Hackers, revisited

In the recent Wired Magazine article, writer Steven Levy has an interesting revisit to a book that I once just loved, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which sought to document and profile those folks who sought to revolutionize the personal computer, mostly with the ideals that technology could eventually be put into the hands of many. In Wired, Levy tries to reconnect with some of the people he profiled in his book, including Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates.

It should be noted that Levy’s use of the word Hackers does not donate someone seeking to crack into a computer or software for malicious intent; Instead, a Hacker defined by Levy is someone who understands the underlying structure of a computer or network, and seeks to improve it or re-imagine it through skills and imagination.

What is striking is how Levy also shows how many of the ideals of that earlier generation have splintered into a couple of directions. Gates urged early on that his work be compensated (which caused an uproar in the technology community at the time) so that he could use the money to hire more engineers and make better products. Others, such as Lee Felsenstein, still held the line that technology should be adapted and used by as many people, and with as few hurdles as possible, which comes into conflict with the for-profit model.

For me, I was never nor will I ever be a Hacker, per se. I don’t have those skills. But when I was creating my webcomic, Boolean Squared, I used some of the ideas behind Levy’s profiles to inform the motivation and personalities of my two central characters — Boolean and Urth. These kids love to dive into the computer and make it work for them, not the other way around, and they are not afraid to yank the cover off anything. I wanted that adventuresome spirit from the beginning days of computer programming to come through with my characters.

Today, Levy notes, we have the continued development of the Open Source Movement — as shown by such companies as Mozilla and the various Linux offshoots — along with ad-driven companies such as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Levy suggest that Zuckerman and his kin are the indirect offspring of those early days of hacking, although Zuckerman notes that he is less interested in the underlying “code” than the overall use of technology to connect people together as a social fabric. And my guess it that more than a few of the original hackers would be mortified by that association.

Check out the article on Wired.

Peace (in the wired world),

Writing Graphic Novels: Podcast with Barbara Slate

I recently had the opportunity to interview author Barbara Slate, who has written and illustrated many comics and graphic novels and just put out a fantastic new book for teaching graphic novels from the view of writing them. The book is called, appropriately enough, You Can Do a Graphic Novel. I did a review of the book over at The Graphic Classroom but I wanted to follow up with an interview (plus, I wanted to see if I could record an interview on Skype — some mixed results but mostly, it is fine).
The interview is in two sections.
In the first, Barbara talks about how she got into comics, some gender elements of the business, why she wrote her recent book and other interesting tidbits. In the second part, I asked her specifically about how to help teachers who want to bring graphic novels into the classroom as a writing activity, but don’t quite know how to begin.

Peace (in the learning),

Powerless: A Prezi of Reading Responses

Most of my students are embarking on a month-long independent reading project where they get to choose their own books, do a project at the end (I made Glogster one of the options and I bet a lot of kids are going to use that …. mark my words) and answer some basic questions about theme, character development, plot, etc.

They also have to keep a reading journal and I am really pushing them away from summarizing the text, which they all seem to want to do even though I say, “I have probably read most of your books and I don’t need to know what happens in the story. I want to know what you think about what is happening.”

To help them, I do provide a list of possible entry ideas to help spark their writing, including connecting their lives to the story in the book, pulling out quotes or passages and reflecting on them, and asking questions about where the story is headed. But I know a lot of them will struggle with these critical thinking prompts, so yesterday, I modeled some responses based on the book I am reading in class (I read while they read) that was recommended by my friend, Tony. The book is Powerless by Mathew Cody.

I put my sample responses into a Prezi and walked my students through my thinking process, and I already saw some positive results in quality of responses. It reminds me of how important it is for me to share my own thinking and reflecting, and make that process as visible as possible.

Peace (in the prezi),
PS — here is an interview with the author of the book:

Books, Boys and the Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth

I am a bit jealous because tomorrow night, the Mother-Son book group that my wife and middle son are part of are going to be discussing The Phantom Tollbooth …. with author Norton Juster, who wrote this classic book and who works as an architect in a nearby town. One of the moms is a former journalist and she picked up the phone on a whim, called Juster up and asked if he might be willing to sit down with a bunch of boys to talk about his character, Milo, and the strange journey he goes on.

Juster said yes, and so, tomorrow night, they are meeting at a local restaurant. Pretty neat. I can’t make it because of other family events, but I sure wish I could be there, too.

I loved Tollbooth as a kid, and I use it in the classroom as read-aloud in some sections when talking about idioms and other figurative language techniques. The inventiveness of the language as it weaves around the story remains interesting, I think.  I am always surprised that very few kids even know of the book anymore, and I hope my reading of it in class sparks some interest. I know the book used to be a regular part of a fourth-grade curriculum, but not anymore.

Remember the movie version created by Chuck Jones? It used to be available at YouTube, but not anymore. It may have run into copyright problems. Someone did post it on Vimeo, so you can find it there, if you want.

A sample from the script:

Officer Short Shrift: Now then, would you like a short sentence or a long sentence?
Milo: Well, I suppose a short one, if I have a choice.
Officer Short Shrift: How about “I am”? It’s the shortest sentence I know.
[Writes “I AM” on his pad and hands it to Milo]
Milo: It’s very kind of you to give me… such a short sentence.
Officer Short Shrift: And when do you think you can go to prison and start serving it?
Milo: Serving it? I guess I can’t, not until I get back from Dictionopolis and the Castle in the Air.
Officer Short Shrift: The what in the what?
Milo: Why, the Castle in the Air.
Officer Short Shrift: Boys are guilty of everything! Guilty, guilty, guilty…

Peace (in the tollbooth),

Anna Quindlen: The Lamp of Self

In the recent edition of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen sounds off about where the world of books and reading may be heading, particularly in light of the oncoming bus known as the iPad (which writer Daniel Lyons writes about in an interesting way in the same magazine, pointing out the benefits and dangers of Steve Jobs/Apple’s closed systems).

Quindlen notes that there “is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction.” Books in book form are still everywhere, and most of us are still in the transition from paper and digital form, and that transition may be around for quite some time.

I am a digital guy, for sure, but I have not yet made my way to the Kindle, Nook or iPad or any other (although I have read books on my iTouch and on my XO computer, just to see what it was like).  I am still attached to the  physical substance of the book, even though, I understand the interesting aspects of eReaders and am fascinated by the possibilities of multi-layered composition.

I liked this point made by Quindlen, too:

“Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self: that’s why it survives.”

I imagine that this holds true, whatever the “container” the book comes in.

Peace (in the digital world),

How to make a movie? Ask Amelia.

I stumbled into this neat picture book in our local library and finally got around to reading it yesterday with my youngest son. Amelia Makes a Movie by David Milgrim is a whimsical look at making a home movie from the viewpoint of two creative kids, and supportive parents in the background.

I love how Milgrim captures the essence of how to really make a movie — Amelia and her little brother plan out the story, build a set, shoot the video on the camcorder, re-imagine and re-shoot the movie when a better idea comes along (thanks to the little brother), and then after some editing, the kids showcase the movie before friends and family, just like a Hollywood premiere.

In a playful way, Amelia shows the reader how they, too, can make a movie themselves. It reminds me of a conversation that I had yesterday with someone who is writing a movie script in hopes of eventually shopping it around, and we were wondering what movies will be like in 10 years or so when this current crop of young video producers make their way into Hollywood. Just think of how young kids are with all the tools at their disposal for creating visual compositions.

I am going to try to add this book as resource over at my Making Stopmotion Movie site.

Peace (in the shoot),

Regarding “Regarding the Fountain”

Regarding the Fountain, by Kate Klise

Sometimes, you just stumble upon a gem and that was the case this week with the book written by Kate Klise and i llustrated by M. Sarah Klise called Regarding the Fountain. I found it on a shelf in our library, thinking it might be right for one of my students, but during some quiet reading times in class, I opened it up and was hooked.

The subhead gives you a clue as to what is in store: “A Tale in Letters, of Liars and Leaks.” Yes, the book is full of puns, so be warned.

The book tells the story of a town where the main river dried up thirty years prior when a new school was constructed. In the current time, the school water fountain has gone kaput and the principal wants to hire someone to design and install a new water fountain. He gets more than he bargains for when he contacts Florence Waters, who has a spirit and vision all of her own, and she enlists a fifth grade class to help her. Meanwhile, the kids uncover a mystery about what happened to the river.

And the entire novel is told entirely through letters, memos and notes.

I loved how Klise makes you read between so many lines (just when you think the teacher is proposing marriage to Waters, you learn this is not the case at all, and that makes you chuckle at your own assumptions), and infer what is happening that has not been written. She injects so much humor, too (the communications between Waters the designer and the principal are priceless). And she empowers the kids at the school, who write an opera, dress up in elaborate costumes and play with the two pet monkeys she has sent them from Africa. There’s more, but you get the point.

This small book (check out part of it at Google Books) is a great example of non-traditional text and as we think about ways to use digital media to tell stories — through hyperlinks, videos, audio tracks, etc. — it is useful to be reminded that words in a linear sentence is not the only way to tell a story and engage a reader.

It reminds me of a story I once wrote that was told exclusively through the concept of canceled checks. You leave out as much as you put in, hoping that the reader can fill in the gaps of the story.

I see that Klise also has other books like this one out, including Regarding the Trees: A Splintered Saga Rooted in Secrets and Regarding the Bathrooms: a Privy to the Past.

Don’t you just love coming across a new book series or author? That makes my day. I might need to create a glog about this book for my students.

Peace (in the fountain),

The alternative history of “Leviathan”

We still read aloud to all of our sons, even the sometimes-grumpy sixth grader will sit next to us for extended periods of time to listen to a book. He reads a lot on his own, too, but this tradition of read-aloud has been part of our family since he was little. It gets trickier to find the time and the right book, however, but we keep going.

Two weeks ago, we started to read Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, bestselling author of Uglies. The book is a retelling of history prior to World War I, with some significant changes in the world. For one, Europe is home to two main powers who have begun to harness technology for advancement. The Darwinists tinker with animals to create super-creatures, such as living sky creatures, while the Clankers create powerful machines to rule the world.

We’re not yet far into the story, but you can see things set in motion already — with the main character, Prince Aleksander, on the run after his father — Archduke Ferdinand — has been killed.

The world created by Westerfield is pretty amazing and the pace of the story is brisk. It’s a perfect read-aloud for a 12 year old and I like that the other main character in the story is a girl (pretending to be a boy so she can fly the skies).

I tried to explain to my son that this is a variation of steampunk fiction (he looked at me strange when I said that) in which writers envision a world where technology took root earlier than it did, and the world became a vastly different place as a result.

Peace (on the pages),

Books, on the cheap


While I would always advocate that you find ways to support your local independent book sellers, it’s hard to pass up an offer like this one from Barnes & Noble. This week, the book chain is offering pretty steep discounts on its books for teachers and it’s worth a visit. Plus, I have a few gift cards hanging around and a few books on my wish list, including:

What books are on your wish list?

Peace (in the pages),