Director of narrative, commercial, and virtual reality

Film Portfolio

Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

Search is Back

Featured on TechCrunch | 7k users per day

Global event handing out nametags on first Sat in June

Nametag Day

Uber Forecast

Tracking Uber's surge pricing to guess what the weather might be

Archive for December, 2010

Fading

How many emotions and experiences I’ve had, where I’ve said “I will never forget this!”

In a moment of rapture it seems inconceivable that such a towering majesty of experience could one day be a shadow and seem to have left no imprint on my being.

Since my first experience in the refugee camp my outrage has faded. My sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the world has dissolved into a moment of hunger, meaningless joking, a newspaper article. My life is defined more now by friendships, my new animal friends (there is a cute little lizard who watches me while I shower, and I’ve come to find most bugs absolutely adorable.) It’s not that I surround myself with triviality to ignore the deeper truths—it’s that the deeper truths can fade away. I become terrified of my moments of indifference.

I revisited Ralph’s essay on Burning Man, which drew something like 18,000 viewers when I posted it on my blog. I remember how I first read that essay and cried with Ralph at how strange the world is that we don’t look each other in the eye. I remember how my friends who had not been to Burning Man didn’t really understand what the post was about. And reading it again now, I barely understand any more either.

I have moments of personal truth and they fade into nothingness. The only defense I’ve found that works is to write, and to seek ways to rediscover.

Niko Na Safaricom

I really like Safaricom as a company. Just watch this beautiful ad. What pride in this exquisite country!

The making-of video is here, and is a must watch. UPDATE: Wow, I realize now how much more powerful this video is. All the places this was filmed HAVE SAFARICOM RECEPTION. Brilliant. Also, I now have word that the concept was taken from a 1998 Qantas ad for Australia, but god is this one more powerful.

Kenya’s biggest cell phone provider, they are clearly in a ferocious bid to capture the long tail of customers. To me it’s an example of how capitalistic greed, focused in the right direction, can truly provide for the masses. Everyone here has a cell phone and connects with super fast 3G speeds.

How do they do it? A supercompetitive price war with the other providers, where they have slashed some rates over 95% (it costs a bit under $0.04/min to call to the US.) It seems their aim is to win the market and cause the other companies to leave, and in the process Kenya is getting great service. Their internet is expensive (between $.03 – $.10/megabyte) but widely available. And they have top-up cards for as little as $0.12, so everybody can get in the game and have a cell phone (receiving calls is free.)

And their ad campaign is perfect – Niko Na Safaricom means “I have Safaricom.” Their ubiquity and familiarity is their selling point, which works especially when phone calls don’t always even go through between networks.

This is the English translation. Thanks to Antipas’ beautiful girlfriend for it!

Nafurahia Undugu na uko wetu / I delight in our brotherhood & nationhood
Nasherekea Kazi na bidii yetu / I celebrate our work & effort
Tuvute pamoja Tushirikiane / Lets pull together & unite
Bega Kwa Bega tujikaze tusaidiane / shoulder to shoulder we strive to help each other
Niko na / I have
Niko na uwezo / I have the ability
Wakuji Kujiendeleza / To enhance myself
Niko na / I have
Niko nayo nguvu / I have the strength
Nitaji / I will
Nitajitahidi / I will work hard
Niko na / I have
Niko na fanaka / I have prosperity
Nitaji / I will
Nitajitolea / I will devote
Niko na / I have

Niko na Baraka / I am blessed
Kwa kazi / In the work
Kazi nayofanya / The work that I do
Niko na Fahari / I have pride
Niko na furaha / I have happiness
Niko na uwezo / I have the ability
Niko na SAFARICOM / I am with Safaricom

Dubstep in Dadaab (don't.)

surprised Africa continent

africomg

This evening, I was unceremoniously kicked out of the DJ booth in our local bar Pumzika for playing electronic music. In Dadaab, some crimes are unforgivable.

Pumzika is the bar at UNHCR (the UN High Commisioner on Refugees. They run the compound, so their bar is pretty sweet.) The first night we visited the bar and I saw the raucous atmosphere and frequent guest DJs, and I became determined to DJ there. My friends know me as someone with eclectic music tastes – challenging but familiar, always fitting with the theme of the party but adding a little something extra. Little did I know what disaster would ensue.

The endeavor was ill-fated from the start. I jaunted towards the compound with our group, my orange speaker backpack on my back, holding a laptop filled with familiar African music, remixes of African music, and some funky mashups and dubstep tracks. When I arrived at the bar they said I would have to bring my own cable. A good deterrent to someone with lesser resolve, but ever-determined me jaunted back to FilmAid and borrowed Emmanuel’s audio cable. And the DJ set began.

Immediately, a kind but angry American (I later learned she was trying to keep her friend’s Jack Johnson playing) approached and asked me if I intended to DJ. “Yes,” I said. “It won’t go well,” she stated, and I began to wonder if she knew something I didn’t. “What do you mean?” I said. “I tried it, it didn’t work. The cables, they won’t work.” “So it’s a technical issue?” “Yeah.” “Don’t worry. I got it under control.” I had brought three cables. I was ready for anything.

After a long and difficult cable puzzle, we were finally ready. “Empire State of Mind” began the set. “New York in the House,” I conveyed merrily, oblivious to the impending musical doom. Then “Kids,” “I Fucking Bleed Purple and Gold,” “The Low Anthem,” and “Money Honey.” Lady Gaga saved me by a hair in this round.

Right around “House of Klezmer” and some David Guetta, the enthusiastic dancing gave way to manic discontent. The Kenyans, acting as a hive mind, came up with one way after another to get me to stop DJing. I had people running up to me asking for more reggae, more rap, requests which quickly gave way to demands that I give up the music. At the same time, I attracted every American in the club, one of whom outright asked for the whole mix on flash drive.

Dubstep was the tipping point, and my Tek-One track brought a flurry of discussion and an intervention from the bartender. Before I knew what was happening, another laptop was opened next to mine and a woman was playing with the audio cable that was attached to my computer. The cable I brought!

She started playing her own stuff, and I’ll have to grudgingly admit that she was a great DJ. She played stuff that I love to dance to, but I was hoping to push the envelope beyond reggae and Shania Twain. Ah well.

I learned an important lesson tonight. You can bring your movies. You can bring your gadgets and your recipes, and your accent and pretty much your entire culture. But don’t ever — EVER — play dubstep in Dadaab.

Maybe I’ll try again in Kakuma…

This Man Swallowed An Entire Bag Of Cocaine

Some things are just too funny for words:

From Jalopnik:

When transporting drugs in your vehicle, remember to always signal. Otherwise you might end up like 18-year-old Art Taylor who, upon being pulled over for not signaling, freaked out and swallowed a bag of cocaine. His mugshot says it all.
According to Framingham, Mass. police, they struggled with the teenager to stop him from swallowing a bag of white powder after they stopped him for a minor traffic offense.

Unspeakable

I tried. One month later, I’ll try again.

On November 9, I first entered the residential blocks of Ifo, one of the three camps in Dadaab. On that day, in no small part, I lost my innocence. I learned nothing new and saw nothing I hadn’t seen on our living room TV. But I was welcomed in by people who, to so many, are only data points and statistics. I wish that everyone could have that opportunity for themselves.

We were shooting the first scene in our film about rape, and what to do if a loved one is raped. Women walking alone through the camps, as they often do, are in serious danger of being taken advantage of; a huge proportion of the women in Ifo have been raped.

A feeling of camaraderie pervaded as I rode in the back of the truck with over ten people, bumping violently on the dusty streets and picking up cast and crew members as it went. I quickly learned to grab hold of the hot metal bars to avoid careening into the person next to me. It was the first day of shooting, always exciting, and I was looking forward to making a lot of friends from a new culture.

We jumped out of the van at the location, what appeared to be a typical house in the camp. I’d been observing the dwellings as we drove in, and there was a patchwork consistency to them. Some seemed made of clay, others were constructed of sheetmetal with the words USA printed onto them. Quite a few appeared to be made of twigs and branches, insulated with sparsely distributed t-shirts and scraps of canvas.

As the generous Somalis welcomed us into their home, I imagined that they did not see this interaction the same way as I did, having less of a frame of reference for the extent of the gulf that separated us. “They couldn’t possibly know what my community is like, how my family lives. A beach, a car, vacations when the US gets boring. That the poor in my country have access to voting, internet, schools and homes. They can’t possibly know how these eyes see.” I felt shame, a powerful crippling shame at how they would have felt if they stepped foot inside my home and then welcomed me in. And I felt shame for us as a world, now having seen our hidden worst. These were decent, intelligent people who fled bloody conflict only to see themselves restricted to a 10-mile radius and a bag of flour a week.

I tried to hide the churn in my stomach, tried to smile as if I did this every day and was nothing but happy to be there; tried to hold back from staring. I was the white man in the midst, all eyes were on my eyes and taking in their every dart. I was in a capacity to execute judgment and more than anything else wanted that they never knew these thoughts.

The stares that I had experienced in the Somali market increased in intensity, and those who wished to stare had ample opportunity as I was at this house for the entire day. I’d grown to tolerate them, taking joy in providing some entertainment. I acted like a facial litmus test, and any Somali under the age of 20 seemed uninterested in hiding their reactions to me. Small children of less than four years old cowered in my sight, their faces usually half hidden by the robes of their mother. Slightly older ones stared and sometimes smiled, but only the brave ones actually spoke. One mocked me, making saluting postures and laughing. Most of them found something or other about me hilarious.

One little gap-toothed boy kept smiling at me and approached me, waving “hello.” I waved back. After an older boy came up and started translating I was able to ask his name – I don’t remember it now. “He’s interested in you because of your skin color, he’s never seen it,” said one of the Somalis. I smiled and held up my hand, pointing to it and then to his. He smiled. He put his hand on his chin and face where my stubble was. I did the same. Then he ran his fingers across his teeth, where my braces were.

“He wants to know about those things on your teeth,” the older boy said, “what are they?” I froze. I tried to dodge the question but eventually admitted: “It’s to straighten my teeth.” He smiled a gummy smile, and I forced a smile back.

The older boy asked “where are you from?” and I answered “America.” “Is America nice?” he asked. “Oh yes, very nice.” “Is Kenya nice?” I was thrown into silence for a second and said unconvincingly “yes, Kenya is nice,” then adding “but the conditions in the camps are not so good.” I didn’t know whether this was something he already thought. A new boy approached and I taught him a variant of the fist bump.

We left for a few hours to shoot another scene, and as we drove away from the house kids chased the van, smiling and waving. I thought about a boy I’d met a few days ago while waiting for transport, who stood with a group of friends holding the Koran in his hands. I asked him if he lived with his parents and he said they were both dead. I thought of the religious devotion I had seen and got angry, thinking to myself “the people here are earnestly devoted to a god who has forgotten them. How can you live here and believe in god?” All that I saw on that day shook my faith more than anything previously. It was clear that men are able to destroy without check, countered in vain by the futile sympathies of others.

The hot sun bore down and I could feel my pale skin turning red and the nascent aging in my bones crying its ache. Standing brought discomfort, sitting welcomed armies of ants to crawl around my skin. I wished for the day to be over.

We returned to the house for lunch and on the way were given sodas. There were no bottle openers (soda time is always an exercise in creativity) and the kind refugee who was playing the rape victim took my soda and popped the top off with her mouth. Lunch was large metal bowls of pasta. I skipped lunch.

Later in the day a larger crowd gathered to watch us film, and during a moment of free time my gap-toothed little friend waved shyly to me and showed me a broken blue ball he was holding, about the size of a tennis ball. I motioned for him to toss it to me and we began to toss it back and forth. I then threw it way high in the air and he laughed. We tried to see who could throw it higher. A second boy joined in and the game became monkey-in-the-middle, with my gap-toothed friend struggling to catch it. About 15 other boys joined in and the game progressed from catch to hackey sack to football (American soccer) and then improbably became volleyball. I laughed with a desperate joy, my anxious energy channed into the singleminded fun that comes of desperation. We ended the game and I felt a rush of adrenalin and joy at my new African friends, and then it was time to go.

From the back of the truck I waved to my new friends. It seemed the entire camp knew my name as I heard calls of “hey Michael! Michael!” even from people I had not met. Word and gossip travels quickly. I waved to the boys I had been playing with and the owners of the house, and as we drove out I kept waving to anyone who would stare. A mother in her mid-twenties with three children around her. A man with a wheelbarrow. A little ten-year-old boy alone on the street looking confused. I wondered if this was how celebrities felt, being constantly stared at as a mirror of the others’ innermost prayers. I waved like a passenger on a giant ship, endowed with the power of mobility and leaving a strange world. In our relative motion I felt the immense gulf that did separate us, a gulf carved by kings and explorers, slave traders and some unbearable lightness of history and accidents of birth. A mindless and voracious chasm that swallowed, swallowed.

How did we let this happen? How can we continue to ravage for our own power or comfort. Sure, the United States is not the only one to blame. Sure, the US provides more aid than most other countries combined. But we have our complicity in not trying harder, and when we stand by and let it happen, we are denying our own humanity.

We need to solve these problems on a governmental level, not with the stopgap of sentiments and gestures. And yes, $300 million from the United States is a gesture not a solution. There is nothing wrong with enjoying life in the US and we must learn to do so without shame, because what good is reducing poverty if the rich aren’t happy? But the world needs to know better and be more aware. The world cannot use token words as a salve for callous destruction. And my frustration is not with individuals but this human condition, where as I first wrote these words I already felt myself suppressing the memories. It already felt like a bad dream.

That was one month ago, though I still remember the day’s details vividly. Visiting the camp doesn’t have nearly the same impact today as it did on that day. On some days I stun myself with how quickly my mind fills with a minor annoyance, fatigue, or hunger. I have had so many moments of joy in that open prison, and I hope to have ten days’ more. I also would like to emphasize that the conditions vary from person to person and these are only my initial reactions. There is much more dimension to the story and it’s not the same everywhere. And the people here are my friends and colleagues – they are not only statistics and stories.

What does North Korea want?

Baffled and in search of an answer, I typed the above into Google.

  • From May 2009: permanent provisions and security assurances from the US, the rewriting of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as it was done for India to allow them to have nukes.
  • From last week: more food aid from South Korea that they are embarrassed to ask about, engagement from China

From the way they talk it sounds like both sides are threatening all out war, so whatever political goals they seek might come at a scarily high cost.

A world distracted – no awareness of Korea compared with Wikileaks

Google Trends: War may break out, it may not. People don't seem to care too much. At least korea isnt at baseline?

I was speaking with my friend Maha about her general dissatisfaction with the state of the news. We are headed toward war on the Korean peninsula, and the world is instead focused on the water cooler talk of some diplomats.

Julian Assange is a terrorist of information, dropping bombs of unfiltered, questionably relevant data in ways guaranteed to get him maximum publicity. He reminds me of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker – terrifyingly dangerous because of his willingness to do anything. Somebody so wild and brazen cannot be beaten by people who set limits on their behavior, and that’s scary.

But more frustrating, as Maha says, is that we are the problem. We pay attention and wrap our news cycle tightly around his pronouncements, desperate to watch drama unfold even as it destroys our sense of security and confounds our moral codes. We are rubberneckers on a highway, and the traffic we cause strangles the world.