Category Archives: Tools and Technology

Some links: 73

One more link to clear out of Instapaper and into a blog post: Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on an application of 3-D printing that actually sounds useful: artificial cowbird eggs for studies of brood parasitism.

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Halfway down the block before realizing that you’re headed the wrong way

A simple, analog solution to SOSED (Sudden-Onset Subway Exit Disorientation): low-profile wayfinding signs on the stairway risers, designed by Ryan Murphy and documented by Vicky Gan. Much more useful than smartphone beacons, also discussed in the post: who wants to be staring at a screen when you and 1,000 of your new best friends are trying to get off the platform and into the light?

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I am relieved

The states of North and South Carolina are completing the resurvey of their common boundary, using high- and low-tech means, as Stephen R. Kelly notes in a recent op-ed and Kim Severson reported some time back. The colonial-era border was intended to consist of two straight lines, the 35th parallel and a diagonal crossing up from the coast. But 18th- and 19th-century surveyors made a hash of it, resulting in today’s rumpled compromise.

The rework was not intended to smooth out any of the coarse wrinkles, like the wobble around the city of Charlotte, but rather to replace the notched trees, now dead, and wandering survey monuments (including one moved by a golf course in order to impress golfers [?!]) that had originally marked the boundary.

But rest assured! South of the Border is still where it “Otto B.”

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Two distinct problems

Charles Severance reflects on his experiences teaching MOOCs. In much the same way that John Markoff analyzes the situation (as I summarized earlier), Severance draws an important distinction between the objectives of conventional university training and those of massively open online courses. From the full article (behind a paywall):

My goal in a MOOC is to teach as many volunteer learners as I can and keep them engaged and learning as long as I can. In an on-campus course, my goal is to teach captive students as much as I can over a set 15 weeks. [Emphasis in original.]

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Really? There’s an app for that?

Robert Simonson gets a briefing from Jeff Whiting, creator of Stage Write, an iPad app for recording choreography and blocking. Alas, at $199, this is definitely a prosumer-priced product.


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Better directions

Recently I bemoaned the bad route-finding by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire. If Williams had had this map, he never would have sent Blanche down the Canal Street line trying to get to Elysian Fields.

Transit Maps

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Two ceramic filters

James Hamblin resurrects the Bone Fone. I remember desiring one of these, but perhaps I only desired the honey-haired model with the product draped over her shoulders. Why, oh why, did this invention, perhaps the most representative invention of the 1970s, fail utterly? Maybe something to do with the fact that it’s not a telephone at all, but a radio?

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The supply of recycled CRTs and televisions, laden with hazardous lead, is booming. Unfortunately, the demand for this e-waste has crashed. As a result, recycling firms are going out of business and abandoning the waste, leaving toxic dumps for the states and federal government to clean up. The market is upside down.

In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

Even worse, there seems to be no recycling market at all for LCD screens.

Ian Urbina does the grim reporting.

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Some links: 65

Snow days are good for cleaning up the inbox of bookmarks.

  • Jeff Kelly shows how to build your own RFID data logger for $40 or less. It’s suitable for tracking birds at feeders, nest boxes, anywhere they hang out. The system works with any animal species large enough to carry an RFID tag; a battery at the logging station provides the power.
  • A new paper by G. Bohrer et al. describes an “exclusion zone” approach to siting wind turbines in an urban environment, as Roberta Kwok explains. The approach manages the tradeoff between maximizing the power produced by an array of turbines and minimizing its adverse effects on wildlife.
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Working for scale

John Markoff posts an interesting item about evaluating the success of MOOCs. (Aside: tell me again what the difference is bewteen an MOOC and distance learning?) There’s been a lot of chatter about the fraction of students registered for a course that actually complete all of ites requirements—numbers like 10% are being kicked around.

Markoff emphasizes the point that 10% of a class of 100,000 is nevertheless more than 100% of a class of 500 in a conventional freshman lecture course. And, as one of the panelists at the Frontiers in Education conference in October pointed out, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how many of that hypothetical 100,000 are serious registrants. When the course is free and there’s no cost to dropping out, a lot of students will sign up on a whim. Some registrants are even other instructors, checking out how their colleague handles this new environment.

Leta has participated in two classes offered by Coursera in the past year and has been very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, I’ve been fairly busy with traditionally structured classes:

  • Short-term training in proprietary software technology. Three days of slideware and coding exercises — what Andy Hunt calls sheep-dip training. Moderate value for the money: I did refer to the class workbook a couple of weeks ago for some code samples. Having the instructor on hard was useful when I got stuck.
  • Foreign language instruction from Fairfax County Public Schools. Classroom time with a native speaker, a workbook for writing exercises, and a DVD with lots of listening drills. Good value for the money.
  • The Natural History Field Studies program from Audubon Naturalist Society and Graduate School USA. Each course is different, but it’s usually a blend of reading, lecture, writing, giving presentations to the class—and field trips. Moderate to excellent value for the money, depending on a couple of factors, but every field trip has been worth it. Some of the courses are reviewed by an accrediting agency: these have been the most challenging and the most valuable.

Markoff considers Duolingo, a web site for language instruction that doesn’t precisely fit the MOOC model, but it is operating at that scale, with roughly a million users. I could see myself giving it a try.

I need seven credits to finish my NHFS certificate. I think MOOCs have a ways to go before they can capture the five-senses experience of a cordgrass salt marsh.

MOOCs are scaling up the evaluation of students by problem sets and short writing assignments. I wonder how they can deal with evaluating spoken contributions: speaking a foreign language, giving book reports and oral presentations.

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Some links: 63

Rick Wright shares a handy trick for searching the Biodiversity Heritage Library by taxon.

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Undercarriage incidents

What’s most admirable about Sam Borden’s piece on the reluctance of NFL players to wear athletic protection is how he runs the table of euphemisms without once referring to the family jewels. Oh, and I learned why a pioneering manufacturer of jockstraps was named Bike.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Stately, deskbound storyteller Mike Daisey brings to D.C. his most recent polemic, both a celebration of this century’s magical technology (especially as designed by Apple Computer) and an amateur’s powerful exposé of toxic working conditions at the Chinese factories responsible for final manufacture of that magic. The piece is even more powerful than last season’s The Last Cargo Cult, showing as it does the unspannable divide between the poorly paid laborers who hand-assemble exotic electronics and the Western consumers who enjoy those gadgets.

Daisey’s physical gifts of narrative are again on display. If he sometimes chooses soft targets (we all enjoyed a rant about PowerPoint in which he bellows [accurately] that Microsoft is great at making “tools to do shit we can already do”), his language has deepened: his allusions range from highbrow to pop, from Walt Whitman and the Gospels to a telling description of downtown Shenzhen “like Blade Runner threw up on itself.”

Just as Apple’s revolution in personal computing changed the metaphor of what it meant to interact with a small computer, Daisey urges us to reconsider the metaphorical lens through which we view technology: his is one of the few theatrical pieces I know of that ends with a call to action in the lobby, with pointers to China Labor Watch and Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour.

A self-described Columbo in a Hawaiian shirt, Daisey delivers a moving piece—but with a light touch. As he admits, he has suppressed the most gruesome stories that he collected from South China’s Satanic mills, lest his listeners tune out. The work sparks reactions that move beyond head-nodding in the auditorium to genuine conversations on the way home.

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, created and performed by Mike Daisey, directed by Jean-Michelle Gregory, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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I’ve narrowed it down to five

Dave Pell helps me understand why it is taking months, may take years, for me to replace my old phone and PDA.

Stop. Do not send me your pick for best note-taking app.

I can’t take any more options. I’ve already spent weeks comparing sets of features I’m pretty sure I’ll never need. I tried out at least fifteen applications on my desktop, phone and on the web. I was completely overwhelmed by choices. The process began to take over my life. I spent hours in front of my laptop, I’d demo various features for my wife and kids…

I thought I could pick one web-based tool for notes and diaries. Right now my bookmarks bar has an entire folder of tools, each for its own special purpose.

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Ready for Maker Faire

Antique Trades Dept.: As A.G. Sulzberger reports, blacksmiths for New York’s parks department still hand-build hoops for the city’s basketball courts. The dare-we-say artisan rims are sturdy, and hence cost-effective.

They have survived endless rounds of slam dunks, and occasionally served as chin-up bars and, for the especially nimble, even as spectator seating. Once, the blacksmiths strung a cable around a rim inside the workshop, which they used to tow a van halfway off the ground.

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