When I was an Italian Hacker

Many years ago, when I lived in Amsterdam, I worked with a lot of cool and interesting people. Amsterdam was a hot bed of innovation in technology, art, media and activism. I think that mantle has since faded – Berlin seems to hold that title now, but back then (circa 2000) AMS was it.

Back then, and still doing great work now, was Jaromil, an Italian hacker who was pretty famous, and who became steadily more famous. Jaromil was behind a couple of cool projects. One was Muse, which was an early streaming media encoder. Back then streaming was new-ish and there were not many good tools to do it, especially if you were looking for free software tools. Muse was awesome and it was one of the first softwares I documented when I started FLOSS Manuals.


Jaromil was also the chap behind the free operating system called Dynebolic. It was an early version of what they called a ‘bootable CD distro’. It looks like ancient jargon now but essentially it meant that there was a CD with the Linux operating system on it, and you could put it in your windows or apple computer, restart it, and you would have a Linux operating system. It was kinda magical in those days. Even more magical is that Jaromil loaded the CD with all these cool free software tools for art/activism/media etc etc.

Around these ideas, Jaromil started to form a hacker collective – Dyne. They were entirely Italian, though many members were living in Amsterdam. Some of them lived in the same place with Jaromil, I can’t remember if it was a squat but I’m guessing it probably was. Back then, squatting in Amsterdam was still a thing although the police were progressively shutting  it down. Some squats survived to this day by ‘legalising’ their ownership, but many of the cool ones were shut down rather violently.

Anyho… this is really a relatively short story. Jaromil asked me to join Dyne. I was kinda surprised. I mean, I knew Jaromil well and liked him a lot. I was a huge fan of his work, and of Dyne. But Dyne was clearly Italian, and clearly for these really mean hackers. Mean as in actual real hackers, not hackers as it has been subverted negatively as in use today. But hackers in the more pure sense of people who were really really committed to knowing everything about their chosen tech-geek obsession and who really didn’t care about anything else – including how they made a living or survived in the world beyond the absolute short term. They were a fierce bunch, amazingly sophisticated programmers, and completely committed to free media, free software, free media activism etc.

So, when asked by Jaromi tojoin, l I replied that I was very honored but clearly I wasn’t a hacker. I omitted the rather obvious point that I was also probably the most non-Italian person you would ever meet.

Jaromil replied, and again, it’s sorta like the other stories I wrote this week, in that it left this lasting impression on me, that ‘Hacking is an attitude’.

It was a liberating thought for me and I realised instantly he was completely right. Hacking isn’t a technical pursuit, it’s a fierce curiosity to understand, break, innovate and re-invent the things you find most interesting. Also, I think, it’s a no bullshit approach. In my experience hackers can’t tolerate bullshit.

Anyways, so I agreed to be part of Dyne and here is the proof of those halcyon days when I was an Italian Hacker 🙂 :


Photo of Jaromil by Alexander Klink – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16091977

Also, I just found this great recent video of Jaromil. Awesome, lovely and inspiring chap. I thoroughly recommend watching this vid.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64281722

Photo of De Waag by Zairon [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]