Book Review: Tubes (A Journey to the Center of the Internet)

Andrew Blum’s journey to the center of the Internet, as he calls it, begins when a squirrel nibbles the wires of his house, shutting his online access of. This event sparks a years-long journey of curiosity to figure out how the wires all connect, and how data flows through the physical space of the world.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum brings us along with him. It’s a pretty fascinating ride, if a bit technical at times, as he researches, investigates, and visits some of the main hubs of the dispersed Internet, from data centers to undersea cables to spaces below buildings in urban centers to isolated rural places — all forging different kinds of connection so that when I hit “publish” on this blog post and you click to read what I wrote, the data flows rather seamlessly (or so it appears) through fibers, wires, and yes, tubes of light.

There are moments where Blum geeks out a bit too much for my tastes, but I understand why he goes into such descriptions about routers, packets and fibers. What I was more interested in is how he frames the flow of information with the physical aspects of the world — the way we can imagine data moving along the contours of our Earth, and the ways in which those same contours provide barriers of access, too.

Overall, though, Tubes gives the reader a fuller sense of the digital world — sparking some appreciation for the original design of a distributed networked space and for the rather fragile elements that make up what we mostly take for granted. Some hubs are monumentally important, and yet, as Blum describes them, neither as secure as one would expect nor as reliable as they could be.

I really appreciated these final thoughts of Blum, who seeks to humanize his research, and ground it in the world we live in, not the virtual one we imagine when we use our technology.

“What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.”

— from Tubes by Andrew Blum, page 268

Peace (flowing through us all),
Kevin

Further Defining Digital Literacies: Access and Equity

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE access

I’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

Issues of access often take a back seat in discussions about digital literacies but here, in this definition, NCTE tackles it head-on early in its inquiry. And it’s not just who has what available — in other words, does the digital divide create unseen barriers for students — but also, how students with disabilities can access the same information and technology and tools as their peers.

I remember having a long discussion in a course about “alt text” on images via Twitter and other social networking platforms, and many of us worked on a public statement, urging Twitter to make the option for “alt text” writing on images for screen readers a default (it was an option one could turn on but I think it is now the default, so … progress). I am also thinking of how text-to-speech options, and how color-coding/highlighting/organizational possibilities, and how speech-to-text options all open the door to all of our students in terms of access.

Socio-economics play a role, too. I’ve done consulting work in schools where the computers are used for one thing: testing. Technology was only means of data gathering, and not a way for students to gather information and compose in different media. Student agency was nearly absent for the sake of constant testing.

One question within the NCTE definition seemed rather intriguing, as it brings to the surface an awareness of gaps. It asks:

Do learners recognize information gaps or information poverty?

and the follow up question:

Do learners advocate for their own individual and community’s access to texts and tools?

I wonder how teachers can best make those gaps visible to all students — this gets at the heart of equity — and how to help students advocate for places where the gaps exist? It seems to me that collaborations between classes — ie, Connected Learning principles — and better educator awareness might address this kind of question, but the fact is that for most of us, we don’t know what we don’t have because we made do with what we’ve got.

I think we all know we need to do better — with better-funded school libraries and information systems (that open doors for access, not just surveil our students), and classrooms, and teacher programs that incorporate these ideals in meaningful ways.

I was thinking of the mission statement of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project as I was reading this section of the Digital Literacies definition, as access and equity and social justice are front and center in all the work we do with students and teachers and school districts.

Peace (thinking),
Kevin

Slice of Life: I Heard Me on Pandora

Gift of Peace on Pandora(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.)

Last year, my friend and I released a holiday song called A Gift of Peace (For Christmas), more as an experiment than anything else. We did the whole thing — copyright lyrics and music, went into a recording studio, enlisted CD Baby to distribute the song through streaming services, and even hired my son to create a video story for the song.

Pandora was one of those services that took a long time to allow our song into its mix, but yesterday, while doing other things in the kitchen, our song started playing onto Pandora (I had created a station called A Gift of Peace) and I rushed to give it a thumbs up and to call my wife. We then danced for a bit around the kitchen to my song playing on Pandora.

If you hear my song on your station, give it a thumbs up, won’t you?

Peace (gifting it to you),
Kevin

The Noise is the Story/ The Story is the Noise

NoiseVember BandCamp

For all of November, I took part in something called NoiseVember over on Mastodon — creating small soundtracks of music. Some of my pieces were intentionally noisy. Some were not. I experimented across a variety of different platforms to make the music — from Soundtrap, to WolframTones, to Garageband, to Thumbjam, to Google’s Music Lab, and more.

In my head, I had a vague, loose idea of what connected the tracks, a slow threading over the month. I could glimpse the music telling the story of a walk through a place — woods, or forests, or something. But it was only at the end of the month, as I listened again to the entire batch together, all of them unfolding, and finally gave discrete titles to each of the tracks that I began to “see” the story as a whole through the “listening.”

Maybe next up is the writing of the story itself …

It’s possible only I can “read” this story this way because I composed the music and that no one else can envision it. That’s OK, too. But all the tracks are up in Bandcamp, free for download or for listening, and if you are interested, I invite you to wander over. You could even write the story, too.

Listen to NoiseVember: Each Path A Story

Peace (what the story sounds like),
Kevin

Book Review: My Life As A Gamer

My sons really loved this My Life As A … (Book, Cartoonist, Ninja, etc.) series by Janet and Jake Tashjian when they came out, but I sort of ignored them as yet another knock off of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series. Finally, I had a student recommend the series to me, and who am I to ignore a suggestion by a student?

I chose My Life As A Gamer, which I believe is the fifth book in the series of nine books (so far), and I have to say, I really enjoyed the story and the cartoon artwork that went along in the margins of the story. (I believe Janet writes the stories and Jake, her son, illustrates them). The story of Derek Fallon and his friends enlisted to test out a new video game really struck a chord with me as I begin to bring my sixth graders into our own video game design unit.

There are adolescent escapades and funny moments, but also some deeper looks at family (dad is out of a job, etc.) and Derek’s own struggles with a reading disability — the cartoons in the margins of the book are representative of the ways that Derek learns by doodling vocabulary words — and the sketch-noting-vocabulary aspect of the book’s illustrations caught my attention, for sure, as I often have my students do the same.

This story also gives some insight into the development of a video game, as Derek and his friends spend weekends at a video game design company, play-testing an upcoming game — Arctic Ninja — and elements of storyboarding and narrative design and intuitive design are all woven into the story.

Looking at the next few books in the series, I see the next two have interesting themes as well: My Life As a YouTuber and My Life As a Meme. My interest is piqued!

Peace (doodled),
Kevin

John Reminds Us: Sometimes, Old School is Still Cool

John Spencer often shares interesting videos and resources and insights about innovative practice, and he often reminds us that advanced technology and the newest gadgets aren’t alway what’s needed. Here, he reminds us that “vintage” works, too. and might have more and different value than online or technology-based activities.

He also lists a bunch of possibilities, from duct tape and cardboard to hacking board games to sketchnoting on paper  (and it appears this whole concept will form elements of an upcoming book on the topic).

Peace (reminding us of its reach),

Kevin

Further Defining Digital Literacies: Creators and Curators, Not Just Consumers

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE createI’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

This section of the definition seems key to me — how to help students not only understand what they are consuming in the digital landscapes but how to gather meaning through curation of content and how to create, too.

I am just about to enter our Game Design Unit after Thanksgiving break, and the whole reason I even ever thought about teaching video game design as a literacy practice is because of concerns about my sixth graders spending so much time immersed in something someone else built, I wanted them to build something, too. By having them design and engineer and publish video game projects, I hope they uncover the process of the profession, and think more deeply about their own game experiences.

Curation is the lost sibling in all this, and even as I work hard on my own — as a learner — to use folders and bookmarking and tags to keep as much of my content together, to gather it for curation — to make sense of what I have been doing in digital spaces with digital writing (this blog is my most reliable curation space, I would say, but not the only one).

Even something simple, such as folder awareness for students who use Google Drive. In a meeting of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project yesterday, we were brainstorming ways that the technology team can support teachers, and this idea of explicitly teaching the construction and curating of folders, with project files and other materials, to students came up, and it is one of those things that many of may take for granted — we do it, without thinking, making folders for our files — and many students have no awareness of how to do it, or why.

Now, the definition by NCTE goes way beyond that folder architecture, in interesting directions — here are three of the more intriguing guiding questions in each of the three categories of Consume, Curate and Create that had me thinking a bit more deeply:

  • Do learners review a variety of sources to evaluate information as they consider bias and perspective in sources? (Consume)
  • Do learners collect, aggregate, and share content to develop their voice/identity/expertise on a topic? (Curate)
  • Do learners evaluate multimedia sources for the effects of visuals, sounds, hyperlinks, and other features on the text’s meaning or emotional impact? (Create)

Peace (make it so),
Kevin

Slice of Life: A Moment Too Late To Forget

(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.)

It was only as I was watching it on the screen that I suddenly remember why we watched only PART of this video last year. At the reference to Whale penises, I was up and at the computer.

Let me explain …

We are working on a lesson around Fake News, and hoaxes, and one of the earliest hoaxes that used the aspect of global news to its advantage was the Nantucket Island Serpent Hoax of 1937, in which a local puppeteer maker teamed up with the local newspaper to report on sightings of a serpent off the coast of the island. It was a publicity stunt for tourism, but the newspaper’s role and its connection to wire services made the story go viral.

That part of the video is fine. Interesting. Nicely paced. Funny, at the right moment of the reveal.

Then the video shifts into a wider discussion of other fictional serpents, in places like Loch Ness and Lake Champlain, etc. Still, fine, and the kids are tuned in. They are curious.

Suddenly, the video takes a shift into explaining what people might have seen and thought were mythical creatures. Thus, not only a reference to the, um, whale’s large body part, but also a flash of pictures to, well, prove the video’s point about said whale body part. By then, I was at the computer, moving things along to the next slide in my presentation in front of a now rather-silent classroom of sixth graders.

Funny, but not one of them asked me about it, although I heard some surprised mutterings at the video references, and they didn’t blink an eye as I kept the lesson rolling.

Me? I was all professional on the outside, just moving things along, folks, just moving things along. Nothing to see here. Inside, though, I was kicking myself for not taking the time to watch the whole video in the morning. I had relied on my using the video last year for using it this year … but I didn’t leave a note for myself from last year. (Self, leave a note for yourself … Self, just did that … thank you … you’re welcome … now, remember … Ok).

Note: feel free to watch the video yourself

Peace (some days),
Kevin