In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

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.

Curtail pre-teen cellphone use. Please!

“It sucks to be Asian,” was one of the many comments teenagers left on the comments section of an article in Common Sense Media. Well?

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, The Social 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.

The Social Dilemma. Around 1 minute, you will hear from Sri Lankan born former Facebook exec, Chamath Palihapitiya whom I have featured on this blog before.

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!

*The cost of a phone is now approaching $1,500.

“One Nation Under CCTV,” waiting for the lame ducks to get back to work

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.

By Banksy – One Nation Under CCTV, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3890275

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.

Bansky, have you been asleep recently?

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* 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.

Cheeseburgers and Socrates – How we engage students during COVID

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:

Image, courtesy Jordan Nix, Unsplash.com

“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.

In the Internet graveyard: RSS, USENET, CompuServe and GeoCities

You have to be of a certain age to remember that geeky feature known as ‘RSS” and why it was supposed to change everything.* Or to have been on a USENET group or a BBS to know that there were ‘discussion boards’ before Twitter and Discord. I still remember creating a ‘homestead’ in GeoCities, which was a precursor to, Second Life. Second what? This was a ‘massively multiplayer’ virtual hangout in which businesses spent millions of dollars creating virtual storefronts, hosting virtual conferences etc. This was all part of a frenzy to colonize cyberspace, as if real estate was about to run out. This was when we breathlessly talked about the clash between the bricks and clicks.

IBM’s meeting room in SecondLife

I have to admit I too went in for a land grab with a domain I registered called Brand Buzz. I was nearly sued by a big name ad agency that claimed I was trespassing on their ‘land’ and for awhile stood my ground. (Long story; I featured this in my book Chat Republic.) As a tech columnist for Communication World magazine I remember attending virtual conferences in Second Life, and wondering where this bizarre game-like experience was taking us. Could we be chatting with each other as (through) pixelated avatars in the future? Thankfully not.

There was also a time when we had 56K modems, and needed a CD-ROM from American Online (Who remembers ‘ROM’s and AOL?). I bring these up because we are now being submerged in new terms and new technologies claiming to be defining the future of the Internet. I occasionally broach the subject in my class to give my students some context to the tech hype they are being exposed to, as we were then. Like 5G. Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (a thinking person’s guide to anything with or without wires and apps) had to say of 5G:

Without a comprehensive plan for fiber infrastructure, 5G will not revolutionize Internet access or speeds for rural customers. So anytime the industry is asserting that 5G will revolutionize rural broadband access, they are more than just hyping it, they are just plainly misleading people. (“Enough of the 5G Hype 2019)

We’re still drowning in hype, aren’t we?

* RSS is dead. But the protocol that it was based on to provide ‘feeds’ lives on. Second Life is still on life support.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

Could we ‘Cancel’ these unfortunate words?

Weaponize? Trendjacking? Chillax? What cave did these words crawl out from? (This is an update to a post last month on Vocabularitis.)

I cringe when I hear someone say ‘weaponize,’ which once belonged to the military industry, but had been twitterized to a pulp just because it’s easy to add an ize to a word. I found this hilarious analogy at Dictionary.com. “If you start pelting your brother with grapes, he might accuse you of weaponizing your fruit salad,” it says. If we had our way, we would update Macbeth’s imagination running riot as he approaches a sleeping Duncan.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me weaponize thee.

Consider, too the sudden emergence of the word ‘Cancel.’ What’s wrong with boycott? Oppose? Ignore? Deny? Or (to dredge up a non-word) Unfollow? Speaking of which unfollow was thrust upon us about ten years ago, and has become headline worthy. As in “Billie Eilish Unfollows Everyone on Instagram.” For heaven’s sakes!

And then there’s that abomination the media repeats – mansplain. The Wikipedia entry for it says it is a pejorative term, and could be a form or ‘misandry.’ Meaning, it’s a weaponized word.

No point getting all blustered (OK, cancel that word and replace it with ‘huffed up.’) Just chillax, will you?

Exciting docking of crew with Space Station

Watching the live feed of NASA’s historic mission to the International Space Station gives us pause to consider what science is capable of. At 9:45 pm, this was the scene as the 4-person capsule, the ‘Crew Dragon’ parallel parked with the ISSS. They switched the cameras to an external view while the crew changed their gear into the space station uniforms.

The crew included Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi. Lift-off of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was on Sunday night. So in all, it took about 24 hours to get there.

The spacecraft Crew Dragon is called ‘Resilience’ -a fitting name for all that must go on in the name of science, despite the existential threat we face as a planet. Or perhaps, because of it.

On this 30th anniversary of the Web, some teachers still send lessons on WhatsApp

It’s easy to be so enamored by the shiny objects around us –smart speakers, wi-fi door locks, wireless earbuds– and assume that the whole world is connected.

Yesterday, November 12th was a big anniversary of the World Wide Web. 30 years ago to this day Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist suggested in a very academic scientific paper “…a space in which everything could be linked to everything.” This was his third proposal – the original was in 1989. It outlined the concept of hyperlinks, and how browsers, servers and terminals could possibly connect everyone.

But there are many parts of the world, including here in the US, where dead zones exist and the web is almost inaccessible. I remind my students of this often, as they sit in a computer lab and sometimes get impatient when the Wifi drops, or a website doesn’t load.

This morning, I was taking them to Pixabay, and open-source website for copyright-free images, but also for music. The site was blocked. No worries, I said. There are worse things that could happen to you. There are schools where students have to depend on lessons sent to them on thumb drives. In Sri Lanka, I know of teachers who send students lessons on WhatsApp, because the homes don’t have Internet (but a serviceable smart phone with a monthly data plan.) See Hakiem Hanif’s story how a 53 year old teacher is doing it.

So while some of you may be contemplating buying a fancy 5G phone for about the price of a plane ticket to Australia, remember that there are parts of the world where being online is still a luxury.

Twitter makes Diplomatic doublespeak so easy to spot.

It was not too long ago (Jan 2019) that the Trump administration expressed its shock that the newly elected Juan Guaido in Venezuela was being blocked by incumbent president. In a flurry of tweets (what else?) President Trump threatened Nicolas Maduro, and telegraphed that troops, a naval blockade and embargoes were in the works. He tweeted that its citizens had suffered enough and Guaido would be recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by the US. The State Department too put out this statement. “The United States recognizes Juan Guaido as the new interim President of Venezuela, and strongly supports his courageous decision to assume that role pursuant to Article 233…”

Against such a backdrop of pro-democracy talk that the US hectors the rest the world, what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this today, sounds incongruent (the current term ‘janky‘ comes to mind.) Double standards.

The rest of the world recognizes such doublespeak.