My new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for the nation’s capital. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air in this funny book about Washington, DC.
How much hot air is over the city? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.
DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of Washington, DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.
A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”
THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.
My ten-year-old Specialized Sirrus faithfully carried me on all these adventures, a bike that just refuses to quit. Most of routine city riding was done on Capital Bikeshare. In 2017, I also tried out a Brompton folding bike, sampled the junky new dockless bikeshare bikes and rocketed down a trail on a JUMP electric bike.
If you get hit with tear gas, flush your eyes out with milk. Flashbang grenades make a lot of noise but aren’t harmful. The DC police are very professional but will lash out if they feel trapped. These are the things you learn at a FotoWeek panel. The subject was UnPresidented, a great photo book documenting the Trump inauguration protests.
Joe Newman organized some of D.C.’s top street photographers to document the contentious inauguration of Donald J. Trump, which was met with rioting, peaceful civil disobedience and one of the largest protest marches in U.S. history. The images from the three days of the inauguration — which included President Obama’s last full day in office, the day before the inauguration, and the massive Women’s March on Washington, the day after — were published in UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response.
Joining him for this panel discussion at the Mexican Cultural Institute were Chris Suspect and Mukul Ranjan, who documented a weekend of chaos on the streets of DC.
Protests in DC typically have a routine quality to them, a polite display of signs and chants. But the inauguration protests were different in size, scope and level of anger. I was on the streets and saw things I never expected to see in DC, like people getting punched and a limousine on fire.
But I was also witness to the start of something. Days of rage gave way to the inspiring spectacle of the Women’s March, the largest crowd I have ever seen, stretching from the Capitol to the White House and beyond. It was a nation finding its voice: The Resistance.
These momentous days of protest and and rebirth are captured brilliantly in UnPresidented.
In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.
But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.
Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.
But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.
National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.
The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.
The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.
And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.
I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.
My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.
But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.
Write what you know.
Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.
I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.
But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.
Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.
Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.
What’s remarkable about the rise of dockless bikesharing is how unremarkable it has become. An apocalypse was anticipated. Washington Post readers gleefully predicted failure, with the bikes stolen and destroyed (like in Baltimore) or begriming the streets in vast piles (as in China).
But what if a revolution occurred and no one noticed it? The bikes, first green ones from Lime, and then a rainbow of other colors, appeared on the streets of DC, lined up and ready for use, part of a pilot program. Photos were snapped – by me, and others – entranced by the novelty of these seemingly unsecured bikes in a city where anything left outside gets stolen.
The bikes then dispersed, taken by riders young and old (I saw kids in school uniforms on them) to surprising places in and out of the city. A couple were left by National Airport. Others made their way deep into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, despite the fact that they were supposed to be kept in DC. Without the requirement to dock the bikes, people left them in alleys, Metro stations and on top of cars.
Checking the Lime app to see where the bikes had gone became a popular activity on Twitter. I wondered about the cyclist near Seven Corners, navigating suburban highways on a small, rickety bike.
For the bikes are subpar. Biking a couple miles on a Lime required an inordinate amount of work – the geometry is off. Ofo is better though its airless tires (a feature of all the dockless bikes) make the ride a rough one on the mottled streets of DC. You can’t be tall on any of these bikes, for the seat doesn’t go up high enough to accommodate long legs.
There is one major exception to my dockless critique: JUMP. Dockless with a difference, JUMP is a pedal-assist electric bike. And it rocks! Get on this sizable steed, pedal a couple times and the electric motor kicks in, rocketing you down the street at a speed that’s actually a little scary. The more you pedal, the faster the ride gets, ferrying you to your destination without breaking a sweat.
The advantage of dockless, whether it’s Lime, Mobike, ofo or JUMP, is that you can pick up and leave the bike anywhere you want. It works through an app on your phone. Check the map to find a bike, scan the code on the back of it and ride off. When you’re done, leave it and slide the rear-wheel lock into place (every bike should have one of these).
DC needs more bikes. We have a great bikesharing service – Capital Bikeshare – but in many neighborhoods, the docks are empty by 8 AM. And while CaBi has saturated Northwest DC, there are many neighborhoods, particularly east of the Anacostia, where bikes are few and far between. Dockless offers the potential to change that, to address issues of equity that are present in any DC debate.
Also, more bikes means safer cycling for everyone. The advent of Capital Bikeshare slowed down the crazed commuters that fill this city every morning, by making drivers aware of cyclists. They’re more cautious around me when I’m on a big red CaBi, than on my regular bike, because they assume I’m a lost tourist. Adding more bikes might make MD Driver in DC hesitate before running that red light. Maybe.
According to Wired, dockless bike sharing is the next Uber. There’s big money in cheap bikes, with the Chinese startup Mobike valued at $3 billion. That’s an astonishing valuation for $1 an hour bike rides. Investors believe that dockless bike sharing is a new kind of business that can operate on scale, offering a service that urbanites will eagerly adopt.
Seems so easy. Create an app, flood a city with bikes and profit. For users, the experience is seamless – no humans required. Find a bike with your phone, scan it, and go.
But if investors think that bike sharing is a new people-free business model, they are mistaken. An unseen army is busy at night fixing bikes, moving them around and retrieving lost ones.
Ofo had a launch party recently near Dupont Circle with free lemonade and swag. Started by a Chinese college student, they’re the original dockless bikesharing service, with 400 bikes in DC now. An ofo rep said that someone rides every bike every day to make sure it works.
Dockless also depends on the goodwill of a city and its residents, for the bikes occupy public space such as sidewalks. The ofo rep I talked to recognized that they had to be good corporate citizens. It’s a business, like much of the new economy, that uses the commons for corporate profit, with no requirement to benefit society, unless we demand it.
While talking at the launch party, we saw JUMP and Spin bikes cruise down R Street. A couple biked by, one on a CaBi, the other on a Lime. A Mobike was parked on the sidewalk. The ofo reps offered free rides on their bikes to people coming up from the Metro. It seemed so unremarkable, as if these brightly colored bikes had always been with us.
Critics claimed that it would never work. Yet, in just a few short days, dockless bike sharing has gone from novelty to just another part of the busy urban landscape, the city and its residents rapidly adapting to the latest advance in transportation.
“The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. And so, there is a growing perception in the gaming community: Reality, compared to games, is broken.”
― Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
Spirit of Autumn is an interactive installation at ARTECHOUSE in Washington, DC, that celebrates the fall season through a variety of immersive digital activities.
But let’s call it what it really is: a game.
This basement off the National Mall is a powerful game space where people of all ages come together to create their own virtual experience of fall by manipulating a series of video artworks. Clap your hands in front of a sensor and rain appears. Dance before a wall with a leafy avatar of yourself. Play with swirling patterns of light, sending them flowing across the floor with your finger.
Spirit of Autumn is like a good game – social, easy to begin and with rewards for mastery. As you enter the underground space in a group, you are given no instruction. What do you do here? You see colorful leaves and a digital tree ascending upwards.
Quickly, players figure out that if they move in front of one wall, a ghostly avatar appears. Stand still on the floor and leaves cluster around you. Within few minutes, everyone is at play, running from game to game, and making their leafy representations dance.
You see what other people do – what happens if I jump? can I send the flowing light up this wall? where do I clap to make it rain? – and you learn from the experience, making new friends as you enjoy this digital world.
Time passes quickly, like a good game, as you’re engrossed by the interactive experience. Why are games so compelling? According to author Jane McGonigal, a game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we can master. Games have rules, provide feedback and have an achievable goal.
Spirit of Autumn at ARTECHOUSE is more than just an art show in a basement. It’s an opportunity to escape broken reality for a colorful and compelling world where people work together to create a beautiful, shared experience.
It felt like someone had hit me on the back of the leg with a baseball. One moment running on the soccer pitch, the next yelling in pain. I turned around to see where the baseball was – but there was nothing on the ground. Instead, just players staring at me in puzzlement.
My calf had exploded. That’s what it felt like. Limping off the field, I sat down and sipped water as friends came to check on me. “I don’t know, not so good, maybe need hospital,” Oleg the Russian said.
Instead, I consulted Dr. Google. He diagnosed a torn calf muscle, with varying and frightening levels of severity. Sitting on the sideline, I read about muscles torn and bunched, swelling and other symptoms. Did I hear a popping sound? I don’t think I did, just a sharp, sudden and arresting pain.
Nothing was bruised or red. The calf was tender and it hurt to walk. A friend asked if I wanted to go the emergency room.
I did not. I had my bike. If I get on it, I could bike home. Gingerly, I hopped on, put my Specialized Sirrus into its lowest gears and slowly pedaled home, my bike both transport and a rolling crutch when I got to the lobby of my building.
This is a recurring injury for me, though this was the most severe occurrence. Five years earlier, after similar pain, I went to an orthopedist. It was like a factory. Patients came in, they were diagnosed, sent for an MRI, given drugs and prescribed orthotics. No matter the kind of foot/calf pain, that’s what you got and a hefty bill was sent to Blue Cross.
Having been through that, I knew that there was no real treatment other than staying off it until it got better. So, I did, keeping my leg up and on ice all afternoon.
The next day, I wanted to go out for coffee. I’m a terrible invalid. I could accept not being to able to walk but if I couldn’t bike? Unthinkable.
I figured I could bike for coffee without walking more than a few steps. Using my bike again as a crutch, I made it to the elevator and out the front door of the building with just a little bit of pain. Then I hopped on the bike and rode to get coffee. Moving on two feet – painful. Moving on two wheels – painless.
I’m a huge fan of The Obstacle is the Way. Great book. I recognized this scenario. If walking is taken away from me, then what opportunity am I given? The opportunity to bike everywhere! Let my feet never touch the ground, but only be on pedals, as I make my way around the city.
So, it’s life on two wheels for me (not a problem!), as I minimize walking and maximizing biking. Today, I tried grocery shopping by bike, buying just enough food to fill my backpack, choosing items high in calorie count but low in size.
I’m fortunate to live in a city. If I was in the burbs, I would be trapped. In Washington, I can get everywhere I need to go by bike.
This week has also seen the launch for four (!) separate dockless bikesharing systems in DC. Dockless means you can leave the bikes anywhere you want. I tried one of them out – Lime. While the bike itself was unimpressive, the technology behind the service is interesting. You download an app, scan the barcode on the back of the bike, and the rear-wheel lock unlocks. When done, you just leave the bike wherever and snap the lock shut.
It’s an experiment. Will DC take to these new bikes or will they all end up in the river, like other cities? Time will tell.
Time is also what I need. There’s no real treatment for a pulled calf. It just takes some time to heal. In the meantime, I’ll be on two wheels.
Even by government standards, the office was a dump. A brutalist structure on the treeless expanse of L’Enfant Plaza, the building was awkward and uninviting from the outside – a concrete slab with windows encrusted in filth.
Once through the doors, there was the usual puzzle of obtaining entry, 1960s architecture and security theater combining to create an imponderable maze of hallways decorated with faded American flags and outdated office directories encased in plexiglass.
The interview was in a conference room. I followed my guide to a subterranean level, where he submitted a letter to a functionary behind a desk before he was given a key. We then went back upstairs to unlock the conference room.
After the interview, I was shown where I would work. I had been warned. “Make sure you show it to him,” the interviewer said.
For good reason. I’ve worked as a government contractor for ten years, primarily in environments that look straight out of Office Space. Fluorescent lights, beige furniture, chunky computers – depressing but doable. Windows are reserved for feds. Contractors get the worst space.
But I don’t need much. A little desk in a corner somewhere and I’m fine.
But what I was shown wasn’t even a cubicle – it was a worn formica table in a noisy hallway crammed with people, including consultants working elbow to elbow, the two of them sharing one desk. It was like working in a submarine, but one cluttered with broken office equipment and sagging cardboard boxes. I must’ve visibly recoiled because I did not the get the job.
I recently attended the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, primarily because I was interested in the transportation session – Gabe Klein, who created the 15th St bike lane and bikesharing in DC was speaking – but before that panel, there was a discussion on workplaces of the future.
At first, it was the usual thing, a panel of buzzword-spewing experts describing the future of work as open and collaborative though everyone I know who works in an open office wants out. Those pushing the open space trend typically do so from executive suites, where they don’t have to listen to coworkers discussing medical conditions with their doctor.
What’s missing from the open office trend? Data. Listening to Randy Fiser, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers, was a revelation. They selected and designed their office based on employee needs, choosing a downtown building with an abundance of green space, fresh food and walkable transportation. After moving into their new office, they then measured the results, with productivity and employee satisfaction both increased.
While WeWork is open space, I love it because it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic. There’s room to move around, plenty of seating options and lots of natural light. Plus, there are phone rooms for private conversations and a kitchen stocked with coffee, beer and snacks.
It’s about creating a narrative, according to Dave McLaughlin. The WeWork exec has a screenwriting background, a refreshing change from the MBA-educated consultant class. WeWork is for creators. With local artworks, low couches and millennials busily working on laptops, it provides a hip backdrop, as if you’re working in a Hollywood romcom.
WeWork wants you to do more than just create – they want you to accomplish your dreams through collaboration with other WeWorkers. Space is designed to facilitate chance encounters, with hallways that are a little too narrow, so that you have to look up from your iPhone and make eye contract with other people.
According to Randy Fiser, we spend 91% of our time indoors. We spend so much time at work that we should make it as pleasant as possible. Not every office can look like WeWork but design matters. Humans need space, natural light and privacy. Create offices that people want to work in – it’s that simple.
While I’ve worked on web sites my entire career, I’ve primarily been on the content side, as someone who writes, edits and manages web content. I’m a writer, not a designer, and have never convened focus groups to evaluate web site design or any of the other typical tasks of a UX expert.
Web sites are a mix of content, design and tech, perceived as a whole by users. While I have not identified my work as focused on usability, it’s inevitable that it does. Good, simple, usable web sites require good, simple, usable content.
At the meetup, the AARP team spoke about the challenges of designing digital experiences for the 50+ audience. The stereotype is that “seniors” don’t use technology. But the fact is that older Americans are passionate users of iPhones and Facebook, just like the rest of us.
I worked on the AARP web site myself, in the late 90s. It was surprising how much older Americans took to the online world – particularly games, member discounts and romance.
While we wanted them to read articles about Social Security, the most popular section of the site was Member Benefits, for it contained the most relevant information for them, i.e., how to get discounts on travel and insurance.
Another surprise was what avid gamers they were, even when playing crossword puzzles on AOL via dial-up modem. We also created message boards to discuss serious topics, which were ignored, while members looked for love in the open chat forums.
The lesson is that the audience wants what it wants and there’s not much you can do about that. While users are determined when looking for something they want, like romance, they don’t have much patience for complicated design.
Ann Li, a usability expert for AARP, discussed a test she did on hamburger buttons. Popularized by the iPhone, these are the three little lines that you find on web site menus. Click on it, and an additional menu drops down beneath it.
They don’t work, as Li discovered, confirming research from the Nielson group. People do not understand three cryptic lines and don’t get that they can click on them.
I’ve looked at enough Google Analytics for the sites I’ve managed to know that hardly anyone uses menus. Visitors to your home page scan for relevant content and, if they can’t find it, they immediately go to Search.
Usability is simplicity. It’s using the terms that the public uses, not what you want to say. Li discussed another example – an online course on driver safety. Users flocked to the course, thinking that they could learn how to get discounts on car insurance.
The user is always right, as WordPress creator Matt Mullenwegg would say, even when they’re wrong. The course was renamed to make it clearer that it was about driver safety not driver discounts.
In government, where I worked for almost ten years, we never had money for usability testing. However, we had to comply with laws like Sec. 508, which mandates that web sites be accessible to all users, including the blind and disabled. That means that text alternatives have to be available for multimedia information. It forced you to make simpler sites, ones without annoying video intros and Flash.
Making sites accessible is about making them simple. It’s about using the terms that your audience uses. In Washington, we love specialized terminology, for it marks a person as “in the loop.”
Don’t do this. Instead, use simple words that the public knows.
And it’s a good practice, no matter the audience, according to Li. Making a site easy enough for seniors to use will benefit all readers. After all, not everyone is a native English speaker. Not everyone has a sleek laptop with a wifi connection. And there are a surprising number of people who still use AOL to access the web. Your audience is more than just tech-savvy millennials.
You don’t need to be a usability expert to design a usable web site. Focus on simplicity.
After all, you can’t fight Father Time. You’re going to get old. Design simple sites now, ones that all Americans can use.
When I first started biking, I contemplated the map of Rock Creek Park with amazement, watching the trail stretch miles out of the city to a place called Lake Needwood.
It seemed an impossible distance, a good twenty miles away on a winding ribbon of asphalt. One would need all day to get there – maybe two! The fantastical white spires of the Mormon Temple just beyond the Beltway was my idea of a long ride.
But you keep biking and the distances seem smaller and smaller. Twenty miles goes from an epic journey to something you do after a couple beers on an evening.
I did a century a few weeks ago, a 100-mile ride to the end of the WO&D Trail, a destination that once seemed as far away as Shangri-La. On Sunday, I set out for another place I hadn’t been to: Lake Needwood.
With just a sideways glance at the new Klingle Trail (I’ll do that another day), I enjoyed the widened Rock Creek trail by the National Zoo before encountering the rutted surface of Beach Drive. Then I just kept going north, past the Mormons and deep into suburban Maryland.
I imagined a beer garden. Or at least a place to get a hot dog. Yet, after a couple of hours of biking through the woods, there was neither. Instead, a beautiful lake dotted with bright kayaks. But I had made it to the end, accomplishing what once seemed impossible.
Needing food (a common theme of these bike journeys), Yelp alerted me that there was a Big Greek Cafe in Rockville. I love Big Greek!
My Strava route for this section is amusing, showing figure eights in a parking lot as I search for the restaurant, which was on other side of the shopping plaza.
After lunch, I decided to take a different route back to the city. Google Maps led me down this long, circular road with speed bumps next to a huge empty lot. Ahead, an unfamiliar tower of condos.
Then it hit me: this was the White Flint Mall. Or, rather, the remains of it, for the entire structure has been demolished save for Lord and Taylor. People don’t go to malls, anymore.
And they certainly don’t go to Rockville, for the entire area has been rebranded as North Bethesda, a tony district of new condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.
Also included, the latest hipster amenity: a protected bike lane, running by yoga studios and kombucha joints.
The protected bike lane led me to the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which goes through backyards all the way to actual Bethesda. The trail is being widened around NIH, for the population of cyclists is ever-increasing in this traffic-choked region.
The trail (which is just a sidewalk near NIH) ends in a postcard-cute Bethesda neighborhood. Good signage led me to the Capital Crescent Trail, another rail trail and a nice downhill run back to DC.
50 miles done! What once seemed impossible now very much possible, even easy, new horizons opened up by one of man’s greatest inventions: the bike.