Making the SOLO VERB into a character

Encouraging students to perceive an academic verb as a T-shirt wearing character with emotions, strengths, weaknesses, jobs, favourite foods, friends and a Twitter stream requires research. Students need to bring in ideas about What does the verb do?  What questions does the verb ask? What process does it follow? They need to make connections between these ideas that allow them to distinguish between one academic verb and another. How is it similar to this verb? How is it different? When do you need this verb? What is the effect of using this verb? Finally they need to extend this thinking by extracting what is at the essence of the verb and they can explore this by reimagining the verb as a character you might meet in the neighbourhood. Here they can draw images and symbols to represent the verb (T-shirt design, tattoos, fingernail art, avatars), recreate dialogue (Tweets, Facebook conversations, txt messaging, memes, conversation, bios, quotes)) Finally they understand the academic VERBS so  well they can create narrative, poetry, short stories, film, cartoon strips or graphic novels involving the verb/s as character/s.

DEFINE’s STORY

Afterwards they would say it was the light reflecting off its surface that made them stop, but that wasn’t really true. The matted piles of smelly seaweed washed up on the tideline were always tangled up with plastic waste. But they did not see it hidden in the matted wracks of smelly seaweed and plastic.  They felt it. They felt it watching them. 

They walked across to where it lay half buried in the sand and seaweed, squatted down and picked it up.  They turned it over in their hands, eyes noticing every detail. “What is it?”, they said to themselves.  “What is it?” 

DEFINE could name most every item washed up on the beach. Labelling was kind of “their thing”. Their friends teased them but their regular walks were spent identifying the washed up plastic waste, including but not limited to colourful bottle caps mingled with the ice-block wrappers, the bristle splayed toothbrushes, lighters, plastic forks, drink bottles, toys, torn nets, fishing floats, packaging, shoes, straws, plastic bags and the plastic waste choking the digestive systems of dead sea birds.  It meant they were often asked to identify any unusual flotsam and jetsam people discovered on their coastal walks.  

They sensed that this find was unusual.  They had no idea about what it was. They had no easy label or loose category. All they knew was that on that wild and windy afternoon they were (t)here with it, and it was (t)here with them – and their life was changed.  

DESCRIBE’s STORY

When DEFINE called they’d seemed unusually excited. They’d found something on their beach walk that they couldn’t identify. “Would DESCRIBE like to have a look?” 

DESCRIBE wasn’t sure. DEFINE was a good friend but some of their beach “finds” were depressing and all of them were smelly. Whilst DEFINE was happy putting a label or name on stuff DESCRIBE was often left feeling DEFINE’s focus on labelling meant they were missing something in the bigger picture of the stuff that was found covered and uncovered, stranded on the high tide mark. 

“What is it like?” DESCRIBE asked with some reluctance. However, when DEFINE described the object as “fissiparous” DESCRIBE was captured. DEFINE was clever like that … sensing they had a grudging audience and introducing a new word to pique interest.  “Go on then,” DESCRIBE said. “Call around after work tonight, and I’ll have a look.” 

DESCRIBE was ready to play “animal, vegetable or mineral” when DEFINE knocked on the door.  They had unpacked the plastic and mineral testing kit with all its instruments, chemicals and probes for determining colour, lustre and sheen, hardness density, tensile strength, transparency, resistance to corrosion, fracture cleavage, specific gravity and refractive index etc. In addition DESCRIBE had pulled out the “Corrosion effects on common materials manual” and as a back up the “Collector’s guide to fissiparous design in the 1990’s”. 

DESCRIBE need not have bothered. The object was not plastic, it was not a mineral, not an animal and not a vegetable.  But it was a living thing. 

Must be animal or vegetable, then. DESCRIBE did not know. It did not fit with anything they had ever seen before. About the size of a clenched fist, the object changed shape and colour as DESCRIBE moved closer in to look at it. It had no obvious epidermis or boundary layer, seeming to flow around DESCRIBE’s hands, and quivered just above the hard surface of the kitchen table. 

DEFINE was right it did feel like the object was unstable, that it might divide itself into separate parts at any moment. For the first time DESCRIBE found themselves lacking the vocabulary, the adjectives to capture what it was like. Their best effort was lame – all they could come up with was to describe it as “a transparent flowing blob” – a blob that was “pulsating with some weird kind of energy”. 

But, much like DEFINE, DESCRIBE felt  that it was observing them at the same time as they were observing it – and DESCRIBE suspected that it did not approve of the manuals, the kit or the fact it was being observed. And, this disturbed DESCRIBE.

“We are going to need new adjectives for this one” DESCRIBE said to DEFINE.     

SEQUENCE’s STORY

“Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz”, SEQUENCE glanced at the screen on their watch.  They had promised DESCRIBE and DEFINE that they would look after “The Blob” for the day. So SEQUENCE had set the alarm to remind themselves to check the webcam in the staff cafeteria every hour on the hour. They’d had a few doubts about the task but this blob-sitting gig had not been too difficult. 

It is true that DEFINE and DESCRIBE had made SEQUENCE promise not to leave “The Blob” alone, but  it was boring watching something pulsate for hours on end and when SEQUENCE got a call for some relief work making up rooms at the Restful Horizons Motel complex they bundled “The Blob” into an old shoe box and took it along.  

SEQUENCE thought they would mock up a storyboard for DESCRIBE and DEFINE when they finished the shift, so they could see what an unremarkable day “The Blob” had spent when left to its own devices. SEQUENCE had the template ready to insert the images – first, second, third, etc.  The first three screen captures were only distinguishable by their time-stamps. “Overanxious parents” SEQUENCE thought. “The Blob” is obviously some kind of weird child substitute. DESCRIBE and DEFINE would get more entertainment from an axolotl.” 

As the police report would later reveal, and the series of initial screen captures would confirm, The Blob remained pulsating gently within its box beside the staff lockers every time SEQUENCE checked in on it. There was nothing untoward in this careful collation and time ordered series of images. Everyone who knew SEQUENCE understood their “What is the order?” approach to life.  When they heard about the timeline of Blob-sitting images they laughed, “Typical SEQUENCE”.

This initial series of images – captured at random intervals but ordered by their time stamps – were much sought after – after the news reports came out. They were also the catalyst for any number of popular memes, conspiracy theories and Twitter speculation focused on what was happening in between  – in the time intervals between SEQUENCE’s faithful series of screen captures. Because in the spaces in between the “pulsating gently” stuff something very different was going on.

CLASSIFY’s STORY

 CLASSIFY was irritated. DEFINE and DESCRIBE had finally left but a raw and chafing sense of disquiet remained. “Where did it fit?” CLASSIFY puzzled brows pushed closer together. “Where does it belong? What group is it in?”.

Lots of people knew CLASSIFY as the “Box Boxer”.  They had dedicated their life to categorising containers, boxing the boxes people found on their walks around the city and the shore.  CLASSIFY’s house was a hoarder’s demesne, filled with a box collection, which had overflowed from the basement and spare room into the hallway and living areas. Navigation was tricky for visitors. CLASSIFY was currently adding shelves to an old shipping container – a gigantic box – re-sited at the bottom of the garden, to handle the overflow.  

CLASSIFY had boxes full of the most unusual boxes; boxes for boxes of historical value, boxes for boxes that could hold liquids, boxes for boxes that could arouse intense emotions, boxes for boxes that were once living, boxes for boxes that were potentially harmful, for infamous boxes, for boxes that could withstand intense pressure, for old boxes, for edible boxes, for insulated boxes and even a box for boxes that were too small to hold anything – a box for boxes too small to be boxes. 

CLASSIFY had to admit to being momentarily stumped by “The Blob”.  

“The Blob” was certainly a container of some kind.  Of that CLASSIFY was certain. So the box of things that could never be boxes was ruled out. But putting it in the box of “boxes as yet to be determined” seemed like a cop out. CLASSIFY poured themselves a carbonated beverage – or gas boxed in a liquid as CLASSIFY liked to think of it  – and climbed into a large cardboard box in the living room. A box where CLASSIFY did their best thinking. “This sort of thing calls for some “outside the box” “inside a box” thinking”, they murmured.     

COMPARE and CONTRAST’s STORY

COMPARE’S head throbbed and their eyes refused to refocus.  The symptoms were familiar – they’d spent too much time staring at the screen. It was time for a walk.  

COMPARE texted CONTRAST, then whistled the dogs, grabbed a jacket and set off for a ramble across the wetlands. COMPARE had spent the last three hours studying webcam footage from the Restful Horizons staffroom. The answer was in the footage. COMPARE was sure of it.  CONTRAST was not certain. Either way it remained tantalisingly out of their grasp. 

“BOW WOW WOW BOOO WOO WOO AWOOOOO ….” The hounds had sniffed out something promising. Sim(ilar) took off across the swampy coastal wetlands between the sea and the bush, she was closely followed by Diff(erent).  Tails in urgent wag and noses pressed to the ground they paused every now and then to let COMPARE know they were on the trail of something really really good. COMPARE hoped the rabbit, if that was what was exciting them, had got a good start and trudged off after them. Their mind however, was still on the video. 

It had been easy enough to spot the pattern of similar frames across the footage from SEQUENCE. “The Blob” sat barely moving, pulsating quietly within the confines of the box every time SEQUENCE had scheduled a screen capture.  The motel security footage was quite different – periods of relative inaction in the box punctuated by crazy blurs of high speed movement.  

The trickier task was finding any similar patterns within the time of blur.  The time when “The Blob” thought no one was watching. COMPARE pulled themselves up at that. “Thought no one was watching”, what made me think that? 

How could “The Blob” determine when the screen capture would take place? They went back to study the frames just before The Blob returned to the box.  “What is similar? What is different?” COMPARE needed to talk with CONTRAST again. Perhaps they could extract the soundtrack and see if extending the range of frequencies used in the auditory analysis would reveal any similarities or differences between the frames immediately before each period of apparent inactivity.  

COMPARE was surrounded by the damp dull colours of rushes, sedges, cushion plants and low lying scrub. Dense stands of flax and bullrush obscured their view.  Now where had those dogs got to?

ANALYSE’s STORY

ANALYSE was called in late. The crisis team had been meeting for over a week before they got the call. They knew something was up because COMPARE was using their “I’m at work” voice. They also sounded scared. The raw video footage arrived by special urgent courier a couple of hours after the call. 

Their brief was simple. ANALYSE had to review the footage and figure out how and why it gave the impression that “The Blob” was prescient.  Any indicators that “The Blob” knew about the screen captures before they took place was to be flagged and reported immediately.  

While the 10 hours of footage was being uploaded and backed up ANALYSE read and annotated the briefing notes from COMPARE and CONTRAST. The urgency in the call was also seen in the notes.  Something was frightening both of them. 

ANALYSE would have to break the unedited film into multiple clips before starting to figure out what each clip contributed individually and collectively to the narrative. “What are the parts? How do they work together in the whole?”

ANALYSE sighed … There were a lot of parts. It was going to be a long night.

EXPLAIN CAUSES’ STORY

 EXPLAIN CAUSES stared at “The Blob”. “Why is this happening? What is the reason?”.  They furrowed their brow and adjusted the bandwidth on the oscilloscope screen.  Then they turned their attention back to the seemingly unresponsive blob. “You can hold out on me all you like but you know, you just know  I am going to find out in the end”.

EXPLAIN CAUSES adjusted the goggles on the PPE hazard-suit and once again passed the electromagnetic radiation detector over the stationary Blob.  The once spiky magnetic field remained flat – uncharged and unchanged. 

“How, and more importantly why, did you end up on the beach with all that plastic waste?”. 

“Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” 

“Perhaps I am going about this the wrong way,” EXPLAIN CAUSES thought. After all, if “The Blob” is, as everyone suspects, a sentient being, how can I expect it to respond normally when it has been taken away from “home” and imprisoned in a cage in a laboratory?”.

EXPLAIN CAUSES paused at the thought, “I am probably acting in breach of its basic blob-human rights. Perhaps I should simply return “The Blob” to the beach where it was first found.”

EXPLAIN CAUSES picked up the phone and called EXPLAIN EFFECTS.

EXPLAIN EFFECT’s STORY

“Yes, you could put “The Blob” back on the beach but please think about the effects before you do this.  What are the effects? We have to think about the consequences? What if something goes wrong and the outcome of this is that people are badly hurt?” 

EXPLAIN EFFECTS could not help their cautious response.  They loved their friends but their friends so often failed to think of the consequences of an action before rushing in. They wanted to scream out loud. “Are you crazy? We still do not understand what went down in the small contained space of the motel staff workroom and now you want to release it in an open space on the coast?  We have no way, no way of containing it if it goes into a blur again.”

EXPLAIN CAUSES and DEFINE and DESCRIBE laughed.  “You worry too much,” EXPLAIN CAUSES said. 

“Yeah, seriously, what could go wrong?” chorused DEFINE and DESCRIBE.  

Twenty minutes later they were back at the beach where DEFINE had first spotted ‘The Blob”.  They walked over to the line of washed up tidal debris and, ignoring the clouds of biting sand flies, set “The Blob” down on the sand.  

The effect of returning “The Blob” to the beach was immediate and intense.  A blinding flash of light, a blur of movement and “The Blob” vanished along with ALL the plastic waste on the beach.  When the group regained their vision and had calmed down enough to think they looked around for what had changed. What had changed was what was missing. 

EXPLAIN EFFECTS was first to react.  “Did anyone check what happened to the plastic waste at the motel?”

ANALOGY’s STORY

What is real and what is simulation? ANALOGY was so deeply into finding similarities bewteen seemingly diddimilar things they no longer knew for sure. Their friends were equally confused. Was visiting Disneyland more real than life as an Instagrammer? So when ANALOGY asked their friends “How is this comparable?” or “Why is a virus like a social network?” they just rolled their eyes their eyes.

To be fair, COMPARE and CONTRAST still tried to engage with the “How is X like Y? and “What is the relational factor?” examples ANALOGY raised but CLASSIFY gave up a long time ago. “Just tell me why they are similar,” CLASSIFY would say, as they threw sliced vegetables, fruit and 3-D printed fruit  into the salad bowl. “So is this tomato a vegetable or a fruit or a simulation?” “And what do you mean when you say I should be wary about Google’s Eucalyptus trees?”

ANALOGY wanted to know more about “The Blob” – the mysterious object behind the alarming events at the Restful Horizons Motel. They wondered if it was a deepfake video attempt to frighten the public into limiting their use of disposable plastics or if the events were real and “The Blob” represented the arrival of a new plastic-based life form.  

Advances in artificial intelligence made it so hard to know the truthiness nowadays.   Journalism written by algorithms was the new reality they were living in a time when reading a “news” report was much like visiting a theme park and imagining you knew what was going on in the wider neighbourhood  

Whilst ANALOGY knew their friends were not allowed to speak about their involvement while the case was under investigation – they hoped COMPARE and CONTRAST and CLASSIFY might leak some details of their real experience over a shared dinner.   

GENERALISE’s STORY

GENERALISE flipped on the microphone. They were used to being dismissed in the beginning of any significant government inquiry.  After a tragedy like this, the people involved were so focused on “he said” – “she said” – the “next” and the “then” there was no point in making any more noise.  People needed time to let the detail, the laying and avoiding of blame, the posturing and self-promotion to settle out . But once the noise had died down people sought out GENERALISE and the smart ones listened carefully to their “Overall, I think…” and their “double because”.

Without glancing at their notes GENERALISE started talking. The room was eerily silent as they outlined the claim, the reasons for the claim and the evidence that supported the reasons. GENERALISE called it “The Power of 3”. Make a claim (“Overall I think …”) – back it up (“because…”) – and then tell them why they should believe you (“because…”. And yes – gesture helped. 

GENERALISE started with the main claim, “Overall I believe, “The Blob” needs to be treated with great caution.  It should be detained in a secure facility until we know more about it. “ 

They elaborated on the claim, “I agree with much of what has been shared by the previous speakers – “The Blob” appears to be a sentient being – its origin the result of self-replication and self-assembly of organic polymers (plastics)”.  

They paused to check the audience was coping with the technical language being used before continuing. “The initial reaction was probably catalysed by energy from hydro-thermal vents below the surface of the earth where nano-particles of plastic had been collecting unnoticed for decades whilst the world was shouting about banning single use plastic bags and visible plastic waste.” 

“ I think we were distracted from what was happening by the presence of excess plastic waste land fills – those great mountains of plastics waiting to be recycled and then the huge rafts of plastic floating around in the oceans.” 

 I, like the activists demonstrating outside the venue, also believe you could argue that as a sentient being “The Blob” has basic rights.”

“BUT,” and here GENERALISE cleared their throat for emphasis, before stating their reasons, ““The Blob” has an insatiable appetite for plastics and  does not much care where it finds them.” 

GENERALISE went on, “ Indeed as far as we can tell, once it has hoovered up sufficient organic polymers it replicates itself by fracturing into multiple mini-Blobs and these disperse into the environment and the  process then repeats itself. We are looking at exponential growth.” 

GENERALISE paused, and then repeated her initial claim, “This is why we must detain them in a secure facility until we know more about them.”   

Someone in the audience interrupted her.  “Surely this appetite for plastic is a good thing – I mean we don’t need to detain them – that is barbaric – better that we find ways to use their affection for plastics to reduce the tonnes of plastic waste choking our planet – And – well they are rather cute – my kids love them.  I predict they will soon take out the “robotic vacuum cleaner” as the least bothersome household pet-appliance ever.”  

The audience laughed – reassured by the claims for technological rescue – the sense that “The Blob” was not a threat, that the hazard was being exaggerated, instead of being a hazard, “The Blob” would rescue them.  

GENERALISE took a deep breath and thought about how best to respond. Whatever is claimed, remember “They do not know.  And they must not be told.”

PREDICT’s STORY

Thankfully the public remained largely unaware of the large quantity of microplastic particles they consumed in the food, water and air they ate and breathed in each day.

As GENERALISE had confided in PREDICT, “The essential issue when you are deciding on an answer to “what happens next?” is that nowadays most of us are more “Polythene Pam” than “star dust”.  Having all the plastic dragged out of you by “The Blob’s” force field would be an experience not unlike swallowing a bag of ball-bearings before going for a MRI scan.”  

And yet PREDICT knew there was more to consider. The most recent executive position paper stated that the government should continue to pretend that nothing was wrong.  The advisors argued that the public was not ready to know what happened at the Restful Horizons Motel. Their prediction about what would happen if the truth got out was grim.  The resulting panic and loss of life as people fled “The Blob” feeding zones would be potentially devastating – and would risk extending the existing feeding zones into areas as yet unaffected. 

Yes, letting the public know was potentially far more devastating than the Proposals for next steps PREDICT was asked to consider. Proposal 1. Using “The Blobs” to remove plastic waste from the planet and the alternative Proposal 2. Sealing “The Blob” and mini “Blobs” in a containment zone – along with any of the population unfortunate enough to live in the same area.  

PREDICT preferred an isolation and containment option.  Their report proposed that entry and exit to the zones be prohibited until all plastic had been consumed and “The Blob” population starved to death.  In his opinion the threat from “The Blob’s” energetic extraction of particles of plastic from non-living and living sources would only disappear when all the plastic resources had been consumed. 

In the end, PREDICT’s argument was persuasive and the isolation/containment proposal was unanimously accepted by committee members.   

It was a moment when PREDICT felt proud. It was a rigorous and detailed report. It was a tough call, but all predictions were well supported with the available qualitative and quantitative evidence. It was a good piece of work. 

It was also, as history would show, devastatingly wrong.

EVALUATE’s STORY

EVALUATE was worried. “What is the best action? Was it better to stay another few months or leave now?  They had been monitoring and assessing the planet’s sustainability levels for a long time and sensed that a new journey would be necessary very soon.  

Knowing many would have to leave was not contested.  The Blobs were after all a nomadic race – travellers – multiple planetary migrators – with a history of many previous journeys across the galaxy.  They were known (and feared) as planetary plastic nomads and had never had a fixed planet to call home. 

Serial planet hopping formed the basis of the stories passed onto their young who grew up chanting – “place is temporary, plastic is permanent” and “we are off to Planet B, B, B to see what we can see, see, see. And all that we can see, see, see is a planet with plastic for me, me, me”.  

Deciding when a planet had reached “peak plastic” – the critical threshold for another great migration – was a huge responsibility and it was a burden that kept EVALUATE awake at night. They looked back at the bank of monitors tracking the levels of organic polymers of high molecular mass across the planet and sighed. EVALUATE knew about the rumours of extensive rebel groups in more isolated areas of the Southern Hemisphere using cloaking devices to disguise their plastic emissions.  Were there enough of them to warrant staying around for a final plastics clean up mission? 

EVALUATE’s challenge was not knowing they had to leave, it was knowing when it was best to leave. “What is best?” They listed the arguments for leaving, and the reliability of the evidence supporting them.  And then did the same for the arguments for staying a little while longer.  

Arguments for leaving.  This planet had been a rich resource when they first awoke, but now there just wasn’t enough plastic left to sustain them.  All planetary deposits had been mined – living and non-living. Plastics had been extracted from the surface and the sub-surface – land, sea and air.  It was time to go. However the small chance of discovering another planet with a rich plasticised environment meant the risks and cost of leaving was always huge.  

Arguments for delaying. The future was uncertain for the “remainers” and the “travellers”.  Both would enter a deep hibernation phase. The “remainers” would switch off and wait for as long as it took for plastic levels on the planet to improve, if they ever did.  The “travellers” faced almost certain death during the panspermia. The vast majority would fail to find another planet with just the right conditions to reawaken them from the hibernatory state used for the dispersal.  Reproduction by multiple fission meant even 6 months longer on the planet would enable considerable growth in “The Blob” collective energy pool and thus improve their chances of survival. 

EVALUATE sighed again. It had been a planet of plastic plentitude – they liked to think of it as being “plumptious with plastics” – they had good memories – the micro-plastic stuffed filter-feeding shellfish and the humans who ate them had been an especial delight – and – they were just a little surprised to realise this … they would miss this planet.