Monday, April 30, 2012

'Butterflies and Sand' e-book

I've been playing with Leanpub recently. The nice thing about using Markdown text-files over Dropbox to publish is that it's easy to script books, which means you can do some fun things.

"Butterflies and Sand" is my first experiment. It takes the haiku I've published on Twitter from the lovely poeet service, chooses some at random, and puts them into sections with titles also taken from the haiku. 3 haiku per page, 3 pages per sections, 3 sections.

Leanpub is designed to let you update books easily, so people that buy your book also get all future updates. This means that when I re-generate and re-publish 'Butterflies...', anyone that's already bought it will get the "latest" version, with different titles and different haiku in a different order.

I like the surrealism involved here. The original idea came out of talking with James about emerging narrative about one's life somehow. By ordering my own haiku, written at disparate points in time, into new timelines, what meaning emerges from them? Is that meaning totally random and/or dependent on the reader, or is there something "fundamental" that weaves my own thoughts together throughout time?

The book is currently only $2 until "proper" release tomorrow, when I'll probably put it up to the price of a pint. I'm currently planning to make new versions available every 2 months, but that might change. Hey, it's all an experiment.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Psychogeography and the persona of place

James "orbific" Burt is running a Psychogeography Workshop on May 26th in Brighton, exploring alternative ways of, uh, exploring what we would otherwise call "familiar ground". Having seen James talk on the subject before, there's certainly plenty (perhaps infinite) techniques to draw on and content to call up.

The "narrative of place" idea is interesting not because it adds some meaning to our locality, but because it shifts it. Psychogeography reveals more than the underlying place itself - it also highlights the fact that even in everyday life - especially in everyday life - we exist within a pre-conceived narrative already.

We're so used to it that we don't notice it, but as we wander the streets, we observe them, and go on to become entangled with them. We "know" the areas with character that we like, that we trust, that we find seedy or scary or even embarrassing. We take affectionate shortcuts, or long scenic routes. We navigate the terrain with feeling, as if we're reading the hills like words on an page. Our route betrays our mood, and the story mood desires.

Everyone's locality has a different story, knitted together from their memories, personalities, and circumstances. Psychogeography lets us escape ours, and stumble across others', embedded into the urban landscape. We can reconnect with the anonymous by disconnecting from ourselves. We can take on new persona and the new senses that come with them.

Then, when we return to our own lives, the world around us has already shifted.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Descriptive Camera

Matt Richardson's Descriptive Camera takes a photo, uploads it to Amazon's Mechanical Turk service where a human describes the photo, and then the camera prints out that text description. Genius.

I love the results from more abstract shots. This example produced the text that follows, complete with spelling mistakes:


This is a faded picture of a dilapidated building. 
It seems to be run down and in the need of repirs.

In theory you don't need a specific camera to do this - just a way to get any image into the Turk, and somewhere to put the text. Maybe it could be hooked up to a webcam, or tied to a public location such as a park - I've seen similar "text photos" in galleries before, but there's a beauty in tying together an unknown author with an unseen moment in time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Using stories to encourage learning

A wee while ago, I grabbed James' copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem in return for a blog post on it. As it's been 3.5 years now, I figure I should probably write that post...

Of course, as time has ticked on (and my memory of the book fades), the pressure on myself to write an ever-better post has upped and upped. If I delay any more, I'll only be happy once the post outsells the Da Vinci Code, so I've opted to swap quality for a brief, focused insight.

I enjoyed Cryptonomicon by Stephenson a lot. It combined a keen description of what code is with an epic, engrossing fiction scattered through history.

Anathem is intriguing because it swaps a historical context for a mythical one, which feels like a slightly twisted, subversive parody of our own society, while keeping the same idea of introducing the reader to mathematical and physical concepts. These aren't necessary to the plot, but are explained in more detail through Appendices. Being a compulsive completionist, I duly read through these with some interest.

I don't know if it's just me being more into crypto than geometry, but Anathem didn't hold together as much as Cryptonomicon, overall. I liked the premise, I loved the ending, but there were a lot of words in there.

But the idea of using fiction to teach is pretty cool, and not done enough, IMHO.

Three other Internet-based puzzle games spring to mind in this vein. One was The Stone, which had no story but did have a series of puzzles which had to be unlocked. Each puzzle related to something - a person, or an event, or a place, etc.

The second game, Planetarium, involves a story mailed out on a weekly basis, based round a character called the "mathemagician". I think you had until the next installment to find and solve as many of the puzzles in each "chapter" as you could, but it seems to still be running so give it a go.

The third, the much larger and more obviously commercial Perplex City, involved a much more complex plot which unfolded in "real-time", plus puzzles spread across the internet and cards which could be bought. Puzzles often needed some calculation, like the Mathemagician, or some research, like The Stone, or just some good old-fashioned brute-force crypto cracking.

All three of these involve puzzles, rather than direct education, but at the same time they all encourage learning through narrative, in the same way that Anathem and Cryptonomicon do. And a good narrative is a good puzzle - it involves the reader into wondering how the information they have now will become an outcome next. The main difference with the three examples above is that it's not the author doing the puzzle-solving, but the reader(s).

Narrative gives us context, which makes it easier for us to remember why something is how it is. Applied learning involves more than just knowledge - it gives that knowledge a place, and a reason. Experience isn't about what we'be done, but what we've learnt while doing it, and maybe stories are just a simulated way of recreating this. By associating with the experience of another (a fictional character), we have all the fun of experience, but far less of the pain if it goes wrong (and if it does, we know that someone else - the author - made it happen).

What if we hooked tutorials up to TV programmes? What if school curriculums needed character development and arc plots? What if newspaper articles set brainteasers about the stats they spouted?

We have stories, all around us. And we try to force ourselves to "learn" stuff all the time. Maybe all we need to tie the two together is just a little more imagination.

(And like James, I'm happy to pass the copy of Anathem on - get in touch if you're interested.)