Just to feel free and be someone

with thanks to Gregory Pardlo and Pádraig Ó Tuama

The sky is clear, immaculate, and the Big Dipper is as big as I’ve ever seen it.

And it’s not your hand I’m holding. We can’t hold hands anymore anyway.

But the dog holds my hand, her yellow nylon leash taut, as she pulls me on with her snuffling love of scents, with her bounding joy for the running neither of us could do a month ago.

She drags me on, barking at those white-tailed bastards mocking her in the dark.

And I squeeze your hand back, and make a wish for us.

Enterprising men quote ’em

I was joking around on Twitter with Michael Berman, about vendor tweets appearing in a conference stream. You can see the thread, but the point is, he called me a chatbot.


And that sounded a bit like a challenge.

Specifically, it sounded like a challenge to find something that spit out the buzzwords of educational technology, like I was doing with Michael. And then the Imp of the Perverse whispered in my ear that maybe what I should do is mashup famous quotes with those buzzwords.

And so @EdtechEpigrams was conceived.

I have a memory that Networked Narratives includes a “make a Twitter bot” activity, so thanks to Alan Levine and Mia Zamora for leaving me that breadcrumb. It took a couple of swings at Google to find something I could quickly make use of, but Katherine Marzinsky’s post about her @nounjective bot fit the bill.

That got me the pointer to Zach Whalen’s SSBot, which is basically a tool for generating random tweets based on a Google Spreadsheet and a provided script. I worked helpdesk long enough to know that I should be skeptical about running code I can’t read… but I went ahead and ran it anyway. It’s a pretty slick tool and configuring it wasn’t too hard. (Except for the part where I got columns and rows confused and generated a whole bunch of gibberish… but I fixed that by just cut-and-pasting the data into the right tab on the spreadsheet.)

Honestly, the complicated part is playing with syntax and grammar. My bot is following a very standard formula of

(witty saying) (ending with a buzzword).

but I was kind of surprised to see what a restraint that is. For starters, it means I have to stick to quotes ending in nouns (or noun forms). It also means that definitions are mostly out, since those would be funniest as

(buzzword) (followed by a witty saying).

Which is kind of a pity, because Bryan Alexander’s Devil’s Dictionary was another inspiration for this project.

(I notice that a later release of SSBot now supports regular expressions. Theoretically, it seems like this ought to allow me to figure out a variable for “put buzzword here”… but this is just a quick cheap laugh and I wasn’t motivated to do it. Maybe someday. )

I’ve currently got enough quotes and enough buzzwords for 1000+ unique tweets. At a tweet every 4 hours… that’s plenty of time for the industry to come up with some more.



Middle Path crocus patch

I wish it were winter.

I wish it were cold and the wind were biting our cheeks. I’d fix my son’s scarf around his neck and bundle up his coat and tell him that sometimes the rules are stupid, but we follow them anyway. And sometimes the rules are stupid and it’s not that hard to just go around them. We’d sit together at the coffee bar and drink hot chocolate.

But the crocuses are coming up, and our shirtsleeves are poor protection from the wind.

Boy pulling a sled

This little monologue or illustrated poem or whatever it is entered my head last night as I was trying to get to sleep, and it was still there this morning.


Both photos are mine, CC-BY-NC, taken on my iPhone and saturation and brightness tweaked in Flickr. The crocus shot was taken just two days ago; I stopped the car to get the shot just before a rainstorm rolled in. The sled shot is from two winters ago.

For Matt

A cup of tea, for Matt

I was part of a Human Library today, as part of the college’s Global Engagement Week. (This is what happens when you invite people to storytelling workshops… they come to understand that you’re a storyteller, and then they ask you to tell stories.)

After struggling for a bit with what my “title” would be, by which people would check out my story, I lit on my story about Kenyon’s rebuilding trip to New Orleans after Katrina and Rita. I shared a rather wooly recounting of the trip with a couple of people. And then in a lull between “readers”, our organizer Marne asked me, very gently, if I had known Matt Huber.

Oh God.

There’s only one reason you’d ask that question that way.

Matt, the slight asthmatic freshman who worked so hard on the job sites?

Matt, the kid on fire in my office a couple of weeks after we got back, struggling with the fact that the job wasn’t done yet?

Matt, the strapping senior with the ponytail, winning the college’s Anderson Cup for his 3 years of organizing rebuilding trips?

Matt, one of the reasons I say this trip is the single moment of my Kenyon experience I’m most proud of?

Yes, I knew him. What a loss, that he should be gone at 29.

Marne and I talked a little bit about what a great guy he was. As she put it, we get to see all the students grow over 4 years, but sometimes we’re privileged to see the watershed moment when things really change.

I sat for a little while, and then I walked back to my office. I started the electric kettle, and listened as the water heated and boiled, giving a thought to the fridge full of beer on my left. I poured the steaming water into my dirty coffee cup, tore open a little green packet of Irish Breakfast tea, and bobbed the bag slowly in the water.

I wiped my eyes and talked to Jason about a logistical matter.

And I walked back to the Human Library, and told my story again. Our story, this story I now carry for one person more.

Happy birthday

I’ve been amused by the #15secondshakespeare phenomenon, so I was pretty stoked when it showed up as a daily create. I actually thought I was going to do a different old standard… but then, in honor of making another trip around the sun, I picked this one. Honestly, I’m kind of hoping it’ll go viral. Surprise your friends with it.

The music is “Go From My Window“, a 16th century folk song as arranged by John Dowland and performed by Frank Hiemenz, under a CC-BY license. (It’s really quite pretty when I’m not over-acting over it.) I dumped it into GarageBand and recorded my voice in another track. Lining up my voice at the end of the first phrase was a pretty clear choice; I had to fade the guitar down (further than I thought I’d need to) and adjust the spoken volume up a bit.

Shelter from the storm

open, yes we're open

It’s 10 years since Katrina and Rita and the levees broke. If you haven’t read Lolis Eric Elie’s magnificent piece “The Whys” on The Bitter Southerner you really ought to. It resonates with my own meager experience rebuilding in New Orleans for a week, in that every person I met had a story to tell about their flood experience, about their rebuilding decisions.

No, that’s not right – not just a story to tell. A story to share, a story to ask us to carry. An invitation to help them process, as they made decisions about possessions, and places. Maybe a request to be remembered as an individual, not as a statistic in a historical episode.

That is part of the point of storytelling, in any form. Memoir, fiction, nonfiction, mashup – we try to make a connection, form a bond, refute entropy. We make stories, and make sense; in telling or listening, we expand ourselves.

And maybe that’s the context which explains why I took a recent post by Alan Levine to heart.

The Stream is a funny thing. A friend sharing pain, a cat video, an echo from the political chamber, a friend announcing joy. When the same information feed serves as my newspaper, my editorial magazine, my entertainment, and my connection to my friends, it’s hard to remember to treasure those acts of deep sharing.

still from Ghostbusters
“You said crossing the streams was bad!” – Peter Venkman

So, I guess, we beat on, boats against the tide. We smash the Like button, we write “hooray” or “I’m sorry” or “I’m with you.” We retweet and reshare, and we hope it’s enough to make the world a safe space for stories. Sometimes we open an email or pick up the phone. Or we write a letter to the papers or the government and we give money and we vote. And sometimes, we open a word processor or blog post or image or video or audio editor and make art, dammit.

All because we hold you in our hearts. Because we listened, and we grew, and we bonded, and we remember.

“open, yes we’re open” by Derek Bridges, CC-BY 2.0 at https://flic.kr/p/8d67SR

Still from Ghostbusters, from https://ageofsteam.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/crossing-the-streams.jpg

Tender Years

I had the distinct pleasure last week of hosting Joe Lambert and Brooke Hessler from the Center for Digital Storytelling for a workshop at Kenyon. I believed that I was going in as the on-site tech support guy, so I didn’t think I was going to make a story. See,  I was going to be helpful to other people, and watch Joe and Brooke to really learn how to facilitate a story circle.

Concetta (who had been in our 2012 workshop), said that was sad, because I’m a good storyteller. (Which is not, to be honest, something I’d gone into this workshop considering.) And there was a ripple of agreement in the room, that my colleagues wanted me with them as a participant. And Joe said “no free riders.”

So I started wracking my brain for a story to tell.

The penny dropped when, during another person’s turn in the story circle, Joe pointed out that writing a letter to someone can be a great storytelling prompt. I started thinking about people I’d like to talk to, people I might owe a thank-you note or an explanation.

I remembered that I have a story which recently eluded telling.

And here’s another way to tell it.

From a storytelling perspective, shifting the audience made all the difference in the world. By making it a piece for Melanie, instead of for “the world”, clarifying an in-joke became sharing an anecdote. And technically, relating the story out loud, and getting feedback from a room of supportive colleagues, helped me find a lot of the connective tissue which I didn’t find alone with my keyboard.

So thank you, my Kenyon and CDS colleagues (and my wife, who saw a rough cut), for sharing your courage, for your aesthetic input, and for sharing this story with me.

Put me in, Coach!

I already drew a map which tells a story, so when TDC 1237 challenged us to make a map which explains nothing, it seemed like a fitting challenge. I was inspired by the map of “Super Bowl Wins By Country” on the TDC page, so here’s:

Change in MLB Batting Average by US State 2005-2014

(Edit: this used to be an interactive map. But Google killed the product. So here’s a screenshot.)

Batting Average by State

This map is made with Google Fusion Tables. The team batting average data comes from Baseball-Reference.com; the state shapes are a resource file within Fusion Tables. (This introduces the one unintentional inaccuracy in the map – I couldn’t quickly find a shape file including both U.S. states and Canadian provinces, so the Toronto Blue Jays are just left off the map.)

More importantly, its story is a mess. For starters, who would compare team batting average over 10 years? There are so many differences in lineups and managers (and probably even park effects) that it seems like a pointless comparison. (My baseball geek friends are welcomed to debate that point.)

“Batting average by state” is almost as meaningless as “Super Bowls by country” – maybe more so, because it suggests specificity. But if there’s a useful reason to compare the average batting average of the 5 teams in California with the 1 in Maryland, I’m at a loss to explain it. (And you can barely see the poor Nats in DC.)

The state statistics are actually an average of team batting averages in the state, but every team doesn’t have the same number of at bats, so that introduces a little inaccuracy. Not much, but it would show up out at the 4th digit.

And then there’s design. Google only labels the top and bottom of the legend, so we know the bounds, but not what the middle colors correspond to. I picked a green color for half the scale, on a map which is mostly green – very bad for readability, especially in the Satellite view. I also set green to correspond to the biggest declines, and red for the biggest increases, which I think is the opposite of American expectations.

But I did learn a little about Fusion Tables, and practiced normalizing data, so that was fun!

My case, of which I’m certain

TDC 1222 asks us to write a list of our regrets, and video ourselves throwing it away.

I did it my way.

(Kids, ask your parents. Or possibly your grandparents.)

As you can tell from the watermark, I used WeVideo to make this. We’ll be using it next week at a workshop run by the Center for Digital Storytelling, and I’m the local tech support, so I thought I better try it out. It’s a web-based video editor, with a clean interface; I can see why it might work well as an intro tool for new video editors and in community outreach situations.

Also, it can import video from a USB webcam, which apparently iMovie can’t. This shot comes from my Logitech webcam, perched upside-down on top of my monitor. (That simultaneously solved the problem of how I can film my own hands, and how I could get the writing right-side-up.) My hands aren’t quite in frame enough at the end, but it got the concept.

The silence at the beginning is a little disorienting; if I were going to work more on it I’d try to capture the sound of pen on paper or maybe add a soundtrack. Let’s file that under “lessons learned”, and certainly not under “regrets!”

Long time listener, first time caller