Old Man’s War

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:07 pm

John Scalzi has a new book out (well, newish…I’m a little behind schedule), The Ghost Brigades. It’s a sequel to Old Man’s War, so before reading the new one, I decided to re-read OMW (I generally do this with sequels and series–as a new one comes out, I start from the beginning and re-read before getting to the new one, although it does get time consuming with some of the multi-volume folks like Peter Hamilton, George RR Martin, and Patrick O’Brian). I also wanted to confirm my response to a discussion about the book that was going on between Scalzi and Nick Whyte.

Most of that discussion centered on one particular character and one specific incident in OMW, but overall Whyte’s contention (somewhat softened after the comments–from other readers and from Scalzi himself) was that the book is militaristic, and portrays pacifism, or even diplomacy, as just for dummies, who get a much-deserved slaughtering, both figurative and literal.

The incident and the character that prompted this criticism from Whyte made me a bit uncomfortable, too–but I did not read it as being nearly so conclusively portrayed. To me, while that particular character was maybe a bit cartoonish, the incident and the response to the incident from the other characters was much more ambiguous (thus much more realistic). These questions (violence, self-defense, cultural sensitivity vs. cultural preservation, and individual judgment vs. following orders or working as a team) are real-life questions, and they’re relevant and important now, and in my reading of Scalzi’s book they’re not really resolved (as they shouldn’t be), but rather depicted with their complexities and ambivalence. The characters were uncomfortable about the incident (well, those who survived were), and I was, too. Maybe Scalzi was, too. That’s the way things should work in a good novel, I think.

Even beyond that, though, the thing that really seemed to be missing from that discussion (and from most of the reviews that I’ve seen) is that Old Man’s War is a love story. Oh, sure, there’s all kinds of technological and military speculation, and some great whiz-bang cultural innovations and commentary on geopolitical topics, and natural extensions of current trends, and odd aliens and FTL travel. That’s all great, and it’s one of the things I want in SF. But the other thing I want in SF (or any literature) is to feel something. Scalzi’s story starts with a man at his wife’s graveside. For me what was strongest in the novel, and the thread that kept it all together, was the main character’s deep connection to a lost love, the little moments and memories that make being married to someone you love and spending your life with her so wonderful. The book had me near tears, several times, because of the strength of that eternal human emotional connection, and because Scalzi captures it so accurately and intimately.


Responding to anti-podcasting

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:08 pm

Jeff Cooper, from TappedIn, is working on an article arguing against podcasts in education, and he asked for feedback on some of his points. I gave it to him there, but I think they’re points that could come up elsewhere, too…so I’m giving that feedback here, too…quoting his points and then giving my responses. My “hacksaw is not a hammer” theme is one that I hammer on quite frequently, but it’s one that I think is relevant to a lot of the critiques of a lot of technologies. So it bears repeating.

I argue that text (chat) means a step forward in education, whereas podcasting actually represents a step backwards.

I think we have to be very careful in making any kind of broad claim, whether positive or negative, about any specific educational tool. Podcasting is neither a step forwards nor backwards–and the same can be said for text (chat) or multimedia, or the chalkboard or overhead projector or even writing.

Any technology should be used for what it does well, and not used for what it does badly. A hacksaw makes a terrible hammer, but that doesn’t make it a bad tool. It’s only a step backwards if you try to use that tool for driving nails.

However, it’s certainly the case that (particularly in education) we’re often subject to trumpets and drumrolls announcing that each new tool is going to be ultimate answer to every question. And of course, that’s not true for podcasting.

1. Audio needs real time listening. Time is a commodity missed by most educators and students. Text may be easily scanned and searched and read at 400 wpm. Archives of Podcasts will not be listened to in the future whereas text will be read.

This is a deficiency of audio only if you think of audio as a replacement or substitute for text.

But there are things that audio can do that text quite simply can not do. Books have been available for some centuries now, but people still tell stories to children, present orally at conferences, and listen to music. Written letters have been available even longer than books, yet people still enjoy conversation.

If podcasts are seen (as is too often the case) as just a way to distribute the exact same content, thoughtlessly “translated” into the audio medium, then, yes, they fail in that regard. But if the content is intentionally and thoughtfully produced for the audio medium, taking advantage of its strengths, then it can be much more successful. All the best podcasts do exactly this.

In addition, the idea that podcasts can not be scannable or searchable is no longer accurate (although it was at one time). Podcasts can be played at fast speeds for scanning (without any distortion) thanks to Apple.

Even more exciting, Podzinger and Podscope have begun the process of indexing the content of podcasts by keywords, so users can go directly to a specific point or subject in the cast. Although this is not yet perfect, it’s a very good start.

2. Audio is one to many and basically perpetuates the “sage on the stage” rather than “guide on the side” approach… old style didacticism vs. constructivism.

Although many podcasts do replicate the one-to-many, “sage on the stage” approach, this is far from the only way to use this technology. Podcasts at their best recreate conversations–and allow students, as well as faculty, to participate and broadcast. In this sense, opening up the world of “radio” to a huger audience–allowing production rather than just reception, podcasting can be revolutionary (not just for education).

Podcasting makes a perfect medium for producing “think alouds” and conversations where experienced and novice learners can model how to approach a text (or image, or math problem, or science experiment). It’s also excellent for oral performance (by students, by authors, by teachers, etc.) of literary works (poetry, stories, drama).

3. Lack of hyperlink. Text chat not only allows multiple threads (many to many and indeed even synchronously), but also allows quick and easy hyperlinking to resources. You’re not going to get that easily in a podcast (if at all).

On the other hand, text chat does not allow the same emotional contact and nuance of expression as the human voice. And the “enhanced podcast”–rapidly becoming easier to produce and easier to receive–certainly does allow hyperlinks…as well as pictures, video clips, emphasis by combination of text and sound.

Additionally, podcasting can include musical enhancement (or other types of sound files–bird calls, heartbeat sounds, ambient sound, etc.), which is completely absent or impossible in text, and which can greatly enhance the educational experience.

4. Bandwidth and connectivity. This tech issue will increase the digital divide. Not only do podcasts require higher end connections, speakers, mikes, etc. they represent another level of what may go wrong with tech.

Bandwidth is always an issue–but audio files do not require a very high end connection at all, and the speakers and microphones involved need not be anything more than the standard included with every desktop computer and most laptops.

5. Lack of multitasking. With text you may be holding several simultaneous conversations, researching links in other tabs and reporting back, copy/pasting prepared dialogue and getting access to a whole realm of resources you can’t get with audio.

One of the main benefits of podcasting is that it does allow (some kinds of) multitasking. It’s perfectly possible to listen to a podcast at times and during activities which would make reading impossible. (Podcasts are great for driving, for riding on a crowded bus or subway, for washing the dishes, for working on restoring an antique radio in the basement–OK, that last one might be personal to just me!).

Also, podcasts are (at least potentially) mobile–both for listeners and for producers. A podcast can be heard and learned from in a museum or on a walking tour–where it would not be possible to read. And students can produce podcasts by recording interviews or comments “in the field”–to be edited later.

The experience of interviewing and editing and thinking about how to make the points in this medium is an experience which is different from writing a paper…but it’s not an experience which is necessarily educationally inferior, by any means.

I think that to argue *against* using podcasts in education is just as much a mistake as it would be to argue in favor of *always* using podcasts in education.

We should, instead, be arguing for using podcasts (or any other technology) in education–but using them well.

Let’s not use hacksaws for driving nails, or hammers for cutting a piece of pipe. Instead let’s work on the best way to design and use a hammer for its specific purpose, and the hacksaw for its purpose.


It Ends with Awards

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:02 pm

The PS 282 New York KnightsSo, the tournament has ended, and we’re safe at home. It was a great experience, and a great success (except for the nasty virus, which has now moved on to me 🙁 !). The team came home with a total of four trophies–two individual tropies, and two team trophies. The fifth grade team (competing in the K-6 U1000 division) came home with 10th place. That’s 10th in the whole country, and it brings a big trophy as the reward. The fourth grade team (competing in the K-5 U800) took 14th. Again, a spectacular result, and a very nice trophy. The best part, of course, was the teamwork, the competition, the camaraderie and the mental exercise. By the time of the team dinner, and then the chaotic, loud, and unpleasant awards ceremony, everyone was happy, proud, and exhausted! Be sure to check flickr for all the photos (and I do mean all…115, total!)


Tournament’s Last Day

Filed under: — Joe @ 2:24 pm

One more game to go–the team is doing very well, and even took time to pose for a team picture (many copies are in the flickr set).


Some Yoga Helps the Chess

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:45 pm

In between rounds, there’s nothing like some yoga and stretching, captured on video, to ease the tension and focus the mind.

The videos are silent (as the kids are not!) but cute (as the kids definitely are!).


Day One is Done

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:37 pm

Team PhotoOne day (and two games) down. Two days (and five more games) to go. Julie finishes the day batting .500 (courtesy of a forfeit by a no-show opponent in game two), and feeling much better physically. Tomorrow is the marathon day, with (potentially) twelve solid hours of chess–three games, each of which can be as long as four hours (although realistically, for these players, two hours is a long game…Julie’s game one was a little more than an hour and a half, and that was the longest of any of her team-mates). I’m trying to document with photos (see them on flickr–I’ll try to update the set each day) and a podcast is still a possibility.


The Tournament is ready…are we?

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:15 pm

Ready to playWe made it to Denver, and the kid is not feeling her best, physically. (Damn that virus!) But she’s still ready to play. Tomorrow it all begins, the 2006 Bert Lerner National Elementary Chess Tournament. The hotel, the streets, the entire Rocky Mountains (it feels like) are filled with young chessplayers. Last year’s “Supernationals” including the middle school kids, too–even some high school chessplayers, I think. This year, it’s only K-6, so the numbers are slightly fewer…but it feels like more kids! The PS 282 New York Knights are sure to make a strong showing, no matter where they come out in the final standings. These kids have been working (and playing) for a long time now, and they sure know their chess. If nothing else, it will be exciting!

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