Friday, February 27, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

A blog (and essentially a podcast, too) I want to make sure to highlight as well is Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by the Whedon clan, including Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other shows.

This is a short musical, about 40 minutes, originally created for Web distribution during the Hollywood writers strike. It's built upon a love triangle among Dr. Horrible, an aspiring supervillain, Capt. Hammer, the good guy, and the girl they both love, Penny. Very ambitious, funny and worth a look.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The value of podcasts

Podcasts at this point in their development are most often radio-like segments that feature either a single voice, or a voice over music, or maybe, a couple of people talking to each other. The value in that, I suppose, is hearing those voices gives additional context (through inflection and tone and emphasis) beyond the transcript. But I think the potential for podcasts is much higher, particularly in relation to interactive digital storytelling. When working in conjunction with other modern means, such as hypertext and digital video and clickable photos, these little seeds of audio could be a powerful narrative engine to add to the mix. Like the package/briefcase/note in every mystery story that just begs to be opened.
A few have seen the value in digital audio production that virtually brings us back to the heyday of radio, when The Mercury Theatre ruled the airwaves with its presentations of fascinating and provocative stories, including its infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. What has been lost in the rise of television and movies is the pure energy that sound on its own provides, and the side effect has been a video-induced laziness that has lured our culture into predominately using only one of our senses, funneling every experience through the lens of sight.
Podcasts can do virtually anything radio can do, except reach people unexpectedly. Like the best of the modern media, they can relate news, opinion, guides, journals, features, sports, statistics, reviews, etc.
National Public Radio right now, and The BBC have taken radio empires and adjusted them to this new delivery system. But the world is so much richer by not relying only on the companies that can afford large towers and FCC licenses. Try out any of the podcatchers around, such as MediaFly (others include iTunes, Juice, Nimiq and FeedDemon), and you'll begin to see the creativity and individuality that podcasting allows.
That said, the best of the work, at least in terms of production value, still comes from the usual suspects. Here are just a few examples:
* NPR's piece about bar-code hopping in SanFrancisco
* A KCRW tourism show, including a visit to Austin, Texas, for SXSW
* Or how about a vacation ... to Antarctica, by NPR
There are so many fantastic podcasts like that by radio veterans -- NPR, KCRW, BBC and the like -- at least in terms of the nonfiction content available, that competing voices will have to become quite sophisticated to compete. Or they will have to take a different tact, maybe a direction that didn't make sense before the dynamics of podcasting came into play. Fortunately, the costs of setting up a podcasting studio are minimal, at least compared to the historical costs of creating a competing radio station. A quiet place, with good acoustics (a small bathroom, or large closet, perhaps), a high quality microphone, and, at least in the beginning, a low-cost or free sound editing software, such as GarageBand (Mac) or Audacity (PC).
Intriguing to me are the ways in which podcasts can be used that radio isn't. Once again Web 2.0 interactivity should be considered. Can small-scale controllable bits of audio generate an interactive forum? I think so, but I haven't found any high quality examples. Can podcasts provoke action in superior ways to the generally passive radio audiences? I think so, but again, I'm not seeing that yet. Time shifting is important in the value of podcasts. So is the niche market. With commercial radio stations becoming less and less personal, and less and less local, can podcasts be the new voice in the air that talks directly to its listener? Can a new wave of unique and unusual voices reclaim the power of one of our lost senses? I'll be listening.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Action is the highest form of thought"

In terms of interactive narrative, that statement from Mark Stephen Meadows' "Pause & Effect" emphasizes to me the importance of plot development. If a story isn't moving, isn't revealing new pearls to follow, new doors to open, or isn't compelling the user to do anything, it's dead in the water. Plot development and character development are two essential features of story. More on character in a moment, but plot, or action, first, because of the two, I'd say action is more critical than even character.
By the way, stories typically need at least some exposition as well, but exposition is like listening to the voice from the loudspeaker. Just a little bit, just a few words or lines of it, goes a long way. Ideally, all orientation material and plot and character for that matter comes from within the action of the story, which leads back to the initial point.
I'm not sure, though, if action can function completely independent of character. I feel confident in saying that whatever character, however exquisite the rendering, will not hold an observer's interest if that character doesn't do something ... anything. Yet, I also think action without character can be just as pointless. For example, if I turn on a football game, and the blue team is playing the red, and I don't know any of the players on the field, or anything about the teams, why would I care what happens? Even if I watch closely, and one player seems to be doing extraordinary things, why would I care? Maybe that's what he is supposed to be doing. His story is obscured to me, without the context of a name, some details about him, about the team, expectations, etc. I think of the talking heads at sporting events as context creators. They tell me who the teams are, who the players are who typically do well, what the archetypal situation is (a la David vs. Goliath), etc. Only then do I begin to care that one of the players is exceeding expectations and having a great game to lead to an "upset." Or one of the players isn't having the effect on the game he should have. Or that the team is missing its star quarterback, which is why it can't pass the ball very well. Without that context, the action is meaningless. And any meaning I might make is meaningless to anyone else.
In terms of any other story, will I really care about anyone doing anything if I don't know who they are and what they are supposed to be doing and how that is turning out? That seems to be the essence of the magnetism of a narrative. We want to know what happens but also to whom. That little bit of mystery keeps us engaged. And if the mystery isn't there, we create the mystery. It's like when you see a car drive by and begin wondering: who is that person, why is that person here, where is that person going, why is it so important for that person to get there? And then, maybe, you begin to wonder: How does that person spend the rest of the day? That investment in character attaches a person to the action. If the same car zips by, and I don't look up or wonder, the action is happening, but I'm not engaged at all by the story.
Yet I can know as much as possible about a character, and be really interested in that person, but if the person isn't doing anything at that moment, isn't engaged in some activity, including thinking about doing something, then why would I want to experience that part of the story? A compelling narrative edits out the boring parts of life. The routine -- eating, chores, driving, sleeping, etc. -- as well as the mundane -- staff meetings, dinner party small talk, exercising -- takes up most of our lives. But it's the action in between that you want to tell your friends about. That's the exciting content people who encounter your stories want to experience as well.
Yet when creating a digital narrative, technical considerations also come into play. Meadows defines some of those choices as: Responsiveness versus resolution, or how well does something look on screen versus how well does it move; optimization versus ubiquity, again, how well does something look on screen but this time versus how many people have the technological tools to access it at that high of a level; and third, customization versus design, or how much the user controls the story versus the designer. Budget and intended audience also come into play on that, but tough decisions like those join the plot-versus-character debate for digital narratives. So while action might be the highest form of thought, and the engine of all stories, I don't think it can work entirely alone when creating a narrative.
My question, then, is about the base power of action. Why does it move us so? Why are we captivated by the slightest amount of movement? Think of a movie in which the actor is doing not much more than putting on a coat, or taking a bite to eat, that little bit of action makes a scene much more watchable than if the person was just staring into the camera and reciting the same exact line.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Children's book editor available

This former Scholastic editor, who came across as quite warm and considerate at a recent OR-SCBWI conference I attended, is available for editing help at what appears to be a quite reasonable rate.

This is the note I received recently from SCBWI:

"Erin Molta, who was a well-loved guest editor at our 2007 conference
(and who has published a few Oregon SCBWI members), was recently one
of the talented folks whose job was *deleted* at Scholastic. While
she is pursuing leads for a new job, I asked if she was willing to
take on a little freelance editing work. She thought about it and
decided, sure! So here is her blurb:

Do you have a manuscript with no zip? Is the ending escaping you? Has
an editor told you your characters need to be developed more? I have
twenty years experience editing children's books--from picture books,
easy readers, chapter books to middle grade and YA novels. I can help
you bring your language up or down to fit an easy reader level or
trim text in a beautiful but wordy picture book.

If you e-mail me, Erin Molta, your manuscript as an attachment to and specify what your concerns are, I will provide
a detailed editorial letter that addresses those issues and any
others that I think might help you in your pursuit of publication.

I charge $25.00 per hour, payable via PayPal, which includes the
reading of the manuscript and the editorial letter."

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Just a thought about instructions, story

I was playing The Ladybug Game today with my children for the first time and was surprised to find that it didn't come with instructions. I told my kids that there must be something somewhere in the box or on the box or in the cards, because you can't make a game without providing instructions. My oldest daughter just started making up the rules, and we began manipulating the game pieces, and we came up with a format that worked for us. In fact, it was quite fun! And then, once we established the gameplay, we kept continually refining it. The game did provide a short story about what happened to the characters in the game, and the board was shaped in a particular way, which guided us in the development of our format. It also made me start thinking about how much more interaction and engagement was involved in playing the way we did. Maybe the best way to create interactive narratives is to start with nothing, except a few pieces and tools and an environment, and let the player broadly determine what comes next. It sure works in childplay, so does it lose its value later because many adults have atrophied imaginations? Or is it just that most adults have had the idea of complete freedom of choice hammered out of them?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Of interactive narratives and home pages

One of my primary web design goals recently has been to convert my static Web 1.0 homepage at into a Web 2.0 portal of interactive excitement (or at least to take a few steps in that direction). It has become a significant journey of personal, professional and technical growth.
It felt right to start where I did, essentially a summary page of what I offer online. But as I look around the Web, and I think about why anyone would bother to come to my pages, I think the homepage should be more interesting and informative and even a little bit of fun for users. So my concept has been developing along with my increased interest in the rise of mobile technology. I'm not an avid cellular phone user, but it seems absolutely clear to me that as cell phones -- particularly those like the touch pad iPhones, which don't require typing or even reading -- give virtually everyone easy access to the power of the Internet, the Web will soon be making another major leap in the market and become as Mark Weiser, former Chief Technology Officer of Xerox-PARC, once predicted, "ubiquitous." To pay homage to the power of the phone in our lives today, and where I think it's going in the future, I've designed my page around the phone metaphor, letting it dial into my space in various ways. I also think this would translate well to people who access my site via phone. I will post that soon, I hope. I want to continue to develop it through various buttons and gizmos, of course. In addition, I want to incorporate my continuing interest in storytelling and narrative construction, particularly interactive narratives. But this is at least the first step.
For direction, I look to Mark Stephen Meadows again and his passage on Ralph Koster, who served as the lead designer of Ultima Online, and who early on identified two distinct paths of interactive narrative. The first he called "impositional," the style of story design in which the creators maintain most of the control, giving users limited choices in which to complete a few different branching narrative arcs. The other style he calls "expressive." That is more like architecture, designed for use but also exploration. In that, the story creator sets up a framework and the user does the rest, including reaching self-determined goals and following user-controlled direction and pace.
Just as my homepage had to go from static to the next phase, I think it's properly evolutionary for me to aim for gaining some impositional experience first before reaching for the brass ring of expressive. Also, I'm not sure the purpose of my site, at least as I'm envisioning it now, responds as well to the expressive style as it does to the impositional outlook of: I'm going to give you some freedom to move around here and see different things. But I'm not trying to create an environment like a weak facsimile of "The Sims," either.
Speaking of "The Sims," video games and movie/DVD web sites right now are so far ahead of everyone else, I often find myself in awe of what they are accomplishing, particularly in comparison to the baby steps being taken by the news media, which could have just as much to gain, if not more, by the increased interest people have in information.
When a company like IonStorm, for example, calls its game, "Deus Ex Machina," or "God From the Machine," I begin to feel that I'm taking part in an almost spiritual awakening of humanity in our potential for intelligence and connection and worldwide partnerships, only at the same time realizing that most of the best ideas seem to be coming from the entertainment industry and most energy funneled in that direction, creating just more and more distractions and ways for people to escape reality. In the meantime, "real" news is withering under the spotlight in which Paris Hilton's hijinks compete head to head with local city council agendas, bringing to mind Neil Postman's prophetic book "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." I'm quickly stepping off the soapbox, though, and getting back to the matter at hand, the homepage.
Another inspiration to me has been author Scott McCloud's,, use of the metaphor of a monitor as a window, into which we can see limitless possibilities, such as a comic on a rotating cube or covering a globe. I hope that before I'm done I can create something uniquely digital, not just something remediated, something that takes full advantage of these incredible tools we now have available in new and innovative ways.
During this redesign process, learning about the possibilities, I've also been immersed in the potential of the tools and how much work it can be to get oriented with those. I'll say, it's not like picking up a hammer and looking for something to strike. I recently bought Adobe's Creative Suite 4 (design edition), which includes Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Illustrator and InDesign. I also bought a copy of Adobe Premiere Elements. While I've dabbled in all of these before, or similar programs, the little quirks in each has taken a significant amount of time to learn, at least to use in the now more ambitious directions I'm taking. I began just by browsing the many, many free training videos on YouTube and around the web, and I have to say that I quickly learned you get what you pay for. Oy! Many of them are really terrible. Thankfully, though, Adobe gave me a 30-day membership to, and I've been impressed with the design and care and layout of that site. Extremely simple to navigate, and I have learned an incredible amount in a very short time period (although many of those hours have been stolen from my allotted few still assigned to sleep; I was up until 4 a.m. yesterday, paying for it today). My main emphasis recently has been on Flash and its ActionScript 3.0. I guess I naively thought that software today had become primarily point and click, but this one still needs a significant amount of coding. The possibilities, though, are amazing. I also have been delving into the world of public domain media -- images and sound and video -- to help supplement what I have, and I've been impressed with the growing amount of content available for such use. Which brings me to a couple of questions for you. What are your favorite places to get online software training (particularly if that can be had at no cost)? And where do you prowl around for public domain media? Please share any sites I should be visiting. Thanks!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Jakob Nielsen's column

Ran across this column today, and its backlog, which covers many interesting issues in web usability and design. It's put together by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, who calls it "Alertbox," and from what I've read so far, it appears to be aimed at a general audience, yet with enough detail to keep more techie readers engaged as well.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Searching for a metaphor

With my home page redesign due in less than a month, I seriously need to figure out how I'm going to reach my goal of making an interactive site out of what essentially is an online portfolio, blog and student hub for the classes I teach. How boring is that! ... So I'm turning again to Meadows in “Pause & Effect,” who describes the key stages of interaction: 1. Observation, 2. Exploration, 3. Modification and 4. Reciprocal change. He then later layers on the parallel storytelling stages of: 1. Fascination, 2. Captivation, 3. Investment and 4. Interest. With this site, I want visitors to get to know me (at least to a certain degree), and I want them to see what I've done and what I can do in this medium and others, including writing, publishing and teaching. For them to be even close to “fascinated,” though, I'm going to have to develop a much stronger entry point at Something abstract, yet something that sets an appropriate tone for what I'm going to deliver. Inspired by Meadows' look at perspective, I'm going to attempt to create an interactive portrait, so that the first thing someone sees at my home page is me looking right back at them. Only it won't really be me, exactly, more of a dynamic representation of me, or parts of me, that would encourage a visitor to explore and peer past this facade I've created and go inside my online space. While Meadows states most designers concern themselves only with outside-the-skull interactivity, (how long the page takes to load, etc.), I think my hesitation lies heavily on the inside-the-skull interaction, or what is this going to mean to the people who come to this site. If prospective employers look, what will they think? If my friends look, what reaction will they have? If strangers come by, how will they respond? It's almost a target audience issue, more than anything else. Since I'm asking this site to do a variety of things, and appeal to a variety of people, I'm having trouble visualizing an entry point that will satisfy (and intrigue) them all. I think it would be so much easier if I had a site set up just for prospective employers, and another one just for friends, and another just for my teaching, and another just for other interests I might have. Maybe that's my true solution, to turn into nothing but a portal that sends people to different pages (while I can send them there directly, too, when I choose, and bypass the entry point), and then the work of consistency and focus can be left to those pages as they are designed for their uses. The input / output that Meadows describes, creating an interaction cycle, becomes difficult the more ways I'm pulling people, who probably won't be interested in more than one section of this site. I'm really struggling with that overlay, I suppose. Maybe it's the metaphor. Maybe it should be doors, like Meadows shows, and someone rings the doorbell of one door, and it opens to the portfolio. And maybe the next door opens to teaching. I'm starting to like that idea more and more. That would give me some input / output at the beginning, doors that people could open and shut or go into. I'll explore that idea as well in the next couple of weeks. And maybe think of similar metaphors. Like C.S. Lewis' wardrobe. Hmmm, I think I might be on to something. What else can be used as a portal? A pool of water, a hole, a cave, a closet, a phone line. How about a series of phones that are ringing, and the user can choose to answer one. Or just pick one up, like the Bat Phone, or the Red Phone, or whatever. With the way mobile computing is going, I think the phone will become even a stronger metaphor in years to come. There certainly are a lot of buttons on a phone, and these buttons could do a lot of things, input-output wise. Can I technically pull that off? That's a big question. And I'm not even in the ballpark yet of Meadows idea of an open system, versus a closed system, or, in other words, one that the user can change and improve. How about a ringing phone? The user clicks on the phone to answer it. That starts the adventure ... I'm going to work on that. Questions: To what degree does a person need to be a full-time web designer with years of programming experience to create a compelling and interactive page? Is it more about concept than coding, like someone shooting a fabulous movie entirely on a hand-held?