Articles

NFT WTF

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the last few weeks or months you’ve probably been hearing about NFTs. Like scores of others, you’ve probably been wondering just what an NFT is and if you should bother caring about them or not. Valid questions. I’d argue that you should, especially if you are involved in any kind of arts or creative work.

If you want to get a very detailed in depth understanding of the history, technology and cultural impact there are a number of long winded explainers and think pieces written for just that purpose. That is not the purpose of this article even though it is also long winded – I mostly just want to pass on what I think is most important. That said, if you want to take a half hour and read these few articles you will have a very solid grasp of the landscape:
• Cryptomedia, NFTs and the Next Internet – Bobby Hundreds
• What is an NFT? – Everything You Need to Know about Crypto Media and Tokens – Tim Stodz
• NFTs and a Thousand True Fans – Chris Dixon
NFT Art Goes Viral and Heads to Auction — But What Is It? – Valentina Di Liscia

The Basics: NFT means Non-Fungible Token. Fungibility essentially means interchangeability and in economics that means that all dollars are basically the same. If I take $10 to my bank and deposit it, and then wire transfer it to you and you go to your bank and withdraw $10 you technically have a different $10 in your hand, but because “a dollar” is fungible that doesn’t matter, because $10 is $10. The “value” changed hands, even if the actual physical representation of it didn’t. Now lets say I drew a little sketch of my cat and wanted to give it to you but you live on the other side of the world. I can’t just give that sketch to someone who then tells someone else near you to draw a sketch of a cat and say it’s the same thing, because the sketch is non fungible. You need the actual sketch I drew for it to have value (financial or emotional). Now, if you think of digital items then they are basically all fungible. If I send you an email with a photo attached, you aren’t reading the exact thing I wrote or seeing the exact photo I sent, you are reading a copy of it. But what even is original in terms of digital? That’s where NFTs come in, using the blockchain (which is the technology behind things like Bitcoin) this is a way to ensure that a digital file is the original and not a copy.

One of the hesitations towards and criticisms of digital art has always been that it has no rarity, as anyone can make a copy of it as many times as they want and it’s no different than the original. The same argument is used to denigrate photography and video art, though usually there’s some physical element (a signed and numbered print for example) that specifies the uniqueness. That isn’t typically a concern with a painting or sculpture which is obviously one of a kind. Of course there are forgeries, but they take a lot of effort and experts can usually spot them quite easily. An NFT is a cryptographical way to create that rarity and uniqueness in a digital item and prove that something isn’t a copy.

An artist can “tokenize” a piece of work and then sell it, and the buyer can prove that what they just bought is the original thing sold by the artist. And because the blockchain is public, every time that artwork changes hands it’s recorded in a public ledger and at any point someone can verify the piece is legitimate and trace the chain of custody all the way back to the artist who originally released it. (Or the impersonator, as the case may be) Like an old library check out card, the blockchain records who owned it for how long, and if it was given to them or if they bought it, and if they did how much they paid. Which is a fascinating way to track value fluctuation (hopefully appreciation) over time.

I think this is one of the biggest and most important details – whoever originally creates the NFT is hard coded into the ledger and can specify a royalty that they should receive anytime the work is sold in the future. Traditionally secondary market sales happen like this: Andy makes a painting and asks Larry to sell it for him. Larry has a gallery and sells Andy’s painting to Kirk. Andy typically gets 50% of that sale. So if Kirk bought it for $1000, Andy just made $500. Larry did too, but that’s a different story. Anyway, say 10 years later Andy has become a much more popular artist and Kirk decides to sell that painting and asks Christie to sell it for him, Christie will take a 20% fee for doing that and 80% will go to Kirk. Andy gets nothing. So if Christie sells that painting for $1M, Kirk makes $799,500, Christie makes $200,000, but Andy gets nothing. He’s still only got that original $500 from Larry. However if that painting was an NFT, and Andy is the one who made it Andy could specify that anytime that work is ever sold in the future, he gets a % of that sale.

Artists! This is important. If a gallery or curator or someone has approached you about making NFTs of your work and hasn’t told you about this, chances are they are putting themselves in that royalty seat so they, not you, get paid off every sale.

Think of an NFT like your domain name or your email address. Some of you might know first hand the problems that can come from letting a business partner own or manage your domain or email. Or your bank account. This has the potential to be a million times worse, and it’s one of those problems that you won’t realize is a problem until it’s too late. Take steps to avoid it now by making and publishing your own NFTs. It’s really not that hard, and the effort is worth it.

One final thing: Like iPhones vs Androids, there are two common standards at play here. ERC-721 and ERC-1155. ERC-721 is the older standard used by everyone and is for absolutely positively one of a kind items. ERC-1155 is a newer standard (and thus still gaining adoption) and is more flexible as it allows you to make one of a kind items, or an edition (only 25 ever made) or even open editions. If you want to understand more on that, read this.

With that out of the way, let’s move on.

So how do you make (or “mint” as it’s called) an NFT? Actually how you mint, list, and sell an NFT are closely related. For the purpose of this I’m going to be talking about minting and selling on OpenSea which is the currently the largest marketplace for such things, and is the service I used to easily mint my first NFTs.

There are several sites that will help you make NFTs and also several sites where you can sell NFTs. As long as they are using ERC-721 or ERC-1155 standards the NFTs you create in one place can be transferred or sold in another place. But in the same way you can’t take one painting and sell it to 5 different art galleries at the same time, one of a kind items can only be sold on one marketplace at a time.

Other popular sites/services include: Bitski, Ephimera, Foundation GhostMarket, Nifty Gateway, Rarible, Super Rare, Wax, etc etc etc. Each site has different policies, practices, and fees. Some have strict curation and you have to apply and prove yourself worthy to sell things there, some require buyers use their own in house cryptocurrency rather than something more widely exchangeable and some have pretty high fees for that convenience so caveat emptor. Again, to keep things simple I’m only talking about OpenSea.

OpenSea also offers “free NFT minting” which is a little misleading in that you still have to pay to initiate your account (technical limitation that you have to pay anywhere) but while other sites will charge you a “gas” fee every time you mint a new NFT, OpenSea won’t.

You will also need a wallet to accept all the crypto you will be making from your sales. You might ask why you can’t just use paypal or something? Because paypal deals in FIAT currency not cryptocurrency which is central to this entire thing. On OpenSea most sales are done using Ethereum (which is the second most popular cryptocurrency next to Bitcoin) though you can choose to accept a different type of cryptocurrency if you want. Think of OpenSea like ebay, they handle the transaction but they don’t hold money for you because they aren’t a bank. And neither is OpenSea, which is why you need a wallet. Most people use MetaMask which is simple browser extension, others prefer Coinbase Wallet which is an app you install on your phone. There are other options which you’ll be prompted to choose from when you first go to OpenSea, but you need one to go any further. Any money you make on the site from sales will go directly to that wallet, and if you choose that wallet when you decide where future royalties are sent then will go there too. But keep in mind that isn’t something you can change later, so make sure to write down all your wallet recovery details. If you lose your wallet, you lose your wallet. Literally.

Once you’ve connected your wallet your account on OpenSea exists. Keep in mind the two are linked, so if you go to OpenSea and use a different wallet, you’ll end up with a new (empty) account. The little circle icon in the upper left corer is your avatar, and that dropdown will allow you to set all the basic profile stuff you would set on any site. Next to it is CREATE and you guessed it, this is where you go to create NFTs. Choose “My Collections” on that dropdown and on the next page you’ll be given an option to create a new collection which you have to do first as your NFTs will be part of the collection. You’ll get a popup asking for a name, description and logo.

One thing I didn’t realize, the collection is independent from the user. I guess because you can invite other people to help you manage collections. But point being, the URL will be based on the collection, not the user. For example when I created a collection called “D5Kglitches” I assumed that would be nested under the user “seanbonner” but it’s not, and creating that collection resulted in a URL that looks like this:

https://opensea.io/collection/d5kglitches

And as you can see on this page showing one of the NFTs in the collection, the attribution is to D5Kglitches, not Sean Bonner. In this context that’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting. I plan to make NFTs of some of my photography and I’ll be making a new collection properly named when I do.

Once you’ve made a collection you can click into it and “Add New Item” which is the option you’ll use to mint an NFT. Before that you should click the “edit” button though and you’ll have a chance fill in more information including any links or credits you want to add, as well as that royalty thing I mentioned earlier. All NFTs in this collection will conform to this, so decide what % of future sales you want and put in your wallet address.

Once you’ve saved that, go back and hit that “Add New Item” button. This is where you choose the digital file you want to tokenize. Files can be a JPG, PNG, GIF, SVG, MP4, WEBM, MP3, WAV, OGG, GLB, or GLTF. Max size is: 100 MB. Add a name, a link to any external information about it (like your website) and a description. You can also add “lockable content” which is basically things that are hidden until it’s bought. I’ve seen people sell a collection of 10 blank white squares, with the actual image being locked content, so people didn’t know what they were buying until after they bought it. I’ve also see people sell a visual object and provide audio as the locked. Of course there’s no requirement to do this, it’s just an option if you want it.

Next is “Supply” and at the moment this is greyed out and limited to 1. However, if you paste “?enable_supply=true” into the URL and reload the page you’ll be able to edit that. BUT, you’ll lose anything you already added on the page, so don’t do that yet. Just go ahead with 1 copy and remember that for next time.

The next step is “create” which is where you’ll need to initiate your account with a transaction if you haven’t already, and then you can set the price/type of sale. Options are for a fixed price, auction, or declining price. Most people will want to just start off with a fixed price. If you have a following who is waiting on baited breath for your NFTs to drop then you could choose auction and see how much they are willing to pay. Declining price took me a minute to understand but this is a tactic to use FOMO as a marketing tool. You set a high price and a time period, and over that time the price gradually decreases until someone buys it or the deadline is hit – the idea being people will watch it and buy it before it gets too cheap and someone else gets it before them. I don’t know how this works in practice, but in theory maybe someone who only wanted to pay $100 might buy it at $120 because they are scared someone else will buy it at $105? Sort of a reverse auction or something.

Click sell, and you are rolling. You can tell people about your NFTs and people can buy them if you send them the link. They won’t be able to find them on their own though because there is one final step where someone at OpenSea has to manually “verify” that the collection is real and works and legal, once they do that then you are in search results on the site too. They say if you sell things you get noticed, but also just tweeting to them and asking for verification seems to work really well too.

If you have any questions let me know and I’ll see if I can help.

If this was helpful and you want to buy one of my NFTs you can see what I have available here.

You Just Lost The Game(stop)

This is an excerpt my most recent newsletter which you should go subscribe to right now. It’s free.

Now let me just preface this next bit by clarifying that I don’t have any idea what I’m talking really. I’m not an investor and I don’t understand the stock market beyond generally that it’s there to make rich people richer and fuck over poor people. Now I must admit that my hands aren’t entirely clean in that – I do own 2 full shares of Disney stock that my mother bought for me when I turned 10 and I think they are worth exactly the same today as they were then and I have no idea how to sell them even if I wanted to cash out and buy a coffee, but that’s my disclosure. Maybe some of you are in the same boat. Besides that noteworthy asset my understanding of stocks comes entirely from watching Billions.

That said I have an ace in the hole that most people don’t have access to. My son Ripley, who turns 11 this year, is a math genius. No really, he won some kind of math contest at his school in Tokyo and everyone was really impressed. Ask anyone. So he and I were talking about what’s going on with GameStop (he’s been actively interested in the Bitcoin news) and when I tried to explain sort of what I thought was happening he corrected me and explained it better, so I thought I’d relay that here for all of your benefit.

A: Buying stock: This is basic 101 stuff that probably everyone already knows. If a stock costs $10 and you buy 10 shares for $100, then the stock goes up to $15 dollars and you sell all 10 shares for $150 bucks, you just made $50 bucks. Similarly if the stock goes down to $8 and you sell all 10 shares for $80 then you just lost $20. Easy math here.

B: Shorting stock: This one always confused the fuck out of me but I think I have a handle on it now. If you think a stock is going to go down relatively quickly buying it would be a bad idea due to the reasons we just discussed in (A). BUT! There’s a way to bet against the stock, which is called shorting it. The way that works is this: Let’s say Jack owns stock in a company called Hills Inc and Jill thinks that Hills Inc is about to fall down and break it’s crown, so to speak. So what Jill does is “borrow” shares from Jack when they cost $10, then she waits some agreed upon time for the stock price to drop, buys them back at a lower price and returns them to Jack keeping the profit. So – using the same math as above, if the stock cost $10 when Jill “borrowed” 10 shares from Jack and sold it at that price she then has $100 in hand, and over the next few days it drops to $5, so she buys 10 shares back for $50 and then returns those 10 shares to Jack, keeping the extra $50 profit for herself. Jill successfully shorted the stock.

Now the trick is, that’s assuming it goes the way Jill wants it to. If instead the price climbs, Jill is in trouble. So, if she borrows 10 shares at $10 and sells them for $100, but over the following days the stock price doesn’t drop but instead rises, Jill still has to return 10 shares to Jack. So if the stock price rose to $12, Jill has to spend $120 to buy those same 10 shares, which ends up causing her to lose $20 in the deal.

Basically shorting a stock is a way to make money off a stock you don’t even own by betting against it. That said, in order to short a stock, you have to have some collateral being held incase things don’t go your way. Which is important for this next part.

Keep reading over on my newsletter archives, or better yet subscribe and have these emailed directly to you in the future!

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.