Book Review: Math With Bad Drawings

I admit it upfront: it was the reference to stick figure drawings more than the math that got me interested in this book when I first saw the cover. But, truth be told, it was the math ideas and concepts, and Ben Orlin’s wonderful sense of humor and explanations of those ideas, that kept me reading on to the end.

Math with Bad Drawings (Illuminating the Ideas that Shape Our Reality) covers a lot of mathematical ground, and some of it went beyond me but most of it I found really intriguing and I learned a lot from Orlin (a math teacher, turned stick figure artist, who — it turns out — lives in the same city as I do). You can even follow Orlin’s blog, where he posts his comics and ideas.

What I enjoyed about the book — other than Orlin’s simple but funny drawings — was the expanded notion of math as a guiding principle and underlying force in our world, and the ways in which Orlin surfaces those ideas. Yes, we are covering probability, statistical analysis, number theory, logic, and even the weird underlying math of the Electoral College, and more, but Orlin — who knows his audience is likely neither math teachers nor math fanatics — uses clear explanations, connecting math to the real world as much as possible, and when all else fails, letting us know when we’re moving into geeky esoteric mathematical principles. At least, the reader is forewarned.

In an early chapter, Orlin introduces a strategy game called Ultimate Tic Tac Toe, which I brought into my sixth grade classroom as a challenge activity, and many of my students really enjoyed the game, which expands the game board and tweaks the rules to make an otherwise predictable game much more challenging. (You can even play a version of it online — against a computer or with a friend. Neat.)

via Wikipedia

 

Math with Bad Drawings is a recommended read for anyone interested in learning math beyond the textbook, even writers and teachers of young writers like me, and you’ll come out the other side of the text with an expanded knowledge of theory and practice, and a few ideas for making stick people drawings. So, you know, win win win.

What are the odds of that?

Peace (beyond numbers),
Kevin

 

Silent Sunday: Clay Figures

Clay Figures

These pieces come from a graphic story project. In art class, students had to create a clay replica of one of their characters. This was a brilliant idea by our talented art teacher.

Peace (shaping it),
Kevin

History, Writing, Mapping: Planning a Summer Camp Experience

WMWP Armory Camp promo 2019

The other day, I helped gather together another team of teachers together for another year of offering a free summer camp for middle school students at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site — as part of an ongoing partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the City of Springfield school district (focused on a social justice magnet school in Springfield).

This will be my third year as main facilitator of the camp — which we call Minds Made for Stories — and the sixth year of the camp itself, which has been funded over the years through a variety of support from the National Writing Project and the National Park Service, and other local organizations. This year, with no grants and with worries that there might be no camp, the Duggan Middle School in Springfield and the Springfield Armory itself stepped up to fund the work, and I am very grateful.

WMWP and Springfield Armory

The week-long camp takes place at the end of June at the Armory itself, and each year, we change the themes of the experience for the participants. We also have new folks from the middle school involved, as a way to provide more professional development to more teachers.

This year, we are using “Seasons and Maps” as our hook, with each day focused on a season and a historical theme (such as Autumn: Pearl Harbor and Winter: Shays Rebellion), while we work different kinds of mapping activities through the week to visualize history (such as mapping out the immigrant journeys to Springfield during the heydays of the Armory as the main manufacturing center for the US government). Our goal is to publish a Zine of student work at the end of camp.

At our planning session, we did our own mapping — charting out each day’s main events along themes, taking on responsibilities, tasking each of us with some different elements, and after two hours, the camp really took shape.

Now I just need to get through the school year (3 1/2 weeks left!) and then it is right into summer camp.

Peace (in planning),
Kevin

 

Finding a Way Through the Feldgang

Feldgang Explorations

The first time I heard the term — Feldgang — I scratched my head. I had no clue to what it was, and it was Terry Elliott who used it to as he captured a walk on his farm.

Since then, I have seen Terry use the term quite a bit, from the wandering and noticing and documenting of the world via #smallstories and CLMOOC (and its various offshoots, like a community annotation read of The Art of Is happening now) to the way he plunges into books and texts with artistic annotations and doodling to surface ideas that might otherwise have been lost or unnoticed. It encompasses writing, reading, annotation, art and remix.

Way back in a piece from 2013 still archived via NWP’s The Current, he wrote about the art of the Feldgang, citing Otto Scharmer’s work on leadership, Theory U. Scharmer uses “feldgang” in this analysis, stretching the original meaning of the word from “field walk” to something larger and smaller, all at the same time.

Terry’s Original via The Art of Is

 

Kevin’s Remix of Terry

 

Scharmer, in a 2003 piece called The Blind Spot, notes, too, his childhood days on his family farm and the walks he and his father took to notice nature, and changes underfoot on the farm, and he writes of extending this Feldgang approach as a social observation concept that forces a pause in the world:

Very much in the same spirit, this study is a about a field walk across the social fields of our contemporary society. And just as we did during the Feldgang, once in a while we will stop and pick up a little piece of data that we want to pay closer attention to in order to better understand the subtle textures, structures, and principles that are involved in the evolutionary dynamics of social fields.

So, go on: plunge in with the world, and record your observations. Notice the fields. Surface the ideas. Step back and see. A Feldgang is a moment where observation and reflection come together, the quiet, a pause in the noise of the day.  We all need more of that, and less of the other.

Peace (listening for it),
Kevin

 

 

 

Graphic Novel Review: Illegal

I’m not sure I have read quite so powerful a graphic novel in some time as I did with Illegal, by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and illustrator Giovanni Rigano. Aimed at upper elementary and middle school readers (and maybe high school), this heart-felt graphic novel follows Ebo, a young boy refugee on the run from Ghana, Africa, to Europe, where he hopes to find his sister and start a new life.

Such is the story of so many people these days, and Ebo’s journey is both harrowing and hopeful. Along with his older brother, Kwame, Ebo is determined to survive his trek across the Sahara Desert and then the balloon boat ride to Europe. It’s a trip of travails and tragedy, one made visual and visceral by the use of the artwork in this story. It will pull you in and tug at your heart, particularly one specific scene on the ocean just before a rescue. It will make you wonder about the headlines and stories you read about those who don’t survive the journey, and those few that do.

It will make you consider, too, the people in the so-called Migrant Caravans making their way north from Central America to the United States border, and the desperate need for a better life, away from violence and poverty, that propels such a journey. Illegal will remind you, as the authors do in their note to the reader, that “…every person is a human being.”

An additional small black-and-white graphic interpretation of an real interview with a woman who made a similar journey as the fictional Ebo is a powerful use of the graphic novel genre, bringing us into the face and story of Helen, who left Eritrea for Europe and had her own journey of desperation. This small piece helps to ground the larger story in the real world, and makes you weep for those who face such danger just to find a safer place to live, with a future, for themselves and their families.

Peace (in the world),
Kevin

Book Review: Soul Mining (A Musical Life)

Autobiographies of musicians intrigue me because they pull back a layer on something behind the engineered musical tracks we hear that first caught our attention. Consider Daniel Lanois’ book – Soul Mining (A Musical Life). You may either not know or only be vaguely aware of Lanois, but his impact on the musical landscape for much of the 1980s and 90s is undeniable.

Mostly, he did this as a producer/engineer of Peter Gabriel (So), U2 (Joshua Tree), Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball), Bob Dylan (Time Out of Mind), Chris Whitely (Living with the Law) and many others, including his own French Canadian-influenced solo albums (Acadie).

His connection to Brian Eno and the aesthetic of “space” in music is something still very apparent today. I was just listening to the incredible new album by The National and found myself as listener in the gaps of words and sound, and knew that this an enduring influence on the part of what Lanois (he is not involved in The National, as far as I know) and others brought to the table with their sound explorations.

This autobiography brings forth insights into how Lanois began to hear and experiment with sound — he had a lot of freedom as a kid, which he attributes to forced imagination and making creative outlets for amusement, and his mother essentially let him and his older brother turn part of the house into a recording studio when he was at a young age (one of his first recordings he did was for Rick James, which is strange to think about). He also is very organized and detailed, making intricate notes on everything in the studio as a producer, and some of his journal pages shared here in the book are rich with thinking and complexity.

“Keeping track of arrangements and ideas on paper has always been part of my work process. Remembering is just another word for choosing. The world turns the same way for everybody but different people choose to see different things.” — from Soul Mining (A Musical Life), by Daniel Lanois, page 13

I was struck by his curiosity. He’d pack up and move someplace in a minute if the instinct struck him. One time, he moved to a remote location in Mexico. Another time, he bought an abandoned theater in California, and created a space for artists to record and perform. Most of all, as a producer and engineer, Lanois always seemed deeply in tune with the artists he is trying to capture — combining his vision for music production with the depth of the musicians and songwriters he works with.

Give Lanois a listen, and pay attention to the space in his songs and the way pieces are layered together to create a rich cushion for voice and words. His artistry behind the board is undeniable. Soul Mining brings that vision to the forefront.

Peace (in sound and design),
Kevin

PS — I was sent this book rather unexpectedly by my musical friend, John, and I will be passing it along to another musical friend.

One Step Further: Collaborating with AI Open

Over the weekend, I wrote about using Text to Transformer to start a poem and see where the AI Open-infused text generator — Talk to Transformer — might take my words.

Then, I started to think about how to find a poem inside the text generated by another poem. Could I surface something from inside of something else, inspired by something else altogether? Another nested poem? I’d find out.

Here’s what I did (in case you want to ever do your own):

  • I went into Google Slides (but any slideshow program would work because when you move across slides, it looks like animation) and began to cross out words (blackout poem style).
  • Then I removed the excess words (I cheated, by turning the font color the same color as background, so white text against white background is no longer visible; otherwise, it would have a long formatting exercise of adding spaces where words had been).
  • Finally, I pulled the remaining, revealed text into another poem. I used transitions and animations to make the process more visible in the slides (the whole thing is as visual hoax, really, using different slides layered on each other to seem like the text is being animated).

Sort of odd. I like that kind of weird writing and weird writing processes.

Peace (in the poem),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Writer’s Map (An Atlas of Imaginary Lands)

Can I fall in love with a book? My wife is a librarian, so she will understand. I am smitten with The Writer’s Map, an oversized book edited by Huw Lewis-Jones that does what it says: it explores the world of writing and reading through sharing of stories by writers, readers, and cartographers of maps with literary landscapes. It’s subtitle, too, is perfect: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.

This book is just beautiful to hold and to read (no digital version, please), and the wide assortment of maps will make your head spin with wonder.  The sections span from Make Believe, to Writing Maps, to Creating Maps and more, and in each section, novelists and poets and more share stories of how maps informed their work and sparked their imagination.

There are replicas of ancient maps and newer ones, and the oversized nature of the book itself allows the maps to be large for viewing (as is often necessary, for many maps have small print).

If this book doesn’t take you on your own journey of wondering what is just beyond your own maps, I don’t know what will. The Writer’s Map is a powerful argument of how wondering about the world — real and imagined — help us create and appreciate art.

I have this book on loan from the library and intend to keep it right to the last day, if I can.

Peace (mapped beyond what we see),
Kevin

Sometimes, a walk …

Nature Trail Feldgang WalkA walk in the woods with your eyes wide open sometimes leads to a wonderful collection of photos, and a deeper look at nature. Here, I gathered up into a collage some of what I noticed yesterday in our nearby woods as a feldgang/learning walk with a camera lens ready (and a dog waiting patiently each time for me to finish up so we could keep moving along the paths).

Peace (what we see),
Kevin

 

Writing Collaboration with OpenAI: Context and Constraints

What happens when you hand off your poem to a “modern neural network”? Something strange, with a hint of interesting. I was using a site called Talk to Transformer, which is built on the back of some neural network mapping of OpenAI and which is designed to complete your text, using its signifiers and databases.

The site explains that it is:

… an easier way to play with OpenAI’s new machine learning model. In February, OpenAI unveiled a language model called GPT-2 that generates coherent paragraphs of text one word at a time … While GPT-2 was only trained to predict the next word in a text, it surprisingly learned basic competence in some tasks like translating between languages and answering questions.

So, of course, I could not resist feeding it some words to see what would happen, starting the lines of a poem about context and constraints, and in the image above, you can see what it spit out for me. There is something beautiful surfacing there, in the juxtaposition of my poem starter and its story extension, although I am at a loss to really understand how it made the leap from my words to its text.

For example, the point of view shifts from third person to first person, and suddenly, the narrator is talking of their mother’s love (or lack of) in a world fallen apart. But look at the last three lines it generated … it’s almost like the start of something else altogether, maybe a new poem generated by human hand … Maybe the game turns to me to continue onward with the AI’s idea ..

I am what I am when I’m no longer
something that mustn’t be forgotten…
a person so beautiful

So remember me; you must remember us,
as I remember this wasted Earth
when love was nearly lost

and all we had left to hold was each other,
in the days after fallen trees
and warming seas

I still carry the bones of my mother,
that which the soil would no longer hold:
I am young; I am old

The image is a layered gif that I made in Lunapic because I wanted to do something more with the writing. I purposely added non-digital writing tools to contrast the use of AI to make a piece of writing.

Peace (in texts, transformed),
Kevin