Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Weaponized" Education?

The Artdog Quote of the Week

I don't know about you, but I rarely think of education as a weapon. My general concept of education has always been that it is more of a path through a tool shop, although I suppose some of those tools could be considered sharp-edged weapons . . . especially those in the Critical Thinking Department.

And yet two of my earlier Quotes of the Week this month have looked at education as a way to fight poverty and terrorism, both of which are well worth trying to combat.

I think this "education is a weapon" concept is why folks at the more authoritarian end of the political spectrum so often seek to subvert, control, or de-fund universal education. They may come out openly against it (as does the Taliban).

Others may give lip service to the importance of education, but follow a more hyper-individualist and/or fundamental religious philosophy that can produce varying degrees of destruction as a side-effect (as do the extreme tax cuts in Kansas that were supposed to "free" businesses to create jobs but didn't, or the push to use public education money for vouchers to fund parochial schools).

However we think of education, we must always remember that it is a powerful force, a sharp-bladed tool. It can improve lives all over our country and our planet--or it can be subverted in ways that stunt and warp and destroy. As thinking adults, we must keep our wits, look at outcomes, and make our choices about education as wisely as we can, lest that weapon fall into the wrong hands.

IMAGE: Many thanks to "Basic Knowledge 101" for this quote image.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Intergenerational magic

This week's Artdog Image(s) of Interest: 
Elders and elementary kids, reading together: bridge-building between generations helps all parties.

The "loneliness epidemic" in our society is well-documented--we may have instant communication, but "proximity, as city dwellers know, does not necessarily mean intimacy," Olivia Laing noted in her article, "The Future of Loneliness," in The Guardian. And loneliness hits older people hardest of all.

But I would argue that the divide hurts the younger generation, too. Divorce and separation of families to far parts of the country can disconnect grandparent-child relationships, robbing the younger generation of chances for unconditional love and a healthy perspective on aging. People deprived of experiences with stable, loving elders may grow up without empathy or compassion for the lives and value of older people, and they also may live in needless terror of aging.

All across the country, a variety of programs have developed to match elder volunteers with preschool and elementary children, often most explicitly in support of the children's literacy--but with a broad range of "add-on" values as side effects. I can only hope this trend prospers and grows!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Native News 2014,  The Un-Retired, and Move With Balance Youth Programs for the images on this post. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Is your book a high-value item, or a low-value item?

Last week I attended MidAmericon II, the 74th Worldcon, which was held  in my home metro area of Kansas City.
A very small segment of the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room, including a small press booth.
As the author of a recently-finished (but not yet published) novel, I was a bit more finely attuned to the crosscurrents (perhaps "riptides" would be a better description) of opinion about publishing that could be observed in action at this convention than I have been in some time.

Between the panels, the readings, the parties (such as they were) and the Dealers' Room, I encountered a wide cross-section of opinion about the "best practices" in publishing today.

More booksellers--or are they author collectives, or are they small presses?--in the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room.
One practice I found particularly curious was the free book giveaways. Many of the smaller operations seemed to think that a good way to attract new readers was to give away books.

Samples, you know? So people can see how "good" we can write, and love us, even though we haven't had a copyeditor look at our work, much less a competent beta reader--or even (God forbid!) a professional editor.

Yeah, no.

If on the first few pages I encounter characters using each others' names in dialogue ("Fred, as you know, I always write good," Ellen cried. / "Why of course, Ellen, your writing is always just dandy," Fred gushed), and alleged words such as "alright," then SURE, I'm absolutely going to love it (NOT). In such cases, the free sample is worth every penny I paid for it, and it is going to make me take every effort NOT to bother with that person's work ever again (even if they later take a writing class and get a clue).

This is the kind of "indie" publishing that gives indie-publishing a bad name, because no gatekeeper--no qualified second opinion--was ever allowed in. This is usually because the author is afraid to do so.

"No! Please! Don't make me edit my book! I might have to murder some darlings!"
"They won't understand" or "I swear, it gets better by Chapter Five" just doesn't cut it. For God's sake, people, study the craft! And beyond that, study best practices in marketing! Yes, I know, you are a Creator, and Heaven forefend that you should have to trammel your muse with such mundane things.

You have a choice: go on giving horrible warnings away for free, and dragging down the value of the product for all the rest of us. Or you can take a different view.

Two kinds of products: High-value and low-value
Okay, I'm taking a deep breath now, centering myself, and thinking calm thoughts. The main purpose of this post is to call attention to a basic marketing guideline I learned years ago when I was a direct marketer.

The rule of thumb goes:
If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. 
If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. 

How does this work in practice? 

If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. A low-value item is a cheap throw-away. It isn't worth much, but if you sell a whole honkin' lot of them, you can make a profit on the cost-markup margin, because of the volume. Such an item doesn't cost you much to give away a free sample, so it makes sense to give away a few, in the hope that people will like it, tell their friends, and buy more.

This is a standard in the marketing world. Experienced consumers (i.e., most of us) know how to interpret a free giveaway. If you give your book away, it places your book in a category I doubt many indie-pubbers want to be placed into.

If your book is a cheap, throwaway, piece of crap, then perhaps this marketing ploy is your thing. Do you write dozens of them a year, and fail to do any research? Okay, then! You've found your strategy! In my humble opinion, if you give your book away, you are as good as labeling it dreck.

Is this what you're selling? Then freebies are probably your best avenue.

If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. In this case, the item itself is far too costly to give away, and has a high intrinsic value. It takes a lot of time, effort and (dare I say) skill to create the item, and it can add lasting value to the owner's life.

I would like to argue that a well-written book is a high-value item. The author has invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and effort into it.

A book is a high-value item.
It should be marketed that way!
First, there have been years of learning the craft and creating the best possible story. Then this author has engaged well-read beta readers, possibly a copyeditor, and ideally an outside, professional editor to vet and perfect the product.

In the marketing phase, discernment and effort have led to the production of a high-quality, well-edited edition, with an attractive, appropriate cover, and high production values.

Appropriate premiums might be a first chapter as a teaser (a time-tested approach used by big-name publishers), an author autograph, or perhaps background, "insider" information. Up-sell might include an illustrated, limited edition, a signed and numbered slipcovered collector's edition, etc. Tie-ins could include a newsletter, pins, prints of the cover or illustrations, short fiction related to the major work, etc.

Your marketing strategy is up to you, of course. But I'd say it pays to think carefully about your approach.

IMAGES: The photos from MidAmericon II were taken by yours truly. The "Wow! Free Stuff" image is from a UK coupon company page called Wow Free Stuff. The photo of  the distressed writer contemplating editorial scrutiny is from Margaret Snow's blog post on the Damsel in Distress archetype. The "Horrible Negative Example" quote image is from The Quotery. The ironic sign-failure CRAPBOOKS photo is from the Stuck on Stupid Pinterest Board, via Curiousread.com and Thisisbroken.com. The wonderful image of the girl hugging the book is by ToucanPecan, and may be found on ToucanPecan's deviantART page. Check out the whole gallery, while you're there!

Monday, August 22, 2016

What terrorists fear--Education

Malala, of course, knows this. She has lived it.

The record backs her up, too. One thing that terrorists especially seem to fear (judging from their actions) is educating little girls. Big, fierce, criminal, weapon-wielding terrorists are themselves terrified above all else of schoolgirls. As well they should be. Kinda mind-blowing, isn't it?

IMAGE: Many thanks to A-Z Quotes for this image.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Readings as Worldcon networking venues?

I first started going to Worldcons in the 1980s. The times have changed, but the World Science Fiction Convention still moves to a different city in the world each year.

This year it's MidAmericon II in Kansas City, practically in my back yard. Next year it's Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland

Wherever they're held, Worldcons are a great place to meet science fiction fans from all over the world, and network with others in our niche of fandom. 

The 1976 Hugo Award base, sculpted
by Tim Kirk, changed the look of the
award in subsequent years.
Worldcon also is a place where innovations happen. Sometimes the innovations are accepted and continued from year to year. For example, at the first MidAmericon, held in Kansas City in1976, the base of the Hugo Award trophy was sculpted by Tim Kirk. Previous award bases had been rather traditional wooden trophy bases, but after 1976 the Hugo bases became more elaborate.

This year one of the innovations the concom is trying is a change in the parties that are held after-hours. Traditionally, these are hotel-room-centered parties, held in hotel rooms and suites by individuals, groups, or publishing companies. 

They are traditionally a hotbed of networking between all the various players in sf fandom (bid parties for the right to host future Worldcons, or parties to promote other, regional conventions), and in the publishing industry (writers, editors, agents, and artists).

Arianne "Tex" Thompson came to her
reading expecting a much smaller crowd. 
This year, however, all parties are to be held in the event space in Bartle Hall, in adjacent, tent-like lounge areas with couch-like seating and high, small-topped round tables. Traditional sf convention parties last well into the wee hours; these were closed down by the venue tonight at 11:30. 

This severely limits both the number of parties that can be held (three, tonight), and the amount of networking that can be done at them (since you couldn't have heard it thunder in those exhibit-hall parties).

I have absolutely no doubt that individuals will privately host parties in their hotel rooms, although the hotels don't want them to. However, at the end of the panel schedule a totally new (to me) phenomenon cropped up: Author readings as networking opportunities. 

C. Taylor-Butler read from the second
book in her new middle-grades series,
The Lost Tribes: Safe Harbor.
My first glimpse of this was the comparative crowd that showed up for the first of three readings I attended today. The featured author was Arianne "Tex" Thompson, who writes alternate-history fantasy with an interesting twist. Authors are conditioned to expect very few people at their readings--for some reason they aren't well attended. But so far the readings for this year's Worldcon have been much better-attended. 

When I returned for the back-to-back readings by C. Taylor-Butler and Tonya Adolfson (a.k.a. Tanglwyst de Holloway), I was treated not only to more engaging fiction, but also to a spontaneous discussion--actually, a veritable symposium--on indie fiction, audiobooks, and the ways that publishers, distributors, and reviewers game the system. 

Tonya Adolfson read from two of her books
Tonya and her husband, John W. Farmer, also made a case for better--and better-remunerated--audiobook production values and standards. Their company, Fantastic Journey Publishing, is attempting to set new standards of excellence with full-cast audio recordings of not only Tonya's books, but also those of other indie authors. 

They made the case that indie authors who don't do the diligent work of learning the craft, being edited professionally, and maintaining high production values for their work are feeding the double standard that plagues indie authors who do strive for excellence. Unfortunately, I completely agree. 

I remember being a graphic designer during the 1990s, when something similar was happening in that field--any fool and his/her sibling thought that because s/he owned a copy of MS Publisher, that meant graphic design was "easy." Good design isn't, of course. It never has been. Thank goodness, a certain amount of sanity on that subject has returned--but in the meantime, there was some seriously stinko design foisted upon the hapless world.

It is my fervent hope that something similar will occur with indie publishing. Back in the 1980s when I first went to Worldcons, the only game in town for writers was publishers. You found an agent, you got published, if possible, and you played according to their rules. The networking parties were essential.

Today, it's a wild new world, but the networking is as essential as ever. Where will we do it? Perhaps at each others' readings.

IMAGES: Many thanks to MidAmericon II's website for its logo, and to the Worldcon 75 website for its logo. Thanks to the Hugo Awards archive for the photo with the 1976 base. The photos of Tex, Christine, and Tonya were taken by me, with their permission.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Are we there yet? Preparing for MidAmericon II

The 74th World Science Fiction Convention is in Kansas City this year. They were setting up today. Here's a preview:

IMAGES: I took these in Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City on 8/16/2016. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Did you have THAT teacher?

Alliteration's a lovely thing, and the point is still valid, if you take "chalk" to mean "inspiration."

Of course, fewer and fewer classrooms use actual chalk today. In that respect this quote is becoming an anachonism. The transition, first to whiteboards and then to smartboards, started decades ago.

But teaching has been around a lot longer than smartboards, or even books or chalkboards. The bigger, older, more universal point is what a difference a teacher can make.

Nearly everyone has had that teacher. The one who paid attention, the one who took the extra time, the one who cared. The one we never forget. We'd like to think every child has at least one of those teachers, but the sad truth is that not everyone does.

We're starting a new school year, so everyone involved in our schools has a new chance, either to get--or to BE--that teacher. Will this be the year?

IMAGE: Many thanks to SantaBanta for this image and quote.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Growing knowledge in the teaching garden

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest 

Sometimes there's no substitute for getting your hands dirty and learning from the ground up.

A parent volunteer with gardening experience works with children of all ages at the Oak Hill school, and helps teachers build lesson plans around their experiences in the garden.

This little video gives a glimpse of the massive potential for tying lessons to life experiences with the Teaching Garden at a Fairfax, VA elementary school.

Oak Hill is clearly a fairly upscale neighborhood (note: they still have the Teaching Garden in the 2016-2017 school year), but schools from all different parts of the country, and all different socio-economic levels, have adopted similar programs in the last two decades.

Unless they grow up on a farm, nearly all children lack understanding about where their food comes from. This goes double for children who live in food deserts.

Lincoln Park in Duluth, MN is a classic food desert: their last full-service grocery store closed more than 30 years ago. Read more about it here
Food deserts, as you may know, are areas where healthy, affordable food is far away and hard to come by, especially if residents do not have convenient transportation. Food deserts all-too-frequently occur in minority communities, and can happen in both rural and urban environments. Food insecurity is everywhere.

While a vegetable garden isn't a complete solution to a food desert, community gardens often do help address part of the problem, and students who learn how to garden in school have one more tool in their toolbox of survival skills.

Learning/teaching gardens have many lessons to teach in a variety of STEM disciplines.
Educators favor teaching gardens for other reasons, too. There's much emphasis right now on the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines, and yes--there are guides for teaching STEM in learning gardens. Personally, I think STEM is incomplete without STEAM (add the arts), but that's a topic for another post.

IMAGES AND VIDEO: Many thanks to Oak Hill Elementary School of Fairfax County, VA for the image and YouTube for the video. Thanks to University of Minnesota Extension for the article about Duluth's food desert, and to Edutopia for the image of a STEM student in a greenhouse. The accompanying article is interesting, too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

World's best Kindergarten? Maybe so.

Perhaps you've heard about Fuji Kindergarten. I first learned about it from a YouTube video I no longer can find--but it's an amazing school, and a fascinating concept.

Listen to a 2014 TED Talk by its architect creator, Takaharu Tezuka, as he explains his concept:

The Montessori approach of the educators fits well with the open classrooms and the children's freedom of movement.

One favorite activity at Fuji School is climbing on the tree with the cargo nets. 
This play area was built after the school was completed in 2007, but uses many compatible ideas.
The deck is a prominent part of the school's design. The kids love to run there, but the government did require protective railings--no, school officials were told, they couldn't put up nets around the edges instead.
Here's a glimpse of the open classroom design of the school. Architect Tezuka asserts that the noise is healthy for small children. As a teacher who's had to teach in noisy conditions, I'm less sure about that (of course, I was teaching high school, so that may be different).
The school also was profiled by the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Monocle Magazine's Asia Bureau Chief Fiona Wilson (don't miss the video she narrates), and many others.

VIDEOS AND IMAGES: Many thanks to YouTube for the TED Talk video and images of the tree, and the play area.  The aerial view of the deck is from Upworthy, and the photo of the open classrooms is from Detail Inspiration. Fascinating articles and more photos are available from most of these. Many thanks to all!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Poverty's cure?

The Artdog Quote of the Week

John Legend thinks schools should nurture all of children's talents, and empower them to be creative.

Singer-songwriter and actor John Legend has had an amazing career, but he feels if he'd had an education that valued and nurtured his creative talents his life might have gone much better. If every child's greatest potential could be activated and empowered, it seems reasonable to believe that poverty could decrease.

"We must break the long-held expectation that schools exist to mold and manage kids," he said in a CNN interview. "In today's world, expecting every child's education to be the same, progress at the same rate and be measured against the same narrow standards of performances is not just outdated, it's a disservice to young people and the educators who dedicate their lives to helping them."

This month we'll look at some of the ways innovative schools and educators are trying to break out of that old-fashioned paradigm.

IMAGE: Many thanks to A-Z Quotes, via Hippoquotes, for this image. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Curl up to read in the Enchanted Forest

This week's Artdog Image of Interest

Unfortunately, they don't seem to make these big-people-sized . . .

Photo by Zane Williams of The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.

These "reading pods" are part of a nature-inspired reading area at the Madison Children's Museum (Madison, WI).

But the awesome coolness doesn't stop there. Designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. to repurpose an old office building, this museum is vibrant with creative enrichment.

Learning through play is the guiding theme for areas such as the Art Studio, Log Cabin, Possible-opolis, Wildernest, and many others.

Wander through the museum's website for more fun and inspiration. Better yet--if you're ever in Madison, WI, wander through their museum. Many of the areas are marked "All Ages." I hope they mean that! :-)

IMAGE: Many thanks to The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. for providing this photo, and to BuzzFeed for posting an article about it. Many thanks to the Madison Children's Museum for offering such a wonderful learning place!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Space Station DIY: Bernal Spheres?

I needed a plausible space station for my fictional characters to live in. My research yielded such riches, I decided to share them with you in a series of “Space Station DIY” blog posts.
John Desmond Bernal
Today, let’s consider the Bernal Sphere. It’s an idea originally cooked up by John Desmond Bernal in 1929. Bernal was primarily known as a pioneer in molecular biology, but his concept of a spherical habitat in space seemed plausible enough for NASA to launch a more in-depth study in 1975-76.

Gerard K. O'Neill
That study led to Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s proposal for Island One, a relatively small Bernal Sphere. This was followed by the larger Island Two (which, it was hoped, would provide a more practical industrial base). By the time O’Neill got to Island Three, he’d evolved to a different shape, the O’Neill Cylinder (we’ll discuss that design in a future post). Other research rooted in the Bernal Sphere eventually led to a toroidal design, often called a Stanford Torus
The wine-tasting party doesn't seem to mind if the world is inside-out.
What would it be like, to live in a Bernal Sphere? Artwork from the mid-1970s gives us a glimpse of an inside-out world, in which you could see the other side of the colony “up in the sky.” I don’t know about you, but I think that would give me terrible vertigo.
Recreation at the poles: nets and micro-gravity sex?
The artificially-generated centrifugal gravity would fall to nothing at the poles, which some have thought would make those good recreational areas. The illustration above envisions “Zero gravity honeymoon suites,” but doesn’t seem to consider the problems of space-sickness caused by microgravity, or the realities of Newton’s Third Law. Perhaps people would be better advised to enjoy their marital bliss in the 1-G areas, and play Quidditch at the poles. 
Perhaps people could play Quidditch at the poles of the Bernal Sphere.
The outside view shows a series of rings on one end, stacked next to the sphere. This would be the so-called “Crystal Palace” for agriculture to feed the population of 10,000 (on Island One). 
External view of Island One, with agricultural "Crystal Palace" tori at one end.
Unfortunately, scientists and engineers in the 1970s were not much concerned about the issues involved in intensive farming, so they followed contemporary ideas, and designed their Crystal Palace to be a cow-, pig-, and chicken-hell. I wonder how much concern they had about overuse of antibiotics and methane production (perhaps they could use the latter as a fuel, but what about the smell?), as well as the relative economies of growing plant crops versus livestock. Maybe they just couldn't imagine life without steak?
Livestock Hell in space? Maybe not such a good idea after all.
Ultimately, I decided the Bernal Sphere was not the design for my fictional space station. If I didn’t want to imagine living there, why would I try to make my characters do so? Might recall O'Neill apparently moved away from the original sphere-focused idea, too, once he looked into it more. But although my fictional Rana Habitat Space Station didn't turn out to be a Bernal Sphere, the design gave me some interesting ideas. I hope you've enjoyed this exploration. 

Earlier posts in this series have discussed space stations in popular culture and conjecture, and the idea of Dyson spheres

IMAGES: Many thanks to the ever-invaluable Wikipedia, for the photos of John Desmond Bernal and Gerard K. O'Neill; to the NASA Ames Research Center for the 1970s-era artwork of the Bernal Sphere interior, exterior, and "Crystal Palace" cutaway detail; to the National Space Society, for the artist's rendering of the Bernal Sphere recreational area; and to Entertainment Weekly for the Harry Potter Quidditch image. I appreciate all of you!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Of PRIMARY importance!

In both Kansas and Missouri today (also Michigan and Washington state), we're holding primary elections. Several more states are holding them later in August.

In Kansas, we just received wonderful news, thanks to a wise judge who actually cares about the Constitution: Approximately 18,000 voters, whose local and state votes would have been excluded by an unjustifiable law, now will have their votes counted.
Where do people get the idea that primary elections don't matter?
But I'm haunted by the question: how many of them will actually bother to vote? Many people seem to think primaries aren't all that important. Especially on the local level, they couldn't be more wrong.

I'm frustrated by the fact that only ultra-conservative right-wing voters seem to have grasped this simple fact. They turn out in force, even for low-voter-turnout primary elections. Perhaps especially for those, because they know how important they are. In much of straight-party-ticket Kansas, the winner of the election is decided in the Republican primary.

Kansans certainly have no excuse for ignorance on this matter. Primary-election victories by hard-right-wing candidates have led us down the path of fiscal destruction in recent elections. The coffers are empty in "Brownbackistan," and we've had our credit rating downgraded twice--but only a hardy handful in Topeka seem to care. We need to make them ALL care. 
Don't sit this--or any election--out, and assume "it doesn't matter." It does.
Do not be deceived. Elections--all elections, including primaries--matter. And your vote may be only one vote, but elections have turned on only a few votes. Don't leave it to chance, or figure (God help us!) "it doesn't matter who's in office."

If you don't vote, you can't legitimately complain, although few people let that stop them. But if you do vote--maybe you won't have so much to complain about later. Why don't you give it a try? Educate yourself, and vote! Please!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Michigan's WILX Channel 10 for the "Primary Elections" graphic, and to Texas GOP Vote (See? They get it!) for the "Your Vote Counts" image.