Ukraine, Europe, the UK, and the US

Image from artidea.org

I am reading Timothy Snyder‘s book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (GuardianNYTimes review). It is incredibly depressing. I keep coming back to it because, as the Guardian says, it is “unignorable.”

Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale, longtime chronicler of Tyranny. I bought his book after listening to a very insightful interview at Slate with Jacob Weisberg.

Snyder outlines the tactics Vladimir Putin has used to gain control of Russia through destabilization and othering, and then export chaos around the world. Snyder postulates a dichotomy between nations and groups. Those that think progress is inevitable (like the EU proponents and US liberals) and those that feel we are running in circles for eternity (Russia and US conservatives).

I won’t get into details here on how Putin has risen to power and what the ramifications are. I am now reading the historical view of the Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russia and how Putin was able to start a war and take parts of the Ukraine. Especially depressing is looking at how all this starts to destabilize Europe, especially because they are not responding.

Putin tried the tactic that worked in Russia, demonizing homosexuals as agents of the West, bent on violating the “pure” Russia (Rus) built 1,000 years ago by Valdamarr (Volodemere) and rescued by the current Vladimir. (Funny, though, Valdemarr was from the Ukraine.) Since the Ukraine had enjoyed almost 2 decades of peace and was working on the rule of law, they (especially the young) were looking toward Europe. But as soon as Paul Manafort got Yakunovych into power, Russia tried to strong-arm then bribe, then worked to depose him. The people resisted, and continue to resist with a war that hobbles on. Putin’s main goal of destabilization and distrust of authority of the rule of law is slowly working, as we can see from this recent VICE account below.

If we look at the actions of Trump through this lens, it becomes clear that the main goal of Putin is extended, whether there is any collusion or not. More when I finish the book.

Short URLs: Goo.gl going under

Graphic from Strategic Planet

News today (and not it is not April Fool’s) is that goo.gl URL shortener. Here is the message:

Starting March 30, 2018, we will be turning down support for goo.gl URL shortener. From April 13, 2018 only existing users will be able to create short links on the goo.gl console. You will be able to view your analytics data and download your short link information in csv format for up to one year, until March 30, 2019, when we will discontinue goo.gl. Previously created links will continue to redirect to their intended destination.

I have hundreds of shortened URLs. They are good for making easy links for students. And everyone else. And I have a year to continue, and the links will continue after that, so not such a big deal.

Alternatives: I like bit.ly better in many ways, you can make a custom URL. But they don’t do QR codes. All my students have phones, and using QR codes makes things even easier for them. Here are some alternatives (Thanks, Richard.)

I have discovered tiny.cc, which looks like a spoof of tinyURL, one of the first shorteners. It looks a bit iffy, but Web of Trust says they are moderately safe. The neat thing is that they incorporate QR codes right into the process, making it perfect for me. The add-ons for a pro account looks like they may be monitoring traffic a little too closely. Will keep you updated, but this is the direction I am looking for now.

Kind of reminds me of the problems with RSS readers, but that is for another post.

Media Literacy Debate

My brain hurts. Dana Boyd gave the keynote speech (1 hour) at SXSWedu (an annual media conference with an educational add-on). I first caught wind of the controversy through Stephen Downes’ blog. I read Dana Boyd’s original post, and a response by Benjamin Doxtdator.

Before reading Dana Boyd’s follow-up on Medium, I decided to watch the video, the whole hour. This is where I am now. She has raised issues that I had not considered and am still working on integrating into my framework. A challenge. The reason this is so important is that I teach English in Tokyo and use a lot of tech doing so.

Slide from Dana Boyd’S SXSWedu Keynote of web page by Elita Saulle at teachingrocks.ca

Moreso, this year, I am concentrating on providing a wide range of online opportunities in most of my classes this year.  I have added a series of activities (self-evaluation, introspection on motivation, communication, and learning, along with goal setting and planning) to give students both more freedom and more autonomy, and make sure they have the tools to handle it. Then I let them loose (well, with a semi-curated set of content) to explore and work with the results of those first few activities.

I am not so sure I can do that, now. I really need to rethink how I approach my use of online materials. I have moved away from teaching English directly as a subject, and promote self-learning of English by using it as a thinking tool. I can get away with this because most of my students are solid intermediate level and above. But the concerns she raises mean I have to look at how a non-native speaker should treat the media landscape (ie the web). In some ways, my students and the culture in Japan can (and have) teach me about how to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time and not go crazy. The problem is that this ability is not usually applied to content and interaction on the web.

Discounting everything is the road to nihilism. Blind belief is the road to becoming a patsy. But foisting your opinion, even with scientific evidence, is also not an answer. Recognizing that individuals and institutions such as shock vloggers and Cambridge Analytica play the media regularly to their own ends, and more important work to devalue the media and all other forms of authority is becoming an indispensable skill. This is Howard Rheingold’s crap detection on steroids and taken to another orbit.

One of the keys is being able to recognize toxic information and walking away. Ignoring things is something I have been taught is completely wrong. But now, with manufactured content designed to create a visceral gut reaction and a response, realizing the Buddhist idea of impermanence may help. Lots more thinking to do first, though. And learn how to discuss with people who disagree with me while avoid being gaslighted.

Altered Carbon: Bad Good SciFi

Netflix continues to push the envelope, with a greater variety of TV that appeals to a wider audience, especially one that has tired of typical fare. It is another golden age of TV, now called streaming video.

One example of this is Altered Carbon.  It is cheesy. The plot is a mess. It is a tale as old as the hills, set 350 years in the future. A world where your mind (and soul?) are downloaded and you use “sleeves” until they die. But you get put into another.

The story starts with an insurgent getting reawoken after 250 years on a hard disk, doing time. Oddly enough, he can operate and understand everyone without a hitch. There is gratuitous sex, lots of violence, way too much chop-sockey. And yet, it all hangs together.

Part of the charm is the cast, a very multi-national group. Long stretches of dialog occur in Spanish, German and other languages. One “sleeve” of the main character is the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (the assistant detective in The Killing), and his sister (as an adult) is one of my favorite actresses, Tibetan/Australian Dichen Lackmann. And a host of other not-so-well-known actors who try to breathe life into the weird script that is all over the place (sci-fi allows for lots of inserted backstory).

The other part is the worldbuilding. It is an interesting world that has consequences. That is an extremely hard thing to do, as Charles Stross points out. Even though he is an SF author, one of the reasons he no longer reads much SF is that the worldbuilding is not consistent. I don’t mind a few inconsistencies, if they propel the plot forward, as is the case of Altered Carbon, in its exploration of how death makes us human.

Cormac McCarthy on Language

Cormac McCarthy, author of novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, is, believe it or not, interested in physics and complex systems. Writing in Nautilus (great publication), he muses on language and the unconscious in The Kekulé Problem.

The shoehorn into the discussion is that people solve problems when they are asleep. Kekulé is only the most famous for this; falling asleep and solving the problem of the chemical structure of Benzine. The point is that the image he saw, that revealed the structure, did not contain any language. That is because it is from the unconscious.

Read the article to find out why the unconscious and language are separate. Is it biology, did it evolve, or are they simply incompatible? McCarthy jumps between psychology, biology, philosophy in his quest for an answer. He gets help by discussing with his friend and colleague David Krakauer, both from the Santa Fe Institute (home of really smart people). He ends up solving the problem after a ten-hour lunch with Krakauer and yes, some sleep.

This article reminds me of two other books. The Third Culture was the first collection of essays I read by John Brockman, a literary agent. He assembled a collection of scientists (Gould, Dawkins, Minsky, Schank, Pinker, Penrose, Smolin, Kauffman, and especially Gell-Mann, also at Santa Fe) to answer questions usually reserved for theologians and philosophers. C.P. Snow postulated that Science and Literature would merge into a “third culture.” It had a profound effect on my thinking. Brockman puts a similar book out each year, addressing a new question. Find him at the Edge.

Language is metaphor, and that is what makes us human. China Mieville writes of an alien race inhabiting a trading outpost at the edge of the civilized universe in Embassytown. The heroine watches as the Ariekei try to lie and fail, repeatedly. They are not built that way. Their Language requires people to speak in two voices at the same time. Humans that are conjoined twins fill the role of Ambassadors. When a linguistic “virus” invades, all hell breaks loose.

Which brings us back to language. It language itself just a virus, a parasite, riding on the cerebellum and medulla, causing the cerebrum to develop grotesquely large? Read McCarthy.

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.