Digital Guyana

After finishing the course with our final workshop last Friday and saying goodbye to Chris, who had an early morning flight on Saturday, Matt and me hit the road for our longest trip away from Georgetown yet: a four day excursion to the far south of the country.

Surama eco lodge

The Rupununi – or, the much cooler sounding Region 9 – is where Guyana’s rainforests suddenly stop, replaced by vast open plain savannas. Our first destination was Surama, an Amerindian village containing around 250 inhabitants dotted among a few square miles of open savannas which are encircled by the rainforest covered Pakaraima Mountains.

We stayed at their eco lodge – you can’t really stay anywhere else. The set-up was a bit like Arrowpoint, which I blogged about in a previous post, but more community friendly and homespun. It’s run by locals and the cost of staying there covers board, guides, food – which is locally sourced – and the bumpy 20 minute motorbike ride from the Georgetown to Lethem road (which by the time you’ve reached Iwokrama rainforest, which Surama is just south of, is a wide brown heavily potholed track – guaranteed to rock you to sleep in the wee hours of a twelve hour overnight bus journey).

The setting (see above) was pretty spectacular. And on a hike up Surama Mountain and canoe trip along the nearby Burro Burro River with our guide Milner we spotted spider monkeys, macaws and toucans. Best of all, a capuchin monkey crossed the river above our boat using the forest canopy, pausing at one point as if to say hello.

After two days at Surama we then hit the savanna proper at Annai, a 45-minute bike ride south. To save cash we slung hammocks (they don’t really do camping in Guyana due to the insects) and ate our meals at the Oasis truckstop by the main road. Due to the proximity to the border it felt much more Brazilian here, even if the local Amerinidians speak English with a Caribbean twang. As two white guys who’d chosen to stay here rather than the nearby ecotourism resort Rock View we were very much the local curiosity. But it was still a fun place to hang out and snack on Brazilian food as reggae blared out of the speakers.

Unlike Surama we didn’t need a guide to climb the nearby mountain and the views of the vast savanna landscape, with vultures circling overhead, were unforgettable. Though not quite as good as those from the 12-seater plane which flew us back to Georgetown.

Waiting to board by the Annai airstrip I got chatting about tourism with a chap called Eli who runs the nearby Rewa eco lodge, which like others in the region, models itself on Surama. As I mentioned in my Arrowpoint post, tourism in Guyana is very much in its infancy, not helped by the price of internal flights, the lack of travel options to neighbouring South American countries and the tendency to peg prices to the Caribbean. But Eli said things are definitely getting better – ten years ago you simply didn’t get travellers in this part of the country. The recently completed Takutu River Bridge which links Lethem and Bonfim in Brazil should also improve things.

Whether the eco lodge tourism model can support larger numbers of tourists is another matter. It will be interesting to see what happens in years to come. In the meantime I’m just going to enjoy that slightly selfish buzz you get when you visit an amazing place you know that few other travellers have been to before.

View from the hills near Rock View, Annai

I’m back in the UK now, getting over the jetlag. Matt is in Mexico, extending his trip away a little while longer. When he returns in September we will all meet up to evaluate the project. I’m looking forward to that and I’m sure we’ll do more posts on the subject, but right now I’m having a nap…

Day 3 Morning – MovieClips and Tweens

The first part of the morning was spent showing the class the two major tweens used in flash before CS4: Motion and shape. Tweens are a kind of shortcut for animation in flash. You put the object you want to animate in a position at the first and last frames you want to animate and flash does the rest of the work.

The students learned that a shape tween can only be applied to the area between two keyframes on a layer without symbols in them. Similarly, they learned that motion tweens can only occur between two keyframes on a layer that have only one instance of the same symbol in that frame.

The second part of the morning introduced the students to MovieClips. MovieClips are a type of symbol that instead of being a static graphic can be a looping animation. I showed the students how to put their lip-synched animations into a MovieClip and then animate that MovieClip using a tween.

Day 3 afternoon – Walk Cycles, Motion Guides and exporting to Quick Time

After instroducing looped animation using MovieClips I continued to show the class what a walk cycle was. A walk cycle is a looped animation showing a character walking. Making a walk cycle and then animation the movieclip with a motion tween is a great shortcut to get characters moving quickly and effectively.

We started off with a very simple walk cycle for a stick man – each arm and leg was a symbol, then each one was put on a seperate layer and animated using tweens in order to give the feel of a walk (even if it was very stiff and stilted). After they each had a simple walk cycle I got the students to break the arm and leg symbols up into forearm, arm, thigh and shin, so that the character would have working knees and elbows. I then got them to analyze somebody walking in order to find the best way to make the walk look realistic.

A lot of students at this point took the opportunity to use their lip-synched face animation as the head for their stick man. I commend their creativity.

Once everyone had a walk cycle completed, I showed the students motion guides. Motion guides are a line that can be paired with a layer in order to manipulate the path a tween follows – so that you can create a more diverse movement than just a straight line.

Finally, I taught the students the procedure for exporting an animation to the Quick Time .mov file format for use in video

The final part of the afternoon session was setting a quick one-day project for the students to consolidate the skills that they had picked up. Details to be posted in the day four post.

Day four will be posted up shortly.

steelband

It struck me this week that I’ve not really tried to properly describe Georgetown on this blog since I’ve been here.

It’s a hard place to pin down. It’s on the Caribbean coast but the sea is brown and the beach litter strewn. We’re in South America but the two main ethnic groups, Indo and Afro-Guyanese, both speak a Creolese flavoured English. It feels like an old colonial capital, yet with the myriad wooden houses on stilts and long wide streets there’s a real whiff of the Deep South about the place.

There are no shades of grey, however, in one aspect of Georgetown – the noise. It is an incredibly noisy city. In a good way.

From the constant beeping of minibuses and taxis, the thud of chutney and soca music, locals bantering in the street – and occasionally shouting ‘white man’ at me – there is rarely, nay never, a pause for calm. I love it. And when the sun goes down the clamour of the city doesn’t let up – the hum of crickets and yelping of stray dogs your sleeping soundtrack.

So, partly inspired by Chris’s guest blog on the Sounds of Guyana on the My Place Or Yours site and my love of sound clips (I also recently discovered a sound recording function on my camera) I decided to try to record a few memorable sounds and things that caught my ear. What follows is a six minute hotchpotch I’ve quickly spliced together in Audacity featuring, among other things, local radio in minibuses, Creole chatter, wildlife – i.e. stray dogs and kiskadees – and a quick introduction to dominoes.

Apologies for the odd sound pop – my recorder isn’t great – and Chris’s drunken musings during Haddaway (remember that one?!)… too good not to include.

Georgetown sounds mp3 (click to play / right to click save as).

Day 2 Morning – Phonemes:

The morning session for day two comprised firstly of importing a set of elements into the flash interface. These elements are known as phonemes:

Phonemes are the positions the mouth moves to in order to create the individual sounds which make up speech. The students imported a .jpg of a phoneme set I constructed, traced them and saved each one as a symbol of the same name as the phoneme. (E.g, “Rest Position”, “A and I”, etc.)

Whilst doing this, students learned a new keyboard shortcut:

  • F8 (Convert to symbol)

Day 2 Afternoon – Lip-Synching to Audio:

In the afternoon the group learned how to import a sound file into the flash library and play it in the movie time line.

The rest of the afternoon was then spent adding keyframes in the right places to sync changes in mouth shape (phonemes) with the changes in sound in the speech. At this point a few more shortcuts were introduced:

  • F6 (New Keyframe)
  • Shift + F6 (Clear Keyframe)
  • F5 (New Frame)
  • Shift + F5 (Delete Frame)

Once the illusion of speech was attained I encouraged students to make new symbols for different facial expressions in order to add an impression of depth to their animation.

Day 3 will be added soon.

This was a half-day session aiming to build on the blogging lessons from the main course. The idea being to build on the students’ basic knowledge and introduce them to

Tools of the trade

We used WordPress.com in the lessons, but there are other blogging platforms, each with slightly different features.

There are comparisons of the various services at Online Journalism Review and TopTenReviews.

Other useful services that we discussed include:

  • Facebook – a social network
  • Twitter – a flexible micro-blogging tool
  • Delicious – a ‘social bookmarking’ website
  • Google Reader – useful for reading blogs via their RSS feeds
  • Firefox and Firefox plugins – a web browser that is preferable to Internet Explorer in many ways and allows for customisation via easy-to-use plugins.

Blog promotion

Four key concepts:

  • Write good content
  • Post regularly
  • Link generously
  • Comment on other blogs

We also looked at the concept of using other social media profiles as outposts.

It’s worth bearing in mind the basics of SEO – incoming links, keywords in tags and titles, relevant anchor text and regular content are all good.

Also, while online interaction is great, you can’t beat meeting people face-to-face for making longer lasting connections and building relationships.

We also looked at more traditional ways to promote a blog – by telling people about it, adding the URL to email signatures/flyers/posters, etc.

Other tips

The following is a random selection of hints and tips aimed at improving your blogging.

Develop an editorial calendar that will allow you to plan blog posts over the year (including any lead-in/previews).

Consider guest posts:

  • Writing on other people’s blogs will introduce you to a new audience
  • Having others write on your blog will provide your readers with a fresh perspective, a new writing style and it’ll help spread the load of writing new content.

Group blogs are blogs with several contributors. Each contributor may have different topics, days of the week to post on. A group blog spreads the amount of effort required from each person, as well as providing a place for structure and support.

Involve your audience – blogs and social media allow audience engagement in ways that broadcast media do not. By interacting with your audience you can strengthen your relationship with them and learn what content they prefer.

While asking your audience and listenting to them is important, you should be wary of pandering to the vocal minority, whose views may not be representative of all your readers.

Statistics – your can use Feedburner and Google Analytics to discover what your readers (including the silent majority) respond to.

Mix up your blog posts – use video, audio, text and photos to provide a rich and varied experience for your readers.

Write like a person – blogs work well as a conversational medium. It’s much easier to converse with a person than a press release.

Know your target audience – build up an impression of who your readers are, what they like, how they get their information and so on. This will help you write for them. Getting out and meeting your readers face to face (ie at events) will help with this.

Comments guidelines – if you have a lot of people commenting on your posts and moderation becomes necessary, it can be useful to have comment guidelines in place. This will explain to people what behaviour is not tolerated and what action (editing/deleting posts and banning commenters) may be taken if they are breached.

Finally, the best way to learn is to look at other successful bloggers and their blogs and see what they do.

This morning workshop was split into two parts. The first part looked at finding and downloading images; the second editing and improving the images with the open source image editing programme GIMP.

We started with a quick exercise using a Google Image search to illustrate how easy it is to search and download all kinds of images from the web. I then explained that it’s not really sensible to take images from other people’s websites willy nilly. This is still a bit of a legal grey area but it is technically a civil infringement to take someone’s images from their website without asking their permission. (Useful links on the subject: http://forums.digitalpoint.com and http://answers.yahoo.com)

So, the only way to be sure you’re not being naughty is to A) use your own images or B) downloads images from a free image library – of which there are many. I then asked the students to search and download an image of their choice from one of these libraries.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at image editing. Photoshop is the obvious brand leader in this field but because we wanted to foster skill sharing in the most sustainable way possible we choose to go for a free alternative to Photoshop, of which there are many. We chose GIMP because it has a similar interface to Photoshop, is quick and easy to download and is relatively easy to use.

To save time we had already downloaded it but shared the link for downloading GIMP in case our groups wanted to download it onto their own computers. We also directed their attention to the GIMP user manual, explaining that, although it is very long, it contains simple instructions to all aspects of the programme.

After opening up the programme we demonstrated the two main windows: the toolbox and the image window. We then opened an image up in GIMP and demonstrated tools including the move tool, crop tool, scale image and zoom.

We then underlined the importance of Undo (Ctrl+Z) in using such a programme and explained how pixels work before getting our groups to resize their images to a specific size using two methods. The first method used the crop tool (remembering to adjust the ratio of the crop by clicking on fixed aspect ratio and entering the required pixel dimensions). The second way saw us creating a new window of the required pixel size and copying and pasting the image into it before resizing it with the scale tool, not forgetting to select ‘Keep aspect’ – or hold ctrl – to keep the dimensions of the image.

We then asked our groups to insert their resized images into their HTML CVs and their WordPress blogs as a new picture post.

After demonstrating how to flip and rotate images we looked at enhacing pictures using the Colour Tools.

During a break in the lessons last week I picked up a copy of the phone book and flicked through to the web design section. There were only a few companies listed:

Website design in Guyana

Interesting that not all of them give a URL for their website.

The next stage was to try and Google and see which companies I could find. A search for ‘website design Guyana’ listed the following companies on the first page:

There were also results for directories such as ddir.org and Ensure, not companies themselves. My photo on Flickr (above) came up too.

Web savvy companies (such as those in the web design industry) can be expected to be ahead of the game when it comes to search engine optimisation. Not only is it a source of business but there’s a trophy element to showing you can control a strong, relevant search term in Google. It’s demonstration of your SEO services, if nothing else.

Of course, I’ve just taken a snapshot of the situation here – it falls well short of the sort of analysis that could be carried out but it’s interesting to see what the local companies are up to.