Archive for January, 2005

Gem from Iraq

Jan 30 2005 Published by under politics

When I woke up this morning the public radio station was broadcasting news about the election in Iraq. What was interesting to me was that they were not talking about who might win the election. That isn’t news, apparently. What seems to be newsworthy is whether people are voting, or not. I began thinking about how courageous a person would have to be to vote in a situation where there was a real threat of death. Voter turnout in the U.S. is typically part of the election day coverage, but here it is reported as an indicator of voter apathy. I wonder if more, or fewer, people would turn out here if some of the polling places might be bombed.

It may have been just a coincidence, but I was looking at the Blogger “Blogs of Note” list and saw one called Baghdad Burning that is authored by a woman living in Iraq. It’s a gem! I read her most recent post about living with short water rations for over a week, and then I began to look through the rest of her entries. Riverbend, the author, is documenting her experience of living in Baghdad during the American occupation. An excerpt from August 17, 2003:

Waking Up
Waking up anywhere in Iraq these days is a trial. It happens in one of two ways: either slowly, or with a jolt. The slow process works like this: you’re hanging in a place on the edge of consciousness, mentally grabbing at the fading fragments of a dream… something creeps up around, all over you- like a fog. A warm heavy fog. It’s the heat… 120 F on the cooler nights. Your eyes flutter open and they search the dark in dismay- the electricity has gone off. The ceiling fan is slowing down and you are now fully awake. Trying to sleep in the stifling heat is about as productive as trying to wish the ceiling fan into motion with your brain. Impossible.

The other way to wake up, is to be jolted into reality with the sound of a gun-shot, explosion or yelling. You sit up, horrified and panicked, any dream or nightmare shattered to oblivion. What can it be? A burglar? A gang of looters? An attack? A bomb? Or maybe it’s just an American midnight raid?

- posted by river @ 8:02 PM

The Beginning…
So this is the beginning for me, I guess. I never thought I’d start my own weblog… All I could think, every time I wanted to start one was “but who will read it?” I guess I’ve got nothing to lose… but I’m warning you- expect a lot of complaining and ranting. I looked for a ‘rantlog’ but this is the best Google came up with.

A little bit about myself: I’m female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.

The literary quality of this writing, coupled with the immediacy of a voice that is speaking directly from the heart about her homeland and her life in a time of crisis will bring me back for more. When we listen to U.S. news reporters speaking from their hotel rooms, we have to wonder how close to the situation they can actually get. This blog is like a journal, but not merely personal. The political commentary, humor, anger and frustration are all qualities that are not present in an “objective” news report.

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Cost of War

Jan 22 2005 Published by under borderland,politics

In Bush"™s innaugural speech he outlined a utopian vision of freedom for the entire planet. Wild! What will he think of next? The elimination of pain, perhaps. Most shockingly, he said that he believes that freedom everywhere is a necessary condition for the preservation of our own democracy. Just today I found a web counter that compares the cost of war with the cost of other public expenses. It is frightening to see how fast that ticker is turning! The counter is set to calculate the dollars appropriated by the U.S. Congress for the war in Iraq, and does not include the incalculable human costs, nor the costs of rebuilding Iraq once the conflict has ended.

The conflict was initially justified with claims that weapons of mass destruction were being developed, but the purpose has now become an ideological mission to create a free, democratic political structure. What we are doing is exercising a form of colonial power that is intended to convert wayward states around the globe to fall in line with the "œright thinking" U.S. Our success is not certain, at this time, elections or not.

I don"™t see the connection between our own democratic freedoms and those of people elsewhere. What I do see is that this is costing a tremendous amount! We are running up a huge tab while needs at home are going unmet. According to the Cost of War counter, with the money spent on Iraq so far, we could have hired over 2.5 million teachers nationwide, or nearly 5,000 for the state of Alaska. Five thousand more teachers in the state of Alaska would have been a big help in leaving no child behind.

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Rabbit Trails

Jan 08 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

I was getting ready to dive headfirst into learning how to do a WordPress hack that would support multiple blogs. I visited the WordPress Support Wiki and searched "˜multiple weblogs"™ before I started, in case someone had come up with a straightforword solution to the problem (more on that in a bit) I am trying to solve. I found a richly informative thread with over 43 posts spanning several months. Nobody has done quite what I need done, apparently. But there is a fair amount of interest. What I did learn, though, has sent me off on another tangent.

One of the wiki authors mentioned b2evolution as a possible resource for a multiblog site instead of WordPress. Other wiki posts mentioned being discouraged by b2evo"™s complexity"¦.and so on. People say all kinds of things. I figured that after spending weeks looking into various possibilities, what could it hurt to check out one more? It seems to fit my needs – almost.

One happy coincidence is that it has many similarities to WordPress. A simple table and file structure is the chief similarity. Both apps also support the same skins/themes in some cases. The big difference is that with b2 it is really easy to create dozens of totally separate blogs that can be centrally moderated, and still give the authors varying degrees of control over the design and functionality of each site. I"™ve been thinking that kids might take more of an interest in this whole process if they got to make some choices about how their site looks.

Experience tells me that this hypothesis might be totally off the mark. For one thing, it might be a complete hassle for the teacher, which is one of the reasons all kinds of cool things can"™t happen in school. Another scencario I can envision is that kids will spend all of their time switching skins and spend less time actually writing. But hey! I like to play with my computer, too! It should be interesting to see if they get over it eventually. As an admin, I can deny them the option, but I"™d like to interest them in technology as well as give them new opportunities and reasons to write. So the plan is to create another subdomain for northernattitude and have a go at it with the fourth graders. This blog may end up serving, in part, to document what goes on with the classroom blogs.

The one thing that I wish b2evolution or WordPress could do, and apparently can"™t, is to group sets of blogs from a single installation and assign them to different admins. That way, the kids could keep their blogs running from year to year, and they"™d just be passed from one teacher to another to moderate. Alternatively, I could set it up so that teachers each had blogs to moderate, and assign multiple students/authors to each blog. The difficulty with that approach is that the kids don"™t get creative control over their sites, and I don"™t think there is a way to keep them from being able to edit each others"™ posts. The main problem is that all of the CMS and blogging tools organize information around content – not users. Classroom applications need a slightly different organizational structure. With school projects teachers are less focused on the specific topics, and more interested in the various efforts of their students. So we need to be able to sort according to groups of authors, rather than subject categories. Topically and chronologically organized information is also nice, but the people need to be sorted first. The project I was developing did this by passing the author id as a variable used in the database query. It seems like I (or someone) should be able to make that happen in b2 or WordPress, but I suspect new difficulties would develop somewhere else in the program. The other interesting difference between b2evolution and WordPress is that the skins in b2 define not only the appearance but also, to a degree, the functionality of the blog.

I"™d like to have several classes in the school participate in an online writers"™ workshop. But I don"™t have time to help all of the teachers each learn to admin different sites. The school district webmaster is willing to give me database permissions on their server, but that may take a while for them to work out. If I am only doing this with my own group, I think I"™ll just use my own hosting service and get it running ASAP.

It might even be fun.

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New Territory

Jan 04 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

I hope that my sporadic attention to this blog will become more regular as I begin to solve a rather vexing puzzle that I created for myself a few months ago. I signed up at the community college for a course called Web Programming with PHP and MySQL so that I could work toward developing computer applications that would promote my contructivist pedagogy. The course, taught by Chris Lott, was actually part of the impetus to begin this blog in the first place. I was in over my head with the programming, but I learned quite a bit about a number of things related to HTML, PHP, and relational databases.

One of the course requirements was to develop a project. True to form, I took on a rather large challenge to create an online writers workshop. I was successful in getting it to display and edit student writing, and sorting it according to categories, but I bonked on the admin part of the application. This is a critical area for two reasons. There is a need for absolute control over publication since I"™m working with little kids who might write about all kinds of personal stuff that would not belong on the internet. It also has to be dead simple to administer.

The course took up most of my free time and a fair amount of my waking hours at work were devoted to thinking about the innumerable problems that were being presented to me. I am not, and will never be, a computer programmer. But I believe that I could work with an existing program, or reverse engineer something to suit my needs. Since the last several months have been framed by the feeling that I just "œgot off the boat" so to speak with regards to web technologies, I should mention that I also discovered content mangagement systems (being previously unaware of their existence) and recognized their potential usefulness for educational purposes. I would like to give kids tools that are simple enough for them to create, publish, and share multimedia texts. So I have been learning PHP and hunting for a CMS that might be customized to do the job. The problem (is there only one?) is that these tools are for the most part too complex for the average elementary school teacher, or student, to manage to use. My job, then, is to simplify something so that even a kindergartener could use it. Not a simple task!

At the risk of working on my writers workshop project and possibly only achieving what might be the poorly executed recreation of the wheel, I decided to look around at the available open source content management systems built with PHP and MySQL. I"™ve loaded Drupal, e107, Mambo, Moodle, phpslash, and PostNuke onto my old iMac and played with them all. I think they are all too complex for what I have in mind right now.

So"¦I found the WordPress Wiki plugins page and am exploring the possibilities there. I like the wiki support pages because the community is large and active. I am also less intimidated to begin hacking on a program that uses only 13 database tables, as opposed to Moodle-the most extreme example from my list- with 97 tables. I gave up on Moodle when I discovered that there were no blogs and the journals module was not accessible to guests or even other class members. I don"™t think elementary kids are going to jump right into a forum and start responding to each other in print. They don"™t operate like that. If using and writing plugins for WordPress becomes a fruitful avenue, the functionality of this blog site should also begin to increase.

As it stands, I need to learn a lot more about the entire domain of social software. I"™m taking a course from Chris on that very topic beginning a few weeks from now!

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