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Sunday
Oct022005

Stray Sunday Thoughts

Every once in a while you time your weekends right. Yesterday was a glorious fall day, and I spent it cleaning the house, doing laundry, mowing the lawn (Hey, grass, it’s fall already, stop growing!), and finishing two books from the comfort of the porch. Today, cool and cloudy, is get down to business day – writing a “serious” paper for an upcoming conference in Singapore, sharpening my presentations for the AASL conference in Pittsburg, and continuing to edit the program for the MEMO conference. Weekends, you got to love them.

Weekend blogging should be free from the normal restraints of professionalism. So just a few random thoughts…

1. You have to love the power of satire. If you’ve not seen the Pastafarian website, take a look. The creator of the site is asking that schools give equal time in their science curriculum to his church’s belief that the world was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster and that global warming can be directly correlated to the decline in the number of pirates (graph included). A worthy descendant to Swift and his A Modest Proposal.
noodledoodlewall.jpg

2. Another very funny, very irreverent satirist is Bill Maher, and I just finished his book New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer. I would caution that most of his thoughts are not terribly polite, and if you have a particular fondness for the Catholic Church, George Bush or mass media celebrities, you will not care for much of what he opines. But for the rest of us, he’s just about as funny as it gets. Oh, I’d probably not buy this for my school library.

3. As a guy gets older, he spends more time reflecting on what he has and hasn’t done with his life. The number of condom dispensers one finds in gas station men’s rooms has increasingly upset me. I see these machines and wonder why I’ve never had the sort of love life that’s required a fast lurch to SuperAmerica and a desperate fumble for quarters. Sometimes it just seems that everyone in the world must be leading a much more spontaneous life that you are.

4. I am now about 40 pages into Ray Kurzweil’s latest book The Singularity is Near, an optimistic tome about the time humanity and machinery evolve into a single piece of work – supposedly just after technology gets smart enough to start inventing itself. I’m sorry, Ray, this stuff still scares me silly. I keep thinking of the evil Core from Dan Simmon’s Hyperion/Endymion series. Compassion from a computer program seems about as likely as compassion from… well, there is no need to get political here.

5. My cousin Dave was once found in the attic eating mothballs. After having his stomach pumped, his mom asked him why he ate them since they couldn’t have tasted very good. His reply, “I thought they were marshmallows and I’d get to a good one sooner or later.” I think about Cousin Dave’s philosophy now and again when I’ve spent too much time waiting for a book or movie “to get good.” Life’s too short to wait for anything to “get good.”

That’s it. Off to write about “The Knowledge Worker Redux” – whatever that means. Happy weekend.

Saturday
Oct012005

The $100 Laptop and the Mouse Army

If you follow technology news at all, you are probably aware that Nicolas Negroponte went very public with M.I.T.’s $100 laptop project at last week’s Emerging Technologies Conference.

This remarkable device is wireless, uses static memory, can be cranked to provide power, is built for durability and will run open-source software. Just what I’ve been clamoring for (and predicting – see Turning the Page: E-books and their impact on libraries, School Library Journal, November 2004).

Yeah, I’d be delighted if I could provide such contraptions to all my Mankato students. But we are not the target market for them. Negroponte wants to offer them (by the millions) to students in developing countries - Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand are supposedly already on board.

With this announcement, Neal Stephenson’s science fiction book The Diamond Age is proving once again eerily prescient. (I just love it when science fiction does that!) Set in a future Hong Kong, Stephenson’s world is Neo-Victorian, thoroughly stratified by class. It has also mastered nanotechnologies and an amazing “e-book” A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer has been compiled for the daughter of a very rich industrialist. A copy of the book falls into the hands of an Oliver-Twistian young woman, who uses its educational powers to survive a terrifying childhood.

What I had forgotten until re-reading the book recently was that lots of copies of the Primer were made and given to a group of the most dispossessed members of Diamond Age society – unwanted Chinese girls, abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage. Using the power of this e-book, they too are able to learn and become a political and physical force – The Mouse Army.

It’s my sense that Negroponte with his $100 laptop project has the same goal – to create great Mouse Armies of the world’s disposed, disrupting the political structures in which the few, rich and powerful rule over the many, poor and powerless. If that is his aim, I’m all for it.

While I have grown terribly cynical about the ability of politics, religion or science to solve major world problems, I still believe in the power of education to end poverty, violence, and depredation of natural resources. I still hold Horatio Alger’s advice close – that through the dint of hard work, good moral character, and perseverance, anyone can lift him/herself out of poverty. But I would have to add “through on-going education” to Alger’s success formula. I see little hope for this world except in creating a better-educated population.

Mr. Negroponte, I hope you create many, many Mouse Armies.

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1 Comment »
I feel compelled to incite the Mouse Armies. I could see some wonderful blogs going with this. I have been following with great interest this $100 laptop phenom. Whenever I demonstrate a cool website, I give my 3rd and 4th graders nifty business card sized papers and remind them that they can go to the public library and look up this FOR FREE! Many of my students from non-English backgrounds are introducing their parents to “cool sites” based on these tiny cards. Unobtrusive, looks like everybody elses and useful. Sounds like a winner.

Comment by Diane Chen — October 1, 2005 @ 2:42 pm

Thursday
Sep292005

Turtles, Turtles, Turtles, All the Way Down


Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time tells the story of a cosmologist whose speech is interrupted by a little old lady who informs him that the universe rests on the back of a turtle. Ah, yes, madame, the scientist replies, but what does the turtle rest on? The old lady shoots back: You can’t trick me, young man. It’s nothing but turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way down. - George Will

When I was teaching in the ARAMCO schools in Saudi, I was told the story about a plane crash in the early days of oil exploration. On learning of the accident, the oil company asked King Saud if it could go and examine the crash site to see if it could determine its cause. King Saud denied the request, simply stating it was the will of Allah. “We agree,” said the oil company employee. “We just want to see how Allah did it.”

I was reminded of this story while listening to the speaker at last night’s Minnesota Coalition For Intellectual Freedom dinner. Our guest was Lisa Westberg Peters, the author of the children’s book Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story. She related how a number of (suburban) Minneapolis area schools have cancelled her author talks, citing fears of parental reaction to her work. A damn sad state of affairs in Minnesota, a state that has always prided itself on its intellect. Or as Garrison Keillor puts it, “..people (in Minnesota) avoid stupidity when possible, not wanting to be a $10 haircut on a 50 cent head.” (Another sad sign was the turn out of only 38 people at last night’s dinner.)

Personally, I have absolutely no problem with the teaching of either evolution or intelligent design (or the theory of Intelligent Falling, for that matter.) in the public schools, so long as evolution is taught in the science classroom and intelligent design is taught in the comparative religion classes or in social studies units looking at current controversies. The mission of the public school educator is not to create belief in any one system, but to give children the tools to formulate their own beliefs. And in order for this to happen, of course, kids need access to lots of points of views on lots of different issues and a method for analyzing the credibility, reliability, and potential bias of those advancing a view.

Librarians (or at least those with backbones) have long upheld the principles of intellectual freedom, but we need to do a better job teaching the rest of the educational community (including techies) about IF’s sometimes difficult precepts. And that kids who are thinkers, not believers, should be the product of our schools.

Oh, the inscription from Lisa Peters in the copy of her book I bought for my grandson reads, “Paul, Thank God you’ve evolved since your grandfather. – Lisa.”

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1 Comment »
An embattled author with a good sense of humor! How refreshing and hopeful, Sara

Comment by Sara — September 29, 2005 @ 8:09 pm