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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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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