Quick Hit: TED Talks

Of all the sites that I revisit, TED Talks is the one that I’ve written about more than any other. This is the third time I write about TED Talks (2/11/08 and 6/12/08) and even with everything that there is on the world wide web, this site is worth repeating. As I’ve said before, TED is a forum that invites interesting people from all walks of life to come in an give a twenty minute talk about their work. The contributors are educators, artists, engineers, diplomats, and others. Here are seven I watched and enjoyed. All descriptions are lifted directly from the TED talk sites, and I included the running times for your convenience.

The design of the universe (18:59)/ At Serious Play 2008, astrophysicist George Smoot shows stunning new images from deep-space surveys, and prods us to ponder how the cosmos — with its giant webs of dark matter and mysterious gaping voids — got built this way.

Reinventing the school lunch (19:42)/Speaking at the 2007 EG conference, “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper talks about the coming revolution in the way kids eat at school — local, sustainable, seasonal and even educational food.

Why we don’t understand as much as we think we do (12:28)/ Starting with four basic questions (that you may be surprised to find you can’t answer), Jonathan Drori looks at the gaps in our knowledge — and specifically, what we don’t about science that we might think we do.

Birth of Wikipedia (20:02)/ Jimmy Wales recalls how he assembled “a ragtag band of volunteers,” gave them tools for collaborating and created Wikipedia, the self-organizing, self-correcting, never-finished online encyclopedia.

When social media became the news (16:59)/ James Surowiecki pinpoints the moment when social media became an equal player in the world of news-gathering: the 2005 tsunami, when YouTube video, blogs, IMs and txts carried the news — and preserved moving personal stories from the tragedy.

Picturing excess (11:14)/ Artist Chris Jordan shows us an arresting view of what Western culture looks like. His supersized images picture some almost unimaginable statistics — like the astonishing number of paper cups we use every single day.

Stories of humanity (16:14): Chris Abani tells stories of people: People standing up to soldiers. People being compassionate. People being human and reclaiming their humanity. It’s “ubuntu,” he says: the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.

Hope you find something worthwhile and thank you for stopping by.

Why did I spend my time at Snopes.com?

Sometimes I get lost online for hours at a time (no, not on facebook, myspace, IMMing or gaming). Thus, was the fate of many hours this past Saturday. It all began innocently enough with me just checking my e-mail and then reading some news stories. One story was about a streaming web-cam feed that captured a horrible tragedy, and left me saddened that someone could get so lost in the world.

From there, I somehow linked to an article on Snopes.com about a similar incident that had been web-cast years ago. This is where I got pulled into hours of mindless online wandering. For those of you who have never heard of Snopes, it is a site dedicated to proving or disproving various “urban” legends. According to the Wikipedia entry, it began years ago as a Usenet Newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban), where people posted questions and got answers about the many claims that have become modern folklore such as, “were there ever really alligators in the NYC sewer system”? (The answer is no).

I discovered this site years ago, when there were fewer entries, and was surprised to see how much it had grown. As I went from article to article, a little voice inside my head kept telling me that there were more important things to do, but I could not turn away. Soon after, I came up with a rationalization about what I was doing at Snopes. I realized how many of the new entries dealt with pictures, videos and stories  that had originated on the internet and spread around the world like wildfire.

Gone are the days when stories about something happening to a friend of a friend are told. Instead, we can now connect, read or write, upload or view pictures and videos that provide “proof” that what we are talking about actually happened. And that is where the team at Snopes comes in. Much like their television counterparts on MythBusters, the staff at Snopes is dedicated to doing the research necessary to validate or invalidate the claims made on the internet.

What I found most interesting was the increase in two types of “myths” that are becoming more common. The first kind of new myth is enabled by the ever advancing technology that allows for photo manipulation. No longer is the old adage, “I’ll believe it when I see it” good enough. Today, sites like Worth1000 host contests where they ask people to digitally manipulate photos to create a new picture, some of which end up becoming urban legends. (Like the photo of the tourist on top of the World Trade Center oblivious to the approaching plane.)

The second type of “myth” deals with incorrectly attributing the details of a picture or video to some event not connected with the graphics. This too, has become a nuisance on the internet as anyone can grab media from anywhere and post it to their own blog or site to create a new background story for the pics or videos. (Such as stories of a 21 foot crocodile found walking the streets of New Orleans after Katrina – real pictures, fake story).

At the end of many hours, I was still left asking myself, “what does any of this have to do with learning or education”? How could I justify spending all that time reading and clicking and linking through the pages of Snopes? The truth is that I was kept there by my own curiosity. My own desire to know truth from fiction, even in the trivial sense. As a sixth grader, I did a report on the Loch Ness Monster that ended with me saying that the evidence was inconclusive. I read every book I could get from our local branch of the Queens Public Library, photocopied the grainy pictures and created a poster that outlined the many Pros and Cons to the argument. Today’s students have access to infinitely more resources than I ever had, but the same technology that makes it possible to connect to this information, also makes it possible to manipulate the truth. More than ever, we need to educate our students that they should approach everything with a critic’s mind and a skeptic’s eyes, lest they be fooled into believing something untrue or even worse dangerous.

At the end of it all, I didn’t regret spending those few hours there. It reminded me of the importance of curiosity and wonder. It reminded me of how crazy and complex the world really is. It left me renewed with a respect for both nature’s beauty and our own creative responses to the world around us.

Snopes.com may not be the kind of site you would ordinarily consider for a class, but it is a keyhole into the stories that fill the imaginations of today’s younger people, and a reminder of how much confusing and often contradictory information there in the connected world.  

Thank you for stopping by and have a great Sunday!

© 2008 henry toromoreno

Thinking about school computers

There’s no nice way to say this, so I will just come out and say it: it’s getting more difficult to deal with how students are using their computer time and our scant resources on non-school related sites. The internet use policy is clearly stated in the student handbook, and we supervise students as best as we can to make sure that they are not playing games or visiting inappropriate sites. Still, the proliferation of what is available online has blurred the division between where students should and shouldn’t be during school hours, on school computers.

Take for example, the student who is in the library during his study period and is checking out last night’s sports scores. There is no offense in getting onto the Boston Globe site and reading the story, but what about playing the two minute highlight clip? We have clear rules about earplugs, and we don’t allow audio to be played through the computer speakers, so is the highlight video without sound against our rules? How do I explain the difference to those around the first student who are watching videos of skateboarders or an episode of their favorite anime series? How about the student who gets a pass from his teacher every day for two weeks to use the computer to get pictures for a collage he is working on? When I confront him and ask why he is always on sneaker sites, should I believe him when he says his collage is about NIKEs?

It’s easy to spot and deal with the student who is playing solitaire (who then argues that it is a mathematical challenge based on probabilities) or the student engaged in a shooter game (who then argues that neurosurgeons use video games to hone their hand-eye coordination), but other online activities are challenging our notions of what should and shouldn’t be viewed using our school computers. One group of students that I have in mind, uses all of their computer time to read their favorite manga series which we can’t afford to purchase in print form. So technically, they are reading, even if the majority of the story is visual, and even though I don’t think the story is particularly interesting or valuable – I could say the same thing about many young adult titles and best selling novels. The fact is that graphic novels, anime and manga have all become staples in the literary lives of young people. Thus, when I see students reading their anime or manga online, I let them be.

What’s more difficult to determine, and dissuade, is students using the school computers for their personal social networking activities (facebook, myspace, instant messaging) and as online entertainment centers. Even when there were filters to block these sites, many students learned enough to be able to get around the filters. Now that the school has eased these restrictions, students have taken this as a sign that it is okay to spend whole periods at a time catching up with their virtual “friends”. No longer are chat rooms (which are not allowed) necessary for communicating in real time with others on the internet. Equally distressing is the number of students who spend their time watching online videos that are clearly not educational in nature and some that are definitely not suitable for school. Blocking YouTube is not the answer. There are too many other sites that now offer streaming entertainment videos and there are plenty of worthwhile clips that can only be found on YouTube.

The question going forward for all of us in education (students and teachers) is how do we deal with the ever expanding reach of technology? There are no easy answers, of course, but we should be conscientious of how we use our computer time and resources at school. Perhaps it is best to remember the words of our school mission which reads, “The Mission of Haverhill High School is to produce self-directed learners who read, write, and speak effectively in Standard English and who apply analytical and technological skills to interpret information and problem solve.” Using our technologies to achieve this goal, should be the first priority for everyone who logs on at HHS.

Thank you for stopping by and have a great Friday!

© 2008 henry toromoreno

Exploring Google

Before I started this blog, I wrote a newsletter where I sometimes poked fun at myself for how often I mentioned Google. Most times I was trying to knock down the internet Goliath and steer people to other sites that did things as well as (but hardly ever better than) the continent’s most popular search engine.

But Google does deserve praise as it continues to expand and deepen what people can do online. Ms. Caradonna reminded me the other day that a recent news story described how Google was using its “most searched” feature to track and predict where flu outbreaks  are taking place around the US.

This application of Google searches (flutrends) is by no means perfect as a predictor, but it does exemplify how information can be used to inform and to prepare not just those in the medical fields, but the common citizen as well. Still, many people only know about Google’s web search, image search and map features, without realizing how much more there is to be had from Google. Below, you will find three of my favorite “other” things you can find at, (yes, say it again) Google.

Google BooksDigitizing books was the first true form of fgoogle-booksile sharing on the web. According to the Gutenberg Projekt’s page, the idea has been around since 1971. Google Books picked up what others had started, and they began offering downloadable PDF files of some books as well as previews of books that were still in print and protected by copyright. They were sued three years ago, but that seems to have been resolved, and it looks like more content will be added and available on the digital library. If the whole book is not available online, Google Books connects you to the World Cat site which can locate resources in participating libraries near you.

earth-iconsGoogle Earth/ Google Sketch Up!

This choice is kind of cheating because unlike Google Maps, which requires no downloading or installing of software, both these applications are separate programs. Depending on your connection’s bandwidth and the speed of your computer, the download and installation of these programs may take some time, but they are worth the wait. G-Earth is very similar to Microsoft’s Virtual Earth program in that there are a few three dimensional buildings and landmarks in some of the big cities. They also both allow users to create and upload three dimensional models to add to the digital landscape. That is where the Sketch Up! software comes in. If you don’t envision yourself as a Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry type, you can skip this app and just cruise around G-Earth’s 3D warehouse to see what models others have left behind. From Google Earth you can get weather and traffic updates, as well as get a street view, where available.

Google Apps: Okay, so this is cheating again because it’s more than one feature,google-apps but I don’t want to go through each one individually. Suffice it to say that I have a blog (though not on Google’s blogger), a Gmail address (thinkerlitmag@gmail.com) and have used the Docs applications (with mixed success). The point is that Google offers the curious and patient web surfer a great number of tools that go beyond the keyword or image search.

Happy exploring , thank you for stopping by and have a great Sunday.

© 2008 henry toromoreno

Before I forget …

Okay, it’s been quiet around the library this whole week because of MCAS testing, so you might figure that I would have lots of time to sit around and write a really meaningful essay or something about all that’s happened in November. Instead, I have taken the opportunity this week to go through the shelves to weed the collection of outdated, useless or otherwise trashed books. It’s a necessary evil in the library business. Before I forget, I would like to make a few announcements:

  • Volunteers are still needed for the HHS Fall Play, “The Dining Room”. They need people for the 14th (Friday) and 15th (Saturday) at 6:30. Those who cannot attend, can make baked goods for the shows. For more information or to volunteer contact kim@valleynetworks.biz.
  • Mr. Cosgrove has begun collecting books for his “Books for Babies” campaign. You will begin seeing donation boxes for this event around the school. Treat them kindly and feed them well.
  • The HHS student Lit Mag is accepting submissions through Dec. 5th for the Winter Issue of thinker. Students can submit their work to Mr. T in the library or via email to thinkerlitmag@gmail.com. New student work is posted weekly at the thinker blog, and we encourage students, teachers and parents to visit our site to see the wonderful work being done by HHS students.
  • “Books for Troops” is looking for donations to send to our men and women in service overseas. You can drop off books to Mr. T in the library or Major Workman in the C wing. (Thank you Ms. Gauthier for initiating this project).
  • The LMC hosts both Teen Talk meetings and the UN Team on Wednesdays after school, so you can pretty much scratch those off your calendars for future LMC events.
  • The library will be open for study students and visiting classes tomorrow, Friday, November 14th.

See you all for a great Friday and thank you for stopping by.

© 2008 henry toromoreno

Postscript

  • Last Tuesday, November 4th something historic happened. Whatever your politics, no matter your beliefs, history was made.
  • This past Tuesday, November 11th we all had the day off. Whatever your politics, no matter your beliefs, in honoring our soldiers, we should all be as courageous as citizens as those who put on the uniform.

Quick Hit: Cool Time Wasters

I know, I know. I’m always telling the students in the LMC to get off of the game sites because they should be using their computer time productively. Yet here I am with a blog post claiming to direct you to “Cool Time Wasters”. Three things. It is Friday, I am home and all work and no play makes Jack (and Jill) a dull boy (and/or girl).

Truth be told, I probably waste more time online than any one you know (except for hardcore gaming junkies, which no one ever sees anyway). I still believe, however, that some forms of fun are better than others, and that having the world at our fingertips, we would be fools to not use that power occasionally to exercise our minds. I can hear you kids, now stop yelling “BORING!”

Here are two entertaining and thought-provoking sites that ask you to consider just how good your eyesight, and therefore perception, really is. First ask yourself if you think you can spot the middle of a line or the center of a circle just by eye-balling it? Seems easy right? The only problem is you can’t. But you can give it your best shot and see how you do at http://woodgears.ca/eyeball.

screen capture of ultimate flash face app

After you’re done being fooled by simple geometry, try your hand at sketching a familiar face. The Ultimate Flash Face  application from Lemondrop.com is a great little tool that puts the skills of the sketch artist in your hands. You can choose from ten facial characteristics, scale the features and move the items around to recreate any face you can imagine. No erasers necessary, and you can save or print your digital masterpieces.

So, it’s Friday. Have fun and thank you for stopping by.

© 2008 henry toromoreno

Snag Films

One of the magazines that we subscribe to here at the Haverhill High School LMC is PC World (sorry Mac users). It really is one of my favorite reads since most of the articles are about how to make my computer do things to make my life easier, as opposed to what it usually does which is frustrate me to no end. Like other magazines, they publish their top lists issues occasionally featuring the top 10, 50 or 100 tips, tricks or sites. (Note to health, fitness and body magazines: we all know about the power of blueberries, whole garlic, pomegranates, broccoli, dark chocolate, almonds and apples – enough already about them).

I just got through perusing the November 2008 issue of PC World which includes its list of “100 Incredibly Useful Web Sites”. In the mix of this list you will find some sites you’ve already heard of (maybe even from this blog) such as HowStuffWorks, Yahoo Answers, Dictionary.com, Craigslist, Facebook, New York TimesPandora, Slate, NPR and the BBC News. All pretty cool and useful sites, depending on what your goal is.

For teachers and students, I recommend that you check out Snag Films. According to the PC World article, this video site “hosts about 250 domestic and international documentaries right now, and is growing fast”. This site has consumed my free weekend hours as I poked around and watched about a half dozen films. There are commercial interruptions included (some of which happened in the strangest places for the most inappropriate products while watching documentaries – see for yourself) and I also was unable to view the films in “full screen” mode, as the player froze every time I tried. Still, the titles I watched were intriguing and had good production value for the most part, and best of all they are free to watch and they encourage viewers to “snag” them and take them elsewhere (embedding them in sites, for example).

Obviously, I haven’t gotten through their catalog yet, but among the titles I recommend you check out are:

  • The End of America – author Naomi Wolfe outlines her thesis of how the current environment of fear parallels steps taken in fascist regimes of the past.
  • Haze – report on binge drinking on college campuses with a focus on how pop culture has made this an acceptable form of youthful entertainment and rebellion.
  • In Debt we Trust – discusses the shift from a nation of savers to a nation of overextended consumers.
  • Gray to Green – Paul Pedini, a civil engineer on the Big Dig project in Boston decided to use the waste from the project to build his own home. This is recycling on a grand and visionary scale.
  • America for Dummies – Eight minute short by Niaz Mosharraf, who immigrated to the US with his family from Bangladesh in 1997. This is a student film about one young man’s quest to understand why his peers know more about pop culture than current events.

Hope you made the most of your extra hour today. Have a great Sunday, and thank you for stopping by.

© 2008 henry toromoreno