Graphic Novel Review: Dog Man

Well, I could not not read this, right? I mean, Dog Man! I am Dogtrax in social media spaces. And Dav Pilkey! Who doesn’t love the hijinks of Dav Pilkey? (not counting the teachers in his books, who complain about kids making comics all the time).

In a nutshell, Dog Man is a comic story being made by two comic characters (Harold and George) in Pilkey’s comic book. If you know Captain Underpants, then that makes sense. If not, go forth and read Captain Underpants (there are worse things to read, including the daily newspapers with headlines coming out of Washington DC).

Dog Man is a police officer with the head of a dog and the body of a man (and don’t ask how that happened) who always seems to save the day, from either the villian cat (Petey) or animated hot dogs (the edible kind, which sort of gives away the resolution of that particular story … sorry).

Pilkey has great fun with sight gags, and word play, and general mayhem and silliness that makes Dog Man a fun read, mostly for the elementary age (but my middle school son enjoyed it). What more can you ask of a book? (other than some deep underlying theme of the human condition … yeah .. you won’t find that here in Dog Man.)

Peace (it’s ruff),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Secret Coders (Secrets and Sequences)

It’s the third book in the Secret Coders graphic novel series by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes, and I admit: I am pretty well hooked. I was slow to start with this series, even with Gene Luen Yang at the helm, for some reason — maybe the interjection of coding into the story felt a bit forced at the time.

Not anymore. As the story of our young female protagonist/coder — Hopper — and her friends uncover more and more strangeness in their school, and their school’s history, the narrative behind Secret Coders: Secrets and Sequences starts to kick into gear.

Sure, there are still interesting moments when the Luen Yang and Holmes stop the reader, ask them to mentally solve some coding puzzle, but I found myself enjoying those moments more than in the first book (and the second book started to really draw me in). I think it is me, not them, that is finally getting used to being pulled into the story from time to time as a programmer.

Here, in this third book, we meet a character who seems to be the main antagonist – Dr. One-Zero, a green man who was a brilliant student long ago but underwent a personal transformation of sorts (echoes of Dr. Strange here) — and we learn a bit more about Hopper’s missing father (part of the overarching narrative), as well as the strange connection to the school (Stately Academy) itself as a former place of innovation.

The coding gets more complex here, too, as the writers’ underlying mission to show young readers the ways that coding and programming through storytelling can be used to accomplish goals is extended out even further than the first two books. The kids at the heart of this graphic story use what they have learned about coding to escape from predicaments.

There is also a neat coding puzzle left for readers at the end of the book, as a sort of challenge for readers to uncover. You need Logo to solve it but the website connection to the book gives all of the information you might need to dive into programming. And the Fun with Coding page has some downloadable activities for use.

All in all, this series is a nice fit for upper elementary and some middle school students, particularly those with an interest in computers and programming. But the inclusion of a strong and fiesty female protagonist, ample amounts of humor, and a series of challenges for the reader to consider broaden the appeal for a wider audience with the Secret Coders series.

Peace (all ones and zeroes for action and adventure),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Innovator’s Mindset

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my reading of The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros became a “wicked slow read.” I don’t normally do “slow reads,” particularly with books about education. I zip. I devour. I readreadread. I write.

But since George was co-hosting the Innovator’s Mindset MOOC last fall (think of the IMOOC like a large book study, with the author co-leading discussions), I figured I would take my time with his book, which is fashioned for an audience of mostly school administrators (which I am not) on the theme of expanding notions of how to “innovate” schools for today’s students. “Taking my time” became nearly three months of reading one book.

The IMMOOC ended more than a few weeks ago (actually, the end took me by surprise .. I’m not sure why .. did I expect the MOOC to keep going? I blinked, and it was over) and it was some time before I now finished the book, on my Kindle app, and even more time to post this review (it was in my draft bin for a stretch).

My take?

I’m still juggling the jargon in the book and discussions. Words like “innovation” and “mindset” make my eyes go blurry. That said, George and IMOOOC co-facilitator Katie Martin tried to bring many people into the conversation about what it means to innovate our school system. That was helpful, even if some still slipped into edu-talk.

What is innovati0n? George defines it as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better” (which is still a bit too broad for my brain but I don’t have anything better to offer in replacement) and he wisely reminds readers that technology, while perhaps useful, is not a defining factor in innovative thinking.

The Innovator’s Mindset book itself provides a solid number of stories of schools, administrators and teachers pushing against the constraints of our school system constraints, and George writes in a very positive, upbeat manner — giving readers the push they need to take chances on ideas and, in an important stance, to support teachers in the classrooms to try ideas to meet the needs of their students.

I appreciated how George taps into Sylvia Duckworth’s visual notes as a complement to his text — she really does an outstanding job visualizing ideas — and George’s move to make lists and bullet points will no doubt be helpful for harried school administrators. George weaves his own stories as an educator-turned-administrator into narratives of how change can happen, and how sometimes change doesn’t quite happen. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.

If nothing else, the book reminds us of the drawbacks of being isolated — as a teacher or as an administrator — and not being supported by those with the means to make things happen. I refer to superintendents, curriculum coordinators and principals. Again and again, George tells his readers to find ways to make things happen, even on small scale. Celebrate each step. Reflect. Keep pushing forward.

Innovation doesn’t emerge suddenly — it’s a gradual shift forward, spurred and powered by a shared vision of how things might be. The Innovator’s Mindset book, and the accompanying IMMOOC that took place last fall, is another compass on the journey. It’s a read worth your time, particularly if you are a school administrator. Speaking as a teacher, I hope you dive in.

Peace (pages of it),
Kevin

Book Review: Infomocracy

This book, despite a somewhat convoluted start, is nicely in tune with the current state of affairs: the entire crazy election process. Infomocracy by Malka Older is set in the future, and is in the William Gibson-ish science fiction realm of immersive technologies and how such innovation impacts our social fabric.

In Older’s fictional future, the world has shifted away from governments established by geographical borders, and instead, elections for political leaders are undertaken on the global scale, with “centenals” of people voting in small clusters for various government options. An organization called Information, politically neutral but extremely powerful, keeps all data flowing to people on a scale one can imagine if you believe in Moore’s Law.

The story comes down to one of political intrigue — which electoral group is trying to tip the scales, through violence and other means, in their favor to win what is known as the Supermajority, the designation of winning the most centenals, and therefore, playing a more prominent role in shaping the global landscape. We follow a handful of characters through the story as events unfold.

I nearly gave up on Infomocracy at the start because I had trouble keeping track of what was going on. Characters came and left, locations shifted, organizations (like Information and political ones like Heritage, Liberty, Policy1st, etc.) were mentioned. But a third into the novel, Older finds a groove, and the story starts to come together.

Good science fiction gives us another perspective from which to view the present, and Infomocracy does that. You notice how the narrowing of political views, away from the center, is creating pockets of like-minded voters with a shared agenda. When the middle ground decreases, voters’ views become more extreme. And given the shape of the geopolitical world, the removal of borders as defining political structures might be a possibility.

As an NPR reviewer noted,:

Older makes vital points about the disconnect between participatory government and representative government, not to mention the increasing corporate influence on public policy. During an election year as nail-biting as 2016, it couldn’t be more penetrating or relevant.

Peace (it’s political),
Kevin

#NetNarr: Neil Stephenson’s Illustrated Primer of Interactive Wonder

I admit, I can’t quite remember where I came across a recent reference to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion, the imaginary book at the center of Neil Stephenson’s novel, The Diamond Age. But I found myself diving into Wikipedia to refresh my memory because it seems like the book might connect somehow to the Networked Narratives digital storytelling course about to start up with Mia Zamora and Alan Levine (see his open invite here).

from https://hughsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/hugh-reviews-diamond-age-by-neal-stephenson/

Hugh’s Reviews — https://hughsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/hugh-reviews-diamond-age-by-neal-stephenson/

 

The Illustrated Primer is one of Stephenson’s vision of the future of books and texts that adapt to the reader, changing to meet the needs of the life of the reader in a society of stratus, status and privilege. It has been years since I read The Diamond Age, so I don’t rightly remember all of the plot or the role of the primer itself.

Still (I did the bold of text here):

The Primer is intended to steer its reader intellectually toward a more interesting life, as defined by “Equity Lord” Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw, and growing up to be an effective member of society. The most important quality to achieving an “interesting life” is deemed to be a subversive attitude towards the status quo. The Primer is designed to react to its owners’ environment and teach them what they need to know to survive and develop.Wikipedia

It occurs to me that one of the themes that Mia has talked about when designing the NetNarr course has been the idea of our “civic imagination,” which I intend to dive into more thoroughly in the coming weeks. As I understand it, the concept of civic imagination is meant to provide us with a way to transform our stories into action.

In The Diamond Age, this theme also seems to run through the story, but in a darker way.

Although The Diamond Age explores the role of technology and personal relationships in child development, its deeper and darker themes also probe the relative values of cultures (which Stephenson explores in his other novels as well) and the shortcomings in communication between them. — from Steampunk Wiki

I suspect the course itself — open to anyone, although there is a university component that will be playing/learning along — will explore the ways in which literature and interactive fiction is both the source of agency for us, as writers and readers, and a source of concern of the loss of agency, via technology advancements. Someone is bound to go down the dark path of exploration, I hope, and not leave the course to all of the techno-evangelists (as I often am) viewing the world through rosy glasses.

Peace (it’s written in my primer),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Every Song Ever

What do you say about a book where a single chapter moves seamlessly from Bud Powell to Jerry Lee Lewis to Outkast? Or from The Ronettes to The Clash to Duran Duran to Bill Evans to Kanye West to Big Joe Williams? I say, that’s my kind of book. And in Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music in an Age of Plenty, writer Ben Ratliff brings us on a sonic journey to better understand the possibilities of music in our lives, along lines way beyond genre.

I borrowed this book from the library but I am getting the sense — days after finishing it and knowing I need to return it soon — that I might have to buy Ratliff’s book after all. It’s one of those few books about music that I know I am going to want to return to in the future, in appreciation the way that Ratfliff expands our notions of the power of music.

With themed chapters ranging from loud, quiet, density, speed, space, improvisation and community and more, Ratliff’s inquiries are a map on which one can journey into many realms of sound. I found many touchstone tracks here (every chapter ends with a playlist) and many artists I had never heard of. This bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar is what listeners need, or at least, it’s what I need, as someone who craves variety in my life soundtrack.

Every Song Ever, even with its hyperbolic title, is perfectly suited for this day and age of immense possibilities of music, but also, an age where the sheer volume of musical tracks makes it increasingly more difficult to situate yourself into a transformative listening experience. Ratliffe tries to shows ways we can listen, and be transformed, if only we remove the locks of genre from our scope of vision.

Infinite access … can lead to an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves, and a hardening of taste, such that all you want to do is confirm what you already know. But there is possibly something very good, too, about the constant broadcast and the powers of the shuffle and recommendation effect. — Every Song Ever, page 6

Keep on listening, with your ears wide open.

Peace (it sounds right),
Kevin

42,000 Pages (or so) Read in 2016

My Year in Books 2016

I keep track of all my reading over at Goodreads and appreciate the ability to go in at the end of the year and gather some “data” about my reading. The above graphic is generated by Goodreads as an end-of-year infographic, and while reading is always about quality over quantity, I am often curious about totals.

My goal for 2016 was 100 books. I will have the same goal for this year.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin

Book Review: One More Cup of Coffee

It’s early morning — my writing time — and I am at home, not a cafe, but I am still traveling along with local writer/artist Tom Pappalardo as he brings me on his tour of coffee cafes in Western Massachusetts in his self-published book, One More Cup of Coffee.  The subtitle says a lot: “In which the author barely talks about the coffee.”

Which is not completely true. Tom talks about the coffee, but more often, he talks about the people and the atmosphere, and his own state of mind when the coffee hits the cup in the various places in my hometown and beyond. I am a sucker for local writing, set in local places, and Tom is a gifted observationalist — a bit biting and sarcastic in his views of the world, perhaps, but he has a keen eye for overheard conversations (so much so, I was hoping he wasn’t ever overhearing me in the booth next to him).

The passages here are short and often very funny, and Tom is not above calling the coffee bad when he tastes it, or the conversation, when he hears it, but he also celebrates something about the independent coffee shops that goes beyond the cafe itself — he is celebrating the public gathering spaces they represent, bringing people together to quietly write (as he does) or to loudly talk (as many do) or to just wonder about the state of the world (what I often do). Oh, and he is not afraid to tear down the corporate places, too. We do have Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts but only with great reluctance in these parts.

I don’t visit the downtown coffee places like I used to, give my family and teaching job, but Tom’s book brought me right into the heart of our Pioneer Valley’s lively centers. I know most, but not all, of the places he writes about (and appreciated some of the local history of how-this-place-used-to-be-that-place), and I could sense that I was hanging out with Tom as he wrote (which he probably wouldn’t appreciate or like, as my presence would interrupt his writing).

I bought this book to support a local self-published writer and the One More Cup of Coffee more than met my expectations, so much I just ordered another from Tom — a collection of comics and graphics. I think I recognize his work from our local alternative newspaper. I realized, too, that I have seen his music posters and artwork around my small city for years, and never knew it was him. Now I do. Good work, Tom.

Peace (and a hot cup of java),
Kevin

Book Review: But What If We’re Wrong?

This latest book by the always-interesting Chuck Klosterman has the subtitle “Thinking About the Present As if It Were the Past,” and that just about sums up Klosterman’s expansive dive into his ongoing question of wonder: Will the things we think of as important in the present really live up to the scrutiny of the future?

Probably not.

Klosterman is all over the place in But What If We’re Wrong, and I like that. From looking at the prospects of pop music now and into the future (and wondering if the Butthole Surfers might resonate more than The Beatles but ultimately decides that Chuck Berry would likely be the icon of the rock and roll era), to which films and television shows might stand the test of time (not for their art but for the way they reflect, perhaps inaccurately, on the present time), to whether American football will survive (even as numbers of drop, but he suggests it will become a narrow sport field, like boxing, with perhaps even more violence in the future than the present to appease its dedicated hard-core fans).

What Klosterman is doing here, again and again, is calling into question what the “present” thinks of the “past” and the strange lens that comes to bear on events, centuries after the fact. It’s hard to know what will last when you are in the midst of it. This is what historians do, too. But Klosterman thinks they go about it all wrong, too, trying to make sense of a distant time by artifacts that probably don’t accurately reflect the actual time period, and so .. we probably get a lot it wrong.

Klosterman (who used to write The Ethicist column for the New York Times) writes with wit and humor, and admits often to the reader that he is stretching to the deep end of thinking. He even offers up an apology in the end credits for a hedgehog story. (Yep — you’ll have to read about it). He does what we want writers to do, by pushing the way we think about the world in new ways, and you could do worse that cozy up to Klosterman on a wintry day.

But, of course, I may be wrong about that. Just ask Chuck.

Peace (into tomorrow as well as today),
Kevin

Book Review: Photos Framed

This is a quick read, but one that might require a few reads, if that makes any sense at all. Not because it is confusing. It is so interesting. I am one of those people who has come to photography late, thanks to the emergence of mobile devices for visually capturing the world (and double-thanks to the work of my friend, Kim Douillard, whose photography and image prompts always get me thinking at odd angles).

Photos Framed, by Ruth Thomson, is a collection of very famous photographs. What Thomson brings to the table is the curation and reflection on the composition of these famous photographs. In tight text alongside the images, she explores the back stories of the images and photographers. She also pulls out small moments (literally … cropped shots sit alongside the full image) from within the larger visual frame, asking questions about lighting, perspective, colors, textures and more.

Sure, I’ve seen the famous images of Migrant Mother (Dorethea Lange), The Horse in Motion (Eadweard Mybridge), The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville (Robert Doisneau), Afghan Girl (Steve McCurry), The Cottingly Fairies (Elsie Wright), and Tank Man (Jeff Widener). Thomson showed me aspects of these famous images I never saw or considered before.

She reminds us that images are story, with contexts. To ‘read an image’ is to dive through the lens at many levels. That doesn’t mean these photos don’t stand on their own. They do. What it means is that each one can draw you in further, if you choose to go on that journey. Photos Framed is a nice tour guide.

Peace (well-lit and standing still),
Kevin