Category Archives: Online Tool

3D Passenger Pigeon Bones

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 4.16.02 PM

I’ve been working with Bernard Means who runs VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory1. We spoke briefly a while back about building a site to allow for interactive views and downloads of 3D STL files his team has made of passenger pigeon bones. One of the goals was to allow mobile devices to interact with the site in an “app-like” fashion. This is more than a desire for the PR boost that seems to come with creating an “app”2 What we’re working toward is the ability to cache this stuff and enable archaeologists in the field to interact with the virtual shapes on mobile devices or download the shapefiles, print them out, and carry the replicas into the field (next up is a consideration of points). We wanted to get the passenger pigeon bones out in time for the anniversary of the extinction of the species which was 100 years ago today. Due to the excitement and drama that is the new school year, I didn’t end up getting the bones or focusing on this until Thursday.

This was the first website I’ve made by hand (non-cms) in a while. I figured it’d be good for me and I thought it’d help remove complications. I don’t know if that ended up being true but it was a decent idea. It was a hassle to update the shared structure across the websites. I’ll have to figure a way out of that in the future.

Step one was to get a decent responsive structure. I used a quick and easy bootstrap template generator called Lay Out It. It is amazing how many free options like that exist now.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 4.16.30 PM

The second concern was trying to think through was using an old school image map as the main visual navigation. We wanted people to be able to click on the bones and end up at the 3D interactive pieces. I hadn’t made an image map in a long time either. I did suspect that there’d be some issues with responsive image resizing and navigation like this. A bit of googling later and it turns out there’s an answer for this and it’s on github and it uses Power Puff girls for the example. It worked perfectly. The first two steps took about 10 minutes from desire to working prototype. All hail the Internet.

The third piece, and the one that ate up most of my time, was making interactive web components from the STL files. My ignorance of 3D shapefiles knows no limits but I did find three.js a while back and it has loaders for STL and a number of other common formats. I installed it and hand no trouble running the examples but failed at loading the pigeon bones. I failed at binary exports. I failed at ASCII exports. I failed, I failed, I failed in so many different ways. I then attempted to really cheat and use some of the hosted solutions where I quickly ran into size limits and requests to pay for things and other sacrifices I wasn’t willing to make.

I then circled back to GitHub. Turns out it does a really nice job of automating the display of 3D shapefiles up to 10 MB and makes a handy iframe embed option available. I had to use quadratic edge collapse decimation on a few of the files in order to get under that limit but left the larger files available because GitHub makes that so easy.

I wanted those iframes to be responsive as well. This nice little post answered that question quickly and easily.

As always, there are lots of things I need to do better and many ways I can/should improve the site. I’ll be looking at caching options, making this a more portable structure that others will be able to add to and improve.

1 I do need to see if we might offer some attractive reasons to come over from

2 The media is an enemy of the people.

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.


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.

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


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.

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.

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).

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.

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. 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.


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.

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