I’ve been curating front pages of the New York Times over the past few months, as a record of how how we are dealing with unfolding events during the pandemic. Some images are so grim that they could have been plucked from a newspaper in another country.
Take this one, for instance. Homeless shelter? Activists? People destroying incriminating evidence? Sadly it’s how people in one of the wealthiest states in the US are keeping warm, after the winter storm crippled its power grid, disrupted its water supply. This is in San Antonio, Texas. Boiling snow for drinking water became the norm.
Then there was this on the same day the winter storm hit – Perseverance of another kind, on a planet 30-plus million miles away. The Mars rover, named Perseverance, landed in the afternoon, Arizona Time. Even the search engine couldn’t resist a bit of exuberance as the page loaded. (that’s a screenshot of my Google search engine results for ‘Mars Rover.’)
COVID has laid bare our split-screen lives. Bitcoin made waves this week, but at the same time economists think the number of unemployed exceeds 10 million in the US. Those hunkering down, and those lifting themselves up are living side by side. The disgruntled and suspicious, and the hopeful move on. Those facing unbearable tragedy, sitting next to those who are building new lives.
Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.
And then this happened.
As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.
I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.
This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.
My students are wired. Just like many in their generation, they enjoy reliable Wifi, Bluetooth devices, and of course cell phones. [Now in school, their cell phones are firmly in the off position, in their backpacks. They have no problem with that.] They’re Spotify users, YouTube watchers, dabbling in Discord. Their ticker-tape like TikTok-conversations are no different from other kids their age in any country.
And yet, when asked, they are not exactly impressed with the Internet. In fact some of them are its biggest critics.
In class this week, they’re learning about the architecture of the Net – from undersea cables to network hubs, to old phone lines and the upcoming constellation of fancy satellites; about the impossible to comprehend system of ‘packet switching‘ and the explosion of networking – social, antisocial and otherwise. They’re stunned that no single person really owns the Internet, and that this space (or place) that was cobbled together in the same year as men walked on the moon, still works 50-plus years later.
But when asked “Does the Internet Unite us or Divide us?” the responses come fast and furious. More lean on the side of the discord (no pun intended), and social upheaval they have seen. Some even went so far as to say that it’s a ‘wasteland‘ and how it is “littered with inappropriate things.” One said it is a place where people “bleed emotionally” with gossip and hate. Many others talked of how it is dividing families, and one talked of how awkward it is to meet people his age to only see them all stare at their phones when he sorely needed to meet and hang out.
It’s almost too sad to process. I’m sure you used to think that this was a grown-up person’s view of young people obsessed with social media, or Candy Crush. I can tell you, reporting from the trenches of a high school, that this is now a young person’s world view. The Internet we adults have laid out for them is traumatic and disappointing.
Tim Berners-Lee is just 65. He made no profit on the Web by deliberately not patenting his software idea. Those who have – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple etc – have polluted the waters with algorithms that float around like weeds, trapping our data that gets instantly sold.
I tell my students that by the time they get to 11th or 12th grade, there just might be a new Web. I want them to be optimistic, and even be part of that movement to make the Internet a more habitable space. Perhaps they would lay a new ethical architecture that’s more resilient than the cables beneath them.
I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…
BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!
In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.
AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.
Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books are “A Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!
My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.
Not to alarm you, but that smartwatch on your wrist could be used to hack into your bank account using your ATM PIN. You are, however, just small fry. Our collective blind spot is so obvious, it is ready to be exploited.
My latest article on cybersecurity was just published at Roar.lk For the article I interviewed Romeish de Mel, CEO of Sri Lanka-based cyber security company, Flix 11, and Dallas, TX-based Spencer Luke, a security compliance expert at Microsoft.
This story keeps evolving. Just this week a student told me about how XBox users are being targeted, and that the hacks are widely known. I read an Akamai report that explains how gamers, in particular are a target-rich community for many reasons. “They’re engaged and active in social communities. For the most part, they have disposable income, and they tend to spend it on their gaming accounts and gaming experiences.” And then there’s the government.
Cyber threats to U.S. critical infrastructure are highly targeted. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, (CISA) warns of ‘persistent continued cyber intrusions’ on U.S. infrastructure, think tanks, and even schools! There is also attacks on networks holding intellectual property, economic, political, and military information.
If you want to be really, really paranoid, read the first few chapters of 2034, a serialized novel about World War 3 in WIRED magazine this month. It takes the scenario of a war backed by a massive cyber operation to a fictional but realistic conclusion.
Words matter. They can empower us and unfortunately incite us as well. How do you classify what happened on January 6th at the nation’s capital? A rally? A peaceful demonstration? An insurrection? Mob behavior? Here’s a tale of two cities’ uprising that help us see why labels we assign them have consequences.
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND: I’ve always been fascinated by the word ‘mob,’ a word I’ve used several times in the past, when it was prefaced with the word ‘flash‘ – as in the flash mobs. That was the phenomenon which popped up more than a decade ago when the Internet was young and netizens (remember that term?) were bursting with optimism. Flash Mobs that got our attention were initially pro-democratic groups that would spontaneously assemble and disburse quickly after making themselves heard in public squares. I believe it was a descendant of ‘Smart Mobs‘ a term used by author, Howard Rheingold in 2002. They cropped up very early in Belarus, and the Philippines – something I referred to in a chapter of my book, Chat Republic.
The phenomenon was co-opted by marketing for say, mobile phone companies, and the Back Street Boys in…Ukraine. See below for a breathtakingly choreographed event in London. (Fun fact – The Oxford English dictionary added Flash Mobs as new words in just 2013, the same year that ‘tweet‘ was recognized.)
I also happen to know mobs in a visceral way from two unfortunate experiences. I’ve had to fight off one with a few friends and a catholic priest in 1978, in a small town off Matale. And again in Lewella, Kandy in 1983 at the start of ‘Black July; and the ethnic riots.
So with this in mind I have been analyzing how mobs behave, and how we brand them. I’ve written before about street demonstrations in Hong Kong. It’s interesting how visually at least, it looks similar to what took place in Washington DC earlier this month. But there’s a huge difference. In Hog Kong the demonstators/mob/ were demanding reform. In DC, it was a call to overthrow and take over a branch of government. In Hong Kong the protestors raised a flag that defines their call for reform – the so-called Black Bauhinia flag. In the Capitol, the flag was the Confederate battle flag.
The mob in Hong Kong began with a call for change – constitutional reform. The Mob that convened at the Capitol was not there to call for change but to take over the legislative process. Is ‘take over’ even the right word? Some might say overthrow, while others may say ‘take back’ what they called the People’s House. In the history of failed revolutions, from Sri Lanka to here –remember Occupy Wall Street? – the leadership was successful in rousing the crowd, and turning grievances into actions that could not legitimately bring about the change it desired.
In Sri Lanka, the JVP was well prepared to attack police stations in an attempt to overthrow the government. But they were not prepared to govern in the absence of a legitimate government, let alone lead the country in a new direction. It failed, having sacrificed many misled youth. It would take almost a decade before they took the legitimate entrance to the building, and put forward candidates for election. We now refer to that movement as an insurrection. You would be hard-pressed to sanitize that word.
This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.
I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.
Here are some of the topics:
“The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….
My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.
It makes being a teacher so rewarding!
Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.
Let me respond to this as an Asian person. It’s true that we fit the tough-love stereotype. It has worked in our family. We look at cellphones as a privilege –a luxury even. Certainly not a necessity.* I find it amusing that Common Sense Media, also features an article for parents titled, “What’s the best cell phone for kids?” and it begins to answer it by saying “Honestly, the best cell phone for kids is one they use responsibly and respectfully…” Which is a safe but highly irresponsible answer. The best cell phone for ‘kids’ is no phone at all, if by kids you mean children who can barely feed themselves, or do still use a booster seat.
To put it another way, pretending that very young children need a device to initiate phone calls “for emergency purposes” is a lie many parents tell themselves. We told our two children, right up to 7th grade that if they urgently needed to make a phone call to us, they should go to the school office. Or a teacher.
In my school, students cannot use a cell phone during school hours. No ifs, no buts. Many of my students ask me if they could call a parent from my desk phone when they forget their lunch, or sports clothes. Or need to stay late for a make-up assignment. I happily oblige.
We did not ‘invest’ in a phone just to be our children’s pacifier, or a way to spend idle time. We recognized early enough –long before the cellphones-and-mental health uproar– that giving a child a multi-media device was like force feeding a child with weed. Here, take this and stop throwing a tantrum!
We often hear of many parents making excuses for giving a child a phone (for ‘research’ purposes!) only to hear that the child is suddenly turned sullen, finds hard to make friends etc.
I get the ‘correlation’ vs ‘causation’ argument. This is another dodge. Society didn’t have to wait for the ‘data’ to prove that the correlation between nicotine and cancer had turned to causation, did we? Adults are afraid to admit that smart phones are harmful for fear they may be cast as Luddites, laggards or simply out of sync with the times. If you watch the Netflix documentary, TheSocial Dilemma, you will hear how the architects of the features that get young people hooked to smart phones, do not give their own children these devices. Here’s that trailer.
Knowing what we know that ‘dopamine feedback loops‘ are built into the apps children get addicted, the radicalization potential of many sites, the exposure to porn, and the effect of social media on social discourse, the smart phone is a loaded weapon.
Kids do not need a cell phone. Curtail their use of your device. Do not buy them a phone. Please!
Bansky, in 2008, made this simple provocative four-word statement at Westminster, London. The words, “One nation under CCTV” were painted on the side of a building. But what’s most interesting are the details.
Take a closer look at this picture. The two people are painted in as part of the graffiti. (Including the dog next to the policeman.)
Odd question: Why is the cop photographing this act of ‘vandalism’? He looks as if he’s carefully framing it to to post it on social media.
Another odd question: Isn’t it funny that the policeman is also being ‘watched’ by the closed circuit camera on the wall of the building?
Cameras are so ubiquitous now we seldom notice they are there. We almost expect them to be there. Have we become desensitized to being watched? Recently the Los Angeles Police Department banned the use of facial recognition using an AI platform known as Clearview. The US Congress has been slow in enacting a law that puts some guardrails around facial recognition. It’s called the “National Biometric & Information Privacy Act of 2020’’ It stipulates that “A private entity may not collect, capture, purchase, receive through trade, or otherwise obtain a person’s or a customer’s biometric identifier” unless some conditions are met. Introduced on 3rd August this year, there seems to be no traction on this.*
Clearview AI has been investigated by the media, and lawmakers and found to be engaging into some dark data mining practices connected to facial recognition. The company declares on its website that it is “not a surveillance system.” Commissions in the Australia and the UK opened investigations into this in July.
* Interesting sidebar: The way to see progress of a bill in Congress is through a website, www.govtrack.us. (Yes it sounds like ‘government track us’!) In reality we can track them – so that, in this instance, they pass a law that doesn’t track us.
One of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School, is a pro at the Socratic seminar. The onus, he says, is on us teachers to make sure we aren’t just encouraging idle passengers on their educational journey. There needs to be a ‘method’ to help them interact with the material we teachers present.
That method, says Jason Klicker is the Socratic seminar. Here’s his fascinating example, Klicker-style:
“A student wants to know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of telling them how to make (or even worse, just making it for them), I ask them if a grilled cheese sandwich is like other sandwiches they know how to make. When they say yes, I ask them what is similar and what is different. Over the course of the discussion, the students learns for themselves how a grilled cheese sandwich is different from a BLT, and knows how to make one. After they think they are ready, I watch them do it, giving them pointers along the way. The sandwich might not taste delicious the first few times they try, but their knowledge allows them to have confidence to try in the future.
“While we don’t discuss grilled cheese in my class, we do ask questions like “what is justice?” or “how do you secure your freedom that you have been given?”. Both are important questions for important times. It’s frustrating for the student at first, as it should be. I’m not giving them the answer, they have to find it for themselves. In the end, They have a deeper understanding of justice or freedom than they could ever get if I just simply lectured at them.”
Most importantly, says Mr. Klicker, “They have taken charge of their own education because they were in the driver’s seat instead of being an idle passenger. They are also much better people for it.”
Despite the disruptions we have had since March this year –indeed because of the having to adapt to COVID — all teachers have had to turn up the creativity thermostat in how we engage young people. Many of my students in the computer lab are remote, or have moved between in-class and online. Using higher order thinking and engagement techniques are di rigueur. Nothing like a 2,500 year old technique to motivate the mind.