Book Review: Interface

I recently finished up Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George just in time for the political season that is beginning to dominate the headlines. Although somewhat dated (particularly in reference to the technology — references to digital clocks are kind of funny since they have to be fully described for the audience), this fictional thriller centers on the use of an interface computer chip that gets implanted into the brain of a presidential candidate — Gov. William Cozzano. He’s a firebrand governor with an independent streak until a stroke hits him, hard, and he decides to do an experimental surgery that can help him recover … with a twist.

The data chip allows the candidate’s handlers to get a “read” on the mood of voters and shape the message of the candidate accordingly. Banks of computers and programmers are behind every campaign move, every sentence uttered by the candidate. Nothing is left to chance. Of course, not everyone buys this idea of a controlled candidate and there is a slow-building battle between the Network (the nefarious schemers who want a president who will do their bidding along economic lines) and folks like the candidate’s daughter and fiery running mate who uncover the secret. And there is a single voter out in middle America who senses what is going on and decides to take actions into his own violent hands.

Sure, the story in Interface is pretty far-fetched, but Stephenson (of Snow Crash fame) and George put together a nice summer read here, and they use lots of humor and satire to make jabs at our political system. The novel is now about 15 years old, and although the references to some technology seem dated, the eye-opener is that the politics and the hard-core fighting over issues is still alive and kicking (hello, Michelle Bachmann), and maybe even more divisive than depicted in this book. Some of this sameground was covered in The Manchurian Candidate, but Interface is a nice twist on that old story, particularly in the form of the vice-presidential candidate who is not afraid to speak her mind, and then goes even further when unexpected events push her into the role of our first black female president.

Peace (in the politics),
Kevin

 

More on Mortenson, Three Cups and the World

My posts yesterday about Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceipt, and Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yielded plenty of interesting conversations in various places (Google+, Twitter and here). A few articles and posts also came my way as a result of my review and it worth sharing them out, too.

The first is a piece at Outside Magazine entitled Truth and Consequences, by Christopher Keyes. Keyes nicely balances the two narratives here — that of Mortenson the dreamer and that of Mortenson the scammer. He writes, “…our (the magazine) instinct has been that the truth about Mortenson may lie in the middle ground between the two narratives. There is no doubt that he embellished and, at times, entirely fabricated parts of his creation myth … What I’m not ready to buy is that Mortenson is a con artist who intentionally hoodwinked us all for profit.”

And I agree. Even with my anger over Mortenson’s fictionalized accounts and shoddy management, I don’t think he is a con artist out to get my students’ pennies. But that doesn’t let him off the hook.

The second piece is an interview with Scott Darsney, who was a hiker with Mortenson on the event that spurred the whole story forward, and he is someone that Krakauer interviewed for his investigative piece. Darsney now says that he was misquoted and/or his comments were taken out of context by Krakauer. Darsney concluded that, “Jon Krakauer is a respected and acclaimed author. He is a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, but from what I have read so far, the research needs to continue (as I’m sure it will). This is what Krakauer does, and why he can be a compelling author and journalist, and why I enjoy reading his books. But this one gives me pause. Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian first, an author second—also with a compelling story to tell—and Three Cups of Tea was a first-time process for Greg.”

I can’t quite tell is Darsney is covering his tail, or if he so inspired by the humanitarian potential, or if he truly believes that some things we can just let go because of the power of the larger story. But since Darsney’s voice is central to the debate, I was glad that he got his foot in the door here. It gives us yet another perspective.

The third piece is a post over at the Cooperative Catalyst, entitled Three Cups of Fiction, and while it is less a strike at Mortenson, it is a strike against the efforts that are at the center of Mortenson’s idea: that of building schools. Writer Carol Black notes that amid all of the backlash of Krakauer’s report, ” … the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.”

Black really hits home with the high-mindedness that we Americans have about how to save the rest of the world, and she talks poignantly about trafficking of girls, backlash of anger against education, and the forced shift into schools that can upset the cultural balances in some communities. I need to think more about Black’s piece before I can make a solid reflection on what she is saying, but her piece is an interesting counterpoint to the overall discussion.

Peace (in the narratives),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: Three Cups of Deceit

Mental note: If Jon Krakauer is investigating you, you better get the heck out of Dodge.

Three Cups of Deceit, which Krakauer turned into a thin book of powerful investigative reporting after first publishing his article as an ebook, is a stunning, unflinching and devastating examination of activist Greg Mortenson and the experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to his best-selling books  — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools — and his efforts to build schools in that region of the world.

I had heard about Krakauer’s report, and the 60 Minutes interview, and I was interested in the unfolding saga because, like many other schools, we used the young reader’s version of Three Cups of Tea to teach our students about different cultures, about making a difference in the world, and about the use of non-fiction to examine a story of significance. Two years ago, all fifth and sixth graders in our school read the book, did projects about the book and Mortenson, and raised money for Pennies for Peace at a benefit concert at our school. A group of students even personally met with Mortenson during one of his talks and handed him a check for his project.

Now, what do I think? I’m pissed off, actually.

Krakauer rips apart Mortenson’s story from the very start, showing how much “fiction” went into this non-fiction narrative that he created with Three Cups of Tea. I never held Mortenson up as a hero or anything, but still … the number of inaccuracies in his account of his experience in the region (from how he was saved by a small village to how he chose Korphe for the first school to his account of being kidnapped, and more and more and more and more …) gives me a long pause on my role as a teacher introducing the story to my students. I can’t shake the feeling that Mortenson deceived me, and that I in turn deceived my students. Most disappointing is the trail of money through Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute and the lack of schools built that are actually now schools in operation, which was the whole point of Pennies for Peace and student activism.

It comes down to character, and Krakauer (who once donated tens of thousands of dollars to Mortenson’s efforts before smelling something fishy and launching his investigation) is someone I trust as a journalist. Mortenson, through his actions and silence on where the millions are going, is now very suspect (he better watch out for the IRS  because he has lot of cash to account for). Krakauer does make clear that Mortenson had good intentions all along — helping educate children, particularly girls, in a part of the world where Americans are often seen as the enemy — but his actions on translating the collective good will and charity from the American public, including young children, into actual change is now in question.

I feel let down by Mortenson and angry at him. And I wish I had that class of students from two years back again for a final talk about the newest developments. I would make it a lesson in fiction and fraud.

Peace (in the tea leaves),
Kevin

 

Book Review: The Lemonade War

A big and crucial push for our school around literacy is more home-school connections around reading and writing. Families have to be involved in the literacy lives of their children. With that in mind, our school decided to give every students a book to read over this summer, with helpful hints to parents on the importance of reading aloud and suggestions for how to use the book at home. The committee chose one book for the entire school. We are reading The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, a book I had heard about before but had never opened. (My son had read it and gave it a shrug when I asked if he liked it. A shrug means he read it but would not read it again, nor recommend it much to friends).

The story of The Lemonade War unfolds around two siblings — Evan and Jessie — as they compete against each other for earning the most money. These two are locked into a sibling rivalry that neither of them really likes. The problem is that Evan, going into fourth grade, is not a strong student while Jessie, a second grader, is highly intelligent, but has some asperger’s qualities about her. And she is jumping over third grade to enter fourth grade, in the same class as her older brother.

I liked the book fine enough, I guess, but the one thing that kept gnawing at me as I reading the book — and it was something that I could not shake loose — was the believability of the ages of Evan and Jessie. There is no way these two kids are that young. The dialogue, the inner thoughts, the actions — it all pointed to kids who are older by at least a year or two. I could not buy it and that annoyed me to no end as I was reading. I know plenty of second and fourth graders (even gifted ones, like Jessie) and I am sorry — Davies did not capture the kids I know here.

But, the theme of siblings fighting and then resolving a difficult problem — coupled with a broken marriage and friendship issues — is a worthy point of talk for a school-wide book. I sort of wish we had gone with something with more adventure and exciting plot, though, so that the summer reading didn’t feel like so much of a … eh … school assignment. I wonder how my boys did with this book? I guess I will find out in a few weeks when the new year begins.

Peace (in the war),
Kevin

 

Book Review: How Angel Peterson Got His Name

Before I give you my thoughts on Gary Paulson’s look at growing up, I want to share a story.

When I was around 12 years old or so, a bunch of friends and I created this very elaborate bicycle jump park in the woods near us. It had ramps, jumps, obstacles and all of the wild things you can do with rocks and logs and a few boards. Pretty cool. One day, a friend of mine finagled a jump that was higher than we had seen before. And he put it right at the bottom of a hill. And he dared me to jump it. Well, what I was supposed to do? I took up on that dare. I remember being at the top of the hill, looking down, and thinking: maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Too late. My friends were waving their hands, shouting. I took off, and quickly that thought of “maybe this isn’t such a good idea” came floating into my head.

I hit the jump perfectly, as it turned out. The air below me was incredible. What I didn’t count on was my front tire of the bike coming off in mid-air. Time really does slow down, did you know that? I could see the tire falling and thought, Shoot (well, take away the o‘s and add an i and you get the idea), and the bike came crashing down, skidding to a sudden stop as the front forks dug into the sand. My head kept moving, though, thanks to Newton’s Laws of Accidental Physics, and my mouth slammed into the handlebars. Blood flowed. And part of my front tooth was now gone. I staggered back home with a broken bike, a broken tooth and … a story to tell for the next few years.

I bring this bit of personal history up because while I was laughing out loud as I was reading How Angel Peterson Got His Name, I was also nodding my head and thinking: yep, I can see that happening. Getting trapped in a pickle barrel that you want to send over a small waterfall? Yep. Putting on skis and tying rope to a fast car to beat a world record? Yep. Making a glider out of an old WWII Army kite and trying to fly? Yep. In my mind, those narratives (which are true stories of Paulson’s childhood) are all plausible. Kids, particularly boys, are pretty dumb when it comes to impulsive “what if” events, and are aleways ready to do anything for a thrill. It helps that Paulson and his crew had no television and very little other entertainment in their lives. They were on their own (we were, too, although I am not as old as Paulson) and made their own fun. Sometimes, that was dangerous.

I have to admit: it’s hard for me to see my own kids doing some of the things that go on in this book, although my middle son loved this collection of stories. I don’t know if that worries me or not, you know? He hasn’t come home with a chipped tooth yet. But he and his friends are so … safe. As a parent, I like that. I want them as safe as possible. As a fellow boy, well, I want to build him a giant ramp and dare him to go down it at top speed … just to see what happens.

How Angel Peterson Got His Name is a wonderful collection and a fairly quick read, and it would be be perfect for the upper elementary or middle school boy who might be a bit reluctant to read non-fictional text.  (I am already thinking how to use a chapter here for some narrative writing). Paulson will surely draw those readers in (maybe drag them in) with his hilarious adventures and character sketches of his childhood friends.

I have no idea if girls would even find it funny.

Peace (in the daring adventures of childhood),
Kevin

 

Youth Voices: The Hangout from TTT

Paul Allison (quickly) released the Google+ hangout conversation from Wednesday night over at Teachers Teaching Teachers, where topics ranged from school gardening and local food projects to the use of the Youth Voices social networking space for writing. Here is the video of the night’s conversations.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

 

Hanging Out in my first G+ Hangout

Google Hangout

Last night, I participated with Paul Allison and a bunch of other interesting folks in my very first Google+ Hangout space, which is the videoconferencing component to Google+. We were on Teachers Teaching Teachers, talking about issues ranging from the Maker’s movement (DYI activities with students) to creating school gardens to using the Youth Voices online space for the upcoming school year to developing an environmental focus for the year (or, that is my direction anyway). It was an interesting experience to be in a video chat room with Hangout with these folks.

Here are a few day-after observations:

  • There were a lot of us in the video room. I think we reached the limit (was it nine people?) and when you have that many people, it gets a little confusing about when to jump into the conversation. We were all trying to be polite and trying to get our points made. Paul did a nice job of circus ringmaster, though.
  • It was a different experience from the usual Teachers Teaching Teachers conversation. The addition of video — in being able to see the other guests — was fun and interesting. You could read expressions, and put a face to a name. It was great to see my friends Gail Desler, and Voices on the Gulf colleague Margaret Simon, and of course, Paul Allison. But I also felt a bit self-conscious about what I was doing when it was not my turn to talk, you know?
  • At one point, I had the chat room open in Google+ and the other chat room open at EdTechTalk (which is where TTT is hosted) and I felt a little dizzy as I read one chat, then the other chat (meaning: two different conversations), as I tried to keep my eyes and ears listening to the video discussions on the main screen. It would be nice to integrate the two chat rooms into one space, which I know Paul was complaining about before the show began.
  • Although we didn’t do it in our session, you can share YouTube videos in the hangout itself. That seems like an interesting component, particularly if you are brainstorming or working with a small group of people. (And I had this vision of Mystery Science Theater — making snarky comments about videos).
  • I think the video component of Google+ gives Skype a real run for its money. The quality was pretty decent and the ease of use was pretty intuitive, too. Although it was Paul’s Hangout, it seemed like it was fairly easy to manage. (ie, I have to give it a shot one of these days myself).

Not sure about how Google+ might be used in an educational setting? Check out Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways to Use Google+ collaborative slideshow. There are some interesting ideas developing on that slideshow, including how to possibly use Hangout for conferencing and making connections with other learners and teachers, and virtual field trips.

Peace (in the hanging out),
Kevin

 

 

 

Remembering my Webcomic Classes

I am starting to do a little work to get ready for the upcoming school year. One of my tasks is to “archive” the four spaces on our BitStrips community where my students last year did various webcomics. Bitstrips does a neat thing: it creates a “class photo” of all of the users, with their webcomic avatars. I was checking out the four classes the other day, laughing at the ways in which young people ‘create and show’ themselves with webcomic creators.
classpicture1
classpicture2
classpicture3
classpicture4

Here are my four classes, just before I put them into the archive bin to make way for this coming year’s crop of students.

Peace (in the remembering),
Kevin

 

A small supply of Days in a Sentence

Maybe it was a busy week, or maybe the metaphor theme threw people off, but we had only three Days in a Sentence contributed this week. Wait. “Only” is the wrong way to phrase that. I am always happy to get contributors. So, to rephrase, I found three wonderful Days in a Sentence in the bin this week. Thanks to Bonnie, Rita and Tracy.

Here they are, using metaphor for their sentences:

  • I’m enjoying this morning, sitting on my front porch feeling the breeze that is a wave of cool water, refreshing after the oven the summer has been so far. — Tracy
  • Returning from the Farmer’s Market with Jersey Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, and Green Vegetables to create a colorful countertop collage of summer’s healthy invitational. – Rita
  • Give me a 7-year-old, a bag of Half-Naked popcorn and we are walking with Harry in his Deathly Hollows. Cheering right to the end! – Bonnie

See you later this week for another call for reflective words!

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin