Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dude. The FUTURE. "It comes soon enough."

I remember when I was a kid, two things amazed me and struck me as being things I would never have. The first was the telephone phone in Jake’s dad’s car in the movie Sixteen Candles, twisty cord and all. The second was Dick Tracy’s watch communicator. One seemed possible only for the very rich, and the other seemed like complete fantasy.
I have another memory from childhood, maybe 1983 or ‘84. My family was still living in South Texas at the time. My dad had taken me to some kind of tech show where an early computer was on display. I played some archaic computer game that had totally engrossed me. This was before Nintendo, and I think it’s what spurred my parents into getting us an Atari 2600. Anyway, later that evening, my dad called me into the living room where he was watching the news. Wouldn’t you know it? There I was on the TV, my back to the camera, playing on the computer. Yeah it was a memory that made an impression on me.

Even still, the computer I played on at that convention seemed like an unattainable dream to me. I don’t think, even as young as I was, that I asked my parents if we could have one. I just intuitively knew that it would never happen. We never had lots of money. Indeed, although we had traded the Atari in for a Nintendo and later a Super Nintendo, our family didn’t get our first personal computer until over a decade later, in 1995, when my mom came home with a Pentium. I was already on my way out of high school by then. It was the days of AOL, and pay-by-the-minute connectivity, and chat rooms, keywords, screechy dialup noises. And it was thrilling.

Now the four-inch phone that I drop on a daily basis has 500 times the processing power of that Pentium. Everything is different. Remarkably so. Why do I go on about this? Well, I called this blog Something Incredible, and I find the rapid infiltration of computer technology into our lives absolutely incredible. It’s not only revolutionized daily communication and function, but it’s also revolutionized our expectations for revolutions!

“What’s next,” used to be a rhetorical response to some forward thrust in technical progress. Now it’s a real question that people ask while impatiently tapping their feet. Amazing inventions seem to become passé before a year is out. The physical manifestation of “What’s next” is the TED Conferences, where some of the most innovative minds present ideas, inventions, and projects-in-the-works to a host of gawkers, both at the conference and on the internet. These aren’t only technology-centered ideas, but it tends to lend itself toward technological innovation.

The Huffington Post posted blog entry about John Underkoffler’s TED Conference presentation of a new user interface (UI) system, or the system in which a person interacts with a machine (like a computer). I didn’t know who John Underkoffler was before reading that blog, but I was familiar with his work: he was one of the science advisors for the movie Minority Report. Remember that one? Where Tom Cruise would interact with digital images that popped up in real space, rather than with a computer screen? Well, it seems Mr. Underkoffler wants to make that a little closer to reality.

I’m pretty geeky, so I think this whole thing is pretty cool. I mean, that UI was one of the most memorable things about Minority Report to me, even more so than the robot spider things. I remember sitting in the theater thinking, “damn, I want that!” Of course, the TED demonstration wasn’t exactly that, but it’s in baby stages—and we all know how fast these things can grow up.

One part of the demonstration that particularly interested me was an architecture example where he used an actual building model in tandem with a digital image. In this case the digital image was the model’s shadow, which he could alter by changing the digital position of the sun using a model clock. No computer screen—just a perfect melding of real geometric space and digital enhancement. This really stimulated my imagination as a teacher. Imagine similar techniques while teaching math or science?

Of course, I mostly just want to stand in a room and move images around in space with my hands like some kind of wacko dance. How fun would that be?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Life Changes and a Kangaroo

There is definitely an inverse relationship between the amount of spare time I have and how much writing I do for pleasure. The more free time, the less writing. People who know me well know that I have turned to writing as a form of therapy during difficult times. That’s why, when I have whined over the last several months about being underemployed, I have often heard, “Well, at least you have plenty of time to write!”

And you know what? It’s worked as a cheer-up line. “Yeah,” I would say, “I guess I do!” But, it would rarely happen. I did write a little bit: I started many short stories, but, as was pointed out to me in my bi-weekly writing group, I have failed to finish more than two of those. And I haven’t returned to those two for any kinds of revisions.

Now, the first day of my second week is almost over (don’t worry, I’m on my lunch break) and I have already noticed a major difference. Since last Monday, I have written eleven journal entries. The last entry date before then? August 24th! According to my journal, the last ten months didn’t exist. I am also writing my second blog entry after a four-month absence. In addition to that, I am revising the screenplay I write for Screen Frenzy in April. Maybe Adam is right—I need to be overworked in order to function properly. Ok, those weren’t his exact words, but it was something like that. Unemployment was grievously detrimental to my mental and emotional well-being, and I am very glad that it is over!

But enough of that! Many people have already heard, but over the last couple of weeks, we have had a nightly guest in the house. He is gentle and quiet, keeps mostly to himself, and only eats his own food. Overall, he is a decent roomie, although he can be a bit smelly. Also, he’s a marsupial.

His name is Melbourne and he’s a baby kangaroo! A joey, I should say. Laura’s boss recently acquired him for her Pets Rule show at Sea World. He is too young right now to stay at the park, so we’ve been keeping him at our house. He is still bottle-fed, and receives kangaroo formula every few hours. There’s not much to caring for a joey. In the wild, they spend most of their time in their mother’s pouch. Melbourne has a fuzzy synthetic pouch that approximates a real one. He instinctively knows that’s where he belongs. If you hold it out in front of him, he dives right in, head first. So that’s mostly what taking care of him entails: holding him, much like one would hold a human baby, while he sits in his pouch.

Melbourne has a little tent that acts as his home. He is happy to just sit in his pouch, in his tent, thinking kangaroo thoughts (which probably aren’t many, I have to say). Occasionally, he’ll want attention or to be held. He will let us know by making a strange kind of “ahem” sound, kind of like a mix between an ahem and a hack. When we hold him, he doesn’t do much other than look around or try to chew on our hair. He is also fond of using his hands to grab my face and try and bring himself closer so he can munch on my beard. It was cute at first. This behavior usually precedes bottle time.

Our dachshunds, Bell and Cheswick, show some curiosity, but mostly they are content to sit on the couch and watch television. Melbourne really hasn’t been much of a bother as a roommate. Of course, that would change if he were a full grown kangaroo. For now, he’s just a baby. Oh, we also have a pigeon named George, but he couldn’t care less about the kangaroo.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Para Mi Abuela

Update: I spoke with my father on the phone. According to him, my grandmother experienced a very calm, peaceful passing earlier this afternoon. It was dignified, in one of the best hospitals in the country. Not bad for a little old Mexican woman from Hidalgo, Texas. More than can be said for many people.

She has requested cremation, so she can be buried in the future with her husband, my grandfather, Luis Ramirez.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been composing a short blog about a kangaroo. It was going to be a funny and (hopefully) interesting revitalization of this dormant website. I am putting it on hold, however, because my grandmother Telby Ramirez is in a hospital in Maryland. From what I’ve been able to gather from voice-and-e-mails, things do not look good.

I am experiencing the initial disconnect with reality that comes from news like this. I have experienced it before. I don’t know what else to say about this right now, other than to repost something I wrote about my grandparents, and specifically my grandmother, nearly four years ago. I’m going to do that now. I hope many people read it, because it speaks a lot about my family, my grandmother, and, I think, life in general.

Friday, November 24, 2006

No cotton for Thanksgiving!

A fair early content warning: I may use the phrase “lo and behold” a lot in this blog. Very Biblical.

Ok, I probably won’t be using that a lot here, but my grandfather sure uses it one hell of a lot in his speech. As you may or may not have guessed, this entry is inspired by this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Anyone who knows me knows that I spend less time thinking about my family than I probably should. And that goes for my immediate family, let alone my extended family. My parents moved us to Maryland from Texas before I started the sixth grade. By the time I reached the end of high school, I wanted to do mostly my own thing. I did a lot of traveling, met a lot of new people, and lived in a lot of different places. Visiting the bloodline back in the grand ole’ state of Texas, which, by the by, I can’t stand, never held priority for me. As a result, my family and I have become relative strangers to one another.

Is this something I regret? Well, I don’t know. But, after years of insincere Thanksgivings where I half-heartedly spouted off a list of things I was grateful for to anyone who actually asked, I have finally come to one where I can really feel thankful at the end of the day. And lo and behold, it was because of my grandfather.

A word about Luis Ramirez, my venerable grandfather on my mother’s side: he is a smart-aleck Mexican, a history buff, a joker, and a foul-mouthed curmudgeon. Excepting the Mexican part, I think a lot of people see some of these qualities in their own grandfathers. One thing I always knew and never appreciated so much as I did these last two days was this: his undeniable ability to talk one’s ear off.

We got into great conversations about history and war and politics and all of that nonsense, but what really got to me were the stories about my own family. I could probably write a book eventually; I’ll have to get him to spill his guts while I have a recorder around next time, but I’ll share one thing here.

I hadn’t known that my grandparents both picked cotton on the Rio Grande during the depression. Being the smart-ass that Grandfather Luis is, he asked me bluntly in his accented English: “How many pounds of cotton per day do you think your ‘Uela (abbreviated “abuela,” or “grandmother”) pulled?” No one likes showing his or her ignorance, so I just said “I don’t know.” But that’s not good enough for Luis, oooohhhh no! “Take a guess!” he said, “I want to see what you know about your grandmother.”

Well shit, I was stuck. I tried to be smart about it—estimate. I knew that one piece of cotton is very light, a few grams maybe. It would take a whole hell of a lot of them to make one pound. Maybe it was a trick question—I guessed low. “Ten?” This was met with a cackle of derisive laughter.

“Guess again!”


“Oy, mi’hito, is that all you think of your grandmother?”

“Well shit,” I say, in his own foul language, “how the hell many was it?”

“Would you believe one thousand?”

I didn’t believe it, and I told him so. He grabbed me by the wrist and took me to the guest room where ‘uela was putting together her puzzle (she just completed it after four days). He asked her how many pounds of cotton she used to pull, and she said without hesitating for a second: “One thousand. By three o’clock.” That’s it. I believed it. I had to; I know my grandmother. She was eleven or twelve years of age at the time. I am still in shock, even as I type this. They had to pull the bulbs, drag them on a contraption that hung behind them back to a scale, weigh it, dump it, and go back for more. Back and forth, back and forth, bending over and pulling cotton for several hours. I asked ‘Uelo (abbreviated “abuelo,” or “grandfather, but you already knew that I’m sure) how much he picked. “Oh,” he said, “never more than one hundred pounds in a day. Got 50 cents for it, too.” She showed him up.

I wish I had a tape recorder these last couple of days. I do plan on getting a lot more out of him though; I would like to commit these stories to real paper. Stay tuned. In any case, that is what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful to have heard some stories and finally gained genuine interest in where I came from. I always had it to some extent, but never to the point to where I was excited to seek the information out. I’m also thankful to my smart-assed Grandfather Luis and Grandmother Telby (‘Uela and ‘Uelo, if you will) for using so much breath on telling great stories, even though those stories overused lo and behold. Thank you!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Teaching Kids Where They Are

Sometimes I wonder whether or not epiphanies are recognizable as such at the time they happen. A couple of years ago, I was visiting with my friends Melissa and Graeme in Philadelphia. I got there late in the evening, having hopped on the Chinatown bus after work, so we went out for late dinner and beer before retiring to their apartment where a Wii was waiting. I'm fairly certain the game that Graeme selected to play was Super Smash Bros. Now, I like video games, but I am far from keeping current with them. I think my brain is still in the late 90s generation of games for the most part. Super Smash Bros was a visual and auditory cacophony of rapid-fire changes in depth perception, flying colors, scene alterations, and movement. In short, I couldn't tell what the Hell was happening on the screen--much less control my character. They kicked my butt. This was something I remarked on for the entire 10 minutes I spent attempting to play the game. In response, Melissa made one of her snide jokes:

"This is why so many kids have ADD now."

I laughed at that at the time, but I can't help but think she was on to something there. It was definitely an epiphany that spurred the interest in educational technology that has influenced my past work in the classroom and my present work as an educational technology trainer. Now, of course I don't think that video games cause ADD, but I do believe that kids who grow up with this generation of light speed entertainment can become accustomed to it. This phenomenon has come under a great amount of scrutiny in the pedagogical community, which has invented its inevitable labels for people who were born after 1992, the most recognizable being "digital natives." This term refers to children who have never known a world without the internet, video games, cell phones, DVDs, GPS--all things that have sped up our lives. These devices provide instant gratification, and anything less feels unacceptable.

I try to think about teachers who use a chalkboard to attempt to communicate concepts to kids who are used to Google, Wikipedia, IMDB, etcetera for finding information.
For these students, teachers need to be able to adapt to a changing world.

There is a growing number of studies that suggest developing brains that are consistently exposed to digital media actually develop differently. This makes me think again about playing Super Smash Bros with Melissa and Graeme in Philadelphia. The hand-eye coordination, as well as the reaction time and problem solving required for modern video games require a good amount of brain power, yet I'm certain that most young kids who are borderline illiterate would have no problem mastering them.

The other side of this coin, however, are the number of kids who actually don't receive the same exposure to digital media that others do. When I had my own classroom in a school in which the demographic was comprised of a lower socioeconomic bracket, half or more of my students came from a home that had no computer. There are counter arguments out there that these students make the term "digital native" a misleading one. I worry about these particular students even more, however, because the initial disadvantage they already experience expands even further. Their digital native counterparts will have greater skills and experiences in an increasingly digital world. It's another layer in the case of have and have nots. For both types of students, I believe teachers should strive to integrate technology in the conveyance of knowledge and skills. The haves need the engagement and the have nots need the exposure, just to name the most basic of reasons.

Thank you Anthony Huges for the image! Read his blog here!

It should be kept in mind that technology is not the magic answer to our struggles with public education. Best teaching practices for reading and math skills are just as critical as they always were, if not more so. Here is a decent Huffington Post blog with some suggestions to promote reading for children who are digital natives. It is worth reading, especially if you are a parent, and I'm glad it includes electronic reading devices as one of the suggestions. Technology shouldn't replace traditional school-taught skills, it's role in the classroom is to provide an authentic learning environment that emulates the real world and offers meaningful learning opportunities for students.