Two apps in two days

Rather than persist in my full-on html training with General Assembly (which is, incidentally, pretty damn good), I’ve been distracted by making Apps.

My main criteria were they had to be easy to make and free. Because uploading to the only forms where people look for apps costs quite a bit – $20 to upload them to Google’s appstore and more, I think, for the Applestore. There’s no point in making an app and not putting it onto these.

So here’s the good news: you really can make your own functional app using free software and without knowing a line of html.

The first one I made was with AppsBar. It was straightforward, and I was pleased with the slightly 1993-style throwback that it produced – although the moving titles were a bit annoying and looked a little cheap. But I realised, to my horror, after pressing send, that I had committed a typo. And I didn’t know if I could update the app after publishing. I now have to wait 3-5 days to find out what I can do about corrections!

The next day I was a little wiser. I checked on whether you can do updates. And I tried out Appmakr. Appmakr is genius for several reasons.

It’s visually far more attractive straight-away. You can upload your own buttons, backgrounds, and the colours and images that they give you to work with are good. The task-bar is more straightforward too.

The only disadvantage is that you can’t view pages as they are published – instead you preview by sending the app to yourself on your phone or by email.
So, depending on how easy to upload to various app-stores it is, I’m rather hoping that I may have found my app maker.

There’s a caveat of course. If you want a really decent job done on an app, you need to go to a professional. These cookie-cutter apps really don’t cut it commercially. An outfit like my brother’s firm will make you something spectacular – and will interrogate exactly why you want an app and what you think this will do for you that a website won’t.

As for what I’m doing with my apps and why – please check back here.

How should we commemorate the Great War?

Tonight I was listening to the Strawberry Thieves’ Socialist Choir commemorate the Great War in their own particular way, with a series of songs and readings about those who chose not to fight.

Perhaps because of the straightforward presentation and non-professional singing, it was a moving evening.

I’ve been thinking lately about how best to commemorate World War One.

A choir put together by volunteers, and amateurs, who can’t always hit the right notes, singing some of the songs of the music hall and of the troops (cynical and funny songs) seems perhaps a better answer to ‘how to’ than the solemn pomp that I’m expecting in the lead-up to August 4th.

Pacifism, conscientious objection, and human solidarity seem like the only proper human response to the horror of the war – though there was plenty of grim humour in the songs tonight.

The Great War was supposed to end all wars, and it has been taught to at least a couple of generations as a pointless slaughter of millions of young men.

Perhaps only a socialist choir could find a truth in that carnage – and in those that came after – about what human beings should do and be to one another.

And in fact, the choir left us tonight with two heroes. One, Harry Patch, the UK’s last Great War survivor, because he made a pact with friends never to kill another man (and kept it); and the other, Hetty Bower, who was until her death last year known as Britain’s oldest anti-war campaigner.

It’s only a shame the audience tonight wasn’t larger.

Eng Lit MOOC unit 2: Poetics

So here’s the thing: I do not and have never written poetry and I only read it a little.

But the first part of Saylor Foundation’s Eng Lit MOOC on poetry, from the Open University, is perhaps just a little too encouraging. They get you writing your own poems in the first couple of hours.

So here’s what I’ve done (it’s one of three, but the other two are worse).

It’s the story of Kali before she became such a badass. Kali’s – at present – my favourite god, being the sort of old-testament style god of destruction everyone wants on their side. I’m pretty certain stories of young Hindu gods exist, just as we have tales of the young Mary and saints in The Golden Legend.

As with The Gruffalo, you can easily spot the areas I struggled to achieve a decent rhyme.

It does, of course, violate several principles of good poetry set out in Fleur Adcock’s very funny poem included in this course – I’ve inverted phrases to make them rhyme; there’s some dodgy archaisms thrown in, and what the hell, I’d happily put it on pink paper and append a photo of the author/ her pets. I’m not hoping to win prizes, just to get to grips with how poetry works.

Timid Kali

When I was born, my mother cried- it’s strange
she knew that I would be Black, Time, Death, Change
Annihilator of the Dawn, and more
Shiva’s grave consort, fighting evil for
redemption of the Universe, the great
revered Mother Goddess, fierce potentate.

But timid child, I was afraid of this.
So snot-nosed Kali, gentle, crying miss
clung to my mother’s skirts, and shameful hid
from village boys and girls, who teasing bid
me fill pots with water or gather wood
or wash their coarse-wove clothes, in river’s flood
or pick fleas from their hair;

but when the fire
consumed our fated village, only I would live.

My first MOOC essay: a New Historicist approach to The Cask of Amontillado

In a milestone for my English Literature Mooc, I’ve just filed my first essay, a new historicist approach to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The principal difference between this and my first, conventional History degree, is that the work is optional.

It’s probably the first time in my life that I’ve written an essay that will not be read or reviewed by anyone else.

And because of the semi-optional nature of a piece of work that will not be reviewed, I’m surprised to find that I not only wrote a page that the course demanded, I wrote 3. It took about six hours.

The other major difference shows my age. I wrote my essays long-hand at University (1995-9), but I was probably the last generation to do so. And the internet was not very useful to my essay work then.

Today, the internet really is useful. What’s brilliant is being able to find so many historical and literary texts online. I could read The Cask online in its entirety. And I could find several critiques of The Cask to compare with my own.

But it doesn’t have everything.

In some ways, I feel my sense of scholarship is undermined. I could not find the tale online that, according to Wikipedia, The Cask answers, or the journal which discusses it. And that doesn’t feel quite safe – after all, anyone could have doctored that entry.

However, I was able to check the dates of other works I felt Poe’s story derives from or is influenced by, and in many cases read them; and I could check my imperfect recollections of 19th century history.

As for the decision to take a New Historicist approach, – well, it was very influenced by my historical training. A punchy Marxist approach could have limited the essay to a page (the two central characters appeared to be the same class). A psychoanalytical approach would have worked, but would have to rely on conjecture. Besides, both would have been a-historical, in the sense that the tale was written before Das Kapital and before Freud.

So the question remains, have I learned much, or am I leaning too heavily on my existing knowledge of history and of literature, and viewing what I read through that prism?

I suspect the latter – so as I get into the next Unit of my MOOC (Poetics) I am going to read some more literary theory.

MOOCs: an experiment in online learning

Today’s the first day of my English Literature degree. It’s a very 21st century degree: a MOOC (massive open online course).

I discovered MOOCs a couple of months ago, which I know is rather later than many people.

As a learning enthusiast, finding that someone has invented a way of studying what look like intellectually satisfying courses (medieval women writers? John Donne?) at any time of the day or night – is really exciting.

What I intended to look for, a stats course to improve my working understanding of stats, soon morphed into ‘but I’ve always wanted to do an English degree but couldn’t possibly justify it’. So could an online English degree from the Saylor Foundation in any way approach the satisfaction of my History degree? What kind of quality of learning do you get from it? Will I pass the exams?

Today, day one of the degree, I’ve found enrolling and getting started with Saylor’s English Literature major extremely easy. I’m about 5 hours into the first module, on Literary Studies. I’ve read a fascinating essay on The Uncanny, by Freud, and listened to some illuminating lectures by Yale’s Dr Paul Fry, read a dark short story by Edgar Allan Poe and some poems.

So far, so interesting. The course has already pushed me towards lots of writing I didn’t know about.

However, I do feel I have been skimming the surface.

The whole Saylor literary studies course, one of several degree modules, is only supposed to take about 130 hours – that’s about 1/3 of the time, or less, than University friends would devote to a course. I am not sure you can get to know writers like Simone de Beauvoir or Claude Levi-Strauss without immersing yourself in their writing.

What I will be really interested to see is what the exam at the end of this course assesses. And how I do.

Why we should all be worried about the NSA story

So what’s been most surprising about the NSA story? The fact that the US and UK are accessing huge amounts of private citizens’ data without a search warrant? Or the fact that, apparently, nobody cares?

The FT’s John Gapper writes here about the way that, if you are not American, your emails and other data can be freely viewed by the NSA. With cloud computing and other services outsourced to the US, that could well be most of your data.

And we now know the NSA also broke its own rules.

So you’re probably thinking, I’m not a terrorist, so why exactly does this matter? No one is going to investigate me.

To make it really clear what the state having your private data could mean for you, you need to read this.

Technically, this is not ‘the NSA story’, but what it tells you about what states will do with data – once you have been called to their attention – is very interesting indeed. It is a chilling account in Harpers magazine by the American writer William T Vollman about his surveillance by the US state over more than 20 years. He’s a writer who’s never been charged with any offence or stood trial, and yet the FBI holds a file with over 785 pages on him. 

Freedom of information laws allowed Vollman to get hold of a redacted report of 294 pages.

The most chilling part of his account (worth buying Harpers to read) is the part where he discovers, reading this file, that he had late been denounced to the FBI by someone who suspected him of being the Unabomber. The evidence? Views expressed in five books he had written. Historical parallels with the treatment of writers under communism are hard to ignore.

Still not worried?