Faith by the Strata Collective at Leica DC

Gotta have faith

What is faith? Is it believing in a God that you cannot see? Is it blind trust in unreliable narratives passed down over the centuries? Or is it the simple belief in the goodness of our communities and ourselves?

The members of the STRATA Collective examine what it means to believe in”Faith,” their photography exhibition now on display at Leica DC. From the backroads of Texas to the crowded urban streets, their photos demonstrate the complex and occasionally absurd ways Americans believe.

The photos are presented in the gallery without comment, explanation or even titles. STRATA believes that it’s up to the viewer to decide what a photo means. It’s up to you to decide what the photo is all about, whether it’s a picture of Divine towering over anti-gay protesters or the simple portrait of a nun. They provide no clue as to what you’re supposed to “get” from the picture.

Instead, you examine the photo. You create meaning from it. You decide what to believe.

“Faith” will be on display at Leica DC (977 F St NW) through October.

Don’t Bike on H Street

G St night biking

Biking west on G St NE after the WABA happy hour. Note the contraflow bike lane on the left.

Do not bike on H Street NE under any circumstances! That was the consensus opinion at the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) summer happy hour at Vendetta on H Street. Everyone present seemed to have a story of injury and woe.

The reason? Streetcar tracks, which are dangerous to cyclists and impossible to avoid on H Street. There’s a small gap between rail and pavement that’s the perfect size to ensnare a bike tire.

I speak from experience. Two summers ago, I was cruising down H Street, in between the tracks. I had heard of the danger but thought I was being safe – I knew I needed to cross the tracks at a right angle to avoid peril. What I didn’t count on was the tracks veering off to the right as they approached Hopscotch Bridge. The front tire of my Specialized Sirrus got caught in the gap between track and pavement and I flew sideways off the bike, scraping along the pavement for ten feet or so. The tracks left me a bloody mess, with road rash all along my right side.

To add insult to injury, the streetcar isn’t even running yet. The tracks have been there for more than two years. But not a single passenger has been delivered. All the tracks have done is upend cyclists.

So, don’t bike down H Street! Take G or I instead. They’re pleasant neighborhood streets and free of the streetcar menace.

The Cynic’s Guide to Government Contracting

There’s an interesting post by Ben Balter on why government doesn’t use open source. It’s a good read, in which Balter presents all the reasons why government doesn’t use open-source software for its web sites, from the demand for enterprise solutions to a desire to avoid transparency (really).

Why is government so bad at building web sites? Why do they frequently build nonfunctional monstrosities like healthcare.gov, with its price of $840 million (and growing)?

Because there is no Web Department in government. There is no Web Development Corps of dedicated usability specialists, designers and editors. There is no government-wide web strategy.

Instead, government web sites are built ad hoc, created by individual agencies with wildly varying degrees of competence. Some are good. Others look straight out of the 90s. There is no standard design nor is there a standard platform. Instead, every agency builds what they want, with only a cursory nod toward the needs of the public.

These web sites are largely built by contractors, with names that sound vaguely Greek, like Synergos, or sound high-tech, like Advanced TechnoData Inc (ATDI, for short). These companies exist solely to win government contracts. They’re experts at it, and form and reform, based upon government requirements. If there’s a contract that asks for a small, disadvantaged business with a transgendered Intuit at the helm, then that company will come into being.

In their protean stage, these companies are little more than a sign on an office door and a web site filled with stock photos of happy tech workers. To succeed, they have to win contracts. For that, they have specialists in responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These specialists are expert at analyzing RFPs and then parroting back the requirements in the most convoluted and voluminous manner possible. These responses go back to government, which analyzes them, and then selects the lowest bidder.

Congratulations – your company has won an RFP. You promised you’d build a web site. Now you have to hire the people to do the work. Why don’t you have them on staff? Because you have no money to pay anyone until you win a contract. So, you go out and hire them – quickly. You want them on site and billing, so that you can get your money.

But it’s hard to get good help, especially when it comes to developers. You do the best you can, optimizing for speed and price over skills and experience. Better to get a cheap developer today then spend six months trying to woo top talent.

You created a beautiful Gantt chart, one with different colors for every week of the web development process – and it’s all gone to hell. Recruiting takes longer than anticipated – people have families, other jobs and they can’t start immediately, as much as you want them too. And just getting them into a government building is a chore – you need a person just handling the paperwork. Getting your staff computers and software from unresponsive government IT departments takes even longer.

Along the way, you decide on a Content Management System (CMS). Maybe you were strongly encouraged by the government CIO. He goes to big conferences sponsored by big software companies, ones that he hopes to join. He has a preferred CMS.

So, you ask your developers, “Can this CMS do what we want?” Of course they say yes – what else are they going to say? Their jobs depend on it.

You spend months in the planning stage. Wireframes are presented to rooms full of feds. Designs are revised endlessly. Everyone offers opinions but authority is elusive.

You move forward, months late. The build phase is a trainwreck. It’s where plans collide with reality. You find out you can’t put a button there and that the slideshow isn’t Sec. 508 compliant and that it’s not clear who’s going to write all this content anyway.

But the money is flowing. Your people, though they may be frustrated, are billing 40 hours a week. The COTR (Contracting Officers Technical Representative) is happy. His job is to make sure that the money is being spent. It’s a game where you don’t want to have any funds left at the end of the year.

Dog and pony shows are put on for senior management. You don’t show them the actual site (which doesn’t work) but you show mockups to people working on Blackberries.

Developers work late into the night hacking the thing together. It’s a big mess of ugly code, workarounds around workarounds, but it should hold up, provided you don’t get too many visitors.

You launch. It doesn’t suck. It works, kinda. You have a pizza party in the break room. The developers are surly, as if they hate the site, the process, you, everything. The feds hardly seem to notice their new site. And the public, well, their emails of complaint go into an unmonitored inbox.

While the web site may not be perfect, and it may be impossible to update (thanks to your CMS choice), the important thing is that the money was spent. It’s good enough for government work. The thought cheers you, as you pull into the driveway of your McMansion, paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Friday Photo: DC Shorts Edition

In the audience for DC Shorts at the Navy Memorial #dcshorts

Ten years of the DC Shorts Film Festival.

The DC Shorts Film Festival returns in September! This year’s festival is truly SPECTACULAR: 135 films from 25 countries screened in 17 unique 90-minute showcases. Each show screens 7-9 films: comedies, animation, dramas, documentaries — and by filmmakers around the corner to across the globe.

MovieMaker magazine calls DC Shorts one of the coolest film festivals in the world. What makes it special is the opportunity to see a smorgasbord of cinema and meet interesting filmmakers.

It’s one of my favorite events of the year and something I’ve been a part of almost since the beginning. This year, I helped select the finalists for the Screenplay Competition, a live reading in which the audience gets to pick the winner.

You can be there too! The 11th DC Shorts Film Festival is kicking off ticket sales with a special offer: $2 off EVERY screening, party and special event ticket. Use the special code FIRSTLOOK14 — but hurry: this offer expires Saturday at midnight!

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.

 

IN MY EYES: Hardcore Concert Photography in DC

Like band photos? Go see the work of @andradexcobain at The Coupe

Photographer Michael Andrade at the opening of IN MY EYES at The Coupe in Washington, DC.

Lucian Perkins had it easy. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer covered punk shows in a ruined Washington, DC, he was the only person with a camera, as documented in the brilliant Hard Art DC 1979.

But, these days, everyone is a photographer, holding their iPhones aloft as soon as a band warms up. How do you get concert photos that don’t look like a million other pics on Facebook?

If you’re Michael Andrade, you find small gigs. You get close. You get in the pit. You’re so committed that suffer nerve damage to get the shot.

His work is captured in a new photo exhibit, IN MY EYES, which is on display at The Coupe  until September 1. The exhibit features photos from 11 different DC-area hardcore bands. He brings you the excitement of unknown bands in small venues, all told in dramatic black and white. Andrade captures the joy of the experience, with as much emphasis on the crowd as the band – exactly like his mentor Lucian Perkins did more than thirty years ago.

Bikes and Bias: Why You Shouldn’t Trust the Washington Post

IMG_8399.jpg

Bike terrorists who deserve to be run over, according to Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy.

There was a time when the media considered itself a fourth branch of government. They were the ones responsible for “keeping them honest” and “speaking truth to power.” Objective arbiters of the truth, journalists were an elite class charged with communicating the news to the rest of us.

No organization embodied this high-minded civic sentiment more than The Washington Post, the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, the paper that brought down a president.

Today, the Washington Post published a poorly-written, factually incorrect, hate-filled screed advocating violence against cyclists. The author was Courtland Milloy, a Washington Post columnist, who writes:

It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.

Believe it or not, but this piece (with its factual errors, stereotyping and threats of violence) was reviewed and edited by editors at the Washington Post.

Several commentators (including me) had a tweet-exchange with one of them, asking how this could pass the Post’s supposedly rigorous standards. His reply:

You know what other views are widely held? Millions of people believe that Obama was born in Kenya. Others think 9/11 was an inside job. And a big chunk of the US population is certain that UFOs exist. But you don’t see their views in the Post. Why not?

Because the Post has editorial standards. They do not allow the beliefs of violent, racist crackpots on to their pages.

Unless you’re Courtland Milloy. He’s kept on staff because he’s supposedly the voice of black Washington – though he no longer lives in the city. Lacking a black perspective on the op-ed page, they pay him handsomely for the odd column, though his hate-filled rants would not be tolerated from a white writer. It’s patronizing liberalism at its worst, literally the soft bigotry of low expectations, and occurs despite the fact that there are plenty of talented black voices in this city.

Why not look for an African-American Ezra Klein rather than hanging on to this relic from the Marion Barry era?

Bikes have a way of revealing biases. For example, gentle-voiced Scott Simon of NPR, also hates and stereotypes cyclists. What other strange views does he hold? Are there other groups he thinks should be singled out for punishment? How do these biases influence what NPR covers?

Reporters say nasty things about cyclists because they can. Slurs against cyclists are acceptable while stereotyping other groups is not. Reporters give voice to this hate because there is no punishment for it. These biases exist and influence what stories get covered – and what stories don’t. Anti-cyclist hate is acceptable in the pages of the Post while the birthers are not.

The media is not objective. Do not believe what The Washington Post says. The Internet and Twitter provide wonderful real-time fact checking. We no longer have to blithely accept what our self-appointed guardians write, especially if they disgrace themselves by publishing hate-filled rants.

The media is not a fourth branch of government – the Internet has assumed that role. Read critically and make up your own mind.

Five Places to Write in Washington, DC

courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery

Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

If you want to truly write a book, and not just live out some Eat, Pray, Love fantasy, then you need to go to a boring place. That’s the conclusion of Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, in a recent blog post. He advocates going to a place where there is nothing to do.

While writing is a solitary activity, it doesn’t mean you need to be alone while doing it. I’m a city person, and like to write around other people, even if I’m not talking to them. A writer’s retreat in a remote cabin would probably turn me into the Unabomber. I need to see and hear other humans.

I’ve written two books in public in Washington, DC. These are my favorite places to write in the city:

1. Peets – 17th and L. I liked it when it was a Caribou, and I like it even more as a Peet’s (better scones). Located on a corner, with windows all around, it’s the perfect clean, well-lighted place. If you’re creatively stuck, you can always stare out the windows at cyclists going by on L Street. On the weekends, it’s so slow that I wonder how they stay in business. But they do and that’s perfect for me.

2. Cove – If you need more structure, than check out the co-working space Cove. They offer desks, fast wifi, coffee and even meeting rooms, all at a very reasonable rate. They have locations around DC but I like the Cove on 14th Street above Barcelona. If you’re there on a Sunday morning (when I like to write), you’ll have the place to yourself.

Never too hot for a cappuccino!

Cappuccino by Illy.

3. Renaissance Hotel – West End. Hotel lobbies are underused writing spaces in this city. This one has an Illy Cafe in it and they make the best cappuccino in the city. One upside/downside: no free wifi. If you can’t control your social media compulsion, come for the isolation.

4. Kogod Courtyard – Located at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s a calm oasis in the center of the city. There’s wifi, plentiful seating and a cafe. Plus, if you run out of ideas, you can always explore the fascinating exhibits at the museum. Open from 11 – 7.

5. Pound the Hill – This indie coffee shop has awesome food – the chicken salad is particularly good – and they even have a happy hour. With art on the walls, it’s a cute place on Capitol Hill to get some work done.

Note: I hate laptop campers, especially in small places like Pound. Give yourself two hours, do your work, and then leave. You can get a lot done if you give yourself a deadline.

A writing place doesn’t need to be boring. It just needs to be a spot where you like to write. When I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, I discovered that I liked to get my writing done early in the day. And that I couldn’t do it at home. I had to leave my apartment, as if I were going to a job. Which is why I love and patronize coffee shops. While you may have a different preference, the most important thing is find the writing place that works for you.

Friday Photo: America Edition

IMG_5009

The road to Marfa, TX.

I live in Washington, DC. Every year, we have one of the biggest fireworks displays in the nation.

But, to me, this is America – an empty Western road under big skies, one that expresses the endless possibilities of this country. This is what the USA is all about.

I took this photo on a drive around the country. When I reached this point, a couple hours outside Marfa, TX, I felt like I had truly left the East Coast behind. From here, I would be in the West. I loved the endless horizon, the baking heat and the absence of people.