Experiment “Freedom from the Computer”

I challenged myself to spend 48 hours without a computer (hence no comments in the past two days.) Of course, I didn’t want to leave readers without intellectual nourishment, so I scheduled some posts in advance.

The only serious hardship I experienced was the state of anxiety that something might be happening in the world that I need to know about urgently and I’m missing it. I don’t have television, so that source of information was out. I could have accessed the Internet on my Kindle, of course, but that would be cheating.

The world without a computer feels very quiet. I very rarely listen to anything on the computer but it brings so many voices into one’s life that it feels like there is constant chatter coming out of it.

Have you tried going computer-free lately?

Are We Frozen in Time?, Part II

Reader Jodi kind of beat me to it but I still want to discuss my hypothesis as to why fashion, pop music, hair-styles, etc. seem frozen in time and have been this way for the past 20 years.

There is one area of our lives that has been changing extremely rapidly. And that, of course, is technology. I look at the cell phone I used in 2010, and it looks completely outdated and very primitive. Just a little over a year ago, however, that phone was the pinnacle of complexity and sophistication. My first Kindle that I bought in 2008, looked like a miracle to me. By the side of the recently released Kindle Fire tablet, however, it is clunky and almost prehistoric. 🙂 Just 10 years ago, could anybody have imagined the ubiquity of tablets that we experience today? Just 20 years ago, did anybody who is not an author of science fiction envision this permanent sense of connectedness to the world that technology allows us to have today?

We have seen the rise and the death of Blockbuster, then Netflix. I have no doubt that we will all live to see the death of television just like we have witnessed the demise of land-lines and public phones. I still remember the time when you always needed to have a quarter on you to make a call from a public phone in case of an emergency. And it wasn’t all that many years ago. I’m talking about 2000-2001. Something tells me my niece Klubnikis will need to be taken to a museum to see what a payphone and a TV-set even are. Gosh, I’m so ancient I remember rotary phones. And does anybody want a bet that there are people reading this blog right now who have never used a rotary phone? I’m sure there are some who had to Google it.

Technology changes so fast that we need to expend a lot of energy to adapt to it. Against the background of constantly changing computers, tablets, apps, cell phones, websites, plugins, gadgets, etc., a relative stability in other areas of our lives allows us to compensate for the trauma of such rapid and constant transformations. Since the technological innovation doesn’t seem to slow down even a little, it seems like we are doomed to the same boring clothes and hairdos for a while longer.

Guilty of Ageism

To my horror, I discovered that I have ageist tendencies. The new Chair of our department is very knowledgeable about technology. This was one of the reasons we chose him, which I know very well since I was on the search committee. He is also significantly older than I am. Which makes sense, since he is a Chair and I’m a junior faculty member.

Yesterday, I came into the Chair’s office and found him listening to the radio on his computer.

“Look!” he said. “This is a radio station from my home town in Brazil.”

“This is cool,” I responded. “And I was just listening to a radio station from my native city in Ukraine in my office.”

“Really? That’s great! Do you also listen to the radio on your office computer?” the Chair asked.

“No,” I said and took out of my bag my Kindle Fire in its new red cover. “I listen to the radio on this thing.”

“Oh, what is it?” the Chair asked.

And here I started behaving like an idiot.

“It’s a Kindle,” I said. “A Kindle is . . . a thing that allows you to perform a variety of tasks. You can read books, edit documents. . .”

“Yes, I know what a Kindle is,” the Chair responded in a kind voice. “Is it a Kindle Fire? Can I have a look?”

I should have stopped right there but for some reason I decided to continue on my jerkward journey.

“A Kindle is an alternative to an iPad,” I informed the Chair. “And an iPad is . . . well, a thing that allows you to perform a variety of tasks. . .”

“I am aware of what an iPad is,” the Chair said, looking a little scared.

Of course, he is aware of what an iPad is since all the faculty members at my university receive endless emails from our bookstore extolling the virtues of the iPad. Also, he probably knows more about technology than I do.

Now I will have to shut up and bear it if my students inform me that “a cell phone is a thing that allows you to make phone calls.” Ageism carries its own punishment because it always ends up castigating those guilty of it.

Kindle Fire: A Review

I swore to myself that I’d never get a tablet because they are a royal waste of money and are useless. A Kindle Fire is not a tablet, though, just like any Kindle is not an e-book reader. It’s a lot more than that. Which is why I couldn’t say no to a Kindle Fire when I got it as a wedding anniversary gift.

My Kindle Fire is a thing of beauty, people. It’s a fantastic little device that does everything any other tablet does but costs a lot less. One of the greatest things about Kindle Fire is that it’s very small and light. You have to be quite an athlete to be able to hold, say, an iPad in your hand for longer than two minutes. Kindle Fire, however, is very easy to hold. It also fits into any regular handbag.

What I use my Kindle Fire for:

1. When I got my Kindle Fire, I immediately disconnected my television. All of the shows I watch are available for free through Amazon Prime, so there is no need to maintain an expensive TV subscription. I’m a huge fan of shows like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway. I also sometimes watch One Tree Hill (yes, nobody is perfect). Now I can watch them on my Kindle Fire whenever and wherever I want. I only watch TV shows when I grade and as the end of the semester is approaching, I will now watch a lot of these shows on my Kindle Fire.

2. I can listen to a multitude of radio stations from anywhere in the world on my Kindle Fire. Now I just turn it on whenever I’m in my office and listen to talk shows from Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, etc.

3. The Amazon app store has apps for really amazing games (many of which are completely free). The games are colorful, complicated, and very entertaining. There are moments when one is so tired that even watching a TV show is too much of a strain. This is when playing a game on my Kindle Fire becomes a great way to relax.

4. There is also a free app that brings you all of your favorite newspapers for free. Kindle Fire is a tablet, which means that, unlike on other versions of the Kindle, you can read Cyrillic characters, so I can read papers in Russian and Ukrainian.

5. Kindle Fire doesn’t have a WordPress app which is available on an iPad. But it’s just as well because I find that app to be very useless. I can blog directly on my Kindle Fire from the Internet browser.

6. Since Kindle Fire is so small and light, I can bring it into the kitchen with me, turn on a video with a recipe I want to try, and watch it as I cook.

I’ve only had my Kindle Fire for a few days and already I discovered all these amazing ways to enjoy it. In the future, prepare yourselves to being bugged with more annoying gushings about how great my Kindle Fire is. 🙂

What I don’t use my Kindle Fire for:

This tablet is good for everything except reading books. For the purposes of reading, you should buy any other version of the Kindle. Kindle Fire has a backlit screen, which makes reading books impossible. It is as painful for the eyes as reading on a computer screen. Also, the screen rotates with every move. This is great for watching videos but very annoying when you are trying to read.

So my old and trusty Kindle 2 will still be with me. I now often find myself clutching a Kindle in each hand, smiling beatifically as I try to decide which one to use. I think we will now have to buy a bigger bed to accommodate two humans and two Kindles sleeping in it. If anybody is willing to make an argument that co-sleeping with Kindles is an instance of Kindle-abuse, I’m always willing to listen. I wouldn’t want to traumatize my Kindles for anything in the world. (For the excessively earnest among us, this was a joke.)

Two Sides of Autism

Today, I had to record an audio of a lecture for my students. For ten minutes, I struggled with the microphone because I had no idea how to put it on. I used a mirror, I turned it every which way, I stared at it, trying to understand how it worked. Nothing helped. Finally, I had to ask N. to come and put the earphone with the mike on me.

Here is the microphone I struggled with

N. found my struggle with the mike impossible to understand. He thought I was kidding when I said I couldn’t figure out how it worked. For me, however it was truly a daunting task. Now that I have taken it off, I still have absolutely no idea how to put it back on.

However, I then managed to record my lecture from beginning to end, using no notes or memory aides, never stopping or pausing (except where the context required it, of course). I wanted it to be about 30 minutes long and it ended up being 33 minutes long, so no editing will be needed. It came out exactly as I wanted, and the effort that went into it was minimal.

This is how autism works, people. A task that involves a minimal degree of manual dexterity and a basic understanding of left and right is impossible for me to carry out. At the same time, a much more complex intellectual task is effortless.

We Need Computer Literacy

First, I made an idiot out of myself when I told our IT people that “the body of the computer is missing from my classroom.” It turns out that an Apple computer has no body apart from the huge monitor. How was a person supposed to know that?

And now I just read an article that made me feel stupid all over again:

 90 percent of people don’t know how to use CTRL/Command + F to find a word in a document or web page!  “90 percent of the US Internet population does not know that. This is on a sample size of thousands,” Russell said. “I do these field studies and I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve sat in somebody’s house as they’ve read through a long document trying to find the result they’re looking for. At the end I’ll say to them, ‘Let me show one little trick here,’ and very often people will say, ‘I can’t believe I’ve been wasting my life!'”

I can’t believe people have been wasting their lives like this either! It makes me think that we need a new type of class in schools across the land immediately. Electronic literacy. Just like we learn to skim tables of content or look through an index or just skim chapter titles to find what we’re looking for, we need to teach people about this CTRL+F thing.

I’m one of those idiots who didn’t know about CTRL+F. When I need to find something, I open the “Find” function on the menu. I just looked and it has CTRL+F right next to it. For some reason, however, I never noticed that and never used this key combination. I always make fun of people who don’t use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to copy and paste, but now it turns out that there are folks who are laughing at my computer illiteracy.

How Not to Deliver a PowerPoint Presentation

Today I have finally figured out why so many people cringe when they hear about the use of PowerPoint presentations for teaching. I use PowerPoints a lot and find them very helpful. More importantly, my students love them. So I was always puzzled by reports on how much students hate PPs. I kept persecuting my own students, begging them to tell me the truth about their presumed hatred of PowerPoint. Still, they loudly insisted that my presentations were great.

It turns out, however, that there are people who are capable of using PowerPoint to turn even the most fascinating discussion into an intolerable drag. For this reason, I decided to compile a short list of what you should not do when you are delivering a PowerPoint presentation.

1. Don’t read it. If a certain text already appears on the PP, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat it out loud. This bores people just as much as it would if you brought a textbook that everybody has in their hands and started reading from it. What you say has to be different from what people can see on the slides.

2. Bullet points should be short. They also don’t need to be repeated. Once again, if people can read it, they don’t need to hear it said aloud. Here is a random slide from one of my PPs:

When the slide appears, I don’t repeat what it says. Rather, I explain what the points mean.

3. Don’t read quotes. Nothing is more annoying than having a presenter read a long quote from a PP. If you put up a quote, it should be done to achieve some goal. For example, you can use it to start a discussion.

I usually put up a quote, ask students to break up in groups, go over the text, and answer the questions in a group discussion. This allows to avoid endless page rustling and complaints about how they brought the wrong text to class or how their little brother ate their textbook. The only time when I read a passage out loud is when I want to draw attention to its artistic qualities. Otherwise, reading aloud is a simple waste of time.

4. Drop the cutesy pictures. Sometimes, people add pictures to their PPs that carry no informational value. This infantilizes and annoys the audience. Unless a picture illustrates a point and can be discussed within the framework of the presentation, it makes no sense to include it.

I use this picture in a discussion of Sarmiento’s Facundo. Since students have no idea who gauchos are, it helps to have a visual aide. We can discuss different kinds of visual representation of the gauchos and contrast them with Sarmiento’s description. However, sticking a photo of a man on a horse into a PP that has nothing to do with people on horses is senseless.

PowerPoint is a great tool if used by people who explore its potential instead of using it as a device to bore their audiences stiff.