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


Mar 03

Experimental VR Art Project at Google’s Venice HQ

Posted: under Design, Friday Noon Videos, UX/UI, Video.
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Depending upon your tolerance for the si of people wearing virtual reality helmets all craning their necks and looking about themselves, this video is either really charming or really alarming.

Thanks to Kluge interactive for the invite to this special event.

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May 28

State of Media in East Africa: “Mover and Shakers” Interview for AfroFM

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Video.
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UPDATE: The first video below was erroneously a duplicate of video #3. I blame the shoddy connection I had – I am thrilled that the videos made it up to YouTube at all, frankly, and it took me an hour and several tried to get this post to publish, so I had some version-control issues. Anyway, I’ve fixed it so that vid #1 is now the proper first part, in which we talk about the persistent power of radio.

The more I learn about how the media operates in East Africa, the more I think this is going to be a fascinating area to watch over the next few years. The conditions here are ripe for some really interesting changes – we are going to see in this microcosm what the effects are of empowering a population that is still stuck with only one-way information flow (largely via radio – please see video #1, below) to suddenly leapfrog into the ubiquitous mobile web-fueled connectivity that we see in places like Japan, Korea and (to an extent) China.

BACKGROUND: A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the CEO of Fana Broadcasting. At that time, I was told that the plan was to install 4G mobile connectivity throughout the country. I have since learned that the contract looks like it is going to be awarded to a giant Chinese telecom company. This is not necessarily good news. The suspicion among the journalists is that the infrastructure contract has been given to the Chinese because they have pledged to include many of the down-and-dirty spyware and censorship features that are common to the internet behind the Great Firewall of China. Also: it is rumored that the Chinese outbid US and European companies for this huge contract, because the government of China is (illegally?) subsidizing the work, secretly funneling money under the table to the ostensibly private-sector telecom company, to allow it to do billions of dollars of work for 1/20th the price. Conspiracy theories abound here; in the absence of any hard facts or verification, people always assume the worst.

At any rate: the plan is to wire up all the major cities and towns with 4G wireless internet service. One of the big reasons expressed for that is that the Powers that Be have noticed that on just about every roof, you can see a satellite dish. Those dishes are bringing news, information and TV programs into households from TV providers outside of Ethiopia. They want to jump-start their own domestic news and entertainment industry, to start to produce high-quality content, to lure audience away from these international sources. Part of this is to foster a sense of national unity: to expose Ethiopians to news, movies and TV series that star Ethiopians, speaking Amharic, and referring to matters that are of concern to Ethiopians (and eventually, to citizens of the surrounding countries, none of which really has their own video/web content production infrastructure). Part of it is to start building up the kind of media-production capabilities that might allow Ethiopia to start exporting its culture to the international marketplace; from what I have seen here, there is certainly an opportunity for the kind of smart, dedicated artists here to start changing the international perception of this place, which is still stuck in the famine years.

Anyway, in the first part of the interviews I did with Samson Tesfaye, for his show “Movers and Shakers” on AfroFM, we talk about what things are like in the present day – where the vast majority of the rural populations in Ethiopia still rely on what they hear over the radio as their main (perhaps only) source of news and information.

The next part of the interview, we focus on the impact of social media in East Africa. At this time, Sami says that social media is not having the kind of disruptive effects we see in North Africa, where the Arab Spring is still very much alive and kicking, or to the south in Kenya, where the technology scene is vibrant and lively.

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May 14

Teaching video techniques at Addis Ababa University

Posted: under journalism, television, Video.
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My students wanted to make sure to capture the conversation around the roundtable discussion we had on the subject of press freedom, so they set up the bagttered (but still serviceable) cameras outside the journalism department offices, and brought in all the accountrements of the formal coffee ceremony … the glowing coals in the brazier, the clouds of thick incense, and platters of roasted barley and chewy bread.

Dave LaFontaine standing with students at AAU

So far, everyone is still in a good mood....

It’s always difficult to figure out what the settings should be on a prosumer video camera, particularly when the opaque menus are written in a foreign language.

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Mar 20

We Need Social Media Janitors

Posted: under Digital Migration, Video.
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OK, I’ll admit it. I’m as guilty of assigning myself a made-up title as anyone.

But c’mon – “Digital Alchemist” is pretty cool. And it’s a nice shorthand for what I do – which is to research, study, broadcast via social media, write case studies, write blog posts, take still photos, work on mobile web designs, shoot video, compose music tracks, publish to the web, craft a monetization strategy … and then travel the world teaching other people to do as I do. And at least the basic idea is there in the two words: Digital. Alchemist. I take existing media forms and I transfer them to the web medium, and in the process transmute the experience to something that is (in theory, at least) greater than the sum of the parts.

It was distressingly tough to be a mop whore

Yeah, there are times that I feel a little like the “natural scientists” in Gulliver’s Travels, attempting to squeeze sunlight out of cucumbers (because if sunlight went into them to make them grow, then there must be a way to wring that sunlight back outta them). But I’ve had enough success by this time to feel fairly OK with calling myself something more than an tongue-tangling multihyphenate journalist-videographer-designer-web consultant-blogger-editor-photographer-whatever.

But it’s time to move past the days of “Social Media Ninjas” and/or “Social Media Gurus” and get down to what we really need.

Social Media Janitors.

Why janitors? Why not Social Media Engineers? Or Social Media Architects? Or even Social Media Mad Scientists?

Because two years after Facebook blew up and became pretty much the standard background noise of modern life, social media has arrived at the point where it’s time that we all stopped gawking at the infographics with all the pretty lines going all hockey stick on us, and actually get down to putting a wrench on this thing and making it Do Something Useful.

So again. Why janitors?

  • Janitors are the guys who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. School janitors are the longsuffering guys who come in with their gray, tattered mops and buckets of cloying sawdust to clean up in the lunchroom after some poor kid yarfs up the spoiled Mystery Meatloaf. Social Media Janitors are the guys who patiently answer the n00b questions while keep the message threads clear of trolls, and soothing hurt feelings after flame wars.
  • Janitors are willing to put in long, hard days at work. The school janitors are there in the mornings, chipping away at the ice on the sidewalk, and there at the end of the day, checking the mousetraps in the crawlspaces. Social Media Janitors are always on, either with their butts at their workstations, creating content, or setting alerts to go to their cellphones 24/7, just to make certain nothing is blowing up on the message boards.
  • Janitors always have lots of keys. The school janitor has one of those shiny metal belt ziplines that holds enough metal to make a Studebaker engine block. He can be trusted to always open the doors that need opening, get you into your locker when you forget the com, and move quietly and unobtrusively around the building, going about his business. Social Media Janitors are the ones opening the doors to new users, making sure they are directed to the content they need, and who keep all the passwords secure for you.
  • Janitors don’t grandstand; they just quietly go about the task of spiffing the school up a bit before they leave, making sure that the doors and windows are cleaned and closed, and that nobody left a fire burning in a garbage can. Social Media Janitors keep all the various social media presences on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, etc., up to date, without making it all about them.

A good Social Media Janitor understands that it’s not about her. It’s about the audience, the users. Maybe there’s some time for fun here and there – goofing with the users, enjoying the give and take of a good conversation.

So here we see Matt Meeks, one of the smarter users of social media in the LA area, at the Los Angeles Web Professionals Group meeting, talking about how to pick which platform to use to put out your social media messaging … or just to have some fun.

More Matt Meeks to come…

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Jan 08

Wearable Media: T-Shirts, Hats & Wristbands

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Digital Migration, Video.
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Video Everywhere Comes to Our Clothing

I guess it was inevitable.

Back in the 80s, hip designers realized that consumers were willing to become walking billboards for their product logos, all for the sweet, sweet tradeoff of being able to flaunt our ability to buy outrageously overpriced clothing. Slap a big ol’ logo or even just the name onto a t-shirt, mark it up 3000%, and the nouveau riche (but inwardly crippled by insecurity & self-loathing) will fork over fat wads of cash to be able to demonstrate their affluence. And so Guess, Armani, Jordache (remember them?), Dolce & Gabbana and Nike all slapped their logos on otherwise ordinary mass-produced items, and watched their profits soar.

First, from T-Post, an interesting little take on spreading the news, via clothing. These funky designs have actual stories that you can read on the back.

tshirts that double as magazines

These t-shirts will at least keep the person waiting behind you in line at Starbucks well-informed.

I can see a real use for this kind of thing in places like Egypt, Syria, Russia, China — places where the government not only has censored the TV/radio stations, padlocked the printing plants, but DDoS’d the internet and shut down the cellphone grid. In places like that, just having a few people walk through the crowd as passive human billboards, with the latest information on their bodies, is a helluva tool to spread information.

Upside: It radically boosts your revolutionary chic.

Downside: It makes you a target for camel-riding truncheon-wielders.

Next up is a nifty little device that plays a programmable video loop, and that can be fashioned into clothing or attached to microphones to play sponsor’s messages during interviews before, during, or after big events.

It’s called VideoNameTag, and I took a demo unit with me to Kiev, when I taught a group of journalists and professors at the University of Mohyla’s Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism. You can see them puzzling over how to fit it onto their wrists – although they were certainly interested in the prospect of being able to broadcast the latest news via wireless connection to a couple of people walking through crowds.

 

They’re gearing up for an especially contentious election season in Ukraine this year; one where the pro-Putin crew is already pulling out all the stops to keep a lid on dissent. Not sure how much something like this could help – but then again, having a person walking through the crowd and playing a loop, such as the famous sequence showing the death of Iranian protestor Neda Soltan – could provide a form of information dissemination that would transcend the attempts at censorship.

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Nov 21

Video of Rare Sei Whales Off Dana Point

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Video.
Tags:

I’ve lived in the LA area for more than 20 years now (gulp!), and this is the first time I’ve ever actually gone out on a whale-watching cruise. The impetus for this trip was a visit from my Tennessee-based sister, who wanted to go out on the water. Since it’s November, and actually going out to the beach would involve parkas & scarves rather than bikinis, I figured this would be a nice compromise.

It turns out that it was a very unusual experience – we saw two species of cetaceans that are quite rare – especially as close to shore as we found them.

First, there were the Risso’s Dolphins – big honkin’ beasts. Seriously. I’ve swum with the familiar bottlenose dolphins, and been intimidated by the sheer strength of a 500-lb critter that is made out of pure muscle & gristle. Touching a dolphin while you’re swimming is a lot like putting your hand on the hood of an idling 18-wheeler.

Risso Dolphins

A pod of Risso's Dolphins - these guys look like mini-whales. They're white and gray, rather than the familiar battleship gray of their bottlenose kin, and much thicker around.

You just get this deep, thrumming sense of power.

Next, just as we were about to go in (and about time, too, as most of the passengers were starting to turn a little blue), we heard the long, extended “PFFFFFFttttttt!” of a whale breaching about 100 yards away. Turns out it was a couple of Sei Whales (pronounced “Say Whales,” although I kinda like thinking it’s French “C’est Whales”) who were in about 60-80 feet of water. Which is unusual, because if a whale this size actually stood on its head, it could wave it’s flipper out of the water, like a little kid in the shallow end of the pool.


The video is a little shaky, because I’m shooting it with a long zoom from a handheld Canon 60D from the pitching bowsprit of a catamaran, as we chase after the whales.

We were all just ecstatic over seeing these giant creatures moseying along. The best we can figure out is that they eat krill & small fish, and the unusual water temperatures this year, that have also brought so very many Blue Whales so close to the coast, also have attracted the Sei Whales … maybe the same thing that’s brought the Risso’s Dolphins in?

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Jul 01

Ethiopia New Media Training

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Online Video, Video.
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The clash of ancient and modern is never more stark than in these developing nations

I’ve been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the last week, training the local journalists and government information officers (aka PR flacks) on how best to take advantage of the way that “New Media” is creating new ways of connecting with each other, and the world at large. I’m here as part of the same US Embassy program that has sent me to places like Chile, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Costa Rica, etc., to try to bring people the benefits of experience (aka the way newspapers & TV news has imploded in the U.S.), so they can start planning for the Great Digital Migration.

dave lafontaine teaches video editing to tv journalists in ethiopia

This is my class of TV journalists at Addis Ababa University (AAU). I tried to cram as much about online video and sharing into my short sessions as I could. Here, I'm showing how to use both professional tools like Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, as well as free alternatives like Windows Movie Maker.

The one thing that everyone here agrees on is that Ethiopia desperately wants to change its international image – c’mon, admit it. When you think of Ethiopia, what images come to mind? Deserts, starving people, vultures, Live Aid, right?

Well, it’s not like that any more. In fact, if you look around at the Addis Ababa skyline, you’ll mostly see cranes and highrise towers under construction. The real-estate bubble that burst and devastated the rest of the world never took hold here.

cows in the streets of addis ababa

There are still many reminders that the ancient ways of living are still very much in existence here in Addis, but please also note all the other markers of modernity in this shot.

However, they are facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the world, at least when it comes to the emergence of the internet, and the struggles of newspapers, radio and TV stations to come to grips with social media, and the ability of anyone to become a publisher/broadcaster/internet troll.

dave lafontaine and the owner of sheger fm

The very first place I visited was Sheger FM, the one independent radio station in Ethiopia. This is the courageous owner, who is really struggling to walk the razor's edge here in Addis.

 

I’ve found many of the same behaviors and attitudes I’ve encountered in the other places that I’ve done web/online video/social media training sessions – stubborn insistence that things will never change, toxic skepticism, and even outright hostility.

After a bit of a rocky start, these guys really came around and appreciated the hands-on lessons I gave them on how to do live video stand-up reports and how to compress video into the best codec to upload to YouTube. The Nelson Mandela building is a challenge, though; between the thin air at this 8000-foot altitude, and having to haul my big carcass up 5 (five) steep flights of stairs, the first few minutes of every class were mostly spent huffing and puffing, and hoping that someone in the class had a particularly insightful comment.

 

dave lafontaine and his tv production class in front of the nelson mandela building at addis ababa university 

Dave LaFontaine and his tv production class in front of the Nelson Mandela building at Addis Ababa university in Ethiopia.

 

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Sep 30

Taiwanimation: No Longer Parody, But Actual Useful News Interpretation

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Online Video, Politics & New Media, Video.
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A while back, I was asked to give me take on “The Emerging Visual Language of Online Video” as part of Rosental Alves’ amazing yearly journalism conference in Austin.  I made the room laugh when I showed parody videos like the “SoulWow” and others, created by the People Formerly Known As The Audience.

Check out this interpretation of Bob Woodward’s book on Obama & Afghanistan:

My larger point (other than getting a cheap laugh, which is never to be, well, laughed at) was that the first impulse of video-makers is to take things that they know and love, and that their friends know and love, and to do their own snarky take on them. It’s what we see when little kids get their mitts on video cameras for the first time, and produce their own home movies.

It’s what Spielberg did when he was a kid and producing his own WWII epics in his backyard. My sisters, cousins & I did this back in the (mumble mumble) decade, with 8mm film, and a script based on what we had seen of ads of movies like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (we couldn’t get into R-rated theaters in Wisconsin).

For the average user, producing a video is an inherently daring process. Any media creation is, really – but creating a video is so much harder than typing into a WordPress text window (ahem), that it ratchets up the anxiety. As any good comedian can tell you, laughter is the release of anxiety.

Creating funny, sarcastic or absurdist videos is a way to laugh at yourself, before everyone else does (again – check with comedians as to why they became class clowns – something to do with avoiding beatings from the bullies, I expect).

But now these videos are coming into their own. Before the book has really cleared out of the news cycles, already there’s a video (pretty good quality, too), interpreting it in a way that makes you pay attention.

In the attention economy … this is pure gold.

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Aug 31

Premiere Pro Demo at Photoshop World

Posted: under Online Video, Video.
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Great presentation today about the explosion in using DSLRs to shoot video.

Learned some cool workflow stuff from the Adobe Premiere Pro product managers.

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Aug 10

Machinamation: JetBlue Flight Attendant’s Meltdown

Posted: under Video.
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Years ago, it took us a couple of weeks to set up a “re-creation” of the O.J. Simpson-Nicole Brown-Ron Goldman murder chain of events (special shout-out to Yasmin Brennan for finding us someone to play OJ … before she had to flee to Australia to avoid extradition).

Last year, it took 3 days or so to come up with an animated sequence showing a plane crash, using Flash.

Now, only hours after a colorful incident, “machinamation” (done by Next Media Animation in Taiwan) has come out with a short animated video showing their take on what happened on Flight 1052.

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