Category: Tech

Granny Available for Skyping

UPDATE 2013/04/03: Please ignore this request – a class in Brazil has stepped forward with Skyping sessions for my unemployed Granny!

A UK granny would like to Skype with non-native English speakers to help them practise pronunciation…

skype in progressBackground Some of you might know that for the last six months I’ve been working with the “Granny Cloud”, the brainchild of Prof Sugata Mitra and Dr Suneeta Kulkarni. I provide a bit of administrative and technical support to this great project (more: BBC articleSOLES and SOMES wiki, The Granny Cloud blog). Essentially this is English-speaking “Grannies” Skyping  with disadvantaged children in India and Colombia. When I say “grannies”, I use the term VERY loosely! It includes, grandpas, uncles, aunties, mums, dads… just about anyone who can spare the time to chat regularly with the kids. I’m sure that you can see that this would be a two-way street with many benefits on both sides.

The situation fluctuates but, right now, we really have more grannies than we do classes to Skype with. Trouble is, it takes quite a lot of effort on the ground to get these centres going and recent publicity has brought even more willing grannies out of the woodwork. I had the feeling that some were becoming a little frustrated so I thought I’d ask our registered grannies if anyone would be interested in occasionally Skyping into a regular UK primary school – reading stories with the school I work at. I found there was enough interest to run a few trial sessions over the last couple of months. It was always a bit of an experiment but we’ve now decided to drop them. The kids enjoyed the sessions but lessons at the school are constrained by a hectic curriculum and it was difficult to get a good fit. Some flexibility is also needed in the schedule to accommodate lessons that underrun or overrun while a Skype call is, by necessity, a relatively fixed appointment. It didn’t work for us but it might work better for you, especially if part of the purpose is language learning and culture exchange.

One Granny in particular is seeking to connect with a school and set up a regular Skype session. She is a retired teacher herself, very friendly, and loves the feeling of being back in the classroom. She is a young-at-heart 78 year-old, competent with computers (email, Skype, blogging etc) and comes from a village in Bedfordshire, towards the south of England. She has varied interests: animals, saving the planet, music and many others. She says she “firmly believes the young hold the future of our world but need guidance”.

Preferences:

  • Children ages 12+ but younger might be considered too
  • Less-privileged children who want to learn
  • Aim is to Skype to practise conversational English/cultural exchange
  • Available weekdays, 09:00 to 17:00 UK time.
  • Ideally one or two regular 30 to 45-minute sessions a week

If you can see an opportunity at your school, please email me: clivesir@gmail.com with some details of your class and its situation, and I’ll pass them along to my “Granny”.
Thank you!

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Skype with a Scientist

fusionToday, on Twitter, I mentioned that I work at a nuclear fusion research centre and wondered if a Skype session with an expert would be of interest to anyone. This was on the monthly #globalclassroom chat, the focus of which was “How can we transform Science education through the integration of ICT and real world connections?”

I am proud to say that I work on the Joint European Torus project at Culham, near Oxford. The site is managed by CCFE (Culham Centre for Fusion Energy) and, to explain the research, I’ll quote their website: “Nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun, can play a big part in our carbon-free energy future. Culham is one of the world’s leading fusion research laboratories. Our scientists and engineers are working with partners around the globe to develop fusion as a new source of clean energy for tomorrow’s power stations.”

I don’t think that I’m overstating the fact when I say that the research here is of absolute global significance. I am a general electronics design engineer but we have many brilliant minds exploring science and expanding human knowledge in this very worthwhile endeavour. I know that many of these scientists would be keen to share their knowledge, to explain their work and so encourage future generations of engineers, scientists, physicists, designers, planners and more.

CCFE has a Pubic Information department which welcomes visits from secondary schools, colleges, universities and the pubic – anyone with an interest in what we do. It also has a very active outreach program for primary school ages upwards. However, the department is small and, as it is a working research centre with a very busy experimental programme, it is not always possible or convenient to have visitor groups being shown around. It strikes me that there is a low-cost, readily accessible opportunity here to connect interested learners to willing experts through the medium of Skype.

The focus of a Skype chat could perhaps be (but not limited to) science in general, women in science, technology, energy or the environment. I haven’t yet discussed this with the PI department (there seemed little point if there was no demand) but if you have some students who might be interested in “Skyping an Expert” then please contact me and I’ll do my best to convince them and get a rewarding connection set up.

Clive

CliveSir@gmail.com or  @CliveSir

Kid Blogging

I’ve been helping at a local Primary School, introducing some of the kids to blogging. I have two groups – six children in each. Year 4 are all boys, and have The Mathematicians blog, and Yr5/6 are three of each, with their Millie’s Secret blog. We had some problems at first with using the kidblog platform on our netbooks – they couldn’t reply to comments, but the support company came in and fixed something and we’re probably now in business again.

The kids love it. Part of their enthusiasm is perhaps due to them being treated as something special – they can escape the regular classwork and do something fun with an old guy who doesn’t shout at them too much!

We started by making avatars of the teachers and then of themselves, which are now part of their blogging identity. We’ve written a few things to get an idea of how blogs work … but now what? I can start giving them blogging challenges but I wonder if I can squeeze them in. You see, by the time they’ve come in and got connected, they only have access to their blogs for, at most, 35 minutes each Friday, and we need to use that time as effectively as we can. The normal thing to do would be to get them to comment on others’ blogs and to refine the skill of commenting, but by the time they’ve written a couple of comments it’s time to go!

I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions on how to maximise the fun and learning we get out of these short slots.

Home-Made Document Camera / Visualiser

Angle-PoiseI needed a visualiser for a presentation I was doing at work. The idea was to give worksheets to the audience and then complete them by hand under the visualiser. This has many advantages compared with IWBs – not least that you work facing the audience and can develop concepts with ease just using traditional pen and paper. You can also place physical models under the camera – try that with a long-in-the-tooth overhead projector! And, a big plus for some, you don’t need to perform the “OHP Shuffle” to avoid blocking the light!

8453911698_cdd8bebc29_bI found an old angle-poise lamp and stripped off the shade and fittings. This left a thread protruding which was a near-enough fit for an old tripod head I had lying around. You can get a new unbranded one off eBay for less than a fiver. I then fitted a Logitech C920 webcam. This is currently a top-of-the-range model and resolves to HD at 30fps. However, when my laptop was connected to the digital projector, the resolution needed to be dropped back to 800×600, so perhaps you could get away with a lesser device.  On the other hand, the C920 is very sensitive and you don’t always need an extra light-source. The sound is pretty good too so it works well for its intended original purpose. It has 20 focus settings and will focus right down to ten centimetres – so it would presumably make a good microscope!  Shame it doesn’t come with a carrying case to protect it but overall, even at £60, I’m very happy with it.

8453911690_0b3906b46a_bOnce assembled I needed some software to display the view at full screen. I discovered “My Screen Cam” – it’s free and it’s functional, and will work with Windows 7 even though it doesn’t specifically state it does. However, don’t do what I did: install it without realising it boots with Windows at power-up. When I switched my laptop on the next morning and went off to have a shower, I came back to dreadful, house-filling, howling feedback! I could hear the noise from under the shower but thought it was a lorry reversing or some industrial process somewhere! And beware: even when you unplug the webcam it reverts to the internal webcam and microphone so I had a repeat performance the next morning.  The configuration button in the program didn’t work so the only way to do it was to run MSCONFIG from the Windows 7 program search box. That did the trick!

OK, overall it’s nothing very innovative but it’s effective and relatively cheap, especially as the webcam has multiple uses so even better value for money!

New Projects For Me!

I have two great new projects in the pipeline! After the CELTA I’ve been a bit lost for direction but now I have something I can get my teeth into!

1 – RSCON4

@shellterrell, on a playdate with an old dinosaur!

Yes, Our Shelly is pulling the stops out again! This is one seriously popular on-line conference with talks covering the whole education spectrum. Google RSCON3 and you’ll see just how popular last year’s conference was: 80 presenters, four concurrent sessions, twelve keynote speakers, three days, thousands of participants. It’s no mean feat! I was one of the organisers, along with a whole team of  enthusiastic others. All volunteers. My involvement was mostly with scheduling, and that’s what I’ll be doing again.  A considerable effort though. I seem to remember it averaged out at 12 weeks of 25 hours a week. Perhaps, this time, I’ll do things more efficiently 🙂

RSCON4 is pencilled in for mid January, 2013, so that gives us a chance to get organised. Shelly has new ideas up her sleeve which’ll be announced as things firm up. However, everything’s still very fluid – don’t be surprised if the date changes!

One of the great outcomes of RSCON3 for me was speaking with (well ok, emailing with) some of the big names on Twitter, and getting a boost to my PLN as a result. Some very inspiring people out there!

Few, though, more inspiring than Shelly herself. I have had the pleasure of meeting her in person on three occasions and I can tell you she’s lovely as well as being one very smart cookie!

2 – SAV

Govinda, Sir, @SAVSchool

Secondly, I’ll be working with Govinda Prasad Panthy, headteacher and founder of SAV school in Nepal, to help him set up a blog. This’ll be fun and rewarding! Do a search of his name and you’ll find him all over the place. That’s a good thing and a bad – his name is known but the focus is missing. My belief is that by setting up this blog with regularly updated news he’ll attract interest which should ultimately benefit his young Nepalese students. Watch this space!

Goodbye Facebook

Goodbye Facebook and good riddance. I’ve been free of you for two months now and I’m glad to see the back of you. Not that I ever was really addicted to you – I never became one of those people constantly clicking and friending and liking and sharing everyday banalities. I didn’t spend much time with you. It’s just the way you hooked me, reeled me in, whacked me about the head, abused me and wouldn’t let go: that’s what I hated.

I only really started with you because of my daughter. She suggested I join as a convenient way of keeping up with her news and, of course, I then had to ‘friend’ my son. Perhaps if I’d stopped there you might’ve survived. But that’s how it starts. My workplace decided to have a Facebook page so I had to follow that. Then friends asked, and then friends of friends – how could I refuse? It would’ve been rude, right? And besides, it was the only way I would hear their news!

BUT, the news was trivial. So you’ve got a headache? Don’t tell me, deal with it! Your neighbour’s dog died? How sad! Why do I need to know? And you’re not telling me meaningful stuff – you’re hardly going to tell me you hate your job, or your boyfriend is getting tedious, are you? Are you?

I hate the dependency – the feeling that you’re trapped and can’t get free. Of course, that’s what makes Facebook so successful. Wish I’d thought of that one!

And the way that others post photos of  me without me knowing or being asked.

And I could never figure who could see what parts of my profile. Just how much of it was totally public I’ll never know – I’ll never know because now I’m FREE!!

And then there were all the security breaches and scams and leaking of personal data. Every day the security experts would be coming up with some new scare story… and they don’t just make this stuff up! Mark Zuckerberg’s stance on privacy is well known: it’s overrated. Really? Shame that birth dates, maiden names and so on, are often the very challenges you’ll find on various other private accounts.

And Zuckerberg himself? What I hate is the way that the super rich cream their billions from the public and then when they give a bit away they’re called saints. They are not the saints of this world. The folk that deserve our praise are those constantly, selflessly working to make world a better place. Like teachers, health workers, care workers and aid workers. They don’t want our praise – their reward is in their success though perhaps a little appreciation wouldn’t go amiss. But what happens? They’re dumped on, abused, taken advantage of, and pushed to the limits of endurance. Then again, there is no such thing as selfishness or pure altruism, but the end result is a better world. For that, I respect and thank them.

When these super rich donate their millions they just distort nature. They only give to what they believe in – but is it what’s really needed? Take Toms Shoes, for example… err, no, don’t get me started!

There are plenty of other reasons to dislike Facebook – not least its complexity, counter-intuitiveness and ugliness. And the way it’s needed before some services will let you subscribe… and… and… and…

That’s enough. There are enough reasons. I’ve voted with my feet. Goodbye!

Using Picasa 3.8.0

Picasa Logo

I use Google’s Picasa program to organise my digital photos and, for a free tool, it does a commendable job. It has some basic editing features too, often all that I need. Some of its behaviour is a little quirky, I admit, but mostly it allows me to file and categorise photos, make albums, and generally manage the photos and videos that seem to accumulate so rapidly.

I don’t use the web folders feature much – perhaps I should, as a backup in case of hard disk failure and for ease of access from elsewhere. One thing I do use is its face recognition feature which I originally thought was a bit of a gimmick but which has come in very useful on occasion, especially as a memory jogger or when I’ve needed a photo of a particular person. It sometimes surprises me too, like when it spots facial similarities between kids and they turn out to be siblings! Using it is a big investment in time but it seems worth the effort.

There is ONE BIG PROBLEM though which is not immediately obvious: it doesn’t store folk’s names within the image files (as metadata tags, stored as EXIF data) or as a separate file in the image folders. This means that when you make a backup, none of the names is recorded.  If you ever have to restore your images, as I had to recently due to the death of my laptop, then all the faces have to be re-entered by hand. OK, it starts off by grouping similar faces together so you quickly build up core names, but then it starts to slow.

Not only do you have to identify people you know, you also have to tell it to ignore faces – one face at a time! Imagine a set of graduation photos where you know only the name of your son or daughter!

And then Picasa doesn’t identify ALL faces in a photo – a face might be slightly turned or blurred for example, or it might get confused by the background etc, so you have to go through one photo at a time.

It’s fine, doing this one by one as photos arrive, but when confronted by 9,500 photos and a similar number of unidentified faces, it becomes very, very tedious.

Maybe this has been a bit of a wake-up call, encouraging me to delete redundant and uninteresting shots. I doubt I’m alone in this – it’s too easy not to be ruthless. After all, disk space is cheap and it takes effort.  Storage space is not the problem, but there’s no point in keeping loads of photos and videos unless you’re able to find what you’re looking for. Not only that, but backing up or virus checking all these unnecessary files consumes processing resources.

I know some people believe in keeping everything.  Personally I don’t think that’s good practice. If you’ve ever had to sort out the junk of a deceased relative, or ever had to wade through old documents and files of a former employee you’ll know what I mean. However, although I try to dump duplicates and out-of-focus shots when they arrive, there was still scope for a lot more ruthlessness.

Back to my problem: I have hundreds, if not thousands, of photos taken of kids and staff at the schools where I worked  in India and Sri Lanka. I knew all their names but I am sure to forget them in time. Although I may never need them again, it’s part of their identity and part of my life experience – I don’t want to lose them.  It’s worth taking some effort now so that the names don’t fade with time. So, for the last week I’ve been working on this little project as time allows.

There are some features I would like to see in Picasa:

  • I would like to be able to mask groups of photos from this automatic face recognition.
  • I would like to be able to see the EXIF tags at the time I enter names in the face recognition.
  • I would like optional EXDIF tag removal on export, for privacy reasons (eg removing names of children).
  • Sometimes the photos against suggested names are just too small to be able to identify – they should be scalable.
  • and there needs to be a way of keeping names with photos so that both are backed up together.

No doubt Picasa will improve as it matures. Until it provides an easy way to backup names, here is a SIMPLE WORKAROUND: Once you have entered the names then select a person to show an album of all photos containing that person. Select all photos in that album and then tag them all with the person’s name. Repeat for each person. It’s not optimal but at least names and photos are now connected.  Useful when you have a sieve-memory like mine!

Graduation Day

A New Laptop

The dithering is over! I made a choice, bought one off eBay, and here we are! A Dell E5420. I decided that the best way to find a machine with a hi-res matt display was to  search business laptops. As a starting point I thought I’d try to find the cheapest device which offered everything I wanted, even outside my budget. I found two contenders – the Lenovo T420 Thinkpad and this Dell. The Lenovo would have been a great choice but the Dell was cheaper and I discovered that there were a few at around half price on eBay so that was that.

It wasn’t all plain sailing of course! I’ll spare you the details but I got a bit of money off for the scratches and eventually got a replacement for the smoking(!) power supply.  It all took time. If anyone is interested I’ll give you the specs and a review but, for now, it’s great to get back on Twitter and great to be connected through something which is mostly a pleasure to use 🙂

About laptops

My laptop died a few weeks ago and I can’t fix it. Likely to be a component on the motherboard… something trivial, a broken connection perhaps, but far from trivial in its ability to disable.

It was a three-and-a-half year-old HP 6715B, 15.4″ matt display with perfect pixel dimensions of 1680×1050. Aspect ratio of 16:10. Oodles of desktop space and lovely to work with. Right now I’m using a borrowed Samsung NC20 netbook with a 12.1″ display, 1280×800, 16:10. It’s underpowered and the screen feels very cramped, but the pixel spacing is pretty-much identical.

Loads of laptops!I’ve been looking for a replacement in an equivalent price band. Surely the price of technology will have fallen so I should get something decent for the money – around £600. However, fashions have changed. The display is, for me, perhaps the most important thing in any laptop, and I’m dismayed that in adverts it’s mostly always overlooked. Maybe because it’s become almost universally 1366×768 pixels (16:9) and you have to hunt to find anything else. But look! The vertical height is smaller than on this little netbook! Great if you want to spend your time watching movies but hopeless if you want to do real work – you’re forever scrolling vertically. It’s like writing a letter or reading a page through a letterbox slit!

And displays are now almost universally glossy, not matt. Whose great idea was that?! So, they say colours appear enhanced, but what about the reflections? … Urgh! It’s probably OK for videos or games but that’s not what I use a laptop for.  I use it for writing and reading, coding and editing graphics, and I need to view the image accurately and without visual distractions.

Keyboards have changed too. Gone are the keys which almost touch each other but with angled edges to make them easier to discriminate. Now we have ‘chicklet’ or ‘island’ types: smaller buttons with dirt-collecting space between and little feel.

One thing I’ve discovered is that I don’t actually need a physically large screen. Sure, lots of pixels, but they don’t have to be spread over a huge space, especially when the screen is close to me. This little 12″ netbook for example, balanced on my thighs, doesn’t seem physically too small. It just doesn’t have enough pixels. I like the idea of increased portability and don’t actually need the 15.4″ display which my old laptop had, and 90% of new laptops have. 14″ would probably be ok and easier to lug around. That’s about the limit – anything smaller and you’d likely lose the optical drive.

It makes me wonder why 15.4″ (and larger), low resolution, glossy screens and naff keyboards are so popular and I guess it’s because so many people use their laptops for watching videos – maybe with a few friends huddled around. And I suppose you can always connect one or two larger displays if you ever need anything better.

As for weight, yes, I know I can get an ultra lightweight laptop like the Macbook Air but I’m not made of money. But 14″ laptops cost more than 15.4″. But matt screens cost more than glossy!

So, I’ve been hunting through manufacturers’ websites, trawling through forums and scrutinising reviews. And the more I’ve looked the more disillusioned and undecided I’ve become. I’ve discovered a great review website in notebookcheck.net but it’s so critical that I feel nothing will be acceptable in my price band, not even as a compromise! And when I view laptops in the flesh I realise that the construction, layout and finish add yet more subjective dimensions to the cauldron of confusion.

A friend of mine tells me it took him a year to choose a new laptop. I know I procrastinate but that’s a bit extreme! I must make some reluctant decisions…