Computers Writing

Can eReaders replace books?

Several years ago (possibly even before the turn of the millennium), my brother told me that books would soon be a thing of the past and that everyone would be reading eBooks. Is it possible? Could eReaders and eBooks replace paperbacks and hardcovers the way cars replaced the horse and buggy, the way portable audio players (iPods, for those of you who don’t know alternatives to Apple exist) have replaced CDs and tapes, and the way email has replaced letters?

I use the word replace rather loosely, of course. In some rural areas, horses and buggies are still around. CDs are still available for purchase in stores, and some used music stores have old tapes, which people will still purchase occasionally. And the post office still delivers letters, mostly from businesses to other businesses. Nevertheless, the primary way for even the most affluent of people to read books is still to read paperback or hardcover books. I know no one who owns a Kindle. The first Kindle I ever saw I saw only once from far away on a bus. I haven’t seen horse-buggy combos outside of Pennsylvania, most people I know use portable audio players, and almost all communication I get from family and friends is electronic.

Will we give up our books for eBooks? I may end up regretting these words in ten years, but I don’t think I ever will. Yes, I’ve heard the Kindle can store hundreds of books. Yes, I’ve heard it doesn’t have a backlight, so it won’t be a strain on your eyes. Still, I don’t believe I’ll ever use an eBook Reader in place of reading real books. Of course, back in the mid-1990s I didn’t think I would ever email instead of writing letters to friends.

I wasn’t around when cars started replacing other modes of transportation, but I do very much remember switching from records to tapes to CDs and, eventually, to MP3s. I do have a bit of nostalgia for exchanging mix tapes with my friends, and I love the sound of a crisp record being gentle stroked by a turntable’s needle. All the letters people wrote me back in high school I have kept and will probably at some point, unlike the emails they’ve sent me over the years, re-read them. Why won’t I give up books for eBooks?

A few reasons:

  • Even though I like having hundreds of songs at my fingertips in a small device (because I can actually listen to many of them, if not all, in a week), rarely do I read more than two books at a time—usually only one.
  • When I have an electronic device, I have to make sure it’s charged, make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I have to take care of it. Now—I don’t throw any of my books against the wall, spill pizza sauce on them, or rip the pages out, but I like that I can just throw them in a bag, read them in the bath, and even leave them around (without worry they’ll be stolen).
  • The idea that Amazon can remotely erase an eBook I bought is ridiculous (as came out in the whole 1984 scandal recently). No book store is ever going to break into my apartment and take a book back that I bought just because they realized they didn’t have the rights to sell that book to me in the first place.

Go ahead, Amazon (or Sony), try to make me eat my words! I think the only way I’d switch to eReaders is if everyone else does and the only bookstores still left around are used book stores…

Computers Education Windows

I’m an enabler

Last night, my wife called me an enabler. I guess I am. But I can’t help it. (Yes, I know—that’s what all enablers say!)

Here’s the deal (and this is not specific to the school I’m currently working at—this has happened at other schools I’ve worked at as well): When I see people doing something inefficiently. I say, “Hey, you know you can do it this way?” they get all excited, and then I show them how to do it a more efficient way. Then, even though they took notes on the process, they will still come back to me and say, “Can you show me how to do that again?” and I do. So, yes, I’m enabling those people. But I also know that if I said, “No, you took notes. You figure it out yourself,” they would just go back to doing things the inefficient way. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah. I guess I should learn it myself” and then figure it out on their own based on the notes they took.

What does my wife have to say about it? “Well, let them do it the inefficient way, then. It’s their time, not yours.” I guess so. I’m busy at work, but I’m not so busy as to not have time to teach people how to do things correctly, and it pains me to see people spend hours and days doing something that can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, even if I have to show them two or three times how to do it.

I’m a classic enabler.

Linux Ubuntu

Got-to-have-it-now software installers

Every now and then, someone on the Ubuntu Forums complains that it’s difficult to get the latest versions of software and that the software in the Ubuntu repositories is several months old.

I don’t get this.

That’s the whole point. That’s a benefit. It’s one of the great things about Ubuntu (and lots of other Linux distros, too) that you don’t have to keep track of what the latest version is or download individual applications on their various release days. The whole point of package management is that the manager manages software packages for you. Every six months, you can get the latest software available for all your installed applications; or, if you don’t want to do a full operating system upgrade every six months, you can just keep your old software but install security updates for those programs.

I love this about package management (a feature Ubuntu and other Linux distros have). Gone are the days of keeping up with tech news and saying to myself, “Oh, I’d better download the setup.exe for that program to get the new version.” Windows Update will update only Microsoft’s software. Apple Updater will update only Apple software. But Ubuntu’s Update Manager will update everything installed on the system (provided all the software is in the repositories, and the vast majority of it should be).

Nope. Some people just have to have the latest and greatest right now. God forbid they ever run several-months-old software.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Teach kids computer skills, not computer programs

Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?

In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.

Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.

Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.

What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.

If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.

Further Reading
Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications
In Defense of a Linux Education