Voters aren’t that stupid

Dear Political campaign manager,

If there’s one certain way to get a voter to disbelieve your candidate, it is the inane, silly postcards like these you send out. Having dumped hundreds of these in the recycling bin without so much as glancing at them, I would like you to know that I will most certainly vote for the person you vilify because (a) Your communication skills and your morals probably line up with your candidate, and (b) If the only thing you want me to remember are the ‘dark secrets’ of others then you do not seem to have a leg to stand on.

Are you in marketing? Or did you just learn Photoshop over the weekend? You do not deserve to represent anyone but the scorpions that occasionally show up during this time of year.

That is why I wanted to shine a black light on your work so that when your candidate loses, you will at least know why.

We voters aren’t that stupid. Grow up and go back to marketing school.

My Dad , the teacher and story-teller. 15 year anniversary.

My dad passed away 15 years ago, today, October 16th, 2005.

Joe Fernando never published a book, was never featured in the media, but he had a knack of infecting everyone around him with ideas. He was my Google, Wikipedia and Amazon; the human search engine when hunting down bits of history, with a library in our ‘office room’ that introduced me to Greek history, Elizabethan poetry, Sri Lankan archeology and more.

His encyclopedic knowledge was legendary. He could quote Thomas Merton, Aristotle, Churchill, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Senarath Paranavithana, or Shakespeare –sometimes in one sitting! He once won the grand prize in the Maliban “Take it or Leave it” radio show. It is said that the show host, Tim Horshington, leapt into the air when he answered the final history question to win the grand prize, a Philips refrigerator.

In the evenings after school my dad would tutor students, often for free, fluidly switching between English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. Occasionally I would overhear him break out into Latin! He was a teacher at heart. At the height of his career, on humid Sunday afternoons, you would see him walk down Clifford Place, suitcase in hand, along the railway tracks to get to the Wellawatte railway station. Destination: Galle. His last post was vice principal, St. Aloysius College Galle, a Jesuit boy’s school.

I always wondered what kept him going. Much later, when I would talk to him about his work, I came to realize the driving force behind this dedication was his students. Including anyone who turned up at our doorstep with an exercise book and an assignment.

In a larger sense, we all sat in his class. Neighbours, nieces and nephews, my schoolmates, priests, vendors and the odd grownup that had happened to hear of the iskola-mahathaya (that’s ‘school master’ in Sinhalese) down the road. They would breeze in without any forewarning for help with essays and proficiency exams, notes for debates, and coaching for job applications and dissertations. He just loved to have them in his office room, crowded around a Formica table with ginger beer stains. It was Aladdin’s cave, as one cousin described it, stuffed with books and papers. He always knew where to dig out and dust off that biography, anthology or newspaper cutting you were looking for. If you had time for some sidebars, he would invite you to a long walk to Galle Face, and tell you an elaborate yarn or two about British soldiers who got drunk while on duty in Bandarwela during World War II. Or about the time he fell into a river when the boat capsized on his way to a funeral in Galle.

Yes, life was a collection of colourful stories to him, as those who listened to his repertoire of ghost stories, war stories, travel tales and embellished family narratives know.

A simple man, my dad, who impacted so many of us.

Why isn’t encryption used in voting?

One of the long, ridiculous exchanges in the presidential debates last night was on voter fraud, a perpetual conspiracy theory of president Trump. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen,” he said.

Courtesy, Noah Pederson -Unsplash.com

Whenever I see the word ‘fraud‘ in the same sentence as ‘ballots‘ I wonder why software companies haven’t stepped in to fix this.  With some of the best software companies addressing all kinds of threats, whether it’s banking or homeland security, why has ballot encryption been on the back burner?

It appears that the software solution has been in the make-up room, but has never made a grand appearance on stage. About a decade ago, there was a suggestion that we might have ballots that use invisible ink that ‘code’ a ballot as well.

 “…instead of filling in a bubble next to a candidate’s name, the voter uses a special pen that exposes a code printed inside the bubble in invisible ink. A voter can write down that code, along with the serial number of her ballot, to later verify the results online.” 

Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

Encryption is all grown up now. There is a product, according to a recent WIRED article, called ‘STAR‘ developed out of an initiative in Travis County, Texas.  Benjamin Wofford’s article traces the path of the development, the ‘secure, transparent, auditable, and reliable encryption solution (hence the STAR acronym) of the software.

To summarize it, STAR converts a person’s vote at the voting machine into a ‘hash code‘ that could be printed out and taken, similar to how we leave a grocery store with a receipt of our transaction.  Voter impersonation with this system is very easily detected. The best part is, votes can go back and check or track if their vote has been cast and counted.

It’s about time. We have turned to encryption for everything from text messages and financial transactions. It’s time we encrypt the vote.

 

Planning a school podcast, 11 years later

I have been working on material for a podcast at school in the past few weeks. It’s an opportune time to do it, with so much to discuss in education, especially with millions of students rethinking ‘school’ in the middle of a pandemic.

Ever since I re-discovered my 2009 podcasts, I’ve felt pull to get out that microphone and fire up the recording app! The tools make it so much easier. Here are some ideas to start up:

Recording:

  • Audacity, open-source software is free to download. It’s also super intuitive –easy to use.
  • Hindenburg This is professional-grade software. More complex, but serious features!

Now for mics.

  • I have a trusty old mic that does look like it was from the nineties, and it is. Quality is great but not too much base.
  • I am experimenting with a lavelier (clip-on) mic we were  given for our distance learning video recordings. I found an adapter on Amazon, which plugs directly into a PC.
  • Zoom. I consider the ZoomH4N the best. I used to own one. It has a curious shape, but voice quality is terrific with 2 uni-directional mics

Intros/Outros

Unlike in 2009, there is plenty of podsafe –Copyright free–music available. But it is highly recommended you support the artists with a small contribution. Nothing should be free, in this economy!

Not wearing a mask regrets, come too late

Photo by Samuel Rodriguez, Unsplash

“Looking back I should have wore a mask in the beginning but I didn’t and perhaps I’m paying the price for it now”  Brian Hitchens, Florida  NBC News

A 30-year-old man who believed the coronavirus was a hoax and attended a “Covid party” died after being infected with the virus, according to the chief medical officer at a Texas hospital.  New York Times, July 12, 2020

“I’m always around people but I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Never did I think I’d catch it….Maybe if I would have just listened and worn a mask, just a simple thing, I would have avoided all this,”  Paola Castillo, 24 who spent 79 days in hospital  Business Insider  July 20, 2020

It’s uncomfortable, for sure. No matter who you are and what you do. Teaching 100 plus students a day is no different. But it’s best we follow science. It’s just a tiny piece of cloth, after all. Fire fighters, dentists and ER doctors have being doing their whole work life. 

Journalism on the ballot, in Bob Woodward’s expose

To be charitable, Donald Trump may have not read a single page of one of Bob Woodward’s previous books, let alone All the President’s Men. Or else, why in heaven’s name would he have even volunteered to speak to one of the journalists whose reporting caused Richard Nixon to exit in disgrace? The latest book, Rage, might reveal why the president seems to want a journalist’s attention, given that he rails against the media all the time.

But it’s not just Trump whose motives are murky. Why would Woodward not tell the American people that the president’s on-the-record interviews were contradicting his public statements –statements made, one must note, in front of Woodward’s colleagues? Sometimes weekly.

Trumpism is not the only thing on the ballot. Journalism is. Not the simplistic fake news variety, but journalism within the toxic political economy. The Sean Hannity’s of this world we get, and dismiss as journalism’s caricatures. Woodward didn’t have to seek Deep Throat this time in some shadowy parking lot. Deep Throat found him (apparently to “unburden himself”). This could have been breaking news – the kind that could save lives and could have spared a nation grief and ignominy. But the manuscript was tucked away until an opportune moment. Woodward, with his and partner Bernstein’s indefatigable reporting and risk-taking left us a legacy for what good, solid, timely information could do. But with so many platforms that ‘break’ the news for us now, Breaking News is broken. Tiny little shiny shards spat out of a wood chipper to settle down all around us. We flick them off our sleeve and move on.

Will this crisis, a horror story not of Rage but indifference, also pass?

Sal Khan’s take on tutoring, timely

Sal Khan’s latest project is called Schoolhouse World – basically a platform for tutoring.  This guy never rests, does he? The ideas is so much in tune with the times – to avert what he thinks is a catastrophe in the making, with distance learning models. With students wrestling with screen time, and feeling disengaged though they’ve never been so ‘connected.’

We’ve seen the rise of tutoring needs, the private kind as well as the need for one-to-one sessions. During my ‘Office Hours’ each week I get so many requests from parents about this. It’s really unfortunate. Many distance learning platforms are not designed for parents, but Mom and Dad have become the de facto tech support team in the home, while balancing a noisy, work-from-home lifestyle.

Into this mess of pottage comes Sal Khan’s idea.  Every parent of a child struggling with assignments would love it! Listen to this interview he gave Bloomberg’s by Emily Chang.

Or listen to Sal himself:

In 2009 we planned for an influenza pandemic. I was in the room. I recorded it in a podcast

I have heard the ridiculous ‘plandemic‘ theory,  including one about a virus outbreak appearing in an election year. Or, that the US didn’t see this coming.

 

Well, in 2009, at ASU, I worked for an outfit that ran a 2-day pandemic planning exercise, with realistic scenarios. Elections were over. The participants were county health officials, school superintendents, infectious disease specialists.  People who would be called upon to make the tough calls, to safeguard populations, and schools.  Arizona State University’s WP Carey school of business was involved, as was the School of Health Policy and Management. But this was not what researchers typically call a ‘table-top exercise.’ This was a bit more realistic.

The location of this exercise was the Decision Theater – a visualization space that has a war room ambiance. (Fun fact: Decision Theater was used to movie as exactly that , where scientists wrestle with how to avert a catastrophe when an asteroid was heading to earth.)

Participants were presented with news reports, and data sets of unexpected scenarios: a virus entering the country through returning soldiers, outbreaks spreading to cities, and small towns, children infected etc. On the large screens in the Theater (also known as the ‘Drum’) our team created simulated news reports for each potential crisis point. The 2009 exercise, a follow up to the one in 2008,  was to be a test of how decisions would be made in an unfolding crisis.

Weeks before, our videographer, Dustin Hampton and I set up and recorded ‘news’ reporters, and edited story-lines that would track with the mathematical models that would be presented to the participants.  In one sense it was a fun exercise, even though the H1N1 Flu was a concern in some parts of the world.

I was in the room, and we were behind the scenes making the event look realistic. Cameras rolled, make-shift media were putting pressure on people to quarantine people, students, and shut down schools. I had not realized this but I had created two podcasts of the event, interviewing attendees.  They are a peek into the situation I describe.

This is not the only exercise of its kind that preempted the current pandemic. In May 2018 Johns Hopkins University ran a similar table-top exercise, that put people in a room to respond to realistic reports of a viral outbreak Watch the video below. It’s eerily similar. Even the date of the fictitious outbreak is so close, it shocked me when I watched it.

If you want more research into this, there’s a paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167923612002680#!

Below, is another interview we did with Dr. Robert Pahle who worked on another piece of software for pandemic preparedness.

POD Throughput Model from Decision Theater Network on Vimeo.

Purifiers, fiber-optics lines and masks. Welcome back to school!

I was as excited to be back in school as students were, last week. Online, of course. There’s something about a new school year that lifts our spirits, and simultaneously releases those abdominal butterflies. As I stepped out the car in park, strapped on my mask, and grabbed my satchel, I could feel this new normal creep up on me, and broke out into a grin – which no one notices now.

Distance learning is something we must get our arms around, like it or not. I’ve conducted webinars, and workshops online, but this is a whole new animal. (I date myself – in 2010, I taught a series of online classes that included blogging. Well!)

Behind checkered, floral and surgical masks, we go about our business, but it’s a business in a whole new dimension. Lesson plans need to get turned into material that delivered through a Google Classroom platform. These must be ‘chunked,’ linked and  annotated for a student doing it in small time slots, with slow WiFi, on a small screen. Video and audio recordings must be edited and uploaded –not to mention scheduling these moving parts in advance, with due dates and rubrics.

Tech questions arise and get solved on the fly by my colleagues: Could videos be cropped in Screencastify? Is there enough storage capacity on the drive? Why doesn’t PowerPoint let me use audio narration in a Microsoft 365 version? Check this neat way to turn a Google form into a quiz  (and have it grade the responses as well!) These and other issues must be figured out before dozens of Google Meets light up the building.

The week before we began, maintenance crew were crawling through the ceiling adding more lines of fiber optic lines  to support our data-hungry re-launch of distance learning.  We picked up our cameras to get up to speed with video conferencing.  With Bitmojis and bottles of sanitizer we took our positions and opened for business.

Three weeks of it, and still having many aha moments, this new normal is anything but. But as the students log into my ‘Office Hours,’ I am beginning to relax and enjoy being a teacher. I used to say that if I continue to do what I’ve always done each year, the students won’t be learning much. All of us – me and you and that dog named Boo — have collectively hit the reboot button. These lessons will last us a lifetime!

Tired of Zoom? Small schools suddenly seem attractive

So what’s the Facebook-fueled fad about ‘pandemic pods‘ all about? As with many fads, it’s something that’s been around for more than a century. Since 1906, to be exact.

And the model? A small house –a casa. Basically a ‘house of children’ or ‘Casa dei Bambini.’ That was, of course, the first successful hands-on school begun by Maria Montessori. If Facebook had been around, someone would have called these nano-schools, or a ‘practical life pods.’ Maria Montessori didn’t need likes. If she had followers, they included poor  and working-class parents with challenged kids. Oh, and there were folks like Alexander Graham Bell, an early promoter of her method when it came the America.

This prolonged pandemic, and the need to isolate ourselves has thrown a large curve ball at us parents, business owners and most importantly, children. Suddenly the large ‘campuses’ with sometimes 3000 students are frightening. The home-school model or the Montessori ‘house’ clearly addresses many of the concerns parents have. Not the masks or no-masks, or 6-foot-rule question. But questions and concerns such as:

  • What’s the alternative to sticking my child in front of an iPad?
  • My child needs to be outdoors as much as academics. More trees than apps!
  • Social media is killing socialization. I need a school that is ‘offline’ for eight hours of the day.

As schools get ready to make the large-school experience more engaging, and personal, more of these models will crop up. Maria Montessori would be pleased. Children need a safe place to learn, exchange ideas and socialize not something akin to an office space, where everyone’s glued to a screen.