Can Teachers Use Blogging to Make Better Writers?

Liz Dwyer:

The desire for reader feedback keeps the students excited about wanting to write more posts, and they’re eager to improve their writing skills for their readers’ benefit. “They now have a worldwide forum instead of an audience of one,” Christens said, noting that the students “see themselves as writers—real writers.”

Absolutely wonderful.

Quitting Facebook

Facebook is dead. The spam has won.

I’ve been using Facebook for nearly 7 years now and I cringe to think how much time I’ve wasted on it, but I don’t think it’s been that much compared to a lot of other people. I use Facebook like this:

  1. Login
  2. Look at the recent status updates
  3. Maybe make a few comments
  4. View photos if they look interesting

I’ve enjoyed Facebook for years because it’s seemingly removed the need for a high school reunion. I know what everyone’s up to, who does what and so on. I don’t follow much family on Facebook, but I can see how that’d be nice, too.

Lately, things have started to change. Facebook, like any other company, can’t just say, “Well, that’s perfect. Let’s just maintain this now and not innovate anymore.” Could you imagine if Henry Ford thought the Model T was “just perfect” and left it at that? What if Microsoft stopped at Windows ME? Companies and people can’t just get to a point and stop. That’s how societies stagnate and crumble.

The trick, however, is innovating and growing in a mature, sensible way with purposeful iteration.

Facebook grew out of the .edu-only years and started enabling everyone with anything to say a place to say it. They innovated quickly, pushed changes at people very quickly and without warning. A slew of privacy issues has come of it, too. Under pressure from Twitter, Gowalla, FourSquare and others, they’ve added real-time status updates, check-ins, chat, email, photo sharing and they’ve monetized by putting ads in front of people that are creepily more targeted than Google’s famed AdWords.

Facebook is the new AOL, trying to be everything to everyone and in the process is becoming nothing to no one. Here’s what I see right now as I log into Facebook:

With all due respect to the original authors, the first two posts are effectively ads. The third post is about a music video I don’t care about or like. The rest are seemingly mundane posts that I either don’t understand or have no affinity to. The last post is a check-in from someone I went to high school with. I’m sure they’re having a fine time, but I don’t know where that is or why I should care. It’s one thing to check in from the White House, Grand Canyon, Times Square or the Space Station. It’s another to post that you’re at some random bar. The events are always pointless to me because everyone invites me to everything from a birthday party to a meetup to a political event. Has anyone ever looked at their Facebook wall and thought, “Hey, I want to do that, too!” or “I’m there, too! Let’s meet!”

In my mind, Facebook is the ultra-social site that combines the one-off services from other providers. Check-ins from FourSquare or Gowalla, statuses from Twitter, photos from Flickr, video from YouTube and so on. It’s becoming a bit much.

I’ve taken the time to at least try to curate my friends list. I know many individuals who have blocked me on Facebook, mostly old high school classmates. That’s fine because we didn’t have that much in common anyway. But now I find that Facebook is becoming “User Streamed Spam”. I guess I do it, too, with blog post links and the sort. But I do try to curate my posts as best I can. I respect people’s viewing experience on Facebook. Most people do not and post whatever pops in their mind.

Twitter, for me, is a better experience. I’ve carefully selected who I do and don’t want to follow, which admittedly, doesn’t happen as much on Facebook. On Facebook, I tend to hide a lot of people. Usually people who I met once somewhere and now they know me from some event I hosted. I’ve unlinked my Twitter and Facebook account in an attempt to refocus status updates to both targets differently at times. And, I’ve un-followed people on Twitter because I follow them on Facebook (or vice-versa) and I got tired of seeing the same thing. That became very cumbersome. Now, Facebook has removed the ability to hide apps on your wall, too. It’s almost as if they’re forcing me to see everyone’s horoscope.

Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but I don’t like Facebook anymore. It isn’t fun, social or unique like it used to be. While I admit to using Facebook to blurt out some things I’m hosting, I try not to do it a lot. And, I actually do take the time to think about clever things to post on Facebook. No one cares about my dinner, I get that, and I don’t post about it. Heck, I don’t even care about  my dinner. I also try not to repost the same old things that have spread around the web time and time again.

The new polling feature is the death nail for me. I answered a question once, out of boredom, and lo, it re-posted to my feed with no way for me to know or delete it. I spammed people with some dumb question and didn’t even know it. I don’t care whether you like Pepsi or Coke enough to want to see it on my wall at 2:30 in the afternoon.

And, as an aside, on two occassions this week I’ve posted comments on two different people’s Facebook statuses. One, for instance, claimed that Obama moved his State of the Union Speech to accomodate Dancing with the Stars. That’s sorta true, if it weren’t for the fact that the State of the Union happens in January. I mentioned a correction that the speech was about Libya. A few minutes later, that post was deleted. How dare facts make it on to the Internet. On another occasion, someone removed a post because, I guess, they don’t like me. That’s fine, but it makes for a bad experience. That’s probably why Facebook doesn’t have a “Dislike” button. Everyone would get mad at everyone and just leave.

I’ll be leaving Facebook alone for a while and spending more time among the people and content I care more about over at Twitter. You can follow me @jlharter (or @justifystudios or @refreshindy or @rebuildconf). But unlike Facebook where it seems rude not to befriend a person when you both know you know each other, Twitter doesn’t have that culture so don’t expect me to automatically follow you back. It reminds me more of the early Facebook. I ‘like’ that.

My Experience Using Chrome

When I first bought a Mac, I installed FireFox because I was used to it from Windows Land. Then, I started to appreciate the aesthetics of the Mac and FireFox didn’t fit into that scheme. So, I installed Camino, which is like FireFox-lite for Macs. It was great. It was fast, secure and easy to use. However, it didn’t support extensions. At the time, I wasn’t too irritated by this as extensions were a pretty new and novel thing and I could live without them.

At some point FireFox started to catch up with Mac aesthetic standards and Camino fell by the wayside. So I went back to FireFox. Enter Safari 5 and I went back to that. It was super fast, easy to use and new extensions made it perfect. I loved it. MobileMe kept Safari on my Mac in sync with my iPhone and later my iPad and other Macs. Add a bookmark on my Mac, boom, it’s there on my iPhone in seconds. The extensions were great, blocking things like ads, Facebook ads, etc. I also loved the “Reader” feature.

Then Google introduced Chrome and only a few people started using it. It was new, shiny and I saw it as “another browser to support”. The extensions for it were useless and only a few hardcore geeks used it for whatever reason. I installed it, thought, “That’s nice,” and never used it again.

At some point, I don’t know when, people started to hop on the Chrome bandwagon. Extensions grew, Chrome got better from Google’s end and FireFox started to feel bloated in comparison. Chrome became the FireFox of our childhood, so to speak.

I still ignored it, thinking it couldn’t be much better than Safari. I don’t visit malicious sites, so the “it’s more secure” bit is valid and I respect it, but I don’t care.

HOWEVER, I’m a tab-hoarder extraordinaire. I never restart my Mac until it comes crashing down around me, about once ever 4-5 weeks. Usually because Photoshop did something stupid. I never quit my browser because I always have tabs open that I want to come back to later. Right now, I have two tabs open to sample code I’ve been playing with and three tabs for sites I’m referencing for various research purposes and four tabs open related to a website I’m working on for a client. This is the norm on my desktop and I suspect on many other’s desktops, too.

Safari crashed yesterday, as it is prone to do after 7-10 days of heavy use for 10 hours a day. I have Flash disabled in Safari and use an extension to load H.264 versions of YouTube videos. But, that still causes Safari to misbehave. Safari also leaks memory like the dickens. I have 8GB of RAM in this machine and Safari usually holds up to 2GB worth and never lets go until I quit it. That’s a pain and makes me lose work.

So, with one crash yesterday I lost 19 tabs of things from the past day or so I was working with. Pulling them out of my history would be hard as I don’t recall what the URLs were and in some cases what the sites were even about. I just saw them and thought, “Neat. I’ll come back to this in a bit.”

That prompted me to bump Chrome to the top-spot in my dock. I’ve been using it for a few days now and it still feels snappy, stable and is using 122MB of RAM. Safari, however, uses about 80MB just as you open it. The best part is that I have yet to break this thing even with Flash enabled. Extensions have been able to fill in the gaps where I find them – like Reader and Facebook Ad blocking. I don’t like that I can’t customize my toolbar, which seems really unlike Google, but maybe it’ll get updated soon. I’m tired of looking at the “AdBlock” button all the time.

They’re some nice UI choices in Chrome, like how the tabs show key words in the page titles, not just the first few words. And the tabs are easy to drag around. However, with a full bar, it’s very difficult for me to move the whole window. I have to grab that sweet few pixels around the Close/Minimize/Resize buttons.

I’m sure at some point I’ll miss the ability for it to sync with my iPad and my iPhone, but I’ll learn to live without it. They’re other matters about Chrome I don’t like. For instance, when I “Copy Link Address” from a Google result, instead of copying “www.justinharter.com“, it copies this:

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBgQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fjustinharter.com%2
F&ei=NkqTTb6GJYPI0QGK6OXMBw&usg=AFQjCNG55ScwONQY0KvUFBCM98ERsDdWeg

Not cool.

Chrome also has the same problem as Safari where it tries to direct me to items in my history when I want to visit a new site. For instance, yesterday I did a search for “Chrome Reader Extension”. Today, if I do a search for “Chrome” it automatically fills in “…Reader Extension” and takes me to that instead. Not what I wanted at all. I have to remember to type “Chrome” + ‘Delete’ key to really tell it, “No, search for Chrome. Seriously. I mean it.”

Admittedly, Safari has the same issue, but it’s better than when it first came out. Used to be that typing an address in Safari would make it search for every random word on every page you’ve ever visited. That got real old, real fast. An update arrived and it made it smarter, but still not perfect. I do think it’s better than Chrome’s, though. This is by virtue of having the address and search bars separate. It keeps their respective caches cleaner.

I’m enjoying Chrome well enough for now. If it can survive longer than Safari under my workload, it’ll be a keeper.

Apple v. Amazon

Andy Ihnatko:

Apple versus Amazon is like Ali versus Frasier. This is two evenly-matched fighters and the outcome of their battle can only benefit consumers.

This is what I’ve been hoping for: a company with the skill, vision, clarity, and competence to truly compete with Apple. It wasn’t going to be Google. It was never going to be Google. I’m grinning at the thought of how high these two companies can push each other. What a great time to be a geek and to be alive.

Prediction: Amazon’s got great content and so-so hardware. Apple’s got great hardware and so-so content (iTunes is huge, but they’re at the whims of studios who still want to play like it’s 1989). I think Amazon’s going to start focusing on the hardware front. Apple will focus more on the content – maybe with a digital eLibrary for book rentals? How wonderful would that be when I can just rent books with iBooks on my iPad? I’d have a hard time justifying the use for my Kindle then.

I also can’t help but point out this how our capitalist society is supposed to work. The government hates Apple because “they’re big” and they hate Amazon because Amazon keeps successfully skirting sales tax laws. Both just want to go about doing what they do best.

Drugged Kindergartners

The Indianapolis Star has been doing a series of stories each Sunday for many weeks now on the plight, follies and successes at a couple of Indianapolis Public Schools. This week, they take us to School 61’s crop of kindergarten classes. This part stuck out to me:

When Gary Campbell transferred into School 61 in September, he was unable to sit still in class. He was disruptive. Almost every day he went home with a note in his backpack saying he had misbehaved.

His doctor said he might have an attention deficit disorder and recommended medication to treat it.

His mother, Nitasha Price, was reluctant at first to get the prescription filled. But within days of doing so, she and teacher Shirley Chappell began to see big changes in Gary. His scores on the progress exams doubled.

“He couldn’t get anything on paper until he got his medicine,” Chappell said. “He could hear; he could give it to you verbally. But he didn’t get anything down until they calmed him down a bit.”

In that sense, kindergarten — which isn’t required in Indiana but is offered in Indianapolis Public Schools thanks to federal money — serves as an early safety net to catch those problems at the earliest stage.

Translation: Rather than help this child channel his energy into creative outlets for learning, we drugged him so we could make him learn the arbitrary standards we’ve made up.

I get that they don’t have many resources, but a system designed to mold every child into the same general “kind” of learner is dangerous. Maybe that kid would excel at painting, dancing, singing or some other activity where you have to be up and moving. Instead, we just pigeon-holed him so he could arbitrarily fit into the designated holes alongside people who just happen to be the same age as him. In 20 years, maybe he’ll be lucky and get to work at an insurance company or a phone bank thanks to the miracles of modern education.