Media Appearance: Bike Angel

Think stories, not press releases, if you want media coverage.

As an avid Capital Bikeshare member, I was delighted to talk about their new Bike Angel program on the local CBS affiliate, WUSA9.

Bike Angels earn points for taking bikes from stations that have too many and moving them to stations with too few. Ten points and you receive a free day pass that you can give to a friend; twenty and you receive a one-week extension of your membership.

If you live or work downtown, it’s pretty easy to rack up points, since there are stations that always need bikes. At the start of the program, I was the #1 Angel in DC, a point of pride, but have since slipped way down the leaderboard (I’m JF002).

My braggadocio is what caught the attention of John Henry, a reporter for WUSA9. My name popped up when he searched for mentions of Bike Angel on Twitter.

He asked to interview me and I replied, “You mean on camera?” I prefer to be behind the lens, not in front of it, but will get on TV to talk about bikes. John interviewed me for about 10 ten minutes on a sweltering day at Dupont Circle. He was a one-man operation, with a couple of cameras and a mic.

It was fascinating to see the final result, which aired on the 11 PM broadcast, how he took quotes from me, shots of people on bikes, and his narration to tell a story. It’s a quality piece of video and a very positive representation of biking in the city.

The other lesson I took from this experience: reporters want to find their own stories. I’ve worked in places that pump out press releases and then wonder why no one picks them up. It’s because a press release is not a story.

Capital Bikeshare announcing a new service is not a story. Local man inspired to move bikes around for points – that’s a story. My goal of being the #1 Bike Angel in DC provides a focus for viewers, someone they can identify with (or not). Rather than dryly describing how the Bike Angel program works, we see it through my eyes, with the built-in tension of, “Will Joe become the #1 Bike Angel in DC?” (No, he will not.)

In a city like Washington, reporters are inundated with press releases. The organizations that issue them wonder why media organizations don’t run them verbatim.

It’s because most press releases are dry recitations of fact. Instead, find a human that readers can identify with and tell their story to communicate your message.

Letter from Washington: Occupy Lafayette Park

Mariachi band performs at Occupy Lafayette Park

We’ve reached the banana republic stage of resistance to Trump, in which the United States has come to resemble a South American caudillo with pot-banging protests outside the Presidential Palace.

It’s Occupy Lafayette Park, a nightly happening that mocks Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I was there at the beginning, when this home-grown event started up in the wake of the Treason Summit in Helsinki. The brainchild of Philippe Reines, a former Clinton staffer, the objective was a simple one: make some noise. Let Trump know that we object to whatever secret agreement he negotiated with his Russian masters.

Since then, I’ve taken photos and watched the protests grow and morph into a nightly celebration of opposition. There have been dinosaurs (Treason T-Rex), Pikachu, Michael Avenatti, Alyssa Milano, a Russian translator to speak Trump’s language, songs, chants, dancing, the woman who confronted Scott Pruitt at Teaism and a squad of folks carrying glowing letters that spell out TREASON and LIAR. It is Washington’s hottest party.

The most memorable night was when an 18-piece mariachi band showed up to serenade Trump as he tried to sleep. As the sky grew dark, the musicians launched into spirited versions of Cielito Lindo and Viva Mexico, the crowd singing along with them.

There is something incredibly moving to be with people united in song, a people that have been locked out of power, but united in a diverse and hopeful celebration of this country, an America that existed long before the Trumpkins, and will continue long after they’re gone. This country will endure the assaults on our liberty and ultimately emerge triumphant.

But it won’t be easy. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” to quote Thomas Paine.

Occupy Lafayette Park continues, night after night, through the steamy heat and tropical storms of summer in Washington. Every evening, around seven, they begin their vigil, filling the street outside the White House with signs, songs and chants, a reminder to the very temporary occupant of the presidency that his days are numbered.

Note: the protests began with the Twitter hashtag #OccupyLafayettePark but have moved on to #KremlinAnnex. Follow them there. Or just show up outside the White House at 7 PM any night.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

I won’t link to the clickbait article (since removed) on how libraries should be replaced by Amazon. You’ve seen it or at least heard about the piece, published by Forbes, who will apparently post any piece of dreck that crosses their digital transom.

Twaddle, came the response from librarians on the Internet.

Among the many things that the author (an economist!) gets wrong is that libraries solely provide books. While they’re very good at that, today’s libraries supply a valuable “third space” to meet, learn and check your email without having to buy anything. This alone is an invaluable service to the community.

Libraries Under Threat

I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful public library system. This wasn’t always the case (see the Marion Barry era) but today the nation’s capital is graced with beautifully renovated branches, like the West End Library. I love checking their online catalog at home, putting a hold on a book, and then picking it up.

If an entrepreneur pitched this concept to Silicon Valley (it’s Uber for books!) it would be worth a billion dollars. But, since libraries have been around since the dawn of civilization, we take them for granted.

Don’t.

Seminole County, FL, where I grew up, is considering outsourcing its library to the lowest bidder, a project that will make a contractor slightly richer and the community much poorer.

A Catalogue of Wonders

Instead, let us celebrate and appreciate libraries. A good place to start is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.

This book is less a history of libraries (though you’ll get that) and more of a wonderful collection of stories about bookish pursuits from a master storyteller. You’ll learn how books created the world, from Sumerians scribbling down accounts of grain surpluses to the sweeping tales of the Bible. Every great society has valued books and libraries, from the Romans who treasured (and stole) Greek manuscripts to hidden collections of books amassed by Elizabethans.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a world tour of libraries, both real and imagined, from the secret stacks of the Vatican to the biblioteca of Borges. Along the way, you’ll learn the scurrilous methods used by collectors to assemble their libraries and how collectors were deceived by unscrupulous booksellers. Henry Clay Folger bought a lot of dubious crap marked Shakespeare when bringing together the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Libraries made us. Without books, and the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space, we would not have civilization. Let’s celebrate our one of our oldest and most valuable inventions: the library.

 

Death in the M St Bike Lane

Moment of silence for Jeffrey Long

 

Protected bike lanes are supposed to be protected, separated from cars and protected by barriers. 15th St in Washington, DC, is a good example of one – parked cars make up the barriers and stop lights with red arrows prevent drivers from turning across the bike lane.

But the “protected” bike lane on M St created by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) fails to include these best practices. Instead, DDOT gave in to the demands of businesses (and one local church) to design a protected bike lane that looks protected but isn’t.

It’s a Trap

The lane starts off looking protected at Thomas Circle. Running along the curb, with a row of parked cars as protection – great! But as you ride west, the lane disappears entirely as it goes by the Metropolitan AME Church, who didn’t want their double-parking parishioners inconvenienced. On the 1600 block of M St, the lane finds protection again with a line of parked cars but then ends in a mad scrum at the end of the block, as cars merge into the lane so that they can make a right turn.

This dangerous pattern of mixing cars and bikes continues on to Georgetown, where the lane sputters out. The people of #BikeDC have complained about the M St bike lane for years, telling DDOT that was unsafe, and even sharing with the transportation agency photos and videos demonstrating the danger.

DDOT did nothing.

The Inevitable Death

Over the weekend, the inevitable happened: a cyclist was killed on M St, run over by a truck making a right turn across the bike lane. His name was Jeffrey Long.

He wasn’t even the first person on a bike killed this summer in DC, despite the Vision Zero talk about eliminating pedestrian and cyclist deaths from Mayor Bowser. In June, Malik Habib died on H St NE after being run over by a bus.

DIY Safety

A couple days after Long’s death, I visited New Hampshire and M St NW, where he was killed. I expected to see physical changes to the intersection, such as a red light arrow to keep drivers from crossing paths with cyclists. After all, someone died here.

Nothing had been done, at least by DDOT.

But someone had been busy. Six toilet plungers painted orange had been placed on M St, preventing drivers from cutting the corner on to New Hampshire. Instead, they had to slow down and make a 90 degree turn, making the intersection safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

DIY safety improvement on M St

That’s the state of the city in 2018, in which people have to make their own traffic improvements to keep their neighbors safe. As I wrote in the Washington Post, Mayor Bowser and her administration care more about making rich people richer than helping ordinary citizens.

Ride of Silence

Last night, there was a memorial ride for Jeffrey Long. More than a hundred cyclists in white rode silently down M St during rush hour.

We stopped and placed our bikes on the spot where he died for twenty minutes of reflection. Flowers were placed on the white ghost bike that memorializes him.

Untitled

a moment of reflection

A cyclist was kiled here

Next Steps

This can’t be the end. We are calling for:

  1. Improved sight lines at M/NH/21st St NW.
  2. Repaint intersection immediately.
  3. No turns on red in downtown.
  4. DC Council oversight hearing holding DDOT, DPW and MPD accountable for safe infrastructure & enforcement.

This tragedy should not be forgotten. Contact your councilmember to ensure that this never happens again.

And follow #BikeDC on Twitter to learn the latest about biking in the city, as well as plans for an upcoming ride to honor Malik Habib.

Letter from Washington: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman 2 filming at the Hirshhorn

Update: a modified version of this post appeared recently in the Washington Post.

Wonder Woman is filming in Washington this week. If you go by one of the locations (the Hirshhorn Museum, Watergate, Georgetown) the PAs will tell you that it’s Magic Hour. But everyone in DC knows that it’s Wonder Woman.

“No photos!” comes a cry from behind a barricade as iPhones rise to catch the irresistible sight of 1980s cars and fashion on the National Mall. In June. On a Friday.

Despite the legally unenforcible prohibition, images from the movie have been all over the Internet. Twitter even made it one of its Moments.

Seeing photos online, I hurried down to catch the shoot at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Movie-making is frightfully dull unless you’re the one making the movie. I wrote screenplays for a while and was even on set for a couple of short films.

It can take all afternoon just to get the lights set up. 99% of the time, nothing is happening, just extras in wigs and costumes listlessly standing around, waiting for their chance to be a blur in the background.

My timing was propitious, biking up just as Wonder Woman/Magic Hour was rehearsing a scene.

There’s Gal Gadot!

No. It was her stand-in and Chris Pine’s stand-in looking so similar to the two actors that I had to zoom in on their faces to confirm that they were nobody.

Action!

The stand-ins were acting now, walking where Gal Gadot and Chris Pine would be, and acting too, the Pine stand-in reacting to something overhead. Walk, talk, react as the camera whirred and cars from the 80s idled past the museum.

Stop!

And then again, the old cars reversing, the stand-ins returning to shadow and the extras relaxing in their bright 80s clothes. Whatever…

Action!

Again, the cars idled forward, the stand-ins took their marks, and the extras tried to look natural.

Stop!

Life in DC, 2018, resumed. Drivers from down the street honked, annoyed at being delayed. High school tour groups, clad in identical green shirts, trooped by, unaware of the movie shoot. PAs told joggers to cross the street. “The sidewalk is closed!”

Action!

And then, looking through my zoom lens, there was Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, wearing the same clothes as the stand-ins, even a Member’s Only jacket for Steve Trevor, but anointed with the familiarity of being stars. You know them, but you don’t, their image the only thing truly accessible.

They duplicated what the stand-ins did. Walk, talk, react, Chris Pine gawking at whatever was in the sky but with considerable more subtlety than the stand-in. He’s a star.

A dirty hippy ruined my shot. Old man, in a tie-die shirt and blue overalls, entering the frame just as I focused on Pine and Gadot.

Stop!

Everyone relaxed, Gadot crossing the concrete plaza to consult with Patty Jenkins, the director. That’s the conversation I would’ve loved to hear.

I love the fact that they used the Hirshhorn, as well as several other DC locations. They also recreated Commander Salamander in Georgetown, a mainstay of 1980s cool when the 80s were cool.

What wasn’t so cool was Magic Hour/Wonder Woman shutting down Pennsylvania Avenue all weekend long, blocking off bike lanes (it’s always about bikes) with no alternate accommodations. Instead, confused foreign tourists, groups on Segways, bikes and cars crammed into narrow streets trying to detour around the blocks-long bottleneck.

There weren’t even detour signs for the lost. Instead, just fences and people with ill-defined authority telling them to leave and “NO PHOTOS!”

But to help the filmmakers, the DC city government had erected barricades, parked dump trucks and even brought in police officers to keep the curious away. Money talks, in the non-superhero universe.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) had finished their reconstruction/destruction of the 15th St bike lane by the old Washington Post building. It had been a protected bike lane until it was destroyed to enable a private developer to construct a building. The biking residents of the city (like me) have endured years of dodging cement trucks and cranes so that a rich man can get richer.

I biked by. All the resources of the city were handed to the Wonder Woman filmmakers. But, on 15th St, DDOT couldn’t even be bothered to put up a barrier of plastic bollards. Instead, the only protection from cars is a narrow strip of paint for this two-way bike lane. There will be chaos and injury come Monday.

there should be bollards on right

But that doesn’t matter to Mayor Bowser and a city government entranced by Hollywood fame. They’ll block off entire streets for an imaginary character but do little for the real people of the city, forced to beg for a few pieces of plastic protection from very real dangers.

In the movies, Wonder Woman stands up for the oppressed. But in real life, there are no superheroes. If you have money, Mayor Bowser and the city government will let you do what you want.

Photos: 500 Days of Trump

I intended to ignore the Trump administration. But, 500 days ago, during the Inauguration, I heard a helicopter hovering over my apartment, followed it into the street, and I’ve been taking photos ever since.

Inauguration Day riot, Muslim ban protest, Women’s March, Science March, Climate March, Women’s March (again), perp walks, protests, street art, paper mache, Juggalos, makeout sessions, security theater – I’ve documented the resistance in DC.

limo in flames on K St Continue reading “Photos: 500 Days of Trump”

When Conflict Comes Home: American War

American War

The problem with most dystopian fiction is that it’s too neat, taking place far enough in the future to feel exotic, but familiar enough so that we can picture ourselves in the action. Katniss Everdeen could be your teen neighbor, confronting tyranny the same way she protests changes in the school lunch menu.

In contrast, American War by Omar El Akkad feels too real. It’s an America just twenty years in the future, a day that most of us will live to see, depicting a world in which our decline has continued into catastrophe. A country split by red and blue has stumbled into a second Civil War.

The world intervenes in the conflict, like we intervened in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But this time it’s the Arab world rescuing the new one. The Red Crescent builds refugee camps. Food aid arrives on ships. And arms and advisers are sent to the Southern side to continue the war.

But in American War, we don’t learn this until later. Unlike other dystopian novels, we don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start of the novel. War comes to an isolated homestead in the American south. A family must decide whether to stay, fight or flee.

Omar El Akkad has reported from countries wrecked by American intervention. He takes their stories and places them here. His brilliant novel is about the collapse of our civilization, the desire for vengeance and how war has a logic of its own, imposing dreadful decisions upon even the most enlightened citizens.

American War shreds the neat formulas of dystopian fiction to show a future that is far too real for comfort. It also illuminates the deadly cost of our own overseas interventions by placing war in the United States. In this novel, we’re the refugees, the soldiers and the terrorists, all trying to find safety in a devastated land.

Tweetstorm: Five Lessons from Going Viral

Tweet activity

A viral photo became my most popular tweet ever, racking up more than 200,000 impressions.

It’s a picture that I captured outside the White House Correspondents Dinner, a quick shot of Parkland survivor David Hogg before I was shooed away by security. Happy to get any photo, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my photographer friends would enjoy it.

And then it blew up online, my phone steadily buzzing with notifications through the night and for days afterward.

What can you learn from going viral?

  1. It will be accidental. It’s nice to think that you can make a post go viral – you can’t. Twitter is driven by the users. Their likes, dislikes, passions, prejudices and whims determine what goes viral and what doesn’t. I’ve written funnier tweets, taken better photos and shared more interesting links but it was this post of David Hogg that went viral, for it was timely (the dinner was going on as I posted the photo) and Hogg is a controversial figure in the gun control debate.
  2. You’ll want to change your tweet. In my photo, another person is pictured. I didn’t recognize him so just identified David Hogg. Within minutes, a reply told me that it was Zion Kelly, whose brother was shot to death on the streets of DC. You can’t edit a tweet so I added a threaded post identifying him.
  3. You will be personally attacked. I didn’t reply to the gun nuts who thought that the presence of David Hogg at the WHCD was preposterous. But a couple people said that I was racist for omitting mention of Zion Kelly in my original tweet. When I explained to one that I didn’t recognize him, she grudgingly admitted that I might not be a racist but my response was “problematic.”
  4. You won’t understand the analytics. My original tweet had 221,000 impressions. The thread I added with Zion Kelly’s name had 680,000 impressions. Why does the thread have more than the original?
  5. It won’t amount to much. Seeing the photo go viral, I wrote a post the next day on the moment, which captured some of the traffic my photo generated. But out of 220,000 Twitter impressions, I gained five new followers. The raging discourse of America had landed briefly on me, lit me in its fire, and then moved on to the next topic in the endless, infernal debate.

Going viral is short-lived and unsatisfying. All that storm und drang around my photo ultimately amounted to little.

The next morning, I bundled up and biked to see my friends from the District Department of Transformation, a group of activists trying to make the city’s streets safer. They’re all people I’ve met through Twitter. They had blocked off a street for breakfast, an action designed to show that streets should be for people, not cars.

I took a photo and shared it using the #BikeDC hashtag.

That’s the type of engagement that matters – real, small-scale and committed.

If you’re a social media manager, don’t chase social media fame, which is ephemeral and low-value. Instead, use Twitter to build an impactful community of engaged supporters, people who will show up for you on a cold Sunday morning to occupy a street.

The Power of Image: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner

Last night, I took a photo: David Hogg at the White House Correspondents Dinner, pictured with Zion Kelly.

I’m a writer and a photographer. Living near the hotel, I thought I could get some photos of celebrities. But I arrived late and missed most of them.

With my Canon SL1 and a zoom lens, I captured this image of David and Zion posing on the red carpet. I was outside the glass doors of the hotel, standing in the driveway, near the spot where Reagan was shot in 1981. A small plaque marks the location.

Once home, I posted it to Twitter, thinking my followers would like it. I’m an admirer of the Parkland survivor. To be capable of speaking out after surviving a mass shooting – that is unimaginable to me. And that AR-15s should be banned is common sense.

The tweet took off, with hundreds of mentions occurring in my timeline, as my photo was retweeted, liked and shared.

And commented upon. 95% of those comments were positive, recognizing David as a powerful voice for common-sense gun control.

This same power terrifies Trump supporters. David is an “other” – a boy who doesn’t know his place. In response to my simple photo, they replied with hate, insults and conspiracy theories.

Because they’re weak. If the Trump movement was strong, then they wouldn’t need to attack David. Even an image of this teenager triggers them.

With their online hate, Trump supporters betray themselves, surrendering to their fear, hoping for a few moments of relief from self-loathing and the knowledge that the country is slipping away from them.

I didn’t respond to my critics. They’re beneath me.

My photo was enough, with more power than an army of online trolls. Let it go out into the world and inspire others to make their voices heard.

Michelangelo and Real Artists Don’t Starve

Real Artists Don't Starve

The Starving Artist is just a story we’ve told ourselves, according to Jeff Goins, author of Real Artists Don’t Starve.

And it’s a story that we can change. Marshaling examples from history (Michelangelo was the Steve Jobs of the Renaissance), Goins demonstrates that you don’t need to starve to pursue your art.

Rather than seeing money and creativity as diametrically opposed, see them as intertwined. Money allows you to make your art. Michelangelo was not content to be a starving artist – he demanded to be paid. Money is a form of respect.

Prior to his stand, artists were considered mere craftsman. When the Pope sent Michelangelo a letter addressing him as a commoner, he sent the missive back, demanding be addressed as a nobleman. He believed that he was descended from a noble family. It turned out not to be true but this belief is a helpful one for an artist.

Michelangelo kept careful records of what he was paid, and owed, as he supervised vast construction crews during the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. More than just an artistic genius, he was running a business during the Renaissance, and died a wealthy man.

Michelangelo understood that artists need patrons – Popes and Medicis – and artists need networks of collaborators to complete their work. The myth of solitary genius is another false idea we cling to.

His genius did not arise of out of nothing. Michelangelo apprenticed with earlier artists, learning by copying their work. We’d call what he did forgery – he made copies of Roman statues that were passed off as original – but this work taught him the classical principles that he needed for his greatest work.

All artists copy. There is nothing new under the sun. Michelangelo remixed Greek and Roman influences to restart Western Civilization in Italy.

Real Artists Don’t Starve is much more than Michelangelo, encompassing anything from the muppets of Jim Henson to paintings sprinkled with moon dust. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

But the story of Michelangelo – painter, sculptor, architect and poet (yes, that too) – is the one that stayed with me, this Renaissance man alive for an explosion of culture and technology. A time much like our own, with new opportunities for artists willing to discard the myth of the starving artist for something better.