Archive for November, 2009

Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz

November 30th, 2009

Over the weekend, when I wasn’t figuring out Google Wave, I finished Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz. Stormbreaker (as well as Haddix’s Among the Hidden) was the first YA book I read as a junior high teacher and it helped me to see how that market of books has developed over the years. If you remember my review of Ghost in the Machine by Patrick Carman, I made reference to how much I enjoyed Scorpia (my favorite of the series) and how Ark Angel was a letdown for me. (Yes, I’ve read Snakehead.)

As I began Crocodile Tears, I thought, “Can this get me back from ‘I enjoy the series’ to ‘I rave about the series’?”

I love how Horowitz starts out the novels with an opening scene much like a James Bond movie. We see minor characters involved in some sort of trauma, introducing a sliver of the main conflict. We also don’t see Alex Rider, for the most part. Chapter one gets you hooked with a disaster at a nuclear power plant. A charity swoops in to help immediately and we are instantly suspicious that the charity may have known ahead of time when the disaster was going to happen.

I was nervous, at first. I’m a huge supporter of helping out wherever you can, even internationally, so I was hoping that Horowitz would not paint a jaded view on aid organizations. There’s a great conversation where Alex Rider is defending people who donate because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re playing some kind of game.

Desmond McCain is a good villain in the spy movie sense. There are some times where the cheaper, easier way to win would be to just kill Alex and be done with it. Nope. Just like it’s mentioned in Pixar’s Incredibles, the villain monologues and explains the plan, trusting the henchmen to finish the job. Not the most logical way to enact your evil schemes, but it definitely fits the style.

A student and I had debated on whether Alex Rider had actually killed anyone in his books. The villains pursue him to the “Captain Ahab” level of obsession to their own demise. In this one it’s pretty clear: bad guy is going to kill Alex, Alex kills him first – but it’s under a spy code of morality.

  1. You point a gun at someone and shoot, you’re an assassin.
  2. You create an elaborate plan to watch the person die, you’re a supervillain.
  3. You create an elaborate plan using just what’s on you at the moment (perhaps feeling a degree of remorse), you’re a super spy.

Alex is angst-ier this time around.

Something that I had lost sight of is that the entire series has just been one year in Alex’s life. In other words, he has missed a TON of school. Crocodile Tears highlights this; the adults finally realize that this 14 year-old should probably attend a full day of school from time to time.

It’s definitely not the end to the series. There is still room for Alex to grow throughout the years. Crocodile Tears is an enjoyable read. (I’m still biased towards Scorpia, but I’m excited to see where the series goes.)

My weekend with Google Wave

November 30th, 2009

I had watched a demo video at over the summer debuting Wave. As with any tech thing, my thoughts started racing with how to use it in an educational community setting. Over the weekend I got an invitation to be a part of the limited preview. (Happy Thanksgiving, right?) I’ve been chatting with people about Wave and here are some general questions (before we tackle how to use it in a school setting) I can answer after having used it.

What is Wave?
The best way I can think to describe it is that Wave is what e-mail would look like if it was invented today instead of decades ago.

But I already do e-mail. Why would I use this?
E-mail is extremely linear. When you are e-mailing a simple message to one person, that works. If you start e-mailing back and forth in a conversation, that’s where stuff starts to get cluttered and it’s tough to see the progression of ideas. GMail started the whole “conversation” idea, making it easier to follow who said what. Wave takes it further.

I was able to embed a map, a YouTube video, and a picture into the Wave very easily. That’s a definite plus. In e-mail those resources sometimes don’t come across.

How could it make my life easier?
For me, e-mail gets confusing the more recipients that I have per message. Before replying, I have to sift through what everyone else said. Many times that entails opening up multiple messages and checking when they were sent. With Wave, it’s one message and the responses are shown more like threads or comments at the bottom of a blog post.

How could it make my life more difficult?
First, there’s the “Great. One more account to manage; one more thing to check” problem. I’m hoping that Google will incorporate other services, specifically mail coming in from already-created e-mail accounts.

Next, you can reply to any portion of a Wave. The Wave’s status will show how many replies are unread. You need to scroll through the whole Wave to see the unread replies.

How could it give me a headache?
My friend are I were chatting (Google calls it “ping”…think Scott Westerfeld’s Tally Youngblood series.) and we had to scroll quite a bit. Just like in a main Wave, you can reply to any section of a ping. Think about how fast an online chat goes. Now picture someone posting a reply at the very top of the chat where the ping started an hour ago. My friend and I are decently tech savvy and we were lost. For friends chatting, it’s funny. But I picture a professor I had that did online chats. His idea of a chat was to have everyone type up their responses days in advance and then paste them into the chat all at once. That hurt to read. This will not improve that.

Where could it offend people?
I choose my words carefully. When it’s a really important e-mail, I’ll revise it a couple of times before sending it out. With Wave, my friend jumped in before I knew it and was watching me type my reply, letter by letter, so that before I was done he was already saying, “I thought so.”

Very disorienting. I like to spell things correctly. Typos become even more annoying as someone is virtually watching over your shoulder.

My friend was able to edit what I had said. Google changed it to read that we were co-authors of the reply. I’m glad he can spell well, because you can’t tell who said what after the specific reply becomes co-authored. I didn’t want someone to look through the archives of the Internet to see that I had misspelled a word when in fact it was someone else.

You know, because those things are important.

I also think about how many people write an e-mail angrily just to delete it as a way of venting. Wave records what you’re messaging, so someone could watch the playback and see what you initially said. For people who carefully choose their words when writing to others, you have to do a rough draft in your head. It slows things down and makes it more stressful.

Is it worth it?
Google is known for constantly changing, constantly growing. I think that the tech will change to meet the need and we’ll see more features show up once it’s out of preview mode. Just like any new tech, we’ll see it come out for a year as the people who use tech for gadget’s sake enjoy it. Some time after that we’ll then see the general populous join on IF it incorporates e-mail better.

Choose Your Own Adventure Math

November 23rd, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure books kept me coming back to the public library daily as a kid and I would be willing to bet partly influenced my decision to become a librarian.

A friend of mine sent me this link a while back and it’s taken me until now to sort through all of the analysis of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I hadn’t realized that as the series went on, there became less choices in the books. I have always wondered what it took to organize all of the pages to point to different places throughout the book. (I made a Choose Your Own Adventure radio show CD in high school, so I understand the effort on a smaller scale.) Check out this site for more of the math behind Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Also of note were the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever. It makes sense that these types of books, ones where you jump around inside the framework of the book, came around during milestones in video game computing. (For my students that know how much I love video games, you should imagine what it would be like growing up on this game. Yeah, no 3D cards, just text.)

The Lone Wolf books were cool because they had a page at the end with random numbers scattered across them. This was to generate a score for your character’s skill checks and attacks. It was a book where you were the main character and it played out like a variation on a video game. You were supposed to close your eyes and point to one of the numbers, but my teacher would always get mad at me during silent reading time.

These books really grabbed my imagination because, no matter how hard I tried to predict where the story was going, it could always take a crazy turn. Some smart authors even put fake endings into the book to trap you if you were just flipping through the pages.

The worlds that these authors created I can still remember. That’s why the samizdat quote is so poignant:

It was the fact that after reading it you understood the logic of Gibson’s world. And that logic was portable to any new scenario you could dream up.

Justin Bieber – an interesting test of social networking and the first amendment

November 21st, 2009

Justin Bieber got his start broadcasting videos of himself singing on YouTube, getting the attention of a record label. Now Web 2.0 stuff is creating some trouble for that record label. James Roppo of Island Def Jam Records is being charged with a couple of misdemeanors, such as endangering the welfare of children. A riot of fans broke out at a mall appearance on Friday; five people had to go to the hospital.
James Roppo is accused of not helping out the police in handling the angry crowd. Here’s what one officer had to say about it, from the Associated Press article:

“We asked for his help in getting the crowd to go away by sending out a Twitter message,” said Nassau County Police Det. Lt. Kevin Smith. “By not cooperating with us, we feel he put lives in danger and the public at risk.”

You want to do what you can to keep the fans safe. Those are the people that make a star famous. But I’ll admit it’s an interesting step in technology ethics by requiring someone to write a message on Twitter. Is that covered under the first amendment? Is this like yelling fire in a movie theater?

Detecting “Old Book Smell”

November 18th, 2009

Thanks to author Scott Westerfeld for highlighting this article.
When trying to determine just how old the paper is, they’re using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (basically, a chemical process to see what components are in a mixture). Through this process, they’re also determining which chemicals are responsible for that smell that books give off.

Check out the abstract for the full research at ACS Publications:

We successfully transferred and applied -omics concepts to the study of material degradation, in particular historic paper. The main volatile degradation products of paper, constituting the particular “smell of old books”, were determined using headspace analysis after a 24 h predegradation procedure. Using supervised and unsupervised methods of multivariate data analysis, we were able to quantitatively correlate volatile degradation products with properties important for the preservation of historic paper: rosin, lignin and carbonyl group content, degree of polymerization of cellulose, and paper acidity. On the basis of volatile degradic footprinting, we identified degradation markers for rosin and lignin in paper and investigated their effect on degradation. Apart from the known volatile paper degradation products acetic acid and furfural, we also put forward a number of other compounds of potential interest, most notably lipid peroxidation products. The nondestructive approach can be used for rapid identification of degraded historic objects on the basis of the volatile degradation products emitted by degrading paper.

The Way of the Warrior by Andrew Matthews

November 17th, 2009

There are many books with the title Way of the Warrior, so if you want to read this book, make sure it’s the book by Andrew Matthews.

I picked up this book because it was a short read. After a big epic-type book like Leviathan, I wanted a book that I could speed through. Also, despite their popularity, there are not many stories about samurai in the YA market (or at least ones that promise a little bit of realism). I started it wondering how authentic the book would be to 16th century Japanese lifestyle.

The Way of the Warrior by Andrew Matthews is the story of Jimmu, a 10 year-old boy whose father dies in the first chapter of the book. Jimmu is then taken in by Nichiren, his father’s bodyguard. The set-up for the quest is that they will search for Lord Ankan, the person responsible for destroying Jimmu’s family.

The book reads like a good samurai movie, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Hiroshi Inagaki’s Musashi Miyamoto. Because the book is so short, the action sequences move very quickly. It’s not these long, drawn-out Hollywood scenes. One or two sword slashes determine the end of a duel. Something that I did not expect was who would live and who would die by the end of the book. I figured, “Hey. This character has a name, we know his background; he must be…” and then the character was dead on the ground. That kept me guessing and really added to my enjoyment of the story.

Characters that I was pretty certain would make it were the rulers from that time period. I knew that Tokugawa Ieyasu would make it since he eventually helped unite most of Japan. I’ll be honest with you, though. Most of my knowledge of 16th century Japan comes from playing Kessen on the PS2, so I had to check my facts with a little research.

For being such a short story, the characters do develop a little. It’s not all swordfights; there are traces of dialogue (although the conversation sometimes ended in swords being drawn).

Final verdict: I think it’s an enjoyable read, much better than most books that length.

Even the professionals use GarageBand.

November 9th, 2009

Tonight watching WordGirl (yes, I have little kids at home and yes, we hang out watching PBS) the show had a news reporter with GarageBand’s “Broadcast News Long” jingle as the background. The show LOST on Hulu uses a GarageBand jingle to transition into the show. I’m telling you, it’s quality software for free on a Mac.

Author Visit: James Dashner

November 3rd, 2009

When teachers ask me about if an author visit was a success, I consider a couple of factors:

  1. Were the students engaged?
  2. Was there a balance between “Buy my book!” and “Here’s how to be a better student”?

Student engagement is a big one, since a bored audience could be doing something else with their time. Author visits take work to coordinate; Quiet Ball is a much easier way to bore students.

I understand that authors make money from book sales, so of course they would want to hype their books. But by being at the school you’ve already highlighted your book apart from all of the others on the shelf.

James Dashner scores well on both of these requirements. He had some pictures on a PowerPoint to make the students laugh, but what really kept the students involved was asking questions. Dashner asked students about why to pre-write and what makes for a good revising process. He detailed the steps that he takes when writing a book. It was great to hear that pre-writing, first drafts, and revisions (all things our teachers emphasize) are involved in how he gets published.

Our focus on rigor, relevance, and relationships was enhanced by his real world writing examples. I especially appreciated that to be a published author many times you send off your revised manuscript to an agent before you get to the final copy. Students came away from the author visit with a better understanding of strategies for writing (and signed copies of the book).

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

November 3rd, 2009

This is one that I had been waiting for for a long time. In my opinion there are not enough books out there about giant robots.

In addition, there are many more books about World War II than World War I. I wonder if it’s because more veterans from WWII are alive, or if our perceptions of the war have clearer boundaries between right and wrong, or maybe it’s because Indiana Jones fought Nazis and we all want to be like Harrison Ford.

Leviathan is a steampunk version of World War I. The Clankers (Westerfeld has such a knack for fun to say words) consist of the Austrians, Germans, and Ottoman Empire. Alek is a Clanker, trained in the art of fighting with giant robots. Steampunk is a subgenre of sci-fi, with the technology being more like Jules Verne and from that transition into the 20th century. The Clanker mechs run off of kerosene, steam, an a whole lot of levers and gears.

The other side fights with genetically engineered whales. I mean, obviously.

You do have the two perspectives, one protagonist from Clanker, the other from Darwinist, and of course they’re going to cross paths – this is a YA book. Deryn has a whole Mulan thing going on, hiding the fact that she’s a girl so that she can enlist for the Darwinist forces. We’ve seen that plot hook done many times before, but it’s a necessity if you’re talking British military from 1914. We’ve also seen the shipwrecked airship mixed with a feisty female scientist, like Ken Oppel’s Airborn series.

Even though many parts of Westerfeld’s book are tropes used in other stories, Westerfeld still puts his fun spin on them for an enjoyable book. Another fun aspect is looking up the real life events and people from World War I to further explore this alternate history. It is a series; I am anxiously awaiting book two. The first booktalks today for book one drew a lot of student interest.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

November 3rd, 2009

I’ll be honest: when I got an advanced reading copy of The Maze Runner, it was in a bundle with Catching Fire. Me being the Hunger Games fan that I am, I went straight for Catching Fire. I set aside Maze Runner for a little bit. To be fair to James Dashner, I didn’t want to read it so close to another arena survival book that I knew I would obsess over.

I did pick up Maze Runner and enjoyed it. The focus is not so much on nature survival as it is on trying to figure out why the teens are in the maze. Protagonist Thomas has had his memory wiped and wakes up in a box. When the box opens, he is in The Glade, a place for Peter Pan-esque Lost Boys to congregate. Thomas gets curious about the maze and wants to be a Runner to help map out the pathways and perhaps lead the other teens out of the maze.

It is a definite first book to a series. A majority of the book is focused on setting up this strange world and building intrigue into who the creators of the maze are. There are some action sequences throughout, like facing off against maze denizens such as the Grievers, but the big action sequences are saved for the end.