Monday, January 30, 2017

Another short piece from my Summer school studies

Paralleling the evolution of computers and networking, online gaming has come a long way from single-player remotely hosted games via a dial up telephone line. Modern broadband has birthed ‘Massively Multi Online Role Player Games’ e.g. World of Warcraft which has left its beginnings way behind.

Originally located predominantly in university computer labs, the portability of computers now lack nothing in enhanced graphics featuring impressive three dimensions weaving a simple artificial intelligence through role playing action/fantasy games.

The community and their associated online forums and cheat/tips sites as well as the monetization involved in gaming could not have been foreseen. Equally the destructive effects of online gaming were no doubt a surprise to many, in terms of addiction, relationships and personal health.

Some scientific studies also suggest online gaming, as well as gambling, shares similar attributes to drug addiction – they both provide an artificial reward feedback loop. Dopamine is released as new levels unlocked or new challenges encountered. Similarly, drug addicts are seeking the next release of dopamine triggered by cocaine or other drug of choice.

Many references can be found which detail the addiction of online gaming, specifically collaborative multi-player games. “These games are played online with other people and are especially addictive because they generally have no ending . . . They often build relationships with other online players as an escape from reality. For some, this community may be the place where they feel they’re the most accepted.”

In seeking that high score or next level, gamers can sacrifice basic hygiene, food, drink and sleep. Addicts can suffer physical symptoms such as muscle strain in the hands, arms, shoulders and neck, as well as eye strain, headaches and more seriously blood clots due to inactivity, which in extreme cases can lead to death.

Estranged personal relationships and withdrawing from reality may seem a minor effect of the development of gaming technology but to those affected it certainly isn’t.

Friday, January 27, 2017

FROM RIESLING TO READING - another from my Summer school

Choose one of the many ramifications resulting from the invention of the moveable type press. Discuss the change and its impact upon the world.” (300 words)

From rIesling to reading

Prior to the development of Gutenberg’s printing press, text was generally handwritten (copied) in Europe or block printed in parts of Asia, specifically China. Despite early success with printing, the multitude of Chinese characters provided a road block to further success. Gutenberg’s mechanical mind and practical skills, combined with the simpler Latin alphabet, was able to transform the printing process. As a devout man, Gutenberg, could not have had a more ironic inspiration in his development of the movable type printing press - the wine press of his home in one of Germany’s most notable wine regions.

Apart from the obvious increased output, one of the most important ramifications of this invention was the standardization of the replicated text. Books, which were now more affordable to produce and therefore consume, provided ideas and information which could now literally be carried from one town to another by a greater number of people. These standardized texts impacted the very linguistic nature of the written word. Long term effects included formalizing the rules of grammar and spelling, as well as the development of modern English.

Books on secular topics such as science, philosophy, business and law, as well as religious texts, began a slow filtering down through the wealthier classes to more traditionally illiterate and lower, poorer classes. The publication of the Bible, which had the support of the Church, had the inadvertent follow on effect of creating a society which no longer was as dependent upon the Church. Church elders, and to an extent non-church elders, were no longer seen as the keepers of wisdom. Fundamentally, it empowered the individual to be an agent of change in their own lives.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why study and making sourdough bread go hand in hand?

Why study and making sourdough bread go hand in hand?

The physical nature of writing should never be under-rated. We may no longer be scribes sitting in cold medieval rooms lit only by candles but hunched over a computer reading sources, or drafting and re-drafting a piece till it shines. Writing is a physical activity. Beware carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched neck muscles and red, dry eyes. Myotherapists are my new friends.

Fear not! I have the solution for you - home made sourdough bread. What's this? you ask. Well, I can spruik its features and benefits because I am a recent convert. After having made a few batches of sourdough bread over the last few weeks whilst concurrently studying a couple of summer school intensive subjects, I can positively say that these two are symbiotic.

I'm not used to sitting down for extended periods of time. My work life in the past has been on my feet. Now I do place the laptop on the kitchen bench and type standing up but I've got an even better modus operandi. Making sourdough bread. 

My recipe requires than I give it a light knead every half hour. That is the perfect interval to break up my study. My hands and my brain need rest in order to fully realise the ideas contained within. Sourdough bread needs rest and stretching to fully realise its texture and flavour.

If you are interested in the recipe follow the link. I can give you some starter or you can make your own if you've got another 5 days, which I did. That's fun to do anyway. My advice is to start with a basic white loaf before attempting anything tricky like spelt or rye. I think I should have taken that advice and started with only one intensive subject - oh well. Too late now.

Social media's role in news

This is an essay I wrote for my journalism and media summer school subject - please feel free to feedback.

Social media’s role in news.

They have changed the way individuals, but also more recently organisations, not only communicate but also use their leisure and work time. Social media, sometimes also known as social networking sites, is defined as ‘websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. ‘(Oxford Dictionaries 2017). The turn of the millennia saw the start of these with early incarnations like Myspace, then later YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more.

In order to describe the term ‘news’, it is not enough to say that it is something new or is a piece of information recently acquired. It encompasses facts and information about our world whether they be global events, our national economic situation, celebrity goings-on, political machinations or reporting on a recent climatic disaster. Essentially events and the stories that come from these events, however micro or macro, news surrounds us.  In the past, people went out of their way to obtain news and today it preaches at us from a screen whilst we pump petrol.

Social media organisations may not have begun as news outlets, there is a strong argument that they morphed into such. Journalists, citizen reporters, news organisations, political parties, community advocacy groups and many more all use various social media to disseminate information, report on events and share stories in real time. Twitter is essentially a micro blogging tool whose prompt, ‘What’s happening?’, incites its users to report on what they are doing. Facebook users upload a brief excerpt including images which then link to an outside agency. The procedure by which social media platforms present the news may vary, but the fact that they do connect users to news stories makes them, by default, a news outlet.

According to a Reuters Institute report (2015), of respondents across 12 countries, 40 percent access Facebook for their predominant news source - YouTube received 18 percent, Twitter 11 percent and Google+ 7 percent. All platforms saw an increased engagement from the previous year, bar Google+ which remained level. Different platforms attracted a different range of users. Similarly in Australia, 76% of young people get their news from social media (NLA 2015).

It goes without saying that the features of different platforms attract a variety of core users. Twitter, with its 140 character limit appeals to those who appreciate a fast pace and brevity, such as journalists and the news-hungry public. SnapChat attracts mostly under 25 year-olds and WhatsApp attracts the highest number of users from Brazil, Spain and Italy.(Reuters Institute 2015)

All platforms experience interactivity to varying degrees. Whilst this can help foster a sense of community, it can lead to the presence of trolls. Trolling, or commenting with the intent to disrupt or argue, can be rife as platforms afford a certain anonymity and therefore more importantly a lack of accountability.

When assessing social media’s role in news, one of the most important factors to consider is its use of algorithms. An algorithm may be computer driven but it is still human generated and therefore editorship is a valid question. Social media organisations have tried from the beginning to pitch themselves as technology companies. Facebook, Google, and other Web companies have sought to walk a fine line: They don’t want to get into the practice of hiring human editors, which they believe would make them vulnerable to criticisms of partisan bias and stray from their core business of building software.” (Dwoskin et al 2016)

One of the key missteps of this approach is that an algorithm at its inception is created by a human, so the question of bias will always be a fair one. Algorithms control features such as Facebook’s ‘trending topics’ section as well as how the ‘news feed’ is ordered. All the platforms have their own unique methods for organising their content. Instagram originally employed a strictly chronological order prior to changing their feed style in 2016. As espoused on their blog “To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.” (Instagram blog 2016). Instagram’s current algorithm is predicated upon this human-designed program. 

The effects of this computer performed, though human designed, algorithm is multiple and varied.  One of the most obvious effects is that of the ‘echo chamber’ or ‘filter bubble’. By subscribing to accounts we like, which includes legitimate news organisations, individuals and the numerous other type of accounts, we inadvertently create a network of information that reinforces our own viewpoint. A conscious effort needs to be made to include information that doesn’t align with our own biases.
The reality is humans do like to consume information that aligns with their existing beliefs. So, when we read something that goes along with what we already think or that we think might be true, we are inclined to believe it. We might also be inclined to share it.” (PBS Newshour 2016)

Of course, it is not just social media sites grappling with how news is delivered. The traditional news organisations are borrowing social media’s features such as Facebook’s ‘Trending Topics’.  Labelled ‘Popular Now’ on the ABC news website and ‘Most Popular’ on the BBC news website, legacy media are adapting social media hallmarks. Algorithms are utilised by both social media and legacy news organisations alike.

An alarming trend propagated by algorithms has been the proliferation of fake news stories. Whether termed fake news, alternate facts or post-truth, these articles flourish in the fast-paced, superficial and passive environment that is social media. "Fake news is a term that came to prominence in 2016, to refer to websites that deliberately published disinformation — often then promoted on social media for political purposes.” (ABC 2017). It also is enjoying the status as 2016 Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year.

Satire has always existed and also to a point has fake news. Huffington Post featured an apt example (2016) which was written as satire but inadvertently spread as news. Written after Trump was elected US president, the headline mentioned a little known loophole which could see Sanders assume the presidency. Though blatantly false, satire is one of the least common ways that fake news spreads.
More deliberate methods include deflecting attention to a peripheral subject, reframing information, obscuring or changing the context and diverting attention (such as verbally attacking celebrities to avoid focus like Donald Trump’s tweet commenting on Meryl Streep’s acting ability).

As an audience we are partly responsible for the epidemic of fake news in our news consumption. Our addiction to novelty encourages headlines and stories that grab our attention. We have habituated to traditional methods of story-telling and subsequently organizations must go further to secure our attention to click outside the platform and into their own websites. Income is generated by the number of clicks stories receive and consequently click-bait headlines have become the norm.

Content that is shared passively by a few screen touches without any attempt at verification is a major reason fake news stories continue to spread online. An active approach is required to reign in the power and spread of fake news. News consumers need to question the motives and provenance of news reports. Large news organizations with established trust such as Reuters, BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as fact check websites like are easily accessible avenues for the concerned news consumer.

In an increasingly globalized world, different countries employ their own journalistic code of ethics. In Australia, the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics espouses honesty, fairness, independence and respect for rights of others. Whether by omission of facts or deliberate untruths, accuracy in reporting is a foundation of journalism. It is the scale of social media’s reach that magnifies this responsibility. “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.” (Mark Zuckerberg 2016) Even if only one percent, one percent of 1.7 billion users constitutes a large amount of people.

Consequences of the issue of accuracy is even more vital when you consider possible violent repercussions of fake news. PBS Newshour (2016) detail an incident in America tagged Pizzagate. A 28 year-old North Carolina man drove six hours to a Washington DC pizza restaurant to self-investigate a supposed paedophile ring run by the Democratic Party. This was following a fake news story that surfaced and escalated online resulting in three shots fired into the busy family restaurant. (Pizzagate conspiracy theory 2017)

In response to circulating fake news stories, traditional news outlet The New York Times launched a fact check site to help US citizens in the lead up to the US 2016 election. While no convincing evidence exists that the US election was influenced by fake news stories circulating on various social media, the fact that a meme such as described by Kircher (2016) is a worrying event. The meme falsely details a process of voting from home for Clinton supporters.

Fairness in journalism touches on the issues of gathering information from a variety of sources and viewpoints as well as avoiding bias from either a reporter or an organisation. One of the most pertinent developments in social media’s news involvement is the growth of the citizen reporter. With low entry cost, mobility on the ground and a wide reach, the average world citizen can report on any event without being bound by journalistic responsibility. ‘Social media tools — especially Twitter — allowed journalists and the public alike to report occurrences quicker than in the past, although possibly with some errors.’ . (Harper 2010)

Independence from both commercial and political influence is another challenge social media organizations face in this era of news and fake news. With fake news generating more engagement than real news (Silverman 2016) and a lack of transparency, this need for independence could not be greater. Finally, respecting the rights of others whether they are celebrities, minors or grieving people is another stumbling block social media platforms have to face.

Going forward into the future, reputable legacy news organizations have to compete more and more with social media for the public’s attention. Social media companies have already started implementing tools aimed at curbing fake news articles in order to improve their reliability as sources of news. Self-regulation is a useful concept and can involve tools such as flagging stories, a reporting framework for users and internal mechanisms of image recognition/keywords. Wikipedia is the embodiment of this self-regulating social media as the general public has access to edit and update entries.

Additionally, as more journalists lose their jobs at established organizations as the business is financially streamlined, there will most likely be an increase of Independent journalists.  They will be able to side-step the established news organizations, verifying information and curating stories as part of their practice.

Journalists increasingly use social media to gain information but, as responsible professionals, scrutinize it as with any other source. “Journalists are beginning to embrace social media tools like Twitter, Blogs, and Facebook, but very much on their own terms. ‘Same values, new tools’ sums up the approach in most mainstream organisations as they marry the culture of the web with their own organisational norms. Guidelines are being rewritten; social media editors and twitter correspondents are being appointed; training and awareness programmes are underway.” (Newman 2009)

Finally, social media platforms, however they wish to portray themselves, are institutions which the general public view as a genuine news source. It is incumbent on them to use this position responsibly. “What if social networking sites induce a shift in our sense of what news is – from public politics to social flow – a change as fundamental perhaps as the birth of ‘news’ itself” (Couldroy 2012) It is only through a combination of robust public discourse, trust-worthy, accountable sources and a commitment to ethical journalistic practice that can elevate news within and outside social media into the future. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Can the book – as we know it – survive the next 30 years?

Can the book – as we know it – survive the next 30 years?

It’s probably to early to sound the death knell for the resilient physical book, which will survive the next thirty years in a guise very close to what we currently know.

Although self-publishing in the digital realm is a more financially viable route for authors, leading to a cheaper, and sometimes free, product for the consumer, the move towards digital printing means the printed physical book remains a possibility for many authors.

A development from this large amount of free content devalues the digital information/product. Drawing on our previous sense experiences, we deem a physical item to be of a higher value. Not only is the end-user more engaged with a physical item, a book can provide a welcome respite from our screen-saturated world.

Places where people can congregate around books such as libraries, bookstores and community book clubs, foster connections and real life physical interaction. In a time of disenfranchisement with the ubiquitous social media via devices people constantly carry around in their pockets, books can become a totem. Word of mouth recommendations are more likely to occur standing around with books in hand.

While online technologies combine previously multiple type books into one accessible, easily updated device, it’s difficult to get an author to sign your e-reader with a sharpie when you rock up to the reader event at your local bookstore.

Survivors of the digital explosion are adapting as they use new media alongside the physical printed book. Niche markets will always exist and the printed book can address these with small digitally printed runs.

Whether the printed book looks the same in thirty depends on many factors, many unanticipated at this point in time. How technology sits alongside the printed book in a seamless user-friendly way is the challenge.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Feminism and publishing

I'm currently studying a writing degree and have decided to share some pieces I've been writing in class. I hope you find these as interesting as I do.

Which part of the publishing has had the most influence on the modern era? Or vice versa?

Publishing and feminism have developed hand in hand as women sought a greater role in society. Louisa Lawson produced the journal The Dawn, which grew over its 17 years to employ ten female staff. During the late 19th century, she offered articles addressing household advice, fiction, poetry as well as local and global reportage from a strongly feminist perspective.

As the suffragette movement grew across the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, activists looked to writers, and subsequently publishers, to tell their stories and educate people with their books, journals, newspapers and more. Writers were concurrently looking for the opportunity to communicate with their audience and publishers provided the mechanism to connect these two whilst making money. A combination of the 1870 Education Act and growth of public libraries, led to a growing literacy among the lower classes. Suffragettes, though originally mostly from the upper classes, would end up advocating for the rights of all women.

Printed in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, is a ground-breaking feminist work, which is often regarded as the jumping off point for the second wave of feminism. This movement gained real traction throughout the late 1960’s and 70’s with female led and feminist publishers growing throughout this time. Virago was born of this era to explore women’s stories and histories. Printed on the second page of every book they released, their purpose was clear – ‘Virago is a feminist publishing company.’

In this current digitally infused era, platforms such as Patreon provide modern feminists a ready-made outlet and simple way to convert social media attention to earnings. Podcasters to erotica writers use this platform to publish their own content for subscribers, garnering income along the way.

Until now feminism and publishing have developed symbiotically. Into the future, how feminism and publishing intersect remains to be seen as both struggle to stay relevant with new technologies.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes

They had only made it half way to the front door. I’d remembered to bring them down from my bedroom but left them on the half-height wall in the lounge. It was a habit we had gotten into - leaving things by the stairs to be taken up or down.  Our cats had other plans for things left on the walls. Like brave hunters protecting their masters, they would bat items off the wall and onto the floor, forcing the object to submit to their feline dominance. 

So, I had moved the shoes in case they should suffer the same fate, the heavy wood heels marking the wood floor. Our landlords were cautious and had forced us to sign extra documents in our rental contract. We would not allow anyone to wear stiletto heels on the timber floor. Do I even know anyone who wears stilettos? We would not have any dogs or cats. Whoops.

The red leather shoes got put on top of a crate in my painting area. I don’t have a studio but a small area lined with a tarp then drop-sheet to protect the beloved floorboards. Plastic crates held my paints, rags and jars with brushes in varying stages of utility. Balanced upon a bar stool, an old tile served as my palette.

One evening alone and half a bottle of pink wine later, the urge struck. I didn’t have an image in mind like I often do. I looked around saw the shoes and thought why not. Loosely sketching the image onto the canvas, I got to thinking about such an everyday object in my life. I’d never been one of those women who own loads of shoes. I only wear shoes that are absolutely comfortable. I prefer flats over heels. Barefoot most of the time, any heels I do own must be able to be run in if the need arose.

There was a well dressed man who I briefly dated. He was a gentleman, sending a car to pick me up for our second date, where upon I met his best friend and wife. It was a well-reviewed bayside restaurant with an indulgent wine list and meal usually beyond my modest budget. I talked comfortably with the driver on the way to dinner. Working in a service industry myself, I’ve always chatted easily with waiters, bar staff and customer service assistants. They often know the best places for a drink or meal.

Over a few weeks, he wined and dined me. One afternoon, he turned up at my work to surprise me with a fancy dinner after work. We walked along the street after I finished up, me giving him the tour of the small country town in which I worked. Holding hands, we looked in the shop windows finally stopping at a popular bar for a glass of cold, white wine – a welcome perk of working in a fabulous wine region.

In the window of one store that I rarely entered due to my tight budget, we stopped and admired a pair of red heels. He asked if I liked them; I responded that I did. The store was closed so I knew he wasn’t going to buy them for me. I assumed he was just trying to learn more about what I liked and didn’t like. The seed had been sown though. I liked the shoes but I knew I didn’t need the shoes. I did, however, envision myself wearing them with jeans, with dresses, floral skirts - anything.

After we broke up, I decided to buy them. It wasn’t retail therapy to cheer myself up as I wasn’t really upset that we’d broken up. There had been something about the relationship that had felt a bit off. Maybe it was that he owned more beauty products and shoes than I did.

It was around this time that I began to reflect on what I had learned from the men that I had dated since my marriage dissolved. From one, I learned that I didn’t like being organized by others. From another, I learned that it is important to me to hear the words ‘I love you’. From the aforementioned gentleman, I learned that I could treat myself to some of the finer things in life.

So I went and spent more money on a pair of shoes than I had ever in my life. I slipped my feet inside and they were perfect – no pinching, no rubbing. And I did wear them with dresses, floral skirts and jeans. I loved wearing them. I felt special. Occasionally people noticed them and I would bend my knee, raise my hem and look down to admire them also. I smiled and said - thank you, I love them too.

I remember one night at a gypsy music bar in the inner north – you probably know it, it only serves crepes, two savory and two sweet options. Red-checked table cloths, velvet-clad chairs, and only one wine glass. If you are early enough you’ll get the wine glass, otherwise it’s a tumbler for you. I’m one of those early type people and while that doesn’t help with my social anxiety that the event won’t even happen, it did mean that the wine glass was generally mine.

 I found the bar via a piano-accordion player I briefly tried dating though things never seemed to quite work out there. We seemed to continually miss each other somehow.  I did, however, fall in love with the whole bohemian music scene. The swirling cacophony of notes, plaintive vocals and impassioned dancing hypnotized me. I was hooked and kept schlepping from middle suburbia into this exotic other world. My shoes brought me here. They belonged here.

One sultry summer evening, I didn’t feel like going out but had read in a well-meaning friend’s book on dating rules that the first step is just showing up. So I climbed into the low cut black dress that celebrated my curves and my comfortable, reliable red shoes. I did get compliments on my shoes. Small positive words buoyed me. The glass full of wine didn’t hurt either.

Then there was the Italian chef I had previously dated. I was now single. Again, it had been a relationship that didn’t pan out for any apparent reason. I wasn’t hung up on it. We’d both been invited to a party up country by the chef who had originally set us up on our first date. Not exactly a blind date, we had known each other through mutual friends.

Now country parties don’t normally seem like a heels kind of occasion but they had hired a function space and bungalows for the event. And I wanted to impress. I wanted to be the one who was in control. I wanted to be the one to choose to sleep with him or not.

It was going to be a great weekend. I’d taken the time off work, which was rare for me. Parties thrown by chefs are always good. Hospitality people like to drink and I’m not talking casks of Jacobs Creek. Platters groaned with piles of antipasto, cheese, seafood and more. Each surface offered up something delightful to eat or drink.

 It was late summer and the drive north was through some dry land indeed. Different shades of brown stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. Bushfires had raged across the hills only a year or two prior and many of the guests were somewhat twitchy. The firestorm was still a very real memory for most.

 I’m not a country girl though I worked out that way for many years and had grown to have an understanding of why people chose to live in such an area even though it was remote from the city with the very real threat of bushfire each summer. For me, I was always happy to return to my middle suburban life.

So I brought my shoes along with me. My red wrap dress and the heels worked their magic. I loved that evening. An entertaining group of people - I was with my tribe. I belonged even though I’d only met a handful of them before. I ate and drank with vigor, even danced to delightfully daggy 1980’s music. We did spend the night together. Though nothing further eventuated between us, I was fine with that.

Ten years on the shoes have seen better days – chunks out of the wooden heel, paint rubbed off the rear piece of leather, straps loose and soles very thin. Can they be rehabilitated? Should they be rehabilitated? Are they still relevant in my life? Am I painting a souvenir of times gone by or immortalizing a beloved item in my life?

A few days later, I find myself at the cobbler.  She is a short, spunky woman about my age who I slightly want to be. She seems to have found a trade she believes in and loves, that tires her but makes her feel useful. Her calloused, stained hands turn the shoes over and over, evaluating them while I try and explain what I hope for them. I’m not sure if what I’m asking is possible. How can I explain to her in just a few minutes what these mean to me, why I can’t seem to accept that they may have reached the end of their life? She finally looks up and smiles. I think things are going to be okay.