Sips from the Firehose


Jun 03

Growing Pains: Daredevil Construction and the Future of Ethiopia


Posted: under Uncategorized.
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Africa’s fastest-growing economy balances between dreams of the future and the shackles of the past

For those libertarians who feel that OSHA and any and all regulations on workplace safety are the very essence of neo-Stalinism, I submit the construction industry in modern Ethiopia. Please note that the scaffolding supporting this multi-story concrete building is basically lashed-together sapling trunks, and that while the workers are all wearing hardhats, the basic safety equipment you routinely see on construction sites in the West is pretty much lacking – no safety lines, no walkie-talkies to communicate with the crane operator, no nets or wind barriers at the periphery. Feel free to apply for a gig here, fellas.

building under construction at addis ababa university

This picture was taken under the baking-hot noonday African sun. The bucketful of cement on the way up seems to arrive at irregular intervals, and sometimes much to the surprise of the workers on the roof. I saw one bucket swing a little wildly and clip a guy off his feet. A little lower and to the side, and he would have been spread across the roof like grisly human jam on unyielding toast. (Click to enlarge)

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Sep 24

Digital Family Meet-up at Wokcano


Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It was a cinematic night, as event organizer Brad Nye looked like he was making an entrance in a James Bond film, and Jason Calacanis did a Q&A (thanks for taking my question first, BTW), and looked a little like Citizen Kane.

It’s late and I’ve got a lot more post-processing to do on the photos, so here’s just a couple of the images that I shot.  The video of the discussions can be found at This Week in Startups.

Before the lights were adjusted, standing on the platform over the audience made the speakers look like they were either making a dramatic entrance - or having their identities concealed in some "60 Minutes" tell-all segment.

Before the lights were adjusted, standing on the platform over the audience made the speakers look like they were either making a dramatic entrance - or having their identities concealed in some "60 Minutes" tell-all segment.

The energy of the old VIC was certainly present – a little too much, as techies on the make back at the bar made it a little hard to hear the speakers at the time. This, despite the overt threat by organizers to find the yapping networkers and toss them out.

Anyway, here’s Calacanis discussing what the future of social media sites is going to look like, and what smart companies should do in the next couple of years to try to adapt to the increasing pace of innovation.

As I said in an email to Nye, Jason would probably be secretly pleased at the whole Citizen Kane-esque imagery here. And then, of course, he'd feel conflicted about it and make a self-deprecating joke.

As I said in an email to Nye, Jason would probably be secretly pleased at the whole Citizen Kane-esque imagery here. And then, of course, he'd feel conflicted about it and make a self-deprecating joke.

One of the more interesting areas of discussion – particularly since I just got back from Costa Rica – centered around virtual currency as being “the next big thing.”  Certainly seems that way in places like Costa Rica, where you’re getting an increasingly large, tech-savvy and connected labor force.  A lot of people either work in the internet gambling industry there – or have relatives/friends that do.  The speed of internet connections in San Jose – and even out in the jungles on the Pacific side – stunned me. I’ve had much worse connections in the small town U.S.A.

One of the things that has stuck in my head the last week or so has been the stories coming out about how spammers are getting around the Captchas by simply hiring dirt-cheap human labor to fill in the blanks on the pages to stuff spam onto our hard-constructed sites.  I’m not sure what the next step in trying to get rid of the spam is going to be – Calacanis lamented how from the very first days of blogs, spam started becoming a problem, and it has kept pace with our attempts to try to get rid of it.  Now it’s starting to get into the social networking world (viz today’s Phishing attacks on Twitter), where the level of trust that we have for our social circle is going to make the impact of a malicious click that much heavier.

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Aug 28

This week in the paid content debate: Aug. 24-28


Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This week’s debate is not as acrimonious as in the past (although there are exceptions to that, of course), and in the wake of the biz models released by the Aspen conference, some people are taking building new revenue streams seriously.  At least, they say they are.  It turns out that a lot of what has been reported in this paid content debate is a little like Microsoft software releases: trial balloon “vaporware.”

Page design at Rue89.com looks a little like what splatters on the side of the carny Tilt-a-Whirl after you load it up with a buncha 10-years olds who've spent the day eating cotton candy and mystery meat hotdogs.

Page design at Rue89.com looks a little like what splatters on the side of the carny Tilt-a-Whirl after you load it up with a buncha 10-years olds who've spent the day eating cotton candy and mystery meat hotdogs. I think the boxes up & down the sides are supposed to be clickable ads, but they were inert when I tried them... (click for larger)

The illustration here is of a new French news site that is apparently taking off at Rue89; I can’t decide whether the chaotic design is totally off-putting, or intriguing because it basically violates every rule of page design.  Also, I can’t hear the word “Rue” in a title without flashing to “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Or some B-movie villain twirling a moustache and chortling, “You’ll rue the day, Rex Manly!”

As a bonus, this week I’ve broadened the focus a bit to include some big-picture thinking from some of the unusual suspects; Doc Searls has a post wherein it is posited that what we think of right now as the internet is just a finger pointing in the direction of what this thing is actually going to grow into.  Which should fuel a couple of late-night dorm-room debates, if nothing else…

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Apr 13

John Battelle About the Future of Webconomics – OMMA 2009


Posted: under advertising, New Marketing, new media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“We’re about to get another breakthrough, another interface leap.  If I knew what it was, I would start a company there.  But I don’t know what it is yet, but I have some ideas, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.” – John Battelle

Battelle says he stayed up late one night (visions of the mythical college dorm room & heavy inhalation) to come up with this heavy information and interface theories, and worked up this speech to try to describe where he sees the future of the web going.

If what he said above is right, then there is about to be another evolutionary stage, and the current titans of search (i.e. Google, Yahoo, etc.) are going to be replaced by The New Hot Thing.  He seems to be hanging his hat on “conversations” which sounds pretty good to me – the human urge to connect & trade information is one of the strongest forces on the web.  I’m just not entirely convinced that the Facebook/MySpace paradigm is at all viable.  We’re been waiting a while now for anything remotely resembling a business model to emerge, and the latest news is that Google’s shareholders are starting to get a bit bent out of shape about subsidizing the world’s inconsequential home videos, and that Emperor’s Missing Wardrobe-type questions are starting to get asked about the 1/2 billion a year burn rate.

Money quote:

YouTube will manage to rake in about $240 million in ad revenue in 2009, against operating costs of roughly $711 million, leading to a shortfall of just over $470 million. This half-billion dollar loss comes after more than a year of feverish experimentation in various forms of advertising, cross-product embedding, licensing and partnership deals. YouTube is adamant that ultimately they’ll find an advertising solution that will enable the ungainly behemoth to reach profitability. Looking at the math, it doesn’t seem likely.

Battelle’s take on where all this is headed is pretty complex, and not all that out of line with things that you’ve probably heard before.  This is only the first part, so stick with it – it gets more rewarding as we go along.

Here’s some teaser quotes to get you to click over and watch the video – please excuse the camera movement, but Battelle kept pacing around on the stage, and I had to either go so wide that focus was a problem, or track him, making the camera movements a little jerky.

Every publisher is now a marketer … you have to engage the audience in a conversation … if you don’t know how to do that, you’ll die.  That’s it. It’s over.

I call this the conversation economy.  It’s kind of a sequel to the search.

The three-bump theory of how man interacts with technology … as Eric Schmidt is fond of saying ‘25% of GDP is fine with me.”

We all give Apple credit, but basically we know that Windows won.  I call this the “hunt and poke” interface … that’s way better than learning a foreign language like FORTRAN.  That’s also called the “I’m lost in a foreign country interface.”

We started having conversations at scale with our customers.  All of a sudden every customer could talk to every company, and nobody was ready for the conversation. But around the turn of the century, we started to develop that interface, and that interface, I argue is search.  This is the first time we have ever been able to have a conversation in our own natural language with a machine.  People don’t see search that way, but I do.

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Jan 18

Circuit City Bankruptcy – Shopaholic Feeding Frenzy


Posted: under Lemmings.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Optimism or Greed?

For the last couple of months, I’ve been hearing financial experts mutter about “frustrated money sitting on the sidelines, waiting to get back into the game.”   I was not convinced – most of the market behavior since the banks started melting down, has been sheer monkey-screeching panic.

And then, I saw this (click to blow up to full size – it is about 6000 pixels wide, so you’re gonna get the full panoramic effect)

Apparently, these people were under the impression that the store was "giving away" free plasma TVs.

Apparently, these people were under the impression that the store was "giving away" free plasma TVs.

I stitched this together in Photoshop CS3 (thanks for the review copy, Adobe!), which is why there’s a bifurcated car in the middle foreground.  Still, I kinda like the effect.

Now, either the pundits were right, and there is tremendous pent-up consumer buying demand … or the impending inauguration of Barack Obama has made sudden optimists out of the justifiably depressed residents of gritty South La Cienaga …

…or some of these knuckleheads didn’t really read the Saturday LA Times story all that closely.  Look folks, the discounts right now are at – what? – maybe 10%?  You can do better than that shopping online.  The 90% off sales aren’t gonna kick in until March, when they’re pretty much yanking up the carpet pad & selling it.  But you couldn’t tell that to the people anxiously waiting in line, some of whom told me that they were there because they had heard that Circuit City was going out of business and they were having to “give” their merch away.

Nothing like a chance to screw the other guy when he’s down, to bring out the avaricious nature of the average Americano.  I guess the economy can’t be doing that bad … or maybe, as a people, we are still addicted to the greedy, consumerist lifestyle, and the much-vaunted “New Frugality” is a thin, thin veneer on a generation of people still stuck in instant gratification mode.  I wonder if the “Going Out of Business” sale is actually just a really clever marketing trick. It’s been the best driver of foot traffic into the stores that I’ve seen lately.

UPDATE:

It seems some of the commenters on the LA Times site have finally clued in.

I was at the CC in Santa Monica today and it was busy but the “discounts” were the same ones that have been there since after Christmas. I spoke to an employee and he told me that the liquidators had not come to their store yet to flag merchandise for further discounts. Wait a little longer, folks…

This is all starting to remind me of the sleazy hi-fi store that polluted the airwaves in my hometown when I was growing up.  Every week for eight years, you’d hear his bleating voice on Z-100 radio: “Lost our lease! Everything has to go! Going out of business!”  And yet … somehow he hung in there, month after month, year after year.  Well, until he got caught shipping weed across country in hollowed-out stereo speakers…

I do find it heartening that many of the commenters are referring to the price-check power offered by the internet.  The more consumers are armed with the power to fact-check advertiser claims, the more they will be able to spurn the scammers.

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