I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and with the exception of face masks and hand sanitizer being sold out everywhere which has been the case for a few weeks now, nothing else seemed any different. A few more masks being worn on the street but not enough that you’d notice unless you were looking. This is a stark contrast to the scene about 20 minutes away from here at Shibuya crossing where easily 80% of people are wearing masks, though most of those people are wearing them incorrectly.
And then late last night it was announced that all elementary and high schools will be closed for the several 4 weeks.
This morning people were joking that there was going to be a rush on toilet paper. This afternoon Tara walked over to the neighborhood pharmacy and they were completely sold out, she went to 2 other stores including the one at the train station near our house – all empty. At the train station everyone was wearing masks, and people were staring at her enough that she felt uncomfortable and put on a mask just to blend in.
I remembered I’d put a pack of toilet paper in my shopping cart on Amazon Japan and went to look but it had been removed as it was no longer available from the seller. Searching for toilet paper shows everything is out of stock. Literally everything. There are some 3rd party sellers who will let you pre-order a 4 or 6 pack for the equivalent of about $150 but with the caveat that they don’t expect to ship it until mid April. I bought a 24 pack on Amazon Dot Com for $25 and then paid $50 to have it shipped from the US to Japan. It’ll be here next week, so that’s fun.
Rumors are whispering that China has closed shipping borders and that paper products are coming from there, so this could be the tip of the iceberg – but I haven’t seen any real confirmation of that. Lots of rumors.
We actually have a really well planned emergency kit with fully stocked bug out bags and several weeks worth of supplies. But those are in Los Angeles. In storage. While some other staples like cereal and milk are also selling out, the vegan options seem fully stocked. I was able to order a few cases of vegan ramen delivered next day without any problem, but not sure how long that will last before the regular people get hip to the tasty vegan options.
Moments ago the major of Hokkaido declared a state of emergency and asked everyone to stay in their homes all weekend. Here in Tokyo, Disneyland has closed until mid-March and events are being cancelled left and right but we’re still not in panic mode, at least not outwardly. This evening I walked over to the grocery store and the shelves of perishables are empty. The shelves of disinfectants and cleaners are empty. Everything else is mostly well stocked. It feels weird, like simultaneously on the brink of something but desperately clinging to some semblance of normalcy. A slow motion explosion happening right in front of your eyes. We’re planning to go to a park tomorrow afternoon to see plum blossoms.
We still have power and internet, but if this was a zombie/apocalypse movie they’d cut out soon with no warning.
Feeling parallels to the days back in 2011 just after the Tohoku earthquake. But that was more of an aftermath with a hopeful eye towards the future with thoughts of rebuilding and this is an ominous hesitation about what is coming, but at the same time refusing to acknowledge the inevitable as if that will somehow prevent it.
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.
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.
While walking home from the office the other day and talking to myself along the way I remembered a story from my childhood that I’d mostly forgotten. This was also when I was in 7th and 8th grade, I started hanging out with this kid named Erik-with-a-k who was as crappy of a skateboarder as I was so I didn’t feel too self conscious around him. We’d skate at a nearby school parking lot and sometimes visit a neighborhood ramp, he’d bring a little portable tape deck and blast Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks tapes. He’d tell me about a good friend of his who was a stupidly famous pro skater and I’d tell him he was full of shit. Then he’d tell me about him in front of his parents and they’d nod agreeingly so I figured maybe it was legit. One day he announced that he’d talked to his friend and this dude was going to be sending a care package of 25 complete boards for free, and Erik-with-a-k said he was going to give me 5 of them. This was huge because I was poor and had a really old really beat up deck, and the expected build was legit. Indy trucks, Slimeballs, Powell Swiss bearings and flypaper griptape. I’m embarrassed that I still remember this.
Anyway, separately there was a legendarily good skater in our small Florida town named Caleb who could ollie into the back of a pickup truck, you can ask anyone. And this new windfall of skateboard booty had given me an idea. I knew a girl who knew a guy who people said sometimes skated with Caleb and I asked her if she could ask him if he could pass on a letter for me. He said yes, and she said yes. So, 13 or 14 year old me wrote a letter to Caleb. I told him he probably didn’t know who I was but I knew all about him and his pick up truck oillie-ing. I asked him if he’d teach me how to skate, because I sucked and everyone I knew sucked and I just wanted some tips from someone who knew what they were doing. Keep in mind this was 1988 or so and there was no YouTube. Anyway I told him about the skateboards I was about to get, and offered him one of the complete builds in return for his skate tutoring. I gave the letter to the girl, she said she gave it to the guy, but Caleb never replied.
A year later I’d go to high school and it would be the same high school that Caleb went to, though he was a few years older. Being a punk or skateboarding wasn’t really a cool thing to do in those days, especially not in the middle of Florida. [As an aside that same year I’d run for (and lose) student council Vice President using the slogan Sean B for VP and my campaign posters had a drawing of a kid on a skateboard which I drew and thought was cool, but some other Sean B in my school who was a surfer didn’t take too kindly too and pulled me aside one day and told me to take every last one down or he and his surf friends were going to beat my sorry skater ass because he didn’t want anyone thinking the posters were his implying that he skated.] Anyway, During lunch all 5 or 6 people who were into punk or skateboarding or that kind of thing would end up sitting together at lunch and yes that meant that eventually I’d be sitting with Caleb, who by this time had lost all his mythos and was just a stoner in my mind. To his credit he never made fun of me, though one day he would ask me if I ever got all those skateboards. Which I didn’t, because the story from Erik-with-a-k was bullshit.
Turns out Erik-with-a-k was a pathological liar, the first I’d ever recognized. We’d stopped being friends the previous summer when his mother found a massive stash of porno mags under his bed and he’d played dumb by blaming them on me, saying I’d ask him to hold some things for him but told him he wasn’t allowed to look at them. His mother believed him and called my mother to tell her how I was poisoning the mind of her sweet innocent child and I wasn’t welcome in their home anymore. I got grounded because “you know what you did” though I didn’t know, and it wasn’t until I called Erik-with-a-k to find out what the fuck was going on that I learned what was going on when as he, over the phone, lied to my face about it. I told him to fuck off, he told me he’d kick my ass if he ever saw me again.
A few years later I’d see him again, he’d turned into a cowboy and was hanging out in the back of a pick up truck with some other cowboys in the parking lot of the Denny’s my friends and I would go to. When I say he turned into a cowboy I mean he’d started wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and had developed a very strong southern drawl. I said “Hey Erik-with-a-k what the fuck is up with the cowboy boots and hat and that southern drawl?” and he said “Boy! Whyount you comm’on over ‘ere and you’ll find out!” and I said “No thanks” and went inside the Denny’s. He and his friends drove away pretty quickly once more of my friends showed up and joined me inside. They were probably worried someone would throw a skateboard at their pickup truck and scratch the paint or something. When I got home that night there was a message on my answering machine from him, full hick-accent and with some good-ol boys a hootin’ and a hollerin’ in the background and conveyin’ the message that I got lucky tonight but he’d find me some other time when I didn’t have all my friends and teach me a lesson about respect.
I’m pretty sure I never saw or heard from him ever again though I passed some dude who looked a hell of a lot like him on the moving sidewalk at Denver airport about 5 years ago and I like to think it was him and he got scared because he didn’t have his rodeo clowns with him and ran anyway as soon as he got off the moving sidewalk. True story.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
I snuck out for lunch the other day and grabbed pizza at a new favorite brick oven spot in Harajuku which happened to be silently projecting Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes on the back wall of the restaurant. (Unrelated, his upcoming film might be the best thing in cinematic history) It’s minimal black and white scenes making for a nice backdrop to the minimal black and white design of the dining room, though I don’t know if that was intentional. If you haven’t seen it and you enjoy people analyzing the subtleties of simple conversations then it’s worth adding to your watch list. I love it, but I can also sit and watch people all day long. It had been a while, but as it played silently I started remembering how fantastic some of the scenes are and decided to rewatch again soon.
Soon turned out to be last night. Michael Booth from the Denver Post originally wrote that “At least three of the spots make the hour and a half worthwhile through an addicting blend of hilarity and beauty” and before last night I would have agreed with that. The movie is made up of these short vignettes, conversations between 2 or 3 people that are completely unconnected, but begin to reference each other as they go. It’s hard to tell what is improvised and what is scripted, and if the actors are playing themselves or characters of themselves. Before I would have said it was worth watching just for the Iggy Pop & Tom Waits, and the Bill Murry & RZA & GZA scenes alone but something else struck me during this viewing.
In the episode entitled ‘No Problem’ Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé play a pair of old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time, but are meeting up because apparently Alex called Isaach out of the blue recently asking to talk. Isaach expresses how happy he was to hear from his old friend Alex and the two agree it’s wonderful to see each other. Isaach then asks his old and obviously dear friend what the problem is, assuming that must have been the impetus for the call. Alex says there is not a problem leading Isaach to question why his friend can’t trust him with whatever the problem must be. This goes back and forth a bit, Isaach obviously cares for his friend and is visibly hurt by the silence, and Alex seems put off by the questioning leading to awkwardness that extends until Isaach decides to take off, leaving the invitation to confide in him open. This is a really long way to getting at the point – there is a notion here that is more powerful than immediately recognizable. The idea that we all have these friends, best friends, who we can not talk to for years and still consider them to be friends. People who we wouldn’t hesitate to call if we had a problem and would expect the same from them, but in practice don’t even call otherwise.
And why not? Especially as adults the important interactions become fewer and farther between. Somewhere along the way catch up calls became text messages and social media likes.
I started wondering why that is. When I think of my very favorite people on this planet, I’ve actually spoken with very few of them in recent memory. Some I’ve interacted with online, liked a photo they posted or made a quick joke in an ongoing group email thread, but we haven’t really talked. Sure, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of my very best friends while traveling through their cities but that requires planning and effort, and it’s the exception, not the norm. Living on the other side of the world now only makes that separation feel deeper, the distance that much more tangible.
“These days the people I love are spread so far apart. All out of reach.” – Ache, Jawbreaker
When I was younger, as I imagine many of you will remember, long distance calls were expensive and you had to hack pay phones to have any kind of meaningful chats with friends anywhere outside of your city. I still clearly remember the hours I spent at payphones when I lived in Florida talking with my friend Sean McCabe who lived in Philly at the time. I’d sit outside for 3-4 hours in a stretch. Talking about nothing really, but it meant everything. This was circa ‘95 and while we’d become friends online, when we wanted to talk we still picked up the phone.
And here we are all these years later with a million essentially free ways to video chat and I can’t remember when the last time I had a call with a friend without a specific preplanned purpose. When I think of the last people that I’ve had calls with who aren’t right in my physical vicinity it’s 90% work, 10% family and nothing else. Meanwhile I watch my 9yo son spend every second he can on the weekends FaceTiming with his friends in the US and Europe – time zones be damned. They play video games and watch YouTube on one screen and have another propped up with video just to hang out with each other. He doesn’t realize it now but these are precious, beautiful interactions that at 9 I couldn’t have even imagined having. At that age I was excited to steal 5-10 minutes on the phone with a friend from school, not much more was allowed because those were the days before call waiting and tying up the home line for any extended period of time was not cool.
So it’s easier than ever now, and yet I feel more out of touch than ever as well. I don’t think I’m the only one. One of my standout memories from the last few decades is a call a received from a friend out of the blue for no reason, just to say hi. This is stand out because it’s one of the only times post 2000 that I can ever remember it happening. But why? Are we so busy that we can’t spare a few minutes to reach out to people we love? Are we so stressed that the idea of trying to schedule something is monumental and the mere idea of calling out of the blue unsolicited feels monstrously rude? But maybe we need to be monsters if that’s the case. Scheduling a call for next week seems like it requires a purpose. An out of the blue call today, right now seems like it needs an urgent problem. But maybe the problem is that we haven’t talked recently and that urgently needs to be resolved.
I guess I strive to be both Alex and Isaach, from their own perspectives. I want to be there for my friends if they need me, and I want to be comfortable just calling them out of the blue for no reason. I’m better at the first thing than the latter, but I could be better at both. We probably all could.
Landed in the UK and pelted with sleet upon arrival at Heathrow, moments outside of the door. Honestly, I’d expect nothing less. London for me has always balanced between quaint and brutal. Teetering from National Lampoons European Vacation to UK National Front.
Some people find that duality uncomfortable, preferring things to be one way or the other but that leads to disappointment as nothing is really ever one way or the other. There are extremes, and we all find some comfortable middle ground and occasionally bounce into the walls. This was what attracted me to punk rock and straight edge – goodie two shoes kids who ‘just said no’ but would also throw a brick through a storefront window or jump Skinheads in the park without thinking twice. And I enjoyed embracing that duality then, being impossible to fit nicely in any single box.
I think about that middle area a lot these days, I used to write off “moderate” or “centric” as a static form of inaction, unwilling to commit or take a stand. I saw clear lines and firm positions. Now, for me, I find these notions come more from intimate familiarity with the edges and the damaged that can be caused by running into them too hard, and the understanding that constant motion rather than fixed inaction is where I live.
I think about this in temporal ways as well, not just in immediate thinking. Where did I come from, where am I going and is there really only one path or several running concurrently. I guess as a kid from Florida who grew up on food stamps, with no lights in the house because the power bill hadn’t been paid, who is currently flying around the world on a Billionaire’s dime, that’s not an unreasonable thing to consider. Those pieces don’t fit nicely together, but it’s folly to assume they would should in the first place.
Our lives are puzzles. The already completed pictures are boring, the ones with lots of pieces that you can’t figure out where to put are vivid, challenging and exciting.
Here in the UK, today is March 11th. It’s hard to overestimate the impact the events of this day 8 years ago had on my life. Upon writing that I immediately recognize the criticism of making this about me, however that’s really the only thing I can honestly do and my best writing has always taken the form of introspective diary. It would be disingenuous for me to try to tell anyone else’s story – I’m not a documentarian and have never been good at that. There are thousands, 10’s of thousands of stories about people impacted by disaster, and perhaps millions more from the ripple effects – those stories need and deserve to be told but I’m not the one to do that. The only thing I can do is look at myself, consider how one thing leads to another and marvel at the chain reactions.
Without 3/11 there would be no Safecast, and suffice to say I wouldn’t be where I am today. Quite literally as I type this sitting in an old farm house in the British countryside that used to be a recording studio and birthed works by the likes of Ozzy Osborne, Oasis, The Beat, Roxy Music and Whitesnake – me being here to to co-write a book about the future of non-profits and how open thinking can change the world. There’s no conceivable way I end up here today without 3/11, and that’s true for a hundred different reasons that spill over onto the people around me every day. That could be an entire essay itself, but this is to say I recognize that, and appreciate the people who have joined with me on this ride. Occasionally running into the walls, often correcting course and always dreaming of where we are headed next. We’re the compass people, eschewing maps, and I love you all for that.
I’m sitting at Intelligentsia in Silver Lake drinking a cup of coffee from Burundi. In many ways this feels familiar, and if it was 2009 it would be unremarkable. But it’s 2019 and it feels weird, to say the least. A coffee shop that was once the mecca of LA east side hipster culture, in many ways the unquestioned north star of 3rd wave coffee culture. I’d often sit here for hours writing and chatting with friends who happened by, surrounded by celebrities and punks, bike messengers and young local politicians. A place so iconic that it was represented in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It felt electric and exciting. It was the town square.
Today my company includes standouts such as people obviously from out of town taking selfies of themselves to prove to friends they were here, some possibly homeless people taking up half the seats outside, a definitely homeless guy who keeps coming in trying to fill an old paper cup with all of the milks and sugars they have on the condiments counter, spilling most of what he tries to pour all over the floor, screaming that the containers are empty and leaving, only to come back 10 minutes later and repeat the cycle, and while the milks get refilled, the puddle on the counters and floors remains. A 25 year old Veruca Salt song blasts from the ceiling mounted speakers. Everyone inside has a laptop, no one outside does. There’s a mother who handed her child a bag of goldfish crackers so that he won’t distract her from Facebook on her iPhone, the kid not having it has dumped most of the crackers on the ground, the mother hasn’t noticed. A artist in one corner has filled half a notebook with with nothing but straight lines, suspiciously glaring at anyone (me) trying to see what he’s up to. Someone’s dog just shit on the iconic blue geometric tiles.
It feels weird.
In many ways, it’s kind of representative of my visit to LA. The reason I’m at this particular coffee shop is because the 3 previous coffee shops I visited were a bust. No parking anywhere near, or no seating available in the shops. These places used to be Cheers for me, I’d walk in and know everyone. On a bad day I’d only know half the people. I’m exaggerating but you get my point. I haven’t seen a face I recognized all day, but honestly why should I? Having moved out of this city more than a year ago, I wouldn’t expect things to stay the same. Shops I’d hoped to visit have closed, restaurants have new menus and friends have busy schedules. I’ve made, and cancelled several dinner reservations. I’ve found myself driving around without any real idea where to go, I’ve parked somewhere and put 2 hours on the meter, walked around for 5 minutes and then gone back and driven away, calling it a day and going to sleep by 5pm. It could just be jetlag.
I have a confusing relationship with LA right now. I don’t want to rely on that cliche’d ex-lover analogy, memories of attraction balanced with self preservative distance and 2020 hindsight, but it’s apt. When does home stop being home? I wrote about the idea of “home” almost a decade ago, questioning what makes something home. I don’t think I answered it very well then, I don’t know that I have the answers now but increasingly for me, home is more of a feeling and less of a place. I feel at home in various places, but no place really feels like home to me. I used to say that Los Angeles was the first place that I ever lived that felt like home, but I think now that’s more about the time and the people, and less about the location. I feel at home when Tara and Ripley are near me, and they are too far away right now. They get into town tomorrow, so maybe they will bring some home with them.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Doughboys recently. Out of the blue about 2 months ago, for no reason at all one of their songs popped into my head and inspired me to go dig up the albums. This is always a dangerous prospect because when you remember liking a band that you haven’t heard in a very long time sometimes the memory is better than the real thing and when you go revisit them later in life they just don’t hold up. I’ve ruined a handful of childhood favorites by listening to them with a critical adult ear. Luckily, Doughboys held up and have been on almost constant repeat since I put the files onto my phone so I could walk around with them. Listening to these songs again has been really interesting for me beyond just rediscovering some music I used to like.
In 1991 when I was 16 I went to a show to see a band called the Doughboys who had some members from The Asexuals though I didn’t really know what they sounded like. The show I’m thinking of was at a venue called Janus Landing so I knew I could get in free via any number of means, and important consideration for 16 year old me growing up in the middle of Florida. There was a secret back alley entrance next to a sandwich shop that had a fence I could jump, if I got there early enough I could grab a piece of gear and carry it in walking right through the front door with a purpose. There was a guy named Fred who always set up a table inside selling records and I knew I could act like I was helping him carry things in too. Or in the worse case I could find Tony who was the promoter of the show and beg. Looking back now there is no way he didn’t know I was sneaking in to all his shows, but never once gave me any trouble for it and helped me out in many ways over the years. But that’s a different story.
One way or another I’d get in. And the funny thing about doing this kind of reminiscing in 2019 is that in some cases someone actually has the event on video and has posted it to YouTube. The quality is questionable, but I’m certain that one of the heads bouncing around in front of the stage in this is mine. My friends and I all looked the same so it’s hard to pinpoint, but I dead center in the front for this entire show.
That was a long lead up to the main point that at this show I completely fell in love with this band. Their crazy long dreadlocks, poppy as shit songs and overall attitude was incredibly refreshing at the time. And added bonus was that at this show they were selling a purple long sleeve T-shirt giant yellow writing on the back that read “I’M SO FUCKING HAPPY.” It was a favorite of mine for years. This tour was just after their “When Up Turns To Down” but the first record I bought of their was their then most recent album “Happy Accidents” and that’s the one I always went back to and have listened to perhaps thousands of times. If you have one of those records where you know every single word, every single note, every single tempo spacing then you know what I mean. I feel lucky to have a number of those kinds of records, but “Happy Accidents” is on of them for sure. And of course, someone has posted the entire album on YouTube and if you did nothing else for the next 48 minutes besides sit and listen to it that would be 48 minutes well spent.
Every single song on this record resonates with me for different reasons and in different ways. It brings me vivid memories of the swampy smell of the unfinished garage I lived in at the time as our housing complex condo was only 2 bedrooms and I didn’t want to share a bedroom with my mother or brother, long sticky summer days driving across the state with friends, car air conditioner broken, windows rolled down and stereo blasting, or walking through neighborhood streets in central Florida, yards alternating from perfectly manicured to hosting a collection of rusted cars on cinder blocks. The songs were catchy and often about girls and being in love but not in the sappy way that would have put me off at the time. The song “Wait And See” can be found on almost every mix tape I made for any girl over the next 5 years. You might not think think that a song with lyrics like
..If I could take for granted all my faults and second chances, there’s one chance left to take, you could be my maiden and I could fight off all the dragons, but it never seems to work out that way…
would have clicked for a little hardcore straight edge kid in the middle of nowhere obsessed with grindcore and hiphop but they did in a big way. “Intravenus De Milo” “Happy Sad Day” and “Sunflower Honey” were also common mix tape ingredients, though the sample in “Sunflower Honey” that says “What does sex amount to without a sense of guilt” made including that one tricky depending on the hidden messages I was trying to sneak in there.
Their previous album “Home Again” was no less beautiful and I copied the CDs that I had onto one long playing cassette so that when driving around we could listen to both albums back to back easily. The unquestionable standout track on that was “I Won’t Write You A Letter” because with that sugary hook and lyrics like:
…Now and then I might remember, mostly I try to forget, and right now I’m in the middle wondering if it’s over yet, and I know it doesn’t matter because the road will never end, well so I won’t write you a letter I know I’ll be home again…
how could it not? I cued up the video below to that song, listen to the whole thing and wait for the baseline break down 3/4ths of the way through. Holy shit it still gets me even to this day.
Digging further back, their first album “Whatever” just didn’t grab me, I think if I’d heard it when it came out I may have had a different take on it, but by “Home Again” and “Happy Accidents”they had really found their sound which they hadn’t quite figured out on “Whatever” though it there are glimpses of it if you want to hunt for them, but I never really felt the need.
A few years later in 1993 “Crush” came out accompanied by their first music video for the first song from the record “shine” which got picked up on MTV2 which was a really big deal in those days. I remember someone getting tipped off when it was going to be played and we all went over to watch it together. This video, much better than the live Janus Landing one I posted before shows what weirdos they looked like, and really captures what they felt like in my memory.
They were Canadian too so had some added mystic to us Florida kids, in fact now that I think about it it was probably the Doughboys and The Nils who first made Canada interesting to me. Years later I’d re-release the epic “And Such Is Progress” by Grade and then eventually marry a Canadian girl, so maybe they can all thank Doughboys for initially pointing me north. When you think about it Canada and Florida are both weird places that most people have only heard about and are probably a little afraid of so we have some social outcast kinship right out of the gate.
Anyway “Crush” kept going, here’s a song called “Melt” that you can’t even pretend doesn’t rock.
Their final album “Turn Me On” took a big step forward and felt totally different to me than their earlier work. But not in the way that Jawbreaker’s “Dear You” felt totally different, where you were shocked at first, almost taken aback, but it got interesting on the second listen and the brilliance began to show by the third listen and every successive listen after that becomes clearer and clearer that it’s perhaps one of the greatest records ever recorded without ruining the trio of perfect records that had lead up to it. No, “Turn Me On” was just different, and it wasn’t my thing. It’s not a bad record in any sense, but it’s not “Happy Accidents” and that’s what it was all about for me.
Recently I learned that Doughboys singer-guitarist John Kastner moved from Montreal to Los Angeles just before I did and lived right around the corner from me for many years, though I didn’t know it at the time. I don’t know what I would have done had I known, but I’d like to think I would have walked over, knocked on his door and said thanks.
It’s funny sitting here a month shy of my 44th birthday trying to remember when I was 16. Thinking back on that kid I used to be I can’t help but think of things I would tell him that I know now, knowing full well he would never believe anything I had to say. Similarly, I wonder what he’d tell me, looking at the life I ended up making and where the paths I chose lead. I know for sure he never could have imagined half of what has gone down over the last 3 decades – but given the chance to look ahead at where he’d land I wonder what would be the thing he’d have hoped that I would have held onto. At that time I really didn’t expect to live to far into my 20’s so I think he would be both surprised and proud. I still like that kid when I think about him. Idealistic and stubborn, he definitely had some issues he needed to work through but he came out OK on the other side of I do say so myself.
In the past decade I've lived in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and now in Vancouver. I've run hackerspaces and blog networks, an art gallery, a design firm and a record label. I'm one of the co-founders of the environmental non-profit Safecast, a Shuttleworth Fellow and have been an Associate Professor at Keio University and a Researcher at the MIT Media Lab. I take photos and make noisy ambient music under the name Delay 5000 (D5K). For most of the last 2 years I've been working around NFTs and Web3. Read more about me here. I don't use Facebook.
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