Thursday, June 26, 2008

Notes from underground

Well, not actually underground, but with no internet access until today (the land of no internets).

Without access, I started reading more and writing more. If I couldn't think of an answer to a minor factual point in two seconds, it really didn't matter, since I knew I'd find the answer eventually. "Eventually" is a word that doesn't seem relevant in a Googleized world, but I'm warming to it.

Without access, I still wasted time, but I wasted it in different ways. I looked at the floorboards where I'm staying, which are a good foot across, and the crossbeams supporting the house, which are just peeled logs, and wondered when the last time trees that big were in this area. I wondered how, when the place got retrofitted for things like bathrooms and kitchen sinks, the owners decided where to put them.

Without access, I spent more time outdoors and in the sun.

When I finally drove the many miles to a place with a Panera and got online, I thought I'd be glad to be back in touch. Instead, though, it felt like an assault. I felt dazed as I sorted through the emails, as if Panera had melted away and left me with this world.

Then I got angry: why were people nagging me to do things? Of course they weren't doing anything but proceeding on the normal assumption that everyone is responsive to email 24/7/365; that's not their fault but mine for opening up the emails.

There's a lesson here someplace, but I'm not quite sure what it is. I think I'll drive back and stare at the floorboards some more.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Grading translation

As I finish grading the last projects for the summer course, I've invented a new comment to use (thanks, autotext!). I won't write the real version of it, but Spouse, to whom I showed it, translated it as follows: "I am tired of commenting on this mistake, which you have made numerous times before, and so I am not going to comment on it henceforth in this paper. This won't stop me from considering it when I assign your grade, however."

My version is more polite and positive, but you get the idea.

And again: thanks, autotext! I have been looking longingly at Macs recently, but they come with some flavor of Word 2007/2008, and I can't find the autotext feature at all. This is a dealbreaker for me.*

*P. S. Autotext isn't autotext if you have to use a mouse. Real backwoods computer users should be able to get everywhere--everywhere in Word, anyway--by using the keyboard. I learned this back in pioneer days with WordPerfect 5.1 (Anybody remember that? Hello? Hello?), where flying fingers and function keys were the name of the game.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Watching the robins

If you look directly at the mother robin, she waits on a branch until you turn your head slightly away. That means that you don't know that she's there and are less likely to be a predator. Only then will she fly up to the nest and stuff the upturned beaks with food.

The babies are in the nest on top of the porch light. It's a terrible spot, since people go in and out of the door all day long, but apparently it's a deluxe spot if you're a robin.

I've been away and Blogger thinks I haven't had internet access, or at least it has been giving its inscrutable error messages when I've tried to post. I soon won't have any access for a week or so.

But I did get an article sent out and can now work on other things.

That, and watch the robins.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

All over but the grading

Summer session has ended--all except the grading, of course. As their final papers came in, I read and reread their messages, especially those who said they'd enjoyed the class or learned a lot or wished me a good summer (or all three). The papers may be another story, especially those who seem to have completely ignored the advice I gave on their drafts, but the messages were a pleasure.

Nobody I have ever met teaches summer school for the Joy of Teaching; you volunteer for it so you can make enough money for plane fare or what have you. And yet at the end of the day, it gives you pleasure to see that they liked or learned from (or both) materials that you worked hard to put together or that your feedback on their work was helpful.

Yes, they could be apple-polishing or hoping that a nice message will help them in the end, but I'd like to think this isn't the case.

And, best of all, we'll all shortly be done.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Laptops in classrooms (again)

This is more of an update than a regular post. From The Chronicle:
But professors who have banned laptops from their classes say there is no going back. Classroom discussions suddenly come alive when the laptops are gone, they say.

"If half the people are checked out, then the conversation just isn't going to be as rich," says David D. Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Apart from the problem of Web surfing, Mr. Cole and other professors say, laptops encourage students to become mindless stenographers during class. Since taking notes with a computer keyboard is much faster than with pen and paper, students busily take down every word uttered by professors instead of carefully listening and selecting the important points to put into writing.


A lot of us have been saying this for a long time now, but if the law school professors say it, it must be true.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Be careful what you wish for, weather division

Yesterday I thought, "I wish this cold, gray rain would stop."

I got my wish.

It turned to hail.

Then I wished that the hail would stop, although it was small enough to be kind of cool rather than scary.

Today I got my wish.

This morning it snowed.

The flakes melted when they hit the ground, but still.

I am done with wishing for better weather.

The next step might be a plague of frogs.

Vacation (?) misery

I started work at 5 a.m. today and feel as though I should have gotten up at 4.

I'm in vacation panic mode, which means that I have to leave soon and have a ton of deadline-driven work still to do. I will have to take it with me, along with the books that there's no Netflix for. I will have to make trips to a library an hour away to supplement these instead of hanging out with family. This is my own fault, of course, so as an extra added bonus I get to berate myself hourly for not working faster and avoiding the problem.

If I could send an avatar away on the trip I'm supposed to take and let the real me stay here and work, I totally would. Can't they hurry up with that cloning stuff so that I can have another me to work?

Oh, and why do some academics only admit to "research trips" and travel to conferences during the summer? Did they spring fully formed from the head of the academy? Why do I feel as though I need to hide the family part of this trip and emphasize its work part, which will indeed include a conference and some travel to collections, when I'm describing it to others? Could it be that, like the Marines, academics value toughness and a total devotion to the Corps over family life?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

In The Atlantic: the decay of reading?

I don't mean that people don't read any more, the factoid with which fluffy-haired tv journalists like to scare us on a slow day. No, the July/August "ideas issue" of The Atlantic has an article called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes).

But the really interesting part of the article occurs at the beginning, when the author, Nicholas Carr, has this to say about his current reading habits:
My mind isn't going--so far as I can tell--but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case any more. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. . . . What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. . . . My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances--literary types, most of them--many say they're having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

This is unnerving. As we used to say in grade school, I resemble that remark. I thought that being distracted just signified an epic case of procrastination, but even in reading long blog posts, I've become the master of the topic sentence, skipping from paragraph to paragraph. Isn't the genius of New Kid's Random Bullets of Crap concept (I think she invented it) [Edited to add: It was actually Ianqui who invented this. Thanks, Dr. Virago, for mentioning that in the comments.] is that it's perfect for blog posts on days when you don't want to write a Henry Jamesian disquisition on what you're thinking?

Or--here's a contrarian view--is this kind of reading maybe just efficient? If Francis Bacon was right that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested," and we have more reading than ever to taste these days, doesn't it make sense to skim some things? And on the admittedly many occasions recently when I've skimmed something and forced myself to go back and read every sentence, guess what? There was usually enough repetition in the text, with extra examples and the like, that I'd gotten the main points the first time around anyway.

But "deep reading" really is a better system; for one thing, it feels less frantic than moving from point to point, topic to topic. What disturbs Carr, and what disturbs me, is that "deep reading" isn't the default any more; skimming is. Have you found this to be true, too?

I'd tell you about the rest of the article, but, in truth, I can't. I just read the first couple of pages and skimmed the rest.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A second reality check

Imagine that you have an online class and that all but one person is having no trouble with finding the site, finding the materials, completing the work, and so forth.

Imagine, too, that you have multiple e-mail addresses but that you have instructed your class (via the syllabus, Blackboard, e-mail messages to them, announcements, and so forth) to use one specific e-mail address.

What are the odds that the same person who couldn't see that there are writing assignments in the class if they were written on the side of a barn door has managed to sleuth out your least-used, most-obscure e-mail address, the one you rarely check, and has sent you multiple messages complaining that he or she can't understand how to access the course materials?

a) Nah, couldn't happen.
b) Infinitesimal.
c) A hundred percent.

You'll never guess this one in a million years.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I want a Netflix for books

File this under inventions I'd like to see: Netflix for books. If Netflix can do instant, on-demand viewing, why, oh why, can't university presses get together and create a service like this?

Like a lot of people, I'll be traveling this summer, and like a lot of academics, I need to take books with me. In the past, this wasn't as much of a problem. I'd pack a suitcase with clothes and a suitcase with books, and away I'd go.

But now, with the airlines waging unceasing war on passengers (my theory: Amtrak is pulling the puppet strings so the airlines will wither and die) and charging for extra bags and extra weight, that's not feasible. I would kill--well, pay, anyway--for access to books that I didn't have to lug in a suitcase.

The databases for journals have made this easy, but there's still no comprehensive option for books. What are the alternatives?

  • University of California Press has made some of its scholarly books available for free, bless its heart, but not all of them.
  • Google books has full-text versions of some useful books, but for most of them you just get the maddening striptease that they call "limited preview."
  • Questia has quite a few books, but many are older.
  • Netlibrary has a ratio (for my field, anyway) of about two scholarly books to about 25 repackaged public domain books that I can get anywhere.
  • Kindle looks promising at first, but its offerings are a lot heavier on the Eat, Pray, Love and Tom Clancy kind of thing than on the Arcades Project, if you know what I mean. In other words, stuff that I can buy in an airport bookstore I can also get through Kindle. Stuff that I can't get there, I can't get through Kindle, either.

    What would a Netflix for books look like?

  • It would have to have affordable subscriptions or purchase prices, not the gazillion dollars that Project Muse and Ebsco extort from libraries so that individuals can never afford it.
  • It wouldn't have a proprietary device attached. Maybe it would come in .pdf versions that you could mark up.
  • It would be easy to access and have a good search feature. Maybe it could even emulate Amazon's "people who bought this book also bought X" feature.
  • It would allow you to get a "twofer"--an e-copy with every paper copy purchased. You could also just buy or rent the e-copy, for less money.
  • It would be centralized so you didn't have to go on a scavenger hunt to find the book you wanted.

    I know, I know: digital rights, copyright laws, royalties, blah blah blah. But the movie companies aren't exactly holding hands and singing on a mountaintop when it comes to digital rights management, and Apple and Netflix have managed to make a go of things.

    So I ask again: Netflix did it. Why can't academic booksellers?
  • Monday, June 02, 2008

    And how was your day?

    I've been working on something I'm very interested in and want to get sent out soon. No, that would not be one of the pieces with deadlines hanging over my head like a portent of doom; why do you ask?

    So. I've been writing on this, immersed in it, until today. This morning was all about the online class, which has some hard deadlines if they're to get the information on time. This afternoon, 12-7, was all about a piece of work that is (1) pretty much a thankless task and (2) a monumental time suck.

    Oh, and tomorrow is more of the same.

    I see that What Now? has joined the Academic Writing Club for motivation, but even being motivated is no protection against tasks like this.

    Oh, well. There's always this evening.

    Sunday, June 01, 2008

    OT: Tech tips--why the fuss over Roku?

    I'm confused about the fuss over Roku, a box that allows you to watch streaming video from Netflix for only $8.95 a month.

    The reason I'm confused is that Netflix members can already do this for free. You have to have Internet Explorer (it won't work with Firefox) and download the free player, but as far as I know, Netflix members have just about unlimited viewing for free.

    And the TV part? You just need to hook up the laptop to your TV as if it's an external monitor using an SVGA cable [or an S-video cable] and an audio cable. If you had an HDMI cable and a port for that on your laptop, you could probably use that, not that I've ever been able to make an HDMI cable work.

    Fellow tech nerd souls, what am I missing here?

    [Updated to add] An anonymous commenter has kindly explained that the $8.95 is for the cheapest Netflix subscription; if you already have Netflix, you wouldn't have to pay an additional amount to use Roku, just the $99 to buy it to begin with.

    Although the current system works well for now (laptop cables to TV), it sounds as though Roku might be worth a look.
    [Updated 4/24/09]: If you have a newer laptop with an HDMI port, an HDMI cable works even better than an SVGA or VGA cable plus audio cable.]