Author Archives: theartguy

About theartguy

Aaron Smith is a Media Arts & Technology Teacher who spends most of his time on computers. In his free time he plays video games, edits videos, and misses his wife dearly.


Why You Should Try Mastodon

MastodonFriends, teachers, life long learners, I come to bury Twitter, not to praise it.

OK, with apologies to Shakespeare, I don’t mean to imply that I’ve found a “Twitter killer” service. I’ve thought that before, and I’ve been wrong. Instead, I think I’ve found a service that can fill some niches that currently are occupied by Twitter (albeit poorly) and some other social networks.  It’s called Mastodon, and I like it a lot.

On to my reasoning, in convenient list form:

  1. Getting started is easy.
    You don’t need to be an expert, know how to manage server databases, or understand the first thing about PHP scripts. There are enough Mastodon instances (I suggest, see #2 below) out there for you to find one, start an account, and jump in with the same level of effort it takes to get started on Twitter. At first  glance, it looks a lot like the so-called “bird site.” The vocabulary is different, but the imagery is similar to that used in both Twitter and its better and lesser-known subsidiary, TweetDeck. Tweets are called “Toots,” and retweets are called “boosts,” but if I blurred all the words you’d know those functionalities based on the icons alone.
  2. Communities can be compartmentalized.
    Puzzle piecesMastodon is what’s known as a federated social network. It runs on a collection of independent servers known as “instances.” This is good for a couple of reasons. First, there are some instances that   are dedicated to specific communities. I have an account on, for example, where members mostly talk about  video games. (An elekk is a fictional animal found in the game World of Warcraft.) Don’t want to be in a small box? There are several larger instances as well. My non-gaming  account is on a different instance called I’m in good company, as  Wesley Fryer also calls that instance home. He even wrote his own post about it. Regardless of which instance you pick, you can still talk to Mastodon users on other servers. The main exceptions to this are when server administrators choose to suspend federation with other instances. This might be because they want the conversation to be more heavily sandboxed, or in some cases its done because they feel another instance is not adequately dealing with members that chose to harass others.And if enough teachers are interested in the creation of a teacher-centric Mastodon instance… I might know a guy who can set one up.UPDATE: I have since moved to As the name implies, it’s for teachers  and other academics.
  3. Content Warnings
    Warning: ConversationMastodon’s Content Warnings are like subject lines.  By pressing the button that says “CW,” you get an additional text field. When you post your tweet – I mean,  your toot, the only thing your followers will see will be the text you wrote for your content warning. If they decide they’re OK with reading said content, they can click to see the rest of it. If they decide that subject isn’t for them, they can scroll past and go about their day. Currently the most common content warning notice I see is for politics, for which I’m actively grateful. Those who know me on Twitter and elsewhere know that I am VERY opinionated on subjects that some would call political, but I do not  always have the mental energy to read, let alone talk   about those things. On Twitter I can set up filters to mute certain key words, but  it’s a bit clunky and I have to remember to turn off the mutes manually. on Mastodon, there’s more of a social taboo about tooting high-stress subjects without a warning. In short, it’s a safer space for your mental health.
  4. I would write 500 characters, and I would write 500 more…
    That’s right, where Twitter gives just 140 characters, Mastodon gives you 500. Threaded conversations on Twitter are a workaround to broadcast thoughts too long for a single tweet while at the same time too short for a blog post, but  500 characters is enough for me, personally, to combine all but my longest diatribes into a single posting. Mastodon  isn’t about to replace this blog, but it might actually replace my Tumblr account.
  5. It’s new.
    Mastodon, for all its similarities to Twitter, is something new and interesting.  Even if you decide you don’t like it, this is a chance to try out something you haven’t done before.(Oh, and if you happen to work in one of those districts where they tend to block everything, there’s a half-decent chance they haven’t blocked one or more Mastodon instances – meaning you might actually be able to build a PLN that you can contact while you’re at school.)
  6. It’s not TOO new.
    New stuff has bugs. New stuff breaks. Mastodon has been around long enough (It’s based on previous services that have been hammered on by developers for a while…) for most of the glaring deficits to have been worked out. Currently the main stickler is that private messages might not be 100% private to server administrators. This doesn’t bother me so much since I don’t send DMs on Twitter, but it might bother you, so just be aware that they’re still working on that.
  7. Yes, there are mobile apps.
    I can’t speak for the iOS side of things since I don’t use many Apple products these days, but the Google Play store has several Android apps.  I’ve tried and liked    Tusky, though since I’m on two different instances   I’ve since switched to  one with an odder name called Subway Tooter. Most apps I’ve tried only handle one Mastodon instance at a time, but Subway Tooter allows you to be logged into more than one simultaneously.
  8. Two-Factor Authentication
    This might be more geeky than some enjoy, but it’s getting increasingly   more important for people to secure their accounts with more than just a password. I’m not just talking about Mastodon here, but about accounts in general. If you have a Gmail account and you HAVEN’T activated two-factor authentication, you’re at risk for all kinds of ways for someone to get into your account and take everything. Securing it with SMS can work, but it isn’t as secure as having an authentication app on a mobile device.As it turns out, Mastodon instances are compatible with the Google Authenticator. To enable it, all you have to do is point the app at a bar code that Mastodon will generate for you in the settings menu. Once it’s activated, your account is much less likely to be compromised by someone trying to guess your password.

That’s about it for now, so how about you try Mastodon out for yourself? When you make an account, be sure to follow me so I know there’s another teacher on the network. I’m actively looking for new people to follow.

10 Commandments of Media Arts

layer1-8Teachers all have their pet peeves, rules that are not to be broken at any cost. At this point I think I’ve taught enough Media Arts curriculum to list mine. I plan to print these out and put them on my wall for next year.

  1. Respect the intellectual property of others. (Cite sources, don’t use anything without written permission.)
  2. Black borders are to be avoided. (Video, with very specific exceptions, is a HORIZONTAL format.)
  3. Talking heads are to be avoided. (People can be on camera, but add variety.)
  4. Proofread EVERYTHING. (A typo in a report? Embarrassing. A typo on the big screen? Devastating.)
  5. Plan ahead. (One minute of planning is worth 5 minutes of post processing. Use your time wisely.)
  6. Hide your mistakes. (If it can go in a blooper reel, it shouldn’t be in your final product. If you flub a line, do it over.)
  7. Don’t zoom in if you can walk closer. (You will have a steadier shot and better audio.)
  8. NEVER use a digital zoom. (No, really. Only do this if you want your video to look bad.)
  9. Turn off your built-in flash, and leave it off. (Over 30 ft away, the only thing a flash does is annoy people. Under 30 ft, it annoys people and gives you bad photos.)
  10. Make each project something you would be proud to show to others. (Media is meant to be shared.)

What are your classroom commandments?

OpenShot: Open Source Video Editing

2016-05-23 10_37_08-TL;DR: OpenShot is a free video editor that supports multiple tracks and chroma key. Try it out.


I’ve been an off-and-on-again fan of Linux for years (decades?), but one of the things that always had me come crawling back was the lack of decent video editing software. (And video games, but that’s another blog post.) (Yes I know about WINE, but it doesn’t work for everything and it adds extra steps that complicate things for younger students.) When I taught Visual Arts it wasn’t that big a deal, but now that I teach Media Arts, well, it’s kind of mandatory that I be able to edit video.

Now the word “decent” is rather important here. I’d tried some open source and web based video editors in the past, but of those that worked, none provided the features that I considered mandatory for a Media Arts classroom.

Then lo and behold, one day I had a Twitter conversation with Phil Shapiro. If you’re not following Mr. Shapiro, you might want to correct that mistake. He’s a librarian who frequently arms himself with metaphors and wordplay, making anyone’s Twitter timeline much better for the effort.

He is also the biggest proponent of open source software I’ve seen in a VERY long time, bragging about $20 laptops that he makes serviceable by removing Windows XP and replacing it with Linux Mint. (Although maybe a different flavor of Linux is in order now? I like PuppyLinux for very ancient machines, myself…)

In any case, Phil’s wit and love of all things maker/open source and my own laments about video editing led to this:

2016-05-23 09_07_40-Phil Shapiro on Twitter_ _@theartguy OpenShot 2.0 is in beta. I've been testing

Wait, what’s this? A free video editor that doesn’t suck? I mean, HitFilm Express is free and quite good, but you still need to register an account to use it (ruling out most of my students as they are under 13), you get one install per person (ruling out my ability to install it on every computer in my lab), and it only runs on 64 bit machines (ALSO ruling out my ability to install it on all the things).

OpenShot has the same price tag as HitFilm and maybe not as many bells and whistles, but what it lacks in 3D composite shots it makes up for in its low-powered goodness. OpenShot easily handles multiple tracks of video and even does chroma key, which is something not frequently seen in a free editor.

2016-05-23 10_52_01-Untitled Project [HDV 720 24p] - OpenShot Video EditorLike all software there is something of a learning curve, but for OpenShot the main hurdle is understanding that you right-click on a clip to split it at the play head. Most of the rest of it is quite intuitive.

While OpenShot truly shines when run under Ubuntu Linux (32 bit Linux seems to make better use of system resources than 32 bit Windows, so programs like OpenShot have more room to stretch their legs), it also works reasonably well on Mac and Windows and, as it’s a free, open source program, there’s nothing preventing me from installing it on every computer in my lab.

Many of my students are still addicted to Camtasia in spite of its crashes (TechSmith tech support tells me it would edit HD video better if only I replaced my lab with 64 bit computers… Thanks, TechSmith.), but I hope to slowly wean them away from paid software and towards free and legal alternatives for the same reason that we’ve NEVER used an Adobe branded editor … ever.

I want students to be able to take what they learn in my class and be able to use it at home. Some of them have parents willing to spend $100 or more on software (or in the case of Adobe products, MUCH more than that as a subscription service so when you stop paying the software stops working), but most of them don’t. Those that do, I’d rather they invested that in nice hardware: computers, microphones, and cameras.

I’ll admit that when it comes to the Open Source movement I am far from a purist. My main draw (even now) is the idea that I can get something useful without having to pay an arm and a leg for it. Blame it on my salary as an educator, or perhaps my Visual Arts background (art teachers can make a lesson out of almost ANY material, particularly if it’s salvaged or donated), but if I can get it for free without breaking any laws, then I’m all for it.

OpenShot fits the bill for me. If you do anything that involves students editing video, you should try it out as well.

… now if only there was a decent way to edit video with a ChromeBook…

“You See More When You Draw”

I used to have a book on  Paul Cézanne (which I have since donated so it is difficult for me to look up its exact title) that told the story of Cézanne’s early years in Paris. One of the things he did was take trips into the museum with his paints so he could make color studies of the artworks on display.

The paintings he created weren’t exact copies, far from it in fact, but they did help  Cézanne build his ideas on color theory and usage.

I remember reading this and thinking about how most museums today don’t even like cameras, let alone paints that could potentially (either by accident or design) get on their priceless works of art.

Well it looks like one museum kind of likes the idea of encouraging visitors to spend a long time focusing on their exhibits.

Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands national museum dedicated to arts and history in Amsterdam, recently launched a new campaign called “The Big Draw.” It’s an effort to get museum visitors to ditch cameras and simple snapshots in favor of drawing the artworks in order to more fully appreciate the easy-to-miss details.

Source: Museum Asks Visitors to Put Down Cameras and Pick Up Pencils and Sketch Pads

Of course we’re talking drawing here as opposed to painting, but for most that’s a much more accessible media anyway. I think this is a fantastic idea, in part because when you’re in a room full of people with sketchbooks and pencils, you become a lot less self-conscious about pulling out a sketchbook and pencil.

As any art teacher will tell you, the best way to improve drawing skill is to spend more time drawing.

One thought comes to mind, though: If fewer people are taking photos of the artworks, will that mean more people will be buying the photo books and postcards the museum is selling in the gift shop?

Photographers Are Running Out of TIME

It’s a pun! Get it?

Er, OK, maybe I should explain a bit more. TIME and its publications (Fortune, Sports Illustrated, etc.) are trying to enforce a new contract for its photographers. PetaPixel reports:

TIME’s latest contract for photographers has been at the center of controversy for about a month now, and many photographers are still refusing to sign it as they campaign for more favorable terms.We shared last month how the new contract eliminates space rates, has copyright grabbing terms, and pays relatively little compared to historical rates.

Source: Photographers Still Boycotting Time’s Contract; Time Defends It as ‘Fair and Equitable’

Now when it comes to work like this, creative professionals (in this case, photographers) may charge whatever the market will bear, and clients may offer whatever they think is fair. The reasoning is that photographers who charge too much won’t have any clients, and clients that demand too much and/or offer too little won’t find skilled people willing to do the work.

Of course that second point doesn’t hold up very well. There’s no shortage of creative types who value their work so little that they are willing to work for free. Internships are frequently unpaid positions, with very rare exceptions.

This news worries me, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. Print media is becoming increasingly unprofitable, and while digital media has several sustainable business models, most involve paying fewer staff and/or paying that staff less. TIME is setting the bar low and not budging, with the end result being good news for the penny pinchers if not for the subscription numbers.

The gamble, in this case, hinges on their branding remaining strong enough for them to ride through the sudden drop in photo quality that they’ll have once the new terms go into effect on the 1st. They may even pull it off.

Unfortunately, this is bad news overall for photographers. Creative occupations are plagued with clients who undervalue artistic products, insisting that “exposure” is a suitable salary or other such nonsense. The loss of another (or several, as TIME consists of @ 90 publications according to the same article I cited above) well paying venue, specifically a high profile one, hurts more photographers than the ones who worked for those publications.

I still think photography is a profitable career field, but perhaps, just like with the print publications themselves, some business models need to change.