Tag Archives: computers

Episode 102: Distraction-free classroom


We follow up last week’s episode about technology in the classroom by talking more about how professors feel about students bringing their own technology into the classroom. We have BYOD in the workplace. Will education embrace this as well?

We also discuss Amazon raising the price of Prime to $99 a year. Is it still a good deal?

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Episode 101: Technology in the classroom

As promised last week, we spend the entire episode talking about technology in the classroom, from both the teacher and student perspective.

There is a lot that Jeremy would like to see happen in the classroom, and the current technology can certainly improve. I ask, why don’t schools invest more in their own tools? Why rely on third parties like Blackboard to deliver solutions that don’t work for teachers or students?

A school like Lehigh, where Jeremy teaches, has the resources and talent to build a robust solution that is really catered to the school’s needs. Why not make their own software to help facilitate learning? Or partner with like-minded institutions?

We also discuss what kind of technology students should bring to college. And is it appropriate to take notes with a laptop in class? Opinions differ!

Listen to this week’s episode:


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Microsoft should split Windows into two separate OSes


This is Windows 8’s Metro mode. It literally doesn’t have windows anymore.

Microsoft is trying to walk back some of the polarizing aspects of Windows 8 with updates to the OS, but the real issue is the fundamental mistake of trying to make one OS that can run on traditional desktops and laptops, while also running on tablets and smartphones.

Microsoft needs to split Windows into two separate OSes. Windows 9 should look and feel like Windows 7 with new features and refinements. Forget Windows 8 and 8.1 entirely.

The Metro mode (the entire look on Windows smartphones) should be spun off into its own OS without the Windows name. It doesn’t have to be called Metro, but Microsoft needs to come up with a fresh name for its mobile OS.

I use Windows 8 every day at work. It’s not that bad as some would have you believe, but I like it less than Windows 7. Shouldn’t every release be more enjoyable and better? I consider Windows 7 to be the best version of Windows ever. It has a pretty clean windowing UI, it’s stable and secure and generally just works.

Windows 7 is an OS that really appeals to Microsoft’s core audience. Why mess with it?

I have my Windows 8 machine set to boot straight to desktop mode, and I have the start menu back; so it’s pretty similar to using Windows 7. But every now and then you accidentally open up an app or file in Metro mode, and it’s a really disorienting experience when one of my monitors is in metro mode and the other is in desktop mode. It really is one of the worst and most inexcusable computing experiences you can have today.

The core issue of Windows 8 is that it tries to merge two pretty good UI concepts together, and in the process makes both worse. I like Metro as a tablet and phone UI. I like the Windows 7 UI for desktop computing. It’s when you have to use Metro on a desktop or Windows 7 windowing on a tablet that it all goes to hell.

This is a pretty nice phone UI. I would not want to use this on my dual-monitor desktop in my office.

This is a pretty nice phone UI. I would not want to use this on my dual-monitor desktop in my office.

Microsoft has a new CEO. He doesn’t have to save face like Steve Ballmer might have tried to. He can simply say that Windows 8 was a mistake , and we’re going in a different direction.

The time is now to end this failed experiment to create one OS to rule them all.  Make Windows 9 the best traditional Windows it can be. Aim it at businesses and people who want to use the same OS they use at work at home. Focus on networking and cloud support (integrate OneDrive even further into the OS as a major selling point), improving multithreaded support (make it easier for developers to harness 4-12 and more core computers) and improving the file system.

The UI concepts of Windows 7 are pretty good. You can iterate on the UI and add new features like Apple does with OS X, but there is no reason to get away from windowing for desktop computing. It’s a conceptual model that works well, particularly for power users and work that benefits from multiple-monitors and multitasking.

Microsoft should then spin off Metro into its own OS without the Windows name, while still using the Windows kernel. This is what Apple does with iOS, and it works very well. Apple executives have recently come out and said that merging iOS and OS X into one OS would be a waste of time.

The needs of a user vary drastically by context. When someone is trying to edit two spreadsheets side by side his needs are very different then when they are trying to get directions while walking around a city. There is no reason to believe that tablets will replace laptops, so why not an OS that assumes that?

I use OS X at home, and think Mavericks is what Microsoft should be aiming for, not Windows 8. Mavericks is the best desktop OS I’ve ever used, and, while I really like iOS, I wouldn’t want to use iOS on my desktop computer.

Apple has shown Microsoft the path forward. Make the best desktop OS with windows you can. Make the best mobile OS without windows you can.

It’s that simple.

My computer setup for grad school

I’ll be starting a Master’s program in Human-Computer Interaction this fall at the University of Maryland College Park. I’ll have more to come on that later, but I wanted to discuss the computer setup that I plan on using for graduate school, and I hope that you’ll share your academic computer setups as well.

Times have changed since I was last embarking on college in 2002. I went off to college with a PowerMac rocking OS X Jaguar (10.2). My computer had originally shipped with 10.1, and OS X was a much rawer OS back then, but it was still a big step up over Mac OS 9 and Windows (OS X has always been stable and beautiful). But you’ll notice that I had a PowerMac, a beast of a computer, large and heavy by even desktop standards.

There weren’t a lot of good laptop options in the spring of 2002 when I purchased my PowerMac (I bought it early so I could use it on my senior project, which involved myself and four friends building a new website for our township). At the time I made my decision I had felt that the PowerBooks and iBooks were not powerful enough for the work I would be doing: desktop publishing, movie editing, Web design, 3D animation, to name a few of the things that I did in college. It was a tough decision to go between power/expandability and portability. Today, laptops are incredibly powerful, and desktops are reserved for either the really low end of computing or the really high end that needs a lot of power.

In my last two day jobs, I’ve been given laptops. It’s becoming rare to even see desktops in the enterprise.

This time, I’ll be going with a laptop. Portability is paramount. When I was in college, no one brought a computer to class. Today, computers are in the classroom all the time — for note taking, for doing assignments, for communicating, etc. Just six years ago almost everyone took notes by hand.

I’ll also be working full time and continuing to edit the Interchange Project. I’ll be doing work from a variety of locations — home, work, campus, coffee shops, libraries, etc. — and need something light, something that can be carried around for a half mile walk and not break my back after lugging it around .all day. Battery life has also improved considerably, making laptops truly portable, where they once required a power outlet always nearby.

I’ll be going with a 13-inch Macbook Air. The ultrabook class of computers, of which the Macbook Air was the original, is probably the best computer choice for most people entering college today. The Macbook Air and its peers are very lightweight — easy to take to class and around campus — while also being very capable. I’m waiting for the new Ivy Bridge processors from Intel before I buy my machine, and I’m hoping that the new Macbook Airs will support 8 GBs of ram. If you are in the market for a laptop of any kind, wait until Intel’s new processors launch over the next few months.

The 13-inch Air has the perfect balance between power and portability. At under 3 pounds, it’s not just portable in the sense that you can throw it in your car and take it somewhere, but rather it’s portable in the sense that you can take public transportation and walk around campus or town a lot with it. It’s light enough that it can pretty much go anywhere with you.

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago wifi was not ubiquitous. The big thing when I was in college was adding ethernet jacks all over the library and into classrooms. Yes, a mere 10 years ago, ubiquitous ethernet jacks, not wifi, was considered the best way to allow students to access the Internet when they weren’t in their dorm rooms. I don’t know if those ethernet jacks are still around, but had my school, and others, had strong wifi networks, I might have been tempted to go with a laptop, however underpowered it was.

Today, wifi is everywhere. I have 3G on my phone that I can use to create a wifi network for my laptop to get on. The value of a portable computer goes up exponentially when you can connect to the Internet away from a desktop ethernet jack.

Below is the full setup that I hope to be rocking:


This will be the core of my hardware configuration for the next several years.

Macbook Air — 13-inch model, because from what I’ve read and seen from other people, the 11-inch model is a great portable machine, but the screen can be too limiting for getting serious work done. I don’t want to do a two-machine setup. I want one machine that can handle all of my work. The biggest decision for me will be how big of a hard drive do I go with. Do I go with the standard 128 GB SSD (could be bumped up) and use an external drive to store music, photos, videos and other hard drive clogging files or do I go with the 256 GB SSD and try to fit as much of my stuff on it as possible? SSDS are blazing fast, but they are expensive. Even 256 GB won’t be enough long term. I’ll most likely be going with whatever the standard amount of hard drive space on the 13-inch Macbook Air is at the time that I buy my computer and then I’ll get a good, fast 1 TB external hard drive.

27-inch Thunderbolt display — The 13-inch Air has a big enough screen that it can be used as a primary display for getting work done. However, there are times when having more screen real estate really comes in handy. The 27-inch Thunderbolt display from Apple really makes the perfect partner for the Macbook Air, because it functions as a dock for Thunderbolt-equipped Apple laptops. The Thunderbolt display has USB, Thunderbolt and ethernet ports. You can dock in your laptop and have the display give you an external mouse and keyboard, several external hard drives and even a wired Internet connection for fast file transfers on your internal network. It also packs a pretty decent 2.1 sound setup and the ability to power and charge your laptop. It’s a great way to transform a very portable laptop into a full-featured desktop with minimal clutter. Thanks to Thunderbolt, external hard drives can be as fast as internal ones.

iPad — I’ll be using the iPad a lot for reading and doing research, and the new screen really makes it a compelling option for textbooks. I’ve used textbooks before on the original iPad, but the screen was a bit tiring to look at. Using a non-Retina Display iPad for reading books is a less than ideal experience. The new iPad, on the other hand, really offers a great book reading experience, complete with note taking, highlighting and dictionary look up. Any textbooks that I can get in ebook form will be run on the iPad. I’d rather not have to deal with lugging around textbooks that are as heavy as my laptop. It’s also great to have all of my textbooks with me at all times. On a Saturday, I could take my iPad with me to a coffee shop and do some pleasure reading. After a little bit, I can then open up a textbook and get some school work done.

iPhone — I currently have an iPhone 4. I’ll be using that until an LTE phone really catches my attention. What I like about the iPhone is that it has a great screen, much like the iPad. As someone who suffers from eyestrain, the quality of my computing screens matters greatly and helps to reduce and even eliminate eyestrain. The original iPhone really bothered my eyes after long use and most smartphones do too. I won’t get rid of my iPhone for an inferior screen. I hope the next iPhone maintains its strong batter life while also adding LTE, because I really want LTE for the hotspot function. There are times when wifi is far too slow to get work done, but 3G can be painful to use. Having the ability to use LTE with my laptop and iPad would be big.

External hard drives — I currently have one for hourly Time Machine backups. I’ll most likely add a second one as extra storage for my computer. I don’t need my photos, music and videos with me wherever I go, but a big external hard drive can give me a lot of extra space for not a lot of money.

External mouse and keyboard — When sitting at a desk, an external mouse and keyboard is much more ergonomic than what laptops offers. For long sessions at my desk, I really like having a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard (I prefer as few wires as possible). I highly recommend the same for everyone else. Find a keyboard and mouse/external trackpad that is really comfortable and set up your laptop like a desktop when you are using it from your main workstation. Your laptop should also be on something to raise the top of the screen up to eye level.


I use a lot of different software, and I’m always trying new software. Below is some of the key software that I’ll be using to maintain my professional, personal and academic lives.

Dropbox — The best backup and syncing solution I’ve found yet. I’m writing this post in Byword on my Mac. It is being backed up and synced to Dropbox as we speak. I’m going to pick up my dog from doggie camp in a little bit. If I have a few minutes to burn while I’m waiting for her to come out, I can edit this post on my iPhone, and it will sync back to my Mac. I cannot recommend Dropbox any higher. It’s a must have.

Alfred — I don’t know how people use computers without task launchers like Alfred. By simply holding down control and then hitting spacebar, I can use Alfred to launch Safari by just typing in “Sa” or find a file or do a simple math calculation. Mice do make computing easier, but they are slow and cause RSI. The more you can do with the keyboard with less effort, the more efficient you’ll be with a computer and the easier you’ll be your body. Alfred makes computing fun and fast.

Byword — I do a lot of writing. I’m always looking for ways to make writing more pleasurable and efficient. What I really like about Byword is it lacks chrome, unlike word processors such as Word and Pages; it’s just you and your words. Byword is a text editor, not a modern word processor, and its intent is for writing words, not producing documents to print. It’s an important distinction, but most of the writing I do is for Web consumption. If I need more formatting, I can copy and paste this text into a Pages document, which I prefer over Word. Byword also syncs between OS X and iOS. I started this post on my Mac and edited it on my iPad. It’s hard to go back to using a text editor that doesn’t sync between my computer, tablet and smartphone.

Pages — Even though I really like Byword (and TextEdit and Google Docs and other programs), I still use Pages. It read Word files pretty well, and it’s a good program to use when I need to track changes or do a bit with layout. Pages would be a lot more useful if it synced with the iOS versions, which are quite good. Ironically, lots of third party text programs sync with iCloud between OS X and iOS, but Apple’s own program does not. With OS X Mountain Lion, this will be changing. When this changes, Pages may become a much more interesting and important program.

Sparrow — The best desktop email program I have ever found. Lightweight, great UI and fun to use. I highly recommend it.

Reeder — The best RSS app I have ever seen. I have to keep up with a lot of news sources. This is a must have, and it works on both OS X and iOS.

Coda — This is what I use for Web design. It’s a great program for writing HTML, CSS, PHP and other languages. It also has a built in FTP program. Other programs may be stronger for development, but I really like this program for Web design work.

Pixelmator — Photoshop does way too much and costs way too much. This is the image editing and design program for the rest of us. It also starts up way faster and is much less bloated than Photoshop.

Omnifocus — The best GTD (Getting Things Done) task management program I have found. It helps you stay organized and on top of projects, which is kind of a big deal both professionally and academically. This also syncs very well with its iOS brothers. In fact, the iPad version is the best version. If you are always with your iPad and iPhone, the Mac version of Omnifocus isn’t really necessary.

Omnioutliner — The iPad version is how I take notes in meetings, and it’s fantastic. The OS X version is a favorite of college students everywhere for taking notes. I used it in undergrad to make outlines of textbooks. It doesn’t support syncing yet, but Omni Group promising that the next version of Omnioutliner for OS X will sync with the iOS version. That’s a big deal, because if it doesn’t happen soon, I may have to use something else for note taking. I may take notes in class on my Mac, but I’ll most likely read them over on my iPad.

Numbers — I prefer Numbers to Excel because it’s A) less convoluted to use and B) makes much nicer looking charts. I’m not a spreadsheet jockey, so I have this luxury. You may not. For grad school I may have to bite the bullet and get a Office license, particularly for Excel and perhaps Word. Mostly for compatibility, but there may be data sets that I need Excel for.

TextExpander — I’ve recently added this program to my arsenal. It allows me to make little character strings and then have my Mac automatically expand them into a longer strings or several sentences. For instance, I have one snippet called — “msig” that automatically ads my signature to any program. My main signature, which is what “msig” stands for, is four lines long. This is a big time saver. I also have snippets for frequently used computer code. There is also an iOS version that allows snippets to work with some — but not all — iOS apps. It would be nice if TextExpander could work with all iOS apps, but that is beyond their control.

TextEdit — Despite having several fuller-featured text editors on my Mac, I still like to use TextEdit for taking quick notes or as a scratch sheet of paper. The program launches incredibly fast. It’s instantaneous. Combined with my use of Alfred for quick launching of apps using the keyboard, I can have a blank TextEdit document up in a second or two.

GarageBand — This is what I use to edit our podcast. I may one day switch to Logic Pro, but for the time being our recording and editing setup is Audio Hijack Pro and GarageBand.

Why don’t some adults use the Internet?

Amy Gahran has a nice breakdown as to why 1 in 5 U.S. adults don’t use the Internet.

The usual reasons are cited: age and lack of income, but there are some surprising findings. U.S. home broadband pentration dropped by four percentage points from 2010 to 2011. The recession clearly is affecting people’s abilities to get online, which may serve to deepen the recession.

Not being able to get online means that these people — often unemployed — will find it harder to find jobs and get government services. So much is done online now. When I was laid off at my last job, all of my job search was conducted online. I couldn’t imagine conducting a job search in 2012 without Internet and a computer at home.

People with disabilities are also less likely to go online and have home Internet. This tells me that too many websites are not accessible. Indeed, computers themselves still need to become more accessible.

Some nuggets from Amy’s post about those who aren’t using the Internet:

Mostly they’re older — 59% of U.S. seniors don’t go online. Also, nearly 60% of U.S. adults who never completed high school don’t use the Internet. And they’re mostly poor — nearly 40% of people with an annual household income under $30,000 don’t go online. (Pew notes that people with an annual household income under $20,000 are especially unlikely to use the Internet.)

People with disabilities also are more likely to not use the Internet. One- quarter of U.S. adults live with a disability that interferes with activities of daily life — and only 54% of these people are Internet users, Pew found.

Source: CNN.



Episode 33: Should computers and computing systems auto update?

2010 Ford Edge - Sync 3

We discuss the purchase of Instagram by Facebook.

Jeremy is concerned. I’m taking a wait and see approach.

Then we have a big discussion about computers and computing systems automatically installing updates and patches for users. Most users don’t keep their computers and computing systems up to date. So doesn’t it make sense that more computers and computing systems are auto updating? Won’t this lead to less malware and a better user experience?

But what happens if that computing system being updated is within the car you’re driving?

It’s a serious usability discussion. Both sides have drawbacks and benefits. Perhaps the answer comes down to the user and the use case.

Listen to this week’s show:


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The future of journalism is linked to technology. Tell newspaper columnists this.

The future of journalism is inextricably linked with technology. There is no way around that. And journalists who don’t get that are actively holding journalism back.

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote a piece about Steve Jobs and technology that was so off base and so out of touch, one would almost have too assume that it’s satire. Maybe he is auditioning for The Onion:

Before reading this, you should know the following: I do not own an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod or a Mac. I abandoned my typewriter only recently. In short, I have not enlisted in the digital revolution and have kept my involvement to a desktop computer, e-mail and the Internet…

By history’s measure, Jobs’s achievements are tiny. Transforming the music industry is not the same as transforming society. There are many technological advances that had a far larger impact on society: antibiotics, air travel, air conditioning and television. By contrast, many of Apple’s products are gadgets, as commentators have noted. Their ultimate social impact may be less than Facebook’s.

The work that Steve Jobs did on personal computers, smartphones, tablets and general usability for technology far outweighs some of the “big” examples that Samuelson exposes. The television? Honestly, that’s nothing compared to computers.

Many tech savvy people of my generation are forgoing traditional televisions because Internet-connected devices are so much deeper and more powerful than a TV. Standalone TV is a blimp in history that will be replaced by Internet video (all video will eventually go over IP, and this transition is already underway).

Steve Jobs and his works are big because they brought computing to the masses. The Internet and personal computing — PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc. — are some of the biggest advances in human history.

Steve Jobs worked to take technology and make it usable for non-technologists. He helped democratize technology. That is huge.

For a journalist to not understand technology, when technology is disrupting journalism so greatly and allowing for journalism to do things that it could never do before, is somewhat mind blowing. Samuelson is not some Podunk journalist. He works for one of the best news organizations in America.

I expect more.

We become journalists because we’re addicted to learning and reading. We simply have to know more about our world around us. Samuelson, a good political reporter, would be a better journalist if he was more curious about technology.

Hat tip to Daring Fireball.

Curbing grade inflation by giving grading to outsiders, even computers

This model has professors who teach material and do research while others do the actual grading:

The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process: Replace them with professional evaluators who never meet the students, and who don’t worry that students will punish harsh grades with poor reviews. That’s the argument made by leaders of Western Governors University, which has hired 300 adjunct professors who do nothing but grade student work.

A provocative idea that may prove to be better than the traditional model, especially for lower-level courses. High-level courses require a specialization and familiarity with the material that this model may not afford.

I’m skeptical of the idea that computers can grade essays better than humans, especially any writing of real substance, but there are those who argue for that model:

A few others, including the University of Central Florida, now outsource the scoring of some essay tests to computers. Their software can grade essays thanks to improvements in artificial-intelligence techniques. Software has no emotional biases, either, and one Florida instructor says machines have proved more fair and balanced in grading than humans have.

I would have to imagine these essays are low level, and the grading is mostly focused on grammar, syntax and word choice. But good writing — writing that is enjoyable to read just for the writing itself — is much more of an art than a science.