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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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Bringing Geeks To Nairobi: Request For Comments

[Update: a clarification here, based on thoughtful feedback: this idea is something I discussed extensively with local tech people in Nairobi when I was there. All of them were very enthusiastic and excited about this idea. I don't want to give the impression of, as one commenter put it, White Saviorism. Kenyans do not need honkies to teach them the way. They are badasses. I simply want to share the benefit of America's tech scene's longer practical experience with building startups.]

So I’ve got a clever scheme, and I’d like your feedback as to whether you’d support this financially (via crowdfunding) or in other ways.

I want to arrange to bring a group of Americans to Nairobi, Kenya, to do a six-week intensive sort of bootcamp on how to run a startup project. (Not how to run a startup business, which is not my specialty, but how to run a project, commercial or nonprofit.) The idea is to bring people in four categories – programmers, project managers, UI/UX designers and system/server admins – who would help teach their Kenyan counterparts the practicalities of actually building projects from conception to launch. Two weeks would be intensive classes, and four weeks would be dedicated to building a specific community-based project, to be determined by a panel of people (probably including, among others, myself and Jimmy Gitonga from iHub, whom I’ve spoken to about this), which would have value to the Nairobi tech community or larger community at large.

This would not be a class for learning how to code, design, etc. Students would be expected to be at least intermediate in their respective fields. This class would be rather to teach practical, on-the-ground stuff — the quickest and cheapest way to deploy servers, free tools for project management and how to use them, best practices for handling customer support, etc.

It is my experience, visiting Nairobi, that the people who comprise Kenya’s tech scene are well-educated, smart as hell, and capable of hustling in ways that a lot of American tech people could learn a lot from. The only thing we really have on them, over here, is just experience: we’ve been doing this a lot longer and we have a lot lower barrier to gathering information and collaborating, as we simply are more familiar with what’s out there. Kenyans have access to the same Internet we do, but they’re not necessarily versed in where to look for information. And they don’t always know the quick-and-dirty tricks we know.

I would get volunteers to teach the classes. They would be unpaid, but their expenses for travel would be paid, they would be hosted for room and board by local nerds in Nairobi, and we’d arrange a per-diem for them to cover other expenses. We’d also arrange fun field trips and the like on weekends, to make the experience a meaningful and awesome one. The students would not have to pay, but would apply for the classes and be chosen based on their experience, etc.

I would like to do this during the Northern Hemisphere summer, sometime between May and September, after I finish my book about tech in East Africa. I’ve got people in Nairobi willing to help arrange the practicalities and do the legwork there, and everyone I spoke to there about this sounded genuinely excited about the possibilities. I’ve also got folks on this side of the pond who are interested in helping me with logistics, assembling a curriculum, and volunteering to be teachers as well.

In addition, I’d like to work with students to become teachers after completing the course, so that this could continue without needing to bring folks over every time, or as many. I’d like this to be an ongoing project, maybe quarterly or every six months.

I’d like to raise the money for the expenses (airfare, materials, etc.) using crowdfunding or corporate sponsorship, which I have no ethical problem with in this case. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but my guess is it’d probably run about $40-50K, depending upon how many teachers we eventually brought over, etc.

Is this something you’d be interested in supporting or being involved in? Would you throw a few bucks our way? Do you have suggestions or criticisms? If so, let me know on Twitter (@jzellis) or Facebook.

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Rise

It’s New Year’s Day of 2014, and I’m feeling confessional. (Not in the legal or moral sense, more in the poetic sense.)

I get the impression that I am widely regarded, by those who know me and those who follow my work and my social network postings, as an angry person. I can’t really deny that, I suppose. Being an angry person has become deeply unfashionable, these days; when the cult of positivity reigns supreme over (at least) American West Coast culture, a surly motherfucker such as myself stands out like the drunk asshole at a rave.

Of course, things are more complicated than they would appear to be. I am, in my personal life, a generally peaceable person: despite what you might think if you only know me through my writing or the public persona I seem to have generated, I am generally a polite, non-confrontational person. In many ways, tools like Twitter serve as safety valves for the rage that often hits me. I say horrible shit on Twitter so that I don’t say them in real life.

But I am an angry person, there’s no doubt. But I don’t think many people — especially people who are focused on positivity as a force for change — understand why I’m angry, why anger has always been a very literal survival mechanism for me. If you’re someone who cares enough about who I am as a person to be curious about this, I figured I’d maybe provide some insight, even if it’s highly unreliable and subjective.

When I was about two years old, maybe two and a half, my mother was pushing me in my stroller at a swap meet in North Texas, where we lived, when she realized a woman was following her, focusing on me with a particularly intensity. It frightened her, until the woman came up and introduced herself as a child development researcher from the University of North Texas. She told my mother that she’d noticed me pointing at signs around the swap meet and reading them aloud. Did I do this a lot, she wondered?

My mom shrugged. Sure, she said. She assumed it was normal. (My mother was barely old enough to legally drink at the time.)

The woman assured her it wasn’t, and asked if my mom would bring me into UNT to be tested, which she did — she told me later that she sat there all day, listening to me occasionally crying from within the office where the woman and her colleagues were doing whatever they were doing to me.

Finally, the woman came out, and told my mother that they’d like to keep me for further observation. It worried my mom. Was there something wrong with me, she asked?

Quite the opposite, the woman said. It turned out that, according to their tests, my IQ was completely off the upper end of the chart. I was some kind of weird mental mutant, and they wanted to basically figure out what the hell was going on with my brain. But the whole situation creeped my mother out, and she politely declined.

I grew up in a very odd way; probably the closest media depiction to my childhood I’ve ever seen is the 1991 Jodie Foster film Little Man Tate. Mom was, mostly, a young single mother who worked a series of low-paying gigs as a waitress or caterer or music critic while she focused on her career as a singer/songwriter. We lived in shitty little houses in shitty parts of town. The first time I saw someone murdered was when we lived in the Dallas suburb of Addison, thanks to some sort of gang fight in the front yard of our apartment; I must’ve been about four years old. Later, we became semi-nomadic, living in Tennessee, Montana and Wyoming, as well as various spots around North Texas.

My grandparents, however, were…I’m not sure I’d say they were rich, but they were definitely upper middle class at the least, and there were probably times when my grandfather cleared over a million dollars in the 1980s, including investments. They took a very active interest in my development, and though my mom did not very often take their money, she allowed them to pay for my education.

Because of this, I mainly attended private schools until eighth grade — Montessori schools and British style prep schools, where I was surrounded by the offspring of Texas’s economic elite, the scions of vast oil and ranching fortunes. Every morning, my mother would drive me from whatever downtrodden ‘hood we lived in to these schools, which often had ivy carefully planted to grow up their red brick walls and where the boys and girls wore uniforms and school trips were to Aspen for skiing instead of some nearby state park for S’mores and campfires.

I get the impression that I often attended these schools on some kind of scholarship, due to my IQ scores, which were routinely above 180 on the old Wechsler scale. I was reading at a high school level by the time I was around six years old, when my favorite books were C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles Of Narnia, which was also the time when I first began writing simple BASIC programs on the Commodore VIC-20 my grandfather bought me; when I was nine, I fell in love with Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking; when I was ten, I read It by Stephen King for the first time. Since very early childhood, I’ve been a speed reader, averaging between 500-1500 words per minute, depending on the complexity of the text. I have no sense of needing to comprehend text, or even a lag between seeing a word and understanding it — I read as fast as my eyes can move. There’s no translation between character and concept in my head. Even as a child, the only time I remember having to spell out words was when I was around three or four.

Child prodigies usually follow a pretty standard path in life: chess and classical music lessons, advanced science or math, off-the-charts academic achievement. And that was definitely the direction my grandparents pushed me in. They bought me chessboards, paid for violin lessons, bought me the latest computers. When they had parties, they would get me to come out and deliver mini-lectures to their friends about the books I’d read, like some kind of fucking trained animal.

The problem, though, was that all of my intelligence lay in what people often erroneously call “right-brained” activities. Chess bored me; I was crap at violin; I was fascinated by the concepts of astrophysics but I was utterly uninterested in the math. I liked writing text adventure games, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around the rigorous side of coding. I hated puzzles and brain teasers. I was more interested in writing fantasy stories or little songs. I was useless at all the little feats of prodigy. I was endlessly verbal but not especially analytical. I loved playing with Legos and using my G.I. Joes to make up stories about heroism and sacrifice, but I got quickly bored with the microscopes and other science toys my grandparents would buy me. I’d lose the extra lenses and the little bottles of dye for staining samples.

I was also an awkward, irritating child. I talked constantly, and because I couldn’t speak as fast as I could think, my words fell all over each other, my drawl making me nearly unintelligible. Most adults found me irritating — and because I was completely uninterested in the hallmark obsessions of 1980s Texas childhood, like monster trucks and the Cowboys and Garbage Pail Kids and WWF wrestling, other kids just hated me.

I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply depressed. Even as a child, I was intuitive enough to be aware that I was completely socially hopeless and something of a disappointment to my family — especially my grandfather, who was a self-made and driven electrical engineer who constantly reminded me of my failure to live up to my potential, which seemed to him a terrible waste of the money he was spending on my education.

I also can’t remember the first time someone punched me in the face.

I was badly bullied from preschool right up until the day I walked out of high school, my junior year, never to return. I was called names and mocked, of course, but I was also physically abused by my peers, punched and kicked and slapped on a regular basis. Hardly a week went by when I wasn’t physically assaulted to some degree; and each school year, I could expect at least one fairly hardcore beating, which of course got more serious as time progressed. I got my first broken nose when I was thirteen, from a girl I’d never met before, at a house party; I still have no idea what I did to earn it. Riding home on my bike from my eighth grade prom, some drunk rednecks ran me off the road, ruining the suit I’d borrowed from my great-grandfather for the occasion; and I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my experiences with guns.

If you’re wondering why no one in a position of authority intervened in this, why no adults stepped in…well, the fact is that most of the faculty in the schools I attended probably loathed me as much as their students. I was a smart-ass know-it-all kid who never, ever had any respect of any kind for arbitrary authority. I was constantly disruptive in class, because I was almost always bored out of my mind. Some of those teachers and administrators were better at hiding their dislike than others; some of them were pretty open about it. I remember the first time I really understood that, sitting across from the principal of my school — being aware that I wasn’t just a professional irritation to him, but that he actively disliked me as a human. It made me feel like I had nothing to protect me from the world’s sharpest edges.

And so I was miserable. I was so miserable, in fact, that at the age of eleven, my family sent me to a therapist, who promptly put me on first Elavil, and then lithium, after the Elavil caused me to go on unprovoked, uncontrollable crying jags.

I think that was around the time that I began to hurt myself in earnest, bashing my head into walls.

That was also the year I got expelled from my first school, for fighting with one of the teachers’ kids: he hit me and ran away, and I chased after him, screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs. (Remember, I was by this time an avid Stephen King fan, and this provided me the kind of vocabulary that you might imagine.) I think when I caught him I tried to beat him up, but of course I was useless at it.

It didn’t matter who started it, of course;  what mattered was that I was the one who got caught, who disturbed the peace. I was angry at being hit, but I was even angrier because it wasn’t fucking fair.

I think I remember the moment at which my perpetual dogged sadness became something different. After my expulsion, my scandalized grandparents made it clear that they were done with trying to provide me with an excellent education: I was on my own.

So eighth grade was the Gee School in Pilot Point, Texas — a good old-fashioned junior high with good old-fashioned approaches to dealing with freaks like me. Including, as it turned out, corporal punishment.

I can’t remember my math teacher’s name, and I can’t remember what I did to earn my punishment — I think I was more disrespectful than usual, and I may have called her a name. Certainly not good behavior on my part. But I do remember being summoned to her room after school to take my whuppin’. It was a big wooden paddle, with holes drilled in it so it would hurt worse.

She got one lick in before I grabbed it away from her, threw it done, and walked out. I remember my absolute, implacable rage, clear as day. I was tired of people hitting me, and I didn’t care if it was a teacher, or if it was condoned by the school, the Texas Board of Education, God and sonny Jesus. I was just done. If not with the beatings, if not with the petty cruelty and monstrous indifference of the universe I moved in, I was at least done with accepting it. I wasn’t going to be a victim anymore. I was going to fight back.

There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon talks about his father’s abuse. “He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, ‘Choose.’”

“Well, I gotta go with the belt there,” says his therapist, Robin Williams, but Damon shakes his head. “I used to go with the wrench.”

“Why?” says Williams. “Because fuck him, that’s why,” Damon replies.

That. Precisely that.

And I never did let anybody hurt me again. Oh, I got my ass kicked from here to Christmas Island, and not just once. I lost a lot of fights — literally and figuratively. But I didn’t let it happen. I fought back. I gave as good as I could, and sometimes as good as I got.

Once, when I pissed off one of my mother’s boyfriends, a big dumb fuck named Marty, he gave me two options: I could let him lock me in my bedroom for three days without food or water, or I could let him go after me with his horse whip. (He was a professional hunter’s guide.) So I let him lock me in the bedroom…and then I kicked out the window and went to stay with friends until it blew over.

There was nothing noble in my anger. I was a nasty little shit, confused and enraged and smashing into the world like a wounded beast. I’m sure I made my family’s life a living hell. But it was anger or oblivion. It was all I had.

And sometimes my anger failed on me; sometimes the sorrow would get the best of me, and that’s when I’d go in my bedroom or go get drunk in an alley and cut myself with a knife or a broken bottle, or stand on the edge of a high building and think about what it would be like, the sudden leap in my stomach as I jumped, and those last few whirling seconds of misery before everything just went the fuck away. I think the first time I really, honestly contemplated suicide, I was probably twelve or so.

I never really seriously tried it, even the one time I cut my wrists in public like a massive asshole emo kid and got held on a 5150 in California. (They can hold you for 72 hours, but they kept me overnight; in the morning, the doctor on duty at the psych ward said “Do you feel like an idiot?” I said yes. “Are you going to do this again?” I said no. He let me walk. Hey, I was nineteen. There was a girl. Sigh.) But I seriously considered it a lot. Truth be told, I still do, sometimes. Sometimes depression grabs ahold of me and leaches all the color out of the world, and I tell myself that nothing matters, that I’m still a waste of potential, that I’ve never done anything important or valuable.

And the thing that keeps me from doing it, every time, is my absolutely refusal to give the sonsofbitches, whoever they may be, the satisfaction. Why not commit suicide? Because fuck him, that’s why; fuck him and fuck you and fuck the uncaring, cruel universe.

I’m angry because the world is cold and unfair and it doesn’t have to be, and I’m never going to get past that bedrock of betrayal, that original sin. I’m angry because I believe in a better world, and because I hate the things and the people who stand between me and that world. And because, as Johnny Lydon once said, anger is an energy. It’s a sword and a shield that you can use to keep the black-eyed dog from sniffing at your door, a way to protect yourself and stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. You don’t cry; you snarl and sneer.

I’m not saying this is right, or the best way to face the world. But I’m old enough now to understand that there really is no right way to live; all that matters is you find a way to survive in the world. For some people, the world is a Burning Man camp where you embrace the change you want to see in the world; for others, the world is an alley fight and you get your back good and hard against a wall and you don’t let the motherfuckers get you off your feet. The universe is big enough and weird enough that both of these things can be true simultaneously.

There’s a line at the end of the movie Se7en that I have taken, this last year, as my credo; it is for me the equivalent of the motivational posters and inspirational quotes many people post on their Facebook walls and in their cubicles. At the end of Se7en, Morgan Freeman says, in a mournful voiceover: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote: ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

That. Precisely that.

 

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Digging For Fire: Introduction

This is the first draft of my introduction to my upcoming book, which is currently (tentatively) entitled Digging For Fire: Seeking Innovation In East Africa. This may not make it to the final book, or at least not exactly like this, but I thought I’d post it as a teaser.

There’s a trunk, sitting in my living room.

It’s not a wildly unique example of the form, as far as trunks go: a footlocker, neither particularly large, nor particularly small, made from sheet metal. The outside is painted an electric blue, with rudimentary abstract designs spray-painted on it with silver spray paint, like an aspiring teenage heavy metal guitarist might put on his pawn-shop axe. The inside is an especially offensive shade of shit brown. It’s unremarkable, timeless — if you saw it in the background of a black and white photograph from the late nineteeth century, it would not immediately leap out to the eye as an anachronism. It’s the kind of trunk you might pick up at a discount hardware store to keep attic junk in, the kind of trunk that gets stamped out for pennies by the billions in Southeast Asian mass production factories and shipped to every corner of the earth.

But this particular trunk does not hail from Southeast Asia or, indeed, a mass production line anywhere. It is a jua kali trunk, and it began its existence in Gikomba, a massive, sprawling marketplace adjacent to the Industrial District of Nairobi, Kenya. It is, quite literally, artisanal, in the sense that it was made by an artisan, who assembled it by hand from recycled materials using handmade tools, sitting on the packed earth floor of his tin-roofed stall, with his shitty Tecno cell phone sitting on a hand-welded workbench, blasting Bob Marley or Kanye West.

I know this because I bought this trunk from such an artisan in Gikomba — or rather, my taxi driver bought it, insisting that if I attempted to purchase it myself, as a stupid white man, the trunk’s maker would hike the price up four or five times what he’d charge a local. (I got to wait in the taxi and scare off carjackers with my knife. Having experienced the fine Kenyan art of haggling, I’m pretty sure I got the less stressful side of the bargain.)

Jua kali is Swahili for “fierce sun”, and it refers to the 80% of Kenyans who make up the informal economy, outside the civil structures of taxation and regulation and paperwork: bored girls chilling out in rough wooden booths in the market, selling Safaricom mobile phone SIM cards and scratch-off airtime cards, old ladies selling bananas and mangos in roadside stalls, young hustlers with their stalls full of secondhand Lady Gaga and Seattle Seahawks t-shirts…and the makers, fixers, and jury-riggers sitting underneath that fierce sun in places like Gikomba, welding together wheelbarrows from bits of rebar and oil barrels and broken bicycles, or painstakingly repairing cheap Chinese mobile phones with homebrewed circuit testers. Their services are an absolute necessity in a place where simply popping into a big box retailer and purchasing what you need is impossible: where the average monthly wage can be as low as USD$60 and the nearest Home Depot is eight thousand miles away.

The jua kali world is what the futurist Alvin Toffler referred to as an “adhocracy”, structureless and unregulated, a Darwinian ecology of problem-solving and gap-filling. In the informal economy, you don’t have a career, per se; you may not even have a job title. You just find something that people will pay you to do, and do it as often and as long as you can, whether it’s driving a taxi or selling peanuts in newspaper cones or making trunks and selling them to gigantic white weirdos. It’s pure distilled personal entrepreneurship, in the absence of other viable options.

* * *

 My trunk is not a Ruskinite triumph of form and function, built to survive the millennium, exquisitely and lovingly hand-crafted by a master craftsman with a deep and spiritual connection to the objets d’art that issue from his hand. It is, in point of fact, kind of a piece of shit — or, to put it more kindly, what the CEO of my last startup would’ve undoubtedly referred to as a “minimum viable product”. The sheet metal from which it is made is only slightly thicker and sturdier than cardboard, the rivets have already begun to pop out, it reeks of cheap paint, and it barely survived the long journey from Nairobi back to Las Vegas, where I live.

But it did survive, and accomplished the task which I set for it, which was to get my clothes and souvenirs home without spilling them all over the tarmac of the Amsterdam airport. And that’s the point. The jua kali is not about pursuing perfection or about ruthless efficiency. It’s about getting shit done, however you can. It’s the socioeconomic equivalent of duct tape and chewing gum, and it holds Kenya — and, under other names, most of the developing world — together.

These signal virtues of the jua kali — finding gaps and filling them, working fast and cheap and under the radar, rapidly building the minimum viable product — are also, at least on paper, the values that lie at the heart of the ascendant Western technology startup industry. So it is little surprise that Kenya — and, to a lesser extent, neighboring Uganda — are hot spots for East Africa’s rising tech industry. As we’ll see in this book, a combination of historical, cultural and economic factors put these countries in a unique position to become tech hubs for all of sub-Saharan Africa in the twenty-first century.

In fact, it’s difficult to see the East African tech industry unfiltered by the unblinking lens of the fierce sun. A lot of the coders and designers and and entrepreneurs who inhabit incubators and hackerspaces like Nairobi’s iHub and Kampala’s Hive Colab got their start in the informal economy, and a lot of them still reside there in some way or another. And it is the jua kali mindset — relentlessly seeking ways to survive, improve, produce — that will drive their success.

 

* * *

 

For many Western readers, it may come as a surprise that East Africa even has a technology industry, much less a growing and thriving one. Sub-Saharan Africa, we are told, is a savage landscape of warlords and genocide, starving children and rampant disease. For many Americans, their only association with Uganda is Joseph Kony, the lunatic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army who believes himself to be possessed by spirits and press-gangs children into his militia to commit baroque atrocities. Mention Kenya and you might get vague notions of elephants and lions, or the recent attack by militant Somali Muslims on the Westgate mall, or sad platitudes about Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. When I arrived in Nairobi, I was warned by several acquaintances on social networks to be very careful to watch out for hippos.

While none of these ideas are wrong, precisely, they paint a completely inaccurate picture of the realities of life in East Africa. Sitting on the porch of an apartment in Kampala, drinking Coke Zero and looking out at the shores of Lake Victoria, I was in no more danger from Kony’s sad child soldiers than I would have been in my own bedroom; and Kibera, though achingly poor, is far from the abyss of endless sorrow and misery that is often suggested by humanitarian and relief groups and non-governmental organizations. (And while there are certainly hippos in Kenya, and though they can certainly present a lethal danger if provoked, Nairobi is a sprawling city of three million people; your chances of being killed by a rampaging hippo in its streets are roughly equivalent to your chances of being mauled by a goddamn grizzly bear while sipping a latté in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.)

Our stories in the developed world about sub-Saharan Africa are sparse and sensationalistic, and tinged with the remnants of Victorian-era colonialism, misguided paternalism, and sub rosa racism. Consequently, we fill in the gaps with assumptions, many of which, even if well-meaning, are simply wrong. For example, when I sent out an email during my campaign to crowdfund my research trip for this book, an acquaintance who’s a grad student in sociology replied, saying that my project seemed tinged with cultural imperialism — as if I was imposing my Western obsessions with technology onto people who did not adhere to my cultural ideas. And while there are certainly big differences between Western and African social values, I’m pretty sure that the thirty million mobile phone subscribers in Kenya — and the six hundred and fifty million mobile phone users in all of Africa — would find that notion amusing.

As I walked the muddy streets of Nairobi and Kampala, as I sat and talked with nerds over full English breakfasts and excellent East African coffee and perused beautiful paintings in a shanty art gallery in Kibera, I realized that, as much as this book needed to be about technology, it also needed to be about stories: the West’s stories and the stories Africa tells about itself, the ones we’re told and the ones we never hear.

And so this is my story of my experience of the tech world in East Africa. I cannot claim that it is the truth; merely my truth, as I saw it. And I hope that it may, in some small way, help people understand that the reality is far more complex and fascinating than the simple portrait of sub-Saharan Africa often painted in Western media. Like my wonderful, shitty jua kali trunk, there is more here than meets the eye.

Joshua Ellis Mobile, Alabama December 26th, 2013

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An Unfortunately Open Email To Any NSA Employee Who Might Be Reading It

This is an email I just sent to myself, in case anyone is reading my accounts.

Maybe you’re not reading this.

Maybe you’re just collating it, my words encoded on a hard drive in some weird anonymous building out in the middle of Cheap Real Estate Land, where the only sound is the big trucks going by on the freeway outside. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something here that pulls a semantic trigger, some Markov chain of words that shunts my email down this chute instead of that one: this chute, with the red flag on it. Maybe you really are sitting at your desk in your cubicle in Fort Meade, reading these words. Deciding what to do about them.

I warned people about you, you know. When the towers fell, all those years ago now, and everyone was talking about the realignment of the FBI and the CIA, the increased cooperation between the various intelligence agencies, I kept asking: what about the NSA? Nobody seemed to know. Nobody seemed to want to talk about it. Nobody, for a long time, would even admit you existed.

But now we know what you were doing: you were building an archive of everything. I didn’t think you could do it, frankly; didn’t think even your massive budgets could handle storing every email, every direct message, every phone call. Even if you had the data, I thought, you couldn’t ever sort through all of it in any useful way. More fool me.

I don’t like you. I don’t mean that I don’t like your employer, or I don’t like your mission. Even though I don’t know who you are, I don’t like you, personally. Because you’re not just in that chair, reading this email, because you needed a job. The NSA doesn’t hire off Craigslist posts. You worked to get this job. This was a career plan for you, something that took you months or maybe even years to get to.

That means you wanted this job. You wanted to be sitting there, reading this email. Maybe you do it out of a misguided sense of patriotism, a belief that you are making America safe from terrorists. If so, you’re just a deluded fool. You know that, right? Even if you’re protecting something from the threat of terror, it’s not America, or at least any America that I recognize. And I am just as American as you are.

But I think it more likely that you’re simply the kind of person who loves having secrets — your own and those of other people. It doesn’t really matter what they are — illicit affairs, drug use, murder, incest, maybe even every so often the actual mutterings of God-deluded jihadis. Information, you dig, is power…and if you have access to all the information, what does that make you, at least in your head?

But you are not a god. You are a clerk, a wretched little civil servant with a gaping hole where your ethical center ought to be. You are the very embodiment of the assertion that a society that would trade liberty for security deserves neither. You, my friend, are a peeping Tom, a rat, a fink, a betrayer of the ideals upon which this country was founded. You are the one who does not mind their own business. You are a traitor, more so than your former colleague Edward Snowden will ever be.

We are not afraid of terrorists, of sad little men sitting in yurts in a desert on the far side of the world, making ignorant plans that will never come to fruition. Some of these men might succeed in waging their war, to be sure…but not many, and not very often, and most of them are foiled by their own witlessness.

99% of the rest of them can be stopped by good old fashioned law enforcement and the kind of intelligence work which all of us understand and most of us condone: the kind where you pick a target, rather than casting your net over all and sundry.

That last 1%, the ones who can only be stopped by your warrantless, unwarranted surveillance of every American and every non-American whose flow of information you can get your hands on? I would rather they succeed in their murderous efforts than see you succeed in yours. Because all they can do is kill people, kill buildings; but you and yours are killing the last vestiges of what was great in America, great about America. Their dust will settle, but yours never will, until everything that we have worked for in this great experiment has swept away.

And that is their true goal, and again, I call you a traitor, because you are doing their work for them. They don’t want to kill Americans. They want to destroy America, and in that, you are their greatest collaborator.

I urge you to do this: walk away. Walk away from that desk. You don’t have to be Snowden, you don’t have to blow any whistles or name any names or steal any files. You can mark your protest against the cheap schemes of your employers by simply refusing to do their bidding. Someone else may step up, someone else will step up…but that person won’t be you. You can make your stand.

If that’s not something you can or will do — if that’s not something you feel is right — if you think that reading this email of mine is the right thing to do, that invading the privacy of me and my fellow citizens without reason, without cause, without warrant, is a noble and just act — then I would ask that you pick up a pen from your desk, walk down the hallway to the nearest restroom…and jam it as hard as you can into your own jugular, and bleed out there on the cheap tile floor.

Because I do not like you, you see. And though I will never raise a hand against you or your employers, I wish you ill, and I would rather live in a world without people who believe that they deserve the power to pry into every human life, not because they can help, but because it gives them power.

Do the right thing, one way or another. History will thank you, either way.

Sincerely, Joshua Zachariah Ellis

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Finding Innovation In Africa — support my IndieGoGo campaign!

My campaign is live! Wonderfully, we raised over $2500 in the first day — a quarter of the way there! There’s still a ways to go, though, and I’d love your help, either by kicking in some cash (and getting a copy of the book in return) or by sharing the love.

Here are a couple of frequently asked questions about the project:

Do you have an actual itinerary?

Aside from a general schedule for flights, not yet. I plan to spend two weeks in and around Lagos and two weeks in and around Nairobi. But that will probably also include short trips to nearby cities like Accra, Ghana, which is only about 350 miles from Lagos, and I’ve committed to making a trip to Kilimanjaro, which is 150 miles south of Nairobi.

Once the trip is funded, I’ll be nailing down more specific plans. I already have some contacts in each city I’m reaching out to, and I’ll set up meetings with them.

I don’t have any idea what hotels I’ll be staying in or anything like that. When I travel, I tend to find the least expensive places I can reasonably stay in. In this case, the only things I really need are a door that locks, a private restroom, and air conditioning (not out of luxury, but to keep out mosquitos that carry malaria).

I also believe in serendipity — often I find the most interesting things just wandering around or by chance encounters.

Aren’t you promoting what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism” with this project? Are you saying that all Africans need is technology to prosper?

No, and no. I don’t believe technology is a panacea for every problem, and certainly not for the problems Africa faces. My sense is that Africa’s problems are fractally complex at every societal level, just like anywhere else — economic, cultural, social, and of course a big heaping dose of post-colonialist nightmares.

That said, I think some of the serious problems facing sub-Saharan Africa are problems that can be solved — or at least alleviated — with technological and engineering solutions. I’m just not sure which ones, which is why I’m making the trip.

More to the point, though, I’m not necessarily looking for “answers” to big, intractable problems. I’m just really interested in what people are making there, from a nerd’s perspective. Hopefully I’ll be able to maybe put some of the pieces together as I go.

Where did you come up with the $10000 figure? Do you have a budget?

Yep! I have a rough budget based on Internet research — checking travel advice sites and such. It looks something like this:

  • Airfare: $2500 (including taxes, airport fees, etc)
  • Hotels: $50/night x 30 = $1500
  • Food: $30/day x 30 = $900
  • Vaccinations: $1000
  • Transportation (buses between cities, taxis, etc.) $1000

Those are estimates, rounded up for safety’s sake, but that brings us to right around $7000. The other $3K is for anything else — bribes, unforeseen stuff — and to pay my bills at home while I’m gone.

$10K sounds like a lot, but for a month overseas it’s actually kind of low. And if anything serious happens — like I get hurt or really sick — I might be in trouble. But, hey, c’est la vie.

So what happens when you get back?

I put the book together. I’ll be writing it as I go along — both taking notes and also writing actual prose. I’ll be sending it as I write it to an editor back here in the States, just in case anything happens to me — I want to make sure that, no matter what, my backers get a finished product, even if something goes pear-shaped. When I get back to Vegas, I’ll be working with my editor to assemble the final book, as well as designing the deluxe edition — in addition to being a writer, I’m a pretty decent graphic designer as well. When it’s done — I’m estimating the end of January, 2014 — I’ll be sending it out.

Will there be a print version?

There will definitely be a print version for backers who selected one as their perk — it’ll be printed on demand for them. Will there be a mass market edition? That remains to be seen. I’d love to get a publisher who’d like to make that happen.

Isn’t this a bit dangerous? Aren’t you worried about it?

That’s a complicated question. The answer is: no, I’m not, but not because I don’t think there’s an element of danger. My experience traveling is that most places that aren’t active war zones are pretty much like any other places: as long as you don’t act like an asshole, you’re usually fine. That was my experience in Juarez, and I suspect it’ll hold true in Lagos and Nairobi as well.

But there are risks, and I’d be an idiot if I wasn’t aware of them. There are anti-American Islamic groups in both cities. Both cities have terrible poverty, and the street crime that inevitably follows. Also, I’m a 6’3″ burly white man. I don’t blend well in Africa.

There’s also the fact that I’m trying to put together one side trip that, if I can arrange it, will be ludicrously dangerous, which is why I’m not divulging it publicly yet — I don’t want to broadcast what I’m doing.

The thing is: I don’t really much care about my personal safety, to be honest. I’m more interested in telling the story I want to tell. I’m not reckless, but I’m not overly cautious, either, and if shit goes down, shit goes down. That’s why I’ll be transmitting my writing and notes daily.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking for trouble. I’d like to avoid it if I can. But I need to be exposed to do this the way I want to do it, which is why I won’t have a driver, a guide or security of any kind (other than myself).

Will you bring me something back from Africa?

Not to be a jerk, but: probably not. Remember, I’m going to be moving around a lot, and carrying at least two bags (one for clothes, one for gear). I’ll probably take another small bag folded up in my clothes bag for souvenirs, but I can’t promise anybody anything.

I could probably bring you back malaria, though, if you asked nicely.

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Africa Book – Crowdfunding

So I’m finally in a position where I can make the trip to Africa I’ve been wanting to make for most of my life, to write a book about technology in sub-Saharan Africa — the technology industry, but also how technology is evolving there and how Western governments and companies can help Africa develop its own technology ecosystem.

My loose plan is to orbit around two cities: Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya. Both are relative hubs of technology in SSA, but culturally and economically they are very different. Ideally, I would travel to rural areas near these cities as well, to see how technology could be introduced to make life easier for rural Africans.

My goal is to ask for USD$10,000. That might seem like a lot, but it’s a realistic number based on my financial calculations. Airfare from Las Vegas to Africa, even economy class, is very expensive, as are the necessary travel immunizations. I also need to be able to pay my bills while I’m gone, which are modest, and be able to afford to take time to compile and put the book together post-trip.

I’ve compiled an initial list of flex goals and perks below.

Flex Goals

  • $12K — I will purchase a DSLR to do better photos (assuming nobody will let me borrow one).
  • $15K — I will expand the trip to include Ghana and possibly Senegal.
  • $20K — I will take a professional photographer with me.
  • $25K — I will take a camera crew with me and film a documentary.

Perks

  • $5 – Thanks in the book.
  • $10 – Digital copy of the book (ePub, lit, pdf) + thanks.
  • $20 – Limited edition digital copy with scanned notes, pics, etc. + thanks.
  • $100 – Signed print-on-demand copy of the book + limited edition digital + thanks.
  • $1000 – I will deliver a talk or consult with your organization or with you, either via phone/Skype, or in person (travel expenses to be paid by you) + limited edition digital + thanks.

My time limit for this is two months, which will give me enough time to prepare for the trip.

So what do you think?

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