If you haven’t discovered Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore yet, add it to your reading list, or better yet, go get a copy and read it now. For me, it was a fabulous find at the local library. A bit surprising since my local library is tiny…I may actually own more books than they have in their fiction section and much of the shelves are filled with popular fiction and mysteries.
I went to pick up a book I requested. The library makes up for its small size by being part of system so I can usually get most any book I want delivered to my branch. But, I always take some time to browse as well, just to see what books might call to me. Browsing shelves is one of the joys of the bibliophile not really offered by ebooks. You can browse electronically, of course, but you can’t pull the book off the shelf and touch it, see how it feels in your hands, really interact with it in a way you can’t electronically. During this browsing adventure, I found two surprises: a new Joanne Harris novel called Peaches for Father Francis, the third in her series about Vianne, who first appeared in Chocolat. I stayed up well past my bedtime finishing it.
But it was the second book that was the real surprise since I wasn’t familiar with the author, Robin Sloan, but I took the book home with me purely because it has “bookstore” in the title. It turns out Mr. Penumbra was Sloan’s first novel. It was the best of the bunch and may be one of the best books I’ve read this year, no mean feat since I’m getting close to 70 books this year. The story included ancient books, a secret society, cryptography, technology, and a bit of fantasy thrown in. The main character is on a quest, aided by friends who just happen to work for legendary companies like Google and Industrial Light and Magic. The story is formed around nuggets of history with Aldus Manutius playing a role. (For my grammarian friends, Manutius is credited with creating the semicolon.) There is some discussion of old knowledge (OK) and what we’ve lost in our increasingly digitally mediated age. And, did I mention that the cover glows in the dark, something I discovered after I turned off the light one night.
Sloan calls himself a media inventor who worked at Twitter and because of this, there is great web support for the novel that allows a digitally-inclined reader like myself to spend happy hours exploring, a practice that helps extend my enjoyment of the original book. I’ve pulled together a few resources that you’ll find in the next post.
The last paragraph doesn’t reveal anything but seems to describe the sometimes magical experience of being a reader:
A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.
You can get a digital copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I don’t think the experience will be the same.
I’ve been tinkering with the web since the late 1990s. In October 2001, as part of a grant project, I started a monthly newsletter that included resources for teachers. I’ve left them up as an archive but am not actively updating them. Every so often, I get an email from someone who has found a broken link and has suggested links for me to use. I got such an email this morning. The writer pointed to a link in the December 2002 newsletter. It turns out about half of the links are broken. I’m in the process of updating the whole website and may end up taking them down.
Except they provide an interesting snapshot of what was going on in the web. Google images was a relatively new feature. And I was already benefiting from the work of Tim Stahmer, linking to his top 100 websites.
I clicked on that link and discovered that Tim has one of the most helpful and elegant 404 pages I have ever encountered. And also that he predates me on the web by just a couple of years.
I’m glad I was there near the beginning along with people like Tim. Having the long view helps put all the new, “earth shaking” changes in perspective.
For the record, I am in the middle of a website overhaul. There are still some gems on my site but they are hard to find and everything just needs reorganized and brought into my wordpress installation.
I was not expecting the first paragraph of Bill Gates’ plan to save the world to focus on fertilizer. Or really the whole first page. Turns out he is a little obsessed with it:
I am a little obsessed with fertilizer. I mean I’m fascinated with its role, not with using it. I go to meetings where it’s a serious topic of conversation. I read books about its benefits and the problems with overusing it. It’s the kind of topic I have to remind myself not to talk about too much at cocktail parties, since most people don’t find it as interesting as I do.
He finds its fascinating as an invention that has had a positive impact on human life, likening it to the polio vaccine.
Let me reiterate this: A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia.
I bristled a little when I read this. As a part-time farmer who lives in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I am biased towards hating synthetic fertilizer. Run off causes algae blooms that shade the sun and create huge problems for aquatic life.
But Gates does mention the problems of overuse and he seems like someone who would be interested in environmental concerns so I felt like I needed to do some follow up. What I found out was what I seem to continue to find out about most issues: there is no black and white answer when it comes to fertilizer. Certainly, in our country is it overused probably because it is cheap and readily available and we have decided that green lawns are an object of desire. But in developing countries with poor soil, according to Hunger Math, fertilizer can increase crop yields and that could mean the difference between life and death for those farmers who are raising the food to feed their families.
In other words, we shouldn’t deny artificial commercial fertilizer to the developing world merely out of a concern for the environment. Organic food production may result in healthier food and lower impact on the environment, but the needs of the hungry outweigh those values. First, feed the world.
They go on to suggest that the use of fertilizer might actually be “good” for the environment because by allowing each acre to produce more food, less land will need to be farmed:
The 150 million ha that would need to be fertilized, for one crop only per year, to end world hunger, is only about 10% of the total agricultural land. If we could obtain 2 fertilized crops per year from that land, we would only need to fertilize 5% of the agricultural land.
This all makes sense and feeding people should certainly be a priority. Of course, using fertilizer is only one of many potential solutions to be explored for alleviating world hunger, but if it can save lives, that IS more important than environmental impact. But, only to a point. Synthetic fertilizers do harm the environment. So, as with most of these kinds of sticky problems, we need to find the middle way. Using fertilizers where they can make a real difference but also being sure to help farmers learn sustainable techniques so that they can move in the direction of more earth-friendly agriculture.
Beyond learning something about world hunger, my little foray into fertilizer was a reminder of how much information we have available to us. When we wonder about something, we don’t have to live with that wonder until we can get to a book or talk to some expert. Instead, we can fact check Bill Gates on the spot. Gates doesn’t provide any footnotes so it’s up to us to figure out the truthiness of what he is writing. The exercise required close reading on my part, a focus of Common Core, and then the ability to frame my question, search for answers, and evaluate the sources providing those answers. Part of that evaluation was understanding that two of my sources–Hunger Math and Organic Valley–have their own biases that swing them to one side of the fertilizer question. The answer to “Is fertilizer good or bad?” is very similar to the answer to “Are charters schools good or bad?” or “Are interactive whiteboards good or bad?”: it depends.
I was prepared to write a blog post recommending Ted Bell’s Nick McIver series as great reads for middle schoolers…historical fiction with a little time travel thrown in. Maybe a little violent but in the swashbuckling tradition. They are set on the Guernsey Islands at the start of WW II but take us back to other great historical battles. In Nick of Time, we meet Lord Nelson just a few weeks before Trafalgar, and in The Time Pirate, we stand with George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. The second volume would be a great addition to an American history class.
There’s the recommendation…here’s the journey. Along with the review, I was going to post a list of links related to WW II and the Revolutionary War as part of my Diigo posts. I’m still going to do that but as you browse the links, you’ll see the journey I took from checking out these animated maps to learning about the Battle of Gallipoli (which, for the record, is a WW I battle but was the brain child of Winston Churchill) to checking out even more interactive maps to thinking about the definition of genocide.
The interactive maps are examples of the way media can bring history alive. As I was reading about Gallipoli, I was thinking how useful a map would be and was a little relieved to discover that I wasn’t going to have to create it myself.
But the definitions demonstrate a much more profound use of the Web: opening the world of ideas and debate to our students. As I read about Turkey’s plan to keep Australian officials from attending the 100th anniversary, I thought about the treatment of native peoples’ around the world. Why wasn’t that genocide? Turns out there is disagreement about the definition and its application despite the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations in December 1948.
Meanwhile, how did I know I had reached the end of my journey? It took me here.
I was just thinking about getting ready to head to the after school program when I got a text indicating they were going to have to cancel. I was a little disappointed as I had pulled together some digital cameras and was hoping to work on some digital storytelling using Scratch as the production tool…get the girls interested in programming by building on their interest in digital media. I had spent an hour or so today creating two ideas for using digital photos in Scratch:
Farm Slide Show:
So, I kept working on them a bit, adding code to make sure they reset themselves when the green flag was pressed. I figured the girls could remix my work, thus learning both about the Scratch community and getting to see some code they can work with.
I finished tinkering and realized I had unstructured time. The last time it happened, I had to listen to a Coursera lecture. Today, I really could take a break from responsibilities. What to do? The dogs benefited as they got an extra walk before their supper. And my kitchen floor got a much needed cleaning.
But I was also able to escape upstairs to my makeshift sewing room where I’ve been working on my first quilting project. I had bought a kit for a small wall hanging several years ago and decided this would be the year I finished it, intending to give it to my mother for a Christmas gift. I had cut squares and done some sewing over the weekend but today’s job was to start creating the whole piece. I pretty quickly discovered just how badly I had done with the initial cutting. Some squares were more like rectangles, points didn’t match and after sewing two rows together, I found that one of the blocks was positioned incorrectly, a mistake that pretty much doomed the project. I could have taken it all apart but that wasn’t going to solve the poor cutting. I used a rotary cutter but just wasn’t as careful as I should have been. I’ll finish it as it is good enough for me but I’m going to try another one to give as a gift. This time, I’ll be better focused on the cutting, first taking some time to read tips from experienced quilters who are willing to share their secrets online.
A well-made quilt has a clean, neat look that results from clean, neat cutting. I knew that and yet it took failure to bring the lesson home. It’s tempting to give it up and go back to crocheting, a craft I do well, but I’m determined to master this new craft. Thank goodness I’m not being judged on my first effort.
Lots of lessons for educators here…first, the unstructured time and the chance to choose my activity, and then the chance to fail. We don’t allow much of this in schools since we are so focused on measurable results.