Philae and the Rosetta Mission

Since I’m a baseball fan, I’m used to hearing the adage about how hard it is, actually, for a moving ball and a moving cylinder to make contact.  From a physics’ point of view, that is.  We should be surprised that it happens at all, let alone well enough to produce, say, a grand slam.

Europe’s Rosetta Mission, however, managed something a million times more precise and precarious this week, when they maneuvered a spaceship–Philae–to land on a moving comet, 317 million miles from Earth.


According to the New York Times, there were a few glitches, but the mission is considered a success. I, too, would be hugging my colleagues if I managed to be part of this team!  What a phenomenal feat!

Success! The Rosette Mission Team.

While I’m not sure I’d ever be brave enough to travel off-planet and to new locations in space, I’m more than intrigued and fascinated.  I hope that I live to see the day when we make First Contact, or manage to establish living quarters on another planet.  Like the Golden Age science-fiction writers, I’m antsy to explore new worlds, even if I would do so vicariously though the pages of periodicals.

And who knows…maybe I would have the guts to go myself.  As long as there were coffee, I suppose…

Coffee, Nectar of the Gods


Chang, Kenneth.  “Landing on a Comet, a European Space Agency Mission Aims to Unlock the Mysteries of Earth.” The New York Times 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014. 

This blog originally published as a sample for students on my school blog.



Alternate Universe: He Walked Around the Horses



I’ve decided to use a second story with time travel as a plot part in my Science Fiction class, so I asked all my geeky friends on facebook what they’d suggest.  And I have a LOT of geeky friends.  One of the titles thrown my way was “He Walked Around the Horses” by Henry Beam Piper (thanks, Sabrina!).  While I won’t be using it in class–more to do with alternate universe theory and less to do with time travel, per se, and requires far too much Enlightenment European history for me to try to explain–I absolutely LOVED the story.

While it was first published in 1948, the story is set in 1809 and the language conforms to this.  I’m fine with that; bring on the esoteric vocabulary, please. The story is rather epistolary, as well, set up as a series of letters and police reports sent among a small group of police and government officials in Prussia and London, as well as the statements of a saloon keeper, a couple of peasant workers, and the central mysterious figure of Benjamin Bathurst.

Benjamin Bathurst

I don’t want to give anything away, but I loved how the reader gets more information with each report, with things seen from a different perspective.  As a love of mystery novels and detective fiction, this is right in my wheelhouse.

For anyone who loves history (American Revolution, the subsequent French Revolution, the rise of NapoleonWellington, etc.), this is the story for you.  Wonderfully written, great character touches, and a lovely sardonic ending line all waiting just for you!

You can read it online for free from Project Gutenberg!

CITATION: Piper, Henry Beam. “He Walked Around the Horses.” Astounding Science Fiction, April 1948. Project Gutenberg. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. 

This blog entry originally posted on my school blog as a sample for students. 

We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.*

Boing Boing (and Xeni and Cory) has long been one of my favorite daily stops in the corner of the web where design, geekdom, politics, freedom of speech, cute animals, and computers hang out and have adult beverages together. It’s kind of like taking a walk through one’s favorite boho University neighborhood–if it were filled with hackers‘ nooks, steampunk, and used bookstores.

Fairly often, I find something there that I bring to the attention of students, especially when I’m discussing Creative Commons or Lawrence Lessig (or, of course, using Doctorow’s writings in class). And, even though today is in July and I won’t be in front of students until September, one of the finds on Boing Boing today immediately suggested a fabulous first-week-of-school project, perfect for a teacher new to the district who doesn’t know any of the kids.

Boing Boing has a contest for desiging the most boring magazine cover.

The Winning Entry, from Boing Boing dot net

The Winning Entry, from Boing Boing dot net

While I don’t think my upcoming students are boring–far from it–the whole idea of using design and rhetoric (with a healthy dose of humor and pastiche) appeals to me.  I’ve been thinking of ways that I could get to know my students (and they, me) quickly and in fun, that will also incorporate writing and thinking.  This is perfect.

My students do not yet know it–or, well, *me*–but they will be designing their own magazine covers for *themselves*. Not only will I get to know them by the real magazine they might choose (I suspect I’ll see a lot of Seventeen and Sports Illustrated parodies, but who knows), but how they choose to portray themselves.  How they write headlines. What design choices they might make.  What *materials* they choose (as I often do, I’ll leave the digital vs. hard copy up to them, I believe). It will tell me a lot about who the individuals are in front of me, and a lot of what makes them tick (and how they write and complete projects).

It will also provide me with something to hang  up on my massive, bare white walls, right away at the beginning of the first quarter!

My New Classroom

My New Classroom

I’m very excited. And yes, I’ll be having to create my own, of course…I suspect I’ll be using Mother Jones or Smithsonian or Discover for mine.  This. Will. Be. Fun.

Thanks, Boing Boing!

*From John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, of course…wanted to use the “demented and sad, but social” line, but that was a bit insulting…

Guest Bloggity Blog

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being asked to write a guest blog on Bedford-St. Martin’s Press High School Bits blog, authored by my online friend and colleague Jodi Rice.  (She’s doing silly things like getting married, traveling around the world for a year, and other hateful stuff like that…sheesh.)

Here’s the result.

That’s all for now.  New school year, teaching on overload, and going to Grad School is keeping me far too busy, and throw in lots of personal things (Mom fell and broke her hip, this, that, some more o’ this) and I’m tapped.

For now.  I’m never silent for long, however.  🙂

He Departs as Air: Bill Holm, 1943-2009

Let go of the dead now.

The rope in the water,

the cleat on the cliff,

do them no good anymore.

Let them fall, sink, go away,

become invisible as they tried

so hard to do in their own dying.

We needed to bother them

with what we called help.

We were the needy ones.

The dying do their own work with

tidiness, just the right speed,

sometimes even a little

satisfaction.  So quiet down.

Let them go.  Practice

your own song.  Now.

–“Letting Go of What Cannot Be Held Back”, from Playing the Black Piano, Bill Holm, 2004

I first heard of–and met–the large, ebullient, red-faced Icelander over twenty years ago when I signed up for some poetry/creative writing workshop at my St. Cloud, Minnesota, college.  Bill Holm had just published Boxelder Bug Variations, and I was intrigued by the freshness, the humor, the seriousness, the twinkle.

Many years later, I suddenly found myself teaching English at a tiny little school in a tiny little town that just happened to be not only Bill Holm’s hometown–and current residence–but his muse, his tether, his theme, his kingdom.

It wasn’t completely accidental, of course.  During my interview for the teaching job, his name and acclaim were brought up as a way of sweetening the deal.

It worked.

For the nearly seven years I’ve worked here, I’ve seen Bill Holm speak in a variety of contexts, spoken to him in awe as he peeked into my classroom, driven by his house with a sense of fan-girl curiosity, and admired both reading and teaching his printed word.  While I’ve never–and will never–share his appreciation for the desolate prairie (I’m a “tree person” as he would say), I do share a Scandinavian Lutheran background, a Liberal mindset, and a love for wit, humor, and travel.

And a love of Walt Whitman.

Reading his essays, his poems, is like looking in a mirror and finding I share part of myself with a middle-aged bearded man with a hearty voice and a love of ale and chat.

It’s not a bad place to be.  Ever.

When I began teaching my Advanced Placement Language course one of his books of essays (The Heart Can Be Found Anywhere on Earth) centered around the very town in which I spend the vast majority of my time, three schoolyears ago, I was nearly giddy when reading certain of his pieces.  My class teased me the entire year about my schoolgirlish crush on the man, and kept threatening to stop by his house to tell him of my undying love.  Since I had thought about getting up the courage to ask him to speak to my class, this was a major problem.

I never did ask him–he spoke about the same essays in another English course taught by another English teacher (Aaron Cheadle, who also happens to live across the street from Bill)–and now I never will be able to.

Bill Holm died last night, in Sioux Falls.  We thought we’d lost him a couple of years back when he suffered major heart trouble, but he pulled through to keep carrying around Walt Whitman and leading Boxelder Bug Days, and even kept teaching at the local University until retiring this past year.

Every summer, he conducted an Icelandic travel and writing seminar, and I always wanted to come up with the money to go.  It was a dream of mine.

And last night…he left us.

And, like he wrote above, I still want to bother him and call it help.

Goodbye, Bill.  I will look for you in the grass.

I’m *not* breaking Godwin’s Law, but…

…something happened today that is making think about it.

My tenth graders just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and they’re now working on culminating projects.   One of the groups is doing a “Who was Hitler, really” kind of thing, researching his life and trying to figure out how someone like him happened.

We were all in the lab today, and one of the girls in the group–obviously reading some informative site–asked me, “Ms O, what’s ‘mein kampf”?”

As I always remind my students, it’s not my job to provide answers but to help guide them to arriving at their own answers–which is much harder, usually, than the former.  For both of us.  So, I said, “I think you should research that.  Go see what you can find, and we’ll talk in a few minutes.”

About twenty seconds later–I hadn’t even rounded to the other side of the lab, yet–the same girl, after doing a search, said, “Ms O?  The filter blocked it.  Says it’s ‘hate speech’.”

Well, of *course* it’s hate speech…Hitler freaking wrote it! For the love of all that’s educational!


Two years ago, I had a senior girl unable to do most of her research for a paper at school because she was researching breast cancer research.  God forbid a student accidentally stumble on a picture or description of a human body part, even in the interests of healthy research.  This same student had family members personally touched by this terrible disease, and really wanted to write this paper and learn more about it herself…so, she did so from home.

Because the filter wouldn’t let her type in “breast” and get any results.

A year or so before that, I had a student writing about the ravages of meth–something that definitely touches many here in the rural backwater.  Meth is quite a prominent, and deadly, drug in these parts.

What happened?  He couldn’t look up figures from NIDA–the National Institute on Drug Abuse–because–yep, you guessed it–it was blocked.  He couldn’t look at any site that included “drug”, just as my other student couldn’t look at any site including the word “breast.”  (No looking up chicken recipes!)

It’s enough to make any educator, anyone who cares about quality education, anyone who’s not tied into a veritable knot about “safety of children!!!!!!!” with a dozen exclamation points.

Our children will, most certainly, NOT be safe if we don’t teach them responsible internet use, don’t allow them to use the word “breast” or look up drug use statistics, or learn about a crazy, paranoid, dangerously-charismatic wingnut mass murderer.  We’ll send them off without any tools, without the ability to *educate themselves*.

All in the misguided ruse of “protecting” them.

So, today, when my student said she wasn’t allowed to look up Hitler’s book in a public school in supposedly the world’s “most free” country, even with a teacher’s blessing, I very nearly had a conniption.  (My students know how I feel about filters, and I had twenty-five pairs of eyes on me immediately–I’m proud to say that I did keep my cool, although I explained why I was angered by the filter.)

I said, “Well, the term means ‘my struggle,’ but I wanted you to find that out on your own, and it’s the title of a book Hitler wrote.”

And, so, I’m not going to break Godwin’s Law. I’m not going to compare a totalitarian, Big Brother-esque mandatory internet filter to…

…um, nope.  I think you can connect the dots just fine.

Edit:  1/16/09, to add italics to book title

Do you copy that?

Driving home after work (school, prep, mock trial bus to courhouse and back, etc.), I was, as usual, listning to public radio, and Fresh Air was on.  Terri Gross was interviewing Lawrence Lessig, Law Professor at Standford School of Law, about copyright laws being antiquated in the age of digital information.

Just today in AP Lang, as students were doing an exercise to generate ideas for writing essays of definition, we discussed, briefly, copyright laws as they relate to music sharing–and now, that’s exactly what I’m hearing as I’m driving home.  Serendipity.

I want students to listen to this segment, not only because it relates to our own discussion but because Lessig discusses laws as they relate to teenagers, and in a way that immediately wants to take the teenagers’ side.

That doesn’t happen often in the world.  Without claiming a side on the copyright updating issue (I’m still working it out, myself; see below), I can say that as a teacher of teenagers, the concept that teenager = dangerous hoodlum is far too rampant.  It’s a refreshing change to hear a scholar, and a legal scholar, want to revisit issues that affect teenagers without immediately behaving like an overindulgent parent of spoiled youngsters OR someone who wants to further constrict the creativity of young people.

As to the issue of copyright laws needing to be updated to meet a digital age, Lessing (and others) make very good points.  The medium does affect the use, undoubtedly.

On the other hand, I absolutely also believe that artists (whatever the medium) need to be compensated for their work, and compensated fairly.

To bridge that gap, Lessig brings up EFF, for example, and also individualized copyright protections (Creative Commons) based on what the creators want—full access to full restriction, depending.  Both concepts made to allow flexibility both for users and creators.

As to the latter, NIN were brought up as a pioneer into this sort of freedom, and a statement by Reznor on a related topic.  The gist here, and with Lessing, seems to be that creative use–teenagery creative use–of artists’ work is creative in and of itself, and there should be ways to allow this without criminalizing this creativity.

I can get behind this, certainly–I’m a Free Speech Absolutist, afterall–but as a person who appreciates words, and music, and the genius (or lack thereof) that goes into these enterprises, I also wonder about fairness and compensation at the point of origin.

In the spirit of essays of definition, I have to ask:  What is “derivative”?  What is “original”?  What is the difference between “remix” and “plagiarism”?  What separates “digital sharing” from more traditional types?

And, as Lessig opens with, what is, in the modern age, a “copy” that should be regulated by “copyright”?

Good questions, and I suspect we’ll have many good answers–from various perspectives–as the next few years pass.

Edit:  12/23/08:  Corrected spelling of Lessig’s name (NPR bit had it two different ways and I picked the wrong one, yesterday).

Edit: 12/23/08:  Included link to Creative Commons

Deck of Cards, via Theo

Theo’s Blog Entry

let me tell you a little about my self, I am 14 years of age and, well if life were a deck of cards, most people have one random card and 51 normal cards.  My deck consists of 49 random cards, 1 normal card and well the rest are blank. so, whats your deck?

What a fantastic question.  Much more creative than most of the memes I get on MySpace, that’s for sure.  Theo’s an amazing kid–one of my 8th graders–who’s always coming up with fresh ideas and incredible figures of speech.

And I want to play this game!

What would I be…well, first of all, I’d have to have more than two jokers.  I’d have to be one of those decks that gives you three joker cards just in case you lose a card.

I’m absolutely a three-joker deck.

And, because I’m a bit, um, how shall I put this, “control-freakish” in many ways, I’d have to have all four Queens.

Three jokers, four Queens.

Four is my favorite number, followed by seven, so there’s another eight cards, for sure.

I think Jacks represent my (younger) husband, so I need one of those.  And I teach grades 8, 10, and 12, so I need all the 8s, 10s, and Queens (but I already have the Queens).

Aces are intimidating.  And lonely.  But I really do like my alone time–need to have it, actually, or I go crazy–so I should probably have one of those.  Maybe, uh, two.

Twos are sweet…gimme a couple of those.

So, out of 52+3(Jokers), I now have in my deck:

  • 3 Jokers
  • 4 Queens
  • 4 Fours
  • 4 Sevens
  • 1 Jack
  • 4 Eights
  • 4 Tens
  • 2 Aces
  • 2 Twos

That gives me twenty-eight cards; a bit over half.  Considering that I have lived perhaps a bit over half of my life (I can only hope), that seems about right.

Ask me again in another twenty years–I plan to have other cards added to my deck by then!