Category Archives: Online Tool

The Future of Search

It has been interesting to see the excitement surrounding WolframAlpha .

The new “Computational Knowledge Engine” called Wolfram|Alpha has gone through a full media cycle before it has even been unleashed on the world. It has been hyped as a “Google Killer” and denounced as snake oil, and we’re still at least a few days from release.

The simple goal behind the engine is to connect searchers with precise information. Wolfram|Alpha’s search magic comes through a combination of natural language processing and a giant pool of curated data.

That quote is from Radio Berkman (which is a very interesting podcast out of Harvard Law) and they’ve got an interview with the creator as well. Watch the abbreviated 10 minute version below.

I’m not sure how well the idea of a curated semantic web will work (although I can understand that urge). This does really show a different way to think about searching for information. It really takes it beyond search, making it closer to exploration maybe.

It’s similar in some ways to one of David Huynh’s Parallax project (of Simile Exhibit fame) which has been out for quite a while now. Video of that is below.

Freebase Parallax: A new way to browse and explore data from David Huynh on Vimeo.

While the media may be portraying Google as being totally out of the mix here, keep in mind the GoogleLookup function available in their spreadsheet program. Don’t get me wrong, it’s limited and somewhat frustrating but it shows that they’re thinking along similar lines and playing with the same ideas.

Simple search isn’t enough. The data and the connections are too complex.

Where all of this matters educationally is that search and how you’ll be able to interact with the information you find is going to change drastically because of the size and sophistication of the information we’re dealing with. The finding phase is going to become more and more a component of use.

No doubt you’ll still be able to look for simple answers and that’ll be as necessary as ever but being able to leverage the artificial intelligence and squeeze the potential out of the relationships in the data you find will be a major difference maker between individuals who thrive in this environment and those who don’t.

The computer can show you possible connections but it can’t force you to see their importance or relevance. So in that way it increases the need for people to be able to grasp sophisticated relationships, to be able to analyze and make connections in interesting and useful ways. By making the data more accessible and showing that it is related, it increases the importance of the ability to make the connections as a basic skill.

It’s also important to see how this devalues certain skills as well. The obvious connections are going to be made by the computer. That’s going to make cognitive jumps, the ability to assimilate and relate seemingly unrelated material, the ability to understand the macro level of connections much more important. There’s beauty in being freed from the grunt work, but it makes the idea, the conceptual portion, that much more important.

Many of those worrying about white collar jobs being outsourced to China and India haven’t really thought it through far enough. If it’s repeatable logic computers are going to end up doing it. In some cases, they already are1.

Excerpts from
Robot makes discover all by itself (click for full article)

Meanwhile, some software programs can analyze data to generate hypotheses or conclusions, but they don’t interact with the physical realm. Adam is the first automated system to complete the cycle from hypothesis, to experiment, to reformulated hypothesis without human intervention.
….
They armed Adam with a model of yeast metabolism and a database of genes and proteins involved in metabolism in other species. Then they set the mechanical beast loose, only intervening to remove waste or replace consumed solutions. The results appear Thursday in Science.
…..
Still chugging along on its own, it designed experiments to test its hypotheses, and performed them using a fully automated array of centrifuges, incubators, pipettes, and growth analyzers.

After analyzing the data and running follow-up experiments — it can design and initiate over a thousand new experiments each day — Adam had uncovered three genes that together coded for an orphan enzyme.
King’s group confirmed the novel findings by hand.

Granted all of this is at an early stage but you can see glimpses of the future. And by “future” I mean 10 years (or less) down the road2.

What does it mean for education? It means a lot. We better get moving.


1 That sounds melodramatic but the cost of computational power is plunging while wages are rising. If you can be replaced cheaply, you will be.

2 Try imagining any of the things in this post in 1999.

picture-4

Google Forms Meets the Spaghetti Syndication Monster

Or – how I do things since I can’t program – but isn’t the first title much more fun?1

First off, thanks to Jim Groom for letting me bounce ideas off him, giving some technical assistance and for testing services rendered. Now to business.

Here’s what I wanted- a web accessible form that would display the data as it rolled in right under the submission form. Just like comments for a post but we wanted multiple questions2 and we wanted to be able to divide the responses. So that, in and of itself, is pretty narrow and stupid but what this can do in the end is pretty cool and can have widespread power. Using Google forms and the selective publishing option you can embed all sorts of user inputted data w/o having a clue how to program- and I think that’s pretty neat.

Obligatory Warning for WPMU users (WP single user should just work)- Some of the stuff I’m going to tell you to do is not a good idea if you’ve got other authors on your WPMU installation that you don’t trust. If it’s just you and people who won’t be doing crazy stuff then proceed under your own recognizance.

To make this work in WordPress MU3 you’re going to need to install one plugin - Unfiltered-mu. This basically lets you put in the iframe embed codes w/o WPMU stripping it out as unsafe4.

So once you’ve done that, you can get down to business.

Embedding the form part is easy. Just log into google docs and select New>Form.
picture-4

Once you’ve got it set up the way you want – save it. Then go to More Actions>Embed.

picture-5

You’ll get a pop box with the iFrame code. Copy it. Go to your blog post or page (make sure you’re in HTML view) and paste it in.
picture-6

Once it’s embedded you’ll see something like what’s below- and that is real. Go ahead put something in there and hit submit.

So that’s going to allow people to enter information. Now we need to take what they write and put it other places. Keep in mind you could have multiple questions of multiple types and display different chunks in as many different places as you’d like. Unfortunately, you can’t make multiple forms for one spreadsheet. That’d be awfully convenient at times.

Initially I was using the spreadsheet’s RSS feed to pipe the results back in. That’ll certainly work and you can use the embedrss plugin to make things easy5. In the end, I didn’t go this route but might in the future. With the RSS feed I think you could control the look a lot better and decide how much recent data to show.

In the end I used the selective publishing options that Google SS has. I hadn’t messed with this before so I was surprised how flexible things turned out to be.

Step one – Go to the spreadsheet that was auto created when you made the form. Then publish the spreadsheet as a web page.
picture-7

Make sure you click Automatically republish if you want it to update (also note that if the Republish button is yellow you need to press it to make your changes go into effect).
picture-8

Once you’ve got that set up. Click on More Publishing Options. You’ll then put in the following info. Choose – HTML to embed in a web page. You can then decide which cells to show. It’s just like Excel here. I only have one question and it’s in column B so I chose B1:B55 but you could do things like B1:D55 or whatever. This is really handy for breaking your data up and showing different pieces in different places.
picture-9

Now that you’ve got that set up the way you want- hit Generate URL AND cut and paste the HTML it made for you. Then paste it where you’d like your data to show up. I pasted the result below here. Notice too that the changes in formatting I made to the spreadsheet (the blue background) carried over to the embed. It seems like you have to republish to make that take effect6. Meanwhile, the data from the form should pipe right in every five minutes or so.

So you can use this in lots of fun ways with the added benefit that the info is in a spreadsheet that you can use in lots of other ways.

The information you enter in the form should show up here in a few minutes.

As additional background, I got Jim involved in this originally when I trying to use Cformsii (which is awesome by the way) and its RSS feed to do this (which is a really cool feature). I stopped using it because the feed for new entries was only working globally, that is for all forms, and not per form which is what I wanted. The feed also seems to fail in Google reader but I’m not sure why that is b/c it validates… Things seemed erratic to me but there could be lots of variables causing that. The upside of using Cforms would be increased control over the form and its look. You would have to figure out how to format the subsequent feed via CSS though – which is both good and bad in my opinion.


1 I freely admit that this may be seen as a stupid and useless thing to do (esp. by people who can write any sort of php.) I still see it as interesting if only for the fact that it shows different ways to make the information both portable, dynamic and embeddable.

2 To help make sure people actually addressed each aspect of the questions. If you give three questions in a post and ask people to answer in the comments you tend to get 1.4 questions answered rather than the 3 you wanted.

3 See Patrick, I am doing better.

4 The Rev. passed this on to me when I was cursing a few other plugins for not really allowing iframes to embed despite their claims to the contrary.

5 Thanks to Jim for that one.

6 It could happen automatically but I never waited long enough to see.

Citizen Data Visualization

How cool is this?

Today, we’re taking the next step in reader involvement with the launch of The New York Times Visualization Lab, which allows readers to create compelling interactive charts, graphs, maps and other types of graphical presentations from data made available by Times editors. NYTimes.com readers can comment on the visualizations, share them with others in the form of widgets and images, and create topic hubs where people can collect visualizations and discuss specific subjects.

-source

Sure you could do this the hard way for a lot of the data but to have it supported and built into the system is pretty nice and an interesting shift towards a different kind of user interaction. It, as well as the growth of sites like wordle, swivel and manyeyes, really shows how prevalent and important information visualization is becoming.

Now we have to start teaching our students how to analyze and how to make these visualizations in ways that matter. The thought behind the construction (or deconstruction) is what’s important. It’d be easy for a lot of this to be the powerpoint animation of data- just a quick way to pretend something crappy is much cooler and more important than it is (but that fools no one).

I’m not sure how flexible things will be. Seems like students might be able to go after data presentation like this guy did with the NY Times a while back. I’d love to see that kind of thing going on.

Anyone out there teaching this? know anyone teaching this?

hat tip to infographic news

RSS, DIY, Technology, RSS and Passion

Passive Aggressive Learning and Other Drivel

These things are less techy and more inspired by pop culture once again but I thought they were worth remembering.

RSS, DIY, Technology, RSS and Passion
Scion Crest Generator – While the choices aren’t unlimited, this nice flash interface will help you make a lot of different crests. The real power would be in requiring logic for the various choices and in that way the restrictions almost work for you- less time in building and more time spent on why your choices make sense. You could do this with just about any character or historical figure. The really nice thing is the image sizes are really good- up to 2048×1536 so you could print them out and do other things with them or just use them as a starting point in Photoshop or some other image editor.

For instance, I made the crest above for this blog. The wrenches on the left to represent the DIY ethic of much of the stuff I like. The circuit board patter on the right to represent the technology. Then the broadcasting icon represented RSS to me and the fire is for igniting a passion for learning. The wolf is because I like to bite people. I just liked the wolf, a little gritty and banged up from the real world. Corny, I know, but you get the idea.

It’d also be a fun first day, get to know each other activity for younger grades.

30 MINUTES!!
Passive aggressive notes via Mental Floss – I can just see all kinds of fun with this concept.

There’s the semi-obvious W. C. Williams “This is Just to Say” poem option. Then you have the students write similar passive aggressive poems “apologizing” for things in the style of other poets.

You could warm the students up by having them write passive aggressive notes first in the style of current pop culture icons. Not exactly current, but Mr. T keeps springing to mind.

I pity the fool
that left those plums
in that icebox.

I won’t spit
no jibba jabba
about being sorry
I ate them.

Mr. T’s gotta eat too.

What kinds of passive aggressive notes would various characters/historical figures leave for one another? You could even get into what they’d write on/with and why. What would their handwriting look like? You’ve got some flexibility in terms of using scenes from the play or real life set ups (Marc Antony and Brutus are sharing an apartment for example).

Take for instance in Julius Caesar, Marc Antony leaves a note for his roommates-

Friends, roommates, countrymen,

Someone has borrowed my car without asking and only one of you has the spare key and that person is Brutus.

I know Brutus would never, ever borrow my car without asking. And if he did, as a “honorable man,” he’d at least have the decency to fill it up with gas when he brought it back because after all he is an “honorable man!”

from Act 3. Scene II of Julius Caesar

And just for fun . . .
Nature abhors a vacuum – the perfect shirt for your favorite science teacher

blog_search

A Blogging Bestiary

Soooo, I had to do another presentation on blogging and “Bob on Blogs” wasn’t really the style I wanted for the UR crowd. Time for something new. This is my basic thought process in case it might interest someone.

Concept (learning objective): There are two key things I want viewers to come away with

  1. A blog is just an easy way to get content (multimedia and otherwise) on the Internet and you don’t have to do commenting, regular posts, etc.
  2. There are lots of interesting ways to use blogs in education

The problem I ran into was that I had lots of blog examples but when I started trying to break things down to show the flexibility it got way too complex. I was initially trying to show things like:

  • Group blog, with comments, using text and images
  • Single user blog, without comments, using text
  • Group blog, aggregating via RSS, with comments using text, video and images

So, instead I divided the presentation into two parts. The first portion would be a more traditional presentation with slides to add some humor and associate some interesting visuals with the relatively dry topic of the conceptual use of blogs, their limitations etc. I really wanted to keep the audience engaged and thinking about things in terms that made sense to them.

The second portion ended up being built with Exhibit so that users could select the design elements they wanted and then be linked to an a blog with those elements. I got the idea from this Exhibit page that allows you to select a variety of political positions and end up with the presidential candidate you should vote for. The nice thing is if I felt others would contribute interesting blogs, I could have them submit via google forms.

Now I had to come up with something that visually and thematically/spiritually carried across my point. I thought about lots of things but eventually settled on the idea of the medieval bestiary.

My rationale was pretty simple. The pictures are really interesting and unusual- and likely to stick with people. The dichotomy between using medieval illustrations to talk about blogs also appealed to me. Finally, using these images helped frame my presentation. I could parallel the strange/mythical animals to the way people are describing new web applications (like blogs) today. The monks who related the “facts” in the bestiary are about as accurate as modern day people who define blogs as “online journals.”

I’ll walk you through the presentation slide by slide below.
Intro Slide for the Bloging Bestiary
I like to have something fairly interesting to start things off that hints at what’s to come without making too much sense. I want to create a sense of intrigue. This image is put up as people come it so they, hopefully, begin to think and wonder about how in the world this weird guy is going to make a relationship between a bestiary and a blog.

This slide is my background as I describe a little of who I am and what I plan to do.
Fancy B Blogging
Now I mention there are many animals in the Bestiary of Electronic Creatures but today we’ll be discussing the blog. I make a joke about being sure there’s a B in there somewhere and start asking a few questions. Who has used a blog? Mastered one? etc. Depending on the audience knowledge I might ask for a definition.
Which one do you choose?
Here I ask the audience to decide which of these three animals a blog is most like. I encouraged them to talk to their neighbor etc. but I don’t think anyone did. I next asked the group what they choose- rhino? octopus? or hydra (which I called a many-headed-thing-a-ma-jig as a joke which didn’t work with one of the librarians in the crowd who volunteered the official name)? After giving them a short amount of time to talk (I only had 30 minutes) I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer their rationale. That worked pretty well.

Old woman fights a dog
This where I compared html etc. to being a lot like an old woman fighting a dog- no one enjoys it. I think I related the story of how I used to do what is essentially a blog by hand and how miserable that was. A need existed for a quicker easier way.

Monk
The next point was that all these “experts” defining blogs often were like the monks of old- they only had second hand information about a new animal and their writings often had motives beyond presenting simple facts. They changed or added facts to make their descriptions more interesting or to make them fit allegories.

a bonnacon spewing fiery manure over 3 acres
As Jim Groom related not too long ago, I did use a bonnacon as a comparison to the way a lot of people described blogs- namely that they were for spewing acres of fiery manure. My point was both that this didn’t have to be the case and that colorful “reporting” resulted in this stereotype.

I actually used a animated transition here. My rationale being that I wanted the bonnacon to be mysterious and then I transitioned it in with fire to emphasize the fiery nature of the bonnacon feces. And I’d always wanted to use that transition.

Blogging evolutionary tree
Now it was time to show how blogs had changed over time. I used Alan Levine’scat diaries” analogy as the origin of blogs- namely boring stuff put up sequentially that only you would be interested in.

Then things got really exciting and you could put up pictures to go with your cat diary. That’s where most of the blogs were today with a few also doing cat videos. However, there were two important divergent evolutionary paths- the multimedia publishing octopus and the static priest. These were the two offshoots that we were going to examine.
Bear licking offspring into shape
This seems slightly awkward here but it seemed to work during the presentation. I think I’d move it were I to do this again. The story is that medieval people believed that bears gave birth to shapeless blobs of flesh in the winter and the mother bear had to lick that shapeless lump into a bear cub. I paralleled to it to the author’s ability to “lick” the blog into any shape they desired. It’s just a way to get stuff on the Internet, you can make it what you want.

solo author vs group author
Now we get into the defining characteristics of blogs and why you might want to go certain ways. Solo vs group for instance. I talked about keeping the voice pure, different reasons you might want the content to just represent you, the options for multiple blogs, ways to control other users that you might want making content but not fully trust, ways to pipe in other people’s blog content via category/keyword – that type of thing. That covered the next four slides or so.

Multimedia octopus
Then I got into all the ways that blogs played nicely with multimedia (pictures, video, text, file downloads, etc.) and ways to integrate that into teaching. There was emphasis put on how easy it was.
carven monk update style
Then I got into how update styles are not set in stone. While blogs are seen as content that’s added sequentially over time, they don’t have to be. They can be set up and used as webpages very easily. This type of use cuts down on expensive software, html or WYSIWYG webpage learning curves and lets the author take advantage of lots of free design templates.

There were a couple of other images indicating a more stately update style (chameleon) and a faster frantic update choice (lots of fleas).

Security rhino
So I wrapped it up with some discussions on how and why you might want to restrict access to your blog (copyright, sensitive information, more open communication of sensitive topics). I discussed the levels of restriction. Starting with no one else can even see it and going down to anyone can comment while trying to cover the risks/benefits of each option.

In the end I compare the blog to an octopus for several reasons that I backed up with video at the very end after my two guest professors spoke.

  1. The octopus can change color to blend into any environment (blog themes)
  2. The octopus is fast and agile (like blogs but not like chameleons who are sloooowww)
  3. The octopus is flexible/malleable and really smart (my whole point about blogs- starts about 1:45 in with some wild shots of an octopus crawling through a clear plastic maze)

I was lucky enough to have Dr. Darell Walden (Accounting) and Dr. Patricia Stohr-Hunt (Education- really nice podcasts for elem. teachers) talk about their experience using blogs in the classroom.

Anna C has a pretty good write up of the content minus my stupider jokes if you’re interested. She did a much better job over the whole conference taking notes than I did.

The images, plus a few I didn’t use, are up on flickr.


The Keynote is here.