Thursday, January 31, 2008

Organizing Lego: Part 2

After writing about organizing Lego a while back, I got curious about this whole storage issue and did a little searching on the web to see if anyone has come up with anything unique or different from when I tackled this problem several years ago. Found this article, 16 Lego Storage Options almost immediately. It didn't really give me anything new, but did a nice job of showing most of the options I ever tried in one place with photos of each method.

One method I used with some success that I haven't really seen described was sorting parts into zip lock bags. Each Mindstorm kit we used was sorted into about 12 bags. Each bag had an inventory list included that was cut so it could fit into the bag. It was easy for my students to quickly see if they had a complete set. (OK....easier.) The bags were then put into boxes that were checked out to each group of kids. At the time I was traveling from classroom to classroom with these kits and they had to be stored up out of the way of the regularly scheduled science classes. The bags helped to keep everything together. It wasn't perfect, but it was workable.

Here are a few other sites that you might find useful if you are in the process of trying to get all your bricks in a row.

[Image: Captured from Jeri's Organizing and Decluttering News: 16 Lego Storage Options:]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rube Goldberg Devices

Maybe it's because I loved the game Mousetrap as a boy?

Maybe it's because I loved those old Rube Goldberg cartoons with their crazy series of contrivances all aimed at lighting a match or blowing out a candle.

Whatever the source of my fascination, it carried over into my technology lab. One of the stations in my lab was to work on the "Doo Dad Machine!" The machine was a 4 ft x 8 ft wire frame that hung on the wall covered with simple student made constructions. The final goal was to get a golf ball from one corner to the other. Each group was assigned a square foot of space in which they could do whatever they wanted as long as they moved the ball from point A to point B.

I had hoped that after being in the lab for a while and working with the different equipment and materials, my students would create the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine. It never quite panned out. Most of my kids thought it was a cool idea until they actually tried to build something. It was hard and required a lot of experimentation. In hind sight, maybe it was too hard. I needed to be able to give them more examples similar to the video I've linked to today.

I looked through all my snapshots and couldn't find a picture of one of the DooDad Machines we built. I'll keep looking and will post a picture when I find it. For posterity.

[Story Source: Makezine: Pitagora Suitch Devices:]
[Image: Captured from the video, Pythagoraswitch:]

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Howard Rheingold

I was an avid reader of the Whole Earth Review back in the 90's. I believe it was there that I first was exposed to Howard Rheingold. He contributed articles and edited the magazine for a while. I'm a fan of his writing and was pleased to find that he now has a vlog. He introduces his site this way:

Twenty years ago, I wrote “A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community”. When I thought about updating it, I realized that video is better than text for showing how I spend time online. This is the first in a series of short videos documenting my use of social media in my professional and personal life.

Watching this video was a reminder of how different things are since I got my first computer in 1985. This series of videos should be a fun reminder of where we started, where we are now and I would expect some speculation on where we might be headed.

[Image: Captured from "A reslice of life online: Part One";]

Monday, January 28, 2008

Poor Man's SteadyCam

SteadyCams are rigs that help keep a video camera steady even while the cameraman is moving. I found this site last year while I was looking for an alternative to the expensive units that were available. I never constructed one and it slipped my mind until the other day when I was writing about the camera technique that Andy Ihnatko' used on one of his YouTube videos.

A comment on his website mentioned the site I originally found, $14 SteadyCam, and I went back and looked it over again. If you are looking for a inexpensive alternative to a store bought unit that costs several hundred of dollar or more, this might be the way to go.

I stumbled across this YouTube video of some young men building a steadycam in their garage. It looks pretty close to the one from the $14 SteadyCam site, so I included it here. It also has some footage taken with and without the steadycam for comparison.

[Image: Captured at]

Friday, January 25, 2008

Funny: Cat Wake Up Call

If you own a cat, you will think this is funny. If you don't own a cat, you will wonder why anyone would want to.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lego Geodesic Dome

I tried to do build a geodesic dome using Lego pieces once many years ago after reading a book about Buckminster Fuller. I failed miserably. A secondary reason I had for trying to build a dome out of Lego was that I wanted to replace a specialized dome kit we used in the technology lab. The kit was expensive and after my kids built it, they often said, "So what?" This was as much a failure on my part as it was the kit we used. I thought if I could get them to build one out of Lego, then they could incorporate the dome into more complex models. We could design some experiments to compare domes with other structures. I wasn't willing to let them potentially destroy parts in the more expensive dedicated kit and I thought Lego would be a good alternative.

If I had only seen this description back then. While your at the site take a peek at all the photos of his other creations. There are also some links to other locations if you are or your students are interested in exploring the topic.

[Original Story Source: Boing Boing: Lego Geodesic Dome: David Pescovitz: Jan 15, 2008]
[Image: Zemidotnet:]

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One man, One camera, One long arm

I was watching a piece by Andy Ihnatko the other day and I enjoyed the video, he is a funny guy, but what really caught my eye was his camera technique. He was able to pan the camera from each side with out any apparent movement from his arms while he was walking through Central Park. I figured he either has really long, ape like arms or was using some kind of rig. I wasn't the only one who was curious and there were several comments asking how he did it. He responded:
I used the same tabletop telescoping tripod that I used for the first video, and held the thing as a stick. Shooting that way is a lot of fun; I shot a third video in which I slowly spun in place and that was a cool effect (me rock-solid, Central Park swooshing behind me nonstop). But I got a bit dizzy doing it, and watching it later.

When I got back home I was happy to find that I had all the raw materials necessary to build a better version of this stick. I just broke apart another tabletop tripod ($5 from the MIT Flea), liberated the metal adjustable tripod head from it, and screwed it into a monopod. Works a treat, gives me a lot more range, and the finished stick looks as though I have an actual budget for these things.
I once saw an episode of Survivorman, where they drop Les Stroud into the middle of nowhere with some supplies and a few video cameras. Sometimes he was walking along holding his camera hooked to his tripod (I think) which let him get the camera little further from his face and shoot while he walked. I didn't really think about it much until I saw the Ihnatko footage and it got me to thinking that this would be an interesting addition to my bag of tricks.

Cool! I'm going to be experimenting with this soon. Anybody know a site that discusses using a video camera this way?

[Image: Captured from "Andy Ihnatko 02 "The Kindle Constitutional";]

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Online Typing Practice lets you practice your typing online. You don't need to download anything and it's free. There is some unobtrusive advertising. There are no games. No fancy pictures. Just a keyboard and the words to be typed.

Good resource you could point your students towards if they need to bring their speed and/or accuracy up. The words generated are all gibberish but I used it for about a half hour and it seemed to work fine. The program did seem to get a little sluggish when my speed got up in the 50 plus words per minute range. My relaxed typing speed is around 35 wpm and it didn't have any problem keeping up at that pace.

One of the things I noticed while teaching keyboarding skills at the middle level was that when kids used the typing games, they played to win the game, not improve their speed or accuracy. When I worked my students with instructor led drill and practice they seemed to do improve faster. I like a lot of the programs but I just don't think most of my kids really wanted to get faster. They just wanted to play the game. Just a thought for those of you getting ready to teach typing skills to younger kids.

Reading through the site forum, there is a warning that the keys may not map correctly for this keyboard image if you are using a Mac. I do use a Mac but didn't notice any problem. Granted, I rarely look at the keyboard or the diagram thanks to a typing teacher fresh from Texas who walked around with a ruler and a very commanding voice. I was sixteen years old and did whatever that woman told me to, including not looking at my hands.

[Story Source: Lifehacker: Kevin Purdy: Practice and Improve Touchtyping at]
[Image: Captured from]

Monday, January 21, 2008

People Don't Read Anymore?

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Steve Jobs, said in reference to the Kindel, the electronic book put out by Amazon, that it will fail because "people don't read anymore." Specifically he said:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
I was a little shocked by this. I read 2-3 books a month. My wife reads 1-2 books a week. I go to the library once a month. I have a Barnes & Nobel discount card. I shop online at Amazon regularly.

I did a quick look-see on the internet and unhappily found similar statistics. The Guardian pretty much supported Steve. A quarter of US adults have not read a book over the past year. Older folks read more than younger folks. (I'm an older folk.) Women read more than men. (My wife is a woman.) The higher your educational degree the more you read. (My wife and I both have some of them there degrees!) It seems that I am in a growing minority of readers.

I love movies. I love video. I love books. But, to me, they are different experiences. Is the constant exposure to television and movies causing a shift in how young people absorb and learn information? How they tell and experience stories? As a teacher, I've changed my style and presentation over the years since I started in the early eighties. More hands-on. More variety. Less lecture. I've had many colleagues say that they have to teach differently because the kids are different. That may be, but couldn't some of the changes be from our becoming better at our craft? Maybe its a little of both?

I hope Steve Jobs is wrong. I hope that reading will increase over time as our kids become more savvy consumers of information. I hate to think that in 50 years the number of people who get to enjoy the deep, mind altering experience of a good book will be limited to a few academics and the occasional librarian. I hope we won't become a nation of folks who say,
"I'll just wait to see the movie!"

"One in four Americans read no books last year." Guardian Unlimited 22 aug 2007 16 Jan 2008 .
Wayne THIBAUD (b. 1920) | Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book. | 1965-1969 | American | Superrealist | Oil on canvas | Sacramento. Northern California. United States | | ©Wayne Thiebaud; Kathleen Cohen]

Thursday, January 17, 2008

If you outlaw cameras only outlaws will have cameras.

Right after writing about cameras being everywhere and the difficulty in stopping people from taking photographs in a concert venue, I read this article on BoingBoing; UK mall bans grandparents for trying to photo their grandkids. The article describes a couples experience in a shopping mall in the UK. They were stopped using their camera because taking photos was banned due to a "security risk."

"Oh but that could only happen in the UK. It wouldn't ever happen in the US," you say. How about Silver Springs, MD where a photographer was recently stopped from taking pictures.

Lots of bandwidth on this issue and it is only going to get more intense as cameras get smaller and more pervasive. This might be a good classroom discussion starter. I know it has me thinking.

[Image Source: Sony-DSCU10-1-3MP-Digital-Camera/dp/B00006JHTQ/ref=pd_bbs_3?ie=UTF8&s=electronics&qid=1199397124&sr=8-3 : Found this on Amazon after doing a search for "tiny camera".]

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cameras Everywhere

I didn't ever think that I would ever have a post about Paris Hilton on my blog.

Never say never.

This isn't going to be any deep think piece on her, her contribution to society, the role of the celebrity in today's world or even a fashion critique. I ran across a photo of her at a party and it wasn't Paris that caught my eye, it was all the cameras in the audience. ( maybe I am getting old....but really, it was the cameras that caught my eye!) They weren't the usual big paparazzi style cameras. These were all small hand helds similar to the one I carry with me most of the time.

I grabbed the picture and messed around with it in Photoshop and was able to find 19 cameras being held up. The four in the back I guessed on. There were a few more that were just too blurry to call. But, in this snapshot of Ms. Hilton, there were at least 19 people in the crowd taking pictures. Probably a few professionals, but my assumption is that most of them are just regular folks who had their camera's with them.

I am also guessing that at an event like this, people come partly to see Paris Hilton. The management probably doesn't discourage their taking pictures. I posted earlier this month about an experience at a concert watching folks take pictures during the event with their cameras. I didn't mention that there was an announcement first thing asking patrons not to take pictures or record the performance. That didn't stop a large number of people from still doing it. I remember a time in my younger years when a camera or recording equipment would be confiscated if observed by any of the concert staff. What's a concert venue to do when pretty much every one coming into the theater now has the ability to record sound and pictures?

How do we define fair use and copyright in a world where what I see and what I hear can be saved so easily on my electronic devices?

[Image Source: FoxNews:,2933,319810,00.html]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Organizing Lego

A continuing dilemma I had as a technology teacher using Lego was how to organize my kits. I tried throwing everything into one big bin, organizing them in tackle boxes, using plastic boxes designed for hardware and stacking bricks as suggested in today's link. How to organize your lego for efficient building on the Evil Mad Scientist Blog.

The factors I had to take into account when organizing my Lego was:
  • Inventory. Two parts to this, one, making sure pieces that students needed were available and, two, knowing what parts I needed to order.
  • Ease of use. It's no fun if the majority of your time is spent looking for parts.
  • Storage. How do I store, stack, put away all these kits?
  • Theft. Sometimes it's necessary to track what parts go out and if they come back again. I am thankful to say that theft in my lab was not ever a big issue but another lab in my district had problems with items disappearing.

I never did figure out the perfect solution. I ended up using a basic kit in a multi-chambered hardware box that had the minimum number of pieces needed. It had a visual picture and inventory list that went out with the students and they had to organize the kit before turning it back in again. Then I had other parts and bins of parts that students could check out as they needed.

I always hoped that someone would come up with the perfect bin or storage container. Maybe when I retire?

[Image Source: How to Organize your lego for efficient building:]

Monday, January 14, 2008

Amory Lovins: Winning the Oil Endgame

I saw Amory Lovins give a lecture to a small group of teachers and interested community members in the late nineties. He spent a lot of time talking mostly about light bulbs and how much energy we could save by switching to the new low energy bulbs that were becoming more widely available. Everything he said made sense. He backed up all his points with research. He was advocating action and proposing behavioral changes that any of us could implement.

I just finished watching his new video on TED called Winning the Oil Endgame, and I am having a similar reaction. He is talking solutions. He backs up what he says with research. While his talk is aimed more at the governmental and industrial level, I still found it interesting. He has a book with the same title that is also available for free as a downloadable PDF. I'm downloading it as I write this.

[Image: Captured from TED Video; Winning the Oil Endgame;]

Friday, January 11, 2008

Funny: Domino PCs

There have been more than a few times in my life when I would have enjoyed taking all the cpu's out of my lab and using them this way!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kinematic Models

Many was the time a gaggle of sixth grade engineers and I would stand by the white board sketching out a gear assembly in an effort to design a structure that would duplicate the movement needed for a project. This is one area where I always wished I had deeper training so I could have more ably guided my students. I did the best I could by having samples of mechanisms and photos of what other students had done. (And the trusty whiteboard.)

I saw an article about a site called Kinematic Models for Design Digital Library (KMODDL) at Cornell University. What a great resource! They have photos and movies of a variety of mechanical models. Are you trying to describe a universal joint to a group of seventh graders? Navigate to this site and you can show them a model of a universal joint. You can also show them a video of the machine in action.

If I still ran a tech lab, I'd build a challenge or two around a few of these descriptions. Possibly have students reproduce some of the them using their Lego kits. If you like this kind of stuff, this site will become a favorite.

[Story source frome Makezine:KMODDL - Kinematic models for design digital library:]
[Image: Grabbed from KMODDL/Universal Joint;]

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do

Shop classes are slowly disappearing. The last middle level shop class went away from our district a couple of years ago. High school shop type classes only happen at our vocational school. When I was hired to teach a middle level technology class in 1998 it was because they canceled the plans for a wood shop as no one applied for the open position. After deciding not to re-post the position, my principal changed the wood shop into a technology lab.

Even though I got a great job because of this, I think overall this is a bad trend. Kids need a place where they can build things. A place where they can cut and drill and hammer. It's part of how we learn to interact with the world. My teaching partner and I noticed that over the 7 years we taught the technology class, each year, the kids ability to manipulate tools and materials seemed to decrease.

With that said, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the following TED Talk, 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do by Gever Tully.

[Image: Grabbed from an article about the Tinkering School on Makezine:]

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Visual Dictionary Online

My students and I often run down to the library to use the Visual Dictionary. It is a great little reference tool when you are trying to find the correct name for something. Now there is a similar reference online called, what else, the Visual Dictionary Online.

It's great for those times when a child asks you, "What's a boom on a ship?" and you've lived in a landlocked state your entire life. Or you want to sound a little more sophsticated when describing a part on a front loader by saying:
The bucket cylinder that runs the length of the arm which is connected to the boom with a hinge pin.
Instead of how I normally might describe that part:
The sliding doohicky that runs the length of long thing-a-bobber which is connected to the that big doober with a hooker thing.

The online version doesn't seem quite as user friendly as the printed version. For example, I had to dig a little to find a picture of a "boom" on a sailboat. It was there but didn't come up when I searched for "boom." Still, I think it could prove a valuable resource. I've used it from home several times since discovering the site.

[Image: Screenshot from Visual Dictionary Online:]

Monday, January 7, 2008

...and Let's Get Rid of the Web, Too!

Just as I finished reading about Wikipedia in the book Everything is Miscellaneous, I heard about a librarian in New Jersey who is urging students to not use this online reference. She is posting signs that state, "Just say No to Wikipedia" on her computers. I recommend reading Scott Mcleod's response to this issue in his blog dangerously irrelevant.

I don't think we are going to stop the growth and use of Wikipedia anymore than the music industry could control the spread of MP3's. Wikipedia isn't perfect but then neither are the other sources we've used in the past.

So, rather than "How do we stop it", perhaps the question should be "How can a student validate an article on Wikipedia?"

I did a little searching on the web and found this short article called "How to Evaluate a Wikipedia Article." out of UC-Davis. In a nutshell the author gives the following guidelines.

  • Look at the article quality
  • Look at the page edit history
  • Check the article's discussion page
  • Check the templates at the top the article

She goes into more detail on each of these four points and the entire piece is only a couple of pages long. Wouldn't it be a better learning experience to post this article above each computer instead of a sign stating, "Just say NO to Wikipedia" ?

[Initial source: author/Scott mcleod: blog/dangerously irrelevant: post/"Just say no to Wikipedia": Nov 29, 2007]

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Banjo Lessons, Learning and the Web

I'm a banjo player. Not a great banjo player. A fair to middlin' kind of picker. Many years ago after seeing a performance by Ken Perlman in a little town in Maryland, I wanted to learn his clawhammer style of picking and I bought a few instructional books. I studied the diagrams and photographs. I practiced what I thought was the correct style. I never really developed a sound I liked and eventually gave up.

A few weeks ago, one of the guys I jam with regularly, asked me if I knew anything about old style banjo. I shared what little I knew. I left his house that day thinking about maybe trying to figure it all out again. I came home and did a search on the web. I quickly came up with a down loadable book on old style banjo called The Tao of the Banjo written by a guy who lives about 20 miles from where I lived in Maryland at the time when I first got interested in old style banjo. He also had some video files available through his site and through the National Archives. I watched a couple the lessons and saw immediately what I was doing wrong. Hearing and seeing him explain it at the same time made it all click. I've also picked up helpful information that I've able to apply to other areas of my playing.

In the past year I have sought out and found instructional information on soldering a copper pipe, troubleshooting a wireless connection, numerous recipes for dishes I wanted to cook, how to do circular breathing (when playing the digeridoo), and a primer on f-stops once when I was trying to help a friend with his new camera.

A student, of any age, with an internet connection, can find instruction on a huge number of topics. As an educator, I've always been a gatekeeper in regards to instruction. I fed it out to my students at the pace and in the sequence I (and the state) thought most appropriate. Sure, kids could always go to the library and get ahead of me, and a few have done just that. But, what are the implications of any student quickly being able to move beyond his or her teacher? Why listen to me lecture about the Bill of Rights when a student can find a smarter guy giving a lecture on the same subject or maybe a more clever person giving the shortened "Cliff Note" version?

No answers. Just some thoughts I'm having about education and my teaching while I practice my banjo. If you are curious about frailing the banjo, I highly recommend Patrick's site, Tangier Sound.

[Image: Original captured from; Final image created in Photoshop by Al Gunn]

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Royalty Free Photos

Discovered this source royalty free stock photos, Public Domain Pictures. After a quick look, I found several photos I thought I could use in presentations or for the blog. The authors only ask that you credit them.

Month or so ago I was searching for a free picture of a gravestone. This image from their collection would have met my needs perfectly. There is a wide variety of pictures. Weakest selection seems to be of people but still worth keeping the link. They have a nice selection of shots with a white background. Perfect for those Photoshop composites.

[Image: Petr Kratochvil; "Painting with light on cemetery"; Public Domain;]

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Compact Printed Calendar

I used a Palm Pilot for several years and finally gave up on it for several reasons. One of my major complaints was I couldn't get a multi-month calender view. I went back to a small notebook with a small nine month calender pasted in the front. Call me old fashioned, but as a teacher, I needed to see that nine month view.

My original printed multi-month calendar was something I found in a book and then reduced using a copy machine. At some point I found and downloaded an Excel template for a 12 month one page gem. Since it was a template, I could modify it anyway I saw fit. I blocked out our school holidays. I bolded the beginning and ending dates of terms. That calendar was open whenever I sat down to plan lessons. I scribbled notes in it's margins and erased them. I circled dates and weeks. I could draw a block around multiple weeks. I've yet to find the electronic calendar that lets me fiddle with in this fashion. Until then I will be using both a printed version and an electronic one.

I was pleased to see a template for a Compact calendar reviewed at LifeHacker. I downloaded my 2008 version and have it ready to go. If you're like me and need to see multiple months at a time, give this a try.

[Original Link Lifehacker /gina Trapani/The 2008 Compact Calendar Now Available/Dec 3, 2007]
[Image: Grabbed from DavidSeah.Com:]