Posts Tagged ‘blogs’

Embedding feeds in blog posts

11 February 2010

I wanted to see if Blogger’s static Pages could house feeds for some of my other blogs, so that my Micalet blog could operate as a sort of Grand Central Station for my online world. Feeds use Javascript code, and there’s a handy facility at Feed2JS that does the job for you.

I did come across one issue – Feed2JS needs you to enter different versions of the url for your blog feed according to whether you are taking the feed from WordPress or from Blogger:

• for a feed from a WordPress blog: (blogurl)/feed

• for a feed from a Blogger blog: (blogurl)/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss

Thanks to Peter @ Enviroman, whose tip came up in a Google search.

Another new thing!

Every day you learn something new

8 February 2010

I’ve just seen Blogger now has a Pages facility, just like WordPress. These are static pages, and you can have up to ten of them;  for easy navigation you can have your Pages listed in a tab-bar below the header at the top of the page.

So I’ve converted the Timelines post in our Merkavah 09 blog, as discussed here the other day, into a Contents page. I’ve also changed some of the posts I’d linked to in the sidebar into Pages, so I’ve got a nice little navigation panel now at the top of the screen, and a (slightly) less cumbersome sidebar. I’ll be giving the Contents page out as the lead url for the site now.

So much neater!

PS: I’ve given Micalet the same treatment – and I’ve found out how to put feeds into a blog post, using code from Feed2JS. I’m using these ‘static’ pages as tasters for my other blogs.

Am I beginning to get the hang of this?

Why blog?

5 February 2010

In a post for the EVO 2010 Multiliteracies session (it’s on Ning, and you have to be a group member to read the original post), Vanessa Vaile counts up the “clutch of blogs” she maintains, and discusses what she uses them for. She talks of other people’s (mis)conceptions of what a blog is, or should be. Implicit in her post – as I read it – is the view that a blog is a publishing platform, which you can use how you see fit, and this is exactly what I feel.

Her post set me thinking about my own blogging experiences, which date back less than three years to a conference at my institution on Emerging Technologies, and as I wrote in my first post two days later:

“They all ganged up on me and said “you have to blog, you’re no-one unless you blog”, so here I am, too weak to resist.”

So I’ve been looking back over the blogs that I’ve played about with since then, asking myself the usual questions: why? what? where? when? how? who for? was it worth it? . . .

Micalet
I couldn’t think what to blog about (what have I got to say about anything?), but I wanted to give the format a try so I started it off just with a few posts about things I had been doing, places I had been to. It was a personal blog, a ‘sort of a diary’, so I gave it a personal name, Micalet, the Valencian version of ‘Michael’ and the popular nickname of the cathedral tower in Valencia (Spain).

Right from the start I realised that, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, so I began to use my camera-phone to snap anything I thought I might want to write about later. Since I was mainly writing about people, places and events I was usually able to get at least a couple of pictures to choose from. Even though many of the snaps are poor quality, they fulfil several important functions for me: they illustrate and brighten up the post, and hopefully add a little bit of meaning, and immediacy, to it.

The Daily Post
A few months later, as part of the SMiELT strand (Social Media in English Language Education) of EVO08, I decided to try out another platform  – Micalet is on Blogger, so I started this blog on WordPress. The intention was to post something relevant to the course as frequently as possible, so I called it The Daily Post. The first post is ostensibly about a music session I had been to the night before, but as you can see it was really just a ‘sandbox’ for me to find my way about WordPress. This blog developed into a place for (very infrequent) comments on e-learning, learning technologies and other more or less professional matters. My identity here is ‘Michalska’, which is a street in Prague (named after me, of course).

La Sombrilla
A couple of weeks later, spending a few days in Spain, I started up a blog in Spanish, the language I have spent my working life teaching. Someone in one of the EVO08 strands had asked if I had a blog in Spanish, so I thought I’d give it a try. I put it on WordPress again, and called it La Sombrilla – ‘the sunshade’, a play on my surname this time.

However WP wouldn’t let me choose a Spanish-sounding identity – because I already had a blog there, I had to keep the same identity – michalska. Initially I thought I might write about my experiences in Spain, in Spanish, and perhaps my students might be interested. However it didn’t work out like that – I didn’t keep it up, and there are only 3 posts, the last one being a version in Spanish of a conference report originally written in English here on The Daily Post. I’ll be in Spain again in a couple of weeks – perhaps I should give La Sombrilla another go?

– At work –
EVO08 gave me the chance to see what other language teachers were doing with blogs, and this prompted me to start exploring how I could use the format in my own working situation as a teacher of Spanish at a UK university. I tried a number of activities with different groups, but mostly I just asked students to submit their written work via a class blog. I won’t go into detail here, but I discussed some of the issues that arose in a post at the end of that academic year: Exploring Web2.0, and learning to SMiLE. This experience led to a series of workshops for colleagues, an informal working group, and a project – Social Media in Language Education (SMiLE – yes, I pinched the name from EVO08’s SMiELT :-)) – for which I was awarded a Learning and Teaching Fellowship at my University.
The SMiLE wiki was intended to be the hub of our activities, and so it was for a year or so. However, since I retired last summer the group has gone into hibernation, and I have not touched the wiki since then either. Yes, I know, I should keep it going – another ‘retirement project’, perhaps?

San Miguel Bajo
In my personal blogs I had experimented with various ways of embedding images, sound and video, and this quickly suggested to me that a blog could provide a useful platform for presenting online materials for my students. This led me to develop a blog site for just this purpose: San Miguel Bajo (it’s a square in Granada – named after me again).

I decided to host this site externally, on Blogger, largely because my University’s VLE, based on Blackboard and ELGG, couldn’t handle the embedding in the way I wanted. Images are mostly embedded from Flickr, audio clips from Box.net, videos from YouTube  and slideshows from SlideBoom, which at the time I felt offered a cleaner interface than SlideShare. Although the embeds appear small in the blog post, most of the videoclips and slideshows will display full-screen, so you can use the embeds to show them in the classroom, and students working on their own can still read the small print on the slides. Much of this material I have uploaded myself precisely in order to be able to embed it here.

Other embeds which we enjoyed trying out include a Google Street View tour of Seville with (separate) audio commentary (although the map doesn’t want to embed in the blog for me at the moment, I have to click on ‘Ver mapa más grande’), and a Google Map of Salobreña with annotated placemarks that link to videoclips associated with each place.

This blog has no writing, there are no posts as commonly understood – it is purely used for housing materials, which can then be linked to from within the VLE so that they appear to be part of it. Hosting the site externally also brings added bonuses for me: the materials are not restricted to my institution, so anyone else can use them, and I can continue developing the site now that I no longer work there – or rather I could – in fact I have done very little with it since I stopped working.

I also set up a ‘sister’ wiki to help organise access to the materials housed on the blog: La Placeta de San Miguel Bajo (the little square of St Michael), which again anyone can access.

Just a bit of F.U.N.
Meanwhile I had a few little projects in my head that I wanted to put online, but which I preferred to keep separate from my personal Micalet blog.

When my football team’s greatest rivals had their worst ever start to a season, I reckoned a blog would be as good a way as any of marking the occasion, so I set up the Seven Sisters Conjunction, named after the road in North London which runs between the two grounds, and gathered together some of the jokes which were going the rounds as well as some pseudo-scientific inventions of my own. For this blog, on Blogger again, I wanted to be able to post with a separate identity, so I had to set up a separate Google account. Here I am ‘Northbanker’, named after the part of the ground I used to watch from as a lad.

Some years previously I had set up a static web page dedicated to aptronyms – people whose names reflect their occupation – another little thing that never ceases to please my little mind. Once I had started using blogs I realised they offered a much better platform for this sort of occasional posting, and were much easier to manage, so I set up Like a Glove; I post here with my usual Blogger identity, Micalet.

I also find myself drawn to odd, ambiguous or incomprehensible signs in public places, and realised I had been taking photos of them for some time. You know what comes next – yes, another blog site! On Signpostings I wanted to call myself Signposter, but it was all getting too complicated so I just as post as Micalet.

I’ve no idea if anyone looks at these sites, but I don’t really care – they’re for my own amusement in the first instance, and if others like them, great. Just another bit of Frivolous Unanticipated Nonsense, really.

Merkavah 09
My partner Jan and I visited Israel and the Occupied Territories last November, primarily on an organised tour of traditional and community dance groups, but also taking in a visit to a permaculture project and including a number of family encounters on the way. The trip – the first to Israel for both of us – was a succession of huge experiences and strong emotions, of many sorts. We took hundreds of photos, and shot several hours of video, most of which is now finding its way online. And of course it’s all being held together by means of a blog, Merkavah 09 (‘Journey of Light’). There is a massive amount of material, and to organise it and keep it under some sort of control I’m trying to draw on some of the techniques I have come across in my other blogs, and those of others.

During the trip, I tried to remember to take a few pictures on my mobile phone at each place we visited, and send them up to Flickr directly from the phone the same day, preferably with a brief description. Then, whenever we managed to get internet access, I posted the pictures from Flickr across to the blog, with their original descriptions. This provided a very patchy coverage of the trip, but at least it established an online presence that friends and family could look at from time to time. Since we returned we have been gradually increasing and expanding the posts – there’s so much to say!

I spent the first month or so after we got back going through all my photos, selecting, editing, cropping, lightening, darkening, and sending them all up to Flickr, where I put them into Sets, and put all the Sets into a Collection (also called Merkavah 09). Flickr allocates a unique url to each photo, each set, and the collection as a whole, so I can create links from the blog to any group of appropriate pictures.

One feature I have found very useful is that Sets in Flickr have a Slideshow button, and the slideshow itself has a url – so I often link to that from the relevant blog post, as a slideshow presents the pictures in a more immediate way to the viewer; see for instance the Old City Souk post – click on the picture or the link to go straight to the slideshow. I have used this technique with teaching materials as well – see La Comida (food) or En la Ciudad (around town), which we have used to develop vocabulary and conversation skills for beginners.

Another useful – in this case vital – technique for me has been the judicious use of tags, which Blogger calls labels, for the internal organisation of the material. I have renamed them Topics in this blog, because that’s what I’m using them for. Clicking on a Topic (there’s a list in the right-hand sidebar) brings up a page populated only with posts carrying that tag; this page in turn has a url, so that I can link to any of the Topics as I feel the need. For instance, here’s our Jerusalem page; at the time of writing this has 19 entries, but there are several more that we haven’t started writing yet – when these are posted, and tagged ‘jerusalem’, they’ll be automatically added to the page. This page has no permanent existence, but rather is composed on the fly when you call it up by clicking on the link.

[I had first come across this feature when working on San Miguel Bajo. Try clicking on one of the module codes – SPxxx – in the ‘Etiquetas’ (tags) list in the sidebar – this will bring up just those posts relevant to that module, with a unique url that can then be used in a link.]

There will eventually be 100 or so posts on this site – but many of them have not yet been drafted, yet alone written. We are writing and posting them as we get the urge (and the time!). So the order they’re going up in does not in any way correspond to the original order of events. However Blogger displays posts in strict chronological order of posting, with the latest at the top, and doesn’t allow you to play around with this sequence. If you look at the default ‘home page‘ of the blog at the moment, the post currently at the top (Yad Vashem) is in fact from the beginning of the trip. If you scroll through the following posts on that page you will see that the dates of the events, which I usually put at the beginning of a post, jump about all over the place.

I wanted a more coherent and easily navegable way for readers to find their way about the site, and for them to be able to follow the trip in chronological order if they so wished. At first I thought of using a text widget in the sidebar to display a list of contents, but soon realised that that would not be practical as there would be far too many items.

The solution I arrived at was to create a new post to serve this function, which I called the Timeline, and this is now the address I normally give out for the blog itself, my de facto home page, if you like. I am now aware that here at WordPress there is a ‘Pages’ facility, which allows you to create permanent pages from blank, and would do this job quite nicely. But I’d already posted tons of stuff to Blogger by the time I remembered this 😦 .

Every day you come across something new. I have been using Scribd to make text documents available online for display and download for some time, but it had not struck me that I could also use it to embed. When Jan passed me a pdf file with poems and photos in a layout that she wanted to retain, I uploaded it to Scribd and tried embedding from there – and hey presto it works! If the text is too small you can toggle Full-screen and back directly from the blog post, without being diverted to an external site.

So why use a blog?
I suggested at the beginning of this post that a blog is basically a publishing platform. As I have been preparing it I have become more aware of the variety of ways in which I have used them, and I am also aware that there are many facilities offered by blog platforms, commonly used by others, that I have not even tried using yet.

So let’s rephrase the question: Why use a publishing platform?

Why use a platform that can enable you to write what you like, when you like, how you like, to whom you like? That you can edit and re-edit at will, as often as you like? That you can use to publish to a select group or to the whole world?  Where you can display your own or others’ text, documents, images, audioclips, videos, slideshows, charts, maps and Google Street View tours? That you can link from to anything on the big wide web? That you can organise and style in a variety of ways? That you can tag so that others can find it? That others can post comments to? That your students can use in as many or as few of these ways as you, or they, see fit? Or your Granny, likewise?

Why, indeed?

To skim or not to skim

10 February 2009

Nicholas Carr, in his article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, quotes Bruce Friedman as saying “I can’t read War and Peace any more . . . Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

War and Peace may well be essential reading, and a touchstone for the modern novel, but it has 1296 densely packed pages and I’ve already read it once. I’m not a fast reader, I can’t skim a novel because I’ll miss something and lose track of what’s going on. 50 pages can easily take me an hour or more, so War and Peace would take me some 26 hours to read. I rarely read for more than an hour a day, often much less, so I’d need the best part of a month, or more likely two. It may be sad but I’m coming to the conclusion that I may well never re-read it.

I reach that conclusion because every day I am, consciously or not, making decisions about what I should do with my time. In fact you could see my life as an exercise in Time and Motion Studies, repeated day after day after day, morning, afternoon and evening. What shall I do today? Shall I read or watch TV? Shall I make music or dance, socialise or play sport? Talk to my family or slip away to my computer and edit photos or movies? Go for a walk or go to work? Even, maybe, write a blog post? And how long for? And with what level of concentration? Decisions, decisions.

I may well do several of these things on any one day, I may even on occasion multitask (though not often, and not for long), but given that I also have to cook, do housework, eat and sleep, I am unlikely to have time to do them all. So I have to adopt strategies that enable me to do enough of as many of the things I want to do to keep myself reasonably happy.

Skimming is a strategy we all use before embarking on any extensive act of reading, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If I am deciding whether to read War and Peace – or any other novel – I’ll look at the back cover to see if there’s a synopsis, or any quotes from reviews; I’ll look at the chapter headings, skim one or two chapters, flick through the book reading the first sentence or two of a paragraph here or there. I’ll also check how long it is. That’s quite clearly not ‘reading War and Peace’; it’s the process of deciding whether to read it.

I’ll do something similar with a non-fiction book, a newspaper, a magazine, or a blog post, or an online forum – any piece of more or less extensive writing. I do it all the time, and it’s very useful because at every step of the way it helps me decide how to spend my time.

What Friedman is describing is the process of deciding not to read a blog post. He, like the rest of us, probably only has 24 hours at his disposal in an average day, and probably wants to spend them in the best way he can. He shouldn’t feel guilty at not reading through to the end of every blog post he comes across. It’s normal.

I bet he doesn’t make it through to the end of this one.

Snowdrop or snowdrops?

6 February 2009

I have now read the article on Folksonomies: Tidying up tags by Marieke Guy and Emma Tonkin, one of the tasks in the Multiliteracies sessions (Electronic Village Online 2009). It has set me thinking about my own – limited and very basic – experiences with tagging. I have tried to tag blog posts in Blogger and WordPress, photos in Flickr, music in LastFm, and videos in YouTube, for different purposes and with varying success.

Blogs
I have now put 144 posts up in my personal Micalet blog on Blogger, over a period of 22 months. I appear to have used 492 tags in all, giving an average of 3.4 tags per post. There are 239 different tags; the most used ones appear 29 and 28 times, only 9 reach double figures, and 178 of them have been used only once. This seems to confirm the pattern found by Guy and Tonkin – that’s a relief, at least I’m normal!

The most used tags are for the places I live in, and that I visit on holiday, and for ‘Music’ and ‘English music’ – all very general; amongst the once-only tags are many that are quite specific, such as names of musicians, or terms such as ‘spider’, ‘snowman’ or ‘wheel clamp’ – I hope I don’t have to use that one again! The pattern appears to be one or two general tags, plus one or two specific ones, per post. I don’t think this was a conscious strategy, it just seems to have evolved, but in the light of the article it appears to be a useful one.

According to Sitemeter, I have had 195 visits since I started counting in November; I haven’t checked where these have come from, but hardly any of them have left a trace, as there are very few comments on the posts. Whether the tags have contributed to the number of visits I have no idea, and I’m not sure if there’s any way of knowing.

So what use are tags in blog posts to me?

Well, I have come across one very useful function. Amongst the widgets I have set up is a tag list (this is where I got the data above from). If for any reason I wish to gather together posts relevant to a particular topic, I can click on that tag in the list, and Blogger composes, on the fly, a new page with only posts that include that tag. So, if by any chance you’d like to read what I’ve put up on English music, Blogger gives me the page: http://blog.michalska.net/search/label/English%20music , and I can quote the url to you.

This has proved really useful with a Blogger site – San Miguel Bajo – which I set up to house materials for students who had difficulties accessing our University’s VLE. I just put things up as they come, and use tags for each course so that I can point students towards the material relevant to them. For instance, the course tag SP201 furnishes a page for my advanced class.

Photos
I have just over 1000 photos on Flickr, and according to my Flickr statistics, I appear to have tagged all bar a handful. My usual approach is to give all my photos ‘keywords’ (ie, tags) as soon as I put them into iPhoto; then when I upload them to Flickr, the tags are retained. Within Flickr I put most photos into Sets, and you can then easily edit the tags for all the photos in any given set.

Once again I have no idea how effective these tags have been. Over 60% of the photos have been viewed, that sounds a lot to me, but I don’t know what other people get; neither do I know what part tags played in attracting these visits. Mostly there are a handful of visits per day, occasionally up to 20 or so. Recently there have been a couple of exceptional days – 121 on Jan 26, and 192 on Jan 21 – I have no idea why, nor who, nor where from, nor if it’s in any way tag-related.

Very occasionally, I do get a message saying someone likes a photo, and would like to include it in a Flickr Group – which is what happened with the snowdrops, up there at the top of this post. The only way I can imagine they came across this picture is via the tag: snowdrops.

[As I write this, somebody I have never heard of has just added me as a contact in Flickr. This person already has 243 contacts, and subscribes to over 500 groups (I pasted the list into Excel to count!). Why did he pick on me? I think I’ll ask him – you never know, we may have something in common . . . ]

[5 minutes later: He’s beaten me to it – he’s asked to join the only Flickr Group I run, Dansez Français, which so far has only me and one other in it. We could do with a bit of a boost, so I’ll accept him . . . ]

Music
I have managed to get LastFm to list most of the contents of my iTunes, and have tagged a fair proportion. This has to be done within LastFm, as iTunes – unlike iPhoto – has a very underdeveloped (ie, useless) tagging system. Here I come head on up against several of the issues described by Guy and Tonkin. You may have your own ideas on how to classify a particular artist, or piece of music, but LastFm has a well-developed folksonomic (?) system, and first offers you the tags that others have already used. These may differ slightly from yours, or be completely different. So do you use theirs, which you may not be quite comfortable with – they may miss an aspect you feel is significant – or do you insist on adding your own, which puts you in the field of unique tags again?

And how do you handle other people’s errors? Tagging something ‘flamenco’ when it comes from the Basque Country (oh-oh!). You know it’s wrong, but someone’s already done it, and others may have followed their classification, and the size of the offending tag grows and it becomes more prominent and hence ‘authoritative’. You can’t change other people’s tags, you can only add your own. The Folksonomy is supposed to exemplify the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. So what can you do about the ignorance of the crowd?

I have also tried to use the tagging system to create ‘radio stations’ of various descriptions, which I would like to contain just selections from my own music collection, which I can then offer to friends, or possibly students. However LastFm is a social network, and insists on being social and including tracks from elsewhere on the site. This puts my ‘station’ at the mercy of other people’s errors, as outlined above, as well as more fundamentally their classification boundaries, which may not coincide with mine, and their taste, which will certainly differ. I may like track A by a certain artist, but not track B – but I will be fed anything anyone has tagged with the same tag as I have used. I am thereby subjected to the tyranny of the crowd.

Videos
YouTube’s response to tags is a law unto itself. The last couple of videos I uploaded were films of different versions of the bourrée, a traditional dance from Central France, so I thought I’d try looking for ‘bourrée’ on YouTube, to see what else was there. You will already be anticipating some of the issues – tags (or titles, or descriptions – YouTube searches on them all) using a language other than English, words that use a diacritic (é in this case) – I was expecting these to cause problems, however they didn’t seem to bother YouTube. However I didn’t learn much about French dance from the first page of hits, using the ‘relevance’ filter – 19 of the 20 were classical music pieces, mostly movements or sections from Suites by JS Bach, plus a piece by Jethro Tull. Gorgeous music, for sure, but not what I was looking for. The only film purporting to be of the French dance was an excruciatingly poor example – I won’t go into why, just trust me on that.

So here are two more stumbling blocks: words used in more than one context, and content that doesn’t match up to the tag.

When I then changed the filter to ‘view count’, the surprise was even greater – 7 out of the 20 on page 1 are films of people in various states of inebriation – ‘bourré’ is also slang for ‘drunk’ in French. And not one single version of the dance.

However, when I start at one of my own films, YouTube seems to have a better idea of what I’m after, although it’s still not perfect. Try Bourrée à 4, à 2 temps, and check the Related Videos list on the right – the first 10 are spot on, after that it’s back to Jethro Tull and JS Bach.

So what’s happening? Maybe YouTube needs more information from me, given the obstacles it has to surmount. I could put a second tag in, but I would be second guessing how the original posters had tagged their uploads, and those that have used more than one tag are unlikely to coincide. And of course there will be some that haven’t tagged at all.

Judging by the number of people you see filming at workshops and festivals (I’m not the only one!), I would guess there are scores if not hundreds of bourrées out there. Somewhere.

Snowdrop or snowdrops?
Amongst the many issues raised by Guy and Tonkin is whether you should use the singular form or the plural in tags. As I understand it, librarians prefer the singular: all photos containing one or more snowdrops should be tagged ‘snowdrop’. My snowdrop set has 7 pictures, in one of which I somehow ended up with just one snowdrop – but I decided to tag them all with the plural form nevertheless, reasoning that if I were looking for pictures of snowdrops, that is what I’d search for: snowdrops. I’m not sure what difference that makes to Flickr, but I do know that you can now see 1866 photos of the little lovelies at the Ghiocei || Snowdrops Group Pool, contributed by over 300 people from many different countries. So despite its imperfections, the world of Folksonomies does have something going for it.


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