Thursday, December 03, 2015

Fall 2015 U-M Geoscience News

Ben van der Pluijm ended a nearly 15 year stint as director of the Global Change Program, which offered a set of introductory courses on planetary stewardship and sustainability, and (College of LSA’s first) minor degree (GCminor). The inception of this educational program was funded by generous support of the Hewlett Foundation and the U-M’s Provost Office, in collaboration with Tim Killeen (now president of Univ of Illinois) and other colleagues at U-M. The GC Program has been absorbed by U-M Program in the Environment’s growing offerings. Ben is now developing a new course that focuses on societal resilience (Earth/Environ259), moving from the aspirations of sustainability to the impacts of change. Over the summer, Ben also worked on a new version of the successful Earth Structure textbook, which changed so much that a new title will be used (draft cover below). “Processes in Structural Geology and Tectonics” radically reorganizes the standard course outline, by integrating observation, theory and process, without losing site of fundamentals. The primary goal of this new approach is to improve students’ understanding and retention of key elements and processes in this area of study. An experiment with online posting is under development (, allowing greater international access and lower prices (see also earthstructureweb on Facebook).

Graduate student Austin Boles continues the development of H analysis as a proxy of fluid sources, most recently on samples from the Alpine Fault of New Zealand. Erin Lynch is similarly working on sources and timing of fluid history, focusing her efforts on the Cordilleran fold-thrust belts of S and N America. Samantha Nemkin, jointly supervised with Rob van der Voo, continues her work on the timing of remagnetization using the paleomagnetic fold test in limestones and fold dating of interbedded shales. Several undergraduate students are also involved in these projects. Various projects with recent group members Anja Schleicher (GFZ Potsdam) and Elisa Fitz-Diaz (UNAM) are continuing as well. A project on dating deformation in the Canadian Rockies that started well over a decade ago with then-PDF Peter Vrolijk (van der Pluijm et al., Nature, 2001), culminated in a regional study and synthesis of the Alberta Rockies that emphasizes the importance of short deformation pulses instead of long-lasting, continuous deformation (Pana and van der Pluijm, GSAB, 2015). These views are not embraced by everyone.

Ben and Lies continue to host U-M alumni travel, most recently to the Barents and White seas, visiting Russian harbor cities like Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (picture), seeing samples from the bottom of the Kola Peninsula deep hole (an amazing 12 km deep!), and foggy Nordkapp and Tromsø in Norway, all of which with 24 hr daylight.

Lastly, a GSA-Baltimore set of sessions organized by PhD grads Sam Haines, Bernie Housen, Eric Tohver and Arlo Weil celebrates Ben’s 30 years of research and graduate mentoring at Michigan, and, gasp, his 60th birthday.

Modified from: Geoscience News, Fall 2015.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Presentation Recording, Posting and Webcasting – Simple and Cheap, yet Slick and Powerful.

For many years I have been involved in technology applications in the classroom, including the development of, now sold, LectureTools (absorbed in Echo360’s Active Learning Platform).  The functionality became ever greater, but so were the environment’s complexity, and equipment and room demands.  Time to return to the early 2000's when we used off-the-shelf equipment, such as inexpensive Linksys units from BestBuy to create our own, restricted WiFi network, and to control the process.  

My primary target in this post is recording and sharing of lecture presentations, so that students have post-class access on as-needed basis (like excused absences) or simply open-access, without the need of room-installed hardware and tech assistance.  Secondly, and the underlying motivation for this project, is ready access to lecture material in order to encourage greater student responsibility for the learning experience.  The latter is short for paying-attention and note-taking, and will be something for a later write-up.  Here it is about personal setup and steps for sharing a presentation without tech-savvy help or an IT-enabled room.

A Laptop

Since most presentations are or can be run from one’s personal laptop, my efforts involve the Windows PC (though it'll be similar for Mac).  The three central needs are (1) sound and projected image recording, (2) their synchronization, and (3) presentation sharing.  There is an absolutely perfect program for that, called Camtasia Studio.  It has been around for a while, so offers a trouble-free product.  First the hardware.

Record Sound

I ordered a cheap (really cheap) wireless microphone set to record my voice without being tethered to the laptop.  It was less than $20 when I ordered it from Amazon.  The device is known on campuses and board rooms as the lavalier microphone that booms one’s sound through speakers.  Not here.  The receiver (on the left) is plugged into the laptop’s microphone jack (with a not-included converter; probably 3.5mm to 1/4"), so that sound can be recorded.  Many laptops have a shared microphone/headphone jack, so make sure the converter works (multi-wired), usu usually through a software setting.  Probably a $500+ industrial strength unit is a good idea, but the cheapo works very well for my purposes and use so far.  I’ll probably upgrade down the road when monetary donations from this write-up arrive :-)
Update (9/28/15):  I have tested a high-end lavalier device (Sennheiser) that gives slightly better sound quality, but not meaningful for voice compared to the cheap system.  As a backup, I have a 25ft extension audio cable that connects sound port and microphone, which produces crispest sound of all options.  Using a microphone boost of 20dB makes this long connection indistinguishable from a short direct connection with 10dB (default) boost.  So cheapo lavalier and wire are good options, unless you have a fancy system available.  One final test is a better microphone, which I'll try soon, but the system works well so far.

Presentation and Recording

Get and install Camtasia Studio (currently v8.6).  The program may already be licensed to your institution or costs ~$250.  This is the most expensive part of the project, but worth it when we get to functionality.  When installing the software, the program asks to be an add-in to PowerPoint, which is key functionality #1; so, say yes.  When done, it’ll show in PowerPoint Add-ins as:

When clicking on <Record> the presenter function of PowerPoint starts automatically, with a little Camtasia panel in the right corner:

Clicking on that panel’s button starts recording voice and whatever shows on the screen simultaneously (key functionality #2).  I use PowerPoint presenter view, which works the same for this, except that the start panel appears on the projected screen.  It’ll go away once clicked. Note the Pause and Stop options.

Now do your thing.  Talk as usual and move slides as usual.  Going back and forth in slides is no issue and any animation on the screen are captured just fine too.  When done, press <Esc>, as usual, and a Save... window appears that asks you to store the recording, with the obscure extension.trec.  Type a name (and other location) if the .pptx file name is not welcome, and a very large .trec file is saved. That’s the raw product from which a recording is produced.

Posting and Webcasting

I expect that other programs can do what I’ve described so far, although the PPT add-in is pretty slick.  Camtasia becomes key (functionality #3) to the effort of sharing a sophisticated end-product.  The .trec file extension is Camtasia’s and opens the program.  Lots of options are available to you, but ignore them all.  Highlight the file icon just opened (Camtasia's recording file) and right-click, and then select <Add to Timeline at Playhead>.  The file shows at the bottom and is now ready for production.  You can also edit at this stage, but it is not necessary for our purposes (unless some rough or boss-unfriendly language crept into the lecture that you want to remove; Camtasia>Help explains how to do that).

Click on the <Produce and share> tab and select from the drop-down list.  Use <MP4 only> for just a flat recording, but we will use <MP4 with SmartPlayer> for reasons that will become obvious.

Click <Next>, complete any file info and <Finish> to let the program do its thing.  Once done, which may take a while, a set of files are created in a single folder with the title you used earlier.  This folder contains all the info to allow powerful webcasting.

Instead of sharing a flat MP4 file or uploading it to some site, copy the entire folder to a web server to allow access to a final product that has powerful functionality.  If you don’t know what posting to a webserver is than ask your IT person for access to the server.  Such access should allow you to transfer files.  You’ll need to learn this too, but FTP programs (like WinSCP) are readily available for that.

The copied folder contains several files and subfolders.  Don’t touch anything.  Just remember the file address that looks like  You picked the folder name and (same) file name; the rest is standard for your server.  If all went well, that link opens a browser page with your recording.

The magic remains hidden until you click on the screen and an automatic, hotlinked Table of Contents appears that allows the user to jump to named slides in the presentation.  These automatic bookmarks are the titles of the PowerPoint slides when using a theme or its default layout.  Users can scroll the contents and, importantly, directly jump to the slide of interest.  They can revisit a part that was complicated or interesting, or unclear, without having to listen to the whole presentation or blindly slide the progress bar.  While presenting, you should briefly pause when switching slides so that these jumps offer a natural start in the posted product, but most of the time that is the case anyhow: “… on this slide we see ….”, or “… wait, there is more …”

You cannot get all this functionality without a lot of coding and very patient software support in your institution or company.  Instead, buy Camtasia (I get no kickback from them, yet).  The entire production process asks only minutes from the presenter, although the conversion and production of files by Camtasia takes a while.  No operator attention is needed during that process, except that the laptop should stay active. Lastly, web-posted presentations can be also be played back at slower speed (say, 0.75x), improving the experience with lecturers that seem to go (too) fast.  I tested normal and lower speed with speech-to-text software and there is on obvious improvement.  Different-rate learners/listeners will surely benefit from this extra functionality (#4).
[note: I copy the .trec file to the cloud and do subsequent processing on a desktop at work or at home, which are more powerful and offers faster file transfer]


Doing all this creates a powerful online presentation that even beats pre-installed systems you’ll find in today’s lecture rooms.  Yet, all that from your little laptop, a cheap wireless microphone and modestly-priced, off-the-shelf software.  One challenge may be folder uploading to a webserver and its permissions, but this is standard fare for local IT help, as no coding and editing are required.  Only server access for copy-and-paste of a folder.  

Enjoy and enrich the world (or local students, in my case) with your presentation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

vanderTrick: Remove Twitter follower(s) without blocking (”soft block”).

There may be an occasional Twitter follower that you would like to remove from following your posts, though not by severing all ties with them.  Remember that blocking means that you won’t see their tweets either.  A surprisingly simple, but unintuitive solution is available.  Follow these steps, and … follower gone.
  1. Go to your Followers and click on the unwanted follower's handle or icon.
  2. Click the settings wheel, next to [Follow], and click on [Block].  
  3. This blocks the follower, but also removes your access to that stream ("hard block").
  4. Click on the settings wheel again (now otherwise a mostly blank page) and on [Unblock], and that Twitter stream returns.
  5. Check your list of Followers and that particular follower should no longer be there.
Note that nothing stops that follower from refollowing you, though most won’t notice in a busy daily feed.  If that happens, then stop after Step 2, which fully cuts your connection with that follower (no follower and no stream).  Or, just accept that all tweets are public.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Spilling the beans on super-automatic coffee maker

It grinds, packs, pre-wets and pump-steams to brew a cup of espresso, cappuccino or strong coffee.  After considerable research and sticker shock for some coffee maker brands, we got the Krups® Espressaria EA825000 Full-Auto Espresso Machine. It is moderately priced in its category ($600-700) and well-reviewed on
Buying and setup is an easy beginning.  Finding the right coffee and right amount of water is a journey.  Our experiences are described below.

[latest update: Dec 2016]

The machine works well.  Appropriately noisy, so you know that it does a bunch of things and that it was expensive.  The unit uses a lot of coffee for one cup, which is typical for all espresso makers, but does allow the amount of water to vary.  While it stops when water runs out and resumes on refilling, I was surprised to see that the grinder and coffee making continue when the unit is short of beans, resulting in a watery drink and wasted grind.  No way to stop once the cycle is underway.
The latter also presents an issue when making cappuccino.  Two attachments to froth milk are included.  One is the usual spigot that draws in air, while the other is a larger, container-based attachment that pulls milk through hot steam, resulting in sumptuous creamy froth.  Best I've ever seen from 1/2% milk.  I prefer to use just enough milk for a single cappuccino, but frothing ends with blasting air after the milk runs out.  Turning off the steam is not immediate, so a mess ensues.  That mess and the cleanup of the container attachment are laborious.  But, great cappuccino!

Onward to coffee beans for a (small) cup of coffee.  

Illy - This was our first try with the new machine and using beans.  Lovely crema ("coffee foam"), with a little burny flavor for some, but very nice to my palate. Regrettably, it is the most expensive, 8oz for $14, and the machine has a serious appetite for beans per cup.  A little sweet brew for some, but generally a balanced flavor.
Busch's Columbia dark -  Taste is too burny, but creates some crema.  Modest price, $10 for 12oz
Busch's Espresso roast- Flavor is pretty good, while creating cup with reasonable crema.  Better than its Columbia dark sibling, with same modest price ($10 for 12oz).
Starbuck's French Roast - Creates a cup with little crema and the most burned flavor so far. The fresh grind seems over-concentrated for espresso machine that employs pump pressure; it may be better for (gravity) drip.  Not suitable at any price ($11).
Starbuck's Espresso - Tast is less bitter than Starbuck's french roast and has more caramel flavor with excellent crema.  It is good for espresso (duh), but also as regular coffee.  For the latter, I use 130ml setting for regular coffee, which makes a strong, but not overly so, cup.
Seattle's Best #5 - This brand is no longer easy to find in my area, but SB already makes our favorite drip coffee (SB#4).  Our local grocery, Busch's, discontinued the brand for shelf space for chain coffee brands (like Dunkin' Donuts) and local favorites (like Zingerman's).  No SB#4 beans in our area, so we tried the darker SB#5 (~$8).  The beans offer modestly intense flavor, but bordering on bitter.  Also, the drink leaves little coffee after taste.  The experience is similar to Starbuck's French Roast (same roaster?), so this bean is not optimal for our machine (and our flavor) either.

Still shaking from all the coffees we tried so far, it is clear that many don't work too well.  Cappuccino is forgiving, so most darker beans will do fine, but a small cup of coffee is much more sensitive.  From the dark roast bunch we favor Starbuck's Espresso for a regular coffee after tuning the amount of water (130ml).  The latter is always key to good coffee, pump or drip.  Not too much, not too little water, which this machine allows one to adjust on the fly.

I'll update as more coffees are tried ......

... A few weeks later (Feb15).
Encouraged by friends to leave national brands behind and try boutique/local coffees, and spend a few more $$ ($12-13).
Higher Grounds - Fair trade, organic medium dark roast.  Surprisingly flavorless and not at all suitable for espresso.  Among the characterless coffees and, frankly, not acceptable for lovely espresso machine.  Relegated the remainder beans to grind for drip coffee, as I hate to throw it away.
Roos Roast - A local roaster who makes a recommended espresso blend.  The fresh (2 weeks) beans smell great and produce a lovely crema.  The flavor, however, is bland and not sufficiently powerful for espresso, let alone cappuccino.  It reminds me of the standard coffee served in the many good restaurants here, so perhaps I discovered the Midwest flavor.  Too bad it is not for me.

... A few more weeks later (Mar15).
And the winner is: Peet's Coffee, Major Dickason's Blend (deep roast).  This CA-based national brand produces a rich, strong flavor with lovely crema, without any burn taste.  Using 120 or 130ml makes little difference for a coffee, while the espresso (50ml) has excellent presence in my cappuccino (I use less milk than typical barrista fare, more cortado+froth style).  The coffee is just a tad less bitter than Starbuck's Espresso (above), which remains a good option too (but not the French Roast).  As a national brand, Peet's ( should be available in several grocery store chains (like Busch's here) and offers consistent roast quality.

Lastly, a point about cost.  Based on measuring dry ground weight per cup of coffee/espresso, the machine requires 2 times that  of a strong (Seattle's Best #4) drip coffee.  Obviously, one gets a stronger and richer drink for that, but, with the ease of making another one, it result in lots more coffee use with this supermachine.  None of this matters now that we found the perfect combination of roast and coffee.

... One year later (Jan16).
Machine is still working perfectly fine.  It is used multiple times each day, so well over 1000 cups so far.  I cleaned the system with the tablet that was included, but, as we have soft water, little scaling occurs.  I did notice that the two spouts deliver unequal water volumes, so we stopped making two cups at once.
With regard to beans, I believe that the Peet's Coffee, Major Dickason's Blend roast we liked so much changed sometime last year.  It is not as rich and strong as before (for 120ml cup).  We returned to Starbuck's French Roast at the 130ml setting, which makes a great cup and is consistent in taste and richness.
Also, glad to see that my little write-up has somehow reached a good number of folks.

Update Dec16: FAIL !
Suddenly the unit started to leak coffee from the bottom instead of filling the cup.  Rinse cycle worked OK, but coffee pellet somehow blocked the outlet.  Contacted Krups customer service, who were very helpful (fail occurred exactly on the day of ordering the unit 2 yrs earlier). I was told that dark espresso roast tends to release oils that clog the system and is not recommended for the unit. Hmm, an espresso machine challenged by dark roast.  Krups kindly offered to fix the unit under warranty and it was returned in fine working order about 10 days later.  They returned the original machine based on characteristic scuff markings from prior use, with its insides cleaned or replaced (no repair record included).
One of the commenters on this blog describes the same experience, so this appears to be a systemic problem with the unit (and other such machines, I heard).  Nevertheless, I'll be using the repaired unit as before, although rinsing daily as opposed to a couple of times a week.  Hopefully we'll get another two years of use from the unit, as the daily coffees remain great (still Starbuck's French Roast).