wackadoodle art installation or photosynthesis experiment: you be the judge

I really enjoyed Antwerp. Sometimes, when you go places for conferences (especially academic ones), you can end up far away from the city you are in, or so insanely busy that you rarely see more than whatever happens to be in between the hotel and the venue.

Antwerp was a great location for a conference.  The university it was held at is absolutely gorgeous (more pictures of that later), and the city itself is nicely navigable on foot, even for me (I can get lost on a straight line). There were also weird and wonderful things around nearly every corner from a printing museum (with the world’s oldest printing press!) to this bizarre combination of sculpture and science they had out on a side street. I couldn’t resist photographing it, but I really should have videoed.  There was steam shooting out bits and propellers spinning and just generally a lot of movement that the still photo doesn’t really capture well. It does look like something out of Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk adventures doesn’t it? It is almost too easy to imagine that it’s just one moment away from lifting up one of those spidery legs and skittering off down the street. Continue reading

what’s the difference between scary and creepy?

While trying to explain how very cool it is that Neil Gaiman won the Newbery (which mostly consisted of me naming other books and sighing: The Hero and The Crown! The Tale of Desperaux! The Witch of Blackbird Pond! A Wrinkle in Time!) I also starting blathering on about Coraline, another book of Gaiman’s that was very, very popular in my classroom. To begin with, it had the three magic elements that attract middle school ambivalent readers: it looked short; it looked scary; it looked simple. Of course, all of those things were merely ways into the book. Although it was short, the story it told was complete and felt world-shaping. Although it looked scary, it was really *creepy* (more on that later). And, although it looked simple, the story, and the conversations it prompted in my classroom, proved it was anything but.

My favourite conversation of all was between two of my most-anti-reading girls. After nearly two years with me (and improving their reading levels a LOT), they were now willing to read, but still very picky and demanding about the amount of effort they had to put into the process. These were girls who would rather read a “meh” book that demanded less of them than an excellent book they would have to work at. (Of course, they were also Twilight obsessed, but that’s a different story). Coraline, though, Coraline got passed around the group like some sort of trifecta pick: the teacher liked it, the students liked it, the parents liked it.

Why was that? Well, everyone comes to a book from a different place, but I think these girls liked Coraline because it felt like an adventure. Also, though, because (as I overheard one day… what? teachers are consummate eavesdroppers!)

Dude, Coraline isn’t SCARY. Scary is, like, Nightmare on Elm Street. Scary’s not REAL. Coraline is CREEPY. I kept thinking that if I opened the wrong door at my own house, I’d end up somewhere really not good.

(13 year old girl)

So that was the magic then. These girls never really connected with Harry Potter, Frodo, or Merlin. Their lives were, quite frankly, too fraught with REAL danger to tolerate fantasy danger. But, they did connect with Coraline–the danger she faced, evil adults and world that made no sense, was something they felt was more real. It was creepy not scary. And they loved it.

Now, why they loved the completely unreal and unbelievably perfect Edward and Jacob is fodder for another post.

on long walks and podcasts….

Now that I am walking, well, everywhere, I have become even more enamoured of my iPhone. I really do appreciate only having to carry/deal with/find one device to carry my music, some notes, and also act as a phone. I hadn’t really ventured much beyond some music and audio books for listening to at the gym until I moved to Manchester.
With that move, and the resulting walking to the office, and the store, and the doctor’s office, I am quickly finding that I sometimes like some “company” on the various treks I make each day. I’ve spent time with the brothers from Car Talk, the Friday Night Comedy Hour, Adam and Joe, and a bunch of one off lectures I’ve downloaded from random universities. I’ve recently found a series of lectures, though, that are a cut above the rest. They’re on serendipity and presented as a part of the Darwin Lectures.
As is often true of things found on the internet, my own encounter with them was serendipitous: both random and fortuitous. They had the additional benefit of being entertaining and thought provoking as well. I’ve not listened to them in order, the first I heard was from Richard Leaky, and his discussion on serendipity and scientific study was wide ranging and inspiring. It also twinned interestingly with Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book in that Leakey emphasized that while some of his fossil and skeletal discoveries may be called serendipitous (or part of the infamous “Leakey Luck”) none of his scientific advances or discoveries deserved that term. He was quite firm in his belief (and this is where he runs parallel with Gladwell) that science is pushed forward more with difficult and diligent work than any other way.
He said, instead, that serendipity played a part in the evolutionary process. He spent some time pointing out that many of the greatest “leaps” in evolution (to complex eyes or the ability to create complex language) may have happened for reasons that will forever stay mysterious. Whatever the evolutionary result was, the original problem solved by it may be forever lost in the past–and that serendipity lies in the myriad of options that were opened up with each evolutionary step.