Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage

Feb 15

Tech Writing in the Voice of an Erudite 19th Century Gentleman

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Gulp With Enthusiasm, Mobile commerce, Sip With Assurance.
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If we’re going to have to suffer through endless TOS statements, they might as well be fun to read

dave lafontaine as edwardian gentleman

A tip of the hat in an absurdist setting.

I seem to have struck some kind of nerve this week in responding to a whimsical Tweet referencing something that we are all guilty of – losing focus while slogging through an overflowing email inbox, and forgetting to respond.


So this got me wondering: what if we started crafting elaborately gracious responses to common tech messages that we all get and grit our teeth over?

Such as the Terms Of Service that we all click to make go away, because reading it makes our eyes cross and causes our spleens to spasm & release huge amounts of red blood cells because clearly our very existence is in danger (read this in the voice of Doc Holliday in Tombstone for the full effect):

Updated Codicils That Shall Govern Henceforth Our Relationship (formerly known as “ToS”)

“Dearest User, please rest in utmost comfort and assurance that we take it as our most enduring, nay sacred duty, to vouchsafe the utter privacy and sanctity of the interactions that you shall have with this, your new iPhone. It shall be as though invisible guardians of legendary ferocity shall be stationed around the server racks housing all the data that is gleaned from these aforementioned actions; guardians that shall repel all efforts to winkle out even the tiniest details about the taps, swipes, shakes or gentle caresses that you bestow upon the humble & unworthy device you know hold in your shapely hand.

“However, we feel duty-bound to confess that from time to time, it does and shall become necessary for us to garner further revenues; and as much as we might wish it otherwise, we are not saints, and we, as all humans do, fall victim to the gross (some might unkindly say “bestial”) exigencies of maintaining hearty revenue streams to ensure our continued existence as a tech company in that most odious Darwinian battleground quaintly known as “Silicon Valley.” Thus, we shall regretfully and reluctantly engage in the auctioning of that data to businessmen, men of the world, men of a certain character … men with bulging wallets and the desire to Know Things About You…”

Dearest Wishes That Your Travails With Our Device Have Reached a Satisfactory Conclusion (formerly known as “Follow-up Customer Service Questionnaire”)

“Recently, you in your wrath & righteous anger, found it necessary to engage in an extended conversation with the cringing and unworthy peons we have designated as our Help Team. While we recognize that your fully justified frustration and impatience with our HomePod Speaker System was, at that moment, reaching Brobdingnagian levels, and that your fury at the white rings our wretched product left upon your Lårftnoörg end-table are ineradicable and permanent — still, our designated peon, when attempting to convey our sincerest regret, was alarmed by your stated intention to track down & locate the designer of the HomePod and insert this device into a cavity that shall not be named by polite people (but which is located in the fundament of even the most dignified being), and thence upon to use a sledgehammer to beat upon it until it shall be firmly embedded, yea unto the point where it shall sprout from the head of our designer, as though it were Athena springing whole from the skull of Zeus.

“We have since calmed our peon – never fear, for they are become accustomed to such flights of choler whilst being in our employ – and yet, we feel a compulsion upon us to inquire as to the level of satisfaction that you have garnered from your interactions with Haqib, so we may calculate the stiff thrashing that we must perform on him. If you would, please click upon the number below, being upon the scale of 1-10, that corresponds with the number of strokes from a rattan cane that we shall invoke upon him.”

Please Do Allow Us To Gently Yet Persistently Blandish You With Useful Information (formerly “Click Here to Subscribe”)

“As you have arrived here at our most humble & unworthy site, via the vast and trackless expanse of the digital ethereum, eschewing all other sites in this moment, and have perhaps found what we have collected here to be to your liking — may we importune upon you to signify your approval by clicking upon the button below, thence to trigger the appearance of a form that shall allow you to receive regular missives from us?

“It shall be the work of but a moment, and shall require only that you render unto us your name and the email address by which we may swiftly and securely transmit to you the dual-level opt-in form that diligent email newsletter registrars require of us as proof that we are not that sub-creature, the lowest of the low – the dire & deadly Spammer? For we are not, and never shall be, that we swear unto the very Heavens above.”


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Oct 10

The Newsroom in Your Pocket Training Session at ONA 2009

Posted: under Mobile commerce.
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Ask not for whom the Mooseinator tweets…

Last Friday, I conducted a training session for the reporters attending the Online News Association’s national conference to demonstrate how to build the basic skills needed to cover a breaking news event using mobile phones.

That sounded rather cold & stilted.  Let me re-phrase:

I created a scavenger hunt (which, if you want to be picky, is technically an Alternative-Reality Game (ARG)) to be the spoonful of sugar to entice the journalists into using their phones to cover a “breaking news” event that I had designed beforehand.  I have put a full description of what the basic steps are to create a mobile training session like this up on our main Artesian Media site.

The lucky winner of the "Alaska Canned Moose." Like I said at the time, this is the kind of persistence and ingenuity that won Brazil the Olympic Games that very morning...

The lucky winner of the "Alaska Canned Moose." Like I said at the time, this is the kind of persistence and ingenuity that won Brazil the Olympic Games that very morning...

The conceit was that a visiting national candidate has had her pet moose (gee, I wonder who that could be based on?) escape into the hotel. I then doled out clues that led the reporters on a scavenger hunt where they had to use their phones to interact with both the real and virtual worlds. I drew on my short experience designing D&D computer games (my agent in the 90s got me a couple of commissions writing game modules, but none of them were ever used – trust me, it’s a Hollywood thing).  I tried to make the training experience challenging enough that the reporters would stick with it to the end to unravel the puzzle of what happened to the poor beast, and to collect a (somewhat) valuable prize.

My aim was to get the journalists going through this training to use ten basic skills:

  1. Use Twitter and Twitpic
  2. Take a picture with their cellphone cameras, and then use a wireless connection to email that picture into a CMS (I used Posterous, because it’s the simplest open-source blogging tool I’ve found recently – posting there is as simple as sending an e-mail.)
  3. Receive an e-mail message on their phone, and act on it
  4. Watch a video on Flickr, and follow up on a story lead contained in the video
  5. Browse Facebook, and find information on a social-media profile
  6. 6. (The next five skills were deleted because of limited time and uneven bandwidth at the hotel.) Write a two-sentence news summary of events and post it to a WordPress blog
  7. 7. Use GPS to navigate to a location
  8. 8. Create a photo gallery, and geo-tag the photos
  9. 9. Stream audio/video live to the internet, and then upload the same local recording to a podcast/vodcast directory
  10. 10. Transmit/share files with another reporter’s mobile device

All these were taken from examples of real-world news events, and the various skills the journalists had to have to cover the news live & in-person, using only the tiny (yet increasingly powerful) mobile phone. Unfortunately, once I got to the Hilton in San Francisco, I quickly learned that I was going to have to scale back my training a bit.  Quite a bit, in fact.

Twitters from that ungulate-obsessed madman, The Mooseinator.

Twitters from that ungulate-obsessed madman, The Mooseinator.

The effects of having more than 700 of the most internet-savvy journalists in the world in one place – and then adding the mobile-phone crazed USC college students who had made the road trip to watch their team play Cal – overloaded the hotel’s internet connection.  I could barely send/respond to email through the hotel’s wi-fi system, and I quickly found out that despite San Francisco’s rep as the epicenter for all things cool & new in digital technology, the 3G cellphone coverage in and around the hotel was abysmal.

ASIDE: I have never had so many dropped phone calls in my life. Maybe this was due to the overloaded cell zone & the usage of all the journos & college kids. But even at night, I found myself wandering my hotel room with my new iPhone held apart from my body like some kind of cell signal dowser, hoping to strike a pose that would allow me to complete a call without having the person on the other end start screaming “What? WHAT? YOU’RE BREAKING UP!!!”  Either all the people whining about AT&T have a point – which is probable, considering the amount of chatter on the web about them – or the new iPhone 3Gs is a great handheld computer and a lousy phone. Which also seems (sigh) likely. All I know is that I had the iPhone 1.0 on this same AT&T network all over the world (Colombia, Moscow, Kiev, Amsterdam, Costa Rica, Mexico), and I didn’t have problems like this.

Back to the subject. With the fragile connectivity at the hotel, I had to scale back the plans I had made, so that I didn’t have frustrated crowds of journalists howling at the ceilings and shaking their phones at hotel staff (although that might have made a cool scene for an ad for some new mobile company).  While I knew that everyone likely to attend my session would have a smartphone and would probably at least have some skills in how to use it, I whittled away some of the more advanced features that are not common to all phones. Given more time and resources, I could certainly make these things work, which would really take the experience to the next level.

Nerd alert: The basic skill set needed to set up a training session like this is pretty much the same one it takes to be a great dungeon master (DM) in the dice-based Dungeons & Dragons game.  You have to set up a framework where you allow your players to use their ingenuity and improvise enough so that they feel like they’re the ones telling their own story – but also controlled enough so that you can lead them from step to step towards the set-piece goals you have established beforehand.

The first thing that I did was to post a handwritten clue in an unused conference room next to the ONA registration desk.  This was a stand-in for a confederate – I was hoping to have someone there to play a recorded statement that I had on a little digital voice recorder, basically telling the reporters “I’m sorry, but we don’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”  Hey, I was going for the verisimilitude.

The next step was to have a couple of people over in the corner giggling over a picture on their phones of the moose on the loose. Again, the hotel was uncooperative.  Seeing as how they’re located in “The Tenderloin,” maybe they had other problems on their mind.  See Dave Mitchell’s excellent blog post “Country Mouse in the Big City” to read about some of our adventures as we tried to leave the hotel on Saturday night (they involved drunked brawling, drug ODs in the bathrooms and SFPD cops circling a handcuffed pursesnatcher).

I had to make do with a foamcore sign on which I posted the link to the Twitter account of someone in the hotel who was an eyewitness to the moose wandering the grounds.

The contestants then had to navigate to the Moose_inator Twitter feed and click on the Twitpic link to see the picture of the place where the next clue was located. Their next task was to go there and upload their own photo of the pool to the Posterous CMS (standing in for the CMS of their paper/TV station/website).

The beast seems to be taunting us, carefree and grinning...

The beast seems to be taunting us, carefree and grinning...

After they uploaded their own photos, they then got an email with a link to the Facebook page of the Moose Inator, who claimed to have  shot a video of the moose in the hotel. I was going to put it up on YouTube and Vimeo, but found that the hotel’s wifi system was clamping down a bandwidth throttle on the video sites.

Flickr was streaming without a hitch, so I put the video up there, with a message at the end of it to come and meet me in the CityScape bar atop the hotel.

By the way, I really put a lot of work into fleshing out the character of the Moose Inator on Facebook. so take a few seconds to click around and look at all the photos that I uploaded, such as this one.

The photos were shot in our backyard here in Los Angeles, but the videos of the moose in the hotel were shot the day of my presentation, using the video camera functionality on my new iPhone 3Gs.  It’s not the greatest video in the world, but it’s low-bandwidth and it was fairly easy to edit using Premiere Pro CS3.

I’d also like to extend a special shout-out to Sony-Ericsson for sending me their cutting-edge smartphone, the C905a. This little beauty comes with an 8.1 megapixel camera, which I used to good effect in setting up this training exercise. If the bandwidth had been a little less iffy, I think I would have tried to do a live video feed using Qik or Kyte from the site.

Channeling the spirit of Lord John Whorfin, grinning and taunting, "Laugh-a-whila you can, monkey boy!"

Channeling the spirit of Lord John Whorfin, grinning and taunting, "Laugh-a-whila you can, monkey boy!"Actually, The Moose Inator tends to issue odd permutations of classic Melville lines, such as "From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last chaw of Copenhagen at thee!"

The most gratifying part of this whole exercise was the way that some of my contestants came up to me afterwards, gushing that they had had a blast, that they had learned how to upload pictures directly from their phone to the internet, and that they loved the feeling of being immersed in a carefully thought-out experience.  This was one of the few sessions at ONA that actually got the attendees out of their seats and out doing something new, trying to accomplish something on their own, rather than just sitting and listening and watching yet another PowerPoint session.

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Apr 02

Charging for News Content on the Mobile Platform: Not So Fast…

Posted: under Mobile commerce, new media, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Another quick hit, because I’m swamped with assignments right now.

Many newspaper/media analysts have eagerly seized upon the micro-commerce capabilities of mobile phones and devices like the Kindle as possible ways to get readers to pony up for their content. Steve Smith, the self-deprecating mobile industry analyst, has an insightful take on this issue over at Mobile Insider:

I think it is a mistake for media companie [sic] to think that putting the same old content into our pockets or “at our fingertips” is enough to merit a fee. They need to reimagine content as a service. That is a tremendous challenge/opportunity. It means that publishers have to think beyond the media and imagine how people put information to work (or to fun) in their everyday lives.

If a publisher can turn media into a utility, not just more data, then the rest of the argument about pay-to-play models on mobile make more sense. If there is something of value to buy on the mobile platform, then the built-in payment system, the always-there convenience, and the pay-to-play habits of mobile usage make a fee-based model workable for some. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful by-product of the mobile media evolution if it forced publishers to revisit and reimagine how and why their product makes our everyday lives better, easier, healthier, or more enjoyable? Content could have functionality. Media would be a service — not just, well, media.

The thinking on this is pretty terrifying to anyone hoping that the news business will be able to just point their CMS outputs at .mobi or m.[whatever] sites and go on their merry ways.  If what Smith says is true, the news business is going to have to get a lot more disciplined about packaging up the information and presenting it to the average time-starved reader in a way that is immeidately, recognizably useful.

This means that big, exhaustive, Pulitzer-bait investigative pieces that curmudgeons point at as the core business that can’t be replicated … are not going to be in the lifeboats that make it to Digital Refuge Island. Well, at least, not in the way that we’ve all come to expect. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about investigations lately, and I think they represent the best of traditional media … and the worst.  Yes, they are responsible for great, sweeping changes and for holding corrupt politicians, abusive bureaucracies and ugly social trends up into public view. 

But these investigations have become an industry unto themselves, and like many institutions these days, they function based upon their own internal logic, rather than upon what the external market/society need.  That is, the investigations are done in secrecy, over a long period of time, consume vast amounts of manpower, and are disgorged all in a huge tidal wave of text/photos.  All to an audience in which – according to readership surveys – 80% of the intended audience never skips past the first column of text on page one to dig into all this hard-won information.

If an investigation is published and nobody really pays attention, was it really worthwhile?  I can already hear the outraged screams in response to that question.

How about this: wouldn’t it be better to accomplish what a big investigation sets out to do – that is, to identify problems, focus in on miscreants and victims to breathe life into the story, suggest solutions, AND FOLLOW UP IN AN OLD-SCHOOL CRUSADE – in a way that readers actually pay attention to? 

One of the “ah-ha!” moments I’ve seen in the trainings we’ve done is when we talk to the ad/biz side, and ask them whether they think advertisers are buying column inches of ads – or if what they want is more customers walking into their stores.

This (buzzword alert) paradigm shift in the mission of newspapers has to have its own parallel epiphany over on the editorial side. 

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Mar 11

Why 4G Matters: 300Mbps Data Rate (well, almost)

Posted: under Mobile commerce, Video.
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HD video demands – at pretty decent color depth & resolution – about 15-25 megs. (Well, unless you’re trying to deal with uncompressed 1080i HD, which calls for about 400 megs – but the only reason to do that is to capture/edit, rather than watch, which is a whole other can o’ crawlies.)  That means that a 4G phone is basically the final linking device to provide the addressable TV & instant content delivery that we’ve all been blathering about for the last 20 years.

This article on Gizmodo is about the clearest, best-written piece I’ve stumbled across in the last year or so of baking my noodle in the alphabet soup broth of mobile media acronyms.

But what’s so special about WiMax and LTE? And how fast can they really get? Very simply, West told us, “The magic is the channel width.” LTE and WiMax use really fat wireless channels, so they can move a lot of data at once. For example, AT&T’s Kafka told us that “peak speed for LTE in 10MHz is about 140Mbps and peak speed in 20MHz is about 300Mbps.”

Did you see that? 300Mbps? Over the air? Whoooa. Well, don’t let your panties get blown away yet. Yes, 4G will be way faster than 3G. But don’t expect Asian city internet speeds wirelessly in the next couple of years. Clearwire’s Barry West throws a bit of cold water on the ridiculously scorching speeds you might see hyped for LTE: To get to that 170Mbps, “that’s like 8.5 bits per hertz and I’ve never seen a system achieve more than 5 bits per hertz.” Huh? Basically, it doesn’t take a whole lot of interference to slow your connection down, because it and WiMax use a complicated modulation scheme that you can’t have constantly cranked to 11. So real world speeds will be slower.

This, coupled with the laser-projection capabilities being built into the next phones, and the ever-smaller and higher-rez cameras, is pointing to one helluva information device in the future – one that can capture, upload, download and display crystal-clear video.

“In the future everyone will be a television network. For 15 minutes.”

Quick glossary:

4G: 4th-Generation cellphone.  The big clunky analog beasts that we used up til the late 90s were 1G. The switchover to digital (when bad connections were echo-y and robot-sounding rather than crackly and static like bad radio reception) put us to 2G.  iPhones operated at 2.5G, which means data rates of about 200K.  The faster data rate is 3G.

CDMA/1XRTT/EVDO: The compression & transmission technology sets used by Verizon and Sprint. Popular in Korea, Japan, South America and U.S.

GSM/EDGE/HSDPA: The data transmission sets used by AT&T and T-mobile. Everyone in Europe uses GSM technology. It allows you to swap SIM cards between phones, but is slightly less efficient than CDMA.

LTE/WiMax: The coming data transmission standards that phone companies have been beating to death for the past 10 years. LTE = Long Term Evolution.  This is a the data speed that will also be known as 4G.

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Sep 27

Mobile Banking? Sure Thing – Right After I Get Rid of This Nigerian Prince on Line 2…

Posted: under Digital Migration, Mobile commerce, new media.
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Another quick hit, as I prepare content for the soon-to-be launched blog on Artesian Media.  This one has to do with a “killer app” that already is a big hit in the rest of the world, but that has yet to take off here in the U.S.

Last week, one of the more interesting announced capabilities of Android/Gphone was the ability to form Secure Socket Layer (SSL) data connections.  They billed it as a way that the Home Office can send secure data to its salesforce, or that users can securely share data with each other’s handsets, but … the first thing I thought of was that it would allow us all to access our bank accounts/credit cards/401(k)s from on our cellphones. Personally, I think it’s a useful app, but one that gives me the creeps, because for some reason I worry more about typing in the password to my bank account on my cellphone than I do on a desktop computer connected via broadband.

Why would that be, I wonder…? Hmmm… I’ll think of it in a moment.

Well, Cnet is kinda dousing this idea with a bucket of cold Reality Water.

But despite the fact that there are many options and opportunities for cell phone subscribers to access their banking information and pay their bills on their mobile phones, the uptake for these applications and services has been pretty weak. According to Forrester Research, only about 3 percent of mobile subscribers in North America check financial accounts on their mobile phone at least once a month. This rate of adoption is lower than that of services like music downloading, which 5 percent of mobile users say they do at least once monthly.

“Mobile banking and bill payment has been available for a while now,” said Charles Golvin, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. “But it has yet to set the world on fire.”

In Third World countries, where a trip to the bank is kinda like tying pork chops to your torso and swimming through a crocodile pit, the prospect of being able to handle banking & money transactions without having to brave the cordons of thieves, muggers, kidnappers & encyclopedia salesmen that ring banks, looking for people with fat wallets, is a good one.  I have to say, back when I was the managing editor of the Caracas Daily Journal, the locals in the print shop used to warn me not to carry my paycheck openly to the bank to cash it, because “ladrones y asesinos” were lurking in the streets, looking for the telltale business envelopes in people’s hands.  Especially big, dumb gringoes like me … although, I have to say, if anyone were looking for a likely mark to shake down, I don’t think an envelope in my hand or not would really make that much of a difference.

Anyway – we have long used the difference in online banking in Brazil, as contrasted with the U.S., as a teaching tool in our New Media training sessions.  The point of the exercise is not to dwell on how much banks in other countries are f’d up, as compared to the U.S., but to think about how a digital, online solution to a problem can be specific to a single market, or market condition. Viz:

Besides the convenience factor, another reason mobile banking hasn’t take off is that there are few compelling reasons to access bank or bill-paying information on a mobile phone when most people in the U.S. have easy access to a computer. With overdraft protection, automatic bill paying, and convenient and easy access to ATM cash machines, most people don’t need up-to-the minute check balance information, nor do they need to be able to pay bills while walking around town.

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