Sunday, February 28, 2010

48 Hours without Power

Listening to the roaring winds outside our new home in New Hampshire, we settled in to watch Burn Notice. About 5 minutes into the show, the power flickered and we lost the TV signal. As the cable box reacquired the signal, we settled in for a second time, only to have the entire house go black.

A quick look outside confirmed that we were not alone. Grabbing a flashlight, some candles, and a portable radio, we settle in for a third time. At 11:30 we called it a night. At least we didn’t have to turn out the lights. Not giving it much thought, we went to bed, because we were used to losing power for short periods of time when we lived in New Jersey.

When I awoke at 6 AM, I was surprised to see that we still had no power. One of the first thoughts I had was about an online class that I have to give on Friday night. I normally teach it face-to-face at Pace University in NY, but they had snow and classes were cancelled on campus. We had plans in place to have the students attend online from their homes, but it was looking like I might have a problem.

Time for contingency plans. McDonald’s has free wi-fi. If worse comes to worse, I could always sip a Coke and munch on a Big Mac while I teach.

A few minutes later my cell phone beeped with a text message from my daughter who lives about 25 miles away in MA. She also had no power. I pressed the send button to call her back, but there is no connection. Hanging up, I checked the signal and see that I have only one bar and as soon as I press any button, I have no signal at all. Time to turn on the radio to see what’s up.

The news indicated that those roaring winds I mentioned reached 68 mph and downed trees and power lines across the state. Roads were blocked, and 300,000 people are without electricity. It may be days before power is restored in some places.
It was pretty obvious that McDonald’s was not going to be an option. I wondered how I would get in touch with my daughter, who is obviously concerned about not hearing from us, and how would I get the message to Pace?

It was time to hope into the car and go in search of a cell phone signal. Hopefully the two mile stretch to 101 would be clear. As I walk into the garage, I automatically reach to hit the garage door opener. Little by little, I was beginning to really appreciate the things we take for granted.

As I head out to Rt. 101 in the direction of Epping, it was surreal. No stores were open. No traffic lights were working, but traffic was light and moving smoothly as people are courteously letting cars turn and get on the highway from side streets.
As I drove, I glance at the phone and see 1 bar, then two. I was only a mile from Epping so I decided to get off at Exit 5, see if the McDonald, Lowes, or Walmart were open and place my calls.

As I got off, It was obvious they too had no power. I pulled into the Wallgreen’s parking lot and called my daughter. After easing her mind, I decide it’s too early to wake Dr. Sachs, so I send him a text message to let him know things are not looking good for that night, and head back home.

Having been up for an hour and a half, was I’m hungry. I look at the Mr. Coffee longingly and realize was not lost. We have a gas stove. I heat water, pour it through the filter, grabbed a breakfast bar, open the morning paper, and turn on the radio.

It was now 8:45 and I began typing this blog entry in the present tense, but the battery was low and I had to shut down. (It is now three days later and I just changed it all to past tense.) There wasn’t anything to do, but wait. I figured in a few hours I would head back to Epping to call the some family members back in NJ who might be trying to get in touch and contact Dr. Sachs to figure out what we would do with class. There wasn’t much to do except listen to the radio and assess the situation.

Later that day as the damage became apparent, the Governor declared a state of emergency. They announced that it would take multiple days to restore power to everyone and that it could take up to a week in some areas.

Things were looking serious, but I thought we would be ok. The house is new and well insulated. It was 70 degrees when the lights went out and 12 hours later, it was only down to 65. We have a gas stove and the new refrigerator is tight. It should keep things cool and frozen for a day or two with no problem.

The rest of the day was spent reading, playing backgammon, and going to bed an hour earlier than usual. The computer battery was dead and I was writing with one of those things called a pen, something I had done only on rare occasions. The worse time was the hours between twilight and bed. It’s hard to read or play games by candle light. I guess we’re not as hardy as our forefathers. Let’s be honest, we’re just spoiled.

After dinner, when things got quiet and we could no longer read or play games, we got out the cheese that might spoil, grabbed a box of crackers, and opened a bottle of wine. That did the trick and it was candles out at 10:30.

Normally we are up and around by 7:30, but we figured we would be up earlier because we went to bed early. Imagine my surprise when my wife whispered, “Are you awake? It’s ten of nine.” She had checked her cell phone and bolted awake when she saw the time. Reaching for my phone I squinted and surprisingly confirmed her read. Apparently, doing nothing is tiring.

It was now down to 60 degrees and time to add a layer of clothing. A few years ago, I had an online site for providing professional development. The domain name was, because you could take courses online while sitting in your fuzzy slippers. My daughter made a logo of pair of fuzzy bunny slippers with a mouse attached and I found the real McCoy online. I couldn’t resist getting them just as a lark. Now they were proving useful and somewhat interesting to the cats.
We headed down stairs, boiled water and turned on the radio to get some updates on the situation.

Looking out the window, there was about three inches of snow on the ground. That would not make things easier for the linemen. The roads were clear and we were planning to take a ride to MA, because we needed a few things and from talking to my daughter, we knew some stores were open.

Just about that time, the disc jockey said, “…and it’s now 7:12.” Huh! We both checked our cell phones, and sure enough, he was right. Note to selves: Put on glasses before checking time, because 6:50 looks like 8:50 on the small digital display.

By this time, things were getting a little questionable in the refrigerator. Jill cooked up the half pound of bacon. We would have some of it with the scrambled eggs I was making and munch on the rest later.

After breakfast we decided to take a drive to see what was opened. I plugged in my computer to the adapter in the car and automatically reached for the garage door opener. Oops! After manually opening the garage door, we were on our way.

As we passed the Hannaford’s supermarket, we saw they had trailer with an emergency generator and were opened for business. We could stop there on the way home. We headed to Epping and saw that the commercial center there had electricity. We did some shopping at the Super Walmart for batteries and other essentials like cat food and munchies for us. After that, we headed over to McDonalds where I used their wi-fi to check email and answer a few essential communications. Then it was back home for a quick stop at Hannafords for some essentials in case the outage lasted much longer. We picked up three bottles of wine, some ice, and headed off down the road secure in the knowledge we were prepared.

When we got home I took three plastic buckets and loaded them with frozen and refrigerator goods that were in danger of spoiling, packed them in snow and ice, and put them on the back deck. It was then I saw Jim, the construction manager for the condos. He told me that NH Co-op's power lines ended a few hundred feet east of our development and that PSNH’s lines started there. We had lines behind our clubhouse that were down and then had just moved some equipment in to begin working. He thought we might have electricity by that afternoon.

That would be none too soon, because the temperature was now down to 55 in the house. The cats were none too happy about that and were had just added another layer of clothing. The rest of the day passed much like the previous one, but a little colder. At 10:00 there was still no power. We killed the candles and went to sleep.

It’s funny how your mind works when you are in that twilight sleep. I awoke to my wife screaming, “Yay!” and thought to myself, “Why did she turn on the lights and wake me up”? Then I realized we had power! It had come one just a little more than 48 hours after it went off.

It’s now the third day. Because of our fortuitous location between two power companies, we have electricity, but most of the rest of our town is still dark as is the majority of the 300,000 others who lost power. Many will be without power for days yet.

Our daughter’s family spend the night with friends who had power. From what I gathered on the radio, they are probably still without power and will probably head over here until they get back on the grid.

So that’s our little adventure. While it's insignificant compared to the suffering in Haiti and other places around the globe, it certainly makes one thankful for what we do have.

I’ll post this now and begin catching up on email and planning for making up the class that was canceled by the storm. Hopefully, the next storm scheduled to come through this weekend, will be gentler.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How to Lose at Russian Roulette

Peeping Tom image from Cult Gigolo on
I've made a few posts about ChatRoulette, but that's not the topic of this post. The only relationship is that when you go to ChatRoulette, the site automatically turns on your web camera. That is the topic of this post. If you have a web camera, you need to know that it is not entirely under your control. Malware or other software installed on your computer can be accessed remotely and can turn it on.

The most recent example of this took place in the Lower Marion School District in PA. In the past few days there have been more than 2000 articles posted about this. A quick Google search for web camera spying will round up most of them for you.

In case you haven't read anything about out, the administration had the ability to turn on web cameras on laptops issued in the schools 1-to-1 program. Apparently, an assistant principal disciplined a student for improper use of the computer at home and used a picture taken with the web camera as evidence. The result is a class action suit and an F.B.I. investigation.

I can't begin to fathom what was going through the asst. principal's mind when he started to activate cameras in order to police inside students' homes. The idea that anyone would do this is almost beyond comprehension. It's like playing Russian roulette with a revolver carefully loaded with 6 live rounds. You can spin the chamber as many times as you like, but the first time you pull the trigger, you will shoot yourself in the head.

Who knows how many cameras were activated or a how what he saw before he found someone doing something wrong, but the first time he acted on what he saw, the shot was heard around the world.

Aside from quickly ending his career, this incident will have significant impact on programs in both education and business. Software similar to that used in Lower Marion is used routinely by business. In all cases, the use is supposed to be for security, but the potential for abuse is something that is built into every computer that carries that kind of software.

It's going to be interesting to watch how far the ripples of this incident travel.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What's the Problem with Filters in Education

One of the only places student and teachers have a problem accessing the information they need is in schools. It used to be that the filters themselves were the main problem. Then CIPA came along and the problem was compounded by people using them poorly. Today, the filters have improved, but not the people. Filters are still being used poorly, if not worse. If filtering management and strategies had improved 1/10 as much as filters have improved, there would be no significant problem.

The ONLY thing CIPA requires in the way of technology is that you protect against accidental access to pornograhy, but too many schools use filters in lieu of supervision and education. The block everything from violence to nose picking. They are not protecting the children. They are trying to cover their collective asses and in the process are hindering education and access to the material that students and teachers need.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More on ChatRoulette

Hopefully, by now that you have all digested the initial announcement of the appearance of the new video chat stranger danger. Let's take a step or two back and put this in perspective.

Many times in the past, I've said that for the most part, kids are safe and want to be safe. Indeed, the research backs up my contention. However, the research also points out that there is a small part of the teen population that is at risk. These are the same kids who would be at risk even if the Internet didn't exist.

Beth Martin of Everest Middle School had a talk with her 16 year-old daughter and her friend. She said, "They didn't seem fazed by it. They told me that fact that I was shocked showed how naive I was about the web. Their response was that kids should be smart enough to know not to do that. Wow! That shocked me too. I think they are right about a lot of kids but I think kids on the fringe would try this."

The fact is that when sites like this come along, not only the kids on the fringe, but many mainstream kids will check it out. Curiosity is natural. For most, their curiosity will be quenched and it will quickly fade. However, it is still important to talk to kids about it, but do so by recognizing that most are safe. We have to begin to build a culture based on trust that treats kid as intelligent beings. We have to get them to help each other and held us help the few who might be in danger.

Let them know you realize that only a small group of individuals will be endangered by this kind of site and that THEY know who these kids are. They are the ones in the best position to help. Ask them to be alert to friends who might be hurt by using sites like this. Ask them to help their friends avoid trouble. Ask them to contact a trusted adult if they think someone might be endangering themselves.

It may or may not be effective, but it WILL start building a community of trust and perhaps it will result in at at least one tragedy being avoided. Let's treat our teens as online partners, not naive sheep.

Incidentally, when I went online to check this out. This is what the people on the other end saw. My web camera software does face movement tracking and allows me to overlay (wear) hats, wigs, masks, and distort my face numerous ways.

When kids saw this, one of three things happened.
1) They clicked off immediately
2) They called me a pedophile
3) They gave me a thumbs up.

The Power of Social Media

If you ever wondered about what social media is really all about, how it works, and whether one persion (or web site) can really make a difference, watch this four minute video.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Chat Roulette: A Gamble We Can Do Without!

When I first started giving Internet workshops in 1995, there were a few
sites that I used to give people a snapshot of what the web was all about. The most popular of these sites was called WebRoulette. You would click a button and be taken to a random web site.

But this post is not about WebRoulette. These sites still exist though WebRoulette has long since been bought by a casino site. Random web site generators still exist, but be careful. According to Norton Safe Search, some harbor spyware, but this post is not about spyware. It's about the 21st century version iteration of this phenomenon, Random Video Chats.

You read that right. If you go to and click the start button, your web camera will start up in one window and you will be face to face with a random stranger in another.

I first heard about it in a Facebook post from Kerstein Creative that said, "The most unusual, intriguing, weird, frightening concept in social networking I've read about yet. (Can't say I've seen it, because I'm a little freaked out by it.)" and pointed to this article in the New York Magazine.

After reading the article, I had to check it our for myself. The results were very much as described in the article. Here's a snapshot of what I saw. It really reflects the part of my block description that says "with great latitude given in the definition of human."

In a four minute period I saw 66 males and 7 females mostly in the teens and 20's. There were 22 connections that had their cameras blacked out and 6 "others". Others were cameras pointing at signs, walls, or other object.

The disturbing part was that of the 66 males, 6 were X-rated. There was one set of breasts displayed and unquestionably the most bizarre connection was this one.

Do I even have to say it? A web camera in the hands of an unsupervised teen, is an invitation to trouble. I understand that they might use it to talk to grandma or aunt Tillie, but do you want them talking to this guy? If your child has a web camera, at the very least, have a long talk with them!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What's Wrong with this Picture?

The George Lucas Foundation and are great resources for educators. Watch this video before reading the rest of this post.

This kind of video is one of my pet peeves. While it is a wonderful snapshot of what schools should be, it is strictly a vision piece.

I'm sure many people who watch it are asking themselves, "Where are we going to find funds for this sort of technology? We can barely keep our students supplied with paper and pencils." But that's not the important question. The important question is, "How did the teachers arrive at the point of being able to provide this kind of education?"

Clearly, there is team teaching and cross curricular collaboration. There is problem based curriculum in action. There are teachers comfortable with technology. Where is the video that shows the steps that went into the making of this kind of educational institution.

I think we know what education should look like. We need to know how to make it so. Let's produce videos and articles that are blueprint and plans, not pretty finished products.

Post Script: When I copied the code to embed the video, Blogger pointed out an error in the code that lies behind the embedded video. I think it's ironic that I'm complaining about a video that doesn't show the behind the scenes action and the code behind the scenes has an error in it.