Joan Didion Documentary

I fell in love with Joan Didion when I read The White Album. Maybe college, or shortly after. She was such a good observer. Wordmaster, yes. But above all, she was courageous. She reached down deep to the center of her being and pulled it out, and allowed everyone to see. The essay in The White Album about migraines. The one about water in California. The one about the Black Panthers, and then one about Doris Lessing. If we look carefully at the treatment of all these diverse subjects, we see her reflecting, shaping.

She continues revealing herself with this documentary on Netflix. She is frail, but her mind is still as sharp as ever. We get glimpses of the comedy and the tragedy of her life as her nephew feeds her questions to continue the dialog between her and the reader. Continually surprising (watch what she thinks about discovering a 5-year old on acid in the Haight (SF) of the 60’s). Yes, she is self-absorbed at times, but she is still observing and showing how she observes and tells it how it is, deep down, not just how it appears.

I have been lax, but am happy to be able to read her most recent 2 books even though they are real downers, about the tragedy and impermanence of life. Almost Buddhist. The title (The Center Will Not Hold) comes from a Yeats poem, The Second Coming (“the centre cannot hold”), which ends with the line about Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of the collection of Didion’s essays just before The White Album.

Marilynne Robinson and What Are We Doing Here?

I try hard to keep up with Marilynne Robinson and her writing. The book that made me think the hardest in the last decade got me turned on to her. No, I am not a masochist, even though I do keep returning to Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. She deftly drives right up the path where science and religion intermingle. Her Giliead trilogy is a remembrance of an austere midwest influenced by Protestantism and the dust bowl. With writing as sparse as Absence was rich, I was able to glimpse the breadth of her intellect. When I was a Child I Read Books is much more accessible, but a cautionary tale when we look at the direction of content being consumed today.

So when I saw her article on Humanism and thinking after the Enlightenment in the NY Review of Books, I was happy it was Sunday breakfast. An hour later, I came up for breath. What Are We Doing Here? looks at the control of information in the early days of publishing. With prose like “However, I am too aware of the ragged beast history has been to fret over the fact that its manners are not perfect yet. ” how can we resist getting that extra cup of coffee and listening to rain as we finish the long read. Taking the extra time is mirrored in her celebration of Liberal Arts. The meaning of liberal here is from libere, or free. Free to study, which has nothing to do with politics. Robinson:

It has given me an interesting life, allowing me all the time a novel requires and every resource for following the questions that arise as I work. I have enjoyed the company of young writers, and I have learned from them. I know that one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values. O tempora, o mores! But I find a great deal to respect.

The problem is that this “Liberal” is not working to make the rest of us, outside of the university, free. Robinson goes on to bemoan the current “eclipse” of humanism after its sunrise through authors like Walt Whitman and Keats. She looks at Competition (with a big C) and quietly advocates for a revolution of thinking about our purpose here. Humanities is a necessary opening of our thinking, the first real Big Data of our existence, but it is in danger from those who have influence and now the tools to create a Benthamist Panopticon, something we must run, at top speed, from.

The 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Luther on the church door in Wittenberg is next week, Wednesday, November 1. All this reminded me if we dialed back a couple of centuries, and listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast about the Rebellion of Munster in post-Luther society, we could actually see how a new media was causing terrible contortions, violence, and revolution in Europe. Not a pretty site. But between Marilynne Robinson and Dan Carlin, we can get perspectives on What Is Happening Now.

Interactive Fiction and Time Travel

I have been delving into Interactive Fiction lately, becoming more consumed by both reading (watching, playing) branching fiction stories (Choose Your Own Adventure, or CYOA) and the like. Zork is probably the first digital instance of branching fiction. There is an annual competition of IF stories (record 72 submissions) you can try out if you like.

I also read a lot of science fiction, the latest being D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson (my favorite author) and Nicole Galland, collaborator with Neal and 4 others on The Mongoliad Trilogy (another kind of interactiveness). D.O.D.O. is a story about magic, and its recursive recovery and application in modern times through time travel. A very complicated treatment of time travel, with varios threads of the story intertwining like the infinite branches in the universe.

I teach a course that uses Twine for students to create their own interactive fiction. I find it the easiest of the different story engines (word processors for branching fiction) out there.

So when I saw this video, it made me happy to see a physicist treat the plots of time travel movies in such a logical way. This is important to both Interactive Fiction (IF) and storytelling.

No video

I just realized. I have not seen a video in more than 3 weeks.  Let you know when a month rolls round.

Fiction and Non in Yangon

I have been chewing through the books this week, catching up on non-fiction but reading a surprising amount of fiction.

After Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine (more a manual than a real book), I lit into Tropic of Kansas: A Novel, about a dystopian near future where the US has been balkanized and there is a high wall between the mess there and the freedom of Canada. Our hero is a teen who is good at escaping and living rough. He smuggles supplies north across the border, and guns and (more importantly) information south. Caught in a trap he is incarcerated, escapes and becomes a sought-after pawn in the contest between a usurper president who was a war hero but is now only interested in control and sucking the life out of the economy to enrich his company. The rebels were headed by the vice-president, in line until the usurpation. Spread across lo-tech analog networks (think video tapes) and jerry-rigged mesh networks, the uprising faces daunting odds, especially in the badlands of Kansas and Iowa. Well written and plausible actions lead to an ending that is a bit surprising.

Ready Player One is another dystopian near-future novel where the teen in question lives in a stacked mobile home after gas runs out and the climate crumples. The only saving grace is that a genius gamer creates an online world that becomes a default cyberspace for millions, a way to hide out from reality. The genius dies and leaves his unimaginable fortune to the winner of a game he created. Winning depends on deciphering clues from the genius’ childhood in the 80’s. Online games that I am familiar with, avoiding study in graduate school. The story is rich, with a set of intriguing characters. The author is an amazing world-builder.

The non-fiction in this series is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. The pursuit of ecstasy using new technology and drugs to advance the mind of man means we can harness the unconscious powers to reach higher goals. Kotler and Wheal are part of an organization that networks exploratory efforts from places like the Navy, Google, and Microsoft. The goal is to explore selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness and richness. A very insightful read on how culture has lead us to ignore these tools, and how some organizations are harnessing this power. Not a self-help book.

If you are a linguist or love good world-building and cultural stories, you must read Embassytown. Set on a small planet at the edge of the known galaxy in the third universe (the first two had time that was too fast), our young heroine gets called into become a simile. She learns she has a special ability to withstand the overlying grid of energy that allows for communication with the extos (many different kinds) and transportation in hyperspace. It only hurts a little to offer herself as a tabula rasa for others to converse, if that is what you can call it. The Hosts on Embassytown speak in two voices simultaneously, but cannot understand simple sounds. They need to be coordinated sounds from two similar but different sources, and must have feeling behind the sound. She marries a Linguist who is, for me, the more interesting character. I am still only halfway through, but the richness of the new vocabulary and the worlds she visits are remarkable.

Myanmar Update

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank is away, I am staying at his apartment in the Pansodong area of Yangon, waiting for the next session of teacher training. Today marks the first third of my six weeks here. Also the first time I have seen the sun on this trip. Two weeks in and we have finished sessions in Bago (monastery near Yangon, in the jungle) and in Sittwe, in Rakhine State near the Bangladeshi border. Of the two Sittwe (pronounced sit-way in Yangon, but sight-way locally) was the most successful.

We had 42 high school English teachers for 4 days, 5 hours a day (including lunch). Rakhine State is what the Burmese called Arrakan after conquering them in 1787. They are similar to Okinawa in that they have a rich heritage, but very little support (and lots of control) from the central government. They have a different language and different customs, along with different food from the Burmese. The Brits called the country Burma because the ethnic group around Yangon had that name. They pretty much ignored the other 129 ethnic groups. That continues to a certain degree.

This lack of support means that the acceptance rate for high school grads into university is the lowest among all states in Myanmar. The Education Minister of the region hopes that our training can help teachers raise entrance exam scores for students.

The classrooms were hot, sticky and noisy. We occasionally had to stop classes or do writing or reading when the pounding rain on the roof made conversation impossible. But the students were really motivated and most were open to new ideas. There have been rumblings in the Ministry about changing the entrance exam away from one that tested memory more than language. Teachers are ready. It was good timing.

Myanmar 2017 Day 3

Day 3

Wake up early, pounding rain outside, novel until it gets light out. About 7 AM a bunch of teens unload a truck full of sand at the bungalow next door, under construction. We are literally at the end of the road and have to jump puddles to get to our place.

We wait for the pickup, but as breakfast approaches, we start walking and meet him just before arriving at “downtown”, two lanes with thatch covered roofs between, some of the most interesting wood carving I have ever seen, set up like an exhibit. At the bottom of the hill is the cafeteria, all open air, but with fans to blow the sweat around.

Breakfast of mohinga, traditional noodles and curry soup with lime and cilantro toppings, delicious. But also some dal chana (soybean curry) and chapati bread, which I get my fill of 3 helpings. Really good food here.

The classroom is also open air, about 50 meters down the road, but on the way we observe the assembly of the children’s school, with about 300 kids all lined up in their uniforms, lead in chanting by the most senior student. A sight to behold. Then they break, the older ones distribute flowers to the younger ones, and they all pay tribute to a pair of old ladies, donors to the school, lining up and giving them the flowers, about 200 of them.

It seems that the head monk here is a real businessman, promoting the wooden sculptures for sale, some for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has the masters training acolytes to make this sustainable. He buys land and puts up dormitories for the children, enlarging the school from a couple dozen 5 years ago when he came, to the current 400 or so. Next year’s target is 600. It is some of the teachers of these students we are training.

Class time arrives and we have 17 students. 13 are elementary school teachers, 5 of whom teach English. 4 are not teachers. Our target audience, high school English teachers, is nowhere to be seen. The organizers arrive 10 minutes after we have launched into class. They leave before we finish our first hour. We need to have a discussion. Likelihood of a return next year plummet.

We slog through the day, and the students enjoy it without really understanding. We decide to have fun and not worry about the learning. The philosophical attitude helps. At the end of the day, though, they say there are busy tomorrow morning and can’t come to class. We find out later there is a huge assembly of students from all over the area with a famous author (we shake hands at dinner, he is in the bungalow next door), speaking to 2,000 on youth concerns. So we have the morning off.

We take a short walk around the compound on the way back in the dark after dinner. Have to remember to bring a flashlight next time.

Myanmar 2017 Day 2

Day 2

Frank gets up, shows me how the wifi doesn’t work. We spend the morning buying a phone to get hooked up. Three trips back to the store to get the network up and running. Soaked with seat. The phone was only $50, and buying $10 of time got me $10 extra. All set, but the battery runs down. We return to the building to find the power out. Which means no elevator. Now way 8 floors in this weather. We go get a snack.

I forgot how humid Yangon can be, as the torrential downpours of rainy season make me look forlornly at my athlete’s foot. Regular application of medicine helps. A little. Surprising how it can make an angry hot red painful infection that runs up the leg behind the ankle, but this is TMI.

2 hours later the electricity comes on, we return to the apartment, fiddle more with networks, and get packed. Our driver arrives at 4, nice Toyota with air conditioning. Best part of the day taking the 2-hour drive to the monastery in the jungle.

Except it is a 3-hour drive. Yangon traffic is jammed, and we take the road toward Golden Rock. The turn-off at Bago puts us on a muddy road that challenges the driver not to break an axel. Reminds me of the time of a college vacation trip with Lenny and friends to Lake Hudson in Canada to private undeveloped property, where we almost broke an axel.

Dark arrival at the monastery, huge, a small city really. We get dinner, delicious bean soup, rice, and half dozen curries. The head monk talks with us briefly, and the jocular assistant takes care of anything we need. We bed down in a huge bungalow a 5-minute walk from the center of the complex.

Leg is getting better, but the Yangon hack is back, a cough about half the people in Yangon have. The driver had it, but I don’t think it is catching. It is due to the pollution and crappy environmental factors, and may include things like mold.

Myanmar 2017 Day 1

August 2nd, last day of teaching an intensive summer course in Tokyo, and get my grades in after that. I have been going “a tope” (Spanish for “full out”) for 3 weeks while battling a foot infection (40.5, or 105 fever), not because I am an athlete, but because it attacks almost yearly in July during rainy season. Get the usual medicine, but it is a slow recovery.

Pack at night, and to the airport the next day. Super smooth connections on the express trains get me to the airport. Pick up my baggage (delivered the day before) and spy a money changer without a line, buy crisp $100 bills because those are the most accepted at the Myanmar money changers. No real way to change directly Yen to Kyat.

Immigration, no line, time to buy a couple of bottles of whiskey at Duty Free, one for Wunna, one for Moe. Dig into a new novel for the flight. Board and get a bulkhead seat with nobody next to me. We leave 15 minutes early and arrive half an hour early. I mistakenly get into the diplomat line, and the immigration person processes me anyway. Baggage comes through in record time and I am out into the lobby before Frank and Wunna arrive to pick me up.

The drive to dinner is remarkable only in the lack of things. The city is much improved, with far far fewer piles of garbage. Cleaner, and more cosmopolitan is my first impression. And the dogs, far fewer of them too.

On to Moe’s new restaurant, Rakhine food in a simple atmosphere, lots of tile and bright lights, looks like a cafeteria line, at the back, lots of trays of food, but they are brought to us. We have a pleasant dinner with the organizers of the program, Chang, Yin Law Mon, Wunna and Pyoe.

We finish up the pleasantries, I pay the multifaceted Moe, our restauranteur and travel agent, for the trips he has arranged for us during the next 6 weeks. Wunna drives us back to Frank’s place.

At this point Myanmar kicks in. Frank lives on the 8th floor of a newish building, next to Wunna’s building and next to the rice shop of a good friend. The elevator does not stop on his floor, so we go one floor up and lug the luggage down a flight of stairs.

Frank has lived in this 100m2 apartment for almost a year, but he has never moved in. Almost no furniture, beyond the what came with the flat. The two tables in the kitchen are piled with stuff, making them unusable. True bachelor life.

I roll into the futon on the floor, in the one room with air conditioning, and listen to the drip drip drip of the humidity pulled out of the air but with drainage blocked. Next morning I wait for Frank to wake up, more novel. Forgot to get the wifi password, so can’t tell my wife I have arrived.

Is “picting” a word? Should it be?

So you have “texting”, and a new–some would say equivalent–literacy of taking pictures, or “picting”.  Norris and Soloway argue that it is becoming more and more important.  To which I say, why not, then, “vidding” for the moving pictures, and “graffing” for those infographics, and “audding” for those sound clips (“podding” for podcasts?). Then there is “selfing” for those digital navel gazers. “Virching” for those new VR players, “augging” for those adding information to digital feeds (AR), and eventually, whatever comes with teledildonics. I don’t even want to think about that.

 

Digital Natives? Not in my class.

Digital Girl

This is the first week in class, which means signing up for a lot of websites to get set up. One site had instructions printed with the URL at the end of a sentence, like this: http://myurl.com. My students (young Japanese college students, mostly women), are masters on their phones. I suggested they bring their laptops to make things easier, but only 2 did.

I discovered that some don’t know what a URL is. Tim Berners-Lee would be proud. The guy who invented the world wide web never envisioned naked URLs, thinking they would always be embedded in hyper-links. The first problem is students entering the

The first problem today was students entering the web address in the Yahoo search engine. With many URLs entered in this broken web search of Yahoo, they yield no results. Yahoo and Internet Explorer are still popular here in Japan, the last country in the world with majority users.

If you use a good browser like Chrome, the search and URL window are the same. Not with Yahoo (and safari on the phone). But some of my students don’t know the difference.

The second problem is that students would copy the instructions exactly, so they were entering a URL with the period at the end. http://myurl.com. Reminds me of the days when we said: Enter the URL “http://myurl.com” (without quotes). I would suspect digital natives would understand how a URL works, and that there are no spaces. Which leads to another problem, entering usernames; some try to use spaces. Alas.

Fortunately, in our department, students get a Computer Skills class the first semester. Most of the problems happen when I teach students from other departments. After their semester in Boston, many are able to handle technology better.

Me? I am learning how to use mobile better.

Media Monday: A dilemma. No. Two dilemmas.

Up today: New and interesting Media finds. First dilemma: Which one first, and why are there only 24 hours in a day?

  1. A Netflix documentary about movie directors doing documentaries during the second world war. Sam Adams over at Slate magazine lets us in on a new short series (3 episodes) dealing with 5 famous directors (John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston) and how they “embedded” with the military before embedding was a word, during WW2, to make documentaries about the war, some having great political influence. The series comes with links to source materials, some of the original documentaries and more, so you can get lost for days.
  2. S-Town, a new podcast from This American Life’s Ira Glass and Serial’s Srah Koenig and it is better than both. An odd farmer writes an email to a journalist complaining about a coverup of a local murder. The journalist visits. The plot thickens. The local characters are beyond colorful. It is a podcast done right. Even Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig say so. Just finished the first chapter, you can download all seven. I have to wait for the weekend to binge.
  3. Out April 25: Walkaway, a novel by Cory Doctorow. He has been writing young adult fiction and non-fiction for years, but I like his fiction. One of the founders of BoingBoing and who I consider the most interesting poster on the most popular blog in the world, Doctorow is all about digital rights. This book is a departure, but the advance notice has been really good. I even bought a real hardback book, one signed by him.
  4. Out April 25: What Remains of Edith Finch. This is an utterly enticing mix of game and fiction, short stories about relatives of Edith, all of who end up dead, each leading to more discoveries, and to the inevitable end. Edith is the last one left. Read this Motherboard review that has me salivating. Second dilemma, it only works on Windows PCs or PlayStations. I have neither. Which should I get?This is good enough to buy a new platform.

Politics in Rural America. Some thoughts.

Movies: I really liked Hell or High Water, and Jeff Bridges does a great job at the understated role of the hero. I kept thinking about the younger brother in the main role, that I had seen him somewhere before. Looked him up and was surprised to see. His Texas accent was so natural, yet completely gone in his other role as a space ship captain.

Politics follows, read if you like.

But yes, the feelings of despair in rural areas, and willingness to try anything, are a sober wakeup call. Pair that with the opioid crisis killing 50,000 farmers a year (more than AIDS in its heyday), add the information filter of social media, group sociology like acceptance of blue lies, and you can see why J.D. Vance resonates. (Andrew Sullivan, first part of article). But in the words of a guy in a similar situation to Vance, Where was the outrage 30 years ago when the factories in the rust belt were imploding?
He is moving from Silicon Valley back to Ohio and looking for startups, working from home on his investments, and searching out new companies. Surprisingly, startup success is better in rural areas and small towns, better than urban areas. The problem is J.D. Vance doesn’t know anything about small rural startups.
James Fallows is writing a book about flying around the country in a Cessna and visiting these small towns and how vibrant they are. Should be ready by the fall, but he has posted a lot of it in blog form at the Atlantic. So it is not as simple as pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
Oh, and for those who like to listen, on a different topic, is John Dickerson (Face the Nation) who does a wonderful audio podcast (Dad, try these out) at Slate called Whistle Stop. He used to do reflections back on past campaigns, but now it is historical echoes of current topics. He covers the Bricker Amendment and how the isolationists were battling the internationalist elites to try to pare the power of the president (Eisenhower) and how Lyndon Johnson was so masterful in getting its proponents to shoot themselves in the foot.

Wolfe on Darwin and Chomsky

I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.

I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.

Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.

Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.

Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists.  An example:

Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.

High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.

Games in Class

I have two games lined up for classes when they begin next month. I have been reading and exploring on ways to up the experiential level in a boring class setting.

Classcraft looked cool at first. Making classroom behavior into a group-based RPG fit right into my small group structure for teaching and interaction.  I considered my audience of college women and started to doubt whether they were familiar with MMORPGs. They could always ask their brothers, or even fathers. I asked in my class and happily about 25% (6/24) had played a similar type game on their Playstation or phone before. I was also wary about the thing being just a juiced up behaviorist trick, with the gold stars wrapped up in a pretty package. Not after the research. It is used in 20,000 schools. Granted, most of those are Jr. hi and HS, but close enough. The features lead to team-building and if my students can do that in English, perfect. I can build in using English as part of the settings as well. There are random events which spice up things, and make them more real. The only thing that still worries me is the reliance on competition, of which my students don’t have much of. Yet. Good for my first-year speaking and listening class.

Fantasy Geopolitics is a game to stimulate conversation about the world, about geography, and mostly about the news. I know my students are not familiar with Fantasy Football, but the concept I think they will latch onto quite easily. Instead of making up a team of football players at the beginning of the season, students choose a “team” or collection of countries (for my class, each student can pick 6). Then each class thereafter they can trade countries instead of players during the weekly “draft” at the beginning of class. The neat thing is that the countries are all rated by how much they appear in the New York Times. So instead of getting a hot running back for your team, you will be looking to see which countries have wars, revolutions, economic upheavals or other reasons to get in the news. After the first 3 weeks or so, goes the research, students start looking for signs that a country is ready to burst onto the newsfront, an embroiling scandal or whatnot. Each week, students are then rated on how much their exposure goes up or down. This means students need to keep reading each week. We use Newsela for graded reading access to news, but students can also look at authentic headlines in the NYTimes. The developer started with a Kickstarter campaign, but now the game resides at FANschool.org. They have other version of politics in general, and one for elections, but my students need geopolitics more.

Both of these games were featured in one of the best games for education books I have read in years. The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo has a dozen chapters, each using an exemplary software to show how games belong in and improve education. I will show my colleague who teaches English Literature the endless runner game Stride and Prejudice. Still in development is Eoghan (pronounced owen) Kidney’s VR (virtual reality) adaptation of Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses. This has been in development for 3 years since getting money on FundIt, similar to Kickstarter, and it looks like a group at Boston U is starting up something similar called Joycestick (get it?). We can learn empathy and great storytelling through Inanimate Alice. Another way to center your thinking and do literature at the time is the game Walden, a game, now out in Apha ($18). We live in Thoreau’s world and learn to become more self-reliant and negotiate society on our own terms. Finally, we learn how to throw trucks and run like a chicken using our brains and an EEG collar as the only interface. What this really does is work like Ritalin or Adderall (the games are still in trial) to focus attention.

Each of these games is an example of a different kind of software, each addressing a different kind of learning. The book is highly recommended. As soon as I finish reading the book, off I am to develop the first two to fit into my class, and have fun with the others.

Homework Exchange

I am at a tech conference for teachers (Japan Moodle Moot) and over lunch I was throwing out ideas to see if they resonated with others who use Moodle for teaching. Gordon Bateson was answering follow-up questions about his morning presentation on Badges.

This conference follows a week where the faculty admin from our Boston campus came to explain how the accreditation process goes on in the US. They use SMART (Business guru Peter Drucker’s 5 criteria for setting goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (with a time frame). The course content is broken down into tiny bits, each with its own set of standards (actually, there are 4 sets, as Boston breaks the students into 4 levels). This requires a lot of work, but does force people (teachers and admin) to clearly define what they want to go on in class.

One of the interesting admonitions from the consultants in Boston was to make sure that time was not the determining factor, only one of 5 parts. Also not about how much work is done, but how much learning gets done. I applaud this.

It is looking like this kind of goal-setting (curricula and syllabi) are coming to Japan. Word around the Ministry of Education is that it is the next big thing after “active learning” runs its course.

I was put in charge of our sadly neglected self-study center, repurposed as an unofficial event room called the English Room. We need regular activities next year (starting in April).

With all these ideas, and Blockchain (technology behind BitCoin) applied to Education, I came up with an idea. Homework Exchange.

It seems with our students doing so much of the same kind of homework, it gets less efficient. It also adds to the teacher load. An Exchange among department members (espcially in our language learning skills courses) would give students an opportunity to do things with other students outside their groups with teachers doing stuff they are good it. Here is how it works.

I like playing board games. I set up Monday lunch as Gamer’s Lunch. Any student who comes can get recorded. If a teacher assigns that as a kind of speaking homework for their speaking class, she gets credited. But, for a teacher to assign an activity, they in turn have to offer an activity of their own. Say, watching a 10 minute video and leading a discussion. You build a series of activities, students get a lot more practice and teachers share the load.

There are a lot of logistics to work out, but it does satisfy the Ministry’s current guidelines for homework, 45 minutes a week per credit hour. (Unrealistic in itself, with students carrying a load of 24 90-minute classes, plus the homework, that makes for a 54 hour work week.) But hey, they might have some fun for at least part of it instead of doing fill in the blanks.

I see this starting as a face-to-face thing, then moving from a small group of volunteers to the faculty in the department, then across departments, at which time it will need to go online. Fortunately, tomorrow has a presentation on sharing activities in Moodle, at 9 AM. Takes an hour to get to the conference. Time for bed.

Ballot sent

largeAlthough I had some reservations, I now see that Hillary Clinton may be our best President ever. She is certainly the most capable administrator ever elected to the highest office. Unfortunately, she needs work as a candidate. But she has come a long way through her three debates, and is likely to triumph. Key, though, is the ability to take the win downballot, to the Senate and House, and make gains (or better, a majority) there, to punish the Republicans for 20 years of racism and inaction.

I could go on here, but find this guy, a leftist, outlines my position better than I could.

Colorado had a three interesting initiatives on the ballot, all of which I voted for. Single Payer healthcare, no slavery for prison labor, and making initiatives on the ballot more difficult to create. Will let you know the total results after the election.

Moving to Medium

mediumlogoThere is a new blogging platform, one that I think is better than WordPress, and I am moving there for future posts. I will add pointers here, but the content will be there.

Why am I releasing total control over my feed here, with my own domain name and wordpress installation? Two factors, curation and convenience.

Medium was developed by one of the co-founders of Twitter. Understanding social media and applying it to content, Evan Williams put together a platform that allows any user to blog, limits the format options to make the content the draw, and allows for readers to decide easily what should be highlighted and promoted each day. Add to that paid authors of note, like Steven Levy on Crypto War Redux, to draw the public.

There are other alternatives to Medium, outlined at Lifehacker, but they don’t put the author at the center, supported by the readers, in a symbiotic relationship that is an evolution from what publishers used to do. Medium acts as a medium, but is, in its current state, almost invisible. Something I like.

As an occasional blogger in the days of fading RSS use, I cannot expect people to come to my domain to read what I have to say; it gets lost in the shuffle of a million other blogs. With Medium, I have a chance that they may get linked or looked at more often. As well as the convenience of web-based posting. Find me at https://www.medium.com/@tokyokevin

UPDATE: about a year later. Medium is going through some changes. I am back here. Sorry about the leave.

Voting on Convictions

the-strategy-1080536_640I am usually a strategic voter. I sometimes switch to the Republican party so I can vote against the wingnuts in the primaries, as the chance a local Democrat getting elected are pretty close to nil (in Loveland, Colorado). I have been political since helping Dad deliver Kennedy brochures as a tiny kid to the ward where he was the Democratic precinct captain. Seeing Hubert Humphrey lose to Richard Nixon was an eye-opener. Watching McGovern go down in flames consolidated a real fear of voting with too much conviction and not enough strategy. Worst was to see Al Gore lose the squeaker to G.W., and I do blame the 3% that Nader garnered.

Sure there was Jimmy Carter, one of the best presidents and probably the best person to ever hold the office. Read some of his books. But you know how that ended. When Reagan waltzed into office, I was already overseas in Barcelona. I returned for a graduate degree but did not stay. I have watched the decline of America from afar, in Tokyo. Sure, I contributed, many times to the Obama campaign. Worked as much as I could to get the word out. He has done as much as possible in a system that has become dysfunctional.

hillary-41775_640Hillary has always seemed the logical extension of this run. She has balls. She is a scrapper. She is smart, and resilient. She knows the ins-and-outs of the system. She will get things done. And she will make history as the first woman president.

I agree with Bernie Sanders on almost every point in his platform. He is a good thinker, and presents his ideas well. I am worried, though, that he would be another Carter. And the right is more aligned than in the late 70’s. It is a different ballgame. When the rubber meets the road, I am not so sure he would be able to deliver. He expects a revolution, with a surge of young liberals voting their conscious. But if it were a true revolution, why is he wasting his time on a nomination? He doesn’t play well with others, is a real independent and not really a Democrat. Sure, the 2-party system is another thing that needs drastic overhaul, superdelegates and about 30 other quirks that help inside-the-beltway candidates. But this is the system we have to work with.

But for the first time in a long time, I understand why people vote on their convictions, even without a real chance of electing a winner. Those that vote against their own economic self-interest because they believe in something one candidate has done or said. A moral stand. Pure and simple.

When I found out Bernie Sanders was a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam war, my opinion of him jumped a couple of notches. I have done the same thing, albeit during the last year of the draft (thank you, Jimmy Carter, for canceling that.) CIMG2923But it was the latest exchange in the debate between Sanders and Clinton that has swayed me completely. It involves Henry Kissinger, who I have long considered a war criminal. This has only grown stronger over the years, this feeling that a corrupt man in a corrupt administration has been let off in the eyes of history. My visit to the killing fields in Cambodia last year sharpened this feeling as I learned the role the US had in the catastrophe.

So when Hillary embraced Kissinger and Bernie clearly rejected him, it left me with no choice. I am a pacifist. It is one of the reasons I came to Japan to live. I can no longer support Hillary Clinton for President. Looking back after my decision, I now see how many other areas Hillary has compromised on so much that she reminds me of a character out of Macbeth.

Now comes the hard part. How to ensure that Mr. Sanders becomes Mr. President. He is not very electable. He doesn’t compromise. Sometimes that strength can become a weakness. But I am now looking for the best way to contribute to the campaign.

bernie-sandersIn the last couple of days, I have discovered that there are signs Bernie could get nominated (the most difficult step), and then go on to get elected (easier, considering the field he is running against). Most promising is the amount of funds from small donors. Beating Obama’s record. Most difficult for him is getting the media onboard. You need a dirty fight for that.

But here’s to hoping that conscience and strategy can work together. Feel the Bern.

 

Going to Myanmar this summer

Tingles. Frank emails me back with a short message, and it is so good to have someone on the ground teaching classes in Yangon to communicate with, to get solid information so early.

For those here the first time, I went to Myanmar as a volunteer teacher trainer twice in 2014. The first time through Friendship Force with family and friends. I invited good friend Frank along and we spent 10 wonderful days teaching in a monastery. Frank and I returned in August (supported by JALT this time) and spent a whole month teacher training, and expanded our network of connections.

140802PGardenTeachers3

Frank returned in the fall of 2015 and has been working there since, not just volunteering. He works most closely with Ko Wunna, a businessman who sponsors some of the free schools in the NLD network, the political party that won a landslide victory last fall, and is now in power. Opening up the country.

That is why we have a larger need than before. Growth is accelerating.

The plan is for a group of 3-10 volunteer EFL teachers to do a short 3-5 day intensive course in Communicative Language Teaching, repeated four times, in four different cities in Myanmar. This will happen either in August or September, or maybe both, depending on arrangements.

As details get consolidated by our hosts, the NLD Education Network, I will be working to consolidate a list of committed volunteers.

Myanmar is a developing country, and while Yangon is relatively cosmopolitan, expect rougher conditions outside. Myanmar is warm all year round, 30 degrees (about 90) and the summer is rainy. Food is basic, mostly fried, but can be spicy. Hard to find wifi and air conditioning.

But the people are exciting and wonderful, full of expectation and a real feeling of hope. This was even before the election. I can’t wait to get back to see how it is.

If you are interested, please contact me. You will need to pay for hotels ($40 a night, minimum) and meals during the month, and maybe even transportation between the cities. Food is cheap unless you want foreign stuff. And of course, your flight in. For me, from Tokyo, I plan to spend about $2,000 for the month.

We will be looking for places to get support first for buying and shipping teaching materials, then to defray some of those costs above.

Lots of work, but well worth it. I plan to fold in some research on using the Internet for audio delivery and compare that with students in Japan, see who benefits the most. See a slide show of what we did in 2014.