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

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

Graphic Novel Review: Stargazing

Stargazing by Jen Wang is a lovely exploration of friendship and adolescent, of creative spirit and illness. Told with heartfelt humor and a tender touch, the graphic novel centers on Christine, and her new neighbor, Moon, as they forge a friendship.

Moon, in particular, is a complicated character, from a struggling Buddhist family (and Christine’s family is Chinese). Moon is never a follower, always unique and strong in her opinions, and her spirit of looking at everything from an angle shines throughout the story — including her tales to Christine about being certain she is a celestial being from the stars. All this by Wang draws us in, and then surprises us when Moon acts with unpredictable rage against another student at school.

Even Christine does not know what to think.

But it turns out, there is more to the story of Moon, and health issues have shaped the good (creative) and bad (anger) of her emerging personality. The second half of the graphic novel is about the two friends grappling with Moon’s diagnosis.

I want to note that the artwork here by Wang is perfectly attuned to the story of Moon and Christine, with the color shadings and hues contributing to the enjoyment of the story. This book would be good for upper elementary and middle school students.

Peace (in contradictions),
Kevin

Book Review: Because Internet (Understanding the New Rules of Language)

Sometimes, when you come across a linguist — even if you love words and language — the insider-speech gets a little too much to bear. Not so with Gretchen McCulloch, whose book Because Internet (Understanding the New Rules of Language) is infused with focused curiosity, a sense of fun and academic research. Yes, it’s possible.

And what she is looking at is our fascinating times of what seems to be our ever expanding elastic language — where the immersive and social qualities of technology seem to be altering the ways in which we write and speak and communicate in different ways. As teachers, many of us know this just by listening and reading our students.

McCulloch notes a few times in her book that her examination here is merely a snapshot of the present, not a prediction of where language is going.

To the people who make internet language. You are the territory, this is merely a map. — from the dedication page, by Gretchen McCulloch

Still, it’s a fascinating dip into rippling waters.

What interested me the most was her look at the explosion of informal writing — particularly as she notes how social media and technology connections is tearing down the rules of formal writing, for informal communications (while formal rules still apply for formal writing) — and what she calls “typographical tone of voice” — a term that I love for its poetry.

In this section, McCulloch explores the expanded use of punctuation for meaning making, the use of font styles (no caps/all caps, etc), repeating letters for emotive resonance, abbreviations to connote kindness, the echoes of coding into our writing, the use of space between words and passages, and ways we project emotions and feeling into our writing when confronted with limited means.

I mean, wow. That’s a lot of intriguing lens on writing, and McCulloch navigates them all with a personable voice, a linguist’s ear for language, and a sense of both celebration and skepticism about what might or might not be happening with our language.

Later, she also explores memes and emoticons, and the way visual language is complementing written language, often in complementary and complicated ways. This book covers a lot of ground, but McCulloch is an able tour guide, pointing out the funny quirks as well as the emerging patterns.

Peace (written out),
Kevin

Book Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid 14 (Wrecking Ball)

I asked my high school freshman son if he wanted to read the latest edition in The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I was surprised, to be frank, when he said yes, thinking he had might have grown out of hte series. I joked that he could probably read it in 20 minutes. I think he did. I did, too.

Why was I surprised in my son’s remaining interest? The series is now going on 14 years — nearly as long as he has been alive — and any series of stories that lasts that long eventually loses its luster. In my sixth grade classroom, as an indicator, only one student this year pre-ordered the Jeff Kinney book. At one time, there were a dozen or more kids eagerly awaiting the arrival of the books, peppering me with questions about when they would get it in their hands.

I read somewhere that Kinney first presented a huge, massive book for publication, only to be told to break it into smaller stories which have become the backbone of the entire series, and it amazes me that he had this all planned out, and each year, in November, another Wimpy Kid book comes out, like clockwork.

And I still read them, too.

This latest — Wrecking Ball — is solid and reliable Kinney. Sort of light on plot (Greg Heffley’s family is doing some home renovations, which lead to predictable disastrous moments) but full of funny scenes and interactions, and lots of visual jokes in the illustrations. Twenty minutes in and I was done, a smile on my face but nothing too much deeper than that.

I was fine. Not every book I read needs to be some deep spelunking of self or the world. Sometimes, what we need is something to make us laugh, to giggle, to connect to a familiar character.

Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series does all that, and the series, even as it might be fading, sparked a revolution of comics becoming more integrated into novels, which in turn brought a whole new generation of readers (including the key demographic: boys) into the world of books. If Kinney does nothing else, he’s done that.

Until next November …

Peace (drawn and read),
Kevin

Book Review: Eating the Sun (Small Musings on a Vast Universe)

Oh, this is a lovely little book, full of small essays/musings on science and wonder, often complimented with beautiful drawings. Yes, Eating the Sun (Small Musings on a Vast Universe) by Ella Frances Sanders covers some ground, and some familiar ground, but in such a quiet and poetic way that you are drawn in.

The small essays are often no longer than a page and half, maybe two, but the way she weaves in science — about stars, about electrons, about plants and trees, about human biology, and on and on — with her own poetic observations is just a lovely reading experience.

I took this small book outside, on a beautiful end-of-summer day, and just sat with it for quite a long stretch of time, pausing now and then to think on what she was observing, and then moving forward again into the book. It’s that kind of experience. It feels light, thanks to her writing style and voice, but it’s deep when you pause.

Peace (beyond science),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Fever Year (The Killer Flu of 1918)

Last summer, as part of our summer camp at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, we were exploring themes of immigration, and its impact on our region of Western Massachusetts.

We invited a historic re-enactor to come for an afternoon (we’ve had her as a guest before and she is great) to give a presentation about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, as immigrants were often blamed for the transmission of the virus into the United States (even though all evidence supports that US soldiers in World War I brought the flu to Europe and beyond).

It was an immersive presentation (see my post about the day at camp), with things to smell, things to touch, maps to read and the story of the world grappling with a pandemic that killed millions and forever effected many communities around the world. It was that bad.

Armory Camp: Scent of History

So when I read about Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown, I saw the connection and took it out of the library. The book is wonderful, and difficult to take in — the scale of the tragedy is difficult to wrap one’s head around, particularly as the medical world not only didn’t know what was causing people to die and get sick, but also, that the world was not ready for the scale of death and sickness. This was both because the war was still raging and also because the medical field had not advanced enough to make sense of what was happening.

Brown effectively uses the graphic novel approach to tell the story of the Flu, but also of the people battling it — with nurses coming out as the main heroes of the tale. The nurses — and those who were quickly recruited to come nurses, as the war had drawn many from hospitals and clinics — went into communities, worked long hours and longer days, took care of the elderly and the very sick, sacrificed their own lives to support others.

Fever Dream has its lens wide – the world — and narrow — neighborhoods, and in doing so, Brown has successfully captured the scope of a pandemic, and reminded us that we always need to be on the lookout for the next one.

This book might be a little too intense for elementary students, and maybe even some middle school students. But high school students might use it for connection to understanding the modern global, connected world — both as a good thing (share ideas) and a dangerous thing (share disease).

Peace (and health),
Kevin

#WriteOut Book Review: The Lost Words (A Spell Book)

Here’s a book about paying attention. The authors noted that an edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed about 40 words related to nature. Words like Fern, Kingfisher, Wren and Bluebell. This book —The Lost Words: A Spell Book — is a response, and what a response it is.

The Lost Words is one of the more beautiful books I have discovered in some time — it is oversized, requiring two hands to hold it, and it has gorgeous artwork and some amazing poems all connected, page by page, to the words that were decided to be taken out by the dictionary folks.

Each page here is a treasure, and a reminder that our words help us to understand our world. When we lose our words, we start to lose a sense of the spirit of nature. Writer Robert MacFarlane and Illustrator Jackie Morris seek to recover and rediscover those ideas, and give rise to seeing the world through fresh eyes, with poems (which they call spells) and pictures.

I’ll share two online resources connected to the book, which is sponsored in part by the John Muir Trust. First, there is a Lost Words Explorer Guide, which is loaded with learning activities, and then there is a more generalized guide to connecting nature to writing.

This book would be perfect for any elementary classroom and yet, has enough detail and passion to find a place in a middle school classroom, as well.

Peace (found),
Kevin

 

#WriteOut: Making Connections to ‘The Wartime Sisters’

NOTE: For a writing marathon/party this afternoon, to celebrate Write Out and the National Day on Writing, we’ll be using excerpts from this historical fiction novel to inspire writing of participants. — Kevin

Reading The Wartime Sisters as someone who has been doing educational consulting work for the Springfield Armory National Historic Site for the past three years makes for an interesting web of connections to place and story.

Novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman, who grew up here in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, notes in her Author Notes that, like many of us who live here (including me), the Springfield Armory is often a forgotten part of our region’s history.

It has only been through many visits and by running summer camps for Springfield students and facilitating professional development for teachers through a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory that I have come to more deeply appreciate the impact the Armory had had on this region, and also, on the country itself. Today, it is a museum. In its heyday, it was a manufacturing and innovative hub, one of two national armories (the other is in Harper’s Ferry).

The Wartime Sisters story is centered around two sisters whose complicated relationship and lives, and tragedies, revolve around the Springfield Armory in the time of World War II, when the Armory facilities were in highest gear with thousands of employees and a mandate by the government to produce more and more weapons. It’s also when women and immigrants flocked to the area for work, and for patriotic ideals, as a way to help the soldiers fighting overseas.

I’ve toured many of the old Armory buildings where the action takes place — including the Armory Commander’s house, now vacant and needing repair but still, with vestiges of the position the owners once held. I’ve walked through some of the manufacturing buildings, although many are now part of a community college. I’ve seen photographs of the gardens, the water fountains, even the swimming pool. We’ve taken students to the high elevation grassy overlook, the one that looks out over Springfield, where a huge and important concert takes place in the book. Armory Curator Alex MacKenzie, who helped Loigman with her research and spent time with her, has done presentations with our student and teacher programs.

And we’ve done whole units with students and teachers on the role of women in the Armory, and the way the war transformed society through work at the facility, bringing change to the communities even after the men returned home to reclaim their jobs. Like Loigman, I have listened to the oral history recordings of some of those women, and felt moved by their narratives. Also like Loigman, we have used the Armory’s own newsletter archives to tell the stories of the people, of where they came from, and how they lived their lives with the Armory at its center.

I would have enjoyed this book on its own merits, as a character study of two sisters and a community of women at a certain historical period of time. But the grounding of the Springfield Armory as the setting of the book, as a site with deep roots, made the reading of the book even more enriching for me. Loigman surfaces the stories of the people, using history as the door to show compassion and intrigue.

For a lover of books and of local history, what more can one ask?

Wartime Sisters passages

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

An interview with Loigman:

#WriteOut Picture Book Review: If I Were a Park Ranger by Catherine Stier

Kevin’s NOTE: Author Catherine Stier, who wrote this picture book, is going to be a featured guest on the Write Out video chat on Tuesday night, Oct. 15,  from 7-8 p.m. EST. More information about the chat and how you can join us in Zoom, if you want, is available at the Write Out website (look under Scheduled Events category).

I’ve had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time in the past few years with National Park Service rangers through collaborative projects (including running youth summer camps at the Springfield Armory Historic Site) and let me tell you, they are some of the nicest, most curious, adventuresome folks I have mingled with.

One of my ranger friends from Connecticut’s Weir Farm National Historic Site recommended If I Were a Park Ranger by Catherine Stier for our work with the Write Out Project (which launched yesterday, and runs in conjunction with the National Day on Writing next Sunday), and I really appreciated this picture book, and I find it a perfect fit for most elementary classrooms.

Stier captures the work of those folks who greet visitors and who sustain the National Park system, itself a wonder of both open spaces and urban history. In this picture book, readers learn about the many ways one might come to work for the National Park Service, and what a typical day might be if you were a ranger. With lively and inviting artwork from Patrick Corrigan, If I Were a Park Ranger will inform, educate and invite you to explore the many spaces around you (and not just park service spaces, either, but city blocks and suburban fields and woods).

The picture book aptly represents all of the many facets of historical artifacts connected to spaces, ecological and environmental awareness, public ownership of public lands, and the ways in which visitors and those working for the National Park Service are partners in preservation of lands and stories.

These topics, and more, are all central to the Write Out project now underway this October, connecting writing and history to place-based learning and connected opportunities for students and teachers. Learn more about Write Out (it’s free!) and sign up for information and news about the project at the website.

Peace (exploring it),
Kevin