Glaciers and Huskies

I was able to mush huskies yesterday; here are the photos. The team was up on a glacier near Skagway, Alaska, a main stop for cruise ships on the Inside Passage. A tiny town with lots of specific tourist services and the point from which activities end and start, including inland flights and passages.

Our trip started with a helicopter ride from near the dock across some glacier fields with expert narration. The wind was high, and the pilot noted that Skagway means something like North Wind, and that we shouldn't worry: the fierce wind yesterday was just a normal day for them. (He was a Vietnam-era pilot, so had no worries about a mere wind.)

The glacier tour wasn't long but was fascinating. The intensity of color of glacial ice is otherworldly, and the color of the snow and ice has specific meaning: recent avalanche, new fallen, compression in progress, etc. The pilot said 150 feet of snow turn into a single foot of glacial ice.

We flew up and landed on a glaciar with a large snow base on top -- a snow bridge, they kept calling it, as it bridged any small crevasses well enough in the main camp. We were introduced to a musher, who showed us his dogs and talked about how they're raised and trained. The very nice kid we got was 17, just graduated from high school, originally from Iowa! His father is a bush veterinarian, and the dogs he uses for his sled are rescued animals that he retrains.

The dogs were all incredibly sweet. The mushers said that they raise them to be social and welcoming, and they use only praise for reward, not food. The dogs are fed on a regular basis, but are praised all the time.

Pete took me out with a couple from Manhattan who had a great time as well. We went on a small track that they carefully check constantly for crevasses. The dogs are quite amazing. They learn to poop on the run to avoid slowing down during races. Pete ran his team on the Junior Iditarod last year.

They had about 200 dogs overall in the camp. One of the people harnessing dogs for Pete was from Arizona: she'd arrived a week before with no dog (or maybe even glacier) experience as a summer job! But she had a real fondness for dogs.

After the run, we were encouraged to thank the dogs, so I got to scratch the ears of a dozen or so happy animals. Only one was a little shy; that's a trait that it looks like they breed out of those dogs or train out of them.

Here are reports from the conference and cruise from David Pogue and Doc Searls.

Mush, You Huskies

I should out be out on a glacier right now shouting, "Mush, you huskies, mush!" Instead, I am sitting on the ship reading email. It's fall Seattle weather here in Juneau, and high seas cancelled Lynn's kayaking trip and winds and bad conditions cancelled my doggie journey. I was supposed to be whisked away by helicopter to a glacier, ride with the dogs, and back. Instead, hot bus ride for 10 minutes to the airfield, donning special boots and life vests, and a wait.

They cancelled the dogs, but offered a cheaper package of a low set of glacier flyovers. Nah. A couple from New York said, bait and switch. They didn't get us dressed up without knowing that the weather on the glacier had turned. When I think about it, they're right: they were hoping we'd stay. Instead, several of us left, several stayed.

I might get the doggies...tomorrow! We'll see. Tomorrow in Skagway.

Making Radio Waves

I'm sitting here in the library on the MS Volendam using my Apple iBook to connect over Wi-Fi to a fiber optic link to a satellite uplink run by the concessionaire. I'm at the Geek Cruises MacMania conference.

The event so far: a blast. Doc Searls is to my left. Bare Bones Software head Rich Siegel two seats down. John de Lancie is in the building. Chatting with folks from Brazil at dinner. Food: fabulous. Cabin: marvelous. Lynn's happy, I'm happy, and we just left port at 5 pm.

This is possibly one of the geekiest and coolest things I've ever been part of. I lecture for three hours on wireless and Macintosh in a couple of days. We're heading up the Inside Passage of Alaska. Dogsledding in Juneau on Wednesday!

Macworld in July

It's a bit early to ask this question: but who among you will I see at Macworld in July? I'll be there the 17th and 18th, although probably not all of both days. I was thinking about bird of a feather blogging and/or 802.11b lunch(es) or get-togethers.

A friend and colleague, Mike Daisey, is performing his one-man show, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, and it might be fun to get a group together for a performance on the evening fo the 17th. The show has been well-reviewed. For instance, see this Reuters review, and this sampling of reviews.

Machine is the Measure of All Things

Per my blog entry on Maine and educational computing a few days ago, Paul Boutin had an additional point (read to bottom): Telling teenagers they'll learn more if they stick to pencils and books instead of using Microsoft Office makes as much sense to me as telling them to go back to slide rules, typewriters, and mimeographs.

In fact, we have a meeting of minds: I don't think kids shuld stick to pencils and books. Rather, most of the examples of technology used in classrooms for learnings is of the gee whiz variety: lookee them kids use PowerPoint! In fact, I agree 100 percent with Paul that students should be fully versed on the technology, but not in the cant of technology.

That is, PowerPoint is not a difficult tool to learn, and it doesn't, by itself, help produce clear thought. Other computer tools could help that. It's just a presentation tool. It's not education to let students create multimedia presentations unless they gather and create the work itself and also, to a lesser extent (this is part of Paul's point) learn how to use the tools to put it together.

Rather than teach presentation for presentation's sake, teach the fundamentals that, in the end result lead to good presentation.

When I studied graphic design in college, way back in 1986-90, my freshman year class started with ink ruling pens and Bristol board. We drew even lines in a 7-by-7-inch square until we got them perfect. Then we drew lines of varying widths. Then we cut up smaller squares comprised of lines to test design ideas. And then we took our ideas and drew them.

Yup, we had computers. Yup, we knew how to use them. Yup, we could have done the exercises on the machine. But the handwork cemented the brain connection between physical reality, communication, and skill. When I went to work on the computer later, I had a set of tools that I could deploy irrespective of the thing I was faced with.

Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstedter's tour de force of the 80s, contains an extended dialog near the end in which Charles Babbage (whose last name forms a musical pattern of sorts) appears and programs a number of "smart-stupids" (idiot-savants, in other words, or, in this case, difference engines) to perform miraculous tasks.

He was no less skilled in this fantasy for never having touched one. He'd learned (or invented) the fundamentals, and just needed to sit down and play.

Boutin and Zweibel

Okay, I'm officially cracked up: my friend, debating partner, former editor, and colleague Paul Boutin is quoted in this Onion story entitled Factual Error Found on Internet: Will we ever fully trust the Web again?" Boutin asked. "We may well be witnessing the dawn of a new era of skepticism in which we no longer accept everything we read online at face value. But regardless of what the future holds, one thing is clear: The Internet's status as the world's definitive repository of incontrovertible fact has been jeopardized."

I'm Not Anti-Computer, I'm Anti-Panacea

I want to clarify yesterday's burst of outrage over an article about computers in education in Lewiston, Maine. I firmly believe that a) students need early access and good training in computing; b) a great way to teach ideas about ideas is through learning how to evaluate truth from opinion from inaccuracies on the Web; c) there's practically no career in which learning principles of computing from an early age won't help in. Kids who know computing will certainly get better jobs.

Now the flip side is that the article I cited yesterday is about 90-percent full of "we gave the kids the computers and watch them go!&quot and only about 10 percent "we're teaching the kids how the Internet and computers can be used effectively as part of their education."

Typically, school districts can easily raise money for computers and not for textbooks or other resources. Typically, teachers are not trained (my aunt and her school fought for a training budget when her school arbitrarily decided on new computers and software). Typically, teachers are expensive tech support during classes.

This isn't universally true: some excellent educators have figured out how to plan and budget and use computers as a cost-effective tool within the greater structure of education. Making PowerPoint slides: bad, unless you want them all to become Dilbert. Learning scripting: good, because it gives them tools to achieve results.

In sum, most computer education I read about and her about is the equivalent of handing a kid a TV set, a coax cable feed, and a videotape and leaving them alone with it. The proper use of a computer is like handing a kid a videocamera and teaching them about filmmaking.

He Only Knows Three Words of Computerese: Microsoft, PowerPoint, and *(&@*&#$!

This article from the Lewiston, Maine, newspaper filled me with fear about the next generation's education. It should be hopeful. Maine signed a deal to bring tens of thousands of Apple computers to its students and educators, along with some kind of budget for training, maintenance, etc.

Of course, no cost-benefit analysis was performed comparing that one-time and then renewed outlay against hiring more teachers, offering teachers more training or smaller class sizes, or buying more textbooks or offering more in-class resources. A textbook might cost $50 and last 10 years. An iBook costs $1,100 (in its basic mode) and thousands of dollars of support per year in actual and staff costs. An iBook could hold thousands of textbooks, if they were available in that form, which most are not yet. Electronic textbooks rarely cost less than their paper counterparts, cannot be shared among students, and typically require annual fees instead of one-time purchases.

The article contains many disturbing comments. "The thing is, back in February these kids didn�t know what a PowerPoint was," said teacher Steven Williams. If anyone can explain why this is a good thing, I'd like to hear it. Quite a lot has been written about how PowerPoint has destroyed business discourse and is on its way to destroying academic discourse. It's not Microsoft's fault. Also, you can learn PowerPoint in about a day. Why should students, even as part of job training, need to learn it for academic classes?

Teach them how to outline, not how to make three bullet points. PowerPoint tends to reduce the options you have to fit them on a screen. Outlining, an important skill I was taught in elementary school, is something I still use today.

Teacher Steven Williams marvels at Nadeau�s creativity. She made drawings, didn't use clip art, so bully for her, but how would an opaque projector -- ancient technology -- not have worked as well here?

Six months ago, Williams' students would have drawn a poster and written a short speech for their social studies project. Last week, they created electronic presentations, complete with animation, sound effects and digital photographs. Explain to me how a written speech is inferior to multimedia? At least it sounds like most of the elements are their own. Hmm...maybe not. Animation? Sound effects? My fiancee's brother is an animation sound effects engineer. There aren't many jobs in that industry.

Old-fashioned trips to the library have been replaced with surfing the Internet. Handwritten essays have been replaced with polished reports typed and e-mailed directly to teachers. Strangely enough, the Internet doesn't contain the sum total of human knowledge, nor more than the contents of a few books found in the average library. Some of the public domain works are available, but most of the primary and secondary research students would need is not availble on the Internet. Some exciting primary documents are available, however, which is mostly of importance in the sciences (where research can be found and used), not the arts. And, geez, one more handwritten essay and those students might actually have developed readable writing. Of course, electronic documents offer no opportunity for encyclopedia cut-and-paste plagiarism, either.

Other teachers have noticed that grades have improved and attendance is up....While the teachers have marveled at improved attendance and greater motivation from their students, the kids have marveled at the machines. We need the math teacher: let's quantify this subjective impression, please.

Fuzzy thinking, Internet research, and a state budget deficit (read the whole article)...damn, those kids might have to go back to the old boring library and read books again.

Update: Paul Boutin, who is from Lewiston, noted one part of the story I failed to highlight: they're teaching critical source evaluation as part of the curriculum. Bravo! His post. Paul writes, I wonder what 7th-graders in Maine think of an essay written on a computer and posted to a weblog saying that they should go read a book instead. Adults who already have the good jobs are always talking like that.

My good sir! Specious, specious, specious! I'm not discounting the use of a computer, but rather the common uses cited in this article. Internet research is an incredibly powerful tool for a limited but deep subset of information. For most humanities, the Internet is only a partial or totally incomplete solution. Can I find the definitive works of Robert Frost online? No. I can find pirated and samizdat versions, but I'm not going to find the literary executor estate version of the poem.

When I was in AP English in high school, our instructor (the superb Don DeWitt, who deserves a Google shout-out in this entry) took us through the executor's changes to Frost's punctuation in Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. The executor had changed "the woods are lovely, dark and deep" -- a cadenced set of words with a pause -- into "the woods are lovely, dark, and deep," a short laundry list of the quality of the woods.

Using the mighty power of Google, I can find an authorized version of the poem (though oddly lacking the copyright notice, just a courtesy of label). I can also find stanzas with the alternate punctuation. But without the copyrighted full work in front of me with the thousands of notes which the executor used to explain or document his choices, I cannot have the same insight into the poem.

If I were trying to research butterfly migration patterns and numbers, as some scientists are doing in cooperation with school kids, the computer's use is extraordinary, unprecedented, part of real science, a thrill, and educational. But teachers, as in this article, conflate professional looking -- the clean electronic ASCII characters, the animation and sound in a presentation, the nifty bullets in PowerPoint -- with original, coherent thought.

I like to defer to Herr Professor Doktor von Weinberger, esteemed author of interesting things to read like Small Pieces, Loosely Connected. His point on modern education is: why are kids forced to work always in a solitary manner when, in fact, most of life is about collaboration. Think about any work environment, any project, and it's all about teamwork. Just like in sports, office life is about the collective, coordinated efforts of individuals.

In that sense, I'm very pro-computer: using instant messaging and email to collaborate, plus small wireless networks, plus face-to-face all seems like a set of multiple modalities that would be very powerful.

Clones Comments (no secrets, but some spoilage)

I saw Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones this morning. Hey, George Lucas remembered how to make a fun film with great effects! Gone is the tedious small-mindedness of the first film. Gone is the angelic and annoyingly flat child actor playing Anakin, and no mention of midi chloridians. ("Master Qui Jon, you keep talking about these midi chloridians. What are midi chloridians anyway?" "Well, Jimmy, you might remember me from such educational films as Two Minus Three Equals Negative Fun....").

Mercifully reduced in appearance and actually central to the plot: Jar-Jar Binks. Some extremely wooden acting in the first few scenes, but excellent fights and effects. The acting warms up quite a bit, and, you know, there's a real story there. Excellent visualization of some new aliens. A gladiator scene.

A lot of fun, even at 8 am on opening day. A very tired audience (friends offered me and my fiancee tickets, so we only had to get up at 6 am today, not 6 am Tuesday). One of Master Yoda's late appearances in the film got a huge round of applause. Oh, yeah, even Yoda is rehabilitated with meaningful dialog.