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Bud Bassette decorating underwater Christmas Tree

Regular readers know I post photos each Wednesday. I find these by searching the Flickr Commons for keywords related to the month in which I’m sending the photos. When I did a search for Christmas, however, I found too many great photos to pare it down to four. So I’ve decided December will also feature four Sunday photos as well. And here we are.

Bud Bassette decorating underwater Christmas Tree

Tweets from 2014-12-14 to 2014-12-20

The Uncommon Reader (review)

The Uncommon ReaderAn Uncommon Reader
by Alan Burnett

What happens when the Queen of England discovers that a mobile library visits Buckingham Palace regularly?  She checks out a book.  And so begins a tale of a dawning late-in-life love of literature for Britain’s highest royal.  As her Majesty becomes a more adept reader, the world around her opens up, becoming a more interesting place and simultaneously becoming less interesting to her — she’s always eager to abandon the otherwise boring events of the Queenly life in exchange for a good book.  Meanwhile, the people around her try to figure out what to do when the regent wants only to bury her nose in a book.

The Uncommon Reader is a cute little book, a nice tale for lovers of books and affection for the reading life.

Five Holiday songs I’m enjoying this year

Christmas music doesn’t have to be the same 25 songs over and over each year.  Each December, I buy new Holiday music for my playlist, I add two Santastic mashup albums, and I add holiday songs I’ve encountered throughout the year, and I listen to it during my work time.  Here are five songs I’m enjoying this year:

I’m also enjoying this VERY PROFANE Christmas song by Paul and Storm.

And of course, James Picard singing Let it Snow:

The Last Policeman

The Last PolicemanThe Last Policeman
by Ben H. Winters

Detective Hank Palace just wants to solve this murder.  But there are lots of things getting in the way: his colleagues and the coroner think it’s suicide, the mobile phone service is getting sketchy in his little Massachusetts town, the crime lab is backed up beyond belief, and other crimes are on the rise.  And a giant meteor is going to hit the Earth in six months.  This first novel in a trilogy wrestles with questions of ethics and philosophy at the end of the world, and weaves an interesting murder mystery on top of it.  A few thoughts:

  • Many of Palace’s usual tools for investigation have gone missing in the beginning of the end — the network support structure, many of his colleagues, and the state crime apparatus, to name a few.  In part, this provides the same environment that makes other writers return to the turn of the 20th century — one that lets the detective do the detecting, rather than relying on forensics and gizmos.
  • Motive has become the most difficult to parse out.  The victim surely had a reason to kill himself, as does everyone in this world.  But others also have much stronger motives for murder, since their ability to enjoy life is going to be quickly snuffed when a 6km rock smashes into the planet.
  • Most intriguingly, Winters gives Palace a convincing motivation to just keep going, despite it all.  He focuses on this one death, this solitary injustice in the midst of chaos, and follows it where it leads.

The Last Policeman isn’t a great mystery, but it is a great book.

Why is that one kid in a lamb or bunny costume?

Santa Radio Station, Sydney

Santa gives out candy at a radio station in Sydney!  And why is that one kid in a lamb or bunny costume?

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


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The Girl with All the Gifts

The Girl with All the GiftsThe Girl with All the Gifts
by M.R. Carey

It’s hard to be a regular girl in a post-apocalypse world.  But in as much as she can be, Melanie has the same hopes and fears that most children do.  She likes some of her teachers, she dislikes others, she’s interested in Greek Mythology.  It doesn’t make things easier that she’s a zombie. M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts is a compelling, dramatic zombie tale from twenty years after the apocalypse, when humankind is barely clinging to life against the ever-present hungries.  The story begins at a secret military base outside London, where scientists are still trying to understand the fungus that has all but destroyed humanity.  In particular, the people at the base are chasing a mysterious phenomenon, the odd children who live among the ruins of the cities, zombies with fully functional brains.

It’s hard to write much about the book without telling too many plot points, and I really don’t want to spoil it.  Nonetheless, a few thoughts:

  • Melanie’s perspective works very well here.  Like other books that have taken the perspective of the zombie (Zombie, Ohio or Brains), this allows the writer to pursue different aspects of the zombie story.  Carey’s unique idea to make the zombie protagonist a child works perfectly.
  • The zombie plague in this novel is inspired by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the famous zombie ant fungus.  Carey comes up with an detailed and interesting course of growth for the fungus, and describes its interaction with people very well.  Also, the fungus is super-creepy.  Yeesh.
  • The novel moves forward in parts, each showing a distinct shift in the landscape of possibilities open to the characters.  Again, this works very well as an adventure story that also allows us to understand the world of the novel better.
  • The relationship between Melanie and the adults in the story is particularly compelling, as they struggle with their notions of her as a ‘hungry’ versus their notions of her as a little girl (or resistance to the notion that she might be a little girl).
  • The least fleshed out aspect of the story, to my mind, is the nature of the human society.  Carey establishes that we’re many years past the first appearance of the plague — I think twenty, but it could be as few as about ten — and parts of the tale fit that timeline well.  But what little view we get of the human encampments seems far too tenuous and disorganized to reflect long-term sustainability, as would be needed for two decades of survival.

Overall, The Girl with All the Gifts is a great book, and should be on any zombie fan’s reading list.


Tweets from 2014-12-07 to 2014-12-13

I think Santa looks a little lecherous here…

Regular readers know I post photos each Wednesday.  I find these by searching the Flickr Commons for keywords related to the month in which I’m sending the photos.  When I did a search for Christmas, however, I found too many great photos to pare it down to four.  So I’ve decided December will also feature four Sunday photos as well.  And here we are.

Safety First Santa

The Stair Method…

Classes are done.  Now it’s just grading.

and grading.

and did I mention grading?

The only time I dislike using all electronic project and paper submission is that it doesn’t give me this way out:

Stair Method of Grading

Photo cc-licensed by Sage Ross

See the Stair Method for more on this precise and detailed grading model.


The Fat Man

The Fat ManThe Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir
by Ken Harmon

This month my Speculative Fiction book group (which reads about two or three fantasy books each year) selected Ken Harmon’s hard-boiled detective novel, The Fat Man, a story about Gumdrop Coal — the grumpy elf who founded the Coal brigade — trying to stop an overthrow of the big man himself.  A few thoughts:

  • Harmon imagines the North Pole as “Kringle Town,” a fantastical place where all the figures from Christmas dwell, each with her or his own odd habits on display.  This encyclopedic use of nearly every figure, from George Bailey to the Nutcracker to Ralphie, is the best part of the book.
  • Harmon also shows a thorough love of hard-boiled stories, filling his gritty, purple prose with similies and machine-gun patter dialogue.  He works in titles of many Raymond Chandler novels, and builds a convincing hard-boiled story, even in the silly context of the Christmas land he’s built.
  • Mixed in throughout the story are Gumdrop’s regular musings about the importance of Santa in the landscape of Christmas itself.  He understands Santa to be a sort of gateway drug (my words) to Jesus, suggesting that the Santa gifts children receive early in their lives build in a joy of the season that helps them, as they get older, understand the Christian approach to the holiday.  Gumdrop’s own inner struggle with the idea of punishment for the naughty children also plays into the notion of the all-forgiving Jesus (though Hell is less clearly understood through the lens of the novel).  I expect that Harmon did this proselytizing purposefully.  He did it with a nuance that it doesn’t disrupt the story much.
  • The mystery itself is pretty good, and functions like most hard-boiled detective stories do, with each clue revealing new parts of the plot that re-frame the crime.  There’s plenty of casual violence from both our hero and the people around him.  And with his visit to Potterville, we get to see him interacting with the dregs of Kringle town.
  • The biggest negative to the book is its length — the mystery and the premise really didn’t support a novel quite as long as the one Harmon wrote.  About 75 pages fewer would have brought the story into sharper focus.

The Fat Man is an amusing, twisty hard-boiled gingerbread house, slathered with the icing of Christmas fandom.  A nice holiday read, if a bit longer than it needs to be.

Going after the Next Actions today

My Next Actions list is awful: full of lots of competing things that need to be done right away.  Today I make a real dent in it.  Here’s my approach today:


Note: I know the original quote is in the past tense — “Today I settled all family business.” But this is the approach, not the aftermath.

Here comes Army Santa

Christmas in the Ramu Valley, Australia, 1943An

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I want to be part of the digital revolution!

Hallie and Jim

This season’s The Newsroom has re-told the story of the Snowden leaks on a smaller scale, exploring the idea of the reporter being jailed for contempt of court on refusing to name their source.  While this has been interesting, I find the plotlines about the intersection of the Internet and the news far more compelling.

Hallie’s work for a gawker-like blog makes Jim upset because her pay depends, to a degree, on traffic.  She begins adopting a more personal writing style (including writing about a fight she had with Jim) which doesn’t seem to be about news so much as about entertainment.  But Hallie makes key points to Jim — first, that audience concerns drives television news too, and that their ability to tell certain stories depends on their audience share.  Second, she asserts that a more personal writing style will connect with the readers.  I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in the digital age, the audience must be much more concerned with the people writing its news.  The automatic credibility obtained by working for ACN, for instance, doesn’t apply to Internet writers, so by building a personal connection with her audience, Hallie is amplifying the connection she makes with them.  Jim’s luxury of being able to only write “real news” is failing, hard. (It’s in her argument with Jim that Hallie shouts “I want to be part of the digital revolution!”)

The most recent episode had two more stories focused on the Internet era.  The new owner of ACN, played with perfect arrogance by B.J. Novak, demands programming and reporting changes that have angered the ‘pure journalists’ of the show but have pulled the network’s ratings up.  At the crux of this episode is their app, ACNywhere, which allows people to post celebrity sightings.  Sloan finds this awful, and invites the arrogant man who created the app on television to eviscerate him.  The episode perfectly captures the tension between the connectedness of the modern age and the dangerous nature of big data and its affordances.

Last, in a highly charged and strongly criticized sub-plot, Don was ordered to do a story on a website where women are invited to share their experiences of sexual assault where the police or other authorities did not pursue charges against the womens’ attackers.  The sub-plot attempted to explore the dangers of unfettered publication on the web, and the possibility for people to be tarnished by that story.  But in failing to adequately address the question of how to cover rape, its real effect was to make a hash of the public debate about rape and our terrible handling of it, both legally and socially.

Sonia Saraiya at Salon makes a convincing argument that the show’s season-length plot about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ is capped by the leaker story, the ultimate citizen journalism case into which all these concerns flow.  It wonders about publicity being directed at those who don’t deserve it, worries about the unforeseen consequences of releasing information into the world, and makes us think about the nature of truth in the digital age.