Love Sick with Em Haich & May May
Posted on April 14 2019
Name: Em Haich
Age: Late 20's
Star Sign: Cancer
IG alias: N/A
Age: Wiser than my years
Star Sign: Water and Fire
IG alias: Nope!
Laurel aka Kee Kee: Well hello beautiful people! I thought I’d start off and give our readers a little back story about our relationship, we met at The Bad Old Days a kitsch local bar in Ridgewood and formed a friendship through Australian movies (Strictly Ballroom #1), how online hosting sites are a waste of money, fashion, and the projects you’re working on.
Now that we all know how we met, how did you two meet?
Em Haich: A few years ago, I was hanging around and very involved in doing projects of various sorts at a radical Leftist hangout in Queens, which is where May came to visit for a few reasons as one stop on a perpetual journey. Back then I was pretty disinterested in digital technology, has tried to foster an organic interest in it and being pretty disgusted and hurt by people in tech scenes prior.
But we were at a group dinner one night at the same time, and I overheard May, who had introduced themselves as a tech person the week prior, say that they "didn't care about computers." This piqued my interest. What could that *mean*, you know? A little later, I saw them actually use their computer. It wasn't like anything I had ever seen. It was more like dancing, or more like watching someone very skilled at a craft. And there was a moment then when I thought, there's something there that I think I knew about once but forgot, and it seems like May had some secret of how to do... whatever it is May is doing right now. So, okay. Now I need to know everything.
MayMay: Shortly after I arrived in NYC, I started attending community dinner events at a local social center. I met a lot of people, but the only person who really shined in that group was Em. I returned time and again and the two of us began to interweave our works and interests.
KK: You both work together really well and it shows with your events and even your normal day to day interactions. Can you guys give us a little intro into the library you’re working on right now?
EH: The library project – which has become kind of a catch-all descriptor for the project in its entirety – is an attempt to bring autonomous digital infrastructure to a community context. We're doing that by building these small, inexpensive, lightweight servers, and hosting certain services on them, including an end-to-end encrypted chat service that uses an implementation of the Signal protocol, the digital library, and, most recently, a quasi-digital artist residency. These "nodes" will eventually be networked together directly – but at this stage, people have to visit physical locations where they're hosted to see the services or get the resources off the servers.
I do think it is important to make the distinction that we are *not* building a mesh network, although I think to mesh networking does have its place and there are some cool groups doing things with it across the world, but what mesh networking generally aims at is getting a connection to the public Internet. That isn't what we want here. What we want would be better described alternative internets or "intranets" in this case, where surveillance isn't a core tenant, where stuff is administered by your friends and your neighbors but where there are also private corners, with services that we all need and want to use.
This is actually all relatively very easy, so long as you have the drive to do it and the time to hone the skill. Time is the most important resource because this can be done for almost no money. All it takes is for other people to trust you to do it with them, in their spaces and so on.
For those like me who found the time to learn to do this stuff, if there was a little more turning back to their communities and friends and neighbors, we would have a very different world. That's kind of what we're aiming for.
MM: "The Library" is simply a collection of free and original e-books and digital artwork that began as a personal collection from my various travels. I've always been kind of a digital packrat, and so whenever I found something that interested me, I saved it. I prefer digital texts because it's so much easier to search for specific phrases or references using software than using wetware (my brain).
A lot of the items I'd collected over the years were digitized zines, self-published books, and essays, or just scans of artwork that friends shared. Often, when I showed this collection to people, they would ask if I had works by or knew about some other person. If I didn't, but they did, they'd share a copy with me. Over time, the collection grew and now it has more than 2,700 items cataloged by creator, title, publication date, language, and a whole ton of other metadata that can be used to browse and explore it, like tags.
KK: What sparked the idea to start this project? And what do you both bring to the table individually and as a team?
MM: Haha, well, the initial content was my personal collection, even though it's grown to include lots of other people's contributions now. So, I guess that's probably the most important thing I brought to this particular project. :)
EH: More credit should be given to May here in terms of for how long they've been doing this work. When they came to Queens a few years ago and I first met them, their travels were all about building autonomous community infrastructure for activists and neighborhoods. In terms of cultivating autonomy, digital infrastructure is one of the most important things that most communities are missing because the tech was usurped so heavily by corporations and governments.
So, to know intimately the potential power of that, and how it all works, and then to realize you can actually do, in terms of digital infrastructure, everything corporations and governments can do, then the only conclusion for people who are engaged with movements towards collective autonomy such as ourselves is to apply the skills we have to make just that. I think I arrived at this specific idea independently because after I had enough skill and knowledge, it seemed like the logical conclusion and the same one I always arrive at with any of my projects, but May was already long since there by the time I met them.
I think the best value I add to this team is my tendency to juxtapose unexpected things. Things that don't normally "go" together or aren't associated with each other, like fashion and hacking, or like artist residencies and autonomous infrastructure. I'm a relentless thinker for better or for worse and my favorite activity is turning ideas upside down and shaking them to see what falls out. I think that's resulted in ways of communicating with others that have resulted in some productive work, and that work sets us apart from most of what else is happening.
KK: What’s the big picture for your library project?
EH: The ideal goal in my mind would be to have a buzzing hive of creative and political energies all self-orchestrating in digital architectures based within communities. For people to be able to talk to each other, share resources, organize things like food and clothing shares and transportation, all of this ultimately supporting physical structures in which more autonomous practices could also happen. It can't happen without digital technologies, not at the rate and efficiency with which we need it to, not when the rest of the world is functioning off it. A lot of people with deep technophobia will refuse this, but they are also under some false impressions that have been force fed to everyone. If you think something is evil, of course, you won't touch it, let alone want to master it.
Right now, our technology is suffocating us because no one knows how to use it or what it's really doing. Taking that power back and putting it in service to liberatory pursuits, as it should be, that is the sort of big-big picture for me.
MM: I want people to actually have the things that matter to them individually, and for our communities to have access to the knowledge we need to actually be self-governing, autonomous communities in the truest senses of those words. So many things that people personally care about—their favorite books or poems, for example—are only available after purchasing subscriptions. Similarly, a lot of important knowledge like the basics of residential electrical wiring, car repair, plumbing, or gardening, is only available if you can afford the price tags.
This is the Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon model of capitalism. It's gross, infantilizing, and doesn't even always work as reliably as our Library does in the first place. If you don't have a good signal on your phone, you can't listen to "your music" or read all "your books." They're not even legally *yours*. All you actually paid for was *access to* them. And to add insult to injury, you have to pay merely for access to be able to access your music by paying your phone company or Internet Service Provider, too.
I think anyone who really understands how fundamentally different this model is from literally every other way every other economic model has ever functioned would see how patently unfair to working-class people this whole model is. It's like double-taxation, but worse. These days, a single modern smartphone can store more books than hundreds of physical libraries used to, so why should we pay the equivalent of intellectual rent just to read stuff? Even going to a physical library is harder than it used to be because so many of them have shut down due to lack of public funding.
My personal library started as a local collection simply so that I could always have access to my personal books even if my Internet connection went down (which it often did) or if I couldn't afford to pay a monthly subscription just for access to books I might or might not even read that month (which I couldn't). Our Library project is the same thing as that, just on the scale of a neighborhood instead of a single person.
KK: You had your first Hex90 event last month, which was an interactive space with arcade games, live chat room, live hacking and a visual light show using coding. It was like the film Hackers, I wish I had brought my laptop along to completely join in. Where did the idea come about for this event and what were you hoping to achieve?
MM: I just wanted to party! And I wanted to make a space where people felt like they could be hackers, too. Basically, I just wanted to be in a club environment that I would really enjoy. I'm not very big into mosh pits or huge concerts and large dance floors where you kind of feel pressured to dance, though that can be cool and fun sometimes, too. I'm so glad you came and had a good time! You looked great, too.
EH: See also: my desire to turn things topsy-turvy. I got actually angry at the idea that there weren't parties like in the 1995 movie "Hackers," at least not in this country. I started asking, why not? It seemed like something was unbalanced in the universe. Moreover, it sounded like something really fun that needed to exist.
On the level of galvanizing people, it also became this thing where computers could be fun again. The element of this movement being led by queerness and by marginalized people cuts into the idea of there being potential alternative histories. At that event, I heard a few times "this takes me back," and what I want to say to that is, good, because you're remembering this thing that I also forgot, too – that being connected or leveraging digital tools could be like this – fun and celebratory and mysterious – instead of the surveillance capitalism nightmare strip mall we have now.
So, it's not about going back, it's about celebrating what we can do now, what we can do together in the future.
KK: What does the name Hex90 mean?
EH: For me, it represents the mythic pause before the world emerges from the void.
MM: Hex 90" is shorthand for "hexadecimal nine-zero," which is the number (in hex) of the Intel x86 architecture's NOP instruction. "NOP" is a mnemonic for "no-operation," which tells the CPU that it has no work to do at that moment. When you have no work to do, it seems to me like it's a good time for a party.
KK: What sort of events will we see in the future?
MM: Hopefully, lots! A hacker fashion show, perhaps? ;)
EH: We have tons planned! Tech Learning Collective is a collaboration we have with a lot of other spaces around the city, that will offer high-quality technical education to activists and community members on a sliding scale basis, Instance Gallery is getting up and running so there will be gallery shows and/or talks, there will be many more launch parties for more nodes as they arrive in more places throughout the city – since it's becoming Springtime now I feel like these seeds we planted are starting to bloom now. More Hex90 to come, even bigger and better parties, with Laurel at the forefront of the next one as we investigate hacking fashion, we'll be popping into a ton of open mics and doing more hacker demos – there's a lot to come.
KK: May, you said something that really stood out for me; “hacking out not hacking in” can you elaborate on that?
EH: So, I love this, because that isn't what May said. May said "*breaking* out versus breaking in," but you changed it to "hacking out versus hacking in," which I absolutely *love*, because for starters that sounds much better, but I also love that you absorbed this idea and gave your own language to it.
MM: I just mean that a lot of what people think of when they hear "hacking" is related to "breaking into" devices. There's a lot of lore about "unauthorized access," basically access violations. For one thing, glorifying access violations seems way too overdone a thing to be interested in. Lots of people—including techbros and computer security professionals—intentionally violate all kinds of boundaries all the time, and not just the ones belonging to their computer. So, obviously, fuck that noise.
But, more so, hacking is fundamentally about working hard to make yourself more capable and give yourself more options than you had before. To do that, and even just to be good at hacking, you have to think in a new way. Break out of the box! This is just as true for computer hacking as it is for any other kind of creative work. You don't want to box yourself in, you want to break free from whatever box (or boxes!) you've been in all this time. I mean, isn't that what everyone says they want?
KK: You’ve both been into computers, HTML and coding since a young age, what drew you to “hacking”. I’m using quotations because your hacking is for good and not for evil, lol.
EH: I never fostered a deep, knowledge-laden experience with computers because unlike May, I got to go to schools that were pretty good at fostering autonomy and I went to (a public) art school for high school and stuff like this. So, I didn't feel the need to break out of school so much because I generally liked what I was getting to do and my friends, plus I felt I was actually learning about the things that mattered to me. I know I am exceptionally lucky in that sense.
That said, I did love HTML since age 8.
I never got into Neopets or anything – I just liked the pages for themselves. But I also really liked illusions, magic, and things not being exactly as they were supposed to be. I've been a fan of the unexpected as a means for getting to other truths for a long time. So, I guess I had a hacker mentality before I had any true understanding of what I was doing.
I loved playing computer games in after school with my friends, but mostly because I loved finding all the bugs and where things were broken. Broken websites were especially thrilling, putting in URLs wrong and getting to places we weren't supposed to – we were actually "hacking" without knowing what we were doing.
I also loved chat rooms. For their intended novelty as much as for their own unique strangeness.
Then there were online games that had paywalls for certain features, and I figured out just by diving into the files for the game how you could change the configs to activate features you weren't technically supposed to have unless you paid.
And like I said, I even really liked computers until I got old enough to discover that the vast majority of a culture around computing is absolutely disgusting and horrible for many reasons. In part that's why meeting May was such a strange experience. I wasn't expecting to ever like computers again, let alone get so deeply into them as I am now.
MM: I started getting serious about computers generally when I was about 12 years old and I wanted to convince the adults in my life to let me drop out of school. It failed, of course, because all making a website at that age about how much I shouldn't be in school convinced people of was how much "potential" I had. This was in the late 90's and early 2000s when the Web was still this very personal, very amateurish place. It was a different Web. I think it was a better, more valuable Web than we have today. No one on the Internet knew I was a kid, so I wasn't treated like one. That was a breath of fresh air after fighting with school faculty all day. I did ultimately drop out, I never got my GED, and I never went to college. I think that was probably the best thing I could have done for myself at the time. The most important thing school taught me was how to resist authority.
I started getting serious about computer *security* after I had been politically vocal online and became a target of political adversaries. That's a much more common experience these days, but in the mid-2000's it was still kind of novel and rare to be the target of attacks from online mobs or to have your own website personally targeted and hacked. I already had a lot of the foundational computer skills I needed—and not for nothing, but these foundations are still missing from most computer classes today—so it was relatively easy for me to pick up security tools to start testing the security of my own websites and to start using privacy-enhancing tools like Tor on a day-to-day basis while interacting online. Necessity is the mother of invention, I guess.
KK: What does it mean to “live off the land” in the internet world?
EH: There are a few specific contexts in which this gets used. In a hacking sense, it means stuff like, if you're hacking a website that runs PHP, don't execute Python code there, because it will be obvious that something is wrong. That is sort of like, don't redirect a river just so you can put a building somewhere (looking at you, Google). That will be obviously wrong. But for me, I think a different understanding that has been really powerful is to understand just how extremely powerful your devices are before you even install any additional software. Our phones are now more powerful than the *idea* of the most powerful computer in 1982. That's actually the crux of the secret: what you can do with what's in your pocket is so inconceivably powerful, that if everyone knew that, the world would be different. This is why most phone commercials focus on how well it runs Netflix instead.
MM: "Living off the land" is a concept that the computer security industry borrowed (*COUGH*appropriated*COUGH*) to mean "make use of what's available before you work on building new things." If you are trying to hack a web server powering a web site that was written in the PHP programming language, then you should probably use PHP-based tools, like weevely, to do so, because half the setup work is already done for you. If you don't know much about PHP, then this is your opportunity to learn about it, your opportunity to get closer to the land.
A lot of people don't realize just how much *stuff* is already provided for them. Whether they're looking at their iPhone screen or their lawn, a lot of them are just wasting their land when they could be living off it. All they have to do is learn what it actually is and how to interact with it. This is what indigenous peoples have been doing and advocating for long before computer chips were invented. If Silicon Valley really wanted to "make the world a better place," they would do a lot more to make this idea part and parcel of our everyday experience rather than trying to sell us more shit we don't need.
KK: Do you need to know a hell of a lot of coding to live off the land?
EH: I sure hope not. Actually, I guess the point of living off the land is to know *less* coding. Coding, as it were, turns out to be less important than other things when it comes to digital technologies.
MM: Not really, no. I mean, how much do you need to know about genetics to grow a raspberry bush? Not a lot, but I'm sure it helps.
KK: You both have such interesting back stories, that I want to delve into for a hot minute. Like, Em you were a fashion photographer and May you left your IT job to drive around the country which was only meant to be a few months but went on much longer. I guess the question is to just give us a little insight into that period of your lives, what were your motivations and what did you guys both learn from those experiences?
EH: My motivation was some kind of artistic calling. I majored in creative writing in high school, and then I fell into photography and it swept me away, irretrievably. At the time that happened, I was also experimenting with clothes and fashion and that quickly became another obsession. I paired the two together and that passion stuck with me for the next number of years until I made it to major art school for university and got exposed to new stuff and felt the need to break free from that zone creatively.
I'm still irretrievable from photography but my goals, passions, tastes are extremely different now than they were then. The technology wasn't a part of my life then in a conscientious way and neither really was working wholly in political radicalism. I was totally focused on my work, and then eventually all that shifted. Other people get a lot of the credit for helping me get language for my at-odds feeling in the world as well as springboards for how to act in response to that sense and the facts of unjust structures in the world.
MM: Yeah, lol. :) I…guess you could say I had the equivalent of a spiritual awakening, or maybe a mental breakdown, or maybe those are the same thing? I have always hated tech jobs, and from what I hear they have just gotten worse. So, in a way, I'm really lucky that I got into the field when I did, because if I couldn't take it then, I certainly wouldn't have gotten into it now.
I was living in San Francisco at the time and I was deeply disappointed by all of it. I found the people cliquish and closed-minded (even the far-left "radical" ones), the tech boring, and the politics asinine. And those were all the reasons I went to live in SF in the first place. Maybe the city really was like all the romantic stories you hear about it at one point, but I either missed the boat or they were all lies in the first place. So, I said fuck it, I'm out. I posted an ad on Craigslist saying, "Here's my address, take anything you want." I was actually pretty terrified by the whole thing, but I also already felt like I didn't care about anything anymore, so I did it anyway.
All in all, I spent almost ten years living "on the road." (I spent a lot of time on couches, too.) I learned the obvious things, like how to dumpster dive for food. I learned some less-obvious skills, like how to pick locks. But most of all I learned how to quickly assess a social situation, get a read on people, and build rapport. This is all the same stuff you hear about what con artists are good at, but it's also the same stuff that so-called "successful" people are good at, too. The skills or the tools aren't bad or good; it's what the person who has or uses them chooses to do with them that makes them bad or good.
KK: How did you both end up in New York?
EH: I originally came here to go to school and to be closer to fashion. My reasons and feelings have shifted but my sense that New York is where I should be right now hasn't changed.
MM: Oh no, I hope I haven't *ended* up here! :) I don't plan to stick around forever
KK: Do you have any NY life hacks?
EH: There is a lot of clean, good food in dumpsters everywhere. So much food, so much waste; so much gourmet waste. Always use the weird numbered option when refilling your MetroCard – that's how you avoid giving the MTA extra money (or use their online card calculator). Also never believe anything the MTA says. LinkNYC is evil, don't plug your phone into them. Be careful on unencrypted WiFi hotspots. Weekday happy hours are the cheapest and best times to be in lower Manhattan if you're trying to be out. There are actually more free or permissive restrooms than one might think – Bluestockings is an activist space that has a permissive restroom policy and really cheap coffee. Mil Mundos which just opened and will soon have a node is also the same deal.
The Washington Square Park restrooms are gender neutral. There are signs that say so. Also, Queer Food Share on Facebook is a great way to get free food if you are queer and in need. I don't love that it's on Facebook but it's a good resource.
MM: Sneaking into Columbia University classrooms is actually really easy if you dress the part, and they're often quiet. Plus, you don't need to buy a coffee. I get a lot of reading done there when I'm in that part of town.
KK: Em, you’re now working at a nonprofit arts organization. Who does your organization help and what’s your day to day there?
EH: The organization I work for does a lot of things for artists, but the section I work on specifically builds free software for artists. I'm a Site Reliability Engineer there. I get to work from home, which is awesome, and I get to work in an environment full of creative, smart, kind people, which is also awesome. Once again, luck of the draw. But I also wouldn't have this job if I didn't get what May was doing and believe in it, frankly. Not to give them all the credit, but that is true.
KK: What’s one of the coolest computer or hacking related things that you’ve both taught each other?
EH: May has taught me SO much! I taught May about Volatility, which is a memory analysis toolkit, and introduced them to a security researcher we like. I also taught them about how the CWE (Common Weakness Enumeration) system works.
MM: Em's an amazing researcher. This one time, when we were preparing a template to document vulnerabilities in friend's websites, Em basically digested the entirety of the Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) standard, something I'd known about for a long time but never really bothered to dive into it. I find it pretty bureaucratic and hard to read. But Em got through it like half a day and broke it down for me in a way that made a ton of stuff about it click.
KK: Do you have any tips or free online resources that creatives or artists can use for their websites or showcasing their work?
EH: For artists, especially those working in photographic media, check out Instance Gallery and its quasi-digital residency program! If you're a performing artist, get in touch with us about Hex90! We would love to hear from even more creative people for whatever kinds of possible collabs.
MM: There is actually a lot of free Web site hosting services out there, but most of them are geared for programmers. This sucks because it's a kind of socialism-of-the-techies. There's no reason "creatives" can't also use these free services, except that I've seen a lot of them get understandably intimidated by the language these services use. The famous one is GitHub Pages, which is actually surprisingly easy to use. The catch is that you have to write your own HTML. There's no graphical, drag-and-drop interface like there is on, say, a WordPress theme.
Even if you don't want to code your own site (though you probably can code it yourself if you give it a go—there are good free classes online to learn the basics, and of course our Library has many free books about web design, including the ones I wrote) you could have a friend do it or pay someone to write the code for you, and then use GitHub Pages or its similarly-named competitor, GitLab Pages, to host your website for free. That way, you're not paying for yet-another-monthly subscription service. I mean, why pay website rent when you don't have to?
KK: Where can the followers stalk you online? Also, where can the NY natives catch your next event?
EH: They can't. :) But we can teach them how to also not be stalked if they need it! The best place to do that would be at the queer mini hackerspace we run on Sundays called I/o.
MM: I don't use social media anymore because it stopped being valuable for me. As for events in New York, you should check out the calendars of the various groups I'm involved in! There are too many to name, but you can find some events at aggregators like Anarchism.NYC, for example.
KK: What if someone wanted to hire you for your coding/website/internet services? Is that a possibility and where can they catch you?
MM: Well, I don't generally do that sort of thing anymore. If you need a website and you came to me, I'd be much more likely to tutor you than to build and manage the website for you. My goal is not necessarily to teach you how to code or anything, unless you wanted that, in which case, cool. Rather, my goal is to make it so that you are truly self-reliant.
Most people use money as a replacement for having nurturing, mutually beneficial relationships. When I use money, I want it to be for facilitating nurturing, mutually beneficial relationships. This also means that the nature of "hiring" me is not what you might be used to: I'm not a service provider, and you're not a customer. We're friends working on a project you care about in a way that makes you increasingly more capable to do that project on your own over time, while simultaneously paying companies like Squarespace or Wix less and less, while you do more and more. This makes hiring me a terrible choice for most people because they're almost always "just looking to pay someone to do it."
So instead of doing projects directly, these days I mostly teach classes on various subjects as one of the teachers at the TechLearningCollective.com. We do have a Web design and development track there, so if you enroll, I might be your teacher during the course!
KK: I always have the best time talking to you both, you have awesome energy, and are so super positive. I love how you’re both giving back to the community with your events and online library. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me and play dress ups!
EH: You are one of the coolest people on the planet. This is such a great idea and I can't wait to see even more of it, you, and more beautiful things from Laurel!
MM: Thank you for letting me dress up and for giving me a chance to practice being less awkward in front of a camera! ^_^;