Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

Imitation is the sincerest form of…

Those paying attention may remember that last year I put together a Zulu comic book for distribution in South Africa. Though I wrote it myself, I was hoping to serialize it and eventually get local people involved in the creation of stories too. This year I came across the following book of stories written by local kids:

Learner Stories

And what kind of things might such kids write?

Sipho and his Magic Chicken

Well look at that – a story about a boy named Sipho and his magic chicken!

It seems that the kid didn’t always get the order of the panels correct, and they only included content from the first four pages, but it’s kinda cool to have been used in such a way.

I have to say, looking through the book with what I know of early grade school kids in SA, a lot of it must be plagiarized. I would not expect many kids at that age to be able to write stories in English. I wouldn’t blame the kids – they’re often asked to complete impossible tasks and rewarded only if they cheat their way through them. There’s often a profound disconnect between the kids’ abilities and resources and what they are asked to do. There are a lot of kids performing processes that make no sense: copy pages out of a textbook into your notebook, letter-by-letter if you have to. Later you’ll be “tested” on the topic, which is just a bunch of words you have no concept of. You’ll be judged harshly if you fail to perform.

I am reminded of a teacher at Thalana this year that demanded his students turn in their papers typed and printed. When the kids originally told me this, I thought they must be pulling my leg. But no, the teacher confirmed this requirement when I spoke with him. I explained that the kids didn’t have ready access to computers, and he insisted that they should be able to use the library. I reminded him that the library has only four computers and there are thousands of students in town competing for them, not to mention a steady stream of people just wanting to watch youtube and play with facebook. He grudgingly allowed the students to turn in their flawlessly handwritten paper… this time.

For some kids in some schools, the whole thing must seem like some Kafkaesque nightmare. Luckily that’s not the case for all schools.

Still, there’s something flattering about my little book getting far enough to be plagiarized by a kid I don’t know for a compilation book I had nothing to do with. Next year we’ll see if I can work my way up to being plagiarized by high schoolers.

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The Scores Are In

I got a note from my friend Jabulane today. He’s a great computer teacher I met last year at Thalana High School. He has a day job teaching at another school away from town, but he teaches computers at Thalana on nights and weekends. I’ve seen him in class and I love his style with the kids – he is an inspiration.

The note was about the results for this year’s graduating class at Thalana — “matrics”, they’re called. He said that this year 72% of the computer students at Thalana got a passing grade in computer class. It had never been above 30% before.

To be clear, I had maybe a 1% influence on this. I only helped him get things up and running at the beginning of the year and then monitored a few classes for him. So it’s really just a testament to his teaching and the students’ effort to learn. However, it makes me happy and proud to have been a part of it at all.

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Prepping Up

I’ve got my longest trip yet scheduled for SA this year. I’ll be going for four months!

Some of you may note that this is in fact not allowed, as a South African visa is only good for 90 days. I am going to attempt getting around this by leaving the country for a week or so in the middle. I hear that works — I’ll let you know. Maybe I’ll take a trip to Germany with Andile to see some of her family up there.

It looks like I’ll be getting several visitors this year, too! My friends Lisa and Eric are coming for a week and a month, respectively. My friend Aki may try to join them. But wait, there’s more! A little later, my Dad is going to come for a visit as well! I’m quite excited.

I head out in a week. Right now I’m actually working on some software stuff – setting up a development server and a documentation wiki for World Possible.

Oh, a while back I threw together the video that’s on the front page there. It was for a fundraising push. The site needs a lot of work, which I’m dying to get to. But between the holiday travel, the dev stuff, and my upcoming trip it keeps getting pushed back. I wish I was better at finding and organizing people!

As usual, I’ve got lots of crazy plans for SA this year. I’ll describe some of them in a later post, though. Until then, hold your breath.

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With some magic powers (i.e. money) I was able to recover my bad hard drive. So I was able to get back the work I had lost in the crash. All is right with the world again.

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I figure something has happened between when I turned 40 and today. However, due to a server crash I lost all my updates since then. So the first half of my 41st time around the globe will be forever shrouded in mystery.

I should have had more recent backups. But I didn’t. Can you believe I used to get paid for this kind of stuff? Yeesh.

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Overall I tend to be an emotional guy, but I’m still surprised by my own emotions sometimes. For some reason I feel particularly emotional this week, and it can be triggered by the most unexpected things. For example, I came across a recent picture of an old friend with their child, both looking well, and I cried. It was partly tears of joy and partly tears of sadness. This isn’t someone I ever knew well. It was hard to put a finger on exactly why it touched me, but I tried. I think it somehow connected me to the enormous, terrifying scope of a single life. There’s this towering tree of possibilities each person has before us at birth, the nearly infinite branches intertwining with so many other lives, and yet only a singular hairline path we actually walk through in all that space. Sometimes when I think of the tree I’m exhilarated, but sometimes I’m heartbroken. There’s beauty in it, but sadness too, at all the beauty that is never explored.

Or maybe I’m just on my period. Who knows.

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Operation Cabbage, Phase One: Complete

I heard that my farming friend has recently completed the the harvest on his cabbage crop – some 3800 heads. He was able to sell them in town for about 50 cents apiece. After setting aside money to start his next crop, it works out to about $1600 over four months. That’s excellent money for his neck of the woods. I put about $300 in to get him started. We’re both thrilled with the results.

When he and I started talking earlier this year, he had no real plans for the future. He’s always loved farming, and had a decent piece of land on the Tugela river bank, but after life threw him some nasty surprises over the past two years, he didn’t have the capital or the will to get things started again.

After talking out a plan, I decided to give him the seed money, literally. Now he’s reaping the rewards, literally. I hear from his family that he’s in much better spirits, too.

The real question is what happens next. I hear he has set enough aside to plant and maintain another crop. I’m hoping that he’ll be able to maintain momentum, and I’m thinking of investing a bit more to help him sell the crop to a slightly wider area where he tells me you can get 70 cents a head. When I’m out there next spring we’ll talk about other options too: expanding the land, trying different crops, and whatever ideas he has.

Something that I’m exploring here is how to best help others. I see too many instances of money being dumped into developing areas with little long term impact. I’ve come to believe that money is virtually useless without guidance and follow-up. It can’t be a mindless gift, it has to be a partnership. It’s more work, but it’s no surprise that it takes more work to get results. I’m not sure what’s next for me in this area, but I will keep this in mind as I go forward.

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Since I’ve got the time…

I’m a bit surprised at how many people say the shutdown can be blamed on both sides equally. I wonder if it would be seen the same way if Democrats forced a shutdown to “negotiate” gun control. I mean, hey, we just want to talk about it. And by the way, we won’t let anything else happen, even stuff we normally support, until we talk about it. And by “talk about it” we mean “you cave”.

I wonder if I could have pulled that at work. I don’t like the benefits, but I’m told they’re not changing. So I shut down all our servers. The company can no longer function. Can we “negotiate” now? Don’t point that finger at me – if we go out of business it’s just as much your fault as mine.

I think many people want to feel balanced and nonpartisan. We’ve all got Republican friends and family, and we don’t want to upset them. So we talk about it as though both sides have a reasonable argument here and, well, what can you do? Crazy old Washington.

Except the two sides do not both have a reasonable argument. There is something fundamentally wrong with the Republican approach. I get that they don’t like the ACA, but that is something they have to address by attacking the ACA, not by attacking Veteran’s benefits and the Grand Canyon. Negotiating means you give something to get something. It does not mean you confiscate everything to get something. In any other arena we’d all recognize this for what it is: sabotage.

My stance on this is nonpartisan. I wouldn’t want sabotage to become an accepted tactic for any party. It creates a constant state of crisis and it’s a stupid way to run a country. Or anything. The fact that the Speaker of the House, the de facto leader of the Republican party, thought this was a good idea, or was convinced to pretend it was, is a colossal embarrassment and obliterates any semblance of competence or good faith. Even more shamefully, this is not an isolated incident, it’s just the latest culmination of an ongoing policy to disrupt the government while there’s a Democrat in office.

I put up with plenty of laws I don’t like. I want to see them changed. But I don’t want to change them by putting all that’s good in our country on the chopping block for political theater. And I’m not going to pay lip service to “balance” either: the Republican party gets full credit for cooking up and executing this crisis. I hope their ploy fails, and I hope they pay dearly in the midterms.

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Khan Academy Offline

So at first I felt a bit odd downloading and distributing a collection of Khan Academy videos for offline usage, being that they’re already freely available online, but it turns out lots of people want the same thing. Apparently there’s a big overlap in the Venn diagram of “places that need better educational resources” and “places that don’t have fast, cheap internet access”.

Just before my most recent trip to SA, I found a guy who was doing much better job of it than me, and so I started using his package instead. After a bit of back and forth it was determined that while the package would benefit from being updated, he didn’t have the time. So I offered to help out.

After learning a bit about Khan Academy’s API, re-downloading all the videos, learning about Handbrake Encoding Options, and yes, hacking a bit of perl, I came up with this preliminary update.

I’m discussing with others now about what tweaks to make so that it can be most useful. Although I’ve moved away from coding in general these days, I do still enjoy the flow that comes with it.

Also, I think this is the first project where I didn’t resent CSS layout by the time I was done. Now that’s progress!

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Cabbage Patch Kid

As a proud investor in a tiny cabbage farm, I have to promote it here with photos. Here it is in early June, having just been planted:

Phila's Cabbage Farm, June 1, 2013

That’s Phila the farmer observing his domain. And here is the farm yesterday:

Phila's Cabbage Farm, July 21, 2013

I’m told it will be ready to harvest in September. So if you happen to be passing through Tugela Ferry in the future, buy some cabbage. It’s healthy! It’s inexpensive! And I can assure the ones of you that care that it’s not GMO.

It may, however, have been transported in the back of an old pickup.

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