Though it themes

We’ve been using various themes in ds106 for a few years now. It’s served as a good way to focus the class and provide a basis for collaboration. What I look for in a theme is the potential for fun and flexibility – something loose enough so that people can make of it what they want. There are always people who don’t like the theme, or are uninterested in it. They’re always welcome to use it as a critique, or to put a different spin on it, or to do anything they need to do to find a way to have fun with it. Most people tend to take a rather narrow interpretation, which makes me sad and disappointed, but it’s not about me.

The idea to use a secret agent theme came from a longtime friend of ds106 on Twitter, playing off my name. Bond stories are known for action and adventure, unusual characters and exotic locales, all things the class could have fun with. They’re easy to parody as well. They’re also known for chauvinism, sexism and racism, so they’re very much open to critique. The recent Bond graphic novels have done this a little. There’s also the idea of identity, which fits in well with the course. That’s part of the secret in secret agent. So we can be who we want to be when interacting with the class. And we can be double agents, opening the possibility of plot twists in the course.

by Ellis, Masters, Major and Bowland, from James Bond VARGR

Personally I’m interested in the idea of the secret agency, an organization that is able to operate outside of the law and above the level of the nation-state. MI6 and CIA don’t quite fit that bill, but SPECTRE and Hydra do, as well as the mercenary organizations in Kingsman and Archer. I wonder how they work, internally and externally, beyond the expendable agents in the field.

But there’s more to it than Bond or Bourne. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind put an interesting twist on it – interesting at least to those of us who remember The Gong Show. Another graphic novel, Velvet, puts a gender twist in the typical Cold War secret agent, which I found interesting, but then it’s also written by men so one could critique it from that perspective. The podcast series Limetown is about a reporter investigating a mass disappearance, but behind it all is a kind of secret agency, one or two nameless corporations with the finances and influence to set up an entire town, and to make its inhabitants vanish, without any meaningful official inquiry.

So there are many ways to play this theme. And that’s good, because we can have a bit of mystery between what it is and what it seems.

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No place I’d rather be

This is a test post to see if it’s feeding properly.

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Hello it’s me

Our new old radio friend @scottlo issued a challenge the other day to identify a song

Identifying the song is pretty easy when the title is the hashtag. Identifying the performer, not so much. The music reminds me of The Singing Detective, which featured Tin Pan Alley type songs

Scott’s song dates back to the ’20s, so I thought I might be able to find sheet music so I could attempt to play it. I managed to locate a scan of it in someone’s Etsy shop.

While the melody is pretty simple, the chords are all dims and augs and sixes and sevens and nines, which are beyond my level of dexterity and expertise. But if I ignore all the jazziness and coloration I can sort of play through it

I attempted to sing it, but that part was too horrible so I edited it out and left the more Shatner-esque vocals. What I find potentially valuable about this process is that listening to the recording makes me more conscious of things I need to work on, like timing and dynamics. Maybe if I keep doing it I can develop a level of competence.

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You can’t judge a book…

I’m fascinated by Todd Alcott’s mashup/remix work and wanted to try something similar. I didn’t have an idea of what I wanted to do particularly, so I googled pulp paperback covers looking for inspiration. The Sailor’s Weekend cover caught my attention because I had been listening to Tom Waits the other day and thought of Shore Leave

I’d have to really rework the design to fit much of the lyrics in, so I just did the one verse.

The first thing I needed to do was clear the type off of the image. Photoshop makes this relatively easy. I used the magic wand tool to select lines of type, then used the Select->Modify->Expand function to get an extra 2 pixels around the selection. Then I used the Edit->Fill->Content-Aware function to cover up the type. If I didn’t do the Expand, some of the type edges would show. As it is, you can still see artifacts of the photoshopping, but it’s not too bad. I used a Bodoni typeface because I’ve seen it on vintage paperbacks before. I think it’s a little too plain still, and the type could use some sort of aging effect to fit in better, but it’s OK as it is.

I tried another using this edition of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Lady in the Lake. The image made me think of a William Shatner “song” I heard years ago, when he did his Has Been album. I used the same process to edit the image, and fit more of the lyrics in, but I think the typography needs more work.

All of this verifies what I already knew, namely that this is harder than it looks. But I think if I match the right lyrics to the right cover, I can come up with something interesting

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Seeing through new eyes

The video essay projects are another one of my favorite parts of ds106. While we do various analyses throughout the semester – story shapes, design blitz, etc. – people seem to put more into video. That’s probably because it’s a language we’re more familiar with. Most people say they’ve never looked at movies in that analytical sort of way. Many say it never occurred to them to try. But most people really take to the project and appear to get a lot out of it. They see things in new ways:

I thought this was a cool exercise that helped me to see my favorite movie in a different light.

This scene meant way more than what I thought it meant when I initially watched it.

Once I started watching the assigned videos I soon figured out why I thought it was so unique.

That’s just three, but there are many others expressing similar sentiments. It’s inspiring to me because it helps me see things in new ways too, as I get to learn from everybody’s insights.

A book I recommend to movie fans is Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. Lumet had a long history of making many classic films, as well as many underappreciated ones. After I read his book the first time, I went to Netflix and the local library to watch all the films he talks about. Then I wanted to go back and immediately re-read the book to tie it all back together.

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O Video Why Art Thou?

It’s been a long long time since I did a video essay, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Here I talk briefly about symbolism in O Brother Where Art Thou. Some of the clips I found on Youtube. For others, I used Quicktime to make screen recordings from Netflix. Astute observers may notice that the film is not streaming on Netflix. But when I use my Opera browser, it thinks I’m in Sweden, where Netflix has a somewhat different selection. I used MPEG Streamclip to trim clips and stills from what I had. The voiceover was recorded in Audacity. I put it all together in iMovie. I had to stretch some shots and trim some clips to get the images and video in sync with the voiceover. Not too tedious. I think it came out okay. It’s probably not very insightful and a little slapped together. Adding some background music might have improved it, as well as some titles, but, it’s okay for a quickie.

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The legendary radio shows

Some people inevitably won’t be able to make it to the ds106 radio tweet-along broadcasts of the class radio projects. So I’m providing links here to the shows and background on the characters. Ideally, people should listen in and interact. But if you can’t, give a listen to the other groups’ shows and blog about them.

The Legends ds106 Radio Show!


Deidra the Determinator
Irritated the Gnome
Rocket Richard
Adam Roche

Myths, Legends, And Character Conversations


Fiery Dragon
Maria Segreti
Ella Maguire
La Senora Luz
Nora Bendenova

Super Storytellers


Malachi Gray (Kai)
Shadow Leopard
Callen Zelrich

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Check your head

There will be much to say about OpenEd18 and I’m sure most will say it better than me. But while I’m mulling over the serious, I can write a little about the frivolous.

I used the occasion to run a little rogue experiment in art distribution, since sharing is part of open and it’s approaching Halloween. My plan was to leave my little skullish things lying around for people to find. I wasn’t sure if people were finding them or if maintenance was throwing them away so I started dropping some on the Sharing Table. Happily, someone not only found D. Guest, but also thought the distribution idea was worth taking back home.

‘Stache skull Vincenzo was discovered this morning:

I can tell Rosie found a good home by the colors on the page

Tall Boy sat around all day at the back of one room, but now gets to go to Texas with his glow-in-the-dark teeth & eyes.

Ladybug looks to be headed to PA. I think that’s appropriate, since PALCI sent me many books during my time with Pitt.

Unfortunately Fritzie was out in the cold all night and all day.

There were 14 others. I wonder where they ended up? I think the experiment went well though. I got the chance to see a few reactions, as people looked at them quizzically on the Share Table. Most people didn’t seem to even notice though. Like our friend from CA, I’m going to take the idea back home and follow in the footsteps of my inspiration. Will the people of Binghamton notice? We shall see.

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Open heads for open ed

I wrote earlier about my skull adventure. I got the idea, copied it really, from Brother O’Mara who operates down in New Orleans. He gave me his blessing:

My work is crude and amatuerish in comparison, but I think I’m getting a better handle on it. But making them is only half the job. They need to be distributed too. So I’m thinking I will plant them around Niagara Falls next week when I’m at the Open Ed conference. I needed some sort of card to go with them, so I guess I gave myself a design assignment. In keeping with Open Ed, I wanted to play off of Creative Commons, so I thought of “common craniums” or “cranial commons.” Common craniums balanced well – both words come out almost the same length – but my creations are a bit to mutant to be called common. Cranial commons leaves a little room to fit in a tag line, “open art for #OpenEd” or something like that. Then I had to do something with the CC logo. I googled “skull logo” and set the image filters for white color and “labeled for reuse.” I found one from Wikimedia Commons, which is perfect both in spirit and for my purposes. Using Photoshop, I replaced the skull eyeholes with the double c of the Creative Commons logo and applied a stroke to the outside edge of the logo to more or less match the weight of the stroke in the type. It’s pretty far removed from the CC logo, but I think it works well enough. I used Helvetica Bold for the typeface, like in the CC logo, and put it on a business card template.

I’m going to attach skulls to the cards or vice versa, like so:

And I’ll leave them around for people to find. It’s close enough to Halloween so people may like it. Some people will no doubt find them hideous. But perhaps the right people will appreciate it. We shall see. The setting and the timing make it a nice little public art experiment. Hopefully the maintenance people won’t just throw them away.


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The Kidd is alright

I picked up a copy of Chip Kidd’s book at my local library.
What the Brain Pickings article says about it, that it “refus[es] to talk down to them or confine their inborn curiosity to narrow adult expectations about what ‘writing for children’ should be like” is spot on. I feel like I should tell the UMW library to get a copy and put it on course reserve for ds106, because it’s to the point and accessible to non-designers.

The front and back covers are beautiful examples of how design has meaning. The red octogon and the green circle mean stop and go, which he highlights by switching the instructions. We also see typography going on on the back, with the period emphasizing “stop” and carefully kerned to fit under the “P.”

I like this page near the beginning of the book. It’s a thoughtful message, expressed simply. Or should I say subtly? The size of the type, and the typefaces used, are not random. The letters are carefully spaced to form a justified block of text. The final sentence is centered, forming an elongated oval, making the whole page a squat exclamation point. The change in typeface, color and capitalization, brings special emphasis to the point. The eye jumps to it immediately, so you have it in mind as you read the text from the beginning.

Here are a series of pages discussing scale. We see the same kind of meaning-inversion Kidd used on the cover repeated at the top of the first page. The color of the headline type carries through to the background of the second page. The second page uses blank space to emphasize the smallness of the image. If there were a lot of text on the page, we might feel like the image was as big as it could be, but as it is, we know otherwise. when the page is turned, it fills the page, in stark contrast. On the final page, the image returns to the same size and place as before, dwarfed again by blank space and the type above.

Subconsciously, colors have meaning to us. Some come from the natural environment, some come from cultural tradition, and some from personal experience. In design, we need to consciously think about the meanings. Everything is a choice, made to achieve a desired goal. We should be able to articulate why we made our choices and what they do for our design. Why that color? Why that font? Because all these details communicate meaning.

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