Category Archives: Computers

Boys Like to Break Things

Boys Like to Break Things.txt

by Richard White


It’s no secret that Technology Education has something of a gender problem. For reasons that are still unknown (at least to me), I have far fewer female students in my Computer Science courses than in my Physics classes, where the ratio is close to 50-50. I encourage young women to join my classes, and even had the honor of advising an all-girl group of “Technovators” in an app-design competition the year before.

It’s a curious thing, and although I’d like to find a way to improve the girl:boy ratio, it’s not entirely clear what I should do to do so.

An interesting thing happened in the AP Computer Science class the other day however, and it broke down along gender lines. We’d taken a few moments earlier in the period to examine an old PC running Linux that I’d placed at the front of the room. I’d taken one side of the tower off, and we were looking at the motherboard, graphics card, disk drive, CPU, etc.

And a bit later in the class we were going over shell commands that students might find useful, and after introducing the “remove” command (rm), I mentioned the dangers of inadvertently typing sudo rm -rf /, a command which will recursively remove every file on the computer… usually not something that one intends to do.

it’s an interesting concept, and the thrill of a dangerous command like that holds some inherent appeal, perhaps, to geeks. And then one of the boys raised his hand and asked, “How long will it take before the rm command eventually removes some critical file that is necessary to the ongoing operation of the computer?”

It was an interesting question and one that I hadn’t given much thought to up to this point. The rm command is working on the hard drive, while the operating system mostly resides in RAM, but there are swap operations in which the OS interacts with the hard drive, so… this was a great thing to ponder. At what point does the snake eating its own tail become unable to continue?

You know where this is going. “That’s a great question, Cyril. Let’s find out.” So I had one of the students type the requisite command on the computer that, moments ago, we’d used to demonstrate hardware. They hit the Enter key and took great delight in the list of files scrolling by on the screen, a live-action view of what was being deleted as the rm command slowly destroyed the OS.

This singular opportunity was of such interest that the students crowded around the machine to watch the spectacle, and one young man recorded the event on his phone…

Here’s the other part that you can almost certainly guess. Of the four young women in the class, not a single one came up to the front to watch the event up close. Were they intimidated by the gathered crowd? Was the destruction just less interesting to them? Were they thinking about heading off to their next class? Are boys just more interested than girls in testing things, even (especially!) to the point of breaking them?

I don’t have the answer, but I think about these things. We all need to be thinking about these things, and encouraging women who express interest to explore the idea of learning more technology.

Whither Media?

Whither Media?

by Richard White


I was out walking with a friend of mine the other night along Hillhurst and happened to stumble into High Fidelity records. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but vinyl is making a comeback, and the stacks of records in this place had attracted a few evening shoppers. And even though I don’t own a record player anymore, I worked for a number of years in the early 80s at a southern California record store chain called Licorice Pizza, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for music stores of any kind.

I was a bit surprised to see a sign in the store advertising that their CDs, already in short supply, were all 50% off. I grabbed a couple of discs that I’d been meaning to buy—the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, in case you’re curious—and chatted with the girl at the register who was ringing me up. “So, you guys aren’t going to carry CDs anymore?”

“Yup,” she said, flatly, and the logic of that decision didn’t need to be explained to me. The store has a higher mark-up, greater volume, and better profit selling rare vinyl than trying to compete with Amazon, Wal-mart, and Target selling CDs. The rack space where their dwindling supply of discs remained was losing them money.

I did what I do with all the CDs I buy these days: I scurried home and ripped them into flac files on my Linux box using the abcde utility. Because that CD isn’t going to last forever…

And neither is the CD player, right? My primary computer, the one I’m using to type right now, certainly doesn’t have a CD player, and Apple retired their “Rip. Mix. Burn.” iTunes advertising long ago. Most of my students with Apple laptops no longer have access to anything with a CD drive in it (with the possible exception of a parent’s car), and instead are more than happy to listen to and share music via iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora.

All of which leaves us with an interesting question. In a world that no longer provides physical media, does one even need to keep media? If so, where? and if not, why not?

If you ask Netflix, the answer is clear, where their DVD delivery business has been on the decline for awhile now, even as their streaming business is on the increase. I’m one of the many people who eventually ditched my delivery subscription in favor of the curling up in bed with my iPad and their streaming software, even if the selection of movies available to stream if inferior to their stock of physical disks.

And if you ask my students, the whole idea of physical media is almost foreign to them. I recently conducted an activity in my computer science class where students were required to provide evidence that they had three copies of their computer science files: one on their laptop, one on a secondary storage device like an external drive, and one “in the cloud.” (It’s a great activity, and students who are budget-constrained can satisfy the requirement simply by using the 16GB flash drive I provide them at the beginning of the year, and signing up for a free Dropbox account.)

The idea that one needs backups is nothing new, but I had one student who took exception to the requirements. “Look,” he explained, I have a copy in the cloud, and a copy on my machine. Why do I need a second copy locally?”

It took a bit of explaining for him to understand that it was entirely possible for him to have his local hard drive crash, or for him to drop his computer, or for his logic board to fry, or for someone to spill coffee into the keyboard… all of which have happened to students and colleagues of mine in the last year. “I’ll have a copy in the cloud!” he responded, and that’s certainly one of the points of having a backup in the cloud.

“Do you have a backup of your entire hard drive in the cloud?” It’s a trick question that I, the instructor, win either way. Either he doesn’t, in which case he’s lost enormous amounts of data, or he does, in which case he’s going to find out how long it takes to restore hundreds of gigabytes of data over his home Internet connection.

But I digress. The interesting discovery for me was that this young man, articulate and well-spoken, didn’t seem to be able to appreciate the concept of “losing one’s digital stuff.” And while it’s possible that he has simply had the good fortune to never undergo that experience—this is a kid, after all—I think it’s more likely that he doesn’t “have” any digital stuff to lose, at least in the traditional sense. Somebody else already keeps his stuff.

From his class assignments stored in GoogleDocs to his browser-based email to his Spotify playlists, his data is completely out of his hands, but typically available just about anywhere he can find an Internet connection… and he’s just fine with that.

Are the days of “owning” media over, then? Will I come to rely on Netflix streaming for being able to watch my favorite movie? And will I accept its disappearance with reluctant understanding when their licensing agreement with the studio runs out? Will we no longer be able to share a favorite book with a friend (or will we bound to a particular e-book platform/distribution channel if we do)?

Can you even make a mixtape anymore for that guy or girl you like? I tried the other day using iTunes, and it was a complete catastrophe.

In a world where all we have is digitized, what happens to the media that isn’t?

It disappears…

Three copies of your data, people. One on the computer, one on a local backup, and one in the cloud.

And take care of those precious books and records, lest they disappear forever.


P.S. A couple of days after writing this, Apple discontinued their venerable iPod Classic line. This hard drive-based music player had been in production in one form or another ever since it was originally introduced in 2001, and there’s a wonderful eulogy by Mat Honan online at Wired.

For ten years my iPod—in various incarnations—was my constant companion. It went with me on road trips and backpacking through the wilderness. I ran with it. I swam with it. (In a waterproof case!) I listened to sad songs that reminded me of friends and family no longer with me. I made a playlist for my wife to listen to during the birth of our first child, and took the iPod with us to the hospital. I took one to a friend’s wedding in Denmark, where they saved money on a DJ by running a four hour playlist, right from my iPod. And because the party lasted all night, they played it again.

Everyone played everything again and again.

And now it’s dead. Gone from the Apple Store. Disappeared, while we were all looking at some glorified watch.

In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.

Preach on, Brother.

Legacy vs. Transition


by Richard White


Hello, and apologies for the long absence. You know how things can get busy…

Actually, I’ve got the best excuse of all for being away—I’ve been extra busy this year teaching the new AP Computer Science class this year. Organizing, developing materials for, and teaching that class has taken up just about every spare work moment I’ve had. I’m not unhappy about that at all—having the opportunity to work on any new course, and especially that one—is an exciting experience, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons this year, lessons that I’ll tell you about soon.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about Legacy vs. Transition.

Here, I’m referring to legacy in it’s modern digital sense: legacy software is software that is not the most current, but which is still supported to some extent, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was very popular at one point, and its use is still widespread. (The adjective legacy may be extended to other uses as well, but the software context is a common one.)

Last year Microsoft announced the new version of its venerable Office suite, now called Office 365. Along with whatever features that new software includes, it also comes with a new licensing strategy. Under this new system, a one-time license to use the software is not purchased outright; rather, the user pays a monthly fee for the right to use the software. It’s a classic example of the software as a service model for software distribution, and it’s certainly within Microsoft’s rights to transition to such a model. Google has been doing it for years, and if Google doesn’t charge cash money for the service, I’ve certainly paid for their services in other ways (including my privacy every time I send or receive an email from someone with a GMail account).

After losing the ability to read ClarisWorks (and then AppleWorks) documents a number of years ago, I made the decision to transition to using Microsoft Office products, with the intention of avoiding the kind of data loss that comes from using products that have a shorter lifespan. I have gigabytes of Microsoft Office documents on my hard drive, from my own handouts, worksheets, tests, and letters of recommendation to documents that have been shared with me by practically every person with whom I have a professional relationship.


Microsoft’s new licensing plan, however, was just the impetus I needed to start thinking about transitioning to a new system. I still have the Microsoft Office suite on my computer and occasionally still edit legacy documents using those applications. New documents, however, are being created using LibreOffice, which is a serious attempt at providing free software to support the creation of OpenDocument (.odt) files.

You can see a screenshot of the LibreOffice word processing interface above, and the similarities between it and Word are such that you shouldn’t find yourself too disoriented.

LibreOffice includes translation features to bring Word documents (.doc and .docx) over, and how well your files will be translated depends in part on how hard you’ve pushed Word’s feature-packed capabilities—I haven’t explored those capabilities much yet.

For the moment, I’m just enjoying adapting myself to the new system, and creating a new series of documents that, going forward, won’t require an ongoing investment with the powers that be at Micro$oft.

In the grand scheme of things, working about the long-term viability of your electronic documents might not be something that you want to think about… but it merits some consideration. I have songs made with music mixing software that I no longer have access to. (I have final mixes of the music, but the software itself no longer works; I am unable to create new mixes of the music.)


JPG graphics images, carefully edited and compressed fifteen years ago when dial-up connections were still a thing, look terrible on the high-resolution Retina Display of an iPad. (At least the colors of those images haven’t faded with time, which is more than I can say for the paper-based photos in an old photo album of mine.)

Hardware legacy is something to consider too. I have FireWire hard drives but my laptop doesn’t have a FireWire port. I have Zip disks from the 90s, too, and no Zip drive to put them into. Fortunately, I copied everything from those drives onto a USB external hard drive a few years ago when I did have access to those machines. I was either smart or lucky to have anticipated the transitions that would have to be made happen down the road.

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all to the challenges posed by aging software and hardware. Some people spend enormous time and energy making sure that they always have copies of everything digital—I tend to lean towards that end of the spectrum, as you might imagine—and others don’t want or need to keep anything of their digital life.

I don’t know any of those people, though, so I can’t really speak to that.


The Ed Tech Battle

The Ed Tech Battle

by Richard White


There’s been a lot going on lately in the world of educational technology.

I mean, okay–there always is–but this past week or so, there have been some really interesting items that have caught my attention. The general theme is simply this:

What we’re trying to do is really difficult.

Getting the hardware / software / lessons / workflow right is surprisingly tricky, and some of our best and brightest are struggling (and often unsuccessfully) to get it right.

My take away is that if these people are having trouble, it’s okay if I’m finding it a little frustrating, too.

In the news:

Kevin Marks talks about trying to manage Amazon textbooks on This Week in Google episode 217, (September 25, 2013)

At 34:20, Kevin starts talking about the challenges of dealing with / licensing differences for electronic textbooks, with corresponding separate Google accounts to manage those accounts. Even once he gets this solved, he’s still concerned that notes taken in the textbook for one country are stuck in one Amazon cloud, and inaccessible from another.

Summer Adventures of a Droid Tablet

A math/computer science teacher outlines in gruesome detail his efforts to get a new “recording his class lessons” workflow going after the untimely death of his laptop. Sample entry:

I would love to drop the USB Mic too if I could figure out how to use the Droid’s Mic with this configuration. I would then be truly wireless! This new incarnation of the Kindle has an 8.9″ HD screen, dual WiFi, dual speakers, dual cores as well as a webcam and mic. I think there’s a version of Teamviewer, called Teamviewer for Meetings, that uses VOIP so I wouldn’t need a separate Mic. IDK if it’s free or cheap. I suppose I could go back to using a wireless lapel mic? Maybe I could use a BlueTooth Headset Mic? You see, my lapel mic disappeared after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Math Building at my High School….

I am also experimenting with other Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) apps such as SplashTop. I’m using Splashtop2 for Droid and SplashtopStreamer for Windows.

I’m focusing on Teamviewer and Splashtop as these Desktop streamers are available for both Windows and Linux and the client app is available for Droid. I usually have to use Windows whenever I’m on the road, say at a conference. However, I usually use Linux all day every day at the High School. Further, all my tablets are now Droids!

How iPython notebook and Github have changed the way I teach Python

This article, referred to me by my friend Cindee, relates how one teacher, reflecting on frustrations encountered while teaching Python, eventually developed a technology-based workflow that allows him to give student better access to the materials covered in class. (More relevant to computer science classes than traditional subjects.)

Students in LAUSD “hack” their iPads

It’s a kerfuffle all the way ’round, and everybody’s got something critical to say about the situation, from the large scale of the roll-out to the money involved, from the choice of device to the sloppy execution. Everybody except perhaps Audrey Watter’s, who says this is what we should be teaching kids to do anyway.

And for me: Google Saves the Day?

My own frustrations are perhaps minor compared with some of these, and I’d like to think they won’t cost 1 billion dollars to solve (the projected cost of LAUSD’s iPad program). One of my recent discoveries: Google Docs and Presentations, used by many teachers and students, don’t have a notifications option that will inform a document’s shared users when that file is edited. Google Spreadsheets offers this option, but Docs and Presentations don’t.


So my genius plan for conducting an ongoing conversation with colleagues via one of those documents hit a bit of a snag, and while there is a workaround–we wouldn’t be education technologists without our workarounds, would we?!–it shows again that trying to find a solution to some of these things is sometimes / often / usually harder than we’d like it to be.

The reality is that I’m grateful for Google’s shared documents, which are increasingly a cornerstone of many teachers’ workflows. It’s good enough that I almost don’t mind them mining my data so that they can more efficiently sell me ads.


Hang in there, people. We’ll get this figured out one of these days soon… :)

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology

by Richard White


When I was nine years old I read Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a story in which Danny and his friends Joe and Irene program a computer to do their homework for them. At that time the personal computer was still a fantasy, but the possibility of being able to have a machine handle my academic chores–my learning–was absolutely intoxicating.

Fast-forward a few years: I’d gone from programming a mainframe in high school to majoring in Computer Science in college, and then from teaching computer programming in high school on IBM PCs (pre-Internet!) to teaching AP Physics in Berkeley. I’d re-discovered the book from my childhood–there’s my name on the inside, written in my mother’s neat cursive–and read again about Danny’s hard-earned lesson: that programming a computer is not a shortcut to learning. The last page of the book, though, opens up a new possibility:

“Danny had a strange, wild look in his eyes, and a faraway smile on his lips. ‘Listen–what about a teaching machine…?'”

I began investigating the possibilities of technology-enhanced programmed instruction. The learning process for an inspired student can be a pretty straightforward process: get exposed to something new, learn a little bit about it, and then use what you’ve learned to do something interesting. For some subjects, the process of presenting information and checking for understanding is ideally suited for a computer, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Programmed instruction in book form had existed for years, and computer-based math instructional methods were already being launched.

I was a month or so into developing my own programmed instruction when I began to realize that this system, whatever its benefits might be, also had the effect of isolating me from the very best part of my vocation: working with students to help them understand the world around them. Teaching content, exploring with students the process of interpreting content, and perhaps most importantly, learning to develop strategies for dealing with new and unexpected situations, all demand a dynamic, creative, process that is the very heart and soul of my work. There was no way for me to write this stuff down, to program it, to “classroom flip” this aspect of my work.

That hasn’t kept me from leveraging technology where appropriate. The vast majority of my current curricular materials are online–lessons, labs, homework help, and practice tests–and students across the U.S. and abroad use these materials as a guide in their own learning. I am part of a global learning and teaching community, using technology that is faster, cheaper, and better than ever. We are actively exploring new ways that we can use that technology to improve education.

But at the heart of it all–sometimes just barely visible behind the iPads and the laptops, the email and the tweets, the websites and the Massive Open Online Courses–are students and teachers, working together, just as we always have.

And there is nothing that will be able to replace that.

Five Things To Do at the End of the School Year



by Richard White

It’s the end of the school year, and maybe you’ve had a chance to close things out in your classroom. How about taking a few moments to close things out on your computer, too?

Here are six things to do with your computer at the end of the school year.

1. Backup Everything
This should go without saying, but I’m always amazed at how many people don’t have a backup of their computer. If you don’t already have at least two local backups of your Documents folder, and if you don’t already have a subscription to an offsite backup solution like Backblaze or Carbonite, you’ll be pleased to know that you are excused from the rest of this assignment. YOUR assignment is to:
a. order one of these or something similar with 2-day shipping from Amazon, and then set up your computer to do automatic backups (Time Machine on the Mac, Backup and Restore on Windows 7).
b. While you’re waiting for your hard drive to arrive, you can go to Backblaze or Carbonite, give them $50-$60 on your credit card, and sign up for a year’s worth of offsite, in-the-cloud, backups. Because… your computer is going to crash. If it’s happened to you already, you know what I’m saying, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry: it will…!

2. Archive Last Year’s Material
With any luck at all, you’ve already got someplace in your Documents folder where you’ve saved all the work you’ve done this year: those tests you wrote, those handouts and worksheets you created, etc. Those should all be dragged into a folder called “AcademicYear2011-2012” or something similar. And if those documents are scattered willy-nilly about your desktop, that’s all the more reason to take advantage of this opportunity to assemble them all in one place.

(The reason for this is two-fold. You want to reduce the amount of time and energy you waste digging through old documents that aren’t actively being used, and you want to reduce the amount of time and energy you spend looking for those documents when you do need to find them.)

You get extra credit for organizing the files from this academic school year into sub-directories labelled by class.

3. Archive your email
If you’re like many teachers I know, you have a drastic drop-off in the amount of work-related email you get during the summer. Now’s the perfect time to tidy up that Inbox. Archiving or exporting email, depending on which email process you use and what facilities there are for archiving, may make your Inbox faster loading and easier to navigate.

There are numerous strategies for doing this. Google’s web-based Gmail and Apple’s both offer convenient commands for doing this right from the interface (see screen captures below). Consult the documentation for those services, or check in with your local IT staff for specific advice on how to export or archive your own email.

4. Digitize Your Stuff
If you’re still carrying around paper copies of your class materials, the end of the school year is a perfect time to digitize. Anything that’s a Word document or a PDF is easily stored in the appropriate folder on your computer. Anything that’s NOT, and that you need to keep for future reference, can be scanned as a PDF and tucked away into a folder on your computer, where it will be (in most cases) far easier to find, and take up far less space (like, *none*) in your filing cabinet.

5. Get Organized
Everybody loves a little Spring Cleaning, and the chance to clear out the detritus that naturally accumulates over time. (You have heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, haven’t you?)

There’s a note I keep on my computer to remind myself of the benefits of keeping organized. It’s from a talk on What We Know About Learning given by a professor at Caltech last year, and it simply says, “Simple frameworks reduce cognitive load.” The idea is that creating a framework or structure that you can use to organize your understanding makes it easier to learn, and I’m obviously extending that idea to the hard drive on your computer. Get things organized on your hard drive, and it will be easier for you to access and work with that information.

Here’s the directory structure of a folder on my hard drive called “edu,” into which I’ve placed a number of different folders for various educational contexts. The “poly11-12” folder contains sub-folders of the files I’ve used this year in my courses and other contexts at school. I leave those files and folders there as a record of what I did that year. If I need a copy of a file for the new school year, I do just that: I make a copy for the new year, and leave the original in place.

An Introduction to Dropbox


by Richard White


Have you heard of Dropbox? Are you using it yet? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no,’ then sit back and prepare to be freaked out. In ten minutes or so, Dropbox is going to change your entire world.

Dropbox is, at its simplest, an online directory (folder) where you can store files. It looks like a folder on your computer, but everything in that folder is also stored “in the cloud,” on Dropbox’s servers.

Why would you want to store your stuff on their servers instead of on your own computer? Two common use-cases will demonstrate.

  • You want to share files with another person.
    Have you ever tried to email a 50MB movie to someone, or wanted to send them a set of photos from your vacation? Email doesn’t let you do it because the file sizes are too small. But you can place those files in a Dropbox public folder, or created a Dropbox shared folder, and your friend can use Dropbox to access those files. Problem solved.
  • You want to share files with yourself on another device.
    I have a few files that I need to have access to from multiple machines. With Dropbox installed on my Mac, on my Windows machine, on my Ubuntu Linux machine, and even on my iPhone and iPad, I can work with those files without having to email them to myself or go through any of those other machinations. Any changes I make to the file on one machine are automatically synced nearly immediately to all devices.

The nitty-gritty details: Dropbox is free for the first 2GB of storage. If you want more than that you’ll have to pay, or have people sign-up for Dropbox using a link you provide in which case they’ll award you a little referral love by increasing that amount for each person bring in. You do have to download their software to install on your machine—this is not a browser-based program. You’ll need network access, obviously, if you want files to be synced between machines. You can access local copies of the files on most devices, although mobile devices (iPads and iPhones) don’t keep local copies (unless configured to).

Dropbox states that files are stored securely, and maybe you’re satisfied with that. The truly paranoid, or those with files of a particularly sensitive nature, will almost certainly encrypt their files or folders before uploading them.

One other caveat: if you share a directory with someone else and they decide to alter or delete a file in that folder, then it obviously gets altered/deleted from that Dropbox folder, which means that your copy—perhaps your only copy of that file—also gets altered/deleted. Thus, it may be in your interest to keep an archive copy of whatever files it is that you’re sharing with others—those business documents, those vacation photos, etc.

Celebrity Smackdown: iPad vs. Laptop

Celebrity Smackdown: iPad vs. Laptop


by Richard White

It’s a simple question, really. You’re a forward-thinking guy or gal, and you’re thinking about updating the hardware at your school, or perhaps even getting into a 1-to-1 program, or a Bring Your Down Device agreement with your student body.

What do you do: go with iPads, or laptops?

Before we break this down, let me give you my qualifications, in case you were worried. I have a tendency to favor Apple-based solutions for many situations, both for the high-build quality of their hardware and the relative stability, reliability, and ease-of-use of their software. I have a MacBook Pro that I run OS X on, although I’ve also run Windows 7 on that machine as well. I have a PC desktop at home running Ubuntu, and a Lenovo netbook (x100e, no CD/DVD drive) that I run Windows 7 and Ubuntu on. My cellphone is an iPhone 4, and I waited in line for the original iPad, and purchased the “iPad 3” when it came out.

Another point of reference: I work at a school that officially supports both Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X machines. That same school currently uses classroom carts of machines–PCs, Macs, and iPads–to give students access to computers on an as-needed basis.

I’ve been accused of being an Apple fan-boy, and am somewhat guilty as charged. But what about this iPad vs. laptops showdown? If you only had one device to buy, which would it be?

  iPad laptop/netbook
Time to wake from sleep ~ 1 second 3-10 seconds
Battery life ~ 10 hours 1 – 4 hours
Availability of applications Many, most modified to run on the iPad. Available only through iTunes. Many, with availability of certain titles dependent on operating system
Interface usability Touch interface, not suitable for extended typing. External keyboards available. Keyboard and trackpad, with usability dependent on keyboard size, manufacturer.
File management No access to file system. Apps may have some ability to share files, but third-party solutions (Dropbox, Air Sharing, etc.) necessary to move files around. Organizing and moving files done with operating system.
Cost Base model: $499 Varies depending on manufacturer, model. (Lenovo G570, 15.6″ screen, i5 processor, 8G RAM, 750G HDD, Windows 7 Home Premium = $569 sale price)
Security Applications heavily policed by Apple, Inc and sandboxed. No user access to filesystem. OS X relatively safe, Windows typically requires running anti-virus software.
Strengths Near instantaneous wake from sleep and outstanding battery life. Listening to music, surfing the Internet, reading PDFs, are all dead easy straight out of the box. Does everything, conforms to current paradigm of computing. Easily customizable. Runs Flash and Java applications.
Weaknesses No “real” keyboard. Programs limited in availability (Microsoft Office suite not currently available) or function (Photoshop Touch doesn’t have full feature set). Doesn’t allow access to file system. Can’t display Flash files or run Java applications. Relatively limited battery life. Use requires knowing how to navigate the operating system, manage files.

Does that clear things up? At my school, for some teachers the iPads have literally transformed the way they conduct their classes, with students reading course handouts on them, writing papers on them, uploading them to the instructor via Dropbox, and the instructor annotating their work and returning it to them via email.

For other teachers, the iPad is a non-starter. The Physics classes are unable to run Java-based animations, and the programming class is unable to launch a Terminal or write Python programs.

My recommendation for teachers is that use cases be examined very carefully. For all the talk of a “post-PC world” with “cloud-based storage,” we’re not there yet. As an educator who, in addition to teaching subject-area content is also helping students master the technological tools that they’ll use in college and in business, I strongly feel that there’s so much more to technology than pointing and tapping. Students who are unable to right-click, or “Save As…”, or create a new folder for organizing their files, haven’t been well served.

iPads satisfy some needs for some teachers, it’s clear, and may be part of the educational technology equation for some schools. For an institution with limited resources, however, money will be better spent on laptops. And for schools considering a “one device to one child” program, committing to the iPad–the device du jour–is, in my opinion, short-sighted.

The End is Nigh

The End is Nigh


by Richard White

“The End is Nigh!” For your optical drive, that is.

CDs and DVDs are still here for the moment, but not for long. Depending on how much you love your archives and content, it may be time to start thinking about a migration process that will allow you to convert your CDs and DVDs to a hard drive.

It’s an easy, if tedious, process. I did it with my documents and data last year: buy a couple of 1-terabyte external hard drives, plug one of them into your computer, plug in the nearly endless succession of CDs and DVDs that you’ve been burning data on all these years, and click-drag over to the terabyte archive.

Once you’ve spent a day or two doing that, plug in both terabyte drives and click-drag all the contents from one drive to the other, which will act as a backup of the archive.

At that point you’ll have at least three copies of your data: the original CD or DVD (which you might want to tuck away, should something catastrophic happen to both hard drives), and two copies of your data on the Archive and Backup external drives.

There are fancier ways to do this that you may already have built. rsync works magic in a shell script, and you can spend hours and days developing a system there that you can use to manage it all.

In the absence of anything fancy, though, at least get your data off those optical drives. In another three years or so, many computers—and certainly the most popular ones, including iPads and Macbook Airs—won’t have an optical drive, and you’ll have easy way to access that data. Let’s face it, the data storage on CDs and DVDs is time-sensitive anyway. Like that old slide film that your father shot just thirty years ago, that medium decays with age. If you think that Apple is wrong about that, you don’t have to look too far back to find another decision they made regarding media that was very controversial at the time. The 1998 iMac G3 came without a floppy disk slot in anticipation of what would happen throughout the industry in the years to come. By 2003, Dell was no longer including floppy disk drives as standard on their machines, and by 2007, only 2% of computers sold included floppy drives.

So, yeah. I’m not saying you need to run out right now and take care of this. But you might want to put it on your ToDo.txt list. I mean, come on. When’s the last time you bought a music CD?

Yup. That’s what I thought.

Do yourself a favor and get a couple of 1-terabyte archive drives. You’ll be glad you did.