Thursday, August 27, 2009


Thanks to traffic, I arrive about 15 minutes late for the 9:30 Anerian teleconference. Amanda likes my suggestions for (1) a "buddy system" to get more of the faculty proficient in Blackboard and (2) that she should compile an online hyperlinked version of her already planned "one-pager" summarizing everyone's summer projects.

Videographer Corrie, also from Anerian, shoots me in the early afternoon, tells me to look straight into the camera while answering her questions. Unfortunately I forget to smile. Hopefully she will be able to salvage 60 seconds of usable footage out of my mound of blather.

In answering Corrie's questions I improvise, putting into words what I have been half thinking all summer: that if the didactic part of teaching ("schoolwork") can be offloaded to videos viewed at home, and if "homework" can be done at school, then every student will have an improved ability to tailor the pace to his own needs. Perhaps I flatter myself, but I think that even a mediocre video is more engaging than a textbook. A student who needs little in the way of explanations or examples can skip over part of the video, avoiding boredom, and a student who needs a second or third shot at getting the concepts can replay the video without embarrassment. Then, in class, we can have discussions, moderated problem-solving, and educational games without having to worry about, heaven forbid, missing out on "course material." I'm surely not the first person to have this idea (schoolwork at home, homework at school), but I'm excited that technology now makes it realistic for me to experiment with the idea. I can certainly try it out this fall and see how the boys respond.

My old rollaway laptop cart, still housed in SB-302, needs to be moved to my new office. I am surprised to find two compartments unlocked and mostly empty, two other compartments locked and completely empty. This is shocking, since I thought I had left a dozen or more obsolete 1980s computers in the cart two years ago when construction began. Must check other locations at home; maybe I brought some of the little beasties home and forgot. I used to use them in class, but with the disruption caused by the construction, I have hardly used any of them (except for Smokey, of course) during the last two school years.

While moving the cart to MH-104 and relocking it, I bash up my thumb. I wander throughout the entire school until finally finding a first aid station in the True-Lucas building.

Later in the day, I manage to assemble my sixth video in the series, Topic #3C. Alas, this will probably be the last one for the summer, since my wife has a ton of projects that I need to complete before the school year begins.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

8/20/2009: Math Ed, Music Ed (Two Great Links)

No fancy words here, just a couple of great links. The first comes from a former student of mine, and the second was republished in a magazine (The American Organist) that I sometimes read.

—Dr. Arthur Benjamin (in a TED talk) argues that prob/stat, not the calculus, should be the goal of K-12 math

—Dr. Karl Paulnack explains the purpose of music to parents of students newly enrolled at the Boston Conservatory


A most enjoyable week at Chautauqua comes to an end. In addition to the luminaries we saw on stage and at the Amp, I saw actress Andie MacDowell on Bestor Plaza Sunday 8/9 as we trooped en masse to morning service. Who knew I would be a celebrity spotter?

Back to DC, stopping by school to see the new building. It looks finished!

8/14/2009: Ideas from Stanford’s

Last full morning at Chautauqua; guest preacher for the week, Tony Campolo, gets a standing o from the congregation at the 9:15 devotional. Finding this awkward, I and the old guy two pews in front of me resist, but I finally relent.

Morning lecture is by George Kembel, the director of Stanford’s “” (Institute of Design). Many useful ideas for product development, summarized by the circular EDIPT methodology: build empathy with users, define the problem (where most mistakes occur), generate ideas only at this point, prototype, test, repeat.

String quartet reading (Mozart Divertimento, Beethoven Op. 18 No. 1) in the afternoon with Mort from 06 07 08, Chris, and Sue.


Golf at WoodCrest near Mayville. Nephew, age 10, manages to beat me by a stroke over 9 holes. I miss par on the last hole by a whisker, misreading the break slightly. Evening Chautauqua Symphony with the Brahms Third and Colin Carr on the Dvorak Cello Concerto, both very well performed. Pre-concert lecture interesting but somewhat skimpy on the Dvorak because of time limitation.

[Days later, when back home, I discover that Les Paul died on this day at age 94. My brother says that Paul was playing gigs up until about 6 weeks ago.]


Chautauqua evening performance by Anna Deavere Smith, a true genius and winner of a MacArthur fellowship.


Chautauqua morning lecture by Daniel Goldin, former NASA Administrator, on his ideas about creative problem solving. Nothing really new, but it was nice to be reminded of the utility of backward chaining and remembering to think in higher dimensions. Backward chaining (envisioning the solution): Given containers of 9 quarts and 5 quarts, how do you measure out precisely 6 quarts? Higher-dimensional thinking: Given six sticks of equal length, make 4 congruent equilateral triangles.

Another fun and entertaining class with Jody and Gary, though I find the number game (3 elbows, 4 hips, etc.) embarrassing. Gary has a number of useful ideas regarding GeometryQuest.

Great cello recital in the afternoon, Bach unaccompanied suites 2, 4, and 6, by Colin Carr. Unexpectedly spot Chris and Sue from Orkney Springs at the recital, agree to play quartets later in the week.

8/10/2009: Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0

Chautauqua morning lecture by Daniel Pink features his theories of motivation: how business (including education, which he specifically discussed) can make employment more creative, fulfilling, and productive. Pink cites research showing that when employees are incentivized for their work product, on tasks that require cognitive attention, productivity and quality actually drop. Connections to the 2008 Wall Street fiasco are made in passing, but it seems to me that just as the investment and mortgage banks’ compensation policies led to a lot of destructive nonsense, the compensation policies of the knowledge economy of the U.S. in the 21st century are equally out of whack. Pink recommends paying everyone fairly—“to take the issue of money off the table,” in his words—and then implementing the following template for “Motivation 3.0” as transcribed by the Chautauqan Daily, 8/11/2009, page 5: “This system has three components. Autonomy is the desire to direct one’s own life. Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose is the desire to do something in the service of something larger than oneself.”

While listening to the lecture, I note that the initial letters spell AMP, which is easy to remember, since it reminds me of the “amp” (amphitheater) at Chautauqua.

What Pink calls Motivation 1.0 is simple survival, which served the human species well for many millennia. Motivation 2.0, carrot and stick, worked well enough through the 20th century, but now a new approach is needed.

On the issue of merit pay for teachers, Pink says he once thought it was a good idea but has changed his mind. He agrees that schools have to have more power to get rid of bad teachers. Sounds to me as if what he is advocating is something similar to the independent school model: Pay teachers as much as you reasonably can, get out of their way, let them be creative, but keep them on 1-year contracts so that anyone can be nonrenewed.

My wife wants to know where Pink’s children go to school, and she predicts it is Sidwell. Guess I should investigate. My prediction is that it is a Montessori school. [Note: I learned some time after this post was originally written that his children attend an independent school in Washington, D.C., but it is neither Sidwell nor a Montessori school. My wife and I were both wrong.]

Will be attending a class today through Wednesday on creative problem solving, conducted by Jody Brooks and Gary Shields. Format is mini-lecture punctuated with game-playing and improv. For example, in “What are you doing?” the object is to answer anything except what you are pantomiming, and then your partner has to mime what you said and be prepared to give a wrong answer when you ask, “What are you doing?” The game goes back and forth until somebody either repeats, fumbles the rules, or takes too long to come up with something.

Recitals today: 4 p.m. Audubon String Quartet with guest David Salness, evening solo recital by Da Wang, winner of the Chautauqua piano competition and a $7,500 prize. Wang’s performance of Chopin and Haydn leaves me cold, but his Liszt is superb. His encore, an arrangement of the Turkish Rondo most likely done by Liszt, shows unbelievable technique.


Tribute to Oscar Hammerstein II, concert by the Chautauqua Symphony. Downpour at the end leaves a line of old ladies waiting for an umbrella escort to the Athenaeum Hotel. I offer my huge umbrella to the woman at the head of the line, who must be 82 or 84. She thanks me on behalf of herself and a tiny woman huddled over a walker, who turns out to be her mother. This calls to mind the ancient description of Chautauqua as a place where “grandmothers take their mothers.” However, someone must be replenishing the ranks, since the only web-based reference I can find to that phrase is almost 30 years old.


Away for 10 days of vacation in Pennsylvania and New York (Chautauqua). Planned to leave about 10 a.m. but did not depart until about 12:30.


At school, I produce the companion mailing to yesterday’s e-mail and manage to deposit the envelopes at the Friendship Station USPS on Wisconsin Ave. just seconds after the 5 p.m. pickup. Since the sign indoors says there is another pickup at 6 p.m., I will hope for the best.

Back at home, I demo the videos to my next-door neighbors. The oldest child takes a real interest in the Greek letters, perhaps because her dad belonged to a fraternity and has his paddle mounted on the wall.


Half day, 8:30 to noon, at the Census Bureau’s Suitland center. Metro arrives at the Suitland station at about 8:29. Fearful that I am late, I rush through security and scurry down the hall in the direction indicated. No need to worry; the first talk does not start until 9:15. The message is Census in Schools. OK, I’ve got it. What else is there to do until noon? Not much, it turns out, although Paul Reyes (whom I lined up as an AP Stat guest speaker after meeting him at NCTM in April) gives a high-energy, upbeat demo of Fast Facts and some of the other resources for educators. One of the earlier talks was a snoozer, but Paul truly loves his job, and it shows. The cloth goodie bag we all received is chock full of great stuff: two census data slide rules, a mug, a Statistical Abstract of the U.S. CD, a chip clip, a memo pad, and a huge (3 ft. by 4 ft.) double-sided map showing population density and other fun facts for the states. Plus, the goodie bag itself is a nice book bag for the fall. All in all, another great professional development outing, with an extremely high ROI for the approx. $6 Metro fare.

Back at home, I send e-mail to all 22 Running STArt invitees (and their parents) and finish up the Topic #3B video.

Today marks 23 years since I started my first full-time job in Washington (ANSER, 1986-1994). Doesn’t seem all that long ago, but another time span of the same length will make me . . . [redacted] years old. Uff-da.


All day, 8:30 to about 5:00, at the BAPS (Beyond AP Statistics) workshop held in conjunction with the JSM (Joint Statistical Meetings) at the Washington Convention Center. Actually, BAPS is held at the Shaw campus of Center City Public Charter Schools, 711 N St., NW, about a block north. Arriving at 8:25, I am surprised to find that I am late, since the plenary session for BAPS and MWM (Meeting Within a Meeting) participants has already started. I ride down the elevator to the auditorium with Roxy Peck, the BAPS organizer.

Chris Olsen, instructor from my 1998 AP Stat workshop in Palo Alto, is presenting in one of the other tracks. I chat him up at lunch and give him my card. He is particularly interested in LectureScribe.

I exchange contact info with a DC teacher who has been using Chris Olsen’s (and Roxy Peck’s) AP Stat textbook, since I will be using it for the first time this year.

Four BAPS talks (plus a lunchtime plenary session), probably the best of which is Allan Rossman’s BAPS talk on using simulations to assess statistical significance in a completely general way, applicable even when the situation does not satisfy the usual assumptions. He sees this approach (and I agree) as a way to “build in” understanding of P-value and significance from the ground up, spiraling the topics all through the course. Rossman’s colleague Beth Chance, a noted researcher and award-winning stat ed expert in her own right, is relegated to the role of computer operator during the talk. As it happens, I am seated immediately to her right and get to watch all the inputs (and one minor uncorrected Java applet bug). Rossman encourages all of us to apply to be AP Stat readers next summer. The scheduling just might work out: second week of June, Daytona Beach, hmmm . . .

At the JSM trade show, I line up a guest speaker from the IRS and score minimal swag from other vendors (one ballpoint pen is all). However, since the CDC has nobody at the booth and lots of great handouts, I scoop up several reprint articles and a class set of one reprint that my stat students should find interesting. Also get free dataset download info from NCHS, SAMHDA, and IRS. I try chatting up the Google recruiter on the way out: “Do you ever hire people for the summer?” Answer is a flat no, unless the person is (1) a college intern and presumably (2) ├╝ber-smart. OK, so I clearly don’t qualify. What about my students? The answer is that people like Nicholas Ink might qualify under the Summer of Code mentoring/stipend program, but only if they are 18 by April of the program year. Good to know.

Strangest item for sale: Jason Rosenhouse’s new book on the Monty Hall problem. Skimming it, I cannot understand the extraordinary lengths to which he went in order to spin a book-length treatment. Guess I might have to read it.

Things I should have already known about (but thank heavens I at least know about them now): TED lectures, R, and the Rossman/Chance Applet Collection. I think any professional development outing is a justifiable expense if one comes away with at least one such item, and since my $50 registration fee is being reimbursed by WSS, the ROI is off the charts for BAPS/JSM. NCTM was also a bargain in April, though it cost several hundred dollars. Three things I learned about at NCTM (SketchUp, Geogebra, and the technique for folding a dollar bill into a regular tetrahedron) also fall into the category of “things I should have already known about, but thank heavens I at least know about them now.”

I almost buy a book on mathematics in art, but there is no price marked. I decide to buy it if the price is $30 or less. Unfortunately, the price, even with the show discount, is about double that, and I head for the Metro.


I manage, using superhuman powers of patience, to transcribe my ad-libbed audio track from Topic #3A. I conclude that writing a script in advance would have been easier, even if editing were required afterward. A bonus would be a shorter video and less time spent by students, although they can and probably will fast-forward through the dull parts.

Resolving to make the Topic #3B and 3C videos shorter and more professional-looking, I build PowerPoint slides for the Greek alphabet in upper and lower case.


After 5 takes, I manage to get a reasonably good version of Topic #3A (Greek Letters for Geometry) recorded. Running time is about 19 minutes, which is longer than I would have liked. The production values are not as high as for the other videos, but it should be all right. My new RSR technique for changing backgrounds in LectureScribe without starting a new board is working well.

7/31/2009: The Future of K-12 Education, or, "Pssst, one word: Games"

Voice mail from my alma mater, Bradley University in Peoria, IL: Google apparently notified them that BallparkIt was released on the iPod App Store, and Bradley wants to run an article in the December issue of Hilltopics. Spoke with Nancy on the publication staff and bent her ear for way too long on my philosophies of education and my prediction of where K-12 education is headed. Think of The Graduate updated by 42 years. One word: games.

I’m not the only person to make that prediction, of course. Steven Berlin Johnson (STA ’86) said essentially the same thing when he visited my statistics class in November 2007. I have to paraphrase, using a few of his words here and there: What we know from neuroscience is that optimum learning takes place when the content is paced at precisely the correct rate, and interactive games do a really good job of that. Well-designed games engage the student and adjust in real time so that the difficulty level is always challenging, but not too challenging.

There is a reason that I was able to tutor all of my geometry students by telephone one snow day in February 2003: Working one-on-one is much more efficient from the student’s point of view. We were able to cover an entire lesson in about 10 minutes on average, or one-fifth the usual time. (Of course, it was murder on me, since I was on the phone for about 4 hours straight, but it saved time for the students.) What will education look like when the content (DVD-ROM or Web-based games, I’m thinking) and interpersonal resources (teachers like me) are structured around the needs and schedules of students instead of the needs and schedules of a factory-like educational apparatus? Handled correctly, this revolution could mean a huge increase in the level of achievement, especially for the brighter students who are currently forced to putt-putt along at the so-called “average” pace, which is itself much slower than anyone, let alone a student of average intelligence, would follow if left to his own devices. Want proof? Imagine a TV show or YouTube video paced to match a high school class session. Even with an AP or honors class, but especially with a more basic-level class, nobody would want to watch the entire video, because it would be too dang boring. That is not to say that the video would be useless, mind you—merely that nobody would be able to resist fast-forwarding through portions of it. Those portions would be different for different people. If the video were replaced by an interactive game that constantly maintained a level of challenge and helped the student to stay engaged for nearly the entire time, a student of average intelligence could become much more productive.

One trick that I learned at a teacher-training session (can’t remember anymore where it was) is to have one student playing a quiz-type game while everyone else watches. This is engaging in the same vicarious way that Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is engaging—but I still think that if the budget permits it, it would usually be better to have each student playing his own game. That does not rule out the possibility of occasionally using the “group performance” concept, nor does it rule out the possibility of educational MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). In fact, when I have pitched the GeometryQuest MMORPG concept to my students, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. If I could realistically scare up a couple million in venture capital, I just might quit my job and make GeometryQuest my life’s work.

It’s not that my students fail to be engaged. It’s that they fail to be engaged for more than a certain percentage of the 50-minute class. The slim minority who have slept adequately the night before and who have a basic interest in math can stay with me for, say, 40 minutes, or 80% of the class. Everyone else manages, I would estimate, 20% to 25% engagement on average. In a class of 16, that means that about 4 are fully engaged at any one moment. The others are usually partially engaged, and in many cases there is a perfectly good reason for that: They are saving their mental energy for the next thing that requires their full attention.

OK, so that means that in a 50-minute class, the average student is fully engaged for 10 to 12 minutes. Why not serve him 15 minutes of highly focused, highly interactive educational content (read: games) instead of 50 minutes of mediocre mush that is directed at the mythical “average student”? Technology will make this possible. We can then spend the remaining 35 minutes doing teacher-moderated work in lieu of homework, mind-expanding group problem solving, or (what most of my students like best, believe it or not) meandering conversations on math and philosophy. The other 30% or 40% of students who hate my tangents will have my permission to be excused and work on educational games if they wish.

This means that students will be happier and will get more out of their schooling. It may also mean a reduction in homework load, which is a good thing for everyone. The best of all possible worlds would be having a class in which everyone is so interested in learning for learning’s sake that the students start producing their own educational courseware: videos, web pages, games, etc. Well, why not? I can dream, can’t I?
After 6 takes, I finally have a compressed take for Topic #2B that I am happy with. There is one slightly muffed word (“finger nail” instead of “fingernail” during one awkward video operation), but since I have no ability to edit, I’m going to call it a success. The video was tricky to assemble, with 3 title slides and 4 video clips, 2 of which started in the middle and were therefore hard to cue when QuickTime was sized properly for Jing. Technical problems with PowerPoint also ruined a few takes. Apparently, PowerPoint centers slides differently (thus stepping outside the Jing frame boundaries I so painstakingly set) if graphic elements protrude from the printable area of the slide.


Great news from the American Statistical Association: WSS (the Washington Statistical Society) will be covering my $50 registration for next week’s BAPS (Beyond AP Statistics) workshop, since I was one of the first 10 teachers in the DC metro area to register. In addition to the workshop itself, I will be going on a half-day tour of the Census Bureau as well.

Received a very nice note today from someone who watched the Simpson’s Paradox video and liked it. That’s definitely a morale booster.


At 2:11 a.m., an e-mail from Swishsoft thanks me (for my purchase or for my patience?) and promises “quick free service” if I have any questions or suggestions in the future. I’m happy for now, and the much smaller file for Topic #2A (in color, still 96% compressed) looks good.

I finally get around to looking at all 12 of my raw video segments for the Topic #2B video (Not Using a Compass) and cataloguing the good points and bad points. My plan is to use 56 seconds in an unbroken take from file 1523, followed by 24 seconds from file 1522, then 19 seconds from file 1527, and finally 33 seconds from file 1530. These would be preceded and followed by about 5 seconds for the opening title and about 10 seconds for the end credits, giving a total running time of about 2.5 minutes. There is no formal script yet, but the sequence will be right thumb, right pinkie, right thumb faster, right pinkie much faster, left pinkie.

Also, I send an e-mail to Amanda responding to her request for 5-10 web pages that Anerian can rework as part of a demonstration project for September. Anerian is doing all this work pro bono! My submission includes 6 candidate pages: this blog [in its original HTML version], the video list, the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial photo essay, Mathcross puzzles, more Mathcross puzzles, and the launching pad for commercial algebra drills.


Aha! There is e-mail in my inbox first thing in the morning from Swishsoft. Unfortunately, the unnamed person in the unknown remote corner of the world who answered my e-mail at 4:07 a.m. has misunderstood my questions. I have an unlock key but no way to use it. At 10:38 a.m. EDT I send off another message, worded as tactfully as I can manage but probably still betraying some attitude.

While going to the grocery store shortly before noon, I check voice mail and discover a return call from Eltima. Sorry, the woman says, the Lite Edition is no longer available, but please look at the full version of Flash Optimizer for $99.95. Sorry, I think to myself, that ship has sailed, and hopefully I chose the better ship.

At day’s end, having received no work from Swishsoft, I call Digital River/RegNow and speak to a most helpful fellow named Thor. He says he will send an e-mail to Swishsoft and apply a little pressure. He copies me on the e-mail, and I must say, his wording is much more tactful than what I could produce. Very subtle pressure, nothing heavy-handed, very clear and professional.

A scant 2 hours later (wow!) I receive clear instructions from Swishsoft (no person, just the company again) with the critical download instructions that were missing the first time around. The only slight wrinkle is that the file is provided in RAR format instead of the ZIP version used for the trial version. Not a huge problem, mind you, but I’m wondering how many run-of-the-mill users would be up for all of this. I close the loop by sending e-mails to Swishsoft acknowledging that everything works now, as well as to Thor at RegNow (cc to Swishsoft) thanking him for his help and confirming that the situation is resolved.

7/27/2009: Solving the Gargantuan SWF Problem, or, "I subject Eltima and Swishsoft to a fly-off and pick a winner"

I manage to record four more takes of video #2A (Using a Compass), making seven in all. The seventh is a good take, but the size is completely unacceptable: 93 megabytes for 1 minute and 40 seconds of “video” (I use the term loosely) running at about 2 frames per second. My original .MOV file, shot with my Kodak C653 camera, has 640 by 480 resolution, 10 frames per second, but apparently using Jing to record the QuickTime playback window results in drastic downsampling.

Yes, yes, I know that I would get better results by using a camera with its feed going directly to Jing. However, I am trying to find a solution that is (1) extremely inexpensive and (2) feasible for nearly all teachers and students at our school to emulate.

At any rate, uploading the .SWF file lasts about an hour and a half on my slow DSL upload link, and even though downloads are generally a lot faster, the resulting video cannot be viewed in real time (i.e., will not stream) without a much faster Internet connection. FIOS will swallow a megabyte per second, but I cannot.

Clearly, I need to find a way to post smaller files! Two shareware products I find online look promising: Flash Optimizer (occasionally referred to as SWF Optimizer) by Eltima Software of Bellevue, WA, and Swift Optimizer (note the confusingly similar title) by Swishsoft. After downloading trial versions of both, I put them through their paces, trying various options in an attempt to produce acceptable reduced-size versions. Unfortunately, the trial versions for both products operate only in black-and-white.

Product #1: Flash Optimizer (July 2009) by Eltima Software

Here is the Eltima result. After much trial and error. I deduce that I must explicitly tell the program to compress images (a setting not selected by default) in order to get any compression at all. (Apparently the program thinks, as I do, that 2 fps is much more like a slide show than a full-motion video.) Although many different output sizes are possible, I finally settle on 50% image compression in order to get the rather disappointing but still legible output file that is linked at the start of this paragraph.

Bottom line: 91% compression, mediocre quality.

Product #2: Swift Optimizer 3.0 (May 2009) by Swishsoft

Here is the Swishsoft result after trying approximately the same number of options as with Eltima. Swishsoft’s program is similar in design but is hard for me, a barely reformed proofreader, to use since it has grammatical and typographical errors sprinkled throughout. Eventually I realize that using the Better Movie Qulity [sic] option, which is one notch up from Standard Compression, produces very good results with no custom settings required. The text quality in the opening slide and end credits completely blows away the Eltima competition. The sound quality is slightly lower than with the Eltima product, but since bit rate and bit depth are user-selectable, I figure I can increase the sound quality and accept a somewhat larger output file size. Wrong! When I try that, the results are bizarre; the output file is actually somewhat smaller but with sound and video unacceptably out of sync. In fact, I find that the only way to consistently avoid the audio-video sync problem is to use one of the five Intelligent Optimization presets: Best Movie Qulity [sic], Better Movie Qulity [sic], Standard Compression, Better Movie Size, or Best Movie Size. An odd feature of Swishsoft’s product is that there are many occasions on which it pauses for long periods of time for no apparent reason, when it is loading a file or performing some prep work. Still another odd feature is that my final slide, the closing credits, has its upper half in color. Now, if only I could figure out how to get the entire program to run in color instead of in its demo-only mode!

Bottom line: 96% compression, good quality.

Purchase experience with Flash Optimizer (Eltima) and Swift Optimizer (Swishsoft)

The Eltima product appears to be more professionally developed, and the price for Eltima’s Flash Optimizer Lite Edition ($39.95, as opposed to $79 for the Swishsoft product) is what I assumed I would have to spend. Therefore, I decide to purchase the Eltima product. However, even though I downloaded the trial version from a site that advertised the price as $39.95, I find that the lowest price offered when I attempt to make a purchase is $99.95. This is upsetting, to say the least. I call Eltima (in Bellevue, WA, a non-toll-free number) to ask a seemingly simple question: Where can I purchase the Lite Edition of Flash Optimizer that I saw advertised in multiple locations on the Internet? I am told that someone will call me back.

After a few hours of hearing nothing, I change my mind and decide to go with Swishsoft even though their price, $79, is twice as much as I had hoped to spend. I rationalize that, hey, Swishsoft is $20 cheaper than the non-lite version of Flash Optimizer, plus Swishsoft produces higher-quality visual output with less fuss and better compression. I place my credit-card order through Digital River, a reseller affiliated with RegNow. Within minutes I have confirmation of the purchase and a license key. Hooray!

Well, not so fast. There are no instructions for how to use the license key in order to unlock the crippleware demo version. With Eltima’s product, that process is obvious: A startup dialog includes an option to enter a license key. However, Swishsoft’s help text is no help on this point (I read all of it), and there are no commands or extra files with the downloaded distribution that offer any clue. Well, no problem, I’ll just send an e-mail to Cross fingers!

7/26/2009: Commingling Video and PowerPoint with Jing, or, "I achieve some knowledge from the school of hard knocks and post it for the world to see"

Whew! I finally manage to record three takes of video #2A (Using a Compass). I try ad-libbing the script on one of the takes, and it turns out so well that I simply transcribe it. Filename for the script, in Microsoft Word, is C:\!data\allyears.sta\videos\002aUsing_a_Compass\002using_a_compass_ver01.doc.

I finally have gone through the Jing procedures enough times that I feel comfortable systematizing them. Here are the steps for mixing PowerPoint and video in Jing:

1. Open PowerPoint, QuickTime, and Jing if they are not already running. Maximize the PowerPoint application window, and open the first slide (with the View Ruler feature disabled) and the zoom size set at 83%.

2. If Jing is running, the sun icon should be displayed at one edge (by default, the top edge) of the screen. Mouse over the sun and click on the leftmost “ray” to define a capture area.

3. Click and drag to define the capture area as 800 by 600. Start at the upper left corner of the PowerPoint image area, and maneuver the orange crossbars so that only one pixel of black border is visible to the left of the vertical crossbar and above the top of the horizontal crossbar. Then drag the crossbars to the lower right corner. It takes some patience and jostling to get 800 by 600 exactly. The digitizer pad is easier to use for this purpose than a mouse, that is for sure. If you mess up (which is very easy to do), simply hit the arrow icon to redefine the capture area.

4. Click the “capture video” icon. After the 3-2-1 countdown, let Jing record a few seconds of video, and hit the pause button. The Jing capture frame remains on the screen, but now (unlike before) you will be able to switch to other applications.

5. Switch to QuickTime (using Alt+Tab or another suitable technique) and open the video you wish to include in Jing. It is apparently normal to experience a long delay at this point, possibly because of memory paging caused by Jing.

6. Press Ctrl+1 to set the QuickTime window to normal size.

7. Important: Set the volume slider in QuickTime to zero. (Otherwise, any sounds present on the original video will bleed into Jing when you record your narration.)

8. Drag on the QuickTime title bar and position the upper left corner of the visible part of the video window so that it exactly coincides with the upper left corner of the Jing capture window. Resize QuickTime, by dragging on the lower right corner, until the video just fits in the Jing capture area.

9. Cancel the Jing capture by clicking the “X” button with the circle around it.

10. Switch back to PowerPoint using Alt+Tab or other suitable technique.

11. Repeat steps 2 and 3 only.

12. Click the “capture video” icon and record the first few seconds of the real video, with the opening slide displayed. Important: Make sure that the timer is really running. I botched quite a few takes because I started talking before Jing was actually recording. The 3-2-1 countdown, incidentally, is not a reliable indication of when Jing will begin recording, since there are apparently some additional delays introduced by memory paging.

13. Click the pause button and switch to QuickTime.

14. Click the “play” button in QuickTime, followed immediately by the “record” button in Jing. Start narrating the video.

15. Don’t be nervous! If you muff the narration, too bad. Simply go back to step 9 and try again.

16. At the end of the narration, click the pause button in Jing first, then (optionally) in QuickTime.

17. Switch back to PowerPoint, using Alt+Tab or other suitable technique.

18. Change to the next slide in PowerPoint. Record again in Jing, with narration if desired.

19. Repeat steps 13-18 if desired. Warning: There is a 5-minute time limit in the free version of Jing.

20. When finished assembling the video, click the stop button (square symbol). There is now a long, long wait while Jing renders the file. Unfortunately, there is no feedback of any sort on the screen; the user is simply supposed to know, I guess, that this is what is happening.

21. Eventually, Jing displays a different set of buttons, one of which is a floppy disk icon. (This is an anachronism, but it can be changed by clicking on the Jing gears, a.k.a. Preferences.) Click on the disk icon to save the file in .SWF (Shockwave Flash) format to a suitable hard drive location. To avoid having to navigate to a destination each time, you can edit the preferences (third ray from the sun, click gears, gears again, “Customize Jing Buttons,” disk icon labeled “Edit ‘Save’”) to set Desktop or another specified folder as the destination. The default file name each time will be in the format YYYY-MM-DD_HHMM.swf, but you can type take1, take2, etc., or whatever else you prefer, immediately before clicking the save button.

22. Review the video in a web browser so that you can see what the user will actually see. For example, in Firefox, I can type C:\!data\allyears.sta\videos\002aUsing_a_Compass\take1.swf into the URL window and have the video displayed. The advertisement at the end is unavoidable, but at least there is a nice fadeout to indicate the end of the video before the Jing logo appears.


With Jing, the biggest problem is that there is no editing capability. Thus, Jing is no good for people who get nervous or muff words, unless the video is very short. That is probably just as well, since there is a 5-minute limit imposed by the software anyway. No doubt the makers of Jing are hoping that some users will shell out $299 for Camtasia Studio, a “big brother” to Jing that provides real video editing. Jing Pro, at $14.95 a month, is still too expensive for educational use as I envision it: an entire faculty and a large chunk of the student body engaged in daily video production would run up too large a bill.

Other problems I have experienced with Jing include problems with lack of sound (even after double-checking that the microphone was not muted), videos that had the first few seconds lopped off, and huge output file size. I managed to work around the first two by trial and error—and since I have not hand the no-sound problem recently, I have to assume it was a newbie mistake, akin to the preposterous mistakes students make in algebra when they don’t know what they’re doing. However, I do not have a solution to the file size problem yet. [Note added later: I purchased a compression solution for the file size problem. Please see blog entries for 7/27/2009 and 7/28/2009 to see how I successfully used Swishsoft’s $79 Swift Optimizer program.]


Dinner with Ted Eagles at Clyde’s (Alexandria), followed by a long discussion/demo until nearly midnight. Ted is on a new kick, one I completely agree with and will try to get the STA administration to take seriously, namely that we should practice holding class remotely. After all, a swine flu outbreak, a leaky roof in the new building, or (heaven forbid) another terrorist attack like 9/11 could play havoc with the school schedule unless we have a plan in place.
In my demo of LectureScribe and Jing I manage to convince the ever-skeptical Ted that this technology, coupled with the recently available free online teleconferencing services, could make running classes in the event of a school shutdown a realistic option. However, we would also need several hours to train the faculty and some presumably longer period after that to ease them out of their 19th-century teaching habits that have always worked before.
Talking with Ted reminds me of what I really want to see, even more than the faculty using the technology, and that is . . . students using the technology. I decide on the spot that any student who answers a peer question with a LectureScribe video will get a bit of extra credit if I am cc’ed on the message, or if the video is a worthy reply to a blog or message board.


More work with Jing, trying to get a clean take. It is tricky to set up the video playback window to be precisely in the same region as the Jing capture area unless I systematically waste a take, using it only for setup purposes. I decide that planning to use an extra take in this way is simply what I need to do, and I will not fight it any more. It is not really much of an inconvenience, now that I have started to figure out what I am doing. After all, it’s not as if an extra take costs anything other than the few minutes of time needed to set it up.


I am having a terrible time figuring out how to get Jing to include a beginning PowerPoint slide, the video itself with new voiceover, and the ending PowerPoint slide. This should be easy, but it is complicated by the fact that after you set the Jing capture area, you cannot switch to any other application until after you have recorded some video and paused (or stopped).


E-mail from my mom: She really enjoyed the Simpson’s Paradox video but thought I should have used two names for my baseball example that were more easily differentiated than “Louie” and “Mooey.” Hmmm, I can clearly distinguish them on playback, even with my less-than-acute hearing, but of course she is quite a bit older. It’s a worthy suggestion, but I’m not planning to redo the video. Re-editing the entire Board 4 would be quite a pain at this point, and after the rewarding feeling of finally getting the video finished, I’m fairly sure I can’t deal with going back at this point for anything so relatively minor.

Later in the evening, I manage to set up two adjustable spring-arm lamps and overhead lighting in family room, followed by successfully recording about a minute and a half of usable video demonstrating proper use of a compass. There are three short actions, with no breaks between them: the paper rotation technique, the use of the handle (which failed, as expected), and a review of the paper rotation technique. The narration I am planning (but which I have not scripted yet) should fit nicely.


SPS end-of-session cookout in the Gregory Court. A most interesting discussion, led by Ted Eagles, on the knotty issue of whether STA overemphasizes athletics at the expense of academics. Ted feels that unless STA focuses more on academics, STA and its direct competition (Prep, Landon, etc.) will be grooming scholar-athletes for the Ivies in an increasingly tight pool, while at the same time applications from highly qualified foreign students will make such American graduates less and less competitive. Ted, who graduated from STA in 1954 and continues to teach not only in SPS but half-time during the regular school year as well, is skeptical that distance learning could offer much in the way of a long-term strategic benefit for STA.

7/17/2009: Math: The World’s Only Baloney-Free Zone, or, "Why isn’t this Bernstein fellow more famous?” or, "If only the quants had done the math"

E-mails from Amanda, who is happy with the reshot end credits, and Jeanne, who wrote that she would take a look next week. Success!

Spent a lot of time reading through D. J. Bernstein’s massive Web 1.0 outpouring at after seeing him linked in an InfoWorld article on software security. How is it possible that this man has not yet won a MacArthur fellowship? His site is pure HTML and PDF, with nary a drop of scripting anywhere. (Take that, Wordpress fans.) At 38, Dr. Bernstein has already produced a huge body of theoretical math/CS papers, software, and legal precedents (notably in battling software export control). Still, I grew tired of his endless rants against, and detailed accounts concerning, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and its bureaucracy. His writing style is that of an aggrieved, tone-deaf intellectual, and while I can certainly sympathize (having aspired to be just such a person for many years, not to mention having spent my graduate school years at sister institution UIUC), I eventually outgrew it. His emails to the various lawyers and paper-pushers sound exactly like the naive time-wasting and rational justifications I engaged in for about the first 36 years of my life—like him, I thought that explaining the facts should be sufficient to convince anybody of anything. Something about working as a federal government contractor eventually made me realize that either I could waste all my time railing against the system, or I could find a line of work that was more in alignment with my needs . . . hence my advance (though coworkers considered it a retreat) to the world of math teaching.

As I constantly tell my students, mathematics is the world’s only 100% baloney-free zone. Having been trained as a mathematician, I have no patience for
—rules that are on the books as window dressing only (not meant to be enforced)
—rules that are enforced, but only selectively or arbitrarily, as in a corrupt country
—rules (like much of the tax code, and like all of patent law) that are constructed so that their arcane meaning must be interpreted by a priesthood of highly paid practitioners
—forms written by people stupider than those who are supposed to fill them out (my favorite example: government forms requiring that no responses may be left blank and that all unknown answers must be estimated—from which one may logically conclude that an unknown phone number must be entered as 555-555-5555)
—legalized rackets: racial discrimination (now cleverly disguised, but still present), discrimination of various other types, medical insurance, the pharmaceuticals industry, patent thickets/cross-licensing, underpayment of employees in restaurants, real-estate appraisals, the real estate industry in general, professional sports (the way the owners shake governments down for hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction and tax deals), college sports (namely football and basketball, which lack the basic honesty of calling themselves professional sports), credit cards, college admissions, political “contributions,” outsourcing of government jobs, investment rating, and the granddaddy of them all, the “heads I win, tails you lose” derivatives market in which big financial risks have a private upside and a socialized downside.

Clearly, it is lucky that I live in the USA, since many of these problems are worse elsewhere. I also find it interesting that I am not nearly as bothered by illegal rackets. It is the hypocrisy and bald self-serving of legalized rackets that I cannot abide. True, I have been fortunate enough to have had no dealings with illegal rackets, and if I were being extorted for protection money or repeatedly shaken down for bribes, I would probably be somewhat more tolerant of legalized rackets—if for no other reason than that the legalized rackets usually avoid physical violence.

Also, by my characterization of the financial meltdown of 2008 as a racket, it is clear that I have nothing but contempt for Wall Street’s quantitative analysts, a.k.a. “quants,” the self-proclaimed geniuses who blithely trusted their phony math (brilliantly dissected in this speech given at my alma mater in May of 2008). These people are not mathematicians; they are empty suits with computers at their disposal. And if they were merely wrong and tremendously overpaid, that would be OK with me, except that it doesn’t stop there. Their colossal arrogance has created a financial catastrophe that falls mainly upon innocent people, especially in poor countries. The U.S. is getting off easy, though 15% unemployment in Michigan (and now 10% in DC, of all places!) seems painfully high to us.

Thus, instead of staging a quixotic fight against the lunacy of legalized rackets, or staying in government contracting and turning what I knew about that system to my advantage, I decided to spend my life doing something I believe in, where I have a realistic probability of success . . . not with all students, certainly, since in a good year I probably reach only half of them, but with enough that I can say that I have been a force for creativity and rationality. And even though I agree with almost everything Paul Lockhart wrote in his famous essay on math ed (recently expanded into a book), I have not yet become cynical or burned-out. (Apparently, neither has he, since he still teaches pure math at St. Ann’s, an independent K-12 school that tolerates his highly unconventional but thoroughly correct approach.) I have a goofy Spongebob Squarepants happiness when I am in front of the boys, and I think they know that. Sometimes, just sometimes, real magic happens in my math or statistics classroom.

Someday I would like to observe Lockhart in his classroom in Brooklyn. I suspect that what he does is similar to what I try to do, only better. Though he might disagree with my goal of putting much of my course content on LectureScribe-like videos, maybe if he knew my rationale he would support it. My goal is to offload some of the didactic content, so that more time in class can be spent doing what really matters: discussing math, discussing seemingly unrelated topics, conjecturing, playing games, and solving interesting problems.


Received Lumina logo from Amanda, reshot Board 9 of the Simpson’s paradox video to use new end credits. This was less than 20 seconds of video but took hours, owing to the $#(*&#@ deficiencies of LectureScribe. And after all that, the results are still somewhat less than wonderful, with obvious pixel artifacts in the letters. Very eager to start using Jing, which I have downloaded but not yet played with.


I think the next three videos will be a full-motion demo of the “thumb compass,” a LectureScribe or Jing version of the common external tangent procedure, and finally, the common internal tangent procedure (using Jing or LectureScribe, whichever one was not used before).


Meeting at Anerian starts strangely. I arrive at the building lobby near Dupont Circle 10 minutes early, but the receptionist at 1250 Connecticut has never heard of the company. Anerian is not listed on the building menu board. There is a digital kiosk there, but I waste more than 10 minutes fumbling through old emails and calling cellphone information (a complete waste of time). Receptionist will not let me use the ledge, and there is no other place in the lobby to put anything other than the floor. She never suggests using the kiosk, but eventually I think to try it myself. Anerian pops right up, 6th floor. “Oh,” she explains, “subleases are not listed on the main board.” Thank you so much.

When I get to the 6th floor with Amanda (from before), I meet Donna, a web design expert, and Ed (briefly, a senior VP with the company and the only other person for miles around wearing a tie, other than me). We talk shop, I demo the video (fairly successfully), try to demo LectureScribe (miserable failure, since apparently my microphone/webcam is not happy being plugged into a different USB port, though I discover that only hours later, at home).

It’s a good thing I’m not committed to retaining the look and feel of, because the one thing everyone agrees on is that a complete rework is needed. Web 2.0 is all about clean look, staying within the control of the page (i.e., embedded widgets, not jumps), and above all, interactivity. I feebly mention that “clean look” is a synonym for deep menus, but it is clear I am a dinosaur on this point. That’s OK: hasn’t had a facelift since its launch it the late 1990s, and even though my students and I like having a giant collection of neat links in one place, that is so, so, last millennium.

Amanda formerly worked for Blackboard, and luckily she can sympathize with my desire to roll my own content, as opposed to being captive to an “educational environment.”

Doug Errett from STA arrives for his portion of the meeting about an hour later. He hasn’t shot any footage yet but is far ahead of me on the research front. It is pretty clear from Doug’s research that I should at least try and perhaps should be using Jing instead of LectureScribe from now onward. Doug and I are both impressed with WordPress, which Anerian has been using to build sites for clients. Not sure whether we can persuade STA to host WordPress on the STA servers, though . . .

Near the end of the meeting, Steve Lynott, the CEO, arrives and demos his educational math (arithmetic) website,, plus an older K-12 website that was a large investment to build but is now dormant. Very solid material, all highly interactive, should be lots of money to be made there. I try to pitch BallparkIt to him, but it is clear that he is already up to his eyeballs in great ideas.

We adjourn at about 3:45 with several action items for me. I am to make several more videos (shorter, definitely), and Amanda suggests trying Jing so that I have a comparison. I will add the Lumina logo to the end credits of the Simpson’s paradox video, and I will see about getting Mike A. to coordinate his revised design with what Amanda and Donna will do for me.


Topic #1 video is now at in .SWF (Flash) format with run time of about 24 minutes. Thank goodness I was able to keep it under 30. Yes, I could have made an 8-minute video, but that would have taken much longer. I think it is pretty good, certainly pretty good for a first effort.

7/12/2009: The Joy of LectureScribe, or, "I love it, warts and all"

I finish the first draft of the video at about 4 a.m., having made constant revisions to the script along the way. That’s probably not so different from the way professional productions go, except I’m sure the pros don’t bother to write all the tiny changes into the script itself since there are so many alternate takes anyway. One thing about LectureScribe that I love is that there are no alternate takes. Everything is working forward, building out onto the end of what is there. You are allowed multiple “boards,” luckily, which I am using to correspond to the 8 title-carded segments of the lecture plus a ninth board for the end credits, but within each board there is no looping or editing except to erase from the current point forward.

Other things about LectureScribe that I love (PLUSES):

+1. LectureScribe is super-easy to use. I can see sending students a snippet of LectureScribe video (or posting it on instead of trying to talk them through complicated things on the phone.

+2. No camera means no makeup, no miking problems, no splicing problems, and best of all, no lighting problems!

+3. The pointer mode (F7) works well as a way to emphasize things without having to add ink to the screen.

+4. Undo (Ctrl+Z) undoes the last few pen strokes in order, making it easy to edit handwritten text that is destined to appear on the screen at the next audio start point.

Unfortunately, there are also several things I desperately wish could be corrected or enhanced, but probably won’t be, since LectureScribe is freeware. These are my MINUSES:

–1. For some bizarre reason, R (record) pulls the previous frame up as the backdrop, even when you have already pasted the new one. The only workaround I could find is to use RS to record a wee bit (with the wrong frame in foreground), then BS to go back to the “real” part of the previous backdrop, then FSFSFSFS to find the first frame of the new backdrop, then K to clear forward, then R to start recording the WAY IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN RECORDING FROM THE OUTSET, i.e., with the new backdrop. [Update 8/1/09: I have found a more streamlined workaround. Simply start a new board (what the software developer probably intended) or type RSR after setting the new backdrop as desired. The letters R, S, R should be spaced out over about one second, not drummed at high speed.]

–2. There is no way to loop audio. This has its advantages, since it means I can’t endlessly dither over alternate takes, but it also leaves me with no way to edit out uhs, ums, and misspeaks, especially those that are discovered only on playback.

–3. Aspect ratio is just plain crazy and that’s all there is to it. After a lot of trial and error I finally figured out how to get things in their (more or less) proper aspect ratio by sizing the board windows. On my computer, an IBM T61 laptop with 1280 by 800 resolution, that means maximizing the app window, pushing the board window’s title bar all the way to the top so that most of the title bar disappears under the top part of the application window, pulling the lower right corner of the board window to its maximum lower right extent, and then pulling the left edge of the board window so that the lower left corner is then directly underneath the midpoint between the blue and gray pen icons. Anything less than this attention to detail means output that distorted either horizontally or vertically, even if (especially if) elements are pasted in using the “X” that is supposed to show you what dimensions preserve the aspect ratio. This is the sort of thing that would be completely unacceptable in commercial software, but I am willing to work with it because the rest of the software is pretty good and, oh yes, did I mention that it is FREE?

–4. There seems to be no way to paste (or even erase, for that matter) all the way to the edges. That means that pasted slides always end up having artifacts (thin or thick letters, missing rows or columns of pixels) at unpredictable places, and worse yet, every single take is slightly different.

–5. Using PowerPoint slides (which is, of course, not recommended since this is a pencasting program and not a full screencasting program) means a crazy multi-stage process: develop slides in PowerPoint at 83% zoom factor, paste screen shot into Pbrush.exe, move screen shot to upper left corner, prune to 800 by 600, save 24-bit bitmap to LectureScribe directory, and finally use Alt+F, I in LectureScribe to insert the image. However, as noted in the previous “minus” item, no two insertions will ever be the same because of the random number of pixels in the margins, and there is no way to go flush to the margin if you want to be able to erase things later. In the finished Simpson’s Paradox video, there are a couple of places where lines or a bit of ink are left over from the previous canvas, and either there was no way to get rid of it, or I didn’t notice it until later and couldn’t face doing the whole board over from that point forward. (Remember, there is no looping or punching.)

–6. There is no good way to copy and paste between frames of LectureScribe. I pasted “LURKING VARIABLE” with a starburst pattern by using a bitmap and eyeballing the aspect ratio. Yeccch. Why is it that an already sized bitmap can’t default, when pasted or inserted, to its CURRENT SIZE? Gosh, how hard could that be?


First draft of script is now finished, and it is much longer than I thought it would be. It is all good stuff, but I am fearful that nobody will want to want to watch a 30-minute video on Simpson’s paradox. Besides, doesn’t YouTube have a 10-minute limit? I guess I can split it up into several segments if I have to.

Fantastic news: DigiPro digitizer with 5.5 inch by 4 inch active area arrives in the mail! I can see I will be busy far into the night.


I start writing the script. Seldom have I had such zeal in tackling a new project. The writing goes easily—uh, too easily. In no time I am up to 5, 6, 7, almost 8 pages single-spaced. Now comes the hard part: editing down to something shorter.


Meeting with Steve Lynott, CEO of Anerian, LLC, is now set for July 14 at 1 p.m. This is the meeting Amanda told me about on June 24.

Also, my digitizer has been shipped, according to eBay and Digital Outlet. Maybe I will have it as soon as Saturday. Whoa, better start writing the script for the video! I can hardly wait to start recording, but the script is a necessary first step.


Digital Outlet reports receiving my payment. Finally! It’s about time. Slow-pokey PayPal is to blame. Oh well, at least I should have my digitizer pad within a week, and then I can start making my Simpson’s paradox video for real. It is mostly formed in my mind, but I’m eager to see it up on the Internet as an actual product.

I also have a speedy second response from Jeanne, telling me that the revised title slides look good. Hooray! Now I’m really eager for the digitizer to arrive.


Jeanne responds to my email by telling me that the St. Albans nameplate and shield logo have changed. No surprises there; she did warn me the change was coming. I manage to find the new graphics on the beta site, but there is a major problem: the uniform blue of our old site at has been replaced by a much more hip (but harder to copy-and-paste) gradient blue. I can see fun times ahead as I try to clean this up.
At 6:58 p.m., after several hours of slogging with Pbrush.exe and fiddling to find the approximate midpoint color of the gradient (which I have decided is RGB=0, 52, 100), I send my revised versions of the sample opening title, intertitle, and end credits to Jeanne. I am particularly proud of the placeholder names in the end credits: Flingwall Blingblatt, Jorge Hoohaw, and Splimspord Vringebot, not to mention Leonhard Euler and the Cactus Cantina in the acknowledgments.


After dragging my feet for a couple of weeks, I finally dummy up an opening title, an intertitle template, and a sample of an end credit slide, and e-mail the lot to Jeanne Hamrick, Director of Communications and Publications.


I open the PayPal receipt in my email. What the heck is going on here?!? According to the email, the projected payment date is July 8. What happened? I know it’s been a while since I used PayPal, but I thought the whole point was to make payment transfers quickly. If I had wanted to wait 4 days, I could have mailed a check.


Happy 233rd birthday, America! I still remember the bicentennial hoopla in 1976, which really dates me. My own personal celebration, after watching the fireworks on WETA, is to purchase a DigiPro medium-sized digitizer pad from Digital Outlet on eBay. The small one seemed too small and the big one seemed too big. Total price including shipping: $39.53, which includes a 4-port USB hub I tacked on to the order since the shipping hardly changed. I meant to order this before leaving town yesterday, but oh well. At least I should have it in a few days. I’m very excited about making my first educational video, and I already know what the topic will be: Simpson’s paradox. There is not a single legitimate Simpson’s paradox video on YouTube, which means I will have to be the first to make one.

7/3/2009: Why Geometry Should Be in Everyone’s Life, or, "I preach some more to the choir"

Now that we know something about ZOCS (see 5/30/2009 entry), I’ve been seized with the need to write down why it is that geometry is so valuable to study.

I will list the three things that every geometry book lists, and then I will provide some words to accompany the three other things that I think are even more interesting and beneficial about geometry.

1. Abstract reasoning.

2. Practical applications.

3. General problem solving.

4. Distinguishing between what you know is true and what you can prove to be true.

I maintain that #4 is a crucial skill for success in many white-collar disciplines, especially medicine, the law (much of it), science, engineering, and computer science. A proper geometry course that includes exploration, conjecture, proof (both formal and informal), and opportunities for essay writing furnishes an excellent platform for learning and exercising this skill.

5. Bootstrapping.

If there is one thing that all white-collar profession require (well, the interesting ones, at least), it is workers who are able to think independently. That means developing new tools on the fly, not simply following cookbook-style instructions. Although there are some well-paid professions that are cookbook-like, the people who go into those either are brain-dead when they start, become brain-dead shortly thereafter, or find some sort of hobby to keep themselves sane. Bootstrapping, by which I mean the ability to start one’s own processes, is something that a good geometry class fosters. Note that this skill goes considerably beyond mere problem-solving. Hirers often list “self-starter” as a desirable attribute for candidates, and the reason is that no white-collar manager wants to spend all of his or her time telling employees to get started, or how to get started.

6. Developing a sense of style/aesthetics.

Geometry is not an art class. Nevertheless, despite the abstract nature of geometry, or perhaps because of it, there is ample opportunity to develop an aesthetic sense, and this should be encouraged. The more that the students have the chance to be creative in both their explorations and their writeups, the more that a personal sense of style can flourish. Geometry is a fact-based course, to be sure, but the facts should be allowed to flourish in an aesthetic environment. This freedom is not unique to geometry among the high-school mathematics classes, but geometry probably gives the greatest opportunity.


For the fourth year in a row, I give my cause-and-effect statistics presentation to the St. Albans School of Public Service (SPS). (For four years before that, I did some combination of lecturing or behind-the-scenes spreadsheet work for SPS. Other than Ted Eagles, I think I may be the only faculty person to be involved with SPS ever since its inception in 2002.) However, since I’m not a celebrity like Dr. Christina Romer or the late Tim Russert or the countless other luminaries who have graced the SPS over the years, I always get an evening time slot. Nevertheless, the students are game (mostly), and I manage to hold their attention fairly well. It’s a tough sell, teaching statistics concepts to a coed group of 17-year-olds on a warm evening, after dinner, but I love a challenge. This year I deviate from the slide show considerably and begin with the metaknowledge quiz. Note: The OPEC answer is out of date, since the correct number is now 12.


Telephone chat with Amanda at Anerian, LLC. She is the woman that came to meet with the math department earlier this spring to explain what the Lumina Foundation was trying to accomplish with its grant money. She sets out the basic ground rules for this summer’s work: (1) must advance the curriculum, (2) must involve an advancement of the state of STA’s corporate knowledge of technology, and (3) should be documented. I offer to incorporate the Lumina work into my blog, and she says that would be great. We are to have a meeting at Anerian (1250 Connecticut Ave., NW) on July 14 to kick off the project.


I am trying to find a way to make educational screencasts without spending a huge amount of time or money on video production. Some of the YouTube educational videos I have been watching seem to have a very simple “moving pen on a black background,” which would meet my needs. I’m thinking that would be a good way of getting started, at least. My new friend Patrick, whom I met yesterday at a dinner party, sends an e-mail about Yacapaca, which I had never heard of before. Sounds like a collection of assessment tools that, when taken together, could give Blackboard a run for its money. With a bit of Googling I also find a link for LectureScribe, freeware written by a computer science professor at Clemson, Dr. Brian Dean, who won a teaching award and presented a paper on his program. I’ll have to download that and check it out, but first I need to get a digitizer tablet (pen tablet), since my mousing skills are pathetically inept when it comes to handwriting.


Nicholas and I have our first paying customer! is rolling now, an unstoppable force for making math education fun and accessible for everyone. Well, we have to begin somewhere.


At 12:35 a.m., Nicholas sends word from Japan that BallparkIt has been approved for sale on the App Store! Now I need to set up to point to the place where iPhone and iPod Touch users can get more information or download it. We’ll have the orders rolling in, big-time. (Uh, right. Maybe 9 months from now, when students are looking for an easy way to get proficient in trigonometry by playing a game. But this is summertime, and nobody is thinking about trig.)


Nicholas Ink, a.k.a. Quantescape, has finished most of the revisions we agreed to for the BallparkIt calculator (a port of the trigonometry game we used to play each year in the Big Trig competition, except with multiple-choice buttons to permit ballparking the answer). I’m so excited I can’t stand it! This is the coolest thing I can remember being associated with in 11 years of teaching. Now we have to wait to see if Apple will approve the app for the iPhone App Store . . . At 11:32 p.m. I receive confirmation from Nicholas that the app has been transmitted to Apple for review, 1.8 MB.

5/30/2009: The ZOCS Manifesto, or, "Something good had to come out of my creepy vision of the future of education"

Welcome to Mr. Hansen’s new blog. Actually, this is my first published blog. The old blog was never released, because I feared that some of my dystopian comments about education were too politically insensitive and would draw attention upon me and/or the school.

If you want to see the old blog, you’ll have to ask nicely, because I’m not sure I can even locate it anymore. Here is the summary: The school of the future exists almost exclusively in cyberspace, except for a physical presence that resembles a warehouse. The crushing costs of live face-to-face education have forced this situation, and there is no other option except for the hyperrich. Students wear VR (virtual reality) helmets most of the day, and compulsory attendance is enforced by paraprofessionals who guard the exits. The school day is extended to accommodate the needs of adults, who can for an additional fee arrange for their children to be guarded up to 10 hours a day all year round. Teachers work from home. Cell phones (“cells”) are no longer banned during the school day; in fact, they are required equipment. Cells are much more than phones: They now contain a student’s entire educational and medical history, in addition to functioning as signaling devices, GPS navigation/tracking devices, cloud computing access devices, audio/video production and playback stations, gaming devices, and cybercash storage devices. Some parents have started embedding cells in their children in order to discourage loss or theft, but there are disturbing reports of children being maimed so that their cells can be held for ransom. (Thieves cannot usually access the data, because of biometric access controls, and the hardware is so cheap as to be essentially throwaway, but thieves count on disorganized parents who have not recently backed up their children’s cells and who are willing to pay the ransom.) Cells are much more powerful than what we used to call “computers,” and the desktop PCs of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are long forgotten. Other relics found only in museums are spine-crushing backpacks, printed textbooks, pencils, and shoelaces. Shoes, in fact, are prohibited at most schools, since it is much safer for the students in their VR worlds to blunder around barefoot or wearing cheap flip-flops. The psychomotor skill formerly known as “writing” has all but disappeared, and although some people are exceptionally dexterous with their thumbs, nobody other than artists or musicians retains any fine motor control in the remaining fingers. Although school administrators are now mostly superfluous, their profession lives on, financed by the savings brought about by repurposing millions of educated teachers to do piecework that is now about as prestigious as staffing a customer-support call center. A few teachers, whose video curricula have become hits, are exceptionally wealthy and qualify as true celebrities—they are famous to the youth culture, after all. The large mass of teachers, however, interact for a few minutes at a time, speaking with hundreds of students from all over the world during a single shift. The hourly pay is low, since American teachers are now in direct competition with teachers from all over the world. Everyone knows that the teachers from India and China are better, even if their English takes a little getting used to.

Okay, that was my old blog. The purpose of the new blog is to describe the concepts of ZOCS and how they can organize and improve this business that we call education.

What is a ZOC? Well, let’s see if you can figure it out. For a long time now, certainly as long as I can remember, education has focused almost exclusively on what is missing. In other words, what does the student lack in order to become a useful, productive member of society? Well, we, the education professionals, will figure out what that is, yes sirree, and we’ll devise a factory-style curriculum to address the issue, and we’ll deliver it skillfully (no, I will not use the word “cram”) to the young. Actually, in the era of NCLB, we no longer care about the useful, productive member of society stuff; all we care about is a bottom-line focus on “results” as measured by standardized tests. The best of these tests are pretty good, and can measure higher-order critical thinking skills, but the worst are little more than trivia tests. They have reduced the business of education, preparing young minds, blah blah blah, to something with about as much higher purpose as investment banking (except without the money). Thank heaven that independent schools are beyond the reach of NCLB and, at least for the time being, beyond the mindset that spawned it.

But when I think back on the teachers who had a positive influence on me, the teachers who helped me to learn and actually (here I flatter myself) become a useful, productive member of society, not one of them had a bottom-line focus. Not one of them was trying to cram KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) into me in order to earn a higher bonus. In other words, not a single one of them bought into the prevailing model of education. What they all had in common was a ZOC model, a model based on forward chaining.

Forward chaining is a general problem-solving strategy that relies upon observing and understanding the current state, then generating useful possibilities and pursuing the most promising ones. In music, forward chaining is what occurs at a master class. A student prepares a piece, and in fact may have already performed the piece in public, but agrees to perform it in a non-concert setting for a master teacher and other student onlookers. After hearing the performance, the master teacher understands that the goal is to take the student from wherever he or she might be and provide something useful to move the student forward in musical understanding. What the master teacher says may in some cases contradict what the student’s regular teacher believes, but everything is offered in a helpful, non-confrontational spirit. The student is not coddled, to be sure, and the student is forced to get a little outside his or her comfort zone, but the master teacher is intimately aware of exactly where that comfort zone is and can negotiate a slight enlargement of that zone—what I would call learning.

The prevailing educational model—focusing on what the student lacks and trying somehow to improve that dire situation—is an example of backward chaining. In other words, given a desired end state, we seek a set of pre-goals (and then, recursively, pre-pre-goals, pre-pre-pre-goals, etc.) to provide a solution path (curriculum) that gets us from the current state to the desired end state.

Both forward chaining and backward chaining are valid strategies. My field is math, and the large majority of problems that my students and I work on require some combination of both forward and backward chaining. However, as a model for the educational process itself, the prevailing backward-chaining model is antithetical to real learning.

Backward chaining is ideally suited for
—factory production
—packing for a trip
—solving certain types of “cookbook-y” math problems
—preparing a conventional meal.

Forward chaining is better suited for
—entrepreneurial development
—creation of new industries
—exploration of new life possibilities
—solving the types of math problems that are really interesting
—preparing a memorable meal

and, I would claim, providing students with an opportunity to obtain a real education. If we focus too much on backward chaining, we have reduced the worthy concept of education to the more mundane notion of training. Perhaps there was an era when teachers could add value by training the young, but that time has passed. The young are trained by TV, by Facebook, by YouTube, and they can and should be trained by streaming video and DVD-ROM curricula. We as teachers need to do more—much more—if we are to justify our existence and avoid the dismal future that was the subject of my first (unpublished) blog.

I am not saying that backward chaining has no purpose in education. I am simply saying that it should not be the primary focus, the be-all and end-all.

What is it, then, that all of my good teachers had in common, other than being primarily forward-chainers?

As with a teacher in a master class, all the teachers who “clicked” with me were intimately aware of my zone of comfort. They quickly developed a personal rapport with me so that they could see what I was ready to do and what was still well beyond what I could do. They did force me to get outside my zone of comfort, but not by too much. They did not bombard me with topics from graduate school to convince me how brilliant they were, nor did they persist beyond a certain point if they sensed that the time was wrong. Their classes had an internal logic but were difficult to outline, because they had an organic feel to them. What they were saying to me, in effect, was, “Knowledge is not purely hierarchical, and neither is this class. Knowledge is interesting and sometimes takes us in strange and unpredictable directions. I am less concerned with your achieving a certain set of KSAs on your checklist than I am in providing a really interesting addition to your life, and above all, I would like you to think and be engaged.”

Have you figured it out yet? ZOC stands for zone of comfort. All good teachers have an intimate awareness of their students’ zoc, and over time, they work to enlarge the zoc and add new zocs to the collection. Zoc also stands for
—zone of competence
—zone of creativity
—zone of concern
—zone of caring.

Why is school so stressful for students? One reason is that they are often treated like patients in a hospital, except without much TLC: We want to make you smarter, darn it! Why can’t you sit up straight and pay attention? Learn, for crying out loud! Get better! Heal! Heal! Heal!

Now, I am not saying that school should be a “spa,” a place where students go to receive love, care, and attention lavished upon them by the self-sacrificing minions that the educational establishment has served up for their personal amusement and entertainment. What I am saying is that students need to be brought along. We need to meet them where they are, acknowledge their needs, make a catalogue of their zocs, and gradually enlarge the set.

What, after all, is the most fundamental human need (after survival needs such as oxygen and shelter, that is)? Some people would say love, others companionship. Perhaps you have your own candidate. That is fine. I claim that the most fundamental human need is the need to understand cause and effect, in other words to make sense of the patterns that we call our environment. If we exist in a chronic state of bafflement and confusion—far outside our zoc, that is—we will do almost anything to restore some sense of control. We will join a gang if that provides an intelligible environment. We will cut class, ditch homework, sleep during class, exhibit boredom (thus restoring a sense of being superior), act out, engage in unsafe behaviors, spend absurd numbers of hours on Facebook or playing World of Warcraft, and do whatever our friends think is cool, because we understand our friends, and above all, we want to work with people and things that we understand.

We have to feel competent. We can tolerate being ignored (up to a point), we can tolerate doing chores and homework, we can tolerate boredom, and we can even tolerate getting up to go to school. What we cannot tolerate is engaging in a classroom setting where we do not feel competent. It is much more comforting to wait it out, to underperform, to pass to the next class, and ultimately to graduate without ever having acquired much of an education.

Clearly, the 13,000 or so hours that each child spends in K-12 schooling could be better utilized if more of it involved real engagement, real education. How to do this? The federal government is offering up billions of dollars in stimulus money to help school districts (states, actually) to figure this out. They are looking for quick fixes, scalable solutions, and solutions that respect the teachers’ unions, the bus drivers, the coaches, the schools’ contractors, and the bloated administrative staffs. They are looking, above all, for bottom-line solutions and solutions that are easily measurable.

Well, as we used to say when I worked in the Pentagon, if you want it bad, you’ll get it bad. What I propose is not a quick fix, it is only moderately scalable (since it requires teachers to have actual relationships with students, thus limiting the span of influence for any one teacher), and it will not respect any of the constituencies that schools care about except for the students themselves. It is not a bottom-line solution, and it is not easily measurable. Obviously, then, I am not expecting any stimulus cash for the zoc organization concept.

Geometry is where I intend to start, since geometry lends itself well to the idea of modules that become building blocks for higher-order skills later on in the course. For example, knowing the midpoint formula, the point-slope formula, and techniques for solving simultaneous linear systems should theoretically allow the student to find the coordinates of the centroid of any triangle. In practice, this is difficult, because although most students can learn the three required skills in isolation, it is a rare ninth-grader who can see how to combine them, and not many can execute the steps reliably even if they are told how to combine them. Their zocs, in other words, do not include the three skills, and the zocs certainly do not include the metacognition of seeing how to find a useful application for skills that were not all introduced in the same textbook chapter.

I will begin, therefore, by cataloguing the zocs (somewhere between 80 and 100, I estimate) that characterize the standard geometry curriculum at our school. Instead of taking a “backward chaining” approach of scheduling mastery testing for each zoc, I intend to tell the students that I have made a list of zocs (which I will not normally share with them), and I will work with each of them to try to help them through as many of the zocs as time and their level of interest will permit. Here is the key, though: We will spend most of our time embracing the existing zocs, defending them against erosion, cross-training other students, and feeling competent. Anything that ceases to be a zoc will be revived and renewed. A certificate could be issued for each zoc, and a significant component of each student’s course grade will be based on the quality of his zocs and the relative growth that has occurred over the year. Students, especially the less skilled ones, should focus on quality rather than quantity.

Note that ZOCS is not a synonym for mastery learning. One of the things that students need to experience is the skill of clawing forward while still having an imperfect grasp of the fundamentals, knowing (and trusting) that their teacher will help to backstop them so that they can do a better job on the second or third try.

The holy grail of the zoc world, the zoc of all zocs, so to speak, would be a comfort zone including the learning process itself. Students who have this zoc are self-igniting and unstoppable. We are currently happy to have one or two such students in each section, but surely this represents a huge waste of time and talent. When most of my students have the “learning process” zoc, I will know that I have succeeded as a teacher!