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


Aug 04

Shwedagon Pagoda and Dave by Night

Posted: under Design.
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As with so many major cities in Asia, the ancient and the modern exist side-by-side.

The guy on the right is dancing a jig, I think. They are hidden under the eaves, and I only spotted this group because I was looking up in awe as the heavens opened and the rain poured down.

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Jun 13

Delicate Glass Sculptures

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I’ve always said that if I had any talent whatsoever in sculpting, the medium I would choose to work with would be glass. I just love how really talented artists play with its transparent/translucent properties, and how it can be melted & made to flow organically.

Chihuly glass museum

I felt like I should have been wearing a scuba tank, flippers and a BC vest. Which, come to think of it, would not be out of place during the regular Seattle Rain Festival Jan.-Dec. every year. Boom!

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Jul 11

Bahir Dar Photo Gallery

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I found a draft version of this post on my computer, and can’t believe that I forgot to finally update it. Sheesh.

Anyway folks, here are some more of the photos from my recent stint in Ethiopia. Hope you enjoy. Coming up next: a detailed description of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

First, here is a shot I took while out in the countryside – the guy on the roof here looks like he’s just casually listening in to an interesting conversation. In reality, he was a total daredevil. When the van was in motion, he sat on the roof, clinging to the big package that you see strapped on to the cargo carrier. I’m not sure if he was doing that to try to keep the package steady on the roof, or if by riding outside the passenger compartment, maybe he got a break on the fare. Or maybe he just like the feel of the wind of the open road in his hair. Whatever – by his clothes, he didn’t look in that desperate financial shape … certainly not as bad as the kids I saw clamping on to the spare tire carriers on the backs of SUVs for a free ride (often with tragic results).

Sometimes the passengers choose to ride on the roofs of the ubiquitous blue minivans that are the backbone of the public transportation system in Ethiopia.

Anyway, the next shot is taken from the tour of the ancient monasteries in Lake Tana. I actually got to handle some of the illuminated manuscripts – a real honor, I guess. These are the types of things that I am accustomed to only seeing under glass, in heavily guarded cases, in museums.

It was a strange feeling to handle something this old and this precious. Then again, the monks didn’t really seem all that put out by the experience. I guess when you’ve grown up in an area where human history goes back 3 million years, something that’s only a few thousand years old isn’t all that remarkable.

It is amazing how vibrant the colors still are in this book.

 

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Jun 10

Bahir Dar Monasteries: Part 2

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Here are some more of the photos I shot when I was visiting the ancient monasteries out on the isolated islands of Lake Tana.

This first shot is the typical tourist shot, I know. The murals and tapestries here date back to about the 16th century, although there are earlier paintings and artwork.

dave lafontaine posing with the crutch-chairs in the bahir dar monasteries

Yeah, I know I kinda look like Long John Silver here, being stared at by all the little angels painted on the walls. The Ethiopian Orthodox churches do not allow you to sit, so the congregation has to lean on these sort-of crutches.

The artwork here shows the influence of all the cultures that have touched Ethiopia over the centuries.

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Apr 21

Russian Street Portraitists and Afghan War Vets

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We’re supposed to be at the LA Times Festival of Books today, but we’re having to skip that amazing opportunity to mingle with other ink-stained wretches (and the agents who *love* them), and instead finish up on the editing work on our own … er … somewhat overdue writing projects.

What is the world coming to when we have to sacrifice valuable drinking and goofing off time to actually meet deadlines, I ask?

In the meantime, here are a few shots from our travels in Moscow. We ran across these artists outside of the Moscow flea markets, doing portraits of the passers-by for a few thousand rubles. I was struck by how familiar the scene was … I’ve seen this in Caracas, Mexico City, San Francisco, Amsterdam … I’m convinced that if I ever do get to Antarctica, I will find a couple of artsy Emperor Penguins sitting on director’s chairs, working with mixed-medium herring guts and rancid walrus blubber. Which will no doubt immediately get snapped up by a hipster art collector and spawn the Next Big Wave in the art world…

 

Russian artists painting portraits in the street

There is a strange timeless quality that comes out when you walk the streets of Eastern Europe. The past is still very much with everyone there - such as the guy in suspenders, who looks like he walked right out of a 70s "glorious proletariat" propaganda movie, where he plays the crusty, but lovable truckdriver whose antics lead to much hilarity,

I tried to get a little fancier with this next shot – to sort of show how this art is a little piece of life and humanity, even in sometimes grim, gray surroundings.

Russian street artists are watched by the work

In Moscow, art looks at you. (click to see full-size)

If you look at the guys in the background, they wouldn’t really look out of place at the Harley ralley in Sturgis. But there are a lot of kinda sketchy-looking guys like this roaming the streets of Moscow. I was told that a lot of them were veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, or of the more recent conflict in Chechnya. Anyone who’s been around a VA hospital here in the States will have an eerie shock of familiarity looking at these guys; long hair, still wearing the odds and ends of their camouflage uniforms, too-intense eyes that don’t blink enough, and a constant sense of suppressed rage…

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Jul 07

How Africa Sees the Attacks on Obama

Posted: under new media.
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I found this painting in a humble little clothing stall in the merkato in Addis Ababa, during my last day there, when I finally got some free time to wander around and explore this fascinating city a little bit.

obama surrounded by the ku klux klan

It surprised me to find such an accurate depiction of the garb of the KKK in faraway Ethiopia. I guess movies or popular culture have exposed even the ordinary people around the world to our more sordid side...

Amongst all the funky art & tchotchkes, this painting caught my eye for obvious reasons.

What you can’t see, of course, are all the other exemplars of Obama’s presence here in East Africa. People walk around with Obama’s face on t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats … his face is pasted onto the clear glass shelves in the jewelry shops, and to the sides of the little “blue mule” micro-buses.

This is a good thing.

Invisible to just about everyone in the U.S., we are in a struggle for influence in Africa, which more and more people are calling “The Last Frontier.” China is spreading around the oceans of money (that we gave them in exchange for cheap plastic consumer goods, but that’s another story), and they are doing it in a very tricky, manipulative way. The U.S. and Western Europe have had decades of work, trying to figure out ways to actually benefit countries with their foreign aid. It has not been the easiest process.

However, we have figured out that nation-building takes time. Lots of it. And the investments tend to be gradual, building up infrastructure, institutions, ecosystems. The kinds of things that people really don’t see all at once – but if you take a snapshot of a country 10 or 20 years apart, you see the radical transformations. I know I did when I went back to both Colombia and Venezuela after 20 years absence in 2007-8.

modern catching up with the ancient

In Addis Ababa, the modern struggles to catch up with the ancient.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are throwing up big, showy projects. Roads, bridges, dams, buildings. And slapping their branding all over them. Ordinary people see this and say, “Well look, the Chinese are actually doing something for us. What do the ferengi leave behind? They talk a lot, but what do we have to show for it all?”

In this kind of environment, having an African-American as President of these here United States is a definite advantage.

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Feb 25

Mural Art in “South of the Miracle” Neighborhood

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It may not be Banksy, but it’s still pretty cool to see local merchants reaching out to the community to pre-emptively cover their walls with something that connects with the local community.

I was out for a walk, and stumbled across this guy at the corner of Venice & Thurman, with a cardboard box next to him full of battered spray cans all missing their nozzles.

Mural

Turns out the storeowner (who took over the space from a rather creepy pseudo-psychic), saw that other shops in the area were constantly fighting the battle against taggers, and wanted to try to stave off the constant whack-a-mole struggle against idiotic and barely readable slogans. The illustration here is the artist’s interpretation of the store’s contents – it’s a medical supply outlet, and one of their big products for the aging population in this area are the comfy mechanical beds for all the former manual laborers nursing their aching backs.

Thus the whole “Stairway to Heaven” motif here. The rather creepy-eyed girl in the center of this part of the installation is working the controls for the beds/chairs/scooters this place sells. Next to her is the stairway, and then floating off into the clouds are the people who’ve bought the goods in this store, and are now in lower-back heaven. Which is kinda cool & inventive, actually.

Stairway to Heaven Mural

Just poking above the grass (weeds? I’ve never liked these damn things, but I guess they beat crabgrass/ragweed) on the right-hand side, you can see the head of his son Mario, who was, like, totally bored with his dad’s job. Sheesh. His dad’s a guerilla artist who just got a great commission and is out doing trippy work, and the kid is bagging on him nonstop. Pretty high bar to clear – what would be impressive? Watching dad play with numbers in an actuarial spreadsheet?

I guess whatever it is that you do, after a while, those closest to you grow accustomed to it & it becomes old hat.

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Nov 12

Newspapers’ Dying Swan Song: SF Chronicle Tries Glossy Paper, Splashy Color

Posted: under Digital Migration, infographic, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Print die-hards claimed that all that was needed to reverse the audience migration to the internet was to make newspapers more “lively” in appearance. Early verdict: looks pretty, but the advertising still isn’t there, and that sound you heard was Mort Zuckerman puking and weeping over in the corner.

I’ve been in the Bay Area for a convention of “[fill in blank] for Dummies” authors and various business meetings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to scope out what the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing with its much-ballyhooed investment in glossy magazine-style paper for the front pages of its sections, and the use of high-quality color images.

SF Chronicle - Front Page Wraparound Ad

This is a strategy that is also being pursued in New York by NY Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who has invested more than he would like to admit to (millions? hundreds of millions?) into high-tech printing presses, capable of churning out massive print runs with razor-sharp color. The 15-tower, triple-width ultra-compact Commander CT press looks a lot like the last-generation Nikon F6 film camera. It was the apex of film technology, what many analysts recognized at the time as “the perfect camera” — but that alas, was rolled out just as every working professional made the move to use digital.

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Apr 24

Friday Noon Videos – Best of the Web Week of April 24, 2009

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, journalism, Online Video, Video.
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Last week at the International Symposium of Online Journalists in Austin, I presented a series of viral videos to make the point that the national discourse is no longer “owned” by what we think of as professional media.  It may seem like a trivial point, when compared to the other nuclear meltdown-level emergencies of declining advertising, lack of a sustainable business model for the future, declining audience share, sky-high debt loads, etc. – but I believe that adapting ourselves to this new environment is the first step towards resolving these other problems.

I asked the audience how many of them "got" the central image here, and could put it into its viral meme context.

I asked the audience how many of them "got" the central image here, and could put it into its viral meme context.

Over at the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles makes a compelling and far more comprehensive argument about why the whole concept of ownership of the news & the national conversation has been toxic to the mainstream media’s efforts at retaining its audience share.

Another point that I tried to make was that it is OK to use humor in your reportage, now and again. The relentless barrage of bad news these days is making us all a little crazy (see this excellent Newsweek article on this topic).  There’s a reason that John Stewart & Stephen Colbert are so popular – they report on the news, they give it the kind of context that is so often missing on these stories, and they do it in a way that makes us crack a smile.  It’s the voice that I remember from my early b.s. sessions at seedy bars with grizzled news veterans.  It’s a human voice. The voice that says, “Well, y’know, I hadda write the story about [local businessman X] getting the Nice Guy award for the paper. But the funny thing is that everyone knows that he’s a screaming tyrant whose wife tried to run away…”

It’s the kind of voice that can re-establish the trust that our audience has lost in us.  The one that doesn’t feel the need to kneel and genuflect at the altar of he-said she-said “objectivity.” The one that can make us feel informed, energized, and in control a bit – because things that we can laugh at are no longer quite so scary.

[And yeah, I know, my much-promised blog post about the effects of fear in the media on all of us is still in the works. Forgive me.]

So for all of you trapped in office cubicles, or just in need of a bit of diversion at the end of the week, here are the top viral videos:

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Dec 27

Electrabel Rings in 2009

Posted: under new media, Online Video.
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…and now, as a break from the heavy news about New Media & the near-constant anger & backbiting going on over whether or not civilization as we know it will survive another aggregate circulation decline…

Here’s a reminder that creativity and innovation still exist, and are being used to make beautiful things.  Relax and enjoy:

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