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Friday
Aug292008

Little Brother and Creepy Treehouses

With the passage of the Patriot Act of 2009, all electronic communication devices used in schools will have a Mind Police chip that automatically sends logs to the school’s office of testing and assessment, the vice-principal’s office, and the Department of Homeland Security for data-mining. Of course, all students have discovered how to disable the chips. Turning the Page (E-books and their impact on libraries) School Library Journal, November 2004.

On Tom Hoffman's recommendation. I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's intriguing book Little Brother (free dowload here).  Authored by a former director for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the book is a cautionary/action/YA novel about a young San Franciso hacker pursued by the Department of Homeland Security after the Bay Bridge suffers a 9/11-type attack. Caught in their sweep, detained and humiliated by their officers, and concerned for a friend who was not released from "Gitmo-by-the-Bay," Marcus uses his hacking and gaming skills to foil the heavy-booted authoritarianism that descends on his city.

I really enjoyed Doctorow's Department of Homeland Security villains. No monstrous Ian Fleming psychos here, but the post-graduation "good" sorority and fraternity Buffys and Kips from Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. These are the same Young Repblicans sent to rebuild Iraq and run the Department of Justice. Clean-cut patriots who Doctorow has very believably waterboarding Americans, patriotically and without remorse. Very scary indeed.

I also was fascinated by rhe technology Marcus's near-future school uses. His heavily monitored school laptop well fits into the category of a "creepy treehouse" technology - a term I've just recently stumbled across. (Sorry, I forget where.) One of the term's definitions is:

n. Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it’s closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution.

Marcus, of course, simply boots his machine with a monitor-free OS from a flash-drive to avoid unauthorized use detection. He avoids the "gait-recognition" software of his school's video monitors by putting pebbles in his shoes. He and his friends create their own network using GameBoy-like devices running an OS called ParanoidLinux and using unsecured wireless networks around the city. I suspect it will be the adult readers, not teens, that will be amazed by any of these "hacks."

There is no political subtlety about this book. It's an outright condemnation of the fear tactics used by current politicians. Doctorow effectively argues that the terrorists win when we lose our personal Constitutional freedoms. It makes a great companion novel to Anderson's YA novel Feed. In Feed, the teens are controlled by their digital networks; in Little Brother, the teens use the network to fight against control.

And it's fun and fast-paced. Buy it (or download it) for your YA fiction readers. And maybe slip it to any security obsessed tech directors you know.

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I found it interesting that while Little Brother is a Creative Commons download in a host of e-book formats, Amazon does not sell the book for its Kindle. I wonder if that was the author's or Amazon's decision?


Wednesday
Aug272008

Don't underestimate the importance of the aggregator

The first things I do each time I turn on my computer (and several times during the day) are to open my email and then GoogleReader in my web browser. Increasingly, I'm opening GoogleReader first.

After reading posts by Miguel and Paul and reflecting on an inservice I did for Houston schools last week on Personal Learning Networks, I've had the epiphany that I've been neglecting the true unsung hero of Web 2.0 - the RSS feed aggregators. Either GoogleReader or Bloglines has become such a routine part of my online experience that I forget it is still an unused resource for a majority of educators. And one, if not mastered, will make it likely other Web 2.0 resources may well go unused.

First, Common Craft has two great introductions to aggregators: RSS in Plain English and the  just released, Google Reader in Plain English. I also have a short guide, "The top 10 things you should know about RSS feed aggregators" here. Those are the basics.

Blog reading was the first, and probably is still the most important, use of an RSS aggregator for most teachers. Given most educators' time constraints, finding updated information from lots of blogs in a single fast and convenient location is essential if blogs are to actually be used as a PLN resource on a regular basis. 'Nuff said.

It is only slowly that I am using GoogleReader (my aggregator of choice) to stay current on other information sources - to have the news find me instead of having to find the news. Yes, I am a slow learner. These are more recent additions:

  • Mainstream media columnists. Whenever NYT's writers Paul Krugman, Maurreen Dowd, David Brooks, or Tom Friedman publish new columns, I now get them immediately. I am sure other columnists are available as well, but these are the ones I've sought out.
  • delicious subscriptions. Whenever new bookmarks are added on selected tags, they appear in my aggregator. Cool.
  • GoogleNews searches. (thanks to David Warlick for this suggestion). Articles on e-books, cyberbullying, and school libraries appear almost daily in my reader, most published in the mainstream press.
  • "Reputation monitoring." I've added Technorati and delicious searches for "Doug Johnson" just to see which of my writings and blog posts are being bookmarked and commented upon. I know I must surprise some bloggers by saying "thanks for the mention" now and then in their own blogs. I also built a Google News search feed for "Mankato Area Public Schools." I need to do this yet in Technorati.
And I feel I am just scratching the surface here. What are some cool uses to which YOU have put your feed reader that other educators can use?

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Answer to a follow-up question:

Forgive me for asking, but I looked at the help,etc.  and I  couldn't figure it out.  I have a Google Reader account, and I wanted  to try one of the things you talked about in your blog--setting it up to get  Google news articles about certain topics.  I know I can subscribe to  Google News, but I understood from your post that you could set it up to  retrieve only articles on topics you were interested in.  I want to  show the debate team how to do this on their debate topics, but I wanted to  try it out myself for a couple of days first.  Can you give me some  instruction, please?

Sure....

  1. Go to GoogleNews and do  the search on your term. 
  2. When the results come  back, look in the left column of the screen. You will find links to RSS and  Atom. 
  3. Click on either (I use  RSS), and a page will appear with a URL link that ends in “=rss” or “=atom”  
  4. Copy and paste that link  into your GoogleReader “Add subscription” box.  
  5. Manage the subscription like you would one to a blog.
Sunday
Aug242008

Baby generator