Category Archives: Thinkers

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The Tidal Pool Treasures of Thailand

There is a place in Thailand that, to me, is the most magical place on Earth. I found it by accident, but I think I’d like to die there someday. I won’t say where it is, but if you ever want to go, tell me and if you’ve been kind to me over the years I will hand-draw you a map. In the mean while, I think we could all use a little magic during these tough times, so I’ll show you what I found there.

It all began when I woke up in my cliff-side bungalow the morning after I arrived, and looked out the window. By the first light of dawn, I saw something interesting outside:

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It looked like the entrance to a cave off in the distance. I’d stayed here once before but this was a new bungalow—two years ago the jungle was covering this particular view and I didn’t know the cave existed.

While eating  breakfast I chatted with an adventurous Slovakian couple. After finishing, the man hopped over a low rail partitioning off the dining area from the rocky cliff, and waved goodbye. I turned to his partner, and asked where he was going. She pointed to the rocks below. I was amazed they were going down there, because not once had the idea occurred to me last time I was there. I assumed it was too dangerous and stuck to the several sandy beaches, each offering its own slice of nature that was more than fulfilling for me. Minutes later, she finished her yogurt and prepared to walk down to find her mate. Knowing nothing about them I thought perhaps they were the rock-climbing type, and asked about the decent. “Yeah the path is kind of treacherous but it’s worth it,” she said, climbing down in flip flops.

Surely if she was wearing flip flops, I could do it in sneakers. But she wasn’t lying about it being treacherous. When I climbed down later there was barely a path through the jungle overgrowth, and I crabwalked and bouldered down most of the way. When I finally reached the bottom though, it was magnificent peaceful rocky heaven.

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“You picked your mother”

When I was in Thailand, I studied Buddhist meditation in the jungle with a runaway princess. There are many stories to be told about what happened there, but today is mother’s day so I will tell you just this one.

In the US and other Western cultures, we sometimes say “you can’t pick your parents.” It comes up in times of familial strife, when things aren’t all Hallmark ad-like and you wish you had a different life with different people in it. It’s to remind us that, nope, we can’t. Our lives come pre-fabbed with certain people in certain roles, and nothing can ever change it. You have to deal.

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Defining attributes of the ‘open web’

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“Selfie,” by Systaime. Via NewHive

In response to a previous post where I asked “Where is the ‘open web’ now?”  I received some of the most interesting feedback I’ve ever gotten in all The Millikan Daily’s years online. In attempting to pinpoint where this site lies in terms of web classification, I learned it’s definitely not on the closed web, but it’s still not totally on the open web. Maybe nothing can be in either place in absolute terms, but we can definitely be working to make more things tend toward the open web.

 

The first comment hails from Matt Terenzio, who I thought about when I wrote the initial post because we used to talk about this stuff at a weekly web discussion hosted by Dave Winer at NYU. Matt wrote:

WordPress, even the hosted stuff on WordPress.com is more open because you can export your content and move it. https://en.support.wordpress.com/export/
But you raise a serious point. Even if you have control of your data, it doesn’t mean it stays alive on the web after you die. No business can guarantee that. A library, educational institution or the government seem more capable to pull something like that off, but as of now, we don’t have a great solution.

He raises a few important attributes of online content in the scope of the open web:

  1. Exportability – Can you take your content and move it somewhere else? With WordPress, the answer is yes, technically. WordPress offers this, as Matt points out, though maybe you have to pay something if you’re using the .com version (as I am) rather than the .org version. When you export, WordPress wraps all your content up and spits out a nice, zipped-up file that you can send elsewhere.

I’m going to add to this a few other related aspects to consider:

  • Archive transfer – Once you have your data exported from the CMS, you can transfer it somewhere else a few different ways. The old-school way would be physically via a hard-drive transfer, but more likely you’d do it online. This poses an interesting conundrum though, as various entities are at work to clamp down on the ability of average users to transfer large files. Why? Maybe because the assumption is that a large file transfer will be used for malice, like ‘illegally’ downloading a movie file. I’ve never downloaded anything illegally, to my knowledge, so it’s unfortunate that the tools I have to work with are limited in this respect. Once a friend gave me a chunk of the server space he owned and maintained so I could transfer whatever to and from it without paying extra. If I wanted to do it now, I would probably have to pay for some cloud hosting service who then might technically be able to access the data I was transferring. Right now we’re talking about being open so this doesn’t matter at the moment, but later on it will.
  • Importability – With facebook, I haven’t ever heard of someone importing their timeline to a different online framework where archives and data is displayed in any meaningful way. Which isn’t to say it couldn’t be done, I’ve just never seen it. If you have, please comment below.

Moving on, Matt also brings up an important second topic:

2. A shelf-life of content dependent on mortality – Even if you are diligent in following all best practices to maintain your own slice of the open web, there’s no guarantee they will continue to be maintained after you die.

Of course there are services that make it more likely your content will be maintained and accessible online at the original hyperlinks post-mortem. I met a woman in Iceland who founded a start-up to do something similar, though I’m not sure if it is still operational. I just emailed her to see what’s up.

Then of course, there is the Internet Archive which hosts the Wayback machine. While there are ways to get them to prioritize the archiving of specific websites, I believe their methodology is mostly random, and they will save “snapshots” of certain sites at various moments of time.

Which brings me to our next comment via Scott Rosenberg:

Hey, Arikia — I think of “the open web” as more of a spectrum; some sites and services are more fully “open web”-ish and others less so. If you own your own domain and pay for hosting for your site then that gives you the most control/ownership and puts you in the best position to preserve your work. (I’m still hosting pages I first posted in 1994!) The IndieWebCamp people and their work are definitely worth checking out — building open source tools and protocols for self-owned and maintained sites to thrive and connect with the various silos. David Weinberger’s book “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” put together a lot of the strands of what made the “open web” work and become valuable during the first wide flourishing of blogs beyond the tech scene in the early 2000s. Openness/permeability to links is so central here — one reason Facebook feels so closed is that you can put a single URL into a status update but you can’t simply add links to your content the way you can anywhere else on the Web. To me that’s what really makes it a closed system…

One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t have gotten this feedback had I posted this question on facebook! Two main points here:

  1. The open web as a spectrum – Cool. I like spectrums. Many of the human systems we are taught to think of as binary for the sake of mental simplicity are indeed spectrums—why wouldn’t the web be the same? Of course this introduces another layer of complexity to the answer to the question: Is any given website open or closed? It would be easy to lump everything into a bucket of open or closed, but it seems the answer will usually be “neither—it’s some point on a spectrum between open and closed.” Does the spectrum have endpoints? If so, what are they?
  2. Control/ownership – Scott owns his domains and pays for hosting, so he inherently has more control to make his content more open OR more closed, as he wishes. Let’s focus on the open side here, because keeping closed content closed is another can of worms I’ll want the crypto folks to chime in on.

Remember PicPlz? If you don’t, it was a photo-sharing application similar to the Instagram we all know now, but it was mainly marketed to Android users, which is why I used it, because I used Android smartphones for years before I was given my first iPhone in 2013. I uploaded a bunch of pictures to PicPlz, which were shared to other users through links created by the app that were anchored on its domain. When PicPlz folded, all those links evaporated. Who knows what happened to the images themselves, probably deleted. I don’t remember if they provided an option for the user to export their data, or if I chose to if they did. But it goes to show that if you depend on an entity outside of yourself to maintain the integrity of the links to content you create over time, well, you probably shouldn’t care too much about that content, because you’ll have no control over if it stays where you put it.

Next, Eas provides a recipe for their online content maintenance:

My general approach is:

1. Register my own domain name, separately from the publishing/hosting platform (so I can move things even if the publishing/hosting service goes out of business suddenly, or we end up at loggerheads).

2. Use a publishing platform that makes it easy to export data, including comments. I’m using WordPress.org, hosted on a virtual linux server from a established web hosting company with a seemingly sound business model (I pay them every month).
3. Publish under my own domain.
4. Make daily backups.
5. Switch platforms/hosts as needed.

I don’t use wordpress.com, but it would fit into my approach, since they let you bring your own domain, and provide a way to export everything. The exported data can then be imported into self-hosted WordPress, or another system that supports the format format.

In the longer run, I’m thinking of exporting dormant sites into a static format and hosting them on something AWS S3, with the knowledge I could move them to any other static file hosting in the future.

This all requires some ongoing effort on my part. At the very least, I have to keep paying the bills, and I have to move stuff when companies and product offerings rise and fall.

This sounds great! I am lost. I consider myself relatively tech-savy, so if I’m lost, I can assume most other people who aren’t specialists in online hosting and probably just want to write things and share them with other people who write things will also be lost. I’ll make it a point to understand what Eas is saying through online research, but my point is, there is a point where access to the open web breaks down for “ordinary users,” and this resistance is what feeds the establishment of closed systems.

Luckily, as a general principle of life, I always dig into the resistance as much as possible.

Finally, Bob Mottram writes:

I’m a firm believer in the open web, and I think in the not too distant future it could enjoy a new expansionary phase. I run a project called Freedombone, which was inspired by an earlier project called Freedombox. These and similar things are intended to help people take back ownership and control of their data and online presence in a more convenient manner (sometimes also known as “userops” because it enables users to do what previously only systems administrators could). As the hardware and software combinations are further developed it will be easier to run your own blog, wiki or social network node and so you’ll be able to decide what happens to your old photos, whether you want to license your content in particular ways or what happens to your data if you’re no longer around.

So a possible solution to the multitude of privacy and data ownership dilemmas is to “be the web”. My project has the concept of the “web of backups” in which friends can help to ensure they never lose data via mutual automated encrypted backups. The more you get into hosting your own services the easier it is to see how little value the big companies actually provide and how expensive their services are in terms of privacy.

Userops? This sounds like something that should exist, albeit something that those who favor from closed online systems won’t like very much. Count me in.

I want to be the web. Bob, I’ll be in touch.

These comments have been inspirational. If the open web is a spectrum, I’d like to push as many of the people I care about as possible over to the ‘open’ side when it comes to their online behavior and where they’re depositing their mental nuggets over time. I’m working on a few projects right now to do just that, so you can expect more posts like this from me, here and elsewhere on the open web :)

 

Overthinking in Belgrade

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: Living in Berlin, Istanbul, and Belgrade over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot: about the world, about how it’s broken, about who can begin to fix it and how I might fit into that process. When I start to get this philosophical, I know it’s probably a good time to reflect on that time I drank tequila with Quentin Tarantino.

I am in a strange place. I don’t mean physically, although Belgrade, with its statues of former Yugoslavian leaders centered amidst crumbling grey blocks of apartments, would be a great place to shoot an adaptation of a dystopian sci fi novel.

Mentally, I am in a place I’ve been only a few times before: a place of new beginnings. Sometimes I need to tear everything down and start over, and right now I feel like a baby phoenix waddling around in its ash nest, ready to fly away the moment the right wind current sweeps by.

A few years ago, I met Quentin Tarantino. I had just snuck out of some terrible SXSW tech fair and escaped to the hotel bar when I saw him sitting there by himself. I sat down next to him and, after an internal pep talk, I managed to strike up a conversation with him that I’ll never forget. After discussing his casting selection on Death Proof (one of my favorite movies), I asked him how he decided when it was time to make another movie. He told me that when something grabbed him such that he thought it would be worth spending the next two years of his life on, he knew. We did shots of Avion Reposado at two in the afternoon and he bid me adieu.

Dorothy got Glenda the good witch; I got the cinema king of carnal violence. And I may as well have just clicked my lucky cowboy boots together because I knew it all along: time is truly the most valuable currency. The best work of the artists of the world is not motivated primarily by money, but by the ever-present ticking clock of our own mortality.

I entered the media business when I was nine years old delivering newspapers for 10 cents a piece. Seventeen years later, I founded my own publication. It didn’t work out how I hoped it would, but I learned from the experience. I’ve moved past the disappointments and stopped thinking in hindsight; I’m ready for the next two-year (or more) commitment, and I am getting close to figuring it out what it will be.

When I was little, my mom used to play the “hot or cold” game with me. She’d think of an object in the room and guide me to it with temperature words while I wandered, aimlessly at first, and with more purpose as I got warmer. I’ve since internalized the process. I don’t yet know what it is that I’m looking for, but living in Berlin, Istanbul and Belgrade over the past few months, I’m sure I’m getting hot, and I know that I have to keep hunting.

I’ve been finding breadcrumbs my whole life in the form of special people. They are the seeds of possibility for a better world, hidden among the greedy weeds and complacent trees. They are rare, but they are everywhere, and I’m getting better at recognizing them when I see them: the quiet rebels, the ones who have always done what they were “supposed to do,” all the while knowing the game was rigged, the aimless, the lost, the ones who are waiting for something to happen, to be activated; The underappreciated people with underutilized or misused talents; The dissidents. Finding them and realizing that there are so many others out there who can see the problems clearly but are still able to enjoy the present… they give me hope enough to work toward making something new and unconventional again.

The more I travel to various places and learn about the various problems plaguing different areas of the world, the more massive the oppressive forces seem. There’s something very wrong in the world. And yeah, maybe it’s always been that way and life isn’t fair et cetera. But with rampant governmental corruption perpetuating the problematic distribution of global wealth, I predict that soon we will all be forced to change the way we live. I’m afraid for the future, and I don’t understand how others are not. I don’t want to deal directly with people who bury their heads in the sand and make things worse anymore. I want to work with the people who can also acknowledge that things are fucked up, to try to change them if we can, and laugh about them if we can’t.

I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but it will involve increasing international connectivity for the sake of global literacy about the various realities unfolding simultaneously across the world every day, and how they all relate to each other. It will involve harnessing latent creativity, and defibrillating those hyper-intelligent minds slipping through the cracks because the present markets favor the mediocre and benign. Whatever it is that I decide to do, I’ll keep traveling, keep hunting, turning over every rock to find the people who can illuminate the big picture. And if I can’t do those things, then I’ll go live in the jungle with a flock of parrots until the end of the world.

Altering course

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I had dinner with an amazing couple in their 70s tonight, a former NASA scientist from Turkey and an English teacher from Tennessee. They’ve had so much time to read books and process information about everything from ancient civilizations to the cosmos, and it was an honor to sit across the dinner table with them and observe them delight in teaching me so many things I didn’t know. So much of what I’ve been doing with my life these past few years has involved managing, teaching, editing other people—and that’s been important work that I’m glad I did and wouldn’t trade. But I’m 28 and I don’t know enough to be teaching people all the time. I need to balance the teaching with learning from those who are older and wiser than me. The reason I got into journalism in the first place was to enable myself to continuously learn. The fact that I write things down for other people to read is really just a byproduct of my own quest for knowledge; it is as much an exhibitionistic display of my ability to synthesize the nuggets of information I gather as it is a compulsion of civic duty—because it sure isn’t for the money. Observing the current trajectory of the journalism industry, it having been pressured by capitalistic forces to all but abandon the pursuit of knowledge in exchange for the factory farming of entertainment, I am starting to think that I need to find another outlet in which I can funnel my skills and creativity.

Ideas welcome.

The more things change

I’ve been back in New York for a week now. Walking down Avenue A to the gastro pub where I was to meet Joey, down the familiar streets with not-so-familiar-anymore buildings, I rolled the old phrase along in my brain in a loop: “the more things change the more things stay the same the more things change…” It’s only been a year, but so much is different.

I was 15 minutes early—something else that has changed in the past year—so I took a seat at the bar and drank a water while I read my new copy of Vice Magazine. A few minutes later, a guy came in, exchanged familiarities with the bartender, and took a seat next to me. I continued to read an article about South Sudan. An order of fries came out and landed in front of the guy, who looked super stoked. He ate a few and turned to me:

“Hey, do you want to share these fries with me? I mean, I’m not going to finish them all…”

“Um, sure,” I said. After a year abroad, I couldn’t say no to American French fries, and I’ve never even really liked fries. I told him I hadn’t had them since I’d been back in the USA.

“What are you reading about, Africa?” he guessed, probably from the image on the page.

“Yeah, about South Sudan.”

“Is it good?”

“Well, I’m a couple thousand words in and the author still hasn’t really told us what the piece is about,” I said, flipping through the earlier pages of text to convey the word count. “But he’s a good story-teller.”

I ate some more of his fries. He asked me what magazine I was reading, if I liked Vice, and when I said I did, he asked if I worked for them. “Sometimes,” I said.

“Oh, so do you write on like a blog, or Medium, or a website, or a bunch of publications?”

“Yeah,” I said. “All of those.” I thought it was funny that he mentioned Medium, and then I realized that it was only funny because I was so far away for so long where people barely knew what Twitter was, let alone Medium, but here I was in New York where people were the most tapped into the media out of everywhere in the world. I told him I started a publication called LadyBits, and that it launched on Medium.

“So are you like a journalist, writer, blogger, media person, thousands of followers, tweeter?”

I laughed. “You pegged me. You’re pretty good at that you know?”

“Hey, this might be a really weird question…” he said, trailing off while he waited for my facial acknowledgement that it was ok to proceed, “but did you by any chance write an article about James Deen and Google Glass?”

I looked at him in disbelief. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I thought you looked familiar,” he said. “I was just reading it.”

“Ok, very funny. Did Joey put you up to this? Where is he, tell him he’s late,” I said looking at my watch.

“Who’s Joey? No, I swear I was just reading it on my phone, look:” he powered on his iPhone, opened his browser, and sure enough:

FrenchFriesJamesDeenIt was too weird. I felt like a celebrity.

“Well, hi, I’m Arikia,” I said, extending my hand. He shook it like he was shaking the hand of a celebrity. He asked me about my travels and we chatted for another minute until Joey finally came over and greeted me. He hadn’t recognized me when he came in and had walked right past me to a table. I said goodbye to my new friend, thanked him for the fries, and told him to contact me if he wanted to eat more fries someday and continue our conversation.

Yesterday, I was thinking to myself that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I was back in New York, starting to get a little stressed out, a little cynical, remembering all the struggle and the loneliness and why I left in the first place. I was starting to think that maybe I should have just stayed on my paradise island, threw my computer off the ocean cliff outside my $6-a-night bungalow, and started my life over there. I was wondering why I came back, and if I would ever find connections in New York like I did out there.

But here was this guy, this stranger, looking at me with this expression of awe, and I knew in that moment that things have indeed changed. The New York I came back to is not the same New York I left, because I am not the same Arikia as the one who lived here before. I have been renovated, upgraded if you will, just like computer hardware and the stores along Avenue A. I am a better version of me now. On some weird, metaphysical level, I felt like this bizarre coincidence was New York’s way of accepting me back and embracing me; like the city was saying to me “I want you here, and I’m happy you came back.”

Somebody once said that living in New York City was like being in an abusive relationship with the coolest guy in the world. I’m not so naive to think that I won’t get a black eye here and there, but damn, baby, when it’s good it’s really good.

 

 

 

Snake oil enchantress

Yesterday I was wandering around Barcelona getting lost accidentally on purpose, and I walked past a store filled with little jars. As soon as I passed it, I got a whiff of all the good smelling things inside, so I backed up and went in. Immediately this woman approached me. She was pretty but not striking, but she was jubilant in her demeanor. To her, I was the only person in the room, possibly the only person she cared about in life. A similar approach executed in a different scenario would be terrifying. If someone came up to me like that while I was at the gym or something, I would be super creeped out. I suppose there’s a fine line between being creepy and completely mesmerizing, but she was on the safe side. She asked me if I wanted to try some. I didn’t even know what it was, but yes.

Turns out she was selling a variety of different sea salts. She led me over to a circular sink with foot pump levers in the middle of the room, never once breaking the lazer-like focus of attention on me. She picked up the jar and waved a scoop of the oily mixture under my nose. It probably wasn’t the smell, but something about the way she offered it to me that made the serotonin release in my neck, the way it does when you get a back rub, or do hot yoga, or are in the womb. She scooped out a clump of each different scent of salt and presented it to me in that way until I was basically putty in her hands. Then she took me through the actual tutorial of scrubbing my hands until they were baby soft.

So I wound up buying like €30 worth of patchouli lavender vanilla-scented bath items. And you know what?

I just took a shower and I smell like fucking heaven. But that women could have been selling snake oil, and I’m sure she has and would. I probably would have been able to tell the difference, but maybe I wouldn’t have. It made me realize what a valuable human skill this economic seduction is, especially in areas where the economy is in the gutter.

It also reminded me that I am a horrible salesperson. If something doesn’t have a purpose, and the transfer of its possession from one human being to another wouldn’t result in a substantial net positive effect, I have no desire to spend my time convincing someone else they should acquire the thing. There is already too much worthless crap taking up space in the world. If I know of something you should want in theory, that I am able to provide to you, I will recommend or offer it to you. If you can’t see it’s appeal, its quality, its substance, even after a short explanation — you’re clearly not worthy of the thing being offered, and I will move on.

So here we are, in a world where less and less people focus on making things of quality and more and more people focus on improving their ability to sell crap. Then more and more consumers emerge not being able to tell the difference between what is crap and what is quality, reinforcing the value of crap and prizing the ability to sell crap as the most worthwhile skill of all. We’re tending towards a society where there’s no point in playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma because we’ve already lost. Default or deal with it.

But building a life (or a company) on snake oil is risky, because when the bubble bursts and the illusion dissolves, it will all be worthless. Things of substance, and people of substance will be resilient to environmental turbulence, but the phonies will be screwed. So I’m going to keep doing what I do, and trying my best to resist the charms of enticing salespeople. Or maybe I’ll give in long enough to convince them to work for me so they can fool the people who are used to buying snake oil into buying something of substance.