The Trick Is That There Is No Trick.

Now I’m not all I thought I’d be
I always stayed around
I’ve been as far as Mercy and Grand
Frozen to the ground
I can’t stay here, and I’m scared to leave
So kiss me once, and then
I’ll go to hell, I might as well
Be whistlin’ down the wind.

— Tom Waits

I was hanging out with a friend of mine tonight here in Yakima, a young Latina, a single mother of four, and we were talking about how Yakima, and other places like it, are not like urban America. Most of the people who live in rural America these days are either trapped here by circumstance — getting married or pregnant early, or simply not having the money or the opportunity to move away — or because they reject the values of the big city. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but, well, that’s a whole other blog post.)

I found myself recommending to her — as I have to several of my friends here who are young and at loose ends — that she learn to code, as a way to take hold of her own economic destiny, and that of her children.

New readers might think at this point “God, yet another fatuous tech bro telling people all their problems will be solved if they just learn to code.” But longtime readers, and anyone who knows me, will know that I am decidedly not one of those people at all. I have argued at great length that one of the great failings of the tech industry is the nonsense notion that it’s a simple meritocracy — that anybody can do what we do.

The thing is, I think that is true… but only in the most theoretical of theory. The reality is far different.

I have one of the most diverse socioeconomic backgrounds of anyone I’ve ever known, but go ahead and assume, for the moment, that as far as this discussion goes I’m an average sample of the tech industry: a straight white male raised in the middle class. I got my first computer from my grandfather, an electrical engineer, when I was five years old: a Commodore VIC-20, along with a book on BASIC programming. “Where are the games?” I asked him. “Write some,” he replied. So I did, crappy little text adventure games, with very simple if/then logic. Nothing to write home about. but not bad for a little kid in 1983. I was kind of a prodigy.

My family saw to it that I always had a computer growing up — not always the fastest or newest, but something. I got on BBSes when I got a modem in the late 80s; I started fucking around with Photoshop in 1993; I made my first HTML page in 1995; I wrote my first PHP code in 1999 or so. I’ve been doing it for money ever since — sometimes good money, often bad, but I’ve never really been out of work if I was willing to hustle to get it.

My friend? She was not so lucky. She’s had a hard life. She’s a first generation Mexican-American, a child of divorce, who got pregnant young. She’s never had money or access to resources or advanced education other than what she might get at the local community college.

Despite that, she’s incredibly brave and smart and curious. She’s perfectly capable of being a web developer. But the biggest difference between me and her is that nobody ever told her she could be a web developer. That was never an option that was put on the table for her, the same way that option is almost never put on the table for poor people in this country.

But here’s the secret I want to share with you: anybody really can be a coder in America. It requires, basically, four things:

  1. A computer. Not even a great computer; a used $200 laptop from a pawn shop will work perfectly well.
  2. An Internet connection, or regular access to one, at the library or a coffeeshop if you don’t have one at home.
  3. A certain amount of time each day to devote to learning.
  4. A willingness to bang your head against the knowledge you need until it makes sense.

If you want to be a Web developer, you need to know three things: HTML, CSS and Javascript. That’s basically it. (And you need to understand the basic client-server architecture of the Internet, but that’s not even absolutely necessary to get into in any hardcore super-geeky detail.) That’s not a small amount of information, by any means, but I know people who’ve walked into the “coding bootcamps” that are so popular these days and walked out three months later with enough knowledge to get a job in the industry immediately.

Of course, most poor folks can’t afford either the enrollment fees or the time off work to attend such a bootcamp. But I would estimate that in six months, studying for two or three hours a day, five days a week, you can learn enough to get an entry-level position in tech. A gig at a hip San Francisco startup? Probably not, unless you’re middle class and know people. But here’s the great thing about tech: everybody needs it. The big employer in your small town needs somebody to write web apps, or at least maintain a WordPress site. Local businesses will pay for you to make them websites. That entry level gig won’t be sexy, but it will almost certainly pay more than minimum wage…and in a place like Yakima, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is pretty huge, that’s a big deal. It’s a ladder leading upward.

One objection people often raise to me is: I’m not into that computer stuff. It’s boring. Yeah, it can be, especially at first. After a while, it’s not. After a while, you’re excited by the potential you have to make things that can a) make you decent money and b) maybe, possibly, perhaps, change the world. And more importantly: you know what’s more boring than looking at computer code all day? Working as a cashier at fucking Walmart for minimum wage for the rest of your life.

Would you rather have a job that was boring and paid you $75K a year or a job that was even more boring, except you’re taking home a third of that, and being treated like a disposable piece of garbage by your employer, and having to wear a stupid vest?

If you’ve never lived in a place like Yakima, it’s hard to really understand how limited your options are if you didn’t start out with money and you can’t run the hell away. Working as a Walmart stocker or a McDonald’s fry cook or cleaning motel rooms isn’t an afterschool thing for high school kids: it’s good, steady work. Career advancement? Sure, you might end up an assistant manager or shift supervisor. You might even take night classes at Yakima Valley College so you can get a job as a machinist or a nurse. Maybe. If you can find somebody to watch your kids…except babysitters cost money, and if you’re making $9 an hour, where’s that money coming from?

But you don’t need a degree to work in tech, not even an AA from a community college. Shit, I’m a high school dropout. I have a GED. I went to a semester of art school before I dropped out to write and code full time. Nobody fucking cares — and if they do, they’re probably douchebags, and not worth working for. I respect academic achievement, but in the tech industry, it’s not a requirement. Ability is what matters, very generally speaking.

And as much as I firmly believe the tech industry has a strong (if often oblivious and unintentional) streak of misogyny and racism running through it, I also believe that if you’re legitimately smart and good at what you do, you will always find a way to at least get your foot in the door… and once you’re in, you have the opportunity to be part of the solution, making things better for people like you.

I realize that sounds simplistic, but look: nothing will change in tech unless there are more people working within it who want change, who are willing to stand up and speak out and push for that change. And that means more people of color, more women, more people who aren’t middle class white and Asian dudes who went to Stanford or Berkeley. We know what the problem is; let’s work on getting people in the door who can fix it.

One of the things I’d like to do here in Yakima — one of the things that would make living out here in almost total social and cultural isolation worth it for me — would be to set up free basic Web development classes that would be open to the public. Anyone could attend, but I’d focus my outreach specifically on the Hispanic migrant worker population and the Native Americans on the reservation, who are the poorest and most marginalized groups here.

Poverty begets poverty; marginalization begets marginalization. The institutional treatment of Hispanics and Natives in Eastern Washington ranges from paternal to patronizing to frankly barbaric. The city of Yakima has been embroiled in a suit with the ACLU over redistricting that would give Hispanics a better chance to get on the city council and be involved in running a community in which, depending on the season, they may actually be the majority. No one has given any reasonable explanation I have found for why the city would fight the redistricting, except that Yakima is a city that’s always been run by the rich white people who own the vineyards and orchards and fruit packing companies, where Latinos are routinely regarded by the Anglo community as little more than gangsters and drug dealers and ignorant laborers.

And I don’t know much about the situation of the Natives on the Yakama Nation reservation that borders the city, but the little I do know about — like the old boarding schools where Native children were given “white” names and converted to Christianity, a practice which continued until 1978 — does not lead me to suspect everything is coming up roses out there, either.

For the majority of the Hispanics who come here, success is defined as earning enough money to feed their families here and send money to those who were left back home, and maybe to open a small business of their own some day like an auto repair shop or a carniceria. The idea that their children might become startup CEOs or CTOs is as ridiculous and inconceivable an idea as the idea that they’ll grow up to wrangle unicorns for a living. Tech is a gringo thing. So they don’t encourage their kids to pursue those dreams, and neither does anybody else, the same way nobody encourages a black kid living in the projects in inner-city Los Angeles or Chicago or Queens to be a coder. Better to be realistic, right?

The pathway to getting there isn’t hidden, exactly; aside from a few red-pill shitbags, nobody’s actively trying to keep people of color or women out of the tech industry. But nobody’s going out of their way to shine a beacon to draw them in or make them feel welcome, either. Hell, most tech folks wouldn’t know which way to point such a beacon if they did.

This is where the tech industry’s image of itself as a meritocracy fails, in my opinion, because most people within it have no concept of what the world outside of their middle-class upbringing is really like. They think anybody can win the game if they play hard enough. But to win a game, you first have to be aware that a game even exists…and that you, too, can sit at the table and play.

To me, this is one of the most important things we in the tech industry can work to accomplish. If I could figure a way to do it full-time here and still earn a living, I would, but I don’t even know how to go about that. I am considering donating my time to teaching such classes, at least as soon as I’m on a little more stable ground, financially, than I have been this past year. (That too is a whole other blog post, but if you don’t know me, you probably don’t care.)

I’d start by choosing a curriculum from one of the free online learning resources like Codecademy or Coursera, and using that as a basis for classroom education and interaction. I’d find a way to get computers in the classroom for those who don’t have them — maybe, say, hit up one of the Westside’s reasonably successful tech companies to donate netbooks. I’d start with HTML and CSS, and then offer an intro to Javascript as an advanced course. My goal would be to get the students familiar enough with these technologies that they could continue to teach themselves once the class is over, and provide them with starting points for that continuation — teach them how to teach themselves, the way I did and a lot of geeks do.

But maybe even more importantly, my goal would be to hammer home the idea that yes, this is totally something they can do, just like rich Anglos. (If you’re in the tech industry and don’t think of yourself as “rich”, keep in mind that for a lot of the people I’m talking about, anyone who makes more than, say, $75K a year is rich.) The trick is that there is no trick; the lie they’ve been taught, explicitly or implicitly, is that there’s some barrier to entry that you can’t cross. There isn’t; they can do this.

Would this solve all the problems the migrant workers and Natives here face, or bring about a sea change in the tech industry’s attitudes? Of course not. I’m not that naive. But hell, if we could help foster even the possibility of bringing these marginalized communities into the tech industry, it would be worth it, I think.

Can you imagine it? That’s what I asked my friend tonight. Can you imagine making enough money that you didn’t run out at the end of the month? Having enough to put more than you make right now into your savings account, each and every month? Never worrying about whether you’re going to be able to put food on the table or pay rent, or handle the medical bills if your children get sick? Knowing that your boys would be able to go to any college they wanted, that when you were gone they wouldn’t be left with nothing? Wouldn’t that be worth the effort to learn this boring shit, how to make web pages and program them?

For most of the people who enter the tech industry, this isn’t something they can only imagine — it’s the default condition of existence. Hardship, for most tech industry people, means having to move home to live with your parents in their basement because your startup ran out of funding, not moving into a homeless shelter or having two families in a two bedroom apartment. Hardship means having to share a car with your spouse, not riding a shitty public bus ten miles each way to and from work. Fear is not being successful, not getting rich or powerful or living up to your potential, of being ordinary.

It’s not the fear that comes with seeing roaches crawl across your child’s bedroom floor when you turn on the lights, and knowing that it will never get any easier than this, never get any better, no matter how hard you work; that you’ll never own a home, that you’ll leave nothing when you die except medical debts. It’s not the terror of looking out the window of your shitty one-bedroom apartment and seeing your preteen son hanging down on the corner with the dealers, and knowing that if he isn’t slinging for them already, he will be soon.

And why not? The dealers are the only people he’s ever seen who drive Escalades and have money to spare. Who else has he got as a role model? You? Working your ten hour shift at Jack In The Box and coming home bone weary in your paper hat to sit in the shitty folding chair at the shitty Formica table you bought at the thrift store, choking down another fabulous meal of leftover Sourdough Jacks and stale curly fries — the only real benefit your employer offers you, as you never get scheduled quite enough hours to qualify for insurance. Rich white motherfuckers on Fox News can blather on about the value of hard work until they’re blue in the face, but even a little kid can see that hard work isn’t getting you any fucking place at all but an early grave.

Start what up? Chief technical what? In the words of Senator Clay Davis on The Wire: sheeeeeeit.

Hope is not a destination; it’s a doorway. If it’s closed to you, you can’t even guess what lies on the other side. But what if we could open that door for all those terrified, hopeless people, all those apple-pickers and corner boys and trailer trash, living and dying in the corners of this sprawling, beautiful, terrible nation of ours? Just open the door, just a crack; that’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen says.

It’s not an answer, but fucking hell, y’all, it’s as good a place to start as any.



Posted in Essays | 1 Comment

A response to Zoë Keating’s post about YouTube

[I don’t post comments on other people’s blog posts much these days, because as we all know the comments section is usually the equivalent of the pit underneath the blog’s outhouse. But I did post a response to Zoë Keating’s What Should I Do About YouTube, which has been making the rounds, and I thought it was worth republishing here, as it will be lost in the flood there. Go read that before you read this.]

Hi Zoe. We don’t know each other but we have a gazillion friends in common and I think we’ve spoken on Twitter before. I normally don’t do the comments section but I thought it would be worth it this time.

Back in the Dark Ages of 2003, I founded an online music store where artists could sell their own work for their own price directly to their fans and keep 70% of the proceeds. (Maintaining infrastructure was a lot more expensive back then.) I’m a musician and the grandson and great-grandson of musicians (concert pianists) and grew up as the son of a working singer/songwriter, and I wanted to build something that empowered both artists and fans.

It failed, for a variety of reasons, and it wasn’t until Bandcamp came along years and years later that I really felt like somebody had realized my dream, and done it far better than I had. Bandcamp isn’t perfect but out of all of the music services out there that I know of, it has the best experience for both artists and consumers, and I say that not only as somebody who’s worked in this sector for nearly fifteen years but also as someone who both buys and sells their work on Bandcamp.

And yet, in the grand scheme of things, they’re a second tier service in terms of market share if not quality. Is it because they’re not good at marketing? Not good at running their business? I don’t think so. I think it’s because they’re not doing what the bigger online streaming/retailers are doing, which is showing a Janus face.

With one face, they’re telling the consumers that they’re about empowering them, giving them tools to create and share. But with the other face, they’re reassuring the traditional music industry power structures that, no, it’s gonna be business as usual. And, as in most conversations about music or any other form of creative industry these days, they’re not really thinking much about the actual creator, the artist themselves, and about what you said in this post — that it’s YOUR right to decide how your work is distributed. They’re giving you ultimatums that they’d do almost anything to avoid giving to either consumers or label people. Why? Because you don’t have juice, as you said, and you’re in a position where the flow of things dictates that you’ve been put between a rock and a hard place: piss off the platform or piss off the fans. I don’t envy you that. (Though as a musician I do envy you actually having enough fans to worry about pissing them off. My fan base tends to get pissed when I don’t call it on its birthday, but that’s easily remedied by calling it up and saying “Sorry, Mom, I’ll buy you an Amazon gift card.”) 😉

There was an article today on GigaOm dismissing the tech critic Andrew Keen, and a lot of the refutations of his (often quite valid) criticisms come down to: is a world run by the tech industry really any worse than the way it used to be? And you hear that a lot in the digital content distribution space: is this worse than when the old school record industry ran things?

And the answer is: if that’s the way you have to frame that question, then it doesn’t matter if it’s worse, because it’s clearly not much better. And ultimately it doesn’t matter to the artists who’s giving them the shaft: some douche with a ponytail in Hollywood or some douche with a waxed mustache in Mountain View. It’s still the shaft. It still sucks.

The point of all of this technology is not to replace one shitty status quo with another one, it’s to create new status quos (statii quo? Whatever, my Latin sucks.) in which everybody gets what they want. I don’t think that’s impossible; I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. But it saddens me that, in all the years since the rise of MP3s and Napster and Gnutella and everything else, the one person who seems to keep getting that shaft is not the fan clamoring for music to listen to and love, and not the executive looking for a way to monetize that clamoring, but the artist. It’s always the artist. It’s why The Ramones broke up because they weren’t making enough money to pay the rent while touring and getting something like a $25 per diem per member.

That status quo has never changed.

But look: right now, you know who people are looking to to solve these problems? You. You are at the forefront of this new unexplored territory, you and artists like you, who are breaking this ground and asking these questions and taking these risks. I like to think of myself as a mostly unnoticed innovator in this space, but I still look to you to see how this is all playing out. I know it’s not a fun position to be in, but it means that your decisions will serve as a guidepost for others to come. You’re setting precedent; you’re shaping things.

I don’t know what to tell you to do. The punk rock part of me wants to tell you to tell Google to go fuck themselves and let’s build something new. But that’s an easy position for someone with no skin in the game to take. But you seem like a really smart person, and I’m sure that whatever path you take will be the one that’s right for you. And no matter how much anyone else is looking to you, that’s the only person you really need to consider: yourself, as an artist.

So good luck with it. And I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but please wish your husband the best for me. Even though I don’t know y’all, I’m pulling for you.

Rock and roll.


Posted in Short Cuts | Leave a comment

Roasted Mango And Cheese Stuffed Bacon Wrapped Mini-Bell Peppers


As far as I know, this is my own invention, a sort of king-hell mashup of stuffed peppers and Sonoran hot dogs, which are perhaps the finest thing ever invented by our friends south of the border.


  • Roughly 1/2 bag, mini-bell peppers. These have been popping up in stores for the last couple of years, they look like hot peppers but they’re some kind of weird genetically mutated pygmy bell peppers. They come in orange, red and yellow, in little bags. You’ll be using as many peppers as you have slices of bacon in your bacon package. In mine it came out to twelve, which required….
  • 1 1/2 cup canned diced mangoes. (No, not fresh whole mangoes. Just trust me, dogg.)
  • 1 cup Monterey Jack cheese.
  • 1 package, thin or medium thickness bacon. (Whatever kind of bacon floats your artisanal boat, there, hipster.)

Optional Garnishes

  • Sriracha
  • Sour cream
  • Your tears as you weep at how tasty it is


  • Roasting pan with rack
  • Spoon
  • Bowl
  • Small knife (serrated is fine)


  1. Preheat your over to 425°F.
  2. Drain the sweet nectar out of the canned mangoes into a separate container and set aside. (This is why you want the canned ones.) Pour the diced mangoes into a bowl with the cheese and mix them together. Kind of mash it up a bit — it doesn’t need to be pureed or anything, but you want to squish it up.
  3. Chop the tops off the peppers, where the stems are, so the top of the pepper is open. Use the knife to scrape out the seeds and the pale inside kind of flap things inside the peppers.
  4. Use your fingers to stuff the cheese/mango mix inside the peppers. Make sure they’re as full as you can. As you push the stuff in, it will squish even more.
  5. Wrap each pepper in a strip of bacon and place it on the rack in the roasting pan so that the end of the bacon strip is on the bottom, keeping the bacon wrapped securely around the pepper.wpid-img_20150125_193844.jpg
  6. Roast that shit in the oven for 50-60 minutes, until the bacon is fully cooked.
  7. Remove from oven and immediately drizzle mango nectar over the peppers. Don’t worry about using too much, it’ll drain into the bottom of the pan.
  8. Let cool for ten minutes or so before enjoying.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Downbound Project

[Update: an official statement from the DTP says that 30 employees, or 10% of its staff, are being laid off, not 30%. However, it also gives the impression that many of its projects are being shut down or defunded, which means that the people employed by those projects – and therefore not technically DTP employees – are losing their jobs as well. I’d be curious as to the actual numbers of those people, but I’d be surprised if even the DTP knows for sure, given their less-than-stellar organizational skills.]

A lot of people have reached out to me today asking my opinion on the news that Las Vegas’s Downtown Project is laying off 30% of its workforce, and that Tony Hsieh seems to be actively distancing himself from it. They want to know what I think because, for a few years, I was maybe the most vocal critic of what Hsieh was doing with downtown Vegas.

My immediate feeling is: it sucks to be right. My heart goes out to those folks who’ve been laid off and now have to figure out how they’re gonna survive. I know that fear intimately, and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies. I wish them very good luck.

Beyond that? Well, I am Jack’s total lack of surprise. I warned people this was coming, for a long time, and very few people paid attention. I was very angry about what was happening downtown, but not because I thought the DTP was going to collapse. I mean, I did, and it seems I wasn’t wrong, but my primary concern was with the collateral damage to both the existing Las Vegas cultural community and to the marginalized population of downtown. Unfortunately, despite all of my rage, things proceeded as planned: the poor people and existing small businesses were pushed out and replaced by whatever the hell Hsieh and his circle wanted to put in, like the Container Park, which is neither a park nor made of shipping containers.

So what can be learned from all of this? There are some pretty clear lessons here.

1. Hire people who know what they’re doing, not just people you like hanging out with. It’s not much of a secret that Hsieh brought people into the DTP because he felt they were a “culture fit”. Unfortunately, the culture in question was very much a frat bro party culture, which means that a lot of the people who got discretionary power over projects were, to put it mildly, not qualified for the jobs they found themselves in. And a lot of people who were competent who came in on projects were either marginalized out as not being “good culture fits” or left in disgust because their ability to do their jobs was limited by the useless idiots that they found themselves answering to.

That culture pervaded and continues to pervade a lot of the entire Vegas tech culture: startups that seem more like excuses for a bunch of bros to go and play witless giant board games at the Gold Spike and talk about marketing strategies for their awful ideas, rather than actually producing products that people would want. There are a lot of hard-working people in Vegas tech, to be sure, and some very bright ones…but very few of them were the ones actually making decisions, and their hard work and good ideas are stymied by the dipshits who are put in charge.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here: if you want your business to be successful, hire people who are good at their jobs and let them do their jobs. You may not want to be besties with them and do shots with them every night, but who gives a shit? As long as they do what they’re supposed to do and are capable of working within your team, that’s what you should be focusing on.

2. Cities are not startups. Nor are they fucking Burning Man camps…but that’s exactly what Downtown Vegas, as envisioned by the DTP, seemed to resemble. What the decision-makers seemed not to understand is that, rhetoric aside, Burning Man is not a city. It’s not permanent. It couldn’t be. There’s a reason that Hakim Bey — one of the people who influenced the whole initial culture of Burning Man — called such places “temporary autonomous zones“. For all the talk of anarchy, Burning Man is a deliberate and very controlled environment, primarily made up of people who buy into the culture around it.

real city like Las Vegas is far more chaotic, and filled with people who have absolutely no intention of getting with the program. And in a real city, you can’t just throw those people out for not being cool, man, no matter how many Downtown Rangers you hire to move the street bums and the crazies along. You can’t just make those people vanish. In a city run by responsible people, there would be places for the people who were pushed aside by the DTP to go — but Vegas is not a city run by responsible people, and a lot of those folks just ended up on the streets.

If you want to create sustainable private urban development, you need to understand the community you’re operating in, and Hsieh never did, nor showed any real interest in learning. He just wanted to remake the city in his own image, and seemed surprised when the city didn’t respond with the total slavish enthusiasm he anticipated.

3. Coordination, realism, follow-through. Hsieh’s people were constantly telling me that nobody was really in charge of everything, as if this was a good thing. But nobody seemed to know what anybody else was doing. It was disorganized and uncoordinated, and God knows how they handled the budgets for everything. (Today’s news suggests: not very well.) And a lot of the initial visions were utterly unrealistic, or simply required a lot more money than anyone involved anticipated. Not because realistic budgets were hard to project, but because Hsieh didn’t hire people who were capable of it. As a result of this, a lot of the announced projects just never materialized, or materialized in some half-assed form.

The Container Park is an excellent example of this: while I am a big fan and longtime advocate of reusing things like shipping containers in architecture, the fact is that Vegas is smack dab in the middle of the hottest desert in the Western Hemisphere; building a shopping mall out of steel boxes (and then, inexplicably, decking it out with shiny metal outdoor furniture and metal children’s playground equipment) is therefore kind of a stupid idea. They would’ve done far better to build an Adobe Park. But the essential unworkability of that idea didn’t seem to matter: they built it the way they wanted to — or kinda sorta, since they didn’t actually use real shipping containers for the majority of the space — and then managed to run it in such a haphazard way that something like a third of the occupants moved out within the first six months. One of the original tenants told me that, due to the tinted storefronts, nobody could tell if her space was open; when she propped the door open to let people see that she was, they turned off her air conditioning.

4. I do not think this word “community” means what you think it means. The Downtown Project was hammered so many times from so many quarters for their use of the word “community” — by myself maybe loudest of all — that they finally removed it from all of their statements. And rightly so. Tony Hsieh  and his circle don’t know the first fucking thing about what communities actually are, and what they need. It’s not about building a bunch of douchey bars and hipster eateries for you and your bros to hang out in. It’s not about turning a profit. It’s about providing safe spaces and opportunities for everyone around you — not just the people you personally like. Community is not about velvet ropes, it’s about throwing the doors open and helping people to help themselves and thrive. You don’t tell people how to build their community — you ask them. And you pay attention, instead of co-opting people’s ideas or ignoring people who are just as invested in the community as you are, or more so.

And that’s exactly what the DTP did, time and time again. They alienated Vegas’s existing cultural community and then pled, over and over: “We’re learning as we go along. We’re making mistakes.” So how many times do you need to make the same mistake before you learn from it, dummy? That is, of course, if you actually recognize that you’ve made a mistake, instead of assuming that you actually know best and other people can go along with your plan or get the fuck out. Which is, from what I can tell, what DTP’s actual modus operandi was. Turns out that’s not really the best way to do things, doesn’t it?

The sad part about all of this is the very real collateral damage that’s been inflicted on the lives of all those folks who’re suddenly facing an uncertain future. But Tony Hsieh has proven, time and time again, that he doesn’t give one single fuck about the collateral damage inflicted by his half-assed “vision”, unless it directly affects his PR. But there’s not enough spin in the world to make these layoffs go away. By all accounts, things have been spiraling out of control at DTP for a long time, but they’ve finally gone too far for anybody to finesse away or hide.

But the worst part is that none of this had to happen this way. Plenty of very smart people were telling Hsieh and everyone else involved in the DTP that they needed to change their tactics and strategies for a very long time. But they simply chose to assume that, because they’d run a successful shoe company, that they knew better than everybody else. So they ignored and condescended to a lot of people — like me — and fired the people whom they’d hired who didn’t reinforce the idea that they were brilliant visionaries who were destined for success.

So fuck ’em. I left Vegas because this shit was way too depressing to be involved in anymore. Not my circus; not my monkeys. Except that a lot of my friends are still monkeys in that particular circus, and I’m worried about how the aftershocks of this will affect them, even the ones who didn’t drink Hsieh’s Kool-Aid.

Starting a tech community is a daunting task: after six months in Yakima with plans to try and do exactly that, I’m pretty discouraged myself. But I’m discouraged because there’s no money for me to do it; when I think of what I could do here with a hundredth of the resources Hsieh had at his disposal, it makes me want to weep.

I certainly wouldn’t botch things up the way he and his people have. I learned my lessons watching all of this unfold. And maybe the next swinging dick billionaire who decides to remake Las Vegas in their own image will too.


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Help Me Get To Ferguson

Raised $2,005 towards the $2,000 target. I want to go to Ferguson, MO to cover the unfolding story there. But I can’t do it without money — I need expense money and, quite frankly, I need to cover my own bills while I’m down there, as I won’t be able to do the contract work and part-time editing that pays my bills.

I’m asking for $2000, which will make sure I don’t come home afterwards to an eviction notice. I might ask for more when I get there if necessary — if I get hurt or arrested — but I’ll try not to.

If you can help out, I’ll post everything I get here and on my public Twitter feed as I go, and use your money to write a longform nonfiction narrative about Ferguson, and how we got here as a country. I’ve done this sort of thing before, and it’s worked out well. I successfully crowdfunded a trip to Africa to write a book about it last year. (The book is late, which I feel bad about, but life shit got in the way.)

I don’t have a Kickstarter or Indiegogo set up, but if you’d like to support me, just send me money via PayPal to jzellis[at]gmail[dot]com and mention why in the comments. Sorry I’m terse, but I’m trying to figure out logistics and such. Thank you for anything you can do to help.


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Everyone I know is brokenhearted.

All the genuinely smart, talented, funny people I know seem to be miserable these days. You feel it on Twitter more than Facebook, because Facebook is where you go to do your performance art where you pretend to be a hip, urbane person with the most awesomest friends and the best relationships and the very best lunches ever. Facebook is surface; Twitter is subtext, and judging by what I’ve seen, the subtext is aching sadness.

I’m not immune to this. I don’t remember ever feeling this miserable and depressed in my life, this sense of futility that makes you wish you’d simply go numb and not care anymore. I think a lot about killing myself these days. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it and this isn’t a cry for help. But I wake up and think: fuck, more of this? Really? How much more? And is it really worth it?

In my case, much of it stems from my divorce and the collapse of the next relationship I had. But that’s not really the cause. I think that those relationships were bulwarks, charms against the dark I’ve felt growing in this world for a long time now. When I was in love, the world outside didn’t matter so much. But without it, there is nothing keeping the wolf from the door.

It didn’t used to be like this when I was a kid. I’m not getting nostalgic here, or pretending that my adolescence and my twenties were some kind of soft-focused Golden Age. Life sucked when I was young. I was unhappy then too. But there was always the sense that it was just a temporary thing, that if I stuck it out eventually the world was going to get better — become awesome, in fact.

But the reality is that the three generations who ended the 20th century, the Boomers, their Generation X children, and Generation Y, have architected a Western civilization that’s kind of a shit show. Being born in 1978, I fall at either the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you look at it. I became an adolescent at the time Nirvana was ushering in a decade of “slacker” ideology, as the pundits liked to put it. But the reality is that I didn’t know a whole lot of actual slackers in the 1990s. I did know a lot of people who found themselves disillusioned with the materialism of the 1980s and what we saw as the failed rhetoric of the Sixties generation, who were all about peace and love right until the time they put on suits and ties and figured out how to divide up the world. I knew a lot of people who weren’t very interested in that path.

The joke, of course, is that every generation kills the thing they love. The hippies became yuppies; Gen X talked a lot about the revolution, and then went and got themselves some venture capital and started laying into place the oversaturated, paranoid world we live in now. A lot of them tried to tell themselves they were still punk as fuck, but it’s hard to morally reconcile the thing where you listen to Fugazi on the way to your job where you help find new ways to trick people into giving up their data to advertisers. Most people don’t even bother. They just compartmentalize.

And I’m not blaming them. The world came apart at the end of the 90s, when the World Trade Center did. My buddy Brent and I were talking about this one night last year — about how the end of the 90s looked like revolution. Everybody was talking about Naomi Klein and anti-consumerism and people in Seattle were rioting over the WTO. Hell, a major motion picture company put out Fight Club, which is about as unsubtle an attack on consumer corporate capitalism as you can get. We were poised on the brink of something. You could feel it.

And then the World Trade Center went down. And all of a sudden calling yourself an “anticapitalist terrorist” was no longer a cool posture to psych yourself up for protest. It became something you might go to jail for — or worse, to one of the Black Camps on some shithole island somewhere. Corporate capitalism became conflated somehow with patriotism. And the idea that the things you own end up defining you became quaint, as ridiculous spoken aloud as “tune in, turn on, drop out”. In fact, it became a positive: if you bought the right laptop, the right smartphone, the right backpack, exciting strangers would want to have sex with you!

It’s no wonder that Gen X began seeking the largely mythological stability of their forebearers; to stop fucking around and eating mushrooms at the Rage Against The Machine show, and to try and root yourself. Get a decent car — something you can pass off as utilitarian — and a solid career. Put your babies in Black Flag onesies, but make sure their stroller is more high tech than anything mankind ever took to the Moon, because that wolf is always at the door. And buy yourself a house, because property is always valuable. Even if you don’t have the credit, because there’s this thing called a “subprime mortgage” you can get now!

But the world changed again. And kept changing. So now you’ve got this degree that’s worth fuck-all, a house that’s worth more as scrap lumber than as a substantial investment, and you’re either going to lose your job or have to do the work of two people, because there’s a recession on. Except they keep saying the recession ended, so why are you still working twice as hard for the same amount of money?

We started two wars, only one of them even marginally justifiable, and thousands and thousands of people died. Some of them were Americans, most of them weren’t. The world hated us again. It’s psychically oppressive to realize you’re the bad guy.

Of course, for a lot of the world, America had always been the bad guy…but we didn’t really know that before, because we didn’t have the Internet in our pocket, to be pulled out at every lunch break and before the meal came and when the episode of Scrubs on TV dragged a little, and before bed. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the endless flow of information, to become better informed, because knowing more about the world made us better people.

And maybe it did, but it also made us haunted people.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

So you’re haunted, and you’re outraged, and you go on Twitter and you go on Facebook and you change your avatar or your profile picture to a slogan somebody thoughtfully made for you, so that you can show the world that you’re watching, that you care, that it matters. But if you’re at all observant, you begin to realize after a while that it doesn’t matter; that your opinion matters for very little in the world. You voted for Obama, because Obama was about hope and change; except he seems to be mostly about hope and change for rich people, and not about hope at all for the people who are killed by American drones or who are locked away without trial in American internment camps or who are prosecuted because they stand up and tell the truth about their employers. There does seem to be a lot of hope and change in Fort Meade and Langley, though, where the NSA and CIA are given more and more leeway to spy on everyone in the world, including American citizens, not for what they’ve done but what they might do.

And the rest of the world? They keep making more dead children. They slaughter each other in the streets of Baghdad and Libya and Gaza and Tel Aviv; they slaughter each other in the hills of Syria; and, increasingly, they slaughter each other in American schools and movie theaters and college campuses.

And when you speak up about that — when you write to your Congressperson to say that you believe in, say, stricter control on the purchase of assault weapons, or limiting the rights of corporations to do astonishing environmental damage, or not sending billions of dollars to the kind of people who think it’s funny to launch missiles filled with flechette rounds into the middle of schools where children huddle together — you’re told that, no, you’re the fascist: that people have the right to defend themselves and make money, and that those rights trump your right to not be killed by some fucking lunatic when you’re waiting in line at Chipotle to grab a chicken burrito, and your right to not be able to light your tapwater on fire with a Zippo because of the chemicals in it, or not to end up in a grainy YouTube video while some demented religious fanatic hacks your head off with a rusty bayonet because your country — not you, but who’s counting — is the Great Satan.

And the music sucks. Dear God, the music sucks. Witless, vapid bullshit that makes the worst airheaded wannabe profundities of the grunge era look like the collected works of Thomas Locke. Half the songs on the radio aren’t anything more than a looped 808 beat and some dude grunting and occasionally talking about how he likes to fuck bitches in the ass. The other half are grown-ass adults singing about their stunted, adolescent romantic ideals and playing a goddamn washtub while dressed like extras from The Waltons.

The music sucks. The movies suck — I mean, they didn’t suck the first time they came out, in the 1980s, but the remakes and gritty reboots and decades-past-their-sell-by-date sequels suck. Indiana Jones is awesome, but nobody needs to see a geriatric Harrison Ford, lured out of retirement by the promise of building another mansion onto his mansion, running around with fucking Shia LeBeouf in the jungle. And besides, we’re all media experts now; we can spot the merchandising nods from the trailer all the way to the final credits. There’s no magic left. It’s just another company figuring out a way to suck the very last molecules of profit out of the things we cherish, because that’s what corporations do.

Everything is branded. Even people. People are “personal brands”, despite the fact that, by and large, you can’t figure out what most of them are actually even good for. They just exist to be snarky and post selfies and demand that you buy something, anything, with their picture on it.

You actually know who Kim Kardashian is. In an ideal world, you’d be as unaware of her existence as you are of the names of the Chinese kids who made the futurephone or featherweight laptop you’re almost certainly reading this on. In an ideal world, Kim Kardashian would have spent her life getting sport-fucked anonymously by hip-hop stars in some Bel Air mansion, ran a salon, and either died of a coke overdose or Botox poisoning. There is no reason that her face and her life and her tits and her deathless thoughts needed to be foisted upon the world outside of the 90210 ZIP code. Except that somebody figured out that you could make money off showing people the car accident in slow motion, that people would watch that. Sure they will. People love to watch stupid people do stupid things. It makes them feel less stupid.

And the Internet.

We built this thing — I include myself in that because I started doing HTML in 1994 and was part of the generation who took to the new medium like water and have made the majority of our adult lives creating it, to a greater or lesser degree — because we believed it would make things better for everyone. We believed it would give voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, bring us all together, help us to understand and empathize and share with one another. We believed it could tear down the walls.

And in a lot of ways it has. But in just as many ways, it has driven us all insane. There’s an old story — I have no idea if it’s true — about monkeys who had the pleasure centers of their brains wired up to a button. Push it, Mr. Monkey, and you have an orgasm. And the monkeys did. They pushed the button and they pushed the button, until they forgot about eating and they forgot about drinking and sleeping and simply fell down and died.

What do you do when you first wake up? What do you do as soon as you get into work? After work? Before bed? Hell, some of us wake up in the night and check our feeds, terrified that we’ve missed out on something.

We do it because we are given that reward, that stimulus that tells us oooh, a new shiny! It’s the fourteenth Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer, with 200% more Rocket Raccoon! Some fucking null node in Portland made a portrait of every single character from Adventure Time out of bacon and Legos! And, maybe most poisonous, maybe most soul-crushing: somebody said something I don’t like that makes me feel frightened and threatened! It’s time to put on my superhero costume and forward unto battle!

Except it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not really changing anybody’s mind. How often does that little skirmish end with anybody changing their mind at all, even a little bit? Or does it just end with one of you invariably either blocking the other or saying something like “You know what, I’m going to stop now, because this is getting out of hand.”

Getting out of hand?

Everything they told you about how to live in the world when you were a kid is a lie. Education doesn’t matter, not even on paper. Being ethical doesn’t matter. Being a good person doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re endlessly capable of the hustle, of bringing in that long green, of being entertaining to enough people that somebody will want to give you money or fuck you or fund your startup. We’re all sharks now; if we stop swimming for just a little too long, we die. We lose followers. We’re lame. We’re not worth funding, or fucking. Because all that matters is the endless churn, the endless parade, the endless cycle of buying and trying to sell and being bought and sold by people who tell you that they’re your friends, man, not like those others. Microsoft is evil and Google is not evil, except when they are, but that’s not really important, and if you decide that maybe you’re tired of being reduced to nothing more than a potential lead for a sales pitch, like something out of a fucking David Mamet play, then you’re a hater and irrelevant and a Luddite. And besides, what would you do with yourself if you weren’t checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush Saga or watching some teenage dumbass smash his genitals on the side of a pool on YouTube? What the fuck would you even do, bro?

The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit where he invited the advertisers and marketers in his audience to kill themselves. He imagined them turning it into an ad campaign: “Oh, the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a good dollar, Bill’s smart to do that.” He laid out the futility of trying to escape: “I’m just caught in a fucking web,” he’d say.

And that’s where we are. You, me, we’re trapped, between being nothing more than consumers, every aspect of our lives quantified and turned into demographic data, or being fucking Amish cavemen drifting into increasing irrelevancy. Because it really does feel like there’s no middle ground anymore, doesn’t it? There’s no way to stay an active, informed citizen of the world without some motherfucker figuring out a way to squirm into your life to try and get a dollar out of you. Only fools expect something for free, and only bigger fools believe they’re anything other than a consumable or a consumer.

We didn’t get the William Gibson future where you can live like a stainless steel rat in the walls between the corporate enclaves, tearing at the system from within with your anarchy and your superior knowledge of Unix command lines. Now it’s just pissed off teenagers who blame you because their lives are going to suck a cock and billionaire thugs trying to sell you headphones and handbags, all to a soundtrack of some waterhead muttering “Bubble butt, bubble bubble bubble butt” over and over while a shite beat thumps in the background.

I know a lot of people who privately long for an apocalypse of some kind, a breakdown of the ancient Western code, because then they’d either be dead or free. How fucking horrifying is that?

But nobody pulls that trigger, because now we’ve all seen what apocalypses look like. We saw Manhattan in 2001 and New Orleans in 2005 and Thailand in 2004 and the Middle East pretty much any given day. Nobody wants to hate, because we’re pummeled with hate every day, by people who are too fucking stupid to understand that the world has passed them by as much as it’s passed by the dude in the Soundgarden t-shirt who still drives around singing along to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” on his way to his dead-end job. The best lack all conviction, and the people who are full of passionate intensity? Fuck them. We’re all sick of their shit anyway.

And that’s where we are, and is it any goddamn wonder at all that the most profitable drugs sold in America for like a decade running have been antipsychotics? The world seems psychotic.

I feel like I need to figure this out, like figuring all of this out and finding new ways to live has become the most important thing I could possibly do, not just for myself and the people I love but for the entire human race. I don’t mean me alone — I’m far too self-loathing to have a messiah complex — but I feel like, for me, this is the best use of my time. Because the world is making me crazy and sad and wanting to just put a gun in my mouth, and it’s doing the same thing to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to feel this way.

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know some truth that I can reveal to everyone. All I can do is hurt, and try to stop hurting, and try to help other people stop hurting. Maybe that’s all any of us can do. But isn’t that something worth devoting yourself to, more than building another retarded app that just puts more nonsense and bullshit into the world? Just finding people to love, and healing each other? I think it is.

Until I know more, I’ll just keep holding on. I won’t put the gun in my mouth. Because all of this sadness is worth it if there’s still hope. And I want to still have hope so badly. I still want to believe, in myself, and in you.


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Untitled Notes Towards An Understanding.

Here’s one thing we know, and know for sure: dumb matter and energy can become self-aware. How do we know? Because we know; because we are dumb matter and energy, and we are self-aware. Si cogitationem mundo: if we can think, the world can. The only question — but boy, it’s a doozy — is how.

Is consciousness an inherent state of matter? In other words, if you arrange matter just so, can it become aware? If so, what is just so? What are the requirements for consciousness? Is it a function of the complexity of any feedback-capable system? In other words, if you make something that can input from the world and output back into it, and you make that thing’s structure and capability complex enough, will it become conscious? Could you build a mind out of wood, powered by waterwheels? I don’t think it’s a stupid question, though it may seem stupid on the face of it. Because I keep coming back to the irrefutable fact that a bunch of soggy carbon powered by electrical impulses converted from the chemical energy stored in glucose can, in fact, not only become aware of itself, but write shitty pop songs. There is nothing exotic about the stuff our dreams are made of: we’re complicated systems, sure, but there’s no odd elements in our brains or bodies, no unobtanium. Most of the complex organisms on this planet are made of, by and large, the exact same chemicals in near-identical proportions.

And yet, we think. (I’m not saying that animals don’t think, or aren’t self-aware, because I think many of them are or approach that state, but purely from a Darwinian standpoint, they’re not as good at it as we are; no other species has developed advanced language or the ability to store ideas beyond the lifetime of their creator, or at least insofar as we know, and I’m pretty sure we could recognize that sort of thing if it was there. I could be wrong. But it’s a reasonable guess.)

Alan Watts once said: “You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.” That is not mystical bullshit — or rather, it’s mystical, but it’s not bullshit. One of the great benefits of psychedelics is that they can make you viscerally aware that there is no real distinction between you and the universe that you perceive as being outside of you, any more than there’s a distinction between a tree and the ground it grows in. There is no barrier, no separation. You are simply a part of the continuum of the universe. And in that sense, Watts is absolutely correct: you and your mind are a node in the universe, through which it is experiencing itself.

To me, consciousness is all part of the Mystery: the infinite universe in which we exist, which we know so much and yet so little about. We can use telescopes to look backwards in time nearly to the beginning of the universe itself, and yet we are still so ignorant of how we ourselves work. We can guess at the composition of the heart of a star, but we haven’t been able to work out how the photosynthesis that happens in the leaves of a house plant works well enough to create it for ourselves.

Of course, a lot of people have pointed this out…but for, I think, the wrong reasons. They use it as a sort of smug humility, a way of saying “See? All your science is hubris.” But that’s just nonsense. We’re not ignorant because we can’t understand these things — I believe the human mind’s capacity for understanding is nearly infinite. We’re ignorant because we haven’t been doing this for very long at all. Shit, we’re still less than three hundred years away from Isaac Newton. A thousand years ago, most humans thought the world was flat and the stars were termite holes in the floor of Heaven. The fact that we’ve come so very far so very fast is encouraging, even if we have so far to go.

The mysteries of the universe are exciting not because I believe they can’t be solved, but because I believe that they can, and because I believe that doing so is the primary useful activity of the human species, and a lot of fun along the way.

More later.


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Insert Cliched Sheryl Crow Song Title Here.

I’ve spent the past week and a half in Yakima, Washington. It’s a town in Central Washington with a population of around 93,000 in the city itself and almost a quarter million in the greater metropolitan area. The primary economy is agricultural: nearly 80% of the hops used in beer production in the USA come from here, and 40% of the entire world’s hops. It’s also a center for apple and cherry orchards and vineyards. It’s nestled in a valley from which, on a clear day, you can see Mount Adams rising above the hills. Seattle is a two and a half hour drive across Snoqualamie Pass, and Portland is three and a half hours, across the Yakama Nation Reservation and through the gorgeous Columbia Gorge. The first brew pub in the world was in Yakima, and the town is famous for its wine, beer and fruit.

And hopefully, soon, it will be famous for tech. Effective immediately, I will be leaving Las Vegas and relocating here to Yakima, with a commitment to spend at least one year here. Initially, I will be working with a local company, Appleseed Media, to help them create a new alternative weekly publication for the Yakima Valley, as both a writer and a developer for their online presence.

Once the publication is launched, I will continue to write for it…but my primary focus will be on establishing a startup to develop some of the online projects I’ve been attempting to put together for the last few years, as well as doing research and development into creating inexpensive, efficient technologies for the agricultural industry. This company will likely be called Cherry Blossom Industries, after the beautiful cherry blossoms that grow everywhere here. I am also working with local technologists and advisors, as well as potential investors, to potentially establish a tech angel fund in Yakima, to attract startups here, with a focus on (but not limited to) agricultural tech.

I will also be using my time in Yakima to complete my book Digging For Fire, about the technology industry in East Africa, which I had planned to have finished earlier this year, though it’s been delayed due to life stuff. I’ll also be blogging and documenting my experience building a startup here.

That explains what I’m doing. But the bigger question is: why?

The short answer is: I’ve been miserable for a long time, and I want to change that. Part of my misery is due to personal stuff and relationship bullshit, but most of it boils down to a couple of things:

1) I hate the tech industry as it exists right now, and 2) If I have to spend another year in Las Vegas I’ll put a gun in my mouth.

I’ve been in Las Vegas for fifteen years – long enough to see multiple waves of the supposed cultural renaissance that has been perpetually about to happen since the day I got to the city. And the fact is, there really is a renaissance happening now, thanks to the momentum generated by the Downtown Project and the revitalization of Fremont Street and the old downtown core.

The problem is, it’s precisely the renaissance that Las Vegas deserves. The new Downtown Las Vegas looks like what would happen if you took all the lifers from a psychopath ward, gave them selvedge denim and Warby Parkers and electroshock therapy and a half a billion dollars, and told them to recreate Portland, except without all the dirty poors and weirdos. It’s a wretched Baudrillardian hyperreality of a culturally vibrant community. And it’s fractally goddamn stupid — every single individual facet of it is just as goddamn stupid as the whole thing, which is monumentally, colossally goddamn stupid. No wonder it’s already beginning to hemorrhage goodwill and momentum…which will tend to happen if you leave the redevelopment of a city to a bunch of incompetent self-promoting chancers who would rather get day drunk at the Gold Spike and play giant board games than actually consider the long-term implications of any of their half-baked ideas, much less bring them to completion. (Long-term implications like what might happen if you were to build a shopping mall out of poorly insulated steel shipping containers, with outdoor furniture made of polished bare metal and a children’s playground made out of steel equipment, in the middle of the hottest desert in the Western Hemisphere. Y’all have fun when summer kicks into high gear. Make sure to keep the first aid kits handy for the burn victims.)

Las Vegas is a city that is entirely and utterly about money, to the exclusion of anything else, and it makes its money by luring sociopaths and hucksters and developers with the souls of Barbary Coast whoremongers, and gives them the keys to the kingdom.

There are some remarkable people in Vegas, good people and smart people and talented people, many of whom I respect deeply and many of whom I love with all my heart; and they are almost all of them one step away from poverty and mired in depression at their inability to get anything done. They are marginalized by the people with money and treated with condescension and contempt by the local government. Just like me.

After fifteen years of hoping and trying to change Las Vegas, I am sick in my soul of it. The city is driving me to suicide, and I mean that literally. Though I love and adore my family and the self-created family of amazing people I have built in those years, I can’t take it anymore.

I had already decided to leave when my friend Goldie invited me to visit Yakima, where she had recently moved. I came up here expecting nothing but a week of relaxation. Instead, what I found was a blank canvas.

Yakima has everything I need to live and be happy, or at least as much as Las Vegas has: all the necessary retail and services, a couple of kick ass dive bars, and it’s a hell of a lot closer to Powell’s Books in Portland, which is where I want to go when I die, than Las Vegas is. And it has a few unique features that make it ideal for what I want to do.

For one thing, Yakima is cheap. I normally don’t feel comfortable talking about money in public, but I’ll put it to you this way: I did the math, and at the rates I charge for doing web design and development, I can afford to rent (or buy) a five bedroom farmhouse and cover all of my expenses by working approximately four days a month.

Let me repeat that. Four days a month.

If I chose to live in a smaller place — say, the size of where I live in Vegas — I could cut that back to two days a month. But I’m fine with that extra labor, really I am. And the work is there, for me, both from outside contracts and from local businesses who need coding and other tech work done. 

What does that mean for me in real terms? It means I can devote the majority of my time to the project I want to work on: my book, my other writing…and all of the really cool technology ideas I’ve been keeping on the back burner for years.

It also allows me to start doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, which is to devote a large part of my time to researching and developing technologies targeted at working class people and the global economic base of the pyramid. One of the areas I plan to work in here is agricultural technology. Even in the past ten days, I’ve identified several key areas in agriculture – water irrigation, climate monitoring, and pesticide delivery – which are, if you’ll forgive the pun, ripe for innovation. And there is a lot of money here for that sort of thing. I’ve already been talking to potential investors, and literally every day I’m here I meet more people in the agricultural sector whose eyes light up when I tell them even my simplest, most rudimentary ideas.

And this is why I also want to put together an angel investment fund here that will offer seed money to startups, with the provision that they spend at least eighteen months in Yakima. From a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense to do a startup here. The cost of commercial real estate here is nothing. If I wanted to rent an entire building the size of the Emergency Arts building in Vegas, it would cost me roughly $1500 a month. That’s fifteen hundred dollars a month. I’m already talking to one local businessman who wants to turn one of his properties into a tech incubator. And the cost of living is absurd.

But does it make sense from a business perspective? Not according to an angel fund investor I met with in Portland. “Why would anybody want to live in Yakima,” he said, “when they can go to San Francisco and make $250K a year?”

But I think, with all due respect, that he’s wrong. (My response was: “Because they don’t want to spend $100K of that on rent and parking.”) I think he’s not seeing a large but nearly invisible demographic of the tech industry: people like me, who aren’t interested anymore in spending $2500 a month on a tiny studio in the Outer Mission, and spending all our time networking like lunatics and busting our asses just to eke out an existence, working for venture capitalists for whom we are just replaceable cogs in a money machine; people who want to get out of the bubble and just work, on things they care about, in a beautiful place where they can live like humans and not worker drones. Not everybody wants to play at being Mark Zuckerberg. Some of us just want to make amazing things that make people’s lives better, and be happy.

There’s an entire generation of folks who are ignored and treated with scorn by the tech industry: people in their mid-thirties to late forties who got into the Internet on the ground floor in the 90s. And while many of us are still technologically relevant and full of both ideas and experience, we’re treated like senile fools by the tech industry, despite the fact that high-growth startups are more likely to be run by CEOs in their fifties than in their twenties. But the tech industry loves twentysomething kids with no attachments and no life experience. Why? Because they’ll work like indentured servants for catered lunches and Nerf gun wars in the office, and the promise of becoming instant billionaires.

Look, I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and I’ll let you in on a secret: I know about the same number of people who’ve become millionaires from playing rock and roll as I do who’ve become millionaires by building startups.

There are plenty of incredibly talented, driven people who simply aren’t interested in playing the Silicon Valley game of pricks; people with families, people who value quality of life over running an endless race to which many are called and very few are chosen; people who aren’t driven by the lure of lunatic wealth, but by the desire to do good work and make a living from it.

And, I mean, it’s not like we have a global communications network that allows us to be in constant contact with anybody in the world, right? Plus it’s a $270 round-trip flight out of Yakima Airport to San Francisco, less if you’re willing to make the beautiful drive to Portland or Seattle. Being in Yakima is really not much more remote than being in a second-tier urban area like Vegas or Austin or Kansas City.

My vision is of a small hub here, working out of the beautiful buildings in downtown Yakima, maybe building affordable tech for the agriculture sector, maybe based around organic food or alcohol or even cannabis. People volunteering to teach tech classes for the Native Americans on the reservation or the Hispanic agricultural workers who make up 54% of the population here, people who work to make water usage more efficient, people who work to build technologies that we can share with and sell to the entire world. People who would rather devote themselves to the work they love rather than the work they have to do just to get by LA or San Francisco or New York. People who want to genuinely build a community and build the future, not just get rich and peace out.

So that’s why I’m coming here, and that’s what I want to build. And I want you to help me do it. Once I’m established and I begin putting together this tech fund, I’d like to host my friends and acquaintances from Vegas and elsewhere who’d like to come to Yakima and see if they share my vision. (You didn’t think I really needed five bedrooms just for myself, did you?) If you’re one of these folks, get in touch and we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

I will miss my friends and family in Vegas, but I really, truly believe this is the best possible thing I could do for myself right now…and even the thought of it fills me with a hope and joy I haven’t felt in years. I’ve wanted to change the world for my entire life; I think I can do it here.

Check you on the flip side.


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If This Is Paradise, I Wish I Had A Lawnmower

I’m going to maybe expand this into an actual piece of journalism soon, but I just wanted to write down some thoughts here.

Why do techies — or, really, any well-to-do demographic — feel the urge to move into the place that poor people live and then change it? To tear down the crappy little mini-marts or local bars or check cashing places and turn them into boutique grocery outlets and craft cocktail bars and meaningful retail experiences?

I moved to San Francisco in 1996 as an aspiring art student and novice web designer. Due to economics, I ended up in the Tenderloin, living on Market Street between 6th and 7th. My apartment was tiny and cramped, I shared a bathroom with everyone on my floor, and the neighborhood was often bewildering and frightening. One night, after seeing a car get Molotoved in front of my place, I felt like Tom Hanks in Big, terrified of the big city around me.

And yet, my first urge was not to improve the Tenderloin, as seems to be the wont of the techies who’ve moved into it a generation later. I wanted to understand my scary new neighborhood. I wanted to learn to live in it, to be tough. I didn’t need the Club Charleston, the bar around the corner where the local poor artists and residents of nearby residential hotels gathered, to serve me exquisite cocktails served in glasses forged from Icelandic volcanic glass; I wanted to be the kind of cool guy who could walk into a place like the Club Charleston and make it my own. (Never happened. But I was a nineteen year old art student who wanted to build virtual reality art sculptures. I was not cool.)

Of course, I was poor. I had no choice but to live in the ‘Loin or someplace equally as shitty. And in retrospect, my tenure in the cracked-out urban ghetto of San Francisco was one of the most important formative experiences I ever had. I couldn’t change the ‘Loin, but the ‘Loin changed me.

That’s the difference: the people who are moving into places like the Tenderloin or Downtown Las Vegas are not poor. They don’t have to be living in the hood. But they choose to…and then they decide to remake the hood in their own image, instead of embracing it, augmenting it without demolishing it, integrating with their less-affluent new neighbors instead of just walking in and kicking the fucking door down and dictating terms to people who are neither wealthy nor politically connected enough to really argue with them. And those people, most of whom do not have the luxury of trading places with the techies and moving to Sunnyvale or Mountain View — or, in the case of Las Vegas, Summerlin or Green Valley, where Zappos’ former HQ is — get pushed out of the downmarket, low-rent places that in many cases have been their home for decades.

Why? Is this some quest for authenticity? Or just a land grab, a way of buying low and selling high? In the case of San Francisco, it seems like some sort of fetishism for exposed brick on the parts of the yuppie nerds who’ve swarmed the city. In the case of Downtown Las Vegas, it looks like a halfwitted experiment in New Urbanism, scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin by some blissed-out molly-gobbler who read the Wikipedia entry on Jane Jacobs once. It’s the opposite of the white flight of the latter half of the 20th century; it’s white incursion.

What I find really laughable and contemptible is when these New Urbanistas have the gall to complain about the places they’ve voluntarily inhabited. The new Container Park on Fremont Street has security guards out front to keep the shifty Negroes and tweaker trash away from the meaningful retail experience therein. SF techies write posts about how appalling it is to have to be within fifty feet of somebody who smells weird and, like, doesn’t even have a Snapchat account. Ewwwwww.

(Watching rich nerds get skeeved out by poor people is one of my favorite pastimes, actually. I like to sit out front of the Emergency Arts building at 6th and Fremont here in Vegas and watch what happens when some douchey social media fuck on their way to a big meeting at the Beat with a venture capitalist actually has to interact with a poor. It’s sad and hilarious at the same time.)

The thing is: nobody forced you to come down here, bro. The people who live in these poor places are not excited by the economic development you keep parroting whenever anybody accuses you of being a gentrifier. Does Twitter moving to the Tenderloin actually equal jobs for the people who live there? No; not even indirectly. When you tear down the old kebab shop downstairs, you’re not hiring their staff to man your new artisanal ham sandwich place; you’re hiring people with grad degrees and exquisite tattoos. Hell, you’re not even buying your drugs from the local dealers; you’re still getting that high grade cheeba brought in from the ‘burbs.

You’re not improving a neighborhood by moving to it; you’re erasing it and replacing it with your own idea of what a community should be…and it’s my experience that techies understand the idea of “community” as well as they understand the ideas of “restraint” and “taste”, which is to say about as well as my lazy-eyed cat understands von Neumann game theory. Certainly what exists in Downtown Las Vegas is not a community as I understand the word. It’s largely a slavering pack of vapid, desperate graspers whose greatest aspiration in life is to live in the Ogden and get invited to tour Tony Hsieh’s apartment, and who devote themselves entirely to establishing their own personal brands by being seen getting shitfaced at the right bars by the right people. It’s business networking masquerading as human contact, in a newly constructed kiddie playpen for the secretly alcoholic and the severely personality deficient. And all of the businesses and economic development that have been generated there — both bricks and mortar and virtual — reflect that, with merciless accuracy and precision.

There’s an alternate world version of these places that I can see in my head clear as day: a place where the rich folks actually bothered to engage with the poor folks, and made even the slightest effort to try and use their affluence to bring everyone up, rather than tearing down the businesses, residences and lives of those people who were simply going about trying to survive with very little in the way of resources. A world where the long and rich history of the Tenderloin was recognized and respected, not bulldozed in an attempt to build a whitewashed douchebag terrarium called Mid-Market. A place where Downtown Las Vegas had new homeless shelters and community centers, where the tech community gave more than token lip service to reaching out to the at-risk and disadvantaged, where care was taken to engage with and provide space for not only the well-to-do, but for the working class who serves their stupid cocktails and their Mongolian sliders and makes the art they all claim to care so much about.

Those communities would be valuable, economically diverse, and productive. Those communities I’d be excited to see, and be a part of.


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Banned In The FB

This is an email I just sent to Facebook, via their feedback form.

Hi there! Apparently someone complained about one of my posts, claiming that it violated your Community Standards. I reviewed those guidelines at length and determined that the post very clearly and unambiguously violates none of them.

The post was a parody bit about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on his eponymous holiday. I was making fun of all of the people posting either sanctimonious quotes from Dr. King — whom I hold in the highest regard — or links claiming that Dr. King was far more militant than he actually was, pretending that I was writing a movie about a hard-drinking, hard-fighting version of Dr. King entitled Inglorious Paster. (A play on the Tarantino film Inglorious Basterds, if I actually need to explain that.) It is certainly a vulgar and profane bit of humor, but that’s all it is. A joke.

The entire text of the post follows, between the lines.

“Man, fuck all of you. As soon as I’m done with this bottle of Creepin’ Jesus I’m gonna come down there and kick the fucking soul out of each and every one of you cracker sons of bitches, and then I’m gonna find Robert E Lee’s grave, and I’m gonna piss that Creepin’ Jesus all over it, and then I’m gonna come back and fuck your women. Correctly. And if Detroit Red over there has jack shit to say about it, he can come over here while I’m handling your women the way you honky motherfuckers never had the inches to, and he can help support the weight of my big old balls with his chin. Hey, looks like this Creepin’ Jesus is just about done.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King

Now, I have reviewed your Community Standards, and I can go through them one by one.

Violence And Threats — clearly this is not a threat of violence. It’s a fictional bit of absurd dialogue from a historical figure who is in fact dead.

Self-Harm — Does not apply.

Bullying and Harassment — Again, fiction, joke, not aimed at any actual person or group.

Hate Speech — Okay…here is your exact wording: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech.” This post is very, very clearly intended to be humorous. Whether you or any individual personally find it funny or not is not the point. This is very obviously meant to be a joke. It is ludicrous and over the top.

You go on to say: “While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.” This post was explicitly meant to, as you say, challenge ideas and institutions. I am not attacking anyone in it, unless you believe that I am somehow seriously attacking white people, of which I am one. If a reader inferred that, I chalk it up to a fairly serious incapacity to understand the difference between reality and fantasy on their part, but that is hardly my problem.

(It’s excruciating having to explain the joke here, but I want to be very clear.)

Graphic Content — While the language is indeed graphic, you make explicit reference to images, not words. You also say: “When people share any content, we expect that they will share in a responsible manner.” I consider posting a comedy bit to my timeline — shared only, as far as I know, with people who have voluntarily chosen to be my Facebook friends — a responsible manner of sharing it.

Nudity and Pornographic Content — While the post has crude sexual humor in it, I think it’s clear it’s not pornographic by any reasonable definition of that word. Also, as it is prose and not imagery, there is no actual nudity.

None of the remaining standards you display — Identity and Privacy, Intellectual Property, Phishing and Spam and Security — are applicable.

I believe that by allowing some anonymous person to control what I say on my private timeline, when that speech does not violate any of the terms you have explicitly set for usage of your service, you’re establishing a dangerous precedent. What happens if I just don’t like what someone else says? Can I flag their post, thereby automatically removing it and earning them a time-out in the corner, like some disobedient child?

You have every right to manage your community as you see fit, but I respectfully ask that you take a moment to consider how you go about doing that.

I don’t really believe that you will actually reinstate my post, or apologize for temporarily banning me when I’ve done nothing that violates the rules you set for me. If you even bother to respond to me at all, I expect it to be a repetition of the notification you already gave me about this post, with no clarification or explanation of why the post was removed and my account temporarily suspended. You are a corporation, after all, and corporations are not very good at accepting responsibility for their decisions, hiding behind legalese and the most cautious and noncommittal of communications.

But I do believe that free speech, and the boundaries which we place upon it, do matter. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time writing you this message.

Thanks for your time. See you whenever my account suspension is suspended.

Cheers, Josh Ellis


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