Monday, January 29, 2007

Google Ads Humor

(Warning! This post is way off topic. I'm just in a mood to bark today.)

I've long been an advertiser's nightmare. The few times I do find a commercial memorable enough to tell someone else about it, I generally have to preface the story with, "I don't remember what it was advertising, but..."

This total disregard for ads has carried over the Internet. On blogs and wikis, I don't notice the Google Ads in the sidebar. I mean REALLY don't notice them-- to the extent that I hadn't even realized that one of MY OWN wikis had Google Ads on it until another teacher complained about them.

Therefore, it surprises me that I eventually noticed that in my Gmail account, the Spam folder lacks the usual Google Ads in the sidebar but does have a single ad just above the message window. Being a Google Ad, it is trying to match the ad to the content of the messages. And since these are Spam messages, the only ads Google can find to put on the page, are SPAM recipes.

For those of you not familiar with SPAM, it is a spiced ham product sold in tins by Hormel, a company based in Austin, Minnesota. Or, you may be familiar with "Spamalot!", the Monty Python musical which features the Spam song.

I've eaten many a SPAM dish and actually enjoyed a number of them, but for some reason, I seem to find great humor in the recipe titles. Each new SPAM recipe title that appears sounds worse than the previous one to me. I grimaced when I read "Spam Potato Casserole" yesterday, but today's "Spam Veggie Pita Pockets" sounds even worse. Or, how about the "Spicy Spam Kabobs"?

You may not find these Google Ads as funny as I do, but it makes me realize that there could be some pretty funny mismatches in other places. based on letter content. I hate to admit it but now I am going to start watching to see if the ads get it really wrong sometimes.

(BTW, someone had WAY too much fun creating the Spam website. Stop by and watch a tin of Spam ascend into the heavens atop cloud radiating light.)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Flatworld Teens Save the World! Details in Ten (Years)

Ms. Kim Cofino over at always learning wrote a post about Naomi Kline's book No Logo. One thing that struck Kim while reading the book was how similar to each other are the lives of middle class students around the world, how flat their world already is thanks to their Levi's and backpacks and music and McDonald's.

It makes me think about Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever by John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade. It is a book about the effects of video gaming on business culture. Part of the first chapter is devoted to showing old fogies like me just how ubiquitous video games, are. There were video arcade games when I was in high school, but within five years of that time, gaming reached the lives of almost all American children and there it has stayed. The book then goes on to look at the implications of this. It is an interesting read and quite enlightening for old folks like me.

So on one level, you have all these middle class kids around the world leading similar lives. It puts them all in the same club because of their shared experiences and similar tech language. And then I think about the divide between them and the kids without a digital aspect to their lives. This gap could make it nearly impossible for the two groups to understand each other. Will they find a common language? Will they be able to find global solutions to world problems when they cannot identify with the people living there? What about the troubled countries where conflict and poverty have prevented the rise of middle class and its globally homogenizing effect? Will they have any voice?

I guess, they don't have much voice now, so this might not change anything. And I shouldn't sell today's youth short. Statically they seem to be much more service focused than the GenXers. Maybe so many youths worldwide speaking a similar tech and pop culture language will give them enough in common that they can help each other understand their corners of the world.

If they can build those types of bridges, maybe they work together in much more successful ways than NATO and the UN and those types of organizations. Maybe the flat classroom projects that are springing up will start providing the connections needed to make it all happen. Maybe their collective wisdom will be a match for all the global messes they are inheriting.

It sounds like a long shot, but I welcome this chance to think optimistically about the future. Now, as a tech coordinator, I need to get myself in gear and figure out how to do my part. Here's a big thanks to all the edubloggers out there like Clarence Fisher, Kim Cofino, Vicki Davis and so many others who are showing me the way.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The War in Iraq Bleeds Through into My Hallway

Walking back to my classroom after lunch yesterday, I came upon a third grade child sobbing in the hallway. She was being comforted by a few friends, but I stopped to see if I could help her. With tears streaming down her cheeks she choked out,
My daddys in Iraq and we haven't heard from him. We don't know where he is. We don't know! ...I WANT my daddy...

What do you say to that?
If he's still alive, chances are great that he IS in harm's way. She's 12,000 miles from home.
That's a lot to carry at any age,
but especially when you are eight years old.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Wiki Ethics

A post over at Tech Crunch intrigued me today. It was a post regarding Microsoft paying someone to edit certain pages relating to Open Office Standards in Wikipedia. Microsoft did not tell the person what to write, but this behavior was controversial nonetheless.

As Michael Arrington explained in his post, Microsoft is in an interesting position. Editing a Wikipedia page about yourself is frowned upon. Hiring someone else to edit the page is also a bad idea. The proper way to deal with this is to clear the record in the discussions portion of that page.

I find all of this interesting for a number of reasons.
  1. I am just starting to work with wikis. I had never even thought about this sticky situation before, but now I can see a need to teach my students about this type of wiki-etiquette.

  2. I've never spent any time reading the discussion section of any page I was using in Wikipedia. Now I see this might be a powerful way to teach students about the strengths and challenges of using Wikipedia as a resource. It could give them clues about how to interrogate a source. It could also help them unpack whatever they were researching in the first place.

  3. I hadn't realized that companies such a Microsoft thought Wikipedia had enough impact to warrant this type of intervention.
These are new thoughts for me and I think I'm going to chew on them for a while and to see where they take me. I welcome your comments on it all.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A WikiPlaces First!!!!

Have you every been to Hafford, Saskatchewan in Canada?
Here is your chance...

Students from grade 2 and grade 5/6 have collaborated on a page in WikiPlaces. They have created an illustrated alphabet of their town from Asphalt through Water. They have taken the photos themselves. This is the most complete page in the entire WikiPlaces wiki. Drop by and leave them a comment.

Three cheers also go out to their teacher who stuck with the project despite numerous technical challenges and unintentional misinformation from me.

(And if seeing their page inspires you, create a free Wetpaint account and add your own page or add on to someone else's. If you'd like to add a page with your class, click here for teacher suggestions.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Do You Make Step-by-Step Directions on a Mac?

If you spend time making illustrated, step-by-step directions to show your staff how to complete certain tech tasks, then let me share a few programs I started using.

At work on my Windows XP machine I have SnagIt! which is a great screen capture program that lets you highlight, add arrows, and add text to the image after you capture it. It does a lot more than that, actually, but that is how I am using it.

Now that my parents have a Mac at home, I find myself wanting to send them directions but hated the thought of taking all those screen captures, importing them into a word processor, and then saving them out as a PDF or JPEG. I found it especially annoying that using the screen capture tools built into OS X creates a PDF instead of a JPEG. You can open the image in Preview and save it into a different format, but you lose image quality. And you could pull it into Photoshop or Graphic Converter, but I just want to send them some quick directions, not take on a big project.

The good folks at the EdTech listserv gave me good suggestions and I found a few on my own. Let me share them.

InstantShot! from Digital Waters is a free tool for creating screen captures and saving them into the format you want, including JPEG, TIFF and PNG. It is simple to use and works well. Using it already seems like second nature.

However, InstantShot! does not let you mark up the image, so I invested in FlySketch from Flying Meat which cost $20. It is powerful but not as intuitive as I'd hoped. However, they have a good manual and it gets the job done.

After buying it I heard about ImageWell and it is my new favorite tool. It is free and it lets you mark up an image. It also makes it really easy to resize an image and save it into the format you want. It watermarks and adds drop shadows. It packs many features into a compact window and even has iDisk integration. There are other features available for a fee, such as batch processing and being able to work with more than one image at a time.
(Note: This is NOT an image capture program. It works with images that you have already captured.)

I've already used it to make nifty directions and to add speech balloons to family photos -- my cats have never been so talkative.

Finally a Use for a Wiki

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed two recurrent themes: wikis and inspirational procrastination. Today saw the convergence of those themes into one useful project.

Last week I read this great blog article at Common Craft about using a wiki to plan a group trip. I jumped on the idea because I am hoping to meet my sister and parents in New Zealand at some time during the 2007-2008 school year.

Planning this trip could be a bit tricky. None of us have been there. I don't yet know my school calendar for that year, and we are living on different continents. Using a wiki to plan the trip seemed like just the tool to get us organized and to let me get my feet wet using a Wikispaces for a real project. We could plan it all via Skype and email, but this way, information is in one common place rather than spread across inboxes in different email accounts.

Which wiki to use? For more than a year, I've been exploring wikis, looking for the killer platform. For now, I've decided that their isn't one best wiki platform; they each have their strengths which makes different ones "best" for different jobs.

I chose Wikispaces for this project, instead of PBWiki or Wetpaint because I wanted to be able to upload more files and images than they allow. I wanted to embed gadgets. I also like being able to download a backup of the entire wiki. Finally, this wiki doesn't need to be lovely, but it does need to be easy to use, which ruled out some of the other wiki platforms that don't have easy editors.

I'm not going to link to my wiki from here to protect my family's privacy, but I will share a few nifty things I did. The first was create a trip tools page. On that page, I embedded a number of Google gadgets, such as a currency converter set to convert US dollars to New Zealand dollars. Another showed gadget placed time zone clocks on the page so at a glance we can tell the current time in Minnesota, New Zealand and Singapore.

Another nifty gadget was an editable calendar. We can add meetings and to-dos as we search for common travel dates. Eventually we can plan the itinerary on it.
There are thousands of these gadgets available. They could easily be added to blogs. Blogger now has a module for adding them. Even if your blog doesn't have a special tool for adding them, if you have access to your blog's template code, you could paste in the snippets of code for the gadgets. The gadgets generate their own code; all you need to do is paste it into your template where you want it to appear. (NOTE: The two gadgets I've shown here are just screen captures. I cannot insert a gadget into a post; they can only be inserted into the sidebars and possibly the footer.)

I added a number of other types of pages. One section is for brainstorming and it has places to brainstorm what we'd like to see, do, and visit. Related to that is a place for clippings of things we find online. For example, I get a Page-A-Day calendar via email and the other day it highlighted Marlbourough Sound on the south island. I pasted that into the wiki for my family to see. (Of course I linked back to the actual calendar page.)

Another section is for actual web resources, such as New Zealand tourism pages, guidebook websites, and airfare search engines. Still another section that is empty at this point, is where we can start uploading our itinerary information as it develops, including links to accommodations, tours we plan to take, etc.

A final section is for to-do lists and to-bring lists. My thought is that having online to-bring lists may help us each remember things we might not have thought to bring, and to prevent duplication of items (e.g. we really don't each need to bring a first aid kit).

Getting up to speed was painless. My only frustrations were that I still can't get tables to work. They won't retain their formatting. It also took me a bit of searching to figure out how to track all changes to the wiki via RSS. However, I did figure it out eventually. That will be an essential piece -- I hope I can get my parents using some sort of RSS reader. I may need to find a good one that is an extension of Firefox. Can anyone recommend a good one that will run in Firefox on a Mac? Is anyone else using a wiki to plan a family trip? Any suggestions for me? How about must-see places in New Zealand?
(This was much more fun than working on my lesson plans.)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

5 Things Meme

Yikes! In finally getting caught up on my blogroll, I find I was tagged. Here goes...
  1. My first car was a '72 Dodge Dart. It was a generous hand-me-down from my sister. It had a slant 6 engine and wing vents. (In my opinion, wing vents are way better than sliced bread. ) It was a 12 year old car by the time I started driving it so I learned a fair amount about cars as parts of it wore out. When it died, it made sure I knew it, spewing oil, brake fluid and coolant on that final drive home -- its way of saying, "Stop putting money into me! You have tuition to pay." I found this Creative Commons photo of a 74 Dart. Same color. Same white walls and wing vents., but far less rusty than my Dart. -- Thanks BreakfastPirate for Flickring this image.

  2. Lest the previous bit mislead you, I am one of the least mechanical people on earth. It was so bad that back in college, I used to get locked into people's cars unable to figure out the new style of door locks to free myself. Careful study has solved that particular problem, but new ones arise constantly. Most recently, I've noticed that Kent quietly assembles any furniture I haul home. He's never said anything about my lack of ability, but I guess he's tired of perching precariously on the rickety things I have assembled.

  3. My family name was Sedrowski. When my great grandparents immigrated to the US from Poland, immigration officials suggested they shorten it. Family legend has it they looked in an atlas and saw Sedro-Woolley, Utah which inspired them to shorted the name to Sedro.

  4. Three different summers in the 1990s I took part in the Ride Across Minnesota for Multiple Sclerosis. It involves biking 300-350 miles in five days for a very worthy cause. Along the way you meet great people and get to tent on a lot of small town football fields and in parks. Even if you've never done any sort of long distance riding, consider taking part in this ride. It is worth it-- and you end up with great biker legs for the rest of the summer.

  5. I am short for an American. I am 5 feet O inches tall. I am so short that when I unexpectedly catch sight of myself in a shopping mall mirror, I don't think, "Hey, That's me!", I think "Whoa! That woman is really short!" and THEN I realize it is me. Living in Asia has been a real trip because for the first time in my adult life I blend right in, can see at parades and movie theaters, and can reach the handles on kitchen cupboards. Of course, I still can't find clothes that fit me here either, but that would be hoping for too much.
There. Now let's hear from Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu, Kim Cofino, Dr. Bruce, and Stephen Lazar.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Need Help From a Bloglines User

I have long envied the spiffy blogrolls some edubloggers have in their sidebar. I've found many good blogs from them. I want to add one to my sidebar.

I have a Bloglines account so I used the wizard in their Share feature. It generates a snippet of code that I added to my sidebar. It sounds simple, but every time I try I get the following error message in my sidebar:
The user name you are using to access this blogroll is incorrect. Be sure you use your Bloglines user name and not your email address. Click here to create or edit your user name.

The link takes you right into my accounts page in Bloglines. I get this message regardless of whether I use my login email address or what seems like the logical user name derived from it. I've search through all the options and account info, but nothing else seems to be a user name.

Next I tried to follow the Bloglines method of viewing a person's public blogroll

However, regardless of what I type as user name, I get the following message,
You have entered an incorrect user name.

Then I wondered if maybe none of my blogroll is public. I search all through their help files and the settings again, but couldn't find a way to make things public. Next, I tried creating a folder titled public and dragging things into it, but that doesn't seem to solve the problem either. I even tried renaming the folder to /public but Bloglines wouldn't accept that.

Anyone know how to fix this problem? Please let me know. I've spent far too much time on it.

Hey! Take part in the survey!

If you are an educational blogger, you've probably read about Dr. Scott McLeod 's survey in 15 other places already. But have you filled it out already? If not, read on to see what he said at his blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, and then follow the link.

Hear ye! Hear ye!

All education bloggers are hereby invited and encouraged to...

  1. complete the short and completely unscientific, but hopefully interesting, education blogosphere survey;
  2. forward the URL of said survey to all other known education bloggers to ensure decent representation of the education blogosphere; and
  3. publicize said survey URL on their own blogs to foster greater participation in this most noble endeavor.

Survey results received by Sunday, January 14, shall be posted in the town square on Wednesday, January 17.

Those solicited who choose not to participate shalt be labeled both publicly and widely as dastardly scoundrels, notty-pated hedgepigs, or beslubbering, doghearted, maggot-ridden canker-blossoms!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Fanning the Flames of Your RSS Addiction

Kent and I each bought a MacHeist bundle, which was a Good Thing and brought me lots of new apps to explore. I let Kent choose my Pangea game since he'd be the one playing it, but yesterday I dug into NewsFire, the shareware RSS reader that was part of the bundle.

I've been using NetNewsWire Lite, which was doing a pretty good job of meeting my needs. I didn't expect this one to be very different, but since it wasn't free, I expected it to have a few more bells and whistles. I decided to give it a whirl.

What a whirl! What it does best is keep your unread feeds at the top of the list so you don't waste time scrolling through them. To do this, as soon as you finish reading one feed, it drops down the list and the next unread feed slides into first place. At first all this motion is a bit disconcerting, but that feeling soon gives way to appreciation for how efficient this is.

Another thing it does well is grouping. I was able to easily organize my feeds into groups, and now as I add new feeds, I get a nice drop down menu that lets me select which group to add them to.

It has good keyboard shortcuts to make your feed reading efficient. Many of its behaviors can be configured from the preference pane. The more I use it, the more I find the software becomes invisible because it is doing its job well.

The MacHeist deal is over, but you can buy Newsfire at the NewsFire website.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Does Your Blog Have a Gender?

Today, Lancerlord shares information about The Gender Genie. Paste a chunk of text from your blog into the Gender Genie, and it will make an educated guess as to whether the chunk was written by a male or female.

How does it work? The site says...
Inspired by an article in The New York Times Magazine, the Gender Genie uses a simplified version of an algorithm developed by Moshe Koppel, Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and Shlomo Argamon, Illinois Institute of Technology, to predict the gender of an author.
I tried it with a short entry that was judged far more feminine than masculine. Then I read that it works best on text with 500 or more words, so I plunked in a larger text and that was much more masculine than feminine. Dej√° vu! Way back in college, the professional inventories I took listed me as scoring similarly as male teachers who liked their jobs, but not female teachers who did. Whatever.

Give it a try. Let us know how it did with your writing.

Switching Templates Again/Trying Out Blogger's New Custom Templates

All right. Since the switch to the new Blogger went so smoothly, I decide to play around with one of the new features, custom layouts. I was hoping that there would be a few new templates in there to play with, but there aren't. Despite that I switched to a new, old template. Green again. I seem to have a thing for green templates.

I got brave and included a photo this time. Over the years I've enjoyed finally seeing photos of other bloggers, so I decided to include mine. Unfortunately, most photos I have of myself were taken on holidays, and I only seem to travel to really hot, humid places, which don't make for a portrait you'd want to hang on a blog. This photo is a crop out from a snapshot taken at school, hence the arm growing out of my head. It's also a bit fuzzy, but it's the best I have at the moment.

But that is more than enough about me. More important are these new custom layouts. They are pretty slick. You get to build your page in a modular way. You have lots of options of things to add to your sidebar, such as lists of links, photos, logos, feeds from other sites, and HTML code from other sites, such as counters. Once you've created these modules, you can drag and drop them to where you want them. It's all very simple and doesn't require any special technical knowledge beyond knowing how to cut and paste.You've always been able to make these sorts of changes if you knew HTML code. This new system removes the need to know it.

Other changes are a redesigned Dashboard that is easier to use, posts publish much more quickly, and the spell check is less cumbersome and has a larger dictionary. Since Blogger is part of the Google empire, you do need to switch from your old login to a Google login.

The only trouble I've had was trying to access comments using Flock. However, our Internet is still a bit dodgy due to the severed cables near Taiwan, so all that may straighten out once we are back to full speed.

All in all, the new Blogger seems to be largely improved. It makes the old Blogger seem slow and outdated. Give it a try if you still haven't made the move.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Updated to the New Blogger

I haven't heard anyone complaining lately about the new Blogger causing them grief. And I heard that those of us who didn't upgrade on our own would have it thrust upon us, so I have upgraded this blog to the new Blogger. Please let me know if you experience any negative consequences from this upgrade. Thanks.

Blogger Bliss

At long last I have a bit of down time. My school has an amazing three weeks off over the holiday. I had time for a quick dash to the US to see family and friends and snow. Now I'm back in Singapore, battling jet lag and trying to finally organize and decorate the apartment-- we haven't hung any of the 30+ framed pieces of art we brought with us, much less organize any drawer or closet. It is definitely time to dig in.

However, despite tending to assorted home chores, I've been in blogger bliss because I've finally had a chance to get caught up on most of the blog feeds in my NetNewsWire Lite. I hadn't realized how much I was missing those complex, passionate, divergent, inspiring voices. I won't summarize or synthesize their posts here; one day's immersion doesn't give me enough processing time to have anything meaningful to add to the conversation. However, I will send out a HUGE generic thanks to all of you for taking the time to write, and write well. My life is richer because of you. May your new year be full of good health, enjoyable work, and time with those you love.

What Am I Doing Wrong With Trackback?

Can anyone help me with Trackback. In the previous post, I was repling to Bud Hunt and the others who posted comments on his Bud the Teacher blog. At the end of his post, there is this Trackback URL:

I assumed that I should use that instead of the permalink for that entry when I linked back to his blog. However, when I tried to follow that link, I received the following error message:
1Trackback pings and Comments must use HTTP POST
I did a bit of searching online, but everything I read made me think I was doing it correctly. That makes it sound like a problem with Bud's blog, and maybe in this case it is, but I don't think so because I've NEVER gotten a Trackback URL to work.

Next I researched HTTP POST and found what it does but not how to use it-- it must be too complex for the WebMonkey Cheat Sheet to list.

Anyone have any suggestions?

The Homogenizing Effect of Groups?

Today over at Bud Hunt's blog, his raises the issue of whether or not we need more groups on the internet. He notes the proliferation of some seemingly closed door groups, such as tech women or young teachers*. He wonders...
At what point does joining a group mean closing a door, rather than opening one?

This is, of course, a complex issue. Many moons ago, the Utne Reader devoted an issue to the topic of salons. If I am remembering correctly, they made the argument that instead of fostering diversity, the easier technology made communication, the fewer diverse opinions we were exposed to.

In the past, we often lived in communities that were diverse because they were comprised of people of different ethnic backgrounds, different occupations, etc. Sitting on the front stoop at night, they were exposed to a variety of opinions. Now, given a variety of factors such as more free time than 100 years ago, more people having cars, etc, people are leaving their neighborhoods to find like-minded communities of people who share their values and interests. They may be talking to people from all over the city but they are hearing less variety of ideas. The Utne's answer was to create a series of salons to put people back into heterogeneous groups to expose them to wider opinion, making them better informed.

In a similar way, online groups can be networks of like-minded people, or they can be doorways to new ideas and view points. In my opinion, the best online groups are both. Most of the online education or tech groups that I have stumbled across are trying to be both.

So then, why the gate? I don't know, but I have a few ideas:
  1. Seven years ago I read an article about a survey that was done. Even back then when the Internet was much smaller, and less widely- used, 80% of teachers surveyed were more likely to seek mentoring and assistance online that from the teacher in the next room. Of course, after all this time I don't remember the source and I didn't know the methodology, such as maybe it was an Internet survey which would have slanted the results. In any case, that article has stuck with me all this time because of what it says about schools and about the power of the internet.

  2. My first year in Malaysia, I was invited to be part of a women's group. The coordinator brought together eight women from our pre K-12 school. We met once a week to do something. We took turns leading, so that something ranged from discussions to feasts to flower arranging. The coordinator intentionally limited the membership to eight because that is an effective group size for discussions. She hand selected the members because she wanted diversity. The group was pure delight and I looked forward to it each week both for the fun of it and for feeling that I belonged somewhere. The group was small enough that I mattered and I was known as an individual.

  3. I think most of us have had the misfortune to be on a committee whose membership was too diverse and its charge too poorly defined. Committees like that lack the common ground needed for clear communication, and there is often too little trust among member for them to be comfortable delegating. As a result, everyone slogs through all of it together, and the differences of opinion become paralyzing.
My point? The world is big. We all need to feel we belong somewhere. Ideally, the groups we join stretch and challenge us while also making us welcome. Hopefully these new online groups that are arising will be of that best sort. I hope they are focused enough to meet their goals, and diverse enough to stretch their members. I wish them success.

*[NOTE: I said seemingly closed door groups because the women's tech group allows men to join, and possibly the age-defined group actually allows people of any age to join.]