Previous month:
February 2013
Next month:
April 2013

RIP Free SF Chronicle

Maybe, all these years, when I printed the links to Jon Carroll cat columns, none of you were clicking on them. Maybe all of you were. Alas, a pay wall is about to fall in front of the content of the San Francisco Chronicle, including that of Carroll, the very best daily newspaper columnist in America. If you are a Chronicle subscriber, you have free access. Otherwise, pay up or move along buddy. So, I won't be printing those links any more. I do believe journalists should be paid for their work, and I recognize that the traditional model of advertising support has collapsed in the Internet age. That doesn't mean I have to be happy about it. I am fairly sure the Chronicle just dropped out of the national conversation, joining a lot of other papers who have taken the same step. Information want to be free, but it doesn't really matter what information wants.


3.5 stars out of 5
OK, right out of the box, Tina Fey. She's on my phone book list, the list of actors whose films I would attend, even if they were only reading the phonebook. Lily Tomlin, also in this film, is also on that list. Paul Rudd, the romantic lead, not so much. But it was clever, funny, well-written and entertaining. As a suburban parent, it hit awfully close to home, but fortunately my college admission days are behind both me and my daughters. Director Paul Weitz made a lovely film from Karen Croner's script, based on  Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel.  Too long by a half hourat 117 minutes, but worth a trip.

Olympus has Fallen

1 star out of 5
I was just discussing my lack of taste/judgment when it comes to movies with my family when, as part of a Sunday of two films, I was put in the presence of this turkey. At last, a film I didn't like.  I mean just for starters, how do you, or why would you, sneak a Morgan Freeman film into theaters without ever showing anyone a preview? If it is a stinker, that's how. When the British papers print the names of pedophiles, they call it "name and shame."  So, shame on you  director Antoine Fuqua and writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. You don't go to a film like this expecting Citizen Kane, but you also don't go expecting a dog's breakfast. Frankly, when Quentin Tarrantino does this ultra violence, I actually find it amusing. This is as close to a  slasher film as I ever expect a mainstream film to be. I am currently reading a book on Hollywood story tropes, and it mentions that most movies had deadlines. This has several. Poking holes in the plot of this turkey would be like kicking someone when they were down. And on top of everything else, it was two hours long! I can't wait for the director's cut--if it is 70 minutes. Epic fail.

The Croods

4 stars out of  5
I am an avid movie goer, and yet my time available for movie-going seems to come in spurts. This week was a spurt. I saw the lovely animated feature The Croods, which topped the box office last weekend (I would have seen it if it had grossed 1 million dollars on a thousand screens, but that's just me). The delightful trailer actually does the film some justice; it is cute, light and entertaining. I guess we're beyond the point of commenting on the CGI in computer animated films, but the heroine's red hair--phew! Not to mention fire and water--a trifecta of excellent animation. The production design was impressive--I've never seen anything like the creatures (one of which looks like an homage to Maurice Sendak, or is that just my imagination). It seems as though someone has spent some time working on eyes; I was struck by how good they were. Realistic humans still fall into the "uncanny valley," but these near-human creatures were good enough that you could sometimes get lost in the illusion. I cried at the end, but as the father of two daughters witnessing a father-daughter moment, what else could I do?

Dan Grobstein File

Cameo Appearance

A friend of mine was watching the documentary Side by Side on Netflix. It is about the rise of digital film-making. At about 30:15, he informed me, I appear in a brief cameo. It's true! There is about 15 seconds of footage from The Computer Chronicles, a PBS program I appeared on during the 1980s. I'd say the footage is circa 1987. It comes from one of my one-minute software reviews. I am holding up an 8-inch floppy disk. Wow, that was a long time ago.  I am merely visual wallpaper, illustrating a point about storage media.

Of course, someday someone is going to give me my 15-minutes of fame by more widely distributing my pan of the Macintosh (it appears about 25 minutes in) which appeared on PBS soon after the computer came to market. I compared it (and not favorably) to a Big Mac. Every few years, my students discover it and have a big laugh. But I'll tell you what I tell them and what I told a blogger/interviewer in 2009; I wouldn't change a word of that commentary. Just because it is successful doesn't mean it is a better machine, just a more popular one (ala VHS/Betamax).

Education Issues: Technology

Count me in! I have been a fan of educational technology since I was a member of the AV club in grade school, showing 16mm films and changing projector bulbs. I don't know if I could throw a sound loop now, but I could back then. In high school, I worked at KBPS, a 250-watt radio station that broadcast in-school programs during the day. The technology wasn't particularly educational, but at MIT I was a regular MULTICS user, and anchored the first MITV news broadcast.

I have been teaching for 10 years. When I started, we showed VHS movies on wall-mounted television sets. Since then, I am certain that we have improved student learning outcomes with every technological advance.

We've had two computer labs at my school since I started, as well as several computers in each classroom (by "rescuing" elderly computers on their way to retirement, I have my room up to six computers, although one is for my fellow teacher and the other me). That's enough for an occasional computer-based project, but you can't always get access. This year, I can't get access for all three of my periods ever, because during 7th period, both labs are booked every day. So, we have two portable computer labs, AKA Cows (computers on wheel), you can check out. Except if someone has used them in the morning, the batteries start dying in the afternoon. In short, we could use technology more if it was more reliably available.

About five years ago, we bought special-purpose Jeopardy game consoles, which allow us to play Jeopardy by giving out students wireless buzzers. The students are excited and enthusiastic, and study much harder for a Jeopardy game than a test. After all, achievement on a test is private, but correctly answering a tough Jeopardy question (and helping your team win) is a much more exciting process.

This process was helped along by the next stage of technology, digital projectors, which arrived at about the same time as DVD players. Just as teachers had now-useless stocks of 16mm films when I arrived a decade ago, I now have a nearly useless stock of VHS tapes. I managed to get a two sided player for my last upgrade, but it was hard to find and I doubt there are many left at a reasonable price. The digital projects are much easier for students to watch than the TV mounted in the front corner of the room, and have a better sound system as well.

Then came touch-sensitive electronic whiteboards. The tricky thing is programming them, but over time you can build up a pile of "flipcharts" which can be used to increase student engagement and offer alternative visual presentations of material.

Next was an "iPad Lab," a rolling cart of  30 iPads (which is a class set at our school), for which wireless has been extended to every room. Alas, they have their limits; no flash movies, and you can edit Google Docs, but not Google Presentations on an Ipad.. I give tests on the iPads  using the Google Docs survey function. Combined with a free script called Flubaroo, it makes test grading trivial.

Finally, just this year, we created school Google Docs accounts for all our students. We don't want them using their personal accounts, because we have turned off email. Also, with a school account, we can see what is going on and reset their passwords if need be. We have done two Google Docs assignments in two weeks; the first was a Fakebook page (a fake Facebook page), made for a general or politician active during the Civil war. The students had a hoot doing those, as they did in preparing, with a partner, a 15-slide presentation centered around a 300-word first person account of a civil war battle. Definitely increases student engagement and eases collaboration.

But how should we use technology? In the classroom, there is  Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom goes from remembering (trivial) through understanding, applying, analyzing and evaluating to creating (the top rung). Of course, standardized testing (which I've already discussed), forces us to spend most of our time on the bottom rung, since the California STAR test does not test any of those other skills.

There is a similar taxonomy for the use of technology, which runs from substitution through augmentation, modification and redefinition. Most of my assignments are now at substitution or augmentation, but I have my sights set higher. Also, since the State of California doesn't really care about history, there is no history STAR test--no standardized test of any kind for history--for the next several years. This means I can get off the bottom rung of Bloom's Taxonomy, and maybe off the bottom rung of the technology taxonomy as well.