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Inherent Vice: It’s All about the Lagan, Dude…

Posted on : 27-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : Book Reviews

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Inherent VicePynchon’s latest novel probably got as much press for its unpynchonesque brevity (it clocks in at under 400 pages) as anything else. Considering that Against the Day and Mason & Dixon are nearly 2,000 pages combined, I guess it’s worth a nod that his latest is easily manageable in a week for even a casual reader. And the fact that it is manageable is nearly as unpynchonesque as its length. Yes, there is a wiki for those who can’t keep the characters or plot straight, but Inherent Vice really is Pynchon Lite.

The book even comes with the added novelty of a youtube ad, narrated by Pynchon himself:

That’s not to say that Pynchon fans won’t recognize the staples of his writing in this book. There are plenty of sub plots to get lost in, bizarre character names (Trevor McNutley, Petunia Leeway and Arthur Tweedle come readily to mind), and there’s enough paranoia to make even non-junkies wonder whether they are being watched while they read.

But the most interesting bits of the novel aren’t in it’s novelty, whether typically Pynchon or not.

The real treasure of Inherent Vice lies beneath the typical stuff. Think of it like the lagan that Sauncho discusses with Doc, early on in the novel, the buried treasure that is sunk to be rediscovered. Of course this is a Pynchon novel, so the value of the treasure is less treasure than trash (millions in currency with Nixon’s face it, essentially worthless). But the quest for lagan permeates the novel. It is an act that is at the core of the mystery of the Golden Fang and the sunken city of Lemuria; it’s what Doc does for a living as a PI, on the most basic level; it’s what he does as a stoner (doper’s memory, maan); and on the meta-level, it’s what the reader does with the book. And when Doc insists again and again to the LAPD, the Feds and other “straights”  that they aren’t so different, he’s revealing more than hippie stoner nonsense. He’s making the connection between these characters and the reader clear in their very nature. This, like Hebert Stencil in V., is what they do. It’s what we do.

And the inherent quality points back to not only the epigraph (“under the paving stones, the beach!”), but the title of the novel itself.

One of the great mainstream criticisms of Pynchon’s work is that with all it’s required effort (often to realize some simple pun or that the meaning is that there is no meaning), isn’t worth it. Perhaps the greatest virtue of Inherent Vice is that it’s one of those deceptively easy little books (about as easy as it gets for Pynchon, at least), and I think it’s well worth the effort.

In the Bag: Chicago

Posted on : 24-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : In the Bag

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Sept. Asimov's & Bend Sinister

Sept. Asimov's & Bend Sinister

After finishing Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice, I went back to Nabokov.

I took a trip to Chicago to see Bad Religion, who played with Pearl Jam, and put the latest Asimov’s in the bag. I read a decent story, called “Camera Obscured,” the first night. It’s a piece by Ferrett Steinmetz that comments on the video/podcast/blog/feed culture that permeates the lives of American youth.

The trip was short, just one night. In the morning I started Bend Sinister on the patio of the Hard Rock hotel on Michigan, iced venti coffee nearby.

What amazing prose! And how fitting that the first image of the novel comes into view in such musical terms, as Nabokov describes,

The continuation of her voice came into being as if a needle had found its groove. Its groove in the disc of the mind. Of his mind that had started to revolve as he halted in the doorway and looked down at her upturned face. The movement of its features was now audible.

After lunch at the top of the Hancock building, we made our way back home.

Study Shows Online Instruction Beats Classroom

Posted on : 19-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech and Teaching

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nytlogo

The NYT writes:

A recent 93-page report on online education, conducted by SRI International for the Department of Education, has a starchy academic title, but a most intriguing conclusion: “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The report examined the comparative research on online versus traditional classroom teaching from 1996 to 2008. Some of it was in K-12 settings, but most of the comparative studies were done in colleges and adult continuing-education programs of various kinds, from medical training to the military.

Read the rest of the article at the New York Times.

Many administrators look at online courses as clones of the old correspondence course, where students mailed in essay answers to questions and took proctored or essay tests. And early versions of distance learning did follow such models, except the correspondence was done via email. That has led to current views of distance learning instruction as somehow less-than and easier-than classroom instruction. Such views couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Technological advances like VOIP, podcasting, and virtual classrooms make teaching such classes far more prep intensive, and the instruction itself, if presented in a manner that approaches seamless, is far more difficult in many ways than classroom versions of the same course. Imagine trying to teach a class, field questions, and deal with incoming messages and tech concerns as you try to maintain the focus on the material that needs to be covered. It becomes a regular juggling act.

On top of that, course materials need to be reformatted for download, lessons must be tailored to whatever online form that they will take, and often work persists after the class session is complete, to ensure that the lessons can be made available to students in their entirety.

Add to that the typical time spent grading and fielding student questions, and I would estimate that online courses take at least seven or eight times as long to prepare and administer. That’s the case with my online classes.

Is it worth it? The study commissioned by the DoE shows that it is indeed, to some degree. The benefits aren’t difficult to imagine, considering what is left available to students. Entire classes are recorded, and they can return to them at any time, not only to review particular sections of a lesson, but my students have also used such reviews as a way to further engage either me or the class.

It’s nice to see that online instruction is getting some props.

Google Books Adds Creative Commons

Posted on : 16-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : ebooks

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Google Books logo

Google books has announced that they are going to accept and distribute creative commons books via their library:

Today, we’re launching an initiative to help authors and publishers discover new audiences for books they’ve made available for free under Creative Commons (CC) licenses. Rightsholders who want to distribute their CC-licensed books more widely can choose to allow readers around the world to download, use, and share their work via Google Books.

Creative Commons licenses make it easier for authors and publishers to tell readers whether and how they can use copyrighted books. You can grant your readers the right to share the work or to modify and remix it. You can decide whether commercial use is okay. There’s even an option to dedicate your book to the public domain.

Read the entire announcement at Inside Google Books.

Among the initial list of the uploads that Google noted was Doctorow’s Little Brother, one of the finalists for the Hugo award.

The announcement is great news for writers who want a broader distribution of their work.

The Sims Used in CS Classes

Posted on : 16-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech and Teaching

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The Chronicle of Higher Education writes,

Alice, the software program he created to entice students, is now being used at about 15 percent of colleges and universities nationwide. This month, a beta version of Alice 3.0 will be released, letting students create animated movies and games with new characters from The Sims video games and teaching advanced users the Java programming language in the process. The software is freely available from Carnegie Mellon’s Web site.

Read the entire article at the Chronicle

While the switch to actual coding is still in beta Alice, it’s an interesting way to get students engaged in programming, for sure.

Textbooks on Your iPhone?

Posted on : 16-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech and Teaching

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The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

CourseSmart of San Mateo, California, already makes more than 7000 college textbooks from 12 publishers available to its subscribers online via their computers, but now the company has added “eTextbooks for the iPhone,” allowing students to free themselves from even having to lug around their heavy laptop computers.

iphone

Don’t get me wrong. I like my iphone a lot. But I just don’t see using it to do any serious studying. Maybe it’s my old eyes, but I can’t imagine trying to examine the numerous figures, tables and charts that fill textbooks.

And the urge to text is that-many-millimeters closer to you the whole time.

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In the Bag: Spring Green

Posted on : 15-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : In the Bag

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Here’s what I put in my luggage to read on a recent trip to Spring Green to see Henry V, at American Players Theater.

August Asimov's & Inherent Vice

August Asimov's & Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s latest novel, a detective story that is, like most Pynchon, filled with lots of characters doing lots of drugs, filled with  paranoia, and quests for the sake of questing.

It’s probably his most accessible book to this point, actually, and feels a whole lot like Vineland in many ways. I’ll be posting on it once I complete it.

Asimov’s is something that I recently resubbed to and am enjoying. I subscribed to Analog, too, and I have gotten to a few of the shorter pieces in that journal, but once the semester starts, trying to keep up with both will become increasingly impossible.

Open Textbooks, Flexbooks

Posted on : 13-08-2009 | By : Dean | In : Tech and Teaching

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From the office of the Govenator:

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today released the first report of California’s free digital textbook initiative – which outlines how high school math and science textbooks submitted under the first phase of the initiative measure up against the state’s rigorous academic content standards. Of the 16 free digital textbooks for high school math and science reviewed, ten meet at least 90 percent of California’s standards. Four meet 100 percent of standards, including the CK-12 Foundation’s CK-12 Single Variable Calculus, CK-12 Trigonometry, CK-12 Chemistry and Dr. H. Jerome Keisler’s Elementary Calculus: An Infinitesimal Approach.

You can find the whole story here

And CK-12 had the books ready for download at their site, where they call their concept of the openbook learning experience a “flexbook.” Flexbooks are books that can be compiled via the open source content the company has available. It’s an interesting concept, and one that has some serious potential.

I can remember the lawsuits that froze the use of the professor-compiled, spiral-bound anthologies (of such bad quality they often started to come apart after a week of class), only to have them reappear a semester later, after the suits were settled, at prices that could have put even the lawyers that argued the cases in serious debt, let alone poor college students. And that same pricing was applied to compiled e-textbooks at their inception. It’s one of the central reasons why those books have not been adopted.

In fact, I recently spoke to a representative for a major publisher who was baffled by the fact that no one adopts their “resource rich” electronic books. It’s simple. Piling resources onto a book that is already overpriced (because the copyright fees for each of its anthology selections has sent its costs soaring) to a degree that no one can afford it won’t entice broke college students to get their credit cards out. Nor will it encourage professors, most of whom think in part about the cost they are passing on to their students, to adopt these books. To make matters worse, some of these books contain work that is in the public domain (i.e. free).

With all the digital “custom textbooks” and “services” and “course packs” and whatever else is being added, it is nice to see a non-profit providing an open source option for state schools. I haven’t looked closely at the content, but if it’s current and high quality, open source flexbooks should be widely adopted.

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