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A Handy Guide for Being the Worst Computer User Ever

From your friendly support technician.

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Next Nature: Third Life

third life

Newly discovered blog Next Nature mashes up cybernetics, virtual worlds and social networking, and introduces us to Third Life.

Grace Hopper Call for Participation

The 2008 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is now accepting submissions for participation, including research papers, panels, and workshops. They're also looking for volunteer bloggers (text and video), Twitterers, and note-takers for the conference, which will happen in Colorado in October. I'm thinking I might be able to attend this year, so I'm (virtually) jumping into preparations full-force.

MacHeads

"I've never knowingly slept with a Windows user. Ever. Ever. That would never, ever happen." - Violet Blue

MacHeads: The Movie.

Machead the movie

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Blackberry Women & Technology Awards

Who would you guess to be the photographer responsible for a new special exhibition helping to celebrate women in technology - why, Bryan Adams, of course!

Yes, that Bryan Adams, Canadian and soft-rock legend. Apparently he's now a photographer. Who knew.

Anyway, his photo collection is part of the Blackberry Women & Technology Awards 2008, and while it seems nicely done and features many worthy women, none of them are really related to technology, so I'm a bit confused as to why it's included in this project. Not to mention the fact the collection is titled "Modern Muses, " since muses are traditionally rather submissive and objectified figures who are noted for inspiring others to do things, not for doing things themselves. Not exactly the best choice for a title honoring female achievements.

I don't quite get it. But if you're so inclined, you can nominate worthy women in tech you know over at their website.

Learning the OLPC Computer

When I recently posted about toddlers and computers, I got a lot of great feedback, more than anything else I've posted, and some encouragement to keep posting about the issues of kids and technology.

Fine with me, because that happens to be a special interest of mine. A couple of years ago, I spent a summer as an instructor at a technology camp, and since I mostly taught the youngest group of kids, ages 7-10, I had plenty of opportunities to see how children interact with and use computers. Without a doubt, the biggest lesson I took from it is that kids are much, much smarter with technology than we give them credit for. All they really need is the equipment and a push in the right direction. The rest they can figure out for themselves, and they generally will surpass your expectations.

Example: this BBC article about letting a nine-year-old test drive the first One Child Per Laptop computer in Britain:

I had returned from Nigeria not entirely convinced that the XO laptop was quite as wonderful an educational tool as its creators claimed.

I felt that a lot of effort would be needed by hard-pressed teachers before it became more than just a distracting toy for the children to mess around with in class.

But Rufus has changed my mind.

With no help from his Dad, he has learned far more about computers than he knew a couple of weeks ago, and the XO appears to be a more creative tool than the games consoles which occupy rather too much of his time.

As worthy as the OLPC project is, there's also the perfectly valid point that there are plenty of young people here in "First World" nations who still don't have access to computers. Next post on the topic, I'll suggest some options for them.

Tech Ignorance

From the Tech Liberation Front:

Indeed, I think about all this every time I attend a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on tech policy and listen to lawmakers regale each other with stories about when they bought their first transistor radio or black-and-white television. Then, without missing a beat, they make jokes about not ever using the Internet or computers but that they have staffers or young family members who do and keep them informed. And yet, despite this stunning unfamiliarity with all things high-tech, they then move right on to pass reams of regulations governing the Internet and digital economy.

I have very much the same problems with people who laugh about their "computer illiteracy." Since every job I've had has encompassed some degree of technical support, I've run into that attitude a lot. Not every user needs to be an expert, but flaunting your inability to use a machine you depend on daily in the course of your work seems ridiculous. No one laughs about not being able to read, do they? But to see this type of behavior in lawmakers and corporate decision-makers? (Remember BB's story last week about the Universal CEO who basically said that no one in the record industry understands technology and they don't know what to do with it when it comes to music distribution?) By making a joke out of not understanding technology, the real problems of how to handle it go unsolved.

Toddlers & Computers

Here's my personal recommendation to all parents, aunts/uncles, educators, etc. who might possibly consider buying one of those cute play laptops for toddlers in their lives this holiday season: don't.

Even if I haven't already long been of the opinion we adults generally underestimate what children are capable of understanding, it's a fact that kids today are incredibly technologically sophisticated. Chances are, they, even at age three, are used to seeing the adults around them with notebook computers, smart phones, PDA's and other gadgets. They'll know and resent it if you try to give them fake versions of these, which is exactly what this NY Times article (via Marginal Revolution) says.

Instead of toys, I suggest giving them a go on a real computer. It doesn't have to be fancy - you can get one for cheap or maybe even free on Craigslist or Freecycle. But considering a how huge a role computers and technology are going to play in the lives of the next generation, doesn't encouraging them to learn and experiment with the real thing make sense?

If you're worried about damage to the computer (even if it is a cheap or free one), there are programs like AlphaBaby and BabySplat that let babies and toddlers have fun pounding on keyboards without hurting files, and also PixelWhimsy, which is slightly more advanced, but still allows a comfortable platform for children to understand how computer input works. There's also Toddler Keys, which disables all the potentially dangerous keys and gives kids free rein on the others. All of those are free downloads, by the way, the first one for Mac and the others for Windows. There are also scores of worthwhile educational games (take the little one to the Apple Store to test drive some for free, or try the library), and websites toddlers can participate in with a little help.

You don't need the fake, expensive toys that you'll have no use for in a few years. The kids in your life are good enough for the real thing.

LitKicks on Amazon's Kindle

I read a lot of technology blogs. A LOT. I've therefore read a lot of smart tech people discussing the pros and cons of the new e-book reading device, Kindle, over the last day or so. But the best, most to-the-point Kindle consideration I read wasn't on a tech blog - it was on a book blog:

... I don't understand why both Levy and James Patterson aren't emphasizing the big gigantic flaw in the Kindle sales pitch. The device costs $400. Nobody will buy it for that price. I really don't see what more needs to be said about this.

... Forget standalone devices. Consumers want their devices to serve multiple purposes - camera, music player, internet browser, phone, organizer - and that's the way we're going to want to read electronic books. If you want to succeed in the e-book business, find ways to make full-length books look good on existing high-end devices (iPhones, Blackberries). Work with manufacturers of lower-end devices (cheaper music players, video players, cell phones) to find ways to make full-length books look good on future versions of these devices too. And then, most importantly ... use the transition to the new format as a chance to reach new readers with new pricing structures.

Sounds good to me.

Intellectual Privilege

Wow - Lessig points to a book-in-progress by Tom Bell about "intellectual property" - or, as he is redefining it, intellectual privilege:

I here offer a third view of copyright. I largely agree with my friends on the left that copyright represents not so much a form of property as it does a policy device designed to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (as the Constitution puts it). I thus call copyright a form of intellectual privilege.

Like my friends on the right, however, I hold our common law rights in very high regard. Hence my complaint against copyright: it violates the rights we would otherwise enjoy at common law to peaceably enjoy the free use our throats, pens, and presses. That is not to say that copyright is per se unjustified. We can excuse facial violations of our common law rights, such as the takings effectuated by taxation or the restraints imposed by antitrust law, as the costs of obtaining a greater good. But it does mean that copyright qualifies, at best, as a necessary evil.

When someone can sum up what I myself think about copyright in a couple of paragraphs like that, I can't wait to read his finished book.

PodCamp Ohio

Looks like a movement is underway to hold PodCamp Ohio here in the fair city of Columbus next June. I'm game. Swing on over to the site, or join the Google group to pitch in.

Are Women Too Smart for Science?

Although it's over a year old now, I just ran across (thanks to Reddit) this article about women in science from Philip Greenspun - the hypothesis of which is that there aren't more women in science because science as a profession sucks and more women are smart enough to be able to realize that. Men, apparently, are just stubbornly stupid adolescents who stick with things even if they aren't economically or emotionally successful.

So, what's wrong with this picture? Simple - it's still making stereotypical assumptions and gross generalizations of what men and women are like. It has the same problem that fired Harvard president Larry Summers, whom the article quotes, did - it assumes that women are naturally a certain way and men are naturally a different way, and that these classifications are absolute, fixed, and past our own improvement.

To which I cordially respond: bullshit.

However valid this article's points may be about the scientific profession, the author is missing some other, vitally important points when it comes to women, careers, and education. First off, I'd like to know, if this hypothesis is correct, why the technology industry experiences the same lack of women. Last time I checked, computing careers aren't exactly stupid career choices to make. Even if we're not still in a tech boom, technology is still a very sustainable and lucrative career path to follow. Yet, at the same time, it's still very much dominated by men.

Is it possible the that "too smart" hypothesis is true for science and there's an entirely different answer to the problem of women in tech? It's possible, but I think extremely unlikely. I have a hard time believing that fields so closely related in the educational sector, with such similar histories of excluding women, have resulted in professional problems that have absolutely no connection to each other whatsoever. It makes much more logical sense that these widespread problems have a common source.

Basically, this is the same kind of thinking that claims women aren't in tech (or science, or engineering) because the stringent time demands and the intensity of the work interferes with their family lives. If I were to suggest that we ought to make those demands and intensity flexible enough to accommodate other needs, I would likely bring about the outraged cries of, "Why should we have to change the rules just for you?" Well, because the rules right now are skewed in your favor, and you're too damn scared and/or lazy to let go of them, that's why.

On a bit of a side note: why do women automatically bear the bigger responsibility for maintaining family life, anyway? Are none of you men in technology or science fathers? Why do you get away with it when mothers don't? Also, why is it assumed that women even want families? Some, I'm sure, are perfectly happy childless.

My point is that these are all profound concerns that the notion of "women being too smart" does not adequately address, regardless of the differences in particular fields in which it is discussed. There is something bigger and deeper than that. Diversity in fields where it currently does not exist will not ever come to exist until we stop trying to rationalize why it's not there and start letting go of the old, biased power structures that keep it out.

Although maybe there is something in the "stubborn adolescent" theory after all - because for all the "intellectualism" of discussions like these, the argument still ends up sounding like a bunch of whiny boys afraid of growing up.

The Ridiculous Women & Tech Quote of the Day

As I have mentioned, I'm experimenting with a new blog, Binary Firecracker, to chronicle news and articles related to women and technology. With it, however, I'm trying more of a straight approach with a minimum of commentary - which means when I come across a news piece that begs for commentary, it's going to end up here instead. Thanks to Rush Limbaugh (surprising, huh?), I came across just such a piece. From a recent transcript:

When I lived out in California, I had a car that had a radio that would do an auto-scan of your presets, and it would just scan the stations that were in your presets. The general manager's secretary had to go with me somewhere to some speaking event. We got in the car and I turned on the scan and for like five minutes I didn't stop it because I didn't hear a song that I wanted to hear. I just kept the auto-scan going. "Are you going to stop that at some point?" "No! I haven't got to the song I want to hear." I'm marveling at the technology that my car radio can do this, and she's upset that A, it's happening, and B, that I'm enjoying it -- and she wasn't even my wife! But that doesn't mean she's dumber than I was. It's just different interests, different things intrigue. Like I have my iPhone or I have my computer. It's not enough for me to be able to use it. I want to know how it works so if something goes wrong I can fix it, or I can describe to the tech what it's doing wrong so he can fix it fast. Women don't care. It better come on when you turn it on, and if it doesn't, there will be hell to pay. There won't be any curiosity about why it doesn't work. There will just be anger. This is not anything to do with intelligence. It just has to be with different ways that they use their time. [emphasis mine]

This is why I think talking about women in technology is important. Because there are opinions out there, set deep in our culture, that it is a contradiction in terms. This particular quote is not just an isolated incident of an offhand comment by a right-wing radio host. This is a public expression of a pervasive idea that women working in the technology field have to fight in their daily lives. And it's completely wrong.

I'm a bit tired of the voices that drown out the truth simply because they shout louder. There are plenty of women who are scientists, inventors, engineers and technicians. It doesn't take a lot of searching to turn them up. There are plenty of women interested in the way things work, and how to make them work better - or at all, when they need fixed. Of course, it's also true there probably aren't as many as there are men. But how much of that is related to our own prescribed notions and what we tell our girls they should and shouldn't be doing?

Limbaugh and those of similar opinions should probably just hope they don't ever run into a computer problem they can't fix and end up with someone like me on the other end of the support line. They might get more advice then they bargained for.

My 'Dear John' Letter to Digg

Dear Digg,

We've been on-again/off-again for a while now. I think it's about time we sat down and talked about our relationship, don't you?

You know, I had heard a lot about you before we actually met. We ran in similar circles, were connected to the same blogs, that type of thing. When I finally checked you out, I was pretty impressed. Slick, well-put-together, and (the clincher) useful. So there naturally came a time when I figured you and I should give it a shot.

But, well, we just haven't been able to make it consistently work. I don't think it's you, at least not completely. More to the point, I think it's the company you keep. You see, many of the people that associate with you are smart, funny, and polite. Others, however, are not. Others are immature, sexist, and offensive. And, frankly, it's putting a strain on you and me. Almost always, when I try to join in a conversation with you and these friends, it turns into either a shouting match or swapping of nasty insults. Other times the conversation goes on as if I'm not even there. Now, I know your crowd is mostly guys and not a lot of girls hang around you - but, from this girl's perspective, it's just not fun.

I'm a little tired of the seemingly endless comments about women being "golddiggers" (I work full-time to be the breadwinner for my family), not being able to understand or operate technology (that work I do - it's in tech support and web design, and I have a computer science education), and only interested in shopping, jewelry, and clothes (I'm also a mom, and most of my extra money goes to things for my daughter - I haven't bought new clothes in over a year). Those are all things I've heard at some point when I'm with you, Digg. If it were once in a while, I'd ignore it and move on. But it's a regular occurrence. Even after I take a break from you for a while, I come back to find the same thing happening, over and over again.

Look - I really like you. You have great principles and are into things I want to know and talk about. But the mob that surrounds you too often drowns everything else out. And I don't think I can do it anymore.

Sure, I think we can still be friends. I'll still stop by to check out how you are, what's going on. Don't think I'm being rude by holding myself away from the crowd. It's just not my crowd, and I think I'm better off on my own.

Lots of love,

Jen

WebbAlert

G4's Morgan Webb has just launched a new vlog with Mon-Thurs internet and tech news round-ups. I've watched Morgan in some media form for years, ever since the old, wonderful TechTV days, and she's a personable, intelligent presenter. This particular project is just getting off the ground, but I think it has potential. Check it out at WebbAlert.com, and watch the first episode below.

PC & Mac - The Battle of Our Time

PC & MacI find myself in the middle of this battle frequently, which has also led me to understand that neither side supports those in the middle. If you're dual-platform, you're automatically going to get blamed for the collected faults of whichever manufacturer the people you happen to be with at the time is against. Unless you hang out with Linux users, and then you get blamed for both.

I believe I'm what can be accurately described as a "tech person." I studied computer science. I work in IT and web design. I have about three years experience with technical support in higher education. I'm the one the friends and family members call when their computers freak out.

And I am, for all intents and purposes, a Mac user. I didn't start out that way. I was rather anti-Mac for a long period of time, because I didn't know how to use them and it was a lot easier to condemn them than learn them. Over the course of my stint in tech support, however, I didn't want to leave all the Mac work to the one expert at the helpdesk. So I began to learn, and therefore love. Now, while my current office is Windows-based, I rely on my PowerBook almost exclusively. We're practically joined at the hip. My plans for buying new machines in the future don't include Microsoft whatsoever. Strictly Apple, or, when I'm feeling adventurous, Linux.

What does Mac have that poor PC doesn't? Plenty. I think the Macintosh OS is better designed, more intuitive and effective, and definitely more well-organized. Plus, it's less buggy, and less prone to problems. Truth is, I suck at troubleshooting Macs. Because, even in the helpdesk environment, I rarely had to.

There's also the visual design element, and I think it's this that is hardest to make clear to the "other side." No, it's not just because Apple "looks pretty." It's because Apple generally demonstrates the foundational design principle that form follows function. A designer of any sort - graphic, web, interior - will be able to tell you that the relationship between how a thing looks and how it performs is not a superficial one. That's what the field of design is all about. I believe in clean, sleek, functional designs in everything from websites to living rooms to computer code. Apple, mostly, satisfies that belief. (By the way, if you're interested in exploring that particular topic, read Machine Beauty by David Gelernter, it does it wonderfully.)

But while I prefer Macs in my personal work, I understand completely why Windows must be respected. It rules the business world. I support administrative professionals who work with the complexities of Microsoft Excel and Access, and I'll be the first to admit they know more about macros and merges than I ever did. Microsoft serves their needs perfectly, just as Apple tends to serve the art, design, and music communities. And then there's gaming. It doesn't only come down to which is designed better. The fact that different people have different needs is the most important factor. Right now, all of those needs just simply aren't met in the most effective way by one platform alone.

I'm always surprised by how violently defensive people can get about their particular preferred OS, though. The Cult of Mac is well-established, and they like to keep their boundaries. They also have a reputation - perhaps well-earned, perhaps not - for snobbery. But I'm mystified when the snobbery charge is leveled at Apple adherents by those who dismiss Apple with no actual knowledge of their products or individual users. How is this not the same principles of snobbery, just in reverse? If you're going to bash Apple, have some good reasons to back it up. And vice versa.

Or, as I mentioned earlier, you could just go Linux, and feel superior to everyone. I plan on at least testing that route soon. I'll let you know when I'm officially better than you.

And an Addendum

I can't resist the opportunity to highlight the actor who plays "PC" on the infamous Apple "Get a Mac" ads. You see John Hodgman on the Daily Show too, and he's wonderfully funny. His blog, Good Evening, follows suit. And although he plays a PC on TV, he's a dedicated Mac user.