Archive for the ‘Engineering & Technology’ Category

First of all, I want to make a disclaimer: I have nothing personal against iPhones, iPods, and other electronic devices that have become such a staple of everyday life. Neither do I have a problem with Apple and other manufacturers. Hell, I even wanted to get an iPhone, if it wasn’t prohibitively expensive for my tiny budget (which is becoming nonexistent as time goes by). What I do have a serious problem with is how it has taken away a lot of quality time that otherwise normal, emotionally-healthy families would have, at a bare minimum.  Once upon a time, before the advent of TV, before even the Industrial Revolution, it could be argued that the ties between families were strong, the right values could be passed on with confidence, and there were ways that members could strengthen those familial ties, with curiously mute rituals.

Then the Industrial Revolution came, along with all forms of improvised entertainment that corporate masters had to create in a hurry, in order to keep the masses amused.  TV and radio were the by-products of that era. It had its initial share of detractors. Who, for good reason, ranted that such entertainment would destroy what frail ties between parents and children existed, already exhausted by the 9-to-5 grind. When cheeky Baby Boomer programmers and their successors put on shows of questionable content, that more than proved that point.  Nonetheless, there are many good programs from all genres have served to be a gathering time and place, a moment for families to be stimulated or entertained, to talk about certain aspects of popular culture. On occasion, maybe even discourse on a good idea (Wow!). For that purpose, TV has served as a consolidator of sorts.  Even through its other various incarnations — movies, cable TV, and so forth — it has done its job well in that sense.  There’s an early episode of the Simpsons (“There’s No Disgrace Like Home”) wherein the eponymous family of the series undergo some extreme methods of therapy, including electrocution, in an effort to produce “family bliss or double your money back.” When that fails, the doctor gives them their money back — which Homer uses to buy a new TV, the Simpsons’ unifying force by default.

Nearly 20 years later, entertainment blazes across high-speed internet, and comes in all shapes and forms.  TV is no longer the mass-media entertainer it once was.  With the developments of technology, people now hunger for new, more compact toys for their amusement.  As the cliche goes, “Even instant gratification isn’t fast enough these days.” Tech manufacturers have all but swept up savvy users in a wave of technophilia, from Palm Pilots and other hand-helds, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, Shuffles, etc., etc. Facebook and other social networking devices can be accessed from any or all of the above.  That’s really great, and so are all the other cool programs that come with it.

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What’s not so great is when I’m sitting in a room with two people in my family or friends, who happen to have iPhones, in their hands as we speak.  And then all they do is spend half the time on their iPhones… looking at stuff.  When I ask them, they get defensive. “I’m working!” they will usually snap. Or, “I’m looking up useful stuff!” Or some other lame excuse.  Well, if that’s the case, why even bother sitting in the same room with me? Why even bother showing up at all, when it’s You + Your iPhone, and I’m not even in that equation? What’s even more sad is that, after an argument, a consequence of what said device may cause, as I write this post and eventually post this on Facebook, said family member might stumble upon this, and they will be just two rooms away. Just as ludicrous is when two sibs text each other… when they’re just a wall apart, with no particular danger or circumstance requiring it.

Nobody even bothers talking anymore. People have used their iPhones as a crutch, to hide whatever awkward issues need to be addressed. There are a million things people want to say to each other, to voice feelings, frustrations, general angst about the state of affairs of the world.  Or sometimes, we just need someone to reach out to us. And what do the rest of us do? Reach for the nearest electronic device and avoid them altogether.  I could go on and say that tech companies now have a responsibility to advise people that using your iPhone should never, under any circumstances, be a substitute for any human interaction. Joke about it all you want: Sure, you can play games with your phone, do numerous cool apps, listen to music and what not.  But will you be able to carry on a meaningful relationship with it? That $400 model you hold in your hands right now will be thrown away like a used cheap $10 whore in a few years. Can you seriously say the same about family members?  With a TV, everyone can watch and no one has to be left out of the entertainment. Can you say the same about a handheld device? Will the rest of us in a room be able to partake of the entertainment that only one person is enjoying? That’s why they call it a personal handheld device. You enjoy it on your own time. It’s not a general handheld device, so no one else can enjoy it now, can they? Did you users stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re making the rest of us non-users feel awkward and inadequate, because we don’t have these toys?

Note that I haven’t said anything against these gizmos specifically. Because some of us, myself included, want one, too. We just can’t afford them. Bashing technology like this would be like me saying that guns are bad.  And, as that other cliche goes, “Guns don’t kill people, other people kill people.” Now replace that with “iPhones don’t cause socially-awkward moments, people using iPhones can cause socially-awkward moments.” I could go on a tangent about how I would use a handgun in a heartbeat, if it meant the difference between life and death. To a lesser degree, I would use an electronic device – if I could afford one – if it meant saving on time, energy and space, if it meant improving my life.

I will draw the line with technology, if it gets in the way of interpersonal relationships. Last I checked, I was still human – not some iPhone-flipping, gadget-playing, apps-adding, Facebook-posting machine. I may be socially-awkward sometimes, but even I won’t let that get in the way, if I can help it. The same thing goes for all of us. If we’re ever going to continue having families with good, strong, familial ties — don’t substitute love, affection and human interaction with toys – and that includes all electronic devices. They are tools for work and amusement, and maybe even another source of bonding. But if you can’t share them… leave them in your pocket, or your bags, where they belong. Use them wisely. And spend what rare time you have on Earth with your loved ones, talking about stuff that needs to be talked about.  You may not realize it, but they’re waiting. And they’ll love you more for it, more than any bright, shiny toy you can give them.

“Keep your toys, I don’t want them; what I do want you to do is talk to me.”

Copyright Anabasius 2009

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In an effort to cut non-essential expenses and reduce California’s massive $24 billion deficit, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a bold new plan this week: Phase out printed school textbooks in favor of digital learning aids by the end of the year. According to the Gubernator, “The Digital Textbooks initiative… paves the way for easier access to free digital texts in California’s schools. By frequently updating texts as they are developed, rather than continuing to teach from outdated textbooks, we will better prepare our students.”

This would be the first measure of its kind to be implemented in the United States.  While most in the Techie crowd have been drooling over last Monday’s rollout of Apple’s NextGen iPhone 3.0, some of us in the education/technology crossover are excited to hear this particular development. Online-based learning is a concept that’s been touted by everyone from Bill Gates to the President. Yet, it has been long overdue. While most new technology find their way into the mainstream via commercials interests onward, a major overhaul of an institution as deep-rooted as the educational system would normally take a generation of change. That is, unless change begins from the top-down. We are sitting on a critical junction of civilization, when the Old Ways of learning and working are finding its limitations, forcing us to the New.  By all accounts, the vision of a true 21st Century classroom should have happened years ago; yet resistance to it – active or passive – has prevented its fruition. Until recently, most politicians have understood very little of technology’s true potential, and have foregone investing in future generations, while allowing their industrial supporters to create red herrings such as railway connections. The railways, in turn, have been used less and less over time, as fewer people are commuting to work these days. In other states, budget concerns have made any discussion of digitally-enhanced learning to be a non-issue.

We have come full circle on budget concerns… here in California, at least.  Forced to think up ways to slash expenses, The Big Gube reviewed everything from cuts to HIV clinics to welfare, and what not.  I’m no big fan of The Gube, but this time I’ll give a tip of the hat to him, or whoever in his cabinet was bright enough to think outside the box. Make no mistake about it, Schwarzenegger isn’t doing this necessarily as a press-ops to boost morale, or to win over the Green crowd. Environmental critics got it all wrong; nowhere in his address does he ever mention anything about “going green” and reducing our carbon footprint. While it’s nice to save a few trees, the rationale behind the initiative is anything but. Neither does he specifically mention anything about the obsolescence of traditional learning/teaching methods, and wisely so. For the most part, his remarks about the initiative took on a broad, lofty encompassing of California leading the way in technology – and after this becomes reality, in education.  The less glamorous parts were about drastic cost-cutting, in a state whose budget is now on life-support. So instead of the “Judgment Day” scenario that we had been bracing ourselves for, The Gube pulled off a semi-coup that inspires some, if not all Californians.

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The Gubernator in Calablackless… whoops, I meant Calabasas (haha)

That’s the Digital Textbook Initiative for you – on Paper.  How it becomes reality is another story. There have been doubts raised about the actual costs that will ultimately be involved. Many respondents to various news feeds have made the assumption that laptops would be involved. Well, for those of you not keeping up to date with the Tech News,  shame on you! Ever heard of the Kindle eBook reader from Amazon? At the moment, the latest generation reading device has an average retail cost of about $300. Not cheap, but still not as expensive as a laptop (around $500-$600 a pop, plus costs for software and periphs). As a former educator, I am not keen on having students use laptops; don’t you know people play games and hang around on Facebook? A Kindle reader limits what the laziest student can get away with. Also, when eBook reading devices are mass-produced, manufacturing costs would be reduced significantly, which would more than justify their existence in schools.  The biggest perk of digital textbooks would be that they save a bundle in printing costs, something that has caused outrage all the way to higher education. Since updates on older editions could simply be downloaded, it could easily cut educational costs by as much as three-quarters off!  If, say, $100 million was spent on textbooks all over California public schools, use of digital textbooks in schools could result in hypothetical savings of up to $75 million per year, after the first 2-3 years. That sure as heck is enough to feel excitement and joy!

Not everyone will be excited about this plan, though. First of all, brick-and-mortar printing and publishing companies will be among the hardest hit.  Apparently, Pearson and some others already have an online presence, so they won’t die out so soon. The bigger deal out of this, however, is that with printing headaches no longer an obstacle, smaller indie publishers with quality material would make the market for online textbooks more competetive. It would also encourage technical writers to bypass the normally cumbersome evaluation process that accompanies publishing a school-worthy textbook, the same way musicians now market directly to their audiences.

How this impacts traditional teaching, on the other hand, is the $500 million dollar question. As has often been discussed in forums (and is beyond the scope of this article), person-to-person teaching has, and always will be, a priceless and integral part of the educational process that cannot be replaced. Just because one can read the instructions on how to change the oil in one’s car or balance one’s checkbook (touche!) – that doesn’t mean the work will be done right.  There are plenty of intangibles that come with both (as with a lot of other tasks). Raw information alone should never, ever be a substitute.  Ultimately, despite all the digitizing of our books and manuals, we must never forget that Technology is not a god to prostrate ourselves to, but a tool that we must leverage in order to improve our lives. Here’s looking forward to a New  Age in Education.

Here are a few related links for further reading:

Schwarzenegger: Digital Textbooks Can Save Money, Improve Learning

Leading the Nation Into a Digital Textbook Future

CA Schools See Distant Digital Future for Textbooks

Schools May Copy Schwarzenegger & Junk Their Textbooks

Copyright Anabasius 2009