Slice of Life: Gearing Up for Video Game Design

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The weeks after Thanksgiving are often the time when I introduce a unit around “non-traditional writing” where my sixth graders explore Interactive Fiction texts and writing (just wrapping up) and move into Video Game Design with Gamestar Mechanic.

Librarian's Quest: Let The Gaming Begin!

Alas, Gamestar pulled the plug on its online site due to the end of Flash software in browsers but, phew, launched a stand-alone app for Macs and PCs (but not Chromebooks) that remains a robust place for learning about game design and an opportunity for young people to tell stories through design principles.

Today, I am going to walk my students through the various steps of accessing the app on their school Mac laptops, launching the app, registering an account within my special classroom space in Gamestar, and begin exploring the site before I start to introduce the “story” they will be “writing” as a video game project.

Gamestar Mechanic - Educational Game Review

This particular cohort of kids is tricky. They get antsy. They focus on other things. They jump ahead. I’m going to remind myself to be patient today as I work to get 60-ish sixth graders up and running, and playing games.

Wish me luck.


Peace (playing it forward),

Graphic Novel Review: Major Impossible (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales)

I’ve enjoyed many of the books in writer/graphic novelist Nathan Hale’s series about history, told with historical precision but balanced with a light humorous touch (and plenty of meta moments that break the fourth wall as if it wasn’t there). I found the latest book — Major Impossible — about the soldier/explorer Major John Wesley Powell … to be good but maybe not quite as good as the others in the series.

I’m trying to put my finger on why, and I think it because I had trouble keeping track of the many members of Powell’s crew in this story of exploring the Colorado River/Grand Canyon, and there was much repetition in story — boats in the water, boats out of the water, repeat — although you could argue that is what the crew did for much of the exploration of the unknown (unless you were native, then it was already well-known terrain, something Hale definitely acknowledges).

Still, even with that complaint, I found the story interesting, well-researched, human-focused (we learn about Powell himself, and his brother, through flashbacks) and full of dangerous moments. Powell’s passion for charting the territory and using scientific equipment of the time — while searching for mollusks, his passion — gave him a real dimension. And he did it all with just one arm, as he lost the other in a battle during the Civil War.

If you know this series, you know the overall storytelling device hinges on the hanging of the historical Nathan Hale, who stalls his own execution by telling stories of the past. This has been going on for about nine books now. The executioner, with mask and all, is a funny foil to Hale, and other characters at the scene of the impending execution inject humor and asides into the historical stories, sometimes even butting into the story in the comic itself. The panels are dense with text at times, potentially making this a bit difficult for younger readers. But middle and high school readers would enjoy the story.

Two other things to note: a short bonus comic at the end, based on the letters an even earlier explorer, James White, is hilarious. And the last few pages show the writer/cartoonist in his own sketches, sitting by the Grand Canyon as inspiration, and I found that really sweet and moving, a way to connect the writer to the story.

Peace (down river),

Sixth Flight (visualization remix)

In my continuing explorations of word and sound, I saw that my friend, Ron, had used a site called Specterr to create a visualization for a Daily Create in DS106.

I decided to check it out and then realized I could further remix the audio of my Sixth Bird in Flight poem from last week (see post about that project), but I quickly knew that the raw MIDI audio track (which was a music file that an AI site created out of the text of a poem) could use something more — more layers, more colors, more thickening.

I added a few layers of instrumentation and a beat underneath the music file (that was a conversion of the text of my poem), and I liked how it came out when my remixing was done. Then I uploaded the audio file into Specterr (in its free account, which is why there is a watermark on it), and tinkered with some animation and color and more.

I like seeing the audio visualization in sync with the beat.

Peace (kicking it in),

Turning Text into Music (A Small AI Experiment)

careful now
careful now flickr photo by fibreman shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

I was curious the other week about whether I might find any online AI-powered sites that take text and turn those words into music. Honestly, I didn’t think my search would be all that successful. But it was. To a point.

Here are three (free) online sites powered by algorithms that I found and tinkered with. I am going to use the paragraph I just wrote as the intro I just wrote to this post as the text that I want each site to turn into music (See words above). Each of the sites will use the same exact text.

First, there is Typatone, which is one my favorites here.  You can either type the letters/words, and hear the song as you write (which is pretty cool but if you are like me, I make a ton of mistake as I type and so that feature is less useful than it would seem). Or you can input your text and let the site do its thing.

One annoying quirk is that once it starts playing, there’s no pause button. Sorry. I think watching it and listening to it is the best, though, so just an audio file to listen to would feel rather empty as an experience.

Here is my test.

Another is Langorhythm 2.0 (which is explained in a neat TED Talk that assigns notes to letters). I liked this site for its simplicity but soon found that the timbre and instrumentation never changes from the original conversion — it is the same tones for every letter, which makes sense if you know how the algorithm was created. But it makes it sort of … a sameness when doing multiple projects.

That said, the site kicks out a MIDI audio file, which is quite useful for anyone who has a digital music workstation. I use Soundtrap, for example, and so it was easy to change the instrumentation from the generated Rhodes piano into something a little more … interesting.

Listen to original and then my remix (changing the sound/instruments)

The third, and both most robust and clear strangest of the sites, is Melobytes (I worked with the free Pro model — I assume it’s free for a limited time?). Here, you have many more setting options (too many, perhaps), although I was never sure how the piece would sound when I was done with it. And mostly, I found the site interesting in an analytical way but too randomized and jarring to be easy listening, no matter what I did with the settings (and you have a limit on free access to how many times you can reset the conversion). The videos (with AI chosen images) were weird every single time and the vocal sounds, even weirder.

What I did find fascinating, though,  with Melobytes was that the site creates a piece of musical manuscript for the inputted text that forms the basis of the audio file it generates. Here’s my same blog intro, written now as music that I could play. I don’t know the critera for how it determined length or tone of notes, etc. (And I think there may have been a second page with the word “point” on it that I missed.)

What does this all mean? I don’t rightly know. I have only a vague notion of how the sites took my words and kicked out sound. As a writer who loves sound and music, and is both interested and skeptical of the age of AI, I find these experiments to be helpful in understanding both how far computers have come (caveat: free online availability) and how far they have to go.

Peace (sounds like),

Slice of Life: Let’s Not Go There

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I teach in a fairly conservative town in the midst of a very progressive part of Massachusetts. Sometimes, that tension becomes visible. Like yesterday …

My sixth graders are working on Interactive Fiction stories and one student, louder than they needed to sound, asked if it was OK if one of the characters in their stories shouts out: Let’s Go, Brandon. (If you don’t know what that is, you need to look it up).

To which I not only shook my head in an exasperated “no,” but then launched into a response about how I know exactly what they are trying to do by asking the question, and no, that would not be allowable in their story. (Although part me wonders about free speech and all that …)

Later, as we were walking from our class to the next, outside for fresh air, this same student shouted that phrase out loud.


I took them aside, and now went into my full speech about respecting the presidency, whomever is in office and whatever your political views, and I reminded them of how I served in the military myself and I believe in level of respect and expect them to, as well, and we left it at that.

I know they are using the term because it seems furtive and a way to get a reaction out of friends, and probably, it’s something they are hearing at home from either family or the conservative news channels that the family is watching, or it’s something they are seeing on YouTube or other social media, or perhaps it’s some mix of all those things.

It’s another reminder how words matter, and how the level of discourse in our country has reached yet another low point, and how sad that is that echoes of it has come into our sixth grade classrooms.

Peace (respectfully),

Digital Poetry Process Notes: Launching Birds of Flight

Last week, I released six “birds in flight” poems, one per day. Here, I’d like to provide some context notes and process decisions, as well as tech tools,  for each poem, as both a way to share my digital compositional practices, to reflect on what worked and didn’t and why, and to archive my notes, for my future self (hello, me).

My poetry collection began not with writing but with reading a poem and sharing it with friends. In an edition of Orion, a nature-writing journal, there was a lovely card stock pullout of a poem called “Poetry” by Chun Yu (one side was English, and the other side, Chinese). I can’t find it online to share here, and I don’t want to infringe on copyright by sharing myself. But the poem was lovely, with a theme of poetry.

I did share it with my poetry friends in the new closed NWPStudio Space, however, and my collaborator and colleague and poetry ping-pong companion, Terry Elliott, paid attention to and noticed the architecture of the poem. Terry then pulled out some guiding prompts that could become a flexible template for writing a poem, inspired by Chun Yu’s “Poetry.” It was from Terry’s excavation of ideas that I wrote a small poem each day, for six days, using the opening lines from Chun Yu’s poem of birds (see above) as my theme.

Here, then, are my six poems — my six Birds in Flight, if you will — and a reflection on how I created the digital versions of them and the decisions that I made to do so.

First Bird in Flight

For poems with small amounts of words, like these, a site like Lumen5 is perfectly situated. It is a digital storytelling site that allows many choices for image and video, with text, and music, and even the opportunity for voice-over (which I decided not to do here, as my experiment with it seemed to take away from the contemplative nature of the visual poem.) The most important decision here for me became the soundtrack, and I grappled with how the music would inform the words and image. In the end, I found what I still think is a perfect sound companion to the poem — it gives it just enough calm, and includes the sounds of birds.

Second Bird in Flight

I knew I would be diving into digital composition with many of these small poems so I wanted to hand-write out a poem, as sort of a counter-measure to complete immersion with digital. Of course, I did it via an app (Sketchpad), and then thought about a reflecting pool or image of the poem, and remembered an effect in LunaPic that could do that. It worked nicely, I think, given the hand-written text a little more depth and wrinkle, or maybe, ripples. That I chose a piece of paper theme for the writing makes it even more interesting in the reflection, I think.

Third Bird in Flight

This poem used an app I tap into quite a bit for animating words. It is called TypiVideo and it has some strange quirks (you can’t control what words on a single screen at any time after you input your entire text, so there are often odd endings of phrasings). But there are neat options for font and color, and I like how the text flows forward, and have come to appreciate the unexpected breaks. After creating it, I felt as if it were missing something, so I created a music track with thoughts of flight and layered it in, giving the words some ambience.

Fourth Bird in Flight

This poem used a text animation app on my iPad called PLAYS that I come back to now and then. It has a solid collection of animated options, some of which are too busy for any use by a poet, though. I found one that had the text moving off the screen like a bird in flight (similar to the next poem’s construction). But when I had built it and exported it, it seemed like it still needed something else. I pulled the animated image into LunaPic (always a useful image editing site) and found an effect that turned the piece yellow and faded at the edges, like a corn husk (sort of) that connected to a phrase in the poem. I like that when the words leave, there is an after-effect of a splotch of light yellow, as if the poem has left a mark.

Fifth Bird in Flight

I knew I wanted this poem to be its own poem but also to reveal a second poem after the words “flew away” into the sky. I used Keynote to do this, and it took some time, as different words and lines had to be their own text boxes that could be animated or remain stationary as the poem flew off like birds in flight. (This could have been done easily enough in Google Slides or Powerpoint, too). I like that the poem I left behind or that was uncovered is more positive and optimistic than the poem pieces that depart. Exporting as a GIF allows for the poem to reset itself each time.

Sixth Bird in Flight

This last poem was the most complex composition of the collection. I had been curious about whether I could turn the words of this poem into music. Of course, I could have sat down with my guitar, but I wanted to push the concept of AI, so I searched around and found two sites: Langorythm (which converts words into midi-file music – see this) and Melobytes (which converts text into what I can only describe as an odd piece of music, with even stranger video, and also, interestingly, a piece of music manuscript). I had been tinkering with both when I realized I could merge the output from both sites, using the melodic music that Langorythm created from the text of the poem beneath the video and manuscript created from my poem by Melobytes, and then, realizing this composition needed some stability to center the actual poem, I added my voice overlay to video. At one point, I had an entire earlier version of this project that I did all the work on, as finished project, and then I could not shake the sense that the “feel” of the Melobytes output was all wrong. So I started over from the beginning, and began construction again. The result is something interesting, if unusual.

I hope this both helps me to remember what I did, but also inspired YOU to tinker and play with digital compositions, to see how we might use technology to further put poems into motion while trying to deepen the composition’s impact on a reader, viewer, listener.

Peace (on wings of words),