Monday, January 31, 2011

The Slide Rule

Here are two slide rules. I don't know how they work. John, the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity used a slide rule in high school physics and chemistry. He says, "I used to use it pretty well."

I visited The International Slide Rule Museum to find out what "using it well" would mean, but the answer was beyond my comprehension. I went to my personal library and perused The Young People's Science Encyclopedia from 1966. I thought, for sure, I'd get it since I am already an adult.

There, a slide rule is defined as:
"a mechanical instrument for doing mathematical problems more easily -- mostly multiplication and division. It consists of movable pieces of wood containing logarithmic scales and matching antilogarithms."

I was still lost. I can't remember what a logarithm is and the amount of energy I would need to spend in order to relearn it, could perhaps power a small village. The right side of my brain is limited compared to the left.

I'd be much obliged if someone could enlighten me just a smidge by completing the sentences below:

A slide rule is handy if an engineer needs to ________________.
An architect might use a slide rule to calculate ________________.
The easiest task you can do with a slide rule is ________________.
It was cool when we used the slide rule to figure _______________.

I asked John if he wore the slide rule in his front shirt pocket as a symbol of mathematical wizardry. I had fond visions of the stylish engineering geeks at my alma mater sporting pens and other pocket-size tools. He did not, but kept his in his book bag.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pencil Sharpeners: The Boston Champion Saves the Day

Pencil Sharpener: The Classic Boston Champion

As a substitute teacher and homework-supervising mom, I have witnessed much pencil sharpening -- both successful and frustrating, both annoying to the ear and disruptive to the class, and always messy. In between the cheap dollar sharpener that lurks in each student's desk or crayon box and the loud electric sharpener that breaks much too often, lies this classic vintage hand-operated Boston Champion.
Boston Sharpener Strong!

According to the curators at The Early Office Museum, Boston brand mechanical sharpeners emerged on the scene 100 years ago. There were many models; the Champion was just one. Plenty of vintage ones abound on eBay. Pricing starts below $10.

Ever wonder about the history of the pencil? Here's an even better article from  To quote and paraphrase a little: 
... pencils descend from an ancient Roman writing instrument called a stylus. Scribes used this thin metal rod to leave a light, but readable mark on papyrus (an early form of paper). Other early styluses were made of lead, which is what we still call pencil cores, even though they actually are made of non-toxic graphite. 
Graphite came into widespread use following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Appreciated for leaving a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft and brittle that it required a holder. Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks and, thus, the wood-cased pencil was born!
Nuremberg, Germany was the birthplace of the first mass-produced pencils in 1662. Spurred by Faber-Castell (established in 1761), Lyra, Steadtler and other companies, an active pencil industry developed throughout the 19th century industrial revolution.

Could some linguist help me with why the word pencil has a c instead of an s in it?

To tout the simple, no-nonsense merit of the Boston Champion and other similar manual metal sharpeners, here's a little story a la Goldilocks and the Three Bears made up by one of the creatives in our office (ie Jane Dagmi...)

Goldilocks often went to the Three Bears' house to do her homework. She and Baby Bear would do their math independently, and then later compare answers. One day, Goldilocks arrived early at their cottage in the woods. The bears were still out foraging, but the headstrong girl with shiny blond hair, made herself at home anyway.

Goldilocks sat down in the kitchen and took out her work. She reached inside her knapsack for a pencil. The first one she found had a broken tip. She reached back in and pulled out a second. Its point was dull. She stuck her head in the bag and found no others. "Oh, I do hope the Bears have a pencil sharpener!" Goldilocks exclaimed.

She walked over to the kitchen counter with pencils in hand. She first found a big black electric sharpener. "This must be Mr. Bear's," Goldilocks thought. She stuck the first pencil in and the hungry machine chewed the pencil to bits, nearly taking her finger with it.

She opened a drawer, and found a small sharpener inside that was shaped like a nose. "This must be Baby Bear's," she laughed and stuck the second pencil up one nostril for that is where the blade was cleverly concealed. She spun the pencil round and round and heard the familiar abrading sound. When she took the Ticonderoga out of the nostril, the pencil was annoyingly pointy only along one side. She put it back in and after several more revolutions heard the crunch of broken graphite. "This just won't do," she said, with a droplet of discouragement in her voice.

She walked toward the window, hoping the Bears might be in sight. She did not see them, but she did spy a Boston Champion sharpener on Mama Bear's desk. She approached the device, and inserted the remainder of the second pencil into the hole. Goldilocks turned the hand crank 7 times for good luck. The Boston Champion honed the tip perfectly. It was just right and Goldilocks blurted out, "Woo hoo!!!"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The History of Educational Technology

Here is a relevant presentation on Educational Technology that I found:

That Sound of Music

In 2010, John Edelson's big holiday gift was a phonograph. The Newcomb Audio Products record player was a present from his wife. “Since John got interested in old educational stuff,” she says, “it’s gotten really easy to get him gifts.”

John took his new old phonograph to work, and instantly incorporated into his office d├ęcor. He also played it for the Time4Learning staff at the next meeting. Jennifer Eaton has been working on shaping this homeschool curriculum with John for five years, and has witnessed his collection grow. She confirms, “He gets very excited when he gets a new addition. So excited that he shows us how it works, and how it was made, etc.”

I wasn’t present at the phonograph’s debut show-n-tell, but was eager to listen to its sound. I wanted to hear the familiar crackling static that has the power to transport me back to 1973 in the pink shag carpeted bedroom that I shared with my sister. Or even to the oak entertainment console where my mother stored her many Burt Bacharach albums.

I turned the knob on John's record player, and very carefully placed the needle onto the record. After a revolution or two at 45 RPM’s, I heard that nostalgic crackle followed by the super sweet voice of the female singer. What was a delight for me was a fright for my fourth grader. Sammi covered her ears and hastily pleaded, “Ooh mom, turn that off. That’s scary.” She said the singer's voice reminded her of a clip from a horror movie that she once saw.

Now it’s your chance to listen……….

STAY TUNED: John’s record collection

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Walk in Peace

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. Today we are celebrating him. I interrupted my daughter and her friend in the middle of a game and asked, "Why do we celebrate Martin Luther King?" Here are snippets from their response:

"He made it so everyone can be together... He changed our lives so blacks and whites can go to the same schools, same bathrooms and same shoe black people don't have to sit in the back of the bus...he had a dream for blacks and whites to be together."

They spoke passionately and elaborated about the time he and his father went into a shoe store and refused to sit in the designated section, and then were sent out without being able to buy shoes. I love how girls remember this story and feel the injustice when it comes to not being allowed to buy the shoes of your choice.

We are grateful for Martin Luther King's courage and conviction. Because of him and other noteworthy predecessors and followers, most of us can peacefully walk in the shoes of our choice and anywhere we desire.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My Manual Typewriter - Just My Type

John’s early portable Smith Corona has already starred in a former blog, but I felt the desire to revisit the topic, and to praise this machine from my own point of view.

Growing up, we had one typewriter in our house. It sufficed. My mother, who had been a secretary, was an excellent typist. The only other device with a keypad was a new push-button Princess phone.

I learned to type in high school on a portable typewriter in Ms. Lentz’s typing class. She would put on a Beatles record, and the class would tap along to the beat. I specifically recall flourishing to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” In those days (I am referring to the very early 1980s) we didn’t pick up the skill out of necessity to communicate efficiently with our friends via text or IM. Typing back then was an acquired and valued skill that could land a good typist a nice administrative job.

A few more thoughts about this universal icon with timeless appeal...

I think old typewriters are romantic. Movie set designers know this well, and use these bygone machines in period dramas or when depicting passionate, sentimental writer types. My vote for the most romantic use of an old-fashioned typewriter is in Baz Luhrmann’s "Moulin Rouge." The story takes place in early 1900s Paris, where a penniless Bohemian writer falls in love with a captivating yet terminally ill courtesan. Armed with an Underwood, the writer/poet taps out a love story, with plenty of internal struggle, in a light-filled dilapidated garret.

I think old typewriters can be a bit scary too. Screenwriters know this well, and have equipped some of the nastiest screen villains with them. Criminals have a notion that they are less likely to get caught if sending machine-made ransom notes or threats. In “The Jagged Edge” for example, lawyer Teddy Barnes is smitten with the man she is defending of murder until she discovers a Smith Corona hidden (not very well) in his closet. She quickly feeds the paper around the platen and types, “He is innocent.” The “t” is raised in exactly the same manner as the “t” in the anonymous typed notes she has been receiving throughout the trial. Teddy takes the machine, makes a speedy exit, and later despairingly tells her deceitful and murderous lover, “I found the typewriter.”

I think there’s always a way to recycle cool old things like typewriter parts. Jewelry designers know this well, and repurpose the graphic keys to make stylish bracelets, earrings, cufflinks, and pendants. I have a bracelet that reads “edit.” A close friend of mine who is an Adjunct Professor, clinical psychotherapist, and appreciator of the past has a set of typewriter key earrings. When she bought the pair, it brought her back 50 years. In Professor Deborah Grayson’s own words:

“I used to love the sound of the clicking and tapping of the ‘stadium seating’ keys on the vintage, black Remington of the 1960's as my Mom would masterfully type out our term papers in high school- zing! zing! zing! All of the sounds of the keys tap dancing were sheer music, especially the zip, zip, zip of the paper carriage moving the words up and out of the typewriter. I can only imagine how she would've tweeted, blogged or texted! She was fast. I remember that in those days, she typed 180 words per minute. I love keeping those memories close...”

(this last photo was taken by me while watching "Moulin Rouge" for the 87th time.)

Monday, January 10, 2011


Last summer I accepted a freelance writing position at Time 4 Learning, the online educational publishing company. I visited the Ft. Lauderdale office and met founder John Edelson. He is very engaging. His enthusiasm for learning is quite contagious, and yet as I sat there trying my darnedest to focus on his words, I was distracted by his stuff.

There, up on the ledge just beyond John’s desk was an array of vintage technological gadgetry. I snuck numerous glimpses at the projectors, microphones and cameras that loomed overhead. As I sat in the company of this homeschool curriculum entrepreneur, not only had I just made the acquaintance of a fellow educator, but I had met another nerd junker!

In the vast world of rediscovering the past, John and I both gravitate toward teaching tools and collectibles. We may hunt for different looking objects, yet the realm of educational toys continually attracts us. I find the iconic graphics of classroom flashcards and colorful counting cubes and tangrams irresistible, and he is pulled more toward the manly world of machines.

The continual “march of technology,” as John puts it, is a topic he enjoys pondering. Over a year ago, John revived this blog as a platform to showcase his collection, to document the ever changing tech landscape, and to discuss how it has impacted learning in school and at home. The best laid plans, however, were derailed by a Time 4 Learning growth spurt, which John, as father of the site, was responsible to nurture.

That’s where I come in…a freelance writer (who loves ellipses as you will see), stylist, crafter, and substitute teacher who believes in sneaking in learning when it is least expected. In my world, that means nonchalantly filling a cocktail table bowl with vintage vocabulary cards, turning a cemetery stroll into an impromptu arithmetic lesson, and using a new recipe to explore fractions. I relish bridging the gap between the need to learn and the desire to have fun. I don’t think any child leaves Epcot without acquiring some geographical knowledge.

I am picking up where John left off, dusting off some more of his relics, and sharing bits from my own stash as well. But before I plow full steam ahead, I need to revisit that fabulous Smith Corona….