Archive for the ‘Random stuff about teens, books, and technology’ Category

By Katherine Boehret

Some fascinating results can be produced when you scour the Internet using a giant search engine like Google’s. You can discover the seedy past of a creep you might have otherwise dated, find directions to the nearest Thai restaurant, or instantly learn how many inches are in a mile (63,360).

But searching for video, the hottest content on the Web right now, isn’t easy. Sure, you can go to Google’s popular YouTube site and look for clips stored there. But that won’t find videos from other sites, especially copyrighted clips that YouTube doesn’t offer or has removed from its site.

This week, I tested four video-search engines, including revamped entrant Truveo.com, a smartly designed site that combs through Web video from all sorts of sources ranging from YouTube to broadcasting companies. Truveo, a subsidiary of AOL, is stepping out on its own again after spending three years in the background, powering video search for the likes of Microsoft, Brightcove and AOL itself. It unveiled its new site last week, though I’ve been playing with it for a few weeks now.

Truveo organizes search results by grouping clips together and spreading them out in a smart grid-like display.

This Web site, http://www.truveo.com1, operates under the idea that users don’t merely search for video by entering specific words or phrases, like they would when starting a regular Web search. Instead, Truveo thinks that people don’t often know what they’re looking for in online video searches, and browsing through content helps to retrieve unexpected and perhaps unintended (but welcome) results. I found that, compared with other sites, Truveo provided the most useful interface, which showed five times as many results per page as the others and encouraged me to browse other clips.

In effect, Truveo combines the browsing experience of a YouTube with the best Web-wide video-search engine I’ve seen.

The other video-search sites I tested included Google’s (www.google.com/video2) and Yahoo’s (www.video.yahoo.com3), as well as Blinkx.com (www.blinkx.com4). None of these three sites do much to encourage browsing; by default they display as many as 10 results per search on one page and display the clips in a vertical list, forcing you to scroll down to see them all. The majority of clips watched on Truveo, Yahoo and Blinkx direct you to an external link to play the video on its original content provider’s site — which takes an extra step and often involves watching an advertisement.

Searching on Google video almost always displays only content from Google and its famously acquired site, YouTube. The giant search company is working on improving its search results to show a better variety of content providers. Still, the upside here is that clips play right away in the search window rather than through a link to the site where the video originated. YouTube works this way because its clips are user-generated — either made by users and posted to the site or copied from original host sites and posted to YouTube, saving a trip to the original content provider’s site.

Yahoo’s video-searching page looks clean and uncluttered, with a large box for entering terms or phrases with which to conduct searches. Two options — labeled “From Yahoo! Video” and “From Other Sites” — help you sort results in one step. But the clips that I found on Yahoo video seemed less relevant, overall, and included more repeated clips. One search for the Discovery Channel’s “Man Versus Wild” show returned seven clips, four of which were identical.

Blinkx, a three-year-old site, distinguishes itself with its “wall” feature — a visually stimulating grid of moving video thumbnails. It is like Truveo in that it also works behind the scenes for bigger companies, including Ask.com. Blinkx says it uses speech recognition and analysis to understand what the video is about, while the others stick to text-based searching. And this seemed to hold true: I rarely got results that were completely off-base using Blinkx.

But Truveo’s focus on browsing and searching worked well. It repeatedly displayed spot-on results when I was looking for a video about a specific subject, or provided a variety of other videos that were similar, requiring less overall effort on my part. Its most useful feature is the way it shows results: by sorting clips into neatly organized buckets, or categories, such as Featured Channels, Featured Tags and Featured Categories. These buckets spread out on the page in a gridlike manner, giving your eye more to see in a quick glance.

This grid also lets you change the direction of your search quickly. Tabs at the top of the page can re-sort your results according to Most Viewed Now, Today, This Week, This Month or of All Time. Three more tabs rearrange the results into Highest Rated, Most Recent (my personal favorite) and Most Relevant.

The other video-search sites offered fewer details, overall, about each clip. This meant that I had to waste time opening and watching clips to discern whether they were what I wanted to see.

I searched for a variety of things, including a new television series called “Mad Men” on AMC that has me hooked. The show is still just gaining popularity, so I was curious to see what my video search would return. A single Truveo search can display as many as 51 results on a page, and the bucket organizational system placed all of these results into a layout that didn’t look overwhelming. Of the four sites, Truveo had the highest number of clips related to the actual television show: 32 out of 51. On the other sites, all of which show 10 results per page, all of the Blinkx clips, five of the Google clips and eight of the Yahoo clips were relevant.

With the exception of a few clips, Truveo search results include a thumbnail image of each video, its title, channel and category, and a line about how old the clip is and how many times it has been viewed.

The top 15 results — grouped into three columns of five clips each — feature slightly larger thumbnail images, and moving a cursor over one of these larger images shows a brief summary of that clip.

If your search generates numerous relevant clips on a well-known Web site, a special bucket is created at the top right of Truveo’s results page that will hold just that site’s clips. For example, if you were to search an MTV show that’s popular enough to have a lot of clips available directly through the MTV.com Web site, a bucket is designated just for MTV.com clips.

Truveo is considering selling this prominent bucket as an advertisement in the future, but for now, no ads appear on the video-search site.

With so many videos added to the Web each day, the search for online clips can be fruitless and tiresome. Truveo starts users out with enough relevant clips right away so that they can more easily find what they’re looking for. And its organizational buckets encourage browsing and, therefore, entertainment — one of the reasons for Web video’s popularity.

Truveo takes a refreshing look at video search, and as long as you have the patience to travel to sites where content originated, you’ll find it useful. It stands apart from other search engines in looks and functionality.


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The Virtual Stroll–WSJ

August 14, 2007 Lee Gomes

The Internet has changed everything, including a casual stroll down the street, something that, for increasingly large parts of the country, you now don’t need to get out of bed to do.

Google Maps has a new feature called Street View, which contains block-by-block photographs that you can view one after another, just as though you were going for a walk. The service debuted in May and last week expanded to two more cities. Stephen Chau, product manager for Street View, gives a tour of the new way to take tours.

What exactly is Street View?

In the past, we’ve shown aerial imagery in Google Maps; this is an extension of that. Street View allows users to view and navigate with 360-degree street-level imagery. This allows users to understand an area in a way they couldn’t possibly before.

How does it work?

Click the Street View button in the upper right-hand corner of Google Maps, and you’ll see camera icons in the cities where we have coverage: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and New York. Zoom in, and you’ll see blue highlights over roads where we have imagery available. Click on any of these blue streaks, and you will be looking at a view of that location. You can rotate 360 degrees and move from one panorama to another. You’re virtually moving down the street.

It sounds cool, but is there any practical use for it?

Users are finding very interesting uses for this imagery. For example, you can augment driving directions with images, previewing the route before you actually drive it. If Google Maps is telling me to make a right-hand turn at an intersection, I can preview the intersection to see what it looks like. Or, if I am going to meet someone, I can zoom into a particular location, for example a park bench, and say, “Let’s meet here.”

People are also using it for visual search. I recently moved to a new neighborhood in San Francisco, and so I walk by neighborhoods that I’m not familiar with. It’s very common to walk by a restaurant I want to check out, only to forget the name of the restaurant by the time I get home. But now I go back and virtually walk up and down the street, to find the restaurant’s name.

How do you take the pictures?

We have vehicles with custom equipment on top, and we drive down public roads. The imagery is coming from two sources. In San Francisco and San Diego, where we have high-resolution imagery, the images are taken by Google. We are also licensing imagery from a third-party provider, Immersive Media.

How many pictures do you take on each block?

An average measurement of the spacing between our pictures is about 10 meters (33 feet).

What about the privacy concerns that some people have expressed?

The images are those taken from public roads, so it’s not unlike what you would see walking down the street on any given day. That being said, there is an easily accessible way for users to flag imagery that they think may be inappropriate. Objectionable imagery, for example nudity, is one case. If you find a picture of yourself, and you would like that image removed, we will remove it. We understand that users are concerned about some of these images, and we take privacy seriously.

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Growing Web-Based Software Helps Parents and Schools Peek at Lessons, Share Records
By Christopher Lawton
August 23, 2007; Wall Street Journal

After his divorce, Gregg La Montagne found it hard to help his 15-year-old daughter with her schoolwork since she lives in another state. So for her Spanish class recently, Mr. La Montagne told her to write her assignment in an online word-processing application made by Google Inc.

Mr. La Montagne, a sales manager in Austin, Texas, then accessed his daughter’s homework online, using the same software through his Web browser at home. A native Spanish speaker, Mr. La Montagne was then able to suggest grammar changes, which he typed in at the bottom of the paper. His daughter, who was online at the same time, was able to see her father’s notes almost instantaneously as her screen refreshed, and then in turn correct the document for him to see.

“It makes it easier to participate,” says Mr. La Montagne, 50 years old. “It’s not the same as being with her, but it’s at least a step in that direction.”

Mr. La Montagne is one of a growing number of parents now using Web-based applications to review and aid their children’s educational work. Google Docs & Spreadsheets, which Mr. La Montagne used, provides word processing and spreadsheets that a consumer can access using just a Web browser.

Such applications are part of a broad move toward so-called hosted Web applications, where software and documents are accessed over the Internet rather than stored on your hard drive. (In the case of Google Docs, for instance, the files are stored with Google.) Many of these applications are free and allow multiple users to access and edit documents simultaneously. Businesses are already shifting some key operations, such as sales and accounting systems, to Web-based applications, citing lower costs and fewer hassles.

Now some families are seeing the benefits of hosted applications in their own way. Free Web-based calendar programs from Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. allow busy family members to share schedules online and notify each other of future events. Parents and teachers are using blogs and collaborative Web sites called wikis with kids. And schools are sharing academic data with parents via password-protected online programs.

Some families are even using Web-based applications targeted mainly at small- and home-office users, such as AdventNet Inc.’s Zoho.com, a majority free system that offers things like word processing and online presentations. Raju Vegesna, spokesperson for Zoho.com, says Zoho is seeing an increasing number of students use its word processor. Today, roughly 30%, or 100,000, of its users are students, he says.

All of this is part of a larger trend of using the Internet as school aid. Indeed, homework has become the top reason that teenagers are using the Internet on a monthly basis, according to a November 2006 JupiterResearch LLC study of 2,091 teens in the U.S., ages 13 to 17. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook ranked fifth in the survey.

One concern with this type of close online collaboration is the temptation to help kids too much with their homework. Parents say they must guard against that, because it would be so easy to simply go in and make changes themselves.

During a visit to Utah earlier this year, Kate Hargadon, a Sacramento, Calif., student, didn’t have her computer with her but had an essay due for a history competition in her home state. Having already written a draft on paper, the 14-year-old used her uncle’s computer to type out the draft in a Google document. She then worked on it with her father back in Sacramento, who was logged into Google Docs at the same time.

Steve Hargadon, an educational consultant and Kate’s father, says he was cautious not to help his daughter too much. “It wasn’t my job to do it for her, but to help make sure it was getting done,” he says.

He pointed out places in the essay where his daughter could rework the grammar, and she fixed them herself. “It’s really convenient to use when you aren’t right next to him and in a different state,” says Ms. Hargadon, who says she now regularly uses Google Docs for schoolwork.

Such programs require little technical expertise, though users must create online accounts. With Google Docs, the programs are accessed via a secure user name and password. Users can invite others to edit or only to view documents. Both the Docs and the Spreadsheets programs alert users that others are making changes, which reduces risk of collaborators working on top of each other, says a Google spokeswoman. Changes appear onscreen almost instantaneously as the screen is automatically refreshed.

Google accounts are limited to 5,000 documents no larger than 500 kilobytes and 1,000 spreadsheets no larger than roughly one megabyte in size. Google says accounts are not removed due to inactivity.

“Teachers have started to see the benefits of bringing online tools into their classrooms to engage their students,” says Jonathan Rochelle, product manager for Docs & Spreadsheets at Google.

“We’ve seen examples of teachers using Docs & Spreadsheets to manage their own information like grades and assignments as well as new ways to provide feedback to student essays and tests,” he says.

Some schools are using Web-based programs from Engrade and TeacherEase, a unit of Common Goal Systems Inc., to keep grades, lesson plans and attendance records in one central database; parents are given access to the information as it pertains to their own kids. Engrade is free. TeacherEase comes with a subscription fee for the school of as high as $2,000 annually.

Parents who home school are also turning to Web applications. Lynn Aleshire of Anchorage, Alaska, who home schools her 18-year-old daughter, recently used Google Docs and some browser-based office software from Zoho.com to help her daughter manage a high-school civics and government course. Using Zoho.com, Ms. Aleshire created an online to-do list of assignments and a timeline to help keep track of her daughter’s progress in the class, which was a requirement for graduation.

“She likes things in order [so] having this timeline in Zoho was perfect for her,” says Ms. Aleshire of her daughter.

Parents are also using Web-based applications to simplify other school-related tasks, apart from homework. Since June, Bernie Thompson, a free-lance software developer and board member of a parent-teacher-student association in Bellevue, Wash., has used Google spreadsheets with other parents to organize volunteers for events such as book fairs and carnivals. Before that, the PTA used a regular Excel spreadsheet, which parents couldn’t access to see when they should sign up for an unfilled slot. With Google’s application, which other parents can log into and update, the process is much easier, says Mr. Thompson.

Some teachers say Web applications can help increase collaboration in the classroom. Vicki Davis, who teaches accounting and computer science in Camilla, Ga., has assigned group projects to her high-school students using online word processor Writely and Google Docs since late 2005. (Google acquired Writely in March 2006.)

Since then, Ms. Davis says she has seen class participation increase and her students do more innovative work. In one project, she had her students individually create a business plan, letter or flier in Microsoft Word and then do it again in teams of three using Google Docs. Then they had to write a blog post about the differences between the two. Ms. Davis says the assignment’s object was to teach kids how to use new software. She says her students squealed when they found out multiple people could edit a single document at the same time.

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August 8, 2007

In a globalizing economy, America’s competitive edge depends in large measure on how well our schools prepare tomorrow’s workforce.

And notwithstanding the fact that Congress and the White House are now controlled by opposing parties, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are bent on devising new programs and boosting education spending.

Consider the measure — the America Competes Act — that recently passed Congress and is on its way to the president’s desk. The bill will substantially increase government funding for science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM” subjects). President Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid support this initiative. Nearly all of the 2008 presidential candidates endorse its goals. And 38 state legislatures have also recently enacted STEM bills. The buzz is as constant as summer cicadas.

Indeed, STEM has swiftly emerged as the hottest education topic since No Child Left Behind. They’re related, too. NCLB puts a premium on reading and math skills and also pays some attention to science. Marry it with STEM and you get heavy emphasis on a particular suite of skills.

But there is a problem here. Worthy though these skills are, they ignore at least half of what has long been regarded as a “well rounded” education in Western civilization: literature, art, music, history, civics and geography. Indeed, a new study from the Center on Education Policy says that, since NCLB’s enactment, nearly half of U.S. school districts have reduced the time their students spend on subjects such as art and music.

This is a mistake that will ill-serve our children while misconstruing the true nature of American competitiveness and the challenges we face in the 21st century.

As with all education reforms, the STEM-winders mean well. They reason that India and China will eat America’s lunch unless we boost our young people’s prowess in the STEM fields. But these enthusiasts don’t understand that what makes Americans competitive on a shrinking, globalizing planet isn’t out-gunning Asians at technical skills. Rather, it’s our people’s creativity, versatility, imagination, restlessness, energy, ambition and problem-solving prowess.

True success over the long haul — economic success, civic success, cultural success, domestic success, national defense success — depends on a broadly educated populace with flowers and leaves as well as stems. That’s what equips us to invent and imagine and grow one business line into another. It’s also how we acquire qualities and abilities that aren’t easily “outsourced” to Guangzhou or Hyderabad.

Students who garner high-tech skills may still get undercut by people halfway around the world who are willing to do the same work for one-fifth of the salary. The surest way to compete is to offer something the Chinese and Indians (and Vietnamese, Singaporeans, etc.) cannot — technical skills are not enough.

Apple’s iPod was not just an engineering improvement on Sony’s Walkman. It emerged from Steve Jobs’s American-style understanding of people’s lifestyles, needs, tastes and capacities. (Yes, Mr. Jobs dropped out of college — but went on to study philosophy and foreign cultures.)

Pragmatic folks naturally seek direct links from skill to result, such as engineers using their technical knowledge to keep planes aloft and bridges from buckling. But what about Abraham Lincoln educating himself via Shakespeare, the Bible and other great literary works? Alan Greenspan’s degrees are in economics but he plays a mean jazz saxophone. Indeed, many of today’s foremost (and wealthiest) entrepreneurs, people like Warren Buffett, studied economics — not a STEM subject — in college. Adam Smith studied moral philosophy.

The liberal arts make us “competitive” in the ways that matter most. They make us wise, thoughtful and appropriately humble. They help our human potential to bloom. And they are the foundation for a democratic civic polity, where each of us bears equal rights and responsibilities.

History and literature also impart to their students healthy skepticism and doubt, the ability to question, to ask both “why?” and “why not?” and, perhaps most important, readiness to challenge authority, push back against conventional wisdom and make one’s own way despite pressure to conform. (How will that be viewed in China?)

We’re already at risk of turning U.S. schools into test-prepping skill factories where nothing matters except exam scores on basic subjects. That’s not what America needs nor is it a sufficient conception of educational accountability. We need schools that prepare our children to excel and compete not only in the global workforce but also as full participants in our society, our culture, our polity and our economy.

Addressing a recent Fordham Foundation education conference, Arts Endowment chairman Dana Gioia said “We need a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty and wonder. It is the best way to create citizens who are awakened not only to their humanity, but to the human enterprise that they inherit and will — for good or ill — perpetuate.”

Creating such a system calls not for a host of specialized new institutions and government programs, but for closely examining the curriculum in all our schools. It also calls for recalibrating academic standards and graduation requirements, as well as amending our testing-and-accountability schemes — most certainly including NCLB — by widening the definition of “proficient” to include reasoning, creativity and knowledge across a dozen subjects as well as basic cognitive skills. We need to start reconceptualizing “highly qualified” teachers as people who are themselves broadly educated rather than narrowly specialized.

Abandoning the liberal arts in the name of STEM alone also risks widening social divides and deepening domestic inequities. The well-to-do who understand the value of liberal learning may be the only ones able to purchase it for their children. Top private schools and a few suburban systems will stick with education broadly defined, as will elite colleges. Rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities. Some will find no opportunities at all, which frustration will tempt them to prey upon the fortunate, who in turn will retreat into gated communities, exclusive clubs, and private this-and-that’s, thereby widening domestic rifts and worsening our prospects for social cohesion and civility.

Not a pretty picture. Adding leaves and flowers to STEM and NCLB won’t necessarily avert it — but hewing to basic skills at the expense of a complete education will surely worsen it.

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How to Get a Children’s Book Printed
Kelly Spors answers questions from readers about entrepreneurship

August 7, 2007; Page B9

Q: How do you go about trying to get a children’s book printed?

–Kelly Thompson, Shaker Heights, Ohio

A: Finding a publisher requires some perseverance, research and, yes, superb writing. A good start is checking out the library to read the most popular children’s books and seeing what publishers are behind books most similar to yours. You can then put together a list of those most likely to publish your book.

Many people have written children’s books, but few meet a publisher’s standards: manuscripts offering intriguing characters with a unique vision. But coming up with that next “Where the Wild Things Are” requires you to understand the publishing world and what sells.

There are numerous classes for aspiring children’s authors, but you might also find a writing mentor or two by joining groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a Los Angeles-based organization that hosts seminars and networking events for people trying to become children’s book writers.

Once you have a manuscript in polished form, send a typed copy, a short cover letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope to publishers. You can find one of the most comprehensive lists of publishers and their submission guidelines in the Childrens Writers and Illustrators Market 2007, a guidebook for children’s book publishing. Some publishers allow you to send manuscripts you’ve sent elsewhere while others want exclusive dibs, so know the policies of each one before sending them your manuscript. Others suggest you send a query letter first.

If, after two months, you still have no response, contact the publisher to inquire. If you still don’t hear back, you might write a letter withdrawing your submission and send it to the next one.

You don’t need to send illustrations with your manuscript — unless you happen to be a professional illustrator. Most children’s book publishers have a pool of illustrators they work with and prefer lining up their own.

Having a literary agent also will greatly boost your odds of selling your manuscript, because they are attuned to working with the major publishing houses and know what it takes to get a book published. Most literary agents take a 10% to 15% cut of your profits. You can find lists of agents in the Literary Market Place, available at literarymarketplace.com. You also could check the “Acknowledgements” section of books similar to yours.

• Send your small-business questions to smalltalk@wsj.com. For an archive of past Small Talk columns, visit StartupJournal.com/smalltalk.

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Creating Documents for All to Read– WSJ

–by Katherine Boehret

Mossberg Solution, August 8 page D9 of the Wall Street Journal

For years, people have accessed a variety of digital content in one of the most universally accepted formats: Adobe’s Portable Document Format, better known as the PDF. A PDF holds images and text without altering a document’s original fonts and layout. It can be searched, protected with a password, disabled from printing and enriched with bookmarks and hyperlinks that make it more navigable.

But while Adobe provides a free reader for viewing PDFs, creating PDFs yourself can be costly and confusing, even though the format is great for saving and sharing documents of almost any kind including images, Web pages, Word documents and emails. For users who want higher-end PDF creation and collaboration software, Adobe Systems Inc. offers its $450 Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional software program. But that’s pricey for most casual users. So this week I tested some inexpensive or free methods for making PDFs.

There are plenty of Windows programs available for download online that will help you create basic PDFs. On Windows computers, I tried three programs, starting with the $20 standard version of deskPDF from Plano, Texas-based Docudesk Corp. (www.Docudesk.com1). I tested a stripped-down and less-expensive version of Adobe’s program called Create Adobe PDF Online, which works by uploading your document at www.CreatePDF.com2 and costs $10 monthly or $100 annually. And I also used a free program called CutePDF from Acro Software Inc. (www.CutePDF.com3).

If you own a Mac, things are even simpler. Macs come out of the box with the ability to turn documents into PDFs, and I tested that function as well.

DeskPDF and CutePDF worked roughly the same way, though deskPDF costs $20 and CutePDF is free. Adobe’s less-expensive program offered a few more features than deskPDF and CutePDF, such as the ability to add password encryption to a document or to make it unprintable by others. Making PDFs on the Mac was a cinch, including options to compress or encrypt a PDF. None of these methods allowed me to add extra features to PDFs like bookmarks and hyperlinks; for that, you’ll need a more serious program.

When Microsoft’s Office 2007 program shipped early this year, many people expected that it would have the built-in ability to save documents in PDF format; it didn’t. Users can find a patch that fixes this on Microsoft’s Web site.

Apple’s operating system has long been known for the ease with which it can create PDFs using built-in tools. Put simply, any document that can be printed from a Mac can also be turned into a PDF. Users follow the normal steps necessary to print a document or Web site (usually File, Print), but can choose a button on the Print screen labeled “PDF” that converts the document.

In seconds, I turned all types of documents on my iMac into PDFs, including images in JPEG and TIF formats, emails, Word documents and Web sites. This last conversion was helpful for saving not just a view of the current screen, but the entire site from the top of the page to the bottom.

Options labeled “Compress PDF” and “Encrypt PDF” can be chosen in this Print screen. I chose Encrypt PDF and protected a PDF using a password in one quick step. The option to compress a PDF will decrease the size of an image in a document, but won’t decrease the size of a text-only document.

Two of the three Windows programs use a method similar to Apple’s, letting me send documents or Web sites into print mode and converting them into PDFs. Downloading and installing deskPDF or CutePDF adds a virtual printer driver to the computer. Rather than choosing a separate button labeled “PDF,” the conversion program is selected from a list of printers, and hitting the Print button saves the document as a PDF file. The first time I did this, I thought my document was printed rather than saved because a printer icon appeared in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, as if the document was printing. But a screen appeared asking where I wanted to save the new PDF, and I specified a location.

Docudesk offers free 24-hour technical support with all of its deskPDF programs, even trial versions. The company also touts its $40 deskUNPDF program, which restores PDFs to Word documents for editing purposes, one of the features also found in Adobe’s $450 product.

CutePDF writer and deskPDF must be used with separately installed converter programs, but these are small and free, and their installation is prompted after each of the core programs is downloaded. Both programs are also offered in upgraded versions that cost $50 for CutePDF Pro and $30 for deskPDF Pro, enabling advanced features like hyperlinks, encryption, password protection and printing restrictions.

Adobe’s Create Adobe PDF Online program offers a few more features than the others, but feels a bit disconnected because it uploads documents to the Web for PDF conversion rather than converting documents in an installed program.

An option called Create Adobe PDF Online Printer installs a printer driver on your PC, like deskPDF and CutePDF. But this saves your PDF online forcing you to retrieve it via Adobe’s Web site, an emailed link or an emailed attachment.

After registering to use Adobe’s online conversion product, users must select the file or Web page intended for PDF conversion. Security features are optional with each document, such as requiring a password to view it or not allowing others to print it. I tried both successfully. Once converted, a document can be delivered to you via email in a link or attachment. It can also be retrieved from a Conversion History section on the site or converted directly on the site.

Most of these conversion programs are available in some free capacity. DeskPDF can be used five times free of charge in the standard and professional versions before it starts adding a watermark to each PDF, which is intrusive. Adobe’s program can be used five times for each email that you register before you must subscribe to its conversion service.

If you need to save a document in a format that has the greatest likelihood of being viewable by all of your recipients, PDFs are the way to go, and they aren’t difficult to make.

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Life of Pi“So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an example of a long-lasting bildungsroman. The 1951 book was widely panned for its controversial subject matter, but it soon won the hearts of American teens.”

Byline: Amy Brittain Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Date: 08/08/2007

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’s famous line in “A Tale of Two Cities” could be used to describe what is probably hitting home about now for millions of American high school students: Lazy summer days cut short by the frantic rush to finish required reading lists before school starts. “Most teens spend the summer doing whatever, and then cram the reading in during the last two weeks,” says 2007 high school graduate Henry Qin of Boston.

Precious summer minutes spent poring over Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne may seem less than appealing to teens, but some experts say there is a slowly growing trend to infuse more modern literature into summer reading. As a result, the revered literary cannon, which includes such classics as “Hamlet,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “The Scarlet Letter,” may be due for a shake-up. Glance at high school summer reading lists across the United States and you are likely to find more recent authors such as Alice Sebold, Walter Dean Myers, and even Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong alongside Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

“The natural evolution of these lists is that they expand and include voices that are underrepresented,” says American Library Association (ALA) president Loriene Roy. “If you don’t include authors like Amy Tan or Virginia Woolfe, what does that mean? A lot of discussions have come up over the last 20 years over what one needs to know. [The question is], ‘Who do you bump off?’ ”

Summer reading lists vary widely. Some high schools require books and even give essay assignments to be completed by the first day of school. Mr. Qin of Boston still remembers his frenzied rush to finish Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” before his high school freshman year. “I didn’t understand why we were reading it,” says Qin, who will be a freshman at Duke this fall. “Summer reading is a good thing if and only if there’s a context for it. I don’t like the idea of just handing us a list. If you say, ‘Read these books,’ tell us why.” Other schools choose a more flexible model and present students a list with choices often recommended by local librarians. But what is clear: Cementing one’s status on a required reading list is no easy feat, as librarians or summer reading committee members must argue to bump a classic for a book with undetermined longevity.

Practical concerns such as budget and time cause administrators to resist including recent young adult literature, or literature geared toward 12- to 18-year-olds, on required lists, says Beth Yoke, executive director of Young Adult Library Services Association, which is the fastest growing division of the ALA. But Ms. Yoke says she sees a trend to include more diverse literature in required reading. “Kids want books that they can identify with,” she says. They want to see an African-American character, or a Muslim character, or a strong female character.” Yoke says that it often takes at least a generation for a new young adult book to make required lists. “If you’re doing required reading in schools, you’ve got to buy a bazillion copies of these books and you have to have developed the lesson plans of all that supplementary material,” she says by telephone. “Teachers have been teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ forever and a day, and they don’t want to have to develop all new materials.”

In addition, educators feel that classics still have important lessons to teach, even if they are from different time periods. Betsy Ginsburg, a librarian who edits a recommended reading list from the Houston Area Independent Schools Library Network, says a variety of summer reading is crucial for intellectual breadth. Schools, she says, should keep classics on lists since they frequently relate to students’ curriculum and capture a time and place in history.

For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play “Our Town”) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: “The Great Gatsby” (1925), “Of Mice and Men” (1937), “Lord of the Flies” (1954), and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” by Mark Haddon, “Monster” by Walter Dean Myer, and “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold.

“Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.” So what catapults “Life of Pi” and “The Lovely Bones” to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature. J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” is an example of a long-lasting bildungsroman. The 1951 book was widely panned for its controversial subject matter, but it soon won the hearts of American teens.

“That was a book done for adults, but kids loved that book,” Nilsen says by telephone. “Every year there are like 10 books that get compared, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is the new “Catcher in the Rye.” ‘ Of course, none of them ever are. But they’re in that style — the flip, honest kid that’s critical.”

Nilsen says she understands why teens are frustrated with heavy assigned summer reading but says she’s encouraged by the modernization trend. Her own granddaughter has chosen to read the young adult award-winner “Monster” rather than a difficult classic. “It used to be, no matter where you were in high school, you got this list of classics that the value was to talk about them with other people, not to read them yourself,” she says. “We’re taking this lesson from the [physical education] teachers. Rather than making kids do these things they hate, they’re letting them choose what they want to do, so that when they’re adults, they’ll keep exercising. Summer reading is the perfect time if we want to get kids to read the rest of their lives without us sitting over their heads and telling them what to read. Let them … just lose themselves in a good book.”

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