John Cusack in hacker-land

Xeni recounts an adventure: choppering from the City of Angels to Hackertown with actor, writer, filmmaker, and activist John Cusack. In San Francisco, they met up with hackers, digital civil liberties advocates, and famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

How I spent the weekend: I flew to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of the Press Foundation in a stunt helicopter with actor, writer, filmmaker, and activist John Cusack, friend of Boing Boing and of digital liberty (@johncusack on Twitter). John's a pal, and one of my fellow board members at FPF. He'd never met most of the FPF-ers or EFF-ers, so we decided to take advantage of the clear California skies and a kind offer from a friend who flies the late Steve Fossett's helicopter (which has now been converted into a camera ship for motion pictures), and literally chopper in to hacker-town. We stopped by Noisebridge, too. And met a journalism hero: Daniel Ellsberg.

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We flew up in a very special heli owned by a friend of Mr. Cusack's, a film financier in Hollywood. It was originally a Russian attack helicopter, used in combat and designed to be able to hide, pop up, strike, and retreat to stealth again.

The chopper was at one point owned by famed aviator Steve Fossett, who worked with Rolls Royce and a bunch of elite engineers to transform it into an even more powerful and agile craft with which he planned to travel to all of the highest mountain peaks in the world, alight on each, have a drink and smoke a cigar, then hop off to the next great peak.

He died before he could realize that dream, but this friend of Cusack bought the heli and modded it into a camera ship.

This helicopter has tremendous power and maneuverability. It is capable of flying upside-down, which we (thankfully) did not do.


Xeni, shot by John Cusack.

There are at least 7 cameras mounted all over the helicopter, for use in motion picture filming. And a monitor situated between the two co-pilots, which you can swap from one camera's view to another. They'll shoot big films with this, and do amazing stunts. But can you imagine setting some hackers loose on it? What crazy uses might they dream up? Maybe a theme for the next Boing Boing Ingenuity hackathon.

California is beautiful at sunset. As seen from Cusack's friend's chopper.

We visited the home of famed whistleblower/leaker/journalist Daniel Ellsberg. Here, Cusack is looking on as Ellsberg digs through his archives.

Cusack plays Richard Nixon, Ellsberg's arch-enemy, in the movie "The Butler," which is now in theaters.

As we snapped photos of the two of them together, Ellsberg said, "Well, this is as close as I'll ever get to Nixon."

Cusack replied, "My greatest acting feat ever was trying to pretend that I hated you!"

Ellsberg confessed that he still dreams of running into Kissinger.


Ellsberg showed us an original copy of the book, "A Year Of Disobedience And A Criticality Of Conscience," which was reissued this year.

They also talked about the 2009 biopic "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," and Ellsberg's book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."

John's 2008 film War, Inc. covers themes also present in Ellsberg's work. I told John I thought the film was prescient, and now reads more like a documentary.

We taped a conversation between Cusack and Ellsberg, which I'll transcribe and publish here at Boing Boing in the coming weeks. Being a fly on the wall during their first encounter was pretty amazing.

John took this photo of me with Mr. Ellsberg, who is a hero to many of us. It was a great privilege to meet him. Their conversation lasted hours, and explored everything from nuclear war to Allen Ginsberg to Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden.


L-R: Daniel Ellsberg, Rainey Reitman, Trevor Timm, Xeni Jardin, Micah Lee, John Cusack, John Perry Barlow, all board members of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Mr. Ellsberg also serves on the board of Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is the heaviest of the resident heavyweights on the board, and we're all honored to serve with someone who has been such an important part of the history of journalism and transparency, freedom and true patriotism. He is far from done with active public life, and has more than a few surprises left for the world.

All of the FPF members who were in the Bay Area that night met up for dinner. We missed our colleagues Joshua Stearns, who is on the East Coast, and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who are in the eye of the Edward Snowden tornado. Glenn is in Brazil. Laura is in Berlin.

Back in June when the NSA leaks first hit, with Glenn and Laura's reporting, John wrote a piece on Boing Boing titled "The Snowden Principle." Snip:

From the State's point of view, he's committed a crime. From his point of view, and the view of many others, he has sacrificed for the greater good because he knows people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name. And legal, or not, he saw what the government was doing as a crime against the people and our rights. For the sake of argument, this should be called The Snowden Principle.


Photo by John Cusack.

We headed over to the EFF's new offices off Van Ness and Eddy, and met up with all the digital civil liberties heroes there.

In the photo above, Trevor Timm of EFF and Freedom of the Press Foundation is jamming with John on a blog post for FPF's website, down in the EFF's kitchen. It was fun watching these guys collaborate. John's rocking some EFF gear here, too. Note the chapeau!


The EFF's 2013 encryption t-shirt, blogged on Boing Boing.

They were writing a post about what the FPF, the EFF, and a growing number of Americans see as criminalization of journalism, and the increasingly hostile posture of the US government towards reporters covering leaks related to surveillance and war. How far will it go, John was asking Trevor: Would Glenn and Laura, our FPF board colleagues, be detained if they had flown in to join us for dinner? John wants to ask that question of US attorney general Eric Holder.

In the EFF kitchen, even the vending machine is plastered with colorful hacker/digital rights stickers. Also, it serves coconut water.

Danny O'Brien, longtime friend of Boing Boing, EFFer, NTK creator, and all-around interesting guy, tok us on a tour of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. Danny's one of the founders and officers. Noisebridge is in the Mission district, a short drive from the EFF.


Photo by John Cusack


Photo by John Cusack


Photo by John Cusack


Photo by John Cusack

Danny told us so many great stories at Noisebridge that afternoon. One of them was about how the hackerspace ended up modifying their "pissing unicorn" logo so that it pisses on the logo of DreamWorks Studios. The film company wanted to use the Noisebridge logo in their Wikileaks movie, and sent a funny letter to Noisebridge asking permission, where none was needed.

Above, what we were all looking at. Noisebridge schooled them, then pissed on them.

Cusack is always curious about new things. He has an inquisitive mind, and loves exploring. In that sense, he had a lot in common with the hackers and tinkerers who frequent spaces like Noisebridge, and with Boing Boing's community.

In the photo above at right, Micah Lee, EFF and FPF technologist, was there also. John's working with Micah to set himself up on a Linux laptop with good security, an experiment in open source living.

What is Tor? Who are the cypherpunks? What do hackerspaces have in common with anarchist collectives, and is some portion of what happens here illegal? Danny answered these questions and many more. He is great when he's in his mad professor mode. I would pay to listen to him and Cusack do a podcast on this stuff.


Photo by John Cusack


Photo by John Cusack

John asked Danny to read aloud a great letter by Pablo Picasso on why artists should not seek approval of the public, or the state, if their art is really worth doing. Al Pacino read it to Cusack once, and that must have been cool. But I wish we'd recorded Danny's read. It was epic.

Here's the letter:

One morning, soon after Miro had left, a special delivery letter arrived from Kahnweiler in Paris. Enclosed with Kahnweiler's letter was a cable from New York.

We had been hearing wildly fantastic stories about American congressmen fulminating against modern art as politically subversive-- the kind of rabble-rousing speech that Hitler used to make in the thirties and that the Russians go in for now -- the only difference being that the American congressmen saw it all as part of a Communist plot and the Russians call it "bourgeois decadence." The resistance to the lunatic fringe on this American subcultural front apparently centered about the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the cable was a real cri du coeur from the stoutly pumping heart of that center of resistance. It was signed by the painter Stuart Davis, the sculptor Lipchitz, and James Johnson Sweeney, at that period director of painting and sculpture at the museum. It was addressed to Pablo in care of Kahnweiler's gallery and read:

SERIOUS WAVE OF ANIMOSITY TOWARDS FREE EXPRESSION PAINTING SCULPTURE MOUNTING IN AMERICAN PRESS AND MUSEUMS STOP GRAVE RENEWED PRESSURE FAVORING MEDIOCRE AND UTILITARIAN STOP ARTISTS WRITERS REAFFIRMING RIGHTS HOLD MEETING MUSEUM MODERN ART MAY FIFTH STOP YOUR SUPPORT WOULD MEAN MUCH TO ISSUE COULD CABLE STATEMENT EMPHASIZING NECESSITY FOR TOLERATION OF INNOVATION IN ART TO SWEENEY 177 BROADWAY

Attached to the message was a prepaid reply voucher. I translated the cable for Pablo and then read him Kahnweiler's letter. Kahnweiler had read the cable before forwarding it -- "delirious" was his word for it. As far as the mounting wave animosity toward free expression in art was concerned, Who cares? Kahnweiler asked; nobody worries about people like that, he said. On the other hand, maybe he was wrong and Pablo would free it was necessary to emphasize the necessity for the toleration of innovation in art.

Pablo shook his head. "Kahnweiler's right," he said. "The point is, art is something subversive. It's something that should not be free. Art and liberty, like the fire of Prometheus, are things one must steal, to be used against the established order. Once art becomes official and open to everyone, then it becomes the new academicism." He tossed the cablegram down onto the table. "How can I support an idea like that? If art is ever given the keys to the city, it will be because it's been so watered down, rendered impotent, that it's not worth fighting for."

I reminded him that Malherbe had said a poet is of no more use to the state than a man who spends his time playing ninepins. "Of course," Pablo said. "And why did Plato say poets should be chased out of the republic? Precisely because every poet and every artist is an anti-social being. He's not that way because he wants to be; he can't be any other way. Of course the state has the right to chase him away-- from its point of view-- and if he is really an artist it is in his nature not to want to be admitted, because if he is admitted it can only mean he is doing something which is understood, approved, and therefore old hat-- worthless. Anything new, anything worth doing, can't be recognized. People just don't have that much vision. So this business about defending and freeing culture is absurd. One can defend culture in a broad, general sense, if you mean by that heritage of the past, but the right to free expression is something one seizes, not something one is given. It isn't a principle one can lay down as something that should exist. The only principle involved is that if it does exist, it exists to be used against the established order. Only the Russians are naive enough to think that an artist can fit into society. That's because they don't know what an artist is. What can the state do with the real artists, the seers? Rimbaud in Russia is unthinkable. Even Mayakowsky committed suicide. There is absolute opposition between the creator and the state. So there's only one tactic for the state-- kill the seers. If the idea of society is to dominate the idea of the individual, the individual must perish. Furthermore, there wouldn't be such a thing as a seer if there weren't a state trying to suppress him. It's only at that moment, under that pressure, that he becomes one. People reach the status of artist only after crossing the maximum number of barriers. So the arts should be discouraged, not encouraged.

"The thing that's wrong with modern art right now," he said, "and we might as well say it-- it's dying-- is the fact that there isn't any longer a strong, powerful academic art worth fighting against. There has to be a rule even if it's a bad one because evidence of art's power is breaking down the barriers. But to do away with obstacles-- that serves no purpose other than to make things completely wishy-washy, spineless, shapeless, meaningless-- zero."

Pablo studied the prepaid answer form. "Well," he said, "they wasted their nine hundred and thirty-eight francs on me." He tossed it into the basket.

John emailed the letter to Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote back:

Ha. Interesting. A problem is that when repression is great enough, even great artists bend to it (Shostakovich) or get depressed and unproductive (dead: Mayakovsky).

To which John replied:

It's an interesting parallel to the hacker-anarchist-collective ethos we encountered at our visit, the confronting of authoritarian structures is part of the deal. As an artist I found the Picasso letter extremely hopeful and comforting in a weird way--and TOTALLY true.
And Ellsberg wrote back:
+1. as Xeni taught me to say.

The trip home was in a different kind of aircraft, but also general aviation, not commercial. People like John, who have lots of crazy fans and too much attention all the time, do this in part because it allows them greater privacy. It also has the advantage of being beautiful and awesome.

But just avoiding the TSA experience, in which each of us is made to feel like a prisoner, is such an incredible luxury. Not just the "private jet" part, but the "you're a human being, not a criminal" part, is so fantastic.

No pornoscanners. No cavity searches. No glaring government goons poking around in your belongings or your pants with latex-gloved hands. Imagine, as an air traveler, being free from that all the time, how great that would be. All air travel in the US was like that once! Now, only private air travel is.


Photo by John Cusack, from helicopter.

John took these photos during the helicopter ride. You never get tired of the sky, from up there.


Photo by John Cusack, from helicopter.

The colors are more vivid than you can possibly dream up. Some of John's snapshots included the heli propeller, frozen in mid-whirl.


Photo by John Cusack, from helicopter.

It's impossible to capture the full beauty with an iPhone, but John's snapshots here do a pretty great job.

We all agreed that if it were possible to just live up there, in perpetual motion and with that sense of infinite freedom, we would.

Follow John Cusack on Twitter.


Photo by John Cusack, from helicopter.

(Photos in this post, except where otherwise noted, by Xeni Jardin)

Published 5:06 pm Wed, Sep 4, 2013

About the Author

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.

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