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Dorst MediaWorks’ Aerial Act: Flying the Phantom 2 Vision +

photoCopterI’ve flown the Phantom 2 Vision + in some historical, challenging, and fun locations during the last two months. I wanted to report what I learned—including one harrowing mission in the old-growth forests of Portland, Oregon.

Dorst MediaWorks is a video production company in Washington, D.C.  but our clients often send us around the country and internationally as well. So far, the Phantom is delivering on its promise to capture smooth shots that amps up the production values of our work!

First, I’ll cut to the chase. For the price, the Phantom 2 is a great value. It’s about $1,500 once you get a pelican case and a few extra batteries. Buy it, you’ll pay it off in one or two gigs.

I got the Phantom 1 when it came out a few years ago. I flew it a lot, and got the hang of it. Then I mounted a GoPro on it. But my footage was never good enough to include in a broadcast. It wasn’t ready for prime time.

But give credit to DJI. They improved the Phantom 2 Vision + in several major ways: (1) The 3-axis gimbal makes for very smooth footage; (2) the integrated camera keeps it simple; (3) the new and improved battery lasts longer (only count on 20 minutes rather than the advertised 25); and (4) the DJI Vision app allows you to watch what you’re filming on your iPhone (mounted on the included smartphone holder). You can also adjust the angle of the camera mid-flight!

In mid-September, I landed in Miami to direct a shoot for the new Red Bull Channel. Because our flight was delayed, I didn’t arrive in Key West until around 2am. The next morning, our call time was 6am, and my soundman handed me a new Phantom 2 box. In this sleep-deprived state, I put together the copter on set.

I was scared out of my mind of crashing the copter within the first few minutes in the Atlantic, but somehow I kept it dry and out of trouble and captured a few establishing aerial shots for the show:

The next week, Story House Production hired me to DP a shoot for PBS in Jamestown, Virginia. The fascinating thing about the documentary is that recent forensic archeology suggests cannibalism took place here during a particularly desperate winter in America’s earliest settlement.

A week later, I got the call by Red Bull to do another show in Portland, Oregon. This time, I’d be following an extreme arborist, who does his thing hundreds of feet in the air.

We trekked into Portland’s Audubon Sanctuary, which has some tremendous old-growth trees. We wanted to show what an expert tree climber this guy is and how he spans from tree to tree in the canopy! The problem running a copter here is that it’s so dense that you can’t get a single satellite—much less the six that the Phantom requires to fly steadily!

For the first two hours, we captured footage with our A-Camera and the GoPros. I was trying to convince myself we’d get enough coverage without the copter. After all, there was only an extremely tiny window of opportunity to take the copter up to the 250-foot level above the trees. I’d have to launch it without satellites, through a 10-foot opening. If I failed, the copter would crash and die. But without the footage canpoy footage, we wouldn’t have a full visual story. . .

Last week, I was in Hong Kong, and captured some stuff there. Just like the trees in Portland, the skyscrapers interrupted the satellite coverage. Only when I got the Phantom up to about 15 stories did it stop acting whacky and start to triangulate the satellite signals. This was something I learned—rarely am I flying in an open field. And when you’re flying the Phantom around obstacles, it pays to be careful.

Keep the copter alive to live to fly another day!

 

Directing for Red Bull in Hong Kong

shrimp chorizoThis shrimp chorizo burger in Hong Kong’s K-Town Bar and Grill in Kennedy Town was $28. Yowza!

I’m used to traveling the world to make videos for international development organizations, but this time around I’m in one of the most expensive cities around. I’m here to direct and produce an episode for a series on the new Red Bull Channel, hired by Story House, a production company with offices in Berlin, Halifax, and Washington, D.C.

On the team are DP Paul McCurdy, who’s wielding the C300 and a Red Epic on the Ronin for slow-motion. Our soundman is Mark Roberts, who’s on top of everything and nice to boot. When David Chung is not fixing for us, he runs his own local production company, Lemonade and Giggles. David captured this:

We get a lot of coverage on our first day. In addition to directing, I’m also running second camera. I’ve been trying to get better at the Glidecam, and I was really happy with it today. It gave me a lot of options for smoothly following the action. And when I needed to lock down or get a stable interview, I just set it down or balanced it on my belt. Here’s a little clip following our protagonists down some windy stairs and along a sidewalk — something that would have been too bouncy to even consider trying without the Glidecam. Check out the banyan tree roots that stretch for 40 or 50 feet down the sheer rock wall. Amazing!

I’m interested in experimenting with the Glidecam in other situations where you’d never dare filming on the move. Like following trail runners bouldering over the rocky Billy Goat Trail in DC, or other outdoor stuff.

I’m not sure if Red Bull will become the new ESPN, but this story’s going to be a good one!

St. George Slays the Injera

bira_logo_georgeIf you’re a butcher, don’t open up shop in Ethiopia—the country is fasting.

For most, this means not eating meat or dairy. They fast for Lent, which seems to go on longer than normal. And people fast Fridays. And Wednesdays. And yes, there are other prophets, and people fast for them too.

I’m no a food critic. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I run Dorst MediaWorks. We make videos for international development organizations. This time, I’m here to make videos for USAID projects.

It’s my first day in Addis Ababa, and the fasting explains why my unit producer, Addis Alemayehou, is angry.

Or maybe that’s because he picked this week to quit smoking.

In any case, Addis (the man, not the city) looks like he can take it, so I rub it in: “This injera with spicy beef is pretty darn good,” I grin, still baffled that meat is literally off the table 200 days a year.

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Addis heads 251 Communications, a local PR and business facilitation outfit that’s riding the crest of Ethiopia’s economic boom. He’s also the former Chief of Party of a successful USAID project (I’m here to tell the story of how it made a difference). Addis grew up in Canada, is whip smart, and seems like the perfect bridge for a dynamic Ethiopia looking to nail down new markets.

During the next five days, I film different entrepreneurs and their businesses. They’re in different sectors—apparel, shoes, handicrafts, tourism—but all have benefited from USAID support, mostly in the form of technical advice to improve their production processes and “export-readiness,” as well as trips to U.S. trade shows. As a result, they’ve increased exports to the U.S., grown their revenue, and hired more people. My client is IESC.

The second night, Addis takes me to Yod Abyssinia, which is part restaurant, part cabaret. I join a gaggle of expats and friends who are enjoying local music and dance. In what is swiftly becoming a trend, I eat more injera. I try Meta beer.

Meta is supposedly the upscale beer, but I prefer St. George. It’s an unassuming light lager, like 90% of beers in Africa. The way it slays your thirst after a bite of injera and spicy beef is like a Miller Lite washing down a Ben’s Chili dog at Nats Stadium on a sweltering DC afternoon. It quenches, it doesn’t inebriate (suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of this rating of Ethiopian beers).

The next morning, I film another business. Sara is an ambitious entrepreneur who’s taken her company from a domestic firm with seven employees to a 300-person firm that supplies the Gap. Here’s the final video on that one:

My driver is the genial Kirubel Melaku, and his van I dub “Big Red.” It looks like somebody dipped Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine in a red bath. It sports red carpet on the ceilings. Need I say more?

Big red

Outside of Addis, the country gets poor and hardscrabble pretty fast. It’s the dry season, and dust whips across fields and covers the highway. A pack of gaunt horses assembles on the highway median, inches from speeding vehicles—it’s the only place with wind, explains Kirubel, so bugs bother the horses less.

Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm.

We fit in an afternoon of b-roll footage, and I find myself shooting in Trinity Church. There, in all my beady-eyes reverence, I’m at the grave of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.

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Lots of buildings are going up. Outside the city, there are scores of roadside scaffolding shops. Long, young denuded trees are stacked and bundled, ready for transport to urban construction sites, where workers will scale the fragile trellises. My only thought is that if Ethiopia doesn’t stop using trees for scaffolding soon, there won’t be a tree left in the country.

Last year, Kiru drove Bono around when he visited Ethiopia, and he shows me pictures. Cool! Another European passenger downloaded the Billboard Top 100 on Kiru’s phone. That explains why, as we crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I put Pharrell’s Get Lucky on loop. Somehow, it fits.

The Chinese are everywhere. The largest shoe factory, the largest steel factory, building the largest highway—trucks and motorcycles and phones. I wonder if the Chinese write stuff about us on their blogs: 美国人到处都是。最大的汉堡包特许经营店,含糖的可乐类饮料,最糟糕的不合身的运动服。和美国的游客大声,脂肪和忘却。

By the third day, I realize I can’t say a single word in Amharic. It’s not for lack of trying, but honestly, it’s incredibly opaque. No cognates, nothing to hang on to! The whole day I’m trying to learn something, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

Suddenly, I have the most bizarre synapse and am saying “thank you” without a hitch. “Ameseginalehugn,” is the byzantine six-syllable expression for thanks. My breakthrough is this: its iambic pentameter is strangely analogous to how I learned to say “Hello” in Hungarian: Jó napot kívánok. Six syllables each, same rhythm. It’s odd, but it works!

All in all, the people I meet are bright and friendly. And especially going there on the heels of a film trip to locked-down Kabul, Addis is literally a breath of cultural fresh air!

I’d definitely go back to Ethiopia again.

Finally, no dispatch from Addis Ababa would be complete without a knock-down drag-out darts competition with a dozen locals at a German pub:

Darts, dance, beer, injera. A couple new friends and a dynamic city. Despite the fasting, I’m all ready to go back!

Best Smoothie Recipe: “Perfect Life Hack”

3O8A1266 copyIt’s spring and the sun’s out! Now that I’m more consistent with  cycling workouts and eating healthy, that only means one thing: I’m making smoothies!

Here’s my favorite: the insanely yummy “Perfect Life Hack” (recipe below). It packs a punch of 9 different fruits and 11 vegetables? Yeah …

Warning: Your friends won’t rave about how pretty it is. In fact, it’s a fugly purple-mauve. (Ladies, go here for dainty, lavender-lace smoothies that you wanna bathe in).

Cramming fruit into the blender is the perfect life hack.

This smoothie is function over form. It’s a meal-replacement energy kick that’s better than drugs. And knowing I’m getting a week’s worth of fruits and veggies is peace of mind. Not to mention that it makes my evening burger and beer relatively guilt-free.

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I’ve been making smoothies for about a year. I first got inspired by my old friend Lucy, who made a zesty carrot and lemon special at her Dorset home, summer 2012. But it wasn’t until I got wind of Dr. Oz’s 3-day detox that I bought a $99 Ninja and went to town. They were easy, healthy, and tasted great! Trifecta!

I’ve been experimenting ever since. I like to meal-replace for lunch. When I’m traveling for work, I tend not to eat as healthy as I’d like (like Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Brazil). When I’m back in the US, I usually work from my home studio, so I have the flexibility to eat when and what I want!

3O8A1286 copyI mess around with the recipe, depending on my mood. I’ve stopped using kale; too much of a chore to chew (I substitute spinach). If I want my smoothie creamier, I’ll add more bananas. If I want it sweeter, I’ll add more mango or mixed berries. If I’m especially hungry or I know I need more calories because I did a long ride, I’ll double or triple the avocado.

This smoothie [is] a meal-replacement energy kick that’s better than drugs.

Last Christmas, my brother and his wife splurged on a Vitamix. If the Ninja is a Honda Accord, the Vitamix is a Tesla. That same week, I read this article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

That’s when I realized I’m not making smoothies because I’m some evolved foodie. It’s because I’m a dude!

I don’t love to cook. I love to eat. I prefer to eat healthy, but not if I regularly have to work too hard at it. Getting 20 fruits and vegetables delivered to my door (Peapod or Safeway) and then taking 15 minutes to Ninja the hell out of them to make meal-replacements for 2-3 days — now, that’s good times!

3O8A1288 copyOr as Bloomberg author Joshua Green wrote: “Cramming fruit into a blender . . .  [is] the perfect life hack. . . a whole universe has sprung up to support the hapless male user. The Web abounds with recipes and video clips demonstrating all sorts of easy concoctions. . . . A Vitamix is essentially failproof; with a banana or a splash of apple cider, even an old shoe could be made delicious. The seductive ease of liquefied foods eventually makes ordinary methods of food preparation seem as burdensome and archaic as churning your own butter.”

Hmmm, guilty as charged! But “hapless?” Come on, Joshua!

“Perfect Life Hack” smoothie. That’s a good name! Better than “Ryan Secrest’s Brazilian Thunder Green Smoothie,” right?!

Hope you enjoy it.

 

RECIPE: Perfect Life Hack Smoothie

makes four 16-oz servings

 

FRUIT

8 oz mango juice

8 oz coconut juice

8 oz lemonade

banana, 2

organic green apple, 1

mixed berries, 2 cups (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries)

 

VEGGIES

organic spinach, 5 oz bag

organic cucumber, 1/4

ginger, 1 thumb

tomato, 1

avocado, 1/2

broccoli, 3-4 heads

cauliflower, 1/4 head

corn, frozen, 1/3 cup

peas, frozen, 1/3 cup

garlic, 1 clove

onion, 1/4 large

 

Flax seed, 1 Tbs

 

Directions

Mix in a ninja or other mixer. Organic items noted because of measured pesticides in these. Mix half, add rest, mix (half spinach at beginning and half at end). Top-notch smoothie-ready mango juice available here. Mix with granola.

Updated, January 2017: To reduce sugars and calories, substitute unsweetened almond milk for juices. Simplify as desired to make it easier. Another version I like is for the days you don’t want veggies: 1 cup almond milk, 1/2 banana, 1/2 cup blueberries, scoop of egg-based protein powder. This is a simple, fast energy boost before your exercise; has about 40g carbs and 40g protein, and low on the sugars and fats. As always, don’t go too crazy with the smoothies, because it’s easy to drink more calories and sugars than you want to.

Leading a Photography Workshop in Kabul

IMG_0120-smallWow, what fun! I really didn’t expect to have such a blast leading a photography workshop for local Afghan staff of a USAID project.

I was already on location to make some capacity building videos about a successful USDA project, CBCMP, that is improving how the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture functions. That’s a typical assignment for me: making videos for international development organizations. (Check out the YouTube playlist with the final videos; and my blog post).

But the photography is a rare treat. In addition to the workshop, I visited five companies to take photos of their work.

ABADE is a $105 million USAID project that offers technical assistance and business advisory services to Afghan companies on the rise. It stands for Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises.

 

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Twelve staff joined, from as far away as Herat and Mazar. Most work in Kabul. All of them have other primary jobs—from program coordinators to monitors to engineers. But they had one thing in common: they wanted to learn how to take better photos (event organized by the incomparable Che Cuspero, ABADE’s Communications Manager).

The questions were great. I stayed practical. Most would be sharing the project’s only camera—the Canon 650D—so our conversation revolved around how to better use this camera. We covered camera fundamentals—ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Then we talked about how to approach a scene better prepared, with a checklist of what to shoot. Finally, we analyzed a bunch of photos together—which showed how much the group had learned.

Thanks everybody for the interactive session! Great to meet you Yama, Bibidil, Elham, Kabul, Abid, Ibrahim, Mochtar, Boya, Wais, Abdullah, Toor, Obaid, and Nasir.

Stay in touch! And keep taking photos!

Beirut Dispatch: 5 Things I Learned in Lebanon

photoBeirut is a complete blast. The people are dynamic, the food crazy good, and in a week I’m all over the country, from the Syrian border in the north to close to Israel in the south. Here’s five things I learned during my film shoot in Lebanon.

1. Beirut’s got an image problem

 

When I told friends I was going to Beirut, all conversations and Facebook comments were variations on “be safe, be careful.” Some mentioned Hezbollah. Most focused on the Syrian civil war, which has already sent almost a million refugees into Lebanon (a small country of only 4 million that is ill-equipped to welcome so many people.)

Turns out, concerns aren’t overblown. The night I arrive, police stop me for more than an hour near my hotel. They don’t like my camera equipment (it doesn’t help that the hotel is catty-corner to Parliament!) My taxi driver has a soccer ball, so we juggle on the cobblestones while Mr. Police speaks, at length, on his iPhone. No dice. Ultimately, my hosts book me in a less sensitive accommodation. Aaaah, sweet sleep.

 

2. Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on

 

The first day of shooting goes according to plan.

That literally is the most beautiful sentence you can write if you’re a filmmaker abroad.

“Yes, there are bombs . . . If you die, you die.”

This is 100% due to my team in Beirut, the all-Lebanese staff of the USAID-funded Lebanese Investment in Microfinance project. All logistics, scheduling, transport, and access issues are worked out in advance. Thanks Khalil, Carla, Mahmoud, Moussa, Liliane!

Here’s a few things I hear throughout the day—the likes of which don’t float around the local Whole Foods back home: “We had our own civil war for 20 years, and we didn’t all go running into other countries!” . . . “The refugees get a stipend at the border. Then they accept lower pay in our jobs. Our young men can’t compete!” . . . “Yes, there are bombs. But we go out almost every night: if you die, you die.”

Day one’s a wrap. I’m impressed at the work ethic and efficiency of my team. I’m also surprised by how sanguine people remain despite the dicey security situation.

Dynamic and cool, the Lebanese carry on.

 

3. Fishing is an endurance sport

 

Jet lag sucks.

I don’t get to sleep until past 3am. I hate my 4am wake-up call. I despise the 4:45am pick-up. It’s still pitch black as we drive up the coast to the tiny fishing village of El Beddaoui, in Chekka.

What I don’t know is that we’re less than an hour from the Syrian border. And minutes from the sectarian violence in Tripoli—where we’ll go before lunch.

Rabih is a fisherman. He’s been on the water since 3am setting his nets. He bought his used boat and nets with a microfinance loan. Today, he work for himself and not for the man. It’s changed his family’s life, and I’m here to tell that story.

It’s the pre-dawn blue hour as I step on the boat. Here, at the dock, the water is serene, but soon in the open Mediterranean, the waves knock me around. I’m filming with the Canon 5D Mark 3, with the 16-35mm lens on a Manfrotto monopod—small, lightweight, great in low light.

“Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.”

As the sun rises, Rabih stands heroically above the horizon. The work is grueling, as he pulls up the thousands of yards of nets by hand, fish entwined, balled up in baskets on deck.

After two hours at sea, I shoot some b-roll around town, rejoin Rabih at the fish market in Tripoli (no issues), hang out with his family at home, then return to port where he’s prepping to head out to sea again.

I’m exhausted, but Rabih can’t stop smiling. After all, it’s his boat, his nets, and he’s making a better living now.

 

4. Shawarma & Robert Downey, Jr. go together

 

My second day of filming I spend on a cattle farm in Bekaa with Samir. He’s bought 10 heads of cattle over several years thanks to three successively larger microfinance loans, and expanded his business considerably.

Working around all that cattle dung inspired a terrible hunger, so Khalil recommends one of his favorites: Barbar Shawarma, which is located in Corniche, a seaside promenade in Beirut’s central district.

First, Khalil. This guy is really the project’s M&E Coordinator, but this week, he’s my extremely capable Unit Producer and translator. He gets along extremely well with everybody we work with across the country, and we never have a problem.

And as the week unfolds, he’s also acting food critic and cinema aficionado, since he can’t stop reciting the closing scene in Avengers, where Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man crashes to Earth, opens his weary eyes, and says, “You ever tried Shawarma? There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don’t know what it is, but I wanna try it.” (Back story on that revised ending on Entertainment Weekly).

Well, I try Khalil’s favorite shawarma in shawarma’s birthplace, and it’s great!

 

5. Byblos is irresistibly photogenic

 

The rest of the film shoot takes me to five of Lebanon’s six Governorates (or provinces). I’m deep in Hezbollah country, where billboards of the Ayatollah Khomeini share real estate with ads for Pepsi and designer watches. And by Friday, I have more than enough quality footage to cut four short films.

Saturday is a day off. What’s brilliant is that long-time friends Stefano and Margherita live and work in Tyre, about an hour south. They pick me up and we drive up the coast to Byblos. It’s a respite, a quiet tourist town, and irresistibly photogenic. You’d think on my day off, I wouldn’t touch a camera, but the light was beautiful and I took 50+ photos . . . on my iPhone! Oh, and Byblos is a UNESCO world heritage site.

It’s a perfect way to close out a great week, where I feel good about the footage I captured and learned a lot about the culture and people of Lebanon.

Mandela, Cameroon, and me

sd-prince copyWhen I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.

I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.

It was a shock.

Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?

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After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.

As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.

But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.

Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.

I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.

I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.

I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.

I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?

Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.

Is [Angola] a Real Place? Do You Care?

angolaTwo years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”

Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”

Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.

At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”

Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.

But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!

What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.

The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”

The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”

Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.

When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:

Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.

Sure, there are explanations why. A dominant power exports its culture to the world—a logical extension of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power” theory.

Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?

Here’s one way it matters: Next month, there’s a big meeting in Moscow to determine how much money the 82 poorest countries in the world (40 of which are in Africa) can access for grants and interest-free loans. These countries are home to 2.8 billion people. An estimated 1.8 billion of those live on less than $2 per day. These poorest countries use this “cheap” money for infrastructure, education, health, and clean water. It’s an investment. It helps them be less poor. Maybe their children can live on $4 per day.

The convening organization is IDA, or the International Development Association, which is a unit of the World Bank Group. The pot of money has averaged about $16 billion a year the last few years and  it is shared by 52 rich countries. Even though the U.S. only gives about 11% of the total (or about $1.8 billion), it plays a catalytic role in getting the rest of the world motivated. The word on the street is that the U.S. may be wavering on its commitment to the poorest of the poor.

Now, $1.8 billion per year  is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.

The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.

Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?

Do we care?

Solar, Kiva, and How to Change the World

kiva copyI went to my 20th college reunion last weekend at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. It was insanely entertaining catching up with people, most of whom I hadn’t seen in two decades. Writing “two decades” just made my fingers tremor. How am I old enough to be 20 years removed from anything—much less, you know, a college graduation?

Anyway. Wandering through the hallways of Townsend with James and Courtney was particularly nostalgic. But beyond the material memories (that paintings, those couches, the still un-tuned piano) I was attentive to an existential difference—back then, I lived a blessed non-linearity, characterized by marathon debates and the expanded sense of possibilities that youth conveys.

In this very common room, I defended the existence of God in a late-night debate against a guy named Graham (he was pretty damn smart; he won). That table over there was where I studied for my favorite class, “Hunger, Plenty, and Justice.”

We knew we could change the world.

Back in DC yesterday, I found an email from Kiva telling me I had $148 in available credit. I haven’t done much on Kiva for a while and it got me thinking again about changing the world.

Kiva is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that connects people through lending to alleviate poverty. Since it was founded in 2005, more than a million people have lent almost a half billion dollars in 73 countries. They have a 99.03% repayment rate.

 

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

I joined Kiva in March 2007. Since then, I’ve deposited $672. I’ve made 121 loans to the working poor in 53 countries. When they pay back, I re-loan the money, so I’ve lent about $3,100 now.

A few years ago, I became disillusioned because I saw a lot of people lending for stupid reasons—so somebody could open a bar or the like. Nothing innovative. Nothing the local market wasn’t already supporting.

So after complaining a bit, I created a Kiva team called “Solar Explosion.” This was while I was directing a documentary about climate change, and I got really excited about the potential of distributed solar power. It could leapfrog the rural poor in the developing world out of abject poverty.

On the “Solar Explosion” team page I wrote: “1.5 billion people still lack electricity. Only a global solar explosion can change that and end poverty.”

And in the spot where you write “About us,” I put: “We know if you really want to fight poverty, you start with distributed renewable power – harnessing the sun in your own backyard! Micro-solar technology already exists that can transform people’s lives. The problem is that banks are only financing the old model: centralized power stations and expensive transmission grids. We lend to inspire awareness, so microfinance does more and more solar financing projects. Our goal is a solar explosion! Join us today!”

In summary: small-scale solar technology exists, but the financing doesn’t. It’s gonna take tailored models in different countries so poor people can do solar power in their own backyards and pay it off over time.

Some of my recent loans
Some of my recent loans

“Solar Explosion” started slow, but today, there are 51 members who’ve made 572 loans to the tune of $14,525. Still not much, but a start.

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

With electricity, children study more, get smarter, and perhaps get better jobs; family members are more productive, perhaps doing small businesses from home. And everybody is connected to the outside world, by simply plugging in a TV or charging a cell phone.

At the end of the day, there are tons of people who know way more than I do about distributed solar, about solar financing, and what the bottlenecks are. And perhaps Kiva’s not the best way to jumpstart this.

But it’s one way.

If you join Kiva, join “Solar Explosion.” Lend to green projects, especially solar.

Cycling: 7 Reasons “OMG WTF” is the Cruelest

OMG WTF v2.Still005I didn’t name it, but it’s spot on. The “OMG WTF” ride is the hardest ride I’ve ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out; put me between two pieces of white bread, and served me for school lunch. I went riding recently with a few cycling friends: Bill Berlin, Jay Stanley, and Bill Murray. We leave Arlington at 6am to miss Beltway traffic, and start pedaling around 7:30 from Frederick, MD.

It‘s my first time to tackle this route, which seems to have been designed for maximum elevation and suffering. It’s a figure-8 in and out of Gambrill State Park on Catoctin Mountain. With at least four categorized climbs (Cat-3), it’s a legit test. Lots of quality cyclists seem to come here: on Strava, 467 cyclists have ridden the first mountain climb, for example, over 1,400 times.

Jay’s Contour helmet cam captures some surprisingly good footage:

 

1. Reason #1. Hamburg Road

The first climb is up Hamburg Road, and it’s a doozy! It’s 3.3 miles long, with more than 1,000 ft of elevation gain (6.2% average grade). It takes me about 21 minutes and I average 9 mph. It’s incredibly painful, and I know I’m in for a long day, since I’m reduced to constantly checking my bike computer, doing fast math: “OK, I’ve gone 9.1 miles, 60 to go” . . . and an eternity later . . . “OK, I’ve gone 9.2 miles, 59.9 to go!”

 

2. Reason #2. Harp Hill

The second hill, Harp Hill, is “only” 1.8 miles. It’s also a cat-3 climb, but shorter — and as a result, not as painful. I cover the 630 ft elevation gain (average grade of 6.7 mph) at a slower 7.9 mph. Bad news: I’m slowing down.

 

3. Reason #3. The crosswinds

The next 15 miles or so are no picnic, to be sure, but they’re rollers and fun. It’s a beautiful Autumn day, with the sun streaking through the trees. Unfortunately, the crosswind is unpredictable and strong. It gusts upwards of 15-17 mph. Fortunately, most of the climbs are protected, narrow roads. But some of the open descents are too windy.

 

Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face.

 

4. Reason #4. Middlepoint Road

Middlepoint Road starts to wind upwards at the 35 mile point. Having not ridden much the previous two months, I was dreading this. It’s 1.8 miles long, with 740 ft of elevation gain (with an even higher 7.3% average grade). I’m just trying to survive.

 

5. Reason #5. Coxey Brown

Jay is talking about how Coxey Brown is the hardest hill he’s ever done, and I just want to get it over with. Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face. It’s insane: 1.9 miles long, with 1,024 ft of elevation gain, and 9.6% average grade. No rest for the weary!

 

6. Reason #6. 5.3 mph

Midway through Coxey, I feel like it’s my first day ever on a bike. It’s a old, narrow one-lane road, with odd off-camber turns and cracked asphalt. It’s not even 60 degrees this afternoon, but I’ve unzipped both my jacket and cycling shirt as far as they’ll go. It takes me 24 minutes to reach the top—at a paltry average speed of 5.3 mph!

 

7. Reason #7. The paperboy

When you suffer like this, you do things to survive. From the get-go on Coxey, I pull out a shameless maneuver: the paperboy. You know, riding far left and far right, just to manage the slope and stay on the machine. Far in front of me, Bill Berlin is pushing his Trek straight up Coxey. Respect!

Coxey has claimed another victim, but today it’s not me. Torquing up the extreme grades, Jay busts his hub. He ends up running up the hills next to his bike, then gliding down them—covering 6miles this way until we pick him up on the way back to Washington, D.C.

OMG WTF. If you’re ready to test yourself, do it. It’s a helluva ride.

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