Episode 5: Maryam Namazie

 

This interview with Maryam Namazie is about refugee rights, criticism of religion, Islamism as a political movement, and the need for progressives to define a coherent political position beyond identity politics.

Maryam is a secularist and human rights activist, speaker for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, for the One Law for All – No Sharia Law campaign, for Fitnah, and for other campaigns and groups. She is also a Central Committee member for the Worker-Communist Party of Iran and co-hosts the YouTube & television program “Bread & Roses” (which, fitting with past interviewees, is under the CC-BY license).

You can follow Maryam on Twitter and on freethoughtblogs, and you can support Bread & Roses on Patreon.

Transcript

This transcript is edited for readability and length. A more literal transcription will be found in the subtitles, which will be posted later this month.

Maryam, what’s your passion?

I guess my passion is social justice. There is a really good saying by Mansoor Hekmat, an icon of the left in Iran, and he basically says people seek out the left because they want social justice, they want to change the world for the better. And I would say that’s my passion, just wanting to change things for the better and getting really frustrated at how unfair things are.

I’m lucky in the sense that I come from a background of Iranian politics where there is the possibility to be part of a wider, widespread movement that is for social justice and that doesn’t make excuses for either the Islamists or US-led militarism. Sometimes I think people feel like they have to take one side or the other, so in that sense it’s helped me to be able to channel my passion into real activism and one that I feel comfortable with and don’t feel like I’ve made compromises principle-wise.

You grew up in Iran and then you moved to the UK with your parents when you were a teenager, right?

Yeah, I was raised in Iran. I went first to India with my mum. She was going to put me in school there, and then go back to Iran, but then my father and my 3-year-old sister who was in Iran at that time, he told my mum not to come back, and so we were in India for two years and then we came to Britain for a year, but we weren’t allowed to stay in either country, so then we went to the US, and that’s where we managed to get residency. And I returned to Britain in 2000.

So when you left Iran as a young girl, what was your perception of what was going on at the time, and how did you process that?

I suppose the main issue for me for many years was refugee rights. It’s still a very important part of who I am, in the sense of just seeing your entire life break away and having to leave lots of family and friends behind, or even if you have family who have also had to flee, they fled to many different parts of the world. So you end up maybe not seeing your relatives for many years. My grandmother when she died, I never got to see her. My husband, his father just died quite recently, and he was unable to go back to the funeral.

So it’s a break in everything that you know. Oftentimes, when we hear about refugee issues, we hear about how people don’t want newcomers to come to their countries, but there is less about how difficult it is to actually leave everything you know behind and go to places where you may not feel welcome, you may not feel like you belong, and to try to rebuild your life.

It was easier for me given that I was young, but much more difficult for my parents, for people who are older and who will have to start all over again from the box after having done that years before.

[…]

It started with this whole refugee issue and then trying to look at why people have to flee, and then there is this link with the Iranian regime, an Islamic regime.  I was raised a Muslim but it was never an issue in my life, so I wasn’t really forced to veil. I didn’t go to segregated schools. I was treated very much as anyone else in my family, I wasn’t treated differently because I was a girl.

So for me the first time religion in all its glory became evident was when it had political power. That’s why I think for me it’s very easy to make a distinction between people who are Muslims who might even believe in Islam (though I’m an atheist), who are just wonderful regular people, and the fact that they all have differences of opinion, they are not just one mass of robots trying to take over the world — versus the Islamist movement which is trying to take over the world, to some extent.

What we saw in the last one and half years is the largest movement of refugees in the world since the Second World War, and we’ve seen political responses to this all across the spectrum. What I have observed at least is, I’ve found sanity neither on the political left nor on the political right on a lot of these issues.

On the political right we see a lot of bigotry and we see a lot of hatred and a lot of: “Let’s close the borders, we cannot to afford to let people in, and we cannot afford to help. It is too much of a risk, it’s too much of a threat.” And there’s broad generalizations, as you say, like, “Everyone is against us. Everyone is trying to take over.”

And then on the political left it seems to me that there is often a kind of naiveté about Islam and Islamism and its intentions, while at the same time a more positive and responsible attitude towards [refugees], “Okay there are people who need our help and there is stuff that we can do.”

There is the Refugees Welcome movement. There are people who actually genuinely are trying to make this crisis something that we can overcome. But when it comes to the issues of Islam and Islamism, many of those same people are tending to turn a blind eye, and I have found that there is only a narrow niche of people who are concerned about both of these issues and tackle them head on.

As one example of this conflict, I want to go to something that happened when you were giving a talk about Islam and Islamism at Goldsmiths University in London in November 2015, and you were essentially giving a presentation, and you were interrupted rudely multiple times by members of the audience. After that both the feminist student society and the LGBTQ student society at the university actually defended the people who heckled you.

Yeah, can I go back to the refugee issue?

Absolutely.

Just to say a few words on that. The problem with both the right and the left perspective on this, and I say this as someone on the left, is that they homogenize groups and look at communities [as if] they all think the same way. So with the right for example, they are concerned about refugees coming in because they immediately equate all of these people with ISIS, with Islamism and terrorism.

And the reality is that a vast majority of these people are not linked to that movement in any way, they are just fleeing for their lives, they are fleeing because they want to save their life. Why they’re coming to Europe? Because, well, everybody wants to come to Europe, because people want to live freer, better lives, and it’s this dream of living a life without constraints. I think those who lived under the constraints of either a dictatorship like the Assad dictatorship or the Islamists understand this more than anybody else.

So this equation of Muslims — first of all, not all those refugees fleeing Syria are Muslims to begin with. Even if they are Muslims, they are not necessarily Islamists. A very small minority are.

They think that in order to defend refugees, they need to defend the Islamists.

With the left, too, what you see is that they look at refugees all the same — again, this homogenization — and because they too see Muslims and Islamists as quite similar with each other they also conflate these issues. You find that they think that in order to defend refugees, they need to defend the Islamists. What I am trying to promote is looking at people as human beings.

People are not more criminal because they are British citizens or American citizens, for example, even though U.S. militarism exists or imperialism exists. Or you have the KKK or the English Defence League, that doesn’t automatically mean everyone who is British or American [identifies with them], and it’s the same with Muslims and Islamists as well.  Islamists are a very small minority.

It’s important to look at people as individuals. Of course there will be those who will commit crimes, and they might also have refugee status, in the same way that people will commit crimes and they have U.S. passports. Look a people as individuals. If they’ve committed a crime, prosecute them. But that doesn’t deny the fact that people have a right to protection, people have a right to refugee status, people have a right to live free from fear, from bombs, from the Islamists, and so on and so forth.

So it’s differentiating between helping someone, for example, to be free from living a life of domestic violence, that’s a right. To be free from a life of violence. The person who faces domestic violence may also have shoplifted, for example. You can’t then argue that we can’t defend victims of domestic violence because you have evidence of a few people who have shoplifted.

So I think not placing collective blame is hugely important, and I think that’s when we will start having a more human and principled view on those who are fleeing.

There are some people who argue that we should profile beliefs or profile ideology, to some extent. I have seen surveys of refugees where you find, okay, there is a small percentage of people who enter the countries, and they actually answer to the question “Do you think there is anything good about ISIS and what ISIS is trying to do?” with “Yes”. [See the 2014 Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies poll, for example.]

And there are people who say that anyone who would say such a thing in a survey is probably not the kind of person who should let into the country with open arms. What’s your take on that? Do you support any kind of ideological profiling or questioning, integration efforts that try to counter this kind of extremism in a meaningful way?

My point of view is look, you cannot base rights on people’s beliefs. You can’t say that you have the right to equality if you agree with women’s equality. “If you don’t agree that women are equal then, I am sorry, these universal laws of equality between men and women will not apply to you.” And take any other thing. “You cannot have fair wages if you don’t agree in labor trade union organizing rights, because it’s the trade unions that fought for you. You are a strikebreaker or you don’t support your local union activism, therefore you can’t have the same rights that have been fought for.“

You can’t give people rights that are theirs, that are inalienable, if we agree that rights are inalienable, based on what they think and based on whether you like how they think or not. I think that’s a very fundamental thing. If you need health care in America you might be someone who doesn’t support universal healthcare for everyone, but you still have the right to health care whether you think that it belongs to everyone or not.

And I think that’s one issue right there. The other is that just because people believe in a religion, doesn’t make them fundamentalists, in the Islamist sense, doesn’t make them fascists. You can have people who are very conservative, who are anti-gay rights, who are anti-gay marriage. You have that amongst Christians as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rampaging on the streets and attacking every gay person that they come across or discriminating against them.

So I think there is a difference between conservative views and beliefs, and action. I think if we look at Islamism in the way we look at the KKK and the way we look at Christian white supremacist groups or Hindu supremacist groups, it makes it easier to make a distinction between people who have religious beliefs who might be conservative versus the religious right wing, which is what we need to be concerned about because they’re the ones who are terrorizing people. They are the ones who are imposing sharia laws.

If you profile people on belief, you are going to get it very wrong.

The other thing too is that you can’t make a distinction on conservatism with one’s immigration status because you have people born and bred in the west who have pro-ISIS views and refugees who have risked their life defending secularism and what people would call “western values”, but they are really universal values.

That’s why if you profile people on belief, you are going to get it very wrong. Because it implies that people who are Muslim are Islamists, and that’s a very wrong assumption, because that’s not the case.

If it were the case you wouldn’t have mass migration from countries where Islamists rule, that’s number one. If you look at the countries where people are fleeing, the top ten refugee producing countries, they are countries where the Islamists are in power, a vast majority of them are.

Second of all, if the Islamists were really what people agreed with, well, they ISIS wouldn’t need to put banners up telling women how they need to dress. The Iranian regime would not impose segregation in football matches. Why would they need to do that if everybody agreed with the Islamist version of the world? So obviously they don’t. Which is why prisons in Iran, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia are full with freethinkers, including Muslims, who just don’t want to live according to what the Islamists say is the right way to live.

So I think that’s why profiling based on belief is wrong. I think behavioral profiling is what needs to be done. How do you find and seek out the Christian right who are bombing abortion clinics or trying to plan attacks? You don’t profile every white male, because the white men in America for example are not feeling discriminated against and targeted by the police. You don’t do that, but somehow, they do manage to know who these people are.  In the same way we need to behaviorally profile the Islamists, rather than connecting them with Muslims.

If we [equate them with Muslims], what we also do is, we push more people towards the Islamist movement, because when you tell people that they are the only ones that represent you, whether it’s via policies of cultural relativism and multiculturalism, whether it’s via profiling, you do end up pushing more and more people to that movement, rather than rescuing them from that movement, and making very clear that they are not one and the same.

At some point that though does translate into governments doing things, right? At some point it translates into governments either deciding to let people in or keep people out, or it translates into governments surveilling people or not surveilling them, trying to keep them from harm or keep them from doing harm. In your view, what kinds of government interventions actually represent a reasonable defense against the Islamist threat, against Islamism as a political movement that, as you say, wants to take over the world?

I think that governments obviously have an important role to play. I may not like policies of governments, I may not like many laws that are unjust, but nonetheless when we are fighting for basic rights we are making demands upon the state, we are making demands upon the legal system, and a lot of laws and policies that are progressive, are things that were fought for by generations before us. It’s not something that has been handed over, it’s been fought for.

So I think within that same framework it’s important to pressure governments in order to do the right thing; they will never do it on their own. I think if we want to be safe — which is important, we all want to be safe; for every Paris or Brussels in the West there are similar terrorist attacks and impositions of sharia law on populations of the Middle East and North Africa.

There is a Paris or Brussels every day in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, Iraq and what have you. So this security issue is not just an issue for Europeans or for Americans. It’s an issue for Iranians and Afghans and Algerians and Moroccans.

And so one is to recognize that this is a global phenomenon and we need to work together. We have allies across borders and boundaries, and enemies that go across borders.  You have people who are born and raised in Europe and the West, who are killing women and children and men in ISIS-held territories today. Some of them might even be white converts. So to see this as a global thing is hugely important.

And two, put pressure on governments not to deny civil rights, human rights, under the guise of defending security. If we are concerned about defending humanity, an important part of that defense is defending rights — whether human rights, civil rights that have been fought for and gained through a lot of hard work and sweat, tears and blood.

Rather than targeting citizens let’s say who are Muslims for example, rather than doing that, [we need] to compel governments to target the Islamists. If we look at the bombings in Paris or Brussels, I think a vast majority of those who’ve committed those crimes in London in 7/7 for example, they were already known to security agents. Why haven’t they been under closer surveillance so that they couldn’t carry out the attack? Why weren’t they stopped?

And many are being stopped. I know that in Britain for example every week one or two terrorist plots are being stopped. There is this acknowledgment even by security experts that we need to target the Islamists, for example. And many plots are being stopped, so at some level it is working.  But to focus more on that, than on spending all this time on resources on targeting refugees; targeting Muslim communities — that’s not going to work.

Those are things of course that governments don’t want to look at because there is profit involved.

If you look at Islamism as a political movement, there are important aspects of that movement with very good relations with Western governments. Let’s say the Saudi regime. The Iranian regime. These are pillars of Islamism, yet they have got very close relationships with Western governments. The Saudi regime gets lots of money in military funding. I mean the police are even trained by the British government. Those are things of course that governments don’t want to look at because there is profit involved.

Nonetheless, if you want to have a comprehensive response to Islamism and not just its terrorist wings you need to look at these regimes. You also need to look at the political aspects of this movement. The problem is that a lot of Western governments feel that if they make concessions to the political arm of this movement, it will reduce terrorism, but it won’t. These two are intrinsically linked with each other. Any strength that the military wing has, it will strengthen the political wing and vice versa.

When you look at the political aspect of this movement, the imposition of sharia law, for example, in Britain we have sharia law courts. The British government refuses to address them. It says that it’s people exercising their right to religion. Our position, the position of groups that I work with along with other secular, even Muslim women’s groups is that this is a project of the Islamist movement.

As is gender segregation at universities, as is the women’s second class status in so-called Muslim communities, also the veil, the niqab, especially the burka, these are flags of the Islamist movement. If we don’t deal with this issue comprehensively we fail to address it, and that’s why we are not able to address it in the way that we must.

I think you brought up something very central just a minute ago which is the long history of support by the West for Islamist regimes. That history is well-documented and is also partially linked to just the West looking for allies against communism: “If we support the Saudis, the Saudis will be a power block here that will preserve capitalism, that will preserve our interests.”

And what’s seems to have happened in part is that those alliances have continued even though the strategic motivations that drove them in the first place have to some extent disappeared. So now there is this chaotic situation where the United States, and its foreign policy, doesn’t even know what to do with something like the YPG, the Kurdish liberation movement. “Are they our allies, who knows? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.”

And they continue this alliance with Saudi Arabia in the form of tens of billions of dollars, literally, of weapon sales in the last few years. And one thing that I wondered about as I saw the left and the right struggling with issues around Islam and Islamism in the last few years is, why is there not a broader consensus and a broader alliance among people of different political persuasions around this issue for example of Saudi Arabia?

It seems pretty clear that if you are Sam Harris, or if you are Richard Dawkins, or if you are Maryam Namazie, it doesn’t really matter, everyone should be able to agree that the United States and the UK shouldn’t be allied with a country that is the main sponsor of this very extreme ideology that Saudi Arabia has been promoting around the world for decades.

Is it fair to say that perhaps activists in the United States and Europe should put more emphasis there, and less emphasis on criticizing individual Muslims or criticizing even Islam as a religion?

I think there is a couple of things here that you raised. One is the history of the West’s support of Islamism. So even in Iran for example, the 1979 revolution was not an Islamic revolution. It was a left-leaning one, and Western Powers met at the Guadeloupe Conference to decide that they preferred an Islamic state to a left leaning one and that’s when we see the support for Khomeini who was someone who no one knew, really.

And we know what’s happened in Iran since then, so as you say it was creating a green belt around the Soviet Union at the time. I don’t think though that strategically it’s no longer an issue for Western Powers. I think whilst the Cold War has ended, religion in general is a very useful tool for governments to control and manage the population at large. It’s continued to be useful tool, including in societies where religion is no longer even relevant, really.

You still have such a strong role that religion plays in Britain for example even though it is such a secularized society. In Ireland for example you see people voting for the first referendum in defense of gay marriage, in a country where it seems so conservative and religious, that’s the impression that’s given because of the role that the Catholic Church still plays in that society and in the state. So I think it’s very useful.

Also, if you look at Western government policies now with multiculturalism and cultural relativism, the Islamist movement is very useful in managing minorities on behalf of the state. So we are seeing a situation where the so-called Muslim community has their own schools, they have got their own services even, the sort of faith-based services, as if we don’t all bleed the same. We don’t need to go to a secular hospital any more, we need faith-based services because somehow we are so different, even our biology is different, we need separate services to address our needs.

And also of course faith-based courts. In the sort of climate where there are austerity measures, cuts in legal aid, for example. Well, privatizing and outsourcing justice to Islamist groups has been very useful Wor western government policies. And so I think in a sense everything is so intertwined with each other, it’s not just the Saudi regime. It’s about so many fundamental policies, social policies, political policies in Europe as well, in managing so-called minority communities.

But it’s also very much part of Western government foreign policy. So in Iraq, dividing societies based on ethnicity and religion, the Iraqization of the world really, it is a very good way of managing. Or [so] they think at least — it’s obviously been a disaster in Europe, it’s been a disaster across the world.

So I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s not so easy to separate all of these things. And again with the Saudi regime, the problem I have with many people on the left is that they’re  happy to criticize the Saudi regime because it’s got close relationships with the West but they are in bed with the Iranian regime, they are in bed with Hamas and Hezbollah, and in that sense if you don’t deal with a movement comprehensively, you are not going to be able to address it, because the Saudi regime is only one part of it.

The other thing with the Saudi regime is that it has been untouchable for so long because it’s so closed and we haven’t been able to see the resistance and protest. They’ve been able to make it seem as if this is what Saudi society wants. Now though there are cracks, and a lot of it has to do with for example the campaign for the release of Saudi freethinker Raif Badawi. His wife’s campaign, Ensaf Haidar’s campaign for his defense has cracked open the façade of it being untouchable.

I think with that campaign, we are seeing the sort of momentous movement of groups and organizations who are coalescing together as many of us have in defense of Raif and against the Saudi regime, and I think that’s something that we are going to see more and more of.

maryam-namazie-ex-muslim-because-640_0

From the #ExMuslimBecause campaign.

I take your criticism of the left as being often supportive of Hamas and Hezbollah and groups like that as very valid. At the same time one criticism by the left of people in the anti-Islamism movement and groups that are against sharia law and so on is often being framed as, we should not “punch down”. We should always “punch up”.

And the framing on the left is often to say, if you are criticizing Islam as a religion, as a belief system of people let’s say in the suburbs of France, then we are effectively punching down, we are not punching up to people who have power. We are punching down to people who don’t have power.

Would it be fair to say that perhaps people who hold that belief and people who are concerned about Islamism can meet and find common ground around this issue of political connections to regimes, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or whether it’s Hezbollah, and jointly take collective action against Islamism that is being promoted, and focus more energy there? Focus more attention there and focus less attention on Islam as a belief system and how ridiculous different kinds of religions may or may not be.

Those are very legitimate points. First for, me it raises the question, why do you think you are punching down? Do you know what I mean? Why, and I think it goes back to this fundamental belief that Muslims are the same as the Islamists. Therefore, if you want to defend Muslims, you need to defend Hamas and Hezbollah. So my point is that Hamas and Hezbollah are oppressive forces in their societies, as is the Iranian regime, as is Assad’s regime, which many on “Stop the War Coalition” for example will defend, though they don’t defend the Saudi regime. They are exactly the same as the Saudi government. They are power sources. They are a form of imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa.

If you look at pictures of women in Iran, in Afghanistan 40 years ago, they are unrecognizable.

If you look at many of our societies 30, 40 years ago, they have completely changed as a result of the Islamization of those societies. I am not talking about Europe. Music has been banned in Mali. The traditional dress of many African Muslim women has completely been changed, it’s been de-Africanized and it has been Islamized. There are many, many examples of this across the world. You just look at any society and you will see it. If you look at pictures of women in Iran, in Afghanistan 40 years ago, they are unrecognizable. Today you would not believe that they are women from the same society. It looks like we have gone backwards rather than forwards.

So in that sense, why do you think it’s punching down? While this is often seen as a progressive position, there is a racism there. There is an underlying racism that one, those of us who come from minority backgrounds, that we can only ever be fascists, we can never ever be revolutionaries, and also that we’re different from you. You can take criticism of religion. You can take criticism of your far right movements.

But if we from within, even those of us from those backgrounds do it, we have taken on the colonialist mindset. We are promoting a westernized neo-colonial outlook. We are coconuts. We are native informants. So there is this racism in that position that we cannot have freethinkers and revolutionaries, only you can. Only you have the toleration to laugh at your religion and to poke fun at it and to be anti-clerical.

We have to live within the confines of Islam and Islamist rules and that’s all that we deserve. So this cultural relativist attitude is so dehumanizing to begin with and it fails to see that just like you, we have dissenters amongst us. Just like you we also want to live freely, live without constraints, particularly religion constraints.

The other problem is that a lot of these groups see Hamas and Hezbollah or the Iranian regime as the “resistance”, because they have these blindfolds where the only concern they have is US militarism and imperialism, and anything that seems to be opposed to this is their ally and their friend. And my point is, well, you can be anti-imperialism and you can also be anti-Islamism, and rather than siding with one of the two sides that are in my opinion two sides of the same coin — side with the working class. The progressive social movements, political movements that are standing up to both, why can’t you do that?

People will often accuse people even like myself of feeding into racism against Muslims because of my criticism of Islam and Islamism. And what I would say is, look, I don’t blame so many on the left, like the Goldsmiths Feminist Society or the LGBTQ+ Society, which sided with the Islamists, against me, I don’t blame you for my death threats. Please don’t blame me for racism. Because I am a campaigner against racism and I fought it tooth to nail as I have fought the Islamists.

Blame the fascists and the racists for racism. Blame the Islamists as I blame the Islamists for the death threats. I don’t blame everyone who appeases them. And that is a long list of people on the left who should be siding with me. So I think, put blame where it’s due. Hold those movements that are carrying out racist attacks, that are promoting racism, that are promoting terrorism, hold them to account and stand with those of us who are against both racism as well as Islamism.

I want to draw the connection here with what I would describe as identity politics in the left today. You said earlier one of the problems with this argument about punching down is that  — they are not all the same! And in fact when you do that, when you homogenize like that, you essentially create these isolated groups where you say, okay, if there is abuse happening within these groups then we don’t really care about it because that’s “just their culture” or that’s “just their religion” and we are not free to criticize it. We are not free to call it out. We are not free to name it in the same way as we would in our societies, in our culture.

And that seems to be an outcome of this view of identity politics where you group people by their religious identity or by other forms of identity. And so I want to draw the connection to the Goldsmiths incident. And what happened there is that you were shut down — or rather I should say people attempted to shut you down, they disrupted and heckled you and you carried on bravely as they did so. And they even tried to shut down the projector while you were speaking and pulled the plug while you were showing the slide.

And it was kind of baffling for a lot of people, I think progressives on the left, people on the right, when these responses followed where people at Goldsmiths University, students at university said, we actually side with the Islamic society on this one and we hope that the university will not invite a speaker like that again, effectively.

What was your immediate response to that, you reaction to that, and how do you empathize with that point of view? What’s your reading of the situation? How do people come to this conclusion that it’s okay to heckle a speaker, it’s okay to attack a speaker in this manner and then side in act with the hecklers? What ideology drives that?

When that happened, you know, I don’t expect much from the Islamists or the far right. I mean, what they did didn’t surprise me. I am glad it was videotaped because I know what would have happened. I would have ended up being vilified for it because before the video went up, the Islamic society did say that I basically violated their safe space and that I was screaming at them and that I discriminated against them and so on and so forth.

Had it not been videotaped, I would have gotten the bad end of that deal because there is this assumption — that’s the mainstream assumption — that they would be right and I would be wrong. And it’s interesting because all of this discussion is framed within the context of minority rights, but I am a minority within a minority.

I am a woman versus men, “brothers”, the ISOC brothers who were doing this. Also I’m an older woman, I am the age of their moms most probably. It seems none of that is relevant, which is interesting when you look at it, and the only thing that seems to matter is when you are looking at this power imbalance which they talk about so much is that they seem to be the representatives of power imbalance.

But when I heard about the solidarity message of the Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ society and the feminist society, I did scream at the top of my lungs at my computer.

And it goes back to this identity politics doesn’t it? Basically what you are saying is that our fascists are the ones who need to be protected against those of us who are fighting fascism. So when they behaved that way I wasn’t surprised because I have dealt this with movement for many years now, around 30 years where in various ways I’ve been up against this movement. So for me their behavior wasn’t surprising.

But when I heard about the solidarity message of the Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ society and the feminist society, I did scream at the top of my lungs at my computer. Because it does feel so hurtful, do you know what I mean? I can’t explain it. I am not surprised and I know it’s business as usual but it is still does feel very, very painful. Because they are the ones who I would expect should side with me, and that’s why it makes it more painful. So it’s kind of feeling like you are being stabbed in the back and in front by people who should be standing side by side with you.

And so I know it happens all the time but I still find it really hard to get used to.

Why does it happen?

It happens again, I think, because of identity politics and the homogenization of the Muslim identity. Those who are most fundamentalist, most conservative, most medieval are the authentic Muslims and therefore, if you are a burka-clad woman waving the ISIS flag that is the authentic Muslim woman, and if I or other Muslims are standing next to her having a discussion, these feminists will side with her.

It is sort of like the authentic Muslim is always a reactionary. And I do say this partly tongue in cheek but partly I mean it when I say that I feel offended on behalf of Muslims that there is such a poor view of Muslims. Imagine if everyone thought every American was like Donald Trump or Dick Cheney, or that the KKK represented all Americans and that in order to defend Americans we must defend the KKK, because it’s your culture to be racist and you can’t handle any more. Segregation is part of your history, and why would anyone defend black and white people fighting for de-segregation and join the civil rights movement? It’s a violation of your cultural rights.

That sort of thing is what’s being done not just in minority communities here and the West but across the globe. We have people being slaughtered, an entire generation for example slaughtered in Iran by the Islamic regime of Iran, and you have Stop the War Coalition organizers kicking out political activists from Iran who have signs condemning the Iranian regime for its executions. I mean sometimes it is so bizarre.

What happened to real human solidarity that went beyond the sort of narrow identity politics, one which went beyond borders, beyond color, beyond sex, beyond nationality, to linking up with progressive social and political movements, when you can only see identities, and the authentic identity is usually the one with power?

Because who decides what the authentic identity is? It’s those in power, it’s the mullahs, it’s the Islamic organizations, it’s Islamic states. And so basically this left, which gives the impression that it’s for the poor and the oppressed and it’s trying to help those who are being punched down, in fact what it’s doing it’s allying with those in power. Which is so ironic when you think about it, and so heartbreaking as well.

One of the other policies that get invoked in those contexts are the safe space policies, and I think it was also mentioned in this case, this notion that universities want to provide environments that are free of discrimination, free of harassment.

And at the heart seems to be this idea that we want to protect people from very real discrimination, very real hatred that people have encountered on campus, students have encountered in schools, bullying and so on.

There seems to be well intentioned desire to protect people from harm at the root of these safe space policies. Do you think that there is a good idea at the heart of them that’s worth protecting and changing, or do you think it’s just a completely wrongheaded idea to begin with?

Look, safe spaces are very important spaces. The fact of the matter is that as someone who is ex-Muslim, I organize safe spaces for ex-Muslims to be able to take off their veil because some of them are still pretending to be veiled, who are still going to the mosque, where they can come and talk with each other about issues that they face — ostracization, whether it is intimidation or just how to break the news to their family without losing their loved ones.

Do you think racists can tell the difference between Muslim, ex-Muslim, migrant citizen?

So I think safe spaces are important. We all have our own version of safe spaces, don’t we, where we go to feel completely comfortable and not under attack, and I completely understand particularly those who face discrimination and racism in the wider society. And that includes people like me.

Do you think racists can tell the difference between Muslim, ex-Muslim, migrant citizen? If you are brown, you’re brown. If you have a different accent, if you got black hair, it’s obvious. I see it in how sometimes my child is treated who was born and raised in this country. He is 10 now and he will ask me, why are they looking at me this way, or why did they say that, and it’s really hard to explain, wanting to give him this feeling that he is a citizen that belongs.

So these are things that we all grapple with. The sort of discrimination and racism. But the fact of the matter is that if you are going to protect minorities at the expense of other rights, it’s going down the wrong route, because first of all minorities need free expression more than anybody else. People who face discrimination, people who face racism.

Because free expression allows you to speak up and to criticize and to challenge. Actually free expression is the right for people who are powerless vis-à-vis those in power, and therefore minorities are some of the more vulnerable with the least power and influence in society. So they need that free expression the most, and when you start limiting it even for those who you think are disgusting and vile, you create the framework where limits are possible, and it’s those who have least power that face it the most.

Look, creating a safe space for yourself is very different from them saying that society at large or universities at large are meant to be safe spaces, because it’s impossible in the sense that universities are places where you are actually going to hear things that might be very unsafe idea-wise, which challenges your very being to the core and might even persuade you to think differently. So I think we need to make a distinction between those.

This sort of defense of minorities by ensuring that they don’t hear any criticism of their views has reached a point where criticism of an idea like Islam is seen to be the same as discrimination against, and attacking and even violence against, inciting violence against a minority community, and this is absurd! This sort of equation of speech with real physical harm is absurd.

I think to challenge that we need to speak as loudly and as forcefully as possible, and in order to start challenging these sorts of limits, to break the taboos that come with it, and I think in a sense this is the greatest service you can do for minorities if you are so concerned about them.

What’s interesting also to me is that your talk for example was obviously completely optional event, right. Nobody was forced to show up, nobody was told, “You all must now be subjected to this presentation on Islam and Islamism.”

It’s a very different situation from  a student walking on campus and hearing let’s say a racially charged slur being thrown at them. You are presenting to a willing audience who all essentially chose to be there and said, this is something that interests me, and yet members of that same audience then said, no actually we would like to stop you from speaking.

So the safe space doesn’t really seem to apply in that same way to that type of setting. It’s a very different kind of setting than saying we want our campus to be discrimination-free, for example.

But also just to go over that event, what happened was, they had initially asked the Atheist Society to cancel my talk altogether, and when we went ahead as planned, they basically came to cancel the talk.

So in fact if any violation of safe space has taken place it’s by the Islamic Society brothers (not the sisters, because they were there, we had a conversation, we didn’t agree, but it was fine). It included actually threatening. They issued death threats against one of the audience members, by putting a gun to their head.

You can’t see the President of the ISOC doing that, but you see the person who he did it to telling the security guard, and you also see a Libyan women’s rights campaigner, Magdulien Abaida who was there. She puts her hand down in her face and she starts crying because it upset her so much. Now she is someone who was abducted by the Islamists in Libya for three days and threatened with death. So when she saw the guy do this, she just broke down at the meeting.

Another thing that’s on the video is when he was finally taken out by the security guard, he went to one of my colleagues and went “boom”. All of that seems to be okay, and again what’s interesting is this idea that they can actually threaten people because they are “authentic Muslims”.

Which is really saying that Muslims are violent, they are incapable of hearing anything that they disagree with, which again let me reiterate is so fundamentally racist. That’s okay, and it’s my being there that’s a problem. And what I found really outrageous after this whole incident was, the student union contacted me via six emails, left countless phone messages, not to apologize for what happened, not to say, well, “we are sorry as the external speaker that you have to face this”, but “please remove that video because it is violating the privacy of our students”.

They also made countless complaints to YouTube and YouTube basically said that because no one is named, there are no personal details of anyone in the audience, that they are not going to force us to remove it. What I told the university was, there is  an investigation supposedly taking place, don’t you think it’s good to have the evidence available? But you want to take it down.

The professor had said that you can’t criticize FGM because it would then be promoting a white colonialist perspective …

I just met a student from Goldsmiths, actually the same women who filmed this, she is a student there. She is a Nigerian women’s rights campaigner and an artist, and she wrote a blog recently, her name is Sarah Peace. She wrote a blog about a class that she was in where the professor said that you cannot criticize FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

[…]

The professor had said that you can’t criticize FGM because it would then be promoting a white colonialist perspective and it would be denigrating minority populations. Now Sarah, who is a Nigerian herself, was outraged at this, saying that FGM is something that many African women are fighting against, many women across the globe are fighting against, how can it be Western imperialism and colonialism to do that? She wrote a blog post about this. She didn’t name the professor but she wrote about it. Now I met her just a few days ago and she told me that Goldsmiths is thinking of putting her up for disciplinary charges because of her blog post.

Now none of the ISOC members of Goldsmiths who came and threatened audience members, who came and disrupted things, none of them were put under disciplinary charges, and Goldsmiths never said that they embarrassed the university. But they have told her that because she has embarrassed the university that they are looking into it.

And again, it’s the authentic Islamist, which is our fascist, can do whatever the hell they want, they can come on campus day in and day out. Impose gender segregation, as they did at LSE for example at a dinner, and you have the head of the student union who is a white woman “feminist” going and saying how wonderful it was. Well, gender segregation is like racial segregation but she has no problem as long as the ISOC is doing it.

And on and on and on, and then you have someone like me and suddenly I am “controversial” and I’m “inflammatory” and I’m “inciting violence and discrimination” and then you can see how alone sometimes we dissenters feel, especially when it’s people who should be on our side doing it.

Did they ever reach out to you, the feminist society, or did you talk to them after this happened, or the LGBT society?

No, they never did talk to me. I know that there were some differences within the group. I did hear that that there were some who were not happy at the position that they took but they never retracted their statements, even though Mohammed Patel who was the President of the ISOC as a result of scrutiny on him, a lot of homophobic tweets came up, and he was forced to resign.

“Forced to resign”, they are going to bring another homophobic, apostate-phobic, human-phobic President and they will carry on with their business as usual. But what is interesting is that because of his homophobic tweets he was forced to resign, but he can issue threats against apostates, but that’s “part of his culture”, isn’t it. We should just take it and respect it and of course it’s our fault that we get death threats.  That’s the other thing, blaming the victim, there is a constant blaming of victims including by many on the left.

editorial-photo-by-ben-hopper

From the 2012-2013 Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar (PDF). Photograph by Ben Hopper

Before we wrap up, I want to change a little bit to a different subject which is how are you as an activist on these controversial issues get attention, and get visibility and get people to talk about things that matter.

And one of the things you have done often is to provoke, to provoke within some of your presentations, to show things that you think are relevant for people to see and for people to engage with, but you have also provoked in protests and in other ways.

I want to talk a little bit about provocation and about how you’ve used nudity as a form of protest. What is the value of transgression, what is the value of provocation in bringing attention to these issues in your mind?

People will say that I am unnecessarily provocative and I think it’s not unnecessary. If you look at this movement that I am opposing, it decapitates people, it flogs people for writing a blog, it actually still digs ditches and stones people to death in the 21st century.

So if you think that my coming out and creating a movement saying we are ex-Muslims and apostates, we have a right to live irrespective of what the Islamists say and we are going to do it in public until blasphemy laws are abolished — if you think my saying that because my body is so despised and Islamists are so busy trying to erase and disappear women from the public space by veiling them, by silencing them, if you think nude protest is an “unnecessary provocation”, you don’t get what we are up against and you’re too busy criticizing those of us who are trying to resist, rather than criticizing the real fascists, those who are denying rights across the board.

So I think again this whole idea of provocation, as myself being seen as provocative, goes back to buying into the Islamist narrative, accepting the Islamist narrative as the norm. If anyone doesn’t do as they say — because that’s what you are telling me, do as they say, dress modestly and no one will bother you. Stop saying you are an apostate, and no one will bother you.

You could be at the marketplace at the wrong time and that’s it. That’s the end of your life.

Look, we know that they are provoked by anything. Forget about protest, they don’t like it if you fall in love with the wrong person. They don’t like it if you are “improperly” veiled. You are still veiled because it’s compulsory in Iran but they don’t like that it’s not exactly the way they tell you to veil. They don’t like it if you wear bright colors, they don’t like it if you sing, they don’t like it if you’re gay, they don’t like it if you breathe, if you dance.

So in that sense everything, every 21st century living act of humanity is an offense to them, is a provocation to them. You don’t need to draw cartoon of Muhammad to provoke them. You can just be sitting at a café in Brussels and you get it, you could be in the wrong mosque in Iraq and you will get it. You could be at the marketplace at the wrong time and that’s it. That’s the end of your life.

I want people to stop focusing so much on what we do and focus on them. I will do anything and everything I can that is non-violent and that can challenge their narrative, their status quo, challenge them.

I have responsibility to do it for the people who I’ve left behind, for the people who live in much more restrictive societies than I do and who can’t necessarily do what I do. But of course there was a women in Iran who did a topless protest recently, and she said, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. In Iran, with a Iranian landmark behind her!

So this is something that goes beyond borders and boundaries. There are lots of people in Iran who support nude protest. There are lots of white feminists who oppose it.  It goes beyond race, it goes beyond nationality, it is about politics, radical, progressive politics that aims to change the status quo and the Islamist narrative. Unfortunately, so much on the left have become so regressive that they can’t see progressive politics even if bites them on the ass, and they think it’s problematic.

It goes back to this whole idea of free expression being a cornerstone of all things. I have only limited ways in which I can speak. I can speak, I can use my body as a form of protest, I can organize various movements, try to get allies across various borders and boundaries. Whatever way I can, I can write, I can have a TV program (that’s incidentally broadcast in Iran via satellite dishes).

So these are the things I can do. Don’t tell me how I should do it, don’t put limits on my activism. That’s what free expression means. You do it your way and I will do it mine. And I will do it my way and as far as I can, I will push as much as I possibly can until the day that I die, because I have a responsibility to do that.

What is the proudest achievement in that form of activism for yourself, what is the thing that you look back to and you say this really worked well, or this really brought a message across in a way that it couldn’t have been brought across otherwise?

I have lots of high points in the sense of successful campaigns, whether it’s preventing the deportation of a group of Iranians for example from the Netherlands, having people call me from the Iranian Turkish border saying that they have been saved as a result of the work that I have done, with others of course in the Federation of Iranian refugees. I have lots of successes of that nature. Even if it’s just one person, it is that one person that has a different life as a result of work that’s been done on their behalf.

There are also human rights cases, for example, stopping the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. I mean that is such a highlight for me, the fact that her [son] contacted one of my colleagues Mina Ahadi, and said my mom is going to be stoned any day now. And we had this wonderful international campaign where we had actions in hundred cities across the world and she is now today a free woman.

And there are many instances of that sort. And of course the Council of Ex-Muslims. I remember when it was started, we couldn’t find 25 names and faces of people who were willing to say, “We have left Islam”, and a lot of them, if you look at the initial photos, are Iranian political opposition which is used to criticizing Islam and Iranian regime.

And today it’s become a mass movement really where there are ex-Muslim groups in many cities across the world thanks also to of course social media and also the work of people like Richard Dawkins and their support of this movement.

The fact that now wherever I go there are people saying, “I am ex-Muslim”, it’s because of the Council of Ex-Muslims that I was able to do that. And there is this great thing that we started, which one of my colleague started, Rayhana Sultan, she’s a Bangladeshi atheist, and she came up with this idea of #ExMuslimBecause, and it’s a hashtag where someone will say, “#ExMuslimBecause I am a woman”, “#ExMuslimBecause of bacon”.  Rayhana’s was, “#ExMuslimBecause there is no 72 virgins for me.”

There were more than 120,000 tweets from 65 different countries …

So it was both funny but heartwarming as well. I just met a few days ago the woman who said hers was the one where her face was hidden and she said “#ExMuslimBecause my father was an imam and he forcibly married me as a child”. So also very heartbreaking ones, and people who said it was the first time that they ever came out as an ex-Muslim. There were more than 120,000 tweets from 65 different countries so again that is something where you feel, you are having an impact, it makes a difference, and that just makes you want to do more.

The thing that I guess personally was the most difficult thing for me was of course nude protest, because I find the fact that you are coming from societies where women are told to cover up, where your body is seen to be the source of chaos and fitnah. There is this hatred of your own body in a sense, and this feeling of shame, and to be honest, I can’t say I have completely gotten over it, even though I am known now as somewhat a topless activist or nude activist.

The first thing I did was this calendar for Aliaa Magda Elmahdy. She is an Egyptian blogger, and she posted a photo of herself and she said, “Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity. Then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to deny me my freedom of expression.”

She did this in Egypt. She was also kidnapped by the Islamists. She now lives in Sweden as an asylum seeker, as a refugee. So I did a calendar which is still available on the website that I just want to show you. I did my photo and mine was saying, “my body is not obscene, veiling it is,” and it was the most difficult thing I ever did. It took a while for me to manage to get my photo because it was so difficult.

And after that I did other actions in public. One was taking the Allah out of the the Iranian regime’s flag and putting something much more worthy in his place — I wrapped it around my waist. And that was in front of the Louvre in paris with Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and also Amina Sboui, who is a Tunisian topless activist.

So I guess personally that was the most difficult for me. I always still say, put me in a room with 20 Islamists, I’ll be fine, but ask me to do nude protest and it’s so much more difficult because there are so many other things involved.

It’s not seen to be as heroic, there is this shame attached to it, and there are people who still won’t work with me because, “This is just going too far, you just go too far”. And I think history is made by people who go too far and who do things that are vilified, that are looked down upon, that are seen to be rocking the boat too much.

So I think, no I am not going too far, the Islamists go too far, and we are just trying to defend humanity against them, basically.

Well thank you, Maryam, for rocking the boat and for sharing your passion with us today. I would encourage folks also to check out Maryam’s YouTube channel, which you can follow regularly for information about the work Maryam is doing on many of these issues, and also to follow Maryam on social media and to follow her activism and to get involved if this show spoke to you. Look at the hashtags that were mentioned. Look at the links, there is lots more here to read about. Thank you again Maryam for being with us today.

Thank you for giving me the time to explain my thoughts and views, it’s brilliant, thanks. Good luck with the rest of your program as well.

Episode 4: Lonny Grafman

The main focus of this interview with Lonny Grafman is the appropriate technology movement and specifically Appropedia. The interview transcript has been edited for clarity, with some additions and explanations in square brackets. Since the connection quality was only so-so, we’ve opted to include selected video excerpts rather than the whole video. The interview content is under the CC-0 license.

Lonny Grafman is an instructor at Humboldt State University in Northern California. He is also the Chief Product Officer of Canary Instruments [now Nexi], a startup company, and he is the founder of Appropedia, an encyclopedia of appropriate technology. Welcome to Passionate voices, welcome Lonny!

Thank you, Erik. Great to be here.

Lonny, what’s your passion?

My passion is making great stuff with awesome people that makes the world a better place, now and in the future. It’s really working with diverse groups of people that have different opinions on how we should get to a better world, but are focused on doing that, and then just making stuff.

earthen_solar_cooker_2012

An example of appropriate tech: an earthen solar cooker made from salvaged materials. [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

In the context of your work at Humboldt State University, you founded a project called Practivistas. Can you talk a little bit about that, and what that’s about?

Yeah, in the Practivistas program, we bring students from the US and other countries to live and work with students in another country, in communities of little resources. Usually it’s mostly students from the US. We were in northern Mexico, then southern Mexico, now we’re in Dominican Republic. We started about 14 years ago. In Dominican Republic, we have US students living with mostly middle class families, one student in each family, and they’re studying at a very wealthy university called UNIBE. And then together with students from UNIBE, they’re working in communities of little financial resources to tackle real problems with existing resources in the area.

The phrase “appropriate technology” comes up a lot, and I think to a lot of people this might not be something they’ve heard before. Why do we need a new phrase — why don’t we just say “technology”?

There’s a lot of different definitions. It was coined 40 years ago by E.F. Schumacher. He called it “technology with a human face”. But in general, the consensus point is, they’re technologies that can be maintained, used, repaired, operated, retrofitted by the actual stakeholders. For me, it also means it’s a technology that’s not just designed for but it’s designed with the stakeholders.

800px-lmmallaontheoutside

Practivistas participating in the construction of a classroom made from local materials, including plastic bottles. [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

And that is core to the Practivistas program, right? You’re working with students from say, the US, but you’re working with people on the ground in, say, Santa Domingo, and you’re figuring out, hey, you guys want to build a new school, or a new rainwater catchment, or some other technology that helps your village, what’s the best way to do that?

Absolutely. We land with zero idea of what we’re doing. We don’t know what type of project we’re working on, and also many of us might not have the skills that apply to whichever project gets picked. Then we run series of community meetings where we assess the most pressing needs. And those are just loud, chaotic, really fun events where we list a lot of needs, and then we prioritize them right there together. And then we start looking at the resources. Both in that community, and with us as students.

So, there’s things that my students bring that a lot of the time is less available in the community, and we look for how those synergies can make even better projects. A typical example would be testing equipment. We don’t bring projects from the US and parachute them down in the community. We try to build things together. But we have access to a rich university that has machines that can test strength of materials, that can test for smoke pollution, they can test stuff. And that’s an example of one of the things that the students can bring. And then everybody brings stuff.  Maybe I can lead you through a couple of example projects.

Video excerpt: Lonny  Grafman discussing the Arroyo Norte project

Yeah, that would be cool. In your TEDX talk you mentioned a couple of interesting ones. You built a school out of plastic bottles, or you found a way to make more lightweight and cost-effective concrete by mixing it with rice hulls, which was the result of extensive trial and error. Is there anything you did more recently that would be interesting to talk about?

Yeah, a ton! Even on those projects, we keep iterating. It’s not a one-time thing. Those blocks, for instance. Now we’ve made three thousand of them and built a pharmacy out of them. But just to pick something completely different. We work in a community called Arroyo Norte. They’re a community that lives next to the dump.

They’re right on the side of the dump, so all the materials from Santo Domingo, one of the major cities in the Dominican Republic, go through this community. So the resource meeting was really exciting, because when we asked, “Okay, what kind of resources are available?”, they’re like: “Anything, anything you want we can get!” Because there’s so much stuff.

The major need there is employment. Some type of work. So we’ve been working with the community for a couple of years now to come up with a product from the waste material. Last year, we came up with this really gorgeous product, where we were taking plastic bottles out of the waste stream, HDPE-2 plastic, we were hand-shredding them, and then we were melting them using a tortilla press into these really gorgeous tiles. And they look fantastic.

But when we went and tested them, we realized we needed about 9 or 10 pounds [of pressure] per square inch, and over the course of the year we realized with the new research that we had done on the materials, that to scale it up was just not really going to work. The amount of pressure we needed just wasn’t really available.

So we came back to the drawing board, asked the same question, same resources, same materials, but now with this new knowledge. And what we came up with this last summer, a few months ago, is a process where we’re extruding strips. Kind of like an old Play-Doh machine. So, we’re melting the strips in the same way that you can make filament for a 3D printer, except we’re making them into flat strips that can be woven together with traditional weaving techniques.

And it’s been going fantastically because it doesn’t need any more pressure than is readily available, and the technology of weaving already exists. And so they’re experimenting with beach baskets. The only local farmer’s market has inquired about making food baskets that they can buy and that their customers can use for shopping or to take home.

prototypebag

A beach basket created from waste as part of the Arroyo Norte waste plastic innovation project [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

I’d like to take a moment for a sad part of that project. One of the main leaders of that project, Luis, just passed away. He was attending a biomimicry convention and was in a car accident. So that project has met with heartbreak. But some people, including some strangers, have stepped up to try to fill his incredibly big shoes.

And when you find these solutions, do you then put them on Appropedia, and document them for future users?

There’s different ways to spread impact. You can have a lot of impact on a very small population, like a population of one or two. But by putting it on Appropedia you can virally spread that impact.

As Practivistas, we built maybe 30 rainwater catchment systems. But I know about at least 50 rainwater catchment systems that were built using instructions from Appropedia, that were educated by these projects. And so we’re able to become each other’s research and development.

Even though we’re not a big corporation and don’t have a lot of money for R&D, if we’re each doing these projects and we’re not sharing just our success, but also what went wrong, then we really can keep moving forward at an accelerated rate.

Video created by the Practivistas Dominican Republic

When you say that you go in without any knowledge, into a particular country, do you contrast that with the approach that some nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits take when they go into a developing country and want to help?

There’s a whole spectrum, and I definitely have a strong take on what I think a better approach is. On one end of the continuum is coming in, donating a bunch of stuff that wasn’t asked for and leaving quickly afterwards — into a non-emergency situation. And that’s often not a sound approach. And there are examples where you displace local labor by bringing in a large donation of materials.

I think if that was your approach, if you thought that this community really needed, let’s pick something that isn’t so heated, let’s say t-shirts. I think that the right approach is to ask who is already making clothes in that community and to help them scale up their processes.

Another thing that I feel strongly about in this area is, if you’re solving a problem from afar and then delivering that solution, you’re not going to fix that problem. I mean, I’m speaking to myself, I’ve done that multiple times! I’ve made that mistake, where I’ve designed something, thinking I knew what needed to be designed, but because I didn’t have stakeholders designing it with me, it wasn’t really solving the problem. And it’s not building capacity.

So I think it’s incumbent upon us, especially in a non-emergency situation, to always be building capacity, while we’re addressing these problems. In an emergency, for example if there’s a natural event, a tragedy at a large scale, that’s a different story. But when it comes to building community, I think capacity always has to be always at least tantamount, if not paramount.

In one of your talks you said that the moment that people started to understand that you’re not in fact there to just give them a pre-made solution, that’s when they started to actually take you more seriously in a way, and started engaging with you more.

Like, there was almost that expectation that you just wanted to drop by and solve all their problems, and probably fail in doing so. That’s what it sounded like. That there was some pre-existing cynicism that you encountered?

Yeah, I actually get really excited when I meet that cynicism. It’s usually in areas that already have had a history [of development work]. So when I’m working in areas that there haven’t been many NGOs, then that cynicism hasn’t been built. But in a lot of areas, especially Dominican Republic, what I found is some very international development savvy communities that don’t just want to be someone’s backdrop.

And it’s not that they’re going to turn away free stuff. If it was stuff, they’d often rather just have cash.

And it’s not that a community is going to turn away free stuff. But if it doesn’t build their community stronger, then it’s not enough. And if it was stuff, they’d often rather just have cash. In Dominican Republic, I work in four communities there, in each of them, if you’re just going to drop off stuff, community leaders feel that the only thing that would make their community stronger is money.

I’m speaking for them, because I’ve had these conversations with them, so it might not be true for the next set of community leaders.

With the exception of Arroyo Norte who’ve also requested a few specific prescription drugs. That’s another thing they would love. They’re like, “Yeah, if someone wanted to drop that off, that’d be cool, too.”

But otherwise, they want to build businesses, they want to build jobs, they want to build skills, they want to build education. They want to build a future for their kids. And again, just to be clear, I’m just repeating their words, I don’t mean to speak for especially whatever next group of leaders come into these communities.

Video excerpt: Lonny Grafman talking about changes in technology, and how they have impacted his work

So when it comes to engaging around technology and making that sustainable, you’ve been at this game for a long time now. What’s changed in the last decade? What’s changed in the availability of technologies, the abundance of specific kinds of technologies? What costs have come down, what thresholds have been crossed? Where do you see the new potentials?

The most obvious example is solar. When I started pushing solar power, I was mostly called names. Like, “pipe dream”, “hippie”, “communist”, which I always thought was funny, I’m not sure what the connection was. Those were the responses 20 years ago to solar power. And in part because solar power was well over 8 dollars a watt.

Even if you don’t know what a watt is, doesn’t matter, just remember, 8 dollars a unit. So it was over 8 dollars a unit. At that price, the payback time was decades. Well, now, that 8 dollars is now less than a dollar a unit. So what was once over 8 dollars a unit when I first started teaching, now it’s under a dollar for that same unit.

Wow.

That’s really changed a lot. For instance, we used to do some wind projects. Up until about five years ago in one of the communities, we were doing small scale wind projects as well. And we’ve just stopped. It just doesn’t end up working out price-wise. If you go large scale, that’s a different story. At the small scale, with solar under a dollar a watt, it just becomes a no-brainer.

So there’s that. There’s all types of new rapid prototyping technology, low cost. Santa Domingo even has a makerspace called the Hub, where you can go and get access to 3D printers and laser cutters.

And then of course the connectivity. The Internet has been around a long time, but now, through smartphones, the penetration is just really high. It’s spread out in the market a lot. So, for instance, for Appropedia, a lot of times we used to focus on how to get onto thumb drives and CDs and on the WikiReader. But a lot of communities now have somebody who can access the Internet. And so, that’s been another exciting technology for me to watch.

The good news is that we really don’t have to be puritanical about anything, and diverse solutions will actually build more resilience.

I think, with the problems facing the world, there’s no panacea. Which is bad news and good news. The good news is that we really don’t have to be puritanical about anything, and diverse solutions will actually build more resilience. We can just keep listing new technologies that are looking really promising. For me, though, the technology is almost the easy part. The hard part is getting people to work together. Getting people with different needs and different opinions to figure out how to make stuff together.

I call myself an appropriate technologist, and that’s what people pay me to come in and teach, but I often wear that just like a Trojan Horse for being a community activist. Or, a “community practivist” is probably the right word!

We just did a solar project, where we put solar power on that pharmacy in the Dominican Republic that we’d built the year before. And when I say “we”, this is what I mean: we ran a series of solar workshops, the first of which was run by mostly me and the US and Dominican students. The second of which was run by community participants and us. And then the third of which, the community designed and built the solar pharmacy in one day, and I couldn’t even get to the front.

There was a point where one of the guys, Bernardo, who was their electrician, he was quizzing everybody on what the different parts were doing. And I was trying to get to the front to hear the answers. This was in the community called Las Malvinas. It was so run by the people in Las Malvinas that we couldn’t even hear.

The solar was the easier part. We could have just designed and put up the solar, and now there’d be one solar pharmacy. And now, because it was through community engagement, and through building capacity first, the students brought what they know about solar panels, and the community brought what they knew about wiring, and now those people are going on to build other projects.

Video excerpt: Lonny Grafman discusses what made the Appropedia community successful

That totally makes sense. And I’m interested in digging a little bit into how the wiki works as a tool for you. I’ve obviously been involved with wikis for a long time, and I’ve seen many people build wiki communities, and a lot of them have failed. A lot of them just never get off the ground. The vast majority just never get anywhere.

When I look at Appropedia what I see is a pretty thriving community, and a lot of really high quality content. And I’m just curious what you’ve learned in building the community that actually works. Because it’s a pretty specialized topic. But I also know that you have access to a pretty unique “renewable resource”, i.e. students learning things.

I’m curious how your curriculum factors into the growth of Appropedia, and also just generally what you’ve learned about building the community.

So, when Appropedia started, I didn’t realize that there were a few other ones out there, and after we started, a few more came on board… wikis like Appropedia. Well, in fact, before Appropedia, I had with some students and some other people hand-built a wiki, and it was terrible. I spent a thousand hours building it, and after one year, there was less than a thousand hours of people having viewed it.

So it would have been a better use of my time to go door-to-door and just talk to people. And it was funny, because I totally forgot one of the tenets of appropriate technology, which is: don’t rebuild the wheel. So then, after a year of that, we’re like, okay, what is out there that already does the technology and has the community, and it was MediaWiki.

We built it on top of the MediaWiki platform, so we were able to leverage a community of people doing the coding. And that really freed us up. And then early on, we decided, we don’t have any money, so we’re going to focus on building the community instead of building the technology. So if you go to Appropedia right now, what you’ll find is that it’s pretty ugly, right? It’s not going to win any design awards. But it works. And it has a hundred contributions every day. It’s been edited over 340,000 times. 65 million visitors. I’m pretty proud of those things.

And I think it’s because we just always focus on community. Here was one of my early examples of success. I told myself a couple things. That I would drop out if I hadn’t hit a few milestones. So the first milestone was, within a year I needed there to be edits that I hated, that I just thought were terrible. And if I didn’t have that, then I was just [preaching to the choir], which is cool, but this isn’t what we were setting up to do.

Well before the two year mark we reached this point, where I definitely wasn’t the leader.

And early on, within a few months after Appropedia launched, Chris Watkins, Curt Beckmann, Cat Laine came on board; they’re also advocates of community engagement. I told everyone that after two years, if I couldn’t step back and it would live on without me, I would step back. Well before the two year mark we reached this point, where I definitely wasn’t the leader, I was part of a group of people who had the pleasure of getting to lead Appropedia. And so that was another mark of success for me. Very early on, you could no longer call it “my project”. It was a bunch of people’s project.

Those are the positive things I’ve learned. One of the things that I wish I would have learned earlier is that I gotta figure out how it can earn money, so that it can live on its own. And I’m stepping down as president as soon as we find somebody [for the Executive Director position].  You know, I’ve put in a lot of time in it, and I have a couple of other focuses. I’ll always want to be involved, but we’re actually looking for some more new leadership, which I think also makes sense for it as a project, to get new life and new vision thrown into it.

Let me just cycle back on one of the other points you mentioned. We also brought in a service learning element, and that’s been really great at keeping an infusion of quality content. What we’ve done is, we’ve set up relationships with teachers where students at the undergraduate and graduate level are adding very specialized, very specific high-detail content that then the teacher becomes the trainer of. So, they’re making sure that that stuff is quality.

arcatamarshcreativecommons

The Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment project [CC-BY-SA, Appropedia]

It’s harder work for the teacher, but the value add is so big for them, because you’re no longer reading the same paper over and over again. Those students have to go do new things. Even at the freshman level. So an example of a freshman project would be, in Northern California in Humboldt there’s a marsh, called the Arcata Marsh. It’s the wastewater treatment center for Arcata.

15,000 people’s waste is treated in what looks like the most beautiful park that you could imagine on flat land. It’s really pretty.

15,000 people’s waste is treated in what looks like the most beautiful park that you could imagine on flat land. It’s really pretty. But it’s our wastewater treatment. If you had searched that 8 years ago, alternative methods for wastewater treatment using natural plants, you wouldn’t have found anything on that site.

But what this 100 level [first year] class did is, they had 80 students go out and research each aspect of the marsh, and then write about it with photos in detail. And then the teacher helped to collate and curate all that. So now, every week there’s visitors to Arcata Marsh that want to replicate it in their city or their country.

And then at the graduate level course, you’re making projects and you’re documenting those and sharing them with the public.

So, service learning is an older concept that predates wiki by a very, very long time, right? And this is a pretty novel application of this idea of service learning to the creation of free content. What were the original examples of service learning before this kind of thing?

An example from way before this would be in the social services sector, where you have students in the US working with populations in need, and those populations in need are getting services while the students are learning. And there’s somebody that’s making sure that it’s all being done in a way that’s respectful and value add to everyone.

It’s this thing that sits between and hopefully a little bit above internship, which is about student learning, and volunteerism, which is about the target community getting needs met. And it kind of combines those to hopefully get this synergistic effect, where needs get met better than they would have been, and students learn more than they would have.

My experience is that students learn more. Even just by motivation. When you’re doing something real, that has real impacts, it’s just a lot more motivation to do it right.

Yeah, it was back in 2003, 2004 when we found out about the first professors doing this kind of thing with Wikipedia. They assigned editing to a bunch of students as a course projects and improved articles through that process. And since then, an organization has been created called the Wiki Education Foundation that just does this kind of thing with Wikipedia, and gives these assignments in partnership with professors in universities across the US.

Hundreds of students have gone through this. Appropedia may be like WikiEducator and only a couple of others that I can think of that actually uses that same principle to create content that isn’t encyclopedia-type content but that’s very different. Nonetheless you create freely licensed content as one of the outputs of the learning process, which I think is super exciting.

Do the students then become part of the community, or do they just move on at some point?

The majority move on. A small few become really core. And then some middle amount become come-and-go. Right now I’m living in San Francisco for the first time, I’m on unofficial sabbatical from Humboldt, and it’s really fun to run into people who know past students of mine and who have heard about Appropedia just through that spread. So even though they’re not editing, they’re still like, “Oh, for this project, you should look at Appropedia”. So, even when they don’t become editing members in the future, they often become part of that community of outreach.

In the areas of success in appropriate tech, the people that are doing the best work are usually the people least likely to document and share that work, because they’re so deeply enmeshed in it. Having students who need to be able to learn how to translate information, and who need to be able to write for multiple audiences from a technical standpoint but also from a social standpoint, it’s just kind of a no-brainer, it just really fits together.

And have you been able to grow Appropedia beyond the English language version yet, or is it mostly an English language project at this point?

It’s predominantly in English, but there’s definitely content in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Kiswahili — we have a really fantastic Kiswahili editor. And we’re in the process of merging Ekopedia into Appropedia. But we’re having technical difficulties. So I’ll use this platform: If you have mad skills, in database and wiki, we could use help in bringing those together!

What other kinds of things can people do who really want to dive into the appropriate technology community and the movement? Obviously Practivistas is not going to be for everyone; are there other easy ways for people to get involved?

Yeah, in every community, there’s cool stuff happening. There’s appropriate technology in every single community. So, a first step that also uses Appropedia is to look on Appropedia and see if there’s anything documented in your area. And if there isn’t, go document it! Just start there, and by doing that, you get to see two or three appropriate tech organizations, and see if you even want to maybe work with them.

My suggestion would be if you’re listening and you wanna make an appropriate tech organization, because there’s all this great stuff that needs to be done, first see who’s doing stuff in your community and get involved with them first. Because they’re probably out there, and they need people.

I think that the impact of doing appropriate tech is much higher in your own community.

I think that the impact of doing appropriate tech is much higher in your own community. I do 10% of my work outside of the US, because I absolutely love language, culture, and dance from other countries. I’m doing it for me. But our own communities have just as much need. And then if the international appropriate tech stuff interests you, cool, you have first built your experience in your own community to do it.

Alternatively, get involved with an organization that’s doing work somewhere outside your community. A lot of them don’t  necessarily have pathways in, but for instance, Practical Action is a great group that does excellent Appropriate Technology work in many countries.

Yeah, that to me is one of the interesting aspects, that it’s always also a local thing. It’s easy to think of the types of projects that we talked about, oh, you built a school out of plastic bottles, and to just think of this as, this is how we can help people. That’s just not the right way to think about it, right? It’s about thinking about waste, thinking about how we make the best use of the things we have, and reuse, and keep using things in a sustainable manner rather than just throwing things away.

But yes, poverty exists everywhere. It doesn’t just exist in developing countries, it exists in every single country in every single city on this planet. So, it’s a universal set of patterns with local variations, rather than just something that is built for developing countries.

You’re working on another part of the problem around sustainable development through your startup, Canary. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re up to with that?

Yeah, I’d love to. Canary Instruments is in the middle of a rebranding. [It has since been rebranded to Nexi.] We’ve created an energy monitor that lives in people’s homes, that shows them how much energy they’re using instantly and daily. But it does it without numbers and without units and without all this stuff that makes it “work” [to pay attention to it].

Instead, it focuses on beauty, simplicity and intuition. One part of it changes instantly. You turn on devices in your home, and it goes from green to yellow for more energy, to orange for a little bit more, to fuchsia for just a whole bunch of energy… and that you’re just burning the world down!

And then another part of it changes throughout the day. So by the end of the day, if it’s still orange, you’re doing good, your bill is going to be about the same that it usually is. But if by 7PM it’s fuchsia, it’s going to be really high.

What it does, it ties you back to your resources. We used to load the wood into the fire, so we knew how much energy we’re using. We want to bring that awareness back. And the studies have shown that this saves about 10% of energy use. But that’s not just 10%. That 10% is the dirtiest 10%.

Because energy efficiency competes with the dirtiest energy. It takes the top 10% off generation, which are the dirtiest power plants that get turned on.  So your impacts on CO2, from a climate change perspective, and your impacts on local pollution from an asthma and local health perspective, is even higher than that 10%.

We recently got into the Highway1 accelerator program, which is helping us figure how to scale. We’re in 275 homes right now, and we want to be in millions of homes. And so we’re learning about all these processes, and that’s part of what’s spawned this rebranding, and we’re also changing the way it looks and doing lots of studies on how to get the most impact in people’s homes and on energy.

And this is more of a classically commercial endeavor, right. Everything we’ve talked about so far, the work on Practivistas, the work in Appropedia, it’s very transparent and open and public and following the open source paradigm in terms of sharing under open licenses. Which of that are you taking into some of the more commercial work that you’re doing?

Thanks, I love that question, and I’m sure I’m going to piss off some of my friends with the answers! It kind of ties back to what we talked about earlier. Since there is no panacea, I don’t think that we need to be puritanical, and we need to take different approaches. With Appropedia, what we tried to do is to work with almost no money, build a cool project and then share it with other people, so they can work with almost no money to make it better.

With Canary [now Nexi], what we’re trying to do is raise enough money where we can make the perfect product for our customer. And a lot of the same processes, where we bring together a group of people that we consider part of our stakeholder base and ask them, what are your needs. And then we show them, okay, what if it worked like this, what if it worked like this?

So we’re getting a lot of those same feedback loops. But the big difference is, now we have some intellectual property rights, some patent applications and some patents, which is kind of in stark contrast to the open source philosophy. We need those in part because we need to raise money, and you just can’t without those.

But the way we balance it, we continue to support the open source communities in the issues that matter. The idea of energy monitoring, we just want to help. We’re sharing as much as we can about what we learn about energy monitoring. What we learn about manufacturing, in general. We’re trying to blog about that and share that, so other people can learn about our recent trip to Shenzhen, and what we learned there.

And then also, our data. Our data is in fully open source format, and not only is it an open source format, but now we’re developing the open APIs, so we can tie into anyone’s ecosystem. People want to hack this thing, we want to help them hack it. But also, any other products that want to work together, we want to work with them.

So what we’ve done, we’ve taken this one specific piece that we want to patent that in no way takes away from the creativity of the world, focused on that so that we have this thing we can protect, so that we can bring in money and there’ll be a return on that money. And then everything else around it, we’re open sourcing.

Some of my friends strongly disagree with that approach and think that we should just open source everything. If we did that, I don’t think that the investors we’re talking to would talk with us. Maybe that’s a bigger systemic issue, but here’s the thing: what we do doesn’t distract from other people’s ability to make products. It only encourages them to make more.

And then we can save 10%, and we can get that into millions of homes, that aggregated impact on climate change and carbon will be more than every solar building I’ve ever taken off the grid.

I mean, every ten of these units we put in, it’s like taking one house off the grid. For me, that’s worth it. With this project, I’m trying to make a relatively small impact — 10% — but with really wide distribution. But I’m not going to stop Appropedia, Practivistas, those other directions. I think we just need to attack the problems facing the world. We got to attack them from as many directions as possible.

It makes sense, and I think that a lot of folks see patents as a sort of protection against others invading your market, and in some industries increasingly folks are coming to the realization, maybe making those patent pools available, or making them available under some terms, benefits their entire sector of the industry, like Elon Musk with Tesla’s patents.

So I think there’s a continuum of options when it comes to patents and how to manage them, just as there’s always been a continuum of options when it comes to licensing of content and software. But you’re still at the early stage now of product development, even just raising the funds and building the thing. It’s not even going to be an issue yet that anyone wants to use the technology, you’re still at the very beginning now, right?

Yeah, we have 275 installed in the US, we have 1 installed in the Dominican Republic, so we’re right at the infancy. As a company, we have five criteria that every decision is made upon. And they are, does it make us money, make us time, passion, and is great for people and the planet. So it has to do all those things.

It frames these conversations that I know eventually will come, like how do we share this. For instance, there are some really excellent Creative Commons licenses that could apply, the Developing Country License, things like that, or just other licensing agreements. There’s groups out there that have some interesting success with that, and we’re looking forward to learning from them.

Yeah, I think Creative Commons retired that Developing Country License eventually, because they thought it was too difficult to actually define the boundaries in a consistent way and make sure it doesn’t get misused in some fashion. But there’s other ways to just say, under certain conditions we will do X, or we will release our patents royalty-free to projects that don’t pursue commercial gain, things like that.

Have you read about the new public benefit corporation model that’s coming into view a little bit?

The old model of corporations is something that we couldn’t fit into.

That’s what our company will switch to. In this rebranding I think we’ll have to wait another six months for the Beneficial Corp license. But we love it. The old model of corporations is something that we couldn’t fit into. Because we have these five criteria. We wouldn’t be allowed to have those five criteria. We’d only be allowed to have one criterion.

In a typical corporation, if you don’t raise money for your shareholders, they can sue. So what we’ve done is, we’ve added four more criteria to that list. As a beneficial corporation what we’re going to be able to do is make a decision based on all five of these. And because it’s part of our charter, we can’t be sued by our shareholders.

It’s interesting, right, when you try to scale by using the market, you’re subject to the forces of the market to an extent, but it also doesn’t stop you from being thoughtful about how you balance these competing interests if you want to. And it’s clear that you are being thoughtful about it.

I mean, you still need to make money. That’s one of the reasons that we’re doing this, to sustain it, to be able to multiply those impacts you have to have that. But we don’t want that to be at the cost of people.

That makes sense. Thank you so much, Lonny, for sharing your passions with us today, and I encourage everyone who’s been listening in to check out Appropedia.org. For me personally, when I go to Appropedia, I always get a little kick of inspiration because all these uses of technology people come up are just bizarre, crazy, imaginative, wonderful, and sometimes beautiful. It’s just lovely to browse around and check out.

The appropriate technology movement, as Lonny has said, is a local movement you can be involved in, in your city, in your community, and it also is an opportunity to get to know other culture. Hopefully this has been a small window into a very interesting and unique global community. Thank you so much, Lonny!

Thank you — really appreciate it!

Episode 3: Katrina Owen

Katrina Owen is the founder of exercism.io, where you can practice programming in Clojure, CoffeeScript, C++, C#, Elixir, Erlang, F#, Go, Haskell, Java, JavaScript, Common Lisp, Lua, Objective-C, OCaml, Perl 5, PHP, PL/SQL, Python, Ruby, Rust, Scala, Scheme, and Swift. That’s a lot of programing languages — and a lot of  exercises, too. But exercism.io also facilitates conversations between learners about the code they submit.

To give you an idea for how it works, I’ve made a small separate screencast. I highly recommend exercism.io for anyone who wants to engage in deliberate programming practice, whether they’re a novice or an expert; it’s easy to skip through exercises, or to pick a new programming language you’d like to learn. Thousands of people are already using exercism.io, and a growing community is helping improve its open source codebase.

Katrina’s passion is to hack skills development itself — and exercism.io is just one example of that. She’s taught programming in many different contexts, and her talks at tech conferences have become legendary for making complex concepts and ideas understandable and fun. Really, if you’ve programmed even a little bit, go ahead and watch “Therapeutic Refactoring“, you will enjoy it and learn from it, I promise.🙂

In our interview, Katrina shows a prototype for a new project she’s been working on: Skillflake (not yet public), which will help learners develop thinly sliced programming skills by looking at many small examples. She also talks about her upcoming book (with Sandi Metz), “99 Bottles of OOP” (note: you may have to disable HTTPSEverywhere for that page to load).

Katrina just rebooted her Patreon page for exercism.io — if you want to support her innovative work on skills development, please consider becoming a supporter. Another way to help is to contribute to exercism.io’s codebase, whether it’s documentation, exercises, UI improvements, core platform changes, or issue reports.

Transcript

Note: This transcript is edited for readability. A more literal transcription can be found in the subtitles.

Katrina, you’ve done a ton of interesting work and a lot of it is themed around passion and expertise. And you talk a lot about this in your talk about “Hacking Passion”, and one of the provocative statements you make in that talk is that “talent is bullshit.” Can you talk a little bit about why talent is bullshit?

I think it’s probably an exaggeration that talent is bullshit. I only kind of believe it. I think that great things, great accomplishments come from a lot of hard work. I think that there are some domains in life where there is some element of underlying talent that probably affects how well you do. And I’m pretty sure that in a lot of sports there are elements of what type of, I don’t know, muscle twitch fiber you have will affect how well you do in terms of sports. But I think that for the most part in most endeavors hard work and the right type of hard work is what creates great skill.

Is that true based also on your personal experience when you were learning, trying out different things? You’ve tried a lot of things personally, right? You’ve tried acrobatics and acting and lots of different endeavors. Some artistic, some scientific. You’ve studied molecular biology. When you apply that sort of principle of hard work, do you find this to be true for yourself as well, that the passion came with the work?

Oh, very much so, and the skill as well. I know a lot of people will say, “Oh you were so smart when you were a kid.” It wasn’t really true. Like, I didn’t work hard enough, I didn’t try hard enough to really get far at anything. I might have had some facility at, I don’t know, remembering details that was impressive to people, but it wasn’t really anything to do with being smart or being talented.

Because I thought that talent was real, up until I was about 25, I really thought that talent was the thing that would make you a great person or give you a great life. And so I was kind of desperately searching for my talent and didn’t find it. I was never really deeply skilled at anything until I started working hard.

So it’s really that discovery that came with practice, that really, “Hey, there is no magical thing here inside of me that I just have to uncover, that I have to sort of peel away.” It comes with practice. It comes with trying. But why then is it that this happened for you with programming and not with some of the other things you tried? Because you say in Hacking Passion too that you’ve worked hard at all of the things you did. What is it about programming that stuck with you?

With programming it came after I had learned how to learn math and science. And so that systematic approach to problem solving and studying, it worked really well for me. I don’t have the ability to synthetically pick up the big picture and then by osmosis discover the details. I worked very systematically to discover details and build up a bigger picture based on those details.

And the work that I did in my late 20s to learn towards my degree, taught me the skills that I needed in order to learn systematically, and I never applied those, even though I worked really hard, for example, at acrobatics, I didn’t know how to practice, I didn’t know how to approach it in a systematic way and so I was practicing really badly. I was practicing a lot, I was practicing hard and I was internalizing a ton of really bad habits. And so, even though I practiced a lot and practiced hard, I practiced the wrong things and I practiced them over and over again, so I got better and better at being pretty terrible.

One of the books that you suggested that I check out, the book Mastery by Robert Greene, is all about teaching the reader the ingredients of mastery including deliberate practice and other core skills. And at the same time you also recommended the work by Cal Newport, who wrote a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And he talks a lot about how this notion of following your own passion is kind of BS, that really to your point it’s more about getting really really good at something and then discovering your passion within that.

But Robert Greene and his book really disagrees with that; he spends like an entire chapter talking about the inner force that compels us to go after something and that we should get in touch with our childhood and understand what was it when we were little kids that really excited us and how can we go after that again. How can we rediscover that and ignore all the people around us who tell us, “Don’t do this thing that you were excited about in your childhood”, and just go after that. You don’t believe that part of what Greene is saying, right, you are more on the Newport side of that debate.

I’m very much on the Newport side of that debate. And I kind of hate to admit it because I love Robert Greene’s writing and I find that he has so many incredibly deep insights about so many topics. And in particular in Mastery, he talks about deliberate practice, about mentorship, about the whole process of gradual systematic skill development in a way that I find very accessible and inspiring. And so I just kind of skipped over the part where he says, you know, follow your inner child’s dream.

So what is your passion that you’ve developed through this process of discovery and deep learning?

I’m really passionate about the process of skill development itself. People ask me, “So are you really passionate about teaching?” I couldn’t care less about teaching, I care about learning and I think that that’s a very different thing. And it’s not really learning in itself, it’s all of the processes around skill development. How does it work, what are the models, how do different people do it? What will let other people gain the skills that I wanted to gain and didn’t do correctly, what would let other people do it correctly, more quickly, earlier, without losing a decade of, you know, futzing around.

Have you thought about maybe doing this as the main thing you do professionally?

I thought about it. I think gradually that might happen. One of the things that Cal Newport talks about in his book is the idea of the adjacent possible. And I feel like all of the work that I’ve done since I started playing with programming, learning programming, working as a programmer, there have been elements of skill development and interest in ways of practicing little apps and things that will help people practice. And I think that out of this exploration, without quitting my day job and saying, whatever, I’m going to do this full time, I think that there’s a way of gradually developing all of my various interests into something that might be able to let me do it full time.

So exercism is already kind of a big deal, right? Wired wrote a big story about it, it’s got thousands of users, and lots and lots of people submitting their results to the different exercises. I was really kind of blown away when I saw how many programming languages are actually supported by it.

I think it’s 23 active languages right now.

How did it come about in the first place, how long did you have to work on it to get to that point?

Yeah, it was very accidental. Again, it grew out of some of the various threads of interest that I’d had for a while. One of them was nitpicking people’s code by email, a very small set of exercises that I would nitpick more or less on a daily basis. I did that for about six or seven years. And the other process was little warm up exercises for some students that I was helping mentor, one of the six, seven month development training programs. And the process that I went through with those students, exercism was in part a workflow optimization. I didn’t want to have to get up every single day at the same time to get them their exercises in the morning.

It was also a way of ensuring that they actually finished one exercise before moving on. Because a lot of people wouldn’t finish the exercise during the allotted half hour or whatever, and they wouldn’t go back and try it later and I thought that it was quite important for them to actually finish exercises. And then the discussion part grew out of the realization that they were doing all of these exercises, but we were never talking about what they had learned or where they got stuck with the choices that they made and those conversations were actually a crucial part of learning.

And so all of this kind of happened by accident over the course of a couple of weeks where I made the first iteration of the prototype and then just kind of released it into the wild. It didn’t occur to me that there would be more than, I don’t know, 12 or 13 people who would care deeply enough to actually use it if it wasn’t just part of their daily exercise regimen.

Within three weeks it hit Hacker News and I had a thousand people submitting code.

And within days people were using it from all over the world. I remember, the second day I looked at like some of the new users and they were from Brazil and Australia and Germany, [laughs] and it was like, what just happened? And I had not planned for it. I didn’t know how to manage it, within three weeks it hit Hacker News and I had, you know, a thousand people submitting code.  I really didn’t know how to handle it.

And did you contribute multiple programming languages from the get go or how did that start to happen?

It started out just in Ruby which was what I was helping teach and then we added JavaScript because it was kind of a stretch goal for some of the students to do some JavaScript. But then as soon as it was in the wild, people were submitting Python, and CofeeScript happened, Haskell happened pretty quickly, Elixir. It was a lot of fun. People got really excited about it and they started making up their own exercises and porting existing exercises from other languages.

So one of the things that we chatted about a little bit is this notion of progression through the exercises. Right now it’s not clear to me quite as a learner of what the underlying theory is, like, why am I doing this now. What is the next thing and on what basis is it the thing that’s being suggested. Can you talk a little bit about what the current structure of the exercises is and how you could see that evolving down the road?

Yeah, at the moment again it’s very accidental. This has existed for two years now and people have contributed all of the exercises. Aside from the very first few that I contributed, all are community-contributed. People have added test suites and added new exercises and added new languages. The progression is very accidental.

We’ve tried to have it be kind of a gradual progression: at first you try out the language and you figure out primitive types or core types depending on the language and basic language features and then it builds into little bit more elaborate language features but still in terms of little programming challenges. And then towards the end, we’ll try to introduce more of the advanced language features, like for Go for example, there’s channels and concurrency and that sort of thing towards the end.

It seems to me based on everything you said about exercism, that it’s not just about learning to program. There is lots of places now where you’re being offered, learn to program in JavaScript by modifying these tiny little robots moving across the screen or whatever. But through these repeated exercises where you share your results with others and you look at what other people are doing, the idea really is to develop a true sense of mastery within each of the sections that you’re working in, right?

Yeah, I think the secret sauce of exercism is the conversations that happen. Practicing, you can do that anywhere and there are tons of sites that give great exercises and puzzles and all sorts of interesting challenges in all sorts of languages. And I highly recommend going and looking for the types of challenges that get you interested because that’s where you are going to spend more, I guess, more cognitive resources actually thinking about it and going deep, which I think is a valuable thing.

With exercism I think that the value in it is having the conversation. In looking at someone else’s code and thinking how would I do this differently? Why did they do it in this way? It becomes sort of a case study of trying to think out the reasoning for certain choices, was it deliberate? Was it accidental? Did they just not know about this other library or this other way of solving it.

People’s experiences are so different. Some people have experiences that are very much in banks, and security, and crypto and that sort of thing. Or hardware where there are very few resources and every single assignment counts. Other people are used to limitless resources and it doesn’t really matter because you’re never going to have more than 20 people using it, it’s some sort of internal reporting app and it doesn’t matter if it takes an extra minute or two.

And so the tradeoffs that people make when they’re programming often come out of all of these experiences that we’ve had, and so learning to see your own biases through someone else’s eyes can be very, very powerful.

I’ve gone through probably a dozen of the JavaScript exercises on exercism just for fun, and I got probably a total of two or three comments through them. And the times when I’ve got comments were mostly when I left other people comments. Once I knew that, I was like, oh, okay, so here’s how it works, I have to poke other people and then they will poke me back. That’s great.

Yeah, that’s interesting, I didn’t know that. It’s different in all of the languages I think.

But I found it the most interesting when I found the rare examples where people were having a real conversation about something. But part of the reason why I wasn’t going all over the place and commenting is that a lot of people just made the same mistakes over and over and over and over again, like just completing an exercise to make the test pass. It’s the most common mistake. “It does everything the tests say it should do. It’s perfect, right?”

No generalization whatsoever, the big case statement that does every literal example from the test suite, yeah.

So, how do you get to that point where you get people to the conversations, or to have more of them?

I wish I knew. The only way I’ve known to do it is to leave comments on everyone, and then when they start having a conversation back, keep my eye on that person and kind of follow them along. And right now there’s no way in the website to follow some person. We have an open issue about wanting to have an activity stream and sort of granular notifications and all of this. But at the moment that’s a problem that I don’t know how to solve, and it’s probably the most important problem on exercism right now.

Actually both of the biggest problems on exercism right now revolve around this conversation. How do you help people have the conversation that is interesting? How do we bring that conversation to a level that’s not just, “Oh, did you know that strings has a ‘whatever’ method?”, but really going deep.

And the other thing right now is that a lot of people don’t get feedback. There are bottlenecks in some of the languages where there are a ton of learners who are going in and doing an exercise or two or three or ten or twelve and then not getting any feedback because there are just too few people who are then turning around and sharing their observations with someone else. And I don’t know what the solution to that is. I’m working with a designer at Pivotal Labs in New York right now who is offering her time to open source which is a rare thing in design, I think.

That’s great.

And so we’ll see if we can find a way, a way of designing the experience in a way that fosters this conversation, and fosters the community that is necessary in order to have these conversations in a good, healthy, safe space.

Have you thought about picking canonical examples of, okay, this is the most performant solution to this problem, the shortest version, or the most well documented, or a clever use of the ‘map’ function or whatever, just the illustrative, curated examples? I saw a few discussions of curation, is that something you think would be worthwhile or does that sort of miss the point?

No, I think that would be worthwhile in many ways actually, I think it would be worthwhile to have a gallery, once you’ve solved something to go explore other solutions even if you’re not having a conversation, I think that can be truly an interesting thing. Right now it’s all a question of resources.

Again this is all open source, it’s all individuals who are spending their mornings or evenings or weekends helping out. I think it would take an individual or a small group of individuals who want to see it happen and who help figure out what is the technical solution to make it happen, how do we have to organize the work to actually discover these things and curate them, and how would you discover them, and, once they’re there, how would you in the site know that they exist and know to browse them.

What do people need to know to help improve the platform?

There’s actually a ton of work right now that needs to be done in order to surface all of the work that people could be contributing. I was talking to a developer here at Pivotal Labs this morning and we started talking about this idea of community. Every single language track really should have a core community, and there should be one or two or three community managers in some way, someone who is there consistently and who cares deeply about the language and about exercism, in particular about that track.

We could get sponsorship from companies to send these community managers to language specific conferences to help get other people involved in the community part of it. I think that there’s a ton of work that could be done around the community portion. There’s another huge amount of work that can be done technically of improving the platform itself.

Most of it is Ruby, right?

A lot of it is Ruby, right now, we’re talking about rewriting the backend API in Clojure. There’s a Clojure dev who’s really been contributing a lot of work to Scheme and Lisp and he does Clojure sort of regularly. There is some Go, the command line is written in Go, so that we can do the cross-platform compilation. But, yeah, there’s a lot of Ruby right now. There could be a lot more JavaScript, I think, but I don’t really do JavaScript, and so it’s kind of been left by the roadside.

One person came in and did a lot of work to start improving the JavaScript on the site, but it requires a real API and I’ve been completely swamped over the past month or two and I’ve not had time to do any work on the API.

There’s a very, very tiny donate link at the bottom of the site saying, you know, do you want to help.

[laughs] Yeah, I’ve put quite a lot of my own money into making exercism happen so far, and I’ve been unsure about it would actually work with donations. There is a Patreon link and there is a PayPal link, and I don’t even think I’ve set up Patreon correctly, but I don’t think I’ve actually

No, I think it asks for how many ounces of blood of Katrina Owen do you want to support or something like that.

I have no idea how any of this works and actually if you want to help contribute to open source, if you can keep help me set up my Patreon, so that it actually works that would be a wonderful contribution.

(The Patreon campaign has since been fixed.)

But yeah, from having been in the free culture community for a long time I’m increasingly finding people who really support themselves entirely through that model, is that something that you see as a potential future for yourself in this work?

If exercism is to survive and thrive, it has to be driven by the community

I don’t know if it could work, I mean I suppose it could, I know that there are people who do it. With exercism, it’s so much bigger than just me. If exercism is to survive and thrive, it has to be driven by the community, it can’t just be me sort of trying to, I don’t know, herd cats or beg people for contributions, both technical and monetary. Because I don’t know 23 languages, I barely know three and that’s a lot in my life. There are people who have done like 10, 12, 13 languages on exercism, that’s kind of amazing.

Do you see exercism as the sort of be all or end all for your development in hacking skills and hacking skills development?

No, not at all, it’s just a tiny corner of – it’s just one way. First of all there are so many different learning styles, and I think that exercism matches some people’s learning style and not others. I think it might match several learning styles. There are people who would probably learn very much through mentorship, and through the conversation and they might not even do any exercises if they could get away with it, because this is boring, whatever. And other people who really like to do the same exercise and in many different ways. I have seen some amazing, hilarious solutions to things in ways that it never occurred to me to try, because there are people who are really willing to push the language that they’re using to the absolute edge.

So I think that exercism could match several learning styles, but it really is only two things, it’s the toy program, the little example of exercise that is trivial and you can learn a lot, you can go deep and you can discover a lot of things that are going to help you in whatever job you’re doing. But it’s not a real code, it’s not a real example and the things you need in order to scale servers and encryption and all of those things, it’s not something that you’re going to learn on exercism.

You’re going to learn maybe how to do code review a bit better, how to read somebody’s else’s code and understand their thought processes. You might learn some empathy, you might learn how to have a polite and respectful conversation about code, you might learn some tricks of a language, and how people tend to solve problems in one language or another.

But there are so many other things that you need to learn, and so many other amazing resources out there to help you learn them, whether it’s the sort of large scale very academic types of programs or it’s the little games, the browser games that will teach you just one little thing, but teach it to you really well, I think that there is a wealth of opportunities there.

You said to me that you had watched this talk by Kathy Sierra a while ago where she talks about both of this notion that our cognitive attention is incredibly limited and that what we use this for and how we use it is incredibly important, and she then goes into specifically the notion of perceptual learning, the idea of just looking at many examples of the same thing, to very quickly internalize, how does this thing work. And to develop this mastery that we’re going for much faster than it could be achieved by other means. 

Yeah, she talks about two things, she talks about the perceptual learning which is the brain’s ability to look at a lot of details and start discovering over many, many, many variations the things that don’t vary. What are the invariants? What are the things that stay the same? What is the pattern that we can rely on to make a determination? And so in perceptual learning there’s an idea of being able to distinguish the details, the brain actually optimizes for filtering out irrelevant information, so you have experts who don’t even see the irrelevant information anymore because the brain is filtering it out at a pretty conscious level, and there is this idea of being able to distinguish the right details, and then there’s this idea of fluency of being able to do it so quickly in that automatic level, so you’re not burning cognitive resources in order to do it.

She talks a lot about that and it’s really fascinating, and she mentions some real world examples of it, and she also references some research that was done at UCLA by a Professor named Kellman and his team there, really interesting stuff. She also talks about the idea of taking a skill that is so small, that is so tiny that you can go from being a novice not knowing how to do it, right through being able to do it, but with very much conscious effort, over into being able to do it automatically without burning those cognitive resources, in a very short amount of time.

If you do these tiny slivers of skill, then you’re not going to be practicing it really hard the wrong way.

And she gave, you know, a rule of thumb of, if you can go through that whole process from novice to expertise in one to three sessions of 45 to 90 minutes each, then the skill is small enoug. I really find that interesting. I think that being able to slice off a tiny sliver of a skill, just a splinter of a skill and gaining that expertise means that you’re not going to be futzing around in that area where you’re just practicing it badly, like I did the first 25 years of my life. I practiced everything really hard and really badly and I made that permanent. I was permanently awful at a lot of things because I worked so hard at practicing it in the wrong way.

If you do these tiny slivers of skill, then you’re not going to be practicing it really hard the wrong way, you’re going to go right over and to doing it right. And I think that that opens up a whole vista of possibilities in terms of programming.

One of the things that Kathy talks about in her talk and in her book is that we’re burning cognitive resources, we’re leaking cognitive resources for everything that we do and we have too many things that we need to learn every single day, because they are piling up in this middle area of where we are burning cognitive resources to do them, but we’re not really moving them over into automatic. Unless sometimes we move them over into  automatic, but we’re doing them badly. So we’re doing them badly and we’ve made it automatic at the half assed multiple of skill.

And so, the idea of taking a very, very tiny sliver of skill and developing expertise in that quickly is very interesting, and then the idea of using perceptual learning in this deliberately, using perceptual learning to perhaps perform that transfer, that skill development, I think both of those ideas are very powerful.

I mentioned to you, I had been playing around a little bit with NodeSchool.io, and they have these interactive exercises and they do the slicing pretty well. So you take something like JavaScript prototypes which a lot of people struggle with and continue to get wrong after they’ve sort of learned it incorrectly the first time, and they have a tiny what they call “workshopper” just to learn prototype chains and really get that sort of internalized right.

But what they don’t do is the perceptual learning piece which as I understand from Kathy Sierra, the idea really is to get into that mode where your brain kind of starts to go on autopilot and starts to do the pattern recognition for you and you don’t even have to understand yourself, how it achieves that, it just happens.

And that seems to be sort of a magical thing to want to shoot for, I totally get that. And you’ve started to play around with that a little bit, right?

I’ve started to work on a prototype that might use a fair amount of perceptual learning. In the most basic form, I think it is just this idea of a sliver of skill. It’s a very, very small skill. I’m starting with Ruby syntax partly because Ruby is something that I know quite well. I also know quite a few newbies who are learning Ruby and so it’s easy to find someone to try it out on which is kind of a useful thing.

One of the points that Kathy makes in her talk and in her book is that you want to be exposed to hundreds of examples of good code. And in the examples, in the little exercises that I’ve made, I have hundreds of examples of both good and bad syntax.

So in some ways, this might not actually meet the criteria that Kathy sets in that I am showing you examples of bad code as well. But the feedback is very, very quick. And so I think that it might actually work in terms of letting the brain detect is this syntactically correct or will it cause a syntax error.

We look at the Skillflake prototype together (relevant video segment).

You’ve already done a lot of these, right, there’s already quite a few of them there. What’s next for that project?

So, the first thing I want to do is figure out if this actually works. The initial experiments that I’ve done with some newbies suggest that it works, and works really, really well. I have gotten some very enthusiastic feedback from some newbies who have gone through it very quickly and by the end of it, they know if it’s syntactically correct or not and that’s very, very interesting. (…) Ruby is a very, very rich language syntactically, and so there is a ton of work that could be done just in recognizing Ruby syntax.

There’s also Ruby idioms and using the standard library; it has a huge standard library. And so being able to recognize if this is a correct usage of the standard library could be a useful thing. I think that there might be a more perceptual piece of saying, I’m going to show you 200 valid strings. These are all valid, just look through them before you even get to saying valid, invalid. It might need to be more gradual. Right now I’m mixing four or five different types of string syntax into the same very first module. It mighbe interesting to just do double-quoted strings, just do single-quoted strings, just do heredocs, so that the brain is pattern matching more quickly on a smaller set of rules.

There might even be a way of introducing categories of errors that are typical, so that people are more quick to pattern match on, “oh, this is an escaping error” or “this is a method call error” or something like that, I don’t know. So there’s a lot of experimentation I think that needs to be done. If it works, there are a lot of languages that this could expand to I think.

And a lot of types of tasks. Pattern recognition, I think we use it more than we know. I was reading some of the research about how they’re using perceptual learning in mathematics, in particular, in algebra, and you’d think that it’s not really a pattern matching type of problem, but it really is. Being able to recognize if you have a valid transformation lets you solve algebraic equations. And so I think we do a lot more pattern matching than we realize in programming.

And how do you want to get that sort of massive, large scale feedback on whether it works or doesn’t?

I’m starting out small. I want to figure out the really rough edges first with just a handful of people and then I think the next step after I have some of the basic feedback in, I’ll probably add some sort of tracking, not necessarily of who does what but within a session to know how many did you get correct and how long did it take in the first ten or the second ten or the third ten to see if there’s a useful progression. And it’s not real science at this point, like if I were going to do real science, I’d have to have control groups and I’d have to have all sorts of things.

Do you want to integrate it with exercism in any way?

No, it will be completely standalone.

That makes sense. You talked earlier also about some of the other ways of hacking skills development, in particular, the one thing that of course comes up a lot is various forms of tutoring and mentorship. Can you talk a little bit about your own experiences, what’s worked for you in mentorship and what you think people who design these systems need to pay attention to?

I did almost all of my learning in the first few years alone. I didn’t even realize that there was a community, that there was such a thing as a community. I learned from books and I learned from doing programming. After a few years, I had a job where I was very, very frustrated. I was frustrated with quality. I was frustrated with the thrashing that we did, with the pain of the slow progress of doing something that should have taken hours, but it took weeks. And I started reading everything I could come across about agile development, mostly about XP and refactoring in test-driven development.

And then being the most junior person on my team, I was like, I’m not going to be able to change this company but maybe someone could come in and change it for me. [laughs] So, I called all of the, ObjectMentor, anyone who had written a book and who was running a business about how to teach teams, how to do programming better, I called them up or sent them an email and asked what it would take to bring them into the company. Of course, it would take, you know, $20,000 and whatever, which I didn’t have. So, it didn’t happen but one person called me back. He was at an airport and he gave me a call and he said, I can empathize, you know, maybe we can’t actually fix the pain that you have in your teams, but let’s talk.

And so we talked for 45 minutes and then he sent me a link to an unconference, an open space conference that was just a day, it was very inexpensive and a bunch of interesting people showed up. And so I had my first taste of community, of people who cared about these things, who cared deeply about these things, and learning from actual interactions with people is an incredibly powerful thing.

After that, I decided to change languages because I wanted to be working in a language that had more of a community around it, which is how I ended up in Ruby kind of arbitrarily. It could’ve been Python, it could have been any language that has more community than what I was working in. And then I started being a part of that community. That changed things. I still didn’t at that point have any experience with mentorship, but I had interactions with humans and I think that was a very, very important thing.

A couple, maybe three years ago, I came across a video that blew my mind. It was a technical video. It was about object oriented programming. I watched it and I felt almost dizzy, because the ideas were so big. The person who was doing the talk had mentioned that they were also working on a book and so I got a hold of a beta of the book and I went through and I basically put a stream of consciousness throughout the margins of the entire book and I sent it to them.

I didn’t know them at the time, but I sent it to them, I was sort of like, “Here’s my perspective as someone who’s fairly raw at programming, I’ve only been doing it a few years. This might be helpful.” And that turned out to be incredibly helpful to them, and we spent two-and-a-half hours on a Hangout talking about the feedback, like digging into various aspects of that feedback, and so it was a very useful thing.

And then later, right around that time, I got accepted to do my first conference talk. And so this person was like, “Well, I’ve done several conference talks, you know, I can help you out.” And “I can help you out” turned out to be, I would go off and do a bunch of work. And every once in a while, I’d check in and this person would say “Hmm”, they’d ask a pointed question and I’d go off and do a ton of work again, I’d come back and they’d ask another question, I’d go, “Yeah, that’s very interesting, that’s very difficult, I have no idea”, go off, do a bunch of research, come back.

They didn’t sit down and feed me how to do conference talks, but they checked in just enough, they had their experience to lean on. And I think this is the first time that I felt really deeply that I had a mentorship relationship with someone. I was doing the work, but their experience was really a powerful thing and my talk was miles and miles better than it ever would have been without that feedback and guidance.

And I have to say for any viewers who haven’t watched any of Katrina’s talks, you absolutely should. The work that you put into them is really very, very visible. It’s very clear that, holy crap, there is somebody here who cares to give a great experience to the audience, so huge kudos to you for the quality of those presentations, they are truly excellent work.

Thank you.

And so when it comes to mentorship, one of the examples that you mentioned was the story of Michael Faraday which is something that Robert Greene writes about in Mastery. And what’s interesting to me when I heard you talking, I also saw the connection to some of the things that Faraday did, he also made a big point of processing what he was listening to from his mentor and turning it into a book of his own.

And Robert Greene talks a lot about how this is something that we should all do when we read materials, that when we listen we should engage with the material very actively that this is one of the best ways to sort of kick the brain into gear in a serious way, and to not just be in this passive consumer mode.

But one of the other points that he makes is that, Faraday really put a lot of effort into that relationship. He sought out his mentor, he built the relationship, he spent years in this apprenticeship relationship and then he actually ended the relationship when it was no longer serving his needs well.

Is that an important lesson for you there as well?

I think the most important lesson to me with Michael Faraday’s story is that he did all the work. Humphry Davy, his mentor, he might not even have known that he was his mentor. He was a celebrity chemist, he was doing his work touring Europe and doing experiments and Michael Faraday joined the lab as the lowly assistant, who had to prep chemicals and do the dishes and take the guy’s tailoring to, you know … He did all the crap work, and he did it so that he could be in the same room as this guy, observe how he thinks, observe how he works and get any sort of guidance, because after a very short amount of time, Humphry Davy relied on Michael Faraday, because he was so good at what he did, he was so conscientious, he was so smart and he knew what he was doing and he learned very, very quickly and systematically.

A mentorship relationship is not a cold call.

I think that this story to me illustrates how incredibly important it is to take charge of your own learning, that if you want to be in a mentorship relationship, first of all, it’s not a cold call. By the time, Michael Faraday became Humphry Davy’s assistant, he had been introduced several times, he had seen some of Davy’s lectures, he had taken notes during lectures, made them into a beautiful book, bound it and given it to him.

Humphry Davy knew who this person was. He had some idea of the quality of his work, it wasn’t just some rando came in and said, “Hey, can you be my mentor?” Which is I think what a lot of people might think mentoring is. I hear a lot, “How do I find a mentor?” And what it sounds like when I dig a little bit deeper is, it sounds like they are looking for someone who can shelter and protect them and give them everything they need and spoon feed them every detail so that they can learn.

And I totally get it. I understand. It’s so exhausting, it’s so terrifyingly difficult to learn and there are so many resources and it’s overwhelming, and I’ve had that feeling, that drowning feeling like I am never going to learn it all and I’m always going to be behind, I am going to be 25 years behind all the other people who started programming before they could walk, and it’s never going to be okay. It’s never going to be over. I don’t know where to begin. I don’t know how to take the first step.

And the thing is, I don’t think that it’s anybody else’s job to take that first step for you. However, I think that a mentorship relationship has to go both ways. I think that if you think about it in terms of what the other person needs: Humphry Davy needed an assistant. He needed someone who was meticulous and who understood the chemistry and could do all the prep work and that’s what he needed and he got that. And then Michael Faraday was able to in that relationship absorb all of the things that he wanted to, in terms of learning, in terms of science.

He travelled Europe with Humphry Davy on some of his tours and met other scientists. He got a ton of things out of that relationship. It wasn’t Humphry Davy just being kind and offering up his time for Michael Faraday, and I think that if someone wants to learn in programming or in open source I think it’s absolutely possible to go and do work in such a way that someone else is getting something from it.

And building out that trust relationship so that when you do have something you are working on and a question you want to ask, they will know who you are, they will be comfortable with knowing that you have put in your part of the work, that they are not just leaking their own time into your life to help you out, and that it’s never going to be something that you return.

There are enough people out there who are vultures, who will take all the time that they can get. And it’s really hard for someone who – especially someone who has some visibility, I think, for people who are maintainers of some of these frameworks that thousands of businesses use to earn money on top of. I think some of the people who have a lot of visibility, I bet you they have random people come in and ask them for favors, all day long, every day.

And I think it would be a very different thing if someone came in and just, I don’t know, triaged issues for them on their projects and discovered that, this question that gets asked repeatedly, I could go write some documentation for this, and submit a pull request, or just be there and help unstick people and then they would learn a lot about that project, they would start to get to know the project a little bit more, they would have opportunities to submit little pull requests and help debug things. And they would gain familiarity, their username on GitHub or wherever would start being a familiar face. So this person has a lot of visibility and at that point it’s a lot easier to ask someone for a pointer or for some help and actually get that.

That makes sense, proving your own value especially to the true masters in their field. What’s next for you, Katrina? One of the things that you mentioned is that you have been working on a book for a while now, can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah. I am working on a book called 99 Bottles of Object-Oriented Programming. Sandi Metz and I have been working on this content for a couple of years now. It came out of some of the early exercism things. The 99 Bottles of Beer song is just one of those exercises that is kind of fun. And I was seeing so many terrible examples of code to solve it and for a while I was thinking there might not be a good solution to this problem. It might just all be horrible and the interesting problem is what rug do people sweep their code under in this problem.

And Sandi took that as a challenge and she was like, no, there has to be a good solution. And we went back and forth and we’d spend weekends where we were both just solving the problem over and over again, and we’d get in a Hangout and we’d say, “Oh I love that”, “Oh I hate that”, “Why did you do that”, back and forth, and we just explored this problem very, very deeply and discovered that there are deep, simple, very powerful lessons about object-oriented programming in the 99 Bottles of Beer song.

That turned into a course, people were begging Sandi Metz to come into their businesses and teach their developers. And so we put together a curriculum centered a lot around the 99 Bottles song, but also other nursery rhymes and songs. And we taught that several times, she started with other people as well, she started alone, and through teaching, we’ve sort of figured out, what are the lessons in this song and we’re turning that into a book.

And I suspect any book with the title 99 Bottles of Beer will sell among programmers.

There is a good chance.

And when did you say it’s coming?

Huh. I didn’t. [both laugh] We’re hoping to get it into Beta soonish. So in the next couple of months, we’ve got a lot of work done, there’s a lot more to do. But I think that we can start showing people and selling our early version in a couple of months.

That sounds great. Well, thank you for talking with us about exercism, about hacking skills. I’m really excited about what’s next, things like the experiment which also has a name, right, Skillflake.

Skillflake, little flakes of skill, yeah.

Skillflake coming soon, try it out when it’s released, and please for those of you who do know how to code, and can contribute or also can help with documentation or exercises, please take a look at the exercism code base, always looking for help and support. Check out Katrina’s talk and check out exercism. Thank you again Katrina for sharing your passion with us today.

Thank you so much for having me.

Additional links and notes

Other tech learning resources

It can be hard to keep track of the tutorials, lessons and courses that are freely available to practice different aspects of programming. I’ve started a small subreddit, “learnyouit“, which I use to track newly published (!) learning resources — please join me if you find this effort useful.

Production notes

As usual, the interview was done via Google Hangouts and edited with Blender. The intro chiptune is Star Bars by the talented Andrey Avkhimovich, and licensed under CC-BY. The transcript and subtitles were provided by Ajay Kamal. Thanks to Sumana Harihareswara for giving me feedback and walking me through kdenlive, which I may try next time.

The interview content (except for the fair use excerpt from Kathy Sierra’s talk) is under CC-0.

Episode 2: David Revoy

For our second interview, we spoke with David Revoy from Toulouse, France. David has worked as a professional illustrator for many years. He has recently earned the distinction of being able to make a modest living from his freely licensed webcomic, Pepper & Carrot, thanks to an army of Patreon supporters. His prior experience with free culture includes art direction for Sintel, an open animation movie by the Blender Foundation.

As background for our conversation, David shared some of his early and previously unpublished works with us. He talks about these paintings, and also about his perhaps most famous work, the “Yin and Yang of World Hunger“, which has earned him lots of admiration and, as he shares in the interview, negative comments and even death threats.

David talks, of course, about Pepper & Carrot, his technique and setup, and his hopes and dreams for the Krita community. He explains his choice of different Creative Commons licenses for his works, and his vision of turning Pepper & Carrot into a studio for free culture art and animation.

Days before the interview, David learned about a Kickstarter campaign raising funds for a print edition of Pepper & Carrot. The campaign is not his, and it was created without his knowledge, and initially without proper attribution of his work. This was resolved, and David has since tweeted in support of the campaign. In the interview, he explains why he sees such commercial uses — if done correctly — as completely fine.

Finally, David shares some thoughts and advice for artists seeking to use sites like Patreon to raise funds for their work. If that describes you, or if you simply enjoy David’s art and work as much as we did, we think you will find his motivations and insights inspiring.

For any further background on David’s work, we suggest you explore his well-structured homepage. It contains not only a selection of his works, but also tutorials, brushsets and a description of his hardware/software setup. For more specifically about his use of the open source painting software Krita, we also suggest taking a look at the recent Krita.org interview with David. And if you want to support David’s work, and just maybe help him make his dream of a free culture art studio a reality, you can do so on Patreon.


Transcript

Note: This transcript is edited for grammar and readability. A more literal transcription can be found in the subtitles (see below).

David, what’s your passion?

Oh, my passion is to draw pictures. I think those are the most generic terms I can find for everything I do. From concept art, to illustration, to everything. The common thing is making pictures. So, yes, I’m a picture painter.

But it’s all under a free license, right?

Yes, yes, I also have this passion for  free culture in general. For delivering things free, and open source.

How did that start, how did you get involved in open source, in free culture?

Oh, as far as I remember I always was interested in the open source movement. Even when I was using Windows and proprietary software I always kept an eye on the Linux distributions. I always kept an eye on GIMP. It was one of my first digital painting tools. And I always really appreciated the whole movement.

I was also very near to the Blender Foundation. And this culture finally got really inside of me. I finally got a part of it somehow. And now I try to also be an actor in it.

So you, as far as I recall, don’t have an education in art, right? You got involved on your own time. How did you get started doing art, and then making a living doing art?

I have a very tiny little education in art. But it was industrial art. It’s the art of making object design. And it was before I was 18 years old. So it’s not really serious study. (…) That’s why I often say in interviews that I have no education art. But as with everyone, it’s a bit false to say this. Because there’s thousands of tutorials available on the Internet.

Even if I studied them alone, I had a lot of books, I had plenty of resources. I can’t say I learned all by myself. I don’t live in a cave, and I didn’t find half of the tips and tricks I use alone.

You did some street art early on as well, right?

Yes, yes. I started as a portrait artist in Avignon. It’s a city with a lot of tourism in summer. And on the main place of the city, there already were portraitists. So I took time to watch what they were doing.

And because I was very young and they were not really afraid I was taking some money from them, they let me start next to them and I learned a lot of things next to them this way.

How old were you at that time?

19 years old.

I think you shared some pictures with me from that time, right?

Yes, yes.

We look at the pictures together.

01_Portrait-street-carrier

Provided by David Revoy, used with permission.

This picture was taken by a Japanese tourist. She was very nice to send it to me back at this time. It was a real photo, sent by postal. So I was happy to scan it a few years ago.

How old were you in this picture?

19 years old.

19 years old, wow. And where is this taken?

It’s taken in front of a bar in Avignon.

And what were you drawing there? Do you remember?

I was drawing this girl. [laughing]

(…)

And what’s the story behind this picture?

03_Vanity_davidrevoy-early-painting

Copyright (C) David Revoy, Creative Commons Attribution License.

At the same time I was doing portraits, I started to make paintings, because in the winter, it was harder to live so there were no tourists, but there were a lot of art galleries in Avignon. So I started to do a lot of paintings. And this is a painting I made for this exhibition.

But this one is one of the rare ones that wasn’t sold. It’s very black, and I even kept this one for myself. Because there is a very strong focus on the portrait. And there is some weird reflection on the vase of the flower.

And if you see on the corner, you can see that it’s a skirt with the candle on
it. So there is this flower that’s almost dying. It’s on the theme of nudity, some smoking. There are a lot of irregular things in this painting. She also clearly has an arm of man in front.

So, this is probably one of my weirdest paintings. And one of my probably more interesting.

Because at this time, to sell paintings I mostly did flowers, flower in vase. I mostly did decorative paintings. The kind of painting as you can buy at IKEA. Just decorative, a lot of colors, low price. Very fast to do, just to sell them.

04_Smoke_davidrevoy-early-painting

Copyright (C) David Revoy, Creative Commons Attribution License.

Oh, this is a picture from the same period. But just after. And I started to mix the decorative aspect with the frame painting, and with keeping interesting subjects, like bodies, and not flowers anymore.

And I was starting to go a bit abstract. So, yes, I really liked this period, because it was colorful, abstract and I started to be a bit more artistic. Less figurative. Less trying to do gradients, skin textures and everything.

You can sort of recognize the date by the cell phone.

[laughs] Yes, yes, this is the old Nokia phone from 2000, yes!

05_flowers_davidrevoy-early-painting

Copyright (C) David Revoy, Creative Commons Attribution License.

And this is one of the more decorative paintings you were mentioning?

Yes, and this is the end of my painting period. This piece was one of, like, 20 similar to this one. In different colors. I was totally going to almost abstract, and the pleasure of color and form for themselves.

So, I’m really happy to have made a lot of paintings and to have pushed my creativity to deconstruct things, still going to abstract.

It’s very satisfying now, what I learned. Because now I’m an illustrator, but I do very figurative things. And I still remember what is more important in art than just representing, or just the technique.There is something emotional that you can just reach with colors and don’t need to represent ..

Very beautiful choice of colors, for sure.

Thank you. On a screen it’s nothing. In real life, with all the glazing, and all the layers it’s, when there is a sunray on it, it’s wonderful.

I can’t see it anymore. It was bought. [laughs]

So, in the opening sequence we saw this painting , The Yin-Yang of World Hunger. Can you talk a little bit about the story behind this painting?

Yes.

And I think that one is computer art.

It’s computer art, yes. Like 80% computer art. There was a drawing made on paper at first, and I did a scan of it.

Sometimes there is some idea that won’t leave your mind. And this was one of them. I just was working I think on the metro in Toulouse, and suddenly I just saw a yin-yang somewhere.

And I get this idea that the black part is not really balanced in real life. But it was really controversial, and I said no, if I represent this, people will believe it’s about racial things, and geopolitical.

When the questions started to circle like this in my head I said, okay, I will not survive with all these questions in my head. I need to put it down to see what it will be. It resulted in one of my most controversial pieces, probably.

Controversial how?

Yeah. Because even this week I still received a lot of comments about it. Some people sent me statistics and said, “You see your artwork is not the truth.” Or: “This doesn’t represent white people.”

They’re totally off-topic. It’s not really about white and black people. It’s really about two sides that should learn to share the resources, and that can’t.

The two sides are suffering, and people don’t get it in this illustration. They think there’s one side that’s very happy and the other side that suffers. And I want to show that the pain for the body exists on both sides.

I’m just angry at the out of balance things. And this artwork was all about it. Not race, not really geography, not really all the things I could learn about it. But it’s really about things out of balance, about food.

Yes, I still receive some crazy emails about it. Some even threaten me to death for this piece.

Wow.

Yes, but I feel secure. I think it’s just email. I also receive email from political groups – there are political groups who want ot use this piece. In South Africa. And I always refuse.

This is, for example, one of the pieces that would be very problematic for me
to put in Creative Commons Attribution. Because the sort of reuse that would be too difficult to manage.

Yeah, so on that one, I think you’ve chosen the Non-Commercial and No-Derivatives, so people can still use it like in this video but not if it hey’re using it commercially and not if they’re manipulating it or adding meaning to it that isn’t there to begin with.

Yes, and if someone hear this during this interview, my art in Creative Commons Non-Derivative and Non-Commercial, is just the public license behind it. (…)

But if you come to me with an email, or if you want to work with me, just contact me, and I can give exceptional permission to override, to let you display it in a video, or to support some things.

There are plenty of associations about hunger that use this illustration, and I’m really happy to give them the illustration for free. But it’s just a filter.

So, recently you’ve started to create a webcomic, called Pepper & Carrot. And Pepper & Carrot is a very ambitious project. The individual episodes, how much time do you take for any one of these episodes? They’re huge, right?

I don’t count. [laughs] Probably if I say the amount of hours, people won’t believe me and they would say no. Really, it probably represents more than 10 hours per frame sometimes. Because I start over.

If I don’t like the story I remove something, and I add. I just want to make it perfect, as I would like it to be. This idea is very crazy, because when I look back to the first episodes now, I see them as very not perfect.

But maybe I took a bit of skill along the way, and I’m really happy about seeing that now I would handle them totally differently.

I’m really happy to put all what I have inside it, and to push them to the point that I can’t push it anymore. Because it’s the only true way to see where I am as an artist. When I see now an old episode I know that I couldn’t do better even if it’s crappy, I couldn’t do better. I gave it all I could, so it’s really representative of all my skill at that moment.

I don’t have really a lot of regret but of course I always want to do them all over, and think them all over, and make everything look better.

Can you talk a little bit about your technique? You sketch a little bit on paper for P&C?

Oh, Pepper & Carrot is a pure laboratory of techniques. I don’t have any rules for the techniques. I have drawings that come to my mind in color. I have drawings that come to my mind in concept, and I need to invent a machine, or to make a plan. And I have things that come with words.

So, depending where the input comes from in my mind, and how lazy I am — because sometimes starting on paper can take more time than starting on the computer for some topics — I manage all of this inside my brain.

I often start with a method, it’s always the wrong method. I’m really, really gifted to pick always the wrong method. [laughs] The one after ten panels I hate, and I say, no, not anymore, next time I should find something else. This is too hard.

But yes, I don’t have any rules. Yes, I can start on paper, I can start on the computer, I can ink directly with pencil, or I can ink on computer.

Do you have some sketches you can show us?

David pulls up some sketches. Follow the links to jump to the relevant segments in the video.

Oh, yes. So, sketches about Pepper. Is it good like this?

Yeah, we can just barely make it out, yeah. We can see her hat!

Yeah, I think if I remove her hat, a lot of people wouldn’t recognize her. Yes, her hat is just a big part of her personality. Yes, I had one user who submitted a story. It’s a story of Pepper losing her hat. And I was really curious, if she loses her hat, it would be very difficult for her to ..

So, another. Yes, there’s a bit of storyboarding on the top.

And a unicorn, I see. I don’t think the unicorn was in the webcomic yet, so ..

Yeah, no, rejected for the moment. [laughs]

It’s a slightly bored unicorn.

[laughs] Ah yes, I really want to make this fantastic and beautiful creature look totally boring and depressive. [both laughing]

I think I have a dragonpig on this one.

Oh, that’s awesome. We’ve seen the dragoncow before, but not a dragonpig.

This one is still rejected. It looks too fabulous for a dragonpig. Dragonpig should probably be maybe be more like this one.

Yeah, that’s a more conventional pig with wings.

All of these drawings are cleaned. I work on it and all. And I found something that I never show, but this is really the true stuff. When I do sketches, this is how it really looks. And you will see it’s not looking really good.

These were the sketches for the city of Komona. It’s notes, it’s a type of picture that I can only understand myself.

And here is the script of the episode six. Yeah, it’s a bit messy and old.

Yes, sometime I’m even too ashamed about this skill, about sketching. So I have to redraw a bit the sketches before putting them online.

I want to say to the younger audience that say, “Oh, whoah, you made a sketch, it’s again something beautiful”, most of the time the artist who does a beautiful sketch, there is work behind it.

And the real sketch is the same for everyone. It’s just ideas on the paper. We don’t need to be brilliant when we do a sketch. It’s just ideas.

And on the computer, you use a tablet, right?

Yes, yes.

What kind of tablet is it?

It’s a Wacom Intuos. It’s an old tablet. I will try to show it. I will put it on my point of view. Here is my landscape daily when I work.

And you use an application called Krita for the most part, right?

I’m really happy to use Krita now, because by the past when I was already on
the open source, I was using a mixture of a lot of software. A fork of GIMP, GIMP Painter, made by Japanese developers.

I was using also MyPaint, a little software compared to GIMP for painting, and  another one, maybe also little, Alchemy, to do some sort of symmetry and chaotic things.

I am really happy now because there’s this Krita project and I can do all my artwork from scratch on it, from the zero point to the end, inside it. That’s a very big change from what I experienced only four years ago.

So, when I look at the stuff that you share online, you don’t just share the artwork, you share speedpainting, you share tutorials, you share wallpapers, you share the brushsets, so you make a lot of your internals and your process visible, which helps other people to learn from you, which I think is great.

What would you like to see from the community that you’re not seeing. What would you like to see from the Krita community, from the Krita users? Is there any area in which the product, or the community, could do better?

I would really like this community to create a subcommunity. I would like to see a free/libre painter forum maintained by young people. I see a lot of this type of community on videogames.

I would like to see the same energy in Krita, around GIMP, around Mypaint, and not only the official website or the official forum, but some place more creative, about creativity.

More about creativity than about the technique. Just to leave the official forums for the technique, for the bugs, for how to do this or that, and the creativity on a separate platform.

You’re probably now, today, one of the few people on the planet who make a living, or almost make a living, from freely licensed art. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to be to the point where you can actually derive at least a partial income from this work?

It’s a very long process, and it starts probably at the Sintel project. I was the part of the Sintel project, and in the intro video you see a little part of it.

This project was an open movie, produced by Ton Rosendaal at the Blender Foundation with all the artists, and I made the art direction on it.

The whole project was crowdfunded, and of course the movie, the source of the movie, and everything is also libre and open license.

So, if you look at Pepper & Carrot, and if you look back to the origin inside Sintel, there is a sort of pattern. There is the same license, there is the type of media — it’s not 3D animated but it’s just entertainment.

And I think I got really inspired by this model. I also put a credit [for supporters] at the end of each episode, as the Blender Foundation put a credit at the end of the movies.

From people online, I received email, “Your business model is totally crazy. Can you call it a business model even?” Yes, it’s something I saw working, you have to trust.

When I started Pepper & Carrot, my wife looked at it and said, “You shouldn’t use this crazy license.” And I said, “No, I should.” [laughs]

No, the true story, when I started Pepper & Carrot, I started it as Non-Derivative and Non-Commercial. The first Patreon page. And the second Patreon funder I had, a long user in the free community, said to me, “Why do you use Non-Derivative and Non-Commercial.”

And I thought about it, and, yeah, why? That’s crazy, I limit myself with this license. So, I sent him a letter and said, yes, you’re right. I will go Creative Commons Attribution. This is the way to go.

But I wasn’t really 100% sure. When you start from scratch, there is a lot of doubt about everything, so ..

And now you have a commitment from your fans to get, what is it, now more than $900 for every finished episode of Pepper & Carrot?

Yes, and it’s a lot. From the perspective of a free project, it’s a lot. From the perspective of entertainment project only, I don’t propose development, I don’t sell rewards, and all my comics, all my source, all my bonus and extras are online.

So from this perspective it’s really a lot. I thank a lot all my Patreons. I don’t know how to say, Patreons or patrons! I often mix the two. I’m sure people laugh about it. I really thank them to stand behind Pepper & Carrot. It represents a lot to me.

Of course it’s a dream come true.  Every artist I know would love to make their own comics. Would love to get paid for making it. To keep control of it. Of the stories, of tthe heart.

I worked a lot for publishers in the past. And if I had a publisher for Pepper & Carrot, I’m sure they would ask for more breast for Pepper. They would say, hey, Pepper could be a bit more older, with a bit more sex appeal, because it’s a comic, and the target audience are male teenagers, could you fix this. And after, if I start to fix something like this, they would say,”Ah, next story, I want a battle, and next story, you could do this.”

Artwork publishers, they also take care of marketing nowadays. And I’m really happy I can make crazy ideas and stories about Pepper & Carrot without relying on violence or sexual things or all the classics of the comics format. And this, I can only thank my patrons to make this happen. Because without them I would have to go to a publisher to live for doing Pepper & Carrot.

Yes, it would be closed, I would probably work six months without being able to show any artwork to the community, so it’s very very hard to work alone, doing forty page of comics, and suddenly just release them for people who can pay for it. Buy the books.

It’s really not a model I like. I really like to be online. To propose new artworks. To interact with the audience.

So, you talked earlier about the non-commercial restriction. The idea to limit what people can do, whether it’s making derivatives or selling your work.

Just a couple of days ago someone created a Kickstarter with the art from Pepper & Carrot, raising money to create a printed version of your comic that they do not legally have to give you any share of. And it seems to be a very successful Kickstarter so far. And I know you’ve been talking to the guy who launched it.

Can you talk a little bit about your feelings on that kind of reuse and resale
of noncommercially, community-created art?

Yes, there was an issue in this Kickstarter. The author of the Kickstarter, in the description of his crowdfunding page, was acting like he was the creator. He was quoting my name but he was acting like it was my Kickstarter page, and it was really not visible inside the page.

So people couldn’t really know if it’s not me. For example, people don’t know really my picture, so they could say, “Oh, it’s how David Revoy looks, and he took a nickname on Kickstarter, it’s his page, and he wants to print his comic.” And that was an issue, because I don’t know what the quality of his comics will be.

I wish it will be good because the Kickstarter is successful. It’s already, I didn’t check, but I think it’s really crossed now, a lot, the goal. And, so I asked him to make a little paragraph about himself and saying it’s a derivative project. It’s a republishing. And also adding a link to the Creative Commons Attribution. And also linking to the original website.

Because on the first page, there was no link. There was no link to Creative Commons or even mentioning it was taken from a libre comic. So it was just a wrong usage of the Creative Commons license. Now it’s fixed I’m really happy for him. Because I know there are people behind this type of project.

I’m really happy if Pepper & Carrot can bring more money for external people. I’m really happy also to see it’s a success. Because, yes, of my drawings, and that’s like a little publisher project.

So, yes, I encourage this type of project, but I really like when it’s done respecting the rules. What I often dislike about the usage of Creative Commons in commercial usages, because it’s free, people just get out of the rules. It’s free, so it’s easy to misuse or just trash the author name. When people don’t pay for it, they sort of don’t respect it.

And I dislike that, because I would prefer to see it the other way around. It’s easier to respect something that was given for free, in my opinion.

Yeah, it’s interesting. In my experience with Wikipedia, what happened, a lot of people created these automatically generated books, for example, and sold them on Amazon, with Wikipedia articles in them. But on the other hand, other people created these new distribution mechanisms for Wikipedia.

Offline distribution for developing countries. Mirrors that are faster to access in certain regions of the world. A Wikipedia for Schools version. And some of these projects were commercial in nature. 

So you sort of get the good with the bad with the Creative Commons Attribution license. You get new creative reuses, and something like this Kickstarter arguably is showing, wow, there’s actually a lot of people who would love to see a printed version of Pepper & Carrot, which is perhaps something that wasn’t clear before.

But on the other hand, they don’t have to play nice. But you as an artist have a lot of power to say, “Look, this is a good project, this is a bad project. You should be paying attention to this person, you should not be supporting that person.” And I think people will listen if you were to say, “No, this is not a legitimate Kickstater, you shouldn’t support it.”

Yes, and I was really happy to be in contact this morning with the author of this Kickstarter because he could send me a link to his previous Kickstarter, and say it’s showing he already did this for other comics, and the comments were positive about receiving the comics.

So I know he will deliver something, I know people will be happy with the print quality. So that’s why at mid-day I reposted it everywhere to show my support for his work, because as far as I understood, the comics will be delivered in September.

So he will probably have to print them, to ship them, get postal addresses and all. Of course maybe it’s more simple than creating them. But I’m really supportive of it. [laughs] Because it’s probably something, I wouldn’t have the time to do it myself. To keep a stock of all the Pepper & Carrot books, go to the post and fix all the address problems and all. If I do this, I will not draw. [laughs]

So, Dave, what’s your big vision? On the Patreon page you make mention of this idea of Hereva studio. Can you talk a little bit about what that means? Like, if you reach the goal — what was it, tens of thousands of dollars per month? Some very crazy ambitious amount.

Yes, yes. I remember because I was with my wife, and I presented her the offline version of the new milestone with this crazy goal at the end. But it wasn’t that, I think it was like 5000 dollars for this goal. And she saw it.

“You want to make a studio with 5000 dollars a month?” [laughs] And I say, “Yes, it’s asking quite a bit.” “Okay, let’s do the math, we are in France, you need room, apartment, to pay the tax, for people to clean the room.” And we started to write everything, at the end, we saw it, and we saw that the base price for it is maybe this amount per month. And it’s only a base price, it’s not even fancy.

And I said, okay, well, I have to be realistic, because if it’s not realistic, and I can’t deliver something, it will be very crazy.

So, what’s the idea? What would the studio do?

Oh, I think every artist can relate to this. In a very pretentious way, the goal behind Pepper & Carrot is probably to make something as big as a Disney or a Ghibli. But with free culture. I want people to be able to open [theme] parks, to be able to reuse merchandising, to be able to do movie and TV and anime series. And everything.

Don’t be afraid to reuse the character, to just make a little appearance in a movie or something. I would like to build something as big! But for the moment I’m alone. And this idea is very pretentious. So I just keep it for myself.

So, the Hereva studio, for the moment, is just the the seed of this big thing. It’s a studio with a 3D artist to make a first animated version. Because I believe animation with voice, with acting, with everything, makes it easier to get a far wider audience than comics.

I love comics, I will still do comics, I will still do the episode per month, even if I have the studio. I will still create and develop the characters. But I want to build alongside it a version easier to see, to watch, for younger generation, who see a lot of high quality, high definition. Any maybe a comic is not enough anymore for them.

So really, to take Pepper & Carrot to a completely new level.

[laughs] Oh, yes, yes. It would give a life, give a voice to Pepper. Give movement. Give soundtrack. Everything.

Stuffed animals.

[laughs] Yes, yes. And I’m really afraid about this period. Because it will be very hard to manage. But I’m really positive it will happen.

So do you think we’re now in an era where anyone with talent can create free culture and make a living doing it? Are we at that point yet?

I wish. I really wish we were.

It would be pretentious to say I’m an example of this. I’m just lucky to be at the right moment with maybe the right competencies for this. And maybe it will be a fashion. Maybe in one year, or two years I will have no supporters because another model will be better for it.

So it’s hard to say if our period is a good period for talents to just live from their passion. All of the Patreons and all the ways to fund projects are very related to the [size of the] audience. Someone who starts and has no audience, no base audience, will have a lot of difficulty, even if he made or she made the most perfect artworks ever.

It will grow. Good artwork, good quality will always attract, and that’s fair, that’s how it works. But it takes time, it takes really a lot of time.

And on my side, I started Pepper & Carrot with not a big audience, maybe people would laugh at me if I said a big audience. But with maybe people who care about my work already. So it’s really helped to spread the word, to talk about it. And without this base audience, I think I wouldn’t be at this level on the Patreon on Pepper & Carrot.

What would you say to people who are trying to do this from scratch, who are trying to build a Patreon community like you did. What advice would you give them?

The first advice, focusing on quality. And when I say quality, it’s not technical quality, it’s also emotional contents, the storytelling behind each piece.

Something interesting, to build some interest. And they can choose to be generous or not. I don’t say, go to Creative Commons Attribution because I did. No, this is a personal choice.

I think if an artist is not comfortable with it, you can still even make very good quality, post it for free online. And just posting it for free online is already a very big gift in a way.

I think a lot of artists start to paint and just struggle on the technique side, and say, I must find a way to make this face look beautiful to attract an audience, and it doesn’t work this way. I think it’s more about the content and the theme.

Even though I’m a technical artist I never really cared about the techniques. But I paint, I paint every day. So, techniques came, and when you’re frustrated, because it doesn’t look great, you fix things on the way.

But without something to say, it’s easy to just do techniques and say, okay, I will probably start to tell things when I will be ready technically.

And I see plenty of artists that are very gifted, technically, but that have
nothing to say by the end. Because they just focused on techniques. So they do pretty girls, pretty girls, pretty girls, pretty girls.

“I painted a pretty girl.” “Oh, a fan art, oh, a fan art, a fan art.” They even don’t have own images. They have to pick the universe of something they saw, because their imagination is empty. And yes, I’m very sad for them. Because it feels like an empty shell. There is nothing inside. The outside is very beautiful, the technique is perfect, very impressive.

So, that’s my advice for people who begin with art and trying to make a community. Just work on the content.

Focus on creating something new, something original, right. I mean, if you think about all the successful webcomics online now, like XKCDSMBC, all of those great strips. They’re all very original ideas, very lovingly done, lots of attention to the content, but the art itself, the technique, may not even be that amazing in many cases.

Like, XKCD is stick figures, literally. And yet it has this huge following, because the ideas are really beautiful.

I often say to students asking me over email, imagine if Terry Pratchet — he’s not living now, I was taking this example often then — imagine if he was drawing, even stick figures. He would be successful in comics.

Even if people didn’t know his empire of worlds and books. I’m sure an artist like this with only stick figures could also be very successful.

And after that I say, okay, and now imagine one of the best painters of all time with nothing to say and with no content, and he couldn’t be successful.

Thank you so much for sharing your passion with us and for sharing all your work so freely and so generously with the world.

Thank you a lot for your time, for this little window on talking about my passion, and also for supporting myself. I really appreciate it


Subtitles

As of June 3, 2015, subtitles in English are available. Please help to provide translations. You can download subtitles and add translations on Amara (you may have to reload that link after creating an account). If you’re interested in getting involved on an ongoing basis (including possibly doing your own interviews!), please join our mailing list.

Production notes

The introductory video was created by myself (Erik Moeller) from David’s art and using freely licensed music by BrunoXe; licenses and attribution are noted in the video. If you watched episode 1, you’ll notice a few more creative uses of the video format in this one; this partially reflects my own increasing level of comfort with Blender as a video editing tool. As with episode 1, I’ve cut a few minutes of silences, choppy audio/video, or circular bits of conversation.

Side note: I conducted this interview while visiting family; the backdrop is my father’s office in northwest Germany. Getting a couple of hours of complete silence, and his help obtaining an unusually long Ethernet cable and using a mattress to protect against outside street noise was much appreciated.😉

The interview portion of the video is public domain (CC-0); featured content is copyright by the respective artists and under the license noted.

Episode 1: Sumana Harihareswara

For our first interview, I caught up with Sumana Harihareswara (@brainwane). Sumana is a long time open source practitioner, technology manager, feminist, community organizer, coder, writer, speaker, Star Trek fan (see intro) and occasional stand-up comedian.🙂 Sumana and I worked together at Wikimedia, where she built a team focused on growing Wikimedia’s developer community.

Throughout our work together, I came to deeply admire Sumana’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in open tech and culture communities. In our interview, she talks about communities that have successfully put inclusiveness first: Dreamwidth, Growstuff, Archive of Our Own, the Recurse Center (formerly Hacker School), and others.

We talk about the recently introduced Code of Conflict for Linux kernel development and the Friendly Space Policy adopted by Wikimedia thanks to Sumana’s leadership. She also describes the work of the Ada Initiative, an organization dedicated to supporting women in open technology and culture (Sumana is a major donor and former board member).

Throughout, Sumana shares her insights on how to create hospitable, friendly and truly open communities. Her passion, as she says early on, is to empower marginalized and underprivileged people using technology. If you share this passion, check out the interview and some of the links below, and be part of the conversation.

Links and resources mentioned in the interview

Transcript and subtitles

Please help to transcribe the video and create subtitles. You can do so on Amara (you may have to reload that link after creating an account). If you’re interested in getting involved on an ongoing basis (including possibly doing your own interviews!), please join our mailing list.

Production notes

The interview was done via Google Hangouts on Air. I didn’t use the live broadcast feature, but instead downloaded the MP4 from YouTube, edited it with Blender and then re-uploaded it to YouTube. This is my first foray into video work, so I apologize for beginner’s mistakes. In particular, sorry for the crappy mic quality this time around; I had already purchased a Meteor mic but couldn’t use it for this hangout due to a last minute glitch.  :-(

Speaking of glitches, the occasional hiccup is inevitable when dealing with videoconferencing. I’ve cut out a couple of segments that were inaudible, but left intact sequences with minor glitches. Editorially, I’ve removed a couple of longer segments that were a bit circular and edited out some pauses and such.

I couldn’t have done it without MikeyCal‘s excellent Blender tutorials. Editing video with free software is challenging, but it works. As you will notice if you watch all the way through, I’ve overlaid a few screen recordings; these were done with Maarten Baert’s SimpleScreenRecorder. The lower third and chapter titles were done with Inkscape and GIMP.

The video is public domain (CC-0), except for featured content like the opening fanvid and website screencasts. I’d be happy to share more of the raw material if people are interested.

More about Passionate Voices

Please read our introductory blog post, nominate future interviewees, and join the community.

Sharing the love for what you do

In many years of virtual travels through many online communities, I have met amazing individuals who do incredible work. Passionate Voices is an experiment designed to capture their stories — to share them with the world, and preserve them for the historical record.

Our focus is on makers, writers, thinkers, and artists, especially those who share their work freely and online, so that it is easy for anyone who hears their voice to connect with what they do.

The medium of videoconferencing creates the possibility to conduct in-depth interviews with subjects anywhere in the world easily, and it will be the primary medium we’ll try using here. All the content we create (videos, blog posts, etc.) will be free forever, under CC-0.

You should get involved! See our community page for information how. We’ll get started soon, and I hope you’ll join us for the ride, to share your passion, to listen in, or to be part.

Erik Moeller, April 2015