16 May 2009

Days with My Father

A touching tribute in images and words. Phillip Toledano


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I recently submitted a conference proposal on cloud computing.
Google said in a blog post the outage came down to a simple traffic jam at an Asian data center. The search giant described the situation by using the analogy of a large number of airplanes being rerouted through one airport that was not equipped for a massive influx of traffic. But in Google's case, it wasn't airplanes looking for a place to land; it was cloud-based data trying to stay up in the sky. -- PC World
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Clever piece on a games-themed theater performance in Brooklyn next month.

One of the more unusual plays in this year's Antidepressant Festival is Adventure Quest, which mimics old-school computer adventure games, combining live action with vintage graphics and 8-bit music. For those too young to remember these strange, puzzle-intensive artifacts of the Reagan era, the creators of Adventure Quest have been kind enough to provide a brief "walk-through" that captures the genre's peculiar narrative conventions.

You are standing in the market square of the town of Despairington. There are several buildings here, including the potter's shop, the pie factory and the apothecary. Each appears to have been long abandoned. (Their owners were presumably among the many townspeople who joined the Octopus Cult last winter and killed themselves by drinking poisoned ink.) A large boomerang rests on a nearby crate of mangos.

You are currently holding: a portable cauldron, a pair of diamond cufflinks, a unicorn femur, an Octopus Cult pamphlet, a waterskin and a magnifying glass.
The marketing text is a parody, not a tribute. The text on the site reads like a text adventure, but it plays like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel with a single choice on each page.  The color scheme is flat enough. (Where does the color cyan exist, except in the 16 color home computer palette?) But the pixels are much too small. The detail on the roof is far too fine. 

Both the words and images are off-base just enough to make me doubt that the play itself will be anything more than a silly pastiche. Still, I found the site amusing. via
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Okay, I'm officially lame. I teared up a few days ago during Star Trek, and tonight I teared up during this song from The Magic Treehouse: The Musical, based on a series of easy-reader books by Mary Pope Osbourne. The touring show was in my town tonight; we had front-row seats. The song is a perky, sappy tribute to brotherly and sisterly love, and the lyrics perfectly describe my own kids.
Jack: You're so brave!
Annie: You're so smart!
Jack: You make me laugh!
Annie: I love your heart!
Annie: I'm the arrow, you're the bow.
Jack: I'm the tic-tac, you're the toe!
Annie: You're the engine.
Jack: You're the steam.
Annie: I'm the peaches!
Jack: I'm the cream!
Both: What would I do without you?

A tear actually slid down my cheek after the "steam" line, and I reached for my wife's hand so she could feel it.

I am so lame...

Now I'm going to listen to this song again.
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The following search on our campus -- for a published mystery author qualified to teach creative writing -- has been extended, and will continue until filled. Candidates interested in this position should apply immediately, as we will be considering applicants over the summer. -- Mike Arnzen
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15 May 2009


A budding artist learns his real skill is not artistry, but the ability to critique. I'm blogging this for the next time I introduce iteration as an important cognitive skill -- something that requires dedication, time, and a willingness to take risks in order to learn from failures (something that doesn't often fit will with millennials who fear losing points for not "getting the right answer" on the first try).

Drawing what you actually see--that is, drawing the plastic bull that's in front of you rather than the simplified, idealized image of a bull that's in your head--is something that does not come naturally to most people, let alone children. At its root, my gift was not the ability to draw what I saw. Rather, it was the ability to look at what I had drawn thus far and understand what was wrong with it.

While other children were satisfied with their loosely connected conglomerations of orbs and sticks, I saw something that bore little resemblance to its subject. And so, in my own work, I attempted to make the necessary corrections. When that failed, as it inevitably did, I started over. Again and again and again, each time making minor improvements, but all the while still seeing all the many ways that I had failed to persuade my body to produce the correct line or apply the appropriate coloring. -- John Siracusa, Ars Technica

This reminds me of what Robert Heinlein says about being a writer. Paraphrasing: anyone can become a writer, but what's really hard is staying a writer.

The first time I taught a lit crit class at Seton Hill, students felt overwhelmed by the almost-weekly paper assignments. It wasn't fair, some of them said, that I graded them on the essays they wrote before the class discussions, since it was often only after the class discussions that they understood the topic they wrote the essays about.  This time around, I made an extra effort to front-load the idea that the essays are designed to improve the quality of the discussions. If everybody showed up at the discussions without having first tried to write a paper about reader-response theory or semiotics or formalism, then the discussions would not be very useful. 

I did give the students a chance to re-do one of their ten critical theory exercises, and in general the exercises were going so well that I relaxed a little and let the students write a creative hypertext or a letter to the editor if they wanted to. But the rigor of doing a short paper every week, and committing their initial ideas to paper, before showing up in class, really helped develop their critical thinking skills.  By the last week of classess, after I returned their rough drafts of their term papers, I got confident, satisfied smiles from the class.  They knew what they had to do, and they knew they could do it.  It was very rewarding.

That kind of confidence comes only with practice.

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That's the space shuttle orbiter Atlantis, with the Hubble Space Telescope, in front of the sun. Wow!

It's difficult to imagine a more epic scene, but this photo has modest origins: amateur Astronomer Thierry Legault shot it with nothing but his own telescope, a solar prism and a Canon 5D Mk II. -- Gizmodo

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High-end journalism can and should bite any hand that tries to feed it, and it should bite a government hand most viciously. Moreover, it is the right of every American to despise his local newspaper - for being too liberal or too conservative, for covering X and not covering Y, for spelling your name wrong when you do something notable and spelling it correctly when you are seen as dishonorable. And it is the birthright of every healthy newspaper to hold itself indifferent to such constant disdain and be nonetheless read by all. Because in the end, despite all flaws, there is no better model for a comprehensive and independent review of society than a modern newspaper. As love-hate relationships go, this is a pretty intricate one. An exchange of public money would pull both sides from their comfort zone and prove unacceptable to all.

But a non-profit model intrigues, especially if that model allows for locally-based ownership and control of news organizations. Anything that government can do in the way of creating non-profit status for newspapers should be seriously pursued.-- David Simon, Hearing on the Future of Journalism, US Senate
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How many of you make a point by asking how many people in the room already know it, and then praising everyone who does?

This fall, I'll be teaching my most content-heavy course -- "News Writing."   I have to teach a lot of vocabulary, along with research, interviewing, revision, and copyediting skills, in addition to crash courses in civics, criminology, psychology, and statistics.   

It's too early to think about what gets to stay in the syllabus and what has to go in order to make room for the "Print Journalism Meltdown of 2009" unit.  But I'm reflecting on ways to make the obligatory infodumps more palatable to 21st century students.
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[C]ourse-management software has become a new kind of campus building--a virtual one where online classes are held and new kinds of "hybrid" courses take place. The unsettled question is who controls what these classrooms look like and how stable their foundations are.

Colleges don't want to just buy these online classrooms out of a catalog. They want to feel like partners in the design process.

Angel apparently got that part right, offering customers unusual responsiveness and access to much of its source code.

Blackboard, meanwhile, has developed a reputation for doing things its way, gobbling up competitors (this is its third acquisition of a competing course-management system) and suing rivals (it has filed multiple patent-infringement lawsuits against one competitor). That might make good business sense, but it casts the company as a hostile force in higher education. -- Jeffrey R. Young, Chronicle of Higher Education
I'm not that happy with the course management system (CMS) product that we currently use, so I'm thrilled that our new IT director is a fan of open-source software. Here's hoping we will be Moodling soon.
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Nowadays, layout editors can just expand the size of a photo or cheat the typesize to make a story fill a gap. But in the days before such digital magic, newspaper editors needed a steady supply of filler stories -- short items, just long enough to plug gaps of a few inches at the bottom of a page. The words "bus" and "plunge" both fit nicely in a one-column headline, and created a subculture of sorts among journalists.
"If a bus fell anywhere, they would cut that story from the wire and send it to the copy desk and put it in the paper, whereas earlier perhaps they wouldn't have," Siegal says. It was no longer a matter of how badly shorts were needed. "They became newsworthy in and of their own right because it was amusing to get the expression 'bus plunge' into the paper as often as possible."

Not all bus plunges were judged equal by the foreign desk, according to Siegal. "It was better when buses plunged in countries with short names," he says. "A bus plunge in Peru was infinitely easier to deal with than a bus plunge in Argentina or Paraguay."

Of course, it's callous to make light of anybody's tragic death. But by the gallows-humor standards of journalism, competing to publish bus-plunge shorts was fairly benign.

"It was more self-parody than anything else," Siegal says. "It was a very low-key, harmless parody of the stilted language characteristic of tightly formatted headlines." -- Jack Shafer, Slate
I'm blogging this because I'm amused... I had certainly noticed "bus plunge" stories, but it never occurred to me that the stories are a minimalist art form, inspired by the gallows humor of journalists. 

My favorite journalism anecdote is still the one about reporters routinely inventing a detail about a cat surviving a shipwreck.
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Last night, I went to see the new Star Trek movie with a member of the computer science faculty. A math professor was hoping to come, but had a change of plans. The previews suggested it would be a bit intense for me to take the kids to see it, but now that I've seen the show, I think it will be OK.  You have to know your kids though -- the opening sequence pushes some buttons that I didn't expect to have pushed in action film, and the combination of tug-at-the-heartstrings and pulse-pounding action in the opening few minutes might be a bit overwhelming.

I haven't shown my kids the whole run of classic Trek, mostly because I'd rather do other things with them besides watch TV. 

They do know a handful of the best episodes -- the ones that are really worth taking time to see (such as The Doomsday Machine and The Trouble with Tribbles). They haven't seen any of the later incarnations of the show, nor any of the movies.  What with all my wife's old videotapes of Dr. Who, and the complete run of Babylon 5 (dutifully taped by my sister and mailed to us in batches), we already have a big enough backlog of good TV that we're not watching at the moment.

As for the remake... I don't mind at all that they redesigned the sets and models to look futuristic to a 21st-century audience. Communicators and phasers are still cool.  As if to atone for for the snail-paced original Trek movie (thirty years ago... 1979), there were no talky briefing room scenes -- they handled all the exposition during the action sequences, and the turbolift is still a great location for two characters to have a private conversation.  All the various characters have been tweaked just a bit, so that we recognize their iconic nature, but also see them change.  The movie has more of an ensemble feel, which is something The Next Generation developed well.

My geek-boy katra can't quite grasp what the producer was thinking when he put Delta Vega that close to Vulcan.  The engine room set was a cop-out. I know they filmed it in a brewery, but I wonder just how much money they spent on the little tribute to Agustus Gloop... was it some elaborate reference to certain characters being wet behind the ears?

Speaking of cop... where have I heard the thrumming sound made by the flying motorcycle?  It feels like an old friend, but I can't place it. Blade Runner?

The amount of lens flare, especially in the bridge scenes, was noticeably distracting. I think the goal was to tie the bridge scenes in with the CGI sequences, since the space shots also featured lots of animated lens flare. The closing credits even features an elaborate CGI sequence that renders dust or some other kind of imperfections on the camera lens. But I found that whole concept -- the shaky camera cinema verite conceit -- bothersome. The original series used handheld cameras to occasional good effect... would occasionally march into the turbolift behind Kirk, or the camera would do a 360 around Spock while he is doing a mind-meld.  It used to be far too expensive to do special effects on a moving image -- that's why the actors in the original series stood still while the transporter beam dissolved them away.

When there's reason, within the story, to watch hand-held footage -- someone's recording from a hand-held tricorder, for instance -- then I'd say, bring on the shakies. But surely in the future there will be digital stabilizer. But when I see lens flare on a CGI shot, it hurts my ability to enjoy the scene, because I know the producers aren't trying to make me feel like I'm there, floating in space with a God's eye view of the battle. Instead, they're trying to make me feel iike I'm watching documentary footage.

I completely undersand the need to dirty down the models and make the props and sets more functional, but I found it distracting to be reminded so often that I'm watching a movie... I just want a direct sensory infusion of space opera goodness... I was annoyed by the amount of effort the producers put into simulating the constraints of modern movie cameras.  When the shaky camera trend has run its course, its overuse in this movie will make this Star Trek outing look dated.

Having picked my nits, I will say that there wree a couple of beauty shots of the new Enterprise, some surprising revelations about character backstory (now we know why Spock never took the Kobayashi Maru test), and a bold and brash feel that was just thrilling to watch.
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Several of my students created videos for class projects. 

EL200 Jessie Krehlik: Self Defense Videos (with Aero Windwalker)

Jessie Farine: Suis La Lune Review

Rebecca Marrie created this YouTube Channel, which I hope we can use to sort all the SHU student projects I hear about in the future.
I have one independent study project to evaluate before I'm really finished, so I should stop before I track down the other videos students have submitted in recent classes.
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It's the first time I've given a final exam in a while. I usually mark final projects or final papers, which I've seen in numerous draft forms for the past month, so all I really need to do is read the student's final reflection, after all the hard work is over. But in a large-ish literature class (large by Seton Hill standards -- about 30), I gave a final exam in order to assess student familiarity with the works on the syllabus. I've already marked the identification questions and the short answer questions, but my brain has hit a brick wall as I mark the long essay questions.  So I hit the internet for a web surfing break, and found I solace in knowing I am not alone.
I was chatting to a business teacher who showed me a test generating program for business. He clicks a few categories - chapters and concepts covered, number of questions desired - and hits a button. The multiple choice test instantly appears on his screen. He hits print, and his test is written. He will photocopy it and give it to his students along with a form that the students use to select their choice of answer. He will turn in those forms to an exam office that will scan the form and give him a print out of student marks. His time on task? About two minutes.

I on the other hand will take two hours to write a test that is tailored to what I taught in English, and then spend about twenty to thirty hours marking it.  -- Steve Wise

I presume Steve wrote it, since it's in the first person and there's a photo of a man on the page. But the blog is credited to Steve and Pam Wise.

I still have revised final papers to mark in three more classes, but since I've seen drafts of all those papers before, the marking should go fairly quickly.

Once more unto the breech, dear friends, monce more...
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This paper riffs on one of the most popular handouts on my website -- Short Stories: 10 Tips for Novice Creative Writers (originally written by one of my technical writing students in 2002, though I continue to tweak it), and applies it to mathematics.
[B]efore anyone can understand a piece of mathematics, they must first become interested in it. So, for a mathematician who wants to fully develop a piece of mathematics, discovery and proof are only the first steps on a longer road. The next step is getting people interested.

Unfortunately, mathematicians are not trained in this art. Indeed, their writing is famous for being "dry". There are exceptions, and these exceptions are worth studying. But it also makes sense to look to people whose whole business is getting people interested: story-tellers.

Everyone enjoys a good story. We have been telling and listening to stories for untold millennia. Stories are one of our basic ways of understanding the world. I believe that when we read a piece of mathematics, part of us is reading it as a highly refined and sublimated sort of story, with characters and a plot, conflict and resolution.

If this is true, maybe we should consider some tips for short story writers, and see how they can be applied -- in transmuted form -- to the writing of mathematics. These tips may sound a bit crass to mathematicians, or even readers of "serious" fiction. But they go straight to the heart of what gets people interested, and what keeps them interested, in a piece of writing. -- John C Baez (PDF | HTML by Google)
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The cuteness of a tribble, the temper of a mugatu, and the ham of a Shatner.ShortKirk.png

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I know that my bridge playset has long since gone to the big warp core in the sky, and I can't seem to find the shoebox where I kept my original Star Trek action figures from the 70s.  

Even as a kid, I remember being frustrated that the playset didn't really look all that much like the bridge, though the captain's chair is a reasonable replica. Those little stools never did much for me -- the action figures kept falling off them, so I replaced them with blocks from my beloved Alpha Truck (which did double duty as the shuttlecraft).


The Star Trek Bridge playset was, hands down, the best toy I owned as a child. I played with it for approximately 10,000 hours. Especially the whirly-twirly transporter cubicle. I loved the psychedelic cardboard viewscreens, the tippy chairs and furniture, the stick-on UI for same that was as inscrutable and ridiculous as the authentic show computers. This toy had the magic, a vinyl-covered, detailed, configurable kind of magic that made you want to play with it for hours and hours on end. -- Cory Doctorow
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A masterful spoof of one of my favorite literary works, skewering a reference book I spent a lot of time with in my formative years..
'Tis hard to say, which promises more Loot:
Writing, or Telling others how to do't. -- Geoff Nunberg
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A serendipitous click on a link brought me to this striking example of storytelling economy in a news story. 
"Three flower cars, wow!" said a pilgrim from Wisconsin who was just about to chomp down on a chocolate cannoli from Mike's Pastry yesterday morning.

The cheesehead was momentarily spellbound by the stately procession of black Cadillacs gliding toward him up Hanover Street, coming to rest at the venerable gates of St. Leonard's Church.

"Wonder who that is?" the tourist said to his wife.

Standing within earshot was a slight gentleman wrapped in a tailored black suit, black tie, black sunglasses and a perfectly coiffed head of white hair that seemed to glow in the sun.

The dapper gent studied the rube for a moment, then made his way across Hanover Street, where he began kissing the family and friends of Donato "Danny" Angiulo, a capo regime in brother Jerry's mob franchise, who expired Sunday night at the ripe age of 86. -- Peter Gelzinis

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A big part of my work as a freshman writing instructor seems to be convincing students that I really do mean it when I explain that Googling to "find quotes" to support an opinion you've already committed to paper is not the same thing as doing academic research with peer-reviewed sources.  I also find that newbie journalism students have to be reminded that it's not a news article if you refer to what "some people may say".

Several years ago, it was common for bloggers to crow about catching lazy reporters, often from local TV news, who had fallen for obvious hoaxes. In 2002-2003, for instance, I blogged about suspicious stories involving bananas dying out, blondes dying out, and excursions to hunt naked women with paintball guns. Anyone with the slightest experience using the internet to research should have smelled a rat.

A rat like this guy...

My plan was without doubt simple, and maybe it was great as well. The death of the French composer Maurice Jarre was reported in true Sky News fashion in the very early hours of March 30th.

I immediately grabbed my laptop, went to Maurice Jarre's Wikipedia page, clicked the edit button on screen and proceeded to lay the trap for my unsuspecting prey, the journalists.

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack," I wrote into the Wikipedia entry. "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear."

This was a totally fake quote and neither Maurice Jarre, nor anyone else, has ever been on record as uttering these words.


Quality newspapers in England, India, America and as far away as Australia had my words in their reports of Jarre's death. I was shocked that highly respected newspapers would use material from Wikipedia without first sourcing and referencing it properly. -- Shane Fitzgerald

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Recent Comments

Mon 10:50 R. Newman: Dear Reader, Please listen to the following radio interview on the subject of W.A. Mozart - http://truthseeker2473.blogspot.com/2009/04/robert-newman-mozart-myth.html Regards... (on Psychologists debunk Mozart myth)

Wed 20:56 Eric G.: Hi Dennis, Excellent review of the new Star Trek movie which I recently saw as well. One of the most... (on Star Trek Review (brief, no spoilers))

Sun 21:46 Dennis G. Jerz: It's a small world, after all...... (on Why Mathematics is Boring)

Sun 21:46 Joshua Sasmor: I was reading Baez's physics summaries on Sci.math back in the 90s (when I could get a threaded news feed... (on Why Mathematics is Boring)

Mon 15:39 Dennis G. Jerz: 2 classes and 2 internships down, 2 classes and one independent study to go. Time for some "me" time... I'm... (on I Mark, Therefore I Am)

Mon 0:00 Dennis G. Jerz: That drawing -- when was it made? If he drew it before the mid 40s, when Nina was born, you... (on Al Hirshfeld, 99, Dies; He Drew Broadway)

Mon 0:00 c. mc gee: I visit friends in Ft Myers and they have several Hirschfeld prints and the one that has all the Hollywood... (on Al Hirshfeld, 99, Dies; He Drew Broadway)

Sat 22:03 Dennis G. Jerz: ...and of course one of the supporting characters should be named Roddenberry.... (on Latest addition to the Star Trek canon)

Sat 22:03 Dennis G. Jerz: Starberry! That's perfect -- wish I'd thought of it.... (on Latest addition to the Star Trek canon)

Sat 22:03 Rosemary: Great photos! If you cross Strawberry Shortcake with Star Trek then then would the new show be called Starberry Shorttrek?... (on Latest addition to the Star Trek canon)


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Recent Citations:
Why Mathematics is Boring (Short Story Tips)

Occidental Weekly (Tenure)

Synergistic Fiction (nnetaiteer57)

seanstickle (tumblr.com)

The Encourager (Sidebar: Short Story Tips)

MetaFilter Interactive Fiction Contest (Playing, Studying and Writing Interactive Fiction)

Writtenify (Don't use passive voice)

Brittani (Sites for learning about Short Stories)

el paso daily photo blog by chacal la chaise (chacal-la-chaise.blogspot.com)

Adjunct Advice (Group Projects)

Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research (Interactive Fiction)

PhoebeO's Blog (E-mail Tips)

Tony's Blog (Lore essay)

[Humanist] when games met computing ("what might be definitive history of Adventure")

PlayStudies.net (Game & Play)

Intent/Effect (blogroll)

The Tropes of Tenth Street (Phil's comment on "How online is our online teaching?")

Management Friday (E-mail tips)

The Wayfaring Wordhack (Crisis vs. Conflict)

Fun with virtualization (Colossal Cave)