Category Archives: Tools

David Hockney, A Bigger Exhibition

David Hockney at the DeYoung.

David Hockney at the DeYoung.

If you live anywhere in the Bay Area and haven’t yet been to see the David Hockney exhibit, A Bigger Exhibition, currently at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum, stop reading this right now and go.  It’s absolutely wonderful. And for those of you not fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s plenty here to read about and explore online.

The exhibit includes 400 of his more recent works in many mediums, leveraging many methods – oils, cameras, water colors, charcoal, video, and iPads. Portraits of friends and family, portraits of museum guards, landscapes, and nature scenes from his childhood home in Yorkshire.

His use of multiple digital cameras and iPads is remarkable. Hands-down, my favorite part of the exhibit was a room hung with large iPad replicas. On the screens were various pictures Hockney created using the iPad app, Brushes. On some of the screens you watch as the image emerges (as if on fast forward), layer by layer, color by color.  I watched a bowl of peaches grow from a rough sketch to a fully dimensional, bowl of glowing orangey-yellowey-red orbs, so real I felt I could reach out and eat one.  I must have watched that progression through six times, studying the way the picture progressed – color applied, color removed, color blended or smudged, jumping from one part of the painting to another, testing and retrying, layering.  It was absolutely fascinating. When do you ever get to watch, time-lapse fashion, the creation of art from blank canvas to finished piece? As you can see in this photo, my fellow museum goers were similarly fascinated.  A thick knot of people stood for the longest time – rapt.

Congestion at the iPad display

Congestion at the iPad display

As you gaze at these recorded pictures, it becomes clear that Hockney works very quickly. In this Spencer Michael’s interview with the artist, Hockney says “any draftsman knows about speed, you can see the speed in Rembrandt’s drawings.  I think most painters paint faster than they will tell you.”  He calls the iPad a “terrific new medium – much better than Photoshop or other digital tools.  You can be very fast on an iPad, faster than watercolor.”

I was particularly struck by Hockney’s full command of the technology.  Not only did he master the printing methods of high-resolution imagery, multi-camera videos, and printing (many of the iPad creations were printed out on huge sheets of paper and put together like puzzles), but his full command of the Brushes application.  For instance, in one iPad painting of Yosemite, he seemed to create a stippling effect and then capture (save?) it and re-use it, much like a stamp, thereby creating a forest of pine trees here, here, and here. Quite apart from how impressive and beautiful the paintings were, the 76-year old Hockney dispels any thoughts we might harbor about digital tools being only for younger generations.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

When you’re there, don’t miss the portion of the exhibit on the main floor (the exhibit is divided in two parts).  Here you’ll find one of the more fascinating artifacts of his research and work – the Great Wall. Created originally in his studio, it’s been recreated here for us to wander and absorb. On the wall, they’ve pinned 100’s of high-resolution, color print outs of classic paintings, hung in order of their creation, from Byzantine art to Van Gogh – a sort of painting timeline. Hockney created the wall in order to sit back, scan and absorb centuries of western painting in one go. To see them juxtaposed and collected. He crafted an order to the collection – Northern European paintings at the top, Southern Europe at the bottom – and looked for patterns. As he studied the timeline, an order began to emerge. He realized that at about 1420, there was a big change in western painting. At that point, it appears that artists could “suddenly” draw better. The images were clearer, more exact, with strong contrasts, more three dimensional. One could even say, the paintings had more of a photographic look. Hockney’s explanation for this sudden change is that artists began to use optic lenses to create their images.

An Unknown Couple, by Lorenzo Lotto

An Unknown Couple, by Lorenzo Lotto

One of the paintings on the Great Wall (by Lorenzo Lotto c.1545 – hanging in The Hermitage), shown here, gave clues to the artist’s use of a lens to create his painting.  Note the elaborate red cloth in the foreground, with a geometric design. When examined closely, Hockney noted an area of the cloth that is out of focus. A physicist friend of Hockney’s, Charles Falco, was able to use the size of the out-of-focus area to confirm that a lens had been used and to calculate the focal length and diameter of that lens. By using a lens to create the realistic looking cloth, the artist has to contend with a problem of geometric optics. When the focus moves from foreground to background, the scale changes.  Placed together, the two halves don’t match and so the artist is forced to paint that area of mismatch out of focus.

Camera Lucida app.

Camera Lucida app.

Hockney used this information to support his speculation that these 15th century painters made use of optics to create more realistic, life-like paintings.  But of course high quality large lenses weren’t available in this period of history. Falco explained that curved mirrors could serve as a lens – and curved mirrors were certainly available.  As you use the mirror to focus the sun’s rays, you form an image.  And if that image is aimed at a surface upon which the artist will draw, the artist will see the scene and the drawing surface simultaneously, allowing them to duplicate the key points of the scene and accurately render the precise perspective and detail. Interestingly, the size of the sweet-spot  image produced by a curved mirror is roughly 30 cm square – and that’s about the size of many of early Netherlands portraits at that inflection point.  This sort of optical device is know more commonly as a camera lucida.  Interestingly, there is now a Camera Lucida app for the iPad and the iPhone (I wonder if Hockney knows about that?).

In 2006, Hockney wrote a book, that later became a BBC television series, called Secret Knowledge in which he delves into this theory in great detail. Of course, the theory is not without controversy.  Some art historians take issue with Hockney’s explanation, claiming that the use of optical lenses has little value in explaining the overall development of western art. But it doesn’t seem that is Hockney’s claim. Using optical lenses of any variety would only be useful aids to someone who already was a skillful artist and would only be one tool in their impressive toolbox, relatively useless without the other skills they would need to render a breathtaking work of art. Besides, isn’t it delightful to contemplate the beautiful union of art and science implied by the idea?

All in all, a thoroughly satisfying exhibit.  Well worth a trip.


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Filed under Reflections, Tools

Thoughts on the New Apple iOS 7

My home screen with the new iOS7

My home screen with the new iOS7

The new Apple iOS 7, the operating system for iPhone and iPad, has been on my devices now for about a week.  Time for some reflection.  Let’s shake this down in a short list of pluses and minuses, followed by a few suggestions.


Download. Starting from the get-go, the whole iOS download process was easy breezy with no hiccups (also liked that Apple didn’t force the update on you, you could do it when you were ready).  Here’s a helpful how-to on preparing for and downloading the new iOS (not the useful display of compatible devices). Remember though, once you’ve upgraded, you can’t go back.

Automatic updates.  Thank goodness!   All of your apps now update automatically and, another plus, by default your phone will wait until you’re on wireless to do this work to avoid chewing up your cellular data.

Switching or Closing Apps. When you double tap the home button, you get miniatures of all your open apps (which you can horizontally flick through). Flicking up on any one of them, closes the app. I really appreciate this feature as a way to easily switch between applications.  Say, for instance, you’re composing an email, and you want to include a link. You can now easily switch to your browser, grab the link, and come back to email. Much less monkey-pooping around.

Fat Folders. No limit to the number of apps you can put in a folder (used to be a limit of 16). Yay.

Search.  Easy to get to quickly.  Just swipe down in the middle, on any screen, and there it is. Much better.

Control Center

Control Center

Control Center. If you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, you get your control center which allows you to change all kinds of things (one stop shopping).  Wireless and blue tooth settings, airplane mode, orientation lock, contrast, volume, playback controls – all in one convenient panel.  In the Control Panel you can also get to those apps that you might need in a hurry:  your camera, calculator, timer or flashlight.  As much as I like this new Control Center, I sure wish I could customize it.  And it’s a little tricky to get to (takes some practice) – try swiping up from off the screen (like next to the home button)

iTunes Radio.  I’ve been playing around with it and, so far, I like it.  You can set up a radio station based on artist, genre or song and, like Pandora, hear new music that you’re likely to enjoy.  To teach it what you like, tap the star icon while a song is playing and tell it so. You can purchase music from directly inside iTunes radio from the iTunes store.  There are ads, but Pandora has ads too.

Camera.  Some terrific improvements here.  From the camera screen you can easily swipe to change from video to photo, to square (that’s new!) to pano (as in panorama) which is so much easier to do when you are holding up your phone, trying to take a picture. There are also filters available for you, right there on the screen (the little overlapping circles in the upper righthand corner which give you 9 tiny live-filter options) as well as the HDR option.  HDR = high dynamic range (odd that Apple doesn’t explain that…).  It takes three pictures in succession with varying exposures and combines them to get the best possible photo.  Be aware though that HDR photos take up a lot of space, so use sparingly.  Nice aside – just figured out that you can use the volume control buttons on the side of your phone as a shutter button (is that a new feature?). Here’s a handy how to on using your phone’s camera.

The Level.  Ok, I used to have an app for this, but now it’s just there.  You go to the compass, swipe to the left, and there’s the level! Handy-like.

AirDrop.  You can drop digital items (links, documents, photos, whatever) on your Mac or on other nearby iPhone folks (iPhone 5 or later, iPad 4th generation).  AirDrop uses bluetooth to create a peer-to-peer wifi network between devices.  That wifi connection makes this sort of transfer very fast. Here’s the way it works: you have to be on the item you want to share (it’s not a file management sort of thing, it’s designed to share the thing you’re looking at right now), you must be near to the person you’re sharing with (not sitting on their lap, but nearby) and they must have their compatible device turned on. But it does work.  Here’s a helpful how-to on using AirDrop.

Text Message Time Stamp.  Ok, this is handy.  If you swipe any of the texted speech bubbles to the left, you can see when it was sent.

Safari Improvements.  I had buried the old Safari app in a folder and put Chrome in the task bar as my preferred browser, but I’m rethinking that decision now that Safari’s been improved. First off, you can type your search item right into the URL bar now (just like you can do with Chrome) and you can easily dismiss open tabs by just swiping to the left when you’re in the spiffy 3D-looking pages view.  Also check out the “@” symbol under Safari book marks and you’ll find your Twitter timeline.


Hard to See. The look of the new iOS takes some getting used to.  It’s very white, flat, and the fonts are quite thin.  I’m guessing that people with vision problems might have difficulty and I certainly have had to strain to see, particularly in outdoor lighting.  But see below, in my suggestions, for a few things that can help take the strain off.

Podcasts.  Yikes, where did my podcasts go?  I used to be able to manage and listen to them right out of iTunes, but no longer.  Took me some sniffing around to figure out what to do.  You have two options – either download the (free) podcast app through which you can manage your podcasts or you can change your podcasts to “audiobooks” (using Get Info) in your iTunes library. Update from Terry Austin:  PocketCasts app works well.

Notification Center.  Swiping up from the bottom gives you the Control Center (see Pluses above) and swiping down from the top gives you Notification Center.  You get a today (calendar) view, which is nice and then an “All” category, that accumulates everything. This one feels less useful to me, mostly because it’s stuff that I would prefer to organize myself.  You can customize  it (sort of) in your settings (Notification Center), but not as much control here as I’d like to have.

iCloud.  Still not working for me.  Not clear how it all works, too little space and you have to pony up to buy more space.  This could be better.  I know it could.

Camera.  Yup I know I had this one under Pluses (above) but there is a minus – the camera doesn’t focus quickly enough.  You will end up taking  lots of blurry photos if you press your shutter with old camera-function expectations.

Apple Maps.  Still not as good as Google maps, not even close.  And now I’m finding that my you-are-here blue dot isn’t even as responsive as it was in iOS 6.  Wah.

Siri.  Supposed to be improved.  I dunno, I couldn’t pick up on any huge improvements and I still find that Siri misses (often comically) more than it hits. You get to Siri by holding the home button for 3-5 minutes and then speak to her.  I do like the new little sound wave at the bottom that lets you know she’s “listening”.  Oh, and one cool thing is that you can change Siri to a male voice now.


The new interface is impacted by your choice of wallpaper.  You can choose dynamic wallpaper (that shifts around and looks fuzzy), which gives you a very different “feel” to the interface. If you choose a colored still (say, yellow), all of the interface items will take on a yellow-ish hue (see photos above).  This is nice because it allows the individual iPhone owner to really personalize the look of their phone, but it’s something you have to experiment with.  Tastes being personal, you’ll want to try a few different wallpapers to settle on the ones that work best for you and your vision.  I found the dynamic wallpapers got in my way, occasionally, and while I liked using my old photos as wallpaper in the old iOS, they don’t work as well here.

For those having problems seeing clearly with the new interface, you can make adjustments.  Go to Settings>General>Accessibility and you can make the type bold or larger, reduce the motion (if you don’t like the new parallax effect), invert color, and make hearing adjustments too.

Keep your expectations low.  Functionally, this iOS really is pretty close to its parent. Improvements, for sure, but it’s not a mind-blowing leap ahead.

What have I missed?


Filed under Technology Trends, Tools

Taking Up the Ten Tools Challenge

"I accept your challenge!"

“I accept your challenge!”

Jane Hart has thrown down an intriguing 2013 gauntlet:  commit yourself to learning how to use ten new technology tools in 2013.  What a great way to walk the talk. I often extol the teachers I work with to invest time to learn new tools or adjust their use of frequently used tools.  Afterall, learning how to use a new media tool is the perfect place to be in order to help others do the same.  Beginner’s mind has a way of helping us to find new approaches, fresh perspectives, and empathy.

In her blog post about the challenge, Jane suggests you devise your list of new tools (ok, I’m working on it), go public with your commitment and write a blog post about your plan (check), tackle one tool per month (gotcha), and blog about the experience each month with a final, culminating blog post at the end of the year reflecting on the whole experience (righto).  I love this idea.  Not only does it give some structure to something that I should do anyway, Jane will network the people joining her in the challenge so that we can all learn from each other.  I’m already learning as I read the blog posts of others taking up the challenge…like Joitske Hulsebosch (Lasagna and Chips), David Kelly, Michael Mades, and Tracy Ross.

So, I accept your challenge, Jane.  And thanks for extending it!


Filed under Technology Trends, Tools

Dashboards for Connecting Workers

“The team members are all in different time zones, too many fall off the email trail, everyone complains about not being able to find the resource they need when they need it….there’s got to be a better way to get organized and communicate more efficiently.”

How many times have you heard a similar plea? We work with a number of business and research groups who seek the best, most efficient methods to connect their far-flung workers and keep everyone in the loop on communication, documents, updates, schedules, and project plans. Geographically dispersed teams and work-from-home members intensify the need for workable solutions.

A familiar dashboard.

Recently, we’ve had success crafting customized “dashboards”.  These are online hubs (for example Netvibes, My Yahoo, or iGoogle) that can be tricked out and populated with customizable widgets that display information pertinent to the team.  The idea is to integrate information from multiple sources into one comprehensive, easy-to-access and monitor display, resembling an automobile dashboard.  The information can be piped in from a wide variety of sources – e.g. updates from online calendars, microblogging streams, email, and  RSS feeds from news sources, journals, or blogs.  The widgets can also be programmed to serve as access points to other locations on the web – an online document storage system for instance.  So, in this way, even online locations that can’t actually be piped to the dashboard can be represented by a widget “doorway” – just click and travel there.

The “hub” platforms listed above all offer a similar business plan.  The basic service is free, premium service comes with a monthly fee.  So far, all of our needs have been met with the free versions.  The premium service gets you extra technical support, additional curation and analytical features.

So what do these dashboards look like?  Here’s a screen shot of a Netvibes dashboard that I set up for my personal use.

My personal netvibes hub.

As you can see, there are a number of “windows” (or, continuing with the auto dashboard analogy, you can think of them as dial readouts). Each window displays a dedicated stream of information.  Every time I reload the page, the windows refresh with the latest information from their original source.

This one-stop shopping approach saves workers’ time and frustration since all needed information is in one handy, private (password protected) place. The privacy is important – if this is a business group, they will want to protect proprietary information.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate how dashboards can work is to give a specific example.  We work with a group of medical researchers – a loosely knit team of 50 individuals and sub-groups, spread all over the United States, who meet mostly by phone and rely heavily on email. Keeping track of their collaborative work, their shared documents, and their topical correspondence is a source of tremendous frustration.  We started with an evaluation of their needs and concerns.  From there, we crafted the dashboard you see below (this isn’t their actual dashboard, for privacy reasons, but a mock-up to look like theirs).  The first thing to notice are the tabs across the top.  With an endless number of tabs you can subdivide your dashboard into compartments (by team, by function, or required objects).  I’ve circled in black the tabs on this dashboard below:  “Home”, “Communication”, “Documents”, “Library” and “Executive Committee”.

Mocked-up dashboard, showing the organizational tabs.

In this view, we’re on the “Home” tab.  This is a good place to put general stuff, welcome messages and orientation material. You can also see a Google calendar (project meeting dates and schedule), a to do list, and some Flickr images.  To make it more personal, you can include a short talking-head video of your community manager (using Eyejot), to welcome everyone to the dashboard and give them a dashboard tour by directionally pointing. Note that we customized the dashboard header with an image specific to their work, which could instead be a company logo or an identifying color.

Here are successive screen shots and descriptions of each tab, working from left to right:

Communications Tab

Communications tab. there is a window for a Yammer stream, one for your Twitter stream, or one for email.  Each person using the dashboard signs into their account to view it in the widget window.  For this project, we created a private Yammer group for the team members.  Their Yammer stream displays in its window and posts, replies, and updates can be made from there without traveling to Yammer.

Documents tab.

Documents tab. Here we’ve placed widgets for Google docs,, and Egnyte; a range of online document creation and storage sites. This particular group prefers to use Egnyte.  We set up the widget so that they can log in, within the Egnyte widget, and download, upload, or view documents from within the dashboard.  If viewing or working within the widget window is awkward they can click on the widget’s top bar and a new browser window, displaying the Egnyte site, will open.

Library tab.

Library tab.  As the name implies, this is the place to display RSS feeds from journals, online news sources, or relevant blogs.  All required reading in one, handy spot. The final tab, for the Executive Committee, features a window to a wiki site for posting meeting agendas and minutes and collaborating on documents.

So, that’s the idea. Clustered access, easy to retrieve information, curation, communciation and collaboration. But what are the drawbacks? Even before they settled in to using this dashboard, our team of researchers expressed the following concerns:

  • We already have a project management tool, why do we need another one?
  • Is it too complicated?  Too difficult to learn?
  • What about security?  Will our information be protected?
  • Will my corporate or university firewall let me in?

We worked through their concerns step by step. Because we’d planned carefully, we were able to roll out a populated dashboard to the group with useful items on view that they recognized (a video with someone they knew, the Egnyte interface, etc). We provided orientation sessions in a series of brief webinars,  focused on just one function per training session. Participants observed (in a shared screen environment) and asked questions as the trainer walked through dashboard tabs and demonstrated how each function operates. Following each training, participants were assigned three brief homework tasks: all things they needed to do which are easier to do from the dashboard.

Subsequent trainings featured other functions. Yammer, wiki use, blogging, document curation, and metatagging followed. Once the group started to use Yammer, the penny dropped. They could see the value in the tagging and they could begin to see the dashboard advantages.

It’s not perfect. One member institution’s firewall blocked Netvibes and we had to make special arrangements.Yes, they do have other project management software, but none that weave together the communication and RSS feed functions with the other, more typical project management features.  Some participants are still not on board, but they are beginning to feel the tug of the larger group when the phrase, “it’s on the dashboard!” is used multiple times in a status meeting.


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Handheld Wireless Microscope

My hair - as seen through the lens of a handheld, wireless microscope

That’s my hair.  Up close and personal.  As viewed through the lens of a handheld, wireless digital microscope.  That image of my hair was sent wirelessly from the microscope (as I held it to my head), across the room, to my waiting iPhone, and uploaded to my computer to be placed in this blog post.


So, here’s how it works… I downloaded the free Airmicro app from iTunes onto my iPhone and configured the wireless settings.  You could also upload the images to your laptop or desktop computer, of course. The microscope, called aProScope, is small and light (very portable).  It has a built-in light source and you can purchase interchangeable lenses (10x, 30x, 50x, 100x, 400x).  The device can be used in “touch view” mode (touch the specimen you want to examine) or “distance view”, giving you a half inch distance between the microscope cone and the specimen.  In distance view, you can mount the microscope on a stand, giving you a great way to project dissections up on a computer screen (and record them) or as a document reader.

The company’s website has a number of interesting looking activities, labs and lesson plans but if you really want to hear the full scoop on teaching with this tool, you should be in touch with Sheri Wischusen (Louisiana State University) who has been putting it through its paces.

Here are a few other images I grabbed with the Proscope – any guesses on what they are?

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Mirrors Within Mirrors

Photo credit: Azarius

Do you remember that strange, recursive effect, when you are sitting in a barber shop or hair-cutting salon and there is a mirror in front of you and a mirror behind you?  Mirrors within mirrors within mirrors….very Godel, Escher, Bach. Or maybe more like Alice in Wonderland….

Well, I just created the same effect, but this time in the virtual world.  Thanks to my buddies at Tools.Jam (organized every week by the amazing Jenn Forager, Tuesdays at 12:30 EST), I learned about a desktop sharing application called YuuGuu. This is not a free application, but they do have a free 7-day trial.  So I signed up, downloaded the app, and started up a desktop sharing session (you can have as many as 30 people in your session).  YuuGuu gives you a url and a PIN to share with those you are inviting to gaze at your desktop.  Then I fired up Second Life, rezzed a media screen, and plopped the YuuGuu url into the web-on-a-prim address field.  Zooming in on the screen, I entered the PIN number and hit the “connect” button…and voila!  There I was, as my avatar, Spiral Theas, looking at Spiral Theas on Robin’s desktop.  I think my head is going to explode. Dang, that’s cool

Spiral Theas, looking at Spiral Theas on Robin's desktop.


Filed under Tools, Virtual Worlds

A Social Media Experiment at #NABT10

At the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) conference in Minneapolis this year, there was a little card (above) in the goodie participants were given at the registration booth.  The card urged anyone posting content related to the conference to add the identifying “hashtag“, #NABT10, to their postings. A hashtag is a short character string, preceded by the # sign, that serves as a marker.  A tag. An indentifier, so that others can find your stuff in the vast sea of information known as the world wide web.

For those not able to attend the conference, the hashtag made it easier to tap into the stream of content coming from the conference – photos, blog posts, tweets (from Twitter), Powerpoint slide decks – any of those items posted online that include the hashtag “#NABT10” can be easily found.

Here’s an example.  If you go the web site Tweetchat (a Twitter application that makes it easy to search Twitter with a particular hashtag), you can pull up all of the Tweets posted with that hashtag.  Here’s a glimpse of those (the real list is much longer and must be scrolled through).

In that list, you’ll find tweets that I posted during Sue Black and Nancy Monson’s excellent “Biology Best Bets” talk – their fourteenth such talk at NABT. Sue and Nancy give their audience the benefit of their combined 40+ years of teaching experience and shared the most incredibly creative ideas for demonstrations, labs and activities.  So, even if you weren’t with us in the room, you could get a “feel” for their talk from the tweets.  Not only that, I included the link to their handout (the url of which they gave us during the session) in one of the tweets.  It’s the next best thing to being there.

Here’s another example.  On Saturday morning, Richard Dawkins gave a featured speaker address – a Q/A session, attended by every biology teacher there.  The room was packed.  Scrolling through the list of tweets, you can see that both Stacy Baker and I were “live tweeting” the session, passing along quotes and summaries from the points that Dawkins was making.

And another.  Brad Williamson took photos of all of the 4-year divisions poster session posters on Friday evening and posted them in a Flickr slideshow.  Since he added the conference hashtag, that slide show is a breeze to find.

A little hashtag like this….just seven characters long….might sound like a small thing, but it’s a big step forward for the NABT organization.  A sign of good things to come as this community steps into the future in order to begin to realize the benefits that social media and online communities can offer to the NABT membership.

What’s next?  Livestreaming NABT talks over the internet?  Communities of new and experienced teachers, tapping into each other’s strengths in online work groups?  The AP Biology community contributing and conversing on this NABT Bio Blog? Professional development webinars?  Stay tuned…

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