Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (The Meltdown)

Has it really been 13 years of Diary of a Wimpy Kids books? I guess so, and Jeff Kinney keeps going with onward his story. The 13th edition — The Meltdown — is another amusing, yet light, story (sort of, but not really) in which character Greg Heffley continues to struggle against the world.

Here, in this latest edition, the first half of The Meltdown is just a collection of gags and jokes about winter (although Kinney’s drawings are still quite funny) with almost no discernible narrative to hold it together. The pages breeze by. It’s only in the second half, when the frame of a neighborhood snow-fight, and the mayhem that ensues among the kids, comes to the surface as a structure, of sorts.

I have a fair number of boys in my classroom who are currently reading The Meltdown right now as an independent book, and while I know these books are way below our sixth grade, I never make a peep about. They are reading books. Let’s celebrate that fact. These reluctant readers are reading books. Meanwhile, I have a pile of other books ready to recommend for when they are done with the latest adventures of the Wimpy Kid.

Like a scattered few others before him (J.K. Rowling comes to mind as does Suzanne Collins), Kinney has gotten kids reading in a time when more and more young people — and alas, it seems to be mostly boys on this trend — are losing interesting in the power of stories on the pages of books. Whether this is due to video games as immersive alternatives, decreasing attention spans, over-scheduled outside activities or whatever, books and reading seem more like an endangered species than every before. We all need to get more books into their hands, and go from there.

Peace (in books and beyond),
Kevin

Ralph Broke the Internet; You Should, Too

I took my youngest son to see the movie Ralph Breaks the Internet yesterday and it was enjoyable entertainment with an Internet theme. Not as good as Wreck-It Ralph, the original that surprised with its knowing insider’s look at video game culture, but still, the new movie is plenty of fun with lots of inside cultural jokes.

I was struck by one particular poignant scene, where Ralph is trying to save his friend, Venelope, by making stupid/dumb/viral videos for a YouTube clone in order to generate “likes” that become “money” he can use to replace something broken on Venelope’s racing game  (the movie conveniently skirts the issue of how this connection is made — through targeted advertising of viewers). Ralph wanders into a corporate back room, where a global video comment feed is scrolling.

As he reads the feeds, Ralph slowly realizes just how terrible and how awful and how mean these people are being to each other through veiled usernames. The vitriol and the anger and the meanness of the comments deflates our hero, who thought the Internet was for the good of its users. The algorithm character in charge of the video system comes in, sees what Ralph is seeing, and sort of shakes her head, and then suggests to Ralph that he just “never read the comments.” She turns her head to the problem, just like YouTube and others have consistently done.

In the movie, Ralph “breaks” the Internet by letting loose a virus that seeks out vulnerabilities as a way to protect a friendship, and the results are haywire craziness. I won’t give the story away.

But listen, our real Internet is broken, too, and maybe we need to get a little Ralph on it. Not with malware and viruses, which are part of the problem, but with a new vision for what the Internet might be.

This topic of where we are and where we might need to go has been on my mind a lot lately, with inquiry through E-learning 3.0 and Equity Unbound courses, both of which have examined the weaknesses of our current Internet and Web systems through the lens of identity, data, algorithms, and more.

Here’s a sort of ‘wish list’ of how we might fix this broken system:

  • Stronger filters for hate speech and trolls and bots and more
  • More accountability for corporations setting up shop on the Web and its various connected places
  • A reporting system that actually works, and not just via algorithms and keywords, either
  • More tools in the hands of users to create on the Internet, like building smaller networks within the larger ones (the notion behind the Distributed Web)
  • Stronger privacy controls and fewer Facebooks
  • Less advertising through creepy data collection
  • Better access for all (including rural users often left out)

It may be that the way we “break” the Internet is by leaving it completely and starting over somewhere else. Or maybe we realize it’s a big ship, this Internet, but perhaps, working together, we can still turn it around. There’s a lot of good out there. We can build off that.

Peace (on the screen),
Kevin

PS — So, I noticed a ton of named Internet companies mentioned in this movie and what I could not help wonder as I was watching the movie was this: Did all of these companies pay for product placement? I did some cursory searching this morning but found nothing much about this topic (this article mentions the movie but doesn’t answer my question). Given the push into paid placements of products in movies and television, it’s a valid question, right? To wonder if eBay, Google, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and others paid to gain access to our eyeballs in the theater? I am particularly alarmed for the young viewers that this movie is aiming at. And if these companies did not pay for access, why didn’t the movie makers change the names to spoof and poke fun at the giants?

So add another bullet to my list:

  • No paid Internet products in movies aimed at kids/future users

One-Click Publishing with the Beaker Browser (on the Distributed Web)

Ease of BeakerI like that along with learning about the potential of the peer-to-peer Distributed Web concept in our EL30 course, with Stephen Downes, he is also providing us with ways to engage with the DWeb concept. One of his suggestions is to use the Beaker Browser, which is a peer-to-peer browser using a technical underpinning called ‘dat‘  and which allows you to quickly and quite easily make and publish a website within minutes.

Dat works on a distributed network unlike cloud services, such as Dropbox or Google Drive. This means Dat transfers files peer to peer, skipping centralized servers. Dat’s network makes file transfers faster, encrypted, and auditable. You can even use Dat on local networks for offline file sharing or local backups. Dat reduces bandwidth costs on popular files, as downloads are distributed across all available computers, rather than centralized on a single host. — from Dat Documentation

The developers of Beaker Browser provide a powerful overview of the mission their own project:

The Web enabled communication, collaboration, and creativity at a scale once unimaginable, but it’s devolved into a landscape of isolated platforms that discourage customization and interoperability. The Web’s value flows from the people who use it, yet our online experiences are dictated by corporations whose incentives rarely align with our own.

We believe the Web can (and must) be a people-first platform, where everybody is invited to create, personalize, and share.

That’s why we’re using peer-to-peer technology to improve how we create, share, and connect on the Web. — from Beaker About Page

I dove in, downloading and installing Beaker, to see for myself how this “one-click publishing” worked …

Using Peer2Peer Beaker Browser

You can view the simple site I made on Beaker, which is mostly html-based with a few tweaks. However, because Beaker runs off the peer-to-peer computing power, my browser will have to be up and running, and accessible from the Beaker dat network for you to view the site I made (that’s the peer-to-peer computing element).

This is one drawback of peer-to-peer, as far as I can tell.

Another issue is that the ‘dat’ protocol doesn’t run in any other browser, other than Beaker. Which makes sense, since the peers are sharing the networking power. So the link down below to my site is one you would have to first copy and paste into a Beaker Browser, which is free and easy to download and use. The Beaker Browser also functions like a regular browser, but is a Distributed Web platform. What this means, if I understand it, is that there is no central server — the networking power and protocols are shared across users of Beaker itself.

This need for Beaker to view sites is a second drawback.

Also, my blog platform here clearly does not like the ‘dat’ file at all and likely sees it as insecure. Every time I try to force it be a link off this page, Edublogs tries to wipe it clean or remove any linking whatsoever. It’s just not ready for Beaker.

View my site: dat://82729c0bd3dd16984f7499e69b12e02f2bb45922c41fbff8609a84899d063fdb/

Playing nice across platforms and hosting services is a third drawback.

Here’s what my Beaker published site looks like right now:

My First Beaker Experiment

The folks at Beaker have a simple tutorial with screenshots on how to do this, and then Stephen also does a nice job of explaining what Beaker is and how it works, and how you can get started.

Even with the three drawbacks of Beaker that I noticed — Beaker has to be up and running for anyone else to use and access its shared computing power, Beaker is the only browser to recognize and launch dat files, and platforms don’t recognize dat links as secure — I like where Beaker is going within the Distributed Web, and I am glad to have learned about it by using it in EL30. The people working on Beaker call it experimental, and it is quite likely that what I see as drawbacks now might actually be key advances in browser functionality down the road.

Peace (tru dat),
Kevin

Terry and Kevin’s Liminal Adventures: A Poem is a Map

Terry and Kevin liminal treasure map

Yesterday, my friend Terry shared a poem on Mastodon. His poem, enriched by the video he added, started a rich conversation that leaped across platforms through the day. He later wrote a blog post that tracks the flow over the day of wandering and wondering.

Read Terry’s post: Eight Thresholds But Who’s Counting

Later, I created the treasure map above as a sort of additional visual connection, and then I started to think about how else to think through this kind of platform adventure that began with a poem. I know he and I are sort of geeky like this, pushing our thinking back and forth and exploring the terrain.

As I read his post a few times, and thought about the unwinding of our words, I had this inspiration for a picture book story. So I made one in Storybird — using a keyword art search for “map” —  and entitled it A Poem is a Map.

What’s interesting about Storybird is that the art collection and choices come first in the making of stories, guiding the writing through the visuals. Except here, I had a story in mind – about how poems are maps, which forms one of my points in our discussion and which sparks a question from Terry — and I needed art. You can only access collections of art in Storybird (that is part of its interesting design), not keep searching its entire collection as you build a book. The keyword “map” brought up some interesting art but it was limited in scope.

In making this picture book, I had to dance between Terry’s ideas, our conversations, my story concept and the available artwork. The tension between the freewheeling concepts we were exploring and the limited nature of Storybird made for an interesting writing experience. I simultaneously wrote what I knew I would write and let the art push me in different directions.

In the picture book, you can notice me weaving in the conversation and some of Terry’s reflection points from his blog. It’s a story that could stand on its own, perhaps, but also be read as yet another threshold, as Terry called it, of the conversation.

A Poem is a Map book

Read the story

Maybe this isn’t the end. Maybe this is just the start.

Peace (everywhere on the map),
Kevin

To Friends in Many Spaces: Thankful, Appreciative, Optimistic

Book Turkey(My wife brought home this book turkey she made with an old textbook and I love the way a book was remixed into art.)

Dear friends in many spaces,

Thank you. Thank you for, first, for even being here at my blog at all. I know fewer and fewer people read blogs, preferring sound bite analysis and catchy headlines on social media. I do that, too, at times. As such, I am always appreciative when anyone takes the time to jump from a tweet or a shared link or maybe even RSS reader to come and spend a few minutes with my writing or my songs, and maybe even write a comment. Thank you for your conversations in the comment bin, when you have time and inclination to do so.

I am also deeply appreciative of the fact that while I read about and know about the thorny, messy elements of the Web — the way trolls play out on Twitter, the way algorithmic bots target us on Facebook (well, not me, but maybe you), the way we are the product for marketing, the way dark corners of the Net are home to anger and conspiracy and such — I have mostly avoided those elements.  I know others have not been so lucky, targeted because they speak out and have strong views.

I think my positive bubble — which is not the kind of bubble that walls me off from the world and not the kind that stops me from expressing my own strong opinions nor engaging in debates — has been mostly due to you.

You have helped me stay positive and engaged in thinking forward. I ask you questions, and you answer. I remix your resources, and honor your work. You do the same, with mine. I write in your margins, to better understand. I write my way forward. Sometimes, I read what you share and let it sink in, letting time follow me until I realize that what you shared with me is now the thing I need right now. You knew that all along.

This is not, alas, unbridled optimism without worry, of course, worries about the many obstacles still there when it comes to learning and teaching and writing and sharing and connecting, and the myriad of troubles that come with this digital world. For sure, there are unsettling problems, made worse by our digital connections with the world. I find myself agreeing with the analysis by many that the promise of the Web, as we know it today, is not what we thought it might be.

Still, it might yet still become something else altogether, something better.

We collectively push forward by pushing forward, we do by doing, we make by making, and we can do this together. No one person can be on this journey alone. We make this path, together.

Whenever I think, this is a perfect opportunity for a collaboration and let’s get an invite out into the networks, that impulse to work with others in technology and writing and making is based on hope in the possible. It’s why I remain part of CLMOOC, and why offshoots of connected communities intrigue me. It’s why others in the National Writing Project seem like friends, even when we only just meet. It’s why I found a new-ish home on Mastodon, settling into small stories and small poems and small sharing. This is why regular activities like Slice of Life remain a draw for me. It’s why I don’t worry too much about leaving one place to go to another, to meet new people, to learn from others. I dip my toes, for a reason. There are more people out there who want the same than we realize. It’s sometimes just a matter of finding us.

I am thankful there are such opportunities. Thank you.

Peace (a few words and such),
Kevin

 

Equity, Access and the Distributed Web

(Image credit: Openclipart.org and Mozilla Foundation)

 

I watched with great interest the latest video from Stephen Downes, who is facilitating the online E-Learning 3.0, or EL30, as he walked us through the concept of the shift from a Centralized Web (central server, many users) to the Decentralized Web (many servers, many users) to the prospects of the Distributed Web (no servers, many users).

 

A piece by Dietrick Ayala, of Mozilla, entitled Introducing the Dweb, makes this distinction, focusing on the potential shift in power over information and networks:

In centralized systems, one entity has control over the participation of all other entities. In decentralized systems, power over participation is divided between more than one entity. In distributed systems, no one entity has control over the participation of any other entity.

I’m still getting my head around it.

Distributed WebBut as I ponder this move to a more peer-to-peer-powered networking design — where our own computing power become the backbone of networking, through shared resources like CPU and memory and more — I started to think about what this might mean for the issues of access and equity.

In other words, right now, there are still many places in the world — some more deeply in need than others — where basic access to the Internet and to mobile and computing devices is difficult, meaning the people — the students, is how I think of it, as a teacher — are in danger of being left behind with learning possibilities, job opportunities and networking options. I say this, though, knowing that people need to have a choice to engage in networking, and I don’t mean to assume everyone should always be doing this. But having no options when you need options … that’s an access and equity issue that has been with us for some time.

Not far from where I live, here in a relatively affluent part of the east coast of the United States, there are communities who have long been fighting the state government and the conglomerate cable/Internet providers for digital access, made tricky for sure by the rural and isolated places they live but not insurmountable. The battle, years long now, has centered on the loss of potential for residents in these small towns, and their children’s futures. Meanwhile, where I live, just 3o minutes away from those rural towns, I have high-speed access (as long as I pay for it).

Does a shift to a Distributed Web help these situations?

In the first diagram, of the current centralized system, if you don’t have the means to connect to the central server, then the network is worthless. Same thing with the second — the decentralized system — although it is possible your ability to connect is increased because more people are running more servers (in a federated sort of way) so it is possible your options for access are greater.

I think the Distributed Web, as Stephen and others call it,  may offer greater possibilities for more people in need of access. Is the Dweb more equitable in this regard, on a global scale? Maybe, I think, and here is why, based on how I am beginning to understand how the Dweb works (with the caveat that this is relatively new to me).

If the future iteration of the Internet, as we know it, is built primarily on secure peer-to-peer computing power in a fully distributed mesh — where our resources are shared and our collective networking grows stronger and more secure with more users in the system (and this is where the technical aspects are beyond me right now, so I am writing this in faith that either blockchain systems or something else will be the underpinning of security) — then more people will have access to more networking, and more opportunities.

This doesn’t solve the problem of machines and devices or interface systems into hands of those users, but the Dweb seems to be concerned less with the high-powered, huge-memory computers, since we will all be sharing resources together. I might have an inexpensive device and it won’t matter, because others elsewhere will have the computing resources that I can tap into.

Of course, this is all speculative. I can envision ways this goes off the rails — around issues of privacy, of data breaches, of insecure connections, of monetizing the computing power. But I am optimistic, as I listen to Stephen and read about others, that there is a path towards something better.

How we get there — and how we make sure everyone comes along, regardless of culture or race or socioeconomics — is still a question, and I am appreciative that EL3o is pushing my thinking forward, while still remembering the mistakes of the past.

In exploring different resources, I came across this document from the p2pforever site — which seeks to collaboratively document examples and resources around Dweb architecture. It is a sort of manifesto of sorts, or some guiding principles, and this thinking seems to resonate with my thinking on equity and access issues.

They suggest that these elements in the design of future iterations of the Web:

  1. We should improve and preserve the Web.
    The Web is a genuine social accomplishment and we should look after it. Don’t let lesser platforms win out.
  2. Devops is oppressive!
    Many people can’t publish websites or apps because they can’t run servers. Publishing should be accessible to all.
  3. “View source” is critical to an open Web.
    The more code that users can read, the more code they can review and learn from.
  4. “Modify source” is the p2p Web’s great power.
    A Web that can be made and remade by its people can better serve their needs and produce a more diverse & exciting world. The Web should be a truly “live” society.
  5. Minimize change, maximize impact.
    The p2p Web should still be the Web. Make it better, don’t remake it.
  6. Don’t forget resilience.
    A web based on protocols, not platforms, is a safe web. Don’t put data in silos but have various platforms use the same protocols to interact.

What do you think?

Peace (in peers, thinking together),
Kevin

 

 

Slice of Life: Brewing an Audio Stew with Words, Loops, and Sounds

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

We’re in a digital writing unit that centers on expanding the notions of what it means to compose, with a focus on writing with sound. The way it works is that my students will be creating small Sound Stories (about a paragraph or so) in which they will record their voices, weaving in sound effects from a library of audio I provide them and layering looped music underneath it all. It’s composition, in the fuller sense of the word.

Sort of like an audio stew.

This is one I did a few years ago that I share with them as an example. They all get a kick out the ending:

The other day, I showed them how to use Garageband, and for nearly all of my students, this was their first taste of this powerful music-making, sound-mixing software application on the computer. A few have used the Garageband mobile app (which remains one of the more powerful music-making apps available for Apple devices – sorry, Android. Nothing you have comes even close.)

Snow days and ice delays have put a dent in my plans for making the Sound Stories, so we will start again on the Sound Story activity when we get back from Thanksgiving break.

But here’s what I notice with Garageband — there is a real excitement about making songs and creating music when you have access to interesting sound loops, and the most creative students are sometimes the ones you expect least. I don’t mean that as a disparaging comment … I mean, in the writing classroom, you don’t often see the music engineer ready to bloom, or not unless you give them the seeds and soil to bloom in. Software like Garageband, or sites like Soundtrap, can do that.

Now, my students are coming into class, earbuds in hands, asking if today is a Garageband Day in writing class. Today, in fact, will be one of those days, once we get some other writing done (we’re also working on converting a scene from their independent reading books into a play/movie script … that’s another write-up for another day).

Time to make some music.

Peace (sounds fine),
Kevin

Not at NCTE: Playing in the Margins of the Margins

I could not attend NCTE annual converence this year for reasons related to the ways the federal government has withdrawn most of its support for the National Writing Project, but I have been following some of the threads on Twitter when I could over the weekend. In particular, I was curious about the work being done by my friends via Marginal Syllabus with annotations and margin writing.

I could not help myself. As I saw people working on a hallway activity of making and then tweeting out notes on cards with quotes on Saturday, I started to make margin notes on the notes of the margins from here at home, and sharing them back into the stream. For a bit of time, it felt like I was there, with them.

This is the link to the description of the formal presentation, which took place yesterday

And this is the link to their presentation slides.

First, I grabbed a screenshot and used the text and arrow tools.

Then, I used an app that lets you manipulate an image, and used the idea of the margin at the center as symbolic concept.

Another one used a favorite: comics to make comments.

And then, I found a poem in an annotation.

Thanks to Adam, Sam, Jessica and Carolyn for letting me play with their work. I hope the workshop for the digital annotation was an interesting and illuminating session. Knowing the folks running it, I bet it was.

Peace (in the margins and beyond),
Kevin

You Are Heard Out Here (Song)

You Are Heard Out Here

I got into a songwriting mode yesterday morning, thanks to an empty house and an acoustic guitar with the capo up the neck, making my guitar sound a bit mandolin-ish. This song’s lyrics revolve around those people we don’t really know, but whose presence is a regular in our social media feeds. They flash by, with stories and sharing. Sometimes, with joy. Sometimes, with sadness.

The second and third verses of the song captures this piece of online interactions:

Sometimes it gets lonely
living on the screen
It’s easy to fall apart
when no one hears you scream

I’m send out a lifeline
A song with just a voice
To let you know the world exists
and you have a choice

Even if we don’t “know them,” we can still sort of know them, right? Right?

The theme of the song — You Are Heard Out Here — connects to thinking I’ve been doing in EL30 and UnboundEq recently around identity and online presence, and the ways we can and cannot connect to one another, and whether there is meaning in those connections that we do make. I am an optimist. I say, yes, there is connection and meaning and caring.

We all want to be heard.

And if not us, then who?

Thanks for taking the time to listen.

Peace (in the knowing you),
Kevin

Considering Keys to Identity and Authentication

Forgotten Keys(Warning: this is a bit of a ramble)

In EL30 (E-Learning 3.0), Stephen Downes has us now thinking beyond notions of identity, and into the future of digital authentication.

Stephen, our navigator, explores the notion of private and public ‘keys’ as a way to keep our identities and our data private, and firmly in user control. As I understand it, the encrypted private key is what we would use to access and share our information and the public key is the doorway that others can enter if they have a matching or designated encrypted private key themselves. Anyone else, without that key, would not be able to move into the encrypted data.

The keys — private and public — create a barrier, or a wall, of protection, and only those who we trust and know would have access, even if it were leaked or hacked or whatever. In this case, he is talking about how to protect our identities, and perhaps, how our Identity Graphs might reflect this kind of protective barrier.

I’m wondering, how does the use of encryption keys form our online identity? I also wonder, given the nature of open connectedness that informs so many of the educational and learning circles I am part of, how does this shift to extreme privacy both enhance and hinder those interactions? Will people who might otherwise be important to my own learning be left out of the loop, if the door is locked too tight? I have this analogy in my mind — which is not quite apt — of how comments on blogs are sometimes set with spam filters so high that one gives up on even bothering to take time to leave a comment, ending a conversation before it even begins. Would encrypted keys do the same, but even more so? I don’t know enough about this topic to say with any authority but I wonder about it.

In one case, Stephen describes a key that is literally a small drive that you plug into computers you want to use, and your login and data trail is on the device. This device you take with you (on your keychain, perhaps), so that you no longer rely on browsers as your login point (and therefore, risk leaving data trails for others to find and use).

As I mentioned, I don’t know much about this encryption process, although I have read a little bit about it before and wondered how technology solves a problem technology has made (privacy issues), but does one technology fix of another technology problem then somehow open the door to yet another unforeseen technology problem? What problem might encryption keys pose? Maybe I am just being cynical. I sure don’t have an answer to this problem of identity hijacking by hackers and marketers and technology giants and more.

Take a listen to Stephen and see what you think. The comic above was my attempt at humor — of noting that whatever the technology, someone is sure to lose it.

Peace (ID it),
Kevin