Stuff that Keeps Smart People Awake at Night

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I don’t know about you, but when go to bed at night, my brain goes into Super Worry Overdrive. I worry about my bills, my kids, my  first drafts (like Anne Lamott, I am afraid someone will find my unedited work and will assume I have committed suicide when I realized my talent was gone).

One of my favorite Tumblr’s,  This Isn’t Happiness,  recently posted a list of things very intelligent people worry about.  Spoiler Alert: Whether they can continue to continue paying for HBO is not on the list. I had to look up some of the things they worry about. Suddenly, whether my cats need therapy or not (they do) is not as pressing. Apparently, I, and you, have more troubling things to keep us on edge:

  1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
  2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
  3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
  4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
  5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist
  6. Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society
  7. The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor
  8. Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology
  9. That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist
  10. That smart people—like those who contribute to Edge—won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician
  11. That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT
  12. That search engines will become arbiters of truth. —W. Daniel Hillis,

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

It’s almost a new year, let the embarrassing work Christmas parties commence and the Auld Lang Synes ring! For my part, I’d like to say farewell to 2012 and herald 2013 with a list of favorite things I discovered or enjoyed this past year, for the most part online. Hopefully you’ll agree that this collection has a little something for everyone: students, teachers, avid readers, art admirers, humorists, or simply the perennially curious.

Working for eNotes I try my best to promote learning at every age. I strongly feel that if you cannot participate in a classroom, you should at least maintain an active level of curiosity and wonder about the world around you. With the many information-grabbing, curio-snapping sites below, you’ll never be at a loss for tools of learning and instruction…

1. Brain Pickings

It’s not hard to imagine the Internet as a museum of wonders. It’s much harder to imagine oneself as the curator of such an exhibit. Enter superwoman Maria Popova, “interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large” and creator of the wonderful blog Brain Pickings, the site that collects everything funny, captivating, and obscure from the far corners of the interweb for your consumption. Without Brain Pickings this year I would not have learnt of Salvador Dali’s struggle between skepticism and faith, or of how to talk about books I haven’t read, or book spine poetry and how to dabble in it myself.

Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are… Brain Pickings is your LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces across art, design, science, technology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, you-name-itology.

2. Underground New York Public Library

As the Sartorialist does for the fashion conscious, UNYPL documents in photographs the penchants of everyday people in a bustling metropolis, the difference being that creator Ourit Ben-Haim is more interested in what you’re reading than who you’re wearing. If you’re looking for book recommendations hot off the pavement, this blog is the place to find them. And if you’re looking for the picture of a kid grossed out by reading Fifty Shades, that can be arranged too.

But the best part about UNYPL (besides the also stellar visuals themselves) is that beneath every caption telling you what the subject is reading, you’ll find links to either “Read” by purchasing the book online or “Borrow” the book from your local library (via the very handy WorldCat library network service). You’ll find works you never knew existed, not only in a New York subway, but right outside your front door, too.

The photos come together as a visual library. This library freely lends out a reminder that we’re capable of traveling to great depths within ourselves and as a whole.

3. What a year for literary adaptations!

Yes, books are adapted for the silver screen all the time, but in 2012 the results really stuck out for me, either for their ambitious undertakings (naysayers said Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi could never be made into films) or for their daring takes on old classics (such as the stage play-esque adaptation of Anna Karenina and the forthcoming 3D “red curtain” spin on The Great Gatsby). It’s also the year that most of the Internet fell in love with the British series Sherlock, a modern-day adaptation of the Holmes mystery series (and precursor to CBS’s Elementary). There are so many more books worth a mention here… Cosmopolis, The Hobbit, Great Expectations, On the Road, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Midnight’s Children… come Oscar season, the awards will be dominated by films that were originally books. Watch out for a punch up over the Best Adapted Screenplay prize, not to mention the Best Visual Effects nod, as filmakers outdid themselves in 2012 to recreate the stunning landscapes of these imaginative novels.

4. S#@! My Students Write

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If you are or have ever been in charge of a classroom, you’ll likely have a few gems in your back pocket similar to the above. Now there’s a tumblr account to collect other unintentionally hilarious snippets from teachers everywhere, and yes they’re all true. Even this one. And this one. You would not believe how much tumblr helped me waste time ahem, grow as a person this year.

S#@! My Students Write: Evidence of the true cost of educational funding cuts.

5. eNotes Quizzes

Interestingly, a great way to counteract the above problem! This year we at eNotes released our very own collection of quizzes across hundreds of book titles. And because they’re all developed in-house, these quizzes contain thousands of unique questions geared towards helping students study for their literature tests. They’re also a pretty fun way to kill a few minutes, or 30… Out of all of eNotes’ releases in 2012, Quizzes iss definitely my favorite, and it’s an area of the site we expect to grow and grow. If you haven’t checked it out yet, test your knowledge today to try and beat some of our top quiz takers.

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6. TED Talks

Okay, I admit, I must seem a little late to the game right now, but omg TED Talks!! I love you. You’re so great, you even made it into one of those futuristic teasers for the Prometheus movie. Where else could I learn about neo-evolution, how to 3D print a human kidney, or about time-lapse nature photography all in one place? I also believe that any site that allows you to sort through its video archives by “Rated jaw-dropping” must contain some very humbling stuff. If you’ve never visited TED before… what are you doing with your life? Get on it now, or better, watch one of my favorite ever talks below:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.

Free knowledge for all! (If not a free pass to their annual TED Conferences, which will run you more than the cost of ten Coachella tickets. But hey, that’s what the video archives are for.) If you’re interested in keeping up to date with all the world’s brilliant ideas, this non-profit organization has a great blog to peruse, too.

7. Books on the Nightstand

A podcast I discovered just this year, BOTNS is a great resource to turn to to stay ahead of the latest book-selling trends. Hosted by industry insiders Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, the show offers lots of great conversation on new releases, mostly sorted into various categories (their holiday gift guide does a great job of this, collating best graphic novels, best non-fiction, best children’s lit, and so on into a neat gift-giving manual). It’s because of this podcast that I picked up my current read, Age of Miracles, and have a lot more waiting on my Amazon wish list. Check out the show notes on their website for lots of good end-of-year recommendations, plus info on their annual reading challenge and Booktopia Festival.

8. Twitterature

Last but not least, if you’ve read any of my past posts you may have noticed my growing fascination this year with the idea of “Twitterature.” I was never a great supporter of Twitter until 2012–I knew it was a good publicity tool, yes, but how could it actually work for me in my life? At best, I thought of tweets as glorified Facebook statuses, and the last thing I wanted to read on the Internet were the details of others’ lives eating chips and looking out windows. I do enough of that on my own, thank you very much. I also don’t like this new word we have in our lexicon thanks to Twitter: hashtag. To me, it’s an ugly word that now, unfortunately, is somebody’s ugly name. But I digress…

In May I encountered Jennifer Egan’s short story created purely for Twitter, “Black Box.” The installments, all published as tweets of 140 characters or less, read like a kind of poetry. It struck a chord with me–if tweets reveal a person’s thoughts, then perhaps narration is perfectly suited to Twitter? Luckily, authors across the world have taken this idea and run with it. At this year’s Twitter Fiction Festival, I encountered a variety of stories created purely for this new form, from the murder mystery narrated by three party guests’ Twitter accounts, to a retelling of Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw, via the perspective of the nanny’s tweets.

While I still may not hold a Twitter account personally, I am eager to see where this new avenue of literature leads to in 2013, especially in light of the latest Bridget Jones’ scoop.  It’s always exciting to feel in the midst of a big change in the world of literature. Sure, tweeters may not make up the next Romantics, or Beats, or Angry Young Men, but they might, just might, be carving out a new form for a brave new literary world.

Well, that’s all from me until next year. Happy holidays, and a very happy 2013 to everyone! I hope this new year will be just as exciting as our last.


2002 Has No Idea What You’re Talking About, 2012!

A couple of years ago, my then 10-year-old son declared that “everything is the best it could ever be.” He was quite sure that, new iPhone in hand, nothing could surpass the (then) current marvels of the Modern World.  I was just as sure that everything could and would be surpassed. Twenty-five years ago, if you told any adult that typewriters would be as extinct as the buffalo, no one would have believed it.  Today, 95% my 19 and 20-year-old students have never even touched a typewriter. I have seen card catalog cabinets busted up for firewood (not really, but you get it). I remember when floppy disks really were floppy. Now there aren’t even disks! I remember when…. excuse me, “Hey, kid! Get off my lawn!!” 

Anyway, a group of friends and I got into a discussion about what has changed in the last ten years. I asked them to come up with sentences that would have made no sense to someone in 2002.  Here is what we came up with:

1.   There’s an app for that!

2.  You can download movies to your tv and control it with your Android tablet.

3.  Did you check in? I’m the mayor of this coffee shop.

4.  “I’ll Facebook you.”

5.  “I’ll Text You”…”I’ll IM You.”

6.  I just got this 4D camera.

7.  I can de-friend anybody I want to.

8.   I am going to put all these thumbnails on my flashdrive.

9.  I asked a silly question and got over 60 responses from all over the country in a matter of a few minutes.

10.   I 3D printed a new handle for my suitcase.

11.  Call Homeland Security.

12.  Dang it! I got busted by a red-light camera.

13.  Did you see the Tupac hologram?

14.  There’s a fee for checked in baggage.

15.  Let me check Snooki’s Twitter feed.

16.  I drove over a cliff because I trusted my GPS.

17.  Hey, wanna Skype?

18.  Gay marriage was approved by voters in several states.

19.  We elected a black president. Twice!

20.  I store my books and music in the cloud.

21.  I don’t know what time that show comes on. Everything’s on the DVR.

22.  Send that PDF to my FTP.

23.  Stream it.

24.  I’ll download the podcast from iTunes.

25.   Park in the Blink so we can recharge the car.

26.  thx ttyl kbye o_0

27.  “Can I haz cheeseburger?”

28.  Do you have a Tumblr?

29.  Would you take a picture of my paycheck and send it to BofA?

30.  Occupy Wall Street

31.  Fracking destroys water supplies.

What about you? Can you think of any more words in common use that would not have made sense in 2002? We’d love to hear them.  Who knows what is coming, and what will be obsolete by 2022.


Powering Up: Social Media and the New Classroom

Just a few years ago, when kids began having their own phones in large numbers, schools freaked out. At my daughter’s junior high, phones had to be hidden away in backpacks or lockers. Any teacher who observed a student with a phone was required to seize it. The phone was then taken to the office, and there was a $15 fine to get it out of hock.

Two years later, my son is now in the same junior high. Phones and other electronic devices are no longer pariahs; in fact, students are encouraged to bring their personal phones or iPads. Teachers can request that their students use them during all kinds of lessons, from geography to science, even English, to look up quotes or biographical information. Students can also use their phones during “passing periods” and at lunch. (I suspect there will be a lot more fund raisers this year, seeing as how the cash cow of phone seizing is no longer being milked. )

Of course, it isn’t just the fact that teachers and administrators are tired of fighting the ubiquitous phones and their larger cousins. Slowly, educators are realizing the benefits of social media. And, as those in charge learn more about the remarkable versatility of the internet, the applications are becoming an integral part of the students’ learning experience, arguably making them more engaged and interactive than ever before. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even one of the relatively new social media sites, Pinterest, are giving education a much-needed boost.

Here are a few of the ways educators are employing the power and persuasion of social media:

Twitter:  “Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter,” reports The Guardian, in their article “Social media for schools: A guide to Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.” Twitter, as many have discovered, is also often the fastest way to find out about breaking news.

Facebook:  I have often asked my own students to post a specific status and have their friends respond. Then, the following class period, we discuss those responses. For example, I recently had them read Hal Niedzviecki’s New York Times article, “Facebook in a Crowd.” Niedzviecki wonders what would happen if he invited many of his “virtual” friends to a real life cocktail party. Of the several hundred invitations, twenty people accepted; one actually showed up. I asked my students to post as their status, “Is a virtual friend a “real” friend?” We had a lively discussion that could not have happened otherwise.

Pinterest:  Not just a place to “pin” your favorite recipes or cute cat photos. Many teachers have found great success, especially for their highly visual learners, using Pinterest’s “Tutorials.” Here, among other things, you can learn, step-by-step, how to create QR codes, or become more proficient in Photoshop, or learn how a touchscreen works.

Tumblr:  Again, a great site for students and educators. More and more companies have begun to “tumbl,” as it is a great way to find archival materials as well as current news and discussions. Some of my favorites, which I often use to prepare lectures, are the tumblrs of “The Paris Review,” Life Magazine, the New York Public Library,  NPR’s Fresh Airand, of course, eNotes

How do YOU use social media in the classroom? Whether you are a teacher or a student, we’d love to know.


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