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Seeing Past Today

Thursday, 30. June 2016 20:30

A while ago a friend sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal.  The article suggested that business managers should encourage team members to take notes by hand, rather than on devices.  This advice was based on a study of college students that demonstrated that those who took notes by hand retained information better than those who took notes on a laptop or tablet.  The article was, of course, not sent to me to encourage good business practices, but a good-natured jab.  I’m used to these joyous demonstrations that technological tools are not all that.

After reading the article, I replied that I was not surprised in the least by these results.  College aged students today probably received the worst training ever in using technology as an effective learning tool.  They were taught to use the machine as a straight substitute for pen and pad and to take notes in the same way one would do so in a notebook.  Although this might work sometimes, informal note taking requires greater speed and flexibility than are easily provided with a keyboard-based device, and stylus inputs are still somewhat limited.  The students working with keyboards were probably focusing more on typing than anything else.  Note taking on a device is a different skill from note taking with paper and pen, and these students never learned it.

Larger than this, however, is my frustration with this type of article that makes blanket suggestions that traditional tools are best and new methods aren’t all they promise.  This is the type of article that will be half-remembered and trotted out on a dozen campuses to argue against adoption of new tools.  In the minds of many readers, this is the end of the story.

The term I have made up for this type of thinking is  the Fallacy of the Eternal Today. The moment captured in this study becomes frozen in the mind of a reader as a permanent reality, not recognizing that the use of new tools is evolutionary and adaptive.  The retention based on different note taking styles is clear…for this group of students today, but it is far from clear that it will always be that way.  If we make future decisions based on current limitations, we are tied into an eternal today.

This is not a new phenomenon. Early models of the automobile were not as fast and were less reliable than horse drawn vehicles. I’m sure someone sent an auto manufacturer articles about college students who got to class faster riding horses than in cars.  If we had believed that the current reality would be true forever, we would have a radically different world.

Another area where the Fallacy of the Eternal Today is present is in early assessments of e-readers. When I talk about the inevitability of electronic books becoming the norm, there is usually someone who points to a study somewhere that shows that some people retained less when reading an electronic book than a retro (paper) book. Whether this is true or not is somewhat irrelevant to me, as my question is, “Will it always be this way?” Reading an electronic book is a very different experience from reading a paper book, and our eyes, hands, and brains are still adapting to this new medium. Today’s truth is not tomorrow’s destiny.

This is not to say that critical assessment of new tools isn’t important, for amidst the true, transformative innovations there is a lot of hokum. But we should not limit our vision to only what is immediately in our sight.  Rather we should ask three questions:

  • Are the limitations of the technology tool based on lack of practice, lack of familiarity, or lack of development?
  • Is the tool primarily limited by current hardware or software?
  • Do the limitations of the technology tool reassure us that traditional, comfortable tools are better?

If the answers to any of these questions is yes, then we may be falling in to the Fallacy of the Eternal Today.  The paradox of education is that we must use the means of today to prepare students for tomorrow, and educators cannot be so tied to present limitations as to see future possibilities.

As always, I welcome your opinions.

Oh, and keep those articles coming.


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New Eyes

Tuesday, 7. June 2016 20:50

OK, this is the post where I finally go over the edge and alienate everyone who has ever read this blog.  What I’m going to talk about is a repudiation of much of my youth and a horrible attack on much of what I have held sacred. But as painful as it is to say these things, I have to “speak what [I] think now in hard words.” (Emerson)

Let’s start with my credentials.  I’m a bookstore guy.  I put myself through college working at Brentano’s Bookstore in South Coast Plaza.  On my application to work there, I cited my love of bookstores in general with the plea, “I have ALWAYS wanted to work in this store!” During my interview, the woman who was to be my manager and friend for many years asked why I was willing to give up a well-paying job in a drug store for a much more modest paying job at a bookstore.  Years later she would tell me that she remembered my plaintive cry, “Have you ever worked in a drug store?”

Working in a bookstore was the most remarkable professional, social, and personal experience of my (admittedly short to that point) life, and in many ways formed me beyond any other influence.  I loved the job, loved the people, and loved the books.  It was such a pleasure to spend full days sorting, stacking and stocking books, talking to people about what they had read and wanted to read (sometimes working hard to conceal an eye roll), and reading. Each of the employees had a “library card” to take out any book for personal reading (I never knew if this was a company policy or a generous violation by our manager…anyway, I’m sure that the statute of limitations has run out) so I could read any book and as many books as I wanted.  If you purchased a novel from Brentano’s in the 80s (well, a good novel), it is likely that I read it first.

Long after I moved on from Brentano’s (and Brentano’s sadly closed its doors, harbinger of the rest of the industry) I still took refuge in bookstores.  After Brentano’s closed, I would visit Rizzoli’s or Scribners (both gone now), spending hours looking at books and listening to music (this was before the bookstore-coffee shop became popular…I would have spent even more time if this were available). In recent years I’ve frequented the local Barnes and Noble semi-regularly, enjoying the feeling of being around books and other readers.

But somewhere in the last few years my relationship with printed text has changed.  After finding the first few ebooks I read to be challenging to navigate, I started to fall into the flow of reading on my iPad.  I loved having a book with me whenever I wanted, marking and annotating text without defacing the paper (and finding these easily), and going beyond the book looking up definitions and other references on the web.  The last time I read a paper book I found it cumbersome and limited.  I stopped buying books.  In fact, when I would go to Barnes and Noble, it was only to find books to download.  But I still loved being in the store, even if it was only a showcase for my real virtual store (oxymoronic, but accurate).  It was a nostalgic visit to a house where I grew up but didn’t live in any more.

That is until last week, having a chunk of time between appointments, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble, seeking the familiar reassurance from the shelves.  However, as I walked through the cases, glancing at titles and familiar authors, I saw something I hadn’t before, and it hit me like a trade paperback between the eyes.

Friends and fellow readers, I saw WASTE.

One of the dirty little secrets of all retail and particular to bookstores is that far less than half the books that are received are ever sold (and this number is inflated by best sellers).  Look across a shelf of perhaps 30 novels in the fiction section maybe one will sell, maybe two (unless one is The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird…thanks to schools, those always sell).  The others will sit there for a time and then (unless they somehow achieve classic status) they will be returned to a publisher.  For every box of 100 books received, a box of 60-80 is returned.  Mass market paperbacks (the conventional small size) are not even returned.  The cover is ripped off an returned and the book is discarded (I still have a sizable library of “strips” as we called them, retrieved from the trash bin…once again, I think the statute of limitations has run out).

The model is built on a twentieth (or pre-twentieth) century concept of retail, have everything someone might want so you have the one or two things that they do want. This concept of “disposable overhead” was a necessity for a completely physical marketplace but seems less and less practical in a digital world.  My Barnes and Nobel may have several hundred thousand titles, but Amazon has over a million titles, and the ability to control production and limit waste can increase this number over time.  There is no practical reason why every book every published shouldn’t be available for instant download (I know there are challenges of rights and legalities, but these are technical, not practical details).  Far fewer physical books are shipped to where they are not wanted only to be shipped back and destroyed (and recycling of paper is not a zero sum game). More books are available to more people more readily.

However, as with most digital conversions, there is a cost that comes with these benefits.  The loss of the bookstore will indeed be a loss of many cultural touchstones, only some of which can be replaced. The feeling of browsing, touching and looking may find replacement in the Amazon site, but it won’t be the same.  The recommendations of a knowledgable bookseller may be replaced by Goodreads recommendations, but it loses the human touch.  People can read in a Starbucks, but it won’t be the same as reading in a Starbucks in a bookstore.

I guess the question is whether reducing the waste and impracticality of the current bookstore is worth these trade offs. During my last visit (I’m not sure that it will truly be my last visit, but who knows?) for the first time, the scale tipped in the other direction.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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Snapping into Place

Tuesday, 3. May 2016 22:51


Millennials and Xers need read no further, unless you want to be entertained by Boomer ineptitude.





“Why don’t you try Snapchat?” a friend said to me, “It’s a great way to connect with friends.”

My initial reaction was hesitancy, Snapchat? wasn’t that the thing that kids used for all sorts of unseemly purposes? Snapchat? How can I take on another social media platform when I can’t keep up with tools that I already use? Snapchat?

But then I thought about all the times I’ve encouraged teachers and adminstrators to try something new, and all the times that I tried to help them past their fears and hesitancy, promoting the importance of our participation in the digital revolution if we are to retain our relevance. I’ve stood in front of groups preaching the gospel of safe social media.  What kind of a hypocrite am I if I’m not willing to try something new?

So I downloaded the Snapchat app, created an account, added friends, and almost immediately hit a wall.

For those who have not used Snapchat, it’s basically a photo and video sharing app. Selected friends or groups receive pictures and short video clips. There is a photo editor to customize the photographs, and a chat feature.  Along with this is the ability to create a “story,” a set of pictures and videos that can be seen by all of the followers.  The signature feature of the app is impermance. A receiver views pictures and videos once or twice and then thy are removed from the phone (I know there are ways to save these, but that’s not the spirit of the app), likewise, chats and comments are removed once they have been read.  The clips in the “story” stay there for 24 hours and then disappear.

I found the app terribly confusing.  What do the different screens and controls do?  I couldn’t find things I sent, and more than once I missed something sent to me.  The “one shot and then it’s gone” aspect exacerbated every mistake.  Bigger than this, I had no sense of what this tool was or how I could use it. I considered asking my daughter (to her utter horror) how to use the platform.  Ultimately, though, I surrendered to the modern Mecca of all professional development, YouTube. I watched a video that explained all the screens and controls, but most of these I’d figured out already through trial and error.  What it didn’t answer was why I should use the platform and what I could do with it.  I became certain that Snapchat was going to be added to the dust pile of social media that wasn’t for me.

But this morning during a ride, it suddenly occurred to me that I could take pictures and videos during the ride and people could see them in order on my story.


Suddenly the whole function became clear to me and this unweildy gadget suddenly became a tool.  My whole approach to learning and using the controls was directed to the things I wanted to do.  My learning curve jumped, and my skill (though not great yet) improved.  Now I’m looking forward to finding new abilities and uses.

So, why do I tell this story? Not to encourage everyone to use Snapchat, and not to illustrate my ineptitude (there are plenty of examples of this on these pages). I think this experience says something about training.  It’s easy to show people how to do things, it’s harder (but more vital) to show them why.  Without vision, a tool is a gadget, and without motivation learning is just so many tricks.

As always I welcome your comments.

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Stepping Away

Wednesday, 9. March 2016 19:43

Image result for taking a breakYes, yes, yes…I know it has been a month and a half since I posted here.  Frankly it has been just about as long since I posted on Twitter (probably shouldn’t have said this, everyone probably just assumed I was posting at another time).  I have been a bad media socialite.

I don’t know about you, but I occasionally go into a funk where I just don’t feel like sharing or creating.  Stuff goes on in our non-digital lives, and it feels like too much to contain in words, and certainly too much to share.  Sometimes I just get tired, and the blog and Twitter just feel like two more mouths crying for my time.

The good thing is that I always seem to eventually come out of it.  I get an idea for a blog post (hopefully better than this) and I get excited about writing.  I open my Twitter stream and something invites or provokes me into response, and I enjoy the feeling of connection all over again.  I haven’t lost faith in the value of these venues. I’m just winded, and I can’t swim in the ocean right now.

The bad part of this is that the world of social media is very much a world of the now.  If you aren’t currently posting, you don’t exist in the zeitgeist and memories are very short.  That great article or hilarious post I wrote two months ago has no bearing on today’s readers.  You take a break and you start from scratch building your network of followers again.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, beyond a plea for understanding of my absence.  I know that I can’t be alone in this.  Social media exhaustion is only one side effect of the ‘always on” digital culture.  While the reactionary response is to condemn this world (“you kids, with your iPhones, and your Facesbook, and your digitals”), I am more inclined to see this as the individual self-adjusting to the challenges.  We need “Stepped Away” signs to post in our digital space and the patience and care to accept (and maybe even encourage) these breaks in others.  But, of course, no one will probably read this, since it has been so long since I posted.

As Always, I welcome your comments.


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Predictions vs Trends: The Science of NOT Knowing What’s Coming Next!

Friday, 8. January 2016 23:13

Note:  I had the great pleasure to guest on the show Education Talk Radio with Larry Jacobs to discuss this article and other things.  The recording can be found here

To say that the world of education today is complicated would be a radical understatement.  Administrators, classroom teachers, and parents struggle together (and sometimes struggle against one another) through a morass of opportunities, pitfalls, and choices.  Under the banner of “Twenty-first Century Learning” (a title that gets less impressive each year) schools struggle to find ways to effectively integrate digital resources into the classroom and curriculum.  With the purest of intentions schools sail on a sea of murky options, STEM (STEAM, STREAM), Blended Leaning, Flipped Classroom, 1×1, and at every turn there are choices, choices, choices, each with a price tag, a time commitment, and a hoped for outcome.  Standing on a precipice, the educator is pressed to “Choose wisely.”

And to some extent it is a deck that is stacked against us, for there are no correct choices and no right paths.  Most digital tools have a short time of usefulness and then they are quickly tossed aside.  Outcomes of new instruction models (unless they are measured on immediate, limited value, standardized testing) don’t show true effectiveness for years.  In a competitive marketplace it is impossible to select a product or program without being criticized by proponents of the alternative.  The only comfort in making these choices is that to do nothing in a changing environment is equally hazardous.  The future is coming, and it will happen through you or to you.

One way to approach digital choices in school and classroom is to stop listening to (and making) predictions and focusing instead on trends.  Predictions for the future of digital education are based on the definitive information of today and indicate a clear path.  The problem with this is that this path is often inflexible and sometimes wrong.  Trend analysis recognizes areas of focus and develops ongoing and flexible strategy to address these.  An auto manufacturer may predict that there will be flying cars by 2015 and put all resources toward that goal.  While this prediction may come true, other factors might come into play that either surpass this goal or go in another direction.  Perhaps the introduction of another dimension to automotive travel doesn’t increase reliability, dependability, or safety.  On the other hand, a second manufacturer might note that people respond well to greater automation in cars and spend its resources discovering and following this trend.  This manufacturer has a far greater range of actions and a far greater opportunity for success.  Predictions often lead down blind alleys; trend analysis gives full flexibility to recognize and adapt to a changing future

The same too often proves true for schools; a limited prediction blocks the larger trend.  One key trend that is seen in the digital world of education and in general is the move from greater and greater mobility.  From the enormous machines of the dawn of computing to desktop machines, to laptops, to tablets and phones, devices have grown smaller, more powerful, and portable.  This trend has huge ramifications on all aspects of classroom instruction, and immense pitfalls for lack of flexible planning. School A may decide that the FLIM FLAM MICROTABLET is a truly revolutionary device and predict that this device will be the foundation of their program for the next decade.  While this prediction might prove true, it is equally possible that another device may come to surpass it, and the school is locked into a less effective option.  School B may identify the trend of mobile individual computing for students and develop a strategy to consistently find the best option to meet this need.  In trend approaches, no plans are tied to model or brand, but to essential function.

One does not have to look far to find a number of similar trends in education brought about by the digital revolution.  The textbook across the desk has a clear shelf life, as the economic realities of publishing will push textbook companies off paper and into digital products.  Early predictions saw no further than a digital reproduction of a paper book, pictures of pages. However, if we follow the trend of a new textbook, there are opportunities to envision products that transcend the “words and pictures” limitations of paper books to integrate sounds, videos, links, and even adaptable instruction and assessment.  The same could be said about a paper-less environment (less paper, not paperless).  With the growing number of classes with individual devices, the medium of paper for the transmission of data seems a wasteful and impractical choice.  However, many can point to the bold predictions in the early 1990s of a true paperless future were mocked by the ensuing glut of paper use as personal printers quadrupled consumption.  The trend that we will find practical alternatives to paper use allows us the flexibility to do what’s best and even to envision new applications before unseen (and certainly unpredicted).

Similar trends can be observed (and predictions made) in every area of instruction.  It is clear there will be new instruction models and new delivery systems.  It is clear that student work will take new forms to meet the abilities of tools and the needs of the time.  It is clear that social media will play an important role in human interaction inside and outside the classroom.  As educators plan, these trends (as they are today) must be integrated into action.  Predictions for our digital future may be right or wrong in their direction, but trend analysis can always provide direction as we sail over choppy or smooth seas toward the horizon.

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Twenty-four Days of Blogging, Day 24: Love and Joy come to you, and a glad Christmas too!

Thursday, 24. December 2015 16:15

On Christmas night all Christians sing

To hear the news the Angels bring
News of great joy, news of great mirth
News of our merciful king's birth

These are the opening lines of the Sussex Carol, another wonderful, seldom-heard traditional Christmas carol, but as I close another year of this exercise I'm not simply pointing out one more great thing that you all should listen to immediately (though you should). I had this playing in my (wireless) headphones the other day and one word stood out from all the rest, mirth. It's not a word we use a lot (in fact, all I can picture when I say mirth is Carol Kane in The Muppet Movie saying, “Yeth?”), but I think it is going to be my Christmas wish for all of us this year.

It is important that the writer combined joy and mirth in the same line to show that they are related but not identical (OK, some may say that he just needed something to rhyme with birth). Mirth is a subset of joy, all mirth is joy, but not all joy is mirth. Mirth is the most childlike and boundless face of joy, completely guileless, completely self contained, and completely without self awareness. I picture a child giggling as the face of mirth, overwhelmed by happiness, maybe not even recognizing the reason why.

In these later years mirth becomes a stranger in our lives. We still have joy, but in its cooler faces. We feel satisfaction, which is the antithesis of mirth because it is completely tied to reasonable rationale. We feel ironic amusement that often borders on gallows humor (Donald Trump). We feel Shadenfreude as we watch our real and imagined enemies encounter obstacles. As I examine the past year, I think the joy I have felt most often has been relief that something worked or some bad thing didn't happen. While all of these have their place, all of them are limited and lack the expansiveness of mirth.

So as we move into Christmas (and if you follow the Christian calendar Christmas season doesn't start until tonight) I hope that we all can be given many moments of mirth. Let us all let go of self-consciousness and feel bloody happy that it's Christmas, that it's Friday, that it's life. If there is a gift of Christmas that we all need and one that could benefit the whole world, it would be the gift of mirth. It's too big to wrap (almost too big to feel) but there is enough of it to go around and fit under everyone's tree and to fill everyone's house.

Merry Christmas…let there be peace.



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Twenty-four Days of Blogging, Day 23: We’ll be good the whole year through, always looking forward to…

Thursday, 24. December 2015 4:56

By tradition tomorrow's post is dedicated to my Christmas wish for readers, so this penultimate entry is where I talk about the process (shall I say, the journey?) of writing twenty-two posts (yes, I know there was Black Thursday when I had..and wrote…nothing).

As usual, the posts are best classified by their lack of a coherent theme. Of the twenty two posts, seven can roughly be classified about eduction or technology, several were about Christmas carols, a few were about weird Christmas traditions, others were uncategorizable. If there was a theme it was the oddities of “traditional” Christmas. While I enjoy every part of the Christmas I celebrate, it is the height of arrogance to expect that others have or should celebrate it in the same way. Though I have never sent Christmas greetings with dead birds on them, it isn't wrong that someone else has (and I have seriously searched for a caganer). There is no war on Christmas because Christmas has never been an organized side.

Relative to the other years, this has been the most difficult. Finding new topics on a daily basis gets harder and harder. I think in future years I need to organize around a theme, but I have 341 days to figure out what to do next year.

One of the challenges year round with this setting a tone that works for me and for the readers. I am incapable of writing a classic “tech blog” or “education blog” because though both of these topics are fascinating to me, somehow it never feels enough. On the other hand I don't want this to become overly confessional, and I don't want to talk too much about my experiences unless they illustrate some broader point to me or to others. So if I have gone too much in one direction or another, forgive me in the spirit of Christmas. I do this exercise at this time of the year every year because there is something about these days that brings reality, for good or for bad, into greater focus. In Tracey Thorn's wonderful song “Tinsel and Lights” she has the comment about Christmas time, “Something almost true was in the air.” I feel and try to capture this truth during these twenty-four days, and if it's rough (and it feels pretty rough this year) I hope never to drift into maudlin self-pity.

I am always grateful for the unexplainable, wonderful people who read this blog regularly. Though comments were down this year, probably a combination of topics and the Byzantine security system I've built around commenting (after hearing from a friend about this, I'm lowering the walls), actually more people than usual told me that they read some or all of the posts. If you read one or all, you are a treasure to me.

So wrap up tomorrow, and then we'll see where we go next…



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Twenty-four Days of Blogging, Day 22: A Noiseless, Patient Reader

Tuesday, 22. December 2015 17:45

During these few days away (or during any trip), I usually wake up first, and I take my iPad to some common area where I can find coffee and a comfortable spot to read. In this hotel there is a nice lounge where the various guests gather for continental breakfast (which does not resemble the cuisine of any continent I know). this setting provides me (as an inveterate people watcher), with everything I could ask in a morning perch.

Though I enjoy looking at groupings and speculating upon languages and relations, my eye is always drawn to loners like me who are reading books. And I must confess that while I don’t eavesdrop on conversations, I will go out of my way to position myself to see what books these people are reading. It’s the same on airplanes. I’m not one who is comfortable making conversation with strangers, but when someone is reading a book, whether on paper or pad, if I can’t see the title I can’t resist asking what book it is.

What is it about reading that creates a kinship and an intimacy that I wouldn’t feel in any other circumstances? It would seem that reading in a room of conversing strangers would be the most isolating and anti-social position, yet I feel somewhat entitled to know what everyone in my vicinity is reading. To be fair, I am happy to share what I’m reading; in fact, I enjoy being asked. By individually settling down with books, it is as if we almost tacitly join a second community with deeper bonds than small talk.

There are (at least) three reasons why I want to know what people around me are reading. On the most superficial level, i suppose, I want to hear about potential books for my future. Even though I have a glut of books clogging my Goodreads “To Read” list and my ipad, I am always searching the horizon for that white whale of the next amazing book. Though I read many good books, I seldom come upon an AMAZING book that carries me from start to finish in giddy ecstasy along the way, books like Corelli,s Mandolin, The Night Circus, or Midnight’s Children. Though I have seldom found a great book in this casual sharing, my quest continues.

At a more fundamental level, I look at a person’s book to discover what kind of person is in the room with me. For a reader, there is no greater identifier than what someone else is reading, and exchanging titles is basically equivalent to dogs sniffing each others’ behinds (I must be clear here, I never sniff anyone’s behind). It will surprise no one to know that I’m pretty judgey about what I hear, lots of schlock out there. Usually I am disappointed when I hear about a new romance or anything Grisham, but occasionally I hear a few gems. I get excited when I hear someone reading a book that I have read and enjoyed. Likewise, I’m sensitive about the books I read for much the same reason. Other’s mothers encouraged them to wear clean underwear in case they get in an accident, my mother reminded me to have a good book with me.

Finally there is a sense of connection with the broader community of readers. I keep thinking of Whitman’s poem:

A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.


And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

Reaching out to find what is being read in my vicinity is a way of launching filament that invisibly connects me to a world of reading. I may never (and most likely won’t) speak to these readers, but they become part of my universe of understanding.

Anyway, I saw a woman reading this morning, and after clandestinely getting a cup of coffee in eyesight of her book, I discovered that she was reading the Bible. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed, not because it isn’t good that she was reading the Bible, but that connecting part of me would have preferred to see a novel, an AMAZING one.

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Twenty-four Days of Blogging, Day 21: “And the mountains in reply, Echo back their joyous strains”

Monday, 21. December 2015 18:49

Sometimes when I see new tech gadgets, I have an instant, visceral reaction to them of either blind avarice, or repulsion. However, when I first saw one of the new hot products this year, I have to admit that I didn't know how I felt about it. Rather, I really wanted it, and I didn't know how I felt about the fact that I wanted it.

The product is the Amazon Echo. Before I start, I need to say that the device is out of stock and will not be available until after Christmas. I also need to say that unlike too many other things, the Echo did not fall into my ”One-click Compusion,” so everything I'm saying is based on reading the description and reviews and watching videos.

The device is a black cylinder, about 10” tall, that sits near you on in any room of the house (to respond to my earlier blog about cables, the device is wireless, except for power). The Echo is voice activated by the “wake word” ALEXA (I wondered what would happen in a house with a person named Alexa, but apparently you can change the wake word to AMAZON…if you have children, Alexa and Amazon, do not buy this product). It costs $179 (once again, it is not available at the time of this writing) and there is no I subscription fee.

Echo responds to voice commands to perform a variety of tasks. It can respond to questions, much like SIRI or similar apps, about weather, traffic, or trivia. It can play music, news, or audiobooks from your Amazon library (always a financial tie-in) or other sources. It can control appliances throughout your house, and you can use it to restock staple products (again through Amazon).

My first suspicion was that it probably wouldn't work well. Voice interpretation is still pretty iffy on many devices. I have found myself screaming at SIRI when she repeatedly (and purposely, I believe) mishears my commands. However all reviews and demonsations indicate that Echo works very well almost out of the box and that it performs its target tasks admirably well.

Of course the more fundamental concern is about robots taking over our lives. Rather than turning on music, from my stereo, or running upstairs to readjust the thermostat (cheating here, I can already do this from my phone), or looking up information, or talking to others, I'm speaking to a device, a device that has intimidating controls over much of my world. It is not longer a long jump to see the headlines about people killed by their Echos when the device kept turning up the heat or misheard peacemaker as pacemaker. “Open, the podbay door, HAL, I mean ALEXA”

On the other hand, and I realize that I'm going to be tagged a total nerd here, THIS IS WHAT THEY HAD IN STAR TREK! There are few of us who saw this ability who didn't dream of a day when we could simply ask and get needed information, entertainment, food (I realize the Echo doesn't do food). Sometimes I would love to simply say, “ALEXA, music please, Leonard Cohen,” or “ALEXA, want to use the jacuzzi in an hour, turn on the heater.” (I don't have a jacuzzi now, so I suppose I have to get one of those first).

And $179 isn't all that much…and it's right here.

I'd better stop now, or I'll push that one-click button

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Twenty-four Days of Blogging, Day 20, Just the Right Notes

Monday, 21. December 2015 3:41

Long day traveling up the coast for a couple of days in Cambria, but I wanted to share a joy of Christmas that was originally intended for children that I didn't discover until I was an adult. “Brother Heinrich's Christmas” is a short story with orchestra, choir, and narration composed by John Rutter. There are several recordings available, one cane be found on YouTube here.

The story is about a young monk who works in the monetary wine press with his companion, the donkey Sigismund (played by a bassoon). Henirich, who is also the choir director, is tasked with writing a new carol for the Christmas celebration. After lengthy challenges, he composes the melody of In Dulcie Jubilo with the help of an angel choir and Sigismund.

It's a wonderful Christmas fable, illustrating the importance of everyone, with beautiful music. Play it for your children, or listen to it yourself.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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