Getting back into blog reading

One early upshot of my temporary Twitter hiatus was to realise how much I was missing picking up on other people’s blog posts. Twitter had become my single notification channel for new posts from people I know as well as discovering new ones.

Having said that I’ve been aware that I have been reading blogs less and relying on the Twitter stream more and I miss spending longer reading what other people are thinking.

So, yesterday I resolved to get back into reading blogs on a regular basis.

Up until about 3 years ago I had a routine based around Google Reader which helped me to subscribe and follow various RSS fields. Most mornings  I would spend 20-30 mins scanning my feeds and picking out the ones that looked more promising. Mostly it was just consuming but occasionally I’d build a blog post of my own around what I’d read.

Google Reader is no more but there is a handy equivalent aptly called Old Reader, basically a clone of the latter.

The changing blogging landscape

I’d imported my feeds into Old Reader ages ago before I got out of the blog reading habit so my first job was to go through and unsubscribe from blogs that were no longer relevant to me (lots of specialist ones about eportfolios for example) or were obviously inactive.

What surprised me was how many blogs that had once been very active hadn’t been posted to in years. Some had even let their domain subscriptions expire. This in itself shouldn’t be that surprising. I’m doing a very different job to what I was doing at Netskills (when I’d last been in the blog-reading habit) and that will be true of most people.

But you could also read it as a result of the way that our use of the social web has changed over the last few years, away from longer form writing to updates on more closed platforms.

People still blog but there seems to be less of culture around the practice, or rather that I’ve let myself lose track of it. Maybe there’s something about the rise of “thread” posting on Twitter indicates that there’s still an appetite for articulating more extended thinking. I have a problem with “threads” as an alternative to blogging but that’ll have to wait for another post.

Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older but I find that I want to take my time over things more these days and engage more deeply. Rekindling my interest in blogs might be a way of doing that. I’ll try it out for a bit and see if I get back into the habit.

So, help me out here. Which blogs do you read on a regular basis? Who’s writing good stuff about TEL?

Please RT. 😉

 

 

Digital stories about objects – “Spruce, ebony and horsehair”

I had the chance to make another digital story recently. It was for Curiosity Creative, an organisation I’m a trustee of. Alex, who runs the company, is collecting stories of people talking about objects that mean something to them for a project called The Story Box.

This is mine

The Story Box collection is steadily growing and if you’re in the Newcastle area you might see the “screening room”, a full size replica telephone box, doing the rounds at various locations and events.

Have a look at the other stories in the collection. One of my favourites is “Mourning Earrings” which is a very frank account of family disunity. A prize for the best (if slightly misleading) title goes to Michy’s Porn Bear.

Stories in your pocket

One of the activities I do regularly on storytelling workshops is to get people to look in their pockets, bags, wallets etc and find an object that they could tell a story about, something that reveals a bit of themselves. I’m always surprised at how much you can learn about someone from an old rail ticket or a set of keys!

I’m reminded a bit of JK Rowling’s Horcruxes, objects in the Harry Potter books where parts of someone’s soul can be placed inside everyday objects for protection.

These stories about objects are obviously a lot less malevolent, but we go through life, interacting with the objects and people around us, leaving little traces of our identity behind to be recalled later.

A little while back I reviewed a book called The Chimes which used a similar device as a way of a society fighting amnesia using small objects they carried around with them which, if lost, meant the person lost all sense of self and slipped into a sort of waking coma.

So, have a look around you. See if you can conjure a story from a seemingly innocuous object.

More about The Story Box

You can find out more about The Story Box here. Watch out for the public screenings of The Story Box around Newcastle in the coming months. Keep up to date with Curiosity Creative on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Quick reaction to Logan

Went to see Logan last night. I was dreading it slightly as I’ve got a bit battle-weary of superhero films but this is a different proposition from the usual CGI-laden stuff. It’s the answer to the question “what would Johnny Cash be like with adamantium claws, looking after a psycho-kinetic Willie Nelson on a road trip to North Dakota?”. If graphic violence isn’t your thing then approach with caution and I have to admit I get a bit queasy about kids being involved in portraying this level of violence (Looper was similar in this regard but also a great film). Having said that, the girl playing [SPOILER*******] is a really good find. And it’s fun seeing Patrick Stewart going all potty-mouth.

So, in summary, very good – probably up there with The Dark Knight.

What I think about when I think about maps

Back in January I gave a short presentation to some of my Jisc colleagues on maps and map making. The format of the event meant we could choose anything to talk about and I tried to not make it about storytelling, I really did but… well, you’ll see. Best laid plans and that.

You can have a good laugh at me struggling to work out how to get the Mac to play video about halfway through.

The headlines

  • I’m a big fan of maps because I did geography at university. Or maybe I did geography because I’m a big fan of maps. Who knows?
  • For me, maps are as important for understanding the world as stories are. If Stories make sense of experiences, maps make sense of places.
  • We’re mentally making maps all the time, even when we’re lost. That’s part of the fun of being lost.
  • Showing things spatially, particularly data, allows a deeper understanding of something and can help make data easier to relate to.

But my conclusion went a bit meta. Maps are still important to me, not just because of their usefulness and appearance, but because they’re a thread that connects me to m time studying at university. That was where I started my life as a learning professional and forms a big part of my identity.

And having a strong sense of identity and purpose is important when going through periods of change and upheaval as we’ve been experiencing in Jisc for the last year or thereabouts.

So, I could have said all that in 30 seconds rather then 10 mins. Never mind. It was a good exercise in planning and delivering a tight presentation and I learnt a lot from watching my colleagues deliver theirs. It’s one of the best aspects of working at Jisc, that we get these opportunities to be a bit more creative and spend time learning for the sake of it.

Rembrandt and the fall of Western Society (probably)

Look at this picture below for a moment. It’s taken by Gijsbert van der Wal. It’s from 2014 but pops up like whack-a-mole on social media from time to time.

What do you see?

A masterpiece hangs on a wall while a small group of young people huddle round their screens.

That’s what’s in the picture, but what do you SEE?

The caption that accompanied this on my Facebook timeline recently said:
“This picture was taken by the security guard of the museum. He just realized that this world was lost.”

Kids, eh?

The conclusion we’re supposed to draw is that these millennials are so absorbed in their screens (probably Snapchatting or playing Angry Birds or something), that they are ignoring the priceless Rembrandt 10 feet away from them. It’s a damning conclusion. Young people no longer value the cornerstones of our culture. We’re probably doomed.

Now look again

This is a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The children seem to be huddled in pairs or small groups. The two boys look like they’re talking to each other. The girls have a piece of paper balanced on their knee. Perhaps it’s a worksheet.

Let’s say that they’re using their phones to access an app created by the museum that explains the pictures they are seeing in much greater detail. Maybe they’re being asked a set of challenging questions in the app that means in a few moments, they’ll all stand up again and spend 10 minutes trying to decide why the woman in the background has the claws of a dead chicken strapped to her belt (I googled it).

Or maybe they’ll move on to the next one and not think about it again for a few years.

Or maybe they’ll go the giftshop next. Who knows?

The fact is, this is old news. Check out this Telegraph article for the back story.

But the real irony of this image is that, if you look at the comments on some of the tweets in the article, we’re bemoaning the fact that the children aren’t using their critical faculties to appreciate the meanings in this artwork while we do exactly the same thing.

Digital literacy in the era of “fake news”

So what’s this got to do with the “fall of Western Society”?

It’s easy to believe at the moment that we on the West live in a society where truth is more and more fluid and “fake news” abounds. Before Trump adopted the phrase as his all-purpose come back for journalists critical of his ineptitude “fake news” was the shadowy web of misinformation on questionable websites and some reputable ones that aimed to shape the outcome of the democratic process by dubious means. (It’s amazing how quickly meanings change these days!).

I tried a while back to to explain why I thought false news stories circulated so widely and quickly. My conclusion was a bit like stating the obvious but I was interested in how we find comfort in narratives that confirm our view of the world rather than truly shock and challenge us.

For me this is a major plank of digital literacy; the ability to question the meaning behind images and other information on the web, the narratives associated with them and their impact on behaviour and society.

We’re starting to see how society’s inability or unwillingness to grasp this nettle can have dire consequences particularly for vulnerable groups far from the seat of power but potentially for all of us. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the digital realm isn’t the only reason for the rise of the far right but it’s certainly helped.

And no, I’m not saying that this picture of some kids on their phones is responsible for or even emblematic of the fall of Western society, but using it as a tool to help us talk round these fundamental issues isn’t a bad place to start for us as educators.

And maybe pictures like this one suggest that hope is not lost…

… but maybe that’s just my interpretation.

There’s something very odd about this movie trailer

Watch this trailer. It’s for the upcoming film Morgan and it’s very interesting. How effective do you think it is? Does it feel like all the other trailers you watch or different somehow. HINT: Don’t rewind it as the preamble gives some spoilerific context.

You probably picked up on the clues before you got the explanation at the end of the trailer (the title overlay gives it away).

The trailer was pieced together mainly using artificial intelligence. IBM’s Watson computer analysed the full movie and constructed the 1 minute plus trailer from what it thought were the key moments. There was some human creative input but it’s a bit unclear as to what that was.

Read the full post from The Next Web.

Beyond the eerie nature of the film, I found it a bit unsettling. I watch a lot of trailers and without knowing all the ins and outs of how they’re constructed I feel like I’ve internalised what a Hollywood style trailer should be like. I suspect most of us have – try watching one from a movie over 15 years old and you’ll probably be surprised how different they are.

This one, while seeming on the surface to follow the right patterns, doesn’t feel quite right. It’s a similar feeling to looking at one of those “realistic” androids where the features are all in the right place and the skin looks properly textured but as soon as it starts to move we’re in the uncanny valley.

What really interests me is how well AI can understand narrative. While a trailer only gives a partial story it still tries to convey a sense of the meaning of the story so you come to the cinema already understanding what the film will be about. How people do that is highly subjective and I don’t think easily computable. It’s a bit like the Turing test in that sense (and maybe a computer won’t be able to pass the Turing test until it understands narrative properly).

We’re also feeding the computer a lot of rules about what we think a good trailer should look like and Watson is emulating that. It’s not the same as creatively coming up with an original and creative way of doing the same job (although you could argue that’s exactly what some human marketing people in Hollywood are doing anyway!)

In this case, I don’t think Watson gets it quite right. It’s like a computer working through a checklist of things that work in theory but still manages to miss some important beats. Some cuts happen too early or too late and the pacing feels a bit wrong but for all sorts of intangible reasons I can’t fathom, annoyingly.

But…

…it still works.There are still some brilliant moments. The scene where Morgan talks to Paul Giamatti about his daughter, for instance. That genuinely made my skin crawl with the editing meaning the camera relentlessly focussed on his discomfort. Also the moment when the chair doesn’t quite make it to smash the window before the cut to black creates real tension. A human would be proud of those.

So all in all, the unnatural, unsettling feel suits this movie right down to the ground.

It would be interesting now to see how it handles a rom-com or a costume drama.

 

Passive Defensive – sticking up for the passive voice

At a meeting a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about active and passive voice in grammar. When I’ve done training on web writing in the past I’ve always encouraged people to use the active voice where possible as it’s more direct, the meaning requires less “decoding” with it’s “x did y to z” punchiness.

The passive voice, “z had y done to it by x”, sounds more complex and is tainted by weasly political evasiveness of the “mistakes were made” variety.

But increasingly, I feel the need to stick up for the passive voice. I’ve heard blunt advice from some quarters (not my colleague, I should add) that active is a sign of good writing where passive is not. I really don’t think that is the case.

The problem is not the passive voice. The problem is when we use it unthinkingly. Some people use it because they think it sounds more professional. That’s not what it’s for!

The key is to use the passive voice intentionally. I usually default to the active voice if I can but sometimes, only the passive will do.

Where would we be without the passive voice? Try turning these sentences into the active voice to see what I mean:

Rome was not built in a day.

Wisdom is only found in truth.

Libraries are not made, they grow.

See this site for more examples.

The point of voice within a sentence is to draw the attention of the reader to certain things, rather like a photographer frames a shot around a focal point. The passive voice directs attention away from the subject so we focus on the the thing that is being affected or maybe the action itself. You can have ethical reasons for not wanting to identify a subject, it might be more diplomatic, you may not know who or what the subject is or it may just not be important.

And it may just suit the rhythm and flow of the sentence better. That’s a pretty good reason, too.

For more of an explanation, try this post from Grammarly.

They that move in the shadows

My taxi ride on the way to catch the Glasgow train yesterday turned a little surreal.

After a brief chat about the ins and outs of booking taxis using apps, the taxi driver, a chatty but slightly intense man in his fifties, announced he was a member of the Anti Technology League. He didn’t own a computer, he said. Never had. Neither did the rest of his family. He used his mobile only for calls (his refusal to engage with voicemail had led to bailiffs trying to claim a £35 debt to a company after their 13 messages went unanswered. It’s OK. That’s sorted now). He only writes letters when he needs to contact someone officially (twice, so he has a copy).

It was his membership of this Anti Technology League that really interested me. Who are they? What are their demands? What are they going to do? Why have I never heard of them? They’re not really Googleable.

I began to picture a group like the shadowy “Reality or Nothing” terrorists that Dennis Potter invented for Cold Lazarus but the truth turned out to be a little more down to earth. They campaign against any organisation, councils, businesses and so on, that pressure people to use the web to access services. They are compiling a dossier of these organisations and plan to sue them for discrimination. He was very confident of success.

We talked a little about the benefits of social media, privacy, digital literacy and the need to switch off sometimes but it was clear he was resolute.

When he proudly talked about smashing up his mobile phone when he took it back into the Vodafone shop I started to get a little nervous. I had told him what I did for a living. He said he was much happier with the deal he’d been offered by Virgin so the mood lightened.

He also said he was surprised more people hadn’t heard of them.

I wasn’t deliberately trying to be a troll when I asked if they’d considered setting up a website but the joke did fall a little flat.

But ever since then I’ve been thinking about that problem.

How would you create a campaigning organisation, spread your message, recruit members these days if one of your founding principles is based on the rejection of digital technology? It’s entirely possible at the local level or on a small scale but the Anti Technology League seemed to have loftier ambitions than that.

It was obviously possible in the pre-digital world, but are we at a point now when trying to do that without recourse to the web is nigh on impossible?

Or maybe it’s because I’m now so fully enclosed in the technology bubble I lack the imagination to see how it would work.

I might fire up the app, book another taxi and see if I can continue the conversation.