Monday, September 27, 2010


Warning: This post may contain vague spoilers, but does not contain concrete ones. I don't come out and say it, but it's impossible to write about Catfish without at least alluding to the story's secret. Read at your risk. Even better, go see the movie, then come back and read.
I lucked into a special showing of Catfish, with co-director Henry Joost in attendance, making it two movies in a row I've seen that were followed by Q&A with the film's maker, since the last movie I went to was The Big Uneasy in New Orleans on 8/30 with Harry Shearer. I intentionally didn't read much about Catfish, because I didn't want to know the secret, and I went early in its release, the second day, because I knew I couldn't stop myself from finding out for long. I also wanted to see "Catfish" before seeing The Social Network, wanting to see the story built on Facebook before seeing the story of how Facebook was built. It was an afternoon showing on a sunny Saturday, so the crowd was small, and I sat down front and right, so it just happened that he was five or six feet from me when answering questions. Even better, he spent time in the lobby signing autographs and talking to folks after the show, and really seemed to be a great guy. Pictured with me at right, he looks remarkably like The Youngest (much less so IRL).
The film follows Nev (rhymes with Steve) Schulman, a photographer and the brother of Joost's business partner, Ariel, with whom he runs a film production company in New York City. The three shared an office space. In this highly recommended recent piece, Joost describes it simply:
Our threshold for considering something interesting enough to film is very, very low.... When Nev started to correspond with an 8-year-old kid who reached out to him on the internet, Ariel pulled out his camera instinctively.... We film ourselves all the time.
Their resulting work follows Nev's evolving relationship with that kid and her family, immediate and extended. The virally popular trailer calls what happens when they head out on a road trip to meet these people "shattering", but I don't agree and think that's even misleading. I found the surprise liberating and sweet, maybe even the opposite of the scary it's been depicted. It's more like discovering Picasso's "lie that tells the truth," defining art and the creative spirit, even if some of that spirit, that art, is accidental, even if someone could get hurt. I was wondering if it was true, and some in the media have suggested it's a faux documentary, a story built to look like the truth, a device. "Is it true?" was one of the first questions asked of Joost during the Q & A that followed the film, and Joost didn't just answer, "Yes." Much, if not most, of the discussion that followed was less about the movie and more about the experience that these young men shared, more importantly, the remarkable people they met. They saw something unfolding in front of them and documented it without knowing where it would go, almost stumbling into a deeply moving story and one that also speaks to a core value of social media: its ability to relieve the loneliness and isolation that so often burden ordinary people, perhaps especially those overwhelmed by loss, difficulty, routine, emptiness, pain, its ability to help us hold onto "fragments of things we used to be, wanted to be, never could be," as he put it. BTDT.
Ultimately, the film's creators find the eruptive, disruptive, irrepressible nature of the artistic soul, affirming the notion that the thing you can't not do, that thing that comes out anyway, even when you or the circumstances of your life try to keep it in, will find a way even if it's sideways, even when our burdens bend us, bend it. These young men, perhaps overly eager, some have suggested self-absorbed, turned out to be as gentle and generous souls as the ones they discovered. Instead of judging, they embraced. "Catfish" isn't scary or shattering; it's tender and enlightening. As Joost put it, "The biggest surprise in living the experience and making the film was that we didn't find a villain on the other side of that door." I'm so glad I saw "Catfish" and got the chance to talk with Henry Joost. It's one of those movies you keep thinking about long after it's over. If it's not playing where you are, click here and request the movie in your area.
The current crop of documentaries really is seriously enticing. I'd also like to see "Waiting for Superman" and "I'm Still Here". I loved "Catfish" but warn you not to expect some huge stunner of a reveal, because it's a more ordinary but elegant story they unfold. Next weekend I'm going to go for the big studio fiction based on real life, the movie about Facebook, "The Social Network". I'll try not to expect Aaron Sorkin to be there.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Museum, The Message & The Movie

The Museum

My recent trip to New Orleans for Rising Tide 5 and observances of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall and the flood that followed in New Orleans started with a an event at the Louisiana State Museum, Katrina 5.0: A Symposium on Technology and Blogging. I commend the museum for their choice of subject and hope they'll continue the discussion of Social Media in Disaster, because there isn't a community in this country for which this has been more important than SE Louisiana. In the wake of the hurricane in Mississippi, the flood in New Orleans and the diaspora that followed these events, for the first time in this country, citizen-generated online content distributed vital information, became emergency communication used to look for the lost, locate the safe and to broadcast, in the truest sense of the word, real-time vital information. Social Media, including Craig's List, blogs and online message boards became the means through which dispersed communities re-formed their existing connections and established new ones, based on their ongoing shared experience. This was the environment in which first the NOLA Bloggers and then Rising Tide organized.

Troy Gilbert, @gulfsails, was on the Symposium panel to discuss his live blogging of the immediate aftermath in River Ridge and the flood in Lakeview, which he did initially by texting to post on Blogger and later charging his laptop via a generator and finding a live hard phone line so he could access the internet with a laptop and a dial-up connection. This information led to a lively discussion on the particular value of text messaging (and dial-up) in an emergency, followed by a discussion of the remarkable way in which Twitter was used by New Orleanians in the Gustav evacuation. Because Twitter can be accessed for both sending and receiving tweets using text messages on the most ordinary cell phones, and because it's possible to follow tagged subjects (#gustav #nexthurricane) in addition to people (@bestfriend) on Twitter, a group of technologically inclined New Orleanians and their extended digital support system saw Twitter's potential as an emergency management tool and intentionally adopted the platform, set themselves up as a group, knowing that it would be useful in an evacuation, given what they'd learned in numerous evacuations, including recent memories of the extended one that followed Katrina.

Text messages are tiny packages of data, that, once sent, hang in the ether until they manage to get through, able to do so, eventually, even when cell towers are struggling with power problems and whole area codes appear to be down. By the time Gustav made his landfall, there was a very developed active network of NOLA tweeters. Evacuees were reporting traffic conditions as well as fuel, supplies and accommodations availability on the road. Their friends in other locales were tweeting to them updates on the storm and related news, while folks who chose to remain in New Orleans were tweeting conditions there, even up to, on days two and three and four, going house to house looking for porch lights intentionally left on for just this purpose and informing their friends, via Twitter, when their electricity came back on, all reporting from the evacuation or the storm, vital information, 140 characters at a time. Suddenly, Twitter wasn't just a game, or a fun thing to do, not just a clever marketing channel or a silly time suck, but an excellent emergency management tool, that if deployed by responders could function something like interoperability lite.

It's important that we talk about it, write about it and share ideas, because we're all just learning how to do this and there's value in shared knowledge. Kudos to the Louisiana State Museum for furthering the discussion, for spreading the word. I was very glad to get down there for it, and I look forward to the museum's upcoming exhibit: Living with Hurricanes, Katrina and Beyond opening 10/26/10.

The Message

So there they were in the summer of 2006, these newly-forming NOLA Bloggers, almost a year into the internet explosion that erupted from the diaspora, already instinctively trying to correct the erroneous terminology of Hurricane Katrina, the Natural Disaster that struck MS vs. The Flood, the Infrastructure (or Engineering) Failure that followed in New Orleans, erroneous terminology that was taking hold in the national narrative, when Scout Prime, then blogging at First Draft, suggested to Oyster of Your Right Hand Thief, that there could be a conference. Her suggestion resulted in this post, which resulted Rising Tide 1, which led to Rising Tide 5, this year, that Rising Tide webmaster, Lance Vargas, described in Fear and Loathing at Rising Tide 5, as "the largest concentration of myth dispellers in any one place that weekend." Myth dispellers, bloggers and their readers, tweeters or just supportive interested parties, gathering with experts brought in to help find the truth buried in all the noise, gathering to ask questions that help define the message that they would in turn broadcast, if not pioneering new media advocacy, certainly trying to perfect having fun trying.

It's a mission based on the notions that the words matter and that corporately funded media can't be trusted to get it right, that they're compromised by obligations to sponsors on one side and ratings on the other, thus inclined to deliver a pre-packaged PR story to suit their advertisers that also manages to pander to their audience's preferences, and that this infects all kinds of officials, public and private, so much so that a president who must know better still suggests that the flood in New Orleans was a natural disaster and limits declaration of the man-made failures to the response, or lack thereof, still making no mention of a catastrophic infrastructure failure. Maybe that's just too scary. Terrorists really are superfluous when we have all these hidden time bombs in our infrastructure.

So, it's been a desire shared by many to at least try to correct the message, to try to find and further the truth rather than the neatly packaged stories we're given by a for-profit media, that started Rising Tide and fuels its growth, a desire to gather and look for the truth that will help define the message, an evolving mission to change the words, and not just about the flood, because these same mistakes get made over and over again, most notably, recently, with the oil spill, and will be the same with the oil spill as long as we keep calling it the oil spill. Spill is something one does with their coffee. I'll even go so far as to accept that spill is something that happens when an oil-carrying tanker loses its load, but BP and Transocean and Halliburton and their sub-contractors and all the parts of the U.S. government that participated in their oversight, primarily the MMS and Congress, in the process of trying to take something that probably oughtn't belong to them in the first place out of the earth, broke the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, opened a gash through which the contents of the earth gushed out, and they were unable to stop it because they hadn't bothered, in their headlong rush to get the prize out of the earth, to prepare for the possibility that something could go wrong, hadn't bothered to have a real plan in place in case they, well, broke the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Safety First, performance art used to cover up just another greed-corrupted, profit-driven culture. When they did break the earth, they lied about it, like a naughty child covering up the mess they'd made, hoping Mommy wouldn't see it. When that didn't work, they threw poison on it, a poison with only one purpose: to make the oil less visible. They didn't care that the poison, Corexit, was worse for all the things that live in (around?) the Gulf of Mexico than was the oil, that it would make it harder to find the oil, so it would make it harder to remove the oil, and also that it would infect the food chain from the bottom up, that there was no science to tell them exactly how this would manifest, whether it could go all the way from killing of species of marine life to creating dangerous seafood. No one knows, but BP didn't care. Hiding their mess was the only thing they cared about. But I digress, sort of.

Profit-driven cultures frequently evolve this way, with appearances trumping reality, and finding a way to tell your immediate superior what they want to hear rather than the truth becomes a necessary tactic for advancement, since how it looks is way more important than how it really is, and the words, the spin, and the shiny tale told seems more real than the ugly, broken, failing true story that lies beneath. Whether it's levees built on goo, or an overly gaseous well, or a crumbling system of pipes carrying explosive natural gas through residential neighborhoods, the current corporate/government/big media culture is that it's best not to talk about what's going wrong if you want to keep your job. Nobody cares about what they can't see.

So we all just do what we can, because we can, because the words matter and we can say that loudly, and it's pretty glorious that others before us fought all these years in this country to protect our rights to say what we're thinking publicly, the way that other Americans have, all the back to Thomas Paine, except now, our little homemade pamphlets are, if ephemeral, wildly distributable to a potentially huge audience, able sometimes to tap into a public energy that can sweep a topic up into the larger consciousness, making it possible, with a few bytes posted online and oft repeated, to influence what happens next, to change the words, which brings me to The Movie.

The Movie

On Monday, August 30th, still in New Orleans, I went to see Harry Shearer's documentary film about the true causes of the flood versus the myths built into the most widely accepted stories, The Big Uneasy, at the Prytania Theater with @VirgoTex and @RacyMind. We found the aforementioned Oyster there and attended one of the shows after which Shearer spoke briefly and took questions. I liked the movie, although I am not its intended audience but rather its echo chamber. There wasn't much I learned, as I've spent the last five years kind of studying this, but it was interestingly presented and it's a movie that needs to be seen and talked about and quoted, all as part of this same mission, this message, this perhaps stupidly old-fashioned idea that truth matters, that knowing what really happened matters, that making sure it or something like it doesn't happen again or somewhere else matters.

The movie was initially scheduled to play one night only on 8/30 in theaters across the nation, and the DVD can't be sold until ninety days after the theatrical release, but Shearer has promoted it fiercely and the film's gotten some legs, so there've been some additional screenings scheduled and extended clips posted online. He does a good job of explaining the science of what happened, including perhaps the best graphic of the time line of the levee failures that I've seen. If I can find that clip online, I'll post a link as an update. John Goodman's "Ask A New Orleanian" segments are nice comic relief that also yield valuable information, and the film's pace was comfortable even on a belly full of Franky & Johnny's fried catfish and a couple of beers.

During the Q & A that followed, when asked how he funded the production, Shearer said, "I like to think that this is Rupert Murdoch's money that paid for this; I just acted as a conduit." The audience laughed at his reference to his work on The Simpsons for Fox, later adding to point out that he made the movie because what we call the mainstream media failed to report truthfully, "Why else would a schmuck from Spinal Tap and The Simpsons have to do this if they'd done their jobs?"

Perhaps most interesting in all of the post-release stories is one Shearer told that night that's since taken on some life of its own via the internet, about his attempts to purchase underwriting on NPR, which he did when he realized that neither Morning Edition nor All Things Considered would be covering the release of his film. What followed is not something one would've expected from NPR. Here's how Shearer described it:

NPR's legal department ruled that these words were not acceptable in the announcement: "documentary about why New Orleans flooded", that the only words that would work for them were "documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina" -- this despite the fact that the movie IS about why New Orleans flooded, and it most certainly is not about the hurricane (since the experts interviewed in the movie agree that the flooding was a "man-made engineering catastrophe").

It didn't surprise me later to learn that Shearer's inspiration to make the movie came at Rising Tide 4, for which he was the keynote speaker (that link is to @sophilab's video of his keynote address), because what struck me most, what I kept thinking about on the drive home to Atlanta, what led to this whole long-winded ramble of a post, was that his mission in making this movie was maybe identical or at least very close to identical to our mission with Rising Tide: to dispel myths, to help define the words that are used to describe these events to the rest of the world, to take the definition of those messages away from the entities and organizations with financial interest in the outcome or something similar and use whatever kind of platform we have to replace the spin that had been sold as truth with what really happened, and that this mission doesn't end with New Orleans' flood, but includes what we call what BP did to the Gulf of Mexico and whether we consider the mammoth commercial apparatus that reports news for us our mainstream media, or what it really is, owned and operated by sponsors, corporately-funded or for-profit.

I'm sorry to go so horribly long (although it's hard to believe anyone could possibly still be reading), and am almost ashamed at how much time it's taken to get this written, but it seems to me this is important because it looks like it's going to be a long, hard fight.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


I had hoped to try and grab some lucidity as the last few days' adrenaline subsides and I drift into a short stupor before I have to drive back to Atlanta and return to my day job, so I could put down in words at least some of the things that have happened, that were created and shared by and with these NOLA Bloggers, this fifth anniversary of Katrina's landfall and of the infrastructure failure that occurred in her wake, but, nah. I'm afraid it might be too late for that. So, if you don't mind I'll ramble and link to some of the fine friends who are better bloggers than I am. It will be best for us all if y'all go and read what they wrote. If you're looking for well-written, cohesive narrative, I fear you're in the wrong place. Here's my report from Rising Tide & Rob Thomas with a few ReTweets thrown in, my RTs.
Loki, who once again did a great job as Master of Ceremonies, has posted a Cinchcast of Mother Jones' Mac McClelland's keynote speech, including the Q&A that followed. While she's been generally regarded as the hottest keynoter yet, I happen to think that depends on how you define hot, since she's up against last year's keynoter, Harry Shearer. (Stop it, I'm serious. He's certainly hotter from my POV, but I digress.) Aside from being brilliant and beautiful, she rocked for being the first keynoter to come to the Friday night party, and she signed NOLADishu's Halliburton Cementing Handbook. Shearer, however, gets his own special kudos for being the first keynoter to show up at the year after his keynote Rising Tide as an attendee, which also rocked, a lot. His documentary, The Big Uneasy, shows one night only nationwide on Monday, August 30th. If you miss it, look for it soon in DVD.
Veracity Stew has a good recap of Tim Ruppert's presentation on the differences between levees and dams, in fact and in how they are considered, regulated and maintained by governments, whether federal or local. It turns out those differences are big and important and affect millions of Americans who don't live anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico. The Big American Night has a long post that pays particular attention to the Public Safety and Environmental panel discussions. If you didn't follow Liprap's live blogging on the Rising Tide blog on Saturday, then scroll down to see her live posts. @Dakinikat did something cool, putting up a post early in the day and then letting the comments thread be the live-blogging. I don't agree with everything she says, but it's a nice record, and her comment after noting that our keynoter was dropping f-bombs and drinking a Bloody Mary, "She's gone native," was hilarious (h/t @skooks).  
We had a great crowd, with folks coming in all day and very few leaving, until the very last panel, or because of the very last panel, which was Maitri's Treme panel. Jeffrey gets the quote of the day as a questioner when he asked Eric Overmyer, Treme's co-creator and executive producer, whether there was a danger of "curating to death" the culture that the show is trying to capture. Overmyer recognized that danger. 
I'll toss up the links to pictures and interesting reports, hopefully including video, as updates to this post as I find them, and promise another post covering the Katrina 5.0 Symposium at the Louisiana State Museum as well as Shearer's movie, later. We had over 200 attendees at this year's conference, plus probably a dozen or so more press comps and unregistered panelists (it was my job to count them and I'll work on getting the final, final head count after I get this post up). The Howlin' Wolf turned out to be an almost perfect venue and h/t to Howie for getting it done on game day. The Marriott Springhill Suites was perfect as a conference hotel. With quite a few organizers encamped and many out of town guests, including our keynote speaker, I heard not one single complaint. Somehow, miraculously, our non-attendee hotel neighbors didn't even complain about us, or at least not that I know. Walking back and forth between the hotel and the Wolf it was impossible not to notice the front of the Convention Center less than two blocks away, and I couldn't help but wonder what passed in those spaces five years ago.
The organizers kicked ass, many shouldering multiple responsibilities. I did my best to manage the registration process from afar but would like to thank the real organizers for an amazing job done well: Peter Athas, Patrick Armstrong, Jeffrey Bostick, Leigh Checkman, Alli deJong, Mark Folse, Mark Moseley, Lisa Palumbo, Tim Ruppert, Rob Steinmetz, Lance Vargas, George Williams, and especially, our Chair, without whom it would have been something completely different, Kimberly Marshall. I kind of miss the days of live-blogging Rising Tide, because manning the check-in table means I don't get to pay full attention to the program, although this venue was better for doing both at the same time than any place we've previously held the conference. I end up doing more tweeting than blogging and trying my best to follow as we go along on Twitter by keeping one eye on the #rt5 tweet stream, of greatest value when used as a guide to longer content by clicking the links shared. There were lots of great tweets, but my favorite was from Lamar White of @CenLamar who tweeted to @RisingTide the day after the conference, "This year was a smash success. Rising Tide is quietly emerging as the State's most relevant and insightful annual conference." Also, check out his report of running into President Obama at Parkway Bakery on Sunday.
It was a hard decision for me to make, because debriefing with the organizers after the conference is one of my favorite parts of our traditions, but last April, when, on a whim, I tried to buy tickets for Rob Thomas' acoustic concert in Biloxi on 8/28 for his Sidewalk Angels Foundation, the last of the summer tour, I hit the jackpot and came away from Ticketmaster with front row seats. I was fortunate enough to enlist @brenyb as my enthusiastic partner in crime, and we high-tailed it out of Rising Tide and to Biloxi in the pouring rain, without eating dinner or so much as having a beer, landing in our seats barely in time to catch our breath before they started. Playing with Matt Beck and Frankie Romano, he performed a mix of his solo material, Matchbox Twenty favorites, some covers and two Tabitha's Secret songs, one of which I'd never heard, and really liked, Swing. Matt Beck did one excellent solo song that I have on video. My Flickr Pics are here, but I'm a little uncomfortable posting the videos I made. Unlike most artists, Rob doesn't take down concert vids folks post online, but these are such high quality that I'm not sure it's okay (or maybe I just want them all to myself?). It was a soft concert, relaxed, with everyone seated except at the very end, with the appreciative audience singing back to him all night. On our ride back to New Orleans (okay, after a stop for a late dinner at Waffle House), we talked about Rob's way with words, and maybe I'll come back and write a whole post on his remarkable ability to distill complex concepts into a very few cleverly turned words, and add a set list, but this line from MBT's Hand Me Down, which he did not sing on Saturday, seemed to us to perfectly fit the day's theme, nailing what passes for information right now in this country, what a corporate for-profit media teaches us: "gonna like the way they lie, better than the truth."
Jeffrey pointed out a few things in a blog post on the Friday before Rising Tide that I think bear repeating. First, he points out this paragraph from the home page:
We come together to dispel myths, promote facts, highlight progress and regress, discuss recovery ideas, and promote sound policies at all levels. We aim to be a "real life" demonstration of internet activism as we continue to recover from a massive failure of government on all levels. 
Then he adds this:
I very much like that little block of text. It says an informed, engaged public can debunk and overcome damaging untruths which emerge either through general laziness or from powerful institutional malefactors. This is, in my opinion, the very best of what internet media offers us.
I hope people came away from this year's Rising Tide both more informed and engaged. I know I did.

*** We already have an update. Crystal Kile's video of Mac McClelland's keynote is here.
**** Watching Treme has a comprehensive post up here with detailed coverage of the Treme panel.
***** Mark LaFlaur's live blogging for Levees Not War. The conference is always better for having Mark around.