The Day I was Robbed While on a Camel

So… I was in Egypt for the Wikimania event. I have been to several of these – Taipei (Taiwan), Buenos Aires (Argentina), London and Alexandria (Egypt). For the later I went to a bit of a tiki tour with Cormac Lawler down to Luxor by train to see the Temple of Karnak, and Valley of the Kings etc. Karnak, by the way, was absolutely stunning. I think it was the middle of summer so tourism was at a low (it’s too hot) so Cormac and I hung about on a beautiful evening with the temple all to ourselves. Incredible.

When I got back to Cairo, I decided to go check out the great pyramids. Tourism was also low-ish there, and I actually got a good 10 minutes in the ante chamber all by myself.. also incredible. Any how, I decided to go for a camel ride around the pyramids. Actually, I think it was decided for me. I was traveling by myself and had avoided all the street vendor merchants – they really try hard to get your attention. I was kinda proud of myself but at the pyramids I kinda got ambushed. This guy spotted me and I just couldn’t get away so I figured…what the hell…camel ride it is…

So, up on the camel I go and we prance around the pyramids. The chap was walking ahead leading the camel and I was up top exactly like one of those silly tourists I always avoid trying to be, be near, or even see if I can help it.

So this dude leads me around and then suddenly I find he has led me and the camel between two lo- lying flat-roofed buildings. They sort of looked like tomb entrances or bunkers. The path between the two was super narrow, maybe just enough room for two camels. Then he stops. I see that there is a guy sitting on top of one of the flat roofs. About eye-level with me. I also notice no one can see us here even though this is in the middle of tourist central. I can’t see anybody else, no one can see me.

The guys stops the camel and says to me .. “Give me all your money”. Its now obvious that I’m going to get robbed. However, the weird thing was it felt kinda soft. Like a rather amicable robbery. The dude was kinda friendly and the guy on the roof looked about 14 and kinda mellow. The biggest issue was I just didn’t know how to get down from the camel. Camels are really big and its a long way down. I felt if I didn’t give him the money I might spend an awkward amount of time sitting up there waiting for someone to give in. Also, I knew I had no money. I had split my money up to small notes in one pocket, and the large ones in the other. So, rather than create a fuss, I just gave him what I had in the small note pocket, while protesting of course. I think it was about the equivalent of $10 USD. He then took the money and we completed the tour.

It was kinda funny. I think I could have made a fuss and yelled out. Police were all over the place and not too far away. But I also didn’t want to create a scene so I just gave him the money and we all moved on. Tourist tax, I figured.

The Day I Stole a Toyota

Yep, fess up time…I once stole a Toyota…kinda…I was staying in Auckland with my good buddies Mike ‘n Lara. When I went back to NZ for a few weeks or months they would often lemme crash at theirs. When I had a van, I’d park it in the driveway and sleep there and use their wifi, showers etc. It was a lovely set up and very generous of them.

So, one day, I think Mike was cooking dinner and needed some veges. His car, a green Toyota Station wagon (not the car I stole) was parked behind my van, so he just gave me the keys to run down to the vegie shop in Newmarket with a list of things to get.

So, I did. It’s about a 15 min drive so I whipped down there and did the shopping. It was mid week, mid afternoon. Nothing odd or unusual, just a lazy-ish weekday.

So, after I was sure I had everything and paid up, I went back to the car, dumped the vegies in the back, started her up and drove off back to Mike’s. About 5 mins into the drive I had this weird vertigo-like feeling. Something felt very odd. Like I was in a parallel universe somehow… yep, not a very usual feeling (can’t think when I’ve ever felt quite that same feeling of displacement before or after this day).

I remember looking at the stereo in the car. Mike is a sound head and he has the best sound stuff everywhere. It’s not only good but loud (what do you expect from a guy who was once in a band called Tinnitus?). The odd thing was…the stereo wasn’t there… but…it wasn’t not there…there wasn’t a big hole like someone had stolen the stereo….it was not there in the sense that it was a normal Toyota dashboard. There was a plastic plate where you could put a stereo but there was no stereo.

I thought…literally… “What the fuck?”… then I realised….holy shit… this is not Mike’s car…..yes, it was a Toyota. Yes it was a green station wagon. Yes the key opened the doors. Yes the key started the car. Yes it was parked out the back of the vegie place. But NO this is not his car. I was driving someone else’s car!

I kinda freaked….what if someone now reported their car stolen? Holy shit! How long would it take me to explain that I did not steal the stolen car I was sitting in? So I booted it back to the vegie place. I was also thinking…oh my god…what if the owner is now wandering around the carpark looking for their car and I pull up…what am I going to say? What if they are super super pissed?

Anyho… I got back to the carpark and parked the car super quick. Grabbed the vegies and booted it on foot to Mike’s car and drove off as fast as I could… thankfully, or as far as I know, no one noticed…except, I often look back at that moment and I’m pretty sure in the heat of the moment I parked the car far far away from where I found it…. quite possibly someone else also had that ‘parallel universe’ feeling that day…

A Trip Down Memory Bonkersville

Um yeah… for some reason I’ve been led down memory lane and re-discovering just how crazy some of my past projects have been… for example the Bookimobile…

So, Booki was the predecessor to Booktype, a software I founded and brought to Sourcefabric in Berlin to further develop and market. It was an online book production software built on the learnings of a similar software I cut and paste together for FLOSS Manuals. The Bookimobile…well, was a complete book production suite bundled into a VW T4 van. I set this up when I lived in Berlin.


There are some crazy stories related to this. First, the Bookimobile is based on Brewster Khales/ Archive.orgs Bookmobile… except it was called the Bookimobile after the booki software. Second, I have to borrow 2 grand (euro) from my buddy Micz cause I didn’t have the readies …the crazy part of this was that it took me about 2 years to pay back Micz. He never asked for the money and I was as poor as a church mouse. When I was offered a job at PLOS, I finally had some $ and the next time I went back to Berlin, Micz and I went out and got hideously drunk, on margaritas of course (my fav poison). I had to fly out early, so I think we literally drank until I had to leave for the airport. What happened in the early hours before that and neither of us clearly remembered before we saw some evidence (blurry photos at a cash machine in Neukoln) is that I withdrew 2000 euro from a cash machine and stuffed it all into Micz’s pockets. He woke up fully clothed the next morning with his lovely partner Laura standing over him. He was still drunk and hung over and started pulling hundreds and hundreds of Euro out of his pockets wondering what on earth happened the night before (as did Laura). We later found some photos of Micz holding up all this money near the cash machine, money flowing out of his hands and a look of glee on his face.

Last mad story is that my partner at the time (Laleh) and I drove around France and Spain visiting festivals with the Bookimobile and printing out books for people. And what do you know…this video I found today of an interview of me while showing off the Bookimobile at the first mozfest in Barcelona…

Castles and Pianos

Back in the day, when I was an artist kicking around in Amsterdam (and while working at XS4ALL) I used to do this ‘n that with the local arts/activist scene. In one occasion, a friend of mine and awesome NZ musician – Alastair Galbraith – was doing a world tour with Matt de Gennaro. It was very much an indie music tour taking in odd venues in this town and that town across the US and Europe. As it happened, they wanted to come through Amsterdam.

So…first a little back ground on their music. Alastair and Matt had music careers of their own but they had recently (at that time) taken up a collaboration playing a piano wire. They would go to various venues and string up a piano wire very tight across the room and then wax their fingers and run them along the wire. The result was a beautiful ebb and flow of haunting deep and high tonal waves. Absolutely beautiful.

So I undertook to find them a venue in Amsterdam. As it happens I was also doing some work from time to time with the Society of Old and New Media housed in de Waag. De Waag is in the middle of Amsterdam and looks like this:


De Waag means ‘the weigh’ and it was both the place where ships weighed the goods their were carrying for trade, is the oldest non-religious building in the city, and was one of the original gates to the city.

So I rocked up to Marleen Stikker, and friend and collaborator plus head of the Society of Old and New Media, and asked if we might host this event in de Waag. Marleen said absolutely and we went ahead and booked the venue.

De Waag, as it happens, gave us the tower to perform in which is where Rembrandt painted the Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp:


The tower was were such lessons were conducted…. in other words it was what you might call ‘a pretty historical place’.

So, I showed up on the day to set up and I was figuring we would have to construct some sort of temporary post to drill into inorder to put the wire up. I mean, the wire needs to have quite a bit of tension to be resonate when you move your pinched fingers (covered in wax) along it. So I turned up early not really knowing how we do it but figuring de Waag folks had already got something planned…

Well… they did have something planned…they said we could drill directly into the walls… I was kinda stunned… I remember double triple checking that they were ok with this and no one batted an eyelid. They were totally fine with it…. thinking back on it, I’m not sure I’m still ok that we did this, but we did. On the upside was the fact that old wood, when it dries, gets porous. Air bubbles open up in the wood, and this is what, for example, gives old violins their special tone… same with this building. We were setting the wire into a huge acoustic chamber through wood that was centuries old dry.

So, we strung it up and then the audience turned up and they performed …I did the live streaming. It was 2001 – streaming was relatively new and bandwidth was relatively slim so it is what it is, but the coolest of things happened today…I found that someone had uploaded the stream to youtube 🙂 And here it is…

As it happens… Alastair was asked to do a second performance the next day. However Matt had to be back in the US. So Alastair asked me if I would do the performance with him…I can’t tell you how honored and terrified I was. I agreed and the next night performed with Alastair. Unfortunately i don’t think that is online…if you have that them let me know 🙂 In any case… this was an amazing event and I’m very proud to have been part of it!

Rembrandt painting photo from By Rembrandt – Mauritshuis online catalogue., Public Domain,

Photo of De Waag by Zairon [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

An Excess of XS

So..I’ve been pondering some of my career choices of late and mapping the really interesting, and, sometimes, bizarre path I have walked. It’s been a fascinating journey. In particular I had cause to think back on when I worked in Amsterdam for a company called XS4ALL. There is no point to this story by the way… just a meandering tale of oddness.

So…as it happened I used to live in South Australia. My then partner (Honor) and I were artists and I had an opportunity to go to Europe for a festival in Amsterdam called The Next Five Minutes (N5M). I think this was around 1999. Back in those days, audio and video online were new. Media activists had not yet taken to the net, and those that had were struggling to work out what they could do to make the new medium effective as an activist tool. Back then also, the dominant mediums for activism were print, radio, and video… there was some broadcast video (TV) available for activists but it was pretty minimal. But video (tape) was quite a thing. So the Next Five Minutes had been about the use of Tactical Media (radio, print, video) for activist purposes and it originated from the practice and brain of David Garcia, an English activist and theorist living in Amsterdam at the time (now living and teaching in Portsmouth). David was/is a cool guy, but at the time I went to this particular N5M I didn’t know him.

N5M in ’99 was at this critical juncture. Video activism was quickly dying – the net was a mass extinction event for video tape….and yet the ‘old media’ was not taking to the net at any great pace. It was a ponderous moment. Everyone sensed potential for the net as an activist medium but no one had any real exemplar use cases or ideas on what would really work. There was just a lot of naive speculation. It felt like a community though, albeit a community of misfits trying to workout where and how they would now mis-fit.

So, just after N5M, NATO started bombing Serbia during the Serbian-Kosovo war. Many of our friends were activists and reporters working within that region. So I was sorta resting up after the event and I was invited by Geert Lovink to be part of a group to help these activists. We met in the loft of De Balie, a cultural institution in the heart of Amsterdam.


We were indeed a bunch of misfits with a mission – ‘help independent media in Serbia/Kosovo’ and yet we had no idea how to do it. Mostly we were artists, activists, theorists, video activists and some early internet technicians. I think to start we were about 6 or 8 people. I can’t remember the actual sequence of events, but eventually we called ourselves HelpB92. B92 (FM) was a radio station in Belgrade that was critical of Milosevic and the US. So nobody liked them. They were really in danger as a result of being the most outspoken and the most famous of the independent media in the area. So although our brief was to help independent media in general, we decided to call ourselves HelpB92 to leverage their profile to bring attention to the vulnerability of independent media in general.

Well, things happened. It should be noted that when I went to N5M I was stopping briefly to attend the event and my big plan was to go to London and make coffee for a living. That was kinda what NZers did – travel to London and get some sort of job and wing it for a while. I actually had no return ticket and I think I had around $600 Australian in my bank. Making coffee was my get rich quick plan. I’ve had others that have been just as effective in my life, like getting a philosophy degree and starting a community to make free manuals about free software. None of them, it should be noted, made me rich either quick or slow.

So this whole HelpB92 thing was out of the blue and subverted my plans to make coffee in London. So I did HelpB92 for a while and the stories around this are a whole other thing. It included doing some of the first online converts to raise money, inventing ‘new’ ways to use the net for activism and fundraising, and finally traveling to Macedonia to work with Kosovo Albanian refugees and The Dutch National Radio to get stories from the refugee camps broadcast on shortwave all over Europe. Oh…also driving out of Macedonia in a taxi when we thought the country was going to collapse either by invasion or internal war. I literally walked across the border into Greece leaving some very puzzled looks on the faces of the border guards…but anyways…another time…

The point of my story, if there is one, is that because of this, XS4ALL, who were one of the founding organisations of HelpB92, offered me a job. They were an Internet Service Provider (ISP) founded by some very famous hackers, one of whom actually was Rop Gonggrijp who did some pretty well known stuff like hacking on national television the digital voting machines and later being pretty central to the early days of Wikileaks. Back in those days XS4ALL was more of a hacker org than a company. It was actually trying to move from one to the other. One filter they used to keep the bad guys out and preserve their hacker culture was to ask all future employees to juggle. If you could juggle you were in. Thankfully, because I had impressed them, or rather because my very good friend Sjoera Nas convinced them I was a good guy that couldn’t juggle,  they offered me a job.

But of course I turned them down. I was, after all, on my way to London to make coffee…what kind of nonsense was this? What do you mean a job, visa, $ for shifting etc?! I’m going to make coffee!!! So I turned them down no less than 3 times…. I have proven myself excessively stubborn with all my get rich plans and so I was going to stick to this one no matter what.

Then they told me how much they wanted to pay me, and it was a good deal more than the going rate in London cafes, so I said yes.


So, I was this artist guy in Amsterdam working for one of the most famous Dutch orgs of the day and they put me in right at the top. I was in charge of their flagship product – Autopilot. I mean….what???? I was barely technical. An artist with a BA in philosophy! I had learned to stream audio and video and stuff, but these days a 12 year old can do that…anyhow… this software was the talk of the org. It was going to be the game changer that blew every other ISP out of the water and clearly established XS4ALL as THE ISP you wanted.

On the ground though, it was auto dialer software… yes, that’s right, this was in the days when you used a modem and dialed in to your ISP to get a connection. ISDN had not yet arrived. It was good old 56K modem time.

The trouble back then was people had real difficulty configuring a modem to dial in. So it would be a major point of differentiation to have a no-hassle dialler. And Autopilot was it. However… in the process of designing and imagining what Autopilot could be, it became a holy grail. Autopilot was going to do almost everything except your washing up and ironing.

The team was great. 3 very ambitious chaps that knew a whole lot more about technology than I did. They were some of the hand-picked hackers in a company internationally famous for hackers. And I was in charge of them…it was bonkers.

So…long story short, or short story long depending on your boredom threshold… and this is sort of why I wanted to write this, to get to this next bit as it has caused me reflection over the last weeks… a new CEO joined XS4all not long after I started. His name was Doke Pelleboer. He was an amazing man. Gentle and wise. He started at the Dutch national telco – KPN, and when KPN purchased XS4ALL (which was very controversial at the time) they threw Doke in to clean up these dirty hippies (the founders of XS4ALL also had a club called the ‘Hippies from hell‘ which is something in itself) and get the show on the road.

However, Doke was smart and quickly realised that the reason why XS4ALL was sooooo very good (it was THE ISP to belong to if you valued privacy and security) was because of these crazy hackers. So it wasn’t a matter of just cleaning it all up. Doke had to slowly move the culture on, but without breaking what made it work. Tricky.

Doke was a great mentor to me and I can’t believe how much trust he must have had to actively invest in me to take me seriously. Doke was very very Dutch and in charge of a very very Dutch company (albeit a non-typical org, it was still very Dutch) and here was this relatively young NZer (I was about 30) who spoke no Dutch and had no serious technical background yet somehow was in charge of their flagship product when he turned up…I mean… that must have looked a little crazy.

But Doke was new and he was a very wise man. Nothing was going to change fast. It was all going to be organic. He also knew, how could he miss it, that Autopilot was THE most talked about product in the company. So, he hired some new folks. Lawrence (I forget his last name) was the ex marketing manager for Apple Netherlands so he brought him in as XS4ALLs new marketing manager. Cees (I also forget his last name) was some sort of financial whizz from somewhere, so he brought him in as the chief financial officer. I mean, these people were kinda exciting for the company because they were serious and had the chops.

So… almost at the end…one day Doke called me in to his office. In the office was also Cees and Lawrence. These were the new big guns, the top brass. I was nervous. Doke then launched into an overview of Autopilot. How exciting it was, how important it was for the company, how he had invited Lawrence and Cees in because they are excited by it. He had reserved x million Dutch Gilders for the development…it was going to be fantastic! Lawrence and Cees then chimed in with their enthusiasm. Then Doke turned to me after he had warmed up the crowd (me) and asked me ‘So tell me, what is the plan?’. It was a genuine question, he wanted to know my thoughts on how we were going to take this world beating product and, well, beat the world! …

It was an interesting moment. They were all looking at me…I could feel the need to say something genius… I had to illuminate the way forward! The moment was ripe! So I opened up my mouth and I kinda heard the words come out “I think we should ditch this product immediately”….

Then it felt like I kinda opened my eyes and looked around. Like what I imagine it must feel like when a bomb goes off next to you. You close your eyes bracing for the explosion and then open them to look around and see what the damage was… of course my eyes were open the whole time but you get the point…I remember thinking ‘shit, I just talked myself out of a sweet job! you idiot! why couldn’t you have bullshitted them! you and your stupid need to tell it how it is…will you NEVER learn?’….I mean, if they believed me then the product was dead and I’d be out of a job. If they didn’t believe me then I was obviously not the right guy for the job and I’d be out of a job… what a dummy!

Then I remember clearly what happened next. I’ll never forget it and made me love Doke instantly. Doke rocked back in his chair and with the biggest, most beautiful smile, laughed his fucken ass off.

I love that man for that moment, to this day.

But I had my reasons. It was a product that over promised, that had blown out its scope well before I got there, and generally speaking was a lost orphaned duck looking for its mama. So instead we planned the demise of Autopilot (which had to be done carefully) and they put me in charge of 4 technical departments. I guess, looking back, a BA in (ethical) philosophy was probably a good career move. Who woulda thought?

I don’t know the moral to this story. I just think it’s a good story and I feel honored to have been there to witness it all.