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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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.


  • $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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Righteous Kill

Like most Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about guns these past few months, since Aurora and Sandy Hook. And like most Americans, I’ve come to a series of conclusions and convictions about the gun control debate; a position I find morally and ethically solid.

And I’ll tell you about it. But first I want to tell you about my own personal culture of violence. Maybe just to get it off my chest, but maybe also to explain why I feel the way I do.


The first time anybody pointed a gun at me, I was fourteen or fifteen, I guess. I lived with my mom and my stepdad in a trailer park a few miles outside of Hamilton, Montana. We were poor, then: poor enough we didn’t have a telephone, poor enough that our primary source of heat was a pot-bellied wood stove that sat on a porcelain riser in the middle of our trailer’s living room, for which I split endless cords of wood in the side yard with a hand-held hatchet. It was grueling, tiring work, and I avoided it when I could.

Mom and Dad were out that night, though I can’t remember where or why. What I do remember is the sharp, rattling banging on the door of our trailer — a door made of thin, crenellated sheet metal with cardboard inside.

I peeked through the narrow window of the door and saw, outside, a group of boys. I knew them all, knew they hated me in the way that small-town bullying assholes hate anybody weird or different. A couple of them hated my mother and I, because of a dispute with their mother.

There were, I think, four of them. Maybe five. And two of them held guns. I didn’t know anything about guns, but these were semi-automatic handguns, not revolvers. They were grinning at me like feral dogs.

One of them held his pistol up. “Come out, faggot,” he said. “Come out, bitch.” The others took up the chant — come out, motherfucker, come out, faggot — as they waited, patiently, for me to open the door.

I remember the fear so clearly: that hideous rising sensation in your upper chest and your throat, like somebody blew up a helium balloon inside you that’s trying to take off. I had no idea what to do. My parents were gone, we didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t call the cops, and even if I could, they were miles away, in town. Screaming wouldn’t help — in that trailer park, screams weren’t especially unusual. I was at a loss.

To this day, I still don’t know why I walked across the tiny living room of the trailer and picked up the wood-chopping hatchet. I took it back to the window, showed it to the boys through that thin strip of safety glass…and slammed it, as hard as I could, into the door, as if I was going to hack through it and go after them. I think I was screaming, at the top of my lungs. I remember baring my teeth at them, through the door, and if anybody was feral that night it might have been me.

“Alright,” I said. “Here I come.”

They looked confused, uneasy. Then they began to back away. They jumped in their car and drove away. I was left still standing behind the door, which now bore a bright shiny wound in its ugly brown facade. That’s how I know they use cardboard to fill out trailer doors, you see.

I caught hell when my parents came home. I couldn’t seem to make them understand my fear. All they knew was that I’d trashed the house. I don’t know if they believed my story or not.

Nor do I know, even now, if the guns those boys had were “real” guns or pellet guns…or if they actually would’ve shot or killed me. Maybe they just wanted to scare me. Maybe they would’ve stood around me in a circle and beaten me, as they did before and after that night, or just pistol-whipped me. I don’t know. But I do know that was the night I learned a secret that kept me alive and free of permanent physical (if not emotional or psychological) damage throughout my turbulent, violent adolescence.

If you can’t talk or fight your way out of a situation, go crazy. It’ll usually scare ’em so bad they run away.


Based on their rhetoric, I suspect that most gun advocates have the same fantasy running through their heads when they start talking about why they need a gun for home defense. It’s the one where they awake in the middle of the night from a deep slumber at a gentle, unexplained noise from downstairs — a door whispering open, perhaps, or a window sliding up.

They reach into their bedside drawer and pull out their Glock or Colt or whatever their weapon of choice is. They slide out of bed, Honey Bunny still blissfully unaware and sleeping by their side, and through the bedroom door and silently down the stairs, like Jason Bourne, until they reach the ground floor. They peer cautiously around the corner. There’s the perp, his hands deep into the wife’s jewelry case.

Hands up, they cry, or I’ll shoot!

And here’s where I think the public version and the private version of that fantasy — the version they’ll admit to, and the real one inside their head — diverge. In the public version, the perp puts his hands up, and Honey Bunny calls the cops while our suburban Jason Bourne keeps his piece carefully aimed at the center of the perp’s mass, and the day is saved by a careful and conscientious gun owner. And, of course, the Second Amendment, God bless it and keep it.

But I believe that, for many of these people, the private fantasy ends differently. It ends with the perp whirling, his own (illegally-obtained) gun in his hand, ready to kill. He’s fast…but our Constitution defender is faster, and before you can say “cold dead hands”, the perp’s brain is spattered all over the Thomas Kinkaide painting Honey Bunny got for Christmas two years ago. Another evildoer sent to Hell. No great loss.

I think that’s the real fantasy…because I’ve had it myself, a time or two. I’m pretty sure it’s damn common, this blood-spattered Walter Mitty alpha male daydream of the righteous kill. It’s kissing cousins with those other popular current reveries: If I’d Been In That Theater, I Woulda Put That Sonofabitch Down and, of course, If Those Teachers Had Had Guns, No Children Woulda Died In Connecticut That Day.

These phantasmagories are, perhaps, the real American Dream.

And dreams are all they are, of course. If you want a nightmare instead, you might try imagining a Colorado theater full of confused, angry people, bombarded by the sound and light show of a Batman movie cranked to full sensory disrupt hanging over them like an Old Testament spectacle, not to mention the screams and panicky jittering of all those folks around them, pulling their trusty handguns and attempting to make the righteous kill, to hit that one “perp”…who, of course, is only one of many people with guns in their hands. In the flashing, strobing darkness.

Christ, they’d still be hosing the ticketholders off the walls.

And that’s still not as bad as the nightmares that plague the sleep of those unfortunate, stupid souls who head downstairs in the small hours of the morning, ready to heroically defend their castle against the junkie or rapist who’s intruded into the sanctity of their home…only to find themselves staring at the son or daughter who decided that was the night to sneak out to go smoke cigarettes and drink cheap beer with their friends, lying on the linoleum, making a noise like a hooked fish as their lungs fill up with blood, thanks to the .357 round that’s suddenly turned their chest cavity into an object lesson in fluid dynamics and entropy. In those nightmares, our Jason Bourne is kneeling next to their dying child, shouting Baby? Oh my God baby I’m so sorry somebody call 911!as their offspring bleeds out and becomes nothing more than a carefully-dusted photograph on the mantelpiece.

Over and over again. Forever.


I know about fear. I know about the terror of the sound in the night, the monster in human form showing up at your door with a weapon of personal destruction. I’m almost thirty-five years old and I still automatically look for the nearest exit in any room I enter. I still walk down the street with a mental model in my head of every pedestrian who is nearby, where the dark corners are that an attacker might spring from. When I hear a car engine suddenly rev up nearby, I automatically tense up, just in case it’s the same sonsofbitches who roared past me in their big fruity Chevy pickup that soft spring night when I was sixteen and pegged me in the back of the head with an unopened can of Rolling Rock, knocking me semi-unconscious into a ditch, where I lay until I came to my senses.

And I understand rage. I understand righteous indignation, wanting to bring the holy fire down on the heads of the cruel and the evil and the stupid. I understand the unspoken hope that some stupid bastard is dumb enough to actually break into your house…because then, as Rorschach says in Watchmen, you’re not trapped in there with them; now, they’re trapped in there with you. I understand wanting a reason to hurt the ones you’re afraid of.


One day, this kid Nick tells me he and his friends are going to beat the shit out of me before school the next morning. I don’t mean the kind of ass-beating you see in movies about how high school sucks: I’m talking about an American History X-style stomping, the kind where somebody can end up in the hospital, or dead. (The kind that a similar set of ignorant trash gave my acquaintance Matthew Shepherd a couple of years after he got out of high school, in fact.) I had no reason to doubt him. He wasn’t the first to make such a threat, or carry it out. I had my nose broken for the first time a few months before those boys showed up at my door; a few months later, another similar set of boys kicked me until they broke a rib.

So I went home that night, and I looked through my library, this being before Internet access was especially common, until I found a book that gave a description of how to make napalm out of Ivory soap and gasoline. I decided this was my only answer. My parents didn’t seem to much give a shit, and most of the authority figures in my life seemed to despise me as much as the other kids did. So I was going to light this motherfucker Nick up like the goddamn Tet Offensive.

Thank God I didn’t have access to a double boiler, or gasoline, for that matter. Instead, I mixed a bunch of isopropyl alcohol into liquid dish soap, poured it into a Tupperware container, and shoved it in my backpack. I couldn’t find a lid for the Tupperware, so I wrapped it in Saran Wrap.

The next morning, I got to school a half-hour early with my package of death, and decided to pour a little of it on the sidewalk and test it — kind of a trial run. And of course, it did nothing at all — the alcohol had either evaporated out of the container, or my mixture was wrong. Not that it would’ve done much in either case anyway.

My one moment of Columbine-style mayhem was over before it began. Instead, when Nick showed up, he called me a faggot and punched me hard in the face once, and I fell over and cried like a sissy, and everybody laughed, and he went on his way, his adolescent ego maintained and my own kicked down another flight of stairs.

It terrifies me, in retrospect, to think what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been such a retard — if I’d melted Nick’s face off his skull. He was a brutish, vicious little asshole, but he didn’t deserve that. Nothing righteous about that little bit of wetwork.

But it doesn’t terrify me nearly as much as the thought of what would’ve happened if my dad had owned a gun.

Two of my friends, those first couple of years of high school, got their hands on a gun. Both of them used those guns on themselves, though from all accounts they might’ve done better to start with other members of their households. But they didn’t. Both of them went out into the Montana wilderness and put those guns in their mouths, and ended everything they might ever have been. The second one, my friend Sarah, went into the woods in November; they didn’t find her until the snow began to thaw in February, and by then there wasn’t enough left to fill a bucket. Her casket was closed at the funeral.

And I might’ve joined them, in my misery and terror, if there hadn’t always been a little titanium core of self-preservation at the center of my wobbling teenage self. Or I might’ve showed up in my high school one day with the intention of, as Stephen King once put it, “getting it on”.

When Columbine happened I was twenty-one years old, still young enough that those wounds were still bleeding…and my first thought, when I heard what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, was empathy; not with the murdered, but the murderers. I knew — or thought I knew — how it came to that, how the hurt and the hate builds up. I remember that high school feels like a life stretch in a big house where the guards don’t pay attention and the other prisoners all want to fuck you up until you go crazy. I got it.

I was wrong, of course. Klebold and Harris weren’t purveyors of the righteous kill, either, any more than I would’ve been with my little Fauxlatov cocktail. They were victims, but as the main character in my favorite high school movie said: aren’t we all? They were just animals, as dumb and mean as the animals who wounded them. Animals, the way James Holmes is and Adam Lanza was an animal.

But unlike real animals, they had their guns. Lots and lots of guns.


America does have a culture of violence, make no mistake about it. But that culture is not embodied in violent video games and movies and comic books, or any of the other culprits that gun advocates like to trot out whenever some waterhead goes over the high side and starts mass murdering people.

The violence in America is embedded at the very heart of our culture, in those core values that nationalistic jerkoffs love to trot out at every opportunity: our rugged individualism, our can-do spirit, our supposed toughness. (I say “supposed” because it’s hard to regard people as tough when they’re so terrified of every shadow that they feel the need to carry military-grade munitions to protect themselves. That, speaking for myself, is the definition of craven and chickenshit. But I digress.) America’s motto might as well be Fuck You, I Got Mine. America isn’t about intellectual freedom, it’s about property rights and the ability to defend the same from anyone who encroaches upon them. What’s mine is mine, and if you try to take it, I’ll kill you: that‘s the American way.

That’s where our love of guns comes from. Guns are a marvelous tool for defending our property from those who might like to take or damage it. It’s hard to imagine that conservative Second Amendment advocates really give much of a shit about totalitarian encroachment upon freedom; after all, they’re the ones who cheer the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, who have nothing to say as our lawmakers sidestep not only the letter but the spirit of the Constitution and allow indefinite detainment without trial and assassination of American citizens. Their fear is not about the erosion of basic human freedom; they don’t care about free speech, due process. They care about anything that threatens their right to own the things they own and to keep them, without question. That’s why those self-same defenders of the Constitution mostly stood by idly while George W. Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to wipe his ass with that sainted document…but squawk like ugly, hysterical hens when Barack Obama tries to figure out ways to ensure that all Americans have access to basic healthcare. Because that’s taking money out of their pockets, and putting it into the pockets of all those freeloading immigrants, yadda yadda yadda. And money trumps freedom, every time.

The problem is not that Americans have guns. The problem is that Americans, by and large, cannot be trusted with guns: not to carry, and maybe not to own.

There’s another fantasy that the NRA and their groupies like to trot out: the Law-Abiding Gun Owner. These people are the last line of defense against the Bad Guys, in this line of thinking — a different breed, one feels. But that’s bullshit. James Holmes was a law-abiding gun owner right up until he walked into that theater in Colorado. Adam Lanza’s mom was a law-abiding gun owner, but that didn’t stop her psychotic son from taking her guns, killing her with them, and then playing Call Of Duty in the local elementary school. Everyone’s a Law-Abiding Gun Owner, right until they become a Bad Guy. And it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s going to take off their white hat and put on the black one, or when. In the wake of Aurora and Sandy Hook, a lot of people called for better mental health access in America; and while that’s fine, and I agree with them, the reality is that people like Holmes and Lanza don’t go looking for help very often, because as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need help. They’re the heroes in their own stories; it’s everyone else that’s insane and malign. It’s everyone else who needs to be dealt with.

But those are crazy people, goes the response. Evil people. Not good people. Maybe, but you know what? Difficult as it might be to institute a moratorium on the public and private sale of assault weapons, it’s still a helluva lot easier to implement than a moratorium on crazy, or evil, or just being a stupid thoughtless tiny-dicked jerk-off who carries a piece because it makes you feel like more of a man.

You can’t ban crazy. But you can make it harder for crazy to go crazy in such a very wholesale way.

Also, let’s clear something up right now: the Constitution of the United States does not confer upon you, the American citizen, the right to own a semi-automatic weapon. It says this, and only this:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

 If you define “arm” as a synonym for “weapon” with no qualification, well, homie, sorry to disappoint you, but that particular right was infringed upon a long goddamn time ago. If you don’t believe me, walk down Main Street of your town with a broadsword strapped to your back. Unlike a pistol, you can’t get a permit to carry a sword, concealed or otherwise. (This despite a fairly conspicuous lack of mass decapitations, or innocent children getting killed accidentally during a slash-by.) Your right to keep and bear that particular sort of arm was infringed upon, in most American jurisdictions, in the nineteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s nuclear bombs. A nuclear bomb is an “arm”, by anyone’s definition, and frankly, if your concern is a sinister (i.e. liberal) government instituting a totalitarian overthrow of the country, I’m pretty sure a nuke is a better deterrent against the unholy might of the United States military than your trusty Colt .45. But even the most rabid NRA activist wouldn’t argue that you ought to be able to own a nuke, or mount an antitank missile launcher on the roof of your pickup truck. Hell, very few people would say that it’s reasonable for you to be able to carry a grenade launcher or a Vulcan minigun…and yet these are, by definition, “arms”.

So we all agree there are some weapons that nobody needs to have. Why not put assault weapons in that category? They’re useless for home defense, unless you’re getting home invaded by the fucking Predator. Ditto game hunting, unless you just really want to skip the whole pesky step of turning your elk meat into jerky. It’s really fun to go and shoot them at a range, but so what? It’s fun to go fishing with dynamite, too. The fun factor is outweighed by the risk to society at large.

And I’m going to say this right now: if you can’t adequately defend your home with a shotgun or a low-capacity handgun, if you seriously believe need an AK-47 with a 30-round clip, you’re a stupid, dangerous asshole, period, and I’ll be happy to tell you that to your face. I hope you don’t have kids, partially because they’ll be in your line of fire, and partially because I simply hope you’re not in the breeding pool. Let’s leave the continuation of our species to people worthy of that task, okay?

Me? I keep a machete leaning against the wall next to my bed, as my absolute last line of home defense. My first line, mind you, is the set of bars on my windows and doors, which are far more effective than any gun could ever be. My second line of defense is that ‘Emergency Call’ button on my cell phone.

As much as I enjoy my own little preemptory revenge fantasies where I’m Liam Neeson in Taken, with that much-vaunted “particular set of skills”, the reality is that I don’t actually want to kill anybody, not even some idiot who’s desperate enough to try and break into my house to take what I have.


I’ll tell you one more story, before I’m done.

Back in Hamilton, back in the day, there used to be a little rec center, in a big cavernous building that used to be a supermarket. I have no idea if it’s still there or not; I’ve never returned to that place since I left, and I’m grateful for that fact. But when I was in high school it was there, and we used to go down there and dance to the grunge music that was popular in those dim dead days, and stand outside smoking and drinking filched booze mixed heavily with soda and trying to look cool.

One night, in some fit of melodramatic teenage angst, I wandered away from the rec center and out past the lights of the parking lot, into the empty field next door. There was probably a girl, or the lack of one, involved. You know how it is.

I was too busy brooding to pay attention, until I heard the rustling of feet in the grass. I looked up and saw them: another group of boys (and one big hulking slab of a girl, not coincidentally the sister of one of the boys who’d shown up at my door that night with guns). They’d seen me drifting away; they followed me.

The leader was this kid named Sam, as I remember. He wasn’t big, but he was mean and stupid, in that sort of snarling juvenile delinquent kind of way. At the end of that school year, when he was seventeen or eighteen, he dropped out to go drive big rigs with his old man, full-time, and I never saw him again. But he was there that night, grinning at me. I don’t remember exactly why he hated me. Did I smart off to him? Make him feel stupid, as payback for him making me feel terrified?

Does it even matter?

They surrounded me. There was the usual talk. Hey, faggot. You think you’re funny now, faggot, you fuckin queer cocksucking fucking bitch? For a man who’s never touched another man’s penis in my life, I’ve gotten gay-bashed more times than I’d care to count. I don’t know if they actually thought I was gay, but again: does it even matter?

Then they started spitting. All of them. Big, gooey loogies, on my face, my neck, the back of my head, my clothes. Laughing as they did. All of them but Sam. He just stood there, two feet away from me, grinning his sick grin.

Whatcha gonna do, faggot? You wanna go? Come on, faggot.

And I had a moment of absolute clarity. Everything went cold and clear. This was years before The Matrix, but my world went into bullet time.

I saw that I could reach up, grab Sam by either side of his head, and break his neck. I could do it before he could react, before any of them could react. I knew I had the physical strength to do it: I had already nearly reached my full height of six foot three then, and I could pick up a washing machine from a dead lift and put it on the back of a pickup truck. I was bullied not because I was weak, but because I was slow, and couldn’t really fight very well.

But I didn’t need to fight Sam. I could just put my hands out and kill him, in an instant.

I could feel my hands twitching, eager to end all of this in that one instant.

You probably think I was wrong, or that I was fantasizing. But I’ve thought about this a lot over the last twenty years, and I remain as convinced now as I was that night that I was absolutely correct in my assessment of the situation. At that moment, though I was the one surrounded by jeering enemies, their phlegm dripping off my nose, I owned Sam’s life. It was mine to end, if I wanted.

My hands went up…and then down again. I didn’t kill Sam. I just stood there, trembling with fury and fear and misery, my tears mingling with the spit on my face. I don’t remember how it ended. I think maybe one of my friends happened to see what was happening and came up, shouting at them to leave me alone. Maybe Sam belted me one, or knocked me down, or just called me a faggot again and walked away. I have no memory of that.

Just Sam’s face. Just his grin in the dark of that field, and the knowledge that I had the power of life and death in my crude boy’s hands.


“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man,” says Clint Eastwood in the sublime Western film Unforgiven. “Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” I don’t think most Americans really understand that. We don’t understand that there’s no such thing as a righteous kill, not really: just murder, and you’re on one side of it or the other. We love our guns because we don’t really understand what they do. They don’t solve the problem. They just make new ones.

Did Nick, he of the napalm science experiment, deserve to die? Did Sam? Of course not. They were vicious boys, and I still cannot bring myself to forgive them or wish them well, though I am satisfied with the knowledge that both of them probably ended up with precisely the sort of lives they deserved. But they didn’t deserve death.

Nor did I deserve to kill them. Even if I’d been justified in doing it, even if I’d somehow managed to avoid prison or long-term confinement in a mental hospital, I still would have had to live with the ache and knowledge of what I’d done for the rest of my life. The fear and the horror they and all the others like them inflicted upon me, for all the years I was forcibly detained in the Guantanamo Bay we laughingly refer to as the American educational system, is nothing compared to that.

At the heart of America’s rage is fear, as it was at the heart of mine. We have our guns because we’re afraid of being hurt, of losing what we have — our lives, our loved ones, the things we’ve accumulated that form the mosaic of our lives. And like all frightened things, we act savagely. Back a dog into a corner and see what he does in his fear. We do no different.

And that’s why I don’t think we can be fully trusted with guns, ever; why other countries have as many guns but less deaths, less mayhem. The worst of us are the ones who want to share their pain and rage and confusion with others, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas and James Holmeses. But even the best of us are dangerous in their terror.

There’s an old saying: no man who actually wants to be President is suitable for the job. Likewise,  I don’t think that anybody who really wants a gun should be entrusted with one. I know this might offend my friends and acquaintances who are gun advocates, but I don’t trust anybody with a gun. Because I don’t trust that any individual has the skill and the wisdom to decide who deserves to live or die, and to carry out that decision. I certainly don’t.

Would a ban on assault weapons end murder? No. But it would make it harder. And anything that makes it harder for people to kill each other is probably a good thing, in my book. But maybe our real task is simply to help people learn not to live in fear: to be careful, but not paranoid, and not so eager to see violence done. Maybe then we can be trusted with the power of life and death.

But until then, I will keep advocating to keep that power out of all of our hands…and thankful that, upon those awful occasions when it was in mine, that I was at least smart enough not to wield it.


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If the tech industry worked like the music industry, continued.

“Hey, it’s my rock star devs! How’s it going, guys?”

“It sucks. We busted our ass for months building this thing, and we can’t make enough money to pay rent. We’re all living in the same house.”

“That sucks, but look: you’ll make your money on the next app. That’s how it works. Aren’t the t-shirt sales paying rent?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Hey, that’s the New Media model. It’ll all work out somehow. So what can I do for you?”

“It’s about this web app aggregation thing, that lets people pay one fee and use any web app they want…what’s it called, I forget….”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. We signed a deal with them a few months ago. What about ’em?”

“It sucks! We were getting $2.50 per unique user account creation, but now nobody wants to even sign up directly! They’re using this aggregator, and we’re getting three-hundredths of a cent when a new user uses the app!”

“Yeah, they’ve got really good lawyers, kid–“

“And that’s not the worst part! When we complain about it, everybody on Twitter says we’re fucking greedy assholes, and we ought to be giving the app away for free and making money off t-shirt sales? I mean, do any of these idiots actually know how shitty that money is?”

“Look, you’ve just got to accept it. This is New Media. If you complain, you’re part of the Old Way and you’re atavistic dinosaurs.”

“Man, all we wanted to do was write software and get paid to make it. This is just…I don’t know….”

“Look, this industry is always a gamble, right? You knew that.”

“But our app is popular! People are using it ten thousand times a day, using the aggregator!”

“So what are you complaining about?”

“We’re making thirty goddamn dollars a day!”

“Hey, sorry kid, that’s how things work in this brave new world. Look: why don’t you go get a day job? Maybe work at Starbucks.”

“Why not? I’d make more fucking money!”

“Do it. Of course, remember, you’re contractually obligated to deliver two more web apps in the next two years, and you still need to pay off that advance based on your royalties–“

“Thirty dollars a day, you mean.”

“Right, whatever. So you’re not gonna get much sleep. But hey, you young people don’t sleep much anyway, right?”

“Wait, but aren’t you still getting paid four times as much as we are by the aggregator?”

“Hey, look, sorry, kid, I got to take this other meeting right now…but let’s get drinks this weekend, yeah?”


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If the tech industry worked like the music industry

“Hi! You’re a venture capitalist. We’re a tech startup. We have a web app we want to sell to people.”

“Great! So here’s how this works: we’re going to give you a chunk of money. You’re going to use this to build your web app. It’s called an ‘advance’. We’re also going to give you 12% of the revenue from your app…but only after you’ve paid back the advance in full. That’s 12% amongst your entire team, by the way. You sort out who gets how much.”


“Yeah. The way you’ll make your money is by going out and showing people your app, so they’ll buy t-shirts with your app’s name on it, because they love it! Which we’ll also take a chunk of — we call it a ‘360 deal’.”

“I don’t–“

“Also, you’re going to sign a contract with us that any other web apps you make will be our property, though we’ll be able to renegotiate your percentage at will, of course. And if we don’t like your next web app, you’re fired on the spot…but we’ll keep collecting the revenue from the web apps you’ve created that we own, and we’ll send you your royalties on it, of course…just make sure we always have a current address for you.”

“Well, I’m not–“

“Also, we don’t like the actual way your web app works, even though we want to sign a contract with you based upon how it works. We want it to be a social network instead of a content management system, because our surveys show that social networks make more money.”

“But that’s not what we do.”

“Who gives a shit what you do? You think you know better than we do, just because your first web app got funded by complete strangers on Kickstarter? We’re the professionals here. Also, when you talk to Wired: you’re 24, not 34, and unmarried.”

“Are you kidding? I have a wife and two kids!”

“Yeah, but we find that Wired readers are more likely to sign up for a web app if they’re sexually attracted to the founders and believe they’re available. It’s all about the fantasy, kid. You do blow?”

“What? Of course not!”

“Oh, you’ll be fine, then.”

“Look, why are we getting 12% of the income, when we’re the ones doing all the work?”

“Well, a third of it goes to Amazon for web hosting and delivery–“

“You’re fucking kidding me!”

“Hey, don’t blame me, blame the market. And we take the other 55% for our initial investment, and for marketing you.”

“But we’re essentially paying for the development costs out of our own paychecks, right? And you’re treating that as an investment, so even if our web app tanks, we still owe you that money, but you can write it off as a tax loss, right?”

“Well, yeah. Look, that’s how this business works. Don’t be naive. You want this deal or not? You wanna stand on the same TED stage as Mark Zuckerberg? Come on, kid, this is the big time. Shit or get off the pot.”


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A real-world example of BAP robot architecture

You’ll have to excuse me — I’ve got the flu today, and I might not be entirely coherent. But here’s a concrete example of my BAP robotic framework. This is a simple robot with two motors (one on each side) and a GPS unit.

robot layout

The first thing we notice is that each of the motors is controlled by an H-bridge, which consists of four switches that allow current to flow in either direction through the motor itself — or through a relay switch which turns on the motor, if the motor is high-voltage. (For our purposes, we’ll assume it is, as a 5V robot is small and boring).

The H-bridge controls the relay, which controls current coming from a power supply to the motor. So with our system, we can turn each motor forward or backward. We can’t control speed — the motor is either on or off — but that might be enough for our purposes.

We’re using OSC, so let’s call our robot robot1. The robot has two top-level endpoints, sensors and motors. These are arbitrarily named, and in point of fact we don’t even need them — we can assign top-level endpoints to every component in the robot. But let’s leave it like this, as it’s nice and tidy.

We see that the motors endpoint has two sub-endpoints, leftMotor and rightMotor. Our behavior system sends commands to these motors by issuing methods to the endpoint, like so:


  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/goForward
  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/goBackward
  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/stop



These three commands are all we can really do with these motors…but as we’ll see, they can be used to instantiate a pretty sophisticated set of behaviors.

Our autonomic layer “knows” what these commands mean and how to actually make them happen. For example, pseudocode for our goForward function might look like this:

function goForward(){
The setSwitch commands simply turn the switches on the H-bridge connected to the relay connected to leftMotor to send current in a direction that rotates the motor counterclockwise (which, since it’s on the left side, turns it “forward”). The goBackward function might turn switchs 2 and 3 to high and switches 0 and 1 to low; and the stop command might simply set all of them to low, or disconnect them. (We can get more funky by having the stop command reverse polarity for 10 milliseconds before disconnecting, which would work like an engine brake.)

Now, we’ve also got a sensor: namely the GPS unit on top of the robot. This provides two endpoints in our current scheme, lat and lng, though it could also provide a single endpoint which when queried returns a formatted string from the GPS like “-37.3457532,30.12930495″ that our behavioral layer can decipher.

We’d query it by issuing a command like this (again, this is pseudocode):

var robotLat = osc.retrieve(/robot1/sensors/gps/lat); var robotLng = osc.retrieve(/robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

Pretty straightforward, right? This way, our software can figure out where the robot is at any given time.

Now, you’re maybe asking yourself: how does our software connect to the robot? How does the GPS data get translated and piped out to our endpoints? For that matter, how are our motors connected to the power supply? Does our control circuitry hook into the same power supply?

The answer is simple: who gives a shit? Really? The whole point of this is abstraction. The hardware engineer sorts out the physical layer, the firmware geek sorts out the autonomic layer, the programmer works out the behavioral level. None of them give a shit about any of the other layers, except insofar as their bit needs to hook into the other guy’s bit.

The autonomic engineer spends months designing a really efficient cellular modem that receives commands from the Internet and turns them into hardware-specific commands. The design is brilliant. Other engineers buy him endless rounds at conventions for being a badass.

And the programmer neither knows nor cares about any of this, because all that matters is that the system responds to commands. Period.

Look, do you know anything about Javascript? Javascript lets you make web pages interactive. (Yes, it can do much more, blah blah Node.js blah blah blah. <i>Shut up.</i> Pay attention.) One of the things you can interact with using Javascript is the mouse — you can get the mouse’s X and Y position relative to the screen or even the DOM object you’re attaching the code to.

Doing this requires the browser to be able to retrieve relatively low-level data about the mouse’s current status. In return, it does this by accessing the operating system’s mouse driver, which uses a standard set of protocols to interface with the mouse’s hardware, which might be optical or mechanical or a touchpad or motion sensors in the air.

But as far as the Web developer is concerned, who gives a shit how all of that works? So long as window.mouseX and window.mouseY are accurate, the rest of the process of turning physical movements into Cartesian coordinates is pretty much irrelevant.

Same thing here. There might be a more efficient way of controlling the motor than with an H-bridge and a relay switch, but as long as the motor can take in our three commands and turn them into motion, who gives a shit?

We have everything we need now to begin building complex logic into our robot. Let’s use an example of a behavior I mentioned in a previous post: let’s make our robot come and find us.

We have a GPS, so the robot knows where it is; and we have motors. What we don’t have is a digital compass to help our robot orient itself…but we can still pull this off, with some code like so (again, this is pseudocode):

var myLat = 36.1515;
var myLng = -115.2048;

var robotLat = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lat); var robotLng = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

if(robotLat != myLat && robotLng != myLng){

oldLat = robotLat;
oldLng = robotLng;

wait(10000); // this is milliseconds

robotLat = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lat);
robotLng = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

if(difference(robotLat, myLng) &gt; difference(oldLng)){

// and so on


What this code does is make the robot “try” different directions by moving in a direction for ten seconds and seeing if that decreases the distance between its location and my location. Once it finds a direction that does so, it goes in that direction until its coordinates match my coordinates.

What if we want to make it more complex, “smarter”? We can add in a digital compass, which returns either a value in degrees (0-360) or as a mapped range (0-1, where 1 can be mapped to 360 degrees). Then our robot knows where it is and where it’s pointed. It doesn’t need to orient itself before it starts to move.

Our behavioral software can connect to Google Maps and get a series of directions, following roads, between the robot and us. We can then direct the robot using these directions, simply by issuing commands to our two motors. It doesn’t matter that our robot doesn’t know anything about Maps, or that Maps doesn’t have robot navigation built in. Our behavioral layer handles that for us.

Is this complex? Sure it is. So it’s a good thing we’re not trying to do this with instructions hardwired into our robot. All the complexity of translating road directions into commands to turn motors for certain time periods, in certain directions, is offloaded to our behavioral layer, which can be on-board the robot or — more likely — connected over a network.

Of course, our robot still has to avoid cars as it trundles along public roads, and maybe it has to worry about recharging itself. But all we have to do is add more sensors — touch sensors, range sensors, a battery level sensor. We can download the low-level stuff directly to the robot so there’s no network latency between a command being issued and being carried out. For example, we can tell the robot “if something triggers your range sensor, move away from it until it’s not there anymore, then recalculate your travel direction”. Or “if your battery gets below 25%, here’s the GPS coordinates of a filling station where a nice person can charge you again. Go there instead of your initial location.” Once the battery level is 100%, we simply resume our initial set of commands to reduce distance between the robot and us.

Simple, right? Well, not simple, not trivial, but not so complex we can’t make it happen.

And here’s the great part: we can have our robot perform this behavior until we get bored, and then we can totally reconfigure it. We can build a ground-based version of John Robb’s DroneNet.

Imagine Buffy was at Angel’s house last night, and left her keys there. So we give our robot two GPS coordinates, and we add a lockbox with a combination to the top of it. We tell it to go from its current location to the first GPS coordinate, which is Angel’s moody pad. Angel puts Buffy’s keys in the lockbox, locks it, and hits a “Deliver” button on his iPhone. Our software receives that button press, and tells the robot to go to the second GPS coordinate — Buffy’s house — using all of these sophisticated behaviors we’ve made as reusable software objects. It makes the delivery, Buffy uses the combination her iPhone told her, unlocks the box, gets her keys, hits “Received” on her iPhone, and the robot returns to its home, waiting for its next customer.

Same robot, massively different functionality. As long as our robot’s motors and sensors and interface — its physical and autonomic layers — are in working order, we can keep coming up with cool ways to use it. We can add sensors to it as necessary. We can also reconfigure its hardware so that it moves in more optimized ways — we can make it a flying drone instead of a rolling drone, for example. But we can still use our GPS “find me” behavior, almost independent of how the robot moves from point A to point B. It will require some reconfiguration, but if we’ve made it modular enough in the first place, that might not be such a big deal to accomplish.

We can even allow third-party developers and behavioral networks to access our robot, maybe using something like oAuth. Instead of writing our own behaviors, we entrust our robot to Google’s behaviors, because their programmers are smarter than us and they also have a vast network of supercomputers to process our robot’s sensorial data and connect it to all the other robots in Google’s network. Our robot isn’t very smart on its own, but when connected to a behavioral network, it’s much smarter…and when its behavior is synced with a lot of other robots, all gathering information and doing things, it’s scary smart.


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