Fahrenheit 451

I am sad to say that I never read this book before now. The way this book had always been presented to me was on the merits of its premise, which I am sure you all know, either through word of mouth or the film — it’s about a world where firemen burn books to keep the world safe from the effects of reading.

A good premise, I always thought, but if I want something premise-driven the novel is my last stop, behind comic books, films, and video games. What I like in a novel is execution and density.

I finished this book last night, and I’m stunned by it’s beauty.

What I had never understood until now was just what a brilliant writer Bradbury was. There are passages in this book that are a mixture of Joyce, London, and Steinbeck all rolled up in one. (Am I overselling now? Possibly. But not by much.) Here’s a sample:

Montag said nothing but stood looking at the women’s faces as he had once looked at the faces of saints in a strange church he had entered when he was a child. The faces of those enamelled creatures meant nothing to him, though he talked to them and stood in that church for a long time, trying to be of that religion, trying to know what that religion was, trying to get enough of the raw incense and special dust of the place into his lungs and thus into his blood to feel touched and concerned by the meaning of the colourful men and women with the porcelain eyes and the blood-ruby lips. But there was nothing, nothing; it was a stroll through another store, and his currency strange and unusable there, and his passion cold, even when he touched the wood and plaster and clay. So it was now, in his own parlour, with these women twisting in their chairs under his gaze, lighting cigarettes, blowing smoke, touching their sun-fired hair and examining their blazing fingernails as if they had caught fire from his look. Their faces grew haunted with silence. They leaned forward at the sound of Montag’s swallowing his final bite of food. They listened to his feverish breathing. The three empty walls of the room were like the pale brows of sleeping giants now, empty of dreams. Montag felt that if you touched these three staring brows you would feel a fine salt sweat on your finger-tips. The perspiration gathered with the silence and the sub-audible trembling around and about and in the women who were burning with tension. Any moment they might hiss a long sputtering hiss and explode.
Montag moved his lips.

“Let’s talk.”

There’s a second thing at work here too. I always heard that this book is about censorship. It’s not. There are long passages in the book that specifically say the censorship is merely window dressing. The book is about what happens in a TV culture, where art and news becomes mere repetitive activity rather than individual experiences. There are some wonderfully comic moments in it dealing with the vapidity of television:

“I had a nice evening,” she said, in the bathroom.
“What doing?”
“The parlour.”
“What was on?”
“What programmes?”
“Some of the best ever.”
“Oh, you know, the bunch.”
“Yes, the bunch, the bunch, the bunch.” He pressed at the pain in his eyes and suddenly the odour of kerosene made him vomit.

Why Bradbury is relegated sci-fi while no-talents like Roth are elevated to canon status I’ll never figure out. Maybe that’s another post. But I woke up this morning after having finished this book yesterday, thinking — I need to tell people what I don’t think I was ever told: that this book fires on all cylinders, that the idea is, in a way, the smallest part of it, as clever and insightful as it is. If you’re looking for something to read over Thanksgiving, it would be hard to do better.

Incidentally, this book has rekindled my interest in reading sci-fi novels — I’ve read some cyberpunk, but would welcome some suggestions, particularly of books with a depth of psyche in them, like this one.

Real Punks Ship

So that was the title I was tempted to throw on the recent post over at OCWBlog. It seemed impolitic over there, but if you are stopping by here, you know me and the spirit it’s offered in.

The heart of the OCWBlog post is this graph:

I’ve been frankly a little surprised, since signing on at OCWC, at the rift between the edubloggers and the OCW community. A lot of edubloggers seem to think that people in the OCW community just don’t get the larger picture. And a lot of people in the OCW community think the edubloggers talk too much and produce too little.

I can say with  confidence that both of those perceptions are completely wrong. The edubloggers I know have slogged long and hard to get real things done. And people in the OCW community don’t claim OCW is the be-all/end-all of open education. Sometimes dedication to an idea requires analysis, sometimes just blood, sweat, and tears. The people I have met doing OCW implementations at their institutions are some of the brightest, most self-analytical, big picture people I have had the pleasure of knowing — they’ve just decided, for the moment, to channel that energy into production and institutional change.

And yes, some people are great at the grassroots piece, some are great at the institutional piece. But we’re insane if we believe that only the grassroots piece of that equation is producing “real change”.  Which is what I’ve been hearing lately, in exactly those terms, in twitters, blogs, the comments on blogs (particularly the comments, actually), and emails.

As the graph shows, that claim is probably verifiably false. Most of that big swath of red there is not grant-funded, most of that red swath does not represent rich institutions, and most of it represents initiatives committed to continuing even in the face of this economic downturn. And all of it is accomplished by people who turned at least part of their attention to aligning the institution with open education goals.

If that’s not real change, what is?

We’re lucky, as a movement, to have people approaching this issue from both the bottom-up and top-down. In my experience it’s the combination of those two approaches that gets change done.  So let’s rejoice in that, and not see it as a burden.


From Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com:

I have written for perhaps a dozen major publications over the span of my career, and the one with the most thorough fact-checking process is by some margin Sports Illustrated. Although this is an indication of the respect with which SI accords its brand, it does not speak so well of the mainstream political media that you are more likely to see an unverified claim repeated on the evening news than you are to see in the pages of your favorite sports periodical.

One of the questions triggered by the Frontline program [on Lee Atwater] is what would have happened if Atwater were still alive today; might he have had more success in undermining Barack Obama than Steve Schmidt apparently did? My answer is very probably not, because the blogosphere serves as the fact-checkers that the mainstream media is too negligent to employ.

UVU and the OCWC

Jared Stein writes on his blog that UVU has decided to go open, using a very simple mechanism:

Now UVU is not just a vocational/trade school (though I daresay there is more than one administrator who would like to de-emphasize that fact now that we are a university); most of our programs are in the liberal arts and sciences, and I know faculty in those areas will be interested in sharing what they are doing, too. Because we have only recently become a university, I know we have a lot of faculty who are seasoned and enthusiastic teachers, not researchers, and that may make them more likely to share what they do best. So our approach has to facilitate these folks as well, and keep the process as unencumbered as possible. To this end, the process we have proposed neglects the OCW/OER labels, and focuses on re-licensing of UVU-owned (”work-for-hire”) content under a Creative Commons license. At this point it’s a single form, and once it’s been signed by UVU administration the faculty member will be free to publish the content under any medium available.

Jared talks at length in the post about some of the issues he’s struggled with, echoing some of Scott Leslie’s concerns about the role of institutions in sharing in general:

The most important part of this announcement is not that UVU will be engaging in opencourseware, nor even that we can officially join the OpenCourseWare Consortium—the key for me is having the chance to explore and articulate a vision for openness at UVU, and how we might proceed in a way that contributes uniquely and with impact.

Scott argues that a problem with institutionally-guided sharing is “they [the planners/sharers] didn’t actually know what the compelling need was, it just sounded like a good idea at the time.” In our case the “need” has driven me from the beginning. Instead of just saying, “Hey, OCW is cool and the OCWC has a lot of big names (not to mention the press coverage!)” I had to decide why anyone in the world would care that Utah Valley University, a former trade college, would be sharing it’s course content, activities, and educational materials.

I think there’s quite a number of people on the grassroots side of things that feel this way. When you’re in the trenches the PR piece and the recognition piece doesn’t seem to matter much. And frankly there’s always something that feels a little slimy about PR — and I say that as a person who does PR.

My feeling on this is pretty simple. The OCWC membership is a tactic, PR is a tactic, grant funding is a tactic, having lunches with your provost is a tactic, a simple form is a tactic, merit pay is a tactic.

And at OCWC we try to provide other tools you can use, finding presenters, pairing people with like interests up, trying (in despair recently) to build a healthy news network up. We’re constantly looking for other things we can offer people to get the job done. (In other words — we’re needs driven as well).

But ultimately, if people can get the job done without us, that’s fine too. The fact is the boundaries are not rigid here. If UVU is successful with their approach, I am absolutely going to get Jared’s form and put it into the toolkit as a resource — a path for people to choose if they want. And whether UVU comes on board with us or not, whether they call what they are doing OCW or not, they are encouraged to come to any and all OCWC conferences and talk with the people on the ground doing it in other institutions, or lift copy they need from the OCWC Toolkit.

In the best of worlds these boundaries are naturally blurry, because this is not ultimately about membership — its about a movement. We’re all in this together, no matter what the terms, and to my mind success is the best proof of efficacy of method. Congratulations to Jared and others at UVU on successfully pushing this through!

Jim Groom, Killer Catfish.

This always seems to come up in edupunk conversations, and seems to be one of the main attacks against edupunk, even from great people who I respect no end — hey, they’ll say, we can’t have a knee-jerk reaction against corporate solutions. They aren’t necessarily evil.

It may surprise you, but I completely agree. In fact, I’ll go one step further, corporations are never evil.

Corporations are the wrong thing to be looking at. They aren’t evil or good — they merely *are*. It’s the environment and the market that needs to be considered.

Markets are healthy or sick. And when they are sick, due to patent silliness, an oversupply of easy credit, or lack of regulation, all corporations will end up doing things against the public good.

Right now the reason the LMS market is sick is that Blackboard has no natural predators, due to a variety of factors, but primarily due to the particular structure of university purchasing systems combined with some early advantages Blackboard possessed (I do not see the patent issue, as awful as it is for the current market, as the main reason for their dominance). Blackboard is not evil, but its current situation is like a snakehead dropped in the Potomac to feed. And sitting around deciding whether it deserves to eat all those other fish is beside the point.

Northern Snakehead
Snakehead 1.0. Image via Wikipedia

You see, I’m willing to admit, from a purchasing standpoint, that this feature or that feature of NG will improve the lives of students. I don’t see much indication that Blackboard has gotten past their core mission as an access control company, but, hey, more amazing transformations have happened. I think they don’t get openess in a really fundamental way, but still, if it became in their interest to do so, they could be quick learners.

All that is interesting, and fodder for future blog posts. But no matter what the value of Blackboard’s individual actions, the fact is the LMS market ecosystem is sick, and will remain sick until Blackboard develops natural predators. I’m not really interested in the feature list of Snakehead 2.0. Compared to the larger context, the feature list is a minor point.

So I thank the gods for people like Jim Groom, the killer catfish who jumps on their every move, and scraps it up against all odds. People will say he isn’t reasonable, but when you are trying to address a balance of power issue, it doesn’t always pay to be reasonable. Sometimes you just gotta pull the rope as long and hard as you can.

Jim does that every day, here’s to him.

Update: Jim challenges me in the comments, and in response I have to reformulate. Blackboard is not a snakehead in a peaceful pond, a fish out of water as it were. Blackboard is what happens when a teaching technology company evolves to conform to the enterprise software pond. It’s attributes that we dislike are results of the enterprise purchasing system, not the causes of the environment, though they may perpetuate it.

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Election Day

Taking a half-day, and then doing some GOTV. Because of anticipated parking problems a lot of the polling places have been shifted since 2006 (and even since the primary), so there’s a real need to get people that information.

Aside from the polling, which indicates a likely Obama victory in NH, I’d be very surprised if Obama lost here — NH voted Kerry in 2004, there was a blue wave here in 2006, and things have only gotten worse for the GOP since. The one sticking point? In 2004/2006 the Iraq withdrawal issue was made clearer. People here are sick of the war, and want it over, tonight if possible. In 2006 there was a very clear distinction — the Democrats are for getting out, the Repubs for staying in. But because of filibuster and presidential action that difference has become muted (which was the intent of those actions).

I don’t think it’s enough though, and I predict a win stronger than Kerry/Bush here.

One of the under-covered elements I’m seeing lately is that after 20 years of New Hampshire independents saying they support divided government (different parties in control of the the different branches) and complaining about gridlock people have finally realized they have been smoking crack. Divided government equals gridlock. Obama is talking about reaching across the aisle, but the independents in New Hampshire at least are taking it one step further — they are going to give a one-party progressive government a go. [Partially this is interesting because we saw what a one-party conservative government did — it got stuff done. All really horrible stuff, but stuff.]

If anybody wants the skinny on what’s happening here, go to Blue Hampshire. It’s a great look at what’s going on on the ground. It may be a lottle spotty today, because so many posters are out on GOTV, but it will still be worth the read.