We got everything we need right here

There’s a common narrative pattern in which a protagonist is saddled with some differentiating characteristic – big ears for example, or scissors for hands, or flatulence.

At first said characteristic causes the protagonist to be shunned by their peers, but in a different context it turns out to be an advantage, enabling them to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge and win the respect and adulation they deserve.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the coming age of digital storytelling, of e-books and mobile apps. And I’ve been wondering about the authoring tools that might be required for easy and ubiquitous content creation, whether purely digital or crossing over into print.

Based on my experiences putting together the cards and mobile web pages for 1794: A Small Story it seems the would-be e-book author needs some kind of easy templating system, adapted to page or screen…

… then an outliner to sketch out the flow of their book…

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1794 Redux

Late last year I made a small prototype based on my Ignite London talk, 1794, by printing the 20 slides as Moo cards, with associated pages on this blog.

Now there’s a new version, using cards, stickers and an A3 sheet for you to play with the story. It’s backed up with a new set of web pages at 1794story.wordpress.com.

It’s an unashamedly personal, partial and unfinished history, an experiment in stripping the book down to its barest essentials then adding some of the flexibility and remixability of the web. I’ve written more of the “why” of the project in the about page.

Also, I’m looking for a few people to play with the story. “Beta test” would be an overstatement, but I am interested in honest feedback. There is no right way to read this story, only what you do with it. Let me know if you’re interested.

Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

It’s a pleasure to see – at risk of sounding like a Key Stage One Literacy Coordinator – that reading is hot right now.

Into this maelstrom come the Mag+ concepts from BERG for Bonnier. If you haven’t seen the video you should watch it now. Beyond the thoughtful work on the interaction within the user interface, I like the thinking about “how the device might occupy the world.”

And separately, Christian Lindholm has some interesting ideas about linearity as a low-involvement user experience, perfectly suited to mobile.

Everyone’s talking about how it feels to be the reader – how he or she will be empowered to enjoy the best aspects of printed and digital media rolled into one wafer-thin device. It’s all very user-centred.

But I think to succeed eReaders must not only meet the needs of the direct user, but also of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance.

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1794: Prototyping a small story

The Ignite London challenge of telling the story of my 1794 heroes in five minutes and 20 slides set me thinking about other ways to package up a narrative in the most minimal way.

In parallel with preparing my talk, I used the slides as the starting point for some printed material. My experimental recipe is as follows:

First, catch your story. The idea of 1794 as a focal point struck me while reading, for different reasons, about Joseph Priestley, Camille Desmoulins, John Thelwall and Matthew Murray. Desmoulins led me to the war in France, and Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle and Claude Chappe. Antoine Lavoisier formed a further link between Priestley and Coutelle. Soon I had a map spelling out the connections.

Excite the attentions of the ingenious.TM I’d been wondering how to break the all-male line-up of heroes when I saw this tweet:

Turns out Roberta Wedge has been engaging on Twitter on behalf of the mother of feminism for several months now. Thanks to her intervention, Mary Wollstonecraft was in. Continue reading

The smallest book

It was a delight to welcome the writer Steven Johnson to Leeds last week and to hear first person some of the themes in his book, the Invention of Air. We were, I think, doubly fortunate to hear Steven just a day after his appearance alongside Brian Eno at the ICA. It’s worth listening to the audio from the event, right to the questions at the end, where the pair responded to Matt Jones’ challenge: how would you write a minimum book?

It chimed with some stuff I’ve been wondering about lately, such as how the emergence of the web on devices smaller than a paperback could change the medium of the book itself. It certainly seems as if the publishing industry could be about to go through the kind of transformation that has beset the music business in the past decade.

And just as some of the greatest beneficiaries of the music revolution were the unsigned “long tail” artists, so I think the place to look first might be in the world of self-published, small books, pamphlets, chapbooks, and the like. These seem in a way to be more suited to the new mobile media than the big set-piece hardbacks like Johnson’s inestimable canon.

Small books

Ivor Cutler’s unique works apart, the foremost examples of the art must be the 16-page pocket books published by the late JL Carr under the Quince Tree Press imprint.

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Steven Johnson presents “The Invention of Air” in Leeds on 3 November

If you saw my talks earlier this year at Leeds’ GeekUp or Barcamp, you may recall I recommended reading Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air” which tells the tale of pioneering scientist, theologian and political radical Joseph Priestley.

“The Invention of Air” reveals, more than I’d previously appreciated, just how important were Priestley’s experiments during his time as minister at the Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds,  so when I heard Steven was coming to the UK in November, around the time of the book’s publication in paperback, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

A couple of cheeky tweets later, I’m delighted to report that the author, the good people at NTI Leeds and Penguin Books obliged: Steven will be talking about Priestley, oxygen, and other interesting stuff, at Leeds Met Rose Bowl on Tuesday 3 November, starting at 6pm. For more details and to register your attendance, see the NTI website.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science, the history of Leeds, or even if you just occasionally breathe air, I hope you’ll come along.

Reflections on Reading of Mr Joseph Priestley and M Antoine Lavoisier While Travelling by Air Plane Between Leeds and Paris

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air sparks a delightful reverie on the pivotal role of 18th Century scientist, non-conformist minister and poltical thinker Joseph Priestley.

Living in Leeds, I was vaguely aware of Priestley from local museums and the blue plaque at Mill Hill Unitarian Church on City Square. What schoolchild could fail to be impressed by the tale of Priestley inventing fizzy pop after studying the bubbles in a brewers’ vat on Meadow Lane? He open-sourced the method, leaving one Johann Schweppe to make a fortune.

But until I picked up Johnson’s book I hadn’t grasped that Priestley’s years in our Northern English city included experiments that shaped scientists’ understanding of gases, plant and animal life, and ultimately our planetary ecosystem.

Johnson tells how, after various gruesome experiments resulting in the suffocation of spiders and mice by placing them in sealed containers, Priestley wondered how long it would take a sprig of mint to succumb to the same fate. (Mint grows like a weed in gardens round us!) To his surprise, the mint lived, thrived even. What’s more, a flame could be lit in the sealed container, something that had not been possible in the containers where animals had expired.

Priestley wrote of his discovery to his friend Benjamin Franklin who almost at once made the further leap that, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees…”

Serendipitously, I read this section of the Invention of Air on one of my increasingly regular flights from Leeds to Paris. Across southern England and the Channel, I was engrossed in Steven Johnson’s account of how Priestley made his experimental breakthrough, yet got the explanation wrong. He believed that the animals and flames emitted a noxious substance known as “phlogiston” and identified the gas “mended” by the plants as “dephlogisticated air”.

Then, literally as my plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the action switched to Paris where the English hacker Joseph Priestley shared his discoveries with French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier. It was Lavoisier who, after absorbing the implications of Priestley’s discovery, proposed a theoretical framework, correctly identified that a gas was used up in burning and respiration, and named that gas oxygen.

The English hacker, the French theorist, the combination of the two in innovation. The thought made my day, so apologies to the various colleagues upon whom I inflicted this convoluted story.

Sadly neither country was eternally grateful: years later Priestley was forced to flee to the United States after a Church and King mob burned down his Birmingham home and laboratory, while Lavoisier was beheaded in the French Revolution.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If there’s one criticism it’s that Johnson sometimes seems a little too pleased with himself to have hit upon a “long view” narrative linking Priestley with Northern England’s Industrial Revolution preeminance and atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous Era. But I guess I would be too, if I’d thought of that. It’s engaging, readable, and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

A final thought provoked: many people read while travelling, yet “airport” has become a perjorative term in relation to books. Can someone create a service that helps match reading to travel and create more srendipitous moments like mine? I’m looking at you, Dopplr bookcampers.

Everything I Know I Learned From Old Ladybird books

We recently inherited a stack of Ladybird books and have wasted many happy hours inside the uncomplicated mind of the 1960s educationalist. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Computers do not have brains and they cannot really think for themselves
  2. A stockbroker in the City is probably more interested in financial news, and has time to read long articles about it. A train driver may be more interested in sport, and prefer short, lively articles
  3. Anglo-Saxons built castles out of wood. So did Africans
  4. The videophone is really a combined telephone and television which enables the person speaking to actually see the person he or she is speaking to
  5. All new babies look very much alike. Nurses make sure that the babies do not get mixed
  6. It may one day be possible to have plenty of fresh water and grow an abundance of food in the deserts by using the heat from nuclear reactors
  7. England has never had a better ruler than Agricola
  8. Some musical shows, particularly ‘pop’ shows are mimed. The artistes do not actually make any sound at all
  9. Some newspapers employ a women’s editor
  10. As with most hobbies, there is a vast amount of equipment it is possible to use in stamp collecting

If this fount of knowledge were on every child’s bookshelf we’d have no need of Wikipedia :)