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


Jun 10

Bahir Dar Monasteries: Part 2

Posted: under Uncategorized.
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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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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 24

My interview with AfroFM

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This is the charming host of “Movers and Shakers” here in the lobby of the Semien Hotel.

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Feb 21

HTML5 Video: “Cap’n! The CPUs Won’t Take Much More O’ This!”

Posted: under new media, Online Video.
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Dep’t of Vaporware: New Super-Duper HTML5 Video Players Will Solve All Your Problems

I’m starting to get more than a little annoyed at the incessant blithe assurances that keep coming up around the (now) universally agreed-upon proposition that Flash Is Bad, All Right-Thinking Humans Must Avoid It.

Here's the problem: Playing video in a browser using the (still nonexistent) HTML5 standard is far more resource-hungry than you realize.

The problem is that the people making these statements haven’t really gotten their hands dirty with the actual workflows that the (non-existent) HTML5 video standard has inflicted on us poor A/V dorks trying to keep up with the chaos in the online/mobile video space. What’s getting my goat, you ask?

Check out the strain on system resources that playing video using the HTML5 tag puts on a Mac Pro with 8 cores, running at 3 gHz, with 9 GB of RAM and a upgraded ATI Radeo 4870 video card. Note the system temp. The fan was blowing hard enough to power a C130 cargo plane.

By means of comparison, this is what I got for usage stats when playing a Flash video in a web browser. Note the system temp. Also, the little blue graphs to the right of CPU are not pinned to the max for all eight cores, the way they are in the HTML5 playback example, above. Each one of those little graphs is a representation of the amount of strain being put on a core from the dual quad-cores.

Well. I keep seeing & hearing about these new players that will supposedly make it possible to custom-design a video player into a web page that will then adapt & play that video on any device, on any platform. The latest: thePlatform. Viz:

thePlatform is pushing cross-platform compatibility with a new offering that will let its customers create one video player that can be delivered to any device or browser that is trying to access it. That capability is being rolled out due to increased demand for HTML5 video, despite a lack of real standards across browsers for the display and rendering of video players.

(from GigaOm)

OK, fine.  What’s the big deal, right?

I shot the video below at the Social Media Club-LA meeting in January – it shows Tim Street, one of the early adopters of mobile video monetization, talking about the challenges of trying to deal with video across the profusion of platforms we’re now having to deal with.

My test of an HTML5 player, taking this video, putting it into a sandbox page in Dreamweaver, and playing it in a web browser returned the kind of usage stats seen in the screen captures above.

Flash had a lot of faults. I still think that it’s responsible for some of the heinous memory leakages that cause Firefox to take up to 1.6 Gigs of memory space if I leave it open for more than a day in the background as I do work. But fer crissake, at least it’s not melting down my CPUs when I’m just trying to play one video. If the average user starts seeing this kind of load on their systems just for playing a video, that means that there is going to be serious hits on the battery life of laptops/tablets, and some pretty bad lag times when trying to multitask – or even fast-forward, pause or (shudder) rewind.

Let me know if you get any of the same warning signs on your machine when playing back this video, eh?

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Jan 11

Panorama Experiments

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Just playing around with some of the photos I’ve shot over the years – this one is a panorama of the city of Tbilisi, Georgia. It’s an amazing town – ancient and modern, and at the time this photo was taken, baking at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

a panoramic view of the city of Tbilisi, Georgia

The statue barely visible in the distance is the goddess of Tbilisi; she greets you with a cup of wine, if you are a friend. The sword, if you are not. (click to embiggen)

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Sep 27

Where the Symbols on the Dollar Come From…

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis.
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This is painted on the ceiling of the Rila Monastery in the mountains of Bulgaria, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

the eye of god in the rila monaster in bulgaria

I can’t help but wonder whose eye this ancient artist used as the model for the Eye of God. The history and beauty of this complex makes me feel like I’m about to embark on some sort of DaVinci Code-like adventure, only this one will involve online business models and the mysteries of HTML5. Heh. Hopefully, I won’t be pursued by some self-flagellating Newsroom Curmudgeon, bent on undermining my message about how there is actually hope for the future, that journalism will survive, even if it does take a form that is strange and possibly abhorrent to the practitioners steeped in The Old Ways.

I’m traveling to Bulgaria (and to this amazing historical site) to lead a series of panel discussions with scholars, students and the nascent digerati on the future of journalism in the digital age, hopefully continuing in my role as an international Digital Johnny Appleseed. The training session we did yesterday at the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla was amazing – one of the best groups we’ve ever presented to, and one where we could see already that journalists from all over Latin America were discovering on their own, ways that they could cooperate and help each other across the vast distances.

And once again, I shall be completely shameless and link to the recordings on UStream of the live sessions, featuring my wife Janine.


 

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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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May 19

Hulu and Delve Networks: We Still <3 Flash

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration, Online Video, television.
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…HTML5? Not so much…

In a move certain to cause much gleeful cackling and dry-washing of hands at Adobe HQ, Hulu and Delve announced that they are sticking with Flash, rather than making the Jobs-mandated move to HTML5.

The money graf from Delve:

Adobe Flash provides: ability to secure content, adaptive bitrate streaming, comprehensive
analytics and monetization of video through a wide array of advertising
options.
Customers that are using our mobile delivery solution are
willing to experiment with video on these new devices to figure out what
works and to keep their existing customers happy. But they all expect
that eventually the mobile/tablet features match that of the Flash
player on the PC.

Hulu said:

When it comes to technology, our only guiding principle is to best serve
the needs of all of our key customers: our viewers, our content
partners who license programs to us, our advertisers, and each other. We
continue to monitor developments on HTML5, but as of now it doesn’t yet
meet all of our customers’ needs. Our player doesn’t just simply stream
video, it must also secure the content, handle reporting for our
advertisers, render the video using a high performance codec to ensure
premium visual quality, communicate back with the server to determine
how long to buffer and what bitrate to stream, and dozens of other
things that aren’t necessarily visible to the end user.
Not all video
sites have these needs, but for our business these are all important and
often contractual requirements.

Behind these two statements, back in the misty shadows, loom the outlines of the Hollywood studios and TV networks. I’m guessing the last couple of weeks have seen lots of closed-door meetings about what happens when we all start watching TV & movies on our iPad(-like) devices.

The problem with just abandoning responsibility letting the Apple empire do all the driving is that, as we have seen in the last couple of months, Apple’s hidden face is starting to emerge. And it ain’t pretty. Allowing Apple to control the flow of content through its ever-expaning iTunes store just means that you’ve given up the pricing and distribution power on your creative products.

Ask the music industry guys how that worked out for them.

If you can find any, that is.

So let’s take a look at the objection of the big video players to Apple’s vision of the future:

1. Content security. If you don’t think that the movie & TV guys have been sweating blood over the nightmare scenario of their business model going the way of CDs, think again. For the last five years, I’ve been going to tech conferences in and around LA, and at each and every one, the most popular booths are the ones touting various DRM/security features. Now, publishers such as O’Reilly may hold that “DRM is more costly than piracy”, but in the executive suites at the studios, that is a minority view.

You just can’t make a business out of producing $200 million movies like Iron Man 2, and then hope to recoup your costs by giving away the content, and hoping … ads will support it? Or that you will sell enough merch through wider audience? Nuh-uh.

Adobe and the Flash team have spent years banging on various content-security technologies, some of which tout NSA-level encryption schemes to try to mollify the big content creators. I’m guessing there’s not much love for Apple’s “blind faith” scenario with HTML5.

2. Adaptive bitrate streaming. Sounds like something a character played by Dan Aykroyd in his heyday would have spat out in staccato fashion. Basically, it means that when the web is congested (or your bus travels between a couple of skyscrapers as you watch video on your Droidphone), the video will momentarily de-res a bit until the signal is once again clear.  We’ve found that having a momentarily blurry(ier) video is far less disruptive to the viewer than having fits, starts, jumps and the little hourglass on the screen.

Not having this technology means that watching a video is going to become a throwback to the early days of the web … when you’d be downloading a GIF and watching the lines appear … and then hesitate … think about it … then another line appears … then it hangs for a minute … then ten lines appear all at once … then you start clicking in frustration, trying to get to another page that doesn’t so closely resemble a chamber of Hell.

If you really want to Geek Out, check out this excellent deconstruction of the (supposed) HTML5 video standard VP8 on the x264 blog. It explains far better than I can all the nitty-gritty issues behind the hype on “open source” video codecs. Again: not pretty.

3. Analytics. Apple is maintaining that firewall for content served through its store & technologies. You can get raw numbers, such as how many people downloaded the app/video. But nothing more than that. Which feeds into the next point, big time –

4. Advertising. The big selling point for online/mobile video over broadcast is that we’re better able to target the ads to the users, based on the data we collect from cookies, user agents, location, time, etc. If this is missing, so is the competitive advantage, and the dollars start flowing back to tried-and-true TV.

Also, HTML5 is not as robust an ad-serving technology. For Hulu, which is the bigtime play of the TV networks, if the ads can be skipped as easily as with a TiVo, or excised altogether, what then is the point of serving up all that content for free? If the advertisers aren’t getting any value for sponsoring the programs then they quite simply … won’t. And then where does that leave us with our fancy new tablets? Watching more dancing cat on piano keyboard videos?

Apple quite simply does not care about that. Their point is not to help content creators or advertisers. Their focus is on selling as many overpriced gadgets as possible, and then locking the users into having to pay thru the nose thru Apple’s store to actually get any content to watch/listen/read on that gadget.

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Feb 09

Newspapers to TV, Movies: “We arrived in separate ships, but we’re in the same boat now”

Posted: under journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspapers.
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Signs were there that DVD sales were about to implode; industry ignored all warnings

To anyone in the newspaper industry, the parallels are eerie. The disruptive technology is introduced, and people with the ability to look beyond this quarter’s P&L statement say, “Oh-oh. Something’s in the wind. We gotta take a look at this, maybe start shifting some resources into R&D, or we could blow up in a couple years.”

To which the guys at the top of the company, whose fat year-end bonuses are tied to keeping costs to a bare minimum, while sucking off as much spare cash as possible, say, “You’re out of your mind. Things are going great. You wanna break them? Siddown and shut up – we know what we’re doing – look at all the money we’re making. Instead, we’re going to double down on our bets, and buy up & consolidate our monopolistic position.”

And then the day arrives. The P&L shows a massive die-off in the one area that the whole house of cards depends on as a crucial revenue stream.

The guys at the top immediately point fingers at the internet & start screaming.

That day arrived last week at Sony Pictures, and The Media Wonk has a great write-up, running down all the relevant stats and the various time-wastes along the way.  He points fingers at Blu-Ray as a massive time, money & effort Black Hole that hasn’t stepped up to replace the revenues that are being lost via plain old DVD sales going bye-bye. Viz:

The need for a viable post-DVD digital strategy has been blindingly obvious for most of the past decade. But instead of focusing on that existential challenge, the industry wasted four years on Blu-ray, an absurd format that addressed no identifiable consumer demand that could not have been met years earlier, more cheaply and with less consumer confusion with readily available alternatives, like HD DVD or even red-laser DVDs.

The industry is still wasting time and resources trying to invent uses for Blu-ray to justify the time and cost sunk into it.

Hitting the snooze button when the alarm goes off doesn’t mean that what happens in the meantime is beyond your control. It means you’re asleep.

If I can extrapolate from the behavior I’ve witnessed in my friends, some of whom are the greatest TV & movie aficionados I’ve ever met; the type of people who can go one for an hour about how David Duchovny’s characterization of Fox Mulder owed more to John Wayne in The Searchers than, as is commonly (and erroneously) thought, the seminal Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

When DVDs came out, they were such an improvement over the jittery, fragile VHS tapes that we loaded up on them. All the extras – the audio tracks, the Easter Eggs – oh, they were sah-weet. We’d have parties where we’d go through our favorite movies and break it all down – because now, when we freeze-framed, it was a perfect picture, not that damned bent image with static bars at the top & bottom, the way VHS shafted us.

And then something happened. We had a whole shelf – maybe a coupla shelves. Maybe even a whole room – full of DVDs.  Alphabetized, categorized.

And we didn’t watch them anymore.

Why should be drag out a DVD, fire up the player, switch the Video1 to Video2 – just to sit through something we’ve already seen … when the TiVo has something fresh & new?  There has to be a real dearth of new material that’s any good before we’ll go to the archives for some nostalgia.

The success of the studios & networks in setting up all these TV channels & alternative means of distribution of content has also been its undoing.  If I don’t have to shell out $24 for a movie – when I can just stream it over Netflix, or better yet, see something new on my DVR – then why would I spend my increasingly scarce hard-earneds?

Technology alone didn’t change consumer behavior. It wasn’t the internet’s fault. It’s just that when alternatives opened up – when true competition arrived on the market – all of a sudden, the old Walled Gardens, with their high price to enter and their restrictive DRM – those places became not so fun to hang out it. So we all left. Gradually, but in increasing numbers.

The crisis that newspapers have faced for the last 5-10 years — the TV and movie industry is about to fall into that same Black Hole, for the same reasons, and apparently is determined to attempt the same half-measures to turn the clock back to where it used to be.  Look for a lot of appeals to Congress for restrictive legislation, blaming “piracy” and “content thieves,” and then resorting to a death spiral of cutting costs and putting out shoddier products.

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Jan 23

Bookworms love the new Nook e-reader

Posted: under E-ink devices, new media.
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Setting a couple of bookworms loose to play with the next generation e-readers is like setting Augustus Gloop loose in the Wonka Chocolate factory.

The first thing that strikes you about the Nook is how much *faster* it is than the Kindle. And Janine loved the touchscreen. More video to come on Digital Family.

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