Sunday, April 27, 2008

Technology: Freedom Force or Evil Overlord?

I came down with some kind of plague on Sunday, so I'm not feeling very creative or energetic. I've decided to do a follow-up to an earlier post titled, "The Technology Assembly Line." Last month I had my class look at Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals as part of our studies around the idea of perception. I really believe this image is about the interplay between humans and their own creations. In that light, I asked my students to use their own perceptions in a 10-minute writing exercise based on the prompt, "Does technology give us freedom, or does it imprison us?" Here are some unedited passages from their writing (warts and all). It represents a mix of students from freshmen all that way up to seniors. This is a long post, so get ready for some reading...

"I think it imprisons us because when you look at how everything is working these days its more machine then people. All the work that used to be done by people is mostly done with machines not saying it’s a bad thing because things are produced quick but I think that is one way it imprisons us. Another thought is when you play games or something of that sort you can only do so much and go so far once it’s over it’s over. Also think of all the hours people put into playing games a lot and in that way it also imprisons us. Older generations didn’t have all the neat and cool things that we have today because of technology but personally I would rather live in those days then these days now because it seems the more technology we get the less we as people can do. Thinking of this painting you see a lot of people in that factory and today you wouldn’t see three quarters of that number of workers."

"Technology only sets a few aspects of our lives “free” while our body rots "I know that if my Dad took my Zune or computer away that I would be very pissed off at him. Myspace, My Zune, My computer and my DS have me and my sisters wrapped around their non existent fingers... I’m pretty sure that there is already technology that the government has that we could never dream about having. In the picture I see people wearing themselves out to make an engine for a car. It makes me laugh at how we get so intense about the things that next year, we will find them in thrift stores and the new thing will be out."

"Gaming has created puny or obese people and what good is that? IMing lets cowards become “strong” but only with words, not actions (unless you call hacking and viruses action). Our morals are released due to privacy and we become what we want. We don’t pay any attention to what it might do to our economy or the health of our bodies and minds. The only people who benefit from the development of technology is the developers, they are the ones thinking and working. But the public takes what the developers make without even being thankful. The public wants everything faster, better, cheaper and easier. But isn’t something that takes time, grows and has true meaning the only thing valuable? We just might lose any type of value or morality to us because of the rapid growth of that like a weed technology has morphed into."

"The fact that some people can’t find anything to do with their lives besides level up another blood elf paladin is a troubling thought. What ever happened to being productive? This American generation is going to let all of their freedoms slip through their fingertips because there is no physical protest. Kids are learning to vent through blogs and people protest by signing online petitions that hold no meaning. Our freedoms will be taken away slowly until we have none left. This is how technology imprisons us."

"During spring break I was in California with my cousins and one of them brought his wii with him, and I couldn’t believe how many hours they would spend playing it, when the beach was only five minutes away, they played for two days straight only stopping to eat and sleep and they didn’t even want to do that."

"If the world were to suddenly stop producing electricity most of the world would be in chaos. To some people the world be very difficult and they would actually have to work. For example look at a tribe on Africa or some where else that is poor they have no or very little, if we were to give them a TV or a computer they would use it very little because they have lived there whole life off the land."

"We are able to scan distant stars, probe the depths of the ocean, and construct buildings that seem taller than the sky. But in many ways, technology has also severely harmed our lives as well. Weapons capable of destroying entire cities are constructed in mass quantities every day, despite the fact that there are very few hostile countries left in the world who pose a direct military threat to us and our allies. Pollution is rampant in many parts of the world, and our efforts to curb it have been less than half of what they should be. Technology may make our lives easier on the outside, but the consequences are what matters most. After all, nothing in this world comes without a catch."

"It may give us freedom and power, but I believe that it imprisons us even more. I know that I most likely couldn’t go one day without technology. I love computers, and I love my cell phone, which means that I love electricity, and technology. I use it everyday, without thinking how it’s affecting me or the world even. I guess I can kind of be a zombie about it. Every morning, I reach over to my night table, and I get my cell phone and check my messages. I do it without thinking. I think that this artist was trying to tell people that if we continued going on like this, using technology everyday, all the time, then we wouldn’t be able to live without it soon enough."

"... technology takes up about 80% of my day. I play video games with my brothers, I watch TV with my mom, I go on the computer and talk to people, I text and play games on my cell phone… It’s hard not to because those things are all so readily available to me. I do go outside and jump on my trampoline or play basketball, but that’s only for like 30 minutes or an hour a day. If I am up for 17 hours a day, I shouldn’t be so occupied with all these things. I don’t do my homework sometimes, I don’t read, I stay up too late some days. So I would say it definitely has me trapped."

"I myself love technology. But, I can’t think that if I didn’t like technology so much, video games for example, I would be a lot farther in life. I would have better grades; I would be a lot more physically active; I would have more of a social life. I think many people are like me too."

"I feel that with the way things are now it gives us more opportunity for freedom but essentially technology has imprisoned us. We act completely lost when we are cut off from power or our car dies or the cable goes out. We have undermined our instincts and gone completely against nature. Human kind has become a machine itself eating away at the earth, pushing away all the other creatures on it. We should be able to use what we need and not kill off any innocent creatures while doing so. Without technology we would not have fumes spewing into our air and we wouldn’t have to worry about our computers being hacked or about being harassed over the internet."

"... there are games through technology that are fun to play, like guitar hero, or super smash bros. But then at times there are instances were people will begin to become too into the game or certain technology. They could get to the point where they stay home all day just on the computer. My brother used to play this game called RuneScape along with some of his buddies. I would remember walking in on them playing it and they would be so blank and out of it, to the point where I could possibly go up to them and easily push them down or something. It’s almost like if you aren’t enjoying your life as it is, you can go and escape to another world that you feel you fit more into."

"One thing brought to my attention in the picture was it’s resemblance to a social hierarchy. The Gods at the top could be considered the rich, lazy, ones who ultimately own the world of technology while the others of us serve them. I think many are blind to the real impact and potential consequences to our indulgence on the technology and media and those who can refrain from this indulgence can find freedom, while others, who don’t have control over themselves are unconsciously allowing themselves to become prisoners to technology."

There are some tasty literary nuggets in this writing! I'm constantly amazed at how lucid young people are regarding the reality of the world. We need to give these young-uns more credit for what they know.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Finding Your Inner Lemmy Kilmister

If you haven't had the pleasure of playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, I highly recommend it. I won't bore you with the details of game play, but it's basically a pattern/timing game where you press colored buttons based on the streaming notes coming down the screen. The kicker is that you do this through a guitar-shaped game controller, or in the case of Rock Band through either a guitar, a bass, a microphone, or a drum set.

It's one of those games where you start by hacking your way through "Blitzkrieg Bop", and suddenly you find yourself obsessed with completing the next song, and the next, and the next... until you're drunk with Rock Gawd fame and fortune, prancing around in rocker poses, and generally wallowing in mid-life crisis! Green grass and high tides forever!

I just spent a weekend with my buddies at a cabin in Northern Washington. Our initial intention was to drink beer and watch the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament. What actually transpired was about 4o hours of Rock Band, with a couple of four hour sessions playing the board game, "Settlers of Catan" thrown in for good measure (more on Settlers in a future blog post). It felt surprising like a monstrous jam session late into the night - strangely satisfying, and yet wholly unproductive in advancing any musical talent.

Rock Band is so popular with my students that it's actually having an effect on their music preferences. I've noticed that the umpteenth revival of 80's music is once again in full swing. Don't question the marketing power of Rock Band. Imagine if your first exposure to Boston was to lay down the opening lick to "Foreplay/Long Time", replete with its quiet-loud-quiet structure.

The coolest thing about Rock Band is that you can get a glimpse of what's inside the musician's head. Growing up I was a huge fan of Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Playing bass on "Dani California" gave me some insight into his grooving style. As you would expect, playing along gives you a totally different perspective on the melody and rhythm of the song. Two other huge treats - feeling the power chord genius of Rivers Cuomo on Weezer's "Say It Ain't So", and jamming with The Killers on "When You Were Young" - which is a freakish blend of early Springsteen, late seventies Dire Straits, and a dash of New Wave.

If you can get over the dorkiness of staring at a screen and pressing colored buttons, I think you'll find that Rock Band is one of the best video game inventions created so far. Games based on music have been far too rare in my lifetime. I'm excited to see where this will lead.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Skillz for the USA

I just returned from the Oregon SkillsUSA competition in beautiful (ahem) Albany, Oregon. SkillsUSA is a national student organization focused on preparing students for a life of work. Some of you may know this program under its former name, VICA. My traditional take on career ed is to force students to study Office Space, but it seems there are other things to learn about besides, "PC Load Letter!?!"

At the state event, students compete with other high schools in a number of career and technical skills, such as culinary arts, welding, construction, technology, etc. Winners go on to compete at a national event in June. SkillsUSA gives students a chance to be recognized for real-life skills that are not traditionally lauded in high school. GPA, popularity, athletic skill, and the oh-so-important state standardized tests are usually our benchmarks. So I appreciate that SkillsUSA is trying to recognize talents that will actually get students employed.

This was our first year participating, so an army of one student (plus me) made the drive up to compete in the programming competition. I'm happy to announce that my student got third place! I'm really proud of his work. He's a smart guy, with an incredible knack for logic and coding techniques. To give you an idea of how difficult the competition is, participants were asked to create a computer program based on the following prompt:

"Write a program which will read in a series of positive integers, separated by spaces and terminated by a zero value (which is not part of the series) It should then print out all the prime factors which are common to the entire series of numbers."

The solution to this problem is a complex soup of prime number testing, string evaluation, concatenation, and nested loops. If you're thinking, "Wow, I didn't know that Scott was so math-focused in his teaching!" Think again. All credit goes to my student. Sometimes a teacher just needs to get out of the way in order for a student to succeed. This was definitely one of those moments.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Mysterious Bible

No, I'm not about to lay down the Gospel... We actually have a mysterious Bible in our house. It's something that's been in our family's possession since I was little. I'm not sure if it came from my Mom or Dad's side of the family - btw, both are heavily encrusted with Lutheran clergymen. I've been carrying this thing around since I first left for college. It's quietly occupied a bookshelf in every house I've lived in, yet I know very little about it.

It's got an odd cover which feels like it's made of dried animal skin. On the inside front cover there is a page of hand-written text on the left. On the right there's a block print of three scholars/philosophers/asthetes sitting on a pile of books and having a conversation as if to say, "I lounge on your twee body of knowledge." Where are the ladies in this scholarly vision!?! Regardless, I've had many fantasies as to the origins of this book. Including, but not limited to:
  • It is a mystifying oracle which will divine the true location of the Ark of the Covenant
  • It's the winning prize for "Herbalife Million Dollar Members".
  • It belonged to God-fearing Spanish explorers and was handed down through generations of sea-faring men until, yea, it landed in Beaverton, OR at my childhood home in the "Four Seasons" housing development

Uh, it is none of these things. But it still might be something very cool. The name Sebastiano Schmidt is listed on the title page. Apparently this is one Sebastian Schmidt, a German Lutheran preacher who lived in Strasbourg, France, and layed down the good news at the Strasbourg Cathedral. Schmidt published a Latin translation of the Bible in 1696. His influence led one of his students to create the pietism movement - which regarded the work of the church as spiritually unproductive, and recommended a more vigorous Christian life. Pietism eventually inspired John Wesley to start the Methodist Church.

So, some mysteries solved but others remain. There is a line of Lutheran preachers in my family dating back several hundred years to Germany. Therefore it makes sense that this very Lutheranish Bible is in my possession, and could have been handed-down from my Spanish sea-faring ancestors. However, the identity of the scribe is still hidden. The words on the page are very hard to discern, but there is a date at the bottom. 1715? 1785? I've been using a loop to look closely at the text, with not much success. Who is this person? Am I related to them? What secret message is contained in this page of text?

If any of you know some Latin scholars please email me. The Ark of the Covenant will be ours!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

"Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"

Yesterday, Charlton Heston passed on from our lowly ape-like existence to take his seat in the pantheon of the Gods! In my heart, I know Charlton is sitting next to Moses, Marc Antony, King Henry, Michelangelo, Roddy McDowell, and Hay-Zeus himself - sipping two fingers of whiskey, smoking a cigarillo, wearing a kerchief around his neck to wipe his brow, and pontificating about how MAN has LOST HIS WAY on that GOD-FORSAKEN ROCK KNOWN AS EARTH!

Although I had a hard time with his gun rights activism, Chuck greatly influenced my life as a young TV watcher growing up in the seventies. My parents knew Heston from the biblical and Roman films of the 50's and 60's. I knew him as the master of the Apocalypse! Seared into my brain are the quasi-sci-fi images of Charlton fleeing from a planet gone MAD with APES, fighting off diseased night-zombies while playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and arresting future-worlders for strawberry contraband, all while RAGING AGAINST THE MACHINE THAT MAN BUILT! SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE, DAMMIT!

No one provided the kind of Saturday matinee TV gravitas that Heston so easily whipped-up. Only Heston could pull off the, "I'm the last man on Earth, but I'm going to drive around in this convertible muscle car on the deserted streets of Los Angeles, use my blood as an antidote to cure this hot African-American zombie, and SHOOT ANYONE WHO ATTEMPTS TO ENTER MY BARB-WIRE ENCRUSTED COMPOUND!"

Charlton, I celebrate your body of work. You will be missed. Rest in DAMN peace!