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.

 

Teachers: Now a Working Class Profession

magister“From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side” is now about 20 years old. A little shopworn, but still a…how shall I put it….goal, of some teachers and how they adapt to technology. It is the gist of an Atlantic article by Michael Godsey, a K-12 teacher witnessing the “progress” right before his eyes. Another (and earlier!) way to look at it is John Higgins’ differentiation of teacher as Magister, the German cloak-clad lecturer, and the pedagogue, a poor wise man following around the son of a rich client to explain things to him. Find this in articles from 1983 and 1984, but also in his book from 1988.

pedagogueI have been in meetings all day, discussing the curriculum for next year. One area of contention is control of the part-time teachers (adjunct staff). I felt a palpable want, almost a need, to put restraints on behavior to standardize content among students and classes. And I think that is just because we can. Some adjunct staff even prefer to come in, teach the text, and leave. Labor rules here in Japan now promote this system of itinerant labor by capping any part-time contract at 5 years, requiring the university to make them full time, or let them go. So now we have churn.

But the attitude toward teachers (no, not adjunct staff), even though most are highly qualified to deliver a quality course, even when asked to provide their own materials. And yet…that desire to make sure they are doing not just anything they want is still there.

Which brings me to an article at one of my favorite websites, Hybrid Pedagogy. John Rees asks How long will your class remain yours? Here is the first paragraph.

The late labor historian David Montgomery wrote famously about workers’ control in America during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “At times the story involved little more than silent and opaque resistance to the demands and innovations of employers,” he suggested in 1979. “At other times, workers in skilled crafts adopted and fought to enforce collective work rules through which they regulated human relations on the job and wrestled with the chronic menace of unemployment.” When I first read those words, I was in graduate school. I never thought they’d actually apply to me. Now, I believe that the working class in academia at all levels of employment are beginning to move from the first set of times that Montgomery described to the second.

He goes on to paint a very dark picture, but does leave the doorway open a crack with the following: “However, the key takeaway here should be that every professor should adopt only those tools that best fit their style of teaching (perhaps including parts of the LMS if they meet a particular need).”

The problem is, that most teachers today don’t know how to use many tech tools for teaching and thus will be at the mercy of those who do, the programmers and instructional designers. So if you don’t start putting some online tools in your toolbox, and learn how to use them in a class, or even outside a class, online, you will have to learn tools assigned to you.

I had my last graduate school class of the academic year (we start in April, end in February), and my student was worried after we went through the Atlantic article (link above). She was worried that she would be out of a job. I told her first, not in Japan. The horizon of change you can see in the US, but here, not even a hint. She is still trying to get a projector and laptop for her high school classroom, all she has now is a blackboard. Second, language learning is like learning a sport, or a musical instrument. Really difficult to put online. So we are safe, as long as we learn how to adapt the tech to us, before the admins try to make us adapt to the tech.

Tired of Mr, Mrs, Ms? Why not Mx?

moto-cross-214937_640No, not motocross, which is what we used when I was a teen on a bike.

This is a salutation, a title. The only time I use this in English any more is when I sign up to present at a conference. Some organizations insist I pick a title. But now on to the crux of the matter.

Why not use Mx for everything? I didn’t realize that sex-based titles have only been around since the mid-1800’s. Go figure. Before that they were mostly about class and status. Read more about this over at Language: A Feminist Guide.

 

New Science Fiction with an old twist

Kurt Vonnegut

I am having a ball. Reading fiction again. Short stories nonetheless. Science Fiction. All because of Neal Stephenson.

It was mostly detective novels in junior high, but when I got to high school, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein got me hooked on science fiction. I wanted to be a chemist and felt science was the best thing man had created. We had just walked on the moon, and I was ready to follow. I told my 6th-grade teacher I would be on the moon before the new millennium. I only got to Japan, but that is pretty close.

Asimov, the Foundation Trilogy. The Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert, with the extra couple tacked on. Cycle back to the new Vonnegut, less science, more fiction. I credit him as much as my church for the decision to be a Conscientious Objector, refusing to go to Vietnam.

Mid-career took me away to Tom Clancy and Stephen King, still fiction, but light. Oh so light. I was busy raising a family. Then on to non-fiction. I have drifted into almost exclusive non-fiction until about a year ago. Not sure what happened. Maybe I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Retirement. I can see all the non-fiction was good, but not so sure it helped a lot. I know a lot of things.

So some Thomas Pynchon last year, and I did a course in poetry. I am starting to “get” poetry. Just have to keep at it.

31KQ4hL96SL._UX250_Don’t get me wrong, but there has been one big exception, the James Joyce of our day, Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon is my favorite. The Baroque Cycle the most rewarding. I read everything he writes, down to branching fiction about sword-fighting on a website (Mongoliad). Last year, Seveneves came out and it was more science than in a long time. Some great new concepts about the world too.

Best of all, he has been involved in the Project Heiroglyph, based at Arizona State University. The goal of the project is to bring back science fiction from its current state of common dystopia to something that works closer with scientists, to stimulate and be stimulated, to advance the human race. The first book came out over the summer, and I bought it, but only started reading yesterday. Can’t put it down, except to write this. Good thing my classes are all prepared.

The first story is by Stephenson, about building a skyscraper…..actually a skypuncturer. Twenty kilometers high, this building goes right up into space. A crazy billionaire starts the project and has his ashes taken up to the top to get sprinkled, just as an unforeseen event occurs. Typical Stephenson, but with a tack that feels good.

Kathleen-Ann-Goonan-Credit-Joseph-Mansy3-206x300The second story is by Kathleen Ann Goonan and it blows me away. Illiteracy is a disease. It gets cured. The guinea pigs are the dyslexics, and a little girl is the hero. Eventually, the treatment to improve brain function no longer needs drugs, but just mental stimulation from one to another. When everyone can read, it changes how people interact. Fear falls away. Education goes away, learning triumphs. I don’t want to spoil it, but I just bought her other books, and both volumes of Arc Magazine. See you in April.

 

Netflix in Japan, Death and Comedy

OK, I now understand why Netflix is such a big success. Sure, people said that the all-you-can-eat model helps, and now with “binge-watching” of entire seasons of TV, Netflix is the perfect delivery mechanism. So when it came to Japan last September, I signed up. I watched a few shows, but did not get rolling until New Year Vacation.

NetflixI am a documentary addict, so when Making of a Murderer came out, I was there. The problem is, you can’t binge watch a documentary, especially one like this, unless you want to blow your brains out. I am about 2/3 the way through this tale of two trials of one man, initially convicted for rape, serving 18 years before being exonerated by DNA tests. As soon as he gets out, he sues the police, and lo and behold, he gets charged with murder this time. The parallels between the two trials are amazing.

I vacillate between the horror of the banality of evil and the stupidity of so many of the people in this story. The family of the persecuted and prosecuted Steven all seem to have an IQ of about 70. But the police and DAs, along with state officials and even the FBI don’t seem much better. Are they covering their ass or is he really guilty. Like any good story (see the podcast Serial, season 1 for inspiration), the perception goes back and forth. The whole thing is set 100 miles north of where I grew up, in rural Manitowoc County in Wisconsin the midwest US. My aunt lives not far away. They all have Wisconsin accents (never realized there was such a thing, until I saw this movie, after living abroad so long).

Netflix 2So, to avoid blowing my brains out, I would watch 1 episode of the documentary, and sandwich in a comedy. Sherbet for the palate. Yesterday I watch Iliza Schlesinger rock Denver in a one-hour stand-up routine about women and relationships. Great stuff. But today, after more trials, tribulations, and documentary, I see John Mulaney, The Comeback Kid. John is playing at a theater downtown Chicago, looks like the Drake Hotel. Curved ceilings and all. But I find he is from Chicago. Catholic family. 4 kids. The parallels are awesome, and so is his humor. Side-splitting. Gotta see it. Really.

 

Now back to my murder.

The Graduation Thesis: Insufficient and Outmoded

This the title of a recent article I wrote for my university research journal (Gakuen). In it, I advocate for subsuming the Graduation Thesis, common here in Japan among undergraduates, among a collection of other possible ways for demonstrating ability to work in a field. Notice how I don’t use the word “mastery”, as that is not really possible in a foreign language at the undergraduate level (I work in the English Department).

This collection of what I call Graduation Projects (sometimes called Capstone Projects) could entail a variety of different ways to demonstrate that one can use tools (not understand a field), as tools and skills are what will be needed in this world with the entire sum of human knowledge is constantly at our fingertips (OK, I exaggerate, but not by much). Knowing stuff is no longer as important as being able to learn new stuff by yourself.

Read more about it in the article which I have attached here. Another thing I argue for is that all students should learn programming, or at least enough to be able to understand the thinking behind programming. Authoring is no longer just about writing words, and the people who program are creating a world that the rest of humanity has to live in (or will have to live in, soon). So if you want to control your creative production, you have to learn how to program.

Since the article came out, a number of new events have reinforced the points I made. The most popular major among women at Stanford is Computer Science, along with the most popular course at Harvard, Computer Science. A recent article is going viral about how virtual classes can be better than real ones. Another thing I advocate is for Open Source Publishing, or Open Education Resources, and now the entire staff from a linguistics journal has quit Elsevier in protest over the policies that make huge profits selling things produced at universities back to the faculties.

Lots more issues, but no time here. Let me attach my article, maybe we can get a discussion going.

Ryan Gakuen Oct 2015 Grad Thesis Outmoded

Frank in Myanmar

FrankKevin201408 On this most momentous day the first real democratic elections in Myanmar are happening. Frank Berberich, sends a message:

Yes, I’m very glad to be here now. The run-up over the last few months has been noisy and intense. The “Reds” (NLD) supporters seem to vastly outnumber the government “Greens”.

Today, it’s quiet on the streets, though, so a very easy trip to AA (six members!). Many shops closed, but lots of people lined up at schools for voting. One of our two Burmese members proudly showed us the ink on his little finger–the badge of a voter having done the citizen’s duty.

Many people on the street, shopping, drinking tea, talking, taxis and buses mostly, but not nearly so noisy. If only this were normal…. Some fears about possible problems as the results start coming out, but no bulletins from the Embassy so far.

I sent Wunna a note of congratulations on this historic day. Whatever the outcome, I hope it is “free and fair”, and I feel privileged to be here as this wonderful, but so long abused, place struggles to find its way into democracy.

Disconnecting Europe

modem-145529_640Today showed me again why I both hate and love Spain, with a little Ireland thrown in. At the end of a vacation visiting friends in Barcelona, and family in Ireland, I returned to Barcelona for one night at a hotel near the airport to rest and prep for the return to Tokyo. I had ordered and used a portable wifi service in Ireland, and this is the story of my attempts to return the device.

Travel Wifi sent the device to my hotel in Barcelona, after I had canceled that order and reset it to my hotel in Dublin, just before I picked up the lads, after my week in Barcelona visiting friends. They advertised that it was as easy as pie, get the device by FedEx, return it the same way.

So I tell them of their mistake, and they say OK, just bring it to Ireland. I do, and use it all week. It is indispensable as Google Maps guide, replacing the Garmin, as well as allowing all of us to communicate from anyplace. Invaluable as it was, the hardest part was returning the damn thing.

In the FedEx envelope, instruction say I am supposed to set a pick-up for the device at my last hotel. Problem is, Central Hotel to the Airport, or driving anywhere in downtown Dublin is a nightmare without Google Maps. So I keep the device to guide us to the airport. No FedEx office at the airport. I have 6 hours, and find an office near the airport, but it is really difficult to get to. I try to buy stamps and an envelope, but am stymied by the envelope. No advice on regular mailing. I still have 6 days on my contract, so I wait for Barcelona.

The flight is delayed so I arrive after business hours. When I check in, nobody knows anything about FedEx at the hotel, so I go online. They ask me to drop it off at a center, or schedule a pickup. The FedEx website requires an account number for the pickup, and none is on the label. Travel Wifi is cryptic in their messages, and the only instructions look like they have been copied and pasted from the website. I figure I have a few hours after checking out at noon, and before my 10pm departure. A Drop-off is listed on the website about 2 km from the airport. The idea is to drop it off. This is the story.

After arriving at the airport, I try to drop off my suitcase and check in at Qatar Airlines. No can do. So I go to the Consigna, Left Luggage, where I can leave my luggage to get to the FedEx. No schlepping. 10 euros.

I discover that the left luggage company deals with FedEd, and the guy tells me if I leave a 10 euro deposit, they will make sure it gets to the FedEx people. But then the other guy calls Lisa The Boss, who says it is too much of a hassle, and that it is not possible. So I check the suitcase and set off for FedEx. Taxi has a minimum 20 euro fee from the airport. The bus that goes to the other terminal passes by FedEx in the cargo park, but does not stop. The driver, though is really helpful and points me to a local bus. Another 2.15 euros gets me on a bus with another extremely helpful driver. He drops be between stops near the FedEx. I can taste success.

The FedEx has lots of trucks hanging around, and not much action. I arrive just before 2pm lunch. The door has a buzzer. Once, twice, thrice. It says if there is no response, call a number. With what? I write down the number after a half-hour hopeful wait, and wander over to the DHL and another shipping company.They tell me today is a holiday (duh, September 11 is Independence Day for Catalunya), and thus the lack of action. You really need a phone to get things done in Spain. I ask to borrow one from 3 workers at the next place over, and they all hem and haw. One says she can’t do that for the competition. I leave in disgust. FedEx takes holidays in Spain. Typical. And everyone is dog eat. Typical.

So instead of spending another 2.15 and with time on my hands, I hoof it back to the airport, about 2km. Why not. Plan B is to get stamps and an envelope, available in the Tabacalera, but the lady assures me the slot is too small to accept my wifi device.

So after spending about 6 hours spread over 2 airports, I realize that I should have just left the device at the hotel in Barcelona and gotten THEM to schedule the pickup. Instead, they will get it from Tokyo. The soaring and crashing that came from trying to return it both in Dublin and Barcelona were lessons in thinking and planning. At least my family got to the airport. Time to go check in. And no time to worry about it in Qatar.

A sad day at school for kissing

During break time, between classes, I like to play interesting videos, mostly with visual content, to get students focused on topics that may come up in one of my classes. Here is the one from this week.

A videographer for WREN Studios paid 20 models to kiss another model on film. Beautiful to look at. Then VICE, a documentary company, did the same thing with normal people. Here is another one, much longer, using people from New York.

Normally, I only show one video between classes. In my Digital Media class, however, this has developed into a good chunk of a lesson on differences between YouTube and TV. I play the first video, and as two questions: 1)What video is this? and 2) How does it make you feel? They jot down notes, some key words, collect their thoughts and then discuss. Question one is intended to devolve into a critical thinking activity, when students want to know what kind of video this is. Who made it? Why did they make it? Who is the intended audience. Today, I had to explain that this first video was a viral video, an immediately very popular video last year. It was billed as a video from a creation agency, and featured 20 strangers kissing. Turns out, though, that the “strangers” are all actors. Wren is a women’s clothing company. This viral video was just a new kind of commercial.

The student reaction was slight discomfort, and in a few cases more than that, when two of the 10 “couples” kissing were gay. Vice Studios, makers of those new style documentaries, did another version, this time with real people, not actors. The same two questions elicited very different answers. One student pointed out that the second video above, by Vice, had more realistic camera work, showing off the reality of the “couples” kissing. But most felt even more uncomfortable, as there were unusual mixes, with a very tall guy and a short woman, mixed races, and people that did not look at all like actors. And some gay people as well. The sentiment I got from the class was that these people were not “normal”.

The third linked video is another about kissing, and I used it to contrast with the first two, in that it was filmed in New York, instead of London, where the second one was filmed. (Not sure where the first one was filmed.) The people recruited for this third were an even more unusual assemblage, but all came as volunteers through word of mouth to help the director with her project.

There was a lot more talking in the third video, and students picked up on the commentary, mostly light banter. Again the same two questions. Why would a director in New York with a Korean name make a video of people kissing. And ask her boyfriend to stand in for one missing volunteer.

Asked whether this kind of video would appear on TV, there was a resounding “no!”, followed by a couple students saying “especially not here in Japan.” We went through some of the reasons why this would only work on YouTube. At the end of class, I asked students to wrap up their thoughts about all three videos in a short post to our online discussion area. And two of these (done off the bat) made me sad.

“I prefer the first video. because, all of them are actors or actress. So, they kissed naturally.”

And the other…”The first video was better than the others. I laughed at first, but gradually  it made me disgusted to watch.”

Intolerance pops up in places I would not have thought. This will be an interesting semester.

Review: Douglas Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed

OR Book Going RougeJust finished one of the most important books of this year. I had heard about Douglas Rushkoff”s book, and read some of his articles. I realized he was a real thinker, but not the extent until reading this book.

I had heard that this book was about how coding is a necessary skill in this day and age, and the reasons behind it. I was completely unprepared for the content.

There are ten chapters in this book, and not one single line of code. The tenth and least compelling of the chapters is the title of the book.

The tenth argues that learning programming changes the way you view the world, and changes the way the world interacts with you.

The other nine chapters are all examples of this concept. He looks at how digital technology have changed our perception and activities in the dimensions of time, place, choice, complexity, scale, identity, social, facts, and openness.

I cannot recommend this more highly. It is a 152-page book that turns a programmer’s lens on the digital world itself, with surprising results and insights. I highlighted more of this book than the last 3 combined, and one of those was 700 pages. And yes, there are suggestions at the end for places to start learning to code.

I plan to use excerpts of this in my IT Seminar class. I may even base a whole semester on the ideas included. I have also just downloaded his new book Present Shock.