Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Craft Knowledge and Collaborative Learning

Bruce Speck’s article “Learning-Teaching Assessment Paradigms and the On-Line Classroom,” (and I’m sorry, I see the word “Speck” and all I can think of is Pee-Wee Herman’s dog) really grabbed my attention.

Writing of course is going to be the key interaction and task tool in most online classes (the one I’m working on tosses in a speech element, but students will still be required to turn in written speech outlines).

Speck’s discussion about teaching as craft knowledge has helped me come to terms with come contradictions I hold about writing. As Speck, John A. Nicolay (in “Group Assessment in the On-Line Learning Environment,”) and David A. Sapp and James Simon (in “Comparing Grades in Online and Face-to-Face Writing Courses: Interpersonal Accountability and Institutional Commitment,”) all address writing and writing assessment in their articles, I feel it’s pertinent to discuss writing and teaching in the light of craft knowledge.

To a certain extent, I believe good teaching and writing is craft knowledge. Some have a natural ability to write or teach (or both) and others don’t. Improvement comes through analyzing and emulating those we regard as successful writers or teachers. Good writing and teaching comes through practice, trial and error. Good writing and teaching is inexplicable, unteachable, and, as Speck writes, “shrouded in mystery.”

But not really. That can be part of explaining what makes for a good writer and a good teacher, but we can all learn, to a certain extent, how to improve our writing or teaching skills. It’s just as Speck says, an effort that’s more complex than many of us realize or want to realize. Learning to write well can be accomplished, just as learning to teach well, but it takes effort in understanding the theory of good writing and the application of that good writing through trial and error and practice.

I look at a favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkein, who spent years crafting his stories, not only writing but writing in linguistic and historical underpinnings for everything he did. He argued that his books were linguistic in nature, and that the story came as he sought ways to apply the linguistic experiments he produced. Then I look at authors like Christopher Paolini (who wrote the Eragon fantasy series) and Terry Brooks (who wrote the Sword of Shannara fantasy series). They write good stories, but only from a craft knowledge perspective. They’ve studied Tolkein and others like him, worked on emulating them, figured out what they did right and wrong. But their stories still lack depth. They’re there in form and function, but Tolkein is still better. Why? It goes beyond the arbitrariness of saying Tolkein is better, or that he worked longer on his stories, or even that he worked so hard to create a backstory and the linguistic underpinnings. He went to the theory – no real great Anglo-Saxon tales left, since Norman conquest in 1066, just stuff borrowed from the French and the Vikings. He burrowed into the theory of what makes a great story and painstakingly created a masterpiece.

Craft knowledge, practice and emulation, only carried Brooks and Paolini so far. If they’d undertaken a deeper approach at learning the theory of what makes for a good fantasy story, they might have done better.

I also appreciate the emphasis on collective assessment. As a writer, I know the danger present in falling in love with one’s text, meaning that the closer one is to a piece of writing, the less evident its flaws appear. This can be remedied to a certain extent, of course, by the writer literally putting the piece away for a week or two, then approaching it with fresh eyes. But with multiple sets of fresh eyes looking at a piece, or with multiple perspectives on a subject going into a piece to begin with, I’ve found my writing is improved. I can learn to work well with others. Hearing peer reviews is just as pertinent to me as instructor reviews, because peers often have perspectives the “sage on the stage” does not.

I also like Speck, Nicolay and Sapp/Simon’s concentration on collaborative learning, even though I have long harbored the attitude that collaborative writing is nasty, and that a document written by a committee resembles an animal created by a committee – all elbows and rough spots and tails where the nose is supposed to be. But the emphasis in collaboration is in collaboration, not necessarily in several different people writing the same document. They emphasize working together on ideas – the pedagogy, if you wish – and then the technology – writing the paper, response, whatever – once the ideas are agreed upon. Yes, there will be those who want to micromanage the writing to the chagrin of the “writer” who is used to writing as a solitary exercise, but I have to admit in the times I’ve collaborated with others on the ideas that go into the document, the nitpicking over wordsmithing is a minor corollary to the effort that goes into making sure the agreed-upon ideas are present in the paper.

As Speck writes: “Learning is not merely a matter of individual effort in groping toward the light; rather it is a social phenomenon because language is social in nature, and without language, learning is severely limited, perhaps impossible. Thus, students can learn from each other, and professors can learn from students through the written language.” This ties in with the constructivist approach to online education. We’re allowed to explore ideas and make mistakes.

Nicolay echoes what Speck says: “The collaborative experience is foremost a social and cultural one. Like any other academic benchmark, group assessment is a critical part of the learning experience and requires standards and experience.”

We have to learn to “write” collaboratively. Where I work, about 75 percent of what I do is collaborative writing. When I worked at the newspaper, the number was about the same. Only rarely are edits from editors and subject matter experts mere mechanical nitpicks. More often than not, the edits are suggestions on how to improve how the ideas are communicated.

Sapp and Simon bring forth a powerful argument for collaborative writing, especially in the online environment. In their study of online versus face to face classes in retaining students, and student achievement, one of their recommendations for online is this: “Teachers can facilitate a sense of accountability among class members by encouraging (or requiring) team projects and promoting peer critique sessions. The business writing students interviewed in this study reported that group writing project transformed the class and enriched the learning experience. Such strategies can make students invested in each other rather than existing as autonomous workers.”

Again, I have to go back to where I work. In the times I’ve worked closely with others to write a document, I have earned a profound sense of investment from the other parties involved, and that sense is shared. Other collaborative efforts have become easier because the first few were so successful. We’re also able to work together when others come in at cross purposes with contradictory ideas or inflammatory language. We’re able to rely on our past collaborations to calm the waters.

IF Puts on A Good Show, Apparently

Digital City, a rather noisy blog out of New York City, has placed Idaho Falls' Melaleuca Freedom Celebration Fourth of July fireworks show as No. 17 on their Top 20 list for the best fireworks shows in the United States. You can read more about it here.

It's actually been a long time since I attended the show, which has changed a lot since I was a kid. I can recall going only once, and being fascinated not only by the fireworks but by the puffs of smoke I could see soaring overhead as I lay on a blanket on the Snake River Greenbelt. Other years we attended from a distance, once even getting our lawn chairs up on top of the chicken coop as our neighbors perched atop their chicken coop to ooh and aah. (We were hicks, Rita, what can I say?)

This year, it seems, the show will last slightly longer than half an hour and involve more than 15,000 shells. The only thing I don't like is the crowd -- they estimated last year that more than 100,000 people showed up to watch. That's about 99,000 more than I'm used to. Who am I kidding -- that's about 99,900 more than I'm used to.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Social Media Incentive

Even infrequent visitors to this blog must recognize by now that I'm involved with www.uncharted.net, an online travel and social networking site. That's how I describe it, shorthand. Longhand, of course, the travel gets emphasized -- tell us about the places you've visited and show us your photos -- and the social media part (everybody here wil read your stuff and comment on it and share ideas, et cetera) gets backhanded.

I've got it backwards.

Uncharted's competition doesn't exist in similar websites, nor even with sites like National Geographic's Traveler. It exists with the ubiquity of the Internet, with blogs, with Flickr, and the other social media sites where there are already millions of people reading your stories and looking at your photos. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

So what do we do about it? I don't know. I'm just thinking aloud here.

I remain optimistic that Uncharted can deliver on what we promise. But we have to figure out how to make the social element primary and the sharing of photos and stories secondary, because it's the sociality of these sites -- Facebook, Flickr, blogs, et cetera -- that give people the incentive to publish. IF there's no crowd there, why bother -- especially when it's easier to put up your own stuff on your own blog or your Facebook page?

This is why I want to start an effort to reach out to the 100-odd people who've already signed upat Uncharted. They signed up for a reason, but for many other reasons, they're not really active in posting new material. Part of it is because it's time-consuming. To be good, we can't just expect people to wing in stuff off the cuff, like on this blog. But I'm not sure we, as a company, are reaching out to the people who've already expressed an interest. Got to figure out how to do that without sounding desperate. That's the thing.

Cokesbury Traffic, Month One: Pretty Dismal

The Cokesbury Party Blog officially celebrates its first month in existence tomorrow, but I must confess traffic to the site has been a mite disappointing. Perhaps I overestimated the mass appeal of a site poking fun at a 1932 party book, aided by occasional commentary on passages from the works of Sinclair Lewis. Obviously, the people who told me to concentrate on niche markets, such as left-handed dentists without tonsils, don't know everything.

So it's a good thing, then, that I do that site (and this one) for fun more than anything else. If I had hopes, a month ago, that Cokesbury would make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I would be mightily disappointed. I hope, however, that in the month the site has been in existence, it has brought joy to one of its 37 visitors. Though judging by the site's total lack of comments, the joy was not exquisite to the point anybody would bother to let me know. I'm not going to cry. Or whine. Or do anything else for that matter, except prepare next week's installation. I'm determined to finish the project, even if I'm the only one looking at it.

Exposition: How Much is too Much?

Petey Otterloop here, from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac, obviously does not know that too much exposition is a bad thing. It's a trap I fall into myself often as I write, despite the drubbing I have Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson for it last week. I'm currently working on a novel and am into it ten chapters, and when I look at those chapters I can say most if not all are exposition. Sure, I rationalize to myself, I'm building up to something. There is so much in this compicated story, I tell myself, that has to be explained so the foreshadowing and backstory and all that good stuff is there right in front and . . . hey . . . where are you all going? I'm going to get to my point any minute now. Any minute now. Any minute now.

So, yeah, too much exposition is a bad thing. Got a lot of backstory? Maybe the best way to hadle it if you absolutely, positively cannot live without it is to pull at Tolkein and write an entire novel of exposition, such at the Silmarillion. But since it's not likely you or I are going to writea blockbuster trilogy like Lord of the Rings, we have to handle our exposition carefully. How to do that is the mystery. I'm still struggling with it myself. But I do read a lot and have noted certain authors handle exposition differently.

The Pratchett/Bradbury method: Exposition? It's in the readers' heads. The novels and short stories of Terry Partchett and Ray Bradbury are spare on the exposition. Pratchett especially assumes his readers are just familar enough with the world of fantasy that they can rely on their own collective memory to fill in some of the gaps that he'd otherwise have to fill in with prose. He does provide character exposition, but only what's necessary to move the story foreward. I read enough Rincewind books that I felt like I knew the guy well enough before I read the novel that explains how he got into his predicament in the first place. Bradbury, too, relies on light exposition, peppering his stories with just enough to keep things moving along.

The Clancy method: Tom Clancy, on the other hand, loves exposition. Just builds the forms and pours it all in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Just depends on the mood I'm in.

Those are just a few examples, of course. But it goes to show that good writers ought to be good readers, just so we can figure out how others handle the same situations we find ourselves in.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pain? Try Apririn

I feel like I'm stuck in a permanent squat. That's what comes of working on moulding and trim for two days, followed up by two nights of moving furniture and hauling old carpets out of the house and into the alley, where we've spread one of the carpets out to kill the weeds and provide a venue for some of our more hillbilly antics, such as sitting out there in a few of those old web-style lawn chairs, gnawing on a block of cheese the size of a car battery.

Gary, our local Mr. Carpet, is coming tomorrow, and we can't wait. The house has been in a random stage of discombobulation for nearly a month now, and we're heartily sick of it. So this week, if all goes well tomorrow, we can get things put back together. Maybe then I can find my iPod Touch, which got swallowed up into the maelstrom sometime this morning.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Orange Shag Carpeting

Sometime this week, we'll have new carpet in the study and the boys will have new carpet in their bedroom. That is if we can find our carpet-layer, next-door-neighbor Gary, who seems to have fled to Pocatello for the duration.

I don't mind that he's disappeared, because I've still got some work to do in the study before the carpet can go in. Today was the day for moulding and the closet threshhold. Also, the old carpet -the orange shag - came up. And good riddance. Gary put it on the house 20 years ago, he told us once, and it was used then. Looks like the pad was used, too, and part of it has even turned to dust. This floor ought to be a lot softer once this is done.

Tomorrow, I do the trim around the windows and then the shelf on the ledge where the books go. I also have to get rid of the old carpet. I'd like to stick it out on the alley for the city to deal with, but the alley cleanup isn't until October, and I'm not sure they want all our cruz in the alley all summer. Of course, I could just lay the carpet out flat in the alley and use it to kill the weeds. Maybe the city will appreciate that. Or not.

Then we have to track Gary down. We know he'll do the work, we've just got to get on his schedule between golf games.

We're glad to see the carpet go. We've pulled enough fishhooks out of the thing that we don't like to lie on it, because they're not barbless. Of course, it stinks so much, nobody wants to lie on it anyway. Maybe we could take it out in the alley and have a public burning . . .

Thursday, June 25, 2009

So Long, Mr. Jackson

So now begin the interminable radio-music tributes to Michael Jackson. Time for me to fake a power outage at home so the radios stay off.

Not that I'm happy that he died -- I just don't particularly care for his music, that's all.

Two Michael Jackson memories:

Funniest is when Joel Glicker enters the Harmony Hut in Addams Family Values as punishment and starts screaming when he sees a Michael Jackson "Heal the World" poster on the wall.

Then there was the time I was living in Toulouse when he was there for a concert. Town went completely ape, with fans gaggling outside his supposed hotel on la Place du Capitole, screaming "Michael! Michael!" A friend and I rode our bikes past the stadium where he had his concert that night. Lots of music and screaming and folderol. From a distance.

Weller, 88, Dies in Tragic Walker Collision

Grammar Nazi here. Today, we'll discuss the phenomenon of journospeak, or phrases that you rarely hear outside of a newspaper article. An amusing error in today's Deseret News brings journospeak to mind:

Longtime Utah bookseller Samuel Weller passed away Wednesday due to incidents of old age. He was 88.
My oh my. What incidents of old age might have caused the venerable Mr. Weller to pass on? A broken hip? A tragic walker accident? Pterodactyl attack? I'm sure Carl Fredericksen could illuminate us on the subject.

The problem here, of course, is the phrase "incident of old age," which you hear or read a lot in newspapers, but rarely hear in spoken conversation. The phrase is grammatically correct, relying on the second definition of "incident" from the trusty American Heritage Dictionary, which states incident means "related to or dependent on another thing." So Mr. Weller's death, as the phrase implies, came because of his age, not because of some traumatic octogenarian accident, which the plural "incidents'" in the plug implies.

Therein lies the journospeak and phonetic trap: The phrase is "incident of old age," or as normal people say, "because he was old." Change incident to incidents and you bring about the spectre not of a peacefull passing due to advanced age, which one expects, but of an accident involving Pepsodent or an item from The Scooter Store.

Yes, the Grammar Nazi recognizes he is being ageist in his descriptions of possible age-related incidents. Mr. Weller could just as well have died bungee jumping or skydiving, but that's not the point. The point is with the plural incidents, the phrase leaves the realm of journospeak and enters the realm of error.
And let syou think the Grammar Nazi too huffy, I had to edit this post to fix my spelling of "octogenarian." I'm so humble, so humble humble huuummmmblllleeee!

Between the Ages

Robbie Trent, protagonist in Sterling North's The Wolfling, stands on the brink. The brinkbof manhood, the brink of maturity, as the comely Inga Skavilain courts him, making him jealous first of the portrait painted of her by Frithof Kumlein, then making it a present to him.

But Robbie Trent, and Sterling North's wonderful, yet relatively unknown novel, also live and take place at a brink of American history. The Civil War is ten years old, and its veterans and the nation's people are set to wander into the wilds of the plains and of the Rocky Mountains. The railroads, the political machines, the smoke-filled rooms, have established their dominion. Technology and the wonders it brings, the savings in labor, are emerging, mass-produced for the common man. Country is beginning it's fight with City, as farmers unite under the umbrella of the Grange to protest railroad rates and the power the railroad holds over entire industries and state legislatures. Montgomery Ward publishes its first one-page catalog, signaling the beginning of a mass consumer society.

Yet for the people living in rural areas, like that of North's beloved, idealized Lake Koshkonong, are still united with nature. True, the unity is in varying degree, with farmers connected to the cultivated plant, the domesticated animal, and young boys like Robbie and men like naturalist Thure Kumlein, connected with nature in its wild state. But the connection is there, the community is there, as citizens come together to raise a house for the Kumleins.

It's a bittersweet descent, from the closeness of the time to the speed of today. North writes:

And off they went in a beautifully varnished cart behind a fast little Morgan who tossed her head on sheer delight and made her mane fly like a silken shawl in the lake breeze.

"She's a fast horse, Robbie."

"We're going to win that race."

"And then what?"

"I'm going to race her at county fairs."

Inga went silent.

"Well, say something! Don't you want me to win, Inga?"

"I don't want to spoil this beautiful day. Please drive slower, Robbie, we're coming to Lotus Lake and I want to see those big yellow water lillies and that beautiful swan."

The boy gently pulled the reins. Spinney had a sensitive mouth. She slowed to a walk.

"What is the Latin name for these flowers?"

"Nel . . . Nelumbo something," Robbie faltered. He pulled Spinney to a stop.

"You knew it last year."

"Nelumbo Lutea," the boy said triumphantly.

"Oh Robbie," Inga sighed "will there be time in your fast new world for swans and
lotus blossoms and wolflings?"

Wolf, who by this time had caught up, acted as though he understood Inga's question. He looked up pleadingly.

"You really don't want me to win, do you, Inga?"

"Not if it means changing your whole life."

"But how will I ever buy my time? I thought, with a few purses . . ."

"How much is the prize ok the Fourth of July?"

"One hundred dollars to win, fifty to place, twenty-five to show."

The trumpeter swan, with neck beautifully arched, kept the other birds from his mate's hidden nest.

"That's a late nesting," Robbie said in the ensuing silence.

"You are even talking a new language: 'win, place, and show'!"

Robbie clucked to the bay mare, who again began to trot. The well-greased wheels spun noiselessly through the dust. The boy and girl were silent for several minutes as they climbed the hill, where on the moment of midnight, they had welcomed the new year.

Literally, Inga Skavilain is asking Robbie Trent to slow down, to consider whether he wants to pursue a life of heightened competition to get what he wants, or a more contemplative life that will help him continue down the same path to what he wants, but without succumbing to expediency.

Metaphorically, North seems to be asking -- this was the country on the brink. Do we continue to seek the expedient path, or do we wait, watchful, for a better path towards progress? Expediency seems to have won out, and at an ever-accelerating pace.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is Wal-Mart the Victim in Rexburg?

One of our local news stations seems to believe that Wal-Mart's current remodeling of its non-Supercenter in Rexburg indicates that sinister forces are at work in the city keeping the retailing giant from bringing a long-rumored Supercenter to town.

If names were reversed and Wal-Mart were the heavy in this situation, I might believe the tale. But told in reverse, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

First of all, Albertsons isn't Albertsons anymore. The once Idaho-based company was partitioned and sold, with Minnesota-based Super-Valu taking on most of the company's stores, certainly those in Idaho. At the time -- and not because of Wal-Mart -- the new owners shuttered three underperforming stores in the area, one in Idaho Falls, one in Shelley and the other in Blackfoot. The Shelley store was bought by Rexburg-based Broulim's; the other two were closed and the buildings are still vacant. These are just casualties of the highly-competitive grocery-merchandising war that Wal-Mart is winning and Albertsons is losing, due to Albertsons generally higher prices.

Anyway, Rexburgers have long wondered why Wal-Mart has not graced the area with a Supercenter. When I worked for the local, and then the regional papers, every year I had to do a Wal-Mart Supercenter rumor story. The remodeling of the current Wal-Mart, evidently, has spun up residents to a new Supercenter frenzy.

It's clear that if Wal-Mart were planning a Supercenter for Rexburg that they would not be remodeling the current store. Enter the intrepid news reporter, who first descended upon City Hall to find a culprit. Finding none there, he immediately swoops upon Albertsons -- which is only three doors down from Wal-Mart to find the evil-doer. Getting no answer to his ludicrous question of whether Albertsons has an agreement that restricts the local Wal-Mart to only a few aisles of food, he opts to "let the readers decide" whether such an agreement exists.

To which I have to say: Hahahahahahahahaha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. And ha.

The reporter doesn't mention in his report whether he contacted Wal-Mart corporate HQ, who would likely laugh even harder at his question than I do.

I have nothing against Wal-Mart. However, if a retail behemoth were to open in Rexburg, I'd choose WinCo over Wal-Mart, as WinCo's prices are better. It's also a local behemoth, based in Boise, not Bentonville. But WinCo won't consider Rexburg until the area hits a population of 80,000, which isn't going to happen any time soon. Like many other locals, I wonder as well why Wal-Mart hasn't built a Supercenter in Rexburg, but I hardly believe it's because Albertsons, or anyone else for that matter, is putting the hurtin' on them.

Fratelli Chase

Just getting pumped to begin writing about our trip to Oregon. Of COURSE one of the story/photo sets I'll do for Uncharted will focus on The Goonies. How could I visit the Astoria region without visiting the places used in this classic movie?

This is music done by Dave Grusin for the 1985 Steven Spielberg film, performed here by a Dutch orchestra. It has a little different orchestration than the piece from the movie, but it's still fun to listen to.

Spun Up Over the Front Page

Charles Apple over at visualeditors.com is in a snit over newspapers and magazines finding "creative" ways to place advertising where advertising has never been before, such as Business Week wrapping an ad around a popular bit of editorial content in its most recent edition.

He seems to imply that these tricks, including front page advertisements -- like the sticky notes newspapers have used on their front covers for years -- are attempts by flagging rags to boost their advertising revenue during the current downturn, and that such advertising is only a gimmick meant to prop these publications up until the crisis is over.

I don't know about that. And I don't know that such advertising is a blow to editorial integrity, either.

Front cover ads -- especially in magazines, it seems -- is really getting people spun up, as the covers have heretofore been considered strictly editorial space. And it's true that the crisis in advertising is causing a lot of publications to reconsider what has traditionally been off limits, or reserved for somethign else. Readers Digest, for example, has long had magazine-commissioned original artwork running on the back cover. No more. It's now ad space. Not to mention the magazine is now the size of a postage stamp.

Readers, of course, notice. Some complain. But, I think, only the rare few are snookered into believing the advertising is editorial content, any more than they believe the editorial content is advertising. So the LA Times had an ad that looked like a story on its front cover, touting the NBC show Southland. Most readers are savvy enough in this overwhelming media age to know it's an ad. We're used to it. The majority of us won't get as spun up about it appearing on the front page as will media purists like Apple.

We're used to product placement, folks. The film industry has done it for years. The Goonies, one of my favorite movies, plugs Pepsi and Godfathers Pizza. Cast Away, some grumblers grumble, is a long (very long) advertisement for FedEx. And any Mormon out there will tell you that Tahitian Noni's deep pockets brought Johnny Lingo to the silver screen to hawk their health juice. (I didn't much like that, and, apparently, neither did viewers. The movie bombed.)

Print attempts to do the same thing, crisis or not, seem minor sins to me.

The other option, I suppose, to get the public eye back into print publications is tabloidization, which television news does to spectacular effect, and the British and some US venues like the New York Post do amazingly well. Pick up practically any British newspaper and you'll see tabloid elements -- nudies, crime shockers, death and gore, plane crashes, car crashes, celebrity news and such. A lot of it on the front page. Tell me you'd rather see that than an infomercial for Southland.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Transparent Technology

For this post, I’ll build on a theme I started in my journal earlier today – I’m in the blissful stage of not knowing what I don’t know about designing an online course. Or designing any kind of course, for that matter. That’s not necessarily good nor bad, but it does let me go into the process wide-eyed, without any preconceived notions, willing to respond to, consider, and adapt advice I might find along the way.

There’s lots of good advice in this week’s readings, with the most useful coming from Kelli’s chapter in the Online Education book. The most significant nugget of advice from her chapter is to think first of pedagogy (or androgogy), and technology second. This is a sentiment that Horton echoes as well. This is good advice for me because it’s preventing me from putting the cart before the horse. While that may be a good way to keep the cart’s wheels clean, it’s not necessarily the best method for long-distance travel.

Kelli writes: “When used every day, technologies become transparent until they are virtually invisible or unrecognizable as technologies.” She goes on to add that technology is still important as it permits and constrains the teaching activities for which they are used. She provides the examples of chalk and slate, then of paper and pencil, as technologies that were paradigm shifters, much as computers are, but have now slipped into ubiquity and transparency, much as computers have as well.

As an example of this transparency, when I moved from journalism to technical writing, I was not surprised in the least, my first day at the RWMC, to see a computer in my cubicle. I expected it and took it for granted that a computer would be provided. Had I walked into the cubicle and found a typewriter on a desk facing a straight-backed wooden chair, I would have been much more surprised. Computer technology is simply what we expect to have.

Another example of the transparent nature of technology comes through in this YouTube clip:

(I apologize for slightly salty language at the end.) This comedian makes a good point, though, we do take the technology we have for granted. So I appreciate the reiterative emphasis among Kelli, Horton and Grady/Davis on building the pedagogy before jumping into the technology – because it’s helped me put the brakes on what I was thinking for my online course as far as technology goes and get me thinking about why I want to use this technology in the first place. Setting course goals, deciding on activities and assessment first, then choosing technology to fit the goals, activities and assessments makes a lot more sense than just leaping into the technology itself and assuming that the technology will aid in teaching. Assuming that because students have access to and understand how to use paper and pencil without planning activities to help them use these “new” tools is also as foolish. (I have another YouTube video that illustrates that):

For example, a few years ago my wife and I took a class on Photoshop because we could see how that particular tool would really help us in our careers (she was teaching yearbook at the time; I was working as a journalist and looking for ways to get out of the “word-processor only” mindset). It was assumed that everyone in the class had a computer with Photoshop on it – and that’s about as much preparation as the instructors put into the course. As this was a continuing education course, it was not taught by the university’s instructor, but by students who were told, very loosely it seemed, that they were to teach people the basics of Photoshop. As far as I can remember, the basics included talking about layers, again and again, because we had several classmates who would arrive an hour late each day, and the instructors would simply start the lesson again. That happened every day for three weeks, so we left the course knowing little more than we went into it. The students teaching the class didn’t seem to have planned much of anything except to say, “Well, OK, we’ll teach them the basics of Photoshop.” I can see now that had they planned the course more carefully before leaping into the technology, we should have learned more. Also, they should have shot the persistent latecomers.

So this begs the question, one that we’ve hit upon since the start: How do we, as instructional designers, pull back the reins on the powers that be who say since we have the technology we ought to leap online? This is not an original question to be sure, but it’s one I’m seeing the import of much more clearly after having read this week’s assignments.

This leads into discussing Grady/Davis, and their thoughts on building the proper scaffolding for online courses. I’ve worked as a hod carrier and bricklayer in my time, and can emphasize that the job is a lot easier if you’ve got a sturdy scaffold that provides access to the job site. A few years ago I recall helping my brother build a 35-foot-tall chimney up the side of a house, and the complicated scaffold we built to get us up there. Building the scaffold, even a piece at a time as the chimney rises, is a real pain because of the work involved, but after you’ve stumbled and nearly fallen 20 or so feet to the ground because you’re reaching too high because your scaffold is too low, you appreciate the work that goes into building one.

Another question arises: How an we as industrial designers/teachers justify the time and expense it takes to build the proper scaffold when we’re working under management that’s gung-ho to get the job done? Where I work, some times a week is an eternity to upper management to get things done. I can’t imagine going to them and saying, well, I need three months, six months to get this done – and that’s without ever having built an online course before, so I have no idea how long it’s supposed to take.

Digital Books: Not There Yet

I moved a lot of books this weekend. Literally. With my hands, I placed nearly a thousand books back on the bookshelves in our study at home, following the completion of a remodeling project. For three weeks, the books were stored in various boxes and bags in the study underneath a giant tarp, in the boys' room blocking access to one of our son's beds, and around the recliner, barring access to its more lazy-man functions. But they're all back on the bookshelves, dusted, alphabetized, ready to be read again.

That's a lot of bulk, you say. A lot of work. A lot of dead trees. True, true, and true. But I look at that collection of books (and imagine what the room will look like when the rest of the collection can join them following the re-carpeting) and I get all smug.


Because of this.

Ah, the Amazon Kindle. Supposed to be that game-changer. Gone is the day when people have to be shackled to printed books when they can load all the books they want into the Kindle to read at their leisure, no longer tied to the library or the home library or cheap novels from which the ink leaches onto your fingers.

Until, of course, you've downloaded the books to too many devices and you're no longer allowed to download, thanks to the DRM books you bought and the download limits Amazon won't reveal.

Tell me this is better than a home library. I have books up there I can take off the shelf and read any time I want. They're as portable as the Kindle. If one breaks, I buy a new one. But it doesn't magically disappear after only three or six or the magic number of readings. It's still there, slowly mouldering, for years.

I understand the publisher/Amazon dilemma. One digital book, once purchased, could become a thousand digital books purchased only once if the DRM genie is let out of the bottle. As a budding authoir, I'm horrified at the thought of people being able to get something I publish for free. But then again I have to look where I buy most of my books -- used book stores, thrift stores, where people, tired of the books they've read, sell them so I can buy them again. Without the author getting a penny. Am I a hypocrite? You bet.

So what is real? A printed copy of a book is real, and there's nothing an author or publisher can do to forbid an owner, once the book is sold, from selling the book to another to read, or simply giving the book away. Many borrowed books are never returned, with the original lender either taking the situation as a zen moment that the book has left his life, or going to the store for another copy. But digital books, DRM-free, allow for the lending of books without the original ever leaving posession of the one who paid for it. There's a fundamental difference in fairness there, even in this unfair world.

If I had a solution, I'd be a savior. But I am no savior. I'm just a guy who likes to read books. Lots of them. And who will likely continue to buy the dead tree variety, because there's no limit on how often I can re-read them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Weiner Dog Futures

We are suddenly invested in weiner dog futures.

Friends of ours have a dachshund they're going to breed, and have promised us a puppy. This is a significant step for my wife, still mourning the death of our first weiner dog, Moki, who died just before Thanksgiving last year.

We've been telling the kids that we'd get a new dog once we got done with vacation. So on the way home from Oregon, our daughter brought the subject up. The new answer them became We'll get a digvwhen the time is right. Seems that time, at least that time fir speculation, has arrived.

There are, of course, logistical problems. These friends used to live in Sugar City. Now they're in Monterey, California. Don't know how we'll get a puppy, even if it does come to pass, from there to here, and we had to tell our daughter that her idea of putting the puppy in a box with some holes poked in it and with some dog biscuits inside was not going to work, cute as the idea is.

So we'll see what happens.

Peter and the Story-Crashers

Just finished reading "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and have to wonder why they bothered. To me -and I don't think I'm too far off on this - the real appeal of James Barrie's story of Peter Pan lies in that it is a fairy tale that we are invited to accept without exposition. So for Barry and Pearson to come in with this exposition - explaining away the magic of Never-Never Land with starstuff, an idealistic organization guarding it and a sinister organization covering it - robs the story of it's otherworld appeal.

Never-Never Land, as we know, is "second star to the right and straight on till morning." Pearson and Barry want Never-Never Land to be on some Caribbean island, where Peter Pan is created by accident and ignorance as he monkeys with a box of starstuff, from whence he gains the ability to fly and the inability to grow up. I don't want Never-Never Land to be bound by Earth, and, for me, it doesn't have to be. Wendy, Peter and John suspend belief when they fly away with Pan; I -and I believe Barrie as well - want to do exactly the same thing. This "backstory" brings Never-Never Land to the cheap, shoddy world of the paper moon and the cardboard sky.

When did the fairy tale die? Have we lost enough faith in everything, in God, in imagination, in the ability to suspend belief for the sake of a good tale, that we have to know why Peter Pan can fly, or how Captain Hook got his name? Apparently so. We want to be an insider now, someone knowing the story before it happens, looking for clues, having to know, and know now, why things happen, not that they just happen. We can't take it on faith any more that Peter Pan can fly, that he can lose his shadow, that the Lost Boys were once a simpering band of of orphans, rather than another bunch of boys who won't grow up no matter what anyone says, because no one is bathing in asking the why's behind the story. Pearson and Barry could have written an exciting Peter Pan tale, instead they answer the first easy question that comes to mind.

Yes, when I read stories to my children, I get a lot of questions: why this, and how come that? I like to say, "What do you think," and we discuss their answers. But more often than not, I just say, "Let's see if we can fund out by reading some more." I love to see them get wrapped up in the stories, to genuinely worry that the terrible giants will eat the heroine on Roald Dahl's "The BFG." we can find out through our own imagination, through deduction and inference, what is likely to happen, and we're often surprised to find out that what we though would happen does indeed come to pass. I don't get that from Pearson and Barry.

I look at stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, even J.R.R. Tolkein's works, where exposition is nonexistent or kept to a minimum, and I realize I just love them for the stories. I don't want to know why the Hatter is mad, nor why the Duchess' cook has her pepper fetish, nor why the Queen of Hearts plays croquet with hedgehogs and flamingoes. I love the stories for the sheer fairy-tale, the nonsense, the ability to leave this world for another that is like the one I'm in - unexplainable.

So, too, do I think of Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's version. I don't believe the exposition - the addition of Willy Wonka's father, Wonka's childhood, and such - is necessary. I don't know why I need Wonka's backstory. Exposition to a point is fine, but I'm beginning to feel about it as Mark Twain felt about adjectives: "When you see an adjective, kill it."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Those Without Children Will NOT Fully Understand

Those of you without children might have an inkling of an understanding of this comic, but until you do have children of your own and you've seen their "stuff seep[ing] inexorably into every corner of the house . . . overwhelming all that are not Alice," you really have no clue.

Example: We took a trip to Oregon a few weeks ago. The entire trip, mixed in with the loose change in my wife's pockets, she had a hat for a Lego man.

Another example: I have gone to work on at least three occasions with a Barbie doll or some article of Barbie clothing in my work bag. These kinds of things are hard to explain, especially when you work at a pretty rough-and-tumble industrial plant where the guys like to chuckle alot about things like this.

I find my son's underwear in my underwear drawer. Legos, Polly Pockets, anything wee and/or twee, ends up in coat pockets, pants pockets, shoes, the little zippered pouches on camera bags, everywhere. Our kids are inexorably in our food chain. When I want a late-night snack I have to swim through fruit snacks, granola bars, cheesy crackers and miniature bags of cookies to find that they're the only things in the house. So I go to get a piece of fruit and I can't penetrate the thick layer of discarded banana stickers to get through to the produce drawer in the refrigerator. Don't think of hiding in a vehicle, either, bvecause the Lego men and little cars and dolly parts follow you there, too.

It's not that we buy the kids a lot of stuff, so don't think this is an example of rampant consumerism. There is just enough in the house, however, and the kids are lazy enough with picking up, that these things just spread around.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hell's Half Acre

Hey de ho! Uncharted has a new feature this week, and it's straight from Hell. Hell's Half Acre lava flow in Idaho, to be exact. (Read my Uncharted.net blog post about the whole schomozzle here.

Yes, I continue my exploration of Idaho's Lost River Desert. I love this place. I love finding a place to wander where I'm fairly sure I'll be able to wander back to my pickup once the wandering is over. Walking over the lavas of Hell's Half Acre -- not the sissy stop on I-15, but something called Twentymile trail on Highway 20 west of town -- made me realize that we truly do live in a unique and beautiful place. And this comes from a guy who just did a week and a half tour of Oregon, including the green part.

All Part of the Act

Kent Pietsch caused comment at the Rexburg Air Show today when one of the ailerons on his plane fell off as he was flying over the airport.

Of course, it's all part of the act.

With us not knowing at the time, however, watching that aileron flutter to the ground made us all a bit nervous. Especially when another part -- we think it was a spare rear tire -- plummeted to the ground a bit later.

This guy's got the kind of job I want. No, I do not want to fly around in some crazy stunt plane for a candy company, no matter how well-respected the company may be. Nor how well-constructed the plane is, as it had to be to fly with only one aileron. No, what I want is the kind of job I don't consider a job, something I do for fun but that people pay me for it. Writing might be it. Journalism certainly was not. And technical writing, which I'm doing now, it's better than journalism but it's a far sight from soaring in the clouds watching parts of my plane tumble to the ground.

I am working on the writing thing. Not as much as I should, but I am working on it. This blog is part of the whole writing world -- because it represents something I don't have to do, but something I want to do. And that's just fine. It doesn't bring me money, but it does bring me self-satisfaction. Almost as much as the self-satisfaction Ed Begley, Jr., gets from driving around in his little eco-car.

And yes, that is Mr. Peitsch landing his plane on that little platform on the truck. Landing it there looks deceptively easy, but I'll bet it's harder to get the plane off than it is to get it on.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Anybody Know What This Is?

Need some help from you nature-lovers out there. I'm trying to identify the round object in the center of the photo. Judging by the flowers, this thing, sizewise, is probably between that of a nickel and a quarter. It looks like chewed-up corncob. Either I or my nine-year-old son took this photo, while hiking on the Twentymile trail out at Hell's Half Acre, in Idaho's Lost River Desert. A friend of mine suggests it looks like an owl pellet, but it's a bit small, and a lot less grey, than the pellets I'm used to seeing. Feel free to chime in with your guesses.

PETA Swallows A Fly

Remember how Obama killed that fly yesterday? Of COURSE People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is upset with him. Of course, they're probably upset I showered and used deodorant this morning, thus killing and/or sweetening up several million bacteria swarming on my skin.

Thoughtfully, PETA sent a Katcha Bug (TM) Humane Bug Catcher to the White House, for President Obama or his designated Secret Service Bug Swatter to use the next time a pesky insect invades the White House. Conveniently, PETA sells these things on their website for $8. Here's a photo:

The device resembles in some ways the kid-contamination control devices used in Monsters Inc., except that rather than obliterating the bug with some kind of flash weapon at the push of a button once the creepy-crawly is captured, users of this bug catcher are supposed to use the Mike Wazowski approach and, using mainly spoons, capture the bug and release it into the wild.

This is probably more humane treatment than what bugs generally get at my house, especially spiders. I won't detail our disposal methods here, lest PETA send me an angry letter, but suffice it to say that, in general, bugs in our house become "Rexburg's Problem" through the application of generous wads of toilet tissue an an exciting ride through what I like to call the Super-Duper Bug Waterslide.

Not all bugs get such treatment. Ladybugs, for example, are typically released into the wild, because of their aphid-munching proclivities. That, and because my kids NEVER believe me when I tell them ladybugs taste just like M&Ms and that they should eat them.

To be fair, I used a device similar to the Katcha Bug to remove a bat from our house a few years ago. For those interested in creating their own Katcha Bat Humane Bat Catcher, I recommend a large Tupperware bowl and an aluminum cookie tin. I suppose any brand of bowl could be used, but it's my experience that Tupperware products have the overall heft and robustness necessary for the successful evacuation of bats from a domicile. Here's the method:

1. Whack the bat out of flight with the bowl or tin (I recommend the bowl, because it makes Step 2 that much easier to accomplish).

2. Drop the bowl over the stunned bat.

3. Slide the cookie tin under the bowl, being careful not to raise the bowl enough to allow the bat to escape -- and believe me, partner, it WILL try to escape. The bat will NOT want to climb up on top of the tin. It's your duty to not give the bat an opinion in the matter.

4. Take the bowl and tin out onto the back porch, place the assembly on the railing, give it a severe whack so it all falls off the railing into the grass below then run like hell back into the house, slamming the door so the enraged bat can't re-enter the house.

PETA, I guarantee this is the most humane treatment I could think of to rid my house of the bat. The typical male solution -- opening all the windows, removing the screens and hoping for the best) was not acceptable to other family members, who hid under the covers during the bat-removal process.

Besides, PETA, I still think Obama's fly-swatting on camera was a subtle message being sent to North Korea. If he had instead used the Katcha Bug, you have to know Kim Jong Il would be further emboldened.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PBS Gets All Grandfatherly

Looks like the Public Broadcasting System has relented and won't yank its affiliation from six PBS stations, including KBYU in Utah, that choose to broadcast shows with religious content as well as nationally-produced PBS shows. They still will enforce the ban on ews PBS stations, but granted a grandfater exception to six stations that aired religious programming, ranging from Catholic masses for shut-ins to excerpts from Mormon conferences and devotionals.

As I wrote before, I had to wonder at the time who PBS thought the public was in their name. The ban on religious programming seemed odd, especially as the ban on political broadcasting on PBS is so widely circumvented. Good to hear reason won out in this case.

Obama is a Fly-Killer

The news here is not that President Obama killed a fly. I fully anticipate that any standing president is fully capable of killing flies, mosquitoes, mice, rats, cockroaches, lobbyists, lawyers and other vermin that may pester him. Or her. He or she mey indeed have a Secret Service member or other staffer wholly dedicated to the eradication of vermin.

What is news here is that Obama killing a fly made it on the news.

Being a former journalist I know what it means to have an eye for detail, and that catching a little detail, such as President Obama killing a fly, is a great way to introduce some humanity into a piece without actually having to do any work to find something with which to humanize the subject. Writers in general are aces at doing this kind of thing. I did it frequently in the stories I wrote for the paper, and continue to do it now. But this kind of detail really only works if it adds to the story. Many a time I can count adding in a piece of detail just for the sake of adding in a piece of detail. It's writerly in the sense that it's easy, but it's not writerly in the sense that it actually contributes to the story. Now perhaps I'm seeing this fly-killing out of context. If, perhaps, Obama killed the fly while prepping for an interview on, say, North Korea, the act of killing the fly would send a subtle let chilling message to Kim Jong Il. But if he were talking about, say, health care reform, the fly's death might just serve as an apt but poor metaphor for the state of health care in the United States. What I'm getting at here is that the mere act of killing a fly, even if it's killed by the POTUS, isn't necessarily news. Unless you're the Daily Show and can come up with a clever gag to go with it. Which they might.

Thoughts on the INL 500

This morning, I did something I rarely do: I drove to work.

Ordinarily, going to work for me involves a quiet, seven-mile journey from home to bus stop. I get on the bus and blissfully drop into a quiet slumber until the bus rumbles into CFA at about 6:30.

Because of an in-town meeting that would elave me stranded in Idaho Falls afterward because of the absence of INL bus service between the two cities, I chose today to drive, carpooling with another worker.

I don't ordinarily make the journey because -- and I clocked this once -- driving only saves me about 20 minutes versus riding the bus, it costs me half a tank of gas and ends up putting 178 miles on my truck. That's a long trip just to get to work, considering that Salt Lake City is only 210 miles, one way, from home.

I got plenty of reminders this morning of why I don't like to drive to work. Plenty of tailgaters, for one. And it didn't seem to matter how fast I went, I always had somebody trying to crawl up my tailpipe. Plenty of speeders, too.

The worst were the honkers. As I was waiting for traffic to turn off Highway 20 to get to RWMC< the idiot behind me started to honk and nearly decided to pass me through the intersection. Through the intersection, mind you. He and another idiot passed me instead right after we cleared the intersection. Watching them race up the road to work really made me laugh, because in the end we walked through the front doors with them. They didn't gain any time at all being rude at the intersection. I figure if you're in that much of a rush to get to work in the morning, you're better off riding the bus -- which beat everybody there -- or getting up earlier and getting to work earlier than everyone else.

I'll be happy to get back on the bus tomorrow morning. Lot less stress. And I can sleep. Or watch Dr. Strangelove, which I just uploaded onto my iPod Touch. Can't wait.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Source of the Butlerian Jihad?

Pardon me, but the English geek inside me is coming out. Remember as Dave Barry said, if you can easily come up with idiot interpretations of novels, you should major in English. I majored in journalism, meaning I could easily come up with idiot interpretations of news events. Same thing.

So here’s my idiot interpretation of Samuel Butler’s contribution to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Herbert, author of the Dune novels, may have taken the name of Butler and the idea of a societal rebellion against machines from Butler’s novel Erewhon into Herbert’s books as the Butlerian Jihad, in which sentient robots and thinking machines were banned, with the ensuing chaos and violence that the word jihad implies. This is certainly not an original thought, as many Dune enthusiasts (I hesitate to call them scholars, since there are no endowed chairs, at least that I know of, for the pupose of literary study of the Herbert canon, though it would not surprise me at all to find someone, several someones, who have focused on Herbert in masters or doctoral theses. I'll bet Comic Book Guy would have a few words to say on the subject.) have also come to the same conclusion. There’s a lot of disagreement, however, most of it superficial, such as this.

I believe there is strong evidence that supports Herbert’s drawing on Butler’s name and Erewhonian philosophy as background for the Butlerian Jihad.

Butler’s Erewhonians believed that an overreliance on machines would weaken humanity and cause natural selection to stumble in allowing weaker humans, aided by machines, to continue contributing to the gene pool. This belief is in line with the criminalization of illness in Erewhon, where diseases of the body were treated as crimes and justly punished, while what we consider to be crimes – embezzlement, tax evasion – are tolerated under Erewhonian law as proof that the minds that performed such activities are stronger than those that do not, pushing the drive to succeed by any means above the drive to succeed honestly.

In addition, Butler’s Erewhonian scholar writes:

The misery is that man has been blind so long already. In his reliance upon the use of steam, he has been betrayed into increasing and multiplying. To withdraw steam power suddenly will not have the effect of reducing us to the state in which we were before its introduction; there will be a general break-up and time of anarchy such as has never been known; it will be as though our population were suddenly doubled, with no additional means of feeding the increased number. The air we breathe is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine, on the strength of which we have increased our numbers, is to our civilization; it is the machines which act upon man and make him man, as much as man who has acted upon and made the machines; but we must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering, or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures till we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves.

Here we see the roots of and consequences of Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad. Erewhonians feared overreliance on steam. Herbert’s empire-dwellers feared the overreliance on thinking machines. Despite the fact that withdrawing the steam/thinking machines all at once would introduce a period of anarchy, both the Erewhonians and Herbert’s people chose war, rather than continue to become subject to the machines they created. Both there Erewhonians and Herbert’s people prepared alternatives – Erewhonians relied solely on men, judged by horse-power, to accomplish the work of the steam-engines; Herbert’s people used the mentats. But both in Erewhon and in the Empire, overreliance on machine became overreliance on the “machine” built to replace the machine, leading to the same general conditions the rejection of machinery and the jihad were meant to overcome.

Not until m̩lange is made synthetically Рand never in Erewhon Рis the paradigm shifted enough to bring about another revolution.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Goode Family -- More than Good

Finally, after many weeks of waiting, I finally got to see a few episodes of ABC's "The Goode Family." I think it's good comedy, and not just because it skewers the left. That's a bonus, certainly, especially when we get lines like this:

Gerald Goode: My point is maybe we shouldn't be so judgmental. Don't we always try to celebrate people's differences and learn from them?

Helen Goode: Sure, if they're like Native Americans or backwards rainforest tribes, but not these people!

These people, of course, are people who know what condoms and contraceptives are but believe that -- gasp -- abstinence is the best way to avoid having unwanted children.

Critics and such either loathe the show -- they're offended at how save-the-earthers are portrayed in the show or how they fuzzy notion of culture-worship that excludes anything Eurocentric -- or believe that since some conservatives are "sulking" that the show will be quickly dropped by ABC because it's not politically correct enough.

I just think it's damned funny. Where else can you get an exchange like this:

Gerald: We can't let her sleep in our potting shed.

Helen: But we can't impose our Western notion of comfort on her. Making her sleep inside on a bed would be cultural imperialism.

So Makinkin, the Burmese pen-pal Helen has had for 30 years gets to sleep in the potting shed and miss out on the comforts of indoor showers with running water and microwave ovens (not because the Goodes won't let her use them, but because nobody in the house uses them because they're energy-wasters) sleeps in the potting shed, all while Helen revels in harboring a refugee. "Almost no one gets to do that," she exults.

Even better is when she takes Makinkin to the One Earth organic food store to show her off to the one-uppity Margot, who fumes that Helen gets a refugee before she does "How did you get one? I'm on a list!" Margot says.

I trust Mike Judge, the brain behind "The Goode Family," will keep the comedy coming. And as long as ratings are good, I don't see ABC shoving this show under the rug.

Back in Class

As you probably surmized by my last boring, out-of-place post, I'm back in class. Gratefully, luckily, this is the last class I will take in pursuit of my masters degree. That is if I can pass it. It's going to be a challenging way to end the program, which will either have me going out with a bang or a whimper.

Funny me. When my last class ended at the end of April, I lamented a bit on what I would do to fill my free time in the month between classes. Boy howdy did I ever find stuff to do. Didn't miss being in class a bit. And I even got to put this one off a week since we were on vacation last week.

Speaking of vacation: I entered a new cycle, with fresh vacation days, on May 31. I've now used half, exactly half, of my vacation hours. I get only 80 a year. Eighty a YEAR! This seems unmistakably cheap, especially from a company that is taking steps to become "more competitive." Oh well. I will soldier on. I may have to start banking holidays like the Fourth of July, which falls on a Saturday this year, so I have enough hours to cover curtailment.

Darwin in the Machine

As I read the readings for this week, I coincidentally came across a passage from Samuel Butler’s book “Erewhon,” which describes a utopian society that distrusts machines because they find it unacceptable that machines should evolve more quickly than mankind. In his book, Butler quotes from a “history” of machines written in Erewhon:

“Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any actually existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life. The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man. The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrata attained a much greater bulk that has descended to their more highly organized living representatives, and in like manner, a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress.”

Butler’s description of the “evolution” of machines, back in 1871, is amazingly prescient, and applicable to our discussion as we look at how students, teachers and institutions evolve into the world of online instruction.

Machines – and I include the online worlds of Blackboard, e-mail and such in the realm of machines – are tools. As this week’s readings point out, it is how we use these tools that affects how successful we are as students, teachers and institutions in creating online classrooms. They are means, not an end. As Blair and Hoy write: “. . . the extent to which a course is successful depends largely on the students themselves. Thus there were significant differences in motivation among some students particularly two younger students, in Blair’s first class who were not only taking their first online course, but who were simply not accustomed to self-directed learning models that require active participation.” Student success depended on their adaptability to the curriculum model, not the technology used to deliver the curriculum.

Walker Pickering also points out how developing an online ethos/persona is important for student and teacher success. This is something I’ve noted in past online and face to face courses, in which I’ve created negative and positive personas – not consciously, but subconsciously. Like one of the students Walker Pickering interviewed, I’ve become more aware of what I do that creates a persona, and have consequently learned from the times my persona came across as negative. I’m interested in hearing how others in this class create and moderate their online personas. I’m kind of a hybrid between the two students Walker Pickering interviews: Partly, I let my persona evolve through honest self-expression, and partly I try to moderate what I say and how I say it in order to maintain a persona that is open to other opinions. I agree wit what Walker Pickering writes:

“Students themselves determine from this point [at the division of labor] how they will consciously or subconsciously develop their personas. In addition, at times, other students’ responses to discussion postings will indicate to individual students that certain comments/topics or strategies for communicating ideas are not welcome or should be modified; such responses influence the developing personas of the students as well.”

I’ve been told in past classes that I come across strong-willed, and I recognize that such a persona can introduce communicative barriers. If I ever become overbearing, please know I’m open to correction.

An interesting side note: I have been on Twitter for the past three months, and recently experimented with a tool meant to reveal my Twitter psychological profile. It tells me that, in part, I am aggressive and focus on negative thoughts. That struck me as weird, but it’s also a reminder that words (or phrases, or whatever the psych profile parses) bears meaning beyond what is intended. So again, I am sorry if I come across as aggressive and negative. I do try to moderate myself, as Walker Pickering suggests. Like the student Robert, I’m evolving into “perplexed thinking about how to voice [my] views.”

In reading Meloncon, I realize my persona may be a reaction to the “messy and disorganized” appearance of the online classroom. Not that this is messy or unorganized. It’s just how I tend to react in social situations – again, evidence how students shape the landscape and how self-moderation is important in making sure the landscape doesn’t become so messy as to be intrusive for others who have to walk these same paths. Yes, a lot of navel-contemplating here.

But going back to the Erewhonians and their theory of machine evolution: This navel contemplation is a good thing, because as we build experience with these online landscapes, we become more aware of how we help the technology evolve to our needs, and how we ourselves affect the evolution of classroom tone within that technology.

I wonder if the technology and how students interact with it and with each other invites the constructivist approach, as we discussed last week? I know from past classroom and online experience that I’d rather not have an instructor who takes the didactic approach; I’m much more interested and stimulated when I can interact with my peers, with the instructor working as a facilitator. I don’t see that role as dismissive of the instructor’s presence, as many a wise instructor can, and has, with a quick message, a question, an idea, a suggestion, influenced these online discussions for the better.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Goonies Astoria

I got to see Mikey's House.

And Data's. And the museum. And the county jail. Also saw Haystack Rock and the store where Chunk is eating his pizza as the police chase zooms through town. I saw Astoria High School and Andy's field. I also got to walk the same beaches where they had that really neat ORV rally. Didn't see any with bullet holes.

Yes, I did a Goonies Tour while in northwestern Oregon.

I've long been a fan of Chris Columbus/Stephen Spielberg's sleeper hit from the early 1980s. My sister Chris saw the movie at the theater, and introduced it to us not long after that newfangled thing called the VCR came to Idaho Falls. I watched the movie a lot, and empathized with Chunk, the fat kid who wants to be part of the group but is only marginally included because of the comic value. If I were part of the Goonies, a band of kids who decide to go after some "rich stuff" -- hidden pirate treasure -- I'd be the fat kid doing the Truffle Shuffle.

So when we went through Astoria, I made sure to make it a Goonies Day.

The kids were very excited when I told them we were going to see a house in a movie. They're not even Goonies fans yet. I've tried, but the film is just a bit too scary for them. They were disappointed we couldn't go into the house. That's just how it is, I said. But we took lots of pictures, none of which I have downloaded yet because that's how this weekend has gone.

I really wanted to go into the jail. Too bad it's closed to the public. I had no idea when the movie was filmed that the old jail wasn't being used any more. Just assumed it was. And it's a lot smaller than it looks in the movie.

Astoria wears its Goonie history proudly. The Goonie House appears on tourist maps. The jail itself bears a paper placard declaring its use in the film, and outlining other films made in the area. As if anyone cares about the others.

Astoria, by the way, is a fun town. We had lunch there at the Pig n Pancake, part of a local chain of eateries, right in the shadow of the bridge Chunk could see if he weren't busy watching the bullets fly. What fun that was.

Did not get into Ecola State Park. Really, really wanted to, but the rest of the family said they'd seen enough trees. But the whole way through Astoria, I kept on saying: "You said, you said when I got to the top of this big hill, you said you'd give me a Twinkie." I didn't get one either, Chunk.

I wonder if John Jacob Astor, the rich stuff financier for whom the town is named, likes the fact that for a small portion of the American population, his town has a more meaningful cultural connection to a bunch of kids, a guy named Sloth, the Fratellis and One-Eyed Willy than to him. I wonder if I really care all that much.

East Idaho Rain

While my wife was taking sunset photos of Haystack Rock and I was playing in the sand with our youngest, a fellow carrying an enormous camera ambled by. "Can you believe this weather?" he asked, remarking on the absence of rain. "Hard to believe we're on the Oregon Coast." I felt the same way, though not necessarily for the same reason. I came fully expecting we'd get rained on. I had decided before we left that I was not going to let the rain bother me. I am glad, however, that the worst of the rain came as we were driving through the Blue Mountains at night. We also got a little rain on the way out.

Now I know where the rain went: home. Nothing but rain for the past two weeks, with flaw flood warnings on the night we came home. And that's okay. Garden is flourishing, as are the dianthus in the front yard and the irises in the back. Raspberries are also greening nicely. We don't have the copious foliage of the coast, but it's sure rich and verdant this week. Even the roadside clutter is green. I'm actually excited to head to work tomorrow so I can see what all the rain has done for the desert greenery.

The drive home was fascinating. Along the Columbia, it's fun to watch how the scenery changes. It's still green and leafy close to the coast, but as we travelled inland the trees changed, from the leaf-bearing trees and Sitka spruce to the thinner, more diminutive Douglas and Lodgepole pines. Forests gave way to scrub in bare hills, as if the Earth were suddenly stricken with mange or baldness. The height of the hills on the coast is illusory, as the trees made up a fair part of it. The bald mountains of the interior looked so much taller. So, too, did the geology. There's so much botany on the coast it's easy to forget there are rocks and dirt underneath it all. On the Columbia it's easy to see the underlying layers of rock, twisted and melted by volcanoes, carved by water, and tilted by tectonic action.

We had such a relaxing time, even with all the driving. We got lost in Portland a few times and reveled in driving through downtown's tunnels of brick, glass and living wood as we found our way back to the freeway. We dragged our kids the mile up to the top of Multnomah Falls and watched them grow through the whines. (They weren't the only ones whining. I got quite a sweaty workout climbing that steep trail, and regretted not a few times our decision to climb.) My wife lost her cell phone there, we had to renege in our promise to buy ice cream because it cost $3 a cone, but we'd go back. What fun. The rangers are mailing the phone to us, and we got the kids ice cream in Pendleton, which is not the hog butcher to Eastern Oregon we envisioned when we saw it on the map. And we almost ran out of gas but made it to Arlington, where I made an ass of myself by having to do a redneck turn down a freeway onramp because I took the wrong one. Oops.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Seaside and Clams

As kids frolicked on the beach, as lovers smooched in the surf and as a guy carrying both a digital camera and a pair of binoculars stood there as if waiting for the bus, a man walked up the beach at Seaside. The beach, let's face it, is a bit cruddy. Cigarette butts and bits of plastic bag and candy wrappers everywhere. But the man walking on the beach with his mesh bag and dwarf posthole digger didn't care. He walked, scanning the sand. Once and a while he would stop, examine the sand a bit more closely, then dig into the sand with his digger. He took out a few scoops of sand, reached into the hole or kicked the sand he brought up, then put an object into the bag.

Finally, he started digging right by the gear-endowed one. "What are you digging for," I asked.

"Clams," he replied. He dug and pulled a clam out of the sand. It looked like a dirty ice cream sandwich, the clam inside spilling out of the shells like a muffin-topper on the bus. He asked my daughter Lexie - the only child whose attention I could grab - if she wanted to touch it. She refused.

To dig for a clam, he said, you look fir the air hole they create to the surface. Dig there, down a foot or two into the wet sand, and you have your clam. And later, clam chowder or fried clams or whatever you want.

So amidst the hubbub of a touristy town, the life of a seaside dweller goes on, clams and all. Made me forget the bumper cars and the Columbia Street arcade and remember it's nature we're visiting, where there just happens to be a city in the way.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Haystack Rock II

We just got back from watching the sun set at Haystack Rock. I spent a good portion of the time standing on the beach like an idiot while the kids - and then just the one kid who gets freaked out by the waves - made sand castles, and then taking the youngest two to the potty, far, far away. I did get to see the sun, in all it's red orbness, setting into the purple clouds, which streaked the sun to make it look like Jupiter.

We were lucky in our sojourn in that it has not rained. "That's once in a lifetime," said a jocular grey-haired got on the beach with an enormous camera slung over his shoulder.

We also watched suffers. The surf was not big, but big enough to attract a few. It's a little surreal to watch them surf, with the Jupiter-like sun setting behind them, with those gigantic rocks poking like crocodile teeth out of the silver water.

Tillamook Cheese

Part of me is disappointed we weren't met at the gate of the Tillamook Cheese Factory by a Willy Wonkaesque personage wearing and old-fashioned tuxedo, or at least a pair of overalls with some felt or sequins as part of the accoutrement. There was no river of cheese for us to go boating on, though it might count as a river of cheese because I went through the cheese-sampling line several times. There might have been Oompa Loompas in the factory, but we didn't see them. Just regular hair-netted employees wrestling enormous blocks of cheese and winkling them through cutters, wrappers and other sorts of devices.

Here's one thing I learned: if you noticed sometimes that you get a block of cheese with a little bonus strip of cheese packed in with the block, it's because the block is underweight and they added the little strip to get the weight right. Just a useless bit of trivia.

Lived the cheese, by the way. A little disappointed they didn't do the exotics I like - notably Gouda and Edam - but I'm spoiled in liking those cheeses I suppose. Tillamook's smoked pepper white cheddar was good enough to entice me to buy a $7 block of it to chew on on the way home.

Speaking of cheese, several years ago I was lucky enough to visit the Netherlands, where Gouda and Edam cheeses come from. The cheese market in Alkmaar is especially interesting, as you get to see the dliverymen bounce the round cheeses from the truck to the ground. They're not above a little showmanship, carrying the cheeses on big racks they hang from their shoulders. Nothing like that at Tillamook, but then again it's a factory, not a market. I did feel a bit sorry for the Tillamook employees who, when they glance up from their work, have tourist oddballs staring down at them. I'd find that unsettling, and I work for the government, where we ought to be used to having people state at us idly while we work.

The Economy from the Road

I'd heard that Oregon had been hit particularly hard by the recession, and if the real estate signs we've been seeing along the way are any indication, that assessment is correct.

We've been traveling, obviously, through touristy country which is also, I'm finding out, big second home country fir a lot of people. A lot of people seem to be selling, or trying to sell. In every town we enter, we see strings of for sale signs. Even the little cottage hotel we're staying in is for sale. And many tourists are staying away as well. Hotel vacancies are up. When we were planning the trip, we were anxious about getting reservations so we wouldn't get locked out. But we could have gone without reservations and found a room. Lots of vacancies here. That may mean we're here before tourist season, but I can't believe the difference would be that pronounced.

This is definitely vacationland, and expensive vacationland to boot.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Eat at Mo's

One of the things that is severely lacking in Idaho is fresh seafood. Stores try, but the frozen, prepackaged stuff we get there is typically pretty bad. Since I'm half Dutch and have a Dad who brought home the occasional delicacy from the Netherlands, I know the difference between the good stuff and the bad, at least in a general sense. One of my favorite fish treats is herring, either pickled or fresh - and by fresh I mean raw- served with a little chopped green onion. So tasty. So to be on Oregon and not get a good fresh seafood meal would be a travesty. Enter Mo's.

Mo's is a local chain of restaurants on the northern Oregon coast. We visited their restaurant in cannon Beach today. Good stuff. I'm a big fan of clam chowder, so when I saw the chowder in a sourdough cannonball I jumped at it. The chowder was excellent. The bread, not so much. I have been spoiled, of course, by real sourdough bread from the San Francisco area. You know it's good locally when you can wander onto a Safeway and pick up a decent loaf. I like my sourdough sour, and this Mo's bread was a disappointment. Still good and chewey like a sourdough should be, but just not sour enough. The onion rings we had with the cannonballs, however, were great. Hot, crispy, done just right and not dripping with grease. That's what I look fir in onion rings.

My hopes are tomorrowvto sample more of the local fresh fish. I have to strike when I can, because my wife isn't a big fish fan. And tomorrow we also get cheese. Absolutely cannot wait.

Haystack Rock

Spent the morning at Haystack Rock, dodging waves, building sand castles, poking mussels and otherwise having a wonderful time exploring the beach and the water. We actually went into the water, at least to the shins, and got a lot of odd states from passersby. The water is a bit cold, yes, but I didn't come all this way without planning to get my feet wet. All we have to do is say "We're from Idaho, we're used to the cold," and that seems to satisfy most people.

Running into and out of the surf was great. The kids would take their buckets and scoop up water, then dump it in the little lakes they built by their sand castles. Then a big wave would come in and they'd give a fake scream and run. I think we were entertaining a lot of people with our weird little antics.

Haystack Rock is a tremendous place, even without the Goonies connection. (Side note: A shop here sells replica Spanish doubloons. Sales were slow until they re-named them "Goonie Treasure." I may have to buy one before we leave.) lots of life clinging to that thing. Aside from the sea birds, which I cannot name at this time, there are little crabs crawling on the cracks in the rocks, mussels and barnacles clinging to everything, and barnacles clinging to everything else, including other mussels and barnacles. We even saw sea stars and anemones.

I will try to post a few photos here, but I also don't want to spend a lot of time in the computer, either.

Another Oregon note: Pet-friendly doesn't begin to describe it. Pet-obsessed, but in a good way. Pet bowls with water on the sidewalks, pet groomers and vets everywhere.

Apologies to Oregon

I've been misspelling Tillamook all this time. So sorry. No disrespect.

Quotes of the Week, Thusfar

Said at Newberry Volcanic National Monument:

Dad: "We came all the way from Idaho to feed chipmunks in a volcano."

Dad: "See there, where it looks like a wall that broke? That's where the lava came through!"

Lexie (afraid the lava breach was imminent) "Where?"

Said on Highway 101 between Newport and Tilamook:

Liam: "One person in this van will be loved throughout America: Me."

Oregon and Highway Signs

We've been traveling the backroads of Oregon for the past few days, and have a few questions for folks who live here on a regular basis.

We note there are many high schools in Oregon. In most states, one simply assumes the schools are there, incongruously and, for the passerby, anonymously educating youngsters. In Oregon, by contrast, there are sings all over on the highways announcing "High School," as if they were significant monuments, scenic points, or fabulous places to visit. Now I assume these are fine school, filled with top-notch educators, canny, teachable students and enough other assorted hangers-on to keep all of the espresso shacks and two-for-the-price-of-one guitar shops in business, even in this sour economy. It's just odd to have them advertised on the highways so prominently, that's all.

This is even odder considering what is not advertised on the highways: the distance to the next town. Now, I admit since we're traveling the back roads (state and local highways, touching the interstate only once at Eugene) the travel is going to be a bit slower than what we anticipate. But the near utter lack of mileage signs occasionally makes the journey feel like this:

Tilamook 57

(20 minutes of driving)

Tilamook 51

(25 minutes of driving)

Tilamook 46 miles

(One hour of driving)

Tilamook What's Taking You So Long?

There is much to appreciate, however, about Oregon's highways. The near total lack of billboards is a plus. Who wants to see ads for used car dealerships when you can see the trees?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Uncharted: Going for that Gothic Feel

In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Slartibartfast, planet designer extraordinaire, brags he won an award for designing the fijords of Norway. Assigned to design the continent of Africa for Earth Mark Two, Slartibartfast is disgusted because he won't be able to inclue fijords in a subtropical climate. He likes fijords, he explains, because they give a continent "a baroque feel."

Pity Slartibartfast. Had he dabbled in desert scenery, he might have discovered he enjoys the Gothic feel of the solid rock, the sheer cliffs and the massive arches of the Utah Desert.

Uncharted Explorer Xelashay certainly enjoys that Gothic look. This week she's taking us all on a journey through Utah's Coyote Gulch where with a mixture of wind and water time, the gods or some obscure but self-satisfied palnetary designer has been hard at work. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama in Cairo

I'm the kind of person who likes to be able to go stright to the source. Get too many people between you and a message you want to hear and pretty soon you realize the message you heard and the message intended aren't the same. So I very much wanted to hear (or at least read) President Obama's speech as given in Cairo, Egypt today. Both sides of the political spectrum here have made great ballyhoo about the core of the message being an "apology" from the United States to the Muslim world for, frankly, the Bush Presidency. Those on the right, especially, have been voiciferous in lambasting the president for daring to give such a speech.

So you, too, can enjoy reading his speech without interruption, I'll offer a link to it here (courtesy of CNN.com). That way you can leap to the speech without bothering with the rest of this post, which contains my impressions of what the president said.

First of all, a nitpick. I always find it a bit pretentious when speech writers include pauses for applause or whatever in the texts of their speeches.

Firstly, Obama delivered a speech that embraces the importance of religious diversity and the tolerance of such, a message that ought to be given in certain liberal circles in the United States, where hostility towards religion and the peaceful living of it is on the increase. Obama said:

Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.
Fine example here. Its is pretentious of Christians to insist in the United States that Muslim women not be allowed to wear their head scarves. I see such scarves occasionally in the area where I live, and they don't bother me in the least. Nor am I bothered when I hear people in my community conversing in Spanish or doing so while preapring to attend Catholic mass.

This is more than the tolerance that liberalism espouses. Because I also believe it's pretentious for liberal Californians to be aghast when Mormons and Catholics participate to prohibit gay marriage in that state, when that practice is abhorrent to their religious views. Is that religion foisting its values -- or restrictions -- on others? I suppose it is. But I have to believe what Obama told the folks in Cairo:

We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

In asking me to surrender my belief that gay marriage is morally wrong, you're asking me to deny a part of my religion behind the pretence of liberalism. Where one gains freedom, another loses societal morality. Does this mean we need to tolerate extremism in religion? Absolutely not. Nor should extremism in liberality trump religion.

Back to the speech. I don't think he delivered the bang-boom "apology" that many in the media were drooling for. I, for one, think he did a fine job defending America overall as a nation. Observe:
Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of self interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum -- "Out of many, one."
He's reminding them in Cairo -- and us at home -- what we stand for. Yes, he made conciliatary moves on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. I applaud those moves. I'm relieved to hear that while troops won't be pulled out immediately, there is a plan and a timetable for getting them home. I'm glad he re-emphasized that the United States has no colonial ambitions (a claim I've always found ludicrous, but it's one that had to be dealt with).

He also reminds us that in our narrow view of Islam, we miss much of what the religion stands for.

The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as if he has killed all mankind. And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace.

On that note, he arrives in Israel, supporting the right of that nation to exist, but not at the cost of alienating its neighbors by continuing to build settlements where Israel has already agreed they would not build.

He decries violence in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict:

Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.

I also like this, Obama's proposals to increase health and entrepreneurial partnerships between the U.S. and the Islamic world:

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We'll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops. Today I'm announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

I also appreciate that he couched this new initiative with this:

There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.

No more the image of Tom Tuttle from Tacoma, Washington, going into Thailand, building a bridge and handing it over to the Commies. Or the Yankees, for that matter. There's a strong emphasis on progress combined with self-determination. I like that.

In all, a good speech, which echoes many of my own thoughts on conflict resolution and humanity's ability to get along peaceably. Of course, the rub here is to get these ideas to stick, and to follow through. There's always a lack of follow-through.