Cafe Witness

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Asian American Film Festival Kickoff

I was at the Regent Square Theater last night for the first-ever film shown at Pittsburgh's inaugural Asian American Film Festival: Shonali Bose's "Amu," an Indian film about the aftermath of the little-publicized 1984 riots that claimed the lives of over 3,000 Sikh citizens in India. Politically weighty and well-told, it was a fitting first word to lead off a film festival that gives a voice to the often-silent Asian culture in Pittsburgh. The director, producer and star were all on-hand for a highly-charged Q&A that followed, which was actually a plus, since a post-film discussion bereft of questions would have been far more embarrassing than one with too many.

Tonight, the festival's gala event took place at the 9 Over 9th Gallery downtown. Ethnic dancers, musicians and politicians shared the stage, superb food was offered up by dozens of local restaurants from Chinese to Indian and beyond, and DJ Bonics spun a blend of Asian fusion and hip-hop as the party wound on into the night. Personal highlight: KDKA's Sally Wiggin in a kimono. (Apologies if that was actually a sarong; I'm still learning.)

Want to see some of the films yourself? You've got another week left, including a major American debut of the controversial film "Water" by Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta on the festival's final day. Go get some culture; it's good for you.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cafe as Office

I just finished applying for a grant this afternoon, which I emailed in from Crazy Mocha in the South Side Works.

A decade ago, even two years ago, the concept of a layman being able to conduct business from a cafe was a foreign concept -- to me, at least. Ordinarily, I would have been hunched over a desktop PC in my apartment or rented office, photocopying and faxing, making hours' worth of long-distance phone calls to verify budget items, and probably printing numerous drafts of the application to white out and re-draft. It would have been a long, dubious process with weeks' worth of time invested.

Instead, I updated a previous draft of the application I'd worked on half a year ago via emailing copies of the file back and forth between my two computers, edited it in Word, worked up a budget in Stickies (yes, Stickies) and plugged it into Excel, created numerous variants of those files by "saving as," emailed copies to associates for editing purposes, and finally submitted the application with 15 minutes to go before the deadline, calling afterwards to ensure it had arrived.

And 60% of that work was done from the comfort of a cushy chair in the corner of a cafe with its front wall open to the natural air -- 62 degrees in Pittsburgh today -- assisted by a coffee, juice or dessert.

There's no question that this is an improvement. The real question is: with business this much easier to conduct, what ELSE can a person get done in his day?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Target Practice

While walking home from Crazy Mocha last night, a passing car squealed around in the middle of the street and POW POW POW let out a stream of -- what?

BB gun pellets. One of the baristas was pelted six times. No serious damage done, thankfully, but a number of questions are raised by an event like this.

1. Who does that? Fifteen year-old boys on a joyride? Sounds of "men giggling" were heard from the swiftly-departing car. What kind of man giggles, especially after causing pain to an innocent bystander? Donald Rumsfeld?

2. As they say in A Christmas Story, what if someone had gotten an eye shot out (or something equally unlikely but possible)? Wouldn't a carload of giggling men be laughing hysterically in court as they regaled the jury with their antics? Oh, the mirth.

3. It's good to know that people can drive down the street and open fire on someone else with a (fake) gun in the South Side and suffer no ill consequences. Not that I'm suggesting we need a detail of Pittsburgh's finest deployed to the South Side on a nightly basis (though they're already here as it is, just usually further down the neighborhood).

Instead, it sounds to me like a little vigilantism is in order. Who else sees the opportunity for armed pedestrians, arbitrarily opening fire on carloads of teenage boys and frat guys? You know; just for kicks.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Startup Advice

Startup guru Paul Graham has a wealth of practical and inspirational information available for people looking to start their own small businesses. While his experience is primarily web and tech-based, most of his theories are applicable to whatever field you happen to be eyeing up.

One recent post offers a summary of The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn. He lists seven, including "Make Users Happy," "Fear the Right Things" and "Don't Get Your Hopes Up," all of which seem like common sense and, therefore, probably are not.

The whole essay is worth reading, but I thought his conclusion really nailed an aspect of the startup jones that a lot of people miss:

So why do I spend so much time thinking about startups? I'll tell you why. Economically, a startup is best seen not as a way to get rich, but as a way to work faster. You have to make a living, and a startup is a way to get that done quickly, instead of letting it drag on through your whole life.

We take it for granted most of the time, but human life is fairly miraculous. It is also palpably short. You're given this marvellous thing, and then poof, it's taken away. You can see why people invent gods to explain it. But even to people who don't believe in gods, life commands respect. There are times in most of our lives when the days go by in a blur, and almost everyone has a sense, when this happens, of wasting something precious. As Ben Franklin said, if you love life, don't waste time, because time is what life is made of.

So no, there's nothing particularly grand about making money. That's not what makes startups worth the trouble. What's important about startups is the speed. By compressing the dull but necessary task of making a living into the smallest possible time, you show respect for life, and there is something grand about that.

Cheers to Paul for putting a human face on something frequently (and falsely) seen only as a get-rich-quick scheme. Who wants to spend more time at work? Exactly.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Passing Observations

Nothing makes me reach for the headphones and some iTunes faster than the opening strains of Black Sabbath's "I Am Iron Man."

However, the landlord to my left is giving Ozzy a run for his money in the Race to Drive Me Insane.

Kids: When your landlord calls you to tell you that your mother is being unreasonable (or "an asshole," as he puts it) in her demands for your apartment (such as, "The windows don't open"), you should seriously consider finding a new landlord. (Favorite line: "This ain't the Taj Mahal." Well, obviously. The windows work in the Taj Mahal.)

He's been on the phone with his business partner for twenty minutes now, bitching up a storm about this woman's "unreasonable demands," after having squared things away with the actual student who's going to be living there and getting the kid on his side. I'm sure the kid thinks it's in his best interests to side with the landlord, since it's the landlord's roof he'll be living under next year, and perhaps he wants to distance himself from a potentially overbearing mother. But it may also come to pass that she's only looking out for her son's well-being by pointing out things like, "The carpet is horrendously stained and needs to be replaced"...


At a nearby table, an Overweight Mother and her 6 or 7 year-old son are relaxing with the woman's friends.

Overweight Mother to son, who will presumably be enabled to skim by on the minimum in order to meet expectations in life: "You can't have the cake until you finish the muffin." Note: the muffin is a chocolate muffin with a cream cheese center.

[Three medical students sitting nearby seem to be laughing to themselves as the woman relates her soft tissue damage injury to her friends, which involves cartilage damage if I'm overhearing correctly. I believe the students find the concept of an obese woman and her soon-to-be-obese son complaining about soft tissue injury to be too ironic to pass up.]


Earlier in the week, there was a woman sitting outside in a small group of friends. She was wearing an eyepatch.

Is there a better conversation starter than an eyepatch? Sure, a cast is a safer bet -- it's almost impolite NOT to wince upon sight and ask, "Ooh, how'd it happen?" -- but an eyepatch has added glamor. Perhaps it's the pirate factor.


Speaking of music, the switch to WDVE in this cafe is a change of pace from the ubiquitous BOB FM, whose claim is, "We play anything."

What they actually mean is: "We play a steady stream of the 300 most-popular songs according to some half-assed marketing survey we subscribed to, considering only the Top 40 hits of the past 40 years, with extra weight given to the currently-vogue '80s revival."

So, in a nutshell, "We play anything" translates to an inordinate amount of Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl."


Final thought: On MySpace, there's been a prevalence of Bush-related Flash animated ads lately -- the kind where you need to click on something to "accomplish a goal" (usually like "shooting a target" or "catching a fish") in order to win [a chance to win] a free iPod, PSP, etc.

The problem with these Bush ads is, in every case, you're required to help George win a contest. One has him trying to out-lift Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another has him in a boxing match against Mike Tyson.

I'm sorry, but the value of a free iPod pales in comparison to seeing an animated George W. Bush get his ass handed to him by an animated Mike Tyson, over and over and over...