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


Feb 24

Gawker’s Nick Denton: “Privacy has never really existed”

Posted: under journalism.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Thought-provoking take in a Playboy interview of Gawker Media’s Nick Denton, one of the most-hated men on the internet. Also, one of the most successful.

His premise may be a little self-serving, in light of his whole net worth being based on prying into people’s lives and then shaming the shit out of them on his web properties. Then again, you might also legitimately say that his web properties are devoted to outing/shaming/calling B.S. on people because that’s the ethos he lives by.

PLAYBOY: You’re more willing than most people to organize your life according to principle and see how the experiment turns out.

Nick Denton, displaying some of the “let it all hang out” spirit.
Photo credit: Village Voice Blogs

DENTON: You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.

PLAYBOY: That doesn’t jibe with your other theory about how we’ll judge one another more kindly when we have no privacy. Human history is not a history of tolerance for deviation from the norm.

DENTON: You don’t think there was a kind of peasant realism? You hear these stories about a small town, seemingly conservative, and actually there’s a surprising amount of tolerance. “So-and-so’s a good guy. Who cares if he’s a pig fucker? His wife brought a really lovely pie over when Mama was sick.”

I grew up in Small Town America in the 1970s. Tucked back into a musty corner of the Upper Midwest, rural Wisconsin pretty much ran along the lines that Denton is describing. You can’t live with a family for generations without pretty much knowing all about their business.

You’d know without asking what their opinion was on pretty much any matter of import without having to ask, because their opinions were shaped by their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and their life experiences.

As were yours.

The idea that we are free to become who we say we are, to invent ourselves – that is a curiously American concept, and one that functions only in fairly large urban environments. Even there, if you become suitably prominent, all the locals will pretty much be all up in your bidness, as the Southerners say.

So in that light: does social media represent a phase in human evolution wherein we all voluntarily put ourselves back into that small-town pressure cooker, where everybody knows all they need to know about us all at a glance? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Can we even stop it at this juncture – and if we did, would we really want to?

Because there is this thing about small towns: after a certain amount of time, it becomes next to impossible to really pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

It’s like my career with the paparazzi taught me. Somebody talks.

Somebody ALWAYS talks.

In our modern media landscape, so littered with charlatans who take advantage of ignorance and misinformation to skin the rubes, maybe this kind of brutal enforced honesty is not the worst thing after all.

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Nov 29

Creating a Banner Image for Your Social Profiles

Posted: under journalism.
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Here’s an example of a banner image, created for Storify.

dave lafontaine on storify

i chose these images based on … well, not much at all really. Just stuff that was foremost on my hard drive. Given more than 5 minutes, I could probably do better … but this is still more attractive than the blank space that is the default on Storify.

This example uses a variety of quickly-chosen and lightly edited images to fit the radically horizontal image space on Storify.

Damn. Things are getting heavy. Journalists are being attacked by paid provocateurs:

journalists beaten by pro-kremlin thugs

Journalists being beaten by thugs: Hromadske.TV’s Dmytro Gnap was stomped, his camera smashed, and the memory card stolen.

The pro-Russian government in Ukraine is using “titushki” — paid provocateurs hired to disrupt rallies and provoke police, according to the Kyiv Post.

These protesters are acting like morons, trying to make the protests look like they are violent and anarchic. They are helped along in this mission by some of the more casual protesters, who show up after having a few drinks, and seem to be mainly interested in the more festive aspects of the protest.

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Nov 27

Embedding Infographic Example for Kiev Students

Posted: under journalism.
Tags: , , , ,

This is just a test of an embed code…

 

How NOT to look Ugly on a Webcam

by Lemon.ly.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

 

 

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Jun 08

Ancient Monasteries of Bahir Dar: Part 1

Posted: under Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scattered throughout the vast Bahir Dar Lake are seven sacred islands, each home to an ancient monastery, where monks still live in seclusion and contemplation

monastery and monk on sacred island

The foundation to this building is ancient; the superstructure was built after it was burned/destroyed. The top part shows the influence of the Portuguese Jesuits of the 16th century, a particularly bloody period in the religious wars that have swept over Ethiopia with regularity. The cheerful guy in yellow to the right in the picture is the learned monk who cares for the priceless documents and treasures locked in the basement. There are also caves winding underneath this island; natural lava tubes that were used as retreats for the hermits - and are still used for that purpose today.

The lake is the source of the Blue Nile (more pictures on that in a bit), and just getting to the islands required a long boat trip through very rough waters. The bow kept getting swamped, and I was soaked to the bone by the time we made landfall. Apparently, the winds kick up in the afternoon, which is why there are so few (as in none) that will go out on tourism missions at that time. However, I had spent an extremely frustrating morning wrestling with the laissez-faire attitudes at Ethiopian Airlines (where the offices are rarely open to the public, apparently), so I wasn’t entirely in control of when I went.

Anyway, at the periphery of the island is a weathered stone dock. There used to be big tires as bumpers, but the local kids have swiped these and use them as toys.

To get to the sacred places, it’s a half-hour hike, all up steep and winding paths, paved with jagged volcanic rocks, through dense undergrowth that is dotted with ancient coffee bushes.

boy on way to get water

I met this boy on the path. He said that he makes the trip three times a day lugging this 5-gallon jerrycan to get water from the lake. Where I had to carefully pick my way, even wearing thick-soled shoes, he was as nimble as a mountain goat. I will post a video of our conversation in a bit.

More about those later.

The islands are inhabited by people who scratch out a living from the combination of fishing and selling souvenirs to the rare tourists who show up here. I was impressed by the fact that the first few stalls that we passed by were empty – but by the time we made our way to the top of the hills, the locals had rushed down and arranged rows of their little treasures and were desperate to sell to the lone ferengi (foreigner) who had stumbled across their little island on a Thursday afternoon.

The first monastery I went to was built in a circular shape; it symbolizes the nature of eternity. That everything goes in a circle, unbroken, with no beginning and no end.

There are 12 entrances to the monastery, one for each of the apostles. The paintings are a fascinating insight into the layers of history that have washed over this place, and left their marks.

The original paintings and carvings date back to the 1200s (or perhaps earlier), when the forces of Islam started disobeying the commandments of Mohammed and embarked on a campaign of burning and destroying Christian churches. This would not be the last time this happened. The monks, desperate to preserve their sacred writings – bibles that date back to the 4th century or so – fled to the highlands here, and out into the monasteries on this lake, where they could hide from the conquering hordes.

Among the treasures that they brought up to this region was the fabled Ark of the Covenant. Yeah, the thing that Indiana Jones used to melt the faces of a bunch of Nazis back in 1937. And no, there is not a giant warehouse where it is stored, along with a crystal skull or any other such nonsense (or so says my long-suffering guide).

On top of the monastery is a peculiar decoration – ironwork, festooned with ostrich eggs, which apparently symbolize fertility and rebirth. I’ll get to the amazing artworks that decorate the walls in the next post.

Meanwhile, the legend is that the monk who founded the first monastery (see in the first picture, above) was living in a cave, minding his own business. Like you do when you are a monk. Only the locals kept having sacrifices to a giant python that they worshiped. He came storming out of the cave and (as legend has it) called on god, did some angry preaching, and the giant python croaked on the spot. Which kinda impresses the locals, when you kill their pagan god and all. So they all converted and the monk figured he might as well build something on the spot over the caves where he’d been hanging out (better ventilation, some sunshine now and again, maybe even a chimney).

ornament on top of monastery

This bit of decoration features ostrich eggs at the ends of the spikes. Not sure if the eggs are petrified, hollowed out, or these are just replicas. I'm guessing they aren't still real, or they'd be rotten away by now & need frequent replacement, especially in this heat. The ornate spray of metal curlicues around the cross has a distinct meaning to those who know; the circle motif in the center is apparently a mark of Axum.

 

 

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Mar 20

We Need Social Media Janitors

Posted: under Digital Migration, Video.
Tags: , , , , , ,

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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Feb 21

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

Posted: under new media, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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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Nov 10

Ukrainian Professors Play with New iPad 2s

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

…in the courtyard of the Institute for the Digital Future of Journalism

I’ve got great video of everyone having a blast, experimenting with the new guerilla-style video production tactics I’ve been teaching them — I showed them how to use the front and rear-facing cameras on their iPads to shoot video. Here, they are working on producing “establishing shots” using whatever equipment is available to you at the time; in this case, it means holding the iPad up in front of your face and doing slow 360s, talking to the camera, so the audience can see for themselves what the landscape around you looks like.

journalism professors playing with ipads

They absolutely loved their brand-new iPad 2s. It was like seeing little kids getting handed Magic Mirrors. They were polite enough for most of the day, but about mid-afternoon, I just lost them in the wilds of the App Store. Also - I will never understand how the Ukrainian women manage to walk down these uneven, treacherous ancient cobblestone streets in stiletto heels.

I also taught them the basics of shot selection, framing, the Rule of Thirds, and some basic stuff about editing and shot sequencing as a means to create emotion. It was about a semester’s worth of material crammed into a one-day lecture, but at least I opened them up to what is possible, and where they can go to try to learn more on their own.

This is still a beautiful city, even if the sky in unrelenting slate gray, and the wind from Siberia knifes right through you after the sun goes down…

At night, the streets of Kiev are filled only with the rumble and clatter of Dr. Zhivago trolley cars, and the whistling north wind. The architecture here is like the people; kind of battered, but still full of character. Resilient.

I haven’t gotten to see as much of this city as I would like; I’ve always been working too hard, or pretty much exhausted & creaking from the demented flight schedule it takes to get here from Los Angeles. Still, the little I have been able to discover on my own has been delightful.

ukrainian student concentrates on the screen

This time around, my students arrived in my classes with significant New Media skills. Some of them were already creating infographics, and this girl is already ghost-blogging for big financial companies. As you can see, she is quite determined; meanwhile, behind her, another of my more active and vocal students gasps in horror at the convoluted assignments I have inflicted on the class...

One of the greater joys of this class was seeing my students help each other out. When they got stuck with some of my more technically challenging exercises, they reached out to each other, and shouted advice back and forth across the classroom.

There is no better feeling for me. I am only here for such a very short time; I keep wishing that I had an entire semester to really reach deep into these young people, to help them draw out their skills & refine them. But seeing their willingness to follow me down these strange multimedia pathways, and to help each other out along the way … leads me to believe that they will continue to help each other out after I am gone.

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Sep 27

Where the Symbols on the Dollar Come From…

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis.
Tags: , , , ,

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 01

Ethiopia New Media Training

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Online Video, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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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Jun 24

Applause lines and final thanks

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s a short audio file i recorded at the close of the Civic Media conference this week at MIT. I’d like to add my own thanks to the sentiments expressed herein; thus was a fabulous antidote to the general malaise afflicting so many of our traditional media brethren…

http://audioboo.fm/boos/395702-final-thoughts-and-thanks-at-civic-media-conference-at-mit-media-lab

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