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


Jun 06

Narikala Fortress

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Citadel on the Hill, originally uploaded by Wordyeti.

It was 105 degrees today, a reminder that I am in the quote-unquote Middle East (a little north of it, actually), where this time of year, the sun is beating down like a hammer. So I didn’t get out to take my customary stroll to acquaint myself with the local architecture, street signs or quirks here in Tbilisi. However, I did have an excellent lunch of walnut-based salads & other local delicacies, and from that restaurant, I just had to take a picture of this old fortress, built into the side of the steep hills in this long, narrow river valley.

This city is a study in contrasts – between the reminders of all the waves of history that have washed over this area, and the glass/steel structures of ultramodern hope for the future.

One thing I did note: I have seen no signs whatsoever of the former Soviet Union. Not even the torn-off stumps and twisted, rusted steel bolts that I saw in Moscow, Kiev and Astana, where the old Lenin/Marx/Stalin statues used to stand. Not even the chiseled-out and defaced hammer&sickle insignias in the walls.

Someone went to a great deal of effort to remove even the remnants of the Soviet era here.

UPDATE: I found this explanation of the Narikala Fortress on the local English-language news site The Messenger. Excerpt below:

The fortress was established in the 4th century as Shuris-tsikhe (i.e., “Invidious Fort”). It was considerably expanded by the Umayyads in the 7th century and later by King David the Builder (1089-1125). The Mongols renamed it “Narin Qala” (i.e., “Little Fortress”). Most of the extant fortifications date from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1827, parts of the fortress were damaged by an earthquake and were subsequently demolished.

The ruins of the ancient boundary wall of the mother castle of Narikala still stand on the western ridge of Sololaki (in the Old Tbilisi district). The name Narikala first appeared in the 18th century, until then it was called simply Kala. In the 6th century King Dachi, son of legendary Georgian king Vakhtang Gorgasali, strengthened and widened the old castle on the site and the Kala castle thus became the most important defensive castle and royal residence in newly-founded Tbilisi. The citadel has several times been stormed by foreign invaders and many times restored by Georgians when they regained it.

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Jun 01

Video-embedding Test

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This is just a test to see if videos embedded using the direct-play method function in a WordPress blog.

Golden Gate Bridge – Night and Day Crossing


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Apr 07

BitTorrent Pirates My Book Before I’ve Written It

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Just got a Google Alert that told me that RapidShare and BitTorrent sites are advertising that they have “Mobile Web Design for Dummies” for immediate download.

Which is interesting, since I’m currently just finishing chapter 10.  Apparently, they’ve managed to create some sort of space-time discontinuity, whereby they can offer pirated intellectual property before it has actually been created.  Which is a good job, because I’d kinda like to get the damn book so I can see how I handled the chapter on backwards-compatible WAP sites, and my wife, partner & co-author Janine Warner would dearly love to be able to shortcut the whole author-review process on the heavy-duty CSS chapters.

The only thing I can think of is that this is some botfarm/malware site that has set up scrapers to get the titles for every Dummies book published, and then Blackhat SEO this shit out of the vaporware books to try to hoodwink content would-be content pirates into downloading some kind of heinous Trojan virus. I’d be tempted to pronounce a pox on all their houses, but I’ve found through my work internationally that many of the people who download the e-books for free later want to have a hardcopy to refer to.

UPDATE: Just tried to download my own book, and found a screenful of gibberish like: 5DAH4UCCHGQQ

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Mar 27

Saviors Rejected: How GM Refused to Change, and What Newspapers Can Learn From Their Example

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Newspaper Deathwatch.
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GM’s NUMMI plant in Fremont was the solution to their crisis.      So why did they ignore its lessons?


I strongly urge you to listen to this great piece from This American Life about the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.

They don't make 'em like this any more. Even so, the rear bumper had to be reattached.

It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”

…into a place where the workers actually looked forward to coming to work each day, and where the quality of the cars they turned out was so high, that even now, 22 years later, many of those cars are still on the road. NUMMI stands for “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.” and there is an excellent Wikipedia entry about it, if you want to get a little more background.

The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch:

1. Starting in the 80s and going through the 90s, sales declined, as customers were turned off by the shoddy quality of the product


In the auto industry:
anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with.  I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…

In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.”  We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets.  Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.

2. The workers felt ignored and belittled, so they began to act out, and a “give a shit” attitude took over

In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how shitty the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the shitty cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.

In the news industry: a kind of rebellious fatalism took hold in newsrooms, both in print and TV. The reporters knew the bosses really didn’t give a shit about the news, they just wanted something that would get good ratings and not get them sued. Every TV producer I have ever met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been “simmering cesspools of cynicism,” but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage.

3. A temporary bubble allowed the industry to rack up easy profits and postpone change

In the auto industry: The Bush-Cheney “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through a tax break in the early ’00s that meant that people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could write off the cost of the car.  Free SUVs for Everyone! What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share, because they were making so damn much money off producing big fat gas-guzzling SUVs and selling them for massive mark-ups.  The SUV was actually pretty cheap to make – but Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them. And, of course, when the tax break ran out — and gas prices skyrocketed — the end of the free cars on the taxpayer’s dime era left GM without a viable product to sell, as consumers looked for more efficient cars.

In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined.  Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn’t care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time.  When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell. 

4. The industry blamed the people who were honestly pointing out the flaws

In the auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were inflicting on the American people were utterly without redeeming community value. They claimed that the Dirty F’n Hippies at Consumer Reports were biased towards the Japanese, were anti-American traitors, and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that.  The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it, after years of enduring an abusive and exploitative relationship, and how even Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who fondly remembered their high school days when they got their first muscle cars, were fed up with cars that broke down or rolled over, killing their families.

In the newspaper industry:
the newsrooms blamed the internet. They still blame the internet. They see the competition on the internet as being anti-American, that the public was deluded by web-based hucksters, and that imposing paywalls would make people realize how much they really needed to pay for news. No matter that the readers and advertisers have made their preferences clear – they must be MADE to come back and obey.

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Mar 22

An iPad with a 21-inch screen? Theoretically, yes…

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…and touchscreens up to 27 inches on the way…

Not sure what to make about this notice I got out of Korea today, that said that manufacturers there just got orders for touch-sensitive displays in much larger sizes than they have ever tried to deal with before.

According to Displaybank, this spring will see the rollout of touchscreen devices in 10.1, 13.3 and even 16.1 inch diagonal sizes, and this summer will have screens in the 21.5, 23.6 and 27 inch sizes.

Of course, the other news that was interesting is the projection that within the next three years, more than 30% of the cellphones in the world will be using touchscreen technology.

That looks to be about 500 million units; as we’ve seen from the iPhone, one of the key results of having a touchscreen User Interface on mobile devices is that it makes browsing the web actually possible.  Yeah, yeah, the Blackberry had the trackball, and some people still swear by it – but I’ve tried it, and it’s just not as intuitive or useful as pointing and tapping on a link, to say nothing of using the pinch/pull multitouch functions to make items contract/expand.

So having the global market expand with devices whose main strength is that they make browsing not only do-able, but fun – means that there is going to be this big & powerful driver pushing people to the mobile web in the next few years.  Even more so than the “there’s an app for that” meme taking root with the public, the fact that all the other handsets are going to be iPhone-like, is going to be a huge change.

Meanwhile, I wonder if the larger die sizes for the touchscreens means that there are going to be “upgrades” to the tablet market? One of the most insightful things I heard last week at OMMA Global in San Francisco was that “it’s not the iPad itself that’s the revolutionary change – it’s the 30, 40, 50 other tablet devices that are going to follow in its footsteps that are going to be disruptors.”  I can see the thinking in some quarters of unimaginative Corporate America – that they’ll be just like the iPad – ONLY BIGGER!!11!!eleven! Kinda like the Kindle DX, I guess – although I really can’t make much of a use case for hauling around a 27-inch tablet device. Damn thing would weight about 15 pounds, and the battery life would be maybe 10 minutes.

But you could watch some really nice high-def videos in that time, I guess…

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Mar 15

Touching Mobile Screens with All Ten Fingers

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Just got done with updating the case study on mobile advertising for the Newspaper Association of America — I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that market conditions had changed so very much since mid-2008.  You always hear that “Internet years are like dog years,” but man, did that ever hold true.

Just a few examples:

  1. One of the big segments I wrote lumped Alternate Reality and Apps into the same category. This was obviously before Apple’s App store completely blew up
  2. QR codes were this crazy technology that strange Japanese advertisers were using. Seemed like Sea-urchin sushi. Something that would never really catch on here. Guess again, eh?

  • 3.And the biggest one of all – mobile is now an actual line-item in marketing and advertising budgets, not just a throw-in with “digital media.”

So here’s something that I just couldn’t figure out what to do with – the touchscreen guys just pinged me last week and showed me some stuff about multitouch displays that allow you to use all ten fingers to manipulate & add things.

Now, I’m not sure – yet – if this really represents some kind of massive leap forward in getting the damn central processors to recognize input from the user … or if it’s like the ridiculous razor-blade wars, where Schick & Gillette seem locked in a strange battle to cram more blades onto a razor than you see in The Bride’s big samurai-sword fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Anyway – 3M has a 22-inch monitor that can recognize all ten of your grubby digits, and a whole gallery of videos showing how the Microsoft Surface-type tech is making its way into your pocket.  Wish I could show them to you here directly, but 3M has not provided any sort of embedding functionality. I’ve played with this kind of cool stuff at Flash conventions, where artists have custom-wired motion-sensitive controllers to track all kinds of kinetic input (i.e. dancers painting via moving their feet, swaying their hips, arching their backs, etc.). 

I’m not sure how much of an impact it’ll have on the cellphone market, but I can certainly see a day when having enhanced touch for iPad-like devices really makes working with photos, video or database navigation that much more intuitive.  Get me my mirrorshades!

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Mar 15

Mobile 2D Barcode Explanation from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Thanks to Eric Schwartzel at the Post-Gazette for sending me this great, funny video.  The P-G has rolled out 2D barcodes (aka QR codes) in their print product that are designed to be used by smartphones.

I’m all in favor of videos like this, that guide our readers/users through the process of learning what 2D barcodes are all about, and how to use them.  I’d like to see a little more of an explanation of what these codes do, to make the case to the readers as to why they should use them.  One of the real interesting possibilities is using these codes alongside of reviews of concerts or movies to take the readers to m-commerce sites, where the paper will get a slice of the ticket sales.

Of course, that’s going to take some time/development money, but for an industry looking for a viable business model to replace the dwindling dead-tree advertising revenues, shifting towards a more PPC-like biz model makes a lot of sense.

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Mar 01

Epic Beard Man: Unconventional Web-based Documentaries

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Not sure what this all means – it’s a fight on an Oakland transit bus that has morphed into something of an online cultural phenomenon, now chronicled by this two-part documentary.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The “star” of the show is Thomas Bruso, now known as “Epic Beard Man.” He has a long and somewhat tangled history – he’s apparently the unruly fan who got tasered at an Oakland A’s game last summer (he tells the story in Part 1, to the rather disturbing approval of the little gang gathered around him in his tiny apartment).

I can’t quite decide if this guy is a rambling nutcase who should be incarcerated before he goes off with his homemade “shank” on some random individual – or just a deeply damaged burnout, blinking in the unexpected glare of internet celebrity.  The stories he tells about his past make it clear that his life has been no bed of roses, but the rapid-fire aggression of his half-yelled stories are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent time among hair-trigger tweakers.  Maybe he is actually a Vietnam vet, and that’s why he’s always yelling.  Maybe he’s just a delusional pathological liar. Maybe all of the above.

But the thing to pay attention to, is the technical skill and obvious love that went into making these short films. The camerawork, the original music, the multiple locations and moving camera — this ain’t just a kitty dancing on a piano.  This is at least as good as 90% of the indie documentaries I’ve seen in theaters, shot on 35mm film with a crew.  This was shot with a Canon 7D, and the distortions from the fisheye lenses used in the establishing shots really make you feel the queasy hyper-reality of the world this guy exists in. I gotta say that the sound quality is not all that bad; they must’ve been using some sort of external recorder, though, because the mike on these SLRs is still pretty vestigial.

DamnifyIknow what the revenue stream is for the filmmakers here – I do know that Epic Beard Man is now getting snarfed up by internet squatters, trying to figure out ways to sell t-shirts, supposedly speak for him via a blog, and generally adopt him as some sort of White Power symbol.

As with most pointless & inexplicable internet memes, this one started out on 4chan.org and then to a wiki page where all sorts of pencilnecks & assorted anonymous cretins poured out the ugly dregs of their racial hate. I won’t do those pages the favor of linking to them; if you really want to see them, do a search for “Epic Beard Man Wiki,” which brings up a page with the flashing read warning “This page is a WARZONE.”

When analysts start the joints-after-midnight pontificating about the “emerging visual language” of the internet, I think that the the Epic Beard Man meme is the kind of thing that they mean – but that, were they to actually dive deep into what’s going on, would make their hair pretty much fall out. It doesn’t take much to figure out that outside of the well-policed & civilized areas like the discussion boards on The Daily Beast and Huffington Post, the reality that is emerging on the net is raw, disturbing and in yer face.

Kinda like Epic Beard Man himself.

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Feb 24

Bad Sign

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On a day in which prosecuters announced that they had established a DNA link between the Trailside Killer and an “unsub”, I saw this sign:

Single women, walking alone through the deep, dark Redwood forests, are starting to disappear again…

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Feb 19

Martin Bosworth is gone, and the world is a little less fun & bright

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I’ve posted on the Facebook tribute page for Martin, Twittered about his passing, and appealed to others to not let Martin’s sudden death go unnoticed. This really blindsided me, because only Monday I was having a typically great conversation about Martin – it was the subject of the last blog post here.

Martin sent this to me as part of a discussion we were having about health care & the stalled reform bill. We'd talked about his health problems last summer, and he seemed to be getting better. His final message here is now almost painful to read.

Which is why I decided that to really do the man justice, it is necessary to use the format that Martin loved best, and that he was a master of: the blog post.

I met Martin for the first time about a year ago, at a session for the Los Angeles chapter of the Online News Association that I had helped organize.  I was moderating a panel of speakers talking about online video, explaining how indie web journalists could kick their page views (and careers) up a notch by adding some video to their sites.  I had just got done explaining how I had recently researched the End-User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) on all the video-sharing sites, to see which ones were OK, and which were abusive, and would claim ownership over the copyrights to video you produced, whether or not you ever decided you wanted to take it down.

“I mean, has anyone here ever really read the EULA on these sites before clicking, the “I Agree” button?” I asked.

Towards the back of the room, a hand shot up in the air. “I have,” Martin said loud & proud. And then, a little softer, “But then, I’m kind of a freak about such things. I read all the licensing fine print before I agree to anything.”

That, right there, was Martin in a nutshell.

He wasn’t afraid to speak up in groups, to add to the conversation. But he was also careful to be self-deprecating – he was never obnoxious, overbearing or insulting, the way so many in the blogosphere are, in their attempts to vie for attention.

But most of all the man put in the work. However you want to say it, Martin sweated the details, because he knew that it was in those details that all the Devils of Corporate America lurked.  And Martin had a bone-deep indignation at seeing the little guy get fucked over, and he devoted his life to working to balance things out a little.

He came up to me after the meeting was over, a balding, roly-poly guy who frowned and concentrated fiercely on whatever conversation he was having, and then burst into laughter unexpectedly. I got my first taste of Martin’s boundless energy, deep knowledge of online culture, and enthusiasm for all things nerdly.  He was a bit shy at first to talk to me – he later admitted that he was a little intimidated, saying with his characteristic self-deprecation and honesty, “Man, you looked like everything that I aspired to be. You were tall, good-looking, married to a beautiful woman, and you traveled the world doing important work for freedom-loving journalists in distress.”

Coming from someone else, that would have raised alarm bells in me – in L.A., especially, I’ve come to see any form of compliment as flattery preparatory to some kind of manipulation. But coming from Martin, the words were heartfelt, sweet, and totally at odds with how I felt at the time, because, like so many of us working in the New Media content game, I had a deep  suspicion that I was making a complete ass out of myself in public. It was that kindness and honesty from him that I found very endearing.

Martin was also tormented by self-doubt, but he didn’t let that stop him from writing about the things that he cared deeply about; the world of comic books, heavy-metal music and cheesy sci-fi movies that are the Nerdcore Holy Trinity frequently appeared on his blog, and to read his reviews was to feel as though you were hanging out on a friend’s couch, relaxed and free to express your deeply held beliefs that Liam Neeson used the same fighting moves in “Taken” that he learned all those years ago on “Krull.”

But he also had a real empathetic sense, and last summer when I was writing about the untimely death of my cat, Martin sent me several emails telling me how what I had written had brought tears to his eyes and choked him up, and sent dozens of people to my site to read what I had written and offer me words of encouragement.  I’ve struggled with that while writing this post, because I don’t want to for even a microsecond equate my cat Duce dying with Martin’s death; I know the difference between human and feline, thankyewverymuch. I just wanted to illustrate that the guy had a real big heart in him, and that when I was feeling down, he would go out of his way to try to offer some kind of comfort. And then maybe a few laughs and a link to something new & interesting that he wanted to tear apart & put back together.

I will miss these discussions. I will miss reading his wit, and honesty and willingness to bare his soul.

I will miss Martin.

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