Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fine Line Between Charity and Abuse of the System

My mother owns an agency that provides home-based therapy services for children under the age of three. Every year around the holidays I am reminded of a story she shared with me several years ago.

After the new year, my mom went to a family's house to work with their child. Upon entering the house, she was surprised to see wrapped gifts still stacked against the wall. The parent joked that they had so many presents that year that they simply hadn't had the time to open them yet. The family was on public assistance, so this confused my mother. The parent further explained that she made sure to get her children on as many charity lists as possible that year – churches, community groups, schools, etc. The pile of gifts was only a small portion of the donations and didn't include food and household items or gift cards. The parent openly shared all of this with my mother.

It's because of this incident that I am weary to donate money for holiday gift cards at my school. I completely understand that the story my mom shared may not be the norm, but it proves that it is quite difficult to find the line between much-needed charity and abuse of the system. This year, my school raised enough money to give 40 families each a $50 Walmart gift card. As a school, we should be proud that we are able to help so many people, however, I can't get past the fact that some of those families called the school and were asked to be added to the charity list.

How many of those 40 families asked to be added to other lists as well? Is their Walmart gift card destined to end up in an overflow gift pile similar to the one my mother witnessed? And how are we to know that the card didn't go toward cigarettes or alcohol?

In the past, the team of teachers I work with have chosen a student that we know could use a little holiday cheer. We buy him/her a few outfits and maybe a pair of sneakers and then mail the package to the house. I feel good doing this. First, the gift is going to the child. Second, we have the freedom to choose who we think most needs a donation based on our daily observations. It's a lot of extra footwork to prepare the package, but it's worth it knowing that the donation is needed and truly appreciated.

This post is by no means a slam at anyone who donates money around the holidays. I give credit to anyone who is willing to share the wealth, especially to those in need. It's just a shame that some people are willing to exploit the kindness of others. Charities and not-for-profit organizations have been on my list of interests lately, so this will probably not be the last post on this topic. In the meantime, I would appreciate any feedback on good groups/organizations/programs that you feel comfortable donating to. I want to make a difference and would love to know the most effective way to do so...

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is there a Movie for this Book? (And other frustrations with film adaptations)

The worst part of reading with students is the inevitable question that is always asked: Is there a movie for this? For ELA teachers, this is equivalent to telling Bobby Flay not to bother with dinner because you would prefer to order a pizza and wings.

Most stories we read in class do have movie adaptations – if they are good enough to dedicate class time reading, they were probably good enough for someone to make into a movie. I don't like showing the movie out of obligation, and the typical movie/book-compare/contrast activity is near worthless in my opinion. To make matters worse, the availability of a movie doesn't necessarily mean its any good. Some movie versions of books are quite awful – take the 1981 made for tv adaptation of Todd Strasser's book The Wave, for example. (After starting the movie, kids actually complained about having to finish it.) But any teacher who admits that a movie exists but refuses to show it will face a potential mutiny in his/her classroom.

So how can teachers use a movie version of a story as a valuable resource rather than a frivolous time-killer?

I was faced with this question several weeks ago after reading Shirley Jackson's classic short story, The Lottery. I was teaching a unit on setting, mood, and tone, and I felt this story would work nicely in exploring how these elements work together. The kids loved the story, but I was not sure how to wrap up the unit. The Lottery film adaptation from the 1960s is dated and kind of slow moving, but my students insisted they see it anyway.

The film version is only about 20 minutes long, and as I watched it with the class I again noticed how drawn out the story was. I realized that it could probably have been boiled down to three minutes of actual substance – and this gave me an idea.

After watching the movie, my class agreed that the movie did not do justice to the story. I told them that the final assignment for The Lottery was to create a music video that accurately portrayed the setting, mood, and tone of the story. They could use any song they'd like that they thought fit those requirements, but they only video footage they were allowed to use were clips taken from the film.

To do this, I found the complete film posted on Youtube. I downloaded it from there using Keepvid and then converted it to a usable format with Format Factory. From there, students used Movie Maker to cut and splice what they considered to be important scenes together to fit with the soundtrack.

The group took to the technical labor of this assignment much quicker than I anticipated. It was also interesting to see the variety of songs they were able to successfully apply to the film. We had everything from Tom Jones to Bob Marley, but they all managed to edit the film in such a way to meet the needs of their songs. I was impressed.

This worked especially well with The Lottery, but I could also see it being an excellent culminating project for other short stories (with bad movie adaptations) – The Tell-Tale Heart, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, maybe even novels like The Outsiders, if broken down by chapter. The beauty is that all of these are available on Youtube, so finding the raw materials your students need is not very difficult.

Obviously, this treads dangerous copyright ground, so you may want to refrain from posting students' finished work. I, however, am not heeding my own warning – here is the sample project I made for my students to use as a reference. I made sure to disclose that I am not the owner of any of the materials – the song is Know Your Enemy by Green Day, and the movie is The Lottery, directed by Larry Yust.

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How to Create Virtual Realty Field Trips

Field trips are a great idea because it exposes kids to things many of them have never seen before. The probem, however, is that the excitement and novelty often trumps any chance for the true real-world learning and teachable moments that field trips offer. Sure, you can take pictures or videos, but these static media just don't compare.

I was thinking about this and I was reminded of a feature I used to like when my wife and I were house hunting. Some realty sites have an interactive feature where the potential buyer can take a virtual tour through the house. It was a great way to really understand the layout of the house and visualize what it would be like to live there.

Why not use this virtual realty technology for field trips? It's actually fairly simple to do. Imagine taking a field trip to a historic location, for example. The trip can be captured by digital camera and later transformed into a virtual trip that be re-explored in depth from the classroom.

Here is my tutorial for creating a virtual reality tour.

Software Needed:
Auto Stitch
Pano Cube
PT Stitcher
(I have included all of these applications in a .zip folder that can be downloaded here. They can also be downloaded individually from their respective companys' sites.)
Image Editor – Photoshop/Gimp/etc

Equipment Needed:
Digital Camera with plenty of memory

Part I: Taking pictures

1. Position the tripod and camera in the approximate center of the location that you plan on capturing. Once you begin taking pictures you cannot move the tripod, so choose carefully.

2. You need to be able to move the head of the tripod in a vertical line from bottom to top but keep it level horizontally, so adjust your tripod as necessary. Do this before you begin taking pictures so it doesn’t interrupt the continuity of the shots.

3. Begin taking pictures by tilting the camera as far down on the tripod as it allows. It’s okay if the tripod legs are in the picture – that’ll be fixed later. Take one picture, then move the camera up so that the new picture will have about 60% overlap. In other words, before moving pick something on the camera screen that is about 40% up from the bottom, and then move the position so that target is now at the bottom of the screen.

4. Continue to take a picture and move the tripod position until your camera is facing straight up (or as close as your tripod will allow). One series of vertical pictures should consist of approximately 10-15 shots depending on the overlap for each picture.

5. Swivel the camera counter-clockwise so there’s about 60% horizontal overlap. Aim the camera all the way down to the ground again and begin a new series of pictures.

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you have moved 360 degrees around your location. Your final series of pictures should overlap with the first series.

Part II: Create the Panorama

1. Run the AutoStitch program. Select Edit from the menu and then choose Options. You can leave everything as it is, but change the Output size height to 700.

2. Go to Open in the File menu. Select all of your pictures (there should be between 100-150 of them depending on how much they overlap).

3. When AutoStitch finishes, it will create a file called pano.jpg.

4. Use the image editor of your choice (Photoshop or its free equivalent, GIMP) and open pano.jpg. In order to display correctly as a virtual reality tour, pano.jpg must be cropped to be exactly twice as wide as it is high. First, crop out any black areas (these are usually on the outside edges where you may not have tilted the camera enough while taking your pictures) as well as any place where you see the tripod legs. If you’re comfortable with your image editor, these can also be removed using the clone tool. Do not crop the width of the image. If you do so, your virtual reality tour will not be seamless.

5. Make note of the width of your image and then increase the canvas height to half the width. This will put a white space both above and below your image.

6. Using the marquee tool, select and copy a 50-100 pixel strip from your image and copy it. Then stretch it to fill the white space. Do this for above and below the image.

7. Save this edited file as a jpg.

Your image should look something like this. Notice the top and bottom of the image are just slices that have been copied and pasted then stretched to fill the space.

Part III: Turning your panorama into virtual reality

1. Begin by moving the PanoCube folder (named PC00292) directly to your C drive (click on my computer and then C drive). This program is pretty finicky and won’t work if it is in a different location.

2. Open the folder and locate both the PanoCUBE.exe file and the PTStitcher.exe file. Drag the PTStitcher.exe file into the PanoCUBE.exe file. This only has to be done the first time you use the program.

3. Now locate the image file you created with the image editor. Drag this file into the PanoCUBE.exe file. PanoCube will work for a while and then create a .mov file with the same name as the image you dragged into it.

4. You’re done! You can either embed the .mov into a website, or play it from the computer by double clicking it.

Here is a sample tour I created of one of the science labs at my school. (If it doesn't display correcly on your computer as an embedded object, you can download the .mov here).

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Watch Security Cameras using Google

Google is so good that all it usually takes to find what we're looking for is the most basic of searches. Few realize all the added commands and query strings that Google can also use to find something. When these are used, Google opens up to a whole new world of results.

Like unsecured, password-free security cameras, for example.

Many network security cameras do not come with a default password. If this is unchanged by the user, then the feed is available on the Internet. Google makes it simple to find these. By using a few simple Google search specifications, live security cameras from around the world are at your disposal. Many of them can even be controlled. I bet you never realized Google would give you the power to maneuver a video camera through a mall in Germany.

Most of the cameras you'll find offer little clue as to the location you're viewing, but it's still interesting nonetheless. If you'd like to find some cameras of your own, there is a great list of searches here that will yield some cool cameras. Here are my favorites. Click on the image to view the live surveillance stream.

Web cam: Mall/Pet Store
Location: Somewhere in Germany

This camera is always busy with shoppers checking out the hamsters, birds, and other critters for sale. Swivel the camera around and you also get a nice view of the main drag of the mall as well as people moving up and down the escalators. I figure the cam is in Germany because there’s a sign above the rabbits that has the word “die” in it, which is German for “the.” Either that, or the store sells some seriously badass bunnies.

Web cam: Office
Location: USA? Maybe around Florida or surrounding states?

This camera is not as exciting as the others, but it was the first one I found so I figured it was worth adding to the list. The site actually shows four cameras located throughout what appears to be some kind of small business (possibly named ENCO based on the floor mat in the lobby?). I’m assuming it’s someplace warm, because it’s December and the only employee to work yesterday was wearing shorts. Incidentally, that employee must have off on Fridays because the building has been empty all day today.

Web cam: Zoo/Giraffes
Location: Asia

This camera is trained on a large cage containing two adult giraffes and a baby. I’m assuming it is a zoo, but the strange thing is that the giraffes never seem to leave the room. Regardless, it’s kind of cool to get a glimpse at these animals from such a close distance.

Web cam: Print/Photo Developing Store
Location: ?

There is nothing real interesting or amazing about this camera, but that’s the reason why I’m intrigued by it. The camera is positioned in the corner of a bustling print shop and allows a close-up view of customers and store clerks.

Web cam: St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital
Location: Memphis, Tennessee

I included this camera on the list because it’s the only one that I was able to confirm a location for. For me, it proved that all of these places do actually exist somewhere!

Web cam: Pizza Joint
Location: Someplace Spanish speaking

This camera offers a near 360 degree view of a small pizza place. There are usually stacks of pizza boxes sitting around, and although I can’t make out the name, it looks like there are accent marks above letters. I’m assuming it’s Spanish.

Web cam: Copy shop
Location: Asia

It’s difficult to tell what kind of store this is, but I’m guessing some kind of print shop. Because of all the signs scattered about the store that are in a language so different from English, watching this camera is very “other-worldly.”

Web cam: Dog Boardinghouse
Location: ?

When I first came across this camera, I was a little creeped out. It is a view of a small room – no larger than a walk-in closet – containing nothing but a small area rug and a children’s bed. I did some snooping and found several other similar cameras in the facility, and eventually figured out it must be some kind of kennel for over-privileged pooches.

Web cam: Horse Carving
Location: ?

Throughout the day, you will find people hand-crafting a wooden horse. I'm not sure if this is an art workshop or some kind of business. Antique carousel, maybe?

Web cam: Cows
Location: Finland

Google Translate tells me the camera locations are written in Finnish, so I’m assuming this stream is showing foreign cows. This camera also has a setting to adjust audio, however I haven’t had luck getting it to play over my speakers. Unfortunately, this leaves an important question unanswered – Do Finnish cows sound like American cows when they moo?
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