the case because not many people do it, which is only the case because it’s not that easy. And now we’re running in circles. But lets think about this a bit more for a second.

What’s so suspicious about it?

Checking in on everyday

Waiting

A few months ago I wrote about things I wanted to do on a daily basis because they are important to me. In efforts to keep myself in check I thought I’d review that list again and see how I’m doing. I can tell you right that this isn’t going to be a positive review. I’m really, exceptionally good at distracting myself with random life things and messing up my plans. Which is in part why I kind of go overboard on the self structuring sometimes, without it who knows what kind of a disaster I’d be.