Every Open Tab a Curiosity Beckons

I’ve mentioned it more than once here, but maybe the best thing I have done to put some serendipity wonder into the daily web browsing experience is installing the Library of Congress Free to Use extension.

What it does is simple- each time I open a new tab in Chrome, rather than the white screen of nothing, I get a random public domain image from the Library of Congress.

I just noticed on the extension page (was it there before?) that it credits Junior Fellow Flynn Shannon as the creator of the extension, and better yet, there is an old fashioned blog post where Flynn shares the back story of where the idea came from, and how it was made (and just for grins Tony Hirst, Flynn made use of Jupyter Notebooks). And even better was reading that Flynn is a student at Kenyon College, where I will be doing a June workshop.

Quite often I stop in curiosity at the expressions on old time photos, or the interesting scenery, or just a wonder about what was happening in that photo. I learned early if I do not click the bottom bar that links to the LOC page, the image disappears, and you cannot find it again.

So I’ve had a few sitting as open tabs for weeks now. Like this one, I just wondered what the story was.

Who was Becky Edelson, and what kind of criminal was she? From the LOC entry page:

Photograph shows Rebecca Edelsohn (c. 1889 or 1892-1973) after her arrest for attempting to hold an open air mass meeting in Fountain Square, Tarrytown, New York on May 30, without a permit. Edelsohn and fellow I.W.W. members were protesting labor violence in Ludlow, Colorado and went to Tarrytown to denounce John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Becky Edelson [i.e., Edelsohn] taken from jail (Library of Congress)

As usual I find way more interesting things in the Flickr Commons entries for these images, because of the comments people share to add to the information about the photo. Becky was noted as going on a 50+ hour hunger strike as part of this Labor dispute.

This other image in the series adds even more interest, with the expressions on the observers and imagining the verbal abuse likely being tossed her way:

A commenter on the photo stated 8 years ago he has started a Wikipedia article on her; it’s rather filled out now. Apparently Becky Edelson was the first female hunger striker. She railed against John D. Rockefeller in his home town, calling him a mass murder in court:

She denounced the charges as politically motivated, and scornfully dismissed the court as illegitimate: “This town is owned by John D. Rockefeller. We don’t expect justice here.

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Becky_Edelsohn

She’d not think much of justice these days in Washington, D.C. eh?

This was some winding rabbit holes from just a random image in an open browser tab.

That’s just one.

The stern look of the guy driving this boat made my step and wander down the click hole too.

How could you not be curious about a picture titled “Pugh of the ‘Disturber'”? But here’s the thing, the metadata info from the LOC entry is a bit… boring. All it shares is that “Photo shows James A. Pugh in his motorboat Disturber III”.

But in the flickr image, the comments lead to a story of how Pugh took this thing to court to get a boating prize. But even better, in flickr someone added hotspots with labels that made me spit coffee:

But also, on the right side, one more hotspot indicates the date of the negative as September 5, 1911.

I wondered how Pugh of the Disturber would look with color, so see the different applied by the ColorizeSG site

black and white photo of stern captain of boat, on the right is false color version created by an algoritm
Comparison before and after using https://colourise.sg/#colorize

Does Pugh look ever more of a Disturber in color?

A different kind of curiosity came in one of today’s open tabs- I knew the location as Venice of course

Library of Congress Public Domain image

The entry dates the image as 1890-1900 but also curiously (and without any more story) “Image shows two Italian Carabinieri soldiers in a boat, possibly accompanying detainees.”

I had a different thought here- could I possibly locate a modern image of this same location? I did a search on Street View Venice, and found one of those lush Google sites. and where the map interfaces were darkened and covered with “for development purposes only”. I’ve seen this on my own project sites that once used the Google Maps API; if you do not five them a credit card now, they limit your use and stiff you with this effect. It seemed, well ironic.

It’s pretty bad when Google cannot load its own maps, right?

If Google clicked on the Do You Own This Website? link they might have to figure some **** out. Maybe Google’s credit card is busted?

Under certain circumstances, a darkened map, or ‘negative’ Street View image, watermarked with the text “for development purposes only”, may be displayed. This behavior typically indicates issues with either an API key or billing. In order to use Google Maps Platform products, billing must be enabled on your account, and all requests must include a valid API key.

I was able to get a screenshot of what looked like the same tall church tower in the background:

Ghosty image from the broken Google Site

I picked that name of what I thought was the church from the map ( on that site (I was wrong, it was not Frari), but spent my lunch running up and down the canals in Streetview, and darned if I did not find the location (the dome is new since 1890, but the buildings on both sides of the canal match):

View of a canal with the same tower in the old image above/

I consider this a match! The church is actually Chiesa di San Geremia.

Now let’s see if I can align them….

Not exact, but close enough for this dog.

I have more open tabs, but maybe I will save them for another time. But having the the Library of Congress Free to Use extension in my daily routine gives me just enough things to chase down the rabbit hole and save me from making angry gifs about politicians.

Give it a try, if only for coming across public domain images you likely won’t see elsewhere.

Featured Image: Appropriately I opened a new browser tab hoping to find something to use for a featured image and found the Library of Congress public domain photo Erie Foreign Car Parts multi-statue sign, angle 1, Mohawk Street, Whitesboro, New York. I decided to edit the ERIE letters into my own.

crafted from Library of Congress public domain image

As in Enabling the Unanticipated

Like what the world needs is Yet Another Blog Post Defining Openness… (ir in my case, another post about SPLOTs masquerading as another topic?).

But the wisps of this have been flitting around back to Open Education Week (when I thought, “why just do this for a week?”) but as well in anticipation of the OER19 conference happening now when colleague Frances Bell and Lorna Campbell (has anyone picked up on the ringing of the bell there?) have been putting a SPLOT to fantastic use at #femedtech.

For the longer timer, and for many people, Open is about the stuff. Piles of it.

Long ago it was learning objects. Then it was open content, OERs, open courses, open textbooks. Stuff shared is good, it’s raw material.

More recently we’ve seen broader perspectives about the practiceopen pedagogy, and that other p word that rhymes with axis.

For the longest time, I was more interested in the stories, the serendipity that happens when openness is an attitude.

Stop me before I resort to a useless Venn Diagram.

But it circled me back to a concept Jon Udell wrote about, that rather than specific solutions, technologies are better done as innovation toolkits (I doubt MOOCs got there):

There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.


My very early forays into educational technology in the early 1990s (yup, I am not old) landed be into the first one that had this essence- it was a tool I could use to make tools for others to use to express unanticipated intents.

Yes, Hypercard.

You see, at one tool level, it provided an intuitive, graphic interface for people to easily make hyperlinked multimedia content, without doing one bit of code. At the same time, once I learned some of the underlying script language, I found I could use the one tool to very meta-like, make more tools for the educators I worked with, but not as me making the content for them. Things that they might use to open unanticipated intents.

I’ve tried to make the case that, in a similar way, WordPress as a tool does this on the web.

An old home screen for hypercard re-edited to have features related to WordPress
A WordPress Stack?

From it’s usual interface, WordPress allows people to not only write blog posts / content, but do so in a way that’s easy to use links/media, and have as built in bonuses, more complex things like taxonomies, search, RSS feeds.

And like previously learning HyperScript, for me becoming versatile on not just the underlying PHP/mySQL/JQuery but also the WordPress “stack”, I was able to start building in that tool, what are now tools for people to do other things.

Tada, we have arrived at the topic.

Maybe, as I tried to cleverly GIF for this post’s featured image, it’s more nested series of tooling around…

  • We have these tools of PHP/mySQL
  • They are used to make this WordPress Tool
  • Which I used to make some WordPress Themes that are tools
  • Which other people use to do things I never anticipated

Whew, I am not really in the stuff of open business.

First Came the Acronym

The origin story has been established, but in late 2014 when I showed up in Kamloops BC for a four month open fellowship at Thompson Rivers University, Brian Lamb already had one project idea in mind. But he layed out the Smallest Possible Learning Online Tool acronym first.

Two drivers were important, the first being the idea of small, single or focused tools, rather then mega ones. One impetus for the early TRU Writer was something we both knew- for faculty wanting to have students publish online essay/article assignments, having to teach them the whole WordPress interface (the rows of buttons, menus and a blank Hello World) was often a barrier, when maybe what they needed was just an editor.

The second was BC concern over student identity/data sending them to web tools hosted in the US when the Patriot Act could potentially be used to use that data. The question Brian posed was- is it always necessary to have students create accounts or use their personal identifiers to publish online; could that be a choice of the author?

The ways we saw it being used were for classes where students have writing assignments, e.g. like ENGL 4790 at TRU as well as a series of Biology classes like BIOL 421 at the University of Northern British Columbia and a Douglas College class on Superheroes. An early excellent example was the L21C Law course at TRU (some rich comment activity happened there). Oh and there was a UBC research methods class that used TRU Writer as well.

While at TRU I was also thinking of a way for online journals to be done, with a review / approval process. This was while working with a prof there in an open journal publishing tool that was cumbersome (required uploads of Word docs), it hinged in the expertise on one admin technical person who had left, and frankly, it was rather ugly. I made a prototype of the journal, using the content from the ugly system (not sure anything came from that). But we did get one set up for an undergraduate research journal at TRU that looks like it was used for a few years. I took the idea more recently as a way for my NetNarr and Graduate Research students to publish their work in a site that looked like a journal. I put TRU Writer to work for the UDG Agora project where faculty shared the final reports on their innovation projects in a site called Comparte (with custom feature for Spanish language and other inputs).

But then, the uses I did not expect. Tanya Elias took the anonymity features to create When I Needed Help (no longer online, see bits in the the Internet Archive), a place for domestic violence victims to share stories. Someone at Wesleyan is using it as a place (I think) to put references for a course or project. The iTeach project at Charles Sturt University features faculty projects. Tannis Morgan uses it as an open place to share OERs in languages other than English. And at Coventry University, they use it as a place for a conference to accept and publish presentation submissions.

And of course just seeing a lot of action this week at OER19, the #femedtech project has made it the front of their web site, where anyone is invited to share thought pieces (or media) about themes of equality, diversity and inclusion.

In many of these cases, seeing the novel uses has generated ideas to flow back into the WordPress theme that powers them– like having a way to provide a later editing feature, better handling of media, an editing flow for submissions.

A Media Collector Becomes Another Way to Publish/Share Content

The TRU Collector started also with the fellowship at Thompson Rivers University, coming directly from a need from two instructional designers preparing a workshop on finding open licensed images. It seemed sensible to have a place where people could share the images along with info on where it was found and what the licenses were on them (this first site is still alive).

Again we saw some useful way faculty could use it or students to find and share photos related to Canadian Geography, examples in Biology, or for History of Art. Another site collects images for an advertising course; a very curious one is a collection of antique ads with inappropriate captions.

Others use them as event photo sharing spots e.g. for OER18, the OpenMed project, or just for personal interest. Really, the original idea focused on collections of images.

In the unexpected category was an idea by Daniel Villar-Onrubia at Coventry University where one course created a student directory (they chose what to post, it’s not public; a later version was done for a conference he organized). This led to new feature to allow the ordering of content to be alphabetical, rather then most recent first. It also gave me the idea to have an option to use a rich text editor, so longer pieces could be written, almost more like a variation of TRU Writer. And this in turn led to newer features like a means to preview content before submitting.

And a very compelling concept was Samantha Clarke’s Compendium of Bothersome Beasties (again from Coventry University, what’s in the air there, the ideas keep coming) as a tool for self-reflection and formative assessment done in a novel way.

I often use the Collector myself in workshops where people are sharing media they created or researched. I put it into use for the Mural UDG project as the Acumulador — a way for workshop teams to submit the results of different stages of their projects.

A different variant happened from a request in twitter from creative high school teacher David Theriault- rather than just a collection of images, we sought a workshop mode for having a prompt that people can reply to with images, but then reveal them later. Of course, Maslow’s hammer is a SPLOT.

Pixabay Image by Stevepb shared into the public domain using Creative Commons CC0 enhanced with the official SPLOT logo

Coming up with a prototype was more about knowing some of the workings of WordPress. It was changing the front of the site to be a static page rather than the usual flow of content, and hiding with CSS some of the post navigation links. (full details available).

This bit of experimentation came to mind for the current Networked Narratives class where we wanted students to share some image media and write a bit of descriptions. I went the same route as for the one for David; I made the front of the site a “Mission” page that got replaced with new ones each time. Hiding the results was not important; in fact, I put the really slick WP-Tiles plugin to display the submissions in a nice gallery like view (it uses the WordPress categories to display different mission responses).

See the mission page for the Meme making assignment we did. The “Currently in the Collection” is done via the WP-Tiles shortcode. I’m pretty psyched about what can be done with this plugin, it makes for a different way to display site content than what the theme provides out of the box. For example, one could have a more pinterest style front for a TRU Writer site.

In a way, I have been using the TRU Collector as a different variation of the DS106 Assignment Bank theme (technically another SPLOT). Check out the Somni Porta for an upcoming assignment.

And there is a somewhat funny story behind the name of the site. In keeping with the Alchemy theme of NetNarr, I asked Laura Gibbs for some kind of Latin-y / Folklore-ish name for this collector- she helped with the naming of the Labyrinthus part of the main site.

Based on my DM-ed vague description she suggested Somni Speculum or “Dream Mirror”. To me, it sounded mysterious, and fitting for the way we have before had a Mirror World as part of the experience.

That lasted not long, as my wife and several other female colleagues warned me of the association of a speculum from the medical use. Yow. That would have been terrible. Laura agreed with me that “porta” or “door” was more viable. The mirror was discarded. Lesson learned again, check your metaphors!

I don;t know if I really achieved anything with this long post, beyond the usual SPLOT celebrating. I am rather stuck on them, and always find uses for them in my projects (there is a Daily and a Bank for Ontario Extend). If you hire me for a project, don’t be surprised when I pull out my SPLOT card.

But I do think there is something Von Hipple like about the variations people have done with SPLOTs, again, “products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.”

That’s the magic space of Open I like to operate in.

Featured Image: My wife Cori is to credit for idea of word playing on Magritte’s Treachery of Images “this is not a pipe” as “this is a tool” when it’s more. I had a version I had done a few years back for the UDG Agora Project (“This is not a computer” on an image of an iPad):

Image of an ipad with text below "Esta no es una computadora"

That became a base for making into an animated GIF; text translation done via Google. Images mostly CC licensed PNGs from PNG ALL

SPLOT says T-H-A-N-K-S

Since this day of the week ends in “Y” that means it’s time to write another blog post about SPLOTs.

No actually it’s the flip of the calendar month that triggered this post. April means it’s been a year since I was offered, out of the blue, a year long fellowship from Reclaim Hosting, to support work on improving SPLOTs and other stuff. A huge bonus of this was working with them to add two SPLOTs and three WordPress Calling Card themes to their set of cpanel featured apps- these are one click installs of fully functional versions of these sites, even with cheesy demo content.

List of featured apps including (in red boxes) Big Picture, Dimension, and Highlights calling card themes plus TRU Collector and TRU Writer
I got five things on the first row!

The checkered flag is waved on that year, and I cannot shout out and link enough thanks to Reclaim for the show of support, especially during a few months when my work dried up.

This moment also triggered an idea I have been wanting to do to show thanks to not only Reclaim, but other supporters of this work. So now there are icons and links on the github repo sites plus the footer of the main splot.ca site and a special thanks page to boot.

Leonard cheers meme with "Thanks from the SPLOTS" text
Thompson Rivers University

First on the list has to be Thompson Rivers University, where the first SPLOTs were hatched and incubated during a 2014-2015 Open Learning Fellowship set up for me by Brian Lamb. Of course, Brian gets the true TRU credit for coming up with the acronym and concept. The very first one, The Comparator, is the roughest and least fleshed out, but the next one TRU Writer and TRU Collector are the ones that have been widely used and fleshed out later. SPLOTs would never have happened without this special time to focus on pure R&D in the kind of educational technology people did not wince at then.

Reclaim Hosting

I’ve already done the first shout outs for Reclaim Hosting, but it’s worth thanking them beyond the Fellowship for so actively promoting SPLOTs in their workshops (and currently giffed up on a display at OER19). A year ago in March I got to present about SPLOTs in a SPLOT at the Reclaim Workshop in Fredericksburg. If you are not hosting on Reclaim, you are silly.

University of Saskatechewan

Maybe it was not the entire University of Saskatchewan behind this, but a year ago in December I got a small incentive via JR Dingwall to create a SPLOT like TRU Collector for video content. I’d been mulling it before as an extension of TRU Sounder (an audio SPLOT), so JR’s request was enough to kick into gear creation of SPLOTbox. The site he made with it as a place for students to curate videos about Geology remains one of my favorite use cases.

Open ETC

Just in, a small grant from the OpenETC in British Columbia helped support a range of SPLOT improvements across the Free Range where they roam. This educational coop has been offering SPLOT powered sites hosted in WordPress to BC faculty and students (e.g. the BIOL421 site “Insects, Fungi, and Society” where UNBC students use TRU Writer to publish short papers).


I very much appreciate the patrons who provide a small amount of monthly support via my patreon tin cup. This means some 30+ individuals have said this stuff matters. I try and post a monthly update there. There’s room for more of course, so here comes the BIG BEGGING BUTTON link. In a dream this might be enough to more fully support development work, but believe me, every penny helps.

There is plenty of room for more icon buttons and links, so if there is some kind of idea your organization and your wealthy Aunt Irma wants rendered as a SPLOT (or something else), operators are standing by.

Enough shameless pitching, I loathe this. There’s code to be wrangled. But I must again thank all the people behind these icons, that is where this really happens.

Featured Image: Another Library of Congress public domain gem I found by complete accident with the Free to Use Browser Extension (makes opening a new browser tab an act of random public domain serendipity). This one of the 1912 motor race resonated because of an earlier image made from a similar car. I modified Wagner Flagging Joe Dawson — Indianapolis (LOC) flickr photo by The Library of Congress shared with no copyright restriction (Flickr Commons) by changing the handwritten text at the top.

modified from Library of Congress public domain image