Project-Based Collaborations / Collusions

In starting research with Center for Civic Media, I get to sit and read for hours a day. Go to conferences which seem interesting. Attend talks of people I’ve read the work of. It is absurd. I still don’t like the institution of academia, but that’s because everyone should have access to such resources, not because I don’t like (and appreciate) the opportunities. My research is on how organizations with distributed power scale. In this area of study, decentralization or distributed power in an group is referred to as “flat.” “Decentralized” as a stand-alone term usually means how resources are distributed, rather than power structures. Read more about that on Charlie DeTar’s great post.

This means I’ve been reading rather a lot around how activist groups change over time based on how they interact with the rest of the world, each other, and themselves. Most recently, I finished Revolutions in Reverse, a collection of David Graeber essays. A standard sequence which became clear to me is the following:

  • Individual groups work towards their objective from their perspective, build up some sort of core and maybe a following.
  • Occasionally, something massive comes up, and some of these groups band together. While they have different perspectives, they share an objective for a short period of time. Basically, alliterative alignment-based alliance.
  • After the shared objective is achieved, the thrill of victory makes groups want to continue to work together. Other shared objectives are sought, but alliances crumble due to the different perspectives which made the larger grouping so robust in its diversity.
  • Individual participants become disenchanted because of these dramas and depart from the larger grouping at the least, and often their orginial core group as well.

Essentially, people set aside basic debates while a pressing objective is at hand. In facilitation work, instigating projects is a great way to get people over their social anxieties and political differences in order to create bonds which later might surplant those issues. As my friend Slim once said on the twitters, “sweat is a far more honest social lubricant.” The issue is when those collusions are expected to last longer than is actually reasonable.

What I have been wondering is this: Why don’t we just shake hands after the larger objective has been achieved, and go on our merry ways? To me, this is far more sustainable culturally. Personally, one of the things which I love most about meeting people doing good work completely unrelated to my own is that there are so many things wrong in the world, in such intertwined and complex ways, if we were all working on the same aspect, no impact would be made. I don’t want to continue being joined forces, because I want to know you have my back in the larger scheme of things. Talk about the breakup before you start dating (or the “Founder’s Prenup“) – adults should be able to act like adults, even when they go their separate ways. Then you have the ability to work together on big things in the future, instead of still being butthurt about something that happened in the past.

I see this approach as similar to the move to portfolio-based employment from one long career employment. People associate with you for a discrete project based on what you’ve done in the past, which then gets added to your portfolio. Why not the same for social structures and political movements? We gather around a project, celebrate it when it’s done, and move on. Sometimes we end up working consistently with the same set of people because it makes a lot of sense, but it’s not the starting assumption. In my wariness, I don’t believe this will solve large problems, only allow us to fail for better reasons. Does anyone have any examples around this, of it working or not working, or at least being tried?

Potentially related: Temporary Autonomous Zones

Coping Processes

I’ve been struggling with social anxiety a lot lately. I’m aware of my stressors, the main one being the way I’ve been framing my work. It’s gotten to low-level panic attacks for days on end. Yes, I know I work too much. Yes, I know I tend to care far too much about the wrong things. Let me re-state that. I mis-prioritize my actions based on the outcomes I would like (I don’t execute in ways that will further my end goals).

And then the crux of the problem – I am actually an introvert who just happens to be good at people. I feel like the stage tech who gets dragged out on stage to act, and I just want to be in the dark reading cues and flipping switches so other people can bare their souls. The people who like doing that sort of thing. That said, I find people fascinating. I love how individuals build a society out of their communities. But. Every single person I cross paths with, or see on the street, or see the lighted window in a building.. each of them has a life that is just as complex (if not more so) as mine. And most of it will never overlap with me – which is great. But it’s so.. massive. And complicated by all the other lives abutting theirs, the social factors they’re not even aware of, that we’re all monkeys in clothes with language. And then one person comes up to you and asks you where the bathroom is, and it’s like “do you even realize what that means? That we have bathrooms! History and context and memetics! And that so many people used that public restroom before you!” I don’t even care about the washed hands (I mean I do, but not in this context), there’s just so much past-ness (thanks, Dymaxion, for the term) behind that stall door. And should we even be using toilets? And that’s just a tiny portion of everyone’s day that no one really thinks about. And then the person just blinks at you, and you point them in the (supposedly) right direction, and they walk that way. And then someone else comes up to you. Rinse and repeat.

So. That. I’ve started medication that is situation-based, only in my system for so long, to deal with the anxiety. And there’s the possibility of mood-stabilizing drugs, but first I have to set up a double-blind and match a placebo. Which brings us to the point of this entry (you knew we’d get here eventually): processes for coping. But first another tangent!

One of the reasons I’m medicating is because it’s incredibly difficult to keep a routine when on the road, what with switching timezones constantly and staying in other people’s space. Pacing around half-naked and sweaty practicing German after a morning run can only be done in the closest of friends’ living rooms. But the nomadic lifestyle is so incredibly worth it. And even a routine is just a coping mechanism, a way to stave off the anxiety. Something my psych said that made me feel better about the situation was “I don’t think it’s psychosomatic – you would have dealt with it by sheer force of will. There is something going on in your brain you don’t have control over.” Which also freaks me out, but oh well.

Processes help. Routine when you can find it. Meditation is a process. Quantified Self can be a process. I talked to Ed of i3 Detroit (and recent transplant to Boston) about his process. He’s listed out people who are important to him in a column, and dates across the top row. He draws a smiley or frowny face for what sort of topic he called them about, when. He can see how to balance good calls and bad calls, and make sure that he’s been keeping up with folk. I’m going to try this out. The best I can hope to do is once a month – I hate the phone in general, and even this would be a vast improvement over the current complete lack.

What do you do to cope? What processes do you have?

How do you know who is important? My three criteria are that they make me think, they make me laugh, and they aren’t drama. I am blessed that my list of people is so long. That doesn’t mean I’m any good at keeping up with people who I should be indicating my fondness of. I *suck* at keeping up with people. I am very present where I am, which means I’m just not pinging people that aren’t there right then. Which has been a difficult place for me to get to. Apparently humans take some time every day to contact folk who aren’t physically present. I thought about auto-sending emails of affection and check-ins, but that seems fake. What I can do is set alarms for myself, to be sure I do things when I should. That’s more authentic, right?

Also, you should totally check out Ed. He’s awesome. He does things like Penflake, and now works with the Center For Civic Media, my biggest organizational crush right now. Be still my activist techie heart.

He also made a way for people to create easily in the same way.

I wanted to do something interactive for Maker Faire last year. I had been drawing my PenFlakes, and thought it would be cool if people could design their own and print them out. So I created FlakePad, a javascript/HTML5 web app that enforces the basic symmetry of a snowflake, and provides a hexagonal grid to work off of.

Aside from being a great way to get my hands dirty with HTML5, the most interesting part of the app was creating the hexagonal grid. I wound up learning about and utilizing Isometric Cubic Coordinates. These coordinates provide an amazingly simple way to label hexagons on a grid, as well as a relatively simple transformation to and from standard Cartesian Coordinates. The basic trick is to recognize that a hexagonal grid, can be seen as a projection of a 3D arrangement of cubes centered on the plane x+y+z=0 (imagine Q*bert, the old NES game).

Tesla Gun

I sat down one evening at Unit 15 in the old Rainier Brewery Building with Rob Flickenger. His projects have always been amazing – the can-tennashrunken quartersbuilding wireless networks for the UN in Africa, and writing the books (literally) on wireless networks. His most recent project pushes him even further into the mad scientist realm. He’s built a Tesla Gun.
robwithgunNOTE TO READERS: This is a dangerous idea. An operator holds this device as it operates. Tesla coils and other high voltage devices can stop your heart. The operator must be ABSOLUTELY SURE that the case has a solid ground to shunt the electricity to earth, and not through you. And while I’m all about taking informed and calculated risks, this is me informing you. Ok. Read on.

When I asked him why he had started on this project, he cited Steven Sanders and Matt Fraction’s Five Fists of Science, a graphic novel in which Tesla and Twain battle the evil forces of Edison and Marconi. “How much more epically awesome can you get than a young Tesla fighting evil with a TESLA GUN?”

While Rob is undoubtedly brilliant, he had to learn a lot to make this project happen. If you made something like this out of duct tape and plastic, it would kill you. But if he wanted that Tesla Gun, he’d have to make a lot of the parts himself. Luckily for Rob, he lives in Seattle, where we have an outstanding group of hacker/makerspaces and incredible people doing crazy things in them. He went and talked to a lot of people. He learned about aluminum casting, 3D printing, working with ceramic slip, and machining — all things he had never had first-hand experience with. He learned even more about high voltage electronics. The end result is a hand-held (if you are veryvery certain it is grounded) spark-gap Tesla Gun that puts out around 100k volts with sparks leaping a meter to DAGGAR*.


How and where it was made:

The casing needed to aluminum to withstand the high voltage and look cool. Rob headed over to Hazard Factory to talk with Rusty. They used the foundry there and green casted a NERF gun mold.

The resulting case was machined down with the Hackerbot mill so it would line up correctly and look pretty. He also machined some HDPE stand offs to house the primary coil, so it would be sturdy and resistant to HV. Then he needed a different switch – “no one in their right mind would manufacture what I needed for the consumer market.”

Off to Metrix Create:Space to 3D powder print a mold. They then poured porcelain slip into it, and fired the resulting piece in the kiln. The custom-made porcelain and tungsten switch can withstand 20kv at several hundred amps.

Most of the work was done at Rob’s resident hackerspace, Unit 15 (private). There, he put together his Hockey Puck of Doom. HPoD is a zero voltage sense flyback driver found on Instructables that lets you turn an 18 volt drill battery into 20k volts (the reason this device is more portable than other coils of the same effect). He hand-wound the 1100 turns of #30 copper wire, and laser etched some of the fiddly bits for a more mad-scientist feeling. And my personal favorite: the transformer is from an old TV, which is the best possible use I can think of for old TVs.

Finally, he did a talk at Ada’s Technical Books and at Jigsaw Renaissance to share the joy. The talk at Ada’s was video’d and can be viewed here.

“Telsa Coils are at the intersection of science and magic. It’s impossible to describe the visceral experience of the luminous discharge of a secondary terminal, from a machine that creates ion streams using 100 year old technology. They make a room smell like a thunderstorm.”

As a closing story, Rob told me about the most exciting thing he had ever electrified – himself. One evening, three Tesla coils were running in the same room at Hackerbot at the same time. He powered his down and noticed it was self-resonating – throwing sparks from secondary without being powered, presumably from being in-tune with the two others. He thought, the current coming off must be small, and wondered if he could draw it out with his finger. Rob was then surprised to pull a 4 foot spark — one of the the others was striking it from another angle. “It was awesome. But not the kind of awesome I like to promote. You want the controlled kind of high voltage project.”

daggarYou can read a whole lot more about the project over on his blog, Hacker Friendly. He’ll be showing it off at the Seattle Mini Maker Faire.

*DAGGAR is a staple of HV projects in Seattle. There is nothing more epic than catching lightning on this cheesily ornate blade.

images by yours truly and Rob Flickenger.

Importance of Security in Communications

If any of you know me personally, you know one of my main investments in the ideals behind GWOB are those of propagating security. Being in Berlin this past week for Chaos Communications Camp was a true joy – European hackers, specifically those from Berlin – tend to have a highly-tuned sense of geek social responsibility. I could go into (at great length) my theories on the historical basis for this, but let’s just dive right in.

At-risk populations using telecommunications systems must be secure in doing so. If a tool is created which further jeopardizes their well-being, kittens die. And so I was filled with joy when people I have the honor of knowing stood up for those at-risk populations and broke something — fast. In fact, they broke it before breakfast. Fluid Nexus is (was) a tool specifically designed for activists to use for off-grid communications. While a noble idea, it completely failed to shield its target user base from security attacks.

Additionally, the ownership of a message is attributable when the client’s database is dumped.  On an Android phone, *any* application with access to the SD card can dump the database in this way, making trojans trivial to implement.  Further, this database column does nothing to benefit the users of the software, putting them at risk for no reason.

pro% sqlite3 ~/.FluidNexus/FluidNexus.db
SQLite version 3.7.4
Enter “.help” for instructions
Enter SQL statements terminated with a “;”
sqlite> select title from messages where mine;
Martians know cryptography!
Things change.
Evidence against me.

The full (incredibly snarky) write-up can be found on pastebin, I highly encourage the read.

That said, it is incredibly important that people continue working on creating and improving tools for situations in which communications break down. It is equally important to request feedback from people who live in this discipline – will your tool use more power than readily available? Is it possible to use with a different native language? Is it secure? It’s better that people who care break things and help to improve them than The Bad GuysTM doing it live. Get started with this Software for Activists overview.

Credit/Mad Props and Mate to Eleanor Saitta (@dymaxion), Meredith Patterson (@maradydd), and Travis Goodspeed (@travisgoodspeed) for the break; Stephan Urbach (@herrurbach) for the overview; Fabienne Serriere (@fbz) and Skytee Haas (@skytee) for the Hacker Hostel (@hackerhostel); and my own self (@willowbl00) for the crepes.