Articles

Social Distancing Werewolf

Preface: One of our long standing traditions at Shuttleworth Foundation gatherings is several late nights playing Werewolf – not especially unique but massively fun and wonderful for the camaraderie of the group. With travel and in-person events on hold due to current events we transitioned to online sessions for the event, but struggled with the loss of the social accompaniments. As self appointed God of Werewolf for the group, I took it upon myself to find a way to make this work with players in different physical locations. I found a number of people have also tried this, but their instructions were convoluted and obnoxious, so we hacked them apart and tried something new and it worked great, so I thought I’d share how that worked so that someone else can find these instructions and decide they suck and then write their own.

Caveats: If you are reading this I’m going to assume you already know how to play Werewolf so I’m not going to get into the weeds on that. I will say that when I moderate (aka, play God) I prefer the basic standard roles – werewolves, villagers, a doctor and a seer. I find that keeping it simple allows for maximum enjoyment for players and spectators, if you prefer adding what my friend Harper eloquently refers to as Micky Mouse roles, then this method might not work for you.

Also: This method uses Slack and Zoom, because we already use Slack and Zoom so I can attest this works with Slack and Zoom. If you use some other video conference & team communication platforms this may or may not work for you – you’ll just have to figure it out.

tl;dr

  • Everyone turn OFF cameras and MUTE microphones.
  • Roles will be assigned via SLACK messaging by God.
  • God will set up a group private on SLACK with all werewolves.
  • God will communicate with DOCTOR and SEER individually via Slack
  • Game begins: Everyone turn ON your camera, but remain MUTED.
  • God explains how this shit works… Daytime!
  • Villagers UNMUTE and commence ye old chit chat.
  • Nighttime: Turn OFF cameras and MUTE microphones.
  • God interacts with individual people via Slack, the group via Zoom.
  • Daytime: Turn ON cameras and UNMUTE microphones.
  • If you are killed, turn OFF your camera and MUTE your microphone, leave them off until the round is finished.
  • Wolves: If you are killed DO NOT CHAT in the private group. You can watch the discussion, but you are dead so do not fucking chime in.
  • DEAD people can chat in a #werewolf channel on Slack
  • The round ends when one of the following things happens:
    • Werewolves out number villages – WEREWOLVES WIN!
    • The last werewolf is killed by the villagers – VILLAGERS WIN!

More details: Set up

God (aka the Moderator) needs to be the host on Zoom. This allows absolute control and the ability to mute, kill, remove etc anyone at any time for any reason and that’s an important power to wield over the cowering masses you’ve roped into playing this game for your own amusement.

In Zoom, use GRID view and have all players begin with their cameras turned off and microphones muted. At the start only God should be seen and heard.

God should have a piece of paper handy and write down all the players and assign each one of the roles. Then, via Slack direct messaging tell each player their role. I can not stress this enough: DO NOT use the messaging in Zoom. It’s way too easy to accidentally send a message to the wrong person, way too complicated to switch between people and generally a pain in the ass. Using a separate application that handles that better is the way to go. Also on slack you should have a #werewolf channel where everyone who isn’t playing or who has just been killed can hang out. You should also create Direct Message group with only the werewolves which is where they will discuss who to kill each night.

Let’s go!

Once God has assigned roles and set up the private chat for the wolves, the game can begin. God should remind everyone how the game works and then instruct everyone to turn on their cameras and microphones. Daytime in the village!

I don’t recommend villagers are made to kill anyone on the first day, instead it’s a good time to drum up fear and panic about the horrible death and suffering that people have heard about happening in nearby villages.

Nighttime in the village! All players turn off their cameras and mute microphones. This ensures no meta-gaming resulting from someone peeking or saying they thought they heard someone typing when God asked the wolves who they wanted to kill.

God should keep camera and microphone on, and ask wolves, doctor and seer questions through Zoom – but they should respond on Slack.

Once it’s clear who didn’t survive the night, God can announce who is dead, and instruct everyone EXCEPT that person to turn back on their cameras and microphones. Dead people can keep watching and chatting in Slack, but under no circumstances should they turn back on their camera or microphone for the remainder of that game.

Rounds can last as long as God feels like, with full license to end a day if the village gets too boring. God is free to kill anyone at any time for any reason. If at any point the Werewolves out number villages then the Werewolves will win. Alternatively, if and when the last werewolf is killed by the villagers then the villagers win.

We tried this, it worked wonderfully. Give it a shot, adjust anything you want to, and stay vigilant.

Party Mode

Bradenton, Florida. A shit-hole ghetto town about an hour south of Tampa. I think it was the summer of 1990. I remember it being really, really hot. I was in high school and my friend Chris suggested starting a band. He played guitar already and told me I should get a bass. I took that week’s paycheck from the grocery store I worked at and went to a local used music equipment shop and asked what that could get me, I bought whatever it was they suggested. In my memory it was a sunburst Fender but I honestly can’t remember. I didn’t know I needed an amplifier for it to work, and had trouble figuring out how to play it at home. The following week we got together in another friends garage for “band practice” which was a serious lesson in humility. I showed up without an amp, but luckily (or unluckily) someone there had a guitar amp I could plug into. This was the first time I’d ever heard what the bass even sounded like.

Chris proposed that we start off playing “New Direction.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Chris pointed out that I was wearing a Gorilla Biscuits t-shirt at the time, New Direction of course was the first song on their recently released album Start Today. I didn’t actually have the album yet, I had a dubbed cassette copy that my neighbor Max had made for me which I listened to all the time – so once Chris started playing it I knew what he was talking about, but Max hadn’t written the names of any of the songs so didn’t know what any of them were called. Max would later sell me his blue and white swirled vinyl copy of that album, which has remained one of my prized possessions even to this day. Anyway, I knew the song but I had no idea how to play it, given that I had no idea how to play bass. I stood there in the garage all afternoon while my friends jammed one song after another that I knew but I had no idea how to play. That was the only band practice I ever went to, and I wasn’t ever invited to be any of their bands ever again, rightly so.

I kept that bass and every once and a while I’d pick it up and hope I’d magically learned how to play something. I never did. When I’d fantasize about being in a band I always pictured myself singing, so just never got motivated enough to try and learn it. Besides, my favorite band in town at the time, Tired From Now On, already had a bass player and a singer and I wasn’t going to even try to start a Tired From Now On copycat band. I think I sold it to my friend from Canada Kyle for $50 when one of his bands was passing through Gainesville a few years later. At least I’d spray painted it black so it looked much cooler than that crappy sunburst. I wonder if he still has it?

A few years later when I was working at Victory Records my co-worker Chuck told me he wanted to start a band and asked if I’d be interested in singing. Of course I said yes, instantly. He said he was getting the rest of the band together and we’d have a proper rehearsal in a few weeks. At that time I was often the last person to leave the office, which was in a 3 story condo in an industrial part of Chicago. My office was on the 3rd floor, and when everyone else would leave I’d often turn up my stereo as loud as it would go and jump around screaming along like an idiot to the loudest, angriest thing I had. It was excellent therapy. I highly recommend everyone try it sometime. My private karaoke included many bands, but vocalist Tim Singer’s bands – No Escape, Deadguy and the recently released (at the time) Kiss It Goodbye were in heavy rotation. I guess I always kind of related to his “I tried, but everything is fucked anyway” lyrical narrative. In my mind, that’s how I’d sing in a band.

Eventually Chuck would rope in the rest of a band and we’d all get together one evening after work in the basement of Bulldog Records, Victory’s record store in Wicker Park where bands like Blood For Blood and Murphy’s Law had recently played some already legendary shows. Drums set up, amps plugged in and blasting. I knew enough lyrics to enough songs that I figured there wouldn’t be a repeat of the New Direction situation and I was ready to go with whatever song they pulled out of the hardcore repertoire. Except the songs they’d written themselves and had already been practicing that I’d never heard before. Chuck handed me the mic and said “let’s go!” and I just stood there. I didn’t know what to sing, or what to say. I’d never written lyrics before, and certainly hadn’t anticipated doing it on the spot. I’d been daydreaming about doing this for years, and now when given the chance I froze. I convinced myself that anything I’d come up with would be so stupid the band would stop playing and I’d be laughed out of the basement. Of course, just standing there like an idiot had a similar effect. 

Decades later I of course recognize how letting my insecurity keep me from doing the thing I was dreaming of doing, when I directly had the opportunity to do it, was just about the stupidest thing I could have ever done. I’m not really big on regret, we all do things that if given another chance we might do differently or applying hindsight realize our errors, but pushing past that fear and doing actually band with my friends sometime in the 90’s when I had countless opportunities is something that I’d totally should have done. If life had do overs, that’s where I’d use mine.

I mention this because totally out of the blue this week there’s a new EP out by Tim’s new band Bitter Branches and it’s incredible. It’s the last thing I was expecting in 2020, and after listening to it on repeat essentially since buying it I can attest it’s exactly what I needed. If anything I’ve mentioned in this sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s what you need as well. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder to take the chances we have, when we have them. They won’t always be there and even trying and failing is way better than not trying at all.

Obsolete Distinctions

If you ever wondered what would be a good example to illustrate the absolute pointlessness of borders and countries and citizenship and visas and that entire thing, let me introduce you to the Coronavirus.
 Around the world visas are expiring but since flights have been cancelled people can’t leave. Many countries are extending visas a month at a time, and Japan has announced a 3 month leniency which optimistically assumes all will be back to normal in 3 months. While Portugal has given everyone in the country access to the national health care, social media around the world is full of newly emboldened racists arguing that foreign born permanent residents of their countries should be cut off from health care to keep the resources for the full blooded citizens (naturalized citizens need not apply). But the virus doesn’t give a shit about any of that. It doesn’t choose who to infect based on visa status and doesn’t limit contagion to any racial, political or national group. I’ve listened to people in the US argue that NY was only hit as hard as it was because of the politics of the residents, and that the rest of the country doesn’t have to worry about a similar situation. People are being really stupid.

The truth is a sick person walking down the street can infect any one of my neighbors just as easily as they could infect me, any of my neighbors getting sick puts me in the same risk as everyone else. If I get sick they are just as much at risk as anyone else. So what sense does it make to argue that if the Chinese family 2 streets over gets sick, they shouldn’t get the same medical attention as the rest of my neighbors? What sense does it make that if my visa expires and there are no flights to take me somewhere else, that I’ll be considered to have illegally overstayed my visa and prohibited from coming back?

The purpose of all of these systems is of course obvious – it’s to keep other people out. To create an “other.” Some tangible, legal difference. Someone to be better than. When you are obsessed with laws and paperwork and sorting things into little boxes maybe that seems like a good idea. But you know what doesn’t give a crap about laws or paperwork and sorting things into little boxes? Viruses.

And because viruses don’t care about any of that, all of this focus on what is happening here and ignoring what is happening there, is pointless. All the focus on me and not you is pointless.

This pandemic is certainly acting as a spotlight to bring attention to plenty of previously shadowed rotten and crusty corners of how things work, or more often don’t work. When no one is paying attention dysfunctional systems can just sit there not working because it doesn’t matter to enough people and it would be too much of a headache to try to fix. If it’s not broke don’t fix it right? Well in this case it’s more that if it’s broke but not enough people are impacted by it then don’t fix it. And all the sudden lots of people are being impacted.
(excerpted from my newsletter)

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.

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.

Let’s talk about race for a moment

[This is an excerpt from my newsletter, sign up here if you want]

On Joi’s recommendation I started reading White Fragility. As a white kid who grew up in the south at various times getting my ass kicked by racists, who now lives in a country where over 99% of the population doesn’t look like me and has been refused access and services because of my race, I have a hard time personally relating to any of the popular narratives around race in the US but I think it’s important to understand what they are and how other people experience them. 

I’m reminded of a moment a few years ago when I was visiting Detroit. My friend Shaka helped arrange a tour of some urban farms for me and some of our friends from MIT. The tour was led by Malik Yakini, a community leader who spent a lot of time helping people in many of the blighted neighborhoods. He started the tour by saying “As part of my introduction let me just say that I’m a recovering misogynist” which caused the women in our group to exchange some looks. He continued “I grew up in a time and place and environment that colored my view of things, and as I got older I realized the problems with those and I work every day to correct that.” Everyone relaxed and smiled. But he wasn’t done, and followed that quickly with “I say that, because it’s just like how all of you are recovering white supremacists, and you have to work on that every day too.” This jarred everyone as you might imagine. This guy didn’t know anything about me or my background, who was he to make a call like that? I’ve literally punched nazis! I got in trouble in high school for wearing a “Fuck Racism” shirt!! I wanted to argue with him, but wisely I kept my mouth shut. I recognized pretty quickly that the fact that his words bothered me so much meant there was something to them that I wasn’t prepared for at the time. I thought about it a lot then, and I think about it a lot now. As I consider the reverse culture shock I’m sure to have when I move back to the US it’s something I’ll continue to think about. I don’t have a nicely packaged resolution to that thought yet, I don’t know that anyone ever really can. But we can work on it.

Open Data: Now More Than Ever

For those interested in knowing what is in the world around them, the current news is disgusting. All US Environmental Protection Agency grants have been frozen, and employees are being prohibited from discussing the changes or talking to the public. The ban also halts all new contracts and the agency is being told to remove information from it’s website. It’s not just the EPA either, other govt agencies including the Department of Health and Human services have been ordered to cease all public contact and the Center for Disease Control just cancelled a major event it has been planning regarding climate change and health with no explanation. Starting immediately the US Department of Agriculture will stop providing any public facing documents. An EPA internal memo shows just how far reaching these new silencing policies are.

While we’ve certainly been critical of the EPA in the past, we’ve always applauded their motivations and efforts to get more data out there and get more people interested in it. Today’s news effectively puts an end to that. This isn’t completely out of the blue, for months scientists have been urging each other to copy as much of their data as they can in anticipation of the new US administration destroying their work. Even requesting information which hasn’t been made public though FOIA is now getting harder. And while these are largely US based issue, the data and information provided by these agencies is used by scientists the world over – and the US is just the latest to start blocking. Earlier this month Air Matters, which bills itself as “A Leading Global Air Quality Provider” was ordered by the Chinese govt to limit the readings it published, an order which they complied with immediately.

These actions go against everything for which Safecast stands.

We believe all people should have access to freely available, trustworthy and accurate data about their environments – especially as environments and health go hand in hand. The problem today–as it’s been since before we founded Safecast–is that governments are expected to be the gate keepers of this data, with the assumption that it’ll be there when it’s needed. We saw this first hand with Fukushima when people were shocked to learn there wasn’t an existing radiation monitoring network in place, and that the little bit of data that was available was restricted. We built Safecast as a reaction to the realization that the world had no idea what radiation levels were on a global scale, and there was very little data available to find out. Six years later, we now publish the largest background radiation dataset that has ever been available, and we put it completely into the public domain (via a CC0 designation) enabling awareness and research that has never been possible before. Our air quality beta test is in full swing and we hope to provide similarly useful data there in the near future. This data belongs to everyone, has no gate keeper, and can’t be shut down by any government. This is the power of open data.

We have frequently been approached by governments, companies and organizations who are interested in environmental monitoring. The vast majority of these people see environmental data as valuable IP that they can sell, license restrict and control. We’ve even had companies beg us to pull our data and let them sell it for us with promises of many piles of money that we could all swim in together. These requests show a complete lack of understanding of how public domain works, an appalling disregard for the value of shared research, and outright contempt for public awareness and education. We’ve made significant strides in collecting research quality data and making it available to everyone, but there is still a lot of work to do.

While many see today’s information blockade as a terrifying sign of things to come, we see it as a call to arms. This is exactly why we shouldn’t trust governments to be the sole gate keepers of our data. This is exactly why we shouldn’t let research that we fund with our tax dollars be kept from public view. This is exactly why we shouldn’t tolerate companies and organizations collecting data in public and licensing it back to us. As long as these walls and restrictions are in place, anything we have access to today can disappear tomorrow. We, as a global community, need to recognize this as the mis-judgement that it is and route around it.

But what can we do about it? Here are a few places to start:

  • Contact your local politicians and demand that all environmental data that your city generates or already possesses be placed into the public domain.
  • Demand that your city officials cut ties with any companies collecting data in your city and not releasing it under public domain.
  • If you are a researcher, refuse to sign agreements and licenses for restricted environmental data and instead work to create open alternatives.
  • If you have an environmental dataset, open it up. The data, any related algorithms or calculations and how it’s collected need to be public.
  • If you have an environmental start-up, discard any plans that see data as your IP.
  • If you are funding or supporting any environmental start-up, insist their data is open.
  • We’d love you to support Safecast with a one time or recurring donation or by getting one of our devices and helping collect data, but if radiation or air quality isn’t interesting to you we’re happy to point to projects measuring other things openly.

If you work at a company selling environmental data, it’s time for you to find a new business plan. Your actions and land-grabbing is now actively harming the public. This sounds like a battle cry, and in many ways it is. As the public, we can no longer sit by and trust these companies and governments to have our best interest in mind. We need to make them irrelevant.

(originally posted on Safecast)

Covert To Overt

[This is a forward that I wrote for the book “Covert to Overt: The Under/Overground Art of Shepard Fairey” which was released today. Shepard has been a trusted friend of mine for close to 20 years now and he remains someone I have unmeasurable respect for – I was honored to contribute something to this book. I though I’d post what I wrote here in case some people didn’t see the book but might enjoy it – though I fully recommend grabbing a copy for yourself regardless.]

1985 was a rough year for me. At home, at school. The fact that my recently divorced family had just moved across the country to somewhere in rural Texas, and had started using an assumed name didn’t help things. What did help things was a tutor that a teacher suggested I spend some time with after school. The tutor was a kid from a few grades above who seemed equally excited about the situation. We actually clicked right away. This was noteworthy because I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite fit in with the other kids. Not saying that I didn’t get along with them, I did, they were just into things I couldn’t really get excited about. I often felt like more of a spectator, just kind of watching things play out around. At that time I didn’t know any better and assumed I was just weird. Not that I’m not weird, but that’s a different story. Anyway, this tutor and I were supposed to work on my math and Latin (yes, Latin) skills which were sub par apparently, though they didn’t get any better during our lessons. Thing is, he didn’t teach me any math or latin, but he did clue me into everything awesome in the world.

The people you can point to in your life who had a significant impact are rare, but this guy, whose name I don’t even remember, introduced me to both Monty Python and the Circle Jerks, among other things. If you know me today you can see how much credit is due this one guy. On his suggestion I snuck home his loaned cassette copy of Group Sex and within seconds of putting it into my walkman I had an overwhelming feeling of “Finally!” Until then music had been one of two things for me – either the slow, mopey and depressing stuff that my mom way constantly playing at home, or the stuff on the radio that people were always dedicating to each other. One psudo-father figure who used to hang out around my house was a big Casey Kasem fan and was always listing to the weekly Top 40 countdowns. I found all of this to be terribly boring. Conversely, this cassette was exciting and scary.

This resonated, and made me excited about what else was out in the world that I didn’t know about. I dove in deep and had similar reactions upon hearing Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, Run DMC, Gorilla Biscuits, NWA and Sick of It All not long after. I’d found my people, and even if they weren’t right there with me physically, knowing they were out there in the world somehow made things better. Knowing that these people who weren’t happy with the way things were and wanted to make a change could do something –even if it was just to sing about it. This was incredibly powerful and meaningful for me to learn at such a young age. Unconsciously these bands became my social litmus test, I could gauge right away where new people I’d meet fit in my world view. Were they people who would accept things as they were, or were they people who would try to change things for the better.

I had a similar experience with art. Growing up I’d been to museums and found them largely boring. I know now that was as much due to what I was being taken to be see as anything else, but as an angsty teenager I really didn’t give a shit about the old masters. Eventually I stumbled onto the likes of Bosch, Darger and Worhal and I got it. Just like the bands I was now obsessed with these artists were commenting on the society surrounding them, and not everything they had to say was roses and sunshine. Even if sometimes it was.

A decade later a friend who I’d been exchanging letters with for a while but never met – a penpal as we used to say – came to visit in Chicago. We spent the entire night of his arrival driving around the city in a borrowed pick up truck, blasting NWA and talking about the drive to have a hand in shaping the future. We talked about small actions that can have huge impacts. Writing a song. Telling someone about a band. Creating an image that makes people ask questions. Simple actions that can change the world. As sun rose we called it a night, having accomplished our goal of installing huge images of a sunken eyed figure looking out over the city commanding people to OBEY.

Or perhaps challenging them to resist such orders.