Reflection


Working Together

Two Raspberry Pi 4Bs running Rossetta@Home to fight COVID-19  (GIF by @aforgrave)

We are now eight weeks since the arrival of the pandemic and the shelter-at-home orders hit Ontario. Over the past 56 odd days, my daily efforts have been devoted to three “pandemic response” areas:

  1. my “day job,” supporting the delivery of webinars teaching kids the principles of coding, AI, and computational thinking — 102 webinars and counting; 
  2. my “volunteer job” as president of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO);
  3. a little side project, contributing to the “folding@home” and “rosetta@home” wide-scale distributed computing endeavours as they seek to understand various diseases like cancers, and the current scourge — COVID-19. 

In what might have been a fairly boring time to be recently retired and housebound, all three of these endeavours have allowed me to contribute, and, most importantly, have given me the daily opportunity to collaborate and work together with other folks. 

In the case of the day job, everyone got the “work from home” order on Friday March 13th, and since then, the days have been mediated by Zoom, Meet, and Slack calls, along with emails, slack chats, and lots of shared Google docs, spreadsheets, and presentations. In my case, I was already working from home, so that aspect of things didn’t change dramatically for me, but the nature of our communications now during work is mediated by an overarching sense of “all in this together,” and reflects a significant pivot from a face-to-face model to a completely online delivery model. Whether folks are in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, (or Belleville 🙂 ) this has worked because everyone is collaborating and working together to support the common cause. The daily fifteen minute online “breathe-breaks” during the noon hour are a great opportunity to take a brief pause together and reflect on the importance of wellness. Thanks to colleagues Maddy, Rita, Mavis, Matt, Gabrielle, Martin, German, Peter, Maia, La Donna, Maria, Maddie, Simon, and all the rest. 

The ECOO Board of Directors during the May 4th Board Meeting (capture by @aforgrave)

Similarly, the ECOO Board of Directors responded to the arrival of the pandemic with an acknowledgement that our annual conference, Bring IT, Together (#BIT20) was likely in jeopardy, along with the regional #ECOOcamp events that were in the planning stages for the summer months. The Board collaborated in short order to develop a pandemic response plan, resulting in a number of us working long hours to revise the content on the ECOO.org website to support the current reality facing Ontario educators — teaching students at home, from home. Again, the importance of personal wellness and balance has been key, reflected on the landing page of the website and as part of our online meetings. Kudos to the members of the ECOO Board for the very positive and supportive get-togethers that have occured in recent months. BIG thanks to Mary, Lynn, Jen, Adele, Mel, David, Elias, Jason, and Ramona

Recent updates to ECOO.org include learn-from-home Resources, Podcasts, and webinar Events.

The last project — clustered under the #OntarioEducatorsUnited hashtag — started with a simple tweet exchange and has grown now to include a good number of Ontario Educators.  Just as the combined work of our group has resulted in the completion of over 2000 work units of computational support in the modelling of protein folding, that contribution works together with all of the other teams that feed into the project headquarters where the research teams analyse the data models in the effort to understand the coronavirus. Congrats to our team for reaching another milestone — shout out to Jim, Tim, Alanna, Max, Brock, Frank, Jen and Jen, Cal, and Erin. (If you’re interested in joining the team, we’d love to have you! Details are in the post Your Computer can fight COVID-19.)

The #OntarioEducatorsUnited Team reached the milestone of 2000 work units on May 18th, 2020.

In recent days I’ve also got a couple of Raspberry Pi4s contributing to a separate Fold for Covid project. You might also want to join in on that, too.) 

Join the fight against COVID-19. Get your pin on the map!

Rosetta@Home running on Raspberry Pi 4B  (capture by @aforgrave)

So much of the fall this year was a struggle in working positively despite the challenges of contrary forces (the Ontario government against the teachers’ federations as one example) and it is so much more productive to be working with positive, supportive groups during the duress imposed by this pandemic. If you are one of the folks that continue to act in a mentor/collaborator capacity for me —  thank you for your ongoing support, counsel, and care. It truly makes a difference!

Working together is the key.


Pens. And Taking Time to Think.

When I wake Sunday mornings I look forward to reading Doug Peterson’s, “Whatever happened to…” This morning, Doug pose the question about  ….pens

This is a good topic. On one hand, you might say that everyone has pens and uses them all the time. On the other hand, we can acknowledge that some people probably don’t use pens very much at all anymore. Pondering on that this morning, it surprised me. Personally, I wouldn’t have put pens into the category of things that aren’t used anymore until Doug raised the question this morning and I did a little self assessment.

Note: Sometimes when I respond to Doug’s Sunday morning post, I like to take his list of questions and just work my way through them, one by one that’s what I did this morning. Today, as I got towards the end of the list, I realized there was some good reflection arising as a result. That part comes at the end of this piece

So in responding to Doug’s first question, related to pens in easy reach, without thinking too much or going and digging throughout my place, I realize and can report that my writing implements are in one of two spots: 

  • I have a single pen attached to a small clipboard in the closet at the door that I can use whenever someone does a delivery and needs a signature. I added the clipboard when I got tired of having the ink drain from the tip about halfway through my signature when I used the wall as a writing surface. (Note that since contactless delivery started a month or so ago, no one needs a signature anymore.)
  • I have writing implements within reach of my desk. In one cubby I have a couple of pen cups: one with pencils, and one with pens. In a drawer, I have multiple pencil cases, each one containing a family of similar markers (sharpies, highlighters, fine points) or pencils (colored pencils) for various art projects. Also included are the metallic ink sharpies (silver, gold, and bronze) that do such a good job of marking up all the various power adaptors so that you can tell after the fact which adaptor matches up with which device.

I have a couple of pen sets that I have received as gifts. They come in nice presentation boxes which do a great job of storing them and keeping them dust free. The boxes also serve to allow them to remain unused.

Over my years as a learner and educator, I tended to standardize on a particular brand/style for a few years at a time as pen technologies evolved and my preferences changed.

  • In middle school, I went through a phase where I used green and black Bic ballpoint pens.
  • In high school and university, the Pilot fineliner felt tip was my pen of choice, along with yellow highlighters for highlighting, and in combination with the fineliners, doodling. I never really liked the thin, scratchy profile that ball point pens provided, and so I moved to felt tips as they provided something a little bit closer to a calligraphy effect. However, pressing down too hard on the tip of the Fineliner would ruin it, and so I went through a lot of those in the days before I first had a computer and started doing a lot more by hand. 
  • During my high school and university days, I also used mechanical pencils, with those really really thin long leads and replaceable eraser tips that hid underneath the clicker tip. For fun, I called them electric pencils, rather than mechanical pencils.
  • At some point in the past 20 years my preferences evolved away from felt tips back to ballpoints, specifically when gel pens and larger diameter tips came into play. I think the large diameter ball points now have something like a 1.4 mm sphere which gives you a much smoother ink coverage and much less of a ballpoint effect. Maybe those pens are up to 1.7 mm? Anyway, that’s what I have multiples of in the pen cup at my desk. I would have purchased them a year or two ago now.
  • I will also mention that pencil technologies have also improved over the years. I have standardized my pencil purchases to the Staedtler brand of Wopex pencils.  Rather than being made out of raw wood, they are made out of a wood dust and glue compound. They last much much longer and really don’t break. If you carefully avoid losing them, a single Wopex pencil can last for more than a year. Over the last couple of years in the classroom, I know I had a couple pencils used in rotation that were in service for more than 18 months each. The secret is to put your name on them and not lose them.

I have stopped collecting hotel and conference pens. I don’t need them. When travelling with my brother this summer, he was offered a replacement hotel pen when we were stopped for a visit in Spruce Grove, Alberta, just outside Edmonton. He had been using the same plastic hotel pen for the longest time, stored in the pen slot in his travel diary, and the clerk at the front desk noticed that it was an older version of their brand, and graciously offered a replacement, which my brother happily accepted. I’m sure he had travelled and made notes with that pen for years.

I do have one conference pen that I have continued to keep, and that is an ECOO pen that was provided as conference swag. I’m fairly certain it was the year that David Thornburg keynoted, or perhaps Derrick de Kerchhove. I know I should find the pen and dig into the ECOO records to confirm that, but I will leave that as a fact check for another day. The pen is unique in that you reveal the ballpoint tip by turning the cylinder, and rather use the clicker at the top of the pen to turn on the light that is built-in. The pen is purpose-designed and built for use to take notes in a darkened conference hall. 

I also have a very nice hand turned and finished wooden pen from Diane Bedard. I know you have one from her as well, Doug. They are beautiful keepsakes, each one unique. 

Now, as for the keyboard having taken over, indeed it has. Although pencils and pens were a significant part of my daily life as a classroom teacher for providing feedback and marking, since I retired last June I find that my use of the pencil and pen has all but abated. Virtually everything I do now is via keyboard, fingertip, or voice. I wrote this entire piece using my voice on my iPad, using the magic of my finger tip for editing. 

I’m conscious and reflect on it periodically that we grew up thinking with pencils and pens in our hands, and for many years have ruminated on the fact that various types of thinking are encouraged/supported when a pencil is in hand. Mathematics, for example, has never flowed easily out of the computer keyboard for me, and so I always revert back to the pencil for that. Similarly, drawing is so much easier with a pencil or stylus than anything that can be accomplished with a keyboard and mouse. For that reason, I was so happy to see the iPad Pro arrive, supported by the Apple Pencil a few years back. There is a flow to using a pen or pencil that contrasts greatly with the granular nature of using finger clicks on a keyboard. The act of typing requires you to break your thought up into specific little bits, and that seems to impede the flow.

There’s no doubt that moving to a keyboard and word processor augments the writing process, allowing you to make revisions and edits to the original, cutting and pasting and backspacing without the need to completely rewrite from scratch each time. However, that can come with a price. Sometimes the flow of the pencil, without the constant stopping to deal with a red underline or a typo can make for a much more productive experience of drafting. However, knowing that you can take your draft with you on whatever device you happen to have handy makes for a much more portable writing experience. Where did I leave those paper notes again?

This past week was a very hectic one for me. It was one in which I found myself juggling multiple jobs with multiple tasks/projects within each job. Using multiple google accounts, conferencing platforms, competing calendars, and a huge number of windows and tabs on my multiple monitors, I reached a point where I needed to focus everything down to a shortlist on a piece of paper, written by hand, using a pencil. Sure, I typically use Things to organize and track of my tasks, and sometimes Monday for a particular context. But on Thursday, my brain needed something that reduced to a primal (primary?) simplicity.  I was easily able to grab a pencil from the cubby near my desk, but I then realized that I had no paper readily at hand. There were a couple of receipts sitting on my desk that I could have scribbled on, but I needed something bigger with the clarity that comes from a blank page. I do have lots of paper in my office, stored in the cabinet beneath the printers. I didn’t need any of the specialty papers that are there in multiple colours and multiple weights. I just needed a simple piece of paper for the task at hand. A simple piece of 8 1/2 x 11 white paper, folded in half, allowed me to capture a short list with four points. Unlike the electronic lists that go with me on my phone or iPad if I’m not at my computer, I just needed a paper list that would still be sitting there at my desk the next time I returned. 

It was the first time in I don’t know how long that I needed a piece of paper and wrote something with a pencil. We’re talking weeks, if not months. As I made that list, I also acknowledged that I was going to take some time off on Friday to relax and regroup. Slowing down to write with a pencil reminded me that I needed to slow down in general. It was a good call.

Thanks, Pencil. Thanks, Pens.


Of WebCams and Conferencing

The Connectix Quickcam, circa 1995

This post started out as a comment for Doug Peterson’s (@dougpete, on Twitter) Sunday morning Whatever happened to… webcams? but it expanded (as such reminiscences are wont to do) and so I have posted it here. In light of the current emergency remote teaching protocols in place in Ontario, the rest of Canada, and the rest of the world, the topic is both current and nostalgia-inducing, and offers some insight into the pace of change in education over the past 25 years.

So, the Connectix Quickcam! The eyeball-shaped, greyscale camera, originally Mac-only and marketed before the web (and thus, the term webcam) was really a thing. Yet another great blast-from-the-past as a result of Doug’s “Whatever Happened to … ?” Sunday morning series! 

(In chasing back looking for an image of the original, I discovered that Logitech — who still markets with the QuickCam name today — had purchased the product line from Connectix in 1998, and in doing so, I was reminded of a number of other Connectix products of the time, specifically Speed Doubler and RAM Doubler, software products that augmented the hardware back then make it work a little better before Moore’s Law really started to kick in. I also remember coming up with a idea for a great piece of wetware at the time — DayDoubler, which once installed into your body allowed you to double the amount of work you could complete in a day. Sadly, like other great vapourware of the time, it never materialized.)

CU-SeeMe greyscale camera — Who remembers the Global Schoolhouse initiative?

Hurdles to Overcome

I have a sad, yet prescient, memory that took place in our curriculum office one day back then, shortly after a colleague and I set up two QuickCams and tested connecting to one another across our then-recently Ethernet-empowered room. The Manager of IT appeared in the doorway, and quickly expressed his frustration and concern that we might start encouraging the use of the cameras with the schools throughout the district during our visits! What? Wasn’t that part of what we were supposed to be doing? As it turned out, it was only one of many instances through the years when the system wasn’t ready for so rapid a change. In this particular case, I did understand his concern over the available bandwidth. Most of the world still lived on dial-up. However, the incident also emphasized that change, in education, can come quite slowly.

However, the incident also emphasized that change, in education, can come quite slowly.

Moving forward in time, I remember when Apple marketed the iSight camera, a cylinder that fastened to the top of your laptop or monitor and provided its connection via FireWire, at the time a much faster protocol than the typical USB connection.

The colour camera included microphones, and existed until Apple had introduced built-in cameras across their computer and monitor product lines. With the introduction of Apple FaceTime — and the subsequent introduction of forward-facing cameras on iPhones, they renamed the conferencing camera the FaceTime camera, and relegated the iSight name to the camera on the back of iOS devices.

But the QuickCam was almost 25 years ago, certainly things have progressed a lot since then?

These days, I use the built-in webcam on my laptop when travelling, and external Logitech C920 camera at home at my desk. I have also used my Sony a6000 over HDMI, when I want to capture a really good image.

Of course, phones and iPads have forward facing cameras, which come in handy these days for communicating with family members during this virus-induced physical distancing. 

As for meeting room software, over the past three weeks I’ve been in Google Meet/Hangouts on a daily basis, hosted around 30 Zoom sessions, used Slack videoconferencing a few times (not as easy, because it uses the system default microphone and speakers, rather than letting you configure them in the app), and then a one-off Skype call to the UK on Friday.  Zoom certainly has the most features and back-end customizations, but with all the recent hype about Zoom security, a replacement may be coming down the pipe. Any recommendations, anyone? (I have fond memories of Elluminate from back before it was gobbled up by Blackboard, I tried it out again on Friday. Screenshare capabilities are too limited. However, kudos to Alec Couros (@courosa), Dean Shareski (@shareski), Sue Waters (@suewaters), Steve Hargadon (@stevehargadon), and Alan Levine (@cogdog) for the great memories from a decade ago!)

I was looking recently at upgrading my WebCam, and see that they are essentially out of stock. It’s not due to the lack of demand, but rather due to an increased demand. Everybody and his brother has been buying up WebCams since the shelter at home started to come into effect. 

However, how prepared are we, as a system, 25 years later?

Which brings us to the present. Educators the world over are wrestling with what some are calling “Emergency Remote Teaching.” It’s not the same as eLearning, or Distance Learning, but webcams and conferencing platforms could be playing a role in helping teachers and students connect. However, how prepared are we, as a system, 25 years later? Lots of folks may have high-speed connections now , and webcams in their laptops now, but how prepared are we as a profession and as a society to make use of the technology to connect in the support of learning? What can we do to ensure there is equity of opportunity for all learners, and that the learning takes place in an environment as safe as our face-to-face classrooms?

If things had been planned out, as part of a longer term initiative, supported by all stakeholders, Emergency Remote Teaching might be better able to make use of webcams and conferencing tools. However, in this current state of duress, we’re likely to encounter a much more scattershot approach. It seems as if the change in education, as it did 25 years back, will still progress slowly.


The Media that Makes Us … 2

“TV — then” animated GIF by @aforgrave

This post started out as a comment on Doug Peterson‘s “Whatever Happened to … CMT Television?” from Sunday, May 27th, 2018. As has happened a few times before, in the end I decided it would be easier to post it here with all of the embedded media. As is often the case with Doug’s Sunday morning features, my mind was sent on a journey down memory lane by his question de jour.  

Doug frequently ends his post with a series of prompts, and when I have the time, I like to try to check them off while drafting my reply. I also need to remind myself every time NOT to draft my reply in the comment box on the web form — invariably I will lose much of my draft if I spend too long working in the web browser. When my iPad shut down today (it had reached 0%) I switched to a Google doc, and so it became a lot easier to add in all of the necessary links. 

  • Have you ever listened to CKNX?
  • How about CKLW?
  • How about CMT?
  • Do you have a favourite media start to your day?  Music, television, or something else to get the blood pumping?
  • In a world of specialty television stations, has a favourite of yours changed format?
  • Do you remember push buttons on the radio to access presets?
  • Did Bruce Springsteen have it right?

Have you ever listened to CKNX? My Early TV

As a kid, growing up in the country outside of Owen Sound, our farmhouse roof-mounted antenna received one television station, CKNX Wingham.  It was a CBC affiliate, and was found at channel 8 on the dial. (As the only station, however, there was no need to “find” it. We just left the dial at channel 8.)

If you watched CKNX Wingham channel 8, then you likely remember “Circle 8 Ranch,” and the set decorated with split rail fence, bales of hay, and barnboards.  The show featured local country regulars and guest artists. Believe it or not, after decades of not having thought of that program, I was just able to conjure the fiddled theme song from memory and hum it to myself.  Turns out it is called “Down Yonder.” I never knew the name until I found it referenced just now Al Heiser’s lyric in  “When Circle 8 Came On.”

Twice I travelled to the TV studio in Wingham to get recorded for TV. The first time was to participate as part of the local contribution to the MD telethon, and the second time was as a member of our high school Reach for the Top team.

I remember with great excitement when CKCO Waterloo installed a re-broadcast tower at Lions Head and we suddenly got a second station. It was a CTV affiliate, so it had something different from CBC.

The game changer came after the local TV repair man had to visit and repair our set (he had to replace tubes), and suddenly we got a third channel. As another CBC affiliate, he said it was the same as CKNX Wingham — but it was way better. CKVR Channel 3 Barrie was owned by CHUM/CITY out of Toronto, and it had a decidedly metropolitan flavor. It catered to the transplanted summer cottage crowd in the Muskoka’s and Halliburton. Suddenly, I could watch Star Trek!  I had only seen two episodes prior to that — “Spock’s Brain” and “Is There No Truth in Beauty?” while visiting cousins in Cambridge who had cable. By the time Star Trek arrived in my neck of the woods, it was in syndication, and it formed part of my end of the day routine the summer I had started working a full day during the summer to earn enough money for a ten-speed bike. We would start early in the morning, work for hours in the fields, and stop at 4:30, which just gave me enough time to settle in front of the TV for Star Trek at 5:00.

How about CKLW? My Early Radio

As for the radio, and CKLW out of Windsor, that also has a special memory. When I started driving on the farm (in my case, the tractor didn’t have cab, let alone a radio, but our panel van did), CKLW was the station that I tuned the radio to. Again, our local radio station CFOS had the news, and was a CBC affiliate. But CKLW came from far away (“The Motor City”) and it’s music was from a different place. Getting the radio station tuned in was part of the routine (adjusting the seat, adjusting the mirrors) before carefully starting the vehicle and putting it into gear. That would have been 1976. I was 14.  

CKLW top 80 from 1976 via RadioTimeLine.com

I also had an old radio in my bedroom (like the TV, it still had tubes in it — as well as push-button presets) and it played dialed way down at night beaming the music through the dark from Motown into my ears as I fell asleep, stirred during the night, and woke each morning. I bet that was pretty much the same for a lot of teenagers when radios were still a thing.

How about CMT?

Now, as for CMT, that has never really been part of my viewing/listening pleasure. I checked this morning to see if Longmire had been produced by CMT, but it turns out it was A&E. I have a vague recollection of watching some drama that might have originated on CMT, but I can’t find out what it was. As for tuning into CMT for the music, that’s something I’ve never done. I like ALMOST all kinds of music.

Kingston-based  Arrogant Worms have little tune called “Trapped in a Country Song.”

My Radio Today

For years now, I have turned my radio/iPhone/car to CBC Radio One for the news, for Ontario Morning (on the way to work), the afternoon drive from Ottawa (on the way home), and manage to pick up q with Tom Power, Gardening with Rita and Ed Lawrence, The Debaters, The Sunday Edition, The House and Day Six, Spark, Tapestry, Unreserved, The Next Chapter, This is That, Randy’s Vinyl Tap, As It Happens, The Current, and Ideas.  Heck — Check out the CBC shows, they’re all great!

 

The other place I have turned my radio for years is to SOMA FM, an Internet-based radio station out of San Francisco. I’m partial to Groove Salad, Space Station Soma, DEF CON Radio, Thistle Radio, and my real fav, Secret Agent. I usually have SOMA FM on when I’m at home working on stuff.

Over 30 unique channels of listener-supported, commercial-free, underground/alternative radio broadcasting to the world.

57 Channels, and Nothing On?

I cut cable TV 10 years ago and live on the Internet. So my TV now comes on demand through the Apple TV, the Internet, or an app. I’ve recently discovered the Acorn TV app and the BritBox app, and am enjoying a lot of Brit mystery shows.

Whaddabout the Newspaper?

I did buy a newspaper a couple of days ago (first time in many years), and I couldn’t get over how small it was. I asked the cashier how much it cost. He didn’t know. It was $2.50.



• Main section 3 pieces of paper folded = 12 pages.
• GTA section 1 piece folded + 1/2 page insert = 6 pages.
• Sports 2 pieces folded = 8 pages.
• entertainment section 2 pieces folded = 8 pages
• Smart money and business section 1 piece folded + 1/2 page insert = 6 pages.

Total: 10 pieces of Newsprint = 40 pages

25¢ per piece of paper.

Then and Now

There’s no doubt that media has changed since I was a kid. It used to be in black-and-white, only available when the antenna was permitting, and only arrived when it was scheduled to and based on what was available. Now it’s in full color, available 24/7, on-demand, and based on what you want.

 


Keyboarding

“Keyboard,” by Dan_H, on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Doug Peterson‘s Keyboarding post this morning relates a recent experience for him and raises some questions regarding keyboarding and its place today in schools. I originally started this as a comment response, but the GIF at the end needed to go somewhere, and so I share following here.

Ah, Doug!

Yes, you should have saved this topic for Sunday morning when I have more time to reminisce instead of getting ready for school. As such, this morning’s trip down memory lane may be slightly truncated.

So first of all, while most would say “hunt and peck,” my father would rather refer to the much less known, but perhaps more authentic-sounding  “Columbus Method.”  (With the Columbus Method, as dad used to explain, you spot a key and land on it.)

When it came to my course selection during high school (1976-1981), my dad was not supportive of my taking a typing course. I used the Columbus method (pretty efficiently, but without the option to copy-type) for many years to come.

Years later, when I got my first Mac, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was the program of choice. I spent some time with the program, but still used the Columbus method to get the job done.

As one of our first system-wide technology purchases back in the day, we invested in the ALMENA method (“learn the keyboard in one hour”) with the intent of having all grade 4 students learn to touch-type and thus save significant time getting their words into text through all the grades to follow. I recall this generated a bit of pushback from some secondary teachers who would have seen this as encroaching on their course enrolments, but the trustees saw the benefits. It was while I was supporting the ALMENA method that my superintendent walked by my desk one June and noted that I wasn’t a touch-typer. The irony of bit deep, and after a two week investment of practice that summer (some Mavis Beacon, some ALMENA), not only was I touch-typing, but able to copy-type as well!  (The true secret, as emphasized by that two-week endeavor), is to stop looking at the keys. Short term decrease in productivity, long-time return on investment)  Sadly, the Grade 4 initiative later went unsupported, and my guess would be that few folks are teaching keyboarding in our elementary schools today.

If we jump forward to the present day, however, we are past the advent of Dragon Naturally Speaking (which required that you train the software in the nuances (pun) of your voice) and we now have pretty good automatic voice-to-text available on our phones and through Chrome extensions like Texthelp’s Read and Write for Google Chrome.  Invariably there will be some faulty word recognitions which require manual editing, but the technology works quite well for confident speakers. It’s been an undertaking in my classroom in recent months to help kids gain some facility with this method. Speaking full sentences significantly enhances the context-recognition, and that tends to come from having a fully-formed sentence already in mind. As well, speaking your punctuation really helps, too. All the same, this past June we had exceptional students writing their grade 3 EQAO with the support of Read and Write for Google Chrome — and this advancement will only help more kids as we move forward.

In closing, I have noticed yesterday and this morning a couple of new “keyboard features” in the iOS 11 update on my iPad.

First, there is a single touch (swipe) gesture that can substitute for the two-tap (shift key, then tap) normally required for the secondary characters on the keyboard keys. If you simply swipe down on the key, you get the secondary character. It works quite well, once you get into the habit (still working on that, it’s only been two days). Whether it works in the long run (will we develop a separate muscle memory for keyboarding on a touch device? I use the Columus method there …) remains to be seen.

“‘Swipe Down’ keyboard / Microphone or Keyboard input (tiny buttons)” GIF by @aforgrave

The second “feature,” however, may yet still see further evolution before reaching a more practical state. Upon bringing up the iPad keyboard, the voice-to-text microphone key still rests in its spot to the left of the space bar. That’s where I expect it to be. But at the end of a voice-to-text input, the voice feature cancels back to a large keyboard space, but shows only a small microphone icon and a small keyboard icon. Perhaps the thinking is that having used voice-input, you will want to return to voice input? But if you want to return to the keyboard (which, if you are wanting to make a correction or two, seems to be the more usual case) you need to then tap the keyboard icon before you can begin revisions. I’m hoping that this can be adjusted in a preference somewhere, as it’s going to irk me until it gets fixed.

(Note that after my iPad ran out of battery juice following the second paragraph, I left the world of voice-input and returned to my Mac keyboard for some touch-typing input. These days, my eyes are on the screen while my fingers magically seek out the keys without effort.

Touch-typing/copy-typing remains a valuable skill in 2017, and kids should learn it early on, to supplement the continually improving methods of voice-input.


Google Data GIF Maker: Not Ready for Prime Time? 1

Interface for Google’s Data GIF Maker, screen capture by @aforgrave

 

June 3rd: This is now the first of two posts on this topic. The second post, Google Data GIF Maker: Not Sophisticated, Potentially Misleading, documents some additional investigation. Please consider the two posts in tandem.

Given my fondness for making animated GIFS (see posts tagged animatedGIF on my de•tri•tus blog), the announcement of the Google Data GIF Maker last week had my attention from the start. It looked like a really cool tool for visualizing the relative quantities of two sets of data (two web search topics, say, or the frequency of tweets from two different Twitter accounts). No sooner had I seen it, than Doug Peterson (@dougpete, on Twitter) tweeted about it and mentioned me to make sure I knew about it.

I poked around with the tool, but lacking any documentation (and not finding any in the articles (here’s one, here’s another) that had been posted to announce it), I was flying blind as I tried to get it to work. Did it draw the values from a couple of search URLs? Nope. I looked at the examples. With two numbers (one in each of the Values fields) that summed to 100, it would wobble back and forth and end up with a split representing their relative fraction of the whole. But clearly it must do more than that! It was asking for comma separated data values. Hmmmm. Clearly I needed two sets of relative data that it could compare!

Peter McAsh (@pmcash, on Twitter)was kind enough to download an archive of the @BringIT2017 Twitter account for me to compare with the data that I have from the sister @ecooWeb Twitter account. I spent a few minutes formatting the monthly data into comma-separated values, and then unleashed the tool on the data. The fan came on my laptop, the web tool ground away for numerous minutes, and then it gave me this:

Comparing Tweets by Month, 2015, for @BringIT2015 and @ecooWeb, generated with Google Data GIF Maker (GIF is 4.6 MB!)

It looked nice, but somehow, the data representation didn’t look right. Despite one number significantly dwarfing the other, the visual splits seemed to be somewhat arbitrary.

I tried again using data from 2016, which I knew from inspection was even more offset in favour of @BringIT2016. Still, it didn’t seem right at all.

Comparing Tweets by Month, 2016, for @BringIT2016 and @ecooWeb, generated with Google Data GIF Maker (4.7 MB)

I was also puzzled by the fact that both years resulted in an 80/20 split — Not only did that seem highly coincidental, but I also knew that it was not correct. Maybe I was misunderstanding the tool? I tried the 2016 data again using the “+” option rather than the “%” option. Hmmm.

Comparing Tweets by Month, 2016, for @BringIT2016 and @ecooWeb — using + versus %, generated with Google Data GIF Maker (4.6 MB)

Was the %/+ nothing more than a numerical unit in the footer? Perhaps it has NO effect on the function of the tool.

By this point, I was actively questioning whether the Data GIF Maker was even representing the provided data in the GIF, or perhaps it was simply animating the wobble back and forth and just listing data points in the footer. (I knew the answer — and realized that I could simply confirm my belief by grabbing a single frame from the gif — see below), but I wanted to press on and see if I could actually get the tool to accurately represent the data. Maybe the Data GIF Maker wasn’t as smart as I was expecting it to be? I was assuming that it would take the two corresponding data points from the two lists, do a mathematical comparison on each to generate their relative fractions A/(A+B) and B/(A+B) and express/draw them as percents of the total width — but perhaps I needed to present the data already pre-calculated for it? I transferred my data into a spreadsheet, performed the calculations, and re exported the data as percentages of the total into two pre-compared lists.

Data re-transferred into percentages, for the period January 2015 through to May 2017.

Here is the final result.

Comparing Tweets, Relative Percentage, Jan 2015 to May 2017, for @BringIT2016 and @ecooWeb, generated with Google Data GIF Maker (4.6 MB)

Yeah. The animated representation is all glitz, and doesn’t accurately represent the true data at all. That’s really too bad. Here is the same GIF, but I have slowed down the frames so that you can see the percentages listed and compare them with the relative proportions of the whole. They are completely arbitrary and way out of whack!

Comparing Tweets, Relative Percentage, Jan 2015 to May 2017, generated with Google Data GIF Maker — GIF frames slowed down. (733 kb! Much better!)

The Google Data GIF Maker might look cool, but it is extremely misleading!

I spent a few minutes with a spreadsheet tool to create a stacked bar graph, and then took the resulting graph into Photoshop to create what I had actually hoped the Data GIF Maker was doing. Here is my own animated GIF of the actual data, represented in proper proportions of the width/area.  Enjoy!

My own data GIF of the same figures, created using Excel and Photoshop, by @aforgrave  (435 KB, and that’s at 256 colours!)

Some notes regarding the GIFs created by the Google Data GIF Maker:

  • The GIF files are huge – on the order of 4-5 MB each.
  • To get the smooth animation, they have a lot of frames, literally hundreds of frames for 12 pairs of data points.
  • The files don’t use an optimized colour palette, which also increases file size considerably. They could easily get away with an 8 colour palette.
  • All those decimals in the percentages suggest a precision that doesn’t exist in the data.
  • And again, they emphasize glitz at the expense of accurately representing the data. It’s nowhere close.

I’m keen to see the Data GIF maker evolve, as it certainly creates a nice product with much less effort than is required to do the same task manually. However, for the time being, the fact that it doesn’t accurately show the data is a deal breaker.

Here’s hoping the code will evolve to address that!