Reverend Billy Comes to Silver Spring

reverend billy in Austin
Reverend Billy preaches against Starbucks in Austin, TX.

Reverend Billy came to the chain-ridden streets of Silver Spring to minister for our sins. What did we do wrong? Americans shop too much, according to the Reverend, with our dreams dictated by major brands and our lives enslaved by credit card debt.

With this type of message, you would think that his movie, “What Would Jesus Buy” would be a humorless polemic. But what distinguishes the Reverend from the whole crop of latter-day alarmists (for example, the food police) is the humor and humanity he brings to his evangelical message.

I first encountered the Reverend on the streets of Austin during SXSW. He and his joyous band led a gospel-style procession up Congress Avenue, singing out to everyone, “Stop shopping! Stop shopping!” Like the Pied Piper, he soon had a delighted throng following him, for the choir was truly rocking and the lyrics were hilarious indictments of our own materialism. He led a crowd up to a Starbucks and preached against the sins of this ubiquitous company, and for all of us to make better choices with our dollars.

This humor and appeal to our better nature is on display in the new documentary, “What Would Jesus Buy.” This film, which screened at SilverDocs, follows the Reverend and his choir around the country at the height of Xmas shopping madness. Produced by Morgan Spurlock, it’s a funny and occasionally horrific look at the excesses of 21st century America. We have too much stuff and spend more than we have to buy the latest products pitched to us.

Where the doc comes alive is when we see Reverend Billy and his wife, Savitri D, struggle with their mission. Are they really making a difference? The Reverend answers affirmatively, if they can just change one life. And they do, by blessing an infant outside a Target – a really touching moment.

This sets up the final confrontation with the forces of the “shopacolypse” as Reverend Billy goes into the belly of the Beast (or Mouse) to spread his good news.

The packed house at SilverDocs loved it, especially when the Reverend and the choir appeared in the wings and began to sing a couple of new songs.  They’re trying to get distribution for the movie.

Nobody likes being preached to, whether it’s religion or politics. But Reverend Billy has managed to communicate his message through humor and satire. And it’s a message that stays with you because the Reverend doesn’t try to make us feel guilty, he tries to make us good.

The Mini-Retirement: Costs and Benefits

palm tree, Santa Monica, CA
In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss discusses the idea of taking a “mini-retirement” while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. His point is that we Americans have it all wrong. We work hard through our youth to save up for a retirement in old age. That seems backwards to him – we should have our fun now, while we still can.

This is something I’ve always believed in. “You have the rest of your life to work,” I’ve counseled others who have considered taking a few months away from cubicle land. We’re fortunate to live in this historically unique time and place where jobs are plentiful. You’re not going to starve and there will be work for you when you come back, at least if you’re lucky enough to be a college graduate in America.

However, mini-retirement has costs and benefits that need to be considered. In my own life, I’ve tried to alternate my creative pursuits (writing) and my career (web person). I’ve taken several mini-retirements so that I could write. Here are the costs and the benefits:

August 1991 – December 1992: I leave my nascent career as an Information Assistant in Washington, DC, and move home to Florida. I work as a temp while I write a novel. I’m completely broke, live with my parents and yet am really happy.

  • Cost: I’m “behind” some of my friends who are becoming successful in their careers.
  • Benefit: I write a novel, my most important life goal.

July – October 1996: The Internet has just begun to take off. I’ve created my first web site, so that I can publish my fiction. I leave my library job behind and take several months off to travel and write. I also think there has to be a way for me to find a job doing this new web stuff.

  • Cost: None. I don’t make any money for three months but I get a new and much better job as an Internet Content Consultant.
  • Benefit: I work on my writing and edit the script of an independent film, Carrots and Onions. Reading someone else’s screenplay convinces me that screenwriting is something I can do. Perhaps more importantly, with my web job I’ve switched fields. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a career not just a job.

December 2001 – May 2002: A few months after 9/11, it’s a terrible time for a mini-retirement. My plan, formalated earlier in the year, of taking a couple months off to travel and work on a screenplay stretches into a half-year of intermittent freelance work.

  • Cost: My finances suffer a major blow from the months of semi-paid freelance work. And when I finally find a new job, it pays less than my old job. My friends are buying homes, piling up $$ in their 401Ks, having kids. And spending lots of time in the office.
  • Benefit: Though it’s tough to see as I look at my bloated credit card balance, the work and connections made during this time will pay off later. I finish my script, Mount Pleasant, which in 2006 will win the Film DC screenplay competition. And, with plenty of time on my hands, I become part of the local film community and meet people I will work with in the 48 Hour Film Project (2003, 2006) and DC Shorts. I also get into photography, a hobby that will bring me much joy.

Mini-retirements are not without cost. However, they’ve added a richness of experience to my life that is truly priceless.

Tim Tate's Artomatic Stunt?

artomatic pic

I’ve met Tim Tate, the noted Washington glass artist, a couple of times. One of his glass sculptures, a really cool rocket, was stolen from Artomatic and held for ransom. It was only returned after a dramatic midnight exchange – Monopoly money for art. An individual named “The Collector” took credit for the theft. His aim was to increase this city’s appreciation of its art and artists.

This was a brilliant PR stunt, one that was expertly pulled off by “The Collector” or by Tate himself. It garnered both of them a story on the front page of Style in The Washington Post.

Did Tate set this up? Anyone who has met him would argue that he was certainly capable of such a masterstroke. After all, he’s a man who once had 99 films made about himself, including one that I wrote. But whoever did this crime is a marketing genius who should be applauded for bringing excitement and intrigue to the world of art in DC.

48 Hour Film Project

48 hour

I’ve done the 48 Hour Film Project twice. For those who haven’t experienced this weekend of madness, it’s a contest where you have 48 hours to make a short film. You pick a genre out of a hat and everyone has to use the same character name, prop, and line of dialogue.

On the weekend of May 5, a hundred teams from around Washington set out to make their short films. The results are being shown this week at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.

Both times I’ve done 48 Hour, it was an amazing learning experience – it’s like Hollywood in a microcosm, with all the highs and lows of any filmmaking experience, though on a smaller scale and budget than what gets made on the West Coast.

Here’s a story of my 48 Hour experience from 2003, when me and the team of Midnight Motley set out to make a mockumentary.

Uncle Sam's Podcasts

Uncle Sam wants YOU to listen to his podcasts!  Government web sites are increasingly using the tools everyone else is using (podcasts, videos, blogs) to communicate with the public.  A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted some of the many government podcasts that are out there.  For example, NOAA (the agency I work for) created a podcast on a research mission to Greenland.

Photo Shoot with Caveat Improv Group

I had the opportunity to take some pics of Caveat, an improv troup that is part of the Washington Improv Theater. It was a lot of fun – they’re a very creative group and they came prepared with ideas of what they wanted to do, which really helped. We shot in Meridian Hill Park, a city park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Once known as the “most violent national park in the region,” it is now safe and scenic, the way it should be.

riding down the park's steps
An impromptu slide down the stairs race.

Caveat
The Caveat improv group.

Government Web Content Managers Workshop

I attended the Web Content Managers workshop on April 24 at the FDIC training center in Arlington. It was a great workshop, with lots of opportunities to meet other gov’t web folks and learn new things. Here are my notes from the conference:

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, The World Bank Group, “Social Media: Transforming Communication Between Government and Its Customers”

  • World Bank gets criticized in the blogosphere, drowning out the Bank’s message (this was before the latest scandal). The Bank needs to be part of the conversation rather than being defined by it.
  • Solution is to let groups of employees blog, provided that each blog has a strong governance body and that users are interested in it.
  • Example: Private Sector Development blog has personal stories of staffers in the field. This blog gets more traffic than their department’s web site.
  • “Communication 2.0” is to help the experts communicate rather than controlling the process.
  • Social media is evangelized throughout the organization by the installation of RSS readers, so staff can follow blogs, and a “BuzzMonitor”, showing mentions of the Bank across the web.

Alex Langshur, PublicInsite, “How to Re-Orient Our Websites Around Users’ Top Tasks and Get Top Management Support”

  • We should reorient our sites around the keywords that users use in searches, which demonstrate the type of content they want.  This means to change the categories of your site to match those keywords and to optimize your pages around those keywords.
  • Outdated pages should be deleted since they gum up your search results.
  • Use data on what users are “voting” on with their clicks to depersonalize the web site debate.  Let the data decide rather than the “Hippos” (highest-paid person in the room.)
  • What’s the mission of your site?  It must be a measurable criteria.  What are the top tasks of your users? Iterative improvement over time.  No major redesigns, just constant tweaks and changes.

Kathryn Summers, UMBC, “Getting Users From Point A to Point B: Designing & Writing Tasks for the Web”

  • Nearly 50% of the US population reads at an 8th grade-level or below.
  • Log-ins, forms and search are difficult for low literacy readers (she showed heartbreaking videos of older people who couldn’t figure out how to log in to banking sites).
  • Breaking up long paragraphs and sentences, avoiding acronyms, using simple words and shortening text are all ways of improving comprehension.  This also improves comprehension for high-literacy readers.

Brian Dunbar, NASA.gov, “Success Stories From the 2006 Web Best Practice Award Winners”

  • Web stats on usage are used to counter critics.
  • Most popular items on his site are images, lesson plans and mission coverage.
  • NASA is decentralized with multiple web sites.
  • NASA.gov is relaunching in October, the 50th anniversary of the agency.

Some (but not all) of the presentations from the meeting are online.

Steal Something of Mine?

Steal Something of Mine?
My bike was stolen. I knew I would see it again.
The Washington Post, June 27, 2002
(c) Joe Flood

I knew that I would one day see my bike again. I just knew it. My old Bianchi Broadway had been stolen off the back stairs of my building. I couldn’t believe that someone had gone to the trouble. The mountain bike was five years old, with worn tires, a temperamental chain, and a skein of rust on its exposed parts. To take it, my thief had to go up two flights of winding metal stairs, break the U-lock, and then carry the bike back down.

Looking out that Sunday morning, at the empty spot along the rail where my bike should be, I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. Kryptonite named Washington, DC as one of the “Top 10 Worst Cities for Bike Theft.” Nationwide, it is estimated that 1.5 million bicycles are stolen every year. An experienced thief can take your locked bike in about 10-20 seconds.

I just couldn’t believe that someone would steal something of mine. It hadn’t been an expensive bike, but it was the first bike I had ever owned. And my Bianchi had been with me everywhere. I had commuted on it up the long hill to American University. Ridden on it on pleasant weekend excursions along the C&O Canal. Coasted down the Mall by softball players and tourists. Why would someone steal something of mine? According to the National Bike Registry, the most common reason for bike theft is to pay for drugs. The value of a stolen bicycle is roughly 5-10% of the bicycle’s original retail value. Bikes are even used in lieu of currency in drug transactions.

But now my bike was gone. I don’t know why I bothered to report it. The police didn’t even come by to take my report; I filed it by phone. And stolen bikes are rarely recovered.

Yet, I knew I would one day see my bike again. For months afterward, whenever I saw a red mountain bike I would stop and squint at it, looking for identifying characteristics. No, the handlebars are too straight. No, the tires are too narrow. No, the bike looks too new.

One summer later, I found her. I was walking past a dusty park a couple blocks from my apartment, a little worn square of grass where men sit and drink. I looked over. Something that looked like my bike was leaning against a tree. I stepped into the park. The frame was covered with tacky stickers and duct tape. There was a big gash in the seat. It looked like the gearshifts had been broken off and the tires replaced. But it was my bike. I could tell by the rust.

The bike’s owner, a short Salvadoran walked over to me.

“This looks an awfully like my old bike,” I said.

“No, no, no. Es mine,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“I’m not saying you stole it, but this is my old bike,” I insisted.

We bantered in broken English and Spanish.

“I don’t want no trouble,” he said. He led me out of the park. “You follow, you follow,” he said, waving me on.

He got on the bike and rode out of the park, me walking behind him. I was waiting for him to take off and pedal away but he never did. My heart was pounding and I was shaky. Where was he taking me? He was careful not to get too far ahead of me, coasting down the sidewalk, looking back at me.

He turned down an empty alley. I followed. He reached a wooden door in a fence and pushed it open. He waved at me to come in. Me and the new owner of my bike squeezed into a narrow passage between a wall and a garage. The door shut.

He went to go get someone. I waited in a small courtyard. A man, his neighbor, approached. When he got closer, I saw that he had a Spanish-English dictionary in his hands.

I explained that this was my bike.

The neighbor got the story out of the Salvadoran man. He and his friend had found it, among junk, along V Street. They had taken it home and fixed it up. They fixed up bikes they found in the area. The neighbor didn’t know where they got them from but that they weren’t thieves.

The Salvadoran got anxious during the explanation.

“Calm down! Tranquilo!” his interpreter said. “He wants you to know that he’s not a criminal.”

“No criminal, no criminal.” He paced in the little courtyard, looking up into my eyes.

I didn’t think that he was a criminal. He could have told me to get lost back at the park, or rode off when I was following him. He didn’t have to get his neighbor to try to clear up the situation.

He offered me the bike. I didn’t want it. The bike was ruined, and nothing like the bike which had taken me everywhere. I had bought another one a few months earlier. I told him that he could keep it, that I didn’t think that he was a criminal.

“No criminal,” the man said, happy.

“No criminal,” I replied.

“Problem solved,” the neighbor added, relaxing.

The neighbor asked me my name. Joe. His was Joseph. The Salvadoran’s was Jose.

“Hey, we all got the same name,” Joseph said, beaming. “Joe, Joseph, and Jose.”

“Joe, Joseph, and Jose,” Jose said, pointing at each of us in turn.

I squeezed the brakes on my bike one last time and left.

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?

InternetDay.com, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.

Wrong.

Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.

FADE IN

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

CEO
And I want Java. I read about that.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?

CEO
Me.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

CEO
All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

INT. CEO’S OFFICE
6 MONTHS LATER
The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

CEO
Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

CEO
You better have a plan.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

CEO
It’s also the most profitable.

MARKETING DIRECTOR
I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

CEO
Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?

FADE OUT

A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” Clickz.com provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.