Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Month: May 2012

The Times Picayune Dies When We Needed It Most – New Orleans Tragedy

The Times Picayune is dead.

Allow me to rephrase. The Times PIcayune will produce a “more robust” expanded print version three days a week. Many staff members who won’t “have the opportunity to grow with the new organization” will be fired. Those remaining staff members will be offered much smaller salaries, and will be expected to work more hours, for less benefits. A new corporation, the NOLA Media Group, will be formed, which will theoretically “develop new and innovative ways to deliver news and information to the company’s online and mobile readers.”

Remaining staff will be expected to spend at least part of their day “blogging.” Which is just the same as working a challenging beat, of course.

The hard-working Times-Picayune team were treated abhorrently by owners Newhouse Newspapers, who didn’t bother to inform them of the drastic change until after a New York Times story had already run. Many reporters found out about the move—and the probable loss of their jobs and life’s work—via the Gambit’s Twitter feed. Sadly, this treatment is indicative of the total lack of respect most in the corporate world seem to have for our not-very-easy profession.

So why do I care? For one thing, I’m more reliant on print newspapers than most 23 year olds. This is partially a function of previously working for one of the few papers still extant that doesn’t have a website. Hello, Cambodia Daily! In Cambodia, I bought both the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily every day. I felt like I was doing the community—and my profession—a big disservice if I didn’t at least read the local news from both sources every day.

I read the Times Picayune in print when I could access a copy – I’ll admit that as a Tulane student without a ton of money and an uncertain living situation, I never subscribed to the print edition. I regret it. Then again, the demise of the Times Picayune is less related to profitability than it is to the whims of its corporate overlords – who freely admit that the paper is still making money.

Which means that New Orleans, an American city internationally renowned for its corruption, crime, history and vibrant culture, now has no daily news source. I can think of few cities more desperately in need of an entire organization dedicated to honesty and documentation.

I imagine I’m going to be hearing something like this over the next week: Social media will jump in and pick up the slack, right? We don’t need newspapers and dedicated reporters anymore, right? What about the television news? 

Actually, dedicated reporters are needed more than ever. Do you really think that us bloggers are making enough money to support ourselves from our occasional posts covering a local event?

Well, we’re not. Seriously. We have to have jobs that relate to other things than local news to keep food on the table. Only a tiny, elite minority of bloggers can break even or support themselves. For the rest of us, journalism is increasingly becoming a rather punishing hobby, instead of a dedicated profession.

One also wonders what exactly morally suspect news aggregators and churnalists will repurpose when all the real-deal journalists have been pushed out of the industry. What will Ivy League college interns link to when all the newspapers are dead? How will anybody find out anything? 

As for TV, well, if you think local TV news can perform the same investigative reporting function as a dedicated, award-winning newspaper, you obviously don’t watch TV news very often. (It’s also worth pointing out that only hotties get jobs in TV journalism. Do we really want that?)

As for us young people who actually want to do investigative reporting instead of churnalizing, well, we should probably just forget about it. I remember reading a passage in Joel Brinkley’s “Cambodia’s Curse,” where he casually mentioned that the Louisville Courier-Journal sent him to Cambodia to cover the war in 1979.

Can you imagine a local paper from a smallish metro doing something like that today?

Circa 2012, these local papers are lucky if they can get an ass in the seat for the local city council meeting. (Which isn’t going to happen anymore in New Orleans). That trip to Cambodia was a milestone in Mr Brinkley’s life, and set him on the path to a successful career in investigative reporting. Nothing like that opportunity awaits myself and my fellow 23-year-old aspirant reporters today, at least in local American papers. We tend to feel pretty damn grateful if we’re not in food service.

And trust me, speaking as a blogger: dutifully taking down the minutes of city council meetings during normal working hours is not something that gets us ad money. It also doesn’t help with that nagging issue of paying the rent, either.

I’m very worried about New Orleans today. This is a city that loves its paper, and where you would regularly see folks reading the Times-Picayune in a public place. Nola.com – prior to this truly heinous “yellow journalism” redesign  – was a wonky but relatively useful site, one I looked to as a missive from home on my world travels. I don’t really give a fart about sports, but it was still nice to see the exuberant headlines from the latest major Saint’s victory.

The Times-Pic was filled with a lot of murder and doom and gloom and horror, as would befit a paper coming out of the US city with the highest per-capita murder rate. But it also did a great job of documenting New Orlean’s rebirth and redevelopment. This is a story that needs to be told. I’ll quote Micheline Maynard of Forbes, who wrote a very good piece on the Times-Pic’s demise:

“Even if the post-Katrina clean up story is now old news, the creation of a new southern city, with lingering problems from the past, layered onto its rich history, seems like enough to fill seven days a week of news hole, with plenty of opportunities for local and national publications. Everything that’s being written about in Detroit is happening here, too, and deserves to be looked at with just as much scrutiny.”

It does deserve equal scrutiny. And it’s an absolute travesty that Phnom Penh – where the native language is not even English – has two active papers. New Orleans can’t even muster one. Many of us like to joke that New Orleans is a third world city, but it’s becoming less and less of a joke these days.

This is a tragic day for New Orleans. We can only hope that someone, somewhere steps in to fill the gap. The city we love needs good reporting and honest journalism more than ever before.

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#Censorship Fail: Repressive Governments Are Scared of Social Media – UN Dispatch

Social media is incredibly scary to repressive governments because it is just about impossible to control. Many authoritarian governments even look to incredibly censored North Korea and Eritrea as role models, instead of cautionary tales. Although the US government has announced sanctions against countries that try to block Internet access, international disapproval is unlikely to sway these oppressors from their path – especially when a nation finds itself worried about popular revolution, ala Syria and Iran.

Here’s some recent example of governments’ attempts to block out the Internet – particularly in those countries where, to some extent, the proverbial cat is already out of the bag. (Once people have access to the Internet and some modicum of wealth, getting them to give it up is a lot harder – another reason North Korea and Eritrea present something of a perfect scenario to many dictatorial regimes).

Although these are disturbing cases of government repression in action, I also find these cases rather heartening – mainly because government attempts to prevent Internet access rarely last very long, or work particularly well. It’s also worth pointing out that stagnant development and heavy censorship have a nasty habit of going hand-in-hand.

Read more at UN Dispatch….

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Pakistan Blocks Twitter Temporarily, Nothing is Achieved – And So it Should Be

Twitter isn’t behaving itself – posting links to a “Draw Mohammed Day” competition – and Pakistan’s collective panties have been throughly bunched. Or, they’re testing a new URL filtering system. Both motives are malevolent.

If the aim was indeed preventing the spread of blasphemous images, it didn’t work. In fact, it had the opposite effect, as many more Pakistanis are now aware that “Draw Mohammed Day” exists. Whoops! (And many more are now aware that the Pakistani government has something up its sleeve when it comes to sudden, wide-spread URL bans).

I’m still sifting through the information on this one, but this is just another example of what extremist governments do when social media doesn’t do exactly what it wants: they lash out, usually in a really, really stupid way. The young and savvy of the oppressive nation collectively roll their eyes – and then, immediately, they adapt. Nothing is achieved. And that’s what’s so awesome about the Internet. Attempts to control it never really work. 

It’s easy to see why government’s find social media and the Internet so profoundly disquieting. It’s difficult as hell to control – even China hasn’t mastered the art of the information lockdown. It’s really difficult to turn off (although some have tried).

Convincing the major social networks to comply with your dictatorial whims is both complicated and not guaranteed to be successful, even if you send Mark Zuckerberg threatening letters. If you’re somewhere like Afghanistan, you can always threaten to kill the  Internet pioneers, of course – but there will be more.

There’s no books to burn, everyone’s able to post their 95 theses anywhere online whenever they want, and what’s worse, it’s really hard to tell who’s looking at what when thanks to the advent of better security software. What’s an oppressive, backwards regime to do?

The transformative power at the Internet – hell, look at the Arab Spring – is the best argument there is for the Internet being a basic human right. The Internet definitely has a lot of pornography, stupid cat videos, and Facebook circle-jerks, but it also contains the entirety of the human experience – really, it’s inseperable from us.

The Internet isn’t just a useful business tool, it’s the best agent of international freedom we have. And that has a lot of people scared.

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3DStereoLab is Awesome, I’m in Los Angeles

I’d like to direct your attention to 3DStudioLab, a truly awesome 3D production studio (with rentals avilable!) in downtown Los Angeles. Please “like” their Facebook page. Do it for me.

Why? Well, I’m down here in LA helping these genuinely nice people get their social media presence up and running.

Also, I get to play around with 3D video cameras and the accompanying software, which is the kind of thing that makes my life worth living. (As well as brushing up on Final Cut).

The studio is located in the Brewery Arts Complex, the world’s largest art colony. Thomas Edison once had offices here.

Brewery graffiti.

Now it’s a bunch of delightfully scrappy lofts with DIY backyards and many, many ardent Burning Man patron tenants. Everyone living here has something cool going on. There’s also a restaurant-bar in the condo facility with a good wine selection and fish tacos. Life is hard. 

Thoughts on Los Angeles: a sea of movie studios, taco trucks, and interesting-looking hipster bars with odd names.

Also, I like it a lot more than I anticipated. But don’t worry, I’m still coming home to you, New Orleans.

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Last Days of the Green Goddess: New Orleans

My friend and fellow Simon’s Rock veteran Laura Byrne was until last week a waitress and bartender at the Green Goddess, a New Orleans restaurant that was surely among the most creative in the French Quarter.

The restaurant is undergoing a change in management. (EDITED: I earlier heard it was closing, but it hasn’t! So you can go check it out! Different chef, though.)

So myself and my friends Braden and Nicole decided to pay her and creative bartender Scott one last visit.

Well, a first visit for me. I am now wishing I’d come earlier.

Laura started us off with this lovely cheese plate. Nicole can’t really eat cow’s milk cheese, so we had a selection of goat’s and sheep’s milk stuff instead. Convenient, as that happens to be my favorite.

It’s really, really hard not to love Purple Haze chevre – especially those chewy little bits of fennel stuck to the sides. Note the well-thought out accompaniments of spicy pumpkin seeds, pistachios, apple, and delectable saffron honey. Not pictured: an olive oil cracker, Italian. Great with a crisp white. I did not take pictures of the wine bottles. I suspect Laura can help me out.

Watermelon soup with lump crab meat and avocado mash. A light little wisp of a thing. Perfect for a New Orleans summer. Something about Green Goddess recipes makes me want to try them myself, and I think that’s a good thing.

The Green Goddess wedge salad with radishes, shrimp, romano cheese, egg, and hearts of palm. You’d be a fool to eat here without ordering something with Green Goddess dressing on it. Per the restaurant name, it’s a damn fine rendition of this classic dressing, with lots of delicious herbs. I would dearly love to eat this salad once a week.

Tumblin’ Dice: seared tuna crusted with fennel pollen and Persian spices, with watermelon chunks, avocado oil, and organic Treme sprouts (grown locally! Really locally!).

This is just a brilliant idea for a light summer dish, really. My hat is off. Something else I’d love to take a stab at in the relative privacy of my own kitchen. Not to mention it’s just gorgeous to look at. I love creative cooking like this.

Snails, tails and tasso: escargot, crawfish tails, tasso ham, green onions, Creole spices, grits. With a name like this I knew I would love it: a great riff on shrimp and grits with funkier ingredients. Once you get past the snail part, they’re just pleasingly firm (not snot-like) little niblets, that go well with the crawfish and the smoky tasso. And they are lovely little fibonacci spirals, lending a touch of elegance to what might otherwise be a rather pedestrian brown gravy.

“Midnight pasta” with spaghetti cooked in crab boil, tossed with olive oil, lemon zest, herbs, and bottarga, pressed, dried Italian caviar. The operating principle here, as Chris explained it, is a pasta that you throw together when your friends show up at your house after a night of drinking and everyone’s really goddamn hungry.

In Italy, apparently this midnight pasta making endeavor can turn into something of a competition, often between men: who can make the best dashed-off pasta while barely sober? This seems like a good way to lose a fingertip or incur a knife injury in the heat of battle, but sometimes the results are glorious. This was spicy, zesty, and salty in all the right ways. Really robust.

Bacon sundae: pecan praline ice-cream, bacon praline caramel sauce, pink and black lava salt, Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon, whipped cream. I’m not even sure I need to talk about this much to express how good it was. I have no sweet tooth, but when you add salt and bacon to a sweet dessert, you’ve suddenly got my attention. Crack-like in its elegance. This might be worthy of “nuclear secret” status. Or poorly advised as hell, the jury is out.

Most restaurants in the Quarter are more than content to rely on Creole standards that tourists like, expect, and crave, but the Green Goddess doesn’t do that. That would be too easy.

Under the guidance of chefs Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues, the Goddess had this funky, well-written seasonal menu that was really a joy to eat through. New Orleans is a place where you should never ever be bored, and the food at the Green Goddess does a masterful job of living up to that standard.

Chris DeBarr is leaving, but the Green Goddess is still open. How the hell did I miss coming here earlier? Chris is opening a new place in Mid City soon called Serendipity. Plans call for more space, a similar menu philosophy, and live music.

Laura being Laura. Bring on more of that Trader Vic’s macademia nut liqueur, plz thanks.

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Cambodia and Facebook

Turns out if you measure Cambodia’s Internet penetration rate by Facebook users instead of individual ISP subscriptions, the outlook for this notoriously off-line nation gets a lot better. Check it out. I’m working on a piece on this and the stats are rather interesting.

Cambodia’s Internet penetration rate is dismal. Well, that we know of. Since Cambodia currently has dozens of ISPs and a remarkably dysfunctional governmental monitoring system, no one is quite sure how many Cambodians are online. Internet World Stats.com as of 2010 indicated roughly 0.5% of Cambodians were online, using figures gleaned from ISP subscription rates. But that’s not the whole story.

According to Socialbakers.com’s Facebook usage stats, Cambodia comes in at 165 on its list of Facebook using countries as of the week of May 14, 2012, with 497, 700 users and a 3.37% penetration rate. By penetration rate alone, this wedges Cambodia – a relatively small country – in between Pakistan and Equatorial Guinea when it comes to Facebook usage rates by percentage of population. Not great, but…..let’s look at the rest of Southeast Asia.

OK, so Thailand has a  21.14% Facebook usage rate. But Cambodia actually beats tiny Laos when we measure things this way, with a 2.35% Facebook usage rate, and it’s more than comparable to bigger, more populous Vietnam, with 4.50% usage – that’s only 1.13 percentage points away from little Cambodia! (OK, Vietnam restricts Facebook, while Cambodia does not. But that’s still pretty good.)

If we looked at these stats the old way, by simply comparing ISP customers, we’d be getting a very different picture. Measured in this manner, according to Internet World Stats, Cambodia comes in dead last in Southeast Asia with only 78,000 users and 0.5% Internet penetration – instead of a rather respectable third-and-growing in Facebook usage rates.

Much of this can be attributed to the Cambodian government’s inability to curtail access to the networking site, but this is pretty interesting information. Maybe we should be rethinking how we measure Internet penetration rates.

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nola lights

Wires on Oak Street.

I’m looking for a job in New Orleans. On my way to Los Angeles for a while. Let me know if you hear of anything in the dark swamps of Louisiana.

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Cocktails and Curds, New Orleans

Behold the pleasing geometry of fine cheese. I shot a whole bunch of photos at the Cocktails and Curds booze-and-cheese pairing competition at La Thai on Prytania Street in New Orleans, with the help of the rightfully beloved St James Cheese Company next door. My Simon’s Rock friend Laura Byrne competed, pairing her English Beat concoction with Jasper Hill cheddar.

Other bartenders created cocktails using such ingredients as infused beet liquor, mushroom brine, and lava salt, paired with everything from Greek-style Chevre to one delightfully stinky blue, Mycella. The ultimate $1000 winner was Jennifer Rogers with her Montresor concoction, based partially on Cava and rimmed with aforementioned black lava salt.

What I like best about New Orleans? An event like this was carried off casually and with no pretension, and everyone was actually having fun rather than attempting to out-hipster one another. I call it a success. Also, why I want to move back here very, very badly.

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Fried Oysters at Casamentos, Home Again in New Orleans

Casamentos is one of my favorite New Orleans institution restaurants. It’s been in the same spot on Magazine Street since 1919, and the old-school tile interior (easier to clean) hasn’t changed much since. Nor has the food: “oyster loaves,” made with buttered pan bread instead of the standard Leidenheimmer po-boy bread, are an institution here.

Me, I always get the fried seafood, the mixed seafood platter if someone is with me who is capable of sharing, since it’s largeish. The best fried shrimp in the whole world are on offer at Casamentos, with a feather-light cornmeal breading and a gentle treatment that ensures the meat squeaks delicately under your teeth. Then there’s slender strips of catfish, not too muddy, served with perfect, light-weight fried oysters. Crab claws, too: bite the end and scrape the meat off. Skip the fries, but that’s not the point.

They’ve added chargrilled oysters with parmesan and butter to the menu, and I fully salute this decision. Chargrilled oysters are one of man’s great inventions. Even better with some crackers or bread to soak up the juice. Waiting at Casamentos – and you will wait, as they don’t take reservations – is a pretty painless thing. Order a beer, sidle up to the bar. Get a dozen raw oysters and eat them standing up. They’ve always got the good fresh stuff. Gulf oysters are my favorite – I think they resonate with my gene pool, or something obscure like that. California oysters have never quite hit the spot.

I was back in New Orleans for the first time in a year when I stood outside Casamentos and waited for my parents and our friend Kevin to pull up in a taxi. It was just dark outside and Ms Mae’s bar next door was beginning to shamble into business. I drank an Abita outside and talked with a group of Latino guys who had just finished playing pick-up basketball across the street.

“Now, we’re gonna take care of you,” one dude with a white tank-top, sweaty armpits, and a beer assured me when I said I was waiting for my parents. “Ain’t nothing to worry about.”

We chatted briefly about Cambodia and clinked beers. In New Orleans, you just need to be standing still for a minute to make friends. I tell them I’ve come back from Cambodia recently, and people greet me like a returning native daughter. And of course, I’ve come back. Why wouldn’t I? 

The street outside Casamentos smelled of warmish beer, garbage truck, and impending summer. Home again, home again.

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