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    Grammar-phone: A metaphor staves off loneliness

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    Grammar-phone: A metaphor staves off loneliness

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    This made me smile this morning. Sparks song Metaphor, from their Hello Young Lovers album, is exactly what it says it is: A song about metaphors. No masquerading here. It also has a catchy tune and offers sage, entertaining advice on the benefits of using metaphors correctly, including such pearls: “Use them wisely, use them well, and you’ll never know the hell of loneliness”.

    This live performance is, if anything, better than the album version I have in my collection.

    And remember, “Chicks dig, D-I-G, metaphors”.

    Sparks is an American band formed in Los Angeles in 1970 by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. The band started out life in 1968 as Halfnelson but renamed themselves in 1970, apparently at the suggestion of Albert Grossman, most famous as Bob Dylan’s manager for eight years. Grossman had said that they reminded him of the Marx Brothers and should call themselves the Sparks Brothers. Ultimately they only retained the Sparks name. Until the release of Hello Young Lovers I confess I had never heard of the band.

    Do you know any other great songs with a grammar theme? Tell me about them in the comments.

     

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    Modern journalist: Using advanced search to make the most of Twitter

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    Modern journalist: Using advanced search to make the most of Twitter

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Twitter is fast becoming the go-to place for breaking news. If it happens in the world it’s probably on Twitter, somewhere. Which is all well and good considering there are in excess of 200 million Twitter accounts registered, but as a journalist how can you follow 100 million users just to keep on top of potential big news stories?

    And yet, Twitter can be a valuable source of information, links, sources and insights. If you know how to use it to its full potential.

    This is where Twitter’s advanced search features come into play. With a bit of clever searching and filtering journalists can tap into this huge resource and, with luck, pull out a few gems. It doesn’t matter if you’re just monitoring local news (geotagging is an increasingly popular feature of Twitter) or looking for a source for a story, advanced searching can narrow down your search massively.

    There are two ways of tapping into Twitter’s database: The easiest is to use the Twitter Advanced Search page, fill in couple of parameters and cross your fingers.

    Alternatively, it’s worth spending a bit of time learning the various search operators and use those. Here’s a simple guide to scratching beneath the surface of Twitter.

    Know what you’re looking for

    Knowing what it is you’re hoping to find significantly increases your chances when searching Twitter. Without a good idea of what you’re looking for it quickly becomes the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    Simple search

    Looking for a person’s name, a place or a hash tag (something that looks like #keyword) is pretty simple. This is the default search: Enter what you’re looking for in the search box on Twitter.

    Specific phrases

    Taking it a step further you can look for combinations of words. A search for “Trevor Manuel, for example, will search for the specific phrase “Trevor Manuel”. Without the quote marks it would return results that included both “Trevor” and “Manuel” but not necessarily as a phrase.

    Find this or that

    If you want search for either of two words you use the “OR” operator. So a search for ANC OR Julius would return results that included either of these two words, or both.

    Find this but not that

    You don’t always want every single instance of a word or phrase. To exclude a particular word or phrase you can use the “-” operator. So a search for beer -root would find instances of beer but not those referring to rootbeer.

    From me to you

    Perhaps you want to find tweets from someone, or to someone. The format to find messages posted by someone on Twitter is from:media_hack. So long as you know the username (@media_hack) you can find the tweets we posted. Of course, this is the same as looking at our Twitter feed so it’s not that impressive, but combined with other operators it has a lot more potential.

    Similarly, if you’re looking for messages posted to someone you just need their Twitter username: to:media_hack will find tweets directed at us. A good example of this are tweets posted to CNN.

    A variation on this is theย @username search which lists tweets that mention a user rather than being directed at them specifically. Compare the @cnn results with those that are directed at CNN.

    Close to home

    Looking for something or someone with a specific geographic location? Most Twitter applications now have the ability to include locations along with a user’s Tweets. One way to use this is to simply add near:location to your search. So a search for earthquake near:brisbane should return Tweets mentioning earthquakes from users in Brisbane. It’s worth looking at Twitter’s guide to search operators for ideas on how geographic searches can be refined even further, including adding a distance from a specific place.

    It’s a date

    Similarly to adding a geographic location to a search you can also refine your Twitter searches using dates. The main operators here are “since” and “until”. A search for earthquake since:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes after March 27 2010 (the format is year-month-date). And a search for earthquake until:2010-03-27 will find mentions of earthquakes before March 27 2010.

    The extras

    There are a few other ways of filtering search results to make them relevant. Perhaps the most useful of these is the “links” operator. Searching for earthquake video filter:links will return results that not only mention both words but also include links. In this case there are many tweets with links to videos posted on YouTube that document earthquakes.

    Another option is to add a smiley (or emoticon) to searches. A search for movie ๐Ÿ™‚ would return Tweets that the word movie and have a “positive” attitude. Similarly a ๐Ÿ™ would return results with a negative attitude. It’s crude but with the right filtering and some tweaking results can be rewarding.

    Photo credit: Newsroom panorama by victoriapeckham on Flickr.com.
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    Google grant to boost digital journalism in Africa, Europe, Middle East

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    Google grant to boost digital journalism in Africa, Europe, Middle East

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Providing new opportunity for Africa media workers, Google has announced a $2.7 million (R18.8m)fund to promote innovation in digital journalism in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

    The grant, which was awarded to the Vienna-based International Press Institute, will be used to sponsor the IPI News Innovation Contest. The contest is designed to find and fund breakthrough ideas that will have a long term impact on the future of digital news in communities across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

    From the announcement:

    Grants will be awarded to both non-profit and for-profit organisations working on digital journalism initiatives, including open-source and mobile technology projects created by or for journalists and distributed in the public interest. From today until June 1st, the IPI will invite proposals from around the region for projects devoted to online innovation in journalism, new economic models for news and training in digital reporting.

    Funds will be awarded in three areas:

    • News – For all applications that ensure the reliability and news;
    • Sustainability – For projects that foster new economic streams and economic models; and
    • Training – For projects that promote learning in digital journalism.

    The deadline for funding applications is 1 June 2011.

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    Fontastic: The best in kinetic typography

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    Fontastic: The best in kinetic typography

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    I’m a bit of a typography geek. Not in that boring, drone-on-and-on kind of way (I hope) but I am fascinated by the work and skill that it takes to produce a beautiful piece of type.

    So naturally, when @gendor tweeted earlier today with a link to a new Jack Parow video that uses kinetic typography, I was quickly sidetracked into finding some good examples of this art form. The Jack Parow video (see below) is pretty cool but take a look at some of these other examples and see how much can be done with a bunch of letters.

    Al Pacino – The Devil’s Advocate
    This is one of my favourites. The speech is pretty good to start with but the lettering adds a whole new dimension to it. The animation is among the best.

    Duck and Cover
    This short clip is made up from an old public service announcement from the 50s. Excellent animation and illustration captures some of the original feeling of the announcement but gives it a unique twist.

    Oceans Eleven
    Another good movie and a great piece of kinetic animation. Apparently a first-time project, it nevertheless uses some clever techniques to complement the words being spoken. The Al Pacino speech is more powerful but the overall effect here is better.

    Fight Club
    A kinetic version of the Eight Rules of Fight Club speech was inevitable and this version is pretty good. The fonts, colours and background combine to make an excellent short clip. Can you spot the spelling mistake?

    Citizen Cope
    There are many bands that use kinetic typography to good effect in their music videos. This one by Citizen Cope for their Let the Drummer Kick song is one of the better ones.

    Streelight Manifesto
    This simple video with equally simple song is fun. Its simple, striking colours and a couple of excellent ideas and techniques make for a clever little video.

    Reservoir Dogs
    The naming of the names. This is a well executed kinetic version of the that famous speech in which the various participants given their “names”: Mr Brown, Mr White, Mr Pink! It’s fairly basic but effective.

    Monty Python
    A re-creation of the witch scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Good colouring, a good choice of font and some nice simple graphics make this entertaining.

    The Jack Parow video
    The video that prompted this post. The video uses less animation than many of the examples above but some nice effects add just the right amount of interest.

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    Chilean miners and the future of news

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    Chilean miners and the future of news

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    The rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners this week dominated world headlines. Even here in South Africa people were glued to televisions, every newspaper ran the story as their lead, and social networks were jammed with posts about the ongoing rescue efforts.

    Even more amazingly some estimates put the number of journalists covering the story at no less than 1300. I can’t vouch for that number but it could well be right, considering the BBC alone had a team of between 30 and 50 on the scene.

    I’m pretty ambivalent about the entire Chile story, and the media frenzy around it. On the one hand it didn’t really affect me. I’m not heartless and I can appreciate that for those directly involved, particularly the miners and their families, it was a life-changing event, but I felt no compulsion to follow each and every moment of the rescue. There are things closer to home and, frankly, more disastrous than the rescue of miners on the other side of the world to worry about.

    On the other hand I am fascinated by the media attention this got. 1300 journalists for one single event is gob-smackingly large. Even if it was only half that it would still be an insane use of media resources, especially at a time when media is facing financial pressures.

    I’m with Jeremy Littau on this one. Imagine what could have been done with 1300 journalists if they were working on other major stories? Surely it was completely unnecessary to expend so much in pursuit of a single story?

    As Littau points out, the fact that so many resources were thrown at this story is probably the result of news organisations chasing page views. Human interest stories attract hits and trapped Chilean miners are good for the numbers. But what of the day after, when they’re all rescued? News organisations will be on the hunt for the next big traffic driver.

    This is not good for news.

    Sure BBC, New York Times, Reuters, CNN and other big name organisations were rightly on the scene when the rescue happened. But why are all the others there? Aside from the local Chilean/South American media, most organisations surely could have picked up coverage from elsewhere without sacrificing value staff and resources to be on the scene.

    As Jeff Jarvis advocates in an excellent essay in the IPI’s Brave News World (PDF) collection: “Do what you do best and link to the rest.”

    There were even reports that the Chilean miners received media training before they were rescued. Team that up with the miners being given sunglasses, iPods and free holidays by companies eager for free publicity and you have the making of a media pantomime.

    The entire saga will also have long-term negative effects on other news coverage. The New York Times is reporting that thanks to its overspend on the Chile mine disaster the BBC will have to cut back on other coverage, including sending only one reporter to the climate summit in Cancun and cutting the number of editors attending the G20.

    As Littau says: “Hope those one-day page views was worth it!”

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    Johnny Cash and collaboration

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    Johnny Cash and collaboration

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    I’m a pretty big fan of the man in black. Over the years Johnny Cash has come to represent not only the finest in songwriting but also the realities and aspirations of the average person. He had his highs (in all senses of the word) and his lows but ultimately he survived and aged gracefully.

    He also produced some of the most powerful work in the last few years of his life. The American series, produced by Rick Rubin, sees him at his finest.

    Today I came across The Johnny Cash Project which is producing a new Johnny Cash video. But rather than simply mash together some file footage, the project has turned it into a collaborative venture. Fans can draw and contribute frames for the final video using the tools on the site. The drawings already in the video make for a unique process and result.

    Drawing and submitting a frame for the video doesn’t end there, however. Each frame can also be viewed individually with details on the artist, the time they took to produce it and even how many brush strokes they used.

    And … while I’m on the subject of Johnny Cash, one the cover versions he produced was of The Mercy Seat, originally recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Among his best, along with his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.

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    750 words to clear the head

    writing

    750 words to clear the head

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    A few months ago I discovered the 750 words concept.

    The idea is simple: Every day you write down 750 words on anything that comes into your head. It doesn’t have to be well thought out, or even well-argued. You don’t need to spell check it and you don’t need to proofread it. And it’s even better if you don’t read what you’ve written immediately afterwards, or even ever.

    You also don’t need to show what you have written to anyone, so you’re free to write about anything you want to without fear of offence or embarrassment.

    I write for a living. Every day I churn out thousands of words on one subject or another. So why would I want to add to that load with another 750 words?

    Because it is liberating.

    I write about anything I am thinking about at the time. I have no specific topic, I don’t have to justify what I put down, nor do I have to rework a paragraph over and over to make a meaning clear. It’s the opposite of what I do for a living.

    The real benefit of writing 750 words, though, is that it is a way of clearing the head, a sort of brain drain.

    That last term is perhaps the best description of the process and comes from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way.

    Morning Pages

    I first came across Cameron’s book many years ago when it was lent to me by an artist friend. In it Cameron describes tools an artist can use to improve their creativity. Among them are what she calls Morning Pages. These are three pages of (preferably longhand) writing done every morning to free up the mind. I didn’t give it much attention the first time around but when I stumbled on the 750 Words version I became a fan.

    I type my 750 words into a text editor and save them on my PC. The 750 Words site has a clever online tool that stores your notes for you and even allows you to do some clever analysis on it. I, however, prefer my daily ramblings to be stored offline.

    I rarely re-read what I have written. That’s not the point.

    Sometimes I think I’ve said something particularly clever in one of my 750 words and it may find its way into something else I write. But I most often simply close the document I’ve been writing into and head onto something else.

    As a writer there is an additional benefit: It kickstarts my writing for each day, a sort of “warm-up”. A chance to physically and mentally get ready to write for the rest of the day.

    At the same time 750 Words, or Morning Pages, are not only for artists and writers. Clearing your head of clutter, giving voice to innermost or suppressed thoughts, writing through a problem is a time well spent for anyone.

    At the worst you could improve your writing skills.

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    Apple extends its influence to censoring magazines

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    Apple extends its influence to censoring magazines

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Apple has already come out against pornographic applications in its iPhone app store, but now the company looks likely to extend its moral oversight to magazines. According to industry blog Shiny Shiny, edgy fashion magazine Dazed & Confused has had to censor its iPad issue for it to be accepted into Apple’s iTunes store.

    If this is true, and Apple’s wide-ranging nudity war suggests it is likely, it ought to be a cause for concern for publishers.

    It’s not about the pornography. It is about the increasing control Apple is exerting over what users of its products can and can’t do.

    The issue is that Apple not only creates products such as the iPad and the iPhone but that it controls the content that can be viewed on them too. In an absurd way it is like a paper manufacturer dictating what type of articles can be printed on its paper.

    If the company can control editorial at a fashion magazine then why not a political magazine, or even a technology publication that doesn’t favour Apple?

    Apple’s iPad is being hailed by some as the saviour of newspapers, but if Apple is going to be forcing its own morals onto publishers then newspapers and magazines could be worse off than ever.

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    Would you like an apostrophe with that, ma’am?

    media writing

    Would you like an apostrophe with that, ma’am?

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Welcome to the brave new world of online media. A world where anyone with an Internet connection can be a journalist and bloggers are the new media rock stars. A world where readers can immediately deliver their own opinions, and usually do.

    It’s also a world where basic grammar skills are apparently no longer needed.

    I’m not particularly fascist when it comes to grammar but I do have some minimum standards. One of those is that I like writers to use apostrophes correctly. It’s a simple thing to get right and yet daily I see blog posts, Twitter messages, news articles and even advertisements with so many randomly used apostrophes that it feels that when the writer does get it right it is probably more by accident than by design.

    I know Twitter is not populated only by professional media and that many blogs are never intended to be literary gems but would it really hurt to use apostrophes correctly?

    Often it’s the so-called social media gurus, the ones that are trying to sell their Web 2.0 consulting skills, that most often get it wrong. Do I really want a consultant who can’t get a few apostrophes right to tell me how to run my web/social media/whatever strategy? Not likely.

    Admittedly, using apostrophes correctly doesn’t gain you much. You’re unlikely to be inundated with fan mail for using them properly. On the other hand, using them incorrectly raises questions about your skills, your ability to communicate, your attention to detail. In many cases you could be written off as an amateur even before the reader reaches the second paragraph.

    Using apostrophes correctly is not hard. A few simple rules can make all the difference to your writing. Get it right and you can be judged on the quality of your work. Get it wrong and you risk being ignored.

    A few simple rules

    The apostrophe is only used in two instances: to show ownership (Bob’s ball) and to indicate missing letters or contractions (it’s late). The apostrophe is not used to indicate a plural (dogs, cats, cars).

    Contractions

    An apostrophe is used to join two words together and indicate missing letters.

    I’m (means I am)
    it’s (it is)
    they’re (they are)
    aren’t (are not)
    don’t (do not)
    we’re (we are)

    it’s vs its

    The difficult one here is it’s and its. It’s is the one most people get wrong. It’s means “it is”. Its is possessive:

    It’s the first release of the software. (It is the first release of the software)
    The company has released its financial results. (They are the company’s results)

    Possession/Ownership

    An apostrophe is also used to indicate ownership:

    Mark’s private jet (the jet belonging to Mark)
    IBM’s servers
    The computer is John’s
    The boys’ books (the books belonging to the boys)
    The Smiths’ house (the house belonging to the Smiths)

    Do not use apostrophes to create a plural

    Very often writers see a word ending in an ‘s’ and, in a moment of panic, slap in an apostrophe. It’s simple, plurals do not need an apostrophe:

    There are many CDs on the shelf (not CD’s) This is the one I see most often.
    The computers have been delivered (not computer’s)
    The boys play soccer (not boy’s)
    The ISPs are involved in a price war (not ISP’s)

    Naturally, being English, there are some cases where things are not so clear but in 99 percent of cases these rules apply.

    So, there you have it: A (hopefully) simple guide to using apostrophes correctly. And I can now move on knowing I have played my small part in ridding the world of apostrophe abuse.

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    Film and Publications Act: Media independence under fire

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    Film and Publications Act: Media independence under fire

    Posted By Alastair Otter

    Despite widespread opposition the South African government has signed into law the Films and Publications Amendment Act 3 of 2009 (PDF). Published in the Government Gazette on August 28, the act is a wide-reaching amendment that is ostensibly designed to clamp down on the publication of child pornography but in fact introduces a range of powers to the Film and Publications Board (FPB) that may not be as benign as they seem.

    I’m certainly no lawyer and I am very definitely not in favour of any form of child pornography, but reading the legalese contained in the act leaves me with a sense of foreboding. In particular the act paves the way for what the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) calls “pre-publication censorship and self-censorship” by establishing a requirement for non-recognised publications to have content approved by the FPB prior to publication or face up to five-year’s imprisonment or a fine. The newly-amended section 16 says (paraphrased) that “any person may request that a publication be classified if it (among others) degrades a person, constitutes incitement to cause harm, advocates propaganda for war, incites violence or advocates hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”. Exempt from these regulations are those “bona fide newspapers” recognised by the Press Ombudsman.

    Essentially this means that everyone else is responsible for submitting anything that might seem “offensive” under this act to the board for approval before publication, a situation which is almost certainly unworkable. The sheer volume of submissions would surely swamp the board.

    Nevertheless it ought surely to be of concern that there exists a law which could be applied (even randomly) against publishers that fail to submit content to the board. Right now we live in a country with a mostly benign leadership but this may not always be the case. The very public and ugly spats over the ANC leadership over the past year give some indication of the potential for things to change very quickly. It’s also worth remembering ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte’s vitriolic attacks on the media earlier this year.

    I worry that this type of legislation in the wrong hands could go horribly wrong.

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