Thank God for Mental Illness

While I could talk at length about long travel stints away from home and mental illness, I’ll spare you those details. Rather, the misleading title of this post refers to Reclaim Hosting’s latest shared hosting server named after the 1990s musical collective The Brian Jonestown Massacre.* Ever since watching the 2004 documentary Dig! last year I have been binging on their music, particularly the their early Bloody Valentine-inspired shoe gaze during the early 90s (the album Methodrone is amazing) into their psychedelic 60s exploration in the mid-90s. In fact, in 1996 they self-produced 3 albums that year, all of which I have been listening to non-stop for over a month. And beyond that there is still a ton of music I have yet to hear given they are still recording music with 18 albums and counting. One thing that has struck me listening to their music so far is not just how prolific they are, but also how amazing their musical range is—traversing and experimenting with instruments and genres like few other bands I’ve heard.

Brian Jonestown Massacre (often abbreviated to BJM) is my new obsession, and if naming a Reclaim server after them can get just one other person to explore them than my job is done here. Below are a few excerpts from their Wikipedia article focusing on the 3 albums they recorded in 1996, the third of which (Thank God for Mental Illness) was reportedly recorded for $17.36.† 

Over the next couple of years the band shifted its sound from their more shoegaze, goth, and dream pop influences of the 80’s and 90’s into a 60’s retro-futurist aesthetic. As lineup changes persisted, the band continued to record and in 1996 released three full-length studio albums. The first of these, Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request reflects a pastiche of 1960s psychedelia. The album also includes vast experimentation with a variety of different instrumentation including Indian drones, sitarsMellotronsfarfisasdidgeridoostablascongas, and glockenspiels.[10] The title of the album is a play on words of the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.[11]

The band’s second album released in 1996, Take It from the Man!, is rooted heavily in the maximum rhythm and blues aesthetic of the 1960s British Invasion.[12] The album includes the song “Straight Up and Down”, which was later used as theme music for the HBO television drama series Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014), and was engineered by Larry Thrasher of the influential group Psychic TV.

The third and final album released that year was Thank God for Mental Illness, a more stripped-down effort. Since the band did not have a drummer at the time, Newcombe took the opportunity to showcase more of his acoustic songwriting. The album explores more in-depth genres such as country and folk.[13] At the end of the album Newcombe included an entire EP called “Sound of Confusion”, compiled largely from earlier BJM recordings. “Sound of Confusion” features both regular songs and more abstract sound collages.

The cool thing is that this collective (it’s more than a band ? ) has been going strong for almost 30 years, and while the documentary Dig! focuses on the erratic, drug-addled misadventures of the band, in particular the leading man Anton Newcombe (which admittedly makes for fun viewing), there is something to be said for sticking around long enough and continuing to do the work, or make the music as it were. So, our latest server,, is dedicated to all those folks in education who have stuck around and continue to try and make the music despite all the noise, noise, noise. 

*I know there are some who have taken issue with our server names suggesting that when taken out of context they could be considered offensive. All I can say to that is taken out of context most things can be. What’s more, we refuse to give up self-expression in the various cultural touchstones that ground the work we do in exchange for some soulless pursuit of a homogenized business identity.

†See, not all independent music acts are caught up in the music industry game as some (who have left our game) have argued when trying to poke holes in the Indie EdTech analogy floated several years back.

Reclaim Records

Reclaim Records

The idea of Reclaim Hosting as a kind of independent record label for ed-tech is an idea I’ve been playing with since a talk at Davidson College more than a year ago. This past fall Adam Croom and I explored it further in relationship to Indie Ed-Tech as a movement, which was punctuated by Audrey Watters epic, aspirational post on Indie Ed-Tech in December. About the same time I was talking with Bryan Mathers about using the logo he designed for us, which I love.
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Small Systems Integration

I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this. In fact, that very idea has me excited as a move towards see more small things happen. Small things is a theme I will be exploring this Spring, it resulted from a great discussion with the organizers of the AMICAL conference this year in Rome I’ll be speaking at. The focus will be on small things, a sense of post-MOOC taking stock of the valence of terms like massive/local, big/small (data), and  corporate/indie, the shape of the talk is not entirely clear to me though but I am taking Calvin Johnson’s advice and exploring E.F. Schumacher‘s book Small is Beautiful which posits the idea of Appropriate Technology. I’m excited by this talk, and I still have months to prepare. It really make s a huge difference when conference organizers take an hour of their time and talk to you about their community, their needs, and the general sense of focus and interest. I’m absolutely certain this talk will be the better for it.

And while the idea of small is bouncing around in my mind Tim Owens and I get on call with Jon Udell. One of the things he is thinking through right now is small systems integration. In particular as product manager for Hypothesis, how did Reclaim integrate web hosting into a universities identity management systems. Fact is, our work with providing universities a seamless, integrated service for web hosting on their campus is pretty awesome.  We integrate with several authentication systems used at various universities: CAS, Shibboleth, Active Directory, LDAP, and we joined InCommon, a federated ID management consortium through Internet2, to make the Shibboleth that much more seamless.

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Reclaim’s Daydream Nation

Spirit desire.
– “Teenage Riot,” Daydream Nation

Last week we christened yet another host node server at Reclaim Hosting (Fugazi filled up quick!), this one was named after NYC’s indie rock pioneers Sonic Youth. It was interesting timing because the first school we got setup was NYU—their Library will be running a pilot web hosting service for their community through Reclaim. Last week was also when Audrey Watters released the aspirational Kraken that was her post on Indie Ed-Tech. It’s a brilliant follow-up on her year-end post about the Indie Web in 2014. I read the post several times while listening to Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (I recommend the experience), and what struck me is the strong, brilliant chorus of aspiration—a desire to challenge what’s peddled in the pedant realm of the possible, a bending of the very genre of what ed-tech is, was, and can be. And no one sees that spirit of desire more clearly; articulates what we can’t hear more soundly; or sings the story of our field better. #NOBODY!!!

…indie ed-tech underscores the importance of students and scholars alike controlling their intellectual labor and their data; it questions the need for VC-funded, proprietary tools that silo and exploit users; it challenges the centrality of the LMS in all ed-tech discussions and the notion that there can be one massive (expensive) school-wide system to rule them all; it encourages new forms of open, networked learning that go beyond the syllabus, beyond the campus. It’s not only a different sort of infrastructure, it’s a different sort of philosophy than one sees promoted by Silicon Valley – by the ed-tech industry or the (ed-)tech press.

We may fall, but not with giving those bastards everything we got!!!

It’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation

“The Internet is the most basic form of the punk rock revolution”

smallisbeautiful1973I highly recommend this interview from back in 2008 that [[Ian Svenonius]] conducts with Calvin Johnson of [[K Records]], [[Beat Happening]], [[Halo Benders]], and [[Dub Narcotic Sound System]] and more. The discussion starts with Johnson talking about how the work he has done with independent labels was inspired by E.F. Schumacher‘s book Small is Beautiful which posits the idea of Appropriate Technology:

…it is generally recognized as encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale,decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled.[1]

K Records was made possible in part by the viability of the cassette tape as a cheaper, more intimate technology in the early 80s, an approach Johnson traces to this idea of appropriate technology. Trying to produce and record an album of a bunch of friends making music that maybe 30 or 40 other people was next to impossible with vinyl. To make an album, Johnson explains, you needed to press at least 1000 records for the production process to make economical sense. But that also assumes you could sell 1000 records—it becomes to assume mass. But cassettes make recording for just a handful of people not only possible, but extremely affordable. What’s more, it becomes a much more localized, independent, and decentralized process. He then goes on to suggest that K Records was also inspired by Smithsonian’s Folk Ways Records label. Rather than focusing on public relations and promotion, they focused on documenting and sharing the creative process—a deliberate choice that belies an ethos and an aesthetic.


When asked if he sees himself as the leader of the International Pop Underground, he answers there is no leader, rather it’s a decentralized, amorphous, amoeba-like entity. Then moves on to an inspired riff (9:21) about drawing from one of the most “radical and forward-thinking” artist of the 20th century: Charles Schulz. He cites the world of Peanuts as a true underground that’s lived in and created by the kids, a world that adults have no place or authority. But goes on to add a true underground is still within the real world and can’t escape its problems. And this is why, he continues, it must always re-invent itself to deal with those issues. Ending the whole bit with, “the best thing about creative work is that there is no hierarchy.” Amen.

Towards the very end of the interview (26:10) Svenonious wonders, given how arduous the production process is for capturing music,”Why don’t people just sing to one another?” A off-handed remark that Johnson turns into a brilliant moment in which he posits: “That’s what the internet is.” By sidestepping the whole production process they’re singing directly to one another while making it available instantly all around the world. A technological development that he sees as “the most basic form of the punk rock revolution.”

What an awesome interview, and damn Calvin Johnson is smart. So much to think about.

The Reclaim Code

As Bud (the great Harry Dean Stanton) notes after snorting a long line of speed in Repo Man (1984), “Not many people have a code to live by anymore.”  I couldn’t agree with him more, and this seems particularly true in edtech where we seem to spend far too much time and energy searching for technological salvation through analytics, data, and scale. The closest thing to a code most “innovators” cannibalizing edtech proffer are hollow notions of disruption.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Repo Code ever since Tim and I were talking the other day about our vision for the future. As we double-down on our commitment to Reclaim Hosting, we have to make one thing entirely clear: we are NOT EDUPRENEURS. If you label us as such, we will be offended. This word suggests we are trying to disrupt educational institutions. We are not, we are trying to support those who want to do cool things within them. That horrible word also suggests we are sitting on some big idea waiting for angel funding of VC investment. This is not the case, we WILL NOT be taking any VC funding from anyone for two reasons:  a) VC funding is the devil’s work, and b) we have a viable business model based on a trailing edge technology called web hosting.

What’s more, how we have built our business over the last two years is simple: we have kept our prices and overhead very low and provided exceptional service. This is not ground breaking, it’s just solid work. Work both Tim and I are really proud of. We’re an independent hosting label focused on supporting education, but open to any and everyone. The notion of independence is very important to us because it means we are not beholden to any other interests but our own. I like to believe we are part of what I hope becomes a broader movement of independent edtech, “green spaces” for exploration, experimentation, and collaboration. We need to Reclaim Innovation from the corporate disruptors.

SO, Tim and I have come up with you might call a Reclaim C.O.D.E. to quickly delineate what we believe and why we are doing this.

Community: First and foremost, Reclaim was made possible by the various and variegated people in our community. Reclaim Hosting is part of a long history of experiments and collaborations: ds106, Hippie Hosting, Domain of One’s Own, etc. Many of the people who use and trust Reclaim Hosting are the same ones who helped us build it. Moving forward it only seems natural that these are the same people that will join Reclaim in more official capacities as we grow. We will hire from within!!!

Openness: Tough term, it’s taken a beating as of late for good reason: over used, under delivered. For us openness remains what it has always been. Share everything we do openly and freely. We will share all our work/code openly on the web. Our model is not some secret sauce code base, it’s support and development to people who want to experiment with teaching and learning on the open web. The more we share it, the better it is for everyone, especially the people we work with! [One of the under appreciated laws of blogging.]

Decency: Unfortunately web hosting is an industry over-run with fear-mongering and bullying that is built into the very fabric of the business. Just take a look at Godaddy or Network Solutions, it’s awful. We’ve done a lot to make the process easier, more decent, and honest (and we still have much more to do to make it even better). We won’t prey on people’s fear of getting hacked or manipulate their lack of understanding how certain things work. When you work with Reclaim Hosting, you will be treated with decency and honesty.

Education: Our strength is education. Not simply because we have worked in higher ed for decades, but also because the mission behind Reclaim Hosting is to try and educate as many people as possible about how the web works. Ask any of the more than 700+ folks who have submitted a ticket at Reclaim Hosting how that’s worked for them. We spend time showing folks how to use this space to create something on the web. Reclaim Hosting is a community for educators to explore the web for teaching and learning, and it may be the best thing to happen to higher ed since ds106

That’s the C.O.R.E. for us. We have a strong value system we operate from, so you’ve been warned. What’s more, we’re not necessarily consultants. People ask us to consult, and we have and can. But I associate consulting with parachuting in and out telling folks what they need. That’s not us, we have an ongoing relationship with folks once the come to work with Reclaim. Out core business model is built on providing web infrastructure for learning from the individual to the course to an entire institution. We partner with all of them to suggest how to use it most effectively. But not one and run, but, rather, over time. It’s a relationship, it’s part of a broader community of independent edtech. That’s what we do, and it’s pretty amazing.