John Richter
Exploring innovative ways to connect people to the environment. Artist-, filmmaker-, scientist-, technologist-, entrepreneur-wannabe. My Tumblr is       more...
Twitter: @jahnreektor

2015: 2.5 years in review

I'm currently in Arkansas, visiting my parents for New Years, and I fell asleep for the big countdown!  Unable to sleep, I figured I would finally write the long overdue recap of what's going on in my life.  

If there's one defining shift that's occurred over the past two years, it's that I spend less time on introspection and more on running forward.  My journal entries have all dried up: there is an inverse relationship between maintaining an ongoing log of thoughts and getting stuff done.  If there's two defining shifts, it's that my idealism, while it still exists, ain't quite what it used to be.  I sense it's somewhere between that uninhibited and unencumbered child form and the brasstacks, get-shit-done adult form.  This is a good place for it to be: not quite hollowed out by disillusionment :-P and a greater focus that comes with age and experience.  I'm at the age when many do their best work.

My musical palate has completely morphed.  My playlist used to be dominated by carefree 90s hits, twee bluegrass, and the like, but lately it's been dominated by mashups, rap, and similar stuff.  But maybe I'll move back in the other direction again.

Basically, life is moving forward, for better or worse!  So without further ado, here's what happened the past 2.5 years:

Mid 2012 - Finished school at UT-Austin
In May 2012, I finished studying computer science at the University of Texas.  I studied for three semesters after having obtained a BA in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis.  My original motivation for going to UT-Austin was to radically shift the course of my life: I wanted more control over my destiny, and I wanted to write the blueprint for what the world will look like in the future.  Mission accomplished: I feel switching fields has given me so much more creative control and meaning.  

In Spring of 2011, I took off a semester to work at the Natural Gardener, an organic gardening nursery.  A lot of my current branches of thoughts regarding sustainability fermented in that semester off.

If there's anything I regret about my experience, it's: (1) I didn't take initiative to see people I wanted to see.   (2)  I ended the period by burning a bridge.  At the time it felt necessary, but in retrospect......those conflicts seem so utterly pointless.   And they mostly are.  Life is a transient thing, and keeping connections is (usually) so much more valuable than losing them!

October 2012 - Moved to Portland
I made the trek to Portland in October 2012.  The motiviations were mixed, but the main one was looking for a change of scenery.  I love it in the Pacific Northwest: it's green, progressive, gorgeous.  At times, it can feel like Samelandia, though.

November 2012 - Cofounded a local food system startup, then got kicked out
A mere month after moving to Portland, I was lucky to randomly run into a guy who suggested I attend startup weekend, where I helped form a team to work the on local food systems startup.  We won third place, and then we worked on the startup for the following 8 months.  I recruited our CEO twice--wooing him back after he backed out after an initial commitment.   I was eventually kicked out by said CEO in June 2013.  Here's what I wrote of the experience:

I was working on a local food systems-based startup up until June, when I was kicked out.  It was upsetting, but in retrospect, it wasn't all that surprising. Background:  I had cofounded the company some eight months earlier during Portland Startup Weekend, and I had played a primary role in keeping the team, vision, and passion together when all the wind was out of the sails at various points, including recruiting our CEO (twice!).  Fast forward:  the company evolved, and I failed to evolve with it.   It was party due to waning interest, but largely due to my dearth of business experience compared to the other two cofounders (I was about half a decade younger).   As the startup shifted away from my skillets and activist ideals, I less enthusiastically participated in its development, making myself expendable to company.   Now that I'm on the other side, I have a clear-eyed view of the difficulty of founding a startup as well as my own deficiencies.  I'm 100% certain I want to get back into the startup world, and I'm already working on my business deficiencies.  I'm still and activist and an idealist at heart, but one that is chastened/more refined by the market/business world! 

The startup shut down a few months later -- partly a victim of a dull vision infused by a bad advisor.  The product was one that was great in theory, but didn't work out in the market -- at least how we implemented it.

April 2013 - Cofounded 350PDX
While I was still part of the startup, I cofounded 350PDX, the Portland branch of  350 is the largest climate change organization in the world, and it was cofounded by NASA scientists James Hansen and author Bill McKibben.   It was shocking that a city as progressive as Portland didn't have a 350 branch.  After a 350 house party was hosted in Portland in February, I was half-expecting an official Portland group to form, but nothing happened.  So I took the initiative, asking that a Google Group be made with the list of emails from the house party, and posting discussions on starting a 350 PDX group.  I got surprisingly few replies initially, but kept plugging emails.  I even set up and designed the website--something well within my skill domain--before there was a group!  Eventually, I got an email from Adam Brunelle, and together with Adriana, Bonnie, and Kevin, we formed with initial 350PDX steering committee.

I have long since stepped away, but today, 350PDX has hundreds of members and is one of the biggest names in the Portland activist community.

Fall and Winter 2013 - Hacker School and fork in the road
In October 2013, I attended Hacker School by the YCombinator, where I saw Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), the CEO of AirBNB, Balaji Srinavisan, and others speak.  Going to Hacker School was great, but I was also struck by the mindlessness and lack of conviction in the culture.   SV is a culture filled with tradespersons and bounty hunters and doppelgangers, but relatively few real visionaries.  (Alas, like anywhere.)  (Edit: to be fair, there are way more visionaries in SV than just about anywhere, but the groupthink is incredibly strong too.)

In winter 2013, I was at a major fork in the road after having been kicked out of the startup.  Did I want to move to Silicon Valley and pursue the startup scene hardcore, or did I want to stay in PDX and try to carve out an original path? I chose to stay...

February 2014 - Cofounded the Pale Blue Dot activist house
The reason why I stayed in PDX was to cofound an activist house with Adam Brunelle.  The Pale Blue Dot was named after my favorite thing EVAR, the Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot:  Rather than move to SV, I stuck to my activist path: my conviction is my defining trait, so I can't realistically give up 10+ hours per day working on software I find meaningless in the scheme of things.

The scale of climate change is such that it requires people of conviction to mobilize in the most effective way possible.  We in the PBD don't agree on implementation, but we agree that we should try.   So here's our shot. 

PBD has been a smash hit: we've hosted meetings and parties and made connections.  It's been incredibly fun and rewarding to be around people who give a damn, and it will only get better in 2015 as we start having community activist dinners.

July 2014 - Got a jerb
After freelancing for 2 years, I finally got a real job.  It's actually gone pretty well, and I quickly gained responsibility due to the fact that the senior UI developer quit shortly after I joined.  It worked out for the better: I got to flex my UX/UI design talent and develop my programming ability.  The workplace is only a 10 minute bike ride from where I live, which matters more than you think.  

What's going on now
I'm involved with three major projects now:  Oregon Climate, Hack Oregon, and VizEarth.  

I joined Oregon Climate as a volunteer web designer and interactive storytelling dude in April 2014, after Camila, the Executive Director, found the PBD through an activist friend from Wash U.  (Two of my housemates were involved in OC as well but have since moved on.)  I'm on the steering committee, and OC is where most of my extra energy is channeled these days.  The goal of OC is to put a price on carbon to fight climate change and accelerate the transition to a sustainable future.  Economists and scientists agree that the single most effective way to address climate change is to put a price on carbon.  We're already paying the cost of climate change in the form of ocean acidity, devastated agricultural patterns, extreme storms, and more.   That increased cost of carbon reverberates throughout the market, disincentivizing carbon-intensive industries and incentivizing clean energy.  The particular model we're going for is a carbon fee and dividend, where a price is levied per ton CO2, and all resulting revenue goes directly to each Oregonian in a yearly check.  It's an excellent, simple model that has real legs to pass and beyond that, be replicated nationwide.  I'm stoked to be working on the project.

I joined Hack Oregon in summer 2014, working on front end development and data visualization for the Behind the Curtain project.  BTC visualizes public campaign finance data for all candidates, PACs, and Measures in Oregon--from city council level all the way up to senate races and governor races.  This tool allows voters to easily see the financials behind various candidates or measures: the breakdown between grassroots donations vs corporate, the largest donations by corporations and individuals, when money was raised and spent, and where those donations came from.  We launched the project just a few days before election, so we didn't get as much traction as we would have liked.  Now we're in the process of determining what our mission is and what value we bring: whether as a civic-centric digital agency or whether we focus on BTC and possibly replicate it nationwide.

My final project is VizEarth, which will be a data visualization and interactive story blog focusing on the nexus of millenial and ecological issues.  Millenials face record unemployment, whole skillsets being phased out by automation and globalization, absurd student loan debt, and a planet on the brink.  In my most ideal scenario, I would be founding a world-changing startup, but I've decided to instead focus on mastering expression and storytelling.  The project is an attempt take advantage of my natural ability and experience across design, data visualization, and narrative, both written and filmed.  Leveraging that ability, I'll later be able to channel that accumulated capital to other initiatives.

Oh right, I run a book club on Meetup, called the Bad Ass Book Club.  But I plan on stepping away since I'm way too committed.  I also briefly helped with Climate Hawk Votes, a politician accountability initiative with respect to climate change.

Looking forward
Looking forward to 2015, my theme is this: confidence and conviction.  The world is shaped by men and women of conviction.  I want to be single-minded, make connections, and rise to the challenge.

Writing Samples

Does Food Aid Hurt the Food Sustainability of Recipient Nations? - written for Global Political Economy in junior year (age 20)

ASEAN Integration: An Analysis of Progress and an Assessment of Its Future - written for International Institutions in sophomore year (age 19)

Narrative Modes in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler  -  written for the Art of the Novel in senior year, age 22

My personal statement to UT-Austin for my application to the computer science program - age 22

Generating a Change in Behavior - EcoNexus - age 22 or 23

New developments on the horizon...

A few new developments on the horizon over the coming months...

Blogs - My friend Mihir and I are starting a data visualization blog on alternative energy, climate change, policy,  and alternative systems (e.g., bitcoin and local food systems).  Mihir graduated from Emory with a math degree, and he is a data analyst and consultant in clean energy.  The site will be a lot of R and D3 visualizations.   I think the trend towards decentralization with alternative energy (see Mosaic), local food systems, and cryptocurrencies is an important and fascinating one.  Personally, I hope this blog serves as a launching point in getting involved in those issues (ideally, starting a company!)  Unlike this blog, which captures my free form ramblings from my college years, Visualize Earth will provide high quality, semi-quantitative and qualitative analysis a la some of my favorite blogs like GNXP (genetics) and Information Processing (genetics/physics).  That's the idea, anyway.  -  I'm finally getting rid of the first-middle-last name moniker for my portfolio site.   My new site will house my portfolio as well as more experimental/creative projects driven by my personal voice, combining art, science, and narrative.  I strongly believe that people are emotional before they are logical and that art has the capacity to induce mental states (erm, transport people to "higher planes of consciousness") that simply aren't possible via a purely analytical frame.  I have specific ideas of a project I want to do along the lines of those media/narrative exposes you find at places like the Rolling Stone, OPB, or the Seattle Times.  I have all the concrete skillsets required.  Will I realistically have time to complete this project?  It remains to be seen...


Pale Blue Dot Activist House - I cofounded a climate change-centered activist house with a friend of mine.  (We had previously cofounded 350 PDX.)  It was a half a year in the making, and there were several times when it looked liked it wouldn't happen.  We somehow found two more awesome climate change activists.  We're gonna have an urban homestead with chickens and gardens. 

Startups, startups, startups - Oh yeah, that.  I need to get back in on this.  Got a solid idea or two, just need a smart ambitious partner.  Portlandia, land of the slackers, makes this hard.

My resume

Unlike the resume I sent most companies, this one actually shows samplings of my work (i.e., screenshots).  My portfolio site ( is currently under re-development.

//updated.  accepted a job!

My personal statement to UT-Austin

The following is the statement of purpose I wrote for my application to UT-Austin's computer science program.  I wrote it while I was a senior at Washington University and about to graduate with a degree in political science with a minor in economics.  It's interesting looking back on it, as it depicts my psychology at that moment: I had just finished four years of liberal arts training, and I was convinced my path to doing something that matters was through computer science.   (I was right!)

If I were to write a similar essay today, it would be significantly toned down.  I think my idealism would still shine through, but it would be less cheesy and have a harder edge.  :-) 

Seeking the Infinite

One and Zero.

At first glance, these digits appear meek and unassuming.  Too, they seem limited, primitive even.  But I warn you: while you may scoff at the perceived inadequacies of a one and a zero, don’t be fooled by their deceptively simple appearances: these digits are revolutionaries.  In the right hands, they have elected leaders of the Free World, united the peoples of distant lands, and shaken the boots of dictators.  Indeed, I know this because I once doubted the power of a one and a zero.

When I first embarked on my college experience three and a half years ago, I came in with distinct notions of who I was.  Keen on understanding how the world operates, I gravitated towards the liberal arts, immersing myself in the study of great literature, political ideas and movements, and the workings of society.  Through my chosen major and extracurricular activities, I came to be defined, by myself and others, as a specific breed of student: that vague stereotype of one engaged solely in the liberal arts and endowed with a heightened emotional sensitivity.  But in embracing my liberal arts moniker, I allowed the label to overdetermine my identity, simultaneously erasing my past experiences with the sciences—those evenings watching PBS science programs or teaching myself web design—while confining my future progression; I circumscribed my identity between self-imposed borders.

Similarly, one might misinterpret the humble exteriors of these ones and zeros as signs of limitations.  Be wary of such characterizations: bit by hardy bit, these digits form a cohesive unit of functional capability and the logical underpinnings of modern-day computing.  Though their individual responsibilities are deceptively scant—representing one of two states—they can be coaxed and prodded into an infinite array of concerted forms.  Limited these ones and zeros are not: it is through the creative arrangement of these characters that economic productivity and exchange has increased, in turn uniting peoples formerly isolated from one another.  It is through these binary values that, in the 2008 US election, an unlikely candidate of atypical origins was able to win the presidency—an accomplishment scarcely conceivable without the rapid dissemination of information provided by web 2.0 technologies.  And it is through these ones and zeros that, a mere six months later, an authoritarian regime in Iran was shaken to its core when citizens opposed a rigged election, rapidly relaying protest plans through cell phone texts (Twitter)—despite the best efforts of the government to stymie communication.

Over the ensuing years at Washington University, I interned in a variety of sectors related to my liberal arts degree, including nonprofits, documentary filmmaking, and the government, ultimately finding the lack of creative control and the dearth of analytical opportunities frustrating.  Ironically, it was through my internships at the Sierra Club, where I developed a variety of websites, that I started to become aware of my passion for computer science: in each of these projects, I was forced to logically plot and systematically construct dynamic websites through a calculated combination of HTML, CSS, and PHP, incrementally building on prior foundations and isolating errors through deduction.  In immersing myself in the nitty-gritty of web design, I stumbled upon the steady and persistent gratification of analytically solving many small problems and acquired the deeper understanding that these individual components were inextricably tied to a larger picture. 

In youth, our minds tend to overflow with idealism and a sense of the big picture; almost universally, we harbor the preternatural intuition that the world can not only be better, but radically better.   In coming of age, we are forced to apply our idealizations to the reality of the world; often, the amorphous theories of life germinating in our minds don’t measure up to our real life experiences.  Through these disillusionments, we slowly gain a keen awareness of the lurking possibility of failure and existence of limits.  Some of these limits are real, and others are imagined; however, some limits are simply real because we imagine them so—and in the mere process of imagining them, we sanctify and substantiate them.  If not careful, this process of reconciling our real life experiences with our idealizations comes to deleteriously shape our being: it shades our decisions, our concepts of self, and even our notions of a higher power.  We ignore the infinite parallel realities waiting to be culled into existence by an enterprising spirit—realities of a more connected, just, and sustainable world and realities of a more fascinating and meaningful personal life.

Through my circuitous path, I have come to realize that computer science is not just a series of ones and zeros, but in fact much more; that like the letters in a great novel, the components of computer science can be arranged in an infinite array of possibilities, undergirding a limitless number of realities.  Moreover, not only are the logical bases formulated in computer science dependent variables precipitated through the ingenious will of men and women, they are also independent variables unto themselves, enhancing the agency of men and women and unleashing his and her potential.  It is through computer science that I would like boldly shake off internalized limits and imaginatively articulate the pending future—a better one that I know exists.   

 For somewhere in the depths of our beings, we all understand that, just beyond one and zero, lies the infinite.  And it is our task, if not instinct, to seek it. 



Casting off the dull and uninspired and achieving a sustainable planet

[An old post before the great crash]

One transition I've noticed in former climate change skeptics is that they now believe in climate change, but they just argue we shouldn't do anything about it because it's not "worth it", economically or otherwise.  This phenomenon might be worse than outright climate change skepticism because it suggests an underlying deficit of imagination, conviction, and spirit.  (Not to mention, they're just plain wrong.  It's far more expensive to do nothing than something.)  It's the antithetical personality to the "American" archetype: cynical, small, inert vs.  optimistic, courageous, and vigorous.   These skeptics are the dull and uninspired, DU-skeptics for short.

As Colbert says, "Thanks for literally nothing."

More wars over water resources in desertifying third world regions?  No big deal!  Lower crop productivity due to warmer temperatures?  Eh, who needs food!  Mass extinction?  Screw animals!

DU-skeptics couch their viewpoints in some sort of common sense wisdom: "We can't address climate change!  It would affect the economy negatively!" (Never mind the fact that countries like Germany will be 100% renewable energy by 2050.)  It's so silly, it's so small, and, to be frank, it's dumb.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining: the future hasn't been and won't be made by the dull and uninspired.  If the world were exclusively made of people who thought they like they did, we would live in a sad, small world, lacking art, creativity, vigor, and innovation.

Forging a sustainable future is the story of our times.  Society has spent the past 200 years living beyond its means, and we're only now realizing that there’s only so much carbon we can pump in the atmosphere and only so many resources we can consume.    We live on a finite planet with finite resources and finite lives.

And within our lifetimes, we will have the privilege (or misfortune…TBD) of seeing this transition:  new energy technologies will form, policies (hopefully) will be enacted as the picture becomes more dire, economists will even have to reconsider that we don’t, in fact, live in a planet with infinitude.  

The goal is to make that transition happen sooner rather than later, and sweetly instead of tragically.  


I tumble

The weird thing about blogging for me is that I often have battles with how much I want to give away--how much I want to distill into hard prose.  Sometimes I just want to let things float around in my mind in free form.  When you make it persistent, it warps how you think, for better or worse, as you revisit those thoughts more often.  And when you give away too much, you make yourself more vulnerable...

Sometimes I just want to post a video, or a quote, or a song, but that looks like shit on a blog.

So now I tumble.  

Basically, it's F***ING MAGIC! 

[This post originally appeared 02/08, before the great crash.]

Holidays and Thoughts

[This post originally appeared 12/28, before the great crash.]

Holidays and thoughts.

What people need vs want

Need implies something that a person objectively needs in order to prosper. Obvious examples include food, shelter, and other ingredients to good health.

Want introduces a new layer of a person's agency and motivations. This layer can exist in combination with need or independent of it. (Sometimes, people decouple wants from needs, creating a dichotomy between the two where wants tend be frivolous while needs are, well, necessary.) For my purposes, the key to getting people to change behavior--especially for the purposes of sustainability--is to make change something they want and not merely need.

(thoughts spurred by sister's in-laws)

Appreciation of Platforms/Mechanisms vs Culture/Content

Computer science-oriented people tend to appreciate mechanisms over the role of culture and content. Tech companies often create platforms or structures that facilitate certain interactions and the creation of content; the platforms themselves are quite neutral entities. On the other hand, non-tech or logically minded people tend to place too much emphasis on the role of culture and content, often overlooking the role that a good structure, platform, or mechanism has in creating change or facilitating interaction.

In an indirect way, Linus Torvalds made note of this in a lecture he gave about Linux. I saw the lecture many months ago. He basically said that one of the Linux distros created content very well--an area that he personally overlooks. I obviously don't remember much about his lecture other than his aside on the role of content, which shed light on my increasing tendency as a computer science student to overlook the value of content since I was largely involved in designing structures and mechanisms that facilitate content.

Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics (Amazon Link)

This book critiques the pitfalls Neoclassical economics, especially the assumption of endless growth and infinite resources. It challenged a lot of my thinking, and it was a refreshing counterpoint to my econ background. Some areas of it I obviously disagree with it, but its voice is a deeply important one.

Mark 8:36

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?

On Ecological Deficit and Surplus

It's clear that if trendlines persist--with 25 species going extinct everyday, with carbon dioxide accumulating, with landfill trash piling, with population overflowing, etc--that we will live in a drastically less ecologically vibrant planet with each passing year. That's just math. At some point there isn't much left to take away.

And it's hard to overstate the devastingly sad impact a world without intact natural areas and rich biodiversity will have on the human psyche over thousands of years.

One way to think of the dilemma is that certain nations are in ecological in deficit while others are in ecological surplus. Certain nations, like the US or Canada, are living in ecological deficit: we have used or are using our resources at too fast of a rate, and we must rely on nations that are in ecological surplus--generally poor nations that have not consumed their natural resources (or do not have restrictions on them) and do not consume enough by themselves to do so.


The End.

- a handwritten scrawl in Meme Wars, implying that an economic mindset predicated on endless growth will result in ecological destruction


You blame China. You blame India. You blame America. You blame the CEOs, the oil companies, the vague and incoherent ‘system,’ the international regulatory regimes, the hypocrisy of the left, the righteous of the right, the educators, the economy, your parents, your childhood, your job, your bank account, your mental health, your government, everyone and everything but yourself. Wake up! This is no joke. Ecocide is actually happening and your five planet-lifestyle is the primary cause of it. - Meme Wars

You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook. (Why we can't solve big problems - MIT Technology Review)

Society faces big challenges like climate change or traveling to mars, yet most tech companies tend to focus on trivial challenges. The only only tech company created in the modern era with grand aspirations is Google, which wants to liberate the worlds information. Compare this to Apple, IBM, or Microsoft, which wanted a personal computer in every home.


Think like a Genius - Scientific American Mind

Geniuses tend to have a many interests and a common process of discovery.

We need to cultivate environments where geniuses thrive, since nearly all innovation comes from people in the top 1% of ability.

You are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier (Amazon Link)

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, father of virtual reality technology, multi-talented instrumentalist, and dred-locked hippy. I'm still slowly reading through this book--but I have a lot of other books on my plate simultaneously.

On "Lock-In"

A technical engineer is also social engineer. - Jaron Lanier

As I've written about in my own essays and on this blog, software engineers have the power to redesign how people interact with each other and the planet. Lanier summed up this sentiment more succinctly with the quote above.

The issue is that a great bulk of computer scientists tend toward the anti-social/autistic side of the spectrum, which colors the type of technologies they create. These suboptimal designs, which often have limited perspectives of personhood, often get "locked-in"--permanently imposing their narrow views of what it is to be human and realizing a lower, more limited form of our species. A good example of this is Facebook. Many kids are growing up letting their Facebook identities overdetermine their real identities.

I have discussed this basic hazard before, when I talked about how I was sometimes afraid to write down my thoughts because I might realize them in a lower form dependent on how I was able to express at the moment I wrote them.

Free Will - Sam Harris

Sam Harris argues that we don't have a free will. It's crazy how much I've forgotten about this book in just a week. I'll have to look over it again and update this post.



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